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Philosophy, Science and Religion: Friendly Disagreement, Testimonial Knowledge, and the Importance of Fellowship

The third week of the Coursera course on Philosophy, Science and Religion addresses disagreement and friendly Atheism/Theism.  Professor John Greco lectures on a pattern of disagreement that we see far to often in our modern society.  He does this by presenting an example of the flawed atheist.

In this example the believer feels that the evidence for the existence of God is everywhere.  Everyone can witness this evidence, including the atheist.  Therefore, there must be some intellectual or moral flaw in the atheist.

One of the problems with this example is that it can be turned around.  You see, the atheist feels that the evidence for the non-existence of God is everywhere.  Everyone can witness this evidence, including the believer.  Therefore, there must be some intellectual or moral flaw in the believer.  Sound like a familiar pattern?

Professor Greco spends quite a bit of time on testimonial information as a source for knowledge, and as a path of understanding to a more civil and friendly discourse.  Greco rightly points out that a significant portion of our knowledge has come to us from testimonial sources.  Much of what we know, we know because someone has told us, or because we read it in a book.  This is true, regardless of the topic.  Most of us would not want to simply give up all the knowledge that we have gained from testimonial information – it is vitally important to us all.

When we receive some testimonial information, we have a decision to make – whether to accept this information as true, and count it as knowledge or not.  But what criteria should we use?

One very important criteria all of us use is to consider the source of the information.  We all have certain groups that we are part of, and other groups that we are not part of.  Groups we are part of might include family, friends, coworkers, fellow believers, political parties, countries, and so forth.  From these groups we often have fairly low or easy standards information must pass to be accepted as truth and count as knowledge.  And groups that we are not part of – strangers, the other political party, atheists, other countries, etc., we will tend to have much higher and difficult standards that we will apply to accept their information as truth and count it as knowledge.

This understanding can give a dose of humility regarding our own grasp of knowledge, and can give us another option (rather than intellectual and moral flaws) when evaluating others’ beliefs.

This also adds some value to what we might call fellowship in some form of conversion process.  If we wish to convince someone of our point of view, perhaps one of the most effective ways is to help them feel included in our group.  This can remove unnecessary barriers to accepting our testimonial information as truth and counting it as knowledge.  I had never thought of social conversion in quite this way before.

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Philosophy, Science and Religion: The Conflict Between Science and Religion

In the second week of the Coursera course on Philosophy, Science and Religion, professor John Evans gives a series of lectures on the conflict between science and religion.  He organizes his lectures based on three types of conflict – systematic, propositional, and moral.

Systematic

Regarding systematic conflict, Dr. Evans rightly points out that at least in western cultures, there really is no significant systematic conflict between science and religion.  If this were the case, there would be a significant amount of people who reject science all together, and would not trust nor rely on anything that results from the scientific community.  But even the most fundamentalist of religious believers accept the vast majority of the products of science at face value.  And it is only a relatively small list of specific theories of science that religious believers reject or are skeptical of.   This brings us to the next type of conflict.

Propositional

Propositional conflict would be conflict that is on a case-by-case basis and depends on just what is being claimed by science.  Thus religious believers for the most part are not blindly dismissing the claims of science all together, but only those claims that they are in specific conflict with.  The nature of this conflict will usually involve the interpretations of religious texts like the Bible, pitted against the conclusions drawn from scientific data.  And of course, both sides can have their own spin on the sources.  But Dr. Evans seems to feel that the most significant nature of the conflict between science and religion is moral in character.

Moral

The moral conflict also seems to me to be at the heart of much of the conflict between science and religion.  Where science may be concerned more with what we can do, religion is more concerned with what we should do.  And religious believers will often be concerned with the moral consequences of the claims of science.  One illustration given was called ‘The Evolution Tree’ by Elmendorf shown below:

aaaevolutiontree-copy

I think this illustration is helpful in understanding the nature, and likely the motivation, of the religious conflict from the perspective of some believers on the topic of evolution.  The objection here has nothing to do with any sort of data or findings of science, but that the theory itself will lead too all sorts of societal ills including things like abortion, racism, and genetic engineering.  Religion desires to keep its’ place in society to help protect it from these negative consequences, and thus will not want to give up the contest easily.  And this is why the moral conflict is likely the most fundamental conflict between science and religion.

 

Philosophy, Science and Religion: The Mind and The Religious Experience

I am taking an online course through Coursera on Philosophy, Science and Religion.  In the first week, Dr. Sara Lane Richie gives a series of lectures on religious belief and embodiment, with a focus on recent studies in cognitive science.  This flows remarkable well, I think, from my previous post on Testimony and the Spiritual Experience.

In these lectures, Dr. Richie reviews studies which show that religious experiences are accompanied by repeatable and measurable brain activity in the subject.  And poses the question as to whether these studies disprove the claim of a spiritual experience.

While many atheists will likely claim that such studies do debunk claims of spiritual experiences, Dr. Richie rightly concludes that such studies merely show a correlation between brain activity and spiritual experiences, and do nothing to reveal the cause of such experiences.  Why shouldn’t spiritual experiences be accompanied by brain activity?  Would it not be even more surprising if there were no unique brain activity at all during such experiences?

And as a result, cognitive science will likely never be able to provide any insight into the source of the religious experience, nor be able to determine if spiritual experiences are “real”.

Testimony and the Spiritual Experience

I was raised in the religious tradition of my parents, which happens to be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Over the course of my life I have had several spiritual experiences associated with the church and my participation in it. Once I have had these experiences, I am left with a few options about what to make of these experiences.  I can attribute these experiences to emotions, psychological phenomena, or wishful thinking.  I can say that I do not know what these experiences are and remain uncommitted to them.  Or I can attribute these experiences to God and the spirit.

In my case, to simply deny that these experiences have occurred, would seem to be a self deception that I do not wish to pursue.  Because of this I have a desire to make some decision regarding these experiences.  I would hope that the people that know me well will recognize that I have clearly attributed my spiritual experiences to God, and this has lead to a lifetime of committed membership in the church.

Having these experiences makes the decision of what to do about God and religion more sharp.  The more profound the experience, the less likely ignoring or dismissing them will be.  Those that have had such experiences should understand the weight of the decisions that they have made regarding them.  Such decisions should not be taken lightly.

I cannot speak to the spiritual experiences of others.  I am unclear about why there appears to be a variety of such experiences (some appear to have not had them, others appear to have had them but associated with other traditions,, etc.).  It is difficult for me to relate to.  I really can only say that I have had such experiences associated with the church, I have chosen to attribute these to God, and this has resulted in what I often call testimony.

 

On the Arguments of Ruthie Robertson

Ruthie Robertson is the recently fired instructor at BYU Idaho.  She made a face book post arguing against certain doctrines and policies of the church which employed her which resulted in her being fired – which should not be terribly surprising.  I would like to summarize her arguments to show why I disagree with them.

Her primary argument seems to be that the church is picking-and-choosing which hateful practices to follow from the Old Testament and which to ignore.  This argument highlights what I believe is clearly missing from whatever faith or testimony she thinks she has, which is that the church is lead by a prophet and apostles today.  There should be little question that the gospel of Jesus Christ has certain departures from the Law of Moses – particularly in practice.  What our teachings and practices should be currently is not based on picking-and-choosing from the Old Testament, but on the inspired leadership of those called as prophets, seers and revelators.   Her statement shows that she simply does not believe this.

She goes on to say that while the Book of Mormon does not mention homosexuality, it does condemn polygamy.  Yet she fails to mention that while the key chapter (Jacob 2), does condemn polygamy, it does leave the door open in verse 30 should God command otherwise.  This is picking-and-choosing.

She wraps up her manifesto by making an argument that our sins are part of who we are, and since God made us that way, it is not a sin.  This line of reasoning seems to take us to a conclusion that there is no such thing as sin.  The argument would go something like this:

P1:  God made us absolutely and is responsible for who we are.
P2:  Our sins are part of who we fundamentally are.
P3:  God is not a creator of sin

C1:  Nothing we do is a sin

My disagreement here is with both P1 and P2.  There is something about us (call it intelligence or what you will) that was not created nor made – not even by God.  So the fundamental part of who we are is necessary rather than contingent on God.  We are ultimately un-caused agents.  This then leads to a disagreement with P2 with regards to free will or agency.

Bottom line is that faithful members will believe that the church is lead by revelation rather than picking-and-choosing, and that we are all capable of choosing behaviors and repenting of sin.  Ruthie seems to be missing these parts.

Hijacking Testimony Meeting for Activism

Through the wonders of facebook I was able to view a video shared by the brother of a friend that showed a 12 year old girl sharing her ‘testimony’ of being gay.  Much of what she said was fine, but some of it was direct refutation of church teachings and her plans to go against them.  It put her in a place of claiming to know better what the gospel and the commandments should be than the prophets she supposedly sustains.

This was not some spontaneous spirit driven event.  It was highly staged.  It was video taped and given production value.  The ‘testimony’ was several pages written out.  She was dressed as a deacon.  The language and structure of the ‘testimony’ was far above what a 12 year old would normally come up with.   There were words that she had trouble pronouncing.  All this is why I chose to look at it as a hijacking of a testimony meeting and why I put the word testimony in quotes when referring to it.

But mostly for this post I wish to share the concern over hijacking testimony meeting in general, with this event as just one example.  Every month the church holds a testimony meeting where anyone can come up and say anything they want – until the presiding authority steps in and stops them.  I am surprised that this sort of thing does not happen more often, and I would be surprised if this does not happen more frequently in the future.

What is to stop those who wish to advocate for various causes, or those who simply wish to criticize the church, from hijacking these meetings?  This could certainly put local leaders in a very difficult position.  And if it were to become common might end the practice of testimony meetings all together.

Are my concerns here unfounded?  Does this happen more often than I realize?  How should church leaders handle this, and is the practice of testimony meeting potentially in jeopardy due to this sort of thing?

No, Basketball Fans, LeBron James is Not Better than Michael Jordan

To begin with I will state something that should not be necessary but often is.  Just because I am saying that LeBron James is not better than Michael Jordan I am not saying that he is no good at all.  Even the harshest LeBron critics would still easily put him in the top 10 players of all time.  So with that out of the way, I would like to explain to the world why LeBron James is not a better basketball player than Michael Jordan was.

Let’s start with some objective metrics.  Two metrics that have gained some traction recently are win shares and player efficiency rating.  Of the two I prefer win shares for a couple of reasons.  Win shares attempts to take all meaningful stats, including defensive stats and rebounding to calculate a player’s contribution to winning basketball games.  Also, win share algorithms can be checked with historical data to see how well they actually predict team wins.  The win share metric has been checked with decades of historical data and has proven to accurately predict season team wins based on player statistics to within an average error of 2.74 wins in an 82 game schedule.  This gives the metric pretty good credibility.

Player efficiency rating is a good metric for measuring offensive production which includes the factors of 3-point shooting, 2-point shooting, and free throw shooting to arrive at the efficiency rating.

Now is a reasonable time to make such comparisons as LeBron James has played in one more NBA season than Michael Jordan did, and because the comparisons between the two appear to be heating up.  So what do the objective metrics say?  Well it is not so good for LeBron.  For career win shares per 48 minutes in the NBA, the all time leaders are (per basketball reference):

1. Michael Jordan* .2505
2. Chris Paul .2504
3. David Robinson* .2502
4. Wilt Chamberlain* .2480
5. Neil Johnston* .2413
6. LeBron James .2389
7. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* .2284
8. Magic Johnson* .2249
9. Kevin Durant .2189
10. Charles Barkley* .2163

As you can see, Michael Jordan has the best career numbers, just narrowly over Chris Paul.  LeBron James is clear down in number 6.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is number 7, but his career stats suffer per 48 minutes since he played many years past his prime – more on that later.

As far as player efficiency goes, the story is a little different, per basketball reference:

1. Michael Jordan* 27.91
2. LeBron James 27.61
3. Shaquille O’Neal* 26.43
4. David Robinson* 26.18
5. Wilt Chamberlain* 26.13
6. Chris Paul 25.72
7. Bob Pettit* 25.35
8. Kevin Durant 25.24
9. Neil Johnston* 24.69
10. Charles Barkley* 24.63

So for the offense stats Lebron comes out a bit better at #2, but still looking up at Jordan.  So as far as these respected metrics go, Michael Jordan is objectively the better of the two players.  Is there any objective metric that has James ahead of Jordan?  If so, I have not seen it.

How about championships?  Usually I would not put much stock in this comparison, since championships are a team accomplishment.  I would never say that Will Perdue was a better forward than Karl Malone in spite of the number of championships the two players have (or do not have).  But in the case of comparing LeBron James and Michael Jordan, I think this is a fair comparison since both players were the undisputed leaders on their teams, and spent so much time with the ball in their hands.   Additionally, LeBron James has so shamelessly left teams, to arrange to be on a ‘stacked’ team, to improve his chances of winning championships, something Jordan did not do.  And James has done this twice.  Ironically it is James that comes up short in the championship count.  This could be even further magnified since Jordan quit basketball for two years during his prime to give baseball a try.  Jordan won 3 championships in a row before this retirement, and 3 more in a row after returning.  There seems to be a good chance he would have had 8 straight championships had he stayed – something LeBron is not even close to doing.

And lastly, I want to give my own eyeball test some expression.  I am old enough to have watched both players.  And while Lebron does have the edge in rebounds and assists – which I can appreciate, Jordan was better at nearly everything else.  But perhaps nothing is more striking to me that Jordan’s ability to create mid-range shots for himself, and make them with astonishing regularity, regardless of what the defense does.  Jordan carried his teams to victories on several occasions with just such a shot.  LeBron has no such mid-range game, and has far to often disappeared down the stretch of important games.

So, no, basketball fans, LeBron James is not a better basketball player than Michael Jordan, and is therefore not the best basketball player in history.  That honor goes to – Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

When one looks at the win shares per 48 minutes for individual seasons, 3 of the best 4 seasons in history belong to Kareem.  And when one considers that Kareem only lost one game in his 4 year college career, to add to a remarkable NBA career, most everyone is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the best basketball player of all time.  It is neither LeBron nor Michael.  It is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


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