Sunday, September 6, 2020

Ask Me Anything

Religious Conversion Cartoons and Comics - funny pictures from CartoonStock

Today is my 11 year anniversary of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, I decided to put a thread on my Facebook page where people could ask me anything, and I will now answer all of their questions here. Questions will be in bold, answers will be in this font. Here we go!

Does agency differ from free will? Do we have free will?

I take agency and free will in the scriptures to be synonymous terms; in philosophy agency and free will are a bit more nuanced. 

We do have free will, though I also believe that we are causally determined; this view is known as classical compatibilism and soft determinism. We are free as long as we are not constrained or coerced by outside forces, and if we can do what want to do. 

Have you ever had any negative experiences as a black man in the LDS church?

My experience with race in the church has generally been positive. I would say that the worst experiences I've had have been from people who think that the 1978 revelation ended our racial problems. While it is true that black people can now be ordained and sealed, racism is still a problem in society and the church is no different. I have not, however, been called a racial slur or treated poorly in the church, and for that, I am extremely grateful. I hope we get past this before my children have to think about it.

Are there parts of church history you wish the brethren would address or apologize for? If so, what are they?

I wish that the brethren would address that the ban was not inspired and wrong (or at least that we have no historical evidence of the ban being inspired). In addition, we could have more frank discussions about plural marriage. But I leave that to the brethren's discretion. As I have forgiven President Brigham Young and his successors for the ban, I see no reason for an apology personally. But I have friends of color who disagree, so do not take my word as the final word.

If teenage Chloe joined a women's group that advocated for women to get the priesthood, how would you respond?

As parents, my wife and I plan to let our children develop their own spirituality and relationship with the divine, just as our parents allowed us. If Chloe feels that women should be ordained and advocates for that, I will give her the freedom to do so. While I have no problem in principle with women being ordained, I consider it highly unlikely and it would require a revelation.

What drew you to the Church, and how does Stoicism enhance your understanding of the gospel?

I came across Mormonism while reading through my set of encyclopedias. I was immediately drawn to the non-Trinitarian aspects of the faith as well as the naturalistic outlook. I also thought the church was more New Testament like than any other church, as far as its organizational structure. Those were the attractions in the beginning. Other things were probably causally related, but I cannot remember them now.

As for Stoicism, it allows me to endure to the end, focus on what I can control, and allows me to not be offended, which I consider being Christian virtues. But there is also the possibility that you can become impervious to others suffering because of Stoicism, so I try to watch for that.

Hey Tarik, how do you navigate your spirituality and academic pursuits? Not that they are incompatible, but I have noticed that as my education gets more advanced, my spiritual beliefs become more nuanced. Can you describe how you navigate these dynamics?

The philosophy and neuroscience that I work on are not directly related to religion or spirituality, so there is not much conflict there. While it is true that most philosophers and scientists are atheists or agnostics, none have been hostile to my religious beliefs or have even asked about them. Philosophy and science seek truth, and Mormonism does too. So, I don't see a conflict at all really. My academic and spiritual pursuits, like other parts of me are intertwined. 

Having said that, I always ask myself whether the stances I take are evidence-based rather than just wanting to believe something. A healthy dose of skepticism, like a healthy dose of cologne, is always appropriate. Inhaling it leads to trouble.

Has having a daughter made you more troubled by any elements of LDS theology or culture?

Certainly, I have thought about certain aspects more now than I have in the past. But I wouldn't say I am more troubled now than I was before. Perhaps that will change in the future.

I do hope that the Relief Society will be given more autonomy in the future, as it was in the past.

What was the particular appeal of LDS over other forms of Protestantism?

While I have a very soft spot in my heart for Calvinism, I have never been a fan of Protestantism. I have always believed that there should be one church that traces its authority back to the ancient apostles. 

What did you buy the church for your anniversary?

It's not that kind of anniversary.

Who would you rather have at the post for the team you coach? Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar?

Wilt Chamberlain, but you can't go wrong with any of them.

I read and think about philosophy as an untrained amateur. I was drawn to Hume, but have trouble saying why. Can you say a few words about why you and Hume get along?

I can say many words about David Hume, whom this blog is named after. My favorite things about Hume were his astute view of human nature (or rather the lack thereof), his view of causation, free will, conservatism, naturalism, and skepticism are all reasons I revere Hume. His racial views were disappointing but understandable. Still a great philosopher at any rate.

How do you reconcile supporting the death penalty on the basis of desert while simultaneously holding to moral nihilism?

That's a post unto itself, so I will answer it as next week's post. Stay tuned.

You have said “I've wanted to leave several times. But my basic belief in the fundamental doctrines of the church have never wavered.” Define “fundamental” for you.

Following the Prophet Joseph Smith, I view the atonement and resurrection as the fundamentals of the gospel with all else being an appendage. But in the context of the post, I define fundamental as 1. The existence of God (theism) 2. The divinity and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth 3. The Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith 4. The Book of Mormon is an inspired, historical document 5. The modern church president is a living prophet.

Why “wanted to leave”? Culture? History? Folk (or whatever not-fundamental means) doctrine?

While I am a devout Latter-day Saint, I am not a cultural one. For example, I vocally point out that I generally dislike church meetings, think most talks are awful, and that elder's quorum and Sunday School only scratch the surface. (Did I mention that I hate green jello? Because jello of any kind is awful.) At times, this has caused me to consider leaving because I feel at odds with some members of the church. However, this has not been an issue for many years now.

Different Presidents of the church have very different ways of thinking through problems. Are you able to see any philosophical patterns in their thinking? Could you assign a philosophical system of thought to the patterns of any?

Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, David O. McKay, and Gordon B. Hinckley I would characterize as pragmatists, which is unsurprising since pragmatism is the quintessential American pattern of thought. Orson Pratt, B.H. Roberts, and John A. Widstoe I would consider process philosophers, but they were not church presidents.

Offer us insight into how you experience engagement with God through Biblical scriptural texts that you presently conclude are either mythicized history, history so legendary that it might as well be mythical history, pseudepigrapha, and similar type texts.

I think that the Lord can speak to people through scripture and non-scripture. As far as Biblical texts that I consider non-historical (Jonah comes to mind, as well as parts of the Exodus), I think that they are trying to teach us a moral truth rather than trying to be a history book.

Why are you so wicked?

I am what I am.

I've seen you and Blake Ostler (an outstanding thinker) argue about time on this page before. My understanding was that you believe in the possibility of existence outside of time as we know it and his argument was mostly made up of the assertion that the idea is absurd.

Am I characterizing this disagreement correctly? Would you mind expounding on this idea and your beliefs and arguments? I know this is a really "out there" question but I was interested in the discussion when you two were disagreeing.


The difference between Blake and me about time is that Blake is an A-theorist about time while I am a B-Theorist. A-theory means that only the present exists; the past is no more and the future is merely potential. B-theory holds that past, present, and future are all equally real, and for that reason, time travel is a logical possibility; Blake holds that time-travel is logically impossible. The real tension here likely comes from the fact that Blake is a conceptualist about science while I am a scientific realist so I take science to be telling us things as they really are while Blake considers it a way of thinking about the world but not necessarily the only way.

How do you define belief?

A belief is a proposition that you hold to be true. So, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God, that LeBron James is the best basketball player of all-time, and that Texas is a better state to live in than Utah. For something to be a belief, it must be capable of being true or false, and your belief is the stance you take on it.




Friday, August 28, 2020

Friday Traditio: Tarik D. LaCour

Welcome to the Friday traditio. Let me briefly explain what is going on here before we get to the main portion. Every Friday, I will choose a debate, lecture, or podcast by a philosopher, scientist, or public intellectual. Normally I will give some commentary on it, and then post the link at the end. Hopefully, you will enjoy my commentary as well as the talk itself, but at the very least I will not be posting uninteresting talks so you have that to look forward to at the very least.

Our first traditio features yours truly being interviewed by Hanna Seriac of FairVoice, a podcast hosted by FairMormon. In the podcast, Hanna and I discuss the nature of philosophy, philosophy's relationship to the natural sciences, the nature of truth and justification, Anti-Mormonism, and we end with some fun questions which I will not spoil for you. The podcast can be found here, feel free to leave comments on the FairVoice page or on the blog. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

What must a person believe in order to be a member of the church?

Book Of Mormon Paintings | Fine Art America

Recently my friend Kajsa (who blogs here)  said the following on Facebook:

Does being a member of the church require you to believe that the BOM is an authentic historical narrative? Is there place in the church for those who openly do not believe in its historicity? Is there place for BYU scholars who do not believe in its historicity? Can there still be value in including the text in one's canon of holy scripture if one holds that view that it isn't a historical text?

Allow me to answer Kajsa's questions by quoting my two favorite presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, starting with the Prophet Joseph Smith:

I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. It dont prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine. (Discourse, 8 April 1843, as Reported by William Clayton, Joseph Smith Papers)

A similar sentiment was echoed by Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

So long as a man believes in God and has a little faith in the Church organization, we nurture and aid that person to continue faithfully as a member of the Church though he may not believe all that is revealed. (Joseph F. Smith, Reed Smoot Hearings, 1:97-98)

If I understand these two prophets correctly, then it seems that the answer to Kajsa's concern is an unqualified "yes." You may believe whatever you wish and remain a member of the church. I would also add that this seems to be the way the church was anciently as well. (Alma 30:7) This is not to say that people sadly have not been driven out of the church because of their beliefs, but your beliefs are up to you. As for the question about whether or not believing in the Book of Mormon as an ancient text should be a requirement for employment at the BYU, that will have to depend. If you are in say the department of film or biology, it shouldn't matter as that question has nothing to do with your field of inquiry. If you are in the college of religion however your stances ought to be aligned with those of the church as you are in the department that is most related to this issue. However, professors should have the freedom to explore multiple angles of issues, such as presenting the evidence pro and con on whether or not the Book of Mormon is historical and then letting students decide for themselves. At least ideally that would be the case.

But this strikes me as the wrong question. The question to ask when you are reflecting on yourself and your relationship to the church should not be "What am I allowed to believe without being shown the door?", but rather it should be "Why do I stay in the church?" To that, I would submit there is only one good answer: Because you believe the fundamental claims of the church are true. Allow me to give an explanation of this view.

When writing to the Christians in Corinth, the apostle Paul talked about the resurrection, and he said this:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died[e] in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15: 12-19, NRSV)

Simply put, the apostle Paul is saying that if the resurrection of Jesus did not occur then Christianity makes no sense; the resurrection is the very foundation of Christianity so if it goes the rest of Christianity goes with it. In like manner, if the Book of Mormon is an ahistorical document, then to the flames with Mormonism because Mormonism stands or falls with the Book of Mormon. An ahistorical view of the book reduces it to the same status of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones; namely, an interesting book that may or may not teach you something but has no eternal significance. 

Again, this does not mean that if you don't think the book is historical there is no room for you in the church; as Elder Uchtdorf has said "Come, Join with Us" But in my view, there is little reason to stay in an organization that asks for everything if it is not what it claims to be. But then again, unlike Pilate, I want to know what truth is.