Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why Am I Me?

Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going?

These are the fundamental questions of life. Science and religion have attempted to answer these questions to some degree, and sometimes seem to be in conflict. For a long time, religion was the only means by which these questions could reasonably be answered, since science had no explanation for the complexity, or even the existence of, the world. Alma said:

"Yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator."

Up until relatively recently, the mere existence of the world was enough to prove that God exists to any rational human being. His existence also proves, by definition, that he is our creator. However, as science has advanced, it has increasingly been able to offer alternative explanations for the complexity of the world in which we live. The Big Bang theory attempts to explain the origin of the universe, and the theory of evolution attempts to answer the fundamental questions of life. I'd argue that the explanations that science offers are compelling, and I can see how someone, from a scientific point of view, might consider a "creationist" as a fool. However, there are still some unanswered questions related to how life began, such as... well, how life began. The actual events that led to the first living being are, from what I understand, still not understood by science. Still, from that point on evolution seems like a reasonable explanation; reasonable enough that some have tried to reconcile the two points of view, and claim some ground in the middle of the creationists vs. evolutionist debate.

My point here is not to rehash that old (well, actually relative new) debate. For the sake of argument, let's assume that evolution is correct, and that it fully explains where we came from, why we're here (for no particular reason at all, it would appear), and where we're going (6 feet under). Is that it then? Are there no more questions to ask? No, there's one more question that I would pose to the scientific and religious community alike:

Why Am I Me?

Seriously, why am I writing this post and you reading it, and not the other way around? Or why are we not some Borg-like entity? The idea of "consciousness" or "self-awareness" or whatever you might call it (some more intellectual types might be able to clue me in to the correct term for this) is still unexplained by science, as far as I can see. Hypothetically, I can imagine some explanation involving biological mechanisms and chemical reactions that make my brain think I am conscious. But that explanation, for now, is hypothetical. I've never heard any scientists even attempt to explain why I am a conscious being, and why am I only conscious of myself, and not others. Why, when I open my eyes in the morning, I see the world through the eyes that happen to be attached to this body, and not some other.

Philosophers have wrestled with this question. Descartes supposed, "I think, therefore I am." However, even this is questionable in modern times as medical scientists are increasingly able to explain how our brains work (although still far from completely). One could possible imagine our brain as just a very complex, biological computer. Yet even the most complex computer imaginable still would not be aware of itself (ignoring science fiction, of course). Yet, we are aware of ourselves. Where does this awareness come from? As far as I know, science has not come close to answering this question.

On the other hand, religion does offer an answer: Our self-awareness comes from our spirit, which is different than our physical selves, although the two are bound together to some extent. In the mainstream christian view, God is the creator of our spirits, and therefore the creator of our self-awareness. So the answer, according the mainstream Christianity, is that we are who we are because God willed it to be so, and science has yet to offer a reasonable alternative explanation to that.

Mormonism offers an even more nuanced view. Our understanding of the pre-existence teaches us that we have always been self-aware. Our "intelligence" has always existed, and always will. I am who I am because I always have been. Perhaps that's doesn't directly answer the question, but it is at least a partial answer.

To be clear, my intent is not the set science and religion against each other. I believe there is truth in both, and even when they seem to be in opposition, we do well to learn how each view can enlighten our understanding of truth. However, my point here is to raise the bar, so to speak, on the scientific community by bringing to light one question that still remains beyond their grasp, and help the religious community understand at least one question that remains uniquely theirs to answer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Everyone Needs a Wife

An author was being interviewed on a radio talk show the other day. For a brief segment, she was talking about how she works from home part time while her husband works as a doctor. She expressed how this arrangement has been beneficial to keeping her home and family running smoothly. Here is the quote from my memory:

"Everyone needs a wife. I mean that 1950s kind of wife that bakes and cleans and takes care of all of that stuff."

Before I get to my point, the context was clear that she was not making a sexist comment (especially since she is a woman). She was using the term "wife" as a euphemism for "person who keeps your life running", and she was including women in "everyone".

Lately I've been thinking about how true that is in my life. My wife stays home with the kids while I work. This works for us and honestly, I have a hard time understanding how couples make it work otherwise. There are so many responsibilities that families have outside of work. How do dual-income families find time for these things? I'm talking about home maintenance, financial planning, shopping, taking care of kids (of course very important), doing research on decisions that need to be made, and a million other important things I can't possibly list. I realize that some of these things you can hire people to do for you, but there are plenty that you cannot, such as caring for a sick child. Our son has medical issues that have caused what seems like daily doctor's appointments. I think if we both worked, one of us would have had to have quit by now. But even without medical issues, it's hard for me to imagine that it could work.

So, for those of you who are in dual-income families, I ask you: How do you do it? How do you keep your life running? For those of you in single-income families but who are married, I ask: Can you imagine your family running otherwise? For those of you who are single parents, I can only imagine how hard your struggle is, as you have the worst of both worlds: a single income and no one to share the burden. My heart goes out to you.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Activist Judges At It Again?

A few nights ago I wrote up a post exploring some of the arguments against gay marriage from a purely legal perspective, in response to the California ruling. After writing it I decided not to post it, for three reasons:

1) I'm not an expert at law, so my attempts to explain things from a legal perspective are probably incomplete at best.

2) The issue of gay marriage has been debated at length in the bloggernacle, from both moral and legal perspectives. I don't really have much to add to that.

3) Even though my intentions were not to spark controversy, I had a feeling my opinions might, and the goal of my blog is not to rehash endless debates.

So in the end I didn't post it, but I would like to throw these questions into the mix of perspectives currently being explored elsewhere:

1) I agree with the church, from a moral perspective, in its stand against gay marriage. I oppose gay marriage and would vote for a constitutional amendment against it. However, given that currently there is no such amendment, is it going against the church to question the constitutionality of banning gay marriage? In other words, can we separate the moral arguments and legal arguments? Can I say: "X is morally wrong, but it is unconstitutional to ban it?". Or, if I want to be in line with the church, do I have to conclude that judges that side with gay marriage must be wicked?

2) At what point to we recognize that we are fighting a losing battle? Is it obvious at this point that it is only a matter of time before we lose, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion? Is there still hope for victory, or are we only fighting to prolong the inevitable? If it's the latter, is it wrong to advocate a scorched earth policy (ie. get the government out of marriage entirely)?

(Note: If the subsequent comments get too controversial, I'll start deleting them and/or closing comments. As I've already stated, by goal is not to bring the debate occurring elsewhere onto this blog. I've already tempered my own opinions to try to avoid that. I'm really only interested in the specific questions I asked above.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Revelation on Home Schooling?

A comment from Elders' quorum from a few weeks ago, when we got on the subject of over-protection of children (quoting from memory):

"Before I joined the church I wondered how we were going to protect our kids from the bad influences in the world. We considered home schooling. But then we joined the church and learned that the church is against home schooling because our kids need to experience the social aspects of school."

There was no reaction to this part of his comment and the lesson went on its merry way. If this comment had been made in Relief Society, I imagine the building would have gone up in smoke before the class period ended.

From what I can tell the church has no official position on home schooling, but if anyone knows where this person might have heard of this new revelation, I'd be interested. Of course, I could just ask him myself...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Am I Apostate? You Tell Me

Here is your assignment: Read this post and then tell me if I'm apostate. If I am, I will readily repent.

The bloggernacle (the term used for the Mormon blog community) has a reputation for being a little off-center from mainstream Mormonism. Of course I don't consider myself this way. I'm pretty mainstream, in my opinion. But, a little while ago I started to wonder if the bloggernacle was having a bad influence on me, like that friend you had in high school. You know the one.

What made me wonder is when I discovered, which is a blog site dedicated to more mainstream Mormonism. In particular, one of their blogs is focused on helping new members become accustomed to Mormonism and our culture. This is a noble and worthwhile subject, but as I started to follow the blog I started to feel some antagonism toward what is written there. Before I get into why, let me state your assignment:

Go the the New Members section of, read a few entries or more, and then tell me if I'm entirely out of line for thinking this is over-the-top. I don't mean to be critical of another well-intentioned blogger, so I'm completely willing to accept that perhaps I'm the one out of line, and not her.

My concerns are these, and are not limited to just the New Members blog: The blog seems to be written with the assumption that the new member is ready to accept all the aspects of Mormon teaching and culture. Most of the entries start something like this: "Now that you are a member of the church, you are probably wondering how your life should change related to X." Is it just me, or does that sound a little presumptuous? Also, it sometimes makes assertions about what we believe without linking to a source, such as general conference article. I sometimes find myself agreeing with the article, but still left with a bad taste. It kind of feels like I'm supposed to trust this blog in the same way I would trust a general conference talk.

Normally, of course, it wouldn't bother me to disagree with another blogger. But what concerns me about this is that many new members might read it and assume it is the sentiment of the entire membership of the church: You need to change if you want to be part of our group.

So you tell me: Do I need to repent? Or do you agree that there's something amiss?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lying for the Truth

(Note: If this post seems like too much rambling, I apologize. I've been thinking of this topic for a while but couldn't get it down quite right--probably because I was distracted by the global warming element of it. So I decided to put down my thoughts and let the chips fall where they may.)

Religious conservatives often speak of the moral decay in our society, pointing to things such as violent and explicit television shows and video games and many other evidences that our culture is heading in the wrong direction. However, there's one major component that is not talked about, perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to it: lying for the truth.

I first became conscious of this phenomenon while watching Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" a few years ago. He makes some good points and arguments mixed in with the emotional manipulation, but the apex of the film, as anyone who has seen it will remember, was when he showed the humongous graph that showed how carbon dioxide and global temperature were highly correlated. The implication is that as we increase carbon dioxide, we can predict how global temperatures will change based on the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. And change it will. So much so that Al had to get on an elevator to show you the projected temperature graph. Stunning.

What's even more stunning is that this entire argument is a lie. The graph Al showed did not show that carbon dioxide causes global warming. In fact, it shows the opposite: historically, global warming has caused carbon dioxide to increase, which accounts for the correlation in the graphs. That means that the graph alone gives us no information that would allow us to predict what will happen to global temperature as carbon dioxide increases. Where did I get my information? Must be some global warming denying "scientist" funded by the oil companies? No, I got this information straight from the EPA website, which has a graph eerily similar to Al's, but with a more accurate explanation, and less humongous.

Was Al Gore duped? I don't think so. I think he knew very well what this graph really showed, but he used it anyway. In other words, he lied to support what he believes to be true. After realizing this, I concluded that if someone knowingly lies to me 10% of the time, I can't trust anything they say, even if 90% of it might be true. Even if global warming is a problem, I won't trust Al Gore to give me straight information about it.

Before you conclude I'm a global warming denier, I'm equally frustrated by comments from the right. How many times have I heard, "We can't even predict the weather next week. How could be predict it years in advance?" I cringe every time I hear this, since any thinking person must know the difference between weather and climate. I know that it will be cold next winter, even if I can't predict the exact temperature on a particular day.

There are many more examples in our cultural and political discussion--too many to list here. To relate this to Mormonism, I can see the same tendencies in our debate. Many rational people have concluded that the LDS church is not true. Fair enough, I can't prove it is, so if someone concludes it's false, so be it. However, the problem is when we start with a conclusion and then look at only the evidence (and sometimes make it up) that "proves" our point. Here's a good example of ridiculous evidence used to support the anti-Mormon argument. Isn't just not believing enough, without making up ridiculous claims?

But of course if we're pointing fingers at everyone else, we should look at our own house also. Are Mormons sometimes guilty of lying for the truth? The one example that comes to mind is the Mormon Meadows Massacre. To its credit, the church has recently made an effort to come clean about what happened there. However, for a long time, facts were hidden in an effort to avoid making the church look bad. In my mind, the incident has nothing to do with the truth of the restored gospel. It's a matter of people who did some very bad things, who also were members of the church. Still, for those of us who believe the church is true, it is tempting to disregard, or perhaps even cover-up things that make that church look bad.

So, for those of us concerned about what seems to be declining morality in our culture, let us fight against this moral failing that too often is overlooked: lying for the truth.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Is It a Sin?

Many discussions in the LDS community (and perhaps the Christian community in general), relate to the question: Is it a sin, or isn't it? Here are some examples of some such debates:

Is it a sin to drink caffeine? What about coffee if the person is not a member of the LDS church? What about eating meat in the summer?

Is it a sin to buy myself something that I don't really need once in a while, instead of using that money for more productive or charitable causes?

Is it a sin to go into debt to make what you believe to be a wise business investment?

Is it a sin to get a tattoo? How about a small one? What if you aren't a member of the church? (This is actually the question that inspired this post).

My purpose it not to debate any of these specific arguments, but rather to talk about the debate itself.

First, we should consider the question: What is sin? If you ask random people to define sin, you might get these two general responses:

1) Sin is disobeying the commandments of God.
2) Sin is doing something that God doesn't want us to do.

On first glance, these two definitions might seem like two ways to say the same thing. However, they are really very different. The scriptures tell us that there are many things God wants us to do, but which he has not specifically commanded us to do. There are also many things God does not want us to do, but which he has not specifically commanded us not to do. So we can see that there is plenty of room for debate between "disobeying the commandments" and "doing something God doesn't want us to do."

Another related issue is what we should do with "advice" or "encouragement" that we get from our spiritual leaders. Here's an interesting example from the LDS website (thanks again to the discussion from this post):

"Latter-day prophets strongly discourage the tattooing of the body. Those who disregard this counsel show a lack of respect for themselves and for God."

This is interesting since it seems to support both sides of the argument. On one hand, it uses the word "encourage," which suggests it is not a commandment, which some might use to argue that it is not sinful. However, it also says that by ignoring the advice, people show a lack of respect for God. Clearly, that is sinful, isn't it? But on the other hand, if ignoring the advice or encouragement of a prophet is a sin, then why make a distinction? Why not just command it?

Another example is the prophet's encouragement to get out of debt. This is usually communicated as advice, but if it is sinful to ignore the prophet, what's the difference?

So I've raised a lot of questions and shown how opposite views of the spectrum are reasonable. So what's my answer to this dichotomy? It's simple: We're asking the wrong question. The question should not be "Is this a sin?" It should be "What are the consequences of this action?"

All actions have consequences: good, bad, temporal, and spiritual. From this perspective, I would define "sin" as something we do (or don't do) which has negative spiritual consequences. In other words, we sin when we do something that separates us further from God and makes it more difficult to achieve his plan. The seriousness of the sin is proportional to the magnitude of the negative consequences. That definition is purposefully vague, because the word "sin" itself is a generality. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk in terms of consequences, rather than in terms of sin or righteousness.

Consider the question: Is it a sin to go into debt for non-essential reasons? Debating this question glosses over the more important question: What are the consequences? Interestingly, when the prophet gives us this advice, he doesn't say "because God said so." He says, "because here are some of the bad things that might happen..." (I'm paraphrasing here, of course. See this talk for an example).

Perhaps the prophet is more concerned about helping us make choices that will have positive consequences in this life and the next, and less concerned about what we should place the "sin" label on. Perhaps we should be too.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Educating the Professor

Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes in her blog:

"Instead of us Obama supporters sweating, Romney and his supporters would be fielding calls all day to explain Mormonism, polygamy and the relationship of Romney’s faith to the cult compound in Texas. Does Mr. Romney believe that 14 year-old girls should marry? Does Mr. Romney plan to take additional wives in order to fulfill the moral requirements of his religion? If not why has Mr. Romney stayed affiliated and raised his children in a church with whom he so vehemently disagrees?

"Yeah, Yeah, we know he gave some big speech about this issue earlier in the campaign, but how does he respond to what those women with the long skirts and weird hairdos said on the Today Show this morning?

"Would Romney have thrown the Thomas Monson under the bus and even more provocative, would Monson have tossed Mr. Romney there?"

I'm still holding out hope that she was joking or doing some experiment to see how we would react to such mis-information. But unfortunately I think the more reasonable explanation is that she is completely misinformed.

For those who don't know, let me be clear: the FLDS sect has no association with the LDS church which is the mainstream "Mormon" church. While I have posted my opinion that the FLDS raise was an over-reaction, and also used the FLDS situation to ponder broader questions about parental rights, I have tried to make clear that I don't support many of the things the FLDS do such as polygamy and what seems to be frequent underage marriage and other abuse.

Thanks for Millenial Star for pointing me to her blog.