Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is God Omnipotent?

The question of God's omnipotence frequently comes up in religious discussions, yet there is rarely any agreement or consensus on the matter. Most Christians will agree that God is omnipotent (also omniscient and omnipresent, collectively known as "the three omni's") but what that actually means differs greatly from church to church and from theologian to theologian. Even among Mormons there is some debate as to what it means for God to be omnipotent (though decidedly less than other churches). Some take the standard Protestant/Catholic approach complete with ontological arguments, while others take a more experiential approach to God which makes a discussion of ontological arguments, and by extension, a discussion of the three omni's irrelevant. But the question remains, is God omnipotent?

When confronted with this question I could ask, "What do you mean by omnipotent?" but that rarely gets anywhere. So the other day I was thinking about it and I came up with a way of responding to that question. When I am asked, "Is God omnipotent?" I will respond with another question, "Is the earth a sphere?" The answer to that question is "'Yes.'" but it is a qualified "yes". The earth is very spherical, but to say that it is a perfect mathematical sphere of uniform density is to destroy the reality that is the earth. But to say that the earth is not a sphere is to ignore the obvious fact that it is a sphere, even if it is not a perfect, mathematical sphere. For all practical purposes (air travel, satellites, ocean navigation, astronomy, warfare, cartography, farming etc.) the earth (as a whole) can be treated as a perfect sphere, but to always think of the earth as a perfect sphere would ignore the immense complexity, wonder, and beauty that is the earth. So no, the earth is not a simple mathematical sphere, but that is what makes the earth so wonderful.

So is God omnipotent? Only in as much as the earth is a sphere.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Review: Inventing the Flat Earth by Jeffrey Burton Russell

I have known about the flat earth error for some time but I have never actually read a book or even a scholarly article detailing where the myth started and how it entered our popular culture. Then I came across Inventing the Flat Earth by Dr. Russell, and I was impressed with how quickly he presented the argument and dealt with the issue. The book is a very short read (77 pages, not including end notes, 30 pages, "selected" bibliography, 7 pages, and an index) and can be finished in an afternoon (or over a few days if you only take it a few pages at a time). It covers the topic very well and gives you a good sense of how, and why, the flat earth error started. But because of its length, it is only good as a starting point if you want to get deeper into the subject. For those who only want to learn about the flat earth error and how it started then this is the book for you.

First, the book is about the flat earth error also referred to as the Myth of the Flat Earth, not to be confused with the error of the flat earth. Simply put, the flat earth error is the idea that people in the middle ages thought that the earth was flat and not spherical. As Dr. Russell demonstrates, ever since the Greeks proved the sphericity of the earth the scholarly consensus has been that the earth was spherical. There was some debate as to the size, whether or not there was land on the opposite side and whether or not that land was inhabited. But there was never any serious question as to whether or not the earth was a sphere.

Dr. Russell explains that the only opposition to Columbus was not from people who thought the earth was flat, but from other scholars who thought that the earth was bigger than Columbus calculated it to be (which it was). If Columbus's calculations were correct then it would have been possible to sail west from Europe to Asia using the boats they were building at the time. If he was wrong, then the distance would have been too great and they would not have been able to make the journey (alive). That was the only concern raised by scholars at the time. There were a few people in history that flat out stated (ha ha) that the earth was flat, but of the two theologians/scholars that get cited most often, one had his writings condemned for being heretical (for other reasons), and the other was never read nor cited all throughout the middle ages except by two different writers, who only cited him to point out in no uncertain terms that he was wrong about the earth being flat. Other than that those writings were not cited, noted, quoted, or even read until the 1800's when historians and scholars began citing them as evidence that "everyone" believed the earth was flat. Dr. Russell goes into more detail in his book.

Sometime in the 1800's a few different people thought that it would be great to cast Columbus as a great scientist fighting against the darkness of the illiterate and ignorant traditions of the past and say that he was trying to prove that the earth was round and not flat. Thus scholars cherry picked the writings of a few theologians from the middle ages and said, "Look! People used to think that the earth was flat, and they thought this until Columbus proved that it was round." Thus from about 1870 to 1920 there was virtually unanimous consensus among historians that people (theologians and scholars) in the middle ages thought the earth was flat. This lasted until people actually began reading what they wrote, and not reading what other historians thought about what they wrote. After this there was a shift in the scholarly world that recognized that people in the middle ages did not think that the earth was flat, but unfortunately that idea became so strongly embedded in our culture that even today it is still put into text books and taught in our schools as being true (I asked my cub scouts about it and they all repeated back to me the flat earth error, as told them by their teachers. I then told them that their teachers were wrong and I set them right.).

Dr. Russell speculates as to the motivation of the scholars who started this myth. There were some non-scholars who contributed to the myth, such as Washington Irving, but it was mostly spread by scholars who had ulterior motives. There were some who promoted the idea so that they had a basis to attack the Catholic Church ("Hey, look at what the crazy Church leaders used to believe. And I hear they wanted to burn Columbus at the stake for believing the earth was round!"). There were others who used it to attack religion in general, saying that the idea was a hold over from an antiquated era when people believed in silly things such as magic, and religion. But "we have moved past that we are now in a more enlightened era, dominated by Natural Philosophy". This of course was all strongly influenced by the ideas of Aususte Comte, who viewed history as a progression from less enlightened to more enlightened ways of thinking. With this as the basis, it made sense to assume that any opposition to Columbus was due to unenlightened thinking about the world, which meant that everyone else must have thought that the earth was flat. So strong where these ideas that the myth persisted and persists to this day.

Dr. Russell also talks about how there might be some confusion regarding some words, such as antipodeans, which he explains scholars in the middle ages used to refer to people that lived on the other side of the earth, and modern scholars interpret to mean literally, the other side of the earth. Thus medieval scholars debated the existence of antipodeans (meaning people living on the other side of the earth), and scholars in the 1800's interpreted that debate to mean that they were discussing the existence of the other side of the earth, and used that debate as proof that they thought the earth was flat.

I would recommend reading this book, and I think it should be required reading for all elementary education majors. My only complaint is that the all the notes in the book are in endnote format, which means they are all crammed into the end of the book, and it is hard to have to keep flipping to the back of the book to see if the note is something interesting (i.e. a break down of the Latin root of a word used, and how the meaning changed over time) or if it simply contained a list of additional books to read. So my only complaint is in the format, not the writing. Footnotes would have been better.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Movie Review: City of Ember

The movie City of Ember is based on a book with the same name written by Jeanne DuPrau. Overall the movie is pretty good, but just don't watch it with high expectations. It is a good movie for family entertainment and kids should love it (or at least not be board with it). It is clean, which is always a plus, and for those ideologues who worry about how Hollywood is "ramming their morals/politics/fashion/junk down our throats" this movie does none of that. Just don't expect something exceptionally complex that will make you think about your "status in life"/"state of being"/future/humanity/"the categorical imperative". So if you want entertainment, and something that will keep the kids glued to the TV for all of 90 minutes, this is it.

My advice is to just watch the movie and not think too hard about practical things like, plot, and, "Why in the world would ANYONE do something so monumentally stupid?" and "How in the world did they get there?" For example, there is a part in the movie where the main characters take a little boat ride down a gentle (if a 50% grade is gentle) underground river (think roller coaster). After going down for what seems like an eternity (to us) they somehow magically arrive at the surface about a mile above where they started out. I'm still trying to figure out how you can go "down" that far and end up above where you started, but that is merely a minor (critical) plot point.

The entire premise of the movie hinges on the idea that in order to preserve mankind "the builders" built the city of Ember below ground (the surface was uninhabitable for unspecified reasons). And for some strange reason they only gave the people enough resources, and power to last 200 years, and they even specifically designed the city to break after 200 years, with absolutely no way out except for the secret, wet and wild, boat ride through the earth that will magically bring you back up to the surface. And on top of that they specifically did not tell people that there was a way out, or even that there was something other than the city ("There is nothing beyond the darkness."). Yet to prevent "The last hope for humanity" from dying out underground they gave the first mayor a box, containing instructions on how to get out, that would automatically open in 200 years. Oh and they didn't tell the mayor what was in the box, just that they had to pass it along to the next mayor. And they had no other "back-up plan" or failsafe, just in case something normal happened, such as the mayor dying before the next mayor can receive the box (which happened). So the only instructions for how to get out of the city are sealed in a box that only one person knows about, and they don't even know what is in the box or even that they can (or should) leave the city. For the first few minutes of the movie I kept thinking, "Couldn't they have come up with a better system? One that was not dependent on a single set of instructions and ONE key (made out of two pieces of glass!). Couldn't they at least put the instruction on something more durable like metal or at least plastic, and not paper so that the main character's little sister doesn't eat them (which happens)? Wasn't anyone thinking?!?"

As soon as I stopped ignoring these obvious questions and just focused on watching the very amenable characters, and just went along with the story, the movie was much better.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Institute Videos

The Church has posted new Institute videos on the Mormon Messages channel on youtube. They look pretty good, but having lived in Utah I can definitely tell that they were filmed in Utah. Still, I like the new videos. Here is the video about Moses.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Justifying Profanity Through the Suppressed Correlative and Other Logical Fallacies

The other day I came across a quote in a news article that caught my eye. The story involved a case where someone had been issued a citation for "profanity". One of the lawyers involved in the case was quoted as saying,“I have no idea what is indecent or is profane, and nobody else does for that matter.” I thought that was a very interesting statement to make.

The first part of the statement is particularly interesting because it would seem that the lawyer is admitting his ignorance as to what it means to be indecent or to use profanity, but I do not think that that is how he meant it. I think it is more an indictment of the state of our society rather than an expression of personal ignorance. He is in a sense saying that there are no words that could be considered to be profanity or indecent. The fact that we live in an "anything goes" society with no checks, either personal or legal, on behavior is an indication of a larger problem in society. Because there is neither a personal morality nor a public ethics that dictate a limit on what is considered civil indicates that as a society we are wholly incapable of restraining criminal or anti-social (meaning against, or destructive of, society as opposed to individualistic) behavior.

But the second half of his statement I also found odd because while he is at first insisting on his own (or society's in general) ignorance of what constitutes profanity, he then extends that ignorance to everyone else. He is in essence saying that because he his ignorant of something, everyone else is too. This is a classic case of a deductive fallacy, where the subject (the lawyer in this case) assumes knowledge of what everyone else knows based on what he knows. This is to say that everyone else is ignorant of what is indecent just because he is. This seems rather presumptuous. To be honest I do not think that was what he meant by his statement, but my argument still holds because he is still making the assumption that because he cannot pin down the definition everyone else is wholly incapable of defining it either. He is essentially saying that because he holds a particular world view everyone else necessarily holds that same world view. This seems rather presumptuous.

So leaving behind the deductive fallacy, let us look at the ideas that prompted him to make this statement in the first place. In referring to profanity and indecency he is recognizing that there is a measure of vagueness in what constitutes profanity. I will admit that there is some vagueness in whether or not some words, or a single word in particular, can be considered profanity. I have known some people that would use certain words without thinking twice about it, while other people would blush when the same word was used in their presence and would never even think of using the word themselves. Thus for the two different people the same word can at the same time be considered profanity and a natural part of the conversation. I am not referring to words that are used differently in different countries, I am talking about the same words used in the same country. But now that I mention that I can also point out that there is a word that when it is used in Mexico it is a terrible swear word, but the same word in Argentina is used commonly by most people, including nice, little, old grandmothers who would never use foul language. Coincidentally there is also a word in Argentina that is never used in polite society, yet the same word is a common verb in other countries and is regularly taught to first year Spanish students in the US.

So yes there is some vagueness as to what can be considered profanity, yet that does not create the fallacy. The fallacy comes from the assumption that just because something is vaguely defined, it automatically has no definition. For example, the edge of the earth's atmosphere is not sharply defined yet there is no doubt that there is a difference between outer space and the atmosphere, because if there were not discernible difference then we would not use the terms in the first place. The mere fact that the terms exist is an indication that there is a distinction and that at least someone understands it. How we define the transition is a separate matter, but it is still a fallacy to deny the distinction just because there is some ambiguity in how to define the transition. We can also debate the usefulness of using the distinction, and this is also an important question in some situations, yet in the case of profanity and indecency there is still general acknowledgment in our society that profanity exists (and in some cases they are trying to come up with new definitions, laws and punishments for it). So to deny at least the existence of a definition is disingenuous.

Almost all the arguments I have encountered about why profanity should be acceptable and not punished/looked down upon either use the vagueness argument, or they use an argument that uses a fallacy known as the suppressed correlative. Essentially individual words which at one point were considered profanity are successively defined as not being "bad", or come into such common usage so that no one (or very few) considers them to be profane. After changing the definition to the point that all words that were profane are no longer, the definition becomes pointless (i.e. the empty set) and it is logical to do away with the definition. Strictly speaking this is a kind of a reversed suppressed correlative, but it applies. Still, as long as the word remains in common usage then it still has a definition that can be applied, even in a court of law.

There are some considerations that we have to take in to account. We do not want an overly broad definition because that would mean we are guilty of the reverse, yet at the same time because the distinction exists and it is up to our judgement to figure out where the line is drawn. To deny the existence, like the lawyer did, of the distinction between what is profane and what is not, is for me an acceptance that we cannot, or do not desire, civility in out society. And for me that is a terrible fallacy.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

When I Get Called Heretical

I find it particularly odd that when ever my religion gets called heretical it usually goes something like this:

"You believe X, therefore you are heretical."

To which I respond, "Um, I actually don't believe X."

"Yes you do."

"Um, no I don't."

"No, you actually believe X."

"Um, I don't believe X, because I actually say that I don't believe X."

"Well you must be mistaken, or lying, because you actually believe X."

It never ceases to amaze me that when people will bash my religion they will first tell me what I believe and then tell me why that is wrong, rather than actually asking me what I believe and then figuring out what I mean by that and then trying to figure out why that is wrong (or possibly trying to understand why I think it is right). Though I guess this can go both ways. I have heard some Mormons giving base characterizations of other Churches and beliefs, but I do find that on the whole Mormons do listen respectfully and respond respectfully to other's beliefs. When ever I am confronted with a belief that I find odd or particularly off the wall, I try to remember that most people want to be rational about their beliefs and are sincere in their beliefs an we should understand them as they do and not as we do.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Setting Realistic Goals

As a new year begins many of us will be setting goals for the new year and making a list of things we want to do, or to stop doing. Related to this is the common joke about how long the average new year's resolution lasts, which is used ad nauseam to the point of no longer being funny.

Today during Elder's Quorum we had a lesson about goals and setting realistic goals. As I was sitting there I remembered what I had learned about setting goals on my mission. One of the things that we did every week was to sit down as a companionship and set goals for the coming week. At that time our mission president asked us to keep track of all the work and teaching that we did. This meant keeping track of the the number of charlas (discussions) taught, the number of hours we worked, the number of baptismal commitments that we extended, the number of baptismal commitments accepted, the number of people progressing towards baptism subdivided into potential priesthood holders and everyone else and the number of people baptized and confirmed. Although we were not required to have a minimum number of any of those things (except for the total hours worked) we were frequently encouraged to increase the number of charlas taught, and the number of people we were teaching. So while there was not a minimum standard set by the mission president we were all encouraged as a companionship to look at what we were doing and try to find ways to increase the number of charlas, commitments and people taught. That is, it was left up to us to set a goal and to obtain it.

With my first companion we had a great time and I loved working with him, but every week when we set our goals for the coming week it went something like this:

Comp: "We have 10 appointments this week, but some of them will fadge on us, so I expect us to have 5 appointments actually work." [The word "fadge" is not a typo. It is a transliteration of a slang word used only by Castilian speaking Mormon missionaries. Technically it should be spelled "fall-ed" but it is pronounced "fadged" or "fashed" or "fadshed". It comes from the Spanish word "fallar" which literally means "to fail" or "to mess up" and when we had an appointment that didn't work out (i.e. the person wasn't home) we would say that the person "nos falló" or they fell through on us, or they failed us. In Argentina the double L is pronounced with a strong "sh" sound, thus the common phrase "nos falló" when used by native English speakers would become slang "they fadged us". Anyway back to the story...]

Comp: "We have 10 appointments this week, but some of them will fadge on us, so I expect us to have 5 appointments actually work."

Me: "OK, we'll put our goal down as 5 charla unos (first discussions)."

Comp: "Well we have to try to keep our goals up and if we don't then we will never have something to aim for. So let's put down 10 charlas as our goal for the week."

Me: "OK."

Next week:

Me: "Well we only taught 4 charlas this week. A lot of people fadged us this week. Our goal was to get 10."

Comp: "Well let's try harder this week. We have 10 appointments, so let's put our goal as 12 charlas."

Next week:

Me: "We we only taught 3 charlas this week. Perhaps we should lower our goal."

Comp: "Well you heard what Prez [The mission President] said in the last conference, and the AP's [Assistant to the President] said that we need to focus on increasing the number of charlas that we teach and what better way than to set a high goal."

Me: "OK."

Next week:

Comp: "Well this week was really bad, everyone fadged us, we only got 2 charlas..."

Me: "Three actually."

Comp: "That one doesn't count....Well what should our goal be for the next week?"

And thus it went on for most of my mission. It was not just my first companion that this happened with. It happened with most of my companions. We would have our weekly companionship meetings and we would set our goals for the coming week, but invariably we would set goals that we would never achieve. For most of my companions this was OK because for them the point of a goal was to set something impossibly high because, as their reasoning went, the purpose was not to achieve the goal, but to set it high enough that it would drive us to do better than we normally would have. But for some of my other companions, the only reason why the goal was set so high was because it was expected of us to set a high goal, and then we would do whatever we saw fit and completely ignore our goals that we had set. But the practical effect was that our goals would be treated as meaningless. There was no point because our goals moved up and down independent of how much work we actually expected to do.

Part of the problem was that we did not want to admit defeat on some points and concede that most of our appointments would fall through on us. We wanted to maintain at least the appearance of an optimistic outlook. We wanted most of the people to actually want to listen to us. But we didn't want to be honest and admit that it just wasn't true.

As I thought about this throughout my mission I slowly came to the conclusion that the only way I could make our companionship goals useful was to be honest about it and to lower my expectations. I reasoned that it is better to set an impossibly low goal and actually achieve it than it was to set a high "motivational" goal and not achieve it. The reason for this was the over time if our goals were never achieved then no matter how high (or moderately) they were set they became meaningless and were promptly ignored. It did not matter how motivated we were when we set the goal, if we consistently failed to achieve it then we consistently ignored it as irrelevant. But because of the seriousness of what we were doing we felt that it was not possible to treat our goal setting lightly or humorously, even with my companions who also saw the futility of the goal setting, we still took the setting of the impossible goals as seriously as we could.

So at some point during my mission I decided to try a new tactic, I would set low, achievable goals. Rather than using the standard method of calculating what should be our goal for charlas (which was generally to take the number of appointments set for the week and then add a random number of between 1 and 5, sometimes more, to the number of appointments we already had set and that set the goal for the next week). Instead I would take the number of charlas we had already set up and then divide that number by two to account for those that would fadge us and then subtract an additional one or two from that number to get my goal for the week. When I first proposed this idea, my companion, who was a big believer in setting impossible goals in order to motive us, said I was crazy and said that I was just trying to be lazy. I tried to explain to him my reasoning and he still insisted that I was trying to justify being lazy, so he went ahead and set his own goal of somewhere between 12-15 charlas for the coming week. I set a goal of 4.

The next week we looked back at what we had actually accomplished, and through no fault of our own we had managed to have a total of 4 charlas that week. It was the first time in my mission that I had managed to achieve the goal that I had set. I pointed this out to my companion when we were talking about our goals for the coming week, and he still insisted that I was just trying to be lazy. So again he set a goal of 14 or 15 charlas for the week. I set a goal of 5. We got 3.

After that I really stopped using the goals and focused more on the number of people I was teaching rather than the number of people I thought I should be teaching. The total number of charlas, and I must say the quality of the charlas, I was teaching went up after that. Things got better after that. While I had some companions who insisted that we go through the whole charade of making up an impossible goal that we would never keep, I learned to ignore the impossible and to focus on the possible. I learned how to make more realistic goals that weren't self-defeating and detrimental to my motivation.

While there is something to be said for setting high standards and for using goals to stretch us, I found that in order for that to work we must achieve some minimum level first because otherwise the goals that are meant to stretch and motivate us end up demotivating us and preventing us from being challenged to achieve at a higher level. It's a delicate balancing act, but we must keep in mind that when we set goals we should set them so that they can be achieved every now and then rather than always chasing The Impossible Dream.