JT’s Choosing Well (or, Digging for Treasure)

17 Oct

I submitted this audio story to the Mormon Expression essay contest in April 2012 under the title “JT’s Choosing Well.” It was not aired. Here I give it an alternative title, “Digging for Treasure.”

This narrative began with the idea of an 11-year old boy’s encounter with a teenage Mormon neighbor that was followed, after 20 years of separation, by another potentially life-changing encounter.  In the process I re-imagine a slice of Joseph Smith’s story set in modern times that becomes a “parable in first person voice.”

The original title was intended as a double entendre. “Well” can be taken for the noun – a hole dug into the ground to obtain water – or as an adverb that qualifies JT’s acts of choosing. Under this title the narrative draws attention to JT – the non-Mormon.

Under the second title, “Digging for Treasure,” the narrative draws attention to the Joseph-like character, and presses on the more important “truth” I was trying to communicate. If I had to do it over again, I would have given this piece that single title. However, I started by identifying with more with JT and responding to the two experiences described.  I now see the greater weight could be placed on what JT was responding to – and that is also the bigger story.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/10saenkggb0g8z0/ME%20Essay%20JT%27s%20Choosing%20Well.mov

This was my second attempt at composing fiction. I think it was the short form – the contest limited the essays to 10 minutes – that gave me license to try. My first attempt was my submission to the Mormon Expression Essay Contest one year earlier – also 10 minutes.  That one was called “Walter’s Journal” and did get aired. I blogged on it earlier. It can be accessed from here,

https://wordpress.com/post/33199559/132

or at the Mormon Expression podcast website here,

http://mormonexpression.com/2011/09/06/155c-annual-essay-contest-part-3/

(It begins at 52 minutes, 37 seconds.)

“Walter’s Journal was also a parable in first person voice. In it I reconfigured some personal experiences with Mormonism through an alter ego, Walter, a barely high school educated welder and school bus driver.  Walter and I share similar personalities, sensibilities and virtues, though he displays them in greater abundance and without compromise. Where we differ I find more to self-criticize and feel at times I wouldn’t mind trading places with him. Indeed, that’s what I was doing in composing this.

Reading the Hebraism Writing on the _ alls

12 Oct

One apologetic argument for the Book of Mormon is textual evidence of Hebraisms, linguistic constructions that reflect the original ancient Hebrew langauge of its prophets. Similar arguments have been made for the Mormon Temple endowment ritual, despite its striking similarities to the Masonic Temple induction ritual [1]

That being the case, one Hebraism that is not found in either is the artful use of tattoos to symbolize sacred covenants. The following audio excerpt is from the Biblical Scholar Robert M. Price’s podcast The Bible Geek, which follows a simple question-and-answer format. In this instance the listener’s question addressed the book of Revelation, chapter 19, verse 16:

Rev 19:16 And he hath on his vesture [robe] and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

Here is the two-minute clip.  Note that toward the end Price elucidates the “rod of iron” metaphor (or euphemism) that plays so prominent a role in LDS theology.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/13817676/Bible%20Geek%2C%20Rev%2016-19%2010%204%202014%20copy.mp3

Now, if Joseph had put this into the LDS endowment ritual, that would have been impressive evidence. [2]

[1] The similarities are explained by asserting the Mason’s inherited a corrupted version of the true ancient endowment.

[2]  Genesis 24: 2-3 And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh; I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, …

An Abrahamic Re-Test and Overdue Homework.

11 Oct

Abe & Joe

Back in February of 2012 I posted an anti-apologetic response to a FairMormon podcast episode featuring Dr. Valerie Hudson who discussed “Polygamy as an Abrahamic Sacrifice.” [1], [2]  I recently discovered I had “published” two posts, one an earlier draft of the other – so I just deleted the earlier one.  I also returned to the FairMormon podcast website to look at my comment again. There were a sufficient number of distinct ideas, as well as a response from Steve Densley, a FairMormon apologist, that I thought to paste them here. A bit of self-indulgence for sure, but Mormon polygamy is such a juicy target that I can’t help re-visiting it.

There … I’ve just pasted them under the “Fair use.” Now I’ll read them more closely and add commentary as motivated by my emotional responses (what other motivators are there?) that press me to think rationally (or so I hope). The commentary will be italicized, bolded, blue, [bracketed] and …         

[indented]

JTurn 22 February 2012 at 8:05 pm

This podcast afforded me the occasion to reread D&C 132 in light of this Abrahamic covenant perspective.

Among other bits, I am puzzled by the following verse that seems to point to the core of Dr. Hudson’s argument.

D&C 132, 50: I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.

This suggests that just as Abraham’s ram in the thicket provided him an escape from having to murder Isaac, Joseph should have been provided with an escape from having to consummate his various sexual congresses over the span of a decade or more. Either there is a fundamental asymmetry here or Joseph failed the test.

[I am interested in the symmetries and asymmetries that arise between faith-centered supernatural worldviews and philosophical naturalistic worldviews. This has become central to my critical comparisons of the two. For instance, many apologetic arguments leverage a basic epistemological asymmetry in their favor. Mormons, for instance, claim an additional source of knowledge (revelation) bestowed by the "Gift of the Holy Ghost" an accessed through confirmatory feelings or perceptions that can be distinguished from emotions.  But many apologists leverage a claim to symmetry. They attack naturalism as being just as faith-based as they are. This latter strategy is an obviously weak, if not self-defeating, defense.]

Close your eyes and imagine holding a knife to your child’s throat, ready to slice it open because God commanded it. Seriously, experience this for a minute. If you are a faithful Mormon, own it.

[I admit, I did not do this myself]

Now, at least if you are a typical man, close your eyes and imagine the devoted attention of attractive young women living under your roof with God commanding you to take them to bed.

[I will not admit that I did this myself]

These are fundamentally different kinds of tests. The bias required not see this is profound.

Thus is just the beginning of what I find deeply disturbing about D&C 132, which I would not have revisited if I was not somewhat first disturbed by Dr, Hudson’s argument.

[At the time my daughter was a few weeks away from getting entering into "celestial" marriage. But saying "deeply" was a rhetorical exaggeration.]

An interesting bit did jump out that did not register with me before. Verse 51 points to a counter Abrahamic test that the Lord (through Joseph I presume) offered Emma.

51: Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.

The obvious difference is that Emma was offered an “escape,” again through Joseph.

[Evidently, I wasn't through.  Here's round two composed that same evening, well past my bedtime.]

JTurn 22 February 2012 at 10:14 pm

Has Dr. Hudson thought through the implications of basing one’s (or a group’s) moral philosophy on Abrahamic tests? Particularly when they are administered through admittedly imperfect men who may be found to have had problems distinguishing true doctrine from mere teachings?

["Moral philosophy" isn't the correct characterization. Perhaps "moral grounding" is better. The point is that plural marriage was instituted by revelation as necessary for exaltation - which makes it central to the Mormon Gospel of Jesus Christ. What this has to do with the Atonement is anyone's guess.  Perhaps the Atonement is just about salvation (eternal life), but exaltation (celestial life) requires passing "Abrahamic" tests of faith, which is, to my mind, ludicrous. ]

As an aside, the expediencies of keeping Mormonism viable in American society have led to reversals in some of its doctrine – qua policies – such as the Adam-as-God doctrine and the priesthood/endowment ban on people of African descent. This has entailed discounting the revelations of prior “Prophets, Seers and Revelators” as high up as Brigham Young. Could Joseph Smith be next in line? That, could happen only out of desperation. And yet, there seems to be a movement in this direction.  It’s taking the form of an ever-increasing emphasis on Jesus and marketing Mormonism as “Christian too” – a zero-sum game for air-time between Joseph and Jesus that will eventually have Joseph teetering on the edge of the memory hole and then, perhaps in 100 years, letting him fall in. ]

Imagine 1000 religions with 1000 prophets all invoking God’s will to practice moral exceptionalism to promote their ambitions or to confront internal or external stresses. But wait, this IS human history – which hasn’t been pretty.

[This has to be the strongest argument against revealed religion. It was cogently made by one of the most preeminent philosophers living today, Philip Kitcher [3]. What is so dumbfounding to me is how little purchase this has on the mind of believers – including my own. This was a fact that stared me in the face for a long time without registering until other reasons – emotional provoking experiences – made it visible and useful for personal justification. How’s that for honesty?]

In my opinion the world would be much better off if every group would accept the moral obligation of dialing back their sense of such privileged insight in recognition of the mischief it breeds in the other 999.

Finally, has Dr. Hudson thought through the implications of how D&C 132 inextricably ties celestial exaltation to being willing to pass Abrahamic tests? [Does] this place Abrahamic tests at the center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Is this really the corner that Mormonism must [paint] the Gospel into in order to preserve its faith in its own legitimacy? Is this need to preserve Joseph Smith’s authority Mormonism’s mess of pottage? Isn’t Joseph Smith a dead prophet who can now be superseded by a living prophet?

[What a heavy-handed self-righteous string of rhetorical questions! ]

Now, let’s read Steve Densley’s response to my comments. Steve is a Vice President of FairMormon, according to Wikipedia.]

SteveDensleyJr Post author23 February 2012 at 10:28 am

No analogy is perfect. There is always a difference between two objects in an analogy, otherwise, it would not be an analogy but would be a comparison of identical objects. Therefore, as in all analogies, it is possible to poke holes in this particular analogy. Therefore, the challenge is not in demonstrating that the two objects are not identical; they never are in an analogy. The challenge is in seeking to understand the ways in which they are the same. However, note that it is not Dr. Hudson that is making the analogy. She merely identifies an analogy that is drawn by God as He speaks to Joseph Smith.

["Fair" enough. But I don't think I claimed that Hudson is making that analogy. However, she is arguing for it - and it's the argument that I am pushing back on.]

So how can we reconcile the apparent problems? One way is to extend our perspective on this analogy beyond this life. While the ram in the thicket for Abraham appeared almost immediately, for those who were called upon to practice polygamy, perhaps the ram in the thicket is not meant to appear until the next life.

[This seems like a gratuitous speculation given to "save the appearances."  Any problem can be swept into the next life - the argument is akin to "god acts in mysterious ways."  And what are the implications of this?  Does it create even more problems when one tries to think it through? This gives me something to think about. ]

Also, while it may seem that for a man, marrying multiple women is not comparable to being asked to sacrifice your son, I can imagine that for a woman, the pain of sharing her husband with another woman is not wholly dissimilar to being asked to sacrifice a child.

[Is there any suggestion that the purpose of polygamy was to test women more than men? Was it God’s idea to add a layer of “sacred loneliness” to the fate of “in sorrow [they] shal[l] bring forth children”?  Is this argument another misogynistic by-product of male-privilege seeking to preserve it patriarchal hegemony?

As for the man, remember that Joseph Smith was highly reluctant to enter into polygamous relationships.

[Says who? Says Joseph? Was part of that reluctance his fear of being destroyed by a sword wielding angel – or was that ludicrous claim aimed at overcoming the reluctance of a young woman. [4]]

He clearly realized that polygamy would bring serious challenges to the saints and to him personally if it was publicly known that he was practicing polygamy.

[So did Bill Clinton when he had "sex with that woman."  He too thought he could get away with it - or couldn't help himself. Sometimes danger is part of the thrill of the doing, which some are addicted to. Sometimes people are blinded by overconfidence born of high status and  power. It is quite common.]

Ultimately, it seems that polygamy, at least in part, led to his death. In anticipation of the significant challenges and sacrifices that would follow the practice of polygamy, I can imagine that Joseph Smith viewed his entrance into the practice with fear, trepidation and even as a great sacrifice.

[Well, Steve is welcome to “imagine” anything he likes. But this strikes me as sanguine question-begging about Joseph’s thoughts and feelings and, given the facts of his behavior, amounts to special pleading. The more plausible inference – the inference based on the principle of analogy with the psychological study of human behavior – is that Joseph presented the characteristics of a sociopath.  There is documentary evidence that could support many of these:

Egocentricity – Callousness – Impulsivity – Conscience defect – Exaggerated sexuality – Excessive boasting – Risk taking – Inability to resist temptation – Antagonistic – deprecating attitude toward the opposite sex – Lack of interest in bonding with a mate.

With respect to “wives” being a reward for practicing polygamy, it does not make sense that if Joseph Smith agrees to practice polygamy that he would literally be given multiple fathers and mothers in this world. Yet, read literally, that is what the verse says. So it seems that the verse is meant to be read figuratively. In that light, multiples wives is not a literal reward any more than multiple fathers and mothers would be. The phrase “I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundredfold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children” seems to simply be a rhetorical flourish meaning that the reward for Joseph would be great.

[Meant to be figurative? Doesn’t inserting “wives” being “lands” and “children” make wives figurative too?  And what do we make of Joseph being told he would receive these things “in this world”? And most important, Joseph was putting his “rhetorical flourish” on the lips of Jesus. Jesus is the one who is supposed to be speaking here. What could Steve have been thinking?  By what criterion does he decide that a problematical scripture is figurative?  More sanguinity. Indeed, there are other problems with this and the surrounding verses that I did not address [5])

 Finally, with regard to celestial exaltation being tied to an Abrahamic test, see:

http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/sperry-symposium-classics-old-testament/abrahamic-test

[My reply to Steve.]

JTurn 23 February 2012 at 2:42 pm

Thanks for the response Steve. I hope you can leave this discussion open for a several more days to give me time to think on what you wrote, to listen again to this interview, to review Genesis 16, D&C 132, and Jacob 2, and to read this piece on Abrahamic tests – all before reply and offering additional comment which are now only loosely formed intuitions. This is a very important topic to me. I have two daughters, one who will be married in the D.C. temple this June and another who is a freshman at BYU.

 [I admit that I did not follow-up as I said.  I don’t feel comfortable with that, though I was sincere at the time. This remains overdue homework put back on my to-do list. Be ready to call me out on this if you read this in a few months and I still haven’t read the “Sperry Symposium Classic” Steve referenced above – but given me a couple of months.

References:

[1] The FAIR Examination podcast is here:  http://blog.fairmormon.org/2012/02/15/fair-examination-9-polygamy-as-an-abrahamic-sacrifice-dr-valerie-hudson/

[2] My blog post is here: http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/mormon-polygamy-as-an-abrahamic-test/

[3] See http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/the-brilliant-philip-kitcher/

[4] In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith , by Todd M. Compton, pages 80-81

[5] Let’s take a look at the D&C 132 reference:

51. Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.

[So, it seems Jesus commanded Joseph to offer Emma the opportunity to have sex (ostensibly with William Law) as her own the Abrahamic test. But then he intervenes, and has Joseph scrap the test. This all so ludicrous.]

52.  And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God.

[Interesting. It seems not all of Joseph's polygamous wives were pure - even though they were.   Was Joseph being deceived in marrying them?  Was Jesus when he picked them out for him? Were they ever destroyed?  More craziness.]

53. For I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice; and I give unto my servant Joseph that he shall be made ruler over many things; for he hath been faithful over a few things, and from henceforth I will strengthen him.

[One has to suppose that this refers to the next life because Joseph was living on borrowed time at this point.]

54. And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

[This is serious stuff.  Jesus is threatening Emma with destruction if she doesn't get in line.  Yes, Mormonism is just as Christian as any other sect. ]

55. But if she will not abide this commandment, then shall my servant Joseph do all things for her, even as he hath said;

[What the hell does this mean? Is this a typo? Does he mean "if she will abide this commandment? That would make sense.  How did this get through the divinely inspired editorial process.]

and I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.

[The issue isn't so much that it is figurative, or a "rhetorical flourish." It's that Joseph Smith is caught up in a grandiose delusion using Jesus as his ventriloquist dummy.]

56. And again, verily I say, let mine handmaid forgive my servant Joseph his trespasses; and then shall she be forgiven her trespasses, wherein she has trespassed against me; and I, the Lord thy God, will bless her, and multiply her, and make her heart to rejoice.

[Jesus: "Do what I say. If you don't I'll destroy you. If you do I'll make your heart rejoice. You are free to choose.]

Nibley Abuse

4 Oct

Last night, while hot-wings heartburn kept me from sleep, I listened to the 5th installment of John’s Dehlin’s interview of Brent Metcalf on the Mormon Stories podcast. [1] . Toward the end Brent discussed Hugh Nibley’s “bewildering” and “grossly wrong” analysis of the Book of Abraham documents. I couldn’t help feeling anger rise with the stomach acid. I’ve let these feelings vent before [2]. I shot off the following comment:

“I never knew Hugh Nibley personally, but he intellectually betrayed and emotionally abused me as a young man. His scholarly pretense – his dishonest pious BS – robbed me of a lot of good years – perhaps a better life, for me and others.

Mormon apologetics is not a victimless crime. Those who engage in it ought to figure out who they are really trying to convince and defend. When they do, perhaps they’ll muster enough humility, compassion, and respect for others to keep their demonstrably implausible belief-preserving faith-props to themselves.

But then I think, “How can such apparently intelligent people be so besotted with this gold-bible-baloney fallout that they weave such convoluted tangles of nonsense?” It’s really disconcerting – could I too be making no sense? What a freakish hall a mirrors humans create. I’m going for a walk in the woods and just spend some time in the moment.”

And so, I’m off to the woods – where I will also likely think about Dad.  I’ve been getting struck by such waves all week.

****************************

October 8, 2014

Reading over the above knee-jerk – and now hyperbolic sounding – response, I’m remembering how I turned to Nibley in 1984 in an attempt to grasp something true in Mormonism when that truth wasn’t being delivered by the spirit – but was being choked off by my experience in the temple – but still hoped for because of the marriage connected with that experience. I wanted to make it all good. My older brother spoke of the temple ceremony being truly ancient and that was why it seemed strange.  And then so many people that I respected praised Nibley’s genius – and I still implicitly trusted all Mormons – we were on the side of real truth – we “didn’t have to believe anything that wasn’t true.” Thus, I conflated our shared desires with reality. The concept of delusion never entered my mind. I guess that’s how it works.

I knew next to nothing of scholarship then, with my critical thinking being so contextualized. My scientific problem-solving skills were honed by mere textbook problem-solving. When I tried to get through one of Nibley books – Abraham in Egypt – I remember first getting bogged down – then feeling daunted – years away from understanding his esoteric references. So I slipped into the expedience of second-guessing myself and trusting his authority.  It was too much work – and too unpleasant – I would just let it ride.  But I smelled a problem. Letting it ride is a far cry from developing confidence. 

I trusted Nibley like I trusted the authors of my advanced mathematics texts. I would defer to both when I couldn’t scale their pages alone, leaving the later chapters untouched. Two of a kind? Wrong. The significance of one book being published by John Wiley & Sons and the other by Deseret Books did not register. 

We sure can pay for our ignorant assumptions, trust and wishful thinking.

51ClxTTKWFL._AA160_

*************************

October 12, 2014

I enjoyed a short conversation with a friend and colleague yeserday in which I shared the the thoughts in the last two paragraphs of my October 8 entry immediately above.  This morning he sent me a review of Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955) written by the British biologist and Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar (1915-1987). [3], [4]  It struck a chord.

Here is the opening paragraph:

The Phenomenon of Man

A Review by Sir Peter Medawar

“There are no summits without abysses.”

“When the end of the world is mentioned, the idea that leaps into our minds is always one of catastrophe.”

“Life is born and propagates itself on the earth as a solitary pulsation.”

“In the last analysis the best guarantee that a thing should happen is that it appears to us as vitally necessary.”

This little bouquet of aphorism[s], each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity … some reviewers hereabouts called it the Book of the Year — one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.

Medawar goes on to describe how the book as

“… written in an all but totally unintelligible style, and this is construed as prima-facie evidence of profundity. .

He sums as follows.

“I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend … to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable; but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.”

Fare well Hugh Nibley.

[1] http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/?s=hugh+nibley&submit=Search

[2] http://mormonstories.org/brent-metcalfe-mormon-apologetics-life-after-mormonism/comment-page-1/#comment-515092

[3] http://archive.org/stream/ThePhenomenonOfMan/phenomenon-of-man-pierre-teilhard-de-chardin_djvu.txt

[4] Medawar’s review: http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Medawar/phenomenon-of-man.html

Seven Hundred and Twenty One Taps

22 Sep

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dad had a stroke this morning in the ward he now attends with my oldest brother and his family. He was taken by ambulance to a local ICU. He’s been unconscious or semiconscious since. My brother called me with the news at 7 pm and added that his funeral will likely be Saturday.

Dad is 91, an army veteran who spent the duration of World War II in Honolulu, monitoring Japanese radio signals by night and teaching business math in the city high school by day. When he shipped out from San Diego he didn’t know where he’d end up. Some of his buddies continued west to great danger, injury, or death.

My next older brother married a girl whose mother was native Hawaiian. When our families first got together the mother pulled out photos from her childhood in Honolulu. One was taken at a USO show in 1944. Several rows from the front sat Dad, a 21-year-old GI waiting for the entertainment to start.

My first thought after hanging up the phone with my brother was a memory of playing badminton with Dad in our backyard across a clothes line hung between two decrepit apples trees – the remnants of an orchard that preceded the construction of our house in the 1880s. Immediately behind him was the barbed wire fence that separated our yard from a small herd of dairy cows that often sauntered over when we came out. Our object was always simply to keep a rally going. Thirty-five, fifty-seven, eighty something strikes. We’d start soon after the sun dipped behind the distant hill and the wind died down.

On one particular summer evening we experienced the rally – seven hundred and twenty one strikes – no, merely taps. I think we both knew we’d never beat that record – or even care to commit to some indeterminate number of 3-, 4-, or 6-minute rally-failures in the attempt. We stopped playing soon after. We played catch more often. Dad could throw a pretty good knuckleball. It would hop in mid-flight. He stopped the spin by digging in his fingernails, which left tiny cuts in my ball. I wish I saved one of those balls.

Dad developed alcoholism when I was seven years old and continued struggling – or “slipping” – through my college years. That added a valence of anxiety to my growing up, and likely contributed more than I realize to my positive response to Mormonism. I rarely had friends over to the house – though that was partly due to living over five miles from the nearest. We all lived this family secret that certainly got out in our small town, though I was never teased or tormented about it. There was only one time I experienced deep embarrassment in public.

Dad was a quiet and gentle alcoholic. He drank alone and mostly at home when we were away. But he was, first and foremost, a quiet and gentle man – an introvert. He could have been a good friend – the type of person who could have sustained one or two close friendships if circumstances allowed. I remember overhearing one of his Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) partners saying how much he enjoyed car-pooling with him to the meetings – that he always made interesting conversation. Dad hung onto his job, though he never made much progress in it. He finally stopped drinking – apparently without a full commitment to the AA program. I feel that was his greatest accomplishment. He’s been sober over 30 years.

Mom sacrificed the most – and carried the weight of Dad’s illness for us. Despite this tremendous burden she was, I now recognize, deeply satisfied with who she was and in the giving of her self to others. She kept us all together and feeling loved and normal. She went back to work after fifteen years. We depended on her income for the needed comforts – like ice cream sundaes at Friendly’s, or that three-day trip to the beach without Dad, and new carpets for our bedrooms. She lifted this weight off the major bills. I never felt the threat of real insecurity. We lived very modestly. Christmas was socks, underwear, a baseball glove. All of us are pretty frugal to this day. We just don’t need stuff.

Mom loved her four children and created opportunities, especially for me, her youngest. With the prospect of being the last child at home sharing the burden of keeping Dad going – and seeing me tending toward social withdrawal as a high school freshman – she thought about boarding schools. Two months after its application deadline, we visited one about 45 minutes from home. Without appointment she wrangled me an interview. I was just going along – I had no concept of such a world.

A few weeks later, after its faculty had voted to expel the student who had been receiving one of the school’s few endowed scholarships, I received a call and that scholarship. Suddenly I was heading to a New England “prep” school. Mom and I paid for the balance of the tuition – about $1100 that first year.  My share came from washing dishes during summers at local diners and working in the school store during the year. I went on to graduate valedictorian and then on to an Ivy League university. Mom and luck gave me my life.

Mom died of pancreatic cancer seventeen years ago – just two months after her diagnosis. The year before she had saved Dad’s life. Rushing him to the hospital with barely a pulse, the doctors got his heart beating and implanted a pacemaker, which has kept it going since.

When I last saw Mom alive she was propped up in hospital bed medicated for pain. Walking in I noticed a “DNR” sign on her door. It took a few seconds to register reality’s insult. But she was cheerful and talking just a little groggily with my brothers and sister. Dad stood silently in the background. She asked me to rub her neck and shoulders. I was glad to have that to do rather than trying to speak right away.

I remembered how upset Mom was when, 25-years earlier, my brother announced he was a Mormon, and soon after announced he would leave college for a mission. I was twelve at the time and had already taken in the “Truth” of Mormonism from him. But my instinctive allegiance to, and sympathy for Mom, kept me secretive. I didn’t let her in on my competing allegiance with the Mormon god until I finally joined at age 19. By then Mom had become accustomed – or resigned – to Mormonism. She had a Mormon daughter-in-law and second Mormon son on a mission. I told her I wouldn’t do the same – that I intended to go to graduate school – which I did.

There was something about our relationship – and the self she helped me forge – that allowed me to hold something back from the Mormon Church and from the god it placed in front of me. Consciously and earnestly I tried to touch the mind of that god – but unconsciously I held back something deeply personal. Some would conclude I wasn’t letting God in. But it was a form of self-preservation. It wasn’t pride. Indeed, if there is anything my experience in Mormonism leaves me feeling it’s shame for getting involved with so little circumspection – not pride for leaving.

Mom decided very soon after her diagnosis not to undergo treatment. By that time, I was several years inactive but hadn’t discussed it with her, or anyone. I think she knew I was effectively godless by my subtle behaviors or lack of participation in church-related discussions among other family members. Later I would realize that I had never heard her pray except for our rote “grace” at dinner – “Thank Thee Oh Lord, our God, who brings us forth fruit from the earth, Amen.”  In our final conversation Mom never brought up God or heaven. She accepted death for what it most likely is. She remained in the moment during all of her last moments. I still draw comfort and courage from how she faced it.

Dad has been living either next door to, or with, my oldest brother for these past 13 years. He was baptized about five years ago. I was a little surprised by that – and then not so much on reflection. I guess I never really knew him that well. I had been living away from him since I was 15-years old. And I’m not sure how much there is to know. He was never one to open up much – I don’t know what he thought about. But then, neither does my Mormon family know much of what I think about. The love Dad and I have felt for each other was of a father and son largely kept apart during a crucial early period, but no longer feeling a need to forgive, particularly if that means digging up what doesn’t matter any more. It is – perhaps – the love between a father and son who understand that at some level they are very much alike.

Before Dad joined the Mormon church he asked me about where I stood with it. This was on Sunday morning during a visit to his home. We were alone in his apartment while my wife and kids were at church with my brother and his family. Not knowing that he was moving toward baptism, I let the conversation meander to Joseph Smith. I said that I saw Joseph as “cut from the same cloth” as Bill Clinton. I was being mildly dismissive of Mormonism – and then I quickly caught myself. “I don’t need to dig for affirmation,” I thought. Well, perhaps I did just a little. Aside from my sister who lived far away, we were then the only non-Mormons in our immediate and extended family.  

The last time I saw Dad he was physically very weak and he struggled to speak, though his thinking was clear. I asked him as many questions as I could about his early life to fill in some gaps. I wasn’t surprised to find out new things. Then he asked me why I no longer went to church – perhaps forgetting out previous conversation. I simply said, “Because I don’t believe it.”  He nodded, said “OK,” and that was that. That evening Dad gave the blessing at dinner in my brother’s home. He sounded like the former Catholic, former Presbyterian, former Methodist, and former Episcopalian congregant he is, now earnestly trying sound like a Mormon – but not quite getting the cadence or peculiar expressions right. But he was at home with his family, all holding hands around the table, and expressing genuine  thankfulness and, I hope, feeling our love and acceptance.

If I’m asked to talk at the funeral Saturday, I’ll mention how we kept a badminton rally going for 721 taps one autumn afternoon in 1971.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

My brother called again last night (September 22) at 7:15 pm.  The doctors turned off Dad’s pacemaker at 7 pm and he died within minutes.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Returned home last night. Dad’s funeral was on Friday (September 26). My oldest brother conducted the service. My next older brother gave the formal eulogy.  I’m not sure who he was responding to when he opened by saying, with a slightly self-conscious grin, “this will be the religious portion of the program.”  Perhaps he had me and my sister in mind.

It was a very thoughtful and hopeful eulogy, and included mention of the blessing of proxy ordinances, which would save our mom and unite her with my father. The central scripture was taken from D&C 50:

41 Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me;

42 And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost.

43 And the Father and I are one. I am in the Father and the Father in me; and inasmuch as ye have received me, ye are in me and I in you.

 As I sat there between my believing daughter and atheist sister – with my believing wife playing the organ – I understood and felt the emotional power of those verses. This morning I went to “lds.org/scriptures” and started reading D&C 50 from the beginning. But soon I stopped and just skipped down, copied these verses, and closed the window. I don’t want the full context in this case. I just want to feel appreciation and sympathy for the comfort my loved ones drew from that selection.

Unction, Unction, What’s Your Placebo Function?

16 Sep

In response to a very interesting Infants of Throne interview with the cultural and biological anthropologist Chelsea Shields Strayer, who studies the placebo effect, I could manage only the following waggish comment – startled as I was by the mention of the popularity of “essential oils” in Utah, which I had first heard about – and tried – only the week before. The story is based on fact, though I take considerable license with the dialogue – including my own – and the names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty. [1]

Essential oils … I had never heard of this until last week. Here’s my story.

My wife invited two of the sister missionaries over to help her paint our spare bedroom. When I came home I found one of them eating my Cheese Doodles and the other one – a Utah blonde – gushing about how her “essential oil” solved her insomnia problem. My wife said, “JT, maybe it’ll help you sleep better.”

I thought to myself, “Well, maybe, but I kinda enjoy that extra quiet time listening to Infants or Thrones, the Bible Geek, and what not.”

I turned to Sister Blondie and asked, “Hey sister, you got any of that on you?”

She handed me a dark glass vial, about the same size as the one I used to carry nonessential oil in.

“Lavender” she said with that “I have a testimony” smile.

“Where do I put it sister.”

“On the bottom of your foot” (I’m not kidding)

“Niiiiiiice,” I said.

That night, I carefully dripped the sweet unction onto the top of my arch. I let the tiny glistening stream meander toward the ball of my foot … then, at the last agonizing moment … I caught it with my middle finger and rubbed it in … deeply.

“What are you doing honey?”

“Uuhhh … just … uhh … administering the essential oil honey … to help me … you know … sleep better.”

The warmth of my fingers released its spicy sweet somnolent bouquet. I quickly slid my feet – and my full anticipation – under the covers, hoping to trap every inert molecule.

I waited … and waited …

Then I reached for my iPod and checked for new episodes.

[1] The Placebo Effect

Part 1 (http://infantsonthrones.com/the-placebo-effect-part-1/)

Part 2: http://infantsonthrones.com/the-placebo-effect-part-2/

Will Free Will Fill My Free Time?

14 Sep

I finally started reading philosopher Daniel Dennet’s Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking. Though I’ve made little progress given the onslaughts of a new school year, I’ve enjoyed his opening discourse covering broadly applicable thinking tools and advice. In particular

  1. Cultivate the habit of making mistakes – But make them good mistakes, mistakes worth correcting … that provide a start … something to work with … that create the possibility of making something truly new.  It is important not to hide mistakes, especially from yourself … making them public provides feedback.
  2. Rapoport’s Rules: Follow these steps for engaging in productive critical commentary with a “target”: (1) Re-express your target’s position clearly, vividly, and fairly, (2) list the points of agreement, (3) mention anything you have learned from your target, and (4) only then permit yourself to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
  3. Sturgeon’s law: 90% of everything is crap. And that’s true whether you’re talking about physics or chemistry or evolutionary psychology or sociology…90% of everything is crap, so don’t waste our time and yours hooting at the crap. Go for the good stuff. [1]

Several years ago I read Dennett’s Religion Explained – the book that earned him a spot in pantheon of the “New Atheists” – and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which I remember holding terrific insights, but somewhat dense … but not as dense as Consciousness Explained, which tamped down my motivation to start Freedom Evolves, in which he presented his compatibilist view of free will. [2], [3]  (Was this an ironic case of my emotions circumscribing my free will to choose to learn about free will?)

I have since felt reluctant to dive fully into the issue of free will – a topic hotly debated among naturalists/materialists. Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist, wrote a very accessible short book on the topic Free Will that made a compelling case for it being an illusion [4]. Harris was also – I thought – at his rhetorical best lecturing on the topic. [5] My other light exposure to the topic came from reading some of the work of the psychologists Daniel Wegner (Harvard) and John Bargh (Yale), whose research focuses on unconscious cognition and automaticity. Both offer empirical evidence against free will [6], [7] 

I left these three free will skeptics emotionally comfortable with the idea that free will might very well be an illusion, though it’s hard to shake the pesky intuitive sense of a distinction between my experience of choosing and … let’s say an amoeba responding to a glucose concentration gradient. But that may only be a product of more complex information processing leading to the emergence of abstract representations, particularly the ability to simulate future outcomes, and then mentally rewind the clock from that imaginary future and choose the imaginary alternative course to another future.  A simulated “counterfacuality.” But even if our sense of free will arises from this sort of thing, then there is the more straight-forward issue of our unconscious doing more high-level cognitive work than we realize because – duh – it’s unconscious and we don’t have introspective access to it. Our choices are made before we have the conscious experience of a self “owning” them.  Our motor centers stimulate the appropriate movements automatically. Our self-aware selves are to our unconscious as a little girl is to her father on the dance floor.  She thinks she leads as she stands on his feet as they shuffle along. [8]

Returning to the idea of our counterfactual simulation ability. The common notion of free will is often expressed in terms of a counterfactual conjecture. That is, free will is associated with the belief that if the “clock were turned back” and a person were confronted with the same choice – all conditions being identical (and no memory of the first round) – he would be able to chose an alternative.  Unfortunately, since time reversal is impossible, this intuition provides a groundless basis for a free will claim.

On several occasions I tried to warm myself up to the task of entering this free will morass – to make the – ahem -choice of committing more time to it. Reading Dennett’s Intuition Pumps … reminded me of his Point of Inquiry podcast interview over a year ago in which he summarized his compatibilist position on free will. [9]  I went back this evening to re-read the comment I posted on the Point of Inquiry website, and discovered it was recognized as the “comment of the week” by the producers – well whoopie for me [10]

Here is that comment – which gives a sense of Dennett’s position – and which just might launch me into a my own free will project, motivated as I now am by such flattery – which I may not have the will to resist [11]

[I offer these] few of responses to Dan Dennett’s discussion of free will, fully acknowledging that I am picking at the following “nutshell” definition he offered starting at 29:00 minutes.

“Free will is moral competence of the following sort. A person – an agent – has free will who is well informed and has well-ordered desires and preferences, who is good at detecting when he or she is being manipulated by other agents, and is good at protecting itself from manipulation by others, and also in order to have free will in the requisite sense you got to have … “skin in game” – you’ve got to be punishable … have something to worry about … so it can be motivated not to do things because it would hate to be punished.”

First, this seems less a definition of free will than a statement of the underlying “requisite” cognitive capacities and conditions. Still, I can see an operational definition arising from this – it sounds synonymous with simple rationally. I agree this is sufficient for assigning moral responsibility

Second, these capacities are harder won than most suppose. Dennett seemed to be discounting those innate frailties of mind that undermine these capacities, even in intelligent educated adults. More fundamentally, the pervasive influence of the adaptive unconscious, coupled with our inability to uncover the root causes of our choices by introspection, poses severe limitations on these capacities. In other words, the psychological illusion of self knowledge overshadows – if not overwhelms -philosophical arguments over free will.

Third, I am not sure that free will qua cognitive capacity is the free will most people would find “worth wanting.” What most find worth wanting is fixed to the metaphysical axiom: “I could have chosen otherwise if we rolled back time.” For such people Dennett’s equation of free will with moral competence would sound circular, since there can be no morality – or moral responsibility – without free will.

Finally, framing free will in terms of moral competency seems a bit narrowing. Certainly there are many important choices we make in life that have no moral implications.

Having said that, I do feel free to blame my parents for all the bad personal decisions I’ve made since I turned 18! :)

Now, how to start myproject? Perhaps I’ll ease into Dennett’s denser discourses with the hour-long lecture he delivered at Edinburg University in 2007. [12] Then I’ll read the Stanford Encyclopedia article on compatiblism [13]. … Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. This may all depend on my body’s present configuration of atoms and all the atoms and photons “out there” already on a collision course with it.  At the moment I see them all conspiring to move me toward my bed.

References:

[1] Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, by Daniel Dennett: http://www.amazon.com/Intuition-Pumps-Other-Tools-Thinking/dp/1491518871

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism

[3] ]Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett: http://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Evolves-Daniel-C-Dennett/dp/0142003840

[4] Free Will by Sam Harris: http://www.amazon.com/Free-Will-Sam-Harris/dp/1451683405

[5] “The Delusion of Free Will”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FanhvXO9Pk

[6] The Illusion of Free Will: http://www.amazon.com/Illusion-Conscious-Will-Bradford-Books/dp/0262731622/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410652762&sr=1-1&keywords=Illusion+of+Free+Will

[7] The New Unconscious: http://www.amazon.com/New-Unconscious-Social-Cognition-Neuroscience/dp/0195307690/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410652839&sr=1-2&keywords=John+bargh

[8] Some excellent general audience books dealing directly or indirectly with the modern scientific examination of the adaptive unconscious are.

Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy Wilson (http://www.amazon.com/Strangers-Ourselves-Discovering-Adaptive-Unconscious/dp/0674013824)

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinov (http://www.amazon.com/Subliminal-Your-Unconscious-Rules-Behavior/dp/0307378217/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1410699471)

Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurban (http://www.amazon.com/Why-Everyone-Else-Hypocrite-Evolution/dp/0691154392/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410699570&sr=1-1&keywords=everyone+a+hypocrite)

[9] Point of Inquiry podcast interview of Daniel Dennett (http://www.pointofinquiry.org/daniel_dennett_tools_for_thinking/)

[10] http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/the_point_of_inquiry_weekly_wrap-up_daniel_dennett/

[11] Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel Dennett (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbow_Room_%28book%29)

[12] “Is Science Showing That We Don’t Have Free Will” A Lecture by Daniel Dennet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKLAbWFCh1E)

[13]  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

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