In Defense of Ben Carson – A “State of Mind”

I’m under no illusions that Ben Carson is the most eloquent of speakers. He’s said some fairly knuckleheaded things, particularly throughout the course of his presidential campaign.

But his latest comments don’t deserve the response he’s received, particularly when they’re backed by plenty of research.

Continue reading “In Defense of Ben Carson – A “State of Mind””

LDS Theology, Creation, and The Problem of Evil

A few weeks ago, I posted a video on Facebook with a few short sentences relating how I thought the argument for the existence of God based on creation ex nihilo was lacking, and how it exacerbates the philosophical problem of evil. I’d like to follow up on that.

This answer didn’t blow me away.

The ancient Greeks saw corruptibility of the body and the carnal state of man as wholly incompatible with any conception of the divine. The fact that the material world must inevitably corrode and die was viewed as the antipathy of all things eternal. Modern arguments essentially state the same: that any being who wants to be “eternal” must exist outside the systems of the material world in which the laws nature rule and entropy ensures deterioration. God is a kind of magician staring into the crystal ball of our universe but is essentially unaffected by it, and he created the ball in the first place. This answer was a very Greek way of looking at things.

The Early Christian Fathers, prior to the large influence of Greek philosophies about the corruptibility of the body, had different views than post-Nicene thinkers. The doctrine of theosis – of man becoming like God – was far more widely discussed. Along with this idea, the ideas of the exaltation of the body as divine in and of itself and that God was in possession of such a divine body were also more common.

Creation from Nothing Means the Creation of Evil

Modern physics describes a universe in which matter is neither created nor destroyed, but is converted to different forms with accompanying energy production or use. Even the Big Bang theory asserts that all matter was infinitesimally compressed at one point in the past.

Joseph Smith’s metaphysics not only follow modern physics, but also the traditions of the Early Christian Fathers. Joseph Smith taught that spirit itself is of a more pure, unobservable (to the mortal eye) form of matter, and that there is no such thing as immaterial matter. He describes spirit as an incorruptible material, and of the perfected body as the ultimate vehicle of happiness. He also makes the claim that matter and energy are not destroyed, nor created, but that they are preserved.

Joseph Smith describes a God who is, in his physical reality, in time, space, and matter, but who, by mastering all natural laws, transcends time, space, and matter. Just as we transcend the law of gravity through the mastery of higher mathematics and physics, God transcends laws of the universe by his perfect mastery of all its properties. Such mastery allows him to insert himself in time, view potential outcomes, and communicate with us through extraordinary means via the Holy Ghost, or even through what Joseph described as “intelligence.”

The main problem with a God who creates the universe out of nothing, as is described in this video, is that it sets God’s physicality, as described by early Christians, as a problem. Anything in the physical world must be corruptible, so if God created it all from nothing, he did so with the exact specifications of the current universe in mind as part of his grand plan, including the cataclysmic events resulting from the organization of our planet and solar systems. Indeed, every natural disaster could be viewed as “an act of God” in that he designed the system to be unstable.

In regards to human beings, if God created us from nothing, he must have created our spirits as they are–endowed with our personalities, including our ability to do evil, and our weaknesses that make evil action possible. He must have designed us, like the universe, with fundamental flaws of reason and passion that would set us on a course to do the very evil he commands against in scripture. That pins our sins on God because he created us with evil in our hearts, to eventually sin and fall short. In essence, he created evil by creating us out of nothing (as evil didn’t exist before), then offered Christ to suffer for us because of his decision to create us this way, and then takes the glory to himself. This is a brief version of the “philosophical problem of evil” that plagues most of Christianity.

Anthony Flew said it this way in 1955:

“We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe.”

Creatio ex materia

Hebrews 11:3: “… we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.”

This gives way to Joseph Smith’s direction that

“The word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize–the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos–chaotic matter.”

This is an essential point and one that sets LDS theology apart in a way that allows us to find peace amidst the philosophical problem of evil.

Co-eternal Existence

The Lord says in Doctrine and Covenants 93 that we were in the beginning with God–that is, there is an eternal part of us that also transcends time, space, and matter–called intelligence–and that we have always had personalities independent of God’s will, and so our agency is perfectly ours. Evil is a naturally occurring phenomenon, just as gravity and chaos are naturally occurring. Evil presents us with the opportunity for moral agency.

God’s omnipotence is bounded by the natural laws he follows and has mastered. God, therefore, organized the universe as we know it, transcends the laws of time, space, and matter, organized our spirits out of already existing eternal personality coupled with pure matter, and makes it possible for us to overcome any evil we encounter in the universe that we imbibe within us or weakness of personality by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ so that we, too, may transcend these laws and enjoy the same state of perfection that he enjoys. Just as God creates order from chaos, so too does he create growth, sophistication, and  perfection of form and existence to primitive beings like us.

Joseph Smith’s explanation of creation, in short, solves the philosophical problem of evil while maintaining a God who is not subject to the constraints of our understanding of the physical universe. 

In the same section, Christ tells us that he is sharing this information so that we may know “what you worship.” In other words, so that we can understand the God we worship, he’s telling us these things.

In responding to the question “Where did God come from?”, this response in the video answers the initial question in a way that brings up a worse question.

The LDS response to “Where did God come from?” is that the question is analogous to asking where the beginning of a circle is. Once a circle is closed, there is no tractable beginning, because we have entered dimensionality in which the question is no longer suitable. God’s existence in the physical universe is one in which he can be inserted into any dimensional point at any time. Once that is achieved, how does a linear conception of time reconcile the origins of a non-linear actor in time? The answer is a question.

For a more detailed treatment of the history of this philosophical problem of evil and how people have struggled with it, I recommend David Paulsen’s excellent piece on it:

Hipsters and the Dalai Lama

hipster dalai lama.jpg
Amit Shimoni* ; @AmitShimoniIllustration

The podcast and audio discussion library of the world has expanded the last few years to a ridiculous degree. Anyone can have a podcast on any topic, be it Denzel Washington or the Supreme Court of the United States.

That’s why truly reflective live events are so enamoring to me.

I was listening to a recent episode of On Being, which was recorded with a live audience at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

An interesting point was brought up, reflecting a question on sweatshops that many economists (in this case Paul Krugman) pose: what is the alternative to a sweatshop for a developing nation? Often times, it’s starvation in the countryside. People choose to work in poor conditions because the alternative is even worse. Granted, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have sensible labor standards, but we should also be careful not to force an American conception of comfortable labor onto countries who may not be able to afford it in order to assuage our self-righteousness.

Continue reading “Hipsters and the Dalai Lama”

Ideological Bullying and Political Selection in Academia


In my recent discussion of ideological homogeneity in academia, I pointed out that Jonathan Haidt and the folks at Heterodox Academy share some rather poignant concerns about the sharp leftward shift in ideology in academia, particularly in the social sciences.

As a glutton for punishment, I, as an economically centrist, socially slightly right-of-center white man, am set to join the fray. My father had an interesting experience in his Marriage and Family Therapy doctoral program in the early 2000s. At the time, he wasn’t a young semi-professional fresh out of an undergraduate or master’s degree. He was inching into his 50s and had already raised 6 children to responsible adulthood, with 4 more left at home. Yet despite his life experience and intellect, the ideological bullying he endured while at Purdue left a deep impression, one which I either consciously or subconsciously noticed and internalized.

Continue reading “Ideological Bullying and Political Selection in Academia”

Unquestioned Results and Academic Groupthink

JS Mill
John Stuart Mill

As someone venturing into academia, particularly into academic research about public policy (policy, not politics), I’ve had to come face to face with some brief facts about the environment I’m about to enter.

  1. Self-selection into academia (and especially social science) tends to attract politically liberal people (more on that later).
  2. Underlying worldview and values play a major role in what research questions are asked and how they are asked.
  3. When results arise, the prevailing intuition of reviewers and discussants may create a false sense of consensus.

Case in point: a paper that was widely circulated and reported originally found that political conservatives exhibited personality traits linked to authoritarianism, less social desirability, and psychoticism. This analysis wasn’t even a central finding of the paper, but it got a lot of attention.

It turns out the opposite was true, and the authors simply didn’t realize their political scale was backward.

Not only did it breeze past reviewers, it also took a number of years for–wait for it– a graduate student to identify the errors because the results were so at odds with the literature.

What is sad is that the scale wasn’t the only issue plaguing the analysis.

As Andrew Gelman told Retraction Watch:

“I don’t find this paper at all convincing, indeed I’m surprised it was accepted for publication by a leading political science journal.  The causal analysis doesn’t make any sense to me, and some of the things they do are just bizarre, like declaring that correlations are ‘large enough for further consideration’ if they are more than 0.2 for both sexes.  Where does that come from?  The whole thing is a mess.”

What allowed for such a “mess” to go unnoticed? Assuming no ill will on the part of the researchers, I can only say that the intermediate findings may have confirmed an understanding common to the ideological identity of the prevalent group, leaving very few to deeply question the results. After all, an academic observation that could be construed as insulting (I’m sure someone, somewhere would think so) injures no one if so few (or no one) in the room identifies with the target group; it’s hard to think there’s a problem. No one has a reason to raise an eyebrow.

Such groupthink appears to be a core reason for Jonathan Haidt, et al’s elevated criticism of American academia having made such a strong leap leftward over the past two decades.

As they quote John Stuart Mill:

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

Throw That Grenade and Walk Away

This is an old article, but a good demonstration of a point I’ve repeated over and over.

You’ll note that the actual study here does not mention causality and provides only preliminary evidence of even a tentative correlation. The findings are observational, not numeric.

Yet media outlets have assigned wildly consequential weight to the results.

Could marijuana cause brain damage?
This study certainly doesn’t lock that door. But it also doesn’t really open it either. It’s more like standing at a closed door and smelling something on the other side. You’re not sure what it is, but you have a hunch it may be worth the effort to open the door.

Remember, with the exception of extremely novel work, nearly every study is a part of a larger literature. Knowing at least a part of that literature is key to being informed on these issues. When new results arise, they need to be understood in the context of the literature.

Sadly, the media can’t seem to handle the responsibility of accurately reporting on hard and social sciences. That is a real shame.

“You had one job…”

Because there is a very low level of accountability, media members can simply throw whatever grenades they want and walk away in an informational war zone.

The Academics of Faith: An Analogy

One criticism of Christianity generally goes like this:

If God is omnipotent and can overcome even death, why does he not reveal himself to us? If he does exist and does not reveal himself, is that not cruel? And if he is there but cannot reveal himself, is he then not limited and is therefore a god unworthy of worship? Critics then come to a conclusion that either God does not exist, or he is not a god who demands much attention.

In short, it is often asked why God does not reveal himself in all power in an overwhelmingly persuasive way. That is, why does he allow ambiguity and leave it to an individual choice of faith and reasoning?

If anyone has been an academic or has tried to understand the basics of how to teach another human being, they realize that in order for students to truly progress, they cannot be told what to think, but must be shown how to think for themselves. The best professors don’t bludgeon their students with demonstrations of their intellectual prowess in support of their own conclusions, but direct the students to study the available course materials, consider the evidence they encounter in lectures, struggle through their experience with any particular concept, and then reach a conclusion. He allows them the intellectual freedom to do so–what we might call liberty.

The act of searching out answers then becomes a formative factor in a student’s future abilities to be constructive in the face of uncertainty. When the student then reaches the same conclusion as the teacher, a deeper sense of trust in the method and in the professor’s mentorship becomes the result. When ambiguities arise further in the student’s life, they then are well-equipped with the ability to cope.

So it is with our spiritual lives. In my faith, we believe in the inspiration (though not the inerrant nature) of scripture and in modern prophets (such as Moses). We believe in personal revelation through the instrumentation of the Holy Ghost.

One core purpose in life is to study the available materials (scriptures), synthesize what we hear in the lectures (the words of the prophets), and review our lecture notes (our own experiences with the Spirit), and do our own homework (making decisions and viewing the results) in the hopes of reaching the same conclusion as the Master Teacher. When we do come to that conclusion on our own, we begin to trust in Him and in the methods of prayer, study, and faith. When ambiguities arise in life, we are then equipped to faithfully cope. Some students study more than others. It is incumbent upon us to be the students who study deeply.

In the eternities, ambiguities arise as well. God deals with disappointment too. I’m sure he has had his fair share of disappointments in us. Luckily, he has mastered the art of patient teaching.

But when we become the teachers, we will know how it’s done and how to place our trust in our students. Developing such skills now lends itself to our benefit–even that far into the future.

God knows that. God can reveal himself when he wants as he is still omnipotent. He is not limited to our postmodern sense of entitlement. His choice to remain unseen most of the time is not a show of callousness, but a teaching technique designed for our long-term interests, upon which he is always focused.

What more could we ask of a teacher?