Monday, September 10, 2012

Revisiting the Kolob Theorem

Almost two years ago I wrote a review of the book The Kolob Theorem by Dr. Lynn Hilton. At the time there were very few reviews of the book online, and I could only find one review written by someone with any level of expertise in astronomy. Two years ago most of the sites I visited that had a discussion about the book were most decidedly anti-Mormon and were exceptionally critical of the book (though their criticism was more an expression of a general hatred of all things Mormon and of religion in general, and not really a rational criticism of the book). There was only one review that discussed the actual scientific merits of the book when I wrote my review.

Originally I had no intention of writing a review of the book, but after coming across a few references to it, and having at least one person ask me about it I wrote a rather harsh and not very charitable review of the book. After a few comments from readers I returned and wrote a revised review of the book, which is at the moment the most popular post on my blog. It regularly gets about four times as many hits as any other post that I have written (which let's face it, isn't saying much, but still it does bring a number of people to my blog). When I wrote the review I had no idea that it would end up being my most popular post, and that even now, if you do a Google search for "Kolob Theorem" my review is generally the first or second link that comes up.

Now, two years after my initial review I felt that I should return and write something about the most common responses to the book and my review of it.

Here I will give my response to a few common comments about The Kolob Theorem. I will also respond to a few specific comments that were left on my blog and also comments made on other sites that I feel need to be addressed.

1. "Fascinating theory. Made me think." or "Interesting and thought-provoking."

Response: Yes it is interesting. There is a reason why The Kolob Theorem is such a draw. It talks about things that most people have never thought about before. Even for lifelong members of the Church Dr. Hilton talks about aspects of our theology that are never touch on in Sunday School, Sacrament Meeting or in Priesthood and Relief Society (though maybe occasionally in some random seminary or Elder's quorum meeting). In these cases the book is something refreshing and different and it makes them think about what is only mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants and in The Pearl of Great Price.

There are some real implications to those passages in the scriptures that Dr. Hilton uses as the basis of The Kolob Theorem and I think that those passages of scripture are wonderful to think about. We would all benefit by understanding those passages to a greater degree (such as Abraham 3:2-3). They are definitely a major aspect of my faith and also why I chose the profession that I did.

But before we all run off and say what a wonderful thing The Kolob Theorem is, here is your obligatory grain of salt:
A "grain" of salt.
I am only slightly exaggerating with that picture. I am not opposed to speculative books that "make people think" and are "thought-provoking". I am very much in favor of books like that. The only problem with The Kolob Theorem is that there are some fundamental flaws to the science side of the argument (Note: I am only talking about flaws in the science he uses, I have not, and will not  critique any of his theology). These fundamental flaws are not the kind where you can say, "Oh well, it's obvious that he would get some things wrong."

These flaws are so pronounced that they really undermine his entire book. Some people may respond and say that "at least it gets the conversation started." The only problem is that it starts the conversation off on such a bad footing that it is better to just chuck the book and start over. It would take more time and effort to correct all the mistakes than to write a new book.

The thing is all this could have been prevented if Dr. Hilton had just run the book past a real astronomer before sending it off to the publisher. The only people listed as having reviewed the book before being published are a couple of medical doctors, business people and a secretary to a general authority. No one with any expertise in astronomy apparently reviewed it and offered their opinion. This does not automatically invalidate what is written in the book, but due to its obvious (obvious to people who study astronomy for a living) short comings the book and most of its ideas would have been shot down before publication if an astronomer had been asked to read it and give their honest opinion of the science behind the theorem.

So if you fall in the "Hey this book really made me think" crowd I say "GOOD!" now forget most of what you read and go figure out what is really going on, because the reality of what is taught in the D&C and The Pearl of Great Price is better than what is portrayed in The Kolob Theorem.

This is such an important point that let me say it again. The truth is much more amazing than what has been written. Go learn the truth. You will be amazed.

2. The book is "a cohesive collection of ideas about Mormon cosmology."

Response: Read Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology by Erich Robert Paul. He's a real astronomer. That is the book that The Kolob Theorem should have been. Read Dr. Paul's book. That's all.

3. Don't be so harsh, after all it is just a "theory".

Response: There is a strange phenomena in America where people think that by labeling something a "theory" that it somehow makes it less forceful or something that can safely be ignored. In the words of that immortal swordsman "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." I'm sorry if this sounds a little harsh but when people use the word "theory" in this context it is just a lazy cop out that accomplishes nothing but end the conversation. Nothing is actually said when we say "Oh, it's just a theory."

That's a phrase that doesn't mean anything except "I'm slightly uncomfortable with where this conversation is heading because it challenges some of my fundamental assumptions on life and so I will make a quick dash for the exit by calling it all a theory. By doing that I somehow cast doubt on everything without having to actually do any work and show anything." Saying something is "just a theory" is the conversational equivalent of telling your history teacher "and then some other stuff happened." and expecting to get an "A" on that term paper.

4. "Your blog is not as significant as I thought" and your review won't make much of an impact.

Response: I keep this blog for anyone who cares to read it (which is mostly my family, thanks Mom!) and I never really intended to "make an impact" with my review. I just wanted to write down my thoughts so that if anyone asked me directly I could tell them to read my review on my blog. In the end my review has gotten a much bigger response than I ever anticipated.

5. I really enjoyed The Kolob Theorem and it has really opened my eyes to somethings. It's like you don't want people to consider these great truths.

Response: On the contrary. These are ideas that we should consider (see #1 above), but I think that The Kolob Theorem is the exact wrong place to start. If the book is some member's only exposure to some of the great truths and ideas found in scripture then they are really missing out on the best stuff. I would suggest some alternative reading. Try the book Science, Religion and Mormon Cosmology by Erich Robert Paul (mentioned in #2). If you want some general sciencey-LDS theology stuff to read about try LDS FAQ. It is a good resource to start.

6. Dr. Hilton had a "spark of inspiration [that] opened his eyes to far more than a few details of astrophysics."

Response: His "spark" was not unique. I have sat though many conversations on this very topic as an undergrad at BYU. Many such theories were proposed and just as many were shot down for being unworkable. Dr. Hilton's book was not the first place I have heard ideas like his, but most of those theories had a very short lifespan in the Physics and Astronomy Department at BYU. This is stuff that many, many undergrads (and some professors) like to speculate about.

Most of the speculation revolves (ha!) around black holes and neutron stars. About 99.95% of the theories die a very quick death under scrutiny. Some of the best ideas I have ever heard were proposed in a class on general relativity, and those ideas are light years beyond anything Dr. Hilton wrote. There is some pretty remarkable stuff talked about late at night in the physics department, but there is a reason why hardly anyone has written about it. There is too much speculation and the people involved generally realize that there is soooo much that we don't know, and that our scientific understanding changes so rapidly that it is not a good idea to put such extreme speculations into a book.

Just consider this: The thoughts and ideas that Dr. Hilton had were not unique. Many, many students at BYU have proposed just such ideas to their classmates. Some professors have even hinted at similar speculations, yet none of them chose to write The Kolob Theorem, and it is not for lack of ideas, or lack of a desire to speculate. There is plenty of that. In the end Dr. Hilton was in way over his head and didn't realize that he was writing down just about every half baked idea that was ever proposed by intro astronomy students at BYU. There is a reason why those half baked ideas never made it out of the labs and classrooms in the Eyring Science Center.

7. Do you apply the same level of criticism to the Church, its teachings, its leaders and the scriptures?

Response: Yes.

And that is why I believe.

9 comments:

Shae Leah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shae Leah said...

My interest in astronomy in the Gospel was perked when I heard of this book. I appreciate your review and advice. I will still read it but now with a much more objective view and I will be looking into the book by Dr. Paul that you recommend. Also, I love #7. Thank you for your post!

Quantumleap42 said...

Shae,

Thanks for your comment. I should mention that Dr. Paul's book is a lot more scholarly than most people are used to, so it may be a little dense. It is still worth the read.

Anonymous said...

Good day...I read Hilton's theorem last year, I liked it as much as I like any speculation be it from mormon theology or Greek theology. I understand your main point is that the science doesn't work which is fine, but I am still desirous to to see some specifics...regardless of whether or not the layman can understand it...can you not show some specific main points in the theorem and then explain how it is wrong? (or if you already did point me in the right direction, but I am not seeing it and I read all the comments on the two posts)
Thanks

by the way I don't 42 is a good number in Japan :)

Quantumleap42 said...

I finally got around to writing a post that deal with some of the scientific issues with the KT. You can read that post by following this link.

Anonymous said...

I am another anonymous but not the original one. Call me anon2. I just want to say how refereshing it is to see a serious astronomer correct amateur errors in over zealous LDS authors like Dr Hilton. I was enlightened by your analysis. Thank you for the great efforts. Now if I can get you to review Eric Skousen "earth, In the Beginning." Lol! I am actually serious.

Kerry A Shirts said...

How do I email you? This is anon2 again.

Findlayt6 said...

I have read your critiques of the Kolob Theory ...since our understanding of the Universe is still progressing perhaps one day our scientific truths will validate his Theology . I found the book interesting and some aspects of what the author is proposing a little implausible but who are we to put limits on what Heavenly Father can do in creating worlds and expanding his Kingdoms .

Quantumleap42 said...

Findlayt6,

Allow me to explain. There are five different questions or points involved here.

1. The revelations given to Joseph Smith. At no point did I discuss these or try to give any interpretation of them. I believe them and feel that there is much we can learn from them, but in giving my critique of the the Kolob Theorem I purposely stayed away from any discussion of the revelations.

2. Dr. Hilton's interpretation of the revelations given to Joseph Smith. We all read and understand the scriptures according to our own understanding. It's a fundamental part of our existence. In order to avoid any possible hint that I was discussing the revelations (#1), I purposely did not give of a critique of Dr. Hilton's interpretation of the revelations. I have some misgivings of how he reads them, but I will say nothing about that since it is easy to misconstrue a critique of Dr. Hilton's interpretation of the revelations as a critique of the revelations themselves.

3. How our current understanding of astronomy fits with the revelations given to Joseph Smith. I mentioned this briefly, but only to mention that it is common for students in the Physics and Astronomy department at BYU to give their own theories as to how modern astronomy and physics relate to the revelations. But most LDS physics majors realize that they don't know enough the even begin to discuss the connections. I have a PhD in astrophysics and I barely know enough to see how there might be a connection.

4. Dr. Hilton's understanding of astronomy. This is where I based almost all of my critique. His understanding of astronomy ranges from introductory to misinformed. Some of it is flat out wrong. This is where the fatal flaw is in his theory. If he can't get the astronomy right, there is no chance that he can understand how modern astronomy fits with the revelations. It doesn't matter how well he understands the revelations, and it doesn't matter whether his interpretation of the revelations is correct or not, if he can't get the astronomy right, his theory is dead on arrival.

5. The astronomy that Dr. Hilton used. While he did use modern images taken with modern telescopes, Dr. Hilton relied on the work of astronomers whose data and understanding is out of date. When the astronomers were doing their work they were leaders in their field, but the field has moved on since then because we have more, and better, data. It is nearly impossible to express just how much the field of astronomy has changed in the last 30 years. This is part of why Dr. Hilton failed so spectacularly at #4.

While our understanding of the universe will continue to expand there are some things that will not change with an increased understanding of the universe. For example, we will never do away with gravity, or we will never realize that the earth is actually flat. In the same way there is no way that our understanding of the universe will progress such that Dr. Hilton's ideas (#4 and #5, above. Note, this does not include #2, which I will not comment on) will be validated.

That leaves the question of #3. There is no way we can even begin to answer #3 if we use Dr. Hilton's ideas as a starting point. Saying this in no way "puts limits on what Heavenly Father can do", but if we don't realize that Dr. Hilton was wrong to begin with, then that will put limits on what we understand about Heavenly Father.