Author: Clark Goble

The Shape of Agency Part 1

Agency is one of the most fundamental concepts in LDS thought. Often people confuse agency and free will. They are not necessarily the same thing. I’m going to avoid all those sorts of nuanced discussions here. What is interesting to me are the more social, literary and especially political implications of Mormon notions of agency. Often a notion of agency is taken for granted when Mormons make a political point. I think this puts the cart before the horse. Agency gets used in such arguments without there ever being an consideration of what agency is. Thus agency because the ultimate trump card. Not surprisingly, it always tends to validate the conclusions and assumptions of whomever is invoking it. To me the key factor in discussions of agency is the “what” and “where” of the discussion. Yet this notion of what is the “self” of the discussion is often lost. Why is this important? Well, let’s first look at the basic…

Can Mercy Rob Justice?

We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.

Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

Several parts of the Book of Mormon are highly influenced by the text of deutero-Isaiah. The traditional problem here is that deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) are usually considered to be written fairly late – usually dated to during the exile in Babylon. Contrary to what some members say, the dating isn’t just assuming that prophecy is impossible. Rather the text makes assumptions of the audience that just don’t work earlier. A good example is the presumption that Jerusalem has already been destroyed. While there are some figures who support an unified Isaiah[1] I confess I just don’t find persuasive their answers to the critics argument regarding a later date. Even if one buys some of the literary claims, that’s typically possible for a later editor bringing the various works together. How then do we deal with this problem of a significant set of texts quoted by Nephi and others after they left Jerusalem?

Benedict Option

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative in response to significant losses on cultural issues in the US suggested that social conservatives should adopt what he calls the Benedict Option. More or less it means those who cease trying to make the public sphere what they consider moral and instead create more local and self-contained communities. Last week Hal Boyd at the Deseret News talked of this option for Latter-day Saint communities.

Translating the Book of Mormon and the Priesthood Restoration

One of the interesting facets of Mormon history is that a few key events are not exactly clear. An example is the Melchezedek Priesthood restoration. Ben at the Juvenile Instructor did a nice overview of the issues a few years back. The Millennial Star did a nice post discussing how Addison Everett’s account bears on all this. Basically though we don’t know for sure when it was restored. A common, perhaps dominant view, is that rather than being a single event it was a process. I don’t claim to be an expert in all this. I’ve read the same books as most of you likely have.[1] What I’ve noticed in what I’ve read though is how little the Book of Mormon text plays into these discussions beyond Oliver Cowdery’s later mention that he and Joseph were translating 3 Nephi. That led them to seek baptism with authority. In turn that led the way to the Aaronic Priesthood restoration.

Truth, Knowledge and Confidence

A few months back we were at Seven Peaks in Provo and my son was staring down the long drop of one of the slides. He knew that it was safe yet ultimately that knowledge wasn’t what was in question. He thought it too big a risk. He didn’t have confidence in the safety of the slide despite having intellectual knowledge that it was safe. I raise this to illustrate a principle. Often when people talk about religion and religious knowledge the issue really isn’t knowledge despite all appearances. What people really are after is confidence.

Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

I’ve neglected my posts on epistemology the past couple of months due to being busy. While I want to get back to them let me first take a bit of a side trip. Fundamentally more than anything else the big divide within the question of religious knowing is to what degree private experiences can ground knowledge. Typically when critics engage with Mormons they want the playing field to only be public evidence. Now it’s not that Mormons aren’t willing to play that game. By and large apologetics (at least the good kinds) are willing to discuss plausibility in terms of public evidence. But when it comes to knowledge, the critics want to make an appeal to belief in the strongest argument. That is we should believe what has the most weight of public evidence, even if perhaps the arguments are themselves circumstantial or somewhat weak. Most importantly they often want to only admit entities that have already been established scientifically.…

Promoting vs. Honoring

If I might be allowed an overly broad generalization, it often seems like political action is locked between two main views. In the past I’ve often called it the Kantian versus the Utilitarian.[1] That’s not entirely fair. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that we have a tension between promoting values versus honoring them. Consider abortion. Many people think it wrong. Some people might go to protests over the issue and do things to signal their opposition to abortion. But some of the same people might oppose actions that would actually reduce the rate of abortion (say free contraceptives) for other reasons. They may not even focus on policies that actually reduce the rate of abortion.[2] Likewise someone might want peace but consider honoring that value so important that they wouldn’t condone war even if it brought peace.[3] On the other side people might get into the situation of the ends justifying the means so killing is fine…

On Punching Nazis

One of the big debates over the weekend surprisingly was whether it’s ethical to punch Nazis. I know people already have an endless supply of thought pieces on the topic. So I’ll be brief. The issue isn’t whether it’s justifiable to punch a particular Nazi. It’s what gets normalized when many people tend to apply the Nazi label broadly. When Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and many others have regularly been called Nazis it makes one a little worried about just who people think are OK to punch.

Scientists and Religious Belief

Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities? It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of…

Aaronic Priesthood and Apostasy

The common way the apostasy is understood is in terms of the loss of priesthood authority. Priesthood seems the key thing that needed to be restored by Joseph Smith. Much of our conception of restoration is tied to rites and ordinances revealed by Joseph Smith and administered by the priesthood.[1] To my eye the most interesting question relative to the apostasy concerns the Aaronic priesthood. Was it removed from the earth?

Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 2

Last time I discussed how the American philosopher C. S. Peirce’s pragmatism saw meanings in terms of how we’d verify a predicate. So “hardness” is wrapped up in all the measurement practices of determining if something was hard. Peirce saw this literally as following Jesus’ adage to judge things by their fruits. An other important aspect of knowledge for Peirce was recognizing that belief was something that happens but isn’t chosen. All we can choose is where we inquire.  The reason for thinking belief is non-volitional[1] is simple. Imagine you’re outside looking up into the sky. It’s a deep blue you can’t miss. Now make yourself believe it is pink. You can’t do it. When we analyze carefully the types of control we have over belief it’s always seems to be indirect. This isn’t to say we can’t delude ourselves but the way we do this is by avoiding thinking about certain things. Non-volitional belief is also quite in keeping…

The Roots of the Current Election

I’ll admit I didn’t expect Trump to win. As a conservative I thought my worst case scenario was Clinton winning but Trump keeping it extremely close and outperforming Romney. That would allow Trump to stop the GOP from reforming back to its roots. Trump definitely beat that. With his win he’ll almost certainly consolidate power and remake the GOP in his own image. As a practical matter I suspect the conservative movement is dead although honestly it’s been on death’s door for some time. (I sincerely hope it rebounds) That said it’s hard not to agree with a lot of the anger from within the GOP against their own leadership and elites. Yet this is something more. Even though Trump’s win was unexpected, the forces leading to it were easy to discern for some time. Democrats let one of the most disliked figures of the last 30 years run largely unopposed in the primaries. That a self-described socialist did so…

Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 1

Speaking of his famous pragmatic maxim the great American philosopher C. S. Peirce said that we should reflect a little upon what it implies. It has been said to be a skeptical and materialistic principle. But it is only an application of the sole principle of logic which was recommended by Jesus; “Ye may know them by their fruits,” and it is very intimately allied with the ideas of the gospel. (CP 5.402) His maxim was a principle for understanding belief and meaning. In order to determine or verify the meaning of something we must consider what practical consequences would result from treating it as true. The totality of these consequences exhausts its meaning. So to understand what it means for a diamond to be hard, for instance, we might ask the variety of ways we might measure it’s hardness or the physical implications of its being hard.

The Danger of Attacking a Lack of Traditional Families in Mormon Politics

Donald Trump and his surrogates have become rather worried about Evan McMullin’s chances in Utah. In several polls he’s either been tied for first place or is within striking distance. (Most still have Trump ahead) The last week he’s been the talk of the media with many seriously thinking he has a chance. Last week noted Fox News host Lou Dobbs made an unfortunate attack on McMullin saying he’s helping the “Mormon Mafia” affect the election results. This led to a slew of rather hilarious tweets mocking the idea of a Mormon Mafia. Around the same time various stories started spreading innuendo about McMullin both because he’s single but also because his mother apparently married an other woman after getting a divorce.[1] I don’t want to delve too far into McMullin. Just because he’s attacked unfairly doesn’t mean he deserves your vote. Despite being a conservative and thinking a lot about this election, I’m honestly not sure who I’m voting…

Jack Chick has Passed Away

I don’t know if it is still a thing with Evangelicals, but back when I was on my mission there were Jack Chick comic books everywhere. While Chick didn’t limit himself to virulent anti-Mormonism it’s those tracts that still bring a chuckle to me. Almost anywhere we looked we found them. What was so amazing about them was just how mind bogglingly ridiculous they often were. He’d have characters meeting new Mormon investigators and suddenly start quoting by memory obscure passages from the Journal of Discourses. Others were more in the extreme conspiracy theory such as a communist-catholic takeover of the US with Cleon Skousen by way of rock music. He hated Catholics, Dungeons and Dragons, evolution and nearly anything else not ‘pure’ by Evangelical standards. While Chick’s tracts were popular in some ways, apparently their hateful nature led many religious bookstores to stop selling them. The Christian Booksellers Association considered expelling him in the 80’s although he withdrew before they…

No Big 12 for BYU

I know BYU football isn’t the normal talk here. I think it’s relevant to the broader LDS community this year if only due to how it’s perceived around the country. While as I write this the Big 12 hasn’t formally announced the death of expansion plans, it’s being widely leaked. For months BYU seemed like a shoe in. Then came the activism at many colleges over the honor code at BYU. While some of the information out there was simply incorrect, the basic idea of no pubic displays of affection for homosexuals seemed like a deal breaker to enough college presidents so as to kill BYU’s hopes.

SMPT Notes: Joseph Lowell

Joseph Lowell was a philosopher I wasn’t familiar with at all. He was speaking on creation, artisanship and creation ex nihilo. However the fundamental topic he was after was aesthetics. I didn’t take as many notes first because I’ll fully confess I know only enough about the philosophy of aesthetics to be dangerous. There’s a lot I’m ignorant of. Second because most of Lowell’s approach was via process theology and Whitehead. While there’s a lot in Whitehead I agree with, overall I just don’t buy his system. I do acknowledge he’s been really a significant influence in many thinkers like Blake Ostler. I confess I just have problems with Whitehead. That said we had some fantastic discussions in the Q&A. I really hope to read more from Joseph.

SMPT Notes: Brown

For the first concurrent session I attended Sam Brown’s. While he’s not as well known as David Paulson he has written numerous extremely well received papers and books. I honestly can’t fathom how he has the time to do all he does. He’s a medical researcher and ICU physician as well as writing on Mormon philosophical notions and history. We were very lucky to have him there. At the end he noted how he’s really trying to cut back on all he does. So in that case we were doubly lucky to have him there. It’s almost difficult to describe Brown’s talk although I had more notes on it than anything else. He started off talking about how the god of classical theism was really the ground of being. It’s thus problematic to talk of an essentially embodied being since how can the ground of the universe ground the universe. (Some philosophies do attempt that of course) His notion is…

SMPT Notes: Paulson & Boyd

I wasn’t able to attend Ben’s session this evening and it’s looking like I won’t be able to go like I’d hoped tomorrow. Still I really enjoyed the sessions I went to. To give a bit of a taste (and to encourage everyone to attend tomorrow and Saturday) here’s some notes with a bit of commentary. My notes ended being a bit longer than I expected. So I’m doing a separate post for each. Hopefully those of you who attended the other sessions can tell me how they went. David Paulson and Hal Boyd (opinion editor at the Deseret News) opened things up with a discussion of a few parts of their forthcoming book Are Christians Mormon. The theme of the book is various moves in Christian theology the past couple of decades where many theologians are making moves towards elements of Mormon theology. I just don’t know enough of the main figures in contemporary theology let alone how they…

Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology

The annual meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology is this week at BYU. All the sessions are being held in B192 in the JFSB from Thursday through Saturday. You can see the full schedule of sessions at the smpt.org website. Like an idiot I hadn’t put it on my calendar. I’d completely forgotten about it until Ben called me this evening to ask if I was going. Unfortunately my wife is going out of town this weekend. I’m going to try and go to the Thursday and Friday sessions though. Even though I’ve not been able to attend as regularly the past few years as in the past, I’ve always enjoyed the sessions I’ve attended. There are lot of great thinking by people far smarter than I am. So I always get something out of it – especially in the sessions I disagree with.

The Conflict of Theological Innovation

Theology has an odd place in LDS thought. Early on there was a rather positive view of theology. Lectures on Faith, then part of the Doctrine and Covenants, praised the idea of theology calling it: …that revealed science which treats of the being and attributes of God, his relations to us, the dispensations of his providence, his will with respect to our actions and his purposes with respect to our end. (Question 1 of Lectures on Faith)  Now this was just quoting from a well known theological dictionary of the time. It most likely reflected Sidney Rigdon’s view of theology which would have been shaped by the more systematic theology of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin along with various others.  Certainly Joseph Smith saw great value in learning and studying from theology and biblical studies. He studied multiple languages so he could read the scriptures in the original languages. By the time of Nauvoo many new theological ideas were introduced in part…

Jeremiah, Truth and Intelligence

A couple of months ago I had a post talking about how Hebrews talk about things being true. While my focus was on common Mormon expressions like “I know the Church is true” the basic principle applies to many scriptures. That includes famous Book of Mormon ones like Alma 32. The basis for most of the post was an interesting book by the philosopher Yoram Hazony. He argued in his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture that there was an unique philosophy present in the Old Testament that had been largely neglected by western philosophy in preference to Greek notions. I only discussed the first less controversial part of the book. There he largely is just discussing the Hebrew notion of truth which is somewhat similar to the more Aristotilean notion of essence. Objects (not words or propositions) are true when they show themselves over time to be how they present themselves.[1] The majority of Hazony’s book is a tad…

Forthcoming Battles Over Religious Liberty

I know many think the focus on religious liberty is misplaced. To my eyes it seems we have more religious liberty now than at any time in American history. I recognize not all feel that way although often it is due to the majority religion being constrained in some ways from acting as the de facto religion. But in terms of individuals practicing their religion in general rather than limited practices of the majority in government contexts, we seem to be doing great. Why then the worry of the brethren over religious liberty? Robert Couch sent me a link today that may highlight the problem. It’s Rod Dreher talking about famous Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne giving a paper at the Midwest Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. Note that this is a philosophy conference that is supposed to be discussing Christian philosophy. Swinburne is speaking about traditional Christian sexual ethics and arguing for homosexuality being extrinsically wrong.

Issues in Epistemology: A Response to Inside/Out

I didn’t really touch on it in depth in my theology post last week but my view of theology entails being able to give reasons for why one asserts what one asserts. The emphasis then was in how we read. Underneath it all really was Eco’s view of the ideal reader who pays close attention to the process of interpretation. That reader is an ideal reader because they can explain why they read the way they do. It was with some interest then that I read the inaugural post at Patheos’ new blog, Mormonism Inside and Out with Patrick Mason and John Dehlin.[1] They started out with the whole topic of epistemology or how we know. It turns out one of the several half finished posts I have planned engaged deeply on these issues. Rather than going through my thoughts on epistemology I thought I’d respond to a few of the issues they brought up in their discussion.

The Open and Closed Texts of Theology

One of my all time favor books is Foucalt’s Pendulum by the great Italian author Umberto Eco. It’s a fantastic book about the problems of interpretation all wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. Despite having several famous books Eco’s greatest works are actually as a philosopher and semiotician. A constant theme of both his fiction and scholarly works are the limits of interpretation. He often explains this in terms of the “open text” and “closed text.” The closed text is a text (or any collection of signs like paintings or clothing) that has a very limited number of valid interpretations. The open text by contrast seems to have unlimited interpretations. Within his books his characters often face ambiguous texts out of which they attempt to gain understanding and meaning. The question always remains though: are all interpretations equally valid? Back in 1990 he gave the O. C. Tanner Lectures on this very topic.[1] It was reprinted in the book Interpretation and Overinterpretation.  His goal…

Why the Nones are Rising

One of the most interesting demographic shifts of the last era is the rise of the Nones. These are people who don’t self-identify with any particular religion at all. I’ve written about them several times in the past. My own view is that the rise of the Nones has primarily been a shift among people with loose commitment to religion. In the past they’d have named a religious tradition they were a part of. Now they say “none.” To my eyes the primary shift has been less a shift in their behavior than a shift in how they name themselves. But of course that’s not the whole story. While that’s probably what’s going on it doesn’t explain everything. Demographically the primary part of the population driving the rise of the Nones has been millennials. Fully 36% self-identify as part of the Nones. Older groups, like my Gen-X generation, have become slightly less religious but the primary driver of the social shift are…