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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.

An Argument for the Incompatibility of Free Will and God’s Absolute Foreknowledge

I was recently reading some articles by Blake Ostler, and came across what I felt was a very illustrative argument for the Incompatibility of free will and God’s absolute foreknowledge.  Mostly I hope this will help make clear what is at stake in the debate, so here is my restatement of the argument:

P1 – God has always known that I will rob a convenience store at time T.
P2 – Free will demands that I could do otherwise.
P3 – If I were to refrain from robbing the convenience store at time T, I would change the past (specifically God’s absolute foreknowledge).
P4 – My actions in the present cannot change the past.

C – Free will is not compatible with God’s absolute foreknowledge.

I like this argument because it focuses on the past which most would say is fixed.  Is there a way out of this argument without disputing a straight forward definition of free will or time?

There Are a Lot of Counterfeits Out There, What’s in Your Wallet?

The latest manufactured outrage related to the church has to do with what should be an unsurprising paragraph by an Elder Lawrence in the April 2017 Ensign.  The key quote is given below:

Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, but same-sex marriage is only a counterfeit. It brings neither posterity nor exaltation. Although his imitations deceive many people, they are not the real thing. They cannot bring lasting happiness.

I have unfortunately seen some very twisted and forced spins on this statement, that have resulted (intentionally) in unnecessary questions.  The key to understanding this paragraph is that the posterity spoken of is the eternal, sealed posterity of a temple marriage, rather than the simple biological ability to reproduce, or adopt children during mortality.  Also the happiness spoken of is the eternal happiness available through exaltation.

What I wish to add to the conversation is that there are countless counterfeits out there (which is in keeping with the article).  But before I do, I would like to point out that calling something a counterfeit need not be a fighting word, in this context it can be helpful and descriptive.  This article points this out:

Remember, counterfeits are not the same as opposites. The opposite of white is black, but a counterfeit for white might be off-white or gray. Counterfeits bear a resemblance to the real thing in order to deceive unsuspecting people.

So to extend this idea within the topic of marriage, one could make the case that any marriage outside the temple has something of a counterfeit nature to it from a Mormon perspective.  Thus even heterosexual marriage, if not sealed in the temple, is a counterfeit.  A non-temple marriage of any kind will not bring an eternal posterity, exaltation, or the same level of eternal happiness as an eternal marriage will.

This idea can be extended to many topics.  If we wish to discuss religion, we could make the case that from a Mormon perspective all other religions have a counterfeit nature to them when compared with the restored gospel.  While they may do many great things, and appear to be the real thing, they preach of false Christs and false salvation.  They lack priesthood authority and perform counterfeit ordinances.  They are counterfeit gospels.

We could take any area of righteousness and discuss counterfeits.  Sabbath day observance may be as good an example as any.  Recreation, shopping, or watching football on TV (all of which I have done sometimes) on Sunday can be a counterfeit to meaningful worship on the Sabbath day.

I hope you get the picture.  The world is full of counterfeits to full gospel living.  Those who are outraged that the idea was applied to same-sex marriage could take some comfort in this I suppose.  These folks are not alone.  Counterfeits are all over the place.  And if we extend the analogy to counterfeit money, we may all have some counterfeits in our own wallet right now.


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