Tag: <span>LDS</span>

On The Limitations of Science

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


There are lots of people out there condemning the debauchery of our modern world, and generally with more eloquence than I can muster. Additionally there are prophets, both ancient and modern who have already offered up rousing sermons and trenchant observations (one of which I took as the theme of this blog) and I would urge you to study the writings of those prophets before reading anything I write. So, if there’s better stuff out there why do I bother to blog? I believe there is a gap in the commentary. A hole in the discourse that I can fill. It doesn’t need to be filled. What I write is not critical to anyone’s salvation. I am not uncovering any lost principles of Christ’s gospel, nor am I speaking in a more timely manner than what you hear at the semiannual General Conferences. If that’s so, what niche do I fill? What unique insights do I provide?

If you read my very first post, then you’ll remember that I already touched on this. This blog will specifically focus on comparing the LDS Religion to the Religion of Progress and examining how the Religion of Progress has failed. The sacrament of the Religion of Progress is science. And it is appropriate that it be so. I myself am a believer in science. But like all sacraments, the sacrament of science can be partaken of unworthily. It can be misunderstood, and distorted. Just as partaking of the actual sacrament every week doesn’t immediately absolve you of all your sins if you’re not also actively exercising faith, repenting of those sins and seeking forgiveness; partaking in the sacrament of science doesn’t immediately make what you do and what you believe scientific, no matter how much you proclaim your love for it. Science has serious limitations, even if one is doing everything right, which most of the time they’re not. And many of the failures of the Religion of Progress comes when it ignores those limitations (or in the case of the last post, trades science for emotion.) Consequently, this post is all about examining those limitations.

Let’s start by examining the limits of science even if everything is done correctly. To begin with it’s really hard to do it correctly, and 90% of the time what passes for quality science are efforts which leave out a lot of the rigor necessary for truly conclusive results. This was not always the case at the beginning of the scientific revolution there was a lot low hanging fruit. Scientific results of surpassing clarity and rigor that could be obtained with only moderate effort (the gentleman scientist working nearly alone was a fixture of the time.) All that low-hanging fruit is gone, but people still expect science to come up with similarly ironclad results even though the window during which that was possible is long past. Also most of the really solid science involves physics, and the farther you get away from that, the less amenable things are to experimentation in general because there are too many variables.

Thus you’re left in a situation where if you want to do solid, incontrovertible science your best bet is to do more physics, and that’s going to cost billions of dollars, or you can use pieces of the scientific method and take a stab at the questions which remain after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. I say pieces of the scientific method because, for example, there are all manner of subjects which can’t be subjected to an experiment with a control. This is a limitation in many fields, but one of the best examples is economics, particularly macroeconomics. You can’t create a copy of the world and have one world where the global economy stays on the gold standard and the control, a world where everyone moves to floating currency. You will still have economist who will tell you that one is better than the other, but this is based off bits of data they’ve gathered from a very messy environment. Not any kind of conclusive, replicable experiment.

Related the problem of creating a control group is the difficulty of isolating the variable you hope to study. Even if we were somehow able to create two versions of Earth, and create a control, how do we know that all the differences between 2016 gold-standard Earth and 2016 floating-currency Earth are due to the different currency systems and not other random fluctuations? Obviously this is already a fairly ridiculous example, but it illustrates the impossible hurdles necessary to even approach true experimentation on something like the economy.

Now you should not assume from this that I’m anti-science, far from it. I have a deep respect for science. And I think that, if anything, the world needs more science not less, but as part of that, we need, particularly if we’re piling up more science, to recognize the limitations of science, especially as it’s actually put into practice. Science isn’t conducted by perfectly objective robots, it’s conducted by scientists who have careers to think of, biases which blind them and limitations of time and money to contend with. All of which takes us to the next way that science can go wrong.

When I say the next way, there are literally hundreds of ways that scientific efforts can go wrong, but rather than try to focus on all of them we’re just going to look at something that has been in the news a lot lately, the replication crisis.

What’s interesting about the replication crisis is that it happened even in cases where it truly appeared that people were doing everything correctly. Trained scientists were conducting ground-breaking experiments, designed according to the best thinking in their field, the results were passed through a process of peer-review and then the results were published in a respected journal. Obviously this is not to say that there weren’t papers published where everything was not being done correctly, even some examples of outright fraud, but even if we exclude those there were still a lot of results which got published which later turned out to be impossible to reproduce. The biggest contributor to this appears to have been publication bias, or what is sometimes called the file-drawer effect because people only submit positive, exciting results and the rest get put in the file-drawer with all of the other experiments that didn’t show anything. This is a problem not only with the people doing the experiments but with the publications themselves, which are far more likely to publish positive results (or to be technical, statistically significant results) than a paper which didn’t have any results (or a null result). And as you’ve probably heard, for most scientists it’s publish or perish. Another factor which almost certainly contributed to the crisis..

You may think that a positive result is a positive result regardless of whether there were 100 other, negative results which got put in the file cabinet. The problem is that it’s not. If you take 100 coins and flip each of them 7 times you’ve got better than even odds that one of them will come up 7 heads in a row. You might then decide that that coin is unfair, and publish a paper, “On the Unfairness of the 1947 Nickel”, but in reality you just started with a big sample size. Doing 100 experiments works very similarly. (For a really in depth discussion including p-values and lots of statistics go here.) The problem of course becomes that people reading or citing your paper don’t know that you have 99 failed experiments which never saw the light of day they only know about the one successful experiment that actually got published.

Thus far I haven’t mentioned how often a study fails to be replicated, and you may think that it’s no big deal. A few here and there, but nothing to worry about. Well as it turns out in general less than half of studies can be reproduced and sometimes less than 15%! This would mean that six out of every seven studies put forth conclusions which later turned out to be untrue.

Once again it’s important to recognize that there is a continuum of scientific results. There’s not a 50% chance that the theory of gravity is wrong, or that protons don’t exist. But when it comes to the softer sciences (and they’re labeled that way for a reason) there is a better than even chance that their conclusions will turn out to be untrue.

Of course when the average person talks about scientific discoveries, ignoring for the moment whether the results can be reproduced, they’re generally not talking about what the scientist actually found. To a first approximation no one reads the actual scientific paper, and probably only 1 in 10,000 people even read the abstract. If you hear about a scientific result you’re hearing about it through the media, which further undermines the utility of science by distorting results in an effort to make them appear more interesting. In short when people think of science they think of gravity, but what they’re actually getting is a Buzzfeed article written based on a press release from a conversation with a scientist who shelves most of his work, is desperate for tenure, describing a conclusion that is more than likely irreproducible. That’s like five layers of spin on top of a result that’s most likely false!

If the kind of “science” I’m talking about were framed as an amusing hobby and an article about bacon prolonging life was treated in the same fashion as a movie review then it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for many people science has taken the place of religion. And more than just religion, it has taken the place of deep thinking about the fundamental questions of life in general. People have replaced virtue with a sort of sloppy rationality which cloaks itself in science and is therefore considered progressive, but is really just the idea of doing whatever makes you feel good cloaked in a bunch of pseudo scientific babble. And decisions are being made which can cost people their lives.

As an example of this, I just finished the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. It’s an in depth look at the opiate epidemic in America, and a stunning indictment of what passes for science these days. You’ve probably heard about the opiate epidemic, if not follow the link. The effects of the epidemic are so bad that as to be baffling and a whole host of factors combined to make the problem so terrible, but the misuse of science was one of the bigger factors, possibly the biggest. It’s not possible to go into a complete description of what happened (I highly recommend the book) but in essence using a combination of poor science and a morality devoid of any underpinning in religion or tradition, doctors decided that people could essentially have unlimited opiates, the best known of which is oxycontin. Exactly what I mean by doing whatever makes you feel good cloaked in pseudo scientific babble.

The first part, the misuse of science, hinged on placing far too much weight on a one paragraph letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 which claimed that opiates only ended up causing addiction in 1% of people. Getting past the fact that the author never intended it to be used in the way it was, to base decades of pain management on one paragraph is staggeringly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible, when the pharmaceutical companies got around to trying to confirm the result they found the it didn’t hold up (to no one’s surprise) and they ended up burying and twisting the results they did get. The number of people that died of accidental overdoses directly or indirectly from this misuse of science is easily six figures, possibly seven, particularly since people are still dying. Of course in addition to the misuse of science there was the over reliance on science. I assume that on some level the pharmaceutical companies knew that they were not being scientific, but countless doctors, who were either naive or blinded by the gifts provided by the pharmaceutical company chose to at least to pretend that they were doing what they were doing because science backed them up.

I mentioned that one of the other factors was a morality devoid of any underpinning in religion or tradition. I’m not going to say that any religion specifically forbids overprescription of opiates, but most of them have some broad caution about drugs in general. And even if you want to set religion aside there is a strong traditional distaste for opium. And here is where the limits of science are most stark.

Frequently, people use science to declare any belief or practice or tradition or religion which is insufficiently scientific (which of course includes all religions, most traditions, and a majority of practices and beliefs over a few decades old) as nothing more than baseless superstitions. And while it was not labeled as such this is precisely what happened with opiates. All religions I’m aware of recognize that a certain amount of suffering is part of existence, but in 1980, doctors more or less decided it wasn’t. Sure they couched in the language of science with lots of caveats, but this is precisely the problem. The science turned out to be wrong and the caveats turned out to be insufficient barriers to abuse and somewhere north of 100,000 people died.

As I have repeatedly said, I’m not anti-science, but science without tradition, without morality, and without religion is prone to huge abuses. This blog will attempt to unite religion and science, but in doing so, religion is always going to hold primacy over science. And it’s not even necessarily because religion is backed by divine infallibility. Forget about that. Set that aside. While, I certainly believe that that’s the case, in these circumstances it doesn’t matter. The problem with science is that it hasn’t been around very long, and it assumes a sterile, rational world which bears no resemblance to the world we actually live in. Setting aside whether God exists, religion and tradition has been tested in the crucible of history. And have provided insights, particularly in the realm of morality that people ignore at their peril. Which will be the subject of my next blog post.


LGBT Youth and Suicide

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


This is one of those posts where I’m sure I’m walking into a minefield. Well you only live once, so lets do this…

When people want to talk about the harm caused to LGBT youth by the intolerance of the Church, the first place they go is to a discussion of suicide. This makes sense. When someone takes their own life it’s tragic. There’s no way to sugar coat a suicide. It’s obviously a bad thing.

This discussion has been going on for awhile, but it seemed to really explode earlier this year with the publication of a report which claimed that 32 young LGBT Mormons aged 14-20 have committed suicide since the Church changed its policies on same sex marriage (SSM), labeling people in a SSM as apostates and forbidding their children from being baptized.

The connection to be drawn was clear. Through their policy the Church had indirectly killed people. This shouldn’t be a surprise. I have all the sympathy in the world for the parents, family members and friends of those individuals, and if they’re mad at the Church that’s understandable. I’d be upset as well and as part of that I’d certainly want something and someone to blame. And connecting these suicides to the policies of the Church and the attitudes of its members seems obvious.

That said, the more emotional the subject, the more difficult it is too really look at things rationally. And yet in a situation as consequential as this one, understanding what is really going on becomes more important than ever. I agree that the explanation offered by the article seems the obvious one, but so many times the obvious explanation is not the correct one. And there have been thousands of times when people thought they were helping when in fact they were doing exactly the opposite. And unfortunately as much as it pains me to say this, that may in fact be what’s happening here.

I mentioned the article from the beginning of the year, and as you can probably imagine, the issue hasn’t gone away. At the first of this month a piece was published in the Salt Lake Tribune once again talking about LGBT suicide and once again pushing the Church to do more about it. It should be noted that this op-ed was written by one of leaders of the organization who supplied the data on the 32 suicides featured in the initial article. I don’t think this undermines the claims or anything of that sort, but if you’re trying to get to the truth these sorts of details are important. But at this point I’m fine granting the LGBT Mormon Youth are committing suicide and that the numbers of youth committing suicide are in fact increasing. This idea is strengthened by an article linked to from the same page as the op-ed which reported that youth suicides have tripled since 2007.

Looking at the comments on the second article it appears that most people agree with the position of the op-ed, so the overall theory that the Church is causing suicides has considerable traction. But does it make sense? Is the connection really that clear? Let’s start by looking at the time line. First let’s look at the Church’s position on LGBT issues. Here are few milestones:

1995: LDS leaders issue the Proclamation on the Family which declares that “Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan” and that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

2008: LDS Church campaigns heavily for Proposition 8. Which passes, reversing the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize SSM.

2010: In a tearful meeting in Oakland Elder Marlin K. Jensen apologized to those affected by Proposition 8 for the Church’s part in passing it.

2012: The Church creates the website www.mormonsandgays.org in an attempt to reach out to members who experience same sex attraction (SSA).

2015, November: Church labels people in an SSM as apostates and forbids children of those couples from baptism.

I’m sure I’ve left out some milestones. But I think it’s clear that since 2007 the Church’s engagement with the LGBT community has not been a series of escalations, with each step worse than the last. There have been some real attempts to reach out to the LGBT community. And while you may disagree with the effectiveness or even the sincerity of these efforts, I have a hard time seeing how the Church’s treatment of LGBT individuals is getting worse. The outreach of the website, or the Proposition 8 apology would have been unthinkable during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And, while I was not alive for the decades before that I am reliably informed that attitudes towards LGBT individuals were even worse before then.

Taken together, the evidence strongly suggests that the Church and its leadership are making real attempts to be more loving and understanding. I can point you towards stories of transgender Mormons showing up in dresses to Church and being treated as women and gay bishops who publically talk about their struggle with same sex attraction. Yes, there are certainly lines that the Church has decided should not be crossed, but beyond that they’ve been unusually accommodating. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Perhaps the Mormon Church has become more draconian. Maybe there are elements, perhaps individual members, who are being horribly repressive and intolerant. Even if this is the case (and I don’t think it is) they are not the only factor in play. We also have to look at what things have been like outside of the Church with respect to LGBT acceptance. Some milestones there:

1999-2000: Domestic partnerships and civil unions become legal in California and Vermont respectively.

2003: SSM legal in Massachusetts.

2009: Numerous states make SSM legal (with lots of fights back and forth at the ballot box).

2011: Obama administration declares they will no longer defend DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act

2013: SSM made legal in Utah.

2015: SSM made legal everywhere in the US.

And this list doesn’t even include the increased acceptance of LGBT’s on TV and movies and in the media. For the last decade or more LGBT people have gone from one victory to another. By any conceivable measurement things are as good as they have ever been. If that’s the case why are so many of them committing suicide? Even if you want to claim that the LDS Church has been unusually repressive. It’s not that hard to leave the Church and reject its teachings. People do it all the time, and by all accounts there’s a large community willing to embrace them and celebrate their decision. Outside of the Church the argument that intolerance and bigotry are causing suicides just doesn’t hold any water. And even if you restrict your examination to what’s happening within the church, the evidence is weak to nonexistent.

To be clear, the suicide of anyone is tragic. And I would never want people to think I am minimizing the  suffering of those involved. But given how tragic it is, isn’t it that much more important to make sure that we correctly understand the causes? It’s easy to point the finger at the Church and declare that it’s all being caused by Mormon bigotry. But being blinded by animosity towards the Church could easily lead someone to overlook other issues. Once again, Youth suicides have tripled! The consequences of incorrectly diagnosing the problem are huge. And blaming it all on the Church looks like it might just be an example of an incorrect diagnosis. Or at a minimum not the whole story.

If the LGBT community is objectively being treated with more tolerance than ever why are suicides increasing? As I have said, he conventional wisdom is that we just need to be even more tolerant. But it’s worth examining the causes of suicide, because they don’t always map to one’s expectations. Interestingly enough one of the latest episodes of the Freakonomics podcast was a rebroadcast of an episode they did on suicide from 2011. It brings up a lot of points that are worth considering.

Before I jump into the Freakonomics podcast I want to make it clear, that I’m not saying I know why the suicide rate has increased or why LGBT youth are committing suicide. It would be ridiculous of me to take a podcast and a couple of articles from the internet and use them to pass judgment about what should be done. Instead, rather than saying why it is happening, I’m

offering up the opinion that it might not be happening because of the Church and its members. I intend to offer some alternative theories, mostly to show that there are other potential explanations, not to advance any of the explanations as THE explanation.

The first thing we notice when we listen to the podcast is the title, “The Suicide Paradox.” It’s called that because a lot of things about suicide don’t make sense, and can be downright paradoxical. For example it turns out that blacks commit suicide at only half the rate of whites. If your theory is that oppression and intolerance causes suicide you would expect their rate to be higher than the white rate. Another example (not from the podcast) is Syria, which one year into its civil war was tied for the lowest national suicide rate (now there may be all kinds of problems with that number, but it’s borne out by other surveys conducted before the war.) One of the best statements about the difficulty of understanding suicide comes from David Lester who was interviewed as part of the podcast. Lester has written over 2,500 academic papers, more than half of which concern suicide. And his conclusion is:

First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing, admit that we really don’t have a good idea why people kill themselves.

Despite this statement there are some general things that can be said about suicide. For instance suicide is contagious. If someone hears about a suicide or sees a suicide, say on TV, particularly if the person committing the suicide bears some resemblance to the person hearing about it, it can trigger a copycat suicide. This is called the Werther Effect after a novel by Goethe where he described someone committing suicide in a sympathetic fashion. Thus it’s possible that in the process of publicizing the suicide of LGBT Mormon youth that the people trying to prevent it are actually contributing to the problem. If so it that would be terrible, and as I said, I take no stand on what is actually happening, I’m only urging that a problem this serious deserves all the knowledge and resources at our disposal.

It’s also worth mentioning that Utah is squarely inside the suicide belt, that area of the country with the highest suicide rates. Explanations for the high suicide rates in the Mountain West have ranged from residential instability, to access to guns, to the thin air. This is a great site for comparing suicide rates among states, and it’s worth noting that the site doesn’t show a 3x increase in the number of suicides in Utah since 2007. If you follow the link and select states to compare, Utah looks very similar to Colorado and New Mexico. States which are not known for having a huge population of Mormons. Of course the original article talked about youth, and it’s not my intention to dig into the numbers (at least not now) though they could very well be suspect. The point I want to bring up is that Utah is already has an above average suicide rate and it appears to have nothing to do with the Church.

Finally you would expect that suicide to be more rare among wealthy people, and to an extent that’s true, but less than you would think. There is no strong correlation between wealth and suicide. Having more money doesn’t do much to lower your risk of suicide and may in certain cases increase it. Additionally some of the very highest rates of suicide are among older white males. Hardly the group you think of when you think of an unhappy minority. And indeed rich and famous people commit suicide all the time. The effect is even more pronounced if you look at the difference in suicide rates between rich and poor countries. Not only is this another mark against the theory that bigotry and intolerance cause suicide, but it leads us to another alternate theory for suicide.

According to this theory, people who are impoverished, discriminated against, or otherwise dealing with difficult circumstances can always point to these circumstances as the reason why they’re unhappy. When those circumstances go away, if the person is still unhappy, then it must mean that they’re broken in some fundamental way, and their unhappiness is therefore a permanent condition. If everything you think is making you unhappy goes away and you’re still unhappy what’s left?

This could be what we’re seeing with the LGBT community. In the “bad old days” the reasons for their misery were obvious, the world didn’t accept them and never would. Now they’re accepted everywhere. They can join the military, they can get married, companies come to their aid. What’s left? And yet, the suicide rate remains tragically high.

Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistleblower formerly known as Bradley Manning before transitioning, attempted to commit suicide recently. And it is among transgendered that the evidence for this effect is strongest. If on the one hand we just need more tolerance to solve the problem, than those individuals who have successfully undergone gender reassignment surgery and can pass as the opposite sex should have the lowest suicide rate. Instead individuals who’ve undergone the surgery experience a suicide mortality rate 20 times greater than a comparable non-transgender population. Even transgender individuals have taken these numbers and used them to argue vigorously against surgery.

Sticking with just transgendered individuals there are still well-respected doctors who argue that transgendered individuals suffer from a version of body dysmorphic disorder. In other words being transgendered is similar to having anorexia or bulimia. Thus we should be treating them like people with a mental illness, not as people who have a different but completely valid lifestyle. Obviously this is a very unpopular theory, but that should not be a factor in determining what’s really going on.

I know that the current orthodoxy is that we just need to allow people to do whatever they want and happiness will follow, but at some point don’t we need to look at the data? Is it in fact possible that telling people to pursue personal gratification at the expense of everything else is contributing to the problem?

I know people are convinced that the intolerance of the church and it’s members are indirectly killing people. And I can understand the reasons why they think this, but it just doesn’t add up. At some point you have to admit the possibility that some people are more interested in finding a club to beat the Church with than they are in getting to the truth, and by extension really helping these kids.

I’ll tell you what I thought when I heard the announcement that the Church would not baptize the children of same sex couples and were declaring anyone in a same sex marriage as apostate. I was relieved and excited, and I’ll tell you why. The Church had backed down on a lot of things, as I mentioned above they had apologized, they had put up websites, and all of these were probably even good things, but we can be so accommodating that we lose sight of the doctrine. And as I have attempted to point out here, we can be so accommodating that we are no longer able to think deeply about a topic. Our dialogue becomes nothing but accusations and apologies. Obviously I’m just a bit player in all of this. The leaders of the church know what they’re doing and along those linesl think Dallin H. Oaks said it best when he was speaking about this very issue of LGBT suicide:

I think part of what my responsibility extends to, is trying to teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another…beyond that, the rightness the wrongness, I will be accountable to higher authority for that…

In all of this that’s what we have to remember. We are accountable to a higher authority. As much as we might want to bring our own strong sense of right and wrong and justice to things, there is a greater hand than ours guiding the affairs of the Church. And it’s our responsibility to be obedient and accountable to that authority, even if it’s difficult.


Atheists and Unavoidability of the Divine

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I had hoped to spend most of the first several blog posts building a foundation for things. Laying the groundwork of my philosophy. But I’ve been thinking about an issue recently and I thought while the issue was fresh and my indignation was fired that I should say something. Which is not to say that this topic is something that has only recently occurred to me, I’ve actually been thinking about it on and off since the late 80’s, but it was triggered most recently by an answer to a question on Quora. The question was: What is the creepiest thing that society accepts as a cultural norm? I found one answer to be particularly objectionable, but frankly a lot of the answers were misguided and ignorant; as an example, the answer with the second most votes was that it was creepy to teach children to be patriotic. Getting into exactly why this answer is so ignorant is not the point of this post. But it is one of those things that has been an unquestioned positive value in cultures for thousands of years and only in the last few decades have people decided that it is a negative. The world is saturated with Chronological Snobbery and I probably shouldn’t get worked up over one more example of it.  

That, however, was not the answer that triggered this post, but the two answers are related. Both are in the category of allegedly creepy things being taught to children. In the case that set me off it was the teaching of religious opinions. Specifically the author of the answer offered up “Religious Opinions Being Forced on Children” as the creepiest thing society accepts as a cultural norm. First I find it interesting that he uses the term “force”, how do you force someone to hold an opinion? Is there some brain modification going on here that I’m unaware of? I’m sure he would argue that by being in a dominant position that parents can effectively force their opinion on their children. Regardless I imagine that what he finds so objectionable is not force, but religion. I see no indication from this answer or any of his other answers that he’s a radical libertarian. He’s not opposed to compulsion in all of it’s forms, he’s opposed to religion, and finds it creepy that I should be allowed to bring up my children in my religion.

If that were not enough, he begins his piece by saying that he doesn’t want any comments on his answer. I understand his position is controversial (as it should be) and that he’s going to get a lot of negative feedback, but that’s just cowardly. He’s not saying that he thinks religious instruction is something which deserves more scrutiny, he’s saying that it’s creepy. That’s a pretty high standard. An extraordinary claim which deserves some extraordinary proof.

At this point you may be wondering what about this answer got my juices flowing. Sure it’s pathetic and intellectually vacant, but people post intellectually vacant stuff on the internet all the time. What I found interesting is that he still acknowledges that children need to be taught morals he just claims that “Morals can be taught separately from religion.” And this is where he gets into my pet peeve. I know atheists think that religion is a horrible, destructive force, responsible for all manner of misery and evil. But that’s only because haven’t really thought things through. This intellectual disconnect is not just the subject of the remainder of this post it’s in part the theme of this entire blog.

Let’s examine the options for arriving at a system of morals. We’ll start with the two obvious options:

Option 1- Morals are eternal, divine and originate from a supreme being, or at a minimum some non-materialistic force..

Option 2- Morals can be inferred logically. Pure reason and/or science provides a moral framework.

Obviously atheists don’t believe in option 1, but option 2 seems reasonable enough, right? The problem is that the system of morality described in option 2 doesn’t exist. The closest anyone has come is utilitarianism and frankly raw utilitarianism has a host of issues. Many of the issues are esoteric, but there is one that is insurmountable, no one has adopted it on a large scale. Thus, If we decided to teach utilitarianism in order to separate morals from religion, we would be instructing children in a system of morality which bears little resemblance to the cultural morality of the society that child lives in. Okay, one might retort, we’ll just teach that. We don’t have to add in religion, we can just instruct children in society’s morality. Now recall that he wasn’t objecting to religious instruction in schools he was objecting to all religious instruction everywhere, so you would have to teach this morality without recourse to any form of religion. How does this not end up as nothing but sterile instruction in the laws of the country. And I think teaching law devoid of ethics is one of the more dangerous things you can do, leading inevitably to a anything’s-fine-as-long-as-you-can-get-away-with-it mentality. Looking at it another way, where do you think cultural morality comes from? Imagine trying to teach morality as if Judaism, Christianity, Islam or even Buddhism never existed.

This takes us to the third option for arriving at a system of morals. Now I believe morals come from God, but let’s assume for the moment that they don’t. And further assume that option 2 is off the table. That Bertrand Russell didn’t sit down and created a foolproof logical system of morality that all people of good sense follow. Then option 3 is as I alluded to above, taking our morals from that system of morality which developed organically, in an evolutionary process of trial and error over thousands of years of civilization.

For our example atheist, this may initially seem like great news. Evolutionary process? Trial and error? Where do I sign up? There’s only one problem. This process is religion. If you’re going to deny the existence of God then religion is still the distilled essence of this evolutionary process of how civilization arrived at morals. Religion is what centuries of trial and error has produced. And tossing away religion would be equivalent to tossing Newton’s laws of motion and deciding that you’re going to start over with physics. Obviously that’s not what this guy thinks he’s suggesting. Newton’s laws are science, while religion is nothing but superstition he might sputter. Well it wasn’t science that proclaimed slavery wrong it was religion, and it wasn’t science that spelled the end of eugenics, it was judeo-christian morality. I could go on, but science has been on the wrong side of a lot of issues.

Given that and the lack of some universally recognized logical system of morality you have two choices. You can rely on God for morality or you can rely on culture for morality, but in both cases you’re relying on religion. You’re just arguing about the source of it. Atheists want to toss religion out the window with God. I don’t want to toss out either, and if atheists thought about it they wouldn’t want to throw out religion either. But when it comes down to it it’s strangely easier for atheists to get rid of religion than it is for them to get rid of the concept of God. Which takes me to my final point. Frequently when you read what atheists have written you find that they can’t help but introduce God into their works. I’m sure they don’t think of it that way, but I notice over and over again that they bring God into the picture but disagree on what God is. It’s as if they agree with the Ontological Argument and their only disagreement is what the supreme being is.

I first encountered this when reading the book Contact by Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan avoided the label atheist, but he was certainly agnostic, and many atheists point to him as a major inspiration, and he certainly didn’t believe in an afterlife. The book, Contact, has a section where the atheist hero humiliates a believer in an argument. This isn’t the only time he finds occasion to deride believers, in particular I remember his off-hand comment that the Mormons viewed the alien signal, the “contact”, as another message from the Angel Moroni. Now don’t get me wrong I actually liked Carl Sagan. I watched all the episodes of Cosmos, and read the accompanying book. I read Broca’s Brain and of course I read Contact. So what did Sagan include in Contact that set me off? At the end of the book, we discover that some aliens, more advanced even than the aliens we end up communicating with have encoded a message in the value of PI. If you can encode a message in PI you’re a god! So why does Sagan include this bit? Is it because he can’t help himself? Is it because he believes in a God (perhaps he’s a deist) but thinks he’s the only one to understand god’s true nature? If it were just Sagan I might think nothing of if.

But, in fact Sagan is not the only atheist who has made a comment like that. Richard Dawkins, widely regarded as the poster child for aggressive atheism said the following:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.  

This is a very interesting quote and it touches on something we’re going to spend a lot of time on in this space. But if he’s just admitted that there are god-like aliens out there why is he an atheist? Continuing the quote:

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way.

Hmm… does that sound like any religion you might have heard of? This is in fact in all essential respects what Mormon’s believe. Does this mean that Dawkins is on the verge of converting? I very much doubt it. In other words both of these atheists can imagine the existence of God. They just can’t imagine that he behaves like the God that all those creepy religious people believe in.

My final example is from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR). It’s written by Eliezer Yudowsky who also self-identifies as an atheist, and is a major force on Lesswrong.com, the well known website of pure rationality. The book is Harry Potter fan-fiction. Meaning that Yudowsky takes the world of Harry Potter makes a few changes before retelling the story in his own fashion. In this case Harry is a relentless, I would say even say, Machiavellian rationalist, on top of being a poster child for humanism. He thinks of death as the ultimate evil. (See my last post on this topic.) Lest it be unclear, I actually thoroughly enjoyed HPMOR, and not just because of the really clever way he deals with the time travel from the original.

The interesting bit in the story comes when Harry has to summon a Patronus. As with the original, Patronuses become a major plot point in HPMOR. Initially Harry can’t summon a Patronus, and it’s only after he recognizes that the Dementors represent death (the ultimate evil in his view) that he is able to draw on the pure force of humanism and summon forth a Patronus who comes in the form of a being of pure white light, the avatar of humanism.

In a sense this is how we know that Harry’s beliefs are correct, because they’re confirmed in a supernatural manner when he summons, what is later called, the True Patronus. Yudowsky might argue with me calling it supernatural, but it’s hard to see how you could call it anything else. Harry’s belief is greater than anyone else’s, consequently he is the only person ever to be able to summon the True Patronus. Despite this it seems clear that this True Patronus has been there all along, an unchangeable source of truth external to humanity as a whole.

Once again we arrive with a situation similar to Dawkins where there are some bizarre parallels with Mormon Theology. In this case, Harry receives the confirmation of his beliefs in the forest, from a being of pure white light after overcoming a dark force which threatened to overwhelm him. Yes, you probably guessed correctly. There is a very strong resemblance between Harry’s experience and Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Yet again we’ve uncovered a budding Mormon among the ranks of the unbelievers.

After all of this where do we end up? I think the moral of the story is that pure atheism is more difficult than people expect. So difficult that God comes back into things the minute they start to really think deeply. As the examples show, once you dig into things enough running into the divine seems hard to avoid. It’s easy for atheists to paint believers as ignorant and superstitious, but it appears that despite all the progress that has been made, there’s more to the idea of God and the practice of Religion than they want to admit.


We Are Not Saved

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Jeremiah 8:20

When I was a boy. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the year 2000. I’m not sure how much of that had to do with the supposed importance of the beginning of a new millennium, how much of it is just due to the difficulty of extrapolation in general, and how much of it was due to my religious upbringing. (Let’s get that out of the way right up front. Yes, I am LDS/Mormon.)

It’s 2016 and we’re obviously well past the year 2000 and 16 years into the future I couldn’t imagine. For me, at least, it definitely is The Future, and any talk about living in the future is almost always followed by an observation that we were promised flying cars and spaceships and colonies on the moon. This observation is then followed by the obligatory lament that none of these promises have materialized. Of course moon colonies and flying cars are all promises made when I was a boy. Now we have a new set of promises: artificial intelligence, fusion reactors, and an end to aging, to name just a few. One might ask why the new promises are any more likely to be realized than the old promises. And here we see the first hint of the theme of this blog, But before we dive into that, I need to lay a little more groundwork.

I have already mentioned my religious beliefs, and these will be a major part of this blog (though in a different way than you might expect.) In addition to that I will also be drawing heavily from the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s best known book is The Black Swan. For Taleb a black swan is something which is hard to predict and has a massive impact. Black swans can come in two forms: positive and negative. A positive black swan might be investing in a startup that later ends up being worth a billion dollars. A negative black swan, on the other hand, might be something like a war. Of course there are thousands of potential black swans of both types, and as Taleb says, “A Black Swan for the turkey is not a Black Swan for the butcher.”

The things I mentioned above, AI, fusion and immortality, are all expected to be positive black swans, though, of course, it’s impossible to be certain. Some very distinguished people have warned that artificial intelligence could mean the end of humanity. But for the moment we’re going to assume that they all represent positive black swans.

In addition to being positive black swans, these advancements could also be viewed as technological singularities. Here I use the term a bit more broadly than is common. Generally when people talk about the singularity they are using the term with respect to artificial intelligence. But as originally used (back in 1958) the singularity referred to technology progressing to a point where human affairs would be unrecognizable. In other words these developments will have such a big impact that we can’t imagine what life is like afterwards. AI, fusion and immortality all fall into this category, but they are certainly by no means the only technology that could create a singularity. I would argue that the internet is an excellent example of a singularity. Certainly people saw it coming, and and some of those even correctly predicted some aspects of it (just as, if we ever achieve AI, there will no doubt be some predictions which will also prove true.) But no one predicted anything like Facebook or other social media sites and those sites have ended up overshadowing the rest of the internet. My favorite observation about the internet illustrates the point:

If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?

I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.

I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

Everything I have said so far deserves, and will eventually get, a deeper examination, what I’m aiming for now is just the basic idea that one possibility for the future is a technological singularity. Something which would change the world in ways we can’t imagine, and if proponents are to be believed, it would be a change for the better.

If, on the one hand, we have the possibility of a positive black swans, technological singularities and utopias, is there also the possibility of negative black swans, technological disasters and dystopias on the other hand? Of course that’s a possibility. We could be struck by a comet or annihilate each other in a nuclear war or end up decimated by disease.

Which will it be? Will we be saved by a technological singularity or wiped out by a nuclear war? (Perhaps you will argue that there’s no reason why it couldn’t be both. Or maybe instead you prefer to argue that it will be neither. I don’t think both or neither are realistic possibilities, though my reasoning for that conclusion will have to wait for a future post.)

It’s The Future and two paths lie ahead of us, the singularity or the apocalypse, and this blog will argue for apocalypse. Many people have already stopped reading or are prepared to dismiss everything I’ve said because I have already mentioned that I’m Mormon. Obviously this informs my philosophy and worldview, but I will not use, “Because it says so in the Book of Mormon” as a step in any of my arguments, which is not to say that you will agree with my conclusions. In fact I expect this blog to be fairly controversial. The original Jeremiah had a pretty rough time, but it wasn’t his job to be popular, it was his job to warn of the impending Babylonian captivity.

I am not a prophet like Jeremiah, and I am not warning against any specific calamity. While I consider myself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, as I have already mentioned, this blog will be at least as much informed by my being a disciple of Taleb. And as such I am not willing to make any specific predictions except to say that negative black swans are on the horizon. That much I know. And if I’m wrong? One of the themes of this blog will be that if you choose to prepare for the calamities and they do not happen, then you haven’t lost much, but if you are not prepared and calamities occur, then you might very well lose everything. As Taleb says in one of my favorite quotes:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.

I have already mentioned Taleb as a major influence. To that I will add John Michael Greer, the archdruid. He joins me (or rather I join him) in predicting the apocalypse, but he does not expect things to suddenly transition from where we are to a Mad Max style wasteland (which interestingly enough is the title of the next movie.) Rather he puts forward the idea of a catabolic collapse. The term catabolism broadly refers to a metabolic condition where the body starts consuming itself to stay alive. Applied to a civilization the idea is that as a civilization matures it gets to the point where it spends more than it “makes” and eventually the only way to support that spending is to start selling off or cannibalizing assets. In other words, along with Greer, I do not think that civilization will be wiped out in one fell swoop by an unconstrained exchange of nukes, and if it is than nothing will matter. I think it will be a slow-decline, broken up by a series of mini collapses.

All of this will be discussed in due time, suffice it to say that despite the religious overtones, when I talk about the apocalypse, you should not be visualizing The Walking Dead, The Road, or even Left Behind. But the things I discuss may nevertheless seem pretty apocalyptic. Earlier this week I stayed up late watching the Brexit vote come in. In the aftermath of that people are using words like terrifying, bombshell, flipping out, and furthermore talking about a global recession, all in response to the vote to Leave. If people are that scared about Britain leaving the EU I think we’re in for a lot of apocalypses.

You may be wondering how this is different than any other doom and gloom blog, and here, at last we return to the scripture I started with, which gives us the title and theme of the blog. Alongside all of the other religions of the world, including my own, there is a religion of progress, and indeed progress over the last several centuries has been remarkable.

These many years of progress represent the summer of civilization. And out of that summer we have assembled a truly staggering harvest. We have conquered diseases, split the atom, invented the integrated circuit and been to the moon. But if you look closely you will realize that our harvest is basically at an end. And despite the fantastic wealth we have accumulated, we are not saved. But in contemplating this harvest it is easier than ever before to see why we need to be saved. We understand the vastness of the universe, the potential of technology and the promise of the eternities. The fact that we are not wise enough to grasp any of it, makes our pain all the more acute.

And this is the difference between this blog and other doom and gloom blogs. Another blog may talk about the inevitable collapse of the United States because of the national debt, or runaway global warming, or cultural tension. Someone with faith in continued scientific progress may ignore all of that, assuming that once we’re able to upload our brains into a computer that none of it will matter. Thus, anyone who talks about about potential scenarios of doom without also talking about potential advances and singularities, is only addressing half of the issue. In other words you cannot talk about civilizational collapse without talking about why technology and progress cannot prevent it. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

That’s the core focus, but this blog will range over all manner of subjects including but not limited to:

  • Fermi’s Paradox
  • Roman History
  • Antifragility
  • Environmental Collapse
  • Philosophy
  • Current Politics
  • Book Reviews
  • War and conflict
  • Science Fiction
  • Religion
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Mormon apologetics

As in the time of Jeremiah, disaster, cataclysms and destruction lurk on the horizon, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.