Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on Jerusalem from a New Acquaintance, Matisyahu

On a redeye flight from Los Angeles to Chicago that landed a couple of hours ago, I found myself sitting next to a very handsome young man (of course, almost everybody looks young to me these days) with a great smile and struck up a conversation. He seemed very intelligent and kind, and also had the air of a serious writer or artist. I asked if he was a writer, and was delighted to find out that he was a reggae musician, though I don't know much about reggae beyond a couple of CDs I bought a while back. My new acquaintance is known as Mathisyahu, the Jewish reggae star who draws upon his orthodox Jewish background plus some original approaches to music to create his own unique art. One of his songs made the Top 40 in the US a few years ago (King Without a Crown). His real name is Matthew Paul Miller. Read more about him on Wikipedia.

Mathisyahu is performing tonight in Chicago at the Ravinia, where he'll be on stage for about 45 minutes. Wish I could be there! I'm really intrigued by him and his music now. A very spiritual and interesting man with 3 young sons. Congratulations!

Here's a sample of his work that struck a chord with me, reflecting his passion for one of the most significant cities on earth, Jerusalem. This was created when he sported a significant beard. He no longer has that, and I personally prefer his current look.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Not to Excess, Neither by Extortion": Kiss Foie Gras Good-Bye

While randomly reading a legal blog, I read a rather disturbing description of the process used to create the fat goose livers that are turned into foie gras, the goose liver pate that delights many people for reasons I don't fully grasp. I used to think it was just barely tolerable, but not anymore. I don't think I can stomach it anymore after reading this from the Rebecca Tushnet's blog, in "Vegan alternative has standing against foie gras producer":
ALDF alleged that Hudson Valley Foie Gras violated the Lanham Act ... by marketing their foie gras as “the humane choice” without producing it humanely. At 3 months old, Hudson Valley’s ducklings are allegedly moved into special feeding barns, where they’re restrained by the neck 2-3 times per day to be force-fed. Corn mash is pumped directly into their stomachs, with amounts increasing slightly each day. After about a month of this, at a time just before force-feeding typically becomes fatal, the ducks are slaughtered, though some die from the force-feeding before that.

The alleged cruel and inhumane aspects were that (1) injuries and illness commonly result from the force-feeding, “including ruptured esophagi, bone fractures, inhalation of food into the lungs, and bacterial infection,” (2) the force-feeding enlarges ducks’ livers, resulting in hepatic lipidosis, which causes liver failure as well as seizures and nervous system impairment, and (3) the extremely swollen liver may lead to difficulty breathing, severe pain from the liver's capsule stretching, and broken legs as a result of the excess body weight. Foie gras ducks are not given veterinary care and thus may suffer up to four weeks until they die or are slaughtered.

In 2004, California banned force-feeding birds for the purpose of producing an enlarged liver, and also banned the sale in California of any products resulting force-feeding, but the law only took effect in 2012. The delay was designed to allow California foie gras producers to find a humane way to produce the desired fatty liver, but no one was able to do so. Thus, there are no longer any foie gras producers in California. However, out-of-state foie gras producers may market and ship their products to California. Hudson Valley is the largest foie gras producer in the United States and markets its foie gras as “the humane choice.”
So someone is allegedly marketing a foie gras products as a "humane" product without eliminating the inhumane force feeding of immobilized birds. Very sad. Our era of mass produced animal products leads to many ugly, abusive situations with animals that increasingly point to the wisdom of eating meat sparingly.

Doctrine and Covenants 59 has a passage with good insight into the abundance that this planet offers and our stewardship in using the resources the Lord has created for our use:
16 Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;

17 Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;

18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;

19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.

20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.
It's not enough to recognize that the Lord created many things that we may use for food, clothing, and enjoyment. With receiving those blessings comes a requirement to use these things responsibly, with judgment, and not with excess or extortion. What is extortion in this context? The word is related to torsion and torque, with a root meaning of twisting, as in twisting the arm of person to force them to do something they don't want to do. Hugh Nibley in "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free" applied the word to the sound business practice of extracting every last bit of value from the resources one has access to:
In passing through any field or vineyard in Israel, anyone was free to take what he needed if he was hungry (as the Lord and the apostles did; Mark 2:23); if the owner denied him that, he was breaking the law; if the person took more than he needed for lunch, then he was breaking the law–it was still manna (Deuteronomy 23:24–25). When gathering harvest, said the law, never go back to make sure that you have taken all the olives, grapes, or grain of your farm to the barn or to the press. That may be sound business practice, but the Lord forbids it. Some of it must always be left for those who might need it. From the wine and olive presses we get the word "extortion," meaning to squeeze out the last drop, another way to make a margin of profit–putting the squeeze on, wringing out the last drop. The Latter–day Saints, like the ancient Israelites, are to accept God's gifts gratefully and not "by extortion" (D&C 59:20).
Force-feediing of an animal to the point of death to create an unnaturally fatty liver sounds like a good example of extortion being applied to the bounties of Planet Earth.

Mormanity readers don't strike me as the elite folks who eat a lot of foie gras. But I bet many of us have plenty of chicken. There's another disturbing story of how birds are raised and harvested by mass producers in depressing, even brutal circumstances. Do any of you have experiences in successfully finding sources of poultry where the birds were treated relatively humanely? I know, this is a difficult thing for consumers, but your insights will be appreciated.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Xiamen, China - Some Photos

Below are some of the photos from my recent collection of photos from Xiamen, China, one of my latest photo galleries at JeffLindsay.com. These came from a trip to Xiamen. Since I am still raising money to help pay for the surgery that an impoverished teenage boy in China needs, I thought I'd make photos from my collection available as an incentive for donations (use the PayPal button on the right). If you'd like a print mailed to you (8 x 10 or 11 x 14) from the original file, make a donation of $50 or more by April 24, 2013. If you'd like the original digital file for limited or even unlimited use, that's possible. Contact me at jeff at jefflindsay d0t com for questions and requests. Not all of my old photos are available, but most are. Those of you who already donated, the offer applies. Let me know if you'd like anything. No need to like any of the photos, either. All amateur stuff, but a hobby I enjoy. Suggestions for improvement are welcome.

That teenager in China, little Zhiwei, is still slowly recovery from what appears to have been unnecessary and incorrect surgery on his hip. We hope to visit in May or early June. While there is still a ways to go to pay off that debt, I am looking forward to helping them with the funds they need for the surgery they were supposed to get in the first place. China is a tough place to be a poor farmer in the country, at least in terms of the health care that is available. Much better to be a poor citizen of Shanghai for better access and government assistance. Much better still to be a rich citizen of Shanghai or a rich foreigner. And always much better to just be healthy in the first place, no matter where you live. Your donations will make a difference for one family. There are many more, of course, but it's a start. This family has become quite important to us.



















Saturday, April 13, 2013

Does Grant Palmer Really Claim to Have Rescued a Mormon General Authority Away from the LDS Faith?

There's a remarkable story circulating the Net in which a prominent LDS General Authority allegedly lost his faith due to the teachings of Grant Palmer, the controversial ex-Mormon author who was teaching seminary for years while secretly circulating some highly implausible theories of plagiarism of the Book of Mormon. This General Authority has come to Palmer with the statement, "We are here to learn" and continues to learn the ways of anti-Mormon truth in his regular meetings with Palmer as his guide. This General Authority allegedly has said that all of the Apostles and many other leaders know that the Church is not true but just don't have the courage to do the right thing (like, oh, keeping their Church job for years while sharing anti-Mormon materials with others).

You can read the story in several places such as The Free Republic or on the anonymous blog that first leaked it. Here are some excerpts:
In mid-October 2012, a returned LDS Mission President contacted me to arrange a meeting. Several days later, he called again and said that a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy also wished to attend. He said the General Authority would attend on condition that I not name him or repeat any stories that would identify him. He explained that neither of them, including the GA’s wife, believed the founding claims of the restoration were true. He clarified that they had read my book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, and had concluded that the LDS Church was not true; was not what it claimed to be.... 
We have at this writing met three times. We first met on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 and again February 14, 2013 at my house. On March 26, 2013 we convened at the GAs house. Upon entering my home for the first meeting the GA said, “We are here to learn.” I recognized him. He has been a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for a number of years. He has served in several high profile assignments during this period. The following are the more important statements made by the GA during our first three meetings. We now meet monthly.... 
He said that it takes about two to three years before the new apostle discovers that the church is not true. He said it took Dieter F. Uchtdorf a little longer because he was an outsider. He said they privately talk among themselves and know the foundational claims of the restoration are not true, but continue on boldly “because the people need it,” meaning the people need the church. When the Mission President voiced skepticism and named ___ as one who surely did believe, The GA said: “No, he doesn’t.” ... 
When I asked the GA how he knew these things, he answered by saying that the Quorum of the Twelve today is more isolated from the Quorums of the Seventies now because there are several of them. When only one Quorum of the Seventy existed, there was more intimacy. During his one on one assignments with an apostle, conversations were more familiar. He said that none of the apostles ever said to him directly that they did not believe; but that it was his opinion based on “my interactions with them.” Also, that none of the Twelve want to discuss “truth issues,” meaning issues regarding the foundational claims of the church.  
The GA stated that my disciplinary action (which would have occurred on the final Sunday of October 2010 had I not resigned), was mandated/ordered/approved by the First Presidency of the Church. I said that if the apostles know the church is not true and yet order a disciplinary hearing for my writing a book that is almost certainly true regarding the foundational claims of the church, then they are corrupt even evil. He replied, “That’s right!” 
The GA said the church is like a weakened dam. At first you don’t see cracks on the face; nevertheless, things are happening behind the scenes. Eventually, small cracks appear, and then the dam will “explode.” When it does, he said, the members are going to be “shocked” and will need scholars/historians like me to educate them regarding the Mormon past. 
The Mission President and the GA both said they attend church every Sunday and feel like “a hypocrite and trapped.” The GA said his ward treats him like a king and when he gives firesides and speaks to LDS congregations they have high expectations of him. He would like to do more in getting the truth out besides raising a few questions when speaking and gifting my book to others when feeling comfortable. Perhaps this is why he has reached out to me. The GA is a man of integrity and very loving. Upon leaving each time, he always gives me a big hug.
Well, he had me until the part about the hug.

OK, a few other parts raise some doubts as well. But first. let me affirm that it's possible for General Authorities and any other Latter-day Saint to have doubts. Perhaps not as extreme as the doubts revealed when Peter, the Chief Apostle, denied Christ three times, but as long as we're in mortality, we'll only have part of the picture and limited knowledge with many rough spots that can become source of irritating questions and doubts. Some leaders have abandoned their membership in the past. We can accept that and should be prepared to occasionally encounter more of it in the future.

But I marvel at the audacity of the claim that all the Apostles soon learn that the Church is bogus. Except poor Dieter, it took him longer because he was an outsider. An analytical German with his brains, free from the cultural blinders and influences of insider Mormon culture, ought to be one of the first to spot problems if it were all a fraud. If Grant Palmer really wrote this, and people are saying that he has confirmed it's from him, then this allegation reminds me of just how much a stretch it was, in my opinion, when Palmer, in promoting his book, styled himself as a prominent "insider" of Mormonism. 

Who could think that Bruce R. McConkie's moving final testimony could be delivered, virtually on his deathbed, with such power and conviction by someone who thought it was all bunk and was just going through the motions to hold onto his wealth and fame? When I was 16 years old, I had a brief encounter with Apostle Ezra Taft Benson when I was a youth speaker at our Stake Conference where he was speaking and presiding. I cannot forget the spirit and faith in his heart and eyes when he looked into my soul as he shook my hand and spoke a few words to me. I have no doubt that he truly and passionately believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As one gets closer to the leaders of the Church, and to those who know them well, it's hard to miss the depth and power of their personal testimonies. There are obviously plenty of things they don't know and surely must be areas of uncertainty and doubt, but who can seriously claim that they are willing to discuss "truth issues" (anyone heard Elders Holland or Oaks speak in the past few years?) or suggest that those who rub shoulders with them can see that they all know it's not true?

The story in question claims that the General Authority, who now looks to Palmer and his book for truth and hope for the rest of the Church, is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and was before the other quorums were added. This raises some questions that others have pointed out.  Wikipedia's list of LDS General Authorities helps us check who is serving in the Quorums of the Seventy and when they were set apart as General Authorities. 

For starters, here is a helpful comment offered on one of my posts where a critic cited Palmer's story:
Grant Palmer is blowing smoke. He talks about a current member of the First Quorum of Seventy (FQS) who was familiar with how things worked when there was only one quorum of seventy. Number of current members of the FQS who were members when there was only one quorum: 0

Based on Palmer's memorandum, certainly this mysterious GA would have been a GA before the area seventy quorums were called in April 1995, right? FQS members called before April 1995:

Carlos Amado (based in Central America)
Claudio Costa (based in Brazil)
John Dickson (based in West Africa)

So which of these three GAs, based in far flung corners of the world, is meeting with Palmer on a monthly basis? And that's before we even get to how on earth this GA would be able to discern it takes 2-3 years for a new apostle to discover the church is not true, but it took DFU a bit longer. It would be hilarious if he wasn't serious. 

Let's explore these claims. A good historical resource here is Wikipedia's article on the LDS concept of the Seventy:
Second Quorum of the Seventy formed 
In 1984, some seventies were appointed to the First Quorum of the Seventy who were not to serve for life, but for terms of several years. In 1989, these limited-term members were separated into a new Second Quorum of the Seventy. At the same time, the general practice was instituted of retiring all members of the First Quorum at the October general conference following their 70th birthdays, or earlier in the case of serious health problems. Some flexibility on the terms of service has emerged in recent years. 
Since 1989, members of the First and Second Quorums have continued as general authorities of the church. Sometimes members are called from the Second Quorum into the First Quorum. 
Since the 1976 merger of First Quorum of the Seventy, seventies are the most usual candidates to become members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Since 1976, three have been called as apostles who did not serve as general authority seventies prior to their call, including Russell M. NelsonDallin H. Oaks, and David A. Bednar,[12]Nelson and Oaks were ordained apostles in 1984 under church president Spencer W. Kimball, and Bednar in 2004 under church president Gordon B. Hinckley.
Area seventies and additional quorums of seventy 
At the April 1995 general conference of the church, church president Gordon B. Hinckley announced the creation of a new leadership position known as the area authority.[13] The area authorities were to replace the regional representatives who had served as bridge of leadership between the general authorities and the local stakeand mission presidents. In 1997, it was decided that area authorities would be ordained to the office of seventy. As a result, these area authorities were renamed area authority seventies, and the church announced that these new seventies would become members of the newly-created Third, Fourth, and Fifth Quorums of the Seventy.[14] Later, the title "area authority seventy" was shortened to area seventy, which is the title currently in use. 
Area seventies serve in the various geographic regions of the world called areas in which the church is governed by area presidencies. An international area presidency is typically composed of members of the First and Second Quorums of the Seventy, while areas in the United States and Canada are directed by a member of the Presidency of the Seventy.[15]In 2004, the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy was divided to create the Sixth Quorum of the Seventy.[16]
So who is this mysterious General Authority who looks to a better Mormon future thanks to Palmer and his book (or rather, millions of copies of that soon-to-be best seller)? He had to be a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy back in the good ol' days when life wasn't so complicated with all those other quorums. 1989 is the key date, for that is when the Second Quorum was formed. So we just have to look at the list of current First Quorum members and eliminate all those who were ordained after roughly 1989, inclusive. Let's see, that leaves, well, not exactly anybody. Nobody. So that's looking like a problem. OK, I'm still going to give bonus points for very nice specific dates given for the meetings with the General Authority. That adds a nice granular feel of reality to the story. But the part about the good ol' days of the First Quorum apparently adds a little too much granularity that can be checked to rule out--sigh--every candidate. That's a step backward for the credibility of this story that so many are anxious to believe. But don't give up yet.

Perhaps the wording was off in the story as published or in the words used by the General Authority. Let's take that statement, "When only one Quorum of the Seventy existed, there was more intimacy" and generously reconstruct it this way: "When only a couple of Quorums of the Seventy existed, before life got so hectic with all those other quorums, there was more intimacy." Then the critical date is April 1995, and yes, there are actual candidates in the First Quorum who were sustained before then and could conceivably be meeting monthly with guru Grant Palmer.

Here are the candidates:
One commenter elsewhere suggested that Jay E. Jensen could be a candidate, probably because he had been in the First Quourum of the Seventy and was serving in the Presidency of the Seventy when he was given emeritus status in October 2012. But as Wikipedia's article on Jay E. Jensen explains, he was was "called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 1992 and transferred to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1995." That was after the other quorums were added so he would not have been reminiscing about his early intimate days in the First Quorum.

An apparent problem with these candidates is that they have been living and serving far away from Palmer's territory of Utah. Carlos Amado is from Guatemala and has served and lived in various parts of Latin America. He was assigned as a counselor in the church's Central America Area in 2011. Not likely to have been meeting with Grant Palmer in Salt Lake, nor to have invited Grant to his home (where, in Guatemala?). Claudio Costa was in the Idaho area for a while, but since 2011 has been assigned to Brazil. Not likely to have been having regular meetings recently with Palmer as his spiritual advisor in 2012.

So that leaves is with John B. Dickinson. I hope it's not him. If it is, there are some curious details to consider. John is in the First Quorum now, but when he became a General Authority in 1992, he was called to the Second Quorum (same for the other two candidates considered here). It wasn't until 1995 that he transferred to the First Quorum, and that's when the other quorums were added, so it really doesn't fit the story. Plus he's been assigned to the Africa West Area since 2011. Seems hard to square his facts with the Palmer story.

The story from Palmer seems to imply an old-timer First Quorum member (not Second Quorum member who recently transferred to the First Quorum) who has a home in the Salt Lake City area and spends enough time there to meet several times with Palmer in 2012. Even if we generously reconstruct the story to cushion it with a few extra years after the time when the Second Quorum was added, I really don't see that anybody in the current First Quorum could fit the very few details provided by Palmer. Even if we had scores of candidates to choose from, there are problems that could cause us to doubt its accuracy, but if we can't even find a single candidate even with generous interpretations being applied, it would seem to raise legitimate grounds for putting this story on hold as potentially unreliable, pending further clarification. Grant, care to clarify? Give us a few clues? Am I missing something big and simple? Perhaps the next revision will make it more clear.

It is possible that some General Authority out there really is having testimony trouble and thinks  Palmer and his book with its salamander-flavored Golden Pot tale offer unique insights into Mormonism that every Mormon should be taught one day. On the other hand, it's also possible that the account, with no plausible candidate so far, is a tad delusional. A mean-spirited Mormon apologist might see a self-serving aspect to the story, with Palmer playing too grand a role and his questionable book being too powerful and important, all a potential red flag. I'd be more inclined to accept it if the story were promoting some other random book written by another insider to Mormonism such as, say, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Hey, why not? That could shake a General Authority's testimony as well as anything. Why, just the depressing chapter alone on Mormon inventor Philo Farnsworth could do the trick. No need to wait until the dam of truth bursts, either. But that's another story.

Accurate or not, this story apparently from Palmer will increase publicity for his book and its claims. Here are some resources for you to better understand what Palmer has been up to:
  • "Asked and Answered: A Response to Grant H. Palmer" by James B. Allen, FARMS Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 235-85. This is an excellent review of Palmer and also a good overview of many basic anti-Mormon criticisms of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration. Also points out some glaring deficiencies in Palmer's approach.
  • "Prying into Palmer" by Louis Midgley, FARMS Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 365-410. Important revelations about Palmer's early work, and his fascination with the salamander-related documents from Mark Hoffman that were later exposed as forgeries. An interesting study in cognitive dissonance, perhaps, with an amphibian twist.
  • "A Summary of Five Reviews of Grant Palmer’s “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” (with a Few Comments of My Own)" by George E. Cobabe. Valuable information about Palmer's (or his publisher's) claims to being a special insider and good background material to understand what Palmer is doing with his approach.
Dig into those background stories and then do some thinking about this new story and the red flags it raises. Do you really think it's plausible? I know a lot of people really want to believe it and love to share this kind of salacious stuff, but we may be dealing with something that is not quite as "truthy" as you may wish. We may soon have a clarification regarding some of the trouble spots that could somehow enhance its plausibility (maybe we'll be told that it's not actually a member of the current First Quorum after all, but an Emeritus General Authority, for example, which could add some potential candidates).

If Palmer clarifies the story to correct some trouble spots, perhaps he will also clarify my doubts about the Dieter Uchtdorf statement and its chronology. That little statement how Dieter took longer is the kind of cutesy touch that is great for marketing the story (as is the mysterious failure to name the specific non-believing Apostle listed as "_____", allowing it to apply to whomever we wish), but the more I think about it, the more problematic it seems. This apostate General Authority learned about the loss of faith of the Apostles during the halcyon days of intimate time with the Apostles before all those other Quorums of the Seventy were formed, which should be before 1989 if we take the text as is or should at least be before April 1995 if we generously redact the text, as done above. The problem is that Dieter Uchtdorf became an Apostle (sustained and ordained) in October 2004. And instead of losing his testimony in the usual 2-3 year period, it took "a little longer," which should mean 4 years or so, right? So knowledge of how Dieter Uchtdorf finally lost his testimony would not have been available for rumors among the Brethren until 2008 or so, well over a decade after the era in which our renegade brother had easy access to the guarded, implicit information from his close association with Apostles that helped him ascertain the reality of Apostles in secret apostasy. How did he gain this information? If Palmer later revises the story to make the General Authority a current Emeritus, former First Quorum member, I would encourage him for enhanced plausibility to consider that there should be at least one Emeritus candidate who was still active in the First Quorum through 2009 before being given Emeritus status. Indeed, a reasonably plausible Emeritus candidate should have been ordained to the First Quorum of the Seventy before April 1989 and remained active in it through late 2008 or 2009 to. You can quickly look for candidates by scanning the neatly organized data for Emeritus General Authorities on the relevant Wikipedia page. Two possibilities arise that I can see: Charles Didier and Yoshihiko Kikuchi. One from France, another from Japan. Does either continue to live in Salt Lake? I don't know--can any of you tell me? And is either of these men a hugger?

For someone taking pains to protect the anonymity of the apostate General Authority, Palmer gives details which seem difficult to square with any candidate, though perhaps we can loosen the restrictions to get a couple of Emeritus gentlemen in as candidates. But any candidate needs to live in Utah and to have been at Palmer's Utah home "on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 and again February 14, 2013" and then at his own house--not an apartment--on March 26, 2013, where Palmer came to visit. These are specific details, even one very recent detail, that friends, family, and neighbors may be able to confirm or falsify for any of our small (vanishingly small?) pool of candidates.  The renegade General Authority, whose identity needs to be protected, also has a non-believing wife who is also a fan of Palmer's book, and the General Authority has been giving Palmer's book out as a gift, presumably to more than just the Mission President it helped convert away from Mormonism. These are details that are hard to hide and should make it easy to either pinpoint the General Authority ("hey, thanks, Grant, for protecting my identity so well!") or, more likely, ask difficult questions for which no answers may come.  No, I am not trying to "out" the General Authority because I suspect there is no one to out. 

Maybe we'll get a revision that makes the story more plausible, or perhaps another little dam may burst as other aspects of this story buckle under the stress of investigation. But I suspect the story will live on in its current form, regardless of its problems, hugs and all, with many devout nonbelievers scoring it as important evidence for their preconceived notions about the Church. For those looking for truth, though, I hope they might recognize this story as part of a large body of accusations that are often not quite accurate, not quite fair, or sometimes not even close to true.

If, after suitable revisions to this story, it becomes more plausible and it turns out that there really is an apostate General Authority meeting with Palmer, saying unkind things about the Apostles and the Church, and passing out copies of Palmer's book to mission presidents and others, then I'll be disappointed. As I said before, there are more interesting books to be giving out.

Update, April 15, 2013: 
One of my readers has observed that one of three specific days mentioned by Palmer is Feb. 14, 2013, Valentine's Day. He wondered if it makes sense that a married General Authority would go visit Grant Palmer then instead of going on a date. Not a big concern. Perhaps the meeting was just during the day, with plenty of time for a romantic date later. But the decision to mention the specific dates for three meetings with the General Authority raises some questions. Why do this when you are supposedly trying to protect a person's identity? In business, personal, and religious contexts, I've been in the situation of being allowed to share a little information from someone who wanted their identify protected, and know how important it is to consider and preferably get approval for specific details that might be interesting or helpful but could also be used to pinpoint the person. Knowing where an anonymous person was on specific dates can be used to screen possibilities and should be considered sensitive. The specific dates are great for the story, great for a sense of reality, but give away too much. Here, it should be easy for people in the Church to see which General Authorities were in town on those days and which were away on business. Just call a few admins or check with the travel office and find out who was in town on those dates, or see if anybody in a pool of candidates was in town. Those specific dates by themselves probably greatly narrow the list down to very few--or again, perhaps nobody. General Authorities are often outside of Salt Lake and there might not be any member of the First Quorum who was in town all three days.

In spite of these problems, I am inclined to believe that if Grant Palmer really wrote this (I have an independent source claiming that there is good evidence it's from Grant), then there must be something behind it. Like most critics, the arguments he has raised against the Church in the past all have something behind them, even when it's really far-fetched like the whole Golden Pot "parallels" to the Book of Mormon. I can't imagine it just being entirely concocted--that would be too foolish and harmful. So I suppose there must be some person who is talking to Grant who is either a General Authority or very close to a General Authority, or at least looks and sounds a lot like a General Authority. Or maybe it's Elder Ken Jennings, perhaps the most famous Mormon general authority of all, or rather, a true authority in general, able to score big in almost every category known to Jeopardy. Please don't tell me he's the one!

Seriously, though, there may be explanations and fixes for the seemingly problematic details in the story (apart from the really silly notion that all Apostles learn while serving that the Church is bogus). But I can imagine someone passing this bogus information onto Grant. The problems that seem to rule out all or most potential candidates may be because of inaccurate writing, poor memory, typographical errors, exaggeration or even fibs from the person being interviewed, errant assumptions on my part, flaws in the data I'm using, or other missing details that would reveal how I'm misinterpreting or abusing the statement or at least what should be in the statement. So I'm curious. What's the real scoop? Grant, or friends and supporters of Grant, can you answer any of these questions or give us further information? Perhaps even a clue could help (e.g., "last name rhymes with a Lithuanian dessert"). It looks like there are some real problems, but, as someone once said, "We are here to learn."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Fellowship of Doubters

Terryl L. Givens' "Letter to a Doubter" at the Mormon Interpreter is definitely worth a read, especially if you are struggling with the very normal and frequently healthy process of questioning your faith. You are not alone. In fact, if you are completely free of troubling questions and areas of doubt, perhaps you need to do a little more scripture study, a little more prayer, a little more pondering and thinking, and a lot more listening to the Spirit, because chances are a lot of what you think you know so well is actually based on weak assumptions, misunderstanding, seriously incomplete knowledge and various sources of human error, all of which could use a little updating and refreshing.

It's OK to be puzzled, to have misgivings, to have questions unanswered. and to have areas where we yearn for further light and knowledge. If that describes you, then chances are you are a pretty interesting person. And if, in spite of doubts and questions, you are able to keep your bearings and maintain your LDS membership and hopefully your basic faith as a Latter-day Saint, then chances are you are also a pretty interesting Mormon.

Nephi's poetical yearnings in the Book of Mormon reflects a soul that had encountered the divine and yet struggled with doubts and contradictions in his own soul. The weaknesses and failings of many of the prophets remind us of the realities of mortality where we struggle with darkness and only a handful of incomplete answers in a cosmos of questions, all demanding faith, patience, and steady struggling to learn more. With that in mind, read "Letter to a Doubter" and apply his perspectives to your own situation. I hope it helps.

I like the fact that Givens recognizes that there are real issues we may struggle with, issues that should not be trivialized. But they can be managed or even conquered, with the Lord's help and a lot of patience. Got doubts? That's OK. You may be part of what Givens calls the "fellowship of the desolate" that includes great prophets of the past and others in our day, including Mother Theresa, who struggled with doubt and the the coldness of the world.

I hope you'll be able to press forward in spite of doubts. In any case, stay interested, and, please, stay interesting.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Thomas Nagel's Apostasy: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

Some elite circles in the academic world are aflame with anger at the apostasy of one of their former darlings, a man who may be the most famous philosopher in America. Dr. Thomas Nagel has an endowed chair at New York University as a University Professor and has been praised for many years for his original scholarship. He is, naturally, a committed atheist. 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 mentioned this book and the visceral reaction it has engendered in my previous post, "Faith, Reason, and the Resurrection." Here I wish to further review its content.  
Nagel takes on the ambitious task of using his skills as a philosopher to challenge the way science applies it tools and its paradigms to make sense of the natural order, and particularly a universe that obviously enables the rise not just of life but of consciousness and the intangible values and systems that are integral to human life. The rise of life in any form he finds a difficult enough challenge for science to explain using the reigning paradigm of materialism. But Nagel finds the gap between the claims of science and common sense to be particularly severe when we then seek to explain how the random rise of life would then lead to conscious and reasoning creatures who can discuss and strive for concepts such as truth and justice. The rise of life is improbable enough, and Nagel finds it inherently unreasonable to rely on ever dwindling improbabilities as the answer for a universe that seems to be infused with purpose. As a confirmed atheist, Nagel feels that science must rise to the challenge more effectively and offer new models that better explain why the Cosmos that we experience appears to reverberate with this primal command: “Let there be life.” 

Then, most majestically, one more decree: “Let there be consciousness.” 
The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. (p. 51)
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 adequately address the mind-body problem or the many wonders of the mind, the power of our sense of right and wrong, and the ability we have to reason, ponder, strive for truth, and even change our behavior on the basis of that reasoned striving.

Nagel is profoundly skeptical that “the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances—as we take ourselves to have done and to continue to do collectively in science, logic, and ethics. Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time?”

This theme of Nagel’s has, of course, been treated by others from scientific and philosophical perspectives. I first encountered this problem in The Runway Brain. No, I’m not talking about the 1995 film about another serious but less common mind-body problem. Rather, I refer to the 1993 book, The Runaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Uniqueness by Christopher Wills, who offers the hypothesis that the influence of human culture helped create a feedback loop that has amplified the role of the brain and gradually led to our current thinking state with nothing but Darwinian means. An interesting, speculative, and unsatisfying read, though highly acclaimed, that I feel does not adequately appreciate the difficulty of the mind-body problem.

Here I must add my own skepticism. How can the pressures for survival that may have allowed one clan of cave dwellers to better escape predators than their neighbors—“ug, run!”—have resulted in minds that could, for example, compose Tang dynasty poetry that is then sung to delicate music and brushed with astonishing skill and beauty onto silk? The edge given by random mutations in the dog-eat-dog or tiger-eat-caveman world of natural selection leaves little room for such advanced mental machinery that do not directly relate to the task of not being eaten and passing on one’s genes. 

Scientists claim that their theories are up to the task, but the explanation so far is highly unsatisfactory. Can it do better? Can naturalistic means be proposed to account for reason and consciousness? Nagel believes it must be possible, and asks thinkers to recognize the problem more fully in order to formulate an answer. 

Nagel wants—perhaps desperately wants—science to better account for the “brute facts” of our existence, including the “creation of life from dead matter or the birth of consciousness, or reason” (p. 25). Nagel feels that the approach of materialism is not just incomplete, awaiting further refinements of its tools and data sets, but is inherently inadequate. It’s the wrong tool and is simply not up to the task, for “there is little or no possibility” that the brute facts of our existence “depend on nothing but the laws of physics” (p. 25). He does not see God or theistic Creation as a necessary answer, though admits that some of the arguments raised by supporters of intelligent design deserve more than just the scorn with which they are blindly dismissed. 

Nagel is a doubter who dares to challenge a ruling paradigm and the Establishment of reductionism, in which all aspects of our existence are reduced to nothing but the interactions of atoms and neurons according to the laws of physics. In making this challenge, he knows hostility will follow. “I realize such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science” (p. 7). The browbeating and the war on heretical views  is not unique to science in my view but includes many fields, but the alleged findings of science are widely cited to give authority to the reigning paradigm, often without really grasping what science really can and cannot yet say. As for the hostility Nagel faces, it may be widespread but I suspect Nagel is prepared and capable of dealing with it. Fortunately, it's not as angry as if he had come out in favor of traditional marriage as did another popular author, Orson Scott Card, nor as surprising, intense, and well-deserved as the reaction of Truman Capote's elite friends to his publication of Answered Prayers, a vicious volume of gossip. Nagel's work of scholarship still is daring and may cost him dearly over time, though I think the fires of the current Inquisition will die down quickly and just leave him lightly scorched. 

Part of the problem recognized by Nagel is that the materialistic, neo-Darwinian attempt to explain our existence cannot account for the natural conviction that there is such a thing as moral standards or truth.   The materialist approach “implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends” (p. 27). 

There are other issues, such as the vast improbabilities for the rise of DNA. The authority of science is not enough, in his view, to force us to suspend our common sense about the majesty and wonder of life and consciousness. But he is not thumping a Bible or calling upon God as an explanation for anything.  Nagel explains that, “My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a  belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. That is especially true with regard to the origin of life” (p. 6). The origin of life lacks the benefit of natural selection as a mechanism for evolutionary advance, so how can the majestic rise of the remarkable genetic mechanisms behind natural selection be accounted for without relying on wondrously minute probabilities guiding the steps toward life? Nagel is asking fair and, for many, rather irritating questions. 
And to complete the link with physics, the explanation has to suppose that there is a nonnegligible probability that some sequence of steps, starting from nonliving matter and depending on purely physical mechanisms, could eventually have resulted in a replicating molecule capable of all this, embodying a precise code billions of characters long, together with the ribosomes that translate that code into proteins. It is not enough to say, “Something had to happen, so why not this?” I find the confidence among the scientific establishment that the whole scenario will yield to a purely chemical explanation hard to understand, except as a manifestation of an axiomatic commitment to reductive materialism. (p. 46) 
And again, explaining consciousness adds an entirely new dimension of difficulty to the problem. 

Nagel hopes that some purpose-based explanation may be found and calls upon the academic community to recognize the limitations of the tools previously applied, to be more humble in confronting the unsolved mysteries of life and consciousness, and to take on the real challenges before them. I hope his message will be considered and not merely dismissed and scorned, but prospects for that may be low right now. I suppose further scientific revelations about the majesty and improbability of life may be needed to bring about the hoped-for revolution in science. Meanwhile, as a Latter-day Saint, I also look forward to further insights from any source on the miraculous life we experience and the marvels of existence and consciousness. From the perspective of a lowly engineer, when I contemplate the grandeur in the design of the cosmos, of stars, of this planet and its life forms, and of the human mind, that it was even possible to find solutions to all the problems and conflicting constraints, that it was even possible to tailor the material properties of matter to make all this possible, still simply floors me. 

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Not Just Imagined: Media Hostility Toward Religion

Hopefully you are all catching some sessions of General Conference this weekend. Here in Shanghai, our congregations (now 3 great branches for foreign passport holders) will watch it as a recording next week so we don't have to go without sleep to watch conference in our time zone. For some folks, the temptation to sleep through conference is bad enough during broad daylight.

If you watched it, you might have been pleased to see that a woman gave one of the prayers in the opening session. Sister Jean A. Stevens used to be in my parents' ward and my wife knows her, having been her host when Sister Stevens visited Wisconsin a few years ago. Fabulous woman, she says. Cool!

What a privilege we have to be able to watch conference at all. For those who get to watch it on TV, it's one of the few religious programs you may ever see on the tube. Take a moment and read Jim Bennett's article, "Where's the Respect for Religion on TV?" Mocking religion is the easiest thing in the world. Creating characters who are religious hypocrites is a trivial exercise that is repeated endlessly in TV programs, movies, and books. Tiring end tedious, yet we are supposed to think it's witty. I'm finishing The Poisonwood Bible right now, and while I like a lot about the book, the repetitive sarcasm directed toward the religion of the totally one-dimensional, predictable boor-of-a-preacher tyrant father makes the book much less than it could have been, IMHO. As usual, religion, especially Christian religion gets no respect. It deserves a little more than that. Read Bennett's article and let me know what you think. It's not just imagined hostility. 

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.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Farewell to My New Farmer Friends, For Now

As I report in the April 1 update on my story of a boy needing help with surgery on my blog at JeffLindsay.com, my new friends from Jiangxi Province in China have left the hospital and gone home. The surgery that was provided to the surprise of the family and me, possibly an unnecessary surgery, requires the boy to remain lying down for the next 3 months, according to the surgeon. But to get home, he would need to be moved in and out of taxis, through a train station, and onto a train, where the best the family could find was a "hard sleeper" seat where the boy can lie down, but it's an elevated seat about 5 feet above the ground that people normally climb into. The parents were were hoping to lift up and place him there. He is home now, and from the father's text message appears to be OK, but I'm sure there were some ugly jolts and terrible pain along the way. I hope nothing was damaged.

I saw the family last on Saturday, the day before they took the long train (11 hours) back to their town in Jiangxi Province. Kendra, my wife, saw them the next day when I had to be in Hangzhou, and brought them some pillows, another blanket, and some food that I purchased Saturday evening for them for the long journey home. It was be a painful ride, I’m afraid, for our little young man, Zhiwei, whose upper thigh bone was cut and bolted together in a surgery that may not have been necessary and may only delay the work needed on the knee. But perhaps it’s just what he needed most, I can only hope. There is a chance that the decision to operate that way was actually brilliant and perfect for him. Well, I’m hoping for a miracle. But I’m pretty sure he’s going to need to get that knee rebuilt. And that’s why I’m working to raise more money to be able to bring them back here and get things done right, if possible.

Below are some photos of our visit on Saturday, March 30. They have invited us to come visit them soon in Jiangxi, and we intend to do it. I think we’ll fly into Nanchang and then take a train or taxi from there.

So strange, this chance encounter on the streets of Shanghai, and how it has changed me. It’s been quite an experience, this escalating drama and the process of learning to know, love, and mourn with a poor family family whose parents have a total of 3 years of education between them. Day after day, visiting, talking, experiencing the various cycles of relief and outrage, happiness and anger, resignation and resolve, well, I can feel that it’s changing me a little, changing the way I look at people, money, and society. Somehow, this random encounter has mattered deeply to me. It’s the Chinese concept of yuanfen, a touch of destiny, I think. But perhaps much that actually is chance offers the opportunity to grow and learn and love in ways that will seem like destiny as our efforts help to grow and cultivate crystals of meaning around seeds of chance. Random or not, destiny or not, I feel my life is linked to some distant souls now that are part of who I am, and I must return and maintain this friendship and this responsibility. They are somehow like family how.