Sunday, April 24, 2011

There's no "My" in "Myself"

Am I my own?  If I belong to myself, what part of me is the owner, and what part the property?  Can property own itself?  It seems that such words start to lose their meaning once you hit this level of abstraction.

I think there are those who would have me believe that I am "my own person."  My life, body, consciousness, abilities... these all belong to me.  But when my makeup and circumstances define what I want to do with this "property" of mine, these things are my rulers, not my slaves.  It all seems contrived, but then, so is the general concept of ownership.

More interesting still are the folks who would have me believe that I am not my own person, but that my whole being is on loan from god.  I guess it's not inconceivable that I'm god's little pet.
My question is, does god own himself?  Or is it equally blurry for him as it is for us?  If god can't change his nature because of his nature, then he's as much a slave as any of us.
God's ownership of us is at least in keeping with the general idea of property rights.  God has supposedly claimed us as "his," and has the power to whack anyone who tries to ignore his claim.  We are his to destroy or give away or bake into a hot-dish.  If you owned a sack of flour, the same would be true about you.  Ultimately, some people respect your property in order not to get whacked by someone (some are respectful out of moral principle, but we know for sure that this is not true of all).  You can do what you like with it.

However, I don't see why I have any reason to respect god's ownership of me.  Okay, he could pound me to bits like any defective toy and toss me out with Monday's trash, so if I want to avoid that I should behave.  But when a piece of property malfunctions, we usually find it quite juvenile to get all mad and blame the object in question.  There are a couple of terms that I like that refer to the cause of computer error: GIGO (Garbage in, Garbage out), and PEBCAK (Problem exists between chair and keyboard).  How about human error?  God made us, so it's all his fault, right?  Design flaws?

If, however, we have free will or some germ of existence that is independent of god (as is stated in LDS theology), what we do is no longer god's fault.  However, in this case I would call into question the justice of god's claim of ownership.  Sure, god can still cause us pain and suffering and maybe even nonexistence of some sort, but "might makes right" is not a just moral precept, only an effective one.  If I was an intelligence before I was a spirit, what right did god have to pick me up, stick me into a spirit somehow, and then claim ownership over me as my "creator?"  As I understand it, he, too, is nothing more than a little chunk of intelligence that got stuck into a spirit and then a body, and then eventually got pretty powerful.
Come to think of it, this is starting to sound like abusive behavior toward children propagating down through multiple generations.  Perhaps god is as much a victim as we are, and is dealing with us the way he learned, the way he was dealt with.

I don't really think there's a god, but I sure like to try to figure out what the existence of a god would mean for ethics and reality, not to mention our bizarre relationship with him.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reductionism and the LDS Faith

Reductionism is the idea that, simply put, all phenomena are comprised of simpler phenomena, down until only a few basic rules govern the whole thing.
This view supports the concept that human behavior is just psychology, which is just specialized biology, which is just specialized chemistry, which is just specialized physics, which is ultimately knowable through mathematical models only.  Thus, human beings and their behavior are nothing more than the interactions of many, many particles based on a few basic rules.

I tend to be reductionist in my thinking.  Religious folks, of course, tend to reject the idea of reductionism, because it demotes human beings to somewhat-less than "the image of god."
However, I have noticed a very peculiar aspect of Mormon theology (especially of liberal Mormons who tend to accept modern ideas of ethics and fairness).
Any person is accountable for his or her own actions, right?  The body, of course, is in under the control of the spirit, somewhere in which consciousness lurks.
However, when a person is a sociopath, or has a disability that affects his or her behavior, these things are clearly linked to certain aspects of the formation and operation of the specific brain in question.  The funny thing is, Mormons are totally accepting of this fact, as long as the behavior explained is outside the realm of what is desirable to Mormons.
"You're depressed?  Well, that's a trial you've been given, not your fault.  Your brain is broke!"
"He killed himself during a manic episode?  Well, it wasn't him.  It was his malfunctioning brain."

At the same time, anything good is a result of a person's conscious and deliberate decisions, which are made by the true essence of that person, the spirit.
"I am happy because I have chosen to live the gospel of Jesus Christ."
"I just know that the way I feel couldn't be coming from me, it's the spirit."

Would these people be offended if I were to suggest to them that maybe their reactions and feelings were the result of brain chemistry?  Would they be mortified that I thought that behaviors like kindness and a sense of justice are solely the result of millions of years of natural selection?  I suspect they would!

Then why is it okay for these people to tell me that my depression is a result of my brain chemistry?  It isn't part of the "real me."  It is part of the transient trials in the life that come with a my body, and will go away when I die.  Okay, great.  What about my desire to do good in the world?  Oh, well that's the real me!  I'm a good person because my spiritual essence is good, in spite of my body and brain chemistry!

This can be applied very broadly.  The most liberal of truly-believing Mormons will kindly try to tell Homosexuals that they are "broken."  They have this trial, but if they just wait, they'll find out that who they really are is not gay, but actually conforms perfectly to every Mormon ideal.

Mormons, therefore, seem to be selectively reductionist.  (and that's the nice ones...)  They are willing to ascribe things that are undesirable that people "can't help" to neurobiology, but not anything they experience which strengthens or confirms their own faith.

Ultimately, I prefer this view to condemnation without exception.  But it still seems to fall short of truly "open-minded," because it discourages introspection in all aspects of a person's behavior.  It is blasphemous and demeaning of god to suggest that anything good comes from somewhere other than him, but it is more blasphemous and demeaning of god to suggest that anything bad comes from him.  If you believe this, there is no actual way to scrutinize god or his involvement in the world.  It is automatic a priori acceptance of a complete worldview, with a clause built right in that these beliefs can never be disproved.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Making Molehills out of Mountains

I recently had a long conversation with a good friend who is tbm.  I talked about my qualms with the LDS faith and with faith in general.  His advice to me was to stop sweating the small stuff and have faith in the simplest way, the way a child believes.

More recently, I talked with my mother about a similar subject.  She mentioned that she thought that I find fault in things that LDS leaders have said and with specific points of doctrine. 

I understand where both of these people are coming from.  Not seeing the forest for the trees, I could miss a lot of good things in life if I were to reject anything and everything that did not seem perfect to me.

However, I am not convinced that it is wrong to heavily consider details in this situation.  The is absolute truth we're talking about, it's a big deal if one religion happens to be true (making the others all false to various degrees).
So I guess I probably shouldn't attack the church because Brigham Young was misogynistic and racist in his personal opinions... nobody's perfect, but they can still be right about some things even if wrong about others.  However, when church doctrine seems unlikely or patently false, I think that this is relevant.  And when the so-called prophet speaks to the church, he is supposed to be standing in for god.  So I could care less what Ol' Brother Brigham said to friends, family, and acquaintances.  However, when he spoke in general conference or wrote things down for the church, that is the stuff that is supposed to be guaranteed.  What's the point of a prophet when he could always be "speaking as a man?"  (And he always turns out to have been when he said something wrong.)

I countered that the prophet is pointless if you are never sure of the validity of what he's saying.  The reply that I got asserted that one does not need to believe the prophet necessarily, that one can receive one's own confirmation of what the prophet has said.  I think this is a refreshingly liberal thought from members of a faith that is sometimes frighteningly dogmatic and protective of its leaders.
However, I think that this argument puts the final nail in the coffin of the "necessity of prophets."  If we are not to believe anything they say until we go ask ourselves, why not just ask god ourselves in the first place?  I mean, the whole "stewardship" thing, where you need a certain calling or priesthood to be able to reveal things for a certain group, is useless if nothing they say is to be trusted anyway.

 So if I'm a little upset about what they didn't tell me about the Book of Abraham, is that me throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  (frankly, as an atheist, I would never waste a perfectly tasty baby in such a way)  I don't think so!  The book is fraudulent.  The "translation" is fiction.  The facsimiles are inaccurately reconstructed and  the symbols on them wildly misinterpreted.
And then people try to tell me "Joseph Smith was just a man!"  Well, I never doubted the fact, but what happened to "the prophet will never lead the church astray?"  The fact that millions of Mormons believe that the Book of Abraham is a direct translation of some papyrus that Smith got from mummies being sold (the tiny little archaeologist inside me cringes) on the American frontier seems to fall within the realm of "astray."

There is a great analog of this from the world of physics.  The Michelson-Morley experiment performed in the 19th century failed to confirm what it was designed to confirm: that since the Earth is moving through the fixed "ether" of space, there should be an "ether wind" that makes light travel faster in some directions than others (because the ether is what the waves propagate through).  The physics community was puzzled, and kept building bigger and better experiments to try to figure out how they'd missed the ether wind.  Then, a bored patent-office clerk named Albert Einstein decided to take this seemingly-small discrepancy out to its weird logical conclusion: that light propagates at the same speed in all directions as observed from any reference frame.  Thus the theory of relativity was born, a theory which has repeatedly been confirmed by various experiments, has fundamentally changed our view of the structure and behavior of the universe, and without which GPS navigation devices would be accurate to within tens of miles instead of tens of feet.

Did Einstein err by making a mountain out of what so many regarded as a molehill?  If by "err" you mean "make the most important discovery made by the physical sciences in centuries," then yes.

Near the end of the 19th century, Rutherford (the physicist responsible for hiring the grad students who discovered the atomic nucleus) noted that the Physics community had solved nearly every problem about how the world works.  He described two little dinky things, two discrepancies that were about all that remained:  The Michelson-Morley experiment and the behavior of black-body radiation.
Rutherford is frequently mocked for his assertion that physics was almost "done,"  but I think he was quite astute.  As I've already mentioned, the M-M experiment's results led to the development of the theory of relativity.  Black-body radiation is one of the very first things that made certain physicist start noticing that quantities which were assumed to be continuous only came in certain discreet values, an idea that led to the development of quantum mechanics.  Thus, 19th-century physical science was completely swept aside by radical, powerful new theories that arose from curious investigation from the last, dinky little discrepancies that seemed to exist in the models of the day.  These are not just abstract physics, either.  Relativity and quantum mechanics are essential to things from NASA's calculations of spaceship trajectories to the operation of the tiny electronic circuits printed on silicon microchips.

I think that the "put it on the shelf" attitude is misled.  Just ignore anything I have qualms about, because ultimately the gospel is something much bigger?  Just because lots of parts of it are consistent with each other (which I readily admit... I would have become atheist quicker if I had been of a denomination other than LDS,
I suspect) does not mean that the entire structure is not misled, as was the case of 19th-century science.
Disregarding things like the Book of Abraham and the inconsistency of church doctrine through the years is not a path to truth.  It is making molehills out of mountains, keeping the bathwater sitting in the bath forever (yuck) just in case the baby's in there, and missing the ravenous tigers for the forest.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Email Address

Since I get a reasonable number of hits on this blog, I thought I would create and email address that anyone reading it can use to contact me:

I welcome all emails, whether they be condemnation, praise, spam, offers for enlargement pills, or the entire text of the Bible! (that might not fit...)

If you're having doubts about your faith and need someone to talk to, email me.  I promise not to try to talk you out of your faith, I just know what it's like to feel like there is no one to listen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

We Hate Thee, Oh God, For Your "Prophet"

Someone who I have come to consider a good friend approached me today and told me that, in a nutshell, he no longer believes in Mormonism or Christianity, and god isn't looking too hot either.  I have been pretty open with this friend about my own beliefs (or lack thereof).  I was surprised, because he was always debating me with the more Christian/Mormon stance, and while I had no intention of attacking his faith, I have always enjoyed a good debate.

We talked for a while today.  He told me about the hurt feelings he has, the immediate rift that has seemed to form between him and his family.  It was like I was listening to myself from just a few months ago.  To be honest, I'm still quite shell-shocked, and I hope things go better for my friend.

My feelings are mixed.  I am delighted at the prospect of having a friend around who thinks like me.  I remember how lonely I was all those months ago.  I'm also glad that myself and another friend were around and known to this friend of mine, so he can hopefully feel a little less alone.
At the same time, I feel a little sad.  I know it's stupid, but I feel like I helped get my friend into this process by being vocal about my own qualms with faith.  I don't want to destroy anyone's faith if it makes them happy, so I try to be careful.  In addition, I know how hard the process can be.  My life has gone to pieces in the last year, in some respects, and I wouldn't wish the emptiness and confusion I've felt on anyone.

I know I cussed and ranted about this recently, but this is what I feel the most anger about toward the church.  The fact that it lied to me for 20-something years, and I gave it everything, and now I can't even be open with the people around me because of the church.  There is a whole huge part of what I was that is gone, and I've spent the last several months gradually picking up the pieces.  I still have a long way to do.  How dare they do that to me?  How dare they do it to anyone?

Can I blame disillusionment on the perpetrators of the illusion?  I guess I can't really, since they are operating under the illusion themselves.  Except for Joseph Freaking Smith, and his freaking friends who helped him start a freaking false religion that would one day make so many miserable.  And even the credulous fools who followed them.
I was brought up to believe... I was trained pretty hard-core.  Those people?  My ancestors who joined the church?  They believed all the insane stuff the church claims after reaching adulthood and having a decent amount of experience.  Believed that charlatan Smith and his henchmen.

But... I guess we're all looking for something in life, and I can't fault someone who tries to find it.  After all, I held out for decades against frequent doubts, because it was all I knew to rely on.
So... I guess my ancestors did what was right by them, which is all we can ever ask.
Smith?  Power-grubbing deluded liar?  He sucked, and he was a scumbag.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Economics and Human Morality

Once again, I depart from my usual themes of atheism, religion, and how silly everyone is to ramble on about other things I've been thinking about.

I have been reading a lot of Vonnegut lately (as everyone should), and it has helped me fill out some thoughts that I was already tossing around:

Endless debate concerns the ideal system of economics.  Alarmed cries of "socialism!" rise from the conservative crowds, many of whom have no idea what they're talking about.  However, a few of them actually do know a thing or two about economics, and their advocacy of a purely market-driven economy is reasonably defensible.

Pure capitalism is superior to socialism in terms of its respect for property rights.  Property rights include the assumed right that my future self has to control anything my present self has and does not willingly give up.  In addition, they include the assumption that it is my right to decide what happens to "my" things when I kick the bucket.

What are the ethical origins of property rights?  They seem to be inherent to human beings, and they seem to be a good idea from an evolutionary standpoint.  The cleverest/sliest human beings accumulate the most property.  To propagate one's genes, one would be well-advised to accumulate wealth, reproduce, and then make sure that one's offspring receive that wealth so they, too, can successfully live and reproduce.
However, property rights don't have much else going for them in the ethics department.  It is horrifically unfair that some children should be born into great privilege while so many more are born to circumstances so poor that their chance of survival to adulthood is significantly reduced.  It may well even be unfair that someone who works hard early in life can become rich and slough later in life, and someone who sloughs early in life must work hard later in life just to survive.

However, because of how human beings are built, we don't really function without property rights.  The socialist experiments of the 20th century were not very successful for various reasons, and one of these reasons is the innate desire to claim what one is holding as one's own.  In fact, the human race is so attached to property rights that we are more than willing to suspend our other moral intuitions, like that we shouldn't kill people, in order to retain or accumulate more property.

Socialism, on the other hand, is quite disrespectful of property rights... it is built around the idea that wealth should be distributed, or jointly-owned, or some other such scheme that means that I do not necessarily keep the economic value that I manage to create.  It seems unfair in relation to property rights.  However, socialism is built around ideals serving other moral intuitions, like the consideration of the implicit costs to society incurred by society's allowing certain members to go without many very basic needs.  Very few of us could honestly say that we feel that the situation of malnourished children born into filth and poverty is just, and may even feel a little guilty as we cram down doughnuts in front of our wide-screen TVs.

Can these two desires, the altruistic desire that everyone have enough and the desire for "just" property rights where value created is kept by the creator, ever coexist?

Probably, they can never perfectly be reconciled.  We can do what we've always done, which is argue about it and sort of shoot down the middle somewhere, and somewhat satisfy both.  Or we could try to argue that if the haves were more philanthropic, the have-nots would become have-enoughs, and both principles would be served.  However, this does not seem to be the case; many people have unnecessary luxuries like pools or exotic pets or sports cars when people all around them can barely afford shelter, much less education, insurance, or decent medical care.  Philanthropic giving hasn't ever covered the wide disparity between the wealthy and the desperately-poor.

So I am forced to conclude that, in our present situation, there is not ideal system of economics.  Human beings hold to both of the mutually-exclusive desires for property rights and the humane treatment of fellow humans.  We are contradictory beings who want to have our cake and eat it, too.

Lest I end on a terribly-depressing note, however, I will concede that certain circumstances could remedy this dilemma.  A post-scarcity economy, where essentially anyone can have anything they need and much of what they want for very little effort, might remove the problem.  Basically if we find a way to make replicators from Star Trek and also unlimited energy.  Space is still a problem, of course, but the situation is much improved, and if birth control is also widely available, that problem might diminish.