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.


Glenn Hickman said...

none of what you say makes sense. you didn't try to prove his theory incorrect. This was not productive nor was it insightful and was in essence a very eloquent way of saying nothing.

Quantumleap42 said...


I don't know what your definition of "proof" is but I was not trying to give a scholarly break down of all the arguments in the Kolob Theorem. I was only giving my expert opinion that the theory can't even begin to hold water scientifically. If this were something published 50 or 60 years ago it would have been more significant, but astronomy has progressed a lot since then.

The point I was trying to make in my post is that if you take our current scientific understanding of the world or the universe and try to apply it to theological topics then you will always end up with a gross oversimplification of the truth. There may be some connections to make but it is something that needs to be done carefully since scientific understanding changes so much. If we try to base our faith and testimonies on a current scientific understanding (or in the case of The Kolob Theorem, outdated scientific understanding) then we will find that eventually our faith is eroded away.

There are somethings from science that can confirm our faith, but we should be hesitant to connect too much things that we do not understand.

Again I should point out that Dr. Hilton is not an astronomer, and no LDS astronomer attempted to write this book. I think there is a reason why LDS astronomers have not written a book like this and that is because they (we) recognize that we do not know enough either about astronomy or our own religion to write it.