Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of "Lying"

"Honesty is the best policy" an old saying goes, and many, if not most people would say that they make it the model of their own personal ethic, at least to an extent. But, many people feel that so called "white lies", lies that they think cause no harm or whose truth content would make no difference, are somewhat permissible and even necessary at times. But what if these moments of opportunity are the difference between a great world and a semi-decent world? In short, is it always wrong to lie?

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris' long-form essay Lying approaches this question and answers with a resounding "yes". In fact, Harris' whole thesis could be summed up on pg. 24 of his book: "Do not lie."

Harris at the beginning of the book states that he started thinking about lying seriously when he took a class at Stanford University called "The Ethical Analyst", and the entire course revolved around whether or not one should lie. The book is divided into three sections, one in which Harris makes arguments about why telling the truth in all situations is best, the second section is a dialogue between Harris and his professor who taught "The Ethical Analyst", Ronald A. Howard, and the final part is Harris answering questions from readers who read the e-book version of Lying, which was released prior to the hardback version being released.

As mentioned previously, Harris book focuses on white lies, and on situations where honesty gives the person the information they need in order to live the best life possible. Perhaps one of his best examples is a situation we have all encountered or at least heard about before, namely whether someone looks fat or not in a certain outfit. Harris writes:
"Most people think that the correct answer to this question is always "No"....But this is an edge case for a reason:It crystallizes what is tempting about white lies. Why not simply reassure someone with a tiny lie and send her out into the world more confident? Unless one commits to telling the truth in situations like this, however, one feels that edges creep inward, and exceptions to the principle of honesty begin to multiply. Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly:shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high." (Lying pg. 15-16)
In short, Harris is saying that when we commit to be honest in every situation, we will be better people and less stressed with how much we have to remember, because we will have nothing to hide. Harris does also comment that tact plays a role in this, one can be truthful without being rude. I admit that I at times struggle with this, but it can be done. Harris also talks about "Faint Praise", which is giving someone a compliment when one has not been earned. For instance, Harris mentions a friend who is a successful writer, but once gave Harris a text that he thought was terrible. Rather than avoid the question, Harris told his friend that the piece was not his best work. The reaction was that Harris' friend trusted him more, and now knows if Harris praises his work, he is being sincere. Since relationships are built upon trust, it follows that we must be honest in order to have rewarding, fulfilling relationships.

If there is one failing in Harris' book, it a failure that is common to his other writings, which is not taking the arguments of his opponents seriously. On pages 28-29 of his book, Harris mentions that philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that under no circumstance could lying be justified, and then dismisses him by saying that he has no reason to take Kant seriously. Here is where Harris shows that he is a scientist first and a moral philosopher second. Kant is one of the greatest philosophers in moral theory, one can hardly find a volume dealing with moral philosophy that does not mention Kant extensively. Furthermore, Kant justified his claim in his various Critiques, but Harris fails to mention this at all, he just dismisses Kant and moves on. This is a characteristic that Harris shows in his other work, such as in The Moral Landscape, when he dismisses David Hume's Is-Ought distinction (which fellow utilitarian Peter Singer calls him out on in a recent podcast), or in The End Of Faith, when he dismisses Noam Chomsky's arguments about how interventionism by the United States in the Middle East helped to bring out the September 11 attacks. It is not enough to simply dismiss a reputable philosopher with whom one disagrees; one must show charity to their argument by presenting it at its best and showing why your position is better than theirs. Harris has not yet learned this lesson.

Overall, Lying is a book that I recommend to both the general reader and philosopher alike. It is interesting, short, and a joy to read overall. It can even be said that if we take Harris' arguments seriously, we can be better people, have better relationships, and ultimately a better planet.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

God and Philosophy

While I was traveling from Provo, Utah to Tooele, Utah with my future-in-laws, my future mother-in-law asked me the following question: "What have philosophers of the past thought about God, have they been religious?" I have been asked this type of question often, as well as the question how my study of philosophy has affected my faith in the divine. I will answer both questions in this post.

Speaking of philosophy in the western tradition, the answer to the question will bring about other questions, namely , what is meant by the term "God"? For purposes of this post, I will use the Masonic meaning of the term, meaning a "supreme being." Starting with Thales, the first pre-Socratic philosopher we have on record, most philosophers prior to to Charles Darwin believed in a God of some sort, although what they meant by the term varied. There were skeptics along the way (Sextus Epicurus, Epicurus, Pyrrho, Lucretius, David Hume, etc), but they were not atheists in the way we use the term today, those who deny the existence of a supreme being. I mention Charles Darwin because as biologist Richard Dawkins said, he made it possible to be an "Intellectually fulfilled atheist." This is because before Darwin there was no other explanation as to why things looked so well designed in nature. While people like Hume did contend with the argument to design, even they had to admit there was still something out there that accounted for things, which you would call God.

Since Darwin, many philosophers have been atheists, agnostics, and non-theists, and depending upon which tradition you are in, that may be the dominant view. For instance, in analytic philosophy (the tradition I am in) I would say that there are more atheists, agnostics, and skeptics than theists. Not to say that some of our finest philosophers in this tradition have not been theists (Ludwig Wittgenstein), but the majority would be atheist leaning. It should be kept in mind though that while many in this tradition are not theists, most have no problem with others being theists in some since; Simon Blackburn (one of my favorite philosophers) said in a recent interview that he had lots of respect for religion, for instance.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, a great philosopher who was open to faith

In the continental tradition, where many of the universities are run by Catholics or other religions, there tends to be about a 50-50 split.

As to the second question about how philosophy has affected my own faith, I would say that it has strengthened it. For example, one of the top arguments against God is the problem of evil, but my knowledge of the pre-mortal existence make this a largely non-issue for me. Do not misunderstand, I often distress at the amount of pain and suffering in the world. However, I also know that to a certain extent I agreed to suffer before coming here, and I rejoiced at the opportunity. Also, I am aware that God is not obligated to make everything perfect for us on Earth; we are his children, not his pets.

On a second note, after reading Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion I was also rather convinced that God was immanent (involved in the world) rather than transcendent (beyond the world).

The Savior was once asked what the greatest commandment in the law was. He responded "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38) I see my study of philosophy and science as fulfilling the latter part of the commandment, to find God with my brain as well as with my heart.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Does Self-Reliance and Happiness Lead to Atheism? : A Response to Joshua Valentine (Part 5)

In his final argument about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepares its members to be atheists, Joshua Valentine attacks two things that Mormons believe in very much, but do not necessarily associate with their theology: self reliance and happiness. Valentine writes:
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches self-reliance, both in temporal and spiritual concerns. Members may not agree with that statement, but the LDS Church does teach a significant place for human effort in obtaining the approval and blessings of God in this life and in the next. Our actions and our strength have a necessary place in our worthiness for salvation and eternal blessings. This “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” cosmology was described by an online participant as “trusting in the arm of the flesh.”[2] The optimistic humanism of Mormonism, its insistence that humans can and must contribute to their worthiness of salvation and exaltation, can easily fit into the humanistic optimism of atheism that humans can and must solve their own problems and continue as a species and progress on this planet and in this universe.[3] Along the lines of trusting in the flesh, Latter-day Saints are taught to trust their leaders. When they leave, they have determined that their LDS leaders have betrayed them and are untrustworthy. This may lead the ex-Latter-day Saint to seek the objectivity of science in order to avoid being fooled or dependent on particular humans or institutions. Interestingly, however, if this confidence in humans, in the flesh of man, is not reevaluated, then it may lead them to put their trust in the men of science and the institutions of human reason. In any case, the LDS-taught optimism about mankind’s ability to progress by its own effort is offended by the Christian Gospel’s diametrically opposite assessment.

Lastly, as regards compatibility with Christianity, the LDS Church teaches consistently, and in many ways, that human happiness is the ultimate goal. It is the goal of the Mormon God. Heavenly Father’s own happiness is found in his children’s happiness. Happiness and good feelings are indicative of truth. Unhappiness or bad feelings indicate that something is wrong or false. Our happiness is generally the purpose of life — overcoming life’s challenges, learning, and progressing being sources of happiness now and in the future. In light of all of this, Christianity’s view of sin is impractical and even morbid; its gospel is still too “easy,” and its truths are disturbing and repugnant to the mind that has been cultivated by Mormonism.  Atheism, however, embraces the significance of personal happiness, the pragmatism of actions called “sin” by Christianity, and puts forth human progress and happiness as the only purpose worthy of our short lives. In these many ways, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught its members how to flourish as atheists."
Like this young child, Jesus carries us all

The Apostle Paul, whom I assume that Mr. Valentine would believe is an apostle, cautioned the saints in ancient Philippi to "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12) No one can obtain salvation and exaltation without the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ and following his commandments. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi makes this perfectly clear when he states:
"Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise." (2 Nephi 2:6-8)
It is clear from this and other prophets in the Book of Mormon (Jacob, Alma, Nephi, etc) that without the Savior's grace and mercy, there can be no salvation. Christians often attack Mormons for trying to earn their way to heaven; this is only partially accurate. Jesus made the matter abundantly clear that one needed to keep his commandments in order to enter into his rest (John 3:5). But keeping commandments would not matter or have any effect if Jesus had not laid down his life; keeping the commandments are an application of Christ's atonement, not a substitution for it. To quote Lehi again:
"And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever." (2 Nephi 2:5)
It is simply a hasty generalization (a logical fallacy) to state that Mormons believe their salvation rests primarily upon works. The scriptures and ordinances of the Gospel, especially those performed in the holy temple, provide a constant reminder that without him, we are nothing.

As far as science is concerned, its objectivity or non-objectivity are not really involved in this debate. But I am curious as to why Mr. Valentine believes one can't be both; I am a devout Mormon and thoroughgoing Darwinian for example. Scientific naturalism is not only compatible with the Mormon religion, it shows how Mormonism makes sense.

On to the matter of personal happiness and atheism. Simon Blackburn in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines atheism this way:
"Either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none" (pg 35)
Atheism itself can be characterized as either a belief or a non-belief, but it is not linked to other beliefs. An atheist can be a humanist who believes that humanity is worthwhile and there are objective moral values, or a nihilist who believes there are no such values. Atheists can view happiness as important, or they may not. So, linking happiness and self-reliance with atheism is not necessarily accurate.

Valentine seems to think, as others have thought, that Mormonism is by necessity utilitarian about its morality. While Mormonism can be utilitarian, other philosophers, such as Blake Ostler, have defended a Kantian view of ethics as being more compatible with Mormonism. Myself, I see Hume's sentimentalism and virtue ethics as being more compatible than utilitarianism.

Because God is our father, he , like most parents, desires his children to be happy. This does not mean however that is his ultimate goal. When speaking to Moses he states "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. " (Moses 1:39) God's desire is for his children to become as he is, not for them to just be amused and comfortable. If God's goal for man was merely happiness, the Savior failed the goal because he was a man of sorrows. (Isaiah 53:3)

It should also be noted that Valentine gives no empirical evidence about how many Mormons after leaving the Church become atheists. Many Mormons go on to another form of Christianity, or continue with some sort of belief in God. There is no reason to believe that Mormonism prepares its members for atheism any more than other religions.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review of "Crazy Good Sex: Putting to Bed the Myths Men Have About Sex"

As a young man who has never engaged in sexual intercourse who also recently got engaged, I naturally had many questions about what sex is like, what it means to men and women, what was appropriate and inappropriate, and so on. I had asked friends years ago what sex was like, and the common response was "I will tell you when you are engaged." When asking the same persons after I got engaged the same questions, I got no real answers besides "It is amazing", "It is messy" and so on. Of course these answers were not answers at all, but luckily a friend of mine recommended a book that I should read. As a voracious reader, I am not sure why getting a book about the subject was not the first thing that entered into my mind.

The book recommended was Crazy Good Sex: Putting to Bed the Myths Men Have About Sex by Les Parrott, a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor. From the beginning of the book he mentioned that he was a Christian and would approaching the topic from a Christian perspective. While I am not a Christian myself, I do share many Christian values (commitment to abstain from sex outside of marriage, etc.) and thought that the book would be refreshing and insightful. It turned out to be so, but not for the reasons I had thought.

As the title implies, this book is not really about the mechanics, physiology, and biology of sex. Rather it is about preparing a man (the book is written from the male perspective, but women can learn from it) for what a sexual relationship is really like and putting to an end the fairy tales and mythologies that have sprouted and blossomed in our modern culture.

Dr. Parrott focuses on 6 myths, and dedicates a chapter to each, using empirical evidence and whimsical lines to make his point clear. The myths are : 1) Men want sex more than women do 2) Sex with the same person is boring 3) Porn is not addictive 4) Size Matters 5) The Bible is Very Clear on Masturbation 6) My Sex Drive is More Than I Can Control. All six of these points were very well argued, but so you have some reason to buy the book after reading this review, allow me to just focus on one: The Bible is Very Clear on Masturbation

In the book, Dr. Parrott points out that nowhere in the Bible is masturbation mentioned, so it is not quite so easy to label it a sin or not. He states
"Masturbation is one of those wisdom issues, where we must be careful not to judge others but remain faithful to our own understanding of biblical principles..... Every expert agrees that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that this act is harmful to the body." (Crazy Good Sex pg. 149)
This struck me for several reasons. One, masturbation is considered taboo to talk about; even males don't talk about it amongst each other very often. But, it was refreshing to see that it was not something that is out of the ordinary. However, I would remind my readers who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that we do not get our principles of sexuality or any other principle from the Bible alone, but from the other Standard Works and the living prophets, the latter have condemned masturbation. Also, those who have taken upon themselves the covenants of the temple will be reminded that at least two times in the endowment ceremony we are reminded to keep our sexual passions under careful guard.

While it may be true that the Bible does not mention masturbation, I do not think that any person who is a believer in the Bible can condone the practice. The standard arguments that people give, and were given in this book such as it is a relief valve to relieve sexual pressure and that is natural are fallacious. There are other ways to relieve sexual tension, such as changing your thoughts, exercise, and reading. Also, just because something is natural does not mean that a thing is therefore moral; it is also natural to lie when under pressure and steal when there is no one looking. But such things are not moral.

Besides this issue, the book was very fair and balanced, as well as being very funny ( I admit I had to put the book down to laugh as Woody Allen and other comedians were quoted). I highly recommend the book to those who are preparing for marriage or who will one day prepare. A must have in any library.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Tarik and Eliza: Our Story

To all my readers, I wish you a very happy and prosperous new year. I do not say this enough, but I am grateful to all who read and comment on my blog. Your comments and feedback have been invaluable, and I appreciate all who have said something positive or negative about my writings, all have helped me to grow in some way.

On December 22, 2016, I became engaged to my girlfriend, Eliza Lee. We will be married for time and all eternity in the Salt Lake Temple. My friend and mentor Robert F. Fillmore, former counselor in the temple presidency, will officiate at the ceremony. While wedding planning has been hectic at times (we took engagement photographs just prior to me writing this), we are both very excited to start this next chapter in our lives. Many people, as should be expected, have asked to hear about our story and how I proposed. So, I thought as my first post of the new year that I would share it.

I have used Tinder, with varying degrees of success, for several years ever since my friend Shauntae Jarnagin introduced me to it. I had decided to give it up for awhile, but then I decided to start using Tinder plus, which gives you unlimited swipes. I figured the more swipes I had, the greater probability of my having some sort of success. In addition to getting unlimited swipes, you also have the option of "super liking" 5 people per day. This feature alerts the opposite person that they had liked you ahead of your swiping left or right. So, on November 2, 2016 I super liked Eliza, and she liked me back on November 4, 2016. Our story begins there.

I, being a straightforward and slightly arrogant sort of chap, made my intentions clear from our first conversation: I was looking for something serious, not just to have fun. Normally, this frightens some people, but Eliza was different; this actually led her to like me more. After talking for about a week, we agreed to have a date on the following Saturday. However, as the universe would determine, she was working in the Orem area where I attend school on the day of November 14, 2016, so we had our first date at Jdawgs in Orem (14 is my favorite number). We had a deep conversation that first date, and it ended with a passionate kiss. I had the feeling this woman would be very special, I just did not know how special.

On the following Wednesday we had our second date, and then that Thursday Eliza asked if I would like to spend Thanksgiving with her and her parents. I have never been in a relationship prior to this, but I did understand that if a woman introduced you to her parents, she was serious about you. I asked her what that meant, to which she responded "I think you know." I responded that I thought I did, but I was new to this sort of thing. So, she made it clear to me by asking "Tarik, will you be my boyfriend?" The answer, of course, was yes. I was a bit nervous, but after meeting her parents and other family members I felt comfortable around them.

After several weeks, it seemed very obvious that we would be progressing towards marriage, so we had a few chats about it and decided that was what we wanted. This shocked me, because I have been critical in the past of others getting engaged so quickly. But, if you approach courtship seriously and maturely, the evidence of whether it should progress will be obvious, and you will feel neither nervous or anxious about, instead you will feel calm about it. That was precisely how I felt.

I have never been a fan of making a big deal out of a proposal, but I asked Eliza if she wanted a traditional proposal (ring and kneeling) or if an agreement would be fine instead. She stated that she wanted a traditional proposal, so I swallowed my pride and ordered her a rose gold ring, which was her favorite kind. I then thought of how I would propose, and thought that since December 23 is the Prophet Joseph Smith's birthday, that I would propose on that day in front of the Joseph and Emma Smith statue in Temple Square. I called her father to ask permission on December 22, 2016, which with emotion he granted. However, I felt for some reason that I should propose that day. So, prior to going to work, I told Eliza I had something I wanted to show her.

As I approached the Joseph and Emma statue, I felt a swarm of emotions overcoming me, and I was not sure I would be able to get the words out. This came as a great shock, as I am normally a very stoic person. But, I managed to pull through and have the following conversation as Eliza and I looked at the statue:

Tarik: Why do you think the Prophet and Emma were able to have a happy marriage and stay together in spite of all that they went through?

Eliza: Well, I know that they loved each other very much and they loved God very much. They had to make a lot of sacrifices as a couple, and in the end I think it made them stronger.

Tarik: Could it be that they made a promise to each other that no matter what happened they would stand by each other?

Eliza: Yes, I can believe that.

Tarik: Can you and I make that same type of commitment?

Eliza: Yes, I think so.

Tarik: (kneeling and with tears) Eliza, since our first date I knew you were the one for me. I love you. Will you marry me?

Eliza: (Crying) Yes.

After this I put the ring on her finger, we embraced, and had hot chocolate in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. I then went to work, even though that was the last thing I wanted to do that day.

And there you have it. We continue to learn more about each other and love each other more as the days pass. And, God willing, we will learn to love each other now and throughout all eternity.

Eliza and I at Six Flags (it was a little rainy).