Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Our Divine Creator

A renowned scientist testifies of our premortal life, our divine Creator, and the limitless perspective of eternal life.

(from http://lds.org/pages/we-lived-with-god?lang=eng)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The distribution of free will

O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth. For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God.

If people understood true philosophy—eternal philosophy, they would understand that there is an eternity of matter. Astronomers estimate that there is between us and the nearest fixed star matter enough from which to organize millions of earths like this. There is an eternity of matter, and it is all acted upon and filled with a portion of divinity. Matter is to exist; it cannot be annihilated. Eternity is without bounds, and is filled with matter; and there is no such place as empty space. And matter is capacitated to receive intelligence.

Life in various proportions, combinations, conditions, etc., fills all matter. ... There is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, air, the gases, and, in short, in every description and organization of matter, whether it be solid, liquid, or gaseous, particle operating with particle.

The two theories that revolutionized physics in the twentieth century, relativity and quantum mechanics, are full of predictions that defy common sense. Recently, we used three such paradoxical ideas to prove “The Free Will Theorem” (strengthened here), which is the culmination of a series of theorems about quantum mechanics that began in the 1960s. It asserts, roughly, that if indeed we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity.

(emphasis added)

I came across an article about the free will theorem some time ago and it made me think of this passage of scripture and these statements by Brigham Young. Thanks to Kamil for reminding me of the article.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Re: Truth is Truth

I realized that I made the error of not giving any examples in my original post. While it can be a little shady, I think we all have a pretty good idea of what truth is in the context of physics. The idea of religious truth is a bit harder to get everyone to agree on. I kind of cringe at the phrase "religious truth"—what I'm trying to point to is something more than religion, but I'm not sure what phrase to use instead. In an LDS context, "gospel truth" would work pretty well, but I think the best phrase to use is "spiritual truth"—it's not quite right, but it will have to do for now. Spiritual truth, then, is something that's a bit more vague. When I was a missionary in Thailand, almost every day someone, in response to us inviting them to learn about our church, would tell us "ศาสนาทุกศาสนาสอนให้เราเป็นคนดี," which translates as "every religion teaches us to be good people." For these people, all religions are true, because they all teach good moral precepts. I see other people who judge how true a faith is by how well it meshes with their own beliefs and feelings. I hope an example will clear up what I meant to refer to when talking about truth in the context of religion.

In 1820, Joseph Smith was fourteen years old and was living in Palmyra, New York. It was a time of religious revival, and he was frustrated by the competing claims of the various denominations that their teachings were correct. Wanting to know which sect he should join, he turned to the Bible and was struck by the direction given by James to those who lack wisdom: ask God (James 1:5). He went out into the woods to pray. As he prayed, two glorious persons--God and Jesus Christ--appeared before him. After Joseph gained his composure, he asked which sect he should join and was directed that he should not join any of them. Three years later, he again prayed for guidance and was visited by an angel, who told him about a record engraven on golden plates that was buried not far from his home, and four years later he was allowed to retrieve the plates. He subsequently translated the engravings through inspiration and the record was published as the Book of Mormon in 1830. That same year Joseph Smith, acting under divine instruction, established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I believe that I know all of this to be true. From my point of view these events either happened, or they didn't. Either God lives and is a glorified personage, or He doesn't and isn't. Either the only way for us to be freed of our sins and become like God is through the atonement of Jesus Christ, or it isn't. Either the Book of Mormon is an ancient record translated through divine assistance, or it's a fraud. I don't see how it's possible to take the middle ground on any of these, besides ignoring them altogether.

There are going to be varying ways in which people choose to respond to these assertions and integrate them into their lives. While the right way to do so may be somewhat subjective, the truth or falsehood of these statements is still objective. Likewise, just because people follow different religious beliefs doesn't mean that they are all equally true (or, more logically, all equally false). (There are some interesting theological issues that come up with this, but suffice it to say that our faith teaches that God is just and no one will be condemned for following the truth that they have.) Going back to physics, just because two research groups measure different values for a fundamental constant doesn't mean that they're both equally wrong, or that the constant isn't in fact a constant.

I guess part of the point that I was trying to make in the original post is that I believe that there is objective truth about God and about what we must do to achieve our highest potential, and that much of this can be reduced to kernels of truth. The truth of these things is just as real as the truth of physics principles, the only difference being that we can't use particle accelerators and torsion balances to test them—we have to test them spiritually.

A friend of mine has done a much better job than I could do at addressing this and related topics on his blog at http://thinkersaccord.blogspot.com/, so go give it a read.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Truth is Truth

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1994).

I recently came across this quote taken from a book by Carl Sagan, the late eminent astronomer and astrophysicist. It made me start thinking about the "stress[ing of] the magnificence of the universe" within my own faith, and, by association, my faith's relationship with science and how my immersion in the world of science meshes with my personal faith. Pretty sad that I start a blog called "Physics and Faith," and it takes me two years to start approaching that very topic, but it's a meaty issue and I haven't been sure I could do it justice, so I've kept putting it off. I'm now quite sure that I can't (do it justice), but giving it a shot is arguably better than languishing in procrastination. I wish that I could fit everything in that I've wanted to write about, but I think it's better that I address a key concept here: truth.

I am interspersing this essay with scripture references. Some are embedded as part of the narrative, and some are here because they seemed to fit. The stereotypical Mormon talk in church begins with a definition of the term being discussed, usually taken from Merriam-Webster. I turn instead to the Doctrine and Covenants.
And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.

Mention of truth is prevalent in our faith. We speak of knowledge and testimony, and one of my favorite hymns that we sing is titled "Oh Say, What is Truth?"

. . .
Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
'Tis an aim for the noblest desire.
. . .
Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o'er.
Though the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.

(I have to admit that this hymn is a favorite because the tune sounds like a sea shanty, it refers to truth as a treasure, and it is particularly suited to being sung in a gruff voice. I refer to it fondly as the pirate hymn.)

The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.

The concept of truth is inherent in our faith. The genesis of the LDS Church is rooted in the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to know which church was true. If I haven't gotten the point across yet, I really want to stress that, from my view, the importance of truth is reiterated throughout our faith. I don't know if this is particular to our faith. I wish I knew more about how other faiths approach truth.

Knowledge of truth is not just important, it is essential. My colleagues in science and my friends at church would agree with this. We need it, now how do we get it?

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

Here is where I turn to science. I'm having a hard time defining it as I try to write this, so I'll try to approach it by first defining a subset of science with which I am more familiar: physics. In physics we try to determine the laws that govern the interaction of matter and energy. We do this by using the laws we know (mathematics included), along with accepted methods of analysis, to probe existing theories and hypotheses and develop new ones. By extension, the goal of science, in one sense of the word, is to determine the laws that govern nature. In another sense of the word, science is any knowledge gained from the scientific method. Though it doesn't always follow the nicely rote pattern with distinct steps I learned in seventh-grade science class, the scientific method consists of starting with a hypothesis, designing a proper experiment to test it, performing the experiment, and analyzing the results. For a result to be accepted, the experiment must be repeatable: performing the same experiment must produce the same results. A good scientific paper about an experiment describes the experiment and the results so that a reader, were he so inclined and capable, could reproduce the experiment and reproduce the results. Scientists have lost their jobs and their reputations for being too hasty to publish results that were not reproducible or did not follow from good scientific methodology. Conversely, theoretical suggestions that were disregarded by the general community have been validated and accepted due to experimental verification following the scientific method. The scientific method is how we show that truth is indeed truth.

It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.

Science and religion are often erroneously presented as opposites. The question is sometimes asked, "How can one be a scientist and be religious?" I think there are two types of answers that someone could give, depending on how they approach their faith. One would be that they believe that their religion, despite contradictions with science, serves a good purpose—it teaches men to be good and to love their brother, etc. The second response would be that they believe their faith to be true. I fall into the second camp. It would be intellectually dishonest for me to continue to be part of a faith that makes such claims of the importance of truth without me believing that it was true. In fact, I go farther than stating belief. I claim that I know that the teachings of my faith are true.

How did I gain this knowledge? In years past I may have given different summaries of how I came to this knowledge, touching on a few key experiences. I would probably mention one or both of two scriptural passages, both from the Book of Mormon. I recently realized that these passages both invite the reader to engage in the scientific method. In effect, they are short scientific papers in which the author presents some bit of truth and the method by which they came to know it, then invites the reader to follow the procedure to receive the same results.

One passage is in the Book of Alma, Chapter 32, and even uses the word "experiment". This passage is part of an account of Alma, a prophet who is preaching to a group of people called the Zoramites.

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Alma goes on to how to explain how the listeners (and readers) can discover for themselves if what he is preaching is true. After one's desire to believe gives place for his words, and if the words are true, they will begin to "enlighten [one's] understanding," and the desire to believe can progress to faith and then to knowledge. He uses a metaphor of planting a seed, saying that if it is a good seed (or the word is true), it will grow into a tree (knowledge). I'll invite you to go read the rest of the chapter at the link above rather than post it here.

How is this an invitation to apply the scientific method? Alma is presenting us with something that he claims to know to be true, and telling us how to prove it for ourselves. He has published an experimental paper with some extraordinary claims. Unless you have evidence that his experiment is faulty, you must perform the experiment if you want to truly know for yourself if his words are true.

Now I realize that this account is a bit abstract, and it's connection to the scientific method might seem a bit tenuous. The second passage is much more straight-forward, and it is short enough to post here. The passage is from the Book of Moroni, Chapter 10, which is the last chapter and effectively the epilogue of the Book of Mormon. Moroni, the last contributor to the Book of Mormon, is sharing his last words to the reader before sealing up the book.

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

Moroni presents the claim that the Book of Mormon is true and also the experimental method for testing his claim: to ask God with real intent if the Book of Mormon is not true. You might notice that he says specifically to ask if it is not true. Why is it worded this way? I may be off on this, but I think it's because that there is already a basis for believing that the Book of Mormon is true. The Book of Mormon is prefaced by a signed 1830 statement by the Three Witnesses saying that God's voice had declared the truth of it unto them and a statement by the Eight Witnesses that they had seen and handled the golden plates from which it was translated. There are internal textual evidences of the book's veracity, and there are the fruits of the book to serve as further evidence. To those for whom these evidences have aroused a desire to believe, as Alma called it, Moroni presents the method for determining the truth for their own selves. Someone who wants to know whether the book is true must read it, ponder it, and ask God sincerely and with real intent, being committed to accept the answer they will receive, to manifest the truth to them. Moroni promises that if you follow this method, you will receive his results.

This is how I know that God lives and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is truly His church. The wonders of nature are evidences to me that there is a beneficent Creator, but they are not why I know that He lives. The good effects that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has on my life and the good fruits brought forth from the teachings the Book of Mormon strengthen my faith and have an important role in my life, but that is not why I know that they are true. The wise men who serve today as prophets give wise and reassuring counsel, but that is not why I know that God speaks to them. I know these things because I have tested Moroni's claim and experiment, and I have planted the word in my heart, as Alma instructed. I have undertaken their experiments and I have received knowledge for myself, via the Holy Ghost, that God lives, that He is our Father, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and that the Book of Mormon is true.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Making a difference

The other night I did a Google News search for "mormon" and was surprised by the title of an Associated Press article that had just been published. It was titled "Mormon church blames powder hoax on gay activists." I had read the powder hoax coverage pretty closely, and had read the press release from the Church earlier that day (here), which, while it did blame "opponents of Proposition 8" (not "gay activists") for recent vandalism, hadn't even referred to the powder incidents at the two temples. I read through the article, and while it seemed that the reporter was referring to this press release, he did not offer an substantiation of the claim made in his title or in the opening paragraph of the article.

I decided to send an email to the AP, and then, thinking that the email might take a while to make it to the right person, decided to try calling the number on the AP website. It was probably about midnight Eastern time, but someone answered the phone and immediately transferred me when I asked how I would go about reporting an error. My call was picked up by a national news desk editor. I told him what I was calling about, and he told me that he'd edited the article and had asked the reporter point-blank if the Church had actually assigned blame for the powder attacks. He asked if I had access to the Church's statement from that day, and I gave him the URL for the Church Newsroom website. He took down my name and phone number and said he'd take a look at it.

When I ran the same Google search about half an hour later, a new article showed up in place of the old one, with the title "Mormon church condemns gay activists for 'attacks'", and some changed wording in the first paragraph. It's still kind of odd that they put the word "attacks" in quotes, given that it was only used in the press report in the sentence "Attacks on churches and intimidation of people of faith have no place in civil discourse over controversial issues," and not in an actual assertion of blame or condemnation.

While the original article is still accessible on ~1800 web sites, according to Google, the new one is has ~19,000 occurrences, so I'm glad that the semi-fixed one has been used more. Success!

Friday, November 7, 2008

The LDS Church and Section 501(c)(3)

A number of web sites opposed to the passage of Proposition 8 in California, such as http://www.mormonsstoleourrights.com/, are claiming that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has violated its tax-exempt status by supporting the proposition. They quote a provision of the Internal Revenue Code section 510(c)(3) (26 U.S.C. § 501(c)), which says the following organizations qualify as exempt (emphasis added):
Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

The critics of the Church claim that the Church's involvement in the Prop. 8 issue is a substantial activity, and as such, the Church should not qualify for tax exemption. Unfortunately, these critics are misreading the Code. What it says is that "no substantial part" of the organization's activities can be involved in influencing legislation. There is a huge difference between what the Code says and what the critics want it to say. Anyone familiar with the Church's activities throughout the world should recognize that the involvement of the Church in the Prop. 8 issue is minuscule compared with even its non-ecclesiastic projects, such as humanitarian work and education.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

LDS Newsroom - Mistakes in the News: Associated Press Errors More Than Semantics


This recent commentary posted on the Newsroom website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really zings the AP and one reporter in particular for "fail[ing] to provide readers with a clear and entirely accurate story." Here's one excerpt:
The article later states that Chad Hardy, the calendar’s creator, was excommunicated by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for producing this year's calendar. However, Dobner was not present at the time of Hardy’s excommunication, nor did she participate in deliberations leading to this action and consequently can’t definitively draw such conclusions. Indeed, an article by the Associated Press published 14 July 2008 by the Deseret News reads, “regional church leaders who called the meeting raised three concerns with Hardy during the meeting: the calendar and his failure to keep some church covenants.”

I haven't found any reaction to this yet in the media or from the AP, but I'm interested to see if anything comes of it.