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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Faith, Reason, and the Resurrection

Based on a talk given in Hangzhou, China, on Easter Sunday, 2013. Fairly close to the original talk, but with added material, particularly in the last section. The discussion of Thomas Nagel's book (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False) was part of the talk. Originally prepared for the Nauvoo Times.

We celebrate the miracle of Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event that is ridiculed by the elite of the world who have life, nature and the cosmos pretty well figured out, and are absolutely confident that there is no room for God, Christ, resurrection, and Christian religion. The belief that Christ was the Son of God, worked miracles, and returned to life as the immortal and resurrected Lord is not just silly but a shameful lapse of reason that holds society back from progress. The consensus of science and of the really smart and beautiful people of the world is clear: faith in God is unreasonable, a throwback to Stone Age superstitions.

The dogma that dominates today, in essence, is one of materialism. It has many forms and related names such as naturalism, determinism, physicalism, and reductionism, each with various subcategories and nuanced schools of thought. But materialism in general is a united front against some of the most basic things we believe. It generally holds that we are nothing more than molecules, organized by random, natural processes through Darwinian means. There is nothing more to us than a collection of randomly mutated, naturally selected genes, and the purpose of those genes is merely to pass themselves on.

For those who have faith in Christ, the attack of science and worldly reason upon faith can be a severe one. It is a true trial of our faith that we must go through. Some believers are oblivious to the assault of the world on faith, but it is very real and takes a serious toll among Christians.

Regarding the Resurrection and the trial of our faith in Christ, Peter offered these words in First Peter 1. After mentioning our “lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” in verse 3, he then refers to the trials of faith we must endure:

7 That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:

8 Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:

9 Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.

We must endure fiery trials at times, including the trials that come when the apparently wise ones of the world find nothing but stupidity in our beliefs, and hold them up for ridicule. Our faith, we are told, is utterly without reason, without evidence, and without basis, with nothing more than blind belief to back it up.

A Scientific Faith: By Study and By Faith

In reality, God has not asked us to merely believe blindly. One thing I love about the LDS religion, our particular form of Christianity, is that we are taught to use our minds, to embrace and seek knowledge. Our testimonies begin with pondering, studying, and applying the word, and observing the effects. Missionaries don’t just ask people to believe them and be baptized, but to read and study the Book of Mormon, to ponder it and think as part of the voyage toward encountering the things of God and learning through the Spirit.

Doctrine & Covenants 8:2-3 speaks of revelation through the Spirit acting on our hearts and our minds, and in the next section (Section 9: 7-9) we learn that we must study things our in our minds before we can expect to receive revelation as we make decisions.  The application of mental processes to learn and grow in faith follows a surprisingly scientific method based upon experimentation, as we read in a famous part of the Book of Mormon, Alma 32. Alma teaches his audience how to gain faith and knowledge regarding the things of God. He calls upon them to “experiment upon [his] words” (v. 27) and observe the effects of living some aspect of the Gospel through experimentation. He likens Gospel principles to a seed, and if it is a good seed, it will grow and bring forth fruit that can provide evidence regarding the nature of the seed. In verse 28, he explains that by experimenting and applying true Gospel principles, the investigator or seeker will see that the seed is good, “for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it enlighteneth my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” It’s not just fuzzy feelings: there is enhanced understanding, an intellectual process. And this leads to knowledge about that particular area.

The quest for knowledge, not just blind faith and obedience, is one of the hallmarks of Latter-day Saint Religion. I am not just talking about religious knowledge and scripture study. We are repeatedly taught, even commanded, to gain knowledge in many areas. For example, Doctrine & Covenants 88: 78-80 speaks of the scope of things we should be studying:

78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;

 79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

 80 That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.

That encompasses geology, biology, astrophysics, history, languages, the arts, and so many fields. Our religion embraces knowledge and learning, and I love that. Later, in that same section, we read this in verses 118 and 119:

118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.

 119 Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God;

A house of learning, not just blind faith. From the best books, we are taught to seek learning, by study and by faith. Faith can fit in with book learning. We learn in the LDS temple that all truth can be integrated into one great whole. Faith will always be required in this mortal journey, where we may not understand how the parts of truth we have properly fit together, and which parts need some human errors shaved off before they’ll properly fit. But in spite of our imperfect understanding and the conundrums we face in a life of faith, the Gospel provides remarkable intellectual satisfaction and enrichment; and, when properly applied, often helps us make much better sense of life and the cosmos.  The intellectual vision provided by the LDS framework actually is exhilarating and, as Alma said, delicious to us and richly enlightening.

In spite of that exhilaration, we face serious challenges that require humility and patience, for we do not have all the answers.  Faith and reason can sometimes seem in conflict, especially when the people who claim to have all the reason specialize in mocking those who have the most faith.

In the October 2012 General Conference, Elder Nash in his talk, “By Faith All Things Are Fulfilled,” said:

If, because of unbelief or doubt, you find your faith wavering, remember that even the ancient Apostles implored the Lord to “increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5). Bearing in mind that faith and reason are necessary companions, consider the following analogy: faith and reason are like the two wings of an aircraft. Both are essential to maintain flight. If, from your perspective, reason seems to contradict faith, pause and remember that our perspective is extremely limited compared with the Lord’s. Do not discard faith any more than you would detach a wing from an aircraft in flight. Instead, nurture a particle of faith and permit the hope it produces to be an anchor to your soul—and to your reason. That is why we are commanded to “seek learning … by study and also by faith.” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118; emphasis added.) Remember, faith precedes and produces miracles for which we have no immediate explanation within our experience, such as a Dutch oven full of food from two small biscuits [a reference to a miracle related by Ann Jewell Rowley during her ordeal in the Willie pioneer handcart company] or simply enduring in faith against all odds.

The attacks of the world can be painful, but there are often answers and helps along the way, including evidences to strengthen our own faith.

Evidence and Witnesses

There are evidences and witnesses that can buttress our faith and help to overcome objections and attacks. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ was far more than a fable to those who touched his feet, felt his hands, and saw Him descend and ascend from heaven. Hundreds in the New World and the Old were witnesses of this anciently. Joseph Smith in our era was eyewitness of the reality of the Resurrected Lord. No treatise from any human scholar, no matter how thoroughly peer reviewed or highly rated at Amazon.com, could put a dent in the knowledge that Joseph obtained, as did Stephen of old, when He saw the Son at the right hand of God.

Yet God has done more than just ask us to trust those witnesses. We Latter-day Saints have not only the treasure of accounts of Christ in the New Testament, but also powerful evidence for the reality of Christ in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon itself, being a book brought forth by divine means in these latter-days, is either an outrageous fraud by a conman or direct evidence of the reality of Christ and the Restoration. It is a book that we are told, even commanded, to read, ponder seriously, explore, dig into, and find out for ourselves if it is true or not. Over 500 pages of evidence, one way or the other, related to the Restoration. There are many evidences that point to its ancient roots and its authentic nature that I won’t discuss here today, apart from saying that it is a book to be taken seriously, with treasures for those who dig. It is part of the body of evidence for the reality of God and Christ. Evidence and reason may not be the source and basis of faith, but can strengthen our faith and understanding, and can be vital in overcoming objections to faith.

As I have mentioned, some of the most serious objections to faith come from conflict with the dogmas proclaimed by modern science. Our faith involves acceptance of concepts beyond the measurements of science. We believe there is such a thing as spirit. In additional to our physical mortal bodies, we each have a spirit that can receive influence and revelation from the Spirit of God. Spirit, whatever that is, is described by Joseph Smith as a form of matter that is finer than the matter we see and touch, but is still matter. This was a prescient statement in Joseph’s day, when the religious world taught an immaterial God and immaterial spirit. Today we know there are types of matter that are much different than the stuff of electrons, protons, and neutrons, and vast amounts of money are being spent to detect and understand some of these forms of matter such as neutrinos, for example. We have no idea if whatever Spirit is has any relation to the things modern physicists are seeking for and the tools they are developing, but the concept of Spirit as a finer type of matter is much more reasonable today than in Joseph’s day. However, the world of science will have none of that and insists that there is no such thing as spirit and no such thing as God.

A Dismal Perspective

In the dogma of the world, the findings of science have been extrapolated to incredible lengths, requiring almost superhuman omniscience to go from a handful of observations from the perspective of this little planet in this tiny corner of the cosmos, to sweeping declarations about the nature of the cosmos, declarations like, “There is no God. No need for God. No heaven. No life after death. No spirit. No purpose to life. No free will. No immortality. Just atoms and genes and chance. End of story.”

And what a dismal and delusional story it is. Don’t let its hollow claims and arrogant proclamations erode your faith.

Francis Crick is one of the two men who shared a Nobel Prize for their remarkable work that helped unlock one of the great mysteries of the Creation and gave us new insights that into one of the most marvelous inventions in the universe. They discovered DNA, or rather, helped reveal the double helix structure of DNA. One might wonder what profound perspectives about the miracle of life and the wonders of the Creation Dr. Crick might have after prying into the mysteries of DNA so deeply. Listen to his opening words from his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis:

“You,” your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: “You're nothing but a pack of neurons.”   

There you have it. You are just a pack of neurons and the associated molecules. All sense of self, identify, love, joy, and sorrow, all sense of purpose, is just an illusion created by random events and randomly mutated molecules. This is the kind of foolishness that takes years of study and advanced degrees to achieve. But this is the argument from a reigning form of science, a most dismal science, one that extrapolates a touch of knowledge about matter and molecules into vast assertions about the purpose and meaning of life, creating a new religion that leaves no room for God, for morality, and for all that really matters in life. It tells us that we are vastly less than what we perceive ourselves and others to be, that life is vastly less significant than it seems, and that the very reason and logic that we must use to create or consider such arguments is just an illusion as well. Just a pack of neurons, which are just a pack of molecules, with no other influences than the tangible forces of nature.

That dogma in various forms is entrenched in this world. It is taught or implied in the teachings of the schools, of the books and movies the world chooses to celebrate, and in the circles of the elite who shape opinions in the media and other institutions. It is the official doctrine of some globally significant political systems. To be warmly accepted in the world, one may need to embrace it, and to oppose it vocally will often invite trouble or at least ridicule.

This is why it’s so interesting and even amusing when one of the atheistic elite breaks ranks and falls into apostasy by daring to ask some embarrassing questions. I refer to a man who some have described as the most famous and celebrated philosopher in the United States, Dr. Thomas Nagel, who sits on a lofty academic throne, or rather, an endowed chair at New York University as a University Professor. He is a devout atheist, one who sincerely does not want there to be a God and considers religion to be quite backward if not insane. And yet he has created shock waves in the academic world with a book he published in 2012, a book that The Guardian recognized as the most despised book of the year. This book has the intriguing title, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I just finished this book, and it is fascinating, and while Nagel makes some reasonably good arguments, I think if he could also have offered further interesting arguments from science itself about the incompleteness of materialism as an explanation for the us and the cosmos we are in.

Nagel’s apostasy lies in pointing out what that the reigning paradigm of materialism fails the common sense test. It fails to account for who we are and what we perceive. It fails to explain the wonders of the mind, the power of our sense of right and wrong, the ability for humans to reason and ponder and strive for truth. In saying this, Nagel has offended the priests of intelligentsia. And there are not good sports. They are angry. He has been branded an idiot, called a once great philosopher who now has fallen into stupidity and error (for an overview of the negative reaction, see Andrew Ferguson, “The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and Why Are So Many of His Fellow Academics Condemning Him?,” The Weekly Standard, March 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27). And his publisher, the respected Oxford University Press, has been criticized for allowing such trash to be published. The fear, of course, is that his arguments will be used to prop up religious faith, though that is far from Nagel’s purpose. Nagel’s primary objective seems to be to point out the glaring gaps in the reigning model so that a more reasonable new model, still free of God and intelligent design, might account for the amazing properties of the universe we live in, where not only life can arise, but intelligent life with reason and concepts like truth and justice.

New Mysteries in Matter and Energy

The questions raised by Thomas Nagel are thoughtful and powerful, and I hope the efforts to silence and punish such freethinking dissent will not succeed. These are questions that need thought and discussion. I do not have all the answers, and have added some new questions to my own personal quest as a result of reading Nagel. But I believe we can affirm that materialism certainly does not have all the answers either. Indeed, as Nagel concludes, it is almost certainly false as an explanation for the remarkable kind of universe we are in.

Philosophers per se are not needed to expose the glaring defects in materialism. Let me point to the findings of science itself. We have been taught that all we are and all there can be is contained in the realm of neurons, molecules, atoms, and the matter and energy that scientists study, with no room for God and the mysteries of spirit. If that is so, why is it that astrophysicists, in their observations of the motion of galaxies, have found overwhelming evidence for forces tugging and pulling those masses of stars and matter in ways that could not be explained by the amount of matter that is actually visible? To explain the apparent gravitational influences acting on galaxies, scientists were compelled to postulate a mysterious so-far unseen form of matter scattered across the galaxies that they call “dark matter”? And as far as they can tell, there is a lot more dark matter, whatever that is, than the matter that we can see and measure here. It appears to make up 84.5% of the matter of the universe. (Note: Dark matter doesn’t fit the standard model for matter that scientists have developed, it’s not just neutrinos or some particle that is somewhat understood,  but is genuinely mysterious, and as NPR told us recently, it just got more mysterious based on further strange aspects of its behavior.)

Granted, materialists can adapt and say that this mystery matter is still a form of matter and still part of their explanation for everything, but remember that the just a few decades ago when materialist were telling us that matter explains everything, they were talking about the tangible, easily measurable matter that we now know misses 84.5 of the stuff that is out there, whatever it is. Can we be confident that they still know what they are talking about now? From an LDS perspective, to say that dark matter is now within the scope of materialism doesn’t necessarily save face for the materialists because spirit, after all, is a form of matter, too, though it seems immaterial since we can’t observe it directly in our present mortal state. But it’s there with a real influence that is definitely outside the scope of secular materialism, which is ultimately based on eliminating the need for things like spirit and the Father of spirits in accounting for the majesty of our existence.

For those who think they’ve got the cosmos figured out on the strength of materialism, the findings of astrophysics now get even more mysterious. A new level of mystery was added in the 1990s when teams of astronomers collaborated to answer one of the basic questions they face: how fast is the universe collapsing upon itself under the steady pull of gravity? Is it collapsing slowly, or quickly? It was a fundamental question, and required a great deal of data based on observing some of the most distant objects in the universe and performing many calculations. As the data came in and the answers were computed, the scientists were dumbfounded. They checked their results again and again, at first sure that some crazy error must have occurred. But the results have been consistent and clear: their assumptions and beliefs were entirely wrong. Gravity was not causing the universe to pull together at all. Rather, the universe was moving apart, accelerating away from itself, with some still utterly mysterious force overcoming the steady strength of gravity. This force involves energy of some kind, and scientists, with no better alternative, have dubbed it “dark energy.” (See Joseph Gyekis, “Probing Questions: What Is Dark Energy and How Do We Know It Exists?,” ResearchPennState, March 23, 2005, http://www.rps.psu.edu/probing/darkenergy.html.) Dark energy dominates the energies of the universe.

Now we know from Einstein’s e = mc2, so mass and energy are related. If we consider the relative contributions to the apparent mass-energy of the universe, it turns out that dark energy and dark matter, the invisible and mysterious stuff of the cosmos, account for 95% of what is there. (As Wikipedia tallies it, the universe contains 4.9% ordinary matter, 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy.) The remaining tiny piece of the universal pie, just 5% of cosmic reality based on what astrophysicists can infer, is the stuff we can see and detect, the original stuff of materialism (though now they can update their theories and say all the new mystery stuff somehow hits as well). Before these recent discoveries from astronomy, perhaps it made sense to feel that atoms, molecules, and neurons could account for everything. But when it comes to explaining some of the most basic facts about the universe, the tangible stuff of materialism is missing at least 95% of the puzzle. And that’s not based on Bible verses, but observations from scientists which have shocked and dumfounded them with evidence of mysterious forces and substances beyond anything they have seen in their laboratories. Is it nor more logical and more scientific at this point to humbly admit that there might be or must be something beyond mere atoms and neurons? And if the discrepancy between the expectations of science and the realities of the universe could be so large (5% vs. 100%), can we continue to put our trust in the man-made religions of those who insist that what they see and touch and measure is all there is and all there can be, and that we and our lives cannot possibly be more than a pack of neurons and a mass of randomly mutated molecules?

I am not saying that the fine matter of spirit, as Joseph Smith taught, has any relationship to dark matter or dark energy. It is possible that there are vast amounts of whatever spirit is with properties that do not yet show up in observations of galactic motion and universal expansion. My point is simply that materialistic theories based on the primacy of matter that may have seemed plausible a few years ago were then and still are incomplete. Can we really base our faith, or lack of faith,  on the extreme extrapolations of scientists based on a few observations on tiny pieces of the material universe, that 5% sliver of reality, conducted in this tiny corner on planet Earth? Where do they obtain such omniscience from their work?

I think it is entirely fair to question the world’s blind faith in matter alone and realize that there can indeed be more the picture. Vastly more, including life with purpose, beings with reason and moral agency, genuine and everlasting truths, and a loving God who is also a brilliant and masterful designer as well as the Father of our spirits. There is more, and the knowledge we obtain through study and faith as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps us see and become more than materialism alone would ever permit. It helps us recognize and prize the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the reality of His Atonement. Miraculous, yes, beyond our full comprehension, but not beyond the pale of reason, not groundless and ridiculous, and not, as Thomas Nagel said of the materialist explanation for life and the cosmos, almost certainly false. In fact, as we experiment upon the word and pursue the Gospel of Christ, we can come to understand and even know that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is real and, indeed, certainly true.

3 comments:

Eric Herman said...

Great talk, Jeff. I recall watching the Universe series on the History Channel some years ago, and how there were several times when a physicist or astrophysicist would refer to some astronomical phenomenon or discovery and say something like, "This is completely different to what we were thinking 10/15/20 years ago."

I believe that faith without science is incomplete, and vice versa, inasmuch as both the faith and the science are well-founded. But there is a truth that encompasses all things, and if we strive to seek that, open to learning and new understanding in all respects, then we can approach that truth. It would be great if we could do that in a more unified way as a society, but it seems like so many are entrenched on one side or the other.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Nagel's book is far more valuable than just an excuse for us believers to buttress our critique of materialism. He asks some serious questions that will pose mysteries for us as well. After reading Nagel, I am more inclined than ever to marvel that our universe exists. The nature of God and His existence is all the more majestic and mysterious. Even if we begin with the existence of an all-knowing Being, it is incredible that this universe that we behold was even possible, that the myriad of conflicting constraints could be satisfied to come up with tailored fundamental properties of matter that would enable stars to exist as well as water, carbon, and DNA. How was it even possible? How was it done? What an amazing adventure awaits us in the distant future as we learn the history of the Cosmos--and of God. Breathtaking stuff, and worth living well now in order to be in the best position to learn later.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how materialistic reductionism intrinsically calls for disregarding the validity of the reason that is used to formulate itself.