Sunday, December 17, 2017

My Favorite Logical Fallacy: The Suppressed Correlative

In a post that I wrote last year I noted how some paradoxes could be resolved if you just considered how there has been a subtle shift in the definition of a word. In the case of the heap paradox the word heap is inherently vague and has no exact number. But the paradox is created when the definition of heap is given an exact number, that is, the word is redefined to include additional information that was not present in the original definition. With the heap paradox the definition is narrowed, unknown to perhaps everyone involved, in the course of the discussion, thereby creating the paradox. It is precisely a paradox because the key word, term, phrase, or idea is modified without the knowledge of those involved.

Redefining words is not necessarily a problem. It is only a problem if confusion and misunderstanding results from the redefinition, or if by redefining the word something in our understanding is lost. The redefinition of words should only help increase understanding, not destroy it.

So if the heap paradox relies on narrowing the definition of a vague word, what about the opposite, extending or broadening the definition? The opposite falls under a group of fallacies related to what is called the correlative. For every defined word there is a correlative, or everything that is not covered by the definition of that word.

For example, the word cat refers to a type of four-legged, furry animal that eats meat. When I use the word cat what I mean by that is generally understood. This includes house cats, mountain lions, tigers, lions, lynxes, panthers, and all kinds of cats. Despite the word cat being well defined there is inherent fuzziness to what constitutes a cat. For example, should a civet fall under the definition of a cat?
A civet. Image from Wikipedia.
What about a mongoose?
Pictures of mongooses. Image from Wikipedia.
At this point it is stretching the definition of the word cat. There definitely are things that are cats and there are things that are not cats, like dogs, horses, rocks, and rivers. Between the two, cats and not-cats, there is a grey area where it is debatable whether or not the word cat applies. The ambiguity at the edge of the definition is not a problem, that is just the nature of language, but it is very clear that there are cats and not-cats, even if the dividing line is not always clear.

With the word cat there is a specific definition that is understood by everyone. Thus there are things that are cats. The correlative to cats are not-cats, or everything that is not a cat. If we take the definition of the word cat and broaden it so that it includes all four-legged, furry creatures then it includes things such as civets and mongooses, but also dogs, cows, and horses. By making the definition too broad we can include not-cats in the definition of cat. This is referred to as suppressing the correlative.

We can change the definition, or make it so broad that it begins to include things that should be part of the correlative. If taken too far we can shrink, or suppress the correlative to the point that the original definition becomes meaningless. Or in other cases we make the definition so broad that it subsumes the definition of another word, such as extending the definition of cat until it is practically synonymous with the word mammal. So by suppressing the correlative we include things in the definition that are not supposed to be there, and in some cases the definition is extended to the point that we already have a word for the broader definition.

Talking about cats and not-cats may seem a little ridiculous, and just a bit too theoretical. So are there real examples of someone suppressing the correlative? Yes! This is a real thing. People do it all the time. You would be surprised at how often it comes up. When I talk about the definition of the word cat and extending it so that it includes things like dogs and sheep it is tempting to say that no one would do anything so ridiculous. But they do. They do it all the time.

Real example #1 of suppressing the correlative: Bad definitions of socialism.

Recently I was having a discussion with one of my students and he casually stated that when it comes down to it any form of taxation and government spending is really just socialism. This idea has even been summarized in a meme that made the rounds last year.
A good example of suppressing the correlative. Relies on a bad definition of socialism.
According to this anything done by the government is a form of socialism. There are many people who would severely object to suppressing the correlative and calling a dog a cat, but would not realize that the above meme commits the exact same fallacy.

There are types of governments that are socialist, and there are governments that are not-socialist. What the above meme does, and what my student did, was to take the definition of socialism and stretches it beyond its original definition until the concept of not-socialism doesn't exist. Socialism by definition is when the means of production, distribution, and exchange is controlled by the government in a democratic system. This definition puts boundaries on what socialism is and is not. Under this standard definition of socialism fire departments, public schools, and highways do not fall under the definition of socialism (social security is in that grey area).

If we extend the definition of socialism to include these things then it erases the distinction between a socialist vs. non-socialist government. In the case of my student who took the definition of socialism so far that he defined it as all taxing and spending, then the definition became entirely useless because we already have a word for that, government. Because socialism is a form of government, that means there are governments that are not-socialist. If you extend the definition of socialism to essentially mean government, then you have included not-socialism in the definition of socialism, and have suppressed the correlative.

Real example #2: Taxation is theft.

Among strict libertarians there is a saying that "taxation is theft". Without going into too much detail this sentiment relies on the fallacy of suppressing the correlative. It takes the definition of theft and broadens it in such a way that it is rendered useless. Whatever their objections are to taxes and government in general, I would recommend that libertarians stay away from this particular logical fallacy. It never helps your cause to use particularly bad logical fallacies, because the type of people you will recruit to your cause will be those who do not mind, or do not know that they are using logical fallacies. It does not make for a rational movement.

Real example #3: Fake news.

Real fake news (yes that is a thing) is a real problem. But a certain politician and his copycats have taken to calling everything they don't like fake news. This was easy to do because fake news had a very vague definition to begin with, so unlike something like the definition of cat, it was very prone to be redefined. Unfortunately they have redefined it in such a way that the include not-fake news under the umbrella of fake news. And based on things I have seen shared on Facebook people actually believe this fallacy. See my comment about rational movements above.

Real example #4: A random discussion on Facebook about "Science".

Recently I came across this random discussion on Facebook about what constitutes science. One of the people involved (who I will refer to as Charles) made the error of suppressing the correlative and got called out on it (by someone I will call Daniel). What I find utterly fascinating about this discussion is just how beautifully "Charles" suppresses the correlative and is blissfully unaware of just how far he has gone. There was a lot more going on in the discussion but I will pick out the important parts below:
Charles: What's the alternative to science in obtaining knowledge? If someone believes there are better (or even alternate) methods for obtaining knowledge, the last thing I would say is "no there aren't". I would simply ask, "What are they?" 
Daniel: Personal acquaintance is a pretty good alternative. So is historical research. Mathematics isn't bad, either. Hearing stories. Listening to music. Reading novels. None of this is science. 
Charles: these to me are all science. 
Daniel: Then all true knowledge really IS science, just as -- if we define all sports as baseball -- all athletic activity is . . . cue drumroll . . . BASEBALL! (QED.) 
Charles: To me science is simply methodological measurement. The lack of methodological control in one's measurement makes something less scientific, but it also makes it less reliable.... "What was the size of the Roman army in 100BC?" is just as much of a scientific (measurable) question as "How are you feeling today?" 
Daniel: To suggest that Roman history is "science" is to broaden the meaning of the term "science" in a very unhelpful way. "Methodological measurement" has little or nothing to do with historiography, art criticism, understanding poetry, human acquaintance, music appreciation, or any other of scores of distinct fields of human knowledge. I'm reminded of Moliere's "Bourgeois Gentilhomme," who was astonished to discover that, all his life, he had been speaking PROSE! Most people, watching a "Jason Bourne" movie or reading a Charles Dickens novel, would be astonished -- and quite properly so -- to be told that, in doing so, they were doing "science." 
Charles: As I already mentioned, to the degree that someone is not being methodological with their categorization of information, they're NOT doing science. But I also fail to see how the lack of methodology in their information categorization can rightly be called knowledge.... Certainly there are other human activities that are not science. Without question.... Science is (and can only be) the only reliable method for obtaining knowledge. When we talk about music appreciation, it's either any random opinion being equal to any other, or it's based on a methodological categorization of information pertaining to music. I'm assuming people who earn degrees in this would argue true musical "knowledge" looks more like the latter. 
Daniel: Just as, in my view, you stretch the meaning of "science" so far as to compromise its usefulness, your overly board definition of "measurement" threatens to make the term useless. Anyway, in the same spirit, I might judge the essence of science to be close and disciplined observation -- rather like art appreciation. Thus, I think I'll argue that all true knowledge is art appreciation.
The essence of the fallacy, as pointed out by "Daniel" is that it takes a definition and stretches it to the point that it is no longer useful. The word was defined originally because there was a need to distinguish between A and not-A. When that necessary distinction gets washed out, and it results in a loss of understanding or confusion then it is a fallacy.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the purpose of recognizing logical fallacies is not so that you can go out and point them out to those who employ them, but rather so that you do not fall into that trap. Once you learn how to recognize this fault in thinking found in other people's arguments, you may be able to find it in your own thinking. Some other common places this pops up: the definition of faith, the definition of religion (especially those who try to call atheism a religion), and the definition of "theory".

PS: My observation that it is not a good idea to point out logical fallacies directly to other people (i.e. "Charles") is still true. I tested it, again, and yes I got the same result as before.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Parables and Big Fish: Rereading Jonah

In Church lessons when we talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan the discussion centers on what we learn from it, and how it applies to our lives. Sometimes the discussion centers on why Jesus chose a Samaritan to be the protagonist in his parable, but the question of historical or factual accuracy never comes up. In talking about the parable we do not ask if there really was a historical Samaritan who stopped to help a man who was left for dead on the side of the road. Neither do we argue that a Samaritan would never actually stop to help a Jew, nor do we question Jesus for having the priest and the Levite walk by without stopping. Those questions in the story do not distract us from the point of the parable which is that we must treat everyone, even people we may not like, as our neighbor.

We do not mistake the parable for an actual story that must be analyzed for its historicity or whether or not the characters were based on real people. Even though the story is not historical we do not consider it to be untrue. We recognize the purpose of the story is not to convey history but to teach a moral.

This sets the parable of the Good Samaritan apart from some of the other stories in the New Testament. For example the story of Jesus’ baptism is not presented as a story with a moral, but as a historical event. With this story it is appropriate to discuss where exactly it took place, even to point out that it happened because there was much water there. For the story of Christ’s baptism it is appropriate, and probably necessary, to consider the historical context, while the parable of the Good Samaritan can be told independent of the historical context.

In an interview with LDS Perspectives Podcast Benjamin Spackman talked about the concept of genre in the Bible. He made the point that the Bible is a collection of many different stories, prophecies, teachings, laws, sermons, and histories. In essence it is a mix of many different genres and while it may be easy to separate some of the different genres, sometimes we can mistake the genre of a particular book or passage in the Bible and that can lead us to misunderstand the Bible.

If we were to focus our discussion of the Good Samaritan on whether or not it was historically accurate we would miss the point, that it is a parable, or a morality tale. If we were to talk about the baptism of Jesus as only an inspirational metaphor then we would be missing the obvious indicators of it as a historical event.

While some things in the Bible are clearly labeled as a parable or a prophecy or history, there are some things that are not clearly labeled. It is these things that can sometimes cause confusion. If we treat something as literal history when it is a parable, teaching tool, or a social commentary then we run the risk of looking beyond the mark and lose the intent of what we find in the Bible. If we make this mistake then we will go looking for historical events that never happened. We might get caught up in a pointless debate about whether or not there actually were any Samaritans who traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and miss the point entirely.

While it may seem silly to debate the historicity of the Good Samaritan, there are other stories in the Bible that were written to teach a moral and provide social commentary, and not be literal history, but are unfortunately interpreted as history. One such story is the story of Jonah.

For many members, discussions about Jonah center on analyzing the motivations and actions of him as a real man, as well as whether or not someone could actually survive for three days in the belly of a whale. That is, the central concern that we have when we discuss Jonah is the historicity of the story. Sometimes we are more concerned with confirming the literal fulfillment of an apparent miracle than we are of learning the central message of the story. While Jonah was a real person, the actual book of Jonah never presents itself as a literal history, and there are some subtle things about it that set it apart from all the other writings of the prophets.

To give Jonah a little perspective we have to realize that Jonah, the historical man, lived less than 50 years before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria, which capital city was Nineveh. The book of Jonah was not written by Jonah, and was most likely written after Israel was destroyed by armies from Nineveh. So whoever wrote the book of Jonah was making a somewhat ironic point by having Jonah go to Nineveh. In the story everyone, including the pagan sailors and all the illiterate citizens of Nineveh, obeyed God's commands. Everyone, that is, except the Israelite. The one who is supposed to be the most faithful and chosen of God is consistently less faithful than the illiterate (i.e. does not read the scriptures) and superstitious sailors and citizens.

These things, and a few others, mark the story of Jonah as a parable or a social commentary. It is not trying to pass itself off as literal history. For some this would seem to undermine the story of Jonah, but recognizing the genre of the Book of Jonah no more undermines it than recognizing that the story of the Good Samaritan as a parable destroys its lessons and power to teach. But by understanding it for what it is, we can get over the big fish and understand the message of Jonah.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sci-Fi Sanity Check

A friend wrote me an email a few days ago asking for a sci-fi sanity check. He had been reading a series of sci-fi books where some interesting physics was used to destroy a hostile alien race. He was wondering if the the methods used were credible and could actually be used in a hypothetical space battle. Below are his questions followed by my responses.

Question 1:

"First, they had a fleet of ships fire nuclear weapons while travelling close to the speed of light towards the battle. The idea was that the wavelength of the energy from the blast would experience an intense doppler effect, and hit the enemies at an incredibly high frequency. This gave the weapons far more devastating effects than would have otherwise been possible."

Response 1:

This question is one that I looked at and said, "Oh, there is an easy answer to that." But the more I thought about it the more complex it became. So I went and asked a real nuclear physicist in my department and we both thought about it for a while and concluded that the issue is irrelevant anyway, though there are some interesting physics questions underneath that made us scratch our heads, but none of which would make a better weapon.

The first problem is a misconception of where most of the energy in a nuclear blast goes. When an atom bomb goes boom it does release a significant amount of gamma radiation. That is just something that happens. When the uranium or plutonium fissions it will release a gamma ray, which is very energetic as far as electromagnetic radiation goes, and very dangerous, but the vast majority of the energy actually is carried away by the fission products. That is, the daughter isotopes of the nuclear reaction carry most of the energy in the form of kinetic energy. The gamma radiation will fry you, but the thing that actually creates the blast is the huge number of particles with huge kinetic energies that will rip you apart. The gamma radiation will ionize the atoms in your body, but the thing that will literally blast you to smithereens is the fissioned material with huge amounts of kinetic energy.

The gamma radiation will only carry away like 10% of the total energy from a nuclear blast, the rest is in the kinetic energy of the atoms after they split apart.

So if you accelerated it to high speeds the only part of the blast that would be doppler shifted would be the radiation. The particles that make up the most dangerous part of the nuclear weapon would not be doppler shifted. So the radiation (gamma rays) from a nuclear weapon that has been accelerated to the near the speed of light would get columnated, doppler shifted, and would be more energetic in the direction of motion, but you would have to be going at like 99.9998 % the speed of light before the doppler shift would make the radiation that much more dangerous than it already was. For example if the bomb was traveling at 90% the speed of light then it would only raise the energy of the gamma radiation by a factor of 4. To make a significant difference you would literally need to be going 99.9998% the speed of light. At that speed that energy of the photons would be shifted by a factor of 1000, but only on an extremely narrow beam directly directly in front of the blast. A deviation by as little as 0.5 degrees would decrease the doppler shift by a factor of 10 (an overall increase of only a factor of 100). So aiming would have to be extremely precise, which means the detonation would have have to occur right on target or any doppler advantage would be lost.

But the main issue with this scenario, and the thing that makes everything I discussed above pointless, is that at relativistic speeds the kinetic energy far exceeds any possible yield from the atom bomb. For every kilogram of plutonium there is a theoretical total yield of about 20 kilotons of TNT, which comes to about 8x10^13 joules of energy. A kilogram of lead moving at 10% the speed of light has kinetic energy of about 5x10^14 joules, or almost 10 times as much energy as you would get from an atom bomb.

If you take that up to 90% the speed of light, 1 kg of lead would have kinetic energy of about 1x10^17 joules, or about 20 megatons of TNT, which is about the yield of the largest hydrogen bomb the US ever tested. At relativistic speeds the kinetic energy of the case that holds the bomb would have orders of magnitude more energy than anything the atom bomb could produce. So accelerating an atom bomb to relativistic speeds in order to take advantage of the doppler effect is kind of like strapping a stick of dynamite to the front of a semi truck traveling at 100 mph. It's not the dynamite that will kill you.

The key is that at relativistic speeds everything has such high kinetic energy that normal stuff like atom bombs are tiny in comparison. Just getting a hunk of metal up to relativistic speeds would make it much more dangerous than any atom bomb.

Question 2:

"The second thing they did was accelerate a barren planet to a significant fraction of light speed (I recognize there are issues with that too, but they never tried to give a scientific explanation for doing that) and send it through the star where their adversaries lived. The result of the high speed mass applying high pressure and force as it passed through was to cause an increase of fusion (because of the mass pushing stellar material together really hard) which released a tremendous burst of additional energy, causing it to become a supernova."

...Yes? It is conceivable. The star would have to be pretty big to begin with, but in order to get a planet to do that it would need to be going really, really, really, really fast. Like 99.9998% the speed of light. In order to get the level of pressure needed to make that happen you would either need a really big planet (basically another star) or an earth sized planet traveling at 99.9998% the speed of light.

But then we run into the same problem as before. At that speed the planet would have a HUGE amount of kinetic energy. We are talking about 10^44 joules of kinetic energy. To put that in perspective, that is the same amount of energy as a type Ia supernova. So yes, crashing a planet into a star at 99.9998% the speed of light would probably cause the star to undergo a massive amount of fusion setting off a supernova. But in order to do that the planet would need to have kinetic energy equivalent to a supernova to begin with. It's kind of like dropping an atom bomb on an atom bomb in the hope of getting the second atom bomb to go off. If you got the planet going that fast, hitting a star with it would be pointless since just about anything you hit with it would release enough energy that it would create a supernova sized explosion.

If your goal is to obliterate an enemy planet with a supernova sized blast, and if you could get an earth sized planet up to 99.9998% you wouldn't have to aim it at the star in the hope of setting off a chain reaction that would fuse all the hydrogen in the star. Just have it hit anything, a planet or a star, within a relatively short distance, say 3-4 light years, and that will release enough energy to make a supernova equivalent explosion and cook the alien planet. If your goal is to kill your enemy with an atom bomb, and you have an atom bomb, then just drop your bomb. Don't go for Pinky and the Brain level of complexity and drop it on another bomb hoping to set it off.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Why the Neutron Star Collision was an Important Observation

I am going to take a moment to actually talk about astrophysics (I know, it's a shock! To actually talk about what I do).

Back on August 17th the LIGO gravity wave observatory detected gravity waves from the collision of two neutron stars. This was quickly followed by the detection of a gamma ray burst by the Fermi space telescope, and then a host of other observations from other telescopes. This event quickly became the most heavily observed single event in astronomy. There are several good general reviews of what happened that are very accessible to the average reader (NY Times, NPR, Veritasium, and one more in depth from, there is also a whole webpage about the detection with links to many papers).

So I won't go over the basics because you can get that from other sources, but I will talk about some of the more technical implications to the detection.

First, gold. Gold is very important in astronomy because it is very heavy and hard to make. Usually astronomers ignore the different types of elements, we are usually only concerned about hydrogen and helium. There is a joke in astronomy that the astronomer's periodic table of elements is the simplest one since we only have three elements, hydrogen, helium, and "metals". We refer to everything that is not hydrogen and helium and metals (that includes decidedly non-metallic elements like nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and neon). It keeps things simple.
But when it comes to metals we are concerned with what we call metallicity, that is the relative amount of metals compared to hydrogen and helium. Because hydrogen and helium make up a combined 98% of the mass of the universe, on a cosmological scale everything else is just a rounding error. But on smaller scales (small, as in the size of a cluster of galaxies) the amount of metals becomes important. Except for a tiny amount of lithium, everything that is not hydrogen and helium was produced inside stars, one way or another.

When a star goes through its life cycle it will return a significant amount of mass back into the interstellar medium in the form of stellar winds. For a large star with an initial mass of 10-20 times the mass of the sun, the star may return 80-90% of its mass to the interstellar medium in the form of stellar winds, or a nova or even a supernova. So while a star may start out as almost entirely hydrogen and helium when it forms, the gas that returns to the interstellar medium will be slightly enriched with metals, that is, the metallicity will go up. This enriched gas that has been returned to the interstellar medium will go on to form a second generation of stars, which will still be almost entirely hydrogen and helium, but now with a tiny fraction more of metals. The process will repeat, and each time it does the gas will become more enriched with metals. In order to have enough metals that rocky planets such as the earth can form the gas must go through at least 20 star formation and enrichment cycles. To date, the highest metallicity ever observed in a star is about three times the metallicity of the sun.
Because of something called the nucleon binding energy only elements up to iron can be produced in the conventional way inside of stars. Anything heavier than iron needs to be produced in another way because it is en endothermic reaction and requires huge amounts of energy. Some heavy elements are produced in supernovas but there is a subtle problem with that. While there certainly is enough energy in a supernova explosion to produce the heavier elements, most of the mass that is blown off in a supernova is hydrogen. It would take an immense amount of energy and a string of complex, and highly improbably reactions to convert that much hydrogen into elements as heavy as gold and lead.

In nuclear physics there are two processes which can produce heavier elements, named the r-process and the s-process (unimaginatively the r and s stand for rapid and slow respectively). The s-process takes less energy and a much lower neutron flux, and can happen over long time scales. In the s-process heavy elements are built up slowly one neutron at a time, and allows for neutrons to decay into protons.

The r-process requires huge amounts of energy, and a truly astronomical neutron flux. A parent element is bombarded with a huge number of neutrons to make an extremely unstable isotope. The only thing keeping it from decaying into smaller elements is the rate at which neutrons are bombarding the nucleus. While a supernova has enough energy for the r-process, there is a distinct lack of neutrons to achieve the neutron flux necessary for the r-process to take place. It does happen, just not at a high enough rate to explain the amount of gold, lead, uranium, and other really heavy elements we observe in the universe. So while normal stellar processes can explain the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen we see, and novas and supernovas can explain the amount of aluminum, iron, nickle, and zinc we see, neither of those can explain the amount of gold, silver, lead, and uranium we see.

This is where merging neutron stars come in. In the collision there certainly is enough energy for the nucleosynthesis to take place, and because there are two massive sources of neutrons being ripped apart, the problem of meeting the minimum neutron flux is solved. But up until now we had no hard confirmation of neutron star mergers, much less finding evidence of r-process production of heavy elements. It has been suspected for years, but only with the LIGO detection and the followup observations of the nova remnant has this been confirmed. With the detection of r-process reactions in the remnant of the merger we can now conclude that almost all of the gold, uranium and other very heavy elements come from neutron star mergers.

Below is an updated periodic table of elements that shows where each element comes from. Some come from more than one source, but you can see just how many elements were detected in the neutron star merger. The purple shows elements from neutron star mergers. It is much more than gold. This is why the detected merger was so important. It showed us where many of the heavy elements came from like gold, silver, lead, platinum, iodine, bismuth, tin, uranium, and many more.
From Wikipedia. You can see a larger version here.
For my own research this does not change what I am doing. While most very heavy elements come from neutron star mergers, most metals come from normal stellar process that are already accounted for in my models. The detection of the merger does not change the overall metallicity, but it does slightly change the relative ratios of the different metals. But this change is not significant enough to impact what I do. The overall metallicity is extremely important, but the heavy elements are still too rare to make any difference. This could be more relevant to those who work on rocky planet formation, and also nucleosynthesis in interstellar space. But my work does not get down to that level of refinement. I work on fairly large objects where individual stars, and even supernovas are below the level of my resolution. So while it is exciting, it does not affect my work directly, but at some point someone may provide a slight modification to some of the models that I use that may change a few of the minor outputs.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cheating at Connect the Dots: Failing to see the whole picture of Mormonism

Recently I was reading an article by a historian of Mormon history and it got me thinking about playing connect the dots. You see, playing connect the dots is easy... if you ignore most the dots. Consider the image below. It contains a number of different color dots. The question is, can you see the star in the dots?

How about now? Can you see the star? All I have done is emphasize a few important dots, and now all I have to do is connect the dots.

With the dots now connected the star is easy to see. Sure the dots aren't perfectly aligned with the star but that's only because I didn't take the time fully flesh out the star. With a little more work the misalignment could be fixed and the minor discrepancies could be smoothed over. Only those who are extremely nitpicky will complain about the misalignment, and that only distracts from my point that there is a red star in there.

So why am I talking about a manufactured star and connecting the dots? As historians approach history, by definition, they do not have all the facts, nor were they impartial observers of the totality of events. It is the job of a historian to take as much information as possible and attempt to build a coherent image of the past, or at least a single person or event, based on as much information as possible. Historian effectively play an extremely complicated game of connect the dots.

Their work is very similar to mine, I cannot go directly and observe stars and galaxies close up, nor can I see how they behave over millions and billions of years, so I am reduced to playing a very complicated game of connect the dots.

But in these games there are certain rules. It is easy to connect the dots of history into just about any natural progression of events after the fact. But in doing so we have to be careful not to ignore those things that undermine the point we are trying to make.

For example, I could use the Declaration of Independence, Shays' Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War, and the modern Tea Party to make the case that the founding principle of the United States is rebellion and distrust of government. I could probably write a fairly convincing argument, backed up with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, centered on the idea that to be American is to rebel.

But in order to make this argument I would have to ignore many other important founding principles of American society, such as representative democracy, constitutional government, separation of powers, personal liberties, and English common law. A similar argument regarding many other aspects of American society showing a coherent progression of history culminating in the latest manifestation of that defining characteristic. In fact most modern political positions attempt to do just that by tying current debates to what are assumed to be foundational principles.

Whenever we do this we run the risk of taking a few minor points of history and trying to superimpose a particular overall shape or interpretation to it. This is even more tempting when a few of the points are not just minor, but seemingly dominate the historical map (just like in the second image above). If I were to make the case that rebellion runs deep in American society I could make that argument quite persuasively using well known events such as the Revolutionary War, but to say that the United States is founded on rebellion ignores the fact that the United States was not organized from rebellion, but under a constitution formed out of democratic compromise. And it ignores the fact that the vast majority of American history did not involve rebellion, but democratic debate and the application of constitutional law.

So when I recently read an article by Grant Shreve entitled How Mormons Have Made Religion Out of Doubt, I thought about how he was connecting the dots. In his article Shreve makes the case that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded on the idea of an evolving scriptural canon." While this is certainly true because it is a large and important point in LDS thought, he connects this central idea to other contemporary and historical events in such a way that he is effectively playing connect the dots by blatantly ignoring other large and just as important parts of LDS thought.

Shreve uses the story of James Colin Brewster to try to show that "If the church seems to have lost its way, a new revelation may be just around the bend." and that "The legacy of James Colin Brewster and numerous other Mormon dissidents lives on in the Remnant, a diffuse international movement of disaffected Mormons." This Remnant organization that Shreve sees as a natural product of LDS though, "answers the doubts many Mormons harbor by offering more revelations and additional scriptures."

Thus Shreve takes the idea of an open canon and makes the case that these historical and contemporary dissident movements are simply a natural extension of LDS thought. But in making this argument Shreve ignores other important points just as integral to LDS thought. Points such as priesthood authority and keys, and church hierarchy. He does briefly acknowledge these things, but they are not mentioned as foundational and fundamental to LDS thought.

While Shreve uses the concept of the open canon to make his point he completely ignores the actual content of that new canon. Just as someone might argue that the United States was founded on rebellion, they would have to ignore the fact that the United States is actually founded on constitutional democracy. They would have to ignore the bulk of US history and law.

The concepts of priesthood authority and church hierarchy are acknowledged by Shreve, but he views these not as foundational but later additions where Joseph Smith sought to "consolidated revelatory power in himself and a select cadre of elites." Furthermore, the structure of the church is only described in negative terms such as "elaborate", "complex" and made of "byzantine bureaucracies" which "disrupted the mystical and communal experiences of Mormonism’s salad days."

Thus the point that Shreve is trying to make is that the impulse to have new mystical revelations is the natural state of Mormonism, with new prophets popping up "if the church seems to have lost its way" to provide new books of revelation. Thus, based on this reasoning, the Remnant movement is truly following the principle started by Joseph Smith, and the elaborate, complex and byzantine bureaucracies of the modern LDS church only serve to stifle the true expression of Mormonism.

Unfortunately this game of connecting the dots blatantly ignores much of the rest of the content of Mormonism. The "consolidation of revelatory power" was not a late development imposed by Joseph Smith, but rather was an early and foundational principle. If we ignore this fact, we fail to see the whole picture of Mormonism.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Nephite Hymns

Just like every other culture in the world the Nephites had their own songs and would sing as a form of religious observance. In the Book of Mormon there are several references to singing (see Mosiah 2:28, Mosiah 18:30, Alma 5:9, Alma 26:8, Moroni 6:9). Except perhaps the psalm of Nephi, there is nothing obviously set apart as a hymn, but there is no indication that Nephi's psalm was used as a hymn in the Nephite church.

So what were the hymns sung by the Nephites? It is possible that they used some of the psalms found in our Old Testament, though they may not have had the Davidic psalms. Still, there are two places where Mormon records that the Nephites sang, and Mormon may have recorded at the very least the names of the hymns sung.

Just a few years before Jesus visited the Nephites they were engaged in a massive war with the Gadianton Robbers. After the final victorious battle with the robbers the Nephites took the leader of the Gadiantons and executed him. At this point Mormon records,
"And when they had hanged him until he was dead they did fell the tree to the earth, and did cry with a loud voice, saying: May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth. And they did rejoice and cry again with one voice, saying: May the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, protect this people in righteousness, so long as they shall call on the name of their God for protection. And it came to pass that they did break forth, all as one, in singing, and praising their God for the great thing which he had done for them, in preserving them from falling into the hands of their enemies. Yea, they did cry: Hosanna to the Most High God. And they did cry: Blessed be the name of the Lord God Almighty, the Most High God." (3 Nephi 4:28-32)
Here Mormon reports the words that were said and then mentions that "they did cry", "Hosanna to the Most High God" and "Blessed be the name of the Lord God Almighty, the Most High God". While it is certainly possibly that the multitude did yell out those phrases, it is more likely that those phrases refer to the names of specific hymns that were sung. In fact the previous verse explicitly mentions that they were singing.

For example, if I were to say, "Today in church we proclaimed together High on the Mountain Top and The Spirit of God", that would not mean everyone in the congregation said in unison the exact words "high on the mountain top, the spirit of God", but that everyone pulled out their hymn books and sang together hymn number 5 and hymn number 2.

A similar possibility exists for "Hosanna to the Most High God" and "Blessed be the name of the Lord God Almighty, the Most High God". Those very well may be the names of common hymns known by the Nephites.

Interestingly, in this context if the word translated as "cry" refers to singing, then that means we have the complete text of two short Nephite hymns. The first, apparently written for the occasion, being,
"May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth."
And the second,
"May the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, protect this people in righteousness, so long as they shall call on the name of their God for protection."
From the perspective of our culture these are not what we normally would think of as typical subject matter for hymns, but these are Nephites we are talking about, not European Christians.

With this in mind we can look at other parts of the Book of Mormon and find three additional possible Nephite hymns. In response to King Benjamin's address his people "all cried aloud with one voice" and together said (or sang),
"O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men."
And then later they said (or sang),
"Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. And we, ourselves, also, through the infinite goodness of God, and the manifestations of his Spirit, have great views of that which is to come; and were it expedient, we could prophesy of all things. And it is the faith which we have had on the things which our king has spoken unto us that has brought us to this great knowledge, whereby we do rejoice with such exceedingly great joy. And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days, that we may not bring upon ourselves a never-ending torment, as has been spoken by the angel, that we may not drink out of the cup of the wrath of God."
As some critics have pointed out it is unrealistic for people to spontaneously say the same words in unison, but this trouble is mitigated if these words were sung to a tune that everyone was familiar with. This may seem odd to us, but singing is one way to get everyone to repeat the same words in unison.

The third possibility is found in 3 Nephi 11. When Jesus came to visit the Nephites Mormon records,
"And when they had all gone forth and had witnessed for themselves, they did cry out with one accord, saying: Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him."
This leads us to another possible title to a Nephite hymn, "Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God!" So this gives us possible titles of three hymns and the text for four.

Interestingly enough this leads us to another event that may record the songs sung. When Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before his crucifixion the Book of Matthew records that,
"A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,"
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
While we might assume that the crowd was shouting these three phrases over and over, based on what we learned from the Book of Mormon, the crowd that gathered to accompany Jesus into Jerusalem may have had three songs or psalms that they were singing. In fact, the second of the three is a line that comes from Psalm 118. So we may not be able to positively identify the other two, but the crowd following Jesus and spreading palm branches in his way was possibly singing Psalm 118.

What makes this even more interesting is that the Book of Matthew was written to a Jewish audience. So the author would have assumed that those who read it would be familiar with Jewish hymns (psalms), including Psalm 118. Thus mentioning that the crowd sang Psalm 118 would have brought the words of it to the minds of those reading the story, and they would have immediately seen the connection when just a few verses later,
"Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
    the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’[h]?"
Some times we reference hymns and the words we say carry extra weight because of the hymn they are associated with. But these subtle references are lost if we are not familiar with the songs they came from. Although we may not know all the hymns sung by believers from a previous era we can catch glimpses of them if we look. When we do find them it adds richness to the context from which we get the scriptures. The people become more alive and more real. The structure of authors' words begins to make sense. The subtle connections become clear, and we begin to see it through their eyes.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Viewing the 2017 Eclipse Safely

[As part of my university's public outreach I was asked to write an article for the local news about how the safely view the eclipse. After a few revisions through the PR department this is the article that went out.]

As viewing a total solar eclipse is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it is important to prepare to safely view the eclipse. While a total solar eclipse is safe to view without a filter, it will only last one or two minutes. Leading up to the total eclipse the moon will only partially cover the sun. Even with 99% of the sun covered by the moon, the visible portion of the sun is bright enough to cause damage to an unprotected eye. Both before and after the total eclipse, or if outside the path of totality, it is still possible to view safely as long as the sun’s light is properly filtered.
Image from NASA.
There are four manufacturers whose handheld filters and eclipse glasses are confirmed to meet the international standard (ISO 12312-2) for safely viewing the sun.
American Paper Optics
TSE 17
Thousand Oaks Optical
Rainbow Symphony

These filters should transmit less than 0.001% of the visible light of the sun. They should also block all harmful UV rays. Normal sunglasses, even polarized sunglasses, do not provide enough protection to safely view a partial eclipse. If you can see any light through the filter in a brightly lit room it will not provide enough protection. A welder’s mask or googles with a shade number 14 can provide enough protection to safely view the eclipse.

If you plan on viewing the eclipse through binoculars or a telescope, you must take extra precautions since the lenses will significantly increase the intensity of the light, which can cause severe and permanent damage to your eyes. Securely fasten the filter on the end pointed at the sun. If the filter is placed after the lenses, the sun’s rays may burn through the filter leaving you unprotected. The filter should always come first. Check carefully that filters are firmly in place, unbroken, and unscratched before looking through a telescope or binoculars.

When viewing the sun directly, always remember, filter first. A good practice is to place the filter or solar glasses in front of your eyes before turning to view the sun. The filter should be in place before looking at the sun. Then turn away from the sun before removing the filter. If using binoculars or a telescope, the filter should come first. The sun’s light should pass through the filter first, and then through the lens of the binoculars or telescope.

A much more common way of viewing an eclipse is indirectly by projecting an image of the sun onto a white piece of paper or a flat surface. The easiest indirect method is called the “pinhole method”. Simply punch a small hole in a piece of paper or cardboard, hold it up and let the light through the pinhole project onto another piece of paper or any flat surface. Bringing the two pieces of paper closer together will make the image brighter, moving them away from each other will make the image larger, but dimmer. The smaller the hole the sharper the image will be. Note, never look at the sun through the pinhole! This is only useful for indirectly viewing the eclipse.

A similar method can be used to view a magnified image of the eclipse. Using a pair of binoculars, a telescope, a magnifying glass, or any lens, you can focus a magnified image of the sun onto any flat surface. It is recommended that you use a stand or tripod to hold the binoculars or lens to make it easier to focus the image. You will need to adjust the distance between the lens and the flat surface until a round image of the sun appears. If the light is focused into a single point then the lens is too close to the flat surface. Note, never look at the sun through a lens without a filter in place.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Frank Cannon and the Three Principles of the Church

This is an excerpt from the book Under the Prophet in Utah by former US Senator from Utah, Frank J. Cannon (with extensive help from co-author Harvey J. O'Higgins), the son of LDS apostle George Q. Cannon. This book was written in 1911 many years after Frank Cannon had left the church and after several years as the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune where he wrote extensively against the church and its policies. What is interesting is the first hand accounts of some of the crucial deliberations among church leaders about the decision to discontinue the practice of polygamy. This excerpt contains a conversation between Frank and his father George, who at the time was a councilor to President Wilford Woodruff. It gives an account of what President Cannon thought was the important work of the church and how it would prove the salvation of the country.

Keep in mind the time that this was written. There are certain words, such as socialism and communism, that carry significant weight now because of significant historical events in the 20th century. This happened before any of that. Also keep in mind that Frank Cannon was a strong proponent of a certain brand of political thought that has no direct equivalent in our current political discourse, though it shares certain words and emphasis with some parts of our current politics.

The closest analogue we have today is libertarianism, which, to reduce it to something woefully simplistic, is to always take position against government in order to preserve personal liberties. Frank Cannon's approach was to always take a position in favor of government in order to preserve personal liberties. This necessitated removing all outside influence from government, whether from corporations, banks, businesses, unions, or churches. It is a position almost entirely missing from current political discourse, and one that can easily be misunderstood.

By 1911 the political party that Frank Cannon had been associated with was disbanded. The party was founded on the ideas of social liberalism and anti-Mormonism (keep in mind that those terms are currently loaded with additional ideas that were not present in 1911). It is in this context that the book was written specifically to attempt to disrupt the political influence of the church in Utah. It was a very different time, very different circumstances, and a very different recent history, though we can see similarities to our situation today.


[George Q. Cannon] talked a few minutes, affectionately, about family matters, and then—straightening his shoulders to the burden of more gravity—he said: "I have sent for you, my son, to see if you cannot find some way to help us in our difficulties. I have made it a matter of prayer, and I have been led to urge you to activity. You have never performed a Mission for the Church, and I have sometimes wondered if you cared anything about your religion. You have never obeyed the celestial covenant, and you have kept yourself aloof from the duties of the priesthood, but it may have been a providential overruling. I have talked with some of the brethren, and we feel that if relief does not soon appear, our community will be scattered and the great work crushed. The Lord can rescue us, but we must put forth our own efforts. Can you see any light?"

I replied that I had already been in Washington twice, on my own initiative, conferring with some of his Congressional friends. "I am still," I said, "of the opinion I expressed to you and President Taylor four years ago. Plural marriage must be abandoned or our friends in Washington will not defend us." Four years before, when I had offered that opinion, President Taylor had cried out: "No! Plural marriage is the will of God! It's apostasy to question it!" And I paused now with the expectation that my father would say something of this sort. But, as I was afterwards to observe, it was part of his diplomacy, in conference, to pass the obvious opportunity of replying, and to remain silent when he was expected to speak, so that he might not be in the position of following the lead of his opponent's argument, but rather, by waiting his own time, be able to direct the conversation to his own purposes. He listened to me, silently, his eyes fixed on my face.

"Senator Vest of Missouri," I went on, "has always been a strong opponent of what he considered unconstitutional legislation against us, but he tells me he'll no longer oppose proscription if we continue in an attitude of defiance. He says you're putting yourselves beyond assistance, by organized rebellion against the administration of the statutes.' And I continued with instances of others among his friends who had spoken to the same purpose.

When I had done, he took what I had said with a gesture that at once accepted and for the moment dismissed it; and he proceeded to a larger consideration of the situation, in words which I cannot pretend to recall, but to an effect which I wish to outline—because it not only accounts for the preservation of the Mormon people from all their dangers, but contains a reason why the world might have wished to see them preserved.

The Mormons at this time had never written a line on social reform—except as the so-called "revelations" established a new social order—but they had practiced whole volumes. Their community was founded on the three principles of co-operation, contribution, and arbitration. By co-operation of effort they had realized that dream of the Socialists, "equality of opportunity"—not equality of individual capacity, which the accidents of nature prevent, but an equal opportunity for each individual to develop himself to the last reach of his power. By contribution—by requiring each man to give one-tenth of his income to a common fund—they had attained the desired end of modern civilization, the abolition of poverty, and had adjusted the straps of the community burden to the strength of the individual to bear it. By arbitration, they had effected the settlement of every dispute of every kind without litigation; for their High Councils decided all sorts of personal or neighborhood disputes without expense of money to the disputants. The "storehouse of the Lord" had been kept open to fill every need of the poor among "God's people," and opportunities for self-help had been created out of the common fund, so that neither unwilling idleness nor privation might mar the growth of the community or the progress of the individual. But Joseph Smith had gone further. Daring to believe himself the earthly representative of Omnipotence, whose duty it was to see that all had the rights to which he thought them entitled, and assuming that a woman's chief right was that of wifehood and maternity, he had instituted the practice of plural marriage, as a "Prophet of God," on the authority of a direct revelation from the Almighty. It was upon this rock that the whole enterprise, the whole experiment in religious communism, now threatened to split. Not that polygamy was so large an incident in the life of the community—for only a small proportion of the Mormons were living in plural marriage. And not that this practice was the cardinal sin of Mormonism—for among intelligent men, then as now, the great objection to the Church was its assumption of a divine authority to hold the "temporal power," to dictate in politics, to command action and to acquit of responsibility. But polygamy was the offence against civilization which the opponents of Mormonism could always cite in order to direct against the Church the concentrated antagonism of the governments of the Western world. And my father, in authorizing me to proceed to Washington as a sort of ambassador of the Church, evidently wished to impress upon me the larger importance of the value of the social experiment which the Mormons had, to this time, so successfully advanced.

"It would be a cruel waste of human effort," he said, "if, after having attained comfort in these valleys—established our schools of art and science—developed our country and founded our industries—we should now be destroyed as a community, and the value of our experience lost to the world. We have a right to survive. We have a duty to survive. It would be to the profit of the nation that we should survive."

But in order to survive, it was necessary to obtain some immediate mitigation of the enforcement of the laws against us. The manner in which they were being enforced was making compromise impossible, and the men who administered them stood in the way of getting a favorable hearing from the powers of government that alone could authorize a compromise. It was necessary to break this circle; and my father went over the names of the men in Washington who might help us. I could marvel at his understanding of these men and their motives, but we came to no plan of action until I spoke of what had been with me a sort of forlorn hope that I might appeal to President Cleveland himself.

My father said thoughtfully: "What influence could you, a Republican, have with him? It's true that your youth may make an appeal—and the fact that you're pleading for your relatives, while not yourself a polygamist. But he would immediately ask us to abandon plural marriage, and that is established by a revelation from God which we cannot disregard. Even if the Prophet directed us, as a revelation from God, to abandon polygamy, still the nation would have further cause for quarrel because of the Church's temporal rule. No. I can make no promise. I can authorize no pledge. It must be for the Prophet of God to say what is the will of the Lord. You must see President Woodruff, and after he has asked for the will of the Lord I shall be content with his instruction."

Now, I do not wish to say—though I did then believe it—that the First Councillor of the Mormon Church was prepared to have the doctrine of plural marriage abandoned in order to have the people saved. It is impossible to predicate the thoughts of a man so diplomatic, so astute, and at the same time so deeply religious and so credulous of all the miracles of faith. He did believe in Divine guidance. He was sincere in his submission to the "revelations" of the Prophet. But, in the complexity of the mind of man, even such a faith may be complicated with the strategies of foresight, and the priest who bows devoutly to the oracle may yet, even unconsciously, direct the oracle to the utterance of his desire. And if my father was—as I suspected—considering a recession from plural marriage, he had as justification the basic "revelation," given through "Joseph the Prophet," commanding that the people should hold themselves in subjection to the government under which they lived, "until He shall come Whose right it is to rule."

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Please Don't Point Out Logical Fallacies

Pointing out logical fallacies is pointless. Though it is useful to study logical fallacies so that you can analyze your own thinking and make adjustments, but to point out the logical fallacies in someone else's thinking is entirely counter productive.

If you are in a disagreement with someone, by definition they do no view you as an authority on the subject and thus they are unlikely to accept your analysis of whether or not their thought process is fallacious or not. The reason why they think the thoughts they do is because they think their thought process is right, and no one likes to be told they are wrong.

The whole reason why they are disagreeing with you in the first place is because they think your thought process is out of order. So if you attempt to point out an error in their thinking they are not disposed to begin an introspective analysis of their thinking. Almost by definition, your thinking is in error, so any attempt to point out an error in their thinking will be rejected immediately. Thus it is pointless and counter productive to point out the fallacies in someone else's thinking.

This does not mean that you never point out logical fallacies, just do not expect the person you are critiquing to respond positively. It is also justified for certain egregious misuses of logic and reasoning, but not as a tool to convince those afflicted, but to warn those who are unconvinced and can be swayed by your reason, that is, those who have not taken a position yet.

But it is a very good idea to study logical fallacies so that you can improve your own thinking. A good place to start is by analyzing what other people say and see if you can pick out the logical fallacies. First start with arguments you disagree with. Those are the easiest. Next you move to arguments you have no opinion about one way or the other. This allows you to dispassionately assess the arguments. When you are comfortable with those you can move on to arguments that you naturally agree with. Those are the hardest arguments to analyze, with the exception of your own arguments. It takes a lot of humility to analyze your own thinking for fallacies.

Some good fallacies to start with are perhaps the most famous ones such as ad hominem, slippery slope, or the post hoc fallacy. Once you can identify fallacies in arguments that you already disagree with, then you can try moving on to something more difficult. Just remember that pointing out a fallacy in someone else's argument is (almost) never productive. I can think of one, and only one, case when I pointed out someone's fallacious thinking and it actually made an impact on them, and they admitted that I "got them" and for a moment their defenses were down and I was talking to a human being. Unfortunately it did not last.

Remember the point of studying fallacies is to eventually analyze your own thoughts and learn to remove fallacious thinking. When you do that then you can begin to build convincing arguments that can sway people to your position.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why did Nephi pray?

In response to my post on Laman and Lemuel my mother asked, "Why did Nephi pray?" In my previous post I explained that, based on the culture of the time, Laman and Lemuel may not have considered it proper to pray to ask God to know something. It would have been more in keeping with their culture to seek out a seer, or someone with an item used for divination. Without a seer to answer their questions the only valid way of understanding prophecy would be to figure it out through reason. When reason was inadequate they had no way of gaining further insight into revelation from God.

When we approach the story we usually take note of Laman and Lemuel's failure to pray and identify with Nephi's apparent natural understanding about the role of prayer in revelation. But when we consider Nephi's reaction to his father's vision we have to keep in mind that not only are we reading it through our cultural lens, but also we are reading the version of the story that Nephi wrote many years later. By the time he wrote his story Nephi may have been much more comfortable with praying to receive knowledge through revelation, but it may not have been that way at the time.

We can deduce that there was one particular scripture that impacted how Nephi viewed revelation and prayer because he quoted it to Laman and Lemuel. In 1 Nephi 15:11 Nephi says,
"Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you."
This verse was evidently on the brass plates, but is not found in our Old Testament. We do not know when Nephi first encountered this verse, but it may have only been read by Lehi and his family just a few days before. In retelling this story many years later, Nephi carefully incorporates this verse into his exchange with his brothers (see how verse 10 sets up how verse 11 applies to the situation). But at the time Nephi may have only recently learned of that verse, and much like Joseph Smith with James 1:5, took it seriously. The same verse may not have had the same impact, or even been noticed by Laman and Lemuel.

But in 1 Nephi 11:20-21, Nephi mentions that his brothers were humbled and began to ask sincere questions. They must have found that verse convincing, but that would also mean that they were not familiar with it, so Nephi must have also just learned that verse when they acquired the brass plates.

So why did Nephi pray? He did it because he read the scriptures and found out that he could. It is "obvious" to us now, and it was obvious to Nephi later in life, but at the time it was a new thing.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What happened to the Church of Scotland?

What has happened to the Church of Scotland? I don't mean what is happening to it now, because it is obvious that whatever happened, happened years ago and just now we are seeing the effects.

A recent article from the BBC has the slightly misleading headline, "Religious affiliation in Scotland 'declines sharply'". The title explicitly points to a decrease in the number of Scots who self identify as members of a church. The apparent conclusion is that religion in general in the country is becoming less important. But if we dig into the data we get a slightly different picture.

Right off the bat the article notes that since 1999 the percentage of people reporting "no religion" has increased from 40% to 58%. This definitely makes it look like religion in general is struggling in Scotland. But not until the end of the article do we find out that as a percentage of the overall population all other religions or Christian denominations have remained constant. Within statistical uncertainty there has been no change for everyone other than the Church of Scotland (the Kirk). The entire increase in people reporting "no religion" is driven by former members of the Kirk.

It is interesting to note that while the other denominations are not picking up those leaving the Kirk, their membership is keeping pace with population growth. They may have a hard time bringing in new converts but they are not in the state of crisis seen in the Kirk. From the data the number of people who self identify as members of the Kirk has decreased by a half since 1999. If half the members of the church of Scotland chose to leave in 18 years while all other religions and denominations have continued to grow, albeit at the rate of population growth, then that indicates that there is, or was, something about the Church of Scotland that resulted in this sudden drop that was not present in other denominations and religions.

This kind of thing does not just happen overnight, or even in just a few years. In order for there to be this dramatic of a decrease over the last 20 years means that the seeds of this crisis were sown long ago. That is why at the beginning I said that it is not happening now but happened years ago.

So there was something about the culture or the teachings of the Church of Scotland that brought it to this crisis. I do not have enough insight or data to determine how it got to this point. But it is also interesting to note that there is data that shows that similar trends hold for the church of England. Since 1983 the number of people in England who self report as Anglican has dropped from 40% to 17%, while the number of non-religious has climbed from 31% to 48%. The proportion of people from other Christian denominations have remained roughly constant, with some fluctuation, but the number of non-Christians has climbed from 2% to 8%.

But this is not isolated data. I recently read an article from The West Australian entitled, "We’re losing our religion". This article followed the format set by the BBC article by noting that the number of people reporting "No Religion" has increased, but when we look at the data the same trend holds. The percentage of Anglicans has declined, while all other denominations have stayed the same (with the exception of Catholics, whose representation declined by 5% of the population).

So while there are definitely more people who self identify as having "No Religion" the vast majority have come from either the Church of Scotland or the Church of England. This massive shift in social attitudes definitely has put pressure on other denominations, but the data indicate that at least in Scotland, England and Australia, religion in general is not going away, just a particular form of it.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Ad Hominem Arguments vs. Ad Hominem Fallacies

In almost any internet debate there invariably comes a moment when someone will accuse another of using an ad hominem attack or argument. Unfortunately on the internet, any disagreement or attempt to disprove someone's argument is perceived as an attack on the person. But that fundamentally misunderstands what an ad hominem argument is. The key to identifying an ad hominem argument is to consider whether or not the response is responding to the original argument, or if it is ignoring the argument and responding directly to the source of the argument.

While it is common for people to mistakenly interpret an argument against their position as an attack on themselves, what is almost universally misunderstood is that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious.

To put it simply, all ad hominem fallacies are ad hominem arguments, but not all ad hominem arguments are ad hominem fallacies.

What many people don't realize is that an ad hominem argument is a perfectly valid way of arguing. For example, say there was a video on the internet of someone dressed in University of Utah clothing giving a negative critique of BYU's football team. We could easily dismiss a negative argument about BYU football from the Ute fan based solely on the fact that they are a Ute fan, and not unbiased in their assessment of BYU football. Saying, "Well they are a Ute fan, so of course they will say that." is an ad hominem argument. It does not respond to what was said, but only attacks the person making the argument in order to undermine their argument. This can be a perfectly valid argument.

Now if the person in U of U clothing turned out to be the U of U football coach, then dismissing them as a Ute fan would turn the ad hominem argument into a fallacy. A football coach probably has a sound basis for his argument, and refusing to address his arguments would make it a fallacy.

Sound ad hominem arguments are used more frequently than people realize. Statements such as, "They are paid to say that." or, "They are an advocate for [blank] so of course they would say that." Looking at the source of an argument and dismissing it based solely on the source is an ad hominem argument. Whether or not it is a fallacy is another matter.

So despite what many people on the internet immediately assume, to be dismissive of someone because they lack the necessary expertise can be a valid argument, and is not automatically a fallacy. But if the argument is not considered at all you better have a good reason for dismissing the source and not considering the argument. If not you run the risk of committing an ad hominem fallacy in your argument.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Human Drama of Family History Work

Charles Watson was born in 1844 in the village of Old Brampton in the county of Derbyshire, England. He was the fourth of seven sons. Brampton was a small farming community two miles outside of Chesterfield, the second largest town in the county. His father was a farmer and Charles grew up on his father's farm.
A central teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ is performing vicarious religious ordinances or rituals for those who have died. We consider these ordinances, properly performed by those who have authority, to be essential for salvation and even those who may have been baptized in another church while they were alive needs to have a properly authorized baptism performed for them. While the choice to accept the ordinance still rests on each individual, we believe that a physical action must be done for each and every individual ever born.
Hannah Parsons was born in the village of Old Brampton in 1846, three weeks before her parents were married. Because her parents were not married at the time she was born, she did not officially have her father's last name, and had only the maiden name of her mother. But later in life everyone just assumed, including perhaps Hannah herself, that her name was Hannah Fretwell. But the "Parsons" part of her name was remembered and appeared in later records. She was the first of ten children.
In support of the endeavor to find each individual and perform religious rituals for them, members of the church do extensive family history work, or genealogy, to find the names of those who have died and have not had the opportunity to have the proper authorized ordinances performed while alive. In doing this work we tend to focus on the work of sifting through records, finding the names and dates, and making sure our sources are correct before we submit the names to the Temple so that the proper, authorized religious rituals are performed for them.
Hannah and Charles both lived in the small village of Brampton, and in 1870 they were married. At the time Charles was working as a coal miner. His father had passed away before Charles was married, and the family had sold the farm. All of Charles's brothers were working as coal miners to fuel the raging industrial revolution in England.
While most of genealogy work may be dry and boring, sifting through records and names, looking at images of records and trying to decipher the cryptic handwriting of some parish priest, every once in a while a story comes out of records. It is a story told not in verse or sweeping epics, but in names and dates. In the middle of the most boring historical records imaginable, emerges a tale of human drama, death, heartache, and uncertainty that would be fit for any dramatic tale.
Hannah and Charles had their first child in 1869, and they named her Sarah Parsons Watson. At that time and place it was unusual for people to have three names, but Hannah, who was born Hannah Parsons, kept that part of her name in the name of her first daughter. Over the next seven years they had three more daughters, Mary, Emma Parsons, and Charlotte.
As members of the Church we are encouraged to remember our ancestors. But there are some ancestors who tend to get more coverage than others, while there are those who quietly fade into the background. In these less commonly traversed branches of the family tree are found the quiet human dramas that make up the human experience.
In July 1878 tragedy struck the Watson family. Charles died. There is no record of how he died, only that he was buried in the church yard of St. Thomas in Brampton. Given his work as a coal miner it is possible his death was related to that. This left his wife a widow with four small daughters aged 8, 6, 4, and 2. As a widow living in a poor working class community it would have been very difficult.
There is a perception that history is made by well known, great individuals who through force of will or strength of character form the axis of history. But most of human history is made up of normal people, going about their lives, quietly living out the everyday dramas that make us human.
Within two years Hannah had remarried. Her new husband, William Gregory, was a widower with six children of his own. William was also a coal miner. The marriage produced no more children and it may have been a marriage of convenience. Hannah needed a way to support her daughters, and William needed someone to watch his small children while he worked in the coal mines. 
However the family did it, all 10 children lived in a modest house in poor working class conditions. That is, until 1887 when Hannah passed away. Again there is no record of how she died, or even where she was buried. We do not even know the exact date of her death since it is only recorded in a England death registry which only gives the year and quarter (range of three months). At the ages of 17, 15, 13, and 11 Hannah's four daughters were left orphans. At the time they were living with their stepfather and his six children. 
There is very little known about what happened to Hannah's four daughters in the intervening years, but I managed to find all four of them in the 1891 census.
Sarah Parsons married Isaac Burt in 1890. She would go on to have eight children, with the last two born in Illinois in the United States. Her husband Isaac was a coal miner, and near the end of the 1800's the coal in Derbyshire was running out. In 1905 they emigrated to the US so that Isaac and his sons could work as coal miners in Braceville, Illinois.
In 1891 Mary Watson, Charles and Hannah's second daughter, was working in a cotton mill while living with her grandparents Francis and Fanny Fretwell. In 1893 she married Daniel Hughes and they had four children. They stayed in Chesterfield, Derbyshire their entire lives. 
By 1891 Emma Parsons Watson, the third daughter, was 16 years old and was living as a domestic servant to a well-to-do family in Chesterfield. After this she disappears from the record and I can not trace her life after that. I do not know if she got married, had a family or died alone. Her life, right now, is an unknown drama. 
Shortly after her mother died, Charlotte Watson went to live with another family. At the age of 11 she began working as a domestic servant. Shortly after moving in with her employers the family moved to somewhere near Sheffield, which is in Yorkshire, the county next to Derbyshire. She was still living with them four years later in 1891 when she appears in the census. Like her sister Emma, she disappears from the records after this and I can't trace her. 
Encapsulated in the family of Charles and Hannah is great portions of modern human history. There is the disruption of traditional farming communities by the industrial revolution, and the fuel of the revolution was coal. The families lived in poor conditions in a town that grew around industry and coal. Chesterfield expanded because of the industrial revolution, and while it ultimately helped lift people out of poverty, the process was difficult and painful. There were families who lost their fathers, and children who were left orphans. We only have to read a Charles Dickens novel to learn of harsher side of the industrial revolution.

After becoming an orphan, their eldest daughter, survived and started her own family. That family now lives in the US and they may not remember where they came from.

The second daughter stayed in England and navigated the changes that came after the industrial revolution. They were a working class family where the children dropped out of school by the age of 12 and started working.

Anyone who does enough family history work knows that sometimes people disappear from the written record. The other two daughters, Emma and Charlotte, and emblematic of those who quietly disappear in the milieu of history. Hopefully they can be found someday, because everyone should be remembered.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Laman and Lemuel Did Not Think of Themselves as Apostate

In Sunday School lessons in the Church when we discuss Laman and Lemuel we tend to portray them as faithless, scheming, disobedient reprobates who still mummer and complain even after they are shown miracles and angels. Many seem to have a cartoon image of Laman as the stereotypical cartoon villain, complete with evil goatee, and Lemuel as his whiny, dimwitted sidekick.

This simple portrayal seems so obvious, because how else could someone see an angel, experience miracles, hear the word of the Lord, and still not believe? Obviously they had to be faithless schemers or why else would they reject the plain truths as taught by Nephi? They don't even bother to pray, and if they can't even do something as simple and fundamental as that, then obviously they don't have faith and care nothing for religion and eternal truths. Right? Are they really just the faithless, wayward sons of a good man and a prophet? 

Previously I have written about the complex social and religious environment that produced what we now know as the Old Testament. The time of Lehi was an interesting period in history. There was major political upheaval, a previous king of Judah had pushed through some major religious reforms, new histories were being compiled, and differing strands of religious thought were vying for supremacy.

If we read Jeremiah in the Bible we can get a sense that there was disagreement between groups of priests about political matters. There seems to be one group who were very much in support of the king and another that supported Jeremiah. While we may look back and say, "Obviously they should have supported Jeremiah." For those living at the time it may not have been so clear since those opposed to Jeremiah included the High Priest. But even this "picking sides" was not so straight forward since even those who opposed Jeremiah held him in high regard. When the king learned that Jeremiah was in prison he arranged for him to be rescued.

We learn from Nephi that his father Lehi supported Jeremiah, while Laman and Lemuel probably supported the monarchists and the High Priest. One of the harshest criticisms that Lehi leveled against his sons was that they were planning to do to him what the Elders had done to Jeremiah. This was not a criticism that Laman and Lemuel took lightly, but in fact took very seriously. By reading Nephi's account we can easily get the impression that Laman and Lemuel never listened to their father. But if we read carefully we can see that they listened to his prophecies and followed his commands. They did after all go get the brass plates, and they did attempt to buy them with all that they had. They did hold reverence for the word of God.

While some have tried to explain Laman and Lemuel's obedience to their father as some manifestation of the high regard that their culture gave to obedience to parents, that seems like a gross over simplification of the culture at the time, and still does not explain why they chose to follow Nephi at many points.

When we consider the interaction between Laman, Lemuel, and Nephi we unknowingly impose our modern biases on the story. To illustrate this let us consider perhaps the most over used but entirely misinterpreted interaction between Nephi and his brothers.

In 1 Nephi 8 we have recorded Lehi's famous vision of the tree of life. Immediately after this experience Nephi "desired to know the things that [his] father had seen" and thus sought and received the revelatory experience recorded in 1 Nephi 11-14. Upon returning to the camp where his family was staying Nephi found Laman and Lemuel debating the vision of their father. Prompted by Nephi's questions Laman and Lemuel responded, "Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive tree, and also concerning the Gentiles."

This response prompted Nephi to ask the question that forms the basis of so many seminary, institute, Sunday School lessons, Sacrament meeting talks and question prompts in church manuals.
"And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?"
"And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us."
To us, Nephi's question is so blindingly obvious, and Laman and Lemuel's response so typical of non-believers that it may not occur to us that Laman and Lemuel could very well have a rational reason for not praying to know the interpretation. In our culture we are accustomed to the concept of praying. For us the most fundamental way we interact with the divine is to pray. It is so ingrained in our culture that we do not realize that in a different culture it may not be so obvious.

In our culture it is natural for us to ask, "Have ye inquired of the Lord?" We would think it very odd to go looking for someone who could use divination to answer our questions. In our culture the practice of using peep stones, divination in cups, and seemingly magical items is not considered socially acceptable or valid for divine communication. But in the culture at the time of Lehi not only was divination acceptable, but firmly entrenched as the preeminent method of divine communication.

In 1 Samuel 23 there is the story of David on the run from King Saul. Wanting to know the King's plans, David consulted with the priest Abiathar. In order to get an answer, David asked Abiathar to bring the ephod (part of the high priest's clothing associated with the Urim and Thummim) so that they could receive revelation from the Lord. There are other instances where questions directed to the Lord could not be answered without the use of the Urim and Thummim.

At the time of Lehi praying to ask the Lord questions was not ingrained in the culture. If someone wanted to ask the Lord a question they would have to find someone with a sacred object to be used for divination. Thus for Laman and Lemuel, if they wanted to know the interpretation of Lehi's vision, an obvious course of action would not be to pray and ask, but to find someone with a Urim and Thummim, or similar item, that could divine the answer.

When Nephi begins to explain the vision Laman and Lemuel are not passively listening, but actively asking questions. In fact they ask better questions than you would find in most Sunday School lessons about Lehi's vision. These are not the actions of non-believers who failed to ask questions. They did apply themselves and attempt to understand the vision, but because of their culture it did not occur to them that they could pray and ask the Lord for answers. They were keeping firmly within their religious tradition and thought that these were answers that could only be answered by a seer with some sacred object for divination.

It is particularly telling that after this experience, but before they traveled into the desert Lehi was given the Liahona, which was a sacred object that could communicate the word of the Lord. It was like the ephod for David, or the Urim and Thummim for the priests. It validated Lehi's position as a seer in the eyes of Laman and Lemuel. As a seer that had an object that could he could look into and see sacred communications, Lehi and his visions were established as divine. Hence Laman and Lemuel could follow him into the desert.

Also years later when they were in danger of starving in the desert Laman and Lemuel murmured against Lehi, partly because he had failed to use the Liahona. They eventually followed Nephi because he could use the Liahona, the sacred object that provided divine communication.

Sometimes there are things that are "obvious" to us and we wonder how anyone could be so dimwitted not to see the obvious. But it is important to remember that people like to think they have a good reason for doing what they do. For Laman and Lemuel praying to know the interpretation of a vision was according to their culture "weird". Using a sacred object to divine the answer was just as normal and obvious to them as praying is to us.