Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Optical Absorption

For one of the classes that I teach the students use a device called a spectrophotometer. Basically this device works by shining a light through a sample and measuring the amount of light that gets through the material. This device is more than a fancy light meter which simply measures intensity. This device can break down the transmitted light into specific wavelengths and thus measure the amount of light transmitted for each wavelength. By measuring the amount of light transmitted we can figure out the the absorption which can tell us something about the specific properties of the material.

In this case my students are trying to determine the band gap energy for different semiconductors and also whether or not the band gaps are direct or indirect. I plan on posting about this lab at some point, but for now I just wanted to mention one thing that I measured. While I was in the lab one day I put my glasses in the detector and measured the absorption of the plastic lenses. The results I got are shown in the graph below (click on it to view it bigger).
The wavelengths that I measured extended from 800 nm (infrared) to 200 nm (ultraviolet). In the graph I only show down to 400 nm because below that my glasses absorbed too much light and the detector could not get accurate readings. Still you can see a sharp increase in the the absorption as you approach 400 nm. Other than the region below 400 nm my glasses did not absorb much light. This can be seen by the low measurements that are all below 0.05. To give you an idea of what this means, all throughout the visible spectrum ( ~400-720 nm, except for the tiny bit close to 400 nm) my glasses absorbed less than 10% of the light. An absorption rating of 1 would mean that an object absorbs 90% of the light, a rating of 2 would mean it absorbs 99%, 3 99.9% and so on. Typically an absorption rating of 7 (99.99999% absorbed, yes that can be measured) or higher is considered fully opaque.

As you might notice the absorption of the plastic in my glasses is not constant. There are small bumps or waves in the graph. These bumps are a result of the the thickness of my glasses and some slight internal reflections inside the material. These bumps are useful because from the size and shape of the bumps we can figure out the index of refraction for the material that my glasses are made from. That would be useful information to know if I were the one designing the glasses since the index of refraction determines the corrective ability of the lenses, and the curvature needed to make them work. Unfortunately I did not put my glasses in straight in the detector which meant that the path of the beam was not normal (perpendicular) to the surface of the lens. This makes the measurement more difficult (i.e. it would take more work than I'm willing to put into it) so I was not able to figure out the index of refraction for my glasses.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Christmas Song

There are many Christmas songs and carols out there and while I like many of them that I like there are a few that I really enjoy. But there is one Christmas song that I would have to say is my favorite. It is called "Mary's Lullaby" written by Bertha Kleinman with music by Wanda West Palmer [Update 12/25/13: You can purchase the sheet music here]. Most people who read this blog may recognize the song from the Mesa Easter Pageant but it was written long before it was used in the pageant. Below are two videos of performances of the song.

The accompanying text for this video reads: "This recording was made in 1980 at a church Christmas program. Mary was holding her nine-day-old son, Kristopher. She was first privileged to perform this song in the early 1970s before it was even published and has been invited to sing it many times since, so she almost feels like it is her song. The music was written by Wanda West Palmer and the words by Bertha Kleinman."

The accompanying text for this video reads: "This recording was made in 2003 at a church Christmas program. Mary was holding her 2 month old grandson Kevin. 23 years earlier, she sang this song to Kevins father, Kristopher, who was nine-days-old at the time. (See [The first video]). Mary considers this is her songs as she was first privileged to perform it in the early 1970s before it was even published. The song was written by Wanda West Palmer and the words were written by Bertha Kleinman. It has been a part of the Easter Pagent at the Mesa Arizona Temple for many years."

For those who are interested the lyrics read:
All mine in your loveliness, Baby, all mine;
All mine in your holiness, Baby Divine.
Sing on, herald angels, in chorus sublime;
Sing on and adore, For tonight you are mine.
The wise men are coming to worship their king.
The shepherds are kneeling, their homage to bring.
Out yonder, the star over Judah will keep;
No harm can befall thee, then sleep, Baby, sleep.
Oh, let me enfold thee, my baby, tonight;
While legions are singing in joyous delight.
A new star has risen to hail thee divine,
For you are a king, But tonight you are mine.
Away spectered future of sorrow and plight.
Away to the years that must follow tonight.
The pangs of Gethsemane, let them be dim;
The red drops on Calvary, not, Lord, for him!
Oh, let me enfold thee, my baby, tonight;
While legions are singing in joyous delight.
A new star has risen to hail thee divine,
For you are a king, But tonight you are mine.
All mine in your loveliness, Baby, all mine;
All mine in your holiness, Baby Divine.
Sing on, herald angels, in chorus sublime;
Sing on and adore, For tonight you are mine.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Moral Discipline

A few months ago I wrote a post about research done by a Dr. Dan Ariely. Part of the work done by Dr. Ariely showed that people tended to be more honest when they were reminded of their moral code (even if it was a nonexistent moral code). In my previous post I concluded that "In the absence of a moral code, or a consistent moral code, it would seem that the only way to keep most people honest would be through active regulation of their actions."

About a month after writing that post I watched a talk given by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The talk was entitled Moral Discipline and I found it very interesting because he spoke on almost the exact same topic that I had covered, but with more insight and more advice as to what to do about the problem. Here are some excerpts from the talk that I found very interesting.

"The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. One columnist observed that “gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior. …

“Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”2

In most of the world, we have been experiencing an extended and devastating economic recession. It was brought on by multiple causes, but one of the major causes was widespread dishonest and unethical conduct, particularly in the U.S. housing and financial markets. Reactions have focused on enacting more and stronger regulation. Perhaps that may dissuade some from unprincipled conduct, but others will simply get more creative in their circumvention.3 There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome. This approach leads to diminished freedom for everyone. In the memorable phrase of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.”4

In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay. Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin and moral discipline takes its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.5"

Essentially the argument is that as societies fail to maintain and encourage moral codes the only other alternative to maintain a civil society is to increase the number and enforcement of laws, or as Elder Christofferson put it, "The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments." It is with these ideas in mind that I look at societies like those in France or Greece and find it odd that they accept or (as in the case of Greece) actively encourage protest and violent protest as a legitimate means of expressing political frustrations, and then they complain about living in a "police state". In my own experience with places where I have lived, the places where protest was not the first resort of political expression have tended to be more peaceful and less prone to be characterized as having a "police state" mentality. But in places (such as Argentina) were protest and violent protest was a societal tradition the people tended to complain more of government oppression and viewed police and other government forces as adversaries rather than protectors.

What I have learned from observing these different societies is that if people want peace then there needs to be more moral discipline and less unbounded personal freedom. More responsibility and less entitlement. More reminding and less enforcement. Only then can we be free.

Monday, November 16, 2009

SLC Non-Discrimination Ordinance

Recently there have been a number of news stories (Deseret News, AZCentral) relating to the recent passing of a set of non-discrimination ordinances (pdf) regarding discrimination against people in Salt Lake City because of sexual orientation or gender identity (SLC City Code 10.04 and 10.05). What was also notable about the incident was that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also expressed their support for the city ordinances because, "they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage."

So what is it about how these city ordinances are written that would bring official recognition and acceptance from the Church? Also after reading several comments posted after the news stories there were a number of concerns raised by people concerned with the implications of the new city ordinance. So what were the main concerns and how do these city ordinance address them?

Effectively these ordinances make it illegal to discriminate against someone in terms of employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It establishes a procedure for filing complaints and resolving disputes that may arise due to allegations of discrimination. These city ordinances are in addition to the previous ordinances regarding discrimination based on race, gender, religion or country of origin.

In relation to these ordinances some of the main concerns that people voiced in the online forums were:

1. If I have a small basement apartment that I am renting out, will this force me to rent it out to a homosexual couple?

2. Will this force religious book stores, such as Deseret Book, to hire cross dressers?

3. If I fail to hire someone and it then turns out that they were homosexual, can they sue me for discrimination?

4. If I am single and living in an apartment with other single people, does this mean that a gay couple can move in to my apartment and I (and my landlord) can't do anything about it? As in, we can't object?

So how do these two city ordinances address these concerns, if at all?

First let us look at the exceptions provided. Both religious organizations and "expressive organizations" (such as the Boy Scouts of America) are expressly exempt from these city ordinances. While that solves some of the potential problems it does not address any of the above concerns. It turns out that the first three objections are addressed and the fourth may be addressed depending on how certain language is interpreted.

1. In this objection the concern is that under this ordinance a family living in their own home will be forced to rent out a basement apartment to a homosexual couple. This is expressly addressed in the exceptions. Effectively the ordinance exempts small privately owned apartments such as basement apartments because in order for the ordinance to apply you must,

"own an interest in or title to four or more single-family dwellings held for lease or sale at one time, and are located inside the City....[sell] two or more single-family dwellings inside the City, and in which the owner did not reside in the dwelling within the 24-month period preceding the sale or rental of the dwelling....use the service or facilities of any real estate broker, agent, or salesperson, or of any person in the business of selling or renting dwellings."

It also further specifies that owners are exempt if, "The rental of a dwelling that is occupied or intended to be occupied by no more than four families living independently of each other, when the owner actually maintains and occupies part of the dwelling as a residence."

That takes care of the first objection.

2. Will this force religious book stores, such as Deseret Book, to hire cross dressers? In terms of hiring practices the ordinance stipulates that employees must adhere to "reasonable rules and regulations and other job related qualifications required by an employer." This would include a dress code (no pun intended). There are also other provisions to accommodate for positions where "sexual orientation or gender identity are bona fide occupational qualifications for employment."

3. If I fail to hire someone and it then turns out that they were homosexual, can they sue me for discrimination? The concern here is that this city ordinance will create a special protected class of citizens that will be able and willing to sue at the drop of a hat, and that the major employers and landlords of the city will be open to all kinds of lawsuits for discrimination. This concern is addressed in its own section.

"This chapter does not create a private cause of action, nor does it create any right or remedy that is the same or substantially equivalent to the remedies provided under federal or state law. This chapter does not create any special rights or privileges which would not be available to all of the City’s citizens because every person has a sexual orientation and a gender identity."

This section is particularly interesting in that it prohibits a "private cause of action". This phrase is a technical legal phrase with a specific meaning, and with interpretations related to several supreme court cases. From Wikipedia, "Implied cause of action is a term used in United States statutory and constitutional law for circumstances when a court will determine that a law that creates rights also allows private parties to bring a lawsuit, even though no such remedy is explicitly provided for in the law. Implied causes of action arising under the Constitution of the United States are treated differently than those based on statutes."

In other words, if there were a private or implied cause of action then someone could bring a lawsuit against someone else even if there is no law expressly allowing it, i.e. there is no law expressly prohibiting the actions of the person being sued. What this means for the SLC ordinance is that someone cannot bring a lawsuit against someone else under violations of this city ordinance. The only way legal action can be brought under this city ordinance is through the complaint and arbitration provisions provided under the ordinance.

So in answer to the question, If I fail to hire someone and it then turns out that they were homosexual, can they sue me for discrimination? No. They can file a complaint which will then be investigated, but they cannot sue. Also this section in the city ordinance makes another interesting point. Even though it does not explicitly say it it implies that sexual orientation and gender identity is not a civil right, nor is it open to the same protections guaranteed to any other civil right protected by the Constitution or by law.

4. The last objection is not expressly covered in the city ordinance but depending on how a certain sentence is interpreted it may be. That sentence (in context) says,

"This chapter does not apply to a temporary or permanent residence facility operated by a nonprofit organization; a charitable organization; or a person in conjunction with a religious organization, association, or society, including any dormitory operated by a public or private educational institution, if the discrimination is based on sexual orientation or gender identity for reasons of personal modesty or privacy or in the furtherance of a religious organization’s sincerely held religious beliefs."

The key phrase here is "for reasons of personal modesty or privacy". While in context this may be a rather qualified statement, it may apply in most situations of concern where someone, or even a group of people, feel that they have a reasonable expectation of modesty and privacy. Thus in cases of college dorms and other comparable housing units, under this ordinance the tenants may insist on a having a reasonable expectation of modesty and privacy. In other words, in an apartment that can allow six single students, four of the residents can object to a homosexual couple moving in and the landlord can agree and not allow the gay couple to keep their contracts. As I said, this particular situation may not be covered by the city ordinance depending on how the language is interpreted. Still any major concerns may be covered under the section that explicitly prohibits the creation of a special protected class of citizens. As the code states, "This chapter does not create any special rights or privileges which would not be available to all of the City’s citizens". In other words, they will be treated like everyone else.

So while the non-discrimination ordinance allows for the basic, "common sense" rights associated with human dignity, it does not create a special, privileged class of people that have access to more rights, protections or remedies than others. It guarantees that homosexuals will be treated with fairness and equality, just like everyone else, while at the same time preserving the rights to religion and expression that all other people have. In other words, this city ordinance does not establish the rights and freedoms of one group of people by infringing on the rights and freedoms of another group of people.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On How We Know: The Sixth Sense

This is a continuation of my series On How We Know. The introduction can be found here, and a full listing of articles can be found here.

In considering the knowledge we gain from sense experience the question arises, where do feelings of the Spirit or Holy Ghost fit into this. As we learn from one passage in the Doctrine and Covenants the feelings or knowledge imparted by the Spirit can be described as a "burning in our bosom". Feeling the Spirit can also be described as enlightening our understanding, or simply enlightening. So the question that we might consider is how feeling the Spirit or the influence of the Spirit relates to our other senses.

Some people choose to define it as a sixth sense that we have. In other words, when we feel the Spirit we feel it through our "spiritual sense organ" much in the same way we sense anything else through our other five senses. Without elaborating I will say that this always seemed a little ridiculous to me. While it may be useful to talk about the Spirit in this way so that those who do not understand can begin to understand, I think that it is not ultimately useful or even instructive to talk about feeling the Spirit in terms of having a sixth sense. So what is it then?

Better yet is the approach expressed by Joseph Smith as explained by Truman G. Madsen,

"On the senses, a colleague at an eastern university said to me one day, "Yes, I've heard you Mormons have a sixth sense. You do. It is the sense that enables you to swallow this nonsense called Mormonism." Even if you conclude with certain scientific naturalists that anything that is nonsensory is nonsense, that is an endorsement, in a measure, of your heritage. Said Erastus Snow, referring to the Prophet,

"Joseph taught that the Spirit of the Lord underlies all our natural senses, that is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. The Spirit communicates with the spirit of man and enlivens all the other senses.
[BYU Special Collections, MSS. 44, Folder 5]"

Thus the sensations of the spirit and the feeling we have from the Spirit are the same things that connect all our normal senses to our spirit. It is the stuff of spirit, and when the Holy Ghost speaks to us it is directly to our own spirit, that which is the repository of knowledge and awareness. Thus the sensations of the Spirit are the sensations of sense itself.

On How We Know: "Why do you doubt your senses?"

This is a continuation of my series On How We Know. The introduction can be found here, and a full listing of articles can be found here.

In the book A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the ghost of Jacob Marley confronts the character Ebenezer Scrooge, and after introducing himself the ghost and Scrooge have a rather interesting conversation. I will include the first few lines here:

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.
"I don't," said Scrooge.
"What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your own senses?"
"I don't know," said Scrooge.
"Why do you doubt your senses?"
"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

In this exchange the ghost of Jacob Marley asks a rather interesting question, "What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your own senses?" Essentially Jacob Marley is asking, "Is there any other possible way for you, or anyone else, to gain knowledge of reality than through your senses?" and the natural conclusion to this thought is that if there is no other way to gain knowledge of reality then, "Why do you doubt your senses?"

Scrooge's response is anything but unique. It is the response of sceptics and philosophers from many ages of Western Philosophy. Perhaps the one who expressed it better than anyone else, and is best known for it, is Rene Descartes. His particular approach even has its own name, the method of doubt. In applying the method of doubt, Descartes had a specific goal in mind, to find the foundations of reality, but unintentionally his method of doubt started a tradition that has continued and influenced us to this day. It introduced into not just Western Philosophy, but all of Western Culture a fundamental distrust of our senses. I have heard Descartes', and Scrooge's, arguments repeated over and over by college professors, by high school teachers and even by elementary school children. Even though most people live and act as if their senses are a good indication of what is real, the same people will immediate express doubt in their own senses, and especially those of others, when what they sense does not agree with what they already "know". There is always some other explanation that explains what someone saw or otherwise sensed. These doubts are given particular force because of the tradition we have of doubting or senses.

So let us consider this doubt, do we have any reason at all to doubt our senses? Essentially the argument of Descartes, and Scrooge, is that there exist well known instances where our senses cannot be relied upon. The classic example is dreams. We can "sense" things in our dreams that are not really there. This is not confined to our dreams but occasionally, as Scrooge points out, our senses can be cheated by other things, such as indigestion or other substances. So the question is, "Where do we draw the line?" How do we determine which sensations are real and which are false? The answer of Descartes was essentially, "Because I don't know where the line is I am going to assume that there is no line and that I can't trust any of the sensations I have." While Descartes ultimately acknowledges that this approach is insane, the damage was done and he had introduced the idea that because there is some doubt as to where the dividing line is between two things, in this case sensations corresponding to reality and those that do not, then we cannot assume that any of our sensations correspond to reality and we must doubt everything.

Effectively what Descartes has done is to confuse the ocean for a continent because he was standing on the beach and did not know where "dry land" ended and the water began. The method used by Descartes and the argument of Scrooge is like someone standing on a beach and wondering where the land ends and where the water begins. After puzzling over it for a while this person concludes that there is no such thing as land because they cannot clearly discern the boundary between a continent and an ocean. They then head inland away from the ocean and begin to talk to people and tell them that they are not standing on dry land but that they are actually in the middle of the ocean. In their defence they point to the presence of lakes, rivers and even glasses of water to prove that we do not live on a continent but that we live in the ocean. If someone actually attempted this and spoke like this then they would quickly be picked up by the authorities and taken to a "safe place" with padded walls. But in the case of philosophers instead of being ignored as insane they are called great and have their works and ideas spread around like manure.

Just because the boundary between an ocean and a continent is not well defined to someone standing on the beach does not mean that there is not a distinct, well definable and immediately recognizable difference between the two. Doubting the existence of a continent because the waves are washing your feet is an act of severe intellectual dishonesty. In the same way, doubting all our senses because a few of them may not actually correspond to anything in reality is also an act of severe intellectual dishonesty.

Continuing with this analogy we note that on continents there are lake and rivers which some will use to cast doubt on our assertion. These I will liken to physical injury, drugs and other mind altering substances. The fact that I can mention them in the context of "mind altering" indicates that there is a distinct, well definable and immediately recognizable difference between normal sensations and those arising from drugs or physical conditions. Again there is no reason to doubt the veracity of all sensations, or the existence of a continent, just because you are dabbling your feet in a river or a lake.

Related to this is the misguided approach of trying to "discover" something about reality by deliberately partaking in mind altering drugs. This would be akin to stating a desire to understand the rocks and dirt of a continent and then promptly going for a swim and spending your time staring at a fish.

So how do know to distinguish between between sensations that give us knowledge of reality and those that do not? The answer to that question is inextricably bound up with the answer to the question "How do we gain knowledge?" which is the purpose of these essays. So we know the limit or boundary by applying the selfsame modes of knowing that lead us into all knowledge. As for giving a more exact answer I would ask, "How do we recognize the boundary between land and water?" Understand that and you can learn to recognize the boundaries between sensations that give us knowledge of reality and those that do not.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

On How We Know: The Prerequisite of Reason

This is the second in my series of On How We Know. The introduction can be found here, and a full listing of articles can be found here.

It might be said that the role or use of reason is a doubled edged sword which can greatly help or hinder those who use it. On the one hand, reason is something that is necessary for our existence as it is an integral part of our identity and allows us to understand, solve and overcome many of the problems of life. It give us our quality of life and allows us to understand and comprehend things beyond our own experience. In this respect it is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. It is a tool to make all tools. But this powerful tool can be mislead and misguided. If we use it at the exclusion of all of the other modes of knowing, then our own reasonings can lead us into erroneous conclusions from which it can be difficult to extract ourselves. Now not all false reasonings will lead us into such a dismal mire of intellectual quicksand, but very rarely will you find quicksand on dry, solid ground.

To begin the process of understanding the proper role of reason let us consider two examples. The first is an experience that I had a few weeks ago while teaching some of my students about Newton's Laws. My students were performing an experiment to prove Newton's first law. The experiment consisted of balancing different forces in order to achieve equilibrium. In discussing the lab with some of my students I asked them about the uncertainty associated with the lab, as in, how much certain variables could change and they would still get the same result. At this point I asked my students which of the two important variables they were measuring had a greater effect on the overall uncertainty of the experiment (to get an idea of what I am talking about, imagine flying in an airplane from New York to Los Angeles. To get there I need a bearing (direction) and a distance. If I am off by one mile in the distance it is not as critical, but if I am off by one degree I could end up missing my target by more than 50 miles. In this case the uncertainty in the bearing is more important than the uncertainty in the distance.). So I asked my students to tell me which of the variables they were dealing with was more important to the uncertainty, and after I got some answers with an explanation of their reasoning I asked the question, "How do you know that?" At that point I got blank and dumbfounded stares from my students, as if to say, "What do you mean, "How do we know that"?" This group of students had just given me their answer, they had thought it through, given me their reasons as for why they thought they were correct and then when I asked them to back up their reasoning with "proof" (i.e. another mode of knowing) they were floored. It was as if it had never occurred to them that thinking about something and coming up with a good "reason" was not sufficient "proof".

The attitude of my students is hardly an isolated incident, but is indicative of a more general attitude found among those who commonly use reason to understand the world. A more striking example of this type of attitude can be found in the early works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the famous introduction to his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he states, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved." So firm was his conviction that in his short book he had managed to solve all of the problems of philosophy and logic that he thereafter left his studies at Cambridge and did not return for eight years.

In both of these examples the common element is a firm belief that what has been reasoned out is correct and there is no more need to continue with an investigation or even to reason further. Certainly there is the temptation that when we have thought about something to a sufficient degree and come to a resolution, we think that there is no further need to reason it out and understand it more, let alone use any of the other modes of knowing to confirm our reasoning. Like Wittgenstein there is the tendency to think that when we have come to the logical conclusion of our thoughts then there is no more and nothing further to be understood or considered about the topic.

So what is the remedy for this way of thinking? How do we escape this way of approaching learning, which if unchecked will result in our misunderstanding the nature of things? The answer, though simple, is almost unheard of, or even entirely unheard of, in the realm of epistemology. Quite simply, the remedy for these ailments is humility. In a brief search of The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, not a single article about humility is given, and most references to humility are under the category of religion, and not knowledge. There is a reference to humility in a article on wisdom but humility is ultimately written off as "not promising". This is unfortunate because if humility was taken as the necessary prerequisite to reason then that would solve most, if not all, philosophical problems.

So why humility? Why would I call it a prerequisite for reason? In explaining this I will give my reasons for thinking this, but without considering the full implications, the rest is left as an exercise to interested reader.

Humility is a necessary prerequisite to reason because it is what allows us to use reason and to learn from it. Using reason without humility is an ineffectual exercise of the mind, yielding no useful results. To give a personal example, I once was considering a philosophical problem well known for its difficulty, it had to do with the issue of Divine knowledge and free will. In my mind there was an irreconcilable conflict between the two. It was something that I could not, for all the time and effort I put into thinking about it, reconcile what I considered to be an impenetrable barrier separating me from the answer. I even discussed the idea with others but to no avail. Some simply resorted to calling it a mystery and refused to discuss it further. But I was not content.

Many years later I had the opportunity to take a class on general relativity. After wading through six months of a rather difficult class, the teacher paused to point out a minor result that came from a rather complex set of equations. It was in that instant that my troubles with the issue of Divine knowledge and free will were dispelled. Now, what my professor pointed out did not give the answer or the solution to the problem, but at least in my mind, I now understood that it was possible for there to be a solution. It was as if I were standing on the top of a very tall mountain and I suddenly understood the extent of the intellectual journey I would have to take to finally reach the answer, but at least I knew that there was a resolution.

To give you the scope of the understanding that I came to, from the time that I had first seriously considered the problem, to when I had my "Aha!" moment, five years had passed. I was most of the way through an undergraduate degree in physics. I had embarked on a course of study that required me to learn general relativity, arguably one of the most difficult concepts in all of physics, and only after all that could I come to the point where I could say, "Aha! There is an answer." Even though I did not know what the answer was I could know that there was an answer.

Now you may be wondering how a class on general relativity resolved one of the most difficult problems in all of Western Philosophy. To answer that you would need a degree in physics, and to take a good course in general relativity, not to mention years of considering the problem and personally considering all the options. But for those who don't have the time or the desire to receive a degree in physics, the only other option available to resolve issues similar to the conflict between Divine knowledge and free will, is humility.

There were several things I learned from this experience and I will mention a few of them here. First I learned that humility was a necessary prerequisite to learning anything through reason. Without humility we cannot begin to understand things beyond our own experience, which is the whole purpose and end of our reason. Second I learned that the answers to specific questions may come from unexpected sources, and this recognition is intrinsically related to humility. When I first considered the issue of Divine knowledge and free will I had no idea that I would have to learn a lot of math and a lot of general relativity before I could resolve that issue in my mind. But as I had asked for the answer from Someone who knew how to give it, it was in effect the perfect method to answer my question. This taught me that, I as the student, the one who did not know the answer, could not dictate the answer to the Teacher, the One who knew the answer. Again this proved to me that humility is the prerequisite to learning by reason.

So what do we do when we have humility? With humility we acknowledge our weakness and ignorance, and begin the process of being taught by One who knows. Then, as Joseph Smith put it, ". . . Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach Him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God, and know how to come to Him, He begins to unfold the heavens to us, and to tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to Him, He is ready to come to us.”9 (From Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Ch. 2)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On How We Know: Introduction

This is something that I have been thinking about for some time now, but until now I have not tried to write it all down. I had even chosen the current title for this work that I have been planning to write, but I could not find a proper way of approaching it until I recently came across a talk (mp3) by Truman G. Madsen, which coincidentally had the same title (and subject) of my current essay. When I heard that talk it was as if I were listening to the words that I had been trying to say for some time but could not quite find the correct way of expressing them.

In approaching this topic I will focus on what Brother Madsen referred to as "five main modes" of knowing "that have been appealed to in all the traditions, philosophical or religious". These five modes or ways of knowing and the emphasis that each one gets, by and large are what distinguishes and differentiates different philosophical or religious traditions. This is to say that a particular philosophy or religion can be defined by which of the five modes that tradition either promotes or dismisses as invalid. I find it interesting that as Brother Madsen points out, "I can report, too, that from my judgment those five modes are harmonized and balanced in our living tradition more effectively than in any other tradition I know." I find this statement particularly important to understanding not only our LDS tradition but also in understanding all other traditions. In this respect I will cover topics not addressed by Brother Madsen and mention specific traditions and how they relate to these five modes. This post is intended to be an introduction to which I will later take a more in depth look at each one of these five modes of knowing.

As explained by Brother Madsen the five modes of knowing found in all of philosophical and religious tradition are: "an appeal to reason, an appeal to sense experience, to pragmatic trial and error, to authority--the word of the experts--and, finally, to something a bit ambiguous called 'intuition.'"

First, appeal to reason. As a formal tradition this goes back to the Greeks especially Plato, but the most modern and widely known tradition founded on appeals to reason is that of Kantianism, or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. To put it briefly, an appeal to reason insists that we know or gain knowledge about the world by "using our minds", or "philosophical reflection" as Plato put it, to figure out how things are. A more common name for reason would be "book-learning". This is to say that if it can be read in a book, and learned from a book then it can be used as an appeal to reason. This is particularly evident in our schools as they are inherently geared towards a reasoning environment. We should not misunderstand and think that this means reason is simply reading enough books and being able to repeat back verbatim what is written, but that reason has its basis in the written word, or in the "Great Conversation" that has been going on for several thousand years now. Those that hold strongly to this tradition are known as Rationalists.

The key here is that we are attempting to use reason to figure out how the world works, and that includes both finding out facts about the world and being able to fit them together in a way that makes sense.

Second, sense experience. This mode of knowing encompasses the five senses, or as some in religious traditions might say the six senses, with the sixth sense frequently referring to the feelings of either the Spirit or one's spirit. This aspect of knowing focuses on one's personal sensory experiences, and has been the subject of doubt, debate and inquiry from the likes of Rene Descartes, David Hume and other skeptics.

To give a simple example of the different approaches between an appeal to reason and an appeal to sense experience I will use an example of a triangle. An appeal to reason would teach what a triangle is by saying that it is a three sided figure made up of three straight lines. An appeal to sense experience would show a drawing of a triangle and say, "This is a triangle." The merits and problems of both these approaches forms the basis of many of the great philosophic debates on how we know. I will not dwell on those debates here, but I will point out as I mentioned before that the purpose of this essay is to show how all five modes are harmonized and balanced in the LDS tradition.

Thus to put it succinctly, and appeal sense experience is anything that deals with the five senses.

Third, pragmatic trial and error. Those that hold strongly to this tradition and that of sense experience are known as Empiricists. This method of discovering the world is the foundation of modern science. In science, no matter how good an idea is, there is no support for any idea, theory or reasoning until there is "empirical evidence" to prove it. This means that the ultimate recourse of our knowledge is founded in the real world and that something is not true simply because it is "logical" or even because it is a good idea. It must stand up to a trial or comparison to what we observe in the world. Of necessity this is related to sense experience but is distinct from it in that pragmatic trial and error does not begin with sense experience but rather with reason. This is to say that a pragmatic approach begins in the same way as an appeal to reason but ultimately it differs from it in that there must also be agreement with sense experience which is the "ultimate court of appeal" for the pragmatic approach.

This difference is the defining characteristic of the endless debate between Rationalists and Empiricists. On the one hand Rationalists argue that all things must be reasoned out in one way or another and that therefore reason is the foundation of knowledge. Empiricists counter that thinking is useless (or even impossible) without sense experience and that ultimately all things must be brought back to sensory data and thus sense experience is the foundation of knowledge.

As I pointed out in the beginning, an emphasis of any one (or more) of these modes of knowing at the expense of or in lieu of any of the others is what distinguishes and differentiates different philosophical or religious traditions. We can see this with the debate between Empiricists and Rationalists, but as Brother Madsen pointed out in LDS thought all modes of knowing "are harmonized and balanced", meaning that the distinctive feature of LDS theology is an acceptance of all of the modes of knowing. The importance of this mode of knowing in LDS theology is seen in our emphasis on having our own experience and also why it was necessary for Christ to gain experience through the atonement.

Fourth, "authority--the word of the experts". This mode of knowing is fairly self-explanatory and it would be more illuminating to show how it is and is not used. From an external point of view all of religious knowledge would be authoritative, or being derived from authoritative sources. This has a lot of truth in it due to the authoritative nature of scripture, and thus the need to cite scripture tie everything back to some authoritative statement. In some cases this is a major criticism of religious thought because an appeal to authority, especially religious authority, does not allow for debate, criticism or dissent.

In contrast scientific inquiry is filled with appeals to authority but with the oft stated caveat that even the authorities and experts can be wrong. In fact, in science classes when ever a scientific principle is taught authoritatively it is always tempered with the reminder that the current theory replaced a previously authoritative theory. This is the principle of scientific progression. The equivalent "progression" is apparently lacking in religion, and this is the main source of criticism of the authoritative nature of religion.

Thus to an outsider religious doctrine takes on the appearance of being authoritative because it was said by someone who had authority, and they had authority because they made authoritative statements. In stark contrast with this is LDS thought which readily accepts and uses appeals to authority but with the critical difference that the statements can be proven and are open to independent and personal verification. The key here is that the authoritative statements are fundamentally related to our interaction with reality and thus are subject to all the other modes of knowing.

And last, intuition. This is a difficult one as it is so hard to define and to predict. As Brother Madsen says it is "a bit ambiguous". It would seem that the reason for this ambiguity would seem to be that one must have an intuitive understanding of intuition in order to understand it. The circularity of intuiting intuition has been the source of many headaches in philosophy. I will not cover intuition to any degree here (I will cover it later) but I will mention how it comes up in LDS theology.

The general view is that intuition is all of the accumulated knowledge that we possess prior to our birth. This view requires the understanding that we lived, learned and grew as spirits before we were born. With this perspective it is natural that the ideas and principles that we knew prior to this life would continue with us here and that so much of our learning is just relearning, or re-cognition of what we have previously known. One manifestation of intuition is where we hear something said or explained and it instantly makes perfect sense to us. It is as if we are hearing the word that we have been trying to say for some time but have been unable to find the correct words to say it. That happened to me when I first heard the talk by Truman Madsen on how we know, and it was that talk that gave me a framework in which to place my thoughts to begin this process.

So those are the five basic ways of knowing. I should stress that I do not consider these five ways to be fundamental, or that the fact that there are five is fundamental, but rather this framework is just convenient for explaining how we know things. The purpose of this and future essays is to show that the five modes of knowing are harmonized and balanced in LDS thought and that all are valid forms of knowing. Also it is my intention to show that much of the philosophical and religious confusion that exists is due to the fact that different traditions tend to over-emphasize one or more of these modes at the expense of the others or even actively disparage one or more of these modes. It is my assertion that none of these modes of knowing can be ignored without denying yourself some aspect of how we know.

On How We Know: Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Reason

    1. The Prerequisite of Reason

  3. Sense Experience

    1. "Why do you doubt your senses?"

    2. The Sixth Sense

  4. Pragmatic Trial and Error

  5. Authority

  6. Intuition

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Empirical Basis for Honesty and Morality

The other day I came across an interesting talk at The subject matter I found very enlightening.

There are several implications to what Dr. Ariely has shown here. I will start with the one that he explicitly mentions, the stock market. Based on his work it would imply that stock markets would always contribute to dishonest behavior. Because stocks, bonds and securities are a step away or more from actual money or commodities people will naturally try to cheat at trading them. This point was made with his test where subjects were given tokens in reward for answering questions right. As he pointed out, that one additional step lead more people to cheat. This would seem to imply that an unregulated stock market will always fail due to dishonest and unethical practices.

Based on his work we could conclude that there are only two ways to have a stock, bond or securities market that will not be overrun by dishonest behavior sooner or later. The first is heavy regulation (similar to the control set where everyone turned in their tests to be graded and were paid accordingly). The second is to have a consistent moral system and to constantly remind the participants of it (his example where test subjects were asked to recall the 10 commandments).

These ideas can be extended into other areas, such as corporate management, government bureaucracy, classroom administration and business transactions. On the one hand most problems with dishonesty can be taken care of through either regulation or reminding people of their moral codes. In the absence of a moral code, or a consistent moral code, it would seem that the only way to keep most people honest would be through active regulation of their actions. This of course runs into the problem of who will then regulate the regulators etc.. It would seem that the easier option would be to simply remind people of their moral code. This seems to be the route taken by the University of North Carolina.

At UNC all students are required to sign the university honor code, and also whenever they turn in an assignment they are required to write a note stating that what they are turning in is their own work (i.e. they did not cheat) and then they must then sign it. This is done on every test, paper, lab report and homework assignment (as an interesting note, this is required of all undergraduates but for graduate students this requirement is hardly ever enforced, but for graduate students there is a greater expectation of maturity, and the punishment for cheating is usually much more severe). So upon watching Dr. Ariely's talk I realized that the UNC policy of signing the honor code for everything including single page homework assignments was an attempt to remind the students of their "moral code" and to try to prevent most cases of cheating. The efficacy of this particular method is debatable and open to interpretation.

This effort to reduce dishonesty may be intentional, but after reflecting on it there are many places where this method of reducing dishonesty is used almost unintentionally. In the case of the BYU testing center there are pictures of Jesus and Karl G. Maeser along with his famous chalk circle quote. These serve as reminders of the BYU honor code and the moral system in general that inspired it. These pictures, quotes and reminders were placed with the intention of reminding people about their moral duties and thus preventing, to some degree, cheating.

This method does not prevent all cheating but it does work to prevent the majority of it, because as Dr. Ariely pointed out, the increase in cheating did not come from one or two individuals who "skewed the curve" but rather from a significant portion of the people cheating just a little bit. So the purpose of using the moral reminders is not to prevent all cheating but to prevent almost everyone from doing it. The rest of the people can be taken care of through regulation.

In the case where moral reminders are not allowed or are not permissible then the default to preventing unethical behavior must be through regulation, or enforcement of specific rules. Again to show this I turn to the honor codes of both UNC and BYU. A quick comparison between the two shows that the UNC code (known as "The Instrument") is much much longer. I think a pdf version of it is about 50-60 pages long. On the other hand the core of the BYU honor code consists of nine short statements (one line each) and then four specific policies. The whole code, including disciplinary policies and procedures is only slightly longer than the Preamble to the UNC honor code. Why the difference? Again the BYU code relies on a common and consistent moral system that is shared (or should be shared) by everyone at BYU. The main enforcers of the BYU honor code are the students themselves, they are given the duty of reminding themselves and each other about the moral commitment they have made, and in general it works.

The UNC honor code is much longer and full of lots of rules and regulations. Despite this BYU has arguably a stricter honor code. So again why the difference? The UNC code does not (and some would say could not) rely on a common moral system shared by the students and thus it (meaning the honor code and UNC in general) must create its own moral framework. In the absence of the ability to appeal to a moral code we are either left to deal with people cheating (being unethical, if only to a small degree) or have to resort to imposing systems of rules and regulations.

So now let us consider these ideas in the most general sense, that of our lives in general. Here it would seem that we have three options: 1. Live without any means of controlling unethical behavior, 2. Prevent unethical behavior by reminding people about their common moral code or, 3. Prevent unethical behavior through rules and regulations.

With option #3 rules must be made for all instances, possibilities, contingencies and situations. The problem with this option is that we eventually end up with a long document detailing all the rules as in the case with the UNC honor code, or worse the US tax code. With option #2 the resulting code of conduct may be greatly reduced (9 lines of general guidelines, or 10 commandments) but it requires that each and every person be committed to living by the code and be constantly reminded of it. This requires more personal involvement and more personal investment to learning and living by the moral system but overall the "cost" or "overhead" of the moral code is greatly reduced. Option #1 is not desirable and is the whole reason for even mentioning options 2 and 3. More later.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth of Sensationalism

I always think it is important to put things into proper perspective. In some cases this can be critical as without it serious mistakes can be made and an improper approach can be taken which will end up doing more harm than good. This may be the case with any so called Climate Change Policy. To prevent potential problems it is perhaps best to keep things in perspective.

A number of years ago, even before I was born, people were worrying about the impending ice age that would overrun humanity and force us to live in or on the edge of vast tundra fields. I even remember reading a book bout ice ages which was part of the Planet Earth series published by Time Life. A section of the book was dedicated to how we would handle living in a ice age, and they even had a picture of an experimental green house placed on the tundra to figure out how to grow crops in very cold climates. This was not the late 1800's or even the early 1900's, this was in the 1970's.

As our ability to observe, record and analyze data increased we started to see a certain trend in the average global temperatures. Up until the 1970's all the data seemed to point towards a cooling trend but with the perfection of many other methods and the proliferation of accurate historical data, the cooling trend started looking more like a warming trend. As good scientists those that studied these things started looking into what would happen if the average global temperature really did go up. As the temperatures continued to rise there was a sense of urgency especially after the publication of the now infamous hockey stick. There were problems and uncertainties with the hockey stick graph, as the authors of the paper thought they had clearly pointed out, but after the press got a hold of it all those uncertainties had disappeared. Thus started the great global warming debate. The scientific debate had been going on for years, but now the political debate started, and that is where people lost perspective.

In the political arena the global climate change debate reached a climax with the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It was this act that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is potentially this act that may doom the political movement of environmentalism. I will strongly point out that what I have just said is a very qualified statement (I used "potentially" and "may" for a reason). The reason for this is that in making the film, and writing the book, Al Gore committed a logical fallacy normally used by the detractors of global warming, that is confusing weather with climate.

So now to understand what I am talking about we again need to put things into perspective, weather is not climate. Climate is something that happens over a 20 year period at the least. Climate is more often something that happens over a 100 or 1000 (or even 10,000) year time span. Weather is something happens on a day to day, or month to month basis. Weather can even stretch over a period of a year, or even come in cycles of several years. For example El Niño is a weather phenomena that lasts several years (you might say that El Niño affects climate, and I will come to that, but first weather). The point is weather is short term and climate is long term. Now there is a connection between the two but this connection is a little hard to establish some times, and it is precisely this connection that causes so much misunderstanding.

To explain further, climate is the collection of all weather events averaged over a sufficiently long period of time to override temporary fluctuations. This is why the minimum time needed to determine what a climate is is 20 years. I stress the minimum for a reason. Usually it takes longer to establish what a climate is. The reason why I say it takes 20 years to establish a climate is because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses a 20 year average to compare current daily temperatures to "normal" daily temperatures. This gives sufficient time to smooth out abnormal weather events. So the 20 year mark may be arbitrary but there are sufficient and convenient reasons to use it as a standard to measure climate. What this means is that it takes at least 20 years to establish any change in a climate. The reason why I am stressing this point is because it is the source of the logical fallacy that besets not only the detractors of climate change but unfortunately also the proponents.

Up until the release of An Inconvenient Truth most of the fallacious arguments surrounding the climate change debate came from the detractors. There were some legitimate criticisms raised by the scientific community but most who disagreed with global warming did so with no scientific basis (I should point out that this does not mean that there is no scientific basis to disagreeing with climate change, it's just that most of those who opposed it did not use scientific arguments). The most frequent accusation against global warming comes in the form, "It's cold outside, therefore global warming is a hoax." With the advent of An Inconvenient Truth the main argument for global warming became, "It's warm outside, therefore there is global warming." The inherent logical fallacy in both arguments is a confusing of climate with weather.

Because of An Inconvenient Truth the debate became one centered around weather instead of climate. Remember climate is something that it takes at least 20 years to establish and at least that long to observe a change. While the current warming trend has been growing over the past 100 years, An Inconvenient Truth presented the argument that climate change would be something that would bring about immediate devastation, as in increased severe weather, increased flooding and drought and a complete disruption of all things. The point is that in their excessive zeal to promote the idea of climate change they fell into the trap that had been the almost exclusive purview of the detractors before and substituted weather for climate.

The assertion that global warming would have drastic changes surely caught people's attention. Unfortunately by misrepresenting weather phenomena for climate change the proponents of global warming opened themselves up to an attack that may very well come, and will doom their movement. All it takes is a particularly quiet spell from the sun, a slight decrease in the upward trend of global temperatures, or a stretch of a few years with below normal storm activity and people will stop believing all the sensationalist arguments surrounding global warming. The ultimate irony may be that in trying so hard to convince people of global warming that when the earth does something totally unexpected, as it always will, all the excessive hype surrounding global warming will have soured the political climate and induce a massive backlash against the movement. In the new soured political climate it will take at least another 20 years to convince people again of the reality of global climate change.

Now as a final word of wisdom to put things into perspective again. I find it odd that most of the "supporters" of governmental policy on climate change whose avowed purpose is to "help" people use as their main tool of motivation an excessive amount of fear. They are for ever talking about all the bad things that will come about because of climate change and they never stop to think that it just might be a good thing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

President Obama and Constitutional Law

Lately a lot of media focus has been on President Obama's policies. There is constant talk regarding the policies he endorses, or does not endorse and whether or not he will push his "agenda" through Congress effectively, as past presidents have done (or failed to do). In the past some presidents have presented whole pieces of legislation (pre-written) to Congress for their vote. But that does not seem to be the case with President Obama. As has been noted by both critics and supporters alike President Obama tends to talk about broad political issues but rarely about specifics.

This approach to presidential leadership has been noticed and has been alternately ridiculed by the opposing side and questioned by those of his own party. Some liberal commentators have wondered why the President does not take a more active role in writing legislation, and why he seems to leave it all up to Congress. Again, the President's opponents use this as a basis for political attacks claiming that President Obama simply left the stimulus package, the budget, cap and trade and now health reform up to Congress. This has certainly put Congress in the spotlight (or under the microscope as the case may be), but it has opened President Obama up to accusations of incompetence, inexperience and political weakness. Those that support him (as far as I can tell) offer no explanation but issue calls for more specific leadership from the White House.

In certain cases it goes beyond legislation and spills over into other political issues. Some issues on which President Obama is receiving criticism are areas where he made campaign promises and has not as yet acted on them. When he first became president he was widely applauded by liberals for issuing an executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, albeit some still criticised him for giving the military a whole year before it had to be closed. Some of his most ardent supporters were expecting him to issue sweeping change to the American system in a very short amount of time, whether through Congressional action or executive order it did not matter. Those same supporters who wanted him to close Guantanamo Bay probably fully expected him to continue issuing executive orders to repeal the Don't ask, Don't Tell policy for the military or to repeal the Defence of Marriage Act. When these executive orders did not materialize some of President Obama's liberal supporters began to cry foul and insist that he make good on his campaign promises.

For that group of supporters they felt betrayed and began to criticise President Obama for failing to listen to their demands. A few of the more prudent among them noted that he already has a lot to deal with and he didn't need another issue to try to push through which would cost him a lot more of his already precious political capitol. This pragmatic view seems to be the prevailing view among those that advocate for these issues. But just to test the waters, so to speak, they have already brought these issues (Don't ask, Don't tell, and DOMA) to court but were surprised when President Obama came out in defence of these issues. They were probably expecting him either remain neutral on the issues for the time being or to give some indication that he would push for their removal. But instead he (or his attorney generals) have defended them and President Obama insisted that if they are to be removed that it must be through an act of Congress.

This assertion came as some what of a surprise to many liberals, that the President of the United States would not change policy through executive order, nor would he give to Congress pre-written legislation to pass. Some might be asking, "What went wrong?"

Now I will enter the realm of speculation. This is the realm of trying to figure out the personal motivations behind the President's actions, which because I do not know him personally I can not give an accurate assessment of. But I can speculate and throw out some ideas that just might be right. As I have mentioned President Obama's critics (and some supporters) insist that he is doing this because of inexperience or out of political expediency, but I will present another option that may not be obvious, but may be correct. The reason why President Obama has taken this approach towards Congress and also in defending DOMA and the Don't ask, Don't tell policy, may be because he has actually read the Constitution. Novel idea.

You see there is are two minor details here that I want to point out. The first minor detail is that the Constitution clearly states that "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States" (Article I Section 1). By definition, legislative power is the power to make and enact laws, which in turn determine public policy. The second minor detail is that the job of the President is to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" (Article II Section 3). To put this in simple High School Government Class terms, Congress writes, votes on and passes the laws. The President makes sure the laws passed by Congress are kept. As many high school government teachers like to point out, the President does not have the power to write the laws. That power is explicitly reserved to the Legislative Branch. Also as the like to point out that Presidents get around this "minor issue" by giving someone in Congress their pre-written bill and then that Congressman presents it as his own, even if everyone "knows" that it was actually the President who wrote it (maybe not him literally, but you know what I mean). Again as high school government teachers are so fond of pointing out, this violates the spirit of the Constitution and the principle of separation of powers, but nobody really listens to high school teachers anyway.

Now it is well know that President Obama was a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago (senior lecturer, whatever), but the point is that he had plenty of opportunity to deal with constitutional issues. And somewhere in there he may have actually read the Constitution (Shocker! I know) and somewhere in there he may have realized that it is the duty of the Legislative Branch to write, pass and enact the laws, and not the duty of the Executive Branch. Which means that in his personal approach to being President he has decided to actually live up to both the letter and spirit of the Constitution (at least on this issue) and let the Legislative Branch do what it is supposed to do and let the Executive Branch do what it is supposed to do. This may come as a shock to politicians on both sides of the aisle, but based on what President Obama has done so far while in office this appears to be how he is approaching being president.

This may come as great disappointment to many radical liberals because up until now their main tactic for advancing their agenda has included a blatant disregard for Constitutional Law. They have insisted that courts (the Judicial Branch) enact laws (a Legislative power) from the bench (the seat of Judicial Power), or they have insisted that Congress pass laws without regard for the enumerated Legislative powers. And now that radical liberals have a dear friend in the White House they insist that he use (abuse) his office to enact legislation to their personal benefit. But much to their chagrin he may actually respect the Constitution and won't abuse his powers. I find it particularly revealing about radical liberals that when they are confronted by one of their own, and one who at least says he supports their causes, who stands by the Constitution, and the rule of law, they vilify him and criticize him for not fulfilling his promises to them, even if that means blatantly disregarding the Constitution.

Again I must state that this is all speculation because I do not know the President personally, but it does seem to fit the facts and reflect how the President appears to run his administration. What do you think?

Friday, August 7, 2009

We have been invaded by pod people

I had a Victor moment. For those of you who don't know what a Victor moment is (which is everyone, because I just made up the term) it has to do with a book called Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. The book is a delightful little story about a young boy named Victor who meets a man that hangs out with a very intelligent chicken and together they go on an adventure to find the source of mysterious TV broadcasts that are only on late at night which show music played by human sized lizards who like to dress up as chickens. Yes, the book is a little odd. Try reading it if you haven't and it will all make sense. But that is not why I mention the book, nor why I say I had a Victor moment.

There is a part of the book where Victor is staying up late at night watching TV waiting for the lizards to come on after all the regularly scheduled programming is finished (yes there was a time when TV stations did not broadcast 24 hrs/day). On one particular night Victor watches the late night movie which is a Sci-Fi thriller called The Invasion of the Pod People (a thinly veiled renaming of the classic Sci-Fi movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers). In the movie normal everyday people are replaced by mindless clones who take over their life, but have no self-will nor personality, nor (real) emotions. Later on in the book Victor is again watching TV and waiting for the lizards to come on, and while he is watching TV he notices something not quite right with the people on the show he is watching, but he just doesn't know what it is. He thinks that there is something about the people that is wrong but he just can't put his finger on it.

A few days later he is again watching TV and the same feeling comes over him. As he watches a particular talk show the people and their reactions seem fake and unreal and it is in that moment that he realizes that the people he is watching are pod people and the movie he had watched earlier was actually true and Earth really had been invaded by pod people. It is in this sense that I had a Victor moment. I don't mean that we have literally been invaded by pod people from outer space but sometime in the last few years our society and culture has been effectively taken over by "pod people".

My realization started last year when I was watching a movie trailer about a group of friends and acquaintances living in New York. The movie was apparently about how these people struggled to live and find friendship in our modern world while along the way they must fulfill their dreams and live their ambitions. From my description this movie would seem like a classic story of hope, friendship and good character that has been so pervasive in our history. But while I was watching the trailer there was something wrong that I just couldn't put my finger on. It was like watching a video where the sound was ever so slightly off that it is hard to notice but still there. At the time I could not think of what was wrong with the trailer that I was watching.

A few months later I was again watching a movie trailer (again about a group of friends living in New York, but different movie). While I was watching the trailer I kept thinking the same thing, "Something is wrong, but I just don't know what." And then it hit me, the whole culture, society and lifestyle portrayed by the film was not mine. That is, I did not identify with it in any way. It was not anything major such as how someone from the US might view the culture of North Korea, or even as different as say a French film might be, but it was more subtle and nuanced in the differences. It was like the brief awkwardness when you go to shake hands with some one and they extend the left hand, or someone tells a joke that isn't quite funny (or lame enough to be considered a bad joke). It was in that moment that I realized that I was watching the cultural equivalent of an invasion of pod people. It was my Victor moment.

At that moment I was like Plato walking out of The Cave and I started seeing things like never before. The more I watched movies and trailers the more I realized just how far the invasion had gone. Now that I look back in retrospect I could see this coming, but it has only been in the last 10 years that the invasion of the pod people has really taken root in some of the most visible portions of society. I started seeing pod people in movies, on TV and in just about every form of mass media. Not all people in Hollywood have been taken over by a pod but it seems like most have. I have not seen many movies (or heard of movies, since I have since stopped watching most new movies) that have not been overrun by pod people. Because of this I have since stopped watching new movies, or even have the desire to go see a new movie.

It is a little difficult to describe exactly what a pod person is like, though if you have ever really noticed one then you already know exactly what I am talking about, but for the rest of you who have not noticed so far I will give a brief description so you can be on the lookout. Pod people are characterized by shallowness of character, and especially a distinct lack of rational thought (I should point out that I do not mean "educated" rational thought, as one might find in a formal education, but a stronger more fundamental propensity to rational action, which does not always go with education). Pods also have a distinct self-interest, self-centeredness, self-appeasement, self-indulgence, self-importance, self-worship and in general an inflated sense of self. They are also quick to express anger and outrage (especially outrage) at the very notion that their self-importance (and influence) is not what they think of it and they especially see fault in every thing that is not themselves. Their actions are always motivated by self-interest and self-aggrandizement, even those actions which they call "charitable" and "in the interest of everyone". Their self-identity is inextricably bound up in the "me" generation, though it is not limited to one specific age group. The one consolation in all of this is that the pod people will not outlast themselves, as it is a distinctive trait of pods that they are inherently self-destructive.

At the time that I had my Victor moment I realized that I was watching people who did not have the same culture, values or outlook on life that I did, nor did they have anything like unto it. I realized that their extreme emphasis on self was so different from the way that I view the world that I could not honest call what they were doing my culture, or my society. I did not relate or identify with them in anyway, nor would they relate to me and my life and my self-identity. If it had been the case that I was watching a movie or film from a foreign country it would not have been so shocking, because I would have been prepared for the difference, but what I was watching was supposed to be my own society complete with familiar social standards and cues, but instead I was being presented with something that was not familiar to me, and that is why it was so shocking.

****As an after note, I mentioned a lot of "self-" things that are negative and detrimental to oneself, but do not misunderstand me, I do not advocate excessive self-deprecation as a remedy to selfishness, but rather self-worth instead of self-inflation.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

...Along with some other minor details...

The other day a blog post drew my attention to both a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a very brief "news story" put out by AP that appeared in the Deseret News. I put "news story" in quotes because the whole story is seven sentences long, whereas the report given by the Pew Forum is several pages long and is broken down into three parts, and then subdivided even more (the "survey" that the news blurb "cites" is actually a report prepared from a larger survey of which the full report is 143 pages long). I don't care how good AP thinks their data compression may be, it's not that good. Furthermore the tiny news blurb only mentions three things from the survey: 1. Mormons are more likely than any other group to think that their values are threatened by Hollywood. 2. Mormons make up 1.7% of the total population of the US, roughly the same number as Jews. 3. Nine out of ten Mormons are white, while only 71% of the US is white.

Of all the very interesting things that the news writer could have included in his seven sentences, he chose those. I wonder why those three points were chosen over all the other interesting data. Perhaps the news writer wanted to imply that: 1. Mormons are paranoid. 2. Mormons are a very small, but powerful minority. 3. Mormons are racist.

Perhaps we should actually look at the survey and consider some of the more interesting results that a major news service will never tell us about. Apart from the ones already covered here, here are some rather interesting results from the report and the broader survey:

1. 91% of Mormons believe the Bible is the word of God. This is interesting considering a frequent and insistent criticism of Mormons is that they do not believe in the Bible, or as I found on a few websites (no I will not provide links) after a brief Google search, "The problem with Mormonism is that it contradicts, modifies, and expands on the Bible." and, "From a non-Mormon Christian perspective, the qualifications mentioned in the Mormon position are precisely why the answer would be no, they do not believe the Bible." and, "The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, as well as the ongoing prophetic ministry of their leadership....absolutely contradict clear Biblical doctrine on many important points and so it in effect the Bible is not really authoritative for them as it stands." Just from these statements it would seem that Mormons have a problem with the Bible and do not really believe it, so why is it that when asked 91% say they believe the Bible. I think that this problem can be cleared up by the following graphic from the broader survey:
Sorry that might be a little small, but if you click on it you can see a larger version, or you can go find it here. So now my point. If so many Mormons say they believe the Bible then why are they so frequently accused of not believing it? The survey further breaks down the question of whether or not people believe the Bible/Koran/Torah/other into whether or not they hold to a literal, word-for-word interpretation of it. Herein lies the difference. As can be seen, 91% of Mormons believe the Bible, but only 35% believe it literally, word-for-word, while 57% believe in a non-literal interpretation. As can be seen this is very different (almost exactly reversed) from the beliefs of more "fundamental" Christians who also have a strong belief in the Bible as the word of God. This is also the conclusion noted by the Pew Forum report, and something missed by the news blurb. It is precisely this difference in how we view the Bible that creates the controversy over whether or not Mormons actually believe the Bible.

As a side note, the root of the controversy comes from the Eighth Article of Faith which states, "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly". As I noted it is not the first part that causes the controversy but rather the second part, "as it is translated correctly". Oddly enough this part that causes the controversy is in line with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which many Evangelicals use to define what they mean by the Bible being literally true word for word (i.e. inerrant). Further reading on this matter can be found in How Wide the Divide by Graig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, Chapter 1 on Scripture.

2. Mormon religious belief and practice is "exceptional".
3. The more formal education Mormons have the more devoted they are, or as it is put in the Pew Forum report, "Looking at religion's importance through the lens of education level, patterns among Mormons are the reverse of what is seen among the general population." Here is some of the data:
Granted the margin of error is not the best on these data but from the broader survey it seems to be something consistent and worthy of notice. This would mean that contrary to popular belief more education does not always correlate with deceased religious devotion. Also as someone who studies physics for a living I would have to say that the "controversy", "fight" or "debate" between science and religion is not as pronounced in the Church as it is from other Christian religions. There are a few members who question the efficacy of science, but by and large members of the Church are more open to science and learning than any other religion that I know of. Also as a side note, according to the survey Mormons tend to be more educated than the general population.

4. Now after what I mentioned in #3 we have this, "When asked about the theory of evolution, only 22% of Mormons say it is the best explanation for human life, with three-in-four (75%) disagreeing. Only among one other major religious tradition - Jehovah's Witnesses (90%) - does a higher proportion disagree that evolution is the best explanation for human life." This difference is striking. If Mormons are well educated and if they tend to be more devoted the more education they have, then why do they not believe in evolution. I have two answers for that: the theory of evolution has some serious scientific and rational issues (I should write a post about them some time, but I will not go into them here), and Mormons already have a religion and they don't want/can't have another religion.

5. Political party affiliation and Ideology, this graph speaks for itself:
The R^2 value may be large but there is a trend and Mormons are at the one extreme end of it. Or as the Pew report puts it, "This places Mormons to the right of all other major religious traditions on a continuum of ideology and partisanship". Also interesting in this is that members who are "less active" or "inactive" as we say in the Church tend to be more liberal, in favor of big government and pro-abortion. Again from the report,

"Political and social views are linked with church attendance among Mormons, as among the general population. Those who attend services at least once a week are more than 30 percentage points more likely than Mormons who attend less frequently to be Republican (73% vs. 39%) and oppose legal abortion (78% vs. 44%). In fact, among those who attend church less often, opinion leans in the opposite direction on these two items; pluralities of those who attend church less than once a week are Democrats (40%) and favor legal abortion (49%). The same is true with regard to opinion on the size of government; among weekly attenders, 61% support a smaller government while 31% prefer a larger government, and among less-frequent attenders, just 37% prefer a smaller government while 53% prefer a bigger government."

Thus according to this data there is an inverse correlation between church participation and liberal tendencies. This means that if you do a survey with a selective bias towards "active" church members (those that attend every week, say prayers and read the scriptures every day) then the church would be a lot less liberal and in the graph above the dot denoting Mormons would be even higher up in "conservative" territory. I find it interesting that on average we are more conservative than "Conservative Evangelical Christians".

I could mention a few more but this post is already long enough and if I have not already interested you already (or made you board enough) to go check out the actual report I would encourage you to do so. There are several more interesting points about foreign relations, and whether or not military force is appropriate, the demographics of new converts (yes a lot of members are white, but the number of converts who are minorities is more indicative of the general population. By noting that most members of the Church in the US are white is like looking at the descendants of a group of Northern European immigrants and saying, "My! But they are all white! They must be racist!") OK I better stop now, but seriously I would recommend actually looking at the report rather than reading any news story about it. It is quite good, and I would recommend looking at the full survey, you might learn a few things that you didn't know. I did.