Friday, August 28, 2015

Knowledge: The Stuff of Rational Thought

Recently I was involved in a comment thread under an article about religion. I know, it's not a very smart thing to do, but there was one commenter who was berating everyone for their lack of rational thought, while at the same time exhibiting a distinct lack of rational thought. I couldn't resist. I called him out on his fallacies and I was rewarded by being called "muddled-headed" and a "moron". He has yet to respond to my further inquiries. But he did give me substantial fodder that may result in 2-4 blog posts.
"Rational thinking is not dependent on knowledge."

This statement came from one of his replies. From one perspective this seems like a non-controversial statement. Someone's ability to think rationally, the actual mechanism of thinking, is not dependent on knowing certain facts and data. For example, if I wanted to give all of my students a pencil I could rationally plan that out and get the pencils. My ability to rationally think through that problem does not depend on my knowing how many students are in my class. Even if I think there are 15 students, when in reality there are 150, knowing the incorrect number of students may change the way I approach the problem and may cause problems, but that does not impact my ability to rationally think through the problem.

On a larger level, if I thought that the American Revolution was all about "Taxation without representation", and then after reading some books I acquired more knowledge about the causes of the revolution I might change my views about what caused the revolution, but that won't change my ability to think through the new data and reach a new conclusion.

Also, if someone is presented with some new data, it would seem that their ability to incorporate that knowledge depends not on having the knowledge, but on their ability to reason and think through the data. Thus it makes sense to say "Rational thinking is not dependent on knowledge."

So far that statement seems perfectly logical, but if we think about how we actually interact with knowledge and data, that formerly rational statement begins to unravel. My response to that statement was, '"rational thinking is not dependent on knowledge" is akin to saying "breathing is not dependent on air".' Just as breathing requires something there to be breathed in order to make sense, rational thinking requires knowledge in order to work. Knowledge is the stuff that is rationally thought about.

But the connection is deeper than that, because there is some knowledge changes the way we think. This happens both on an individual level and on a societal level. As pointed out by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, there comes a point where certain data does not fit with our paradigm forcing us to change the way we think about the world. But we may still argue that even a paradigm shift does not change to underlying processes that make our thoughts rational.

For anyone who has learned something profound, we know that what we consider to be rational thought changes throughout our lives. There is certain knowledge that when obtained changes the way we interact with the world. It in effect changes our rational thinking. These experiences are usually profoundly personal. These are the moments when old knowledge takes on new and added meaning, and connections are made between seemingly disparate facts.

In these special cases rational thought does not operate passively on our knowledge, but knowledge and rational thought become co-operative, evolving simultaneously. The original statement given above assumes a certain staticity and independence to rational thought, as if it could operate in a vacuum. But this view leads to an ontological quandary that cannot be resolved without additional data and an evolution in our manner of thinking.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Amaron Misquoted Scripture

You may not remember who Amaron is, partly because he only contributed five short verses to the Book of Mormon. He is perhaps most famous for being Omni's son (who has a whole book named after him, even if he didn't write 86% of it). We don't know anything about him because he wrote so little, but he did manage to misquote a famous scripture.

There is a famous prophecy that appears several times in the Book of Mormon that reads:
"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence."
In one form or another this same prophecy appears 19 times in the Book of Mormon, plus one final time when Mormon records the fulfillment of the prophecy. But in his brief contribution, Amaron managed to misquote the prophecy. He quoted it as:
"Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land." [Emphasis added]
All other versions give it as:
Keep commandments → Prosper
But Amaron gives it as a negative statement:
Don't keep commandments → Don't prosper
But if you look at the original prophecy, the promise is that if they did not keep the commandments then they would be cut off from the presence of the Lord. This is not necessarily the same as "not prospering". I have seen several modern saints who have made the same mistake, and it is an easy one to make. But we must be careful about the promises made by the Lord. They are very specific and they are phrased in a certain way for a reason. Sometimes we may be like Amaron and inadvertently misremember a scripture because we think it is functionally equivalent, but upon further reflection we realize that there is a very specific reason for the wording of certain prophecies and scriptures.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Checklist Generation: Conflating Culture with the Church

I was recently reading something by a former member of the Church who was relating their experience as a member. As they reported they came to the realization one day that all the commandments and rules in the Church were just one big checklist. This "stunning" realization lead them to question their faith, decide that it was a bunch of drivel and they promptly left the Church. They were now explaining how they have since "found Jesus" and were now engaged in an outreach to other members of the Church to "save them from their false idols". From their description it would seem that all Mormons are given a specific checklist they must follow and when they have checked everything off they believe that they can bound away merrily into eternal exaltation.

This characterization of LDS doctrine struck me as particularly odd considering we are taught that we must only rely "upon the merits of Christ, who [is] the author and the finisher of [our] faith." The commenter related how he felt so liberated after he freed himself from the "deception taught by the church" that we are save by our works, typified by the checklist of commandments. After reading his comments I came away wondering if we were ever members of the same church, and where in the world he got his ideas about LDS doctrine.

I do recognize that some people reduce the gospel to a set of things to get done; read your scriptures, say your prayers, do your home/visiting teaching, don't murder anybody. But more often than not we hear admonitions to not treat the gospel, or any of its parts, as a checklist. Which makes me wonder how this man managed to go most of his life without ever hearing those admonitions, let alone end up thinking that the Church actively teaches the checklist gospel.

To try and understand where these ideas come from I used Google Ngram Viewer to look at how the frequency of the word "checklist" changed over time. What I found was both a little surprising, but at the same time understandable.
As can be seen in the graph above, "checklist" was used very infrequently before about 1935. In that year there was a rather famous plane crash that could have been averted if the pilot had used a checklist. Since then the use of "checklists" has grown, especially in the 1960's and 70's. What surprised me was the drop is usage after 2000, though this may be due to it being replaced by the phrase "to do list" (interestingly enough the word "list", as a noun, has also seen a steep drop after 2000, also interesting is the fact that "checklist" displaced "check list" in the 1960's).

So it would seem that our obsession with checklist, to do lists and all sorts of lists is a recent cultural phenomena. In a more general sense the idea that we go through the motions without the corresponding faith and belief is nothing new. But to make the assertion that the Church has reduced salvation to a bland checklist of items, practices and commandments, is to mistake a current cultural phenomena for eternal doctrine. We should not blame the Church and discount its doctrine because of a cultural meme.

For those of us who are still faithful we can use this as learning opportunity to see how sometimes our current culture affects the way we see the doctrine of the Church. If we slip into the error of treating the commandments and ordinances of the gospel as items on a checklist we should realize that that is a result of our culture and we should work to remove that from our thinking.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Nephite Coins: Reading our preconceptions into the text

I didn't intend to write this much on this topic but I just keep thinking about it. Previously I wrote about how, taken out of context, a single verse could be used to argue that there should be no trees on temple grounds. That misconception was solved by gaining a little more understanding of the culture and language of the Bible. Then I wrote about the peculiarities of calendar systems and how that relates to understanding the scriptures. The point of these posts is to show how simple misunderstandings, mistranslations and preconceptions create problems that left unaddressed may begin to undermine a believer's faith.

The problem arises when a preconception or a misconception meets an inconsistency. For some this inconsistency precipitates a crisis in faith that leaves the believer wondering, "Is there anything else I was mistaken about? Perhaps everything else I was sure about is also false?" In the most extreme cases a person is left to doubt everything they once knew even if their ponderings can easily be mistaken for mental illness. But fortunately most people never get to that point and stay grounded in the realms of rationality.

At one point or another everyone will encounter something that does not fit with what they thought to be the case. There is not time enough in the world for me to address every single possibility. Ideally I should offer a surefire way of addressing each problem as it come up, but that is best learned by experience. What I can do is point out some common mistakes and how to resolve them.

The problem of Nephite coins is quickly becoming a classic example of how projecting our cultural preconceptions onto a text lead to problems. In Alma 11 Mormon pauses in his narration to explain the Nephite monetary system. It involves different denominations of gold and silver, all related to each other and to measures of grain. For years members of the Church, including Church leaders, have assumed that it referred to series of gold and silver coins. The chapter heading for Alma 11, written in the 1920's, mentioned Nephite coins, but in the latter half of the 20th century several Book of Mormon critics pointed out that coins were not used used in pre-Colombian America.

This prompted a reaction by some Mormon apologists to go looking for any evidence of coins in Mesoamerica. I remember a roommate, as recently as 2001, insisting that archaeologists had found metal disks "that are clearly coins". But despite the discovery of these metal disks no evidence of them being used as money (i.e. as coins) was ever found. Other evidence also indicated that pre-Colombian Americans never used coins, though they did use precious metals as money, just not in coin form. At about this time someone, I don't know who, took a long hard look at the text of the Book of Mormon and realized that Alma 11 never actually mentions coins.

Alma 11 only mentions various weights of gold and silver and never actually says that they were coins. For a bunch of people of European stock it was an easy enough mistake to make. The text talks about gold and silver in different amounts that are used as money and they thought, "gold and silver money == coins". It was a case of casting our modern preconceptions onto the text which resulted in Church member receiving yet another criticism from critics. In recent updates to the Book of Mormon the chapter heading to Alma 11 has been changed to bring it into agreement with the text.

But you can still find anti-Mormon websites who trot out the coin criticism. It is by far one of my favorite criticisms because it is such a beautiful example of a fallacious argument. Usually the argument begins by quoting an LDS scholar (John Welch and Daniel Peterson seem to be their favorites) who unambiguously stated that no pre-Colombian coins have ever been found in the Americas and then they say, "Aha! Even LDS scholars admit that the Book of Mormon is wrong!" But, as noted above, the text never actually mentions coins, so admitting there are no pre-Colombian coins does not mean LDS scholars are admitting the Book of Mormon contains an anachronism. Despite this, anti-Mormon websites try to milk it for all its worth, though some of the more "current" criticism ignore it since they realize it is a non-starter.

We can learn from this little adventure that when we read the scriptures sometimes we insert our modern biases into the text without realizing it. Then when it doesn't match with archaeological or other evidence we run into problems. We can avoid these types of problems by learning to read the text critically and pay attention to not only what it says, but to what it doesn't say. Another brief example, which I won't go into here, is that the Book of Mormon never actually says Ammon was herding king Lamoni's sheep. It just says "flocks" which doesn't necessarily mean sheep. There's something to think about.
A possible update to Arnold Friberg's painting. By the way, Arnold Friberg is a serial offender when it comes to anachronisms. Beware the "gospel art" and don't take it for the "gospel truth".

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Work of God and Man

The difference between the work of God and the work of man is
the work of God does not end with death.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Web comics that I like

I have always enjoyed reading comics, some more than others, but I haven't had a regular newspaper to get my comics for several years. But I was overjoyed when I found that I could read the daily comics online which I have been doing for a few years now.

Somewhere along the way I branched out and got into reading a few web comics. These are comics that do not (typically) appear in a newspaper, but are published online. Someone I know once mentioned that if I like the work of a particular author then I should share their work with people I know so that they can continue to write. So on that note, I present this incomplete list of the web comics that I read (in no particular order). I say "incomplete" because there are several (~30-40) that I read in addition to the ones listed here but they don't rise to the level of "I would definitely recommend this." There are a few others that I would recommend but they have been on hiatus for more than a year and may never come back.

Schlock Mercenary
I stumbled across this web comic about three years ago when someone made a reference to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pirates (now known as The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries), I looked it up and discovered Schlock Mercenary. The comic is written and drawn by Howard Tayler, and has been running daily since June 12th 2000. It is not your typical daily comic strip where you can start at any point and just pick it up as you go along. It actually has a (rather complex) story with many characters. Because of this it is described as a comic "space opera" (think "soap opera", but a lot less cheese and more space, and interesting characters). Even though this web comic started out as a side job it has since become the author's full time job, which means he is good enough at it that people are willing to pay him for it. That right there says something about the comic. Following this comic is like reading a long novel that only comes in daily doses. But it is interesting enough to make me want to keep reading it. It is also peppered with my style of humor.

This is actually a collection of related stories. Each one can be read independently, but there is a central story to them all. It is set in a world with magic in a mostly 1800's type world. The story has humor and action and interesting characters that are very likable.

This is another comic that I randomly came across. This one is drawn in black and white in graphic novel format, and updates about once a week. The tag line is "Life. Love. Hyperspace." and it mostly lives up to that by being a rather mellow drama set in space (that's mellow drama, not melodrama, as in it's mellow and it is a drama). I'm not one to read romance anything so that should be some indication as to how much "Love" there really is in this comic (i.e. very little relative to the rest of the story). When I first came across the comic I actually didn't read very much of it before I lost interest. But about two weeks later I came across it again and I read a little more and it hit just the right spot so I went back and read the whole thing from the beginning.

One on the things that I like about this comic is the artwork. The artist does a very good job with her characters. I find them to be very unique (both visually and character wise) and I think that is what got me reading this comic in the first place. The style of art is very distinct, but very expressive. The other thing is that the characters actually look like normal people, that is, they are average height and weight, unlike so many other comics (especially manga and anime) where the people are impossibly thin or super-model-ish. I think that helps make the story more believable.

PhD Comics
What can I say. I'm in grad school so of course I read PhD comics. It's one of the basic requirements to get into grad school. I first saw this comic years ago as an undergrad. At the time it didn't make any sense and I didn't think it was funny. But as I got closer to going to grad school it got funnier and funnier (and not because the comics changed, but because I actually stated to understand. I started to actually have that stuff happen to me.). Now that I am in grad school every time there is a new comic I have to resist the urge to print it out and go tape it to the door of my office since I know that there is already someone somewhere in the department doing just that. Just about every other office door has a print out of a PhD comic on it (that or xkcd, which is next).

xkcd is drawn by Randall Munroe, and it is perhaps the most famous webcomic in the world. It especially became well known after the Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster when Randall posted a radiation dose chart to explain the radiation levels around the reactors. This got him noticed beyond the science/geek/engineer/slashdot crowd. His stuff is mostly stick figures with many references to science and computers. He also includes some strong language and *ahem* questionable content occasionally, so not for everyone. The comic comes with the following warning at the bottom:
Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).
Girl Genius
In terms of online web comics this one sets a high standard. It has won the Hugo award several times. This was perhaps the second web comic that I started reading. It updates three times a week with a full page color spread. It a fantasy/steam-punk comic with some humor thrown in. The story is complex with a rather large cast of characters. The only one who has them beat in terms of number of characters and extent of story is Schlock Mercenary.

Snow by Night
Snow by Night is set in a world that is like an alternate reality of colonial America. It involves magic, spirits, colonial powers, natives and an extensive back story not entirely contained in the comic. The story has been going for five years and shows no sign of slowing down.

This is a new comic. So I don't know where it's going yet, but I read a web comic/graphic novel called reMIND by the same artist and liked it. The artist is also associated with a Bible videos project and has done the art for one of their videos. It's quite good, check it out.

Stand Still. Stay Silent.
This story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a mysterious illness has killed almost everyone. The last vestiges of civilization are found only in the Nordic countries. The artist is from Sweden, has lived in Finland and mixes in many elements of Nordic mythology. The characters are real and engaging. I think that if a Hollywood executive was forced to turn this story into a movie or TV show they would royally mess it up because the characters and monsters don't fit the standard archetypes. That is probably why I like it. It also has perhaps the scariest monsters I have ever seen in a story, and that is saying something since there have only been two of them in the almost 2 years since the comic started. The first monster didn't show up until chapter 3, and that is probably what made it so scary.

This one is special since it is one of the very few that I am actually considering buying the comic in book form. Perhaps in the future when I have gobs of money (ha!) I'll buy the books. The story is set in a world unlike any other I have ever seen. The world, and all the different races, are extremely unique. The story is much more complex than almost any other that I ever read in web comic or book. It is not straight forward and does not do what you would expect. I still remember the exact page where I decided I wanted to buy the books because the character development went from good to exceptional. There are very few stories that can achieve this level of character complexity.

Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether
I don't know how to describe this one. It is a mixture of scifi, fantasy, steam punk, western, and pirate adventure. It's been going for four years and it has kept me interested.

This is actually a collection of short stories. They tell less well known stories from the Grimm brothers. They are short and classic. None of the Disney rewrites here. People do get killed and not everything works out by the final song comes around. Sometimes they just end, because, well, that's how the original story is.

This comic is firmly in the magic and fantasy camp. There are wizards, some dragons, people with swords, staffs and horses. The visuals are good and there is enough complexity in the story that it doesn't feel cliche. If it weren't so complex then I probably wouldn't keep reading it.

As the name implies this is about paranormal activity. The story centers on a boy who moves into a town and finds out that he can see ghosts. It is more humorous than scary. It is also shamelessly self referential and poking fun of its more serious aspects. The characters also occasionally critique the artwork of the comic itself which adds an interesting touch.

Chicken Wings
This is a comic in the style of the classic newspaper strip. It is all about airplanes (and some helicopters) so the humor is all flight related. The comic appears in several aviation magazines.

Let me know if you know of any others that are good to read since I am always looking for new and interesting stories.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

When a year is not a year: Calendars and such in the Book of Mormon.

In my previous post I quoted Deuteronomy 16:21 and showed how not knowing the context of the verse could lead us to incorrect conclusions. The example I used was deliberately simple and easy to refute. On Facebook I described it as the scriptural equivalent of a block being pushed across a frictionless surface, which is typical example used in introductory physics classes. A block sliding across a frictionless surface is an idealized case that you would never see in reality, but we use it because it is useful to introduce ideas and to teach certain concepts.

At the end I mentioned another simple misconception from scripture and mentioned that there are others, but I did not elaborate. The thing is, as we move into real examples they get more complex and difficult to analyze. Whenever I am teaching physics there invariable comes the moment when a student actually gets curious and starts asking questions, not because they want to know what will be on the test, but they genuinely want to know how things work. When that happens we have to move into real world examples, and that is when things get complex because all the simplifications and assumptions we made previously now are invalid. Now there is friction. Strings, springs and pulleys have mass. Density is not uniform, gravity is not constant, and we suddenly start talking about things like the Lagrangian, probabilities and distributions.

On that note, this example is a little more complex but still on the simple side.

One criticism of the Book of Mormon is that it gets certain dates wrong. It is very clear that there were 600 years between when Lehi left Jerusalem (during the first year of king Zedekiah) and the birth of Christ. This accounting was not approximate but exact. But as critics of the Book of Mormon like to point out Zedekiah became king in 597 BC and Christ was born in 4 BC (±1), which comes to 593±1 years, not 600.

But here's the thing, calenders are funny things. Not all calenders have 365 days per year. The Jewish lunar calender has 354±1 days per year. And the Mayan calender (the Mayans, and their neighbors, are the closest culturally to the people of the Book of Mormon that we know of, if not the actual people of the Book of Mormon), has 360 days per year. So if we take 600 years according to the Mayan calender we get:
360*600 = 216000 days
Which translates to:
216000/365 = 591.8 solar years
Still not an exact match with 593±1 years but it does line up a lot better. If we use the Jewish calender it comes to 581.9 solar years. But as I pointed out calenders are funny things and how calenders are kept is particular to each culture and people. The problems only arise when we assume that everyone uses a solar calender. We just have to keep in mind that a year may not be year depending on which calender you use.

As an interesting side note, the mesoamerican long count calender is very interesting. The first day on the long count calender is denoted as Mayans use a base 20 counting system. So after 20 days ( it rolls over to the next digit ( The second digit is funny since it only goes up to 18. So follows That means that = 360 days, hence the 360 days per year according to the Mayans. So as we go to higher dates, = 7,200 days and = 144,000 days.

Each of these digits has a name in Mayan. As explained on Wikipedia,
"The Maya name for a day was k'in. Twenty of these k'ins are known as a winal or uinal. Eighteen winals make one tun. Twenty tuns are known as a k'atun. Twenty k'atuns make a b'ak'tun."
So if we wanted to express something like "it's been 420 years since such and such happened", for some strange reason, we would say "it's been one b'ak'tun and one k'atun since such and such happened". Or put another way, = 400 Mayan years + = 20 Mayan years -> = 420 Mayan years. But I should point out that these are Mayan years so according to our calender it has only been 414 solar years.

So when Moroni said that "more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away" what he most likely said was "it's been more than one b'ak'tun and one k'atun". Which could mean that it has been exactly one b'ak'tun one k'atun ( or it could mean that it was anywhere between one b'ak'tun one k'atun ( and one b'ak'tun two k'atun ( depending on how exact Moroni was being. So it could range from 420 Mayan years to 439 Mayan years, which would translate to between 414 and 433 solar years. So even though the Church has tried to be helpful by including the years on the bottoms of the pages in the Book of Mormon, they may be off by several years depending, because we unconsciously assumed that the Nephites used a solar year for their calender.