Friday, January 19, 2007

Lionfish, Grad Students, and the Tao

Last night, in my class on the ecology of invasive species an interesting question was raised: why should we care about preventing the spread of invasive species? The person who asked this reinforced their question with Darwinian evolutionary theory, i.e. survival of the fittest. Her argument was essentially: If invasive species are more fit than indigenous species then they will naturally take over the native's positions in the ecosystem and it's the native's fault for not being fit enough to deal with the invasion. And since humans are a part of the natural system (even if we pretend like we aren't) our actions (namely introducing invasives) are natural processes, comparable to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and doomsday asteroids. Therefore, invasive species are just following the rules of nature and we should let them run their course.

This opinion did not go over well with the rest of the class. It's apparent that the introduction of invasive species is the second largest threat to biodiversity and species extinction, only habitat loss poses a greater threat (Wilcove et al. 1998). Furthermore, it seems that biodiversity is something that humankind wants to preserve and many are willing to spend large sums to do so (BBC: "Protection for Weirdest Species"). But what I saw when these grad students tried to define why we ought to protect other species from extinction it looked like people grasping for straws while drowning. Inadvertently these students had wondering into the frightening realm of philosophy. To say the least no one who offered an opinion had the tools to make their point sound like anything more than personal preference.

It appeared to me that those students who offered their opinions fell into one of the terrible gaps in naturalism that makes this philosophy so unappealing. [Note: Naturalism in this context refers to the philosophy that all of reality is composed of the physical world that we see and experience. There is absolutely nothing that is outside of Nature. Nature is all there is and all of our explanations must come from natural causes.] Into what gap did my classmates unintentionally fall? They tried to do something that is a normal part of our everyday life, something that most of us do on a regular basis without even thinking about. However, this everyday activity does not have a plausible natural explanation. Here's what they did: they made a value judgment.

We make value judgments every day. We claim that doing 'this' is better than doing 'that.' We advise people that they should do 'A' rather than 'B.' Last night's class was no different. Some people claimed that we ought to let invasive species run their course. Others objected and said that we should curb the effects of these species. Anytime you make a claim that someone 'ought to,' or that you 'should,' or that one course of action is 'better than' another you are a making a value judgment. Very few people argue that we should discount value judgments. The controversy is in how we justify these value judgments. Let's take a quick look at how naturalists and supernaturalists justify making value judgments.

Supernaturalists, as their name suggests, make a claim to a standard that exists outside of nature to justify their value judgments. [Note: Supernaturalists believe that something exists outside of nature and includes many of the world religions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. Not everything has a natural explanation.] For example, Christianity justifies its claims that some actions are right (and thus better) than others on the nature and character of Yahweh. Buddhists call upon the 'Tao' (a pre-existent standard outside of space and time) to justify their judgments.

Naturalists, on the other hand, often have to rely on other philosophies to justify themselves. Many in my field rely on Darwinism to guide their actions. 'Survival of the fittest' is their battle cry. But this rationale quickly disintegrates when applied to human actions. Imagine if we used 'survival of the fittest' as a business model. We could justify industrial espionage, fraud, and even murder, because "hey, we're just trying to survive." This principle works in the animal world but not in human society. Other naturalists try to use humanism as a justification. They claim that certain actions are good because they bring relief to man's estate or will better ensure the survival of our species. But this just pushes the problem of justification back another step. Why should we strive to bring relief to man's estate or ensure the survival of our species? Just because? No acceptable answer has been presented to this author.

Without inciting some kind of standard outside of Nature there is no viable way to justify value judgments. If your philosophy cannot justify value judgments you have unwittingly given up your ability to make any value judgments at all. The inability for naturalism to justify value judgments should make those who hold to this philosophy reexamine their beliefs.

Literature Cited:

Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J. Dubow, A. Phillips and E. Losos.1998. "Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States." Bioscience 48(8): 607.

Monday, January 8, 2007

A Deeper Analysis of Mormon Doctrines

In the past few months, I have many good discussions with the Mormon missionaries. I have found opportunities to ask them questions about their beliefs and reply with my own objections. By speaking with them I have been able to gain more understanding about the theology and teachings of the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They claim that the Book of Mormon and the Bible present the same theology, furthermore, that the Book of Mormon illustrates this identical theology more clearly and accurately than the Bible. I don’t agree. I would like to show two areas in which the Book of Mormon is in conflict in its philosophy and theology with the teachings of the Bible. The areas I would like to touch upon are the nature of God and the nature of Jesus Christ.

Mormons claim to be monotheists. Indeed, Christianity also claims that there is but one, true God. However, the God in whom the Mormons believe (usually referred to as Heavenly Father) is a totally separate being from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Heavenly Father is like a human in that he has a spiritual body as well as a physical body. The Book of Mormon’s teaching is clear that God the Father has a physical body. Why is it so important that God have a physical body? A secret teaching, not usually told to immature believers, explains why. It was revealed to Joseph Smith that “as man is, God once was.” In other words, Mormons believe that Heavenly Father was at one time a man created by a previous Heavenly Father who was in turn once a man created by a previous Heavenly Father, and on and on to infinity. This doctrine is of course necessary so that good Mormons can have the hope that they themselves can become a future Heavenly Father on their own world or universe. This secret doctrine destroys their monotheistic guise and reveals Mormonism as a polytheistic religion. Furthermore, it is this belief that God was once man and that man can subsequently become God that is squarely in opposition to the teaching of the Bible.

The Bible does not teach that God has a physical body, in fact, John 4:24 is very clear that “God is a spirit.” It is true that the Bible often refers to God’s face, his feet, his hands, etc. but that is always in a figurative sense. If we took those passages literally we would have say that God also has wings (Ps 91:4) is made of wood (John 15:1), and is hot, combusting gas (Heb. 12:29). The Bible is equally clear that there has been only one God: “Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me.” (Is. 43:10). Mormons like to argue that God made us in his image and if he didn’t have a body he couldn’t have given us bodies. However, this interpretation of Genesis 1:27 does not stand up well to critical examination. Indeed God created man, but even this admission informs us that the phrase “in the likeness of” does not mean “exactly like.” Let me explain. Something that is created or made is intrinsically different from its maker. Birds make nests, but birds are not nests. Cats make hairballs, but (despite some debate) cats are not hairballs. Men create pictures, but men are not pictures. A man can even create a picture that is very much like him, but that picture can never be the same thing as the maker. In the same way God has made man, but God is not himself a man, and neither is man God. God is God, the one and only. Man cannot become God, no matter how god-like we become just as no picture of a man can become a man, no matter how lifelike it is.

Now following this train of thought it would seem impossible that God could become a man. A man can be the subject of a picture, but he can’t physically become a picture. So it would seem that God could not become a man. However, the Bible tells us that what is impossible with man is possible with God (Luke 18:27). Mormons believe that Jesus is not God, but is only one in spirit and purpose with Heavenly Father. There is no Trinity and Jesus was just a very spiritually elevated man. However, this is not what the Bible has to say about the matter. In John 1:1 the book’s author tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What does the Word do? Well, “the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Whether we understand it or not the fact is that the Word, the Logos or God’s mind, became human. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that John calls Jesus the “only begotten from the Father.” Not only does this further set Jesus apart from the rest of mankind but it introduces an important concept. Unlike things which are created, things which are begotten are the same as the begetter. Birds beget birds and cats beget cats. In an analogous way God begets God. It would be difficult to argue that God could beget a man, no more than if a man could beget a picture of his son. It is true that God did miraculously impregnate Mary; however, I do not think that John’s reference to begetting is an allusion to the Virginal Conception.

In addition to the first chapter of John, the rest of the New Testament tells us that Jesus firmly believed that he was God. He claimed to forgive sins (an act only possible by God Himself) and was nearly killed on more than one occasion because of his claims. Both Jesus and the people around him know who he was claiming to be: God in the flesh. Jesus claims to be God can either be true or false. If they are false then he is either a madman or a liar. Neither option would suggest that he was just a Good Prophet like many claim. The only other option is that Jesus was telling the truth about his divinity.

The missionaries I have met with always object when I tell them that Jesus is God. If Jesus is God, and Heavenly Father is God, and if the Spirit is God doesn’t that mean that you believe in three Gods and not one? The simple answer is no. The Trinity is a very complex subject, but one should expect the truth to be complex. C.S Lewis once wrote, “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anybody can be simple if he has no facts to bother about” (Mere Christianity). The fact is that Jesus claimed to be God and all throughout the Bible allusions are made to the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. When we look at the Bible we see that there are three distinct personalities claiming to be God. And while they are each making claims to Divinity none make claims to subtract from the others. If we want to make it simpler for ourselves and say that God the Father is the only God and Jesus and the Spirit are very godlike, but didn’t quite make the cut we must call Jesus and the Spirit liars. That is what the facts force us to do.

In conclusion, the Bible is often unclear about certain points of doctrine. But it is clear that Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit are all separate while all being one God. It is clear that God the Father is a spiritual being and that Jesus was fully man and fully God. To believe otherwise is to ignore the facts presented in the Bible. If, as I have shown, the teachings of the Mormons stand in such stark contrast to the teachings of the Bible there can be only two logical courses of action. One is to accept the Bible and reject the Book of Mormon (along with the Mormon’s other Scriptures). The other is to accept the Book of Mormon as truth and reject the Bible as misinformation. The option to accept both as Holy Scripture is simply dead in the water.