The Mormon Science Landscape

By way of introduction, I am Kathleen Petty, the second of the team of six representing Dialogue magazine invited to post on this site. I have been a Dialogue reader since its fist issue. Currently I help edit the letters to the editor for the magazine. This is the first time I have posted on this, or any, website, and I am looking forward to being part of this–(cough)–diablog.

In the Spring 2005 issue of Dialogue there was an interesting article by Stephen L. Peck entitled “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit.” (You can find this article posted on the Excerpts section of the Dialogue website.) He focuses on what he calls the “hard” problem in consciousness studies: phenomenal consciousness. (The “easy” problem of consciousness involves finding and mapping the mechanisms of consciousness–how the brain processes information, the neural pathways, how the brain communicates with itself.) Phenomenal consciousness is the “aspect of consciousness identified by that ‘what is it to be like’ feeling that we associate with personal subjectivity.”

Peck summarizes a thought experiment first proposed by Frank Jackson of Australian National University that neatly illustrated the differences between the “hard” and “easy” problem to me. He asks us to consider Mary, a neurobiologist who knows everything there is to know about the brain’s processing of the color red.

She understands perfectly the neural pathways involved in processing red, the frequencies of light that contain red, and how they interact with the eye. She can objectively describe every activity of the brain involved in seeing red. However, Mary is color blind and has never experienced the color red directly. Can Mary be said to understand the color red? Suppose she then has some special surgery that allows her to finally see color. At this point it becomes clear that, despite a completely biological understanding of sensing the color red, there was something else that she never knew about red–the phenomenal character of experiencing red.

He goes on to give an overview of consciousness theory and philosophy which suggests, as he says, “that things are at best unsettled and at worst a mess,” and then presents what he feels LDS theology has to offer on the subject. According to him we can garner three general themes from the scriptures: “(1) The universe contains things that act and other things that are acted upon; (2) Consciousness in its basic form is not created; and, (3) Consciousness can exist without the material world as we know it.”

His discussion is interesting and thought provoking, but some of what struck me is somewhat peripheral to the discussion. To build his case for Mormon thought he quotes Joseph Smith on the subject, of course, but after that B. H. Roberts and John A. Widtsoe. There is passing reference to Orson Pratt, but then he has to jump to Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. This suggests to me that it has been a long time since voices from the highest leadership of the Church have had much to say about the matter, perhaps either because they haven’t felt the need or feel uncomfortable with their expertise on the subject. Or perhaps no one is aware that there is a discussion going on.

The question of where consciousness resides–whether it is a product of the brain itself or is separate, as Mormon theology seems to suggest–is actually a very important one. It could come down to what is acceptable as “proof.” ( At this point, in the consciousness debate, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of “proving” anything. It seems to me that a person accepts as a basic premise whether or not something outside the brain can exist or not, and goes from there.) Peck says consideration of this matter comes under the loose heading of the philosophy of biology, and draws from brain science, evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophy. Because of the scientific disciplines involved, it connects to the more general problem of how Mormons regard science and its contributions.

Until fairly recently Mormons have been pretty comfortable with science and technology. They have embraced what science has contributed to health and longevity. They have embraced technology, especially communication technology, as a blessing. Genealogy is done on line. My stake’s most recent conference was a regional one telecast from Salt Lake so a general authority could participate. This comfortable relationship is facing challenges, however.

Science, this process of accumulating knowledge by presenting hypotheses and then testing them, is starting to present possibilities that stretch the moral and philosophical frameworks most of us have grown up with. As examples, consider the following:

Mapping the genome has shown that human DNA is very close to that of not only primates, but just about every other mammal as well. There seems to be a genetic component not only to disease but to personality, and in some cases, toward acts that might be considered “sinful.” What does that say about free agency–it might not be that “the devil made me do it” but that “my genes made me do it.” Or my chemistry or my hormones made me do it.

In our church, gender is considered an eternal characteristic. There is a whole range of genetic conditions that make gender difficult to determine by the usual means–that is, by looking at the body. How do those people, or their parents, decide if they are male and female? And what about the matter of homosexuality–what if it turns out that the chemical or genetic evidence shows conclusively that one doesn’t “choose” to be homosexual?

What about general topic of bio-engineering. What about genetically modified food or splicing genes from animals onto plants. If everything is spiritually created before it is physically created, what is the significance of modifying the physical creation this way?

There is no clearly stated church policy about all the issues regarding reproduction. How does the church feel about left over embryos? Surrogate parents? Genetic manipulation in utero? The abortion of fetuses that show by blood test or ultrasound that they have conditions incompatible with life? Stem cell research?

Now, it may be that these are areas that we, having been taught correct principals, are expected to govern ourselves. It may be also that church members would like a little guidance from the top because they feel their own inspiration in these matters is faulty. I cannot fault church leaders for being reluctant to enter the fray. I doubt a willing and interested person with unlimited time could understand enough to follow and evaluate the arguments and implications of so many areas of science. Science is dominated by experts in smaller and smaller niches. It is hard to be a Renaissance Man in 2005. How can apostles, who have so many responsibilities and other priorities, whose every word will be scrutinized and sent around the world in moments, speak to these very complicated issues? But, how can they not?

It is a fact of life that we as people in a democratic society are expected to make decisions about policies based on science that we cannot understand. In a society dominated by science at the very least there ought to be a discussion about how science works. It isn’t enough to dislike the conclusion, the path to the conclusion must be shown to be at fault. We can’t be in favor of what science proves when we like it, and discard it when we don’t. If we believe that the gospel embraces all truth we at least ought to be wrestling with how uncomfortable truth fits in. At the very least there ought to be a discussion about what the principals are that we hold that pertain to these questions.

Comments

  1. This is a very interesting post Kathleen. As you suggest, I think the largest issues revolve around concepts like free agency that are becoming much more dynamic as a result of new research.

    Interesting enough, back in the late nineties a stake president shared with me his notes from a training session by Elder Packer. [apocrypha] Elder Packer couched many (sinful) propensities in terms of physiology. Moreover when ambiguous physiology arose it should be a matter prayer within the family as to how to live [/apocrypha].

    I think the trend in the church is to have black and white spiritual delineations and then have a grey mortality in which we are to aspire to the spiritual ideals. Mortality is being accepted as ambiguous, I think.

  2. Welcome to BCC, Kathleen. Not having read the Peck article yet, I’ll comment on the problem LDS leaders face in making any sort of statement on these emerging scientific/medical/moral issues. First, the science is moving quickly, so any definitive LDS statement made in light of current understanding will almost certainly be outflanked in just a few years. They know that, so the incentive is to say nothing.

    Second, LDS leaders don’t generally make definitive pronouncements until all the senior quorum signs on. That means it takes time, sometimes an entire generation, for a new doctrine or policy to be endorsed publicly by senior leaders. Until that time, individual leaders are likely to avoid personal statements on those internally debated points of doctrine. In addition, I think that local leaders end up taking pragmatic positions and fashioning working doctrinal compromises when confronted with real people in challenging situations well before senior leaders ever come around to voicing an “official position” publicly. In effect, doctrine and practice changes before the official pronouncements are made, not because of them.

    Third, I think the Proclamation has unfortunately frozen the LDS position on these issues, so no matter where the science goes, LDS doctrine is now stuck, chained to the Proclamation like Prometheus to his rock. The recent True to the Faith booklet makes some attempt to address a few current problems facing members, but doesn’t break any new ground. The homosexuality entry, for example, simply says “see Chastity,” where it is discussed under the heading “Sexual Sins” in a short three-sentence paragraph.

  3. Just a thought – but I’m not at all sure LDS theology argues a place for where consciousness resides. If it is emergent then it doesn’t reside in a simple sense. I don’t think Mormonism ought to embrace mind-body dualism. (Although clearly many have espoused it, such as B. H. Roberts)

  4. Then there is the fact that this is a Church run by Revelation and God has said nothing on these matters. Until God says something than no one of Authority has any reason to say anything. And I don’t think the Proclamation has frozen anything that has not been frozen already by past teachings and revelations.

  5. Dave: Third, I think the Proclamation has unfortunately frozen the LDS position on these issues, so no matter where the science goes, LDS doctrine is now stuck, chained to the Proclamation like Prometheus to his rock.

    Not to start and other interminable debate on the Proclamation, but what on earth in it could possibly be falsified by science. I must be missing something. I just don’t see much of a connection.

  6. Clark, I’m not trying to make this a Proclamation thread. I was just thinking of this sentence: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In contrast, the post noted: “There is a whole range of genetic conditions that make gender difficult to determine by the usual means ….” So I think the Proclamation does make it difficult to accommodate new science or to soften the LDS position related to this or related issues.

    But I’m not advocating a specific alternative position. As noted, the science is changing, so you wouldn’t want to align doctrine with current science anyway. Definitive statements are always risky in that sense. Which explains, I suppose, why LDS leaders generally avoid such statements.

  7. I guess I don’t see the problem. To suggest that gender is an essential characteristic of individual identity and purpose seems unarguable. I guess I don’t see how that conflicts with say the biological basis (and thus range) for certain elements of gender. I don’t think, for instance, this would have much problem with the idea that there is a biological component for which sex one is attracted to.

  8. Levi Peterson says:

    A question that has always occurred to me when I’ve considered the Mormon doctrine that intelligence is co-eval with God is why then shouldn’t we revere and worship intelligence equally with God? Or why shouldn’t we find in the eternal nature of our own intelligence reason not be become particularly overawed by the nature of God. (That’s just a thought, not an act of rank impiety or hubris.)

  9. I think, Levi, that this question was at the heart of the Pratt/Young debate. I think Young had a view more like what the article describes McConkie as espousing. That is I don’t think Young viewed intelligence as atoms of individuals, but as something more neo-Platonic in conception. (I’ve long wanted to argue that, but I’m not in the least prepared to – I’m still working on the Platonic elements in Nibley) While Young did, I think, have these Platonic tendencies, he also was strongly opposed to treating these elements of intelligence as worthy of worship as opposed to the persons. Would he view being overawed by the nature of God rather than God as God as more in line with what Pratt did? I don’t know. While I believe Young had these Platonic tendencies, he was also very much the materialistic. So he inverted the Platonism, if it indeed turns out he had those Platonic tendencies. (I’m sure that’s a somewhat controversial view)

    Of course this all raises the question of your first sentence. What does it mean to say we are co-eval with God (or that our intelligence is). Does it mean we’re made up of the same stuff, and can cleave intelligence for intelligence? Or does it mean something different?

    It all depends upon what we mean by intelligence I think.

    I should add that I’m rather opposed to adopt the view of Pratt. It seems to me that he’s trying to re-invoke the old Trinitarian ousia as more important and more the focus of worship than the persons. It seems to me Young definitely opposes that aspect of Trinitarianism, feeling that the focus must be on the persons. To revere and worship the intelligence and not God the person is to fall into the Pratt trap.

  10. I think Dave gives a sharp analysis in comment #2 of why we haven’t heard definitively from our church leaders about many of the thorny issues evolving from scientific breakthroughs in research and technology. However, it does strain credulity that we know that Mormons should not drink iced tea with a meal or shop at the store on Sundays, but that the church has little (or no) specific guidance to give to a Mormon couple confronting difficult reproductive issues. I think the upshot of this is that many people must make these decisions through personal inspiration and revelation, which, ultimately, is probably the way it should be. However, I agree with Kathleen – I’d be encouraged to hear more from our leaders as to how they view these issues.

  11. Elisabeth: It seems to me that it only strains creduility if you think of the Word of Wisdom and ice tea directives, etc. as offering solutions to an ethical quandary. Yet seems to me that these are devices that have much more to do with boundary maintainance, communal identity, etc. than with ethics per se.

  12. I sense that Kathleen trusts our leadership to be able to constructively apply our bedrock theological principles to today’s public policy and science issues. I think it is more likely they (and we) will be influenced less by “Mormonism” than by “Americanism,” and particularly, by what conservative-Christian-Right-Western-America Americans are shouting.

    When I consider areas where we have either chosen take a strong public policy position, or where individual leaders have participated in the conversation, I think I’m glad we stick to our theological knitting and largely stay away from public policy and science debates. (I fear the day when the church comes out in supports the illegalization of abortion).

    These are some of the historical examples I’m thinking of:

    From today, public policy on same-sex civil unions, support for a federal anti-same-sex marriage amendment that is pretty much the same amendment threatened as a weapon against the church in the ear of the Reed Smoot hearings, whether or not America’s initiation in the current war was appropriate.
    In the 1960s-70s, whether use of contraception was ethical, during the 50s and 60s, whether we should support the civil rights movement, whether interracial marriage should be allowed, JFSmith’s anti-evolution preaching and the resulting anti-science sentiments, during the early 1900s, support for eugenics (fortunately luke-warm, but it was enough lead to our 1899 law against miscegenation and our 1920s sterilization law).

    Of course, I’m unfairly stacking this list of with (in my view) negative examples. There are some positive ones, SWK’s anti-MX position, Lorenzo Snow’s turn of the century anti-war First Presidency statement…
    Jen

  13. Thank you for this excellent post Kathleen and welcome to BCC. I would agree that while it is difficult, if not impossible to be a Renaissance Man in 2005, members would like clearer counsel on some of these difficult issues from church leaders. Considering the fact that we currently stress “Follow the Prophet” more than “Govern Yourself” all the way from Primary up to Sunday School manuals, clearer directives in negotiating the landscape of science is a notably absent.

  14. Thank goodness!
    Will
    (responding to comment 13)

  15. Nate – that’s generally my point. It’s much simpler to promulgate and comply with black and white rules delineating identity and boundaries, but I think this post raises the important question of why our church leaders do not provide more specific guidance to members navigating their way through the shadowy gray areas of these ethical quandaries. Even though we do depend, ultimately, on our own personal revelation from God to find the answers.

    And while I agree with Jen that it is probably best to stick to our proverbial knitting and let these issues play themselves out, sometimes I wish that our leaders would share more of the revelation they have received on how they discerned the “right” answers to the compelling questions of our day, particularly when these questions impact eternal principles such as the bearing of children.

  16. Hmm. I wonder if “the bearing of children” is “an eternal principle.” Instead, isn’t it that we talk about the afterlife using the experiences of this life?
    Jen

  17. Okay, I read through Peck’s article. The review of the consciousness literature was fun, but I’m not sure the Mormon perspective gives much input into the problem. One drawback is that the last Mormon intellectual in higher councils died fifty years ago; since Widstoe, no one has been able to speak to the science/religion issue with much persuasiveness. I find Orson Pratt utterly unintelligible, but I have the same reaction to all process philosophy.

    I did learn a new word in the paper: psychons, which is a much better name for the little critters than midi-chlorians.

    I really think the most promising avenue for the LDS/psychology pairing is evolutionary psychology, which posits that human consciousness evolved to be adaptive and fitness-enhancing. Thus along with the basic, unruly survival drives we have a predisposition to be sociable and cooperative, to form reciprocal friendships and families. Mormonism already demonizes our drives. Just baptize our sociability (“the Spirit of Christ is given to every man … every thing which inviteth to do good”) and you’ve got a working Mormon theory on your hands. Peck did write: “All modern positions on consciousness assume that the brain is the product of several million years of evolution” (p. 41). It seems like the right point of departure for an LDS position too.

  18. I agree with Dave that evolutional psychology may be the path to take. But not everyone will be convinced. The church has no official stand on evolution, but I know a lot of people who feel it is suspect. Right after his mission my son, for example, was ready to entertain the 6,000 year creation story. I don’t know why that outlook seems to correlate with zeal, but it does. One woman in my ward thinks maybe God planted dinosaur bones to test our faith because they can’t really be that old. Accepting evolution has other perils: what about sociobiology? I must say I can’t think of an evolutionary advantage for everything positive human characteristic, but there are some who can. I got lost in a discussion by E. O. Wilson about how we are most willing to sacrifice for those with whom we share the most genes–the genetic basis for altruism. (Haploid diploidy in ants, or was it bees–I was completely mystified.) If everything is a product of evolution-including our personalities, our faults, our preferences, our consciousness–where is the soul?

  19. Sultan Of Squirrels says:

    1.Now behold it came to pass on the eighth day of creation that the lord saw fit in his infinite wisdom and mercy, to plant Dinosaurs in the earth. to test the faith of his children.
    2.And it came to pass that many were shaken in testimony. and did doubt the lord and all the wonders which he performed.

    haha. sorry. just had to do that. in all seriousness though. I really don’t see why its so bad that the creation didnt happen miraculously in seven days. I don’t think God deals with time. you notice as you get older the increments of time seem shorter and shorter. after a while an hour long car ride doesnt seem so bad. so I have no problem with the creation taking millions of years and involving evolution. and as for genes causing our behavior, maybe that has something to do with the scripture that says, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble. and that they may be made their strengths.” (paraphrase) book of mormon somewhere I think. sorry if this is a thread jack. interesting post though.

  20. According to the scriptural account, the earth was created in an eternal form with no death, and evolution couldn’t have occurred during that creation. So, when could it have occurred? After Eve and Adam ate of the fruit, the earth was recreated (or “fell”) as a mortal world, and that recreation gives a window for evolution to have been used by God in the creation of the mortal world. The scriptures don’t say how long it took for the earth to fall, and we need avoid jumping to the conclusion that it was instantaneous.

    For those interested, I have an essay that discusses this at

    http://www.leigh.org/sciencereligion/Evolution-Fall.pdf

  21. I’m curious about Peck’s conclusion that “Consciousness can exist without the material world as we know it.” From what I understand of his article, this conclusion comes from the premises 1) intelligence has/will always exist and 2) “It is difficult to imagine intelligence with out some sort of consciousness.” Ergo, consciousness always exists. Does that mean that consciousness as we experience it exists without the material world? I doubt it very much since our experience of consciousness is tied so closely to how our physical brains work. For example, if through some (not so) fortuitious accident, you lose the function of your hippocampus (to pick a favorite brain structure), you will experience things very differently. You will no longer have that unifying experience of remembering that you are the same person from one moment to the next, because you will no longer be able to form any new (declarative) memories.
    I don’t think that the arguments Peck presents support the conclusion that you can have consciousness without the material world. At least, I don’t think that “things to act” don’t get very far without “things to be acted upon.”

  22. Fratello Giovanni says:

    “According to the scriptural account, the earth was created in an eternal form with no death, and evolution couldn’t have occurred during that creation.”

    Where in scripture does it say that? I suppose you think that the behemoth in the book of Job is a dinosaur too . . .

  23. I have recently read the Fall scriptures as indicating that the Garden of Eden was actually Outside Earth as we know it. Adam and Eve were sent away from the garden without any indication of the garden becoming mortal. As such, perhaps the garden was either a place on, but apart, from an evolving Earth or not on Earth as BY seems to have sometimes suggested.

  24. Bert Hoopes says:

    Hi. New here. :)

    I was excited to see a mind/body discussion, but was saddened to see that church members like Peck evidently still have a ways to go.

    Church writings say that BOTH spiritual matter and physical matter have always existed. Yet, apparently we still use a glove to teach primary kids about the spirit world.

    One synapse alone will not explain ANY behavior in and of itself, much less what we refer to as spiritual. But while complex neuronal connections can explain behavior, they are yet too materialistic to account for spirituality. Are they really? Isn’t mankind supposed to be the Lord’s highest creation? It seems weird to me that we need dualistic theories to explain something we do merely by virtue of existing.

    Consider the fact that explaining any phenomena is not necessarily a complete brain/CNS activity. Non-verbal sensory, on the other hand, does makes up significant amount of neuronal activity. And despite what is implied by testimony meetings, spirituality is not all language-based. Think of all the things that we consider “fruits” of the spirit. They all are forms of connection to others. And connection happens all the time, when we, in the literal sense, pay attention. This is a ‘willful’ act, which in Christiandom means moral. However, evolutionary wise, connection makes sense in every way. So, I ask, why separate mind and spirit, when they are in fact inseparable and interconnected?

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