On The Arrogance of Circumscribing God With Man’s Logic

[Thank you to the folks at the Millennial Star for inviting me to participate here by cross posting some of the content from my own blog.  It has been several years since I last participated here and I look forward to contributing in a small way. – J. Max Wilson]

One of my favorite definitions of logic comes from Ambrose Bierce’s satirical Devil’s Dictionary: “Logic: n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.”

History is a testament to the nearly limitless incapacity of the human misunderstanding. And while each generation reserves a regular chuckle for the naiveté of its ancestors, it is often just as blind to its own errors.

I believe that our minds are not only limited by lack of experience and information. They are fundamentally limited by mortality. Our two eyes can only extrapolate three dimensions, though with some effort we can conceive of a tesseract even if we cannot visualize it in its true form. We can only perceive colors of light within about 380 to 750 nanometer wavelengths, and as a result plants and flowers that exhibit intricate ultraviolet patterns and designs appear to us quite plain and ordinary to our limited vision. Technology allows us discover their patterns by translating the ultraviolet into our visible spectrum, but we are incapable of actually seeing them as they really are.

Reality is not circumscribed by your or my ability to comprehend, conceive of, or perceive it.

Just because you cannot see how your neighbor’s sub-prime mortgage can affect the value of your own home does not mean that it cannot. Just because you cannot conceive of how same-sex marriage could possibly threaten the institution of the family does not mean that it cannot do so.

So it is especially arrogant to presume to circumscribe God and his church with the incapacities of human misunderstanding. Just because you cannot conceive of a way in which God can have exhaustive knowledge of the future while simultaneously allowing mankind to have true free will does not mean that it is not possible for him to do so. Just because you cannot see how a good God can allow so much suffering in the world, doesn’t mean that God is not good. Just because the priesthood restrictions before 1978 don’t make sense to me doesn’t mean that they were not God’s will. It just means I cannot comprehend it.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for irrationality. I am not saying that reality is not rational. It just means that our ability to apprehend reality through purely rational means is inherently limited by nature.

As members of the LDS church, our knowledge of God by necessity comes through authorized revelation. We have a prophet. If we only follow the prophet when the information he receives can be reconciled with our reason then there is no need for a prophet at all because reason alone would suffice.

So, until we receive additional information from the proper authority, we should probably refrain from relying on our human misunderstandings as our own special versions of Hyum Page’s seer stone to suggest publicly which doctrines should be accepted or abandoned by the church, or to correct her direction. Either the watchmen are indeed on a tower that permits them to see beyond where we are able, or they are not. And I believe that they are.

77 thoughts on “On The Arrogance of Circumscribing God With Man’s Logic

  1. Jon, it is great to have you back here.

    As a convert to the Church, it is fascinating for me to ponder how wrong my logic was before I joined the Church (in terms of creating happiness and joy for me and my family) and how right my logic is now that I do my best to follow modern-day prophets. In many ways, I have done a 180-degree turn, so you cannot say that I was correct both before my conversion and now — I believed things that were completely opposed to each other.

    I had a lot of questions and problems during the conversion process. The priesthood ban for African-Americans was an issue, as was the history of polygamy. But because of my faith, I was able to put these in the category of “things I don’t understand right now.” And when I thought about it, there are literally hundreds of things that I mentally put in the category of “things I don’t understand right now.” How exactly was the Earth formed, and did evolution play a part or not in human development, and are there other populated worlds? If the Father was once like we are now, that must mean there is more than one Father in Heaven (or an infinite number), and how did the first one become Father in Heaven? I could go on and on, but the point is that anybody who says he has to have all questions answered before he can accept any religion is kidding himself, because ours answers more questions than most and there are still thousands of additional questions. So, if there are inevitably thousands of other questions, doesn’t that mean we should put our trust in the Lord — and not rely on our own logic? It seems like the answer is “yes.”

  2. “What constitutes proper authority?” Is the root of your argument, which is the entire point of testimony…

  3. I think you make an unsubstantiated jump from the fact that we have limited perception of the outside world to our allegedly limited skills in reason. Is logic necessarily bound by our perception? Sure, I can’t see the ultraviolet light spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t conceive that 2+2 will always equal 4, anywhere in the universe, at any time.

    Also, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that faith and reason cannot coexist, and that faith, in fact, is the complete lack of reason. No need to dis on reason and logic. They can occupy two separate spheres.

  4. Is not my own ability to reason all I have to go by though? I must reason out what is revelation from God vs what is not. I must reason out whether or not to take out a loan. I must reason out what is good and what is evil. The very scriptures I hold dear tell me it is given unto me to Judge.

    I think setting up reasoning vs. the prophets is a bit of an error in your logic. It may be true that it is more reasonable to rely upon God and put things on the shelf when we do not understand, but I think it is acceptable to follow the admonition of Joseph Smith, when he said:

    “The things of God are of deep import, and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, ed. B. H. Roberts, 3:295.)

  5. Matt W, one of my favorite scriptures is Isaiah 1:19:

    “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”

    It is impossible for human reason to know everything. Sometimes you simply must have faith and make decisions based on the advice and counsel of others. Personally, I put trust in the prophets to help me make the right decisions.

  6. My point is more to encourage rational humility than to pit reason squarely against revelation. Reason is a valuable tool. But we must take care not to walk in the light of our own fire and in the sparks which we have kindled.

    I don’t think that reason is all that we have to go on. We have the light of Christ. And if we act contrary to that light its influence is diminished and our reason alone is insufficient.

  7. “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is
    the man who has lost everything except his reason.” – G. K Chesterton

  8. Geoff B.- You initially put trust in the prophets because someone you trusted told you to do so, and thus it was reasonable of you to do that. (I’d love to know your conversion story, have you posted it?) Eventually, your own experience confirmed to you what your trust based on reason indicated, and that was that trusting the prophets is good. So Reason worked out for you in that instance.

    In Widtsoe’s Rational Theology, he notes:

    The Gospel does not claim…possession of ultimate knowledge…man is ordinarily allowed to work out for himself the truths of the universe and to organize them into systems of thought which he may follow profitably. Knowledge is given directly by [God] only when it becomes indispensable to do so… The distinguishing feature of the Gospel is that it possesses the key to the true philosophy of life. In outline it offers the entire plan if life in the universe…

    From this I infer that, for Widtsoe, it all comes down to our own ability to reason as the final stopping point in deciding what is and isn’t truth. All truth should be then accepted and no truth should be rejected.

  9. There is sometimes a temptation to make more out of revelation than is actually given. Much of the revelation we have on such topics is pretty vague. It seems that it was questioning certain doctrines that lead to many of the revelations received by JS. I think that there is often value is studying things out in out own mind, prior to receiving revelation.

  10. J. Max- The light of Christ being a form of knowing outside of reason is an interesting point, and one that Truman Madsen also brings up in his lectures on Christ (or the Temple, or a devotional he gave, they all get mixed in my head) Of course, it is still up to us to figure out what of our promptings are the light of Christ, and what is primal instinct from the natural man, or some other such source. I do think it important to be rationally humble, in any case. But to me being rationally humble means keeping an open mind and a listening ear even to those I disagree with. For example, I am a believer in evolution, but I wouldn’t be at all hurt or disappointed if it turns out we were all formed in 7 days. I am a believer in God, but I can understand why others don’t. I don’t always do a good job of being open and willing to listen, but I am trying.

    Jacob J. That was a great post. It really helped me when you posted it.

    Geoff J. Your comment was hear a minute ago. Not sure this post is connected to foreknowledge per se’? Can’t think of any other reason you’d have been blocked out for just linking to your response?

  11. Eric, I am not arguing against searching, pondering, or studying things out mentaly. I am only urging humility when it comes to proclaiming what God can or cannot do based on our limited reason alone.

  12. But Joseph was the prophet. He was the authorized source. While each of us is free to our own private reasoning and revelation, it is not for us to establish doctrine through either.

  13. J. Max, regarding Joseph being the authorized source, would you say then that when the Book Mormon Doctrine was published by then 70 Bruce R. McConkie, since he was not the authorized source and did so against the wishes of the authorized source (David O. McKay), that he was wrong to do so?

    I’m seriously wondering.

  14. I am going to refrain from commenting on the propriety of Elder McConkie’s publication other than to say that I do not believe Mormon Doctrine to be authoritative.

  15. Ahhh, the sophomores stick their heads up again (in the coments, that is).

    J. Max: I’m totally with you on this. Your overall point (the arrogance of trying to circumscribe God within man’s understanding) touches on one of what I call the “common heresies” of the Bloggernacle. Perhaps all the common bloggernacle heresies I had in mind could fit under the umbrella of your thesis.

    Thor: Logical deductions are very much dependent on observations, because if you start out with wrong assumptions or “givens”, you’ll end up with wrong conclusions. Take the assumption that radio-isotopes have a fixed half-life. There has recently arisen some evidence (not proof) that points to the possibility that distance from the (or a) sun can affect their half-life. What if the assumption of fixed half-lives is false? Then, what if the assumption that this planet has always been the same distance from the (or a) sun for its entire existence is wrong?

    Our present inability to observe the earth being a different distance to the sun, and our present inability to observe radioactive half-lives on other planets at other distances has affected our assumptions, and therefore our logic in a myriad of other scientific deductions and analyses based on dating using radio-isotopes.

    Another factor of different radio-isotope half-lives is the possibility of much higher concentration of water vapor in the upper atmosphere. If Genesis is literal in that there was water “above the firmament (sky)” prior to the flood, it is now speculated (by those putting forth the theory of non-constant half-lives), that such water vapor also had an effect on half-lives.

    I also assert that reason and faith are linked to a much greater extent than your comment implies. An act of faith can be an extrapolation upon reason. An act of faith can be an extrapolation upon a piece of knowledge that was previously taken on faith, but has been proven via the experience of exercising (doing something with) that faith. Once faith solidifies or “gells” into knowlege/experience, then a new layer of soft faith (faith in the next step/principle/line/precept) can be laid upon the older more solid level which becomes a foundation for the newer level.

    Thus, reason and knowledge play an integral part of building or accumulating more (additional and new) faith.

    And, to continue the analogy, I believe that the levels don’t fully solidify (and likely don’t solidify as quickly) until one has built at least one softer layer on top of it.

    Matt W: I think your JS quote supports Max, and speaks against the person he’s (mainly) referring to. Circumscribing (limiting) God is a characteristic of someone who has not allowed their mind to stretch to heaven, or searched the broad expanse of eternity.

  16. Fair enough. Would it be acceptable then to make statements of belief beyond the authorized sources, in your opinion, so long as we make a disclaimer that those statements are of our own reasoning, and not in fact doctrinally binding?

  17. 2nd paragraph, opening sentence needs one fewer negation, I think. A “limitless incapacity of the human misunderstanding” would make us entirely incapable of misunderstanding, and I have a nearly limitless capacity for misunderstanding, so you’re not speaking for me with that sentence as written.

    And, otherwise, you seem to be channeling my thoughts. One of my favorite BY quotes (paraphrased) is “A gnat has as much of a chance of determining the origins of man as man has of determining the origins of God,” and I think the origins are not the only things that can be said about.

    4 — Faith and reason opposed? I am floored by the idea. Faith is simply accepting something that can’t be proven and relying on it. All reasoning is based on things which have to be assumed, because they can’t be proven. The problem is not that we have to assume — the problem is when we forget (or don’t realize) that we’re assuming, and that our assumptions might be wrong. One of my favorite pieces of doctrine brought through JS was the idea that we can receive revelation, but that we have to apply our capacity to reason to the questions we want revelation about, requiring both our faith that God will answer our questions and the mental effort of reasoning before we can expect that answer. It even includes the notion of testing and proving.

    15 — I don’t see MD as authoritative at all. I see it as an extended statement of opinion. FWIW.

  18. Thank you, J. Max, for the post and follow-up comments. I run into this a lot with published history (it probably happens in every field), where somebody lines up his facts in a tidy row and proves logically that such-and-such must be so about the past. But if that’s not what happened, it doesn’t matter how logical the historian has been — he’s still wrong.

    I realize that you aren’t arguing against the use of logic, as some seem to think you are.

  19. Would it be acceptable then to make statements of belief beyond the authorized sources, in your opinion, so long as we make a disclaimer that those statements are of our own reasoning, and not in fact doctrinally binding?

    (I realize you didn’t address that to me.)

    I’d say yes, as long as the statements of belief don’t directly contradict current core teachings.

    It’s one thing to say “I don’t understand how doctrine X can be true in light of doctrine Y. It appears logically incompatible to me. How do you resolve it?” — That seems acceptable to me.

    It’s another thing to say “Doctrine X _can’t_ be true, because doctrine Y logically denies the possibility of X, and doctrine Y is more important and is logically more essential to the overall gospel.” That seems inappropriate to me. If doctrine X and doctrine Y are currently taught by the Brethren, they should not be publicly discounted. It’s one thing to personally disbelieve something, but it’s another to _promulgate_ disbelief in something currently taught by the Brethren.

    In one of Max’s examples, X would be God’s exhaustive foreknowedge, and Y would be man’s agency.

  20. I’m not sure the brethren as currently constituted teach exhaustive foreknowledge. I think Elder Maxwell made some statements close to supporting this idea, but those statements have not been perpetuated to my knowledge. I am sure that the scriptures do not currently teach exhaustive foreknowledge. I personally think most of this foreknowledge issue is much ado about nothing. I’ll post some quotes later, But I am watching scooby doo.

  21. (Note I haven’t read the comments yet)

    While thinking we know everything is a big danger I’d note that one of the major problems with the apostasy was the acceptance of a “mystery” like the Trinity. It seems to me that “mysteries” have been used to justify a lot of irrational and often just plain bad belief.

  22. A scripture I was thinking of was D & C 103:31 which says:

    Behold this is my will; ask and ye shall receive; but men do not always do my will.

    In Context, this is the Lord telling Parley Pratt and others to get together a group of 500, as this is his will, but then he makes the above notation and haggles himself down to 100 men.

    So the scriptures say seek and ye shall find, knock and it will be opened, ask and ye shall receive, except when people are involved, as they do not always do God’s will.

    To me this means that Man can force God to change his plans, as man disobeys God.

    Interestingly, this scripture also implies that in this instance God did not know whether 500 men would or would not do God’s will in the future. A God “outside of time” would not have had such a problem, it seems to me.

  23. (Now to the comments)

    Some general points.

    1. Let’s not confuse logic with lacking data. There’s a lot we don’t have data for. Logic we can generally map out quite well although heavens knows there are lots of people with just plain bad reasoning skills. But reasoning is only as powerful as the data one starts with.

    2. Many things haven’t been revealed and many things we believe end up often being tied to folk beliefs or at least don’t have a clear unambiguous revelation.

    3. As Matt said we have to reason what is a revelation, what is our imagination, what is our speculation and what is fuzzy reasoning and so forth. Lots of people have a tendency to not even try to understand that what is revelation and what is man is often more complex than it first appears. (i.e some of the beliefs when I was young about Blacks and the Priesthood that a few thought were clear revelations that now we tend to see as the failings of people in a racist 19th century culture)

    Bookslinger, why do you think we can’t know the half lives of isotopes in other areas? That’s simply not correct since most cosmology depends upon the laws of physics being constant and it would be trivial to discern if radiation worked differently on those different planets. (Seriously)

    I think the bigger question is why one should assume that the ancient Jewish cosmology of a dome with water above ought be taken as revelation. Especially when it conflicts with all knowledge we have.

    Regarding foreknowledge and agency I’d simply note that the question there is a certain meaning of agency. Of course it may be that the meaning in our culture and language is wrong in which case there is no conflict. However even those arguing for the conflict acknowledge that ultimately this is a semantic debate. So your critique seems quite odd. I’d note that those arguing for the traditional linguistic sense of agency do so because they feel the scriptures reveal it as such. Which gets us back to the debate over what is or isn’t a revelation. (Or how to interpret revelations) In this case what some attack is actually a battle between literalists.

  24. Matt, I think it erroneous to read into that passage ignorance by God. Rather he gives the initial command to see if people will do it. They may well have been able to but simply made poor choices (perhaps due to chance) and thus God adjusts it. God often gives us commands knowing we can’t fulfill them practically but that we could potentially so that we learn to reach our potential. Indeed I’d argue that is more or less the point of this life. Certainly it describes much of 19th century Mormonism where, I’d argue, God directed the saints to achieve things that were achievable but unlikely to be achieved by those people.

  25. Other common Scriptures include:

    Jeremiah 32:35 (God is surprised)
    Exodus 32:14 (God changes his mind based on his people’s choices)
    Jeremiah 18:4-10 (What God does depends on what people do to him in part.)
    Isaiah 5:1-5 (God expects good, but gets bad.)

    Brigham Young said “the God I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children…”

    Wilford Woodruff said “God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge power and dominion, and will do so worlds without end.”

    George Q. Cannon said “There is no such thing as standing still in the eternal work of our God. It is endless progress, progressing from degree of knowledge to another degree.”

    I love how Open theist Clark H. Pinnock puts it “God knows what will be but also what might be. He knows what he has decided to bring about, but he also knows the possibilities that he has left open.”

    Lastly, David Paulsen wrote in the Church Authorized Encyclopedia of Mormonism

    “Latter-day Saints differ among themselves in their understanding of the nature of God’s knowledge. Some have thought that God increases endlessly in knowledge as well as in glory and dominion. Others hold to the more traditional view that God’s knowledge, including the foreknowledge of future free contingencies, is complete. Despite these differing views, there is accord on two fundamental issues: (1) God’s foreknowledge does not causally determine human choices, and (2) this knowledge, like God’s power, is maximally efficacious. No event occurs that he has not anticipated or has not taken into account in his planning.”

    I think the important point here is that God’s foreknowledge is open to discussion, and the humble thing to do is to accept it is thus.

    Thus I think it is ok to believe in a God who knows the future “exhaustively” but I also think it is ok to believe in a God who does not. I personally do not, as I believe the universe is infinitely large.

  26. Just to make a point of clarification one can think God’s knowledge is increasing while simultaneously thinking he has robust foreknowledge. To believe this one need only distinguish between propositional knowledge and experiential knowledge. There is a big difference between the experience of typing this and my knowledge of the proposition “I am typing a comment at M*.”

    I think this distinction is unfortunately missed a lot which leads to a lot of misunderstanding by both sides in the debate. While one can think God has foreknowledge in terms of experience that isn’t really required to believe God has absolute foreknowledge.

    I should note that if God is in time (which many of us believe since to be out of time is to not be embodied) then God can’t have absolute experiential foreknowledge. Since the experience of something is tied up to both ignorance and knowledge. That is the experience changes depending upon what you know. (The best example of that is your experience of Christmas as a child with a certain ignorance versus when you were older – or the difference between seeing some mystery movie not knowledge the plot twist and then watching it again when you’d seen it before) So there are very good reasons to think God is limited with respect to experiential knowledge.

    The implication of this is, of course, that to be an embodied being, as Mormons take God to be, entails eternal progression simply because of that experiential component. In a sense every day is a new one to God whether he has propositional foreknowledge or not.

  27. Clark, if I read you right.

    Propositional Knowledge is me knowing if I flip a switch the light will come on.

    Experiencial Knowledge is me flipping the switch.


  28. Yup – although not just the act of flipping the switch but the experience of flipping the switch.

    The point is that embodied actions and the feeling of embodied actions always transcend propositional knowledge which is quite limited actually. Then there is the issue of practices and “know how.” It’s a big debate about whether know-how can be reduced to knowledge-that (i.e. propositional knowledge) I personally think it can’t but that’s a bigger debate.

    The ultimate point is that knowledge ends up being more complex than it first appears and those nuances are typically missed in these debates.

  29. Clark, I’m not sure we can presume that given accurate and sufficient information that reason can or will always draw correct conclusions. Mental illness demonstrates that the organ with which we reason can itself become diseased or damaged. Our brains may not be capable of processing information, and even when they are they may not be able to articulate what is understood.

    I am also uncomfortable with rejecting all mystery because some so-called mysteries, such as the traditional trinity, are false. We know it is false through revelation, not because it is difficult to reconcile by reason.

    You say “I should note that if God is in time (which many of us believe since to be out of time is to not be embodied) then God can’t have absolute experiential foreknowledge.”

    This seems to be a case of forcing God into the box of our current knowledge. Mickleson and Morely were positive that light could not propogate through space without a medium such as the universal ether. According to our current understanding embodiment requires God to be in time. But we simply can’t state such a thing with such confidence because our understanding is limited and our ability to understand subject to mortal limitations.

  30. Mental illness, by definition, is not reasoning correctly.

    Now if you are saying whether humans can reason infallibly I’d certainly agree we can’t. If you are saying that a community of inquirers over time with large populations looking at the issue wouldn’t find the errors in logic then I think I’d part company with you. One has to distinguish between the individual reasoner and the community.

    The real issue is discovering facts. So much of our reasoning takes place with incomplete information which always makes the reasoning suspect.

    My point isn’t to say that all mysteries are false. Heck, I take the problem of reconciling QM and GR as a great mystery. My real concern is that far too many people apply the label of mystery so as to not think about issues. It is an especial problem in all religions.

    The issue about whether God is in time means we have to first unpack what we mean by time and being in it. That is we have to get the semantic issues clear. My experience is that this isn’t really clarified by those who take God as being out of time. At least I can’t understand what they mean by an embodied being outside of time. I understand what they want to claim but I don’t think it works. The problem is less the scriptures appealed to than the semantic issues involved in the terms. (And I actually recently discussed this at my blog)

    The problem is that for God to be outside of time as I see it is to deny the embodiment of God.

  31. To clarify, what I’m saying is that for something to genuinely count as a mystery we have to know absolutely that we’ve correctly interpreted scripture. This is the case with Catholics and the Trinity for instance. They may agree it doesn’t make any sense but they also argue there is no chance they’ve misinterpreted scripture.

    Those who raise the “mystery” card and then attack those using reason arrogantly are typically just as arrogant but just in an other place: the interpretation of passages of scripture. They assume they’ve infallibly interpreted scripture.

    The humble thing to do is to recognize our place as fallible reasoner but also recognize our place as fallible readers of scripture. However it’s my experience that few are as willing to be humble about their ability to read the scriptures.

  32. J. Max: The problem is that if you reject basic logic, you also reject the very idea of truth. The most fundamental rule of logic is the law of non-contradiction. If we reject that rule, for every statement “A is B”, the statement “It is not the case that A is B” also obtains.

    We affirm “God loves us”. How do we know that “God doesn’t love us” is a false statement unless we apply the law of non-contradiction?

    We affirm “Joseph Smith was born in 1805”. How can we say that “Joseph Smith was born in 1642” is incorrect unless we accept the axiom that the past is fixed? That historical records do not change contents when we are not looking at them?

    If God writes in his journal today that Mike is infallibly going to rob a bank tomorrow, how can Mike possibly avoid robbing the bank, unless God’s journal changes when he isn’t looking? More to the point, should God influence or try to persuade Mike not to rob the bank? It doesn’t matter because God no longer has any discretion in the matter, if he ever did.

    Per the assumption, God never had the ability to change the future. In short, exhaustive divine foreknowledge is the doctrine of divine impotence. We could pray to a rock with just as much efficacy as a God who knows the future and is powerless to do anything about it.

    A rock might do a better job in any case. If God knows the future in exhaustive detail, he no longer needs to be conscious. He can just foresee himself projecting a personal hologram and taking a long nap “instead”.

    The traditional way out is Calvinism – God creates the future out of nothing and determines every detail in advance, including every sin ever committed. “Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it?” – there is a proto-Calvinist for you.

    The other way out is to assume that everything from the Plan of Salvation to the text of the Book of Mormon was logically prior to God taking a conscious thought, some sort of metaphysical accident, never devised, authored, or decreed by anyone. Platonism writ large.

  33. 36 — But he didn’t reject logic. He said “[O]ur ability to apprehend reality through purely rational means is inherently limited by nature.” The failing he’s talking about is a product of our weakness, not of the weakness of logic per se (although, since it is also a product of our weakness, it is not going to be a perfect thing).

  34. Clark, the point was that half-lives of radio-isotopes have been _thought_ (assumed) to be a fixed constant (for each radioactive isotope that is), but evidence has arisen that suggests that they are not, and that the external factor seems to be cosmic and solar radiation of sub-atomic particles. IE, that an increase in bombardment of sub-atomic particles (such as what comes from stars and the cosmos) accelerates the breakdown of radio-isotopes. The distance from the sun, and the amount of absorptivity of the atmosphere then affects the amount of sub-atomic particle radiation reaching the earth’s crust.

    The bottom line is that the belief that radioactive half-lives have been a fixed constant upon the earth over the eons is more of an assumption than a “law” of phsyics.

    It might well be that the rule of constant half-lives of radioactive decay needs to be modified with the phrase “given a constant level of sub-atomic particle bombardment.”

    As far as I know, we _haven’t_ measured radioactive decay on the moon where there is no absorptive atmosphere. And we _haven’t_ measured radioactive decay on planet Mercury, which is much closer to the sun. So we really can’t disprove the hypothesis of (and the recent evidence that suggests) variable radio-active decay due to sub-atomic particle bombardment yet. (And the radiation per unit of area from a source varies inversely as the square of the distance from the sournce, etc.)

    There is also no proof that the Earth has always been at the present distance from the sun, it may have been moved. We have no conclusive evidence that it has, but we have no conclusive evidence that it hasn’t.

    There is evidence that the magnetic poles have moved great distances several times over Earth’s history, which might (or might not) indicate that the orbit and rotational axis of the Earth has changed.

    The “dome of water” idea is also another illustration of Max’s overall point. We don’t know how it would fit in, but we don’t know that there wasn’t a dome of water or water-vapor either. It one thing to say “We have found no evidence that there was ever a dome of water over the earth.” That’s very acceptable. But to say “There _couldn’t_ have been a dome of water” is the kind of arrogance that Max is pointing out.

    Matt W: I believe you are misreading Jeremiah 32:35. If “should” were replaced with “would”, then it might denote surprise, but not as written. We might also be imputing a modern idiom to the phrase “neither came it into my mind” that might not exist in the original Hebrew, or in Jacobean English.

  35. Clark: “The humble thing to do is to recognize our place as fallible reasoner but also recognize our place as fallible readers of scripture. However it’s my experience that few are as willing to be humble about their ability to read the scriptures.”

    There’s something I agree with.

    I think the Brethren have been silent on the “dome of water” idea and many other scriptural passages. But in those cases where the Brethren have given us an interpretation of scripture, I’ll side with the Brethren.

  36. One other thing – we are not talking about some scientific theory like Newton’s law or the theory of gravitation. Of course we have less than complete knowledge of such things, and we learn more with experiment and analysis.

    I would say that we are talking about, on the other hand, is logic so fundamental, that if it does not follow we cannot make a serious claim to know anything, including the veracity of our own memories, the existence of beings outside ourself, and so on. At best, if we say that we cannot apply the most basic rationality to our thoughts about God, we must conclude that we know nothing about him at all. The via negativa – where we understand nothing about God except perhaps the proposition that we understand nothing about him – or anything else for that matter.

    Is it probable that the sun will come up in the morning? Is it probable that God didn’t create the universe out of nothing? Is it probable that the past doesn’t change when we are not looking? I sure hope so, because otherwise we can’t say we really know much of anything.

  37. Mark D.

    Like Blain said, I am not rejecting basic logic. But just as my sarcastic quote from Bierce says, logic is bound by our natural incapacities and misunderstandings and until those incapacities are remedied through resurrection, atonement, and the long education we can expect after we pass on but before we are exalted, we cannot circumscribe him with our incapacitated logic.

  38. Bookslinger, I think the issue might be “conclusive evidence” and what you mean by that. My experience in these sorts of discussions is that the critic of science just wants the scientist to acknowledge they don’t have absolute certainty. But of course every scientist acknowledges this. The problem is that they then make a next move which is unjustifiable. That is since we don’t have absolute certainty that anything goes. But of course even if we don’t have absolute certainty there are things we are very, very sure of and have very, very good reasons for.

    So can I prove that I’m not in The Matrix and that all of my experiences are just an elaborate virtual reality? No, I can’t. But it doesn’t follow that I ought entertain such a fanciful idea. I’d say that the reasons we have for believing the earth has for all relevant history been in roughly the same position in roughly the same conditions are very solid. There are lots and lots of reasons. I’d say the reasons we have to believe that there is no dome of water above my head are very solid as well. I think it fairly clear that while I can’t present absolute certainty that it is simply silly to believe such things.

    So the real issue isn’t certainty but comparing the strength of reasons while always admitting our fallibilism as reasoners. For any belief there are reasons we hold the belief. Often the reasons are unconscious as is our reasoning. But they are there. Typically it’s better to inquire and investigate our reasoning to at a minimum bring to light what we believe and why. My earlier concern is that often those raising the “arrogance” label want to do this only to some reasons and then in a rather overly simplistic fashion. (My example was requiring extreme reasons for science but no reasons for how one reads scripture)

    And since were on the arrogance issue I think one has to address that as well. What is it that makes someone arrogant? That is what is it to be arrogant? I think what people are heading towards and which I’m very, very uncomfortable with. That is to claim to be sure of anything and to present reasons for why one is sure is to be arrogant. That’s just flat wrong.

    I also worry, with Mark, that folks are moving far too close to a kind of negative theology where we can say nothing about God. Rather we have to commit to “believing” scriptural statements without giving them meaning. In effect that is what a mystery is. Statements one believes without being able to give them content. And that ought be very troubling. I think it goes against the whole thrust Joseph Smith set forth which is we ought study and come to understanding and that God is essentially knowable.

  39. BTW – Bookslinger. I don’t think anyone denies that heavy radiation would affect measured half lives. However such radiation also has other effects. The claims that half lives are constant are for the underlying phenomena not for what is frankly a different phenomena where they are inside a de facto nuclear accelerator. The problem you face if you appeal to such a claim is that such radiation leaves traces which can also be measured.

    Certainly a planet like Mercury will have different effects due to the radiation. However you are in error if you think such things are unknowable.

  40. J. Max: If we were talking about some subtle and sophisticated logical analysis about something far beyond the bounds of everyday experience, I would agree.

    However, the arguments for this are so simple that to deny them demands an explanation of whether the basic premises or the basic logic is in question. If you say the basic logic is not in question, then which of the following is wrong:

    1. God did not create the universe out of nothing
    2. God is ultimately responsible for the plan of salvation
    3. The past cannot be changed

    Accepting (1) eliminates the possibility that God did all his decision making “before” time started. Accepting (2) means that God’s decisions were not pre-determined by impersonal antecedents. Accepting (3) means that whatever happened, happened.

    So if the future is fixed, when did God ever get a chance to affect it at all, in a way that he himself is morally responsible for (as opposed to that traceable to some impersonal cosmic accident)?

    A fixed future and a rejection of creatio ex nihilo is an iron clad rejection of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities – i.e. there was never any possibility that things could be different from what they are, and that God’s participation in this whole scheme is completely traceable to antecedents he never had any control over.

    Everything would be “just so”, to the degree that if we were all condemned to everlasting destruction, God would strictly speaking be powerless to prevent such an outcome. Because there are no alternative possibilities, right?

  41. Bookslinger,

    You completely misunderstood and ignored my broader point. Logical deductions are not, in fact, based on our perception. Your radio-isotopes example, while interesting, simply says that the underlying PREMISES of our logical deductions may be incorrect. The fact that our current PREMISES could be wrong, however, says nothing of logical OPERATIONS in general. How do our incorrect premises, based on perception, alter the law of noncontradiction, or the law of identity? These principles, I believe, exist INDEPENDENTLY of our perception.

  42. J. Max, interesting thoughts. I think this might be a misunderstanding, though. I don’t really know any religious people who think they can circumscribe God. The issue isn’t whether God knows more than we do, but rather how we deal with the fact that our access to God is mediated by human fallibility, just as our logic is. Either we receive personal revelation, which involves the limitations of our own spirituality, cognitive capacities for understanding and discerning, and cultural limitations, or we rely on revelation given to others, which involves the same limitations on their parts. When we excuse the past racism, for example, of some Mormon leaders on the basis that it was their culture and context which lead them astray, we’re making a claim based on postulates fundamentally at odds with your argument here. If we take seriously the idea that our leaders are human beings, albeit with a different calling than the rest of us, then we have to face the conclusion that in mortality there is no exit from human limitations and misunderstandings.

  43. Just to be pendandic Mark, but I am not sure under many readings of the KFD that (2) is necessarily true. Likewise many semi-compatibilists would say that one can be responsible without being the “ultimate origination” of some event.

  44. I think that there is a problem with the title of this blog. Is there arrogance in trying to understand God and his attributes? In the Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith stated that faith must be based upon a correct understanding of God.

    What is more circumscribed, God as Spirit or God as anthropomorphic being? Was Joseph Smith arrogant to circumscribe the Trinity and delimit them? Was he arrogant to state that God cannot create ex nihilo?

    We claim he received revelation on these things, and I believe he did. But doesn’t D&C 9 tell us that he first had to study things out in his mind, come up with a solution of his own, and then see if it was right? The “translation” of the Bible came about because Joseph used logic and circumscribed the very book that carried Christianity through the ages. Was any of that arrogant?

    I wonder then why it would be arrogant for others to attempt to understand God better? What if God had revealed himself to an individual? Would we better accept such concepts from the person if he said, “God told me this”, or if the person said, “this is what logic and scripture tell me”?

    I’m neither for nor against in the free will/foreknowledge debate. To me, I’ve studied both sides for 5 years and come to the conclusion that there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. I’m a neutral agnostic on the issue. But I do find it arrogant when one side or the other insists that the other side is stupid or arrogant, or that one or the other is circumscribing God.

  45. Mark D.

    I understand your logic. But I do think we are talking about something “far beyond the bounds of everyday experience.” Our knowledge is wildly incomplete and it is incomplete because we have limited capacity to comprehend. Apparent contradiction and real contradiction are the not same thing. Some things are within the scope of our reason. But that does not mean all things are within that scope. As the scope extends increasingly beyond our abilities our conclusions must be made with increasingly less confidence.

    Keep in mind that I am talking about reason alone in this comment. Revelation and the light of Christ may augment our capacities.

  46. Interesting topic. Let me say that I largely agree with J. Max, that our limited ability to reason should in no way result in us imposing limitations on God. A few comments from the peanut gallery.

    Faith in a principle is a temporary thing. We are asked repeatedly in the scriptures to test or try God. Even the brethren remind us of this. We are told to try out a doctrine, implement it in our lives. If it bears good fruit then you know it is of God. If it bears bad fruit you know it is not. It take faith to implement the new doctrine in your life. It takes faith to continue with that doctrine until the fruit has had time to grow and mature so you can assess the value of the fruit. It does not take faith to continue to live that doctrine once you know the validity of it. Knowledge replaces faith. We then move on to the next doctrine to try it out.

    As many have said, logic is based on assumptions and hence has inherent weaknesses. We have been told to study a thing out in our mind and then ask God if it be true. That process should involve logic, even with its limitations based on our initial data set. We then ask God, who’s data set is far better than our own for validation of our decision. We are told we will receive a burning in our bosom or a stupor of thought depending on the quality of our decision. Sometimes we are left without an answer to proceed on our own strength and faith. Sometimes this leads to a good decision, sometimes to a bad decision with natural consequences and an opportunity for learning.

    Mark D. #36: You presuppose that knowing the future means that future has to happen. An alternate way to look at it is to say that every decision point in life there are multiple future paths. If I skip breakfast this morning the future will be different than if I have a bowl of Cherrioes. If I make eggs and bacon the future will be different still. Will those different futures be large? Likely no, but I have no way of knowing for certain. Perhaps I will miss a car accident I would have been involved in otherwise, because I leave for work 10 minutes earlier. Had I stayed home and had the Cherrioes my wife may have been a widow. Had I made the eggs and bacon she may not have been since that would have taken more than the 10 minutes. Let’s say God can see the possible outcomes of these three scenarios. It does not force a particular path for Him to know the results of all three. It also does not lock Him down to a particular future. He has the ability to change that future by prompting me to leave early for work that day.

    Clark #34: I need to go read your post so I know the assumptions you are using in your statement, but it does not follow to me that God outside of time needs to be material, and God inside time has problems as well. (2nd Law of Thermodynamics comes to mind).

    In regard to the several people who have mentioned the invariance of the laws of physics with position in the universe, this is not proven to my knowledge. If someone has a scientific paper with data supporting this supposition I would love to see it. This, like the superposition principle, is generally assumed in science to simplify problems and make our lives easier. There is much left of science to learn and understand if Mormon theology is correct; and if history has taught us anything it is that every time we think we have the universe figured out a new curve ball is thrown our way. Look at the field of physics in the late 19th century. We thought we had everything pretty much figured out at that point, just a few odds and ends to tie up. Along comes sub-atomic particles, quantum mechanics, and a host of other discoveries to open the field back up for another century and change.

  47. J. Nelson-Seawright,

    “The issue isn’t whether God knows more than we do, but rather how we deal with the fact that our access to God is mediated by human fallibility.

    What a pessimistic outlook! Our access to God is mediated by the Holy Ghost. While our minds may not be able to synthesize the why, the how, or to what end, the Holy Ghost is capable of communicating to us what is right and wrong so that we may act with confidence. Of course our leaders are fallible humans. But God is in control of his church and is certainly capable of piercing man’s fallibility to make his will known. God made it clear when the priesthood restriction was to be lifted. If he had wanted to do it earlier he could have. Why he did not is not known.

  48. I agree God outside time need not be material but to deny his materiality is to deny a significant conception of the resurrection in LDS thought. i.e. scriptures claiming God has a material body.

    Doug, God’s knowing the possibilities isn’t the problem. The problem is when the possibilities diverge how God can know particular things like that Jesus will be crucified about 600 years before the crucifixion. If God’s knowledge is just of possibilities (paths) then that entails God has to use power to bring things about which raises an ethical question concerning God’s responsibility for evil. (I raised this issue at Thang as well)

    Regard the 2cd law, I confess I don’t see the problem with God. Now certainly there is a problem if the universe is all there is. However even many physicists believe in a multiverse and I think that for LDS doctrine to make sense there must be a multiverse as well with infinite content. If there is infinite content then that resolves the 2cd law issue.

    Regarding proof in science technically proof is something that exists for logic and mathematics and not science. Science can but say there is lots of evidence and very strong reasons. I think this confusion between reasons and proof lies at the heart of the misunderstandings people make of science.

    As to the final point, as I said, science is fallible. To make that the criticism that our conception of science has changed since the 19th century ends up being fairly deceptive. Especially when applied to simply disbelieve all science. It reminds me of “recovery from Mormonism” folks who point to erroneous teachings in our history like blacks and the priesthood or the like and then claim that all religious claims should therefore be discounted.

    The issue is how to compare competing claims. Some claims simply have much, much stronger reasons than others. If one wants to say that some aspects of physical phenomena are radically different elsewhere in the universe one has to ask why one would assert that. Then you have to compare the reasons. Like I said with the claim about being in a virtual reality, most things can’t be absolutely proven or disproven. However often there are no good reasons to believe something.

    My whole point is simply to point out that humans are fallible. Thus we should investigate all aspects of our reasoning. The problem is that some seem quite willing to attack fairly strong reasoning while supporting uninvestigated rather weak reasoning.

  49. J. Max, the racist views I was talking about aren’t the priesthood restriction alone, but the panoply of racial theories that various leaders of our church — like others of their day — taught and believed.

    How do we receive the Holy Ghost? How do we decide what it says to us? It’s all mediated by the body, I’m afraid. Even the basic feelings that we describe as the Holy Ghost are appearing, based on laboratory experiments, to be emotions that the brain can sometimes be manipulated into feeling.

    I suppose my argument, that we as humans can only access God through our humanity — just as we do our logic — might seem pessimistic. But other arguments strike me as dangerously overestimating the degree of certainty, and underestimating the degree of fear and trembling, that humans have the right to claim.

  50. At best, if we say that we cannot apply the most basic rationality to our thoughts about God, we must conclude that we know nothing about him at all. The via negativa – where we understand nothing about God except perhaps the proposition that we understand nothing about him – or anything else for that matter.

    Exactly! ;D

    From what I understand J. Max to be saying, we should not reject logic simply because it is imperfect any more than we reject science because it is always changing and adapting to knew understanding. He is merely saying that, as in science, we should not assume that now we know all.

    Therefore, one can say “according to what I now comprehend, I don’t see how XXX is possible,” but not “XXX is impossible and anyone who disagrees is a fool.”

  51. The Blind Men and the Elephant

    by John Godfrey Saxe

    It was six men of Hindustan
    To learning much inclined,
    Who went to see the Elephant
    (Though all of them were blind)
    That each by observation
    Might satisfy the mind.

    The First approached the Elephant
    And happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side
    At once began to bawl:
    “Bless me, it seems the Elephant
    Is very like a wall.”

    The Second, feeling of his tusk,
    Cried, “Ho! What have we here
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me ’tis mighty clear
    This wonder of an Elephant
    Is very like a spear.”

    The Third approached the animal,
    And happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    Then boldly up and spake:
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a snake.”

    The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
    And felt about the knee.
    “What most this wondrous beast is like
    Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “’Tis clear enough the Elephant
    Is very like a tree!”

    The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
    Said: “E’en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most;
    Deny the fact who can,
    This marvel of an Elephant
    Is very like a fan!”

    The Sixth no sooner had begun
    About the beast to grope,
    Than, seizing on the swinging tail
    That fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Hindustan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right
    And all were in the wrong.

  52. Clark, don’t get me wrong; I am not anti-science. Science provides me interesting work 40-50 hours a week and a decent living. My point is simply that science, like logic, is our attempt to understand something larger than us and therefore suffers from our limitations. Science evolves as we learn more and are able to observe more about the universe. We should always tread carefully when applying our understanding to deity.

    Being a practicing father, I find many insights in to God through my children and parenting. Patience is a huge one, though not applicable here. If my two four year olds ask the same question, I may not answer it the same way. I may explain it one way to one of them, and another way to the other. Developmentally they are not at the same point and they each learn in a very different way. (creative vs. analytical) I think God has the same problem with His children. We ask questions, He wants to answer, but He has to do it in a fashion we can understand. I believe this is applicable to the Bible and ancient scripture as well. He had to explain creation in a manner that Adam and his children would be able to understand. I doubt a lecture on nuclear physics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics would have helped them much. (Assuming we have it right with those disciplines).

    I think there are ethical questions regarding God’s responsibility for evil, unless you accept a God that is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. But that would be a different post.

    How does LDS doctrine require a multiverse with infinite content? I miss the connection. (I dislike infinities too, I think they are a mathematically construct that you will never find in existence.)

    “My whole point is simply to point out that humans are fallible. Thus we should investigate all aspects of our reasoning. The problem is that some seem quite willing to attack fairly strong reasoning while supporting uninvestigated rather weak reasoning.”

    I agree completely. Someone at work has a bummer sticker that says “Question the answers” I’d say questioning never hurts, so long as you are prepared to go without answers quite often. :o)

  53. Clark: I think the case for an infinite backward recursion of gods is sufficiently dubious that similar arguments apply – in particular that it implies that no one person, nor arbitrary group of persons had anything to do with the plan of salvation, that the latter is essentially “written in the stars”, authored, devised and indeed planned by no one.

  54. Doug D., the idea of knowing all possible futures, but not knowing which one will actually occur is an interesting way out with a long history, but it is certainly not what most people think of when they make the claim that God knows the future in detail.

    Also, the second “law” of thermodynamics has never been derived from fundamental principles in a way that isn’t essentially subjective. According to statistical mechanics, entropy is simply a measure of what the observer knows he doesn’t know about the detailed state of the system under observation.

    Of course there are a lot of interesting questions surrounding that, e.g. all known physical laws are deterministic, and determinism is strictly incompatible with a macroscopic sense of the second law, and yet the latter seems to prevail (in general) in a way that hardly seems to be purely subjective, but not remotely as rapid as wholesale injection of randomness or anything statistically resembling randomness would imply.

    Personally, I trace the prevalence of the second law to the after echo of the consequences of the knowing and unknowing exercise of libertarian free will, but in any case no one knows enough about the second law of thermodynamics for it legitimately to be considered an exceptionless law of nature. It remains a physical mystery, incredibly poorly understood before we consider adding spiritual considerations at all. Not exactly a matter of basic logic from simple premises.

  55. Mark, I’ll hold off that debate over the KFD. I know Blake shares your view. I confess I favor the traditional view and don’t find any trouble with it. One day when I have time to blog again I may take that topic up along with the question of when a regress is vicious or not. (I actually have discussed it at my blog a bit in the past – a search for vicious regress should locate the discussions)

    Doug the issue of infinities gets tricky. The question ends up being whether creation is finite or infinite. Clearly most LDS thinkers have held to it being infinite. The traditional reading of the KFD (King Follet Discourse) take it to imply an infinite regress of gods. (Our Father had a Father and so on…) If creation is infinite then the universe must be infinite. The issue of continuity and infinity in existence is a tricky one. I favor the idea that it is but I completely understand those who don’t. Those who reject actual infinities end up rejecting a lot of Nauvoo Theology. While that’s become more popular the past few decades (with Blake being probably the most noted person making the case) I think one should tread carefully and not throw things out unless there is very, very strong evidence to do so.

    Despite the way I’ve argued here and on NCT I actually think one should adopt a conservative theology. By conservative meaning one should give traditional theology and especially the scriptures the benefit of doubt. Significant evidence should be present before discounting something – our personal subjective likes or dislikes should enter in at best only slightly. However even with that caveat I think our theology is much more open than most realize. (By open meaning that there are many more readings and interpretation possible than most assume – there tends to be a lot of dogma on all sides where people assume that because something seems obvious to them it ought be treated dogmatically. I think we know a lot less theologically than most think.)

  56. Clark: Speaking of conservative theology, I think there are numerous scriptural reasons to conclude that God (speaking generally) had something to do with the plan of salvation. The war in heaven, for example. All are fallen and all are lost except for this atonement which must be made. The scriptures are full of the principle of alternative possibilities. Repent and be baptized – more than a rhetorical flourish?

    So if one is going to maintain a rational theology at all, as opposed to maintaining a collection of conventional articles of faith, it would seem
    that the idea that the future is open (and was open when this whole process started) has a lot more support, and contradicts far fewer gospel principles than the idea of a world where a collection of random initial conditions completely determine the fate of the universe.

    Personally, I find the gospel of divine impotence a rather more extreme wresting of the scriptures than the idea of an open future. Why should the universe care whether we are baptized or not, let alone predestine us to do so?

  57. Mark, I’d say the those two choices form a false dichotomy. While I don’t have anything approaching strong opinions on the mater my own highly tentative view rejects both an open future (Presentism) and causal determinism.

  58. Just to clarify that comment since it may have come off as enigmatic.

    To adopt causal determinism is to say for the set of events at a given time t1 it uniquely entails the events at a future time t2. One can reject that and say that for a set of events at time t1 there are many, potentially infinitely many, events at time t2. That said, even if one thinks that events at time t2 are underdetermined by events at t1 one might say there is a truth about the matter regarding events at time t2. Likewise to say that just because events at t2 in the future are determined it does not logically follow that there may not be some other time t3 which is undetermined.

    My own view is that there are regions of potential space/time undetermined yet there are regions of space/time such that they are future to me yet are determined. Yet I think that the events from one given region of spacetime underdetermine events at future spans of spacetime. (That is I reject causal determinism)

  59. I would say that one only accepts causal determinism if he maintains that the state of the universe at time t1 entails the complete state of universe at all times t2 that follow t1.

    Of course those who reject causal determinism may none the less maintain that causal rules partially constrain the state of the universe at all future times.

    Supposing that the complete state of the Universe at t2 is determined but that complete state at a later time t3 is not logically requires the intervention of non-causally-determined events at times in between t2 and t3. An unpredictable change in the nature of causation would qualify.

    In real world terms, you seem to be suggesting that God exhaustively knows the future until time t2, and then something unusual happens in preparation for God (generally speaking) to know the future for some future interval of time.

    In an idle moment I once entertained the theory that all material events were pre-determined and set in motion for some testing period, during which not our actual actions, but our internal attitude and reaction to those actions was evaluated. As if we were a ghost in a machine we could not control, until the testing period was over. Can’t say I think such a theory is particularly viable. Yours may be better.

  60. The thrust of this post is absolutely spot-on: we should all be very cautious about articulating a vision of God that is circumscribed by our own logic, desires, and ideals (to say nothing of trying to insist that others accept and embrace that vision).

  61. Clark: I’m not talking about heavy bombardment in an accelerator. This concept of half-life variableness due to solar/cosmic radiation is a new thing, and has not been previously explored. Carbon-dating’s assumption that half-lives have been constant and never vary has been pretty much set in stone, it’s part and parcel of carbon-dating. This awareness of variableness is a _new_ thing. Neither has carbon-dating been connected to the possibility that the earth was not always the same distance from this sun or another star. If those who are currently studying this variableness are correct, this is really going to shake up all the fields of study that use carbon-dating. Geological time periods would have to be rewritten.

    I don’t think your assertion “they would have known” really applies, because I don’t think the issue has been studied before. If what I read is correct, it’s very recent. Plus there’s tons of inertia and academic capital invested in the current method of radio-isotope dating.

    Thor: When premises are wrong or incomplete (or a combination of both), the operations upon them don’t matter a hill of beans. Garbage in – Garbage out. The elegance of the process doesn’t impress me when the raw materials upon which they operate are bad.

    Our human fallibility also includes the possibility of insufficient or incomplete logical operations. So not only are we starting with a deficient set of ingredients, as humans we also lack all the necessary instructions to process the ingredients into a cake.

    Our logical processing (operations) upon matters, even though it may appear “whole” (complete, logical, etc) within our sphere, is to the logical processing of eternal (exalted) beings, perhaps like how Newtonian physics and Euclidian geometry, is to Einsteinian physics and geometry.

    In Einsteinian physics, time is elastic and space bends. Those concepts are completely beyond Newtonian physics and Euclidian geometry. Newton’s and Euclid’s system were only “close approximations” that did not hold true as you get closer to the extremes.

    Hawking’s theories then went beyond Einsteinian physics.

    What’s next?

    No matter how far we go, we are incomplete both in our starting assumptions _and_ in our processes in this mortal sphere. When we cross over to the next world our eyes will be open to more, but still not a fullness. Brigham Young said that one of the first thoughts we’ll have after crossing over to the spirit world is how stupid we were in mortality. Then, for those who go the next step up and eventually “cross over” to the level of exalted beings, “eternals”, I would imagine they have an even greater “awakening” in terms of perceiving the true nature of existence, both in knowledge of things as they really are, and the ability to process that knowledge.

  62. Clark: I’m not sure what Nauvoo theology people who dislike infinities reject, I’m still learning a lot of the “non-Sunday school” stuff about Mormon theology; so if you have reading to recommend, feel free. My objections to infinities is on a more practical level. They are useful things for someone with finite limitations like us. For example, I often say that anything more than about 1mm away is infinitely distant. For the purposes of semiconductor device physics this is often a useful approximation. You and I both know it’s not true, but it works darn well.

    Another example often given of something “infinite” or without beginning or end is a ring. Yet while it has no beginning or end you and I can both see the bounds of our wedding bands (assuming you’re married). The ring is not infinite even if it has no beginning or end. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    I personally entertain the thought that time is trickier than we think. We know it is variable and not constant from Einstein. I suspect that in the afterlife time is not the same as now. Certainly if we are to have eternal bodies the matter will need to be different is some way to prevent decay, yet will in fact interact with normal matter. (We can shake hands with an angel.)

    Mark and Clark: God’s knowledge of the future is tricky. Given that God and His agents, can and do routinely interfere with the present thereby altering the future I do not think foreknowledge on God’s part requires a lack of agency on ours. I find causal determinism to be a unsatisfying and problematic philosophy. (Especially given Heisenberg)

    In regard to theology, I adopt this one. I’m stupid, God is smart. God has to explain things to me in a very simplified way so I can understand them. My limitations are not His limitations. I know I will die with many questions. I also know that we are told to seek out knowledge in this life and that it gives us an advantage in the next. Doctrine I can’t make sense of I chalk up to my limited understanding and not an incorrectness in the doctrine per se. The plan of salvation can be sketched out on a napkin and explained to an 8 year old. That’s what we need for salvation, the rest is interesting but secondary. I live in constant reminder of my own shortcomings, it makes it easier to avoid hubris before God.

  63. Bookslinger, all dating methods are tested against other dating methods. Carbon dating is actually only used back a little ways to the point it is already known to be inaccurate. So the approach you are taking simply has already been tested even if the particular effect hasn’t been studied relative to the data – but it hasn’t been studied simply because it has already been falsified as a potential problem. The effect of solar radiation on carbon measurements would be minor. You can test that by simply looking at how things are affected within an accelerator.

    Mark, I’m trying to be fairly general so there can be lots of various ways to instantiate the other choices. One obvious example can be found amongst several multiverse postulates in physics. Each universe is an independent block of space/time. So “until” a new block is formed due to sufficiently flat spacetime in an other universe it doesn’t exist. So instead of moments you have blocks of universes. I’m not saying that’s right, mind you, just that it is one example that would fit that alternative. Obviously some block universe theories would be incompatible.

    Bookslinger, what Einstein’s theories are more general than Newton’s one should note that for the range of phenomena examined until just a few decades prior to Einstein Newton’s theories fit. And still fit. So one has to be very careful how one views this progression of science. One can’t say that because Einstein partially supplanted Newton that we can simply discount science. (Not that you are saying that, but it is a very common approach among say Evangelical fundamentalists)

    Once again no scientist is saying we know everything nor that we know all phenomena. What scientists will say is that there are some things we know very well and that if you are going to overturn them you ought have a lot of evidence. When someone pits a naive reading with little investigation against established knowledge with considerable evidence it is simply deceptive to raise the mystery cry and say reasons don’t matter. My point is simply that one ought investigate how one reads and look at the evidence for a particular reading. What I see all too often is a willingness to simply discount what has reasons without recognizing that how we read is based upon readings. I’m certainly not portraying science as infallible. Just that most critiques of science are based on very poor reasoning.

    Doug, the King Follet Discourse in most readings postulates an endless regress of Fathers. There never was a person without a father. That logically demands that there be an actual infinity of gods going into an infinite past. There was no absolute beginnings. Just beginnings to various stages of existence. This was a pretty prominent part of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo theology and was held very prominent through the 19th century and through most of the 20th.

    Of course to say something is infinite is not to say it is boundless. An obvious example is the set of odd integers versus the set of even integers. There are clear bounds on each but both are infinite.

    Regarding foreknowledge, that debate is primarily a semantic one. That is what is the meaning of the word “free.” The condition for foreknowledge is simply that if I know at t1 what is true at t2 in the future then the very meaning of truth entails that the event at t2 is fixed at t1. One problem though is that most lay people who look at that confuse the truth conditions with additional metaphysical implications like fatalism (what I do doesn’t matter) and that’s simply false. I put some links on this over at NCT which I think pose problems for those appealing to human intuitions on the matter. More importantly I tried to emphasize that the matter is ultimately a semantic issue of the words “free” and “responsibility.” Those, like Geoff over there, who demand an absolute incompatibility between foreknowledge and freedom or responsibility are really making a claim about what freedom and responsibility mean as words.

    Sadly the fact that this is all a semantic debate is all too often missed in these debates.

  64. Just to add that while the debate about free will is ultimately a semantic issue there obviously are other issues involved. So for instance Blake Ostler argues that the sense of free will he favors is required for there to be responsibility in the sense he uses the term. Further he argues that it would be immoral to punish or reward people if they were not responsible in that sense. Since the scriptures talk about God rewarding or punishing he feels that free will of the sense he uses it must be true.

    It’s actually a strong argument although I don’t think it’s sufficiently strong to render competing views unreasonable. For instance there are many very smart philosophers who believe one can be responsible yet not free in the sense Blake and Geoff use the terms. (I gave some links at NCT for those interested) Secondly there’s no reason to assume that the words used in the scriptures must be absolutely bound by the way we use the terms. Rather it is sufficient for them to be “close enough” to get God’s point across – which is rarely about the ontology of time. We also have passages such as D&C 19 where terms where a traditional sense, such as “endless punishment”, don’t mean what we thought.

    So I’m very skeptical of pushing a semantic argument into a claim for a certain way of reading a word in scripture. As I said the argument to responsibility is stronger but I don’t think it ultimately works simply because I don’t think most people would be upset if we found out punishment or reward were more complex than it first appeared or if responsibility meant something quite similar but not exactly the same as our intuitions tend to portray.

    None of this is to address the larger issue of humility and arrogance. As I’ve said I think it crucial to be humble in our reasoning but always look to understand the reasons we are reasoning with.

  65. Clark: This is not just a semantic debate. This is a logical debate about what kind of theological propositions are compatible with each other.

    If God (generally speaking) has compatibilist free will, we can be sure that (for example) everything he has ever done is ultimately traceable to a metaphysical accident. It is nothing more than a substitution of the Calvinist doctrine of God’s Eternal Decree with the doctrine of Fate’s Eternal Decree, where Fate doesn’t even have the benefit of personality.

    I don’t think Fischer’s arguments, by the way, are persuasive – does a circuit breaker demonstrate moral responsibility simply because it triggers when the electrical current flowing through it is too high, thereby preventing a house with small children inside from burning to the ground? What if it doesn’t trigger?

  66. Mark, it’s a semantic debate (and pretty much every philosopher working in free will explicitly states this). However the question of whether two things are logically compatible clearly is a logical issue, but one that depends upon the semantic issue being resolved. The theological issue is thus really secondary in most ways. Certainly there are theological implications but they depend upon a semantic issue of how to read the scriptures. But I think I’ve been explicit about that all along.

    I recognize not everyone finds Fischer persuasive. My point isn’t whether one agrees with Fischer just that many do and that this is very much an open problem in philosophy. The fact that it is such an open philosophical issue for the experts ought inform how we proceed in theological disagreements. That is things aren’t as obvious or resolved as some claim.

    It’s fine to argue the issue. And clearly I’ve done that over the years. But when we move from that into portraying it as a resolved issue or judging those who disagree then I think we’ve crossed a significant line.

  67. Mormons generally speaking have a number of theological commitments that philosophers in general either do not have or are not allowed to wield.

    That means the issue is far more closed for Mormonism that it is for a world where (say) God may or may not exist, where eternal recurrence is unobjectionable, where repentance isn’t the primary focus, where God if he exists may not have a purpose or mission, where the conflict between good and evil may be purely subjective, where sin may be nothing more than a matter of genetics, and so on.

    Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Why? Can determinism ever answer any why question? Why do why need to repent? God said so. Why did he say so? Because there was never any possibility for him to say otherwise. Why did Adam sin? Bad genetics. Why did Adam have bad genetics? Cosmic radiation. Why did God punish Adam for bad genetics? There was no other alternative. It was in God’s nature to punish Adam for bad genetics. What determined God’s nature? Fate. Anything Fate isn’t responsible for? No. Why?

  68. Mark, certainly ones religious context puts constraints on ones philosophy. However in this case I just don’t think it the case. Further the theology depends upon the semantics and not vice versa.

  69. Clark: I am sure I disagree in many respects, but that question is far enough off the beaten track that we should probably table it for now.

    The only germane point is that whatever one’s theology is, it is dangerously unstable if it entails logical contradictions. It is not like one can pick any semantics that are convenient and expect some sort of rational theology to pop out. Would that were the case…

  70. I must admit that the infinite regression issues with the KFD I have always chalked up to teaching a child. If there truly is an infinite regress of Father’s in Heaven then I will be sorely disappointed. I would be left with the feeling that there would always be an unanswerable question, or at the very least a question with an unsatisfactory answer…. where did it all begin? It never did, it always has been would be the answer.

  71. A blog thread, warning against the perils of circumscribing God with man’s logic, that circumscribes God with the logic of its author: the price of a beret.

    Followed by scores of comments in which God’s nature is debated according to the ontological categories of post-Enlightenment philosophy: the price of a paperback copy of Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

    Irony so ironic that it’s like a snake swallowing its own tail: utterly priceless.

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