Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention"

In light of the current events happening in the Arab world I thought that this short passage from The Book of Mormon was particularly applicable.

16Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a aking or kings to rule over you.
 17For behold, how much ainiquity doth one bwicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!
 . . .
 21And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous aking save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.
 22For behold, he has his afriends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;
 23And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he acauseth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous bking doth pervert the ways of all righteousness. (Mosiah 29:16-17,21-23)
 I think that the events of recent weeks, especially in Libya, prove the wisdom and truthfulness of these words. While many people, countries and nations have looked to kings, or strong autocratic rulers, as a solution to their current problems. Unfortunately the end result is usually more hardships and trouble for the people. In the end it never turns out to be a solution.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Original Second K.T. Post

[Update 4/17/11: Because most traffic about The Kolob Theorem was still being directed to my old post, I decided to replace my original post with this one, because this review is perhaps more informative than the original.]

Previously I had written a post entitled The Problem with "The Kolob Theorem", and in revisiting the topic I thought that I should expound on why I think The Kolob Theorem to be problematic. This post is intended to replace my previous review of The Kolob Theorem, but I will leave the other post up for anyone who cares to read it, but I will say that I wrote it in one of my less charitable moments. This post will hopefully be a little less harsh, but more instructive of why The Kolob Theorem presents a problem in LDS theology. For reference, I have recently been reading the book Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology by Erich Robert Paul, which has prompted me to recast my critique of The Kolob Theorem in a different light.

The first time I encountered The Kolob Theorem I was at my wife's grandparents house. Someone had loaned my wife's grandmother the book and I saw it sitting on a table and was intrigued by the title and wanted to know what it was about. I only took a quick glance through the book but it was enough to make my skin crawl. There were in fact two reasons for my seemingly severe negative reaction to the book. The first was that there were critical scientific errors in the book that effectively invalidated the whole argument, and the second was that I realized that most people would be unaware of these critical errors and thereby base their understanding of scripture on a foundation of incorrect science.

What made this second reason so problematic was that as an astronomer I would most likely be asked about it (and I was) and I would have to very carefully and politely explain that while the science was extremely off base the religious aspect of the book was not. In other words, I realized that whenever I would be asked about this book I would be faced with the dilemma of having to state quite clearly that the book was wrong, and do so without destroying someone's faith in the scriptures or causing the person to also reject all of science in the process. Essentially the dilemma is that on the one hand I want to emphasize the problems and misconceptions that went into the theorem, without causing people to react and go to the other extreme of rejecting everything that went into the theorem including both the science in general and the specifics of the revelations. This dilemma is much more difficult to deal with than people realize, and it also comes up more frequently than most people are aware of. Perhaps I am just a little more sensitive to this problem due to my being an astronomer, and therefore I become the local "go-to guy" to resolve these issues and thus I have to deal with things like this on a semi-frequent basis.

The Kolob Theorem is part of group of theological writings that are called natural theology. Strictly speaking, natural theology denotes a fundamental approach to theology as opposed to a specific theology. Thus natural theology is not confined to any one religion or church. The main trust of natural theology is to verify one's religion using arguments from the prevailing scientific theories and observations of the day. It is in effect an attempt to argue that one's religion is true based on the latest and greatest theories in science. This is problematic because if the latest and greatest theories are shown to be wrong then that automatically calls into question the theology and religion of the natural theologian.

Dr. Hilton's book is a prime example of the process, and problems, of natural theology. Starting with some basic astronomy, he moves on to make a theological argument about where God lives and where the three degrees of glory are located. As Erich Robert Paul pointed out in his book on Mormon cosmology, Joseph Smith never attempted to reconcile the knowledge of astronomy from the Book of Abraham, or the three degrees of glory with any contemporary astronomical observations. Thus Dr. Hilton is attempting what Joseph Smith never attempted. This may be very commendable and courageous, or more likely it may prove to be premature and problematic. To consider why this is problematic we need to consider other failed attempts at natural theology.

In the middle ages there was a type of world map called a T-O map that was common in the religious books at the time.
A reconstruction of a T-O map. Image from Wikipedia. Usually the map is represented with Asia (east) on top.
The purpose of the T-O map is to show the general layout of the world and how it reflects Christian theology. These maps were made to show how certain Christian doctrines are symbolically part of the world. The world is laid out in such a way that the cross of Christ is evident, with Jerusalem at the center (the cross being formed by the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile and the Don rivers). There was more symbolism in the O of the ocean surrounding the land (the complete, eternal circle of God, and water from the water and the blood). While the map may have been useful to teach certain religious doctrines, it is not very accurate when compared to an actual map of the world.
The T-O map superimposed on a modern map. Image from Wikipedia.
The way Dr. Hilton attempts to show the location and structure of the three degrees of glory only makes sense when using a very simplified map of the galaxy. Much in the same way that the T-O map of the world is only theologically useful when you assume a very simplified structure to the world. While the T-O map may be theologically instructive, it is rather useless as an actual map that may be used to get from point A to point B.

The end result is that the theological argument gets based on a very simplified, and very inaccurate, map of the world. The same happens with The Kolob Theorem. Dr. Hilton uses an excessively over simplified "map" of a galaxy to make a theological argument. The end effect of the theorem is to place the veracity of the revealed word, the scriptures, on a specific scientific theory or observation. To a natural theologian this is the desired result, but this has the unintended result of making revelation depend on something that may not be true, or that may change as our understanding changes. This is precisely the problem that plagues The Kolob Theorem.

For example, Dr. Hilton includes a quote from a famous astronomer, Fred Hoyle, to back up part of his theorem. The quote, found on page 25 of the book, comes from 1955 and at the time it expressed the current understanding of how stars formed in galaxies. But our understanding of astronomy has changed since then and parts of the view as expressed in Fred Hoyle's quote no longer reflects our understanding of star formation.

By basing part of his argument on a specific scientific theory, or insight, Dr. Hilton does himself a disservice because he places the interpretation and veracity of revealed scripture on something that can and will most likely change as we gain greater understanding of how the universe works. He is in effect setting himself up, and setting up his faith and by extension, the faith of others, to be disproven when the next largest telescope gets built and we find out more about the universe. That is, for me, a very problematic result to his theory. I would not want members of the Church to base their faith, testimony, or understanding of the scriptures on something that is already demonstratively false and will become more so as we gain new insights into the universe though our astronomical observations.

So in his attempt to make the latest and greatest astronomical observations into something "faith promoting", Dr. Hilton enters the realm of natural theology which "opens up a whole new can of worms" which may be more troublesome than Dr. Hilton realizes. Because the current astronomical observations are just that, current, they will grow old and become yesterday's observations and then last century's observations, and all the theories that they produced will have changed. This does not mean that we should reject all astronomical observations and untrue, unimportant or insignificant, but rather we should resist the temptation to base our faith on something that has proven throughout history to change. There should be a better foundation to our faith than the latest and greatest theories of science.

Also as a final note, I realize that many people are impressed with this book mostly because they have never considered the implications of what is written in the Book of Abraham and in the Doctrine and Covenants. Many of the positive comments posted on about the book are from people that say that the book "opened their eyes" or "made them think about their religion in a different way" and how it made "the plan of salvation more real". While I can't argue with their own personal feelings (and if the book did prompt them to investigate the scriptures more, then good I'm all for that), I do wish to temper their enthusiasm with the realization that to base our theology, faith and religion on something like The Kolob Theorem will ultimately result in a challenge to our faith and will not be "faith promoting" in the end. The truth of God is more amazing than anything that you will find in The Kolob Theorem.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I don't know where Kolob is, so stop asking.

I will just apologize up front, this post will be a rant.

In short, I don't know where Kolob is, so stop asking. Because I am an astronomer it seems like about once a month I get asked, "So, have you found Kolob yet?" Mostly when I get that question I respond with a simple, "No." But sometimes I am tempted to respond with much more, but usually that would involve technical explanations that would put my listeners to sleep long before I get to the punch line and the effect would be totally wasted. But for those who are tempted to ask their local LDS astronomer (like me) if they have "found Kolob yet" let me explain just what it is they are asking.

First, all we know about Kolob is this:
2 And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;

3 And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

4 And the Lord said unto me, by the Urim and Thummim, that Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof; that one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest. This is the reckoning of the Lord’s time, according to the reckoning of Kolob.

5 And the Lord said unto me: The planet which is the lesser light, lesser than that which is to rule the day, even the night, is above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest, therefore the reckoning of its time is not so many as to its number of days, and of months, and of years.

6 And the Lord said unto me: Now, Abraham, these two facts exist, behold thine eyes see it; it is given unto thee to know the times of reckoning, and the set time, yea, the set time of the earth upon which thou standest, and the set time of the greater light which is set to rule the day, and the set time of the lesser light which is set to rule the night.

7 Now the set time of the lesser light is a longer time as to its reckoning than the reckoning of the time of the earth upon which thou standest.

8 And where these two facts exist, there shall be another fact above them, that is, there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still;

9 And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

10 And it is given unto thee to know the set time of all the stars that are set to give light, until thou come near unto the throne of God.

11 Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made;

12 And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof.

13 And he said unto me: This is Shinehah, which is the sun. And he said unto me: Kokob, which is star. And he said unto me: Olea, which is the moon. And he said unto me: Kokaubeam, which signifies stars, or all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven.

14 And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.

15 And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words.

16 If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me.
This comes from the Book of Abraham Chapter 3, translated by Joseph Smith from ancient Egyptian papyri. So unless we talk to the original author (Abraham), the translator (Joseph Smith) or the revelator (God), or we  happen to have access to a set of Urim and Thummin there isn't anything we can add to what we read in the Book of Abraham. That's it, that's all we have. So to "look for Kolob" we would be looking for a star (no idea what type) "nigh unto the throne of God" which we have little idea what that is either. So to "find Kolob" we are looking for a star of unknown type, somewhere in the Universe (a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very big universe, emphasis on the big), that is somewhere close to "the throne of God" which, unless you have actually seen it, we have no idea what it looks like. Thus we are looking for a star (unknown type) next to something that we don't know what it is.

So to ask me "Have you found Kolob yet?" is like asking me, "Have you found that one thing that is next to that other thing?" Of course my answer will be "No." As soon as we know what that one thing is that is next to that other thing, and what that other thing is then I will know what I am looking for and then I might just be able to begin to look for it. Until then, don't ask.