A Review of Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision

When M* was asked if we were interested in reviewing any of a list of books from Greg Kofford books, one book in particular jumped out at me called Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision. I knew that was the one I wanted to review.

The book was much of what I was hoping for. Let me just say that unlike my esteemed colleague at M*, Ivan Wolfe, who also reviewed the book, I am a huge fan of speculative theology, especially speculative ways to work out the points of conflict between our current best scientific theories and our current best theological theories. Or, at least I’m a big fan if it’s not being presented as doctrinal fact, which this book never does.

I remember a Home Teacher coming over to our house when I was a child that, for some reason I can’t remember, gave us a lesson on the stars. I guess he was just interested and wanted to share. Back then standardized teaching was not as common and one could go wild on just about any topic. He spoke of the eventual heat death of the universe. I asked my father about that afterwards and my father’s simple answer was “God can change things so that there is no heat death.” As a child, that was as good an answer as any.

What I had actually been introduced to was two different ways in which Mormon doctrine can be interpreted. One way is that of my father’s. He simply accepts on faith that God controls the laws of the universe and so we can pretty much ignore factors like heat death as they can be rewritten at God’s whim.

The other approach is to see God as a “being who… gained His power and achieved perfection through obedience to laws.” (p. 93)

Thanks to the speculations of our 19th Century Mormon Ancestors, these two points of views intermingle in Mormon Thought to such a degree that it’s often impossible to tease them apart. This book falls firmly into the later camp, proposing various ways to interpret Mormon doctrine in a strongly naturalistic vein. Yet it does so humbly, always admitting that they have no answers yet, but are just exploring.

And I’m sure that the speculations they came up with are all pure poppycock. But it’s the right sort of poppycock! Here begins all knowledge: with the right sort of conjectural poppycock!

The Problems of the Spirit

One of my favorite topics from the book is the attempts to come up with a model for what spirit is. This is a challenging topic and Adam Davis, in his essay called Models of Spirit Matter, goes over several proposed models and the issues that exist with each. For example, what he calls the Mirror Model is a spirit world that “inhabits a spirit planet that basically sits on top of our own plant.” (p. 7) This sounds good in principle, but it actually presents an overwhelming challenge to existing physics. Consider how planets are formed according to our current understanding of physics. The Mirror Model has a significant explanation gap in that it does not explain why a spirit world would just happen to sit on top of our own world and just happens to travel around the sun at exactly the same speed as our world.

It’s tempting to try to ‘fix’ this problem by claiming that spirit matter must be attracted by the same forces as regular matter. Under this theory the spirit world is held in place by the force of gravity, just like we are. But this ‘fix’ creates a new significant explanation gap. Why can’t we then detect the spirit world since it too must exert gravity? We should be able to measure it via our current instruments.

Several other models are considered in turn. By the end of the essay Davis has basically shown that all the proposed models have significant issues. But this is the part I love about the book. David ends by expressing his optimize that despite these issues, we can and will eventually come up with a coherent model of the spirit world. Davis takes serious the doctrines of the Church and is exploring ways to reconcile physics and the doctrine of spirit matter. He knows he can’t resolve the issues today, but by exploring the issues he is working towards ways to resolve the problems.

This strikes me as the only legitimate way to treat religious doctrine: as legitimate basis for future observation. After all, if a spirit can influence our bodies in any meaningful way, then by definition it must be in some sense physical. (D&C 131:7) For ‘physical’ really means nothing more than ‘able to influence via forces.’ Spirits can either influence our bodies by some means (i.e. they contain something that can rightly be called a force) or they cannot and they have no relevance to us at all. There is no real middle ground here. Therefore spirit must be in some sense material. QED.

But he doesn’t just say (as too many do) “I can’t come up with a way to make this work, so it must be impossible.” He recognizes that all models start out this way, contradictory and problematic. (Oh that John Dehlin understood this point of rational thought!) So he sees little issue with exploring the issues and addressing them head on.

Intelligences, Light, and Truth

Scott Howe follows Davis with his own proposed model for spirit based on the idea of ‘primitive intelligences’ that are formed together as building blocks of personality. In addition he takes such passages as D&C 84:45, 93:29, 36 literally and notices that a reoccurring theme in these passages is that light is the basis for both truth and intelligences. He then explores these two thoughts and notices that there is a sense in which this is already literally true in modern physics.

Consider, for example, that all living things utilize biochemical signals to live. These signals exchange messages via photons which, and we know, is actually a package of light. So literally ‘intelligence’ (and all organic life for that matter) is a form of light.

Going a step further, he points out that the existence of all objects in our universe is actually a gigantic computation. For example, a simple rock actually does 10^45 computations per second essentially calculating its existence. It then ‘transmits’ the truth about itself to all our senses using photons, or in other words light. So in fact ‘truth’ is also deeply intertwined with light.

Though I am not sure how much I agree with many of Howe’s conclusions (often for the very reasons Davis explains) I find this an exceptional insight. And again, it’s a case of taking Mormon theology seriously as an explanation of the world and then exploring how to integrate it with our other explanations.

The right sort of poppycock indeed! I can think of no higher praise.

Objective Morality and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The book continues with these patterns throughout. It consistently takes Mormon scripture and doctrine seriously and then makes conjectures as to how to interpret them in a scientific worldview. It then points out its own failures and looks towards a future improved conjecture.

Perhaps my favorite essay from the book as a rather serious (and chillingly good) attempt by Scott Howe to define morality in wholly lawful and naturalistic terms. As I’ve pointed out in my own posts on the subject (see here and here plus I have a future summary coming soon) defining morality naturalistically has proven problematic. And indeed, citing Popperian epistemology (and some would also claim also Occam’s razor, though its unnecessary here) the best naturalistic explanation of morality right now is that morality is just a delusion that happens to have survival value.

Essentially Howe gets past long since debunked attempts (and also here) to define morality as not causing harm and instead defines a moral choice as one that opens up future opportunities rather than closing them down. (See 2 Nephi 2:27) Morality is then really the choice that reduces the long term negative consequences of our actions and is based on restraint rather than lack of it. (p. 96)

This insight now found, he then demonstrates that we can then, in theory, measure morality just like we can measure any type of entropy. Though this theory is still to computationally primitive at this point, one can easily see how this approach could give way to a fully computational understanding of morality.

However, if I had one criticism of Howe’s approach, it would be this: doesn’t the second law of thermodynamics say that entropy must always increase overall? And if so, does that not suggest that we actually live in literally an evil universe? (Lovecraftianism rears its ugly head again.) So Howe’s model, while intriguing, is insufficient on its own without some means of interpreting the second law of thermodynamics as not merely saying that the universe is going to one day quash all goodness out of reality without the slight hope of goodness winning out in the end.

But again, we see how the book takes a Mormon doctrinal insight and runs with it and comes up with starling conjectures based on those insights. Are they correct? Probably not a chance! But this is the way knowledge is developed folks!

Conclusions

I was asked by Kofford books to not give away too much of the contents of the book. If I had my choice I’d take each essay and summarize it and then interact critically with it. But I hope the above examples give you enough flavor of what to expect from the book and give a good explanation as to why I find their approach spot on for how to take religion seriously as an explanation of reality.

 In fact, I enjoyed the book enough that I ended up ‘liking’ the Mormon Transhuman Society on Facebook (causing my mother to start reading the site when frankly I haven’t yet) and I would hope that Lincoln Cannon might consider an alliance between Millennial Star and the Mormon Transhuman Society at some point.

15 thoughts on “A Review of Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision

  1. Bruce, you say: “Several other models are considered in turn. By the end of the essay Davis has basically shown that all the proposed models have significant issues. But this is the part I love about the book. David ends by expressing his optimi(sm) that despite these issues, we can and will eventually come up with a coherent model of the spirit world. Davis takes serious the doctrines of the Church and is exploring ways to reconcile physics and the doctrine of spirit matter. He knows he can’t resolve the issues today, but by exploring the issues he is working towards ways to resolve the problems.

    This strikes me as the only legitimate way to treat religious doctrine: as legitimate basis for future observation.”

    Exactly. We need to be humble enough to admit we don’t know all things but also wise enough to know that history has shown we will know more things in the future.

  2. Great review! I haven’t read the book, but I’ll offer some of my observations.

    As you note, D&C 131:7 tells us that spirit matter is matter, just more refined and pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes. Perhaps it is a type of matter that we haven’t detected yet, or cannot detect with our “current instruments” (e.g. the Higgs Boson, although we’re getting very close on that front). Certainly there are other particles we haven’t detected yet, fields we haven’t considered before, etc. String theory is popular, but there is no way to test for it. This may be a case of God withholding the evidence, so to speak, or placing it just outside our grasp (as as you suggest, perhaps it is just “so,” without God having a say). Will we ever be able to detect the spirit world with physical instruments? Probably not until the Millennium (although there’s some speculative discussion on that below). Can we detect it with spiritual instruments? Absolutely!

    There’s some interesting discussion about spirit matter in Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol, some of which I discussed on TempleStudy.com. The character Katherine’s thoughts are written:

    Noetic Science clearly suggested that thoughts had mass, and so it stood to reason, then, that the human soul might therefore also have mass. Can I weigh a human soul?…

    Katherine recalled writing in her lab notes with a trembling hand: “There seems to exist an invisible ‘material’ that exits the human body at the moment of death. It has quantifiable mass which is unimpeded by physical barriers. I must assume it moves in a dimension I cannot yet perceive.” (Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol, 392, 395)

    I think it is fascinating the way light behaves on a quantum level (cute example of double-slit experiment). The Dancing Wu Li Masters was a fascinating introduction for me. Indeed, it is as if each photon has intelligence, and “knows” in a very real way. How? No one knows. And what of quantum entanglement, “spookiness at a distance”? We don’t know how that works. It’s beyond our current understanding.

    Your comment about how the whole “universe is actually a gigantic computation,” is an interesting subject of study for me. I once wrote a paper at BYU entitled “A Modern Worldview from Plato’s Cave,” where I speculated on this topic. Is the universe simply a gigantic holodeck, a massive computer generated simulation? And if so, how does that figure with the gospel? It’s an interesting thought to ponder.

    I do believe we live in an “evil” universe, at least at this state. We are all inherently carnal, sensual, and devilish the moment we enter this world (although not accountable for it until we reach the age of eight), and exit the presence of God (Alma 42:10; Moses 6:49; does that mean that anything not in God’s presence is evil in some sense?). When Adam and Eve fell and were expelled into the lone and dreary world where mortality existed, there have been thoughts that the Earth also literally fell to a different time and space. Whether or not that was in our same universe is up for debate. But it seems to me that natural law was not the same in the Garden of Eden as it is in our current sphere.

    One of my favorite quotes on the relationship between science and the gospel is by scientist and Elder James E. Talmage in Jesus the Christ in discussing the miracle of turning water into wine:

    Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized. Gravitation is everywhere operative, but the local and special application of other agencies may appear to nullify it—as by muscular effort or mechanical impulse a stone is lifted from the ground, poised aloft, or sent hurtling through space. At every stage of the process, however, gravity is in full play, though its effect is modified by that of other and locally superior energy. The human sense of the miraculous wanes as comprehension of the operative process increases. Achievements made possible by modern invention of telegraph and telephone with or without wires, the transmutation of mechanical power into electricity with its manifold present applications and yet future possibilities, the development of the gasoline motor, the present accomplishments in aerial navigation—these are no longer miracles in man’s estimation, because they are all in some degree understood, are controlled by human agency, and, moreover, are continuous in their operation and not phenomenal. We arbitrarily classify as miracles only such phenomena as are unusual, special, transitory, and wrought by an agency beyond the power of man’s control.

    In a broader sense, all nature is miracle. Man has learned that by planting the seed of the grape in suitable soil, and by due cultivation, he may conduce to the growth of what shall be a mature and fruitful vine; but is there no miracle, even in the sense of inscrutable processes, in that development? Is there less of real miracle in the so-called natural course of plant development—the growth of root, stem, leaves, and fruit, with the final elaboration of the rich nectar of the vine—than there was in what appears supernatural in the transmutation of water into wine at Cana?

    In the contemplation of the miracles wrought by Christ, we must of necessity recognize the operation of a power transcending our present human understanding. In this field, science has not yet advanced far enough to analyze and explain. To deny the actuality of miracles on the ground that, because we cannot comprehend the means, the reported results are fictitious, is to arrogate to the human mind the attribute of omniscience, by implying that what man cannot comprehend cannot be, and that therefore he is able to comprehend all that is. The miracles of record in the Gospels are as fully supported by evidence as are many of the historical events which call forth neither protest nor demand for further proof. To the believer in the divinity of Christ, the miracles are sufficiently attested; to the unbeliever they appear but as myths and fables.

    Wow, I spent a lot more time on this comment than I thought I would. I need to pick up that book!

  3. “Katherine recalled writing in her lab notes with a trembling hand:”

    Bryce, can you get references to this please? I’m interested.

    Also, you should read my post on Quantum Physics and learn the basic math I teach there so that you really understand the concept.

    http://www.millennialstar.org/explaining-quantum-physics-2/

    I think it’s worth people’s while to learn the math on this. For me, learning the math was the end of analogies and the start of actual understanding.

    By the way, one of the articles in this book makes the case that at a quantum level particles have agency.

    However, if I had room to critique that idea, I’d have to find it lacking at that time becaues in fact it’s completely governed by the laws of probability. If you think of a single ‘choice’ it seems like agency. But over several thousand experiments, the feeling of agency disappears because it always comes out with the same average results to an amazing degree of accuracy.

    Analogy: roll a die and count up the number of times a 1 comes up. Over a 600 rolls, it will be very very close to 100 times. To claim this is due to agency seems wrong to me. Yes, the die is ‘choosing’ what it’s going to land on, in a certain sense. But if it were what I call agency, it would not come out to be nearly 100 *every single time.*

    It’s hard for me to see this as any sort of agency. But I like the way they think and it was a clever idea worth pursuing.

  4. I did put references, pages 392, 395. :) That’s in the hard cover version of The Lost Symbol.

    The fact that a photon follows a different path depending on whether you are observing it or not seems to me to be some level of agency, not probability. But perhaps I just haven’t investigated enough.

  5. “In the contemplation of the miracles wrought by Christ, we must of necessity recognize the operation of a power transcending our present human understanding. In this field, science has not yet advanced far enough to analyze and explain. To deny the actuality of miracles on the ground that, because we cannot comprehend the means, the reported results are fictitious, is to arrogate to the human mind the attribute of omniscience, by implying that what man cannot comprehend cannot be, and that therefore he is able to comprehend all that is.”

    GREAT STUFF!!

  6. Bryce,

    Um… what I meant was that The Lost Symbol seems to be quoting some other source. I was looking for the reference to the original source. :)

    Concerning quantum physics, the key point is that the wave function ‘chooses’ to collapse according to specific laws. It does so with such incredible regularity that over a large enough sample size we can predict the collapse with an amazing degree of accuracy.

    This, to me at least, seems more like the die rolling example then anything I would have called agency. But remember that such words have a great deal of vagueness to them. So we could still probably legtimately call it agency in *some* sense. And perhaps that is *just enough* to become the building blocks of agency.

  7. Oh, the idea that it “knows” if we observed it or not is something I address in my quantum physics post. It’s a related but different issue. You probably can get more mileage out of that claim… though a many worlds interpretation of quantum physics ruins that one too because there is no knowledge or choice at all under such a view. (If you can wrap your mind around such an interpretation, which I’m not sure I can, personally.)

  8. Go read my post, Bryce. It’s too hard to explain without the math. The math is not hard either. You’ll see why I’m saying easier once you read it. It perhaps can be used as a basis for intelligence, but it’s not clear one way or the other.

  9. I have no idea where Dan Brown got the ideas for his book, but I did start to look into Noetics, and it looked interesting. Something we’d have to research further.

    As for quantum physics, I suppose you could also say that agency follows specific laws also, which can be predictable given a large enough sampling of experience. But then we get into a discussion on predestination, free will, God’s omniscience, etc.

    How is there no knowledge or choice under a “many worlds” interpretation? Did you mean the multiverse?

    I’ll read your post.

  10. Many worlds is often called “multiverse.” There is no ‘knowledge’ per se because reality actually ‘splits’ when you observe. So it might seem like knowledge, but it’s actually just the physical effect of having split reality.

    Wow, that sounded really strange. :)

    Who is “Katherine” and what is the reference ot her lab notes? That is what I’m curious about. It sounds like you took a quote that contextually was about measuring a person after death and they lost mass. I’ve heard that before, but always thought it was just a FPR. So finding actual lab notes on it somewhere published would be very nice indeed.

  11. And you’re right about agency possibly requiring a discussion about large samples, predestiination, etc.

  12. Katherine is a character in the novel. Of course Dan Brown’s novel is fictional, but he often used real world research as a basis for the plot. He mentions some real world Noetic research centers, for instance.

  13. Ah!

    Yeah, he’s going off of the reports that people lose weight when they die. I’d be curious what his source it. Might have to google it a bit sometime.

  14. Pingback: 15 Predictions of the Future – Blackpool Creative with Bryce Haymond

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