Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday Traditio: Can There Be Morality Without God?

When asked why they are religious, many people will say that without a God who is a transcendent lawgiver, there can be no objective morality. On the other side are those who say that the God of the Old Testament and the Koran does not seem to be moral, rather he is seen as a narcissistic ethnic cleanser and bully, as Richard Dawkins states in his book The God Delusion.

For this weeks traditio, I decided to share a debate on this topic. Defending the premise that God is necessary for morality is Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. On the opposite side is philosopher Peter Singer. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Answering Letter to A CES Director #6

I am a bit behind in my rebuttal to Letter to A CES Director. Sorry to have gotten behind, I had finals and term papers to attend to. But, that is all over now and I can now focus on the arguments made by Mr. Runnells.

By way of announcement, the next topic that will be dealt with after today will be about the Book of Abraham. While I am well-read in philosophy and theology, I have no training in Egyptology (though neither does Mr. Runnells). So, the next post in this series will be a guest post by good friend Stephen Smoot. Smoot is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Egyptology and has published several articles on the Book of Abraham, so he is well equipped to address the issue in ways that I cannot. Beware however: Smoot is a bit different than I, he tends to be a bit cynical from time to time, while I have a more stoic approach. But, even when his cynicism is at its worst, he is still very objective and proportions his belief to the evidence, so I am sure you will enjoy what he has to say. I know I will.

Now, on to Mr. Runnells. His next argument deals with the first vision, where he correctly points out that there are four known versions of it. He also mentions that he never knew about these stories before he went into the missionary training center, and therefore he feels deceived.

Like I said before in a previous post, the Church is not responsible for your ignorance of an issue, especially when these issues have been addressed multiple times. If Runnells didn't know about these matters, I would ask whether he had ever bothered to look before going to the MTC.

The Church has not, contrary to what some people have said, hid this issue from view. The four versions of the first vision were published together in 1969 in BYU Studies by Dean Jesse, which can be read here. This was decades before Runnells was born, so he cannot say this is a new phenomena. Philosopher and theologian, Truman G. Madsen, discussed this matter thoroughly in his book Joseph Smith the Prophet, published in 1989. Richard L. Bushman also discusses the accounts in his landmark book Rough Stone RollingThe Church has also published an essay on this matter, and Elder Richard J. Maynes recently gave a fireside on the issue. It appears that Runnells had many places to look, but chose not to and now casts blame on the Church for deceiving him. If there were no Church sources available to investigate, Runnells would have a point. But since there are many, he does not.

However, Runnells' main argument is not so much that there was no information available, it is that the versions contradict each other and therefore cannot be valid. So, let's compare each version of the first vision and see if there is validity in this charge.

1832 Version

This version of the first vision was found in an unpublished biography the Prophet wrote in 1832; it is the only version that we have that was written by him. In it, the Prophet mentions that he was weighed down by his sins, and that he could not find a church that conformed to what he read about in the New Testament. He states that he prayed, the Lord (meaning Jesus of Nazareth) appeared to him and forgave him of his sins, telling him to walk uprightly before him. The Prophet states (or rather Fredrick G. Williams clarifies in the text) that he was in his sixteenth year (so he was 15) when this occurred. There is no mention of the Father appearing in this version of the theophany. This version can be read here.

1835 Version

This version comes to us via Warren Parrish, one of the Prophet's scribes, who took it down as the Prophet told his story to a visitor in Kirtland. In this version, the Prophet is 14 years old. He goes to a grove of trees again in this version, and he see two personages. The personages are unidentified in this version, but it can be interpreted that one was the Savior because the Prophet's sins were forgiven. In addition to the two personages, angels are also mentioned as being present. The Prophet mentions for a time he was overcome by an unseen force and was not able to pray for a time. The Prophet also mentions that one of the personages told him that his sins were forgiven, and the account states that the Prophet had another visitation of angels when he was 17 years old. This version can be read here.

1838 Version

This is the version that most people have heard. Published in the Church's periodical Times and Seasons, the Prophet, at age 14, wants to find the correct Church, mentions that he thought the Methodist Church may be the correct one, reads James 1:5, goes into the woods, prays, sees the Father and the Son, and is told to join no Church. This version does not mention forgiveness of sins, and is the one that the Prophet published after there were various accounts about how the Church got started. This version can be read here.

1842 Version

This version was printed in the Chicago Democrat after the Prophet was asked to retell the things that had happened to him. The first vision is mentioned, among other things (the Articles of Faith, information about the characters in the Book of Mormon, etc). Known as the Wentworth Letter, this version of the first vision is identical to the 1838 version and can be read here.

So, there seems to be a common thread through all of these versions. Jesus of Nazareth appears in all of them, the Prophet is in his early teen years, an important message was given, and while there are some minor variations, none of them are major.

The Father is not mentioned in the 1832 account, and this has caused some people to state that the Prophet embellished his story from one of personal forgiveness to a divine commission to be the St. Peter of our age. It should be remembered that the 1832 account is one that was written in the Prophet's journal and was not meant for publication, neither was the 1835 account. The 1838 account and 1842 accounts had to deal with how the Church got founded, and thus were different than the journalistic accounts.

Also, it is very possible that even in 1832 the Prophet did not understand the full implications of the vision. The early message of the Church was about gathering and building Zion, which was a different message than what missionaries are now teaching. The prophet, as Bushman points out, grew in his calling and his understanding of his visions grew also.

Suffice it to say, after reading all four of the versions, there is no reason to make as much of a fuss about them as Runnells is. But, I will allow the reader to make up their own mind about the matter.

Suggested readings: First Vision Accounts, Joseph Smith the Prophet by Truman G. Madsen, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision by Dean C. Jesse

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Review of "What Does it All Mean: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy"

After reading Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig and feeling not all that impressed or introduced to the subject properly, I looked at the suggested readings at the end of the book. The first book listed was What Does it All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. Since I was still looking for the best introduction book to philosophy to recommend to friends and students, I bought it.

True to its title, the book is very short, only slightly over 100 pages, so it can be read in a day or two. However, the book is not so much an introduction to philosophy as it is an intro to Nagel's opinions about various philosophical problems. For example, a good introduction to philosophy would talk about the five main branches of philosophy (aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics) and give a definition of each, but Nagel fails to do so. Instead, he starts off with the question of whether or not we exist, similar to Rene Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy. While that question is of course an important one, it is too advanced for a person who has no idea what philosophy is about. It would not be a shock if a novice to philosophy closed the book after the first few pages and thought that philosophers were strange people who asked ridiculous questions.

Also, Nagel has a very annoying habit of only criticizing views that he is against, but not the view he stands for. For example, when he talks about ethics, he criticizes divine command theory, but deontology, the view that Nagel espouses, gets no criticism at all. Likewise, on the mind-body problem, Nagel disagrees with materialism (the belief that everything is composed of matter, so the mind is as well), so he criticizes it. But again, he offers no criticism of his own belief. This is not philosophy, it is special pleading.

I had begun this book with high hopes, but was left disappointed. As I said before, The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell remains at this point the best introductory text to philosophy. But, I will keep looking at others and evaluating them.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday Traditio: Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?

Science is one of the greatest of all human achievements. Through it we have discovered our place in the universe, the cause and cures for diseases, how to improve life through technology, and so forth. This is not to say that science has figured out everything; there are numerous question remaining to be solved, and to be perfectly candid, we may never answer all of the questions. But, that in part is what makes science a wonderful and beautiful thing; you can always keep asking questions and a perfectly acceptable answer is "I do not know yet, but I will keep investigating."

While science can answer many questions, an important question to ask is whether or not science can help us answer moral questions. Some say yes, some say no. Entire books have been written on the subject, and it appears that this question will be one of the big questions in moral philosophy for the time being. Personally, since science tells us how things are but not how they ought to be, it seems to me science cannot answer moral questions because they are beyond the scope of the scientific method.

But, don't take my word for it. In this weeks traditio a panel of great thinkers discuss this question with different answers and reasons for there answer. The panel includes philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland, philosopher Peter Singer, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. I hope you enjoy their discussion of this very important question.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of "Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction"

As a philosopher who is often asked about what philosophy is, what its practical uses are, where should a person start if they want to study philosophy carefully, etc, I was genuinely excited to pick up Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. I had figured that I would read and then recommend it as the best starting point for the philosophy novice. I was not totally wrong, but neither was I totally right.

The books merits are that it introduces the general reader to some of the big branches of philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc), some of the big names in philosophy (Socrates, David Hume, Epicurus, John Stuart Mill), and some of the various schools of philosophy (idealism, empiricism, rationalism, etc). However, it does so in a very scattered manner and the terms are not as clearly defined as one would like, especially since the book is marketed toward those who are beginners in philosophy. The author on one page is talking about ethics, then miracles, then idealism... but it is scattered rather than connected. It helps, however, that the author is good with words, because while it is scattered it is not boring.

I would recommend this book to beginners, but books like Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy are better introductions to the field.

Review of "For the Plane Ride: A Father's Counsel to a Departing Missionary"

Writing this review, like the one I wrote for my friend Steven L. Peck, is personal. The author, Mark E. McKell, has truly been a father and mentor to me since I was 16. While I am not his biological son, he has certainly treated me as such, and to be completely objective I should admit that upfront before I review his book. Put simply, I am a fan of both the man and the book.

In his book For the Plane Ride: A Father's Counsel to a Departing Missionary, McKell provides in 188 pages a final epistle to his second son Aaron. As the title suggests, the epistle contains counsel of things he should know just prior to serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He admits in the opening chapter that he had wanted to have this advice in writing before his eldest son had left, but other things prevented that from happening. Luckily, he had more than one son and was able to complete the project before Aaron left for his mission in Spokane, Washington.

The book is comprised of short chapters which deal with various subjects, the most important of which include missionary psychology, the "why" of missionary work, having a vision, understanding that you are not in charge, and various other things (it is amazing that so much could be covered in so short of a book). Since these were the most important themes in the book (according to me anyway), let me touch on psychology and the why of missionary work, offer my several criticisms of the book, and then conclude with why I recommend the book.

Missionary psychology has to deal with the everyday life of a missionary. When you first arrive in the field, even the most confident person will be overwhelmed. You are doing a job that in many ways you can prepare for and in many ways you cannot, you may be in a different culture, and you have much expected of you. As time goes on, you get into a routine and then have a sense that you can do this on your own.

If you have thought that, take a step back and understand that you are applying a business attitude to something that you are not in charge of. McKell mentions that he had two episodes where he learned this lesson, but the first one struck me as particularly significant. To set the scene up a bit, McKell mentions that had been in a new ward for several weeks, but because he had come from an area of the world where the church ran rather smoothly, he saw many imperfections in how the ward he was serving in was being run, and when he was assigned to speak in church he thought he would tell everyone howto run a ward correctly. Now, this may seem brash (and it is), but I can see many people having the same reaction early on in there mission, even if they wouldn't have the courage to tell everyone in an open setting. Unfortunately and fortunately, things did not go as planned:

I took my place at the podium, looked out at the congregation, looked down at my notes, but the words wouldn't come. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.... I looked at my notes and looked at the congregation, but still nothing. I was like I has peanut butter in my mouth and couldn't formulate any words.......What was happening to me? This was nothing like my sacrament meeting farewell talk back in the States, or the countless times I spoke in church back home.... The reality was that the Holy Ghost had completely left me. In my arrogance and pride, it had left me naked on the stand. My Heavenly Father was trying to teach me a lesson, and teach me He did. (pgs. 56-57)
If you knew McKell personally, you would know he is a gifted speaker, so this experience seems almost like it may be made up or exaggerated. But, the principle comes through clearly that the Holy Ghost will not stay with us when we are not worthy of His presence, even if we are the Lord's full-time servants. You may have a right to the constant companionship of the Spirit, but on his terms, not your own. In short, you need to always remember that you are on the Lord's errand, not yours.

While this was perhaps the most memorable story told in the book, the most important part is the last chapter, where McKell talks about the "why" of missionary work, something that missionaries and members cannot afford to forget. The why is the testimony of the Jesus Christ, the restoration of his gospel on the Earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and the reality of living prophets and priesthood keys. Because you have a knowledge of these things, you serve a mission and remain in the Church. There are, of course, other things that are important. But the why of missionary work is fundamental to everything else we do.

I enjoyed reading this book very much, but I have two criticisms of it. First, McKell, like other Mormons, paints a very optimistic version of missionary service (which is not surprising, he mentions early on that he is a glass half-full kind of guy). The reality is that missionary service has very beautiful moments, but for the most part it is mental anguish. Someone once said that the two years a person serves in the mission field are the closest humans will come to being like the Savior in Gethsemane. If I recall the story correctly, that was not a pretty sight, even if the outcome was.  A mission is a grueling task that regardless of your attitude will test you to your limit. You need to be emotionally and spiritually prepared or it can be a damaging rather than a lifting experience.

The other criticism I have is that McKell seems to think (maybe this comes across this way because he is writing to Aaron who earnestly wanted so serve), that everyone will want to serve or that they should serve. A mission is not a commandment; I know of no church president saying that a revelation had been received saying otherwise. The simple fact is, missions are not for everyone. If you have no desire to serve a mission, have a shaky testimony or none at all, have a philosophical mind, or are a generally questioning person, the mission field may not be for you. We sometimes want people to share in our experience because of what they meant to us, but it should be remebered that your experience will not necessarily mirror everyone elses. It might have been your best two years, it might be another persons worst two. Missions are a good option, but they are one good option among many good.

In closing, I recommend that every young man read this book before he decides to serve or not to serve. For one, you will not be bored; McKell is able to make you laugh, smile, feel the spirit, and bring you to tears, sometimes in one chapter. In addition, this book is not just about the two years that you will have in the field; it is about the life you will life after it as well. As Eldon McKell (the author's father) told him "You have two years to serve and a lifetime to think about it" The lessons you learn in the field (if you care to learn them), will change and alter the course of your life. If I had read this book prior to departing for my mission, I would have been a much better missionary than I was. I encourage all who can to read McKell's book from cover to cover. It will make you a better missionary, spouse, and disciple of Christ; what is there not to like about that?

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday Traditio: Bertrand Russell

I apologize for not posting a traditio last week, I was in Texas visiting my wife so hopefully you can all understand.

One of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of all time was Bertrand Russell. In addition to being a philosopher and mathematician, he was also a great statesman, as well as fun and jovial character. I have long been a fan of both Russell's thought and with the man himself. His book The Problems of Philosophy is perhaps the best introduction to philosophy ever written, and I recommend it to both the philosopher and the non-philosopher.

In this interview, Russell sits down to talk about the major memories of his life and the principles he had stood for. Hope you all enjoy it.