Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday Traditio- Blake Ostler

As a religious person, a question I am asked, and I assume others are asked as well, is how do you know that your religion, rather than the other religions, is correct? Many people will make an appeal to an experience they had when praying about a certain text, or a feeling they got while listening to a sermon, or another experience that confirms, subjectively, that what they have been thinking about is true, or has some truth in it.

The counter to this is that many religions have members who claim religious experiences, so the fact that you had one means very little; there is no way to show that your experience was true and the others were not. This is a fair argument, but does it follow from this that religious experiences mean nothing?

To answer this question, I am posting a presentation of my friend and mentor Blake Ostler at the 2007 FairMormon conference. Blake is a lawyer, philosopher, and theologian who has written Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism And the Love of God , Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods, and Fire on the Horizon: A Mediation on the Endowment and Love of Atonement. I am not just trying to be provocative when I state that not only is Blake one of the brightest minds and clearest thinkers in Mormonism, but he is also one of the most charitable people I know. I do not agree with Blake on everything, but he is always willing to listen to what I have to say, and vice versa, and I always leave our conversations with a desire to go and learn more about various subjects. Blake truly is one in a million.

Hope you all enjoy his presentation.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday traditio- Andrew Sullivan

Keeping with the order of the traditio's, this weeks edition will be on politics, which is undoubtedly on everyone's mind already due to the release of President Donald J. Trump's budget proposal.

With his ascent to office, many have wondered what the future of the Republican Party and conservatism (they are not synonymous) are, and what conservatism means to begin with. Sadly, it has become a hiss and byword among those who call themselves liberals, and there are in truth very few conservatives left in this country, nearly none in elected office.

In this video, author and blogger Andrew Sullivan offers a defense of what conservatism is. Sullivan is a graduate of Oxford and Harvard, and wrote his dissertation on conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. In 2006, he authored The Conservative Soul, which ranks along with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and John Kekes' A Case for Conservatism as one of the best works of conservative political theory. He also used to blog at The Daily Dish, but retired from blogging in 2015. He is now a columnist for the New York Magazine.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why Hilary Putnam Matters

A year ago today Hilary Putnam, one of the greatest minds of the 20th-21st century and one of my intellectual heroes, passed away. For those not familiar with him, Putnam was a philosopher, computer scientist, and mathematician who was very influential in the philosophy of mind, ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of mathematics; he also coauthored what is known as the Quine -Putnam indispensability thesis, which argues for the ontological existence of numbers.
Hilary Putnam


This post is not so much about Putnam's contributions to philosophy and other areas; his work speaks for itself. This post is more about Putnam's attitude, and why philosopher and non-philosopher should adopt it.

Besides his many contributions to the field, Putnam was widely known for his criticism of his own views; one philosopher went so far as to say "Putnam's greatest critic is Putnam." For example, Putnam at one point was a staunch proponent of metaphysical realism, but he later rejected it and became one of its staunchest critics. This happened often throughout his life, he would accept a view, but he was always analyzing it for weakness, and did this just as much with his own views as he did with those of others.

Whether you are a philosopher or not, perhaps we as people should also adopt this practice of being as critical of our own views as we are of others. Doing so will create a sense of humility that we lack, and help us to realize that our way is not the perfect way, and that there is more than one way of seeing and doing things.

This does not mean, however, that we should not take our own beliefs seriously and defend them. I am not endorsing the sort of nihilism that is endorsed in How to Win Friends & Influence People; not defending your views will never help us arrive at truth. However, an admittance that you might be wrong or only seeing a part of the puzzle is helpful, and can help us build a better world.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Answering Letter to A CES Director #4

Letter to a CES Director pages 7-19 make the following claims 1) The names and geography of the Book of Mormon are too close to what was around Joseph Smith to be considered coincidental 2)The text of the Book of Mormon is identical to that of Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews 3) B.H. Roberts came to believe, after serious study, that Joseph Smith could have likely created the Book of Mormon himself 4) There are notions of Trinitarian theology in the Book of Mormon

Runnells gives a side by side comparison of names that are in the Book of Mormon and names that are around the New York area where Joseph Smith lived, and states that this is evidence that Joseph Smith simply made up the geography of the Book of Mormon based on the names of places that surrounded him.

There are several problem with this premise. Some of the names Runnells gives have almost no correspondence with each other (Sheerbrooke-Shur), and most of the names are identical with Bible names. Given that the area Joseph Smith lived was settled by Puritans (who were obsessed with the Bible), there is no surprise that many of the areas where Joseph lived had biblical names. Also, Lehi and his colony were from the Jerusalem area, so it is not surprising that after coming to a new land they would use names that they were familiar with. This, it is not a surprise at all for the Book of Mormon to have biblical names, or for the area Joseph Smith lived in to have them. It is what one would expect.

The theory that the View of the Hebrews was the inspiration of the Book of Mormon is one that is quite old, and advanced by Fawn Brodie in her biography of Joseph Smith No Man Knows My History. During Joseph Smith's lifetime, no one advanced this theory, even though many were familiar with the book; this theory was not advanced until 1902. The Prophet quoted from the book in an article printed in Times and Seasons:
If such may have been the fact, that a part of the Ten Tribes came over to America, in the way we have supposed, leaving the cold regions of Assareth behind them in quest of a milder climate, it would be natural to look for tokens of the presence of Jews of some sort, along countries adjacent to the Atlantic. In order to this, we shall here make an extract from an able work: written exclusively on the subject of the Ten Tribes having come from Asia by the way of Bherings Strait, by the Rev. Ethan Smith, Pultney, Vt., who relates as follows: "Joseph Merrick, Esq., a highly respectable character in the church at Pittsfield, gave the following account: That in 1815, he was leveling some ground under and near an old wood shed, standing on a place of his, situated on (Indian Hill)... [Joseph then discusses the supposed phylacteries found among Amerindians, citing View of the Hebrews p. 220, 223.] 
It would be quite silly to quote from a book that you used as source material; you would be immediately exposed as a fraud, especially given the fact that numerous people had made it their life's mission to expose you in any way they could. Oliver Cowdery, who knew Ethan Smith, would likely have outed the Prophet's plagiarism, given that besides Joseph Smith no one knew more about how the Book of Mormon was translated. After his excommunication in 1838, it would have been simple to bring down the Prophet's forgery. Yet Oliver Cowdery never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon, and later came to Utah and was re-baptized. This would very contradictory if Cowdery knew the Book of Mormon was a fraud.

B.H. Roberts


B.H. Roberts, who was a member of the First Council of Seventy and perhaps the Church's greatest theologian and historian, wrote a collection of essays known as Studies of the Book of Mormon. In them, he plays the role of devil's advocate, looking at every way an outsider could attack the Book of Mormon as being non-historical, or viewed as the creation of Joseph Smith. This volume was never meant for publication, and was sent to the First Presidency for their viewing.

Some have alleged that Roberts lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon because of the things stated in the essays. There are two glaring problems with this theory. Roberts wrote a letter along with the manuscript that said the following:
"In writing out this my report to you of those studies, I have written it from the viewpoint of an open mind, investigating the facts of the Book of Mormon origin and authorship. Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. The report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a 'study of Book of Mormon origins,' for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it. I do not say my conclusions for they are undrawn. It may be of great importance since it represents what may be used by some opponent in criticism of the Book of Mormon. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it."
Close quote. That does not sound like a person who has lost his faith; it is the testimony of an honest scholar. Also, keep in mind that B.H. Roberts was a man known for his integrity and defending his beliefs, even when it could make for a very uncomfortable situation; he denounced the 1890 Manifesto as revelation, and almost had to resign as a general authority because he did not want the Church infringing on his right to run for public office. However he publicly testified about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon until his death. If he was a skeptic, there is no evidence for it.

Second, Roberts magnum opus The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, written in 1930 (after Studies of the Book of Mormon) relies heavily on the Book of Mormon. Roberts worked in vain to get the Church to publish it, but it was never published due to Roberts dispute with Joseph Fielding Smith over evolution. This would be inconsistent with Roberts being a skeptic about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

On Runnells last point, it should be remembered that scripture should be taken in light of what the Church teaches, not the other way around as Richard Swinburne pointed out in a debate with Bart Ehrman. Doing so frees us from St. Peter's warning that the scriptures are not for private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), and also that God gives prophets, not books, to lead his people (God sent Moses, not the ten commandments to lead his people and instruct them.)

Also, while the Book of Mormon does makes reference to the Father and the Son being one (Ether 3:14), and Jesus being God himself (Book of Mormon cover page, Mosiah 15 1-4), there is no mention of God being manifest in three divine persons, but being one God. Also, if the Book of Mormon were Trinitarian, Jesus would announce himself as being the Son only when appearing to the Brother of Jared. Yet he calls himself "The Father and the Son." The text also mentions nothing, even in the alleged contexts, of God being one substance as common in Trinitarian creeds. The Book of Mormon simply is not Trinitarian.

Further Reading: Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God by Blake Ostler, Studies of the Book of Mormon by B.H. Roberts, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman



Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday traditio- Jerry Coyne

Last weeks Friday traditio turned out to be a big hit, so I will keep doing them weekly. Since the blog, as I mentioned before, is about philosophy, science, religion, and politics, each traditio will be about one of those four topics.

In the last traditio, William Lane Craig and Antony Flew debated the existence of God (as a theist, I personally found Flew more convincing, maybe because Flew is a fellow Humean, but I digress). This week, after posting a quote by my friend and mentor Steven L. Peck about how evolution and theology are intertwined, a few of my friends who do not believe in Darwinism said that the two were not compatible.

For their sake, I wanted to share a video from a top biologist explaining why evolution is true. Jerry Coyne is an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Chicago and is one of evolution's staunchest advocates; Thomas Henry Huxley is Darwin's bulldog, Richard Dawkin's is Darwin's chihuahua, Tarik D. LaCour is Darwin's python, and Coyne is Darwin's alligator (I coined the last two myself). He blogs personally here, and is the author of the books Why Evolution is True and Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible  (Edward Feser wrote a scathing review of the latter book here). In this video, Coyne explains what evolution is, why it true, and debunks common objections to it. Enjoy.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Answering Letter to a CES Director # 3

Claim 6- Archaeology:  There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites/Lamanites who numbered in the millions.  This is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists are coming up with the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and that the real Hill Cumorah is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere and possibly somewhere down there instead.  This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught.  Never mind that the Church has a visitor’s center there in New York and holds annual Hill Cumorah pageants. 
We read about two major war battles that took place at the Hill Cumorah (Ramah to the Jaredites) that numbered in the deaths of at least 2,000,000 people.  No bones, hair, chariots, swords, armor, or any other evidence found whatsoever.   
Compare this to the Roman occupation of Britain and other countries.  There are abundant evidences of their presence during the first 400 years AD such as villas, mosaic floors, public baths, armor, weapons, writings, art, pottery and so on.  Even the major road systems used today in some of these occupied countries were built by the Romans.  Additionally, there is ample evidence of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as well as a civilization in current day Texas that dates back 15,000 years.  Where are the Nephite or Lamanite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc.? 
Latter-day Saint Thomas Stuart Ferguson was BYU’s archaeology division (New World Archaeological Funding) founder.  NWAF was financed by the Church.  NWAF and Ferguson were tasked by BYU and the Church in the 1950s and 1960s to find archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon.  This is what Ferguson wrote after 17 years of trying to dig up evidence for the Book of Mormon: 
“…you can’t set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere – because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology.  I should say – what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”  (Letter to A CES Director, pg. 8)

This claim is a prime example of the fact that we have reason to be skeptical of Runnells' early claim that he researched thoroughly all the relevant information, because he is citing sources from over 50 years ago rather than engaging in what modern writers have said on the subject.

For example, Terryl Givens in his book By The Hand of Mormon dedicates two chapters to this issue, where he brings up recent discoveries that show that the Book of Mormon can be taken as historical based on archaeological discoveries. Givens states:
Subsequently, the band [Lehi and company] buries Ishmael at a place not named by them- "[it] was called Nahom," and there the women "did mourn exceedingly" (1 Nephi 16:34). The Arabic root NHM means "to sigh or moan" and the related Hebrew Nahum means "comfort," Nibley informs us. In 1978, an eighteenth century map was noticed indicating a place name "Nehhm" in that region, but it was not until the early 1990s that ancient evidence of the names authenticity surfaced. In that era, a German archaeology team discovered a carved altar a few dozen miles east of modern San'a in Yemen, inscribed with a reference to the tribe of Nihm, and another with a like inscription has since been found in that area. Found in the very area Nephi's record locates Nahom, these altars may thus be said to constitute the first actual archaelogical evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon." (By The Hand of Mormon, pg. 120, emphasis added)
Altar at Nahom

Close quote. So, it would appear that Runnells is plainly wrong that there is no historical archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. But there is more. Nephi mentions in the book that he and his family rested for years at a place called Bountiful, which was basically a paradise within the desert (1 Nephi 17:5). This would seem unlikely to the casual observer, since we do not think of such things when we think of the desert.

However a Book of Mormon Central article notes, there is also archaelogical evidence of Bountiful as well as Nahom:
Many people have rightly wondered if such a coastal paradise ever existed in the Arabian Peninsula.1 As early as 1950, Hugh Nibley proposed that Bountiful could plausibly be located in the Qara Mountains of southern Oman, in what is known as the Dhofar region.2 He based his suggestion on an early explorer’s account of “seaward slopes velvety with waving jungle, their roofs fragrant with rolling yellow meadows.”3
It wasn’t until 1976, however, that this region’s first LDS explorers—Lynn and Hope Hilton—sought to verify a specific site for Bountiful in their groundbreaking, though brief, trek into Oman.4 Since then, a number of LDS explorers and researchers have surveyed Dhofar’s coastal inlets. In 1994, Warren and Michaela Aston published a set of 12 logical and scriptural criteria (see chart)5 needed to identify Bountiful’s location in the real world, based on a careful reading of Nephi’s statements.6 After exploring and evaluating all the coastal inlets in the region, the Astons concluded that Wadi Sayq (“River Valley”) and its opening near the ocean at Khor Kharfot was the best candidate for Bountiful.7
Twelve Requirements for the Land Bountiful
  1. Fresh water available year-round
  1. Contain “much fruit” and honey (1 Nephi 17:5, 618:6)
  1. Both general area (17:5, 8) and specific location where the Lehites camped were fertile (17:6)
  1. Permit reasonable access from the interior desert to the coast
  1. A mountain prominent enough to justify Nephi’s reference to “the mount” (17:718:3) and close enough that he could go there to “pray oft” (18:3)
  1. Cliffs from which Nephi’s brothers could have thrown him into the depths of the sea (17:48)
  1. Shoreline (17:5) suitable for the construction and launching of a ship (18:8)
  1. Ore and flint for Nephi’s tools (17:9–11, 16)
  1. Enough large timber to build a seaworthy ship with (18:1, 2, 6)
  1. Suitable winds and ocean currents to take the ship out into the ocean (18:8, 9)
  1. No population residing in the area, based on details such as Nephi having to rely on his brother’s help, having to locate ore, and having to make his own tools.
  1. “Nearly eastward of Nahom” (1 Nephi 17:1)
Some have suggested that other inlets in the Dhofar region are a better match for Nephi’s Bountiful.8Most prominently, George Potter and Richard Wellington have argued that Khor Rori is a better fit based on what they call the crucial “maritime requirements.”9 While these proposals have their own strengths, Khor Kharfot remains the best candidate in the eyes of many Book of Mormon scholars.10
Image demonstrating the possible candidates for Bountiful. Image used with permission by Warren Aston.
Consistent with Nephi’s description, Khor Kharfot is “the most fertile coastal location on the Arabian Peninsula with abundant freshwater, large trees, fruit, and vegetation.”11 Its natural resources satisfy Nephi’s description of “much fruit and wild honey” (1 Nephi 17:5), as well as the need for substantial timber to build a ship.12Kharfot also features a prominent mountain (1 Nephi 18:3),13 with steep cliffs from which Nephi’s brothers could have menacingly threatened to throw him into the “depths of the sea” (1 Nephi 17:48).14Geological surveys have discovered that smeltable ore (1 Nephi 17:9–10) lay practically exposed at the surface of the earth in Kharfot and nearby locations.15
All told, Khor Kharfot fittingly complies with the numerous textual details contained in Nephi’s account, and it, along with the rest of the Dhofar region, just happens to be a long journey “nearly eastward” (1 Nephi 17:1) from the now archeologically-attested location of the “place which was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:34).16

The Why

Photograph of Kharfot. Used with permission from Warren Aston
Regardless of which specific inlet was Lehi’s campgrounds, Aston stressed, “Researchers generally agree that Nephi’s Bountiful must lie somewhere on the fertile southern coast of Oman.”17 Aston even felt “that several locations (all within a few miles of each other) being proposed as Bountiful actually strengthens the Book of Mormon’s claims” because, “None of these places was known in Joseph Smith’s 1829 environment.”18
After years of research and exploration of possible Book of Mormon sites, Aston has concluded that when important scriptural locations are “anchored in the real world, we can re-read the scriptural account with heightened appreciation for the story being told and its applications to our own life journey.”19 This is certainly true for Bountiful and its certain identification within Dhofar, most likely at Khor Kharfot.
Nephi described this area as being “prepared of the Lord that we might not perish” (1 Nephi 17:5). The full significance of this statement is meaningfully driven home by the first-hand accounts of explorers who have stumbled upon the region from the scorching desert inland. Bertram Thomas, for example, was greatly delighted when he “suddenly came upon it all from out of the arid wastes of the southern borderlands.”20 Concerning Wadi Sayq in particular, Aston has explained that the “vegetation inside the wadi changes from pure desert to scrubland as the coast is approached, climaxing in a remarkable concentration of lush vegetation and trees in the final two miles.”21
The variety of fruits, the wild honey, the fresh water, the large trees for shipbuilding, the accessible ore for tools, the prominent mountain for prayer and worship, the ancient bay for launching the ship—all these divinely prepared blessings become more readily apparent and appreciable to those who have contrasted Dhofar’s “thin green band of trees, flowers, and grass” with the surrounding desert.22
Painting of the lush vegetation in Kharfot. Used with permission from Warren Aston
Pondering upon such a scene can evoke not only a deep gratitude for the Lord’s providence, but also a recognition that He is aware of His children and is prepared to meet their needs. Lehi’s family had obediently left their land of inheritance. Nephi and his brothers had risked their lives to obtain the plates of brass. Ishmael and perhaps other loved ones died during their trek. In their years of travel, they all faced near starvation, desolate desert landscape, and certainly a number of untold trials. Yet as a resting point before their final destination, the Lord prepared a veritable coastal paradise which adequately blessed them with everything they needed to complete their journey to the promised land.23
Close quote. Remember that these areas were not known by anyone in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith, so there was no way he could have known they corresponded with modern evidence. While one may choose to reject the Book of Mormon, and ultimately believing in it like believing in Jesus of Nazareth is a choice, one cannot say there is no archaeological evidence for it today.

Lastly, Runnells bring up limited-geography models, but he is wrong that such models are all recent. B.H. Roberts, one of the greatest minds in Mormonism, was against such models in his life, so to say that scholars came up with them due to modern evidence is simply not the case,; limited geography models of the Book of Mormon have been around since people started theorizing about the Book of Mormon geography. And also, it is worth noting that if one looks at the Book of Mormon carefully, it is pretty clear that Lehi and his family did not colonize all of the Western Hemisphere, because when they talk about areas they travel to they talk as though it only took a number of days to get there, which would be quite a feat if they were walking from New York to California.

Further Reading: By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl Givens, Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book by John Sorenoson, Book of Mormon Central, An Approach to the Book of Mormon by Hugh Nibley







Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday traditio- William Lane Craig vs. Antony Flew

My friend Scott Dodge has a weekly clip on his blog which he call the "Friday Traditio" (he uses Latin because he is a Roman Catholic Deacon). The traditio is a video, usually a music video, of some type of music that he enjoys. I must admit that while I admire Scott's dedication to put a video up, I am not the biggest fan of his musical taste. But I digress.

As the sub-heading of my blog states, this blog is about philosophy, science, religion, and politics. So, I will be borrowing Scott's idea and post a video or lecture relating to these topics each week. The video will either be a talk by a philosopher, scientist, religious leader, or a debate between philosophers.

For this weeks traditio, we will look back to one of the best debates I have seen over whether or not God exists. The first participant is William Lane Craig, a noted Christian philosopher, theologian, apologist, and current research professor at Talbot School of Theology. You can see his research and commentary here on his website. The other participant is Antony Flew, one of my favorite philosophers, who is now deceased. While Flew was for most of his career an outspoken atheist (and according one of his books the most notorious atheist in the world), he later converted to deism, which is the view that God exists but does not intervene in the world. At the time this debate took place he was still an atheist.


Enjoy.