Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Island: An Inquiry into the Nature of God

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who posed to me a hypothetical situation. He proposed a situation where a group of people, recently married and with a few children, moved to a deserted island completely cut off from contact with the outside world. There these people would raise their children just like normal with one exception, they would never teach them about nor even mention the concept of God (or even god(s) for that matter). Thus the children would start with a "clean slate" and would not be affected or influenced in anyway by a preconceived notion of God. This island in a sense would be the ideal secularist's paradise.

The question involved with this experiment would be to see how the children would respond and whether or not they would naturally create a notion of God or whether these actions would sever the cultural link held by all people of a knowledge of a God. In the latter case the children would grow up without a notion of God nor would they have or create a notion of God in anyway.

Apart from the obvious problems with the logistics (and ethics) in carrying out this experiment is a broader and more important question, what is it that the parents are not supposed to teach their children? What (or which) concept of God are these parents not supposed to tell their children? If this were to be a rigorous scientific experiment then we would have to know exactly what is not to be told to the children. I would presume that it is more than simply not saying the word "God" or any comparable form of it, but would involve not mentioning anything that specifically has to do with God, religion, deity of any sort or a notion that can be construed in anyway to be a teaching of the concept of God. After all if this is to be a proper experiment and the purity of the sample is to be preserved then tight controls must be put in place to ensure that the concept of deity is not inadvertently introduced into this new blank slate culture.

So we remain with the problem of what is it exactly that these parents are not going to tell their children. Let us consider this an inquiry into the nature of God, because as I have pointed out we must first know exactly what it is that these parents are to not tell their children before this experiment (or mental exercise) can have any rational basis to proceed. Perhaps we should also look into the efficacy of parents not telling their children about God. This is to say whether or not it would have any effect or even if doing so is rational in the first place.

Now in the first case I would venture a guess than when my friend proposes this experiment the concept of God that he has in mind is the Platonic God or the god first described by Plato. Included in this would be the arguments for (or against) the existence of God and explanations of nature of God from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant and so many others. In effect what is being proposed by this experiment would be to completely rewrite the entire body of philosophical literature, or more simple to throw it all out. That then leaves us with another problem, what then would these parents teach their children? If they took with them books on philosophy or great works of literature they would have to be carefully edited to remove any and all references to God so as to not "contaminate" the experiment. If any books on philosophy or especially morality were taken then they would have to be heavily edited to the point that they would resemble declassified government documents after having been heavily redacted.

If this were the case then the parents participating in this experiment would have to have some type of code of ethics or conduct they would teach to their children so that they could have a stable society. Of necessity for the sake of the experiment there would be no mention of God in this new morality, nor could there be any form of appeal to deity for a basis of the new morality. While this is not unheard of, many modern philosophers have attempted to give moral frameworks independent of religion or even a concept of God, it would rule out the vast majority of moral frameworks. It would be possible to use some of the moral, cultural or social frameworks but only after all references to God are removed. While this would be difficult, for the sake of this experiment, it could be done.

The thing to remember is that these things I am bringing up are not solely found in books. It not a matter of bringing along the right books or even well edited ones, because these things I am mentioning about having a moral framework, or even a cultural and social framework do not necessarily have to be written down, but can be passed down from parents to children in the simple rearing and teaching that occurs in normal every day life (i.e. the concept of a week would have to go, as it originates from religious teachings). If in the normal rearing of the children they asked how they came to the island the parents would have to have an answer for them which inherently did not contain the truth, as it would spoil the experiment. Thus the children would have no sense of history or a perspective of where they came from or who they were, as invariably somewhere in their history they would have some religion, which we would not be allowed to tell them of. So far it seems like a lot would have to be sacrificed in the name of this experiment, and I wonder if it is worth the price. But let us continue on!

At the beginning I said that this would be an inquiry into the nature of God. Up until now I have focused on how interwoven the concept of God is with our society and culture and how hard it would be to actually conduct the experiment in a rigorous manner. It would seem that I have not focused on the "broader question" on the nature of God as I said I would, and instead got caught up in the logistics of the experiment. But in doing so I have laid out an important point regarding the nature of God that must be considered. The whole purpose behind this experiment would be to remove the concept of God from a culture and see what would happen. The problem is that in posing this hypothetical situation my friend has made an assumption regarding the nature of God of which he was most likely not aware. As I mentioned earlier he made the assumption that God, or even just the concept of God was just that, a concept. This is why I said that his concept of God was invariably the Platonic concept of God. From his vantage point if the concept of God were removed from a culture then we could see what happens, or if this new society would somehow be better because the concept of God was removed.

The point is that the whole experiment, including the motivation for thinking it up assumes that God has a certain nature. If God were the Platonic God then it would be conceivable that all cultural references to God could be removed and forgotten (many religious philosophers may take issue with this, but I am pointing this out because it is the motivation behind the experiment). This would mean that if somehow all religious references, words, customs, morals, teachings, history, laws, books or experiences were somehow removed from the Earth then God would cease to be. For believers this would be a sacrilegious claim and impossible, as it would deny the supremacy and sovereignty of God. The problem is that we have again fallen back into assuming a Platonic God, which means that we are again considering one specific definition of the nature of God, and we really have not made any progress. We have not resolved anything and all we are left with is the proposal to conduct the experiment and see what happens. So if we are to escape from this apparent endless cycle of conversation we must find another way at approaching the problem.

So let us pause and consider where we are. On the one hand we have the proposal to remove all references of God from a culture and see what happens. The unspoken assumption here is that if the language of a society can be changed in such a way to remove the concept of God then God, the concept (because that is all he was in the first place), will cease to exist. On the other hand there is the assertion that this is an impossibility due to the supremacy and sovereignty of God. Any number of arguments could be given in defense of this point as the history of philosophy is replete with them, but ultimately both sides rely on the same assumption regarding the nature of God. The difference is that one side chooses to be skeptical and other side chooses to believe. So where do we go from here?

Consider this example. A while ago I was sitting in a class and my professor made the following statement: If you had a civilization that evolved on a planet entirely covered with clouds and they had never seen a star (even their own) and they had no concept of astronomy, it would still be possible for them to posit the existence of stars, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. They could even give the relative sizes, densities, temperatures and pressures associated with each, all with never having seen a star. While this may seem like an astounding claim, it is something that after sufficient instruction would be perfectly obvious. I will not go into that here but I will say that it is possible, though difficult, it would still be possible. What makes it possible is that all these things (Stars, white dwarfs etc.) are part of reality and are independently verifiable, meaning they are not dependent on a particular language or cultural mindset for their existence. But how does this apply to God?

The key here is that if we do not first assume a Platonic nature to God then the possibility opens up for a God that is not dependent on a particular language or cultural mindset. This God would be independently verifiable and not subject to the cultural notions that lead to the introduction of the hypothetical island. To make my point I will restate the island hypothesis with my cloudy planet example.

If it were possible to travel to this cloudy planet and a group of parents went there with their young children (or yet to be born children) and there the children grew up never seeing a star (including their own) and all they had to go on was what they observed on the surface of the planet (and the parents never told them about stars), then theoretically they could advance to the point that they would know about and understand the existence of stars, having never seen one or even having any cultural or linguistic references to any thing of the sort. In this case it would seem illogical and irrational to perform this experiment because there would be no rational basis to not tell the inhabitants about stars. If stars do exist then why would we not tell the children about them?

If the objection is raised that this example does not transfer directly to that of the island where the suppressed concept is God and not stars, I would respond that it does not transfer if and only if you assume the nature of God is Platonic, this is to say linguistic or cultural mindset (i.e. God as the end of a syllogism or the combined cultural experiences of the human race). If on the other hand God is a reality and is part of and interacts with our experience in much the same way that stars do (including our own). In this case the island experiment would seem just as illogical and irrational as it would be to place people on a cloud covered planet and not tell them about stars. It certainly could be done, but what would be the point?

So now let us recap and consider what we have now. In the first case with the island we see that the motivation for proposing the experiment comes from the assumption that God is inherently Platonic and, at least in the opinion of some, is nothing more than a cultural and linguistic construct that has worked its way into our society. In this case the concept of God can be removed through the island experiment, but for believers this would never be a viable option to which several objections and counter arguments could be raised. But even still skeptics would remain unconvinced until the experiment was actually performed. As I pointed out for both sides, skeptics and believers, the inherent assumption here is a Platonic concept of God.

In the second case with the cloud covered planet the major assumption here about the nature of God is that He is part of reality and interacts with it in a similar way to you and me (and stars). This approach of course does not assume a Platonic God, but then again if it is true then any assumptions that we make are irrelevant. We could just as well assume that stars are large light bulbs seen from a great distance (complete with glass bulb and tungsten filament), but this would not change the truth. In this case the only assumption we would make would be that there is a God (and even then it would not be an assumption) and all we have left for us is to find out His true nature. In this case God would be independently verifiable and not subject to cultural, historical or personal interpretation any more than a star would be.

So now finally we have a way forward and a possible avenue of inquiry into the nature of God. If a knowledge of God is not bound by cultural or linguistic subjectivity as the skeptics would say, or by faith as the believers would say, then how shall we proceed? For my friend who has a inclination towards science I would suggest proceeding in a scientific manner, with a warning not to be biased by the very thing that lead him to propose the island experiment in the first place. From personal experience I would say that it is possible, and more than that it is both desirable and necessary to seek out God and His true nature. It is not something to be feared, looked down upon or ignored because as I know from personal experience the truth is more amazing than we realize and in seeking we will find things we never considered and will learn things we never though possible. There is a way, and it is easier than you think. Email me if you want to know more, or leave a comment. I see all comments before they are posted.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Story Behind Faith in Every Footstep

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with K. Newell Dayley in the Provo temple. Members of the church may recognize his name as he wrote the music for the hymn Lord, I Would Follow Thee and the words and music for I Feel My Savior's Love along with several other children's songs and hymns not found in the hymn book. More recently he is known for writing the words and music to the hymn Faith in Every Footstep.

When we were working together in the temple we would have a little time to sit and talk about things and one day in between sessions I asked him about the song Faith in Every Footstep and the story behind his writing it. He was more than happy to tell me the story.

It was at a time when one of his sons was preparing to go on a mission and he was looking for a way to "get into the missionary spirit" with his son. To do this both he and his son agreed to work on memorizing a scripture every day until his son left on his mission. This went on for approximately two weeks with Brother Dayley memorizing a scripture every day (his son "kind of fell behind and didn't quite get a scripture every day"). Because this exercise was supposed to help get the missionary spirit he had been focusing on missionary scriptures.

It was in this situation of focusing on missionary work and memorizing scriptures related to missionary work that he said that he woke up on a Saturday morning and after reading the scripture for the day the words of the song started coming and he quickly sat down and started writing. When he had reached seven verses he realized that this song would need a chorus. So he set about writing a chorus for the song. He also started to write down a tune for the song and over the next while (he didn't say how long it took him to get to the final piece, but I gathered that it took several weeks), but he said that the main body of the song and all its verses and chorus were written that morning.

Brother Dayley especially pointed out that the whole song grew out of the missionary spirit and the scriptures associated with missionary work. As he put it, "The song grew out of the missionary spirit." He also pointed out how it was necessary that he spend several weeks preparing and getting into the missionary spirit before he could write the song. It was only after two weeks of memorizing scriptures and thinking about missionary work that he was inspired to write the song, but when he did write the song it came very quickly and it came nearly complete. His lesson from that experience that he wanted to instill in me was that it takes time to be prepared for spiritual experiences but when they come they come fast and with great force. That is the story behind the hymn Faith in Every Footstep.

[Author's note (7/23/12): I know that when most members think of the song they immediately associate it with pioneers and the 24th of July, which is when I get most of my visits to this post. But if you read the words to the song, keeping in mind the story of how it was written, you will see that it has more to do with missionary work than anything else.]

1. A marvelous work has begun to come forth among all the children of men.
O ye that embark in the service of God, give heart, mind, and strength unto him;
For prophets have spoken and angels have come to lift the world from sin,
That Christ may reign over all the earth and bless his gathered kin.

With faith in ev’ry footstep, we follow Christ, the Lord;
And filled with hope through his pure love, we sing with one accord.

2. Those marvelous Saints who embraced this great work and shared it in lands far and near;
Who gave all their heart, mind, and strength to the Lord with wisdom and vision so clear;
Now stand as examples of virtue and faith, of souls prepared to hear,
Of knowledge sure, born of humble heart, and love that banished fear.

3. If we now desire to assist in this work and thrust in our sickles with might,
If we will embark in the service of God to harvest in fields that are white;
Our souls may receive the salvation of God—the fulness of his light,
That we may stand, free of sin and blame, God’s glory in our sight.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: Hamlet's Mill

The book I am reviewing is entitled Hamlet's Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. I am using the 1969 edition published by Gambit Inc.

Hamlet's Mill is not an easy read. At first glance the book seems disorganized and disjointed. The authors make a number of obscure references to ancient texts and stories that they assume the reader is familiar with. They also have a tendency to insert critical phrases in Latin or French without translation, thus a knowledge of the Romantic languages is necessary to get some of the finer points of the book (they do give translations to quotes given in German, but they seem to assume that anyone reading the book also knows all the languages they know). Also a good working knowledge of world history is fundamental as the authors are not attempting to create a coherent story of world history, nor do the feel the need to include any further explanation. If the reader is not familiar with all the stories, cultures and references it would be a good idea to read Hamlet's Mill with quick access to a reliable encyclopedia to get the general background the authors just assume you know.

There are essentially two separate theses in Hamlet's Mill. The first thesis deals with the coherent nature of myths all over the world. This thesis takes up the majority of the book and is the primary thesis. The assertion is that all major mythologies from all over the world are fundamentally connected. To prove this the authors show the connections and similarities of myths from every major cultural group. The major point of this thesis is to show the reason why myths all over the world have a similar form is that they all draw from the same source, astronomy. The authors argue that myths from all over the world originally were references to astronomical observations. Thus all myths have common connecting threads and references.

They state that the only way to explain these similarities is to use astronomical observations, something the archeological and anthropological communities seemed to have ignored up to that point. In the introduction and the first few chapters the authors make a big deal out of the fact that other scholars in their field have never considered an astronomical (or cosmological) explanation to myths and legends. Therefore the authors feel it imperative that they explain their thesis so that others will consider this possibility. From their assessment it is the only explanation which makes sense, due to the striking similarities between myths all over the world. Furthermore they try to establish a direct connection between the myths and the actual astronomical observations made by ancient cultures.

By establishing a link between the different constellations and the growth and spread of the myths through out the world, the authors are attempting to show that the mythologies of ancient (and modern!) cultures first grew out of astronomy. This is to say that highly specific and accurate astronomical observations grew into and became the major world mythologies, as opposed to the commonly accepted idea that world myths (myths of creation and world phenomena such as weather) were the basis of and the inspiration for the original astronomical observations. To present it schematically the commonly accepted theory of the development of mythologies, and by extension astronomy, would be:

Mysticism --> Mythology --> Astronomical Observations motivated by the mythology --> Modern Astronomy

This is contrasted with the author's approach which can be characterized thus:

Accurate Astronomical Observations --> Mythology motivated by the observations --> More Recent Astronomical Observations --> Modern Astronomy

The authors also argue that mysticism, at least the ancient mysticism that we "know" of grew out of the mythologies after people had forgotten that the myths were simply a way of remembering the complex astronomical observations. This conclusion and the reasoning behind the authors' approach is based on an assumption that is central to the author's second thesis.

The second thesis given in the book is most clearly expressed after Chapter Four in what they call an Intermezzo (Intermission), aptly titled A Guide for the Perplexed. In this chapter they pause in their narration of the myths and legends related to the story of Hamlet, to "take stock" and give some guidance to the admittedly complex narration. While they take this intermission to introduce the first and primary thesis they also incidentally layout the secondary thesis. The secondary thesis is arguably the more important of the the two and provides greater and farther reaching insight into ancient cultures. As presented by the authors the second thesis is no more than conjecture but gains support from the validity of the first thesis.

The second thesis is founded on the idea of cyclic time as opposed to linear time. This idea is integral with and underlies all arguments made by the authors regarding ancient cultures and how we should view them. The concept of cyclic time as opposed to linear time has two major applications in studying and understanding ancient cultures. The first deals with understanding how the ancient people viewed the world and the proper mindset that we should have in attempting to understand them. The second deals primarily with how we view them and their abilities of reason.

To understand the second thesis and its implications we need to understand the concept of cyclic time. Suffice it to say that our modern concept of time is inextricably linked to the concept of linear time, so being able to understand cyclic time is perhaps the hardest part of understanding anything in Hamlet's Mill. In considering the ancient concept of cyclic time we must admit that we are approaching it with a bias (even by using the word ancient we express our bias) and we must be prepared to give up all that we know or think we know about the world.

As the authors tell it, the academic community does more than merely overlook the concept of cyclic time, they either ignore it or hold it in contempt, but they contend that if we are to understand anything about ancient cultures we must understand the concept of cyclic time. I have previously run across the concept from two unrelated sources so, since Hamlet's Mill was written it seems that the concept has at least been mentioned in academic circles but the lack of more mention of it is a good indication that there has been absolutely no progress in understanding ancient cultures since Hamlet's Mill was published.

To put it simply the modern concept of time is linear and the ancient concept of time involves cycles. To put it bluntly, ancient peoples did not view the world they same way we do. For us we think of time has having a definite duration and direction, as in thinking of time as an arrow. For ancient people time repeated itself just like a wheel will rotate and come back to where it started from. Time consists of cycles, the cycle of a day (the sun rises it moves through the sky, it sets and starts over), the changing of the seasons, the movements of the planets, stars and moon. Even the cycle of life repeats itself. Thus to the ancient cultures all things were governed by cycles of time, some longer and some shorter.

Indeed the different cycles of time could be ordered in such a way from the least to the greatest, with the greater (longer) governing the lesser (shorter), just as the equinoxes govern the seasons and the seasons the days (that is the seasons determine what the days will be like, and the equinoxes govern when the seasons will come). So as there are cycles which govern each aspect of life it is the longer cycles that ultimately govern over all other cycles and the longest cycle that ancient cultures knew of was the precession of the equinoxes, which has an approximately 26,000 year cycle. Thus as the precession of the equinoxes was the longest and greatest known cycle it governed over and determined all others. To the ancient mind it could be considered the ultimate driving force behind all aspects of life. Just as the seasons bring with them warmth and life or cold and death, the thing which governed over the seasons (the equinoxes) were thus more important for determining the fate of men. With this in mind it would only be natural to conclude that that which governed over the equinoxes was more important than them all.

When presented in this way an emphasis on equinoxes, and the movement of the sun through the zodiac, is no longer an ignorant and whimsical expression of pre-rational minds, but is a natural conclusion reached by intelligent and reasoning minds trying to make sense of the world. If presented in the proper context this way of looking at the world almost seems more intuitive and natural than our present concept of linear time. It is precisely this different view of time that allows the authors to conclude that the original astronomical observations were not motivated by mysticism or mythology, but the other way round. This is to say that the mythologies and stories associated with the constellations, planets and stars grew out of a need to preserve the complex astronomical observations. As a type of complex pneumonic device the stories were created to both entertain and to give a way of remembering the collected wisdom and scientific observations from previous generations.

Returning to the schematics that I presented above:

Mysticism --> Mythology --> Astronomical Observations motivated by the mythology --> Modern Astronomy

Accurate Astronomical Observations --> Mythology motivated by the observations --> More Recent Astronomical Observations --> Modern Astronomy

Without and understanding of the concept of cyclic time the second option seems almost absurd given the progression of modern thought and the discoveries of the last few hundred years in the area of astronomy. But with an understanding of cyclic time the second option seems almost natural, with the first being the absurd option. The key in understanding this lies in a rejection of Social Darwinism, which whether or not we realize it is derived from and integral to the concept of linear time. Because of the linear nature of our understanding of time it is a natural conclusion to think that mankind has progressed from a less advanced state to a more advanced state. The basis for this thinking lies in the technological advancements that we have achieved through out our history. The authors do not dispute this advancement but what they do dispute is the conclusion of Social Darwinism that the reasoning ability of mankind has progressed over the short time span of recorded (and even non-recorded) history.

The critical assertion of the authors is that even if ancient cultures did not have the same level of technological advancement that we now have does not and should not reflect on the mental or cognitive abilities of the ancient peoples. As the authors put it, "our ancestors of the high and far-off times were endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours, and were capable of rational processes--always given the means at hand. It is enough to say that this flies in the face of a custom which has become already second nature." (p. 68) This concept calls into question the idea that the gradual Darwinian progression can apply to cultural understandings and interpretations. Again as the authors put it, "The lazy word "evolution" had blinded us to the real complexities of the past." (p. 69) They assert that the time scale on which evolution works is much too long for it to be applied to the history of man.

The key understanding of the authors' second thesis is that the concept of cyclic time is central to understanding the world view of ancient societies, and while this world view may be radically different from ours it does not make them "primitive" or "'howling barbarians' who were, to say the least, utterly incapable of working out complex astronomical cycles...over many years" (p. 69). With this basis of understanding we may again approach the authors' first thesis, that the basis of ancient myths and legends is grounded in astronomical observations, and find that it makes more sense.

In concluding I feel I should mention the oddity of the authors' conclusion. The book finishes out with an epilogue entitled The Lost Treasure in which the authors bemoan the fact that the basis of understanding the ancient cultures is already lost. In their conclusion they end the book by saying, "the system as a whole may lie beyond all conjecture, because the creating, ordering minds that have made it have vanished forever." (p. 348) Given the entire premise of the book this seems like a rather misguided ending to the book. Essentially they spend the entire book attempting to prove that world myths from all over the world have a common generational basis and source found in astronomical observations, and that the ancient peoples were just as capable at complex reasoning as we are. But when they end the book they end it with a statement lamenting the fact that we have no possible basis to interpret and/or understand completely ancient cultures. The authors apparently have missed the fact that the basis of understanding lies in astronomical observations (which they spend most of the book trying to establish) and that if ancient peoples "were endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours" then surely we should be able to comprehend and recreate the same world view and mind set of our ancestors. The implication is that if they are "endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours" then they are capable of understanding our view point and we theirs.

Overall I would say that Hamlet's Mill is a very important book for understanding ancient cultures as it gives a correct mind-set in which to approach myths and legends. If understood the book gives the reader an approach to interpreting the work and methods of ancient peoples that other sources do not give out of bias, ignorance or laziness. It also raises certain questions of "standard" interpretations that have the potential to change entire fields of study. If the authors are correct then the true story of the growth of civilization is more amazing than we could have possible imagined, and we have so much more to learn.

Friday, July 10, 2009

I Have Been to the Center of the Universe

And here is proof that I have been there, I took a picture of the sign.

Such a welcoming sign. I just wonder why Ashland, Virginia got the honor as the center of the universe.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I'm Working on Getting a Better Color Scheme

Some of the colors may clash and most likely will not work together. I am currently experimenting with different colors to see which ones go together well. I'm trying to find a good personal color scheme, though any suggestions would be appreciated. If you have any color suggestions give me the RGB value, Hue-Brightness-Saturation combination or Hex code.

Also if you find any two colors particularly offensive (or pleasing), just let me know.