Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Part 6: Where We're Going with All This

Having established that scientific inquiry is the way to understand how our physical world works, I want to consider ways to understand how the spiritual world works. What? You may ask: A spiritual world? And I answer, Yes, for sure, a spiritual world. And I'm not one of those people who says, "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."

I believe in God. (Follow that link to see some others of my beliefs, which all go with the initial one, believing in God.) Since many people think one can't believe in God and still be a scientist, or even be rational, I want to explain how this is possible.

I believe there is a spiritual realm that scientific experiments can't discover, let alone explain.

Yet I propose that all people, including rational people, can apply a method, similar to the scientific method, to establishing the reality of spiritual matters.

In the LDS Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) we call this a testimony. As explained on one of the Church's websites, a testimony is:
...a spiritual witness given by the Holy Ghost. The foundation of a testimony is the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves His children; that Jesus Christ lives, that He is the Son of God, and that He carried out the infinite Atonement; that Joseph Smith is the prophet of God who was called to restore the gospel; that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior's true Church on the earth; and that the Church is led by a living prophet today. With this foundation, a testimony grows to include all principles of the gospel.
 And here's how one obtains this testimony, again quoting from the same Church website:
The quest for a testimony begins with a righteous, sincere desire. Speaking to a group of people who did not yet have testimonies of the gospel, Alma taught: “If ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words” (Alma 32:27).  
So, Alma says, you conduct your search for a testimony of the truth just like you would conduct a scientific inquiry to find the truth of a scientific principle:

First, "...rouse your faculties," i.e., think about it, seriously, not just like an idle question, like, I wonder why the sky is blue. Really use your brain to think about it.

Second, perform "an experiment upon my words," that is, just like Francisco Redi did with the jars, some covered and some not, with rotten meat in them, to see where the maggots came from. (Here's another great reference about that experiment.)

Third, let the results of your experiment influence what you do next, that is, desire to believe, show some faith that what you're experimenting on will have some results: And this of course is where our spiritual experiment differs from scientific experiments: The results of our experiment will not be anything visible or even immediately obvious, but will have to develop over time and with continued practice.

Then, for the rest of your life, you keep re-doing those other steps of the scientific method:

Steps of the Scientific Method

Does praying work for this part of your life? Do you get answers that help you for that part of your life? Is the procedure working? If not, troubleshoot your procedure. If so, analyze the data and draw your conclusions.

Then, as you see your results aligning (or not) with your original hypothesis, these results, your experimental data, become background research for the next part of your life. And, as we mentioned above, quoting the Church's information on testimony, "With this foundation, a testimony grows to include all principles of the gospel."

Monday, March 19, 2018

Part 5: More about Spontaneous Generation

So, if you think everything you observe must be there for some reason---every effect has a cause---then you want to know the reason, the cause. How will you think about maggots on rotten meat, appearing to have come from nowhere? Maybe you will think of some version of spontaneous generation. Or, if you're more scientifically minded, you'll think of a way to figure out some other way that those maggots got there.

(I'd like to write more about the ancients' beliefs in spontaneous generation, but I'm not a scholar of the Greek or Roman languages and history, and all I know about it is what I've read online. For anyone else who is interested, I recommend the Wikipedia article about spontaneous generation. That's all I know about it. But I must say that from this article it looks to me like these ancient Greeks were really poets, not scientists, as in this quote: "Anaximander of Miletus considered that from warmed up water and earth emerged either fish or entirely fishlike animals. Inside these animals, men took form and embryos were held prisoners until puberty; only then, after these animals burst open, could men and women come out, now able to feed themselves.")

(Or you could read the Britannica article on spontaneous generation, which gives the example of how ancient people even thought mice were spontaneously generated from pieces of cheese and bread wrapped in rags and left in a corner.)

Back to showing how maggots and worms and even mice don't just spontaneously generate from nothing: It took an Italian physician, Francisco Redi, in 1668, to show that dead meat doesn't just produce maggots spontaneously: He filled six jars with decaying meat: three sealed jars, and three open to the air. Flies got into the unsealed jars and laid eggs on the meat, out of which came the maggots. Not everyone was convinced, some people saying it was a lack of fresh air that kept the maggots from appearing spontaneously in the three open jars. So, in a second experiment, Redi covered the tops of three of the jars with a fine net, so air (but not flies) could get in. And, again, no maggots appeared on the meat in those jars.

More on the topic here: Still not everyone was convinced, though. Anton van Leewenhoek invented a microscope, through which he saw tiny, fast-moving "animalcules" that he'd found in rain water. Where did they come from? Spontaneous generation? He thought so: they appeared in this water to which he had added scrapings from his teeth, even though these animalcules didn't show up after he had drunk hot coffee. (This is not a plug for coffee, in any form!)

It took Louis Pasteur, in the mid-19th Century, to show that "microorganisms, organisms too small to be seen except through a microscope," can reproduce and cause fermentation, and also cause decay and putrefaction in wounds. I should mention that Joseph Lister and Robert Koch also studied, and contributed to the acceptance of, the germ theory.

Next: Where are we going with this?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Scientific Method Vs. Superstition Vs. Myth Vs. Religion (Part 4)

Back to the idea of spontaneous generation: The quote yesterday about  how snakes could be spontaneously generated from horse hairs in stagnant water has reminded me of a very strong belief I held as a second- and third-grader at Buena Vista Elementary School in Walnut Creek, California:

We had drinking fountains set up above a long metal horse-trough-like structure in the playground of the school, where we could see what we called horse-hair worms in the stagnant water at the bottom of the trough, and we really did believe that those were horse hairs that had turned into worms.

Why not? The fact that there were no horses anywhere near our playground didn't change our belief that horse hairs must have gotten in there, and then turned into those disgusting wiggly worms.

So of course we wouldn't drink from that trough. But we weren't scientists, were we. We just saw what we saw: a bunch of long wiggly worms that were larger in diameter than horse hairs, and we saw no other way for those creatures to get there.

Now that I'm thinking about this, though, I'm remembering that the girl who spread that rumor about the horse hairs turning into worms was also the one who told us, after the school finally installed real ceramic drinking fountains that drained the used water into pipes and away from there, that we still shouldn't drink from the fountain if a certain dark-skinned and black-haired boy drank first, because we would get his cooties.

So, here's another way that superstitions and false beliefs get passed on: the knowledgeable person of the group, like Aristotle, or my blonde-haired and blue-eyed friend Marilyn, makes an authoritative statement, and we all believe it, and repeat it.

(Or, like me, we go home and ask our parents about what Marilyn asserted, and they tell us, "No! That's not true! What a horrible and disgusting thing to say!")

(In case you think no one was installing drinking-fountain-troughs like this in the schools in the 20th century, check out this article.)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Scientific Method Vs. Superstition Vs. Myth Vs. Religion (Part 3)

Question: If I use the scientific method to decide what I believe in, then why do I object to other people's religious beliefs that are different from my own?

Answer: I don't. I don't care what other people believe about God or not-God or clouds in the sky or fish in the sea. Zeus? Neptune? The great flying spaghetti monster? Or nothing at all? Go for it. I don't care, by which I mean, I don't judge you for your beliefs.

As Jeff and I talked about hummingbirds' feet or lack thereof, we realized that a lot of  old-time beliefs and superstitions can be explained by the lack of that essential part of the scientific method: information. If you are missing essential information, your conclusions are bound to be incorrect.

So, you make a hypothesis, backed up by initial observations: because you don't see any feet on the  hummingbirds you see flying around, many meters away from you, and you never see them landing or perching on anything, and these hummingbirds are remarkably different from all the other birds you've been watching all your life, you draw an obvious conclusion: they must not have feet.

Or, let's say, one day a black cat crosses your path as you're walking down the street, and right after that you get run over by a horse-drawn cart. Obvious conclusion: black cats bring bad luck, whether you were so busy watching the cat that you weren't paying attention to the street traffic or not.

Or, let's say, you walk under a ladder which proceeds to fall on you. Obvious conclusion: walking under a ladder brings bad luck.

And so on. Pass these beliefs on to your kids, and, sure enough, they walk way out of their way to avoid black cats and ladders, and, miraculously, they remain safe. Case closed.

On the other hand, let's say you are wondering about some idea that had been passed down to you from generations before, wondering because you've made some observations that seem to contradict that idea. You use the scientific method.

For instance, what about the notion of spontaneous generation? Check out some notions related to this idea, thanks to Net Industries:
Spontaneous generation, also called abiogenesis, is the belief that some living things can arise suddenly, from inanimate matter, without the need for a living progenitor to give them life.

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle argued that abiogenesis is one of four means of reproduction, the others being budding (asexual), sexual reproduction without copulation, and sexual reproduction with copulation. Indeed, the Greek goddess Gea was said to be able to create life from stones.
(Oh, yeah, back to those pesky Greeks again! Where on earth did they get these ideas? They can't have been observing very carefully!)
But wait, the article goes on to note: 
Even Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), the great German naturalist of the thirteenth century Middle Ages, believed in spontaneous generation, despite his extensive studies of the biology of plants and animals.
Through the centuries, the notion of spontaneous generation gave rise to a wide variety of exotic beliefs, such as that snakes could arise from horse hairs standing in stagnant water, mice from decomposing fodder, maggots from dead meat, and even mice from cheese and bread wrapped in rags and left in a corner. The appearance of maggots on decaying meat was especially strong evidence, for many people, that spontaneous generation did occur.
All right, I can see how maggots apparently magically appearing on rotten meat could make you think they spontaneously regenerate! But, again (I think), only if you're not really paying attention.

More, next time.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Scientific Method Vs. Superstition Vs. Myth Vs. Religion (Part 2)

Here's what makes the difference for me: the scientific method. Let me explain:

First what the scientific method is, as explained by Elon Musk  in the Nov. 2017 issue of Rolling Stone:
1. Ask a question.

2. Gather as much evidence as possible about it.

3. Develop axioms based on the evidence, and try to assign a probability of truth to each one.

4. Draw a conclusion based on cogency in order to determine: Are these axioms correct, are they relevant, do they necessarily lead to this conclusion, and with what probability?

5. Attempt to disprove the conclusion. Seek refutation from others to further help break your conclusion.

6. If nobody can invalidate your conclusion, then you're probably right, but you're not certainly right.
 Or, if you do better with graphical representations, here's a helpful graphic from  Scientific Buddies: 

Steps of the Scientific Method

Am I saying you can apply the scientific method to a religious question, to the question of whether God exists and, if so, what God is like and how you can interact with him/her?

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. You can---and you must---figure this out for your own self, so that you have your own "testimony" (put in quotes b/c that's what I call it, though others may call if something else).

(Quick note: Yes, I used Elon Musk --- gasp! --- as a reference, and I used a website developed to help students who are working on science fair projects. If this is offensive to any of my readers, do let me know, and I'll find some other reference, for instance, in any biology textbook published in the last 25 years, to quote, instead.)

(Another installment, coming up, about what makes my religious beliefs different from magical or superstitious beliefs)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Scientific Method Vs. Superstition Vs. Myth Vs. Religion (Part I)

Jeff and I were talking the other day about hummingbirds. We have four hummingbird feeders around our house, and we love to watch these tiny birds as they hover, sip, and often chase each other around in the air. If you watch them carefully, you can see their tiny little feet, tucked up under their bodies as they fly and hover. And sometimes they perch on the edge of the feeder while they drink the sugar-water we put there for them. They have feet.

"They have feet." It seems crazy to have to say that. It seems like an obvious thing to say: Of course hummingbirds have feet. How could we doubt that? Yet I read recently that some ancient Greek "scientists" wrote that hummingbirds DON'T have feet. Really?

I seriously wonder about their observational skills. Okay, maybe they never got as close to the birds as we do every day. But, still. Really?

So then of course I have to wonder about every bit of "received wisdom" we have from the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, and everyone else who ever wrote about nature anciently. I remember all that stuff I learned in school about the ancient gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans, about how they supposedly made up these beliefs based on observations.

If they couldn't see feet on a hummingbird, OBVIOUSLY they would make up a pantheon of supernatural creatures based on hearing thunder, for instance: Oh, there must be a "god" up in the sky bowling. Or when some unmarried and supposedly "virtuous" woman gets pregnant: Oh, some "god" fell in love with her long enough for her to conceive a child, and then (of course, because they're gods, and they don't have to stick around with mere mortals) left her to try to explain it to her family and her village.

But here's the thing: If you lack knowledge, whether because you can't see well enough to notice feet on a hummingbird, or because you have drunk in the myths of your ancestors without stopping to think about them, or for whatever reason, you will tend to believe in ideas that seem ridiculous to anyone who knows more than you do.

If you don't believe in those other ancients, though, why should you believe in the accepted knowledge and understanding of the ancient Hebrews? And then the ancient Christians? Why believe in that God of the Old Testament or in any of His prophets?

Does your modern skepticism about some ancient beliefs preclude you from having your own religious, i.e., non-scientific beliefs?

How can I bear my testimony of my Heavenly Father's love and of His Son, Jesus Christ, my belief in their love, and my belief in the restored gospel and modern-day prophets and (of course) the Book of Mormon, if I don't accept any other religions?

What makes this different for me?

(More, next time.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Where do poets get their inspiration?

1. Aeschylus, from "Aeschylus," by John Herrington:

"...the record of his first dramatic production in ca. 498 B.C., and a legend, which runs as follows: 'Aeschylus used to say that once, when he was a teenager, he was guarding the grapes in the countryside and fell asleep. Dionysus appeared standing over him and told him to compose tragedy. When daylight came, since he wanted to obey the god, he tried it, and found it easy from that moment on."

2. Joseph Brodsky, from "Against Forgetting," edited by Carolyn Forche:

"In February 1964, Brodsky, who had left school at fifteen, was tried in Leningrad as a 'social parasite' who had corrupted young people with his 'pornographic' and anti-Soviet verse. In response to the judge's questions about where he had received the authority to write poems, he answered, 'From God.'"

3. I will add others as I find them. Commenters, any additions?

The Old God of War

I saw the old god of war stand in a bog between chasm and rockface.

He smelled of free beer and carbolic and showed his testicles to adolescents, for he had been rejuvenated by several professors. In a hoarse wolfish voice he declared his love for everything young. Nearby stood a pregnant woman, trembling.

And without shame he talked on and presented himself as a great one for order. And he described how everywhere he put barns in order, by emptying them.

And as one throws crumbs to sparrows, he fed poor people with crusts of bread which he had taken away from poor people.

His voice was now loud, now soft, but always hoarse.

In a loud voice he spoke of great times to come, and in a soft voice he taught women how to cook crows and seagulls. Meanwhile his back was unquiet, and he kept looking round, as though afraid of being stabbed.

And every five minutes he assured his public that he would take up very little of their time.

(From Bertold Brecht: I found this version of this poem from this page at Tom Clark's blog.  A commenter on that blog post wrote this:

Brecht, of course, had certain petty dictators in mind here, but the parabolic reach of the poem is considerable.

When he fled across the top of Europe from Finland to Leningrad to Moscow to Vladivostok and thence by boat across the Sea of Japan and the China Sea, he found himself in water roiled by the same god of war in different guise.
The Typhoon

On our flight from the house-painter to the States

We suddenly noticed that our little ship was not moving.

One whole night and one whole day

It lay against Luzon in the China Sea.

Some said it was because of a typhoon raging to the north

Others feared it was German raiders.


Preferred the typhoon to the Germans.

For more on Brecht, here's an interesting article.