Sunday, October 6, 2013

A scientific approach to Moroni's promise

The Book of Mormon contains a famous promise in Moroni 10:4 that if someone prays to know if the Book of Mormon is true, then God will verify that the Book of Mormon is true through the Holy Ghost. Most Mormons apply this experiment personally by praying to God themselves, and consider the LDS church to be true if they feel that the Book of Mormon is true. However, I think that method of testing the promise is subject to experimenter's bias (if the person is being taught by their parents or the missionaries), the placebo effect, and that person's innate suggestibility. I think Moroni's promise could be tested in a double-blind fashion to control for those biases.

The basic idea is that a few packets could be made from Book of Mormon passages and alternative passages, and then ask study participants to pray about each of them, and report which of the packets they feel is true. Neither the participants nor the experimenters will know which packet contains the real Book of Mormon passages.

Alternative texts would have to meet a few desired attributes:
  • The LDS church must consider the alternative text false
  • The text must be broadly compatible with Mormon doctrine
  • The text could be written in a similar style as Book of Mormon or D&C passages
  • The text should be something that many people really believe (or believed) to be true
Fortunately there are several texts that could be used:
  • The Sealed Portion, by Christopher Nemelka
  • The James Strang revelations (comparable to D&C revelations)
  • Sidney Rigdon revelations (also comparable to D&C revelations)
  • The Quran
Selections could either be constrained to be only unemotional passages, or alternatively of similar emotional content, to control for the emotional effects of passages from the Book of Mormon. Perhaps passages could be ones that describe events rather than principles, to control for the possibility of the Holy Ghost merely confirming the principles taught by the passage.

The study would first have to locate many volunteers meeting the Book of Mormon requirements, and the study's requirements:
  • Claim to have sincere desires for truth
  • Claim to have faith in Christ
  • Looking for a new religion, and interested in Mormonism
  • Not very knowledgeable with Mormon doctrine or the Book of Mormon
I think finding people who had contacted the missionaries or asked to meet with the missionaries would be an ideal pool for finding volunteers for the study.

Interpretation of results

If the Book of Mormon's promise is true, then 100% of the study participants who have sincere desires for truth and have faith in Christ should identify it as true. To account for dishonest participants, we should allow a little leeway. I would expect the Book of Mormon to be selected by at least 90% of participants if it is true, and anything less than that I would interpret as indicating falsehood.

So if you are LDS, would you expect the Book of Mormon to be identified by 90% of participants? If you are LDS but immediately find yourself making up reasons why the Book of Mormon would not be identified by 90% of participants, then I suggest that you may not truly believe in Moroni's promise.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why I don't believe in moral accountability

I think this is the one belief of mine that people find to be the most bizarre, objectionable, and difficult to understand. So I thought I would just come out and try and tackle it head-on, and try and explain my position as clearly as I can.

I agree that we all can make choices. The question is whether our choices are an ultimate explanation of our behavior, or simply a proximate explanation. My position is that our choices are only a proximate explanation, and the ultimate explanation lies in our genetics, our environment, and our influences, broadly defined. Another way of putting it is that our brain is a deterministic system, like a computer. A certain input yields a certain output. However, predicting that output is incredibly difficult because the system is so complex. A good analogy of this is the weather.

I recently read about weather prediction in “The Signal and the Noise.” The basic principles of weather prediction are rooted in physics and were understood a long time ago, but very slight changes in the initial data lead to vastly different predictions. The key to successful prediction turned out to lie in high-resolution data and a lot of detailed computation. The brain is similar: even though it is deterministic, its complexity makes prediction very difficult.

So why am I sure the brain is deterministic? Well, because it is made of out deterministic parts. I know a computer is a deterministic system because it is made out of wires and transistors, and the wires and transistors are deterministic, so the computer as a whole must be deterministic as well. Similarly, neurons and molecules are deterministic, so the brain must be deterministic as well.

I’ve often heard many of the same reactions to my position, so I’m going to respond to some of them:

Couldn't it be that my choices affect my neural activity? Well, no. First of all, you are your neurons, so you can't separate yourself from your neural activity. Secondly, a clever neuroscience experiment showed that the neurons indicating a particular choice began firing before the subject perceived that he had made that choice. It seems that neural activity causes the choice, not the other way around. That is exactly what I'd expect, since I believe that we are our neurons.

Are you saying my choices don’t matter, since everything is already determined? No, not at all. Your choices have consequences. I am saying that the reason you make the choices you make is because of your past experiences and brain states. I made the choice to write this blog post, but I ultimately made that choice because of my genetics, my (limited) knowledge and experience, etc.

If you tell people they’re not responsible for their own choices, they’ll behave badly! I believe that choices ought to be made on the basis of their consequences, and that a good understanding of the consequences of any choice will motivate the right choice. Therefore, a better understanding of truth will usually lead to a better outcome. I believe that people are inherently empathetic (due to evolution) and wish to do good, rather than harm, to other people.

Does this mean we can’t justifiable punish criminals as a society, since they are not accountable for their actions? No. I don’t think we should punish criminals because they “deserve” to be punished. I don’t think anyone “deserves” to be punished. I think that we should punish criminals to provide incentives for good behavior. Dangerous criminals ought to be locked up, not because they deserve it, but in order to prevent them from causing harm to themselves or others.

Quantum mechanics shows that molecules are more probabilistic than deterministic. Yes, but brain parts are large enough that I think the randomness of quantum mechanics has a trivial effect (if any effect at all) on brain function. Even if it adds an element of randomness, that doesn't justify moral accountability in my opinion.

So that about wraps it up. You’re welcome to ask questions, debate me, offer another viewpoint, or generally say whatever you want in the comments as long as it’s respectful.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saving money on cell phone plans

Cell phones are one place where a little research can save a lot of money, so I thought I'd share a quick tip on the topic. I’ve concluded that T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan is one of the best values around, and I thought I’d write what I consider to be a fair comparison between it and some equivalent plans from Verizon or AT&T.

My family has 5 lines on their plan, each with unlimited talk and text, and 500 MB of data, throttled if you go over. There are no overage fees at all. Mobile hotspots are included. The total plan cost is $110/month plus taxes and fees. If everyone got Nexus 4’s (currently one of the best phones you can buy) for $210 each, and kept them for 3 years, then that would only bring the average cost up to just $139/mo or ~$28/line.

On Verizon, even if everyone got free phones (which would either be the 2-year-old iphone 4, or other phones not as good as the Nexus 4), 5 lines sharing only 2 GB of data is a whopping $260/mo., and you have to worry about going over because if you do, it’s $15 per additional GB.

On AT&T, sharing 4 GB of data with 5 lines is $270/mo., and overage is also $15/GB.

Our savings is easily over $1000/year. If I had a single line, and couldn’t find friends/family to do a family plan with, I’d probably either use Skype or Google Voice combined with T-Mobile Prepaid when I’m away from Wi-Fi to keep my bills down. Republic Wireless and FreedomPop are also good options. A little shopping around can save a substantial amount of money on cell phone service.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Atheists are sincere

I really appreciate my wife’s very open-minded and tolerant views. She knows that my beliefs are important to me and sincere, and respects them as such, just as I respect her views in the same way. She’s a great example for other Mormons, especially in view of Mormon dogma that often casts doubt on the sincerity of other belief systems. When Joseph Smith asked God which Christian sect was right:

“... the Personage who addressed me said that ... those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me...’” (JS-H 1:19).

The professors were insincere: their “hearts,” or desires, weren't really for God; and corrupt, meaning that they were willing to be dishonest for personal gain.

The Book of Mormon implies that its only atheist, Korihor, is equally insincere. He eventually admits that he “always knew that there was a God” (Alma 30:53). I hope that Mormons don’t apply that to modern atheists like myself.

After years of study and serious consideration, when I tell people I’m atheist I’m occasionally told that “people usually just believe what they want to believe,” as if atheism was a conclusion I wanted to reach for some reason. It wasn’t. I can respect that religious beliefs are genuine and important to their adherents, and I just hope that they can give me that same level of respect.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

LDS church growth

Back in 2000, my seminary teacher quoted to my class the Rodney Stark projections for church growth, estimating that there would be 64 to 267 million members by 2080. Other researchers have predicted much lower numbers, around only 30 million.

Another sky-high projection was made by a Mormon recently, projecting that there could be 2.6 billion members by 2120. I'd like to consider whether those projections are realistic, but first let's distinguish between growth of the reported membership, and growth of either self-identified or active members.

The official reported church membership is much higher than the number of self-identified Mormons. I’ll just give a few examples:

Members claimed by church in Mexico, 1999 846,931
Self-identified members from census in Mexico, 2000 205,299
Members claimed by church in Chile, 2001 520,202
Self-identified members from census in Chile, 2002 103,735
Members claimed by church in US, 1990 4,175,000
Members projected by ARIS survey, 1990 2,487,000
Members claimed by church in US, 2008 5,974,041
Members projected by ARIS survey, 2008 3,158,000

Sources: here and here. Based on worldwide data, this researcher concludes "approximately 40% of individuals claimed as members by the LDS Church worldwide identify the Church as their faith of preference."

The comparison between the ARIS survey projections and the official membership is interesting because the growth rate implied by the official membership numbers from 1990-2008 is an impressive 30% (~1.47%/year, or 15.7%/decade). The ARIS projections only indicate growth of 16% (~0.83%/year, or 8.6%/decade), which is about the same as US population growth.

So if the church is overstating both total numbers and its growth rate, how can the true worldwide growth rate be estimated? Many observers think that the active members per congregation (meaning wards and branches) has been fairly consistent, so the true growth rate might be close to the growth rate of congregations.

This chart doesn't include the most recent data points, and unfortunately it's not my chart so I can't update it, so I'll list the most recent data for increase in congregations in this table:

Year:Total congregationsIncreaseIncrease as %

As a comparison, the US population growth rate is ~0.9%/year, and world population growth rate is ~1.15%/year. I do expect to see a temporary increase from the change in missionary age over the next 2-3 years, and possibly a slight long-term increase as well. Based on this data, I'll make a few conclusions:
  • The church's growth rate is similar to background population growth.
  • The conclusions drawn by David Stewart, based on a lot of data, are bit out of date but are probably still accurate.
  • Because the church has a higher fertility rate than average, achieving only population growth means they are actually losing members on the conversion side, in spite of an aggressive proselytizing program.
  • The church cannot sustain long-term exponential growth.
  • Therefore, I think the long-term Loomis and Anderson projections are much more believable than the sky-high Stark or Koltko-Rivera projections.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mormonism and Evolution

I respect those Mormons who believe in evolution and the old age of the Earth. Their willingness to consider the massive amount of rock-solid scientific evidence on the subject is admirable, and ought to be encouraged. However, they face at least two major challenges:

1. The most straightforward interpretation of a few scriptures seems to contradict scientific fact.

2. LDS Church curriculum and common teachings of the Prophets and Apostles, including living ones, contradict science on several points.

The church has traditionally taught that physical death did not occur before the fall of Adam. Under "death" in the Bible dictionary, the first scripture cited for support is 2 Nephi 2:22:

if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. (2 Nephi 2:22)

In my personal opinion, the most obvious and straightforward definition of "state" would preclude evolution from occurring prior to the fall of Adam. Some LDS scholars suggest that the verse only applies to the Garden of Eden, and not the entire Earth. I personally disagree, but I suppose it's one possible resolution.

The second scripture cited for support is Moses 6:48, which states that by the Fall of Adam came death. It doesn't explicitly indicate physical death, and I suppose it could also be interpreted as indicating spiritual death.

Another problematic verse is D&C 77:6, which states that the "continuance ... or temporal existence" of the earth is 7000 years. As this scripture is interpreting a symbol, it seems unlikely to me to be a symbol itself, but some people have interpreted it that way.

One further scriptural problem is that many scriptures imply that "Adam is the primal parent of our race," as the First Presidency put it in a statement. Adam is depicted as farming, reading, and writing. DNA indicates that our most recent common ancestor could not have lived more recently than about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, and that was way prior to the existence of domesticated plants, or reading or writing. I'm not sure how Mormon believers in evolution resolve that issue, but I'd like to hear their comments about it.

The second problem is that LDS curriculum and current Apostles continue to attack evolution. The recently-updated scriptures contain a "Bible chronology" section that places Adam at 4000 BC. Boyd K. Packer has made many anti-evolution comments, but I thought this one was pretty clear: "An understanding of the sealing authority with its binding of the generations into eternal families cannot admit to ancestral blood lines to beasts." Russell M. Nelson and others have also disparaged scientific theories. Mormon believers of evolution can probably ignore these statements as not official doctrine, and can simply consider them the misinformed opinions of current church leaders.

I'm glad that many Mormons are willing to accept science in spite of these challenges, and I hope that many more will choose to do so in the future. I hope that someday an Apostle will defend well-supported scientific theories such as the big bang or human evolution.

If you are a Mormon who believes in evolution, I invite you to comment on how you've dealt with these challenges.

Monday, February 18, 2013

How I became an atheist

I already posted once about my logical reasons for not believing in God, but I did not give the history of how I got there. It's a long one, and very personal, but I think a few people might be interested in it.
I'm going to share a few experiences I remember illustrating how my beliefs and doubts have changed over time.

When I was young, I received a lot of positive feedback for bearing my testimony. I set a goal to bear my testimony every month, and did so.

In high school I placed a lot of trust in my teachers, always attended seminary, and enjoyed it very much. I kept a 4.0 in seminary.

Around high school graduation, I became interested in whether evolution was true. I read two books on the subject: one was Faith of a Scientist by Henry Eyering, the other was Answers to Gospel Questions by Joseph McConkie. I learned that Henry Eyering believed strongly in the evolution of man, while Joseph McConkie said evolution was not compatible with Mormon doctrine. I concluded that either position was acceptable, because they were both prominent members of the church, so it didn't matter if evolution was true or not. I didn't read anything at the time about the evidence for evolution.

At BYU, my good friend James and I frequently discussed evolution. I read BYU's packet on statements from general authorities about evolution, and again concluded that it was fine to believe in evolution.

In the MTC, I read the entire missionary library, and bought interesting institute manuals from the MTC bookstore. Some things, like A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and other people's testimonies, bolstered my testimony. Some things, like the Pearl of Great Price study guide, thinking about the Atonement, and stories about the Joseph Smith Papyri, caused some doubts.

I was sometimes skeptical of people's supernatural experiences. My trainer in Cambodia told me he had seen someone be possessed, and that the Cambodian witch doctors had the power of the devil, and I thought there was probably a more natural explanation for the stories he told me. I was skeptical about many people's amazing stories, if they involved angels or the devil, unless they were officially sanctioned by the church. I still believed strongly in spiritual promptings and inspiration. At one point during my mission, I decided that I would read an anti-Mormon book someday, because I wanted to know both sides. I didn't fulfill that goal until several years later.

After my mission my time and attention basically was devoted to girls and classes until my last semester at BYU. I received a certain copy of Wired magazine with an article about the "new atheism." It really piqued my curiosity, but I didn't dare read more about atheism while I was at BYU. It really appealed to the skeptical side of me, because I had long thought natural explanations of many stories were more likely than supernatural explanations, although I had not yet applied that logic to church history or God. Just after graduating, while on a road trip with some friends at Disneyland, I purchased The God Delusion. I hid it from my Mormon friends, but was excited to read it when I got back.

After returning from the trip, I began to read The God Delusion. I found it totally devastating to my faith. I found it totally convincing, and very depressing. Some mornings I was so crushed I couldn't even get out of bed. The thought of admitting to my parents that I was losing my faith made me feel sick. It was a very sad time in my life, and hard on my self-esteem.

I told my bishop I didn't want a calling, but a week later the First Counselor asked me to serve as a Family Home Evening (FHE) group leader. I would organize Monday night meetings for a few members of our singles ward. I had been taught never to turn down a calling, and I didn't have the courage to leave the church, so I accepted it. In retrospect this was a mistake, as it kept me in the church for years longer than I should have been. I often felt sick before FHE, terrified about bearing my testimony, terrified that someone would question whether I was being honest, even though I knew that would never happen. I also avoided dating until I decided whether to stay in the church or leave.

After about 2 years, I knew I was wasting my life with indecision, so I decided I would put more effort into having faith, start dating, and pursue marriage. At the time, I thought I wanted to remain in the church forever, even if I never believed with the level of conviction I once had. During this time I would occasionally admit of serious doubts to my parents, my bishop, close friends, or whoever I was dating. Sometimes I would think "you're really an atheist and lying about your beliefs," but I would try to push these thoughts aside and tell myself I had faith.

After about two more years, I decided to marry Sarah. At the time, I was not honest with her about how serious my doubts were. After we had been married a few months, I was serving in the Young Mens' Presidency, and I felt like the young men in the ward didn't have the self-confidence I thought they ought to have. I thought about how the church's teachings about masturbation hurt my self-confidence when I was a young man, and I was concerned about how the church was affecting them. I continued to feel sick when I had to teach gospel lessons. Eventually I admitted to my wife that I did not believe in God, and asked the Bishop to be released of my calling.

Admitting that I was an atheist was very hard on my wife, but liberating to me. She was at first angry that I had not been honest with her, but supported me being honest now. My self-confidence was largely restored when I found the courage to defend my true beliefs, even though virtually all of my friends and family disagreed with me. I finally didn't feel the need to hide or lie anymore.