Cosmos: a personal view

September 4, 2007 | 58 comments
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In 1980, when I was nine, for thirteen weeks running, I watched Cosmos on Sunday nights with my father. Recently I’ve been watching the episodes again with my own nine-year old and his younger siblings. Much of the show has stuck with me ever since I first watched it, although it’s clearer to me now that Sagan thought of religion as a misguided fable at best, at worst as the greatest tool of oppression and hindrance to progress in human history. It’s also clear that Sagan was awed by the beauty of the universe and that he revered the miracle of life.

One of the goals of Cosmos—perhaps the goal—was to show that the origin and present state of the universe, and the evolution of life on Earth, are imbued with wonder, mystery, grandeur, and meaning. Or as Hugh of St. Victor wrote a millennium ago, Omnis natura rationem parit, et nihil in universitate infecundum est: all nature is pregnant with sense, and nothing in all of the universe is sterile. While Hugh and Sagan would disagree on the source and significance of meaning in the universe, I think they might agree that on every scale, from the quantum mechanical to the intergalactic, the cosmos has a story to tell. Sagan was engaged, in other words, in myth-making.

What surprises me most on this viewing of Cosmos is how compatible Sagan’s myths are with my own belief. For Sagan, the rise and present moment of human life is intimately connected to the whole history of the Earth and of the entire universe: we are such stuff as stars are made of, we are children of the cosmos. Our views differ, in that Sagan believes in an impersonal universe rather than a personal god—or does he regard the universe as personal to the extent that we are a part of it? If the latter, we still live on opposite sides of the street, but close enough to smile and wave hello from our front porches.

One story Sagan tells to explain the process of evolution involves the Heike crab in Japan, whose carapace resembles the face of a Samurai warrior. How did it get that way? Because generations of Japanese fishermen, influenced by tales of a lost Samurai army under the waves, threw back crabs with face-like carapaces, letting them breed and pass on their genes to later crab generations. This, for Sagan, is an example of artificial selection. Whether or not the story holds together as evolutionary biology is a matter of controversy, but it is a splendid explanatory myth, including in ways that Sagan probably didn’t intend.

If we are the universe and the cosmos is us, isn’t the distinction between natural and artificial selection itself a bit artificial? Sagan rejects the notion of a Watchmaker, but he seems to think that a creator must be something like a fisherman plunging his arm down into the ocean world of crabs and deciding whether a member of the species has a sufficiently Samuari-like shell pattern. But if the fisherman is intimately connected to the universe, is there a fundamental difference between a hand stirring about beneath the waves, and a current here, a gentle eddy in the water there, that pushes one crab in one direction, and a second crab in another?

To put it a bit more plainly, I don’t see any contradiction between Mormon belief and a Darwinian interpretation of the fossil record. The question, “Have you received my image in your countenance?” might apply both to personal salvation, and to human creation.

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58 Responses to Cosmos: a personal view

  1. Alan Jackson on September 4, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Interesting read.

    One point about evolution though, lets not make Darwinism and evolution synonymous. The fossil record obviously shows a progression of less advanced to more advanced organisms and the fact that organisms change has been observed for quite a long time. He contributed much to the theory of how that process occurs, but even his theories have already been dramatically revamped because they are not sufficient to account for much of what we have observed.

  2. Adam Greenwood on September 4, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Sagan’s view is incoherent. You have to be a Jonathan Green–a believer–to really get his myth.

  3. greenfrog on September 4, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Jonathan,

    Evolution by natural selection is sometimes understood to mean “evolution by random selection,” but I think the latter misses an important point — the one that you address in this post. “Natural” selection is selection that occurs in nature. As we are a part of nature, our selections certainly impact the forms of life we see around us.

    As others have observed, dogs are far less capable of fending for themselves in the wild than wolves are. I don’t have to be looking at my bichon frisee to know that if a coyote happened by when he was in the backyard, he’d become a snack, while a wolf could dispatch the coyote without much difficulty.

    But the number of dogs present on earth is orders of magnitude larger than the number of wolves. Why? Because we prefer dogs. Similarly, looking at the world today, we find a startlingly low number of large oceanic fishes. Why? Because we prefer eating them to the tiny oceanic “bait” fishes.

    But “natural” selection extends well beyond the limited contours of human preferences. Fish have preferences and make choices, too. Those preferences give rise to (in some species) bright yellow spots on males selected to breed with females. They give rise to bower birds building elaborate nests. They give rise to cactus that grow thorns. They give rise to faster cheetahs, blind voles, and blue damselflies.

    Nature is filled with agency at all kinds of levels of perception, preference, and choice. Those perceptions, preferences, and choices shape which mutations are perpetuated within a particular line of descent, and which ones are removed.

    Human choice is just one of the subsets of choices that compose natural selection.

    FWIW, from what I’ve read, I’m reasonably confident that Darwin would not disagree at all. Much of his study was devoted to the oddities manifested in pigeons by bred by human fanciers.

  4. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 11:31 am

    If I only believed in nature as a supreme force, and no God, or “Watchmaker” as Jonathan said, then I would have to believe in evolution and natural selection beyond what we see today. In other words, if I didn’t believe in species on other planets, then I would be limiting the possibilities of nature. Since space and universes are limitless, and nature is at work on all of them, then the possibilities are limitless. One of those possibilities is the rise of a species that becomes so knowledgeable, so powerful, that they become “Watchmakers”, or “gods” in some form or another, because they learn how to manipulate nature, space, possibly time, etc. They may even learn how to prolong life eternally, or have come to understand something metaphysical (“spiritual”) about our natures that can also be manipulated, evolved, etc. They may visit other planets, or even form other planets, and guide the creation of new species. In other words, if I believe in “Nature”, but don’t believe in “God” or “Gods” (i.e., a possiblitiy of the results of natural selection over time), then I deny the possibilities of nature without cause.

  5. Mike Parker on September 4, 2007 at 11:40 am

    I have loved Cosmos since I first watched it in 1980. Carl Sagan was a brilliant man with a unique ability to take complex ideas and make them understandable and interesting at the same time.

    But Allen Buskirk, in his review of The Demon-Haunted World, identified Sagan’s philosophical deficiency:

    “Does Sagan recognize that people long for meaning and purpose in their lives and that his scientism is ultimately not fulfilling this need? He recognizes the demands of the heart but, tone-deaf to religious insights, offers scientific marvels instead.”

    The odd thing is that Sagan’s Contact (or at least the film version) gives great strength to the argument that there are things one has experienced and knows to be true but cannot prove empirically to others. I’m not sure if Sagan meant for that to be the message.

  6. Adam Greenwood on September 4, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Good stuff, greenfrog.

  7. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    #4 Excellently put, and I agree. But this opens up a few possibilities:

    1) That these Watchmakers could evolve past the need for anthropomorphic form. Indeed, with the powers you describe it would be suprising if they didn’t. Much as in our own technological development we’re reaching a point where brain chips and solar-power-converting-clothes will save the need for intermediary mechanisms, why wouldn’t the Gods just merge with nature? “As a man thinketh, so is he” could become “As a God thinketh, so it is” because ‘it’ is, in fact, God. Maybe God is nearer than we think when the trees wave in a breeze.

    2) Highly evolved creatures tend to make free use out of lesser evolved ones. Cats play with mice. Humans experiment with microbes, eat cows and spray test perfumes on shaved beagles. There’s no obligation for the watchmaker – once he has decided to form new planets and guide new species – to tell the truth, or stick to one truth, or be nice to the new species, or in any way to treat them consistently.

  8. Adam Greenwood on September 4, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    As to your point 2, Kyle, I can only say that the living God isn’t a theoretical highly evolved creature. I have experienced God and he isn’t toying with us and he’s not out for his own amusement. Though he’s probably not as cuddly as some would think.

  9. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    #7 – Very interesting thoughts. Those are possibilities.
    1) “These Watchmakers could evolve past the need for anthromorphic form. . .” Perhaps advanced species utilize non-corporeality. It may even explain how some advanced species could travel beyond speeds that we understand (Deconstitute matter at point A and reconstitute matter at point B) or how devices like Urim and Thummins can have access to all knowledge at any given moment.

    2) “Highly evolved creates tend to make free use out of lesser evolved ones . . ” You are right in that if you consider the possibility of one “master” species evolving to have a purely benevolent philosophy, there could be others that evolve with non-benevolent philosophies. There would be a host of possibilities that could lead to our perceived reality or “truth”. Our own theology requires that there be opposing forces in all things. Perhaps our watchmaker/makers protect us in ways that we aren’t aware of. Perhaps there is more power if benevolent use of nature than in non-benevolent use. Who knows what the governance between advanced species may be, but, the possibilities are fun to think about.

  10. Adam Greenwood on September 4, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    By the way, Kyle R., try to remember that this platform is by Mormons, for Mormons, and that you’re a guest here. Your number 7, for instance, could very well have said something like “Excellently put, and I agree, but your idea doesn’t justify Mormon concepts of God. It allows for the possibilities: 1) That these Watchmakers, etc.”

  11. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    #8 1) We have all experienced God Adam.
    2) Toying doesn’t necessarily equate to amusement.

    #9 Yes I might have phrased it that way. But I didn’t. My participation on T&S has always been polite, and very appreciative of LDS perspectives. You’re the only person on here who seems to harbour some idea of me as seeking to undermine it, rather than challenging it occasionally to understand it better. Discussion is what the blog is about.

    Jonathan please tell me if I violate my guest status.

    #10 Yes the possibilities are fun to think about and I like where you take them in your response Dan.

    1) I suppose advanced God-species of the kind you theoretically describe – or of the sort in Mormon thought – would almost certainly have at least access to the power of non-corporeality , though an anthropomorphic form might have proven (or not) ideal as their basic form of being.
    With regard to the Urim and Thummin, yes such Gods would almost surely be able to embody any power in any form of matter they chose.

    2) Perhaps there is more power if benevolent use of nature than in non-benevolent use.
    This is what I suspect. Though as Adam says, ‘God’ is “probably not as cuddly as some would think.” Benevolent and non-benevolent are human categories and God presumably lives beyond them to a certain extent.

  12. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    If we are the universe and the cosmos is us, isn’t the distinction between natural and artificial selection itself a bit artificial?

  13. Adam Greenwood on September 4, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    1) We have all experienced God, Adam.

    And?

    2) Toying doesn’t necessarily equate to amusement.

    Which is why I used both words.

  14. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    #9 -Adam, Kyle R’s thought sound like fairly well thought out arguments and still in line with Jonathan’s post. I think you might be reading into his comments.

    #11 – I welcome that kind of creativity of thought. When it comes to the “possibilities” of nature/God, we as a human species are so uniformed about it that we would be foolish to believe that we know the “truth” in totality. Our own scriptures (Book of Abraham) encourages us to think on a grander scale. Abraham contemplated these possibilities and God unfolded a view to him of the enormity of space and god’s dealings. We know that God laid out for Abraham a universal concept that there are intelligences at all levels, Heavenly Father’s being the highest of all. But, we don’t necessarily know all the mechanics of how it works, or what is happening behind the scenes. It takes creativity to fill in the gaps, even if it means bending our pre-conceived ideas a little to make sense of it.

  15. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    #12 Jonathan, I meant to say of that quote that if we – for example – considered nature as a language that God speaks – if nature were in some literal way the Word of God – then the distinction between natural and artificial selection would well and truly be semantic.

    #13 1) And all who have experienced God – which includes everyone – will use different words to describe the (immense) experience.

    2) For example some people might very well use the word ‘toying’ and ‘amusement’ of God’s relationship without it being appropriate for some of us who’ve had nicer lives to dismiss their use of these words out-of-hand.

  16. Ardis Parshall on September 4, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    the only person on here who seems to harbour some idea of me as seeking to undermine it, rather than challenging it occasionally to understand it better

    To be fair to Adam, this is simply not true.

    Asking questions: okay. Seeking clarification: okay. Threadjacking by posting outlandishly un-Mormon comments and then suggesting we’re rude by not appreciating them: not so much.

    Denying the very nature of God as understood in Mormonism, as you do in #7 by positing alien possibilities, is not really in the spirit of Times and Seasons. A request that you frame your comments as attempts to understood the Mormon concept is quite in line.

    Discussion is what the blog is about. No. Mormon discussion is what the blog is about.

    And Dan S., Adam is in a far better position than any guest to state what is welcome and what is not.

  17. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    #14 I agree completely Dan. The “in my father’s house are many mansions” thing, these levels. And like real mansions, perhaps God leaves them for progressing spirits to design and decorate, much as we’re given enormous freedom here on earth to design not only mansions but entire societies. The impression I get of God, including the LDS revelation of him, is that he’s not one for spoonfeeding us to much.

    When one person gets to eternity he may or may not have space-time warp and light spectra diffusion on completely different indexes from someone else. Natural selection might work without interference but be set up with different initial parameters.

  18. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    #16 Ardis, Jonathan’s initial post posits that seeming incompatabilities between Mormonism and what on the surface seem to be ‘alien possibilities are just that, seeming. I honestly fail to see how speculating on the nature of God in the way that people such as Sagan do while at the same time using the Mormon conception of God as a reference point is a cause for offence.

  19. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    #16 – Adam is in a far better position to state T&S policy. I do not deny that. I only stated that I thought that Adam might be reading between the lines because I didn’t think Kyle R’s comments rose to an anti-mormon level. Kyle R’s posted the thoughts with sensability and in the spirit of discussion, not in the spirit of contention. I disagree with your contention that this is not “Mormon” discussion. Mormon’s believe in all truth. If you and the T&S overseers feel it necessary to channel this discussion into what you think is “truth”, then I’d be happy to take the discussion elsewhere.

  20. Jonathan Green on September 4, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    It’s all good. Ultra-trans-evolutionary deities don’t really give me warm fuzzies, but to each his own. Please, let the conversation continue.

  21. Ardis Parshall on September 4, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Kyle R, speculating about the mechanics God may have used in creating this world and placing life here is just fine — it’s fun, we explore possibilities, it encourages us to examine the blurry line between what we know of God’s processes and what we don’t.

    You go farther, and suggest alternatives for the nature of God Himself. That God is not anthropomorphic, that God might lie by not “stick[ing] to one truth,” that He preys on us with non-benevolent intent — you really don’t understand why I consider such suggestions as “outlandish” for a Mormon discussion?

  22. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    #20, Thanks Jonathan. I can’t say that ultra-trans-evolutionary dieties give me the warm fuzzies either, but they don’t give me the blues. For some, the existence of God, however he came to being, gives many of us comfort. But why should it seems disturbing to think about how it all came into being? I think that your post is trying to reconcile our beliefs to those who don’t share our beliefs in a way that subsumes them to some extent. I fully recognize that natural selection in the creation of god is wildly speculative. But, I don’t state it as fact, nor as a closely held personal belief, simply as a way of reconciling my beliefs with Sagans beliefs, even if it means overlapping them somehow through speculation.

  23. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    #21 Ardis, my initial comments weren’t a nearly as much of a threadjack as this newest misconstruing by yourself of my comments and their intent. Throwing around a few frivolous ideas is not the same as ‘denying’. And I suspect that God – even the LDS God – wouldn’t in the least find my speculative, creative way of thinking – which is, whatever you think, a method of enquiry – nearly as outlandish as you do. Nor would many Mormons. In your comments you seem to not only dictate the ‘truth’ to me but to dictate exactly how I should restructure my meandering – but very genuine, a fact you seem to have discounted out of hand – manner of enquiry, so that you’re pleased with it. Not God. Not Mormonism. Just you. And as you point out, Adam.

    You seem to consistently misunderstand my intent. If Mormonism is the truth – an idea I myself am very far from dicounting or rejecting it – then my way of exploring it should not be a threat, except to people who aren’t sure themselves.

    You’ll say that last comment is rude and outlandish and everything else, but I think you’ve already made up your mind to oust me from T&S.

    And not because of any impropriety or lack of sometimes interesting and constructive things to say, not for any rudeness, not for lack of genuinely participating in discussions – sometimes in an extremely LDS spirit, which I’m after all learning to understand.

    No, not because of any of these things. But simply because my path into an engagement Mormonism isn’t ‘authorised’ by you and Adam.

  24. Jonathan Green on September 4, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Kyle, you are welcome to share your thoughts, as I indicated. But don’t get huffy, and don’t sass Ardis. I assume my posts and hers crossed in the night, and I really am OK with your sharing your thoughts. Now that’s settled, please return to an even keel.

  25. Dave on September 4, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Kyle, I think your “speculations” are interesting. The point Ardis and Adam are making (they can correct me if I’m wrong here) is that this thread and this site are not the place to post them and have that discussion. You might try New Cool Thang blog, which specializes in wide-ranging Mormon doctrinal speculation of all sorts.

    I really hate to see Jonathan’s post derailed, so I’ll try to get things back on track. I really liked Carl Sagan, and his work at popularizing science deserves praise. There’s too much pseudo-science that gets taken seriously, and science education in K-12 doesn’t always get the job done. So “popularizations,” both in print and on television, serve important purposes.

    Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, subtitled “Science as a Candle in the Dark,” championed science against the increasingly slick pseudo-science fads and products that thrive in our modern culture. When reading the book, I particularly noted how Sagan went out of his way to *not* bring organized religion into the discussion in that book. That seems like a wise exercise of discretion on his part. The book is much better for it. Other contemporary science writers might benefit from his example.

  26. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks Jonathan and thanks for your post. I agreed with the open-mindedness of it. But I can see it will always be this way for me on here. It’s only ‘sass’ or ‘outlandish’ when it comes from me. Even if equally speculative or much more confrontational things come from a Mormon commentator then it’s “Mormon discussion”.

    I won’t be bothered or offended if you don’t post this comment.

  27. Kyle R on September 4, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    #25 Thanks Dave.

  28. Patricia Karamesines on September 4, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    Your post is fun for me, Jonathan. As I read it, several thoughts sparked.

    While Hugh and Sagan would disagree on the source and significance of meaning in the universe, I think they might agree that on every scale, from the quantum mechanical to the intergalactic, the cosmos has a story to tell. Sagan was engaged, in other words, in myth-making.

    I’ve thought this before about science in general because of how–I guess I could say “rapidly”–it outgrows its wonderful outfits. My own experience has been that I see what I’m able to see until I push past some curtain I’ve supposed and see more. Like science, I expect to outgrow my current narrative raiment, and suppose what I discard will seem one day like costumery, or personal myth. Line upon line, or layer upon layer, and all that. You brought up Darwin. As others have pointed out on this thread, Darwin wasn’t the first word nor is he the last word on evolution, nor is Sagan on the wonder, beauty, and miracle of creation, nor will be anybody else.

    I used to see the creation/evolution stories as competing narratives, but I don’t now. I think it’s always fortunate, though, when someone like Sagan comes along and narratizes his relationship with the mystery in such a way that it sparks others’ imaginations.

    As an aside, what I find least resonant in Darwin’s language is his focus on natural selection as war: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant…” “And as foreigners have thus in every country beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage, so as to have better resisted the intruders.” Etc. I think language like this might actually limit our seeing what is, and while war-like competition exists, I don’t think it’s all that in natural selection or progression on any front.

    If we are the universe and the cosmos is us, isn’t the distinction between natural and artificial selection itself a bit artificial? … is there a fundamental difference between a hand stirring about beneath the waves, and a current here, a gentle eddy in the water there … ?

    Well, of course, I think the distinction is unnecessary, along with other distinctions we commonly make. I’m only a superficial adventurer in some ways, but when I have some eye-opening encounter with another creature (something less like me than another person, that is), I feel “with” the creature, hardly an objective observer, and not nearly in full understanding of the experience, but engaged in … something and involved in a web of interactions and agency and creation bigger than myself but that certainly includes and involves me. Sometimes, I hope, happily includes me. “Artificial” is a funny word, though. Even the dictionary (American Heritage) defines it as “Made by humans; produced rather than natural.” Funny, exclusionary word. But I like related words: “artifice,” “artifact.”

    Living on the edge of the desert as I do now, where I have a 60-plus mile view during the day, and views extending light years off at night, I feel much more part of the natural continuum than I did living in other places.

    Anyway, no, I don’t see any inherent contradiction between Mormon belief about progression and salvation and whatever the current over-arching narrative might be about the fossil record. It might be interesting to wonder about how repentance, that “mighty change of heart,” might fit into natural selection, or vice versa. Just for fun, I mean–not to change any doctrine (she hurries and adds).

  29. Ray on September 4, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    PK, it’s funny you should ask about repentance and evolution. The following short article from the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine is very interesting – as it addresses the role of forgiveness (repentance’s twin sister, IMO) in natural selection and the possibility of evolution leading to religious beliefs.

    http://www.harvardmagazine.com/2007/09/foundations-of-faith.html

  30. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Jonathan, does the fossil record really suggest the evolution of man, or just the evolution of other species? My understanding was that there wasn’t enough fossil evidence to explain that man evolved on this planet, which is one of the reasons why there is so much controversy on the topic. But, I’m not an anthropologist, so I’m curious what you mean by the “fossil record”.

    Also, you pose a scenario where we, humans, are like crabs, but a fisherman, God, who is wholly unlike a crabs in form and abilities, stirs the waters and directly influences the evolution of man. This implies that man is unlike God in form and that we become closer to God’s form by his direction. Are you speaking figuratively?

  31. Patricia Karamesines on September 4, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Ray, thanks for the reference. I read it and liked it; some stuff there very familiar. Some sentences really rang my bells. This one, for instance: “But direct reciprocity fails to explain a whole range of observed ‘cooperative’ or altruistic human behaviors in which individuals perform selfless acts for others without apparent expectation of a reciprocal act.”

    And these ones: “Nowak, in fact, has demonstrated mathematically how indirect reciprocity provides selective pressure for the development of human language, which he calls the most important invention of the last 500 million years. ‘Prior to the invention of language, evolution was based on genetics only,’ he explains. ‘With human language, we have the machinery for unlimited cultural evolution.’”

    Ooo, really, really like that last one.

  32. Ray on September 4, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    PK, that last one hit me, as well. Kind of like something happened when conversant, self-aware upward-looking&reaching “man” came unto the scene that made it possible for “humanity” to fulfill the measure of its creation – or something along those lines?

  33. Patricia Karamesines on September 4, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    “…that made it possible for “humanity” to fulfill the measure of its creation – or something along those lines?”

    As in, the full measurement has not yet been taken? (Based on that word “unlimited” in his wording.)

  34. Tatiana on September 4, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    Kyle, I also found your posts fun and interesting speculation, and not at all beyond the pale. I’m a faithful Mormon but also a scientist who loves science fiction, so such ideas don’t seem at all outlandish to me. Maybe that’s the difference.

    I also love Carl Sagan, and think he’s philosophically close kin to believing LDS, though I’m sure he would have vehemently denied it. I used a quote from him on the main page of my wiki about averting human extinction.

    I’m enjoying Jonathan Green’s posts very much. He’s said many things I would say, with more skill than I could express them.

  35. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Tatiana, I love science fiction too. I suspect most people who’s eye caught Jonathan’s post also enjoy the genre. I think that science fiction lovers more easily converse on interesting speculation of this kind without thinking it is an affront to religion.

  36. Adam Greenwood on September 4, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    I read SF constantly. Its my meat and drink. But I don’t see that restored truths can be made compatible with the notion that God and the gods have moved beyond having a body or that He (and they) have the same attitude towards us that we have towards microbes, cattle, and animal test subjects.

    I prefer the old SF story, I forget its name but its pretty clearly modeled after Heart of Darkness, where a missionary in Africa hears the notion that our entire planetary, nay, galactic, nay, universal system might just be something like a molecule in another order of being, so that we and the unimaginable vastness around us is really nothing more than an infinitesimal speck on a ring on God’s finger. The missionary loses God’s faith as he really comprehends for the first time the absurdity of God caring about a nothing like him. He flees into the continent. Someone goes after him and his able to trace the evolution of his beliefs by looking at the idols he makes at each village. At the last village the rescuer comes to, he seems a statue of man peering intently at his ring.

  37. Dan S. on September 4, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Adam, I read Kyle’s comments as saying that if you discuss a belief in man “in the cosmos”, and if you turn that discussion toward “God” in the cosmos, as I did, you have to be careful of how you do so. I took his comments as saying that if I suggest the concept of the “possibilities” of God being part of the cosmos, I have to consider possibilities that can seemingly fly in the face of Mormon theology. If those happen to be Kyle’s “actual” beliefs, then so what, but, to me, he didn’t present them in a way that suggests Mormons should acutally believe in a non-corporeal God or that Mormons should believe that God actually treats us as test subjects. I took his comments as more of a thought exercise than a proclamation of personal doctrine. I take it in good fun and respond in kind.

    Science fiction is all about thinking about the possibilities. I personally don’t have to read the scriptures and pray before I watch an episode of Star Trek thinking that it will shake my testimony whenver the “Q” character appears. I can take it in good fun. That is why I say that science fiction buffs take that kind of discussion more lightly.

  38. Shane on September 5, 2007 at 1:44 am

    #21 – That God is not anthropomorphic, that God might lie by not “stick[ing] to one truth,” that He preys on us with non-benevolent intent — you really don’t understand why I consider such suggestions as “outlandish” for a Mormon discussion?

    Ardis, why is this an outlandish topic for a \”Mormon discussion\” (whatever that means) while the posts on this board that frequently support gay marriage, and other similarly false ideas, are given a pass or praised?

  39. Kyle R on September 5, 2007 at 3:38 am

    Dan S. and Shane. Thanks guys for understanding precisely where I’m actually coming from.

    Tatiana. Thanks for your comments but thank you much much more for your great wiki link. I’ve linked my name to a resource that might interest you. Perhaps I’ll talk more to you via your website.

  40. Jonathan Green on September 5, 2007 at 5:07 am

    Dan S., Adam’s credentials as a connoisseur of science fiction are impeccable, so you’ll have to modify your thesis a bit. As far as the human fossil record goes, my understanding is that the precise interpretation is subject to constant revision due to new discoveries, but that the basic model is no more in doubt than it is for any other species. You ask a good question about my comparison of God to the fisherman. I’m not proposing that humans will ultimately become godlike through an evolutionary process, simply because that’s a speculation (and we are firmly in the realm of speculation here) that doesn’t resonate with me. Rather, my question is, if we are created in God’s image from the dust of the earth, how long did that process take? I tend to lean towards 4 billion years, give or take a few. I am not troubled by the question or the answer, because it’s not something that actually matters all that much to our present situation. Also, it’s worth asking ourselves, If we have the physical likeness of God and are worthy to be called his children, are we still in some ways stunted, crab-like creatures that have assumed a physical likeness to a being whose glory we can hardly comprehend? Perhaps not, although sometimes I feel like that must be the case.

    Adam, that story is intriguing. If anyone knows the title or author, please let us know. (I should mention as a tangent that I regret that Mormon literature has not yet brought forth Heart of Darkness set in the realm of Mormon missionaries, with one elder being sent to retrieve his new companion from the distant outskirts of the mission, where that missionary has turned a small branch into a crazed personality cult. My second regret is that I never took the opportunity while a missionary to establish such a personality cult for myself.)

    Patricia, “narrativize” is an excellent word that I am about to steal and give you no credit for. Sorry. As penance, let me add that your thoughts on a “mighty change of heart” are interesting, and maybe we can see in it some reflection of the shift from a 3-chamber reptilian to a 4-chamber mammalian heart…uh, actually, no, we can’t, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Never mind.

  41. Patricia Karamesines on September 5, 2007 at 10:06 am

    As penance, let me add that your thoughts on a “mighty change of heart” are interesting, and maybe we can see in it some reflection of the shift from a 3-chamber reptilian to a 4-chamber mammalian heart…uh, actually, no, we can’t, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Never mind.

    Hah! If in the course of doing this penance you have failed to evolve, what can I say? Penance that fails to crank the penitent up a notch or two in the spiritual evolutionary vector is clearly insincere!

    Um, I said, “narratize.” You said “narrativize.” I did I quick Google search and it appears both words are used to mean roughly the same thing, though neither are in any of my dictionaries. Though I found the interesting word “narratrix” in my OED.

  42. John Mansfield on September 5, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Jonathan Green, you had the opportunity to go Kurtz on a branch? I guess the abundance of such opportunities depends on the strength ot the personality. (Or in other words, the possibility has never presented itself to me.)

  43. Chino Blanco on September 5, 2007 at 11:07 am

    Interesting. You guys rock. I’m off to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey for the tenth time with the kiddos.

  44. Jonathan Green on September 5, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Sorry, Patricia. Narratize, narratize, narratize…

    John M., no, I really didn’t have a good opportunity to be Kurtz. One of my splits had me within shouting distance of being Marlow, though.

  45. Chino Blanco on September 5, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Scratch that. Tonight it’s Blade Runner

    The kids gotta learn how to get past the Voight-Kampff test.

  46. Dan S. on September 5, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    #40 – “Adam’s credentials as a connoisseur of science fiction are impeccable, so you’ll have to modify your thesis a bit”
    . . . I guess so. Maybe because this isn’t a blog known for that type of discussion, and people who visit this blog may not want to shift into that frame of thinking, then speculation along those lines can seem distasteful. I can appreciate that. I’ll certainly be more careful about opening that can of worms again. It would help if there was a policy written that explained that though because getting called to the mat by anyone, especially from an administrator at a blog that you enjoy, is equally as distasteful. Without a written policy, it can feel heavy-handed or prejudiced.

    I actually brought up the topic, however, because a close relative of mine, who has a strong scientific mind, until recently used to be a strong member of the church. But, he suddenly denounced his belief in God because he determined it was “illogical” to believe in God, and now he only believes in what he sees or can prove to be real. I’ve been thinking about ways to try and find some common ground with him, and to open his mind to the possibilities that things we know to be real, such as the cosmos, themselves at least had enough power or wisdom, or dumb luck, to have created sentient beings as complex and marvelous as we are. And, if science proves that the cosmos is continuously improving on its creations, then being like our selves could evolve, eventually, to a prolonged state of sentience. Not just a prolonged state, but maybe even a glorious and powerful state. We, as believers in God, take the short cut by believing that a being, Heavenly Father, grants us eternal life and eternal rewards. However, to mentally present the possibility of a God to a person who doesn’t believe in a Heavenly Father, like my close relative, I figure that I would have to start my discussion on common ground (the physical world) and move from there into possibilities that could present a being like Heavenly Father, but that could genuinely still fit into my closely held LDS beliefs. I’m grateful for your indulgence to see how such a discussion would be received from both an LDS and non-LDS perspective, even if it did derail the original post a little bit.

  47. Dan S. on September 5, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    #40 – “Also, it’s worth asking ourselves, If we have the physical likeness of God and are worthy to be called his children, are we still in some ways stunted, crab-like creatures that have assumed a physical likeness to a being whose glory we can hardly comprehend?”

    . . . To our own physical eyes we cannot see the manifestations of glory. In our human form, we cannot perform extraordinary feats that God and angels do, like interstellar/interdimensional travel or whatever it is that angels do to appear out of no where, or controlling matter, or producing celestial fire, or any of the other things we read about in scriptures. So, clearly God has abilities that are far beyond us. We look like him, but we don’t do what he does.

    (Warning! Speculation ahead.) However, much of those abilities might be dormant in us. We are told that we might have had a role in forming this earth. Furthermore, angels appear in glory, even without a body (angel Gabriel for example). So, there might be some inherent spiritual abilities in us already that are suppressed during our earthly stay. Afterall, if we were in existence for billions or years before our earthly experience, we must have gained extraordinary abilities in that time. Maybe our spiritual bodies are what evolved into a glorious state and we are actually fishermen and fisherwomen (or at least fisherboys and fishergirls) stuffed into crab shells for a few years. Maybe when the scriputures says that “ye are gods” Ps. 8:6, or when Abraham writes that the “Gods” formed the earth (Abr. 4:1), they are literally attempting to describe our extra-mortal nature.

  48. Patricia Karamesines on September 5, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    #45–haha! The Voight-Kampff test. Maybe we ought to institute it as a screening test for potential bloggers.

    Love Blade Runner. Didn’t look like much evolving was going on in it, though. Rather the opposite.

  49. Geoff J on September 6, 2007 at 12:48 am

    Dave (#25),

    Don’t be sending freaks to my blog dude.

  50. Kyle R on September 6, 2007 at 3:09 am

    Jonathan, Ardis. Is this what is meant by “Mormon discussion”? My genuinely enquiring comments get misunderstood and jumped all over, except by Dan. S, because they are “not really in the spirit of Times and Seasons” and yet #49 passes without anything more than private sniggers because it apparently is. My comments may have always been challenging but they’ve at least been in the spirit of search and argued debate and never in the spirit of wanton, cruel, thoughtless and gratuitous insult.

    What hypocrisy.

  51. Geoff J on September 6, 2007 at 3:53 am

    Don’t take it too personally Kyle R. The admins here probably didn’t even see my somewhat inadvertent insult of you.

    Anyway, I don’t really know if you are a freak or not. I’ll assume not until I see enough evidence otherwise. I just saw Dave’s #25 and was annoyed that it implied that anything goes at my blog; as if we have no standards at the Thang… I assure you it has more to do with me feeling pissy tonight than you.

  52. Dan S. on September 6, 2007 at 4:34 am

    Geoff, some of your thinking is way speculative too, but also very interesting and engaging. I actually visited your site after Dave mentioned it and I liked what I saw. I’ll probably read New Cool Thang more often. I’m glad you clarified your #49 b/c, offhand, it did sound pretty insulting. BTW, I didn’t actually see a link off of your website regarding policies or standards. Is there one?

  53. Dan S. on September 6, 2007 at 4:42 am

    Geoff, I just listened to a few MP3s from the Noisepie site. Very nice. I especially liked the “Inchworm” mp3. Was that a Noisepie original (I ask b/c some of the songs listed are remakes)?

  54. Ardis Parshall on September 6, 2007 at 5:05 am

    Kyle R (#50) – Geoff J is right in saying that #49 hadn’t been seen by any of us yet. It was posted well after my bedtime, and although it is not quite 3 a.m. chez moi, I’m up doing housekeeping on the blog. I hope Geoff J’s explanation is acceptable, that he was chest-butting with his friend Dave about the content of their own blogs (each operates a blog outside of T&S), and not really intended as an insult to you.

    If that’s not enough, please accept my personal apology. I’m sorry for the apparent slur. Just as I chided another poster for calling someone on another thread yesterday a “weirdo,” I would not countenance your being called names. I don’t think that was the intent here — I believe Geoff J’s explanation, because it’s part of a long running Bloggernacle gag, unrecognized and unappreciated by a relative newcomer.

    Many of us seem to be feeling “pissy” lately, to use Geoff J’s word, myself included. I hope the mood soon passes. Kyle R, you’re welcome here at T&S, as is any other commenter who plays by the rules — many of which, unfortunately, might appear to be unwritten. We’re big on the unwritten order of things …

  55. Kyle R on September 6, 2007 at 6:38 am

    #49 Fair enough. All understood, accepted, forgotten, Geoff. My skin isn’t that thin, er, dude.
    I understand pissiness because we English are rather like that all the time.

    #54 Ardis, I did get huffy and “pissy”because the ‘freak’ thing came on the heels of my feeling that church members are allowed freedom of thought in here, but that I’m not, because somehow – unless I’m asking the ‘right’ questions framed in the ‘right’ way according to an ‘unwritten’ script leading straight to the baptismal font with no unauthorised detours – it is considered some kind of insolence for me to approach the divine in my own way, or from angles not in the script, or to have banned thoughts on Mormon theology, much less the nature of God: as though the experience of God is somehow privileged information locked in a vault in Utah somewhere, and eternity and thoughts on eternity are somehow equally under LDS copyright, rather than the god-given right of all human souls.

    Otherwise, I much appreciate your thoughtful statement. I equally apologise for any comments and tangential thoughts on your faith that have been unintentially – due to my newness to it and to blogging – offensive. I consider philosophy and theology and freedom of thought to be up for grabs, but I would never think it okay for me to thoughtlessly trample on anything truly sacred or precious to you or anyone else.

    I hope that’s also realised and not misunderstood.

  56. Jonathan Green on September 6, 2007 at 6:47 am

    Kyle, you need to decide if you want to share your thoughts on the topic, or if you want to whine about how mean and hypocritical everyone is. The former is welcome–as I’m pointing out to you, for the third time now–while the latter will not get you much sympathy from me. On the Internet, not everyone agrees with you, and sometimes they express their disagreement clumsily. Shocking, I know, but that’s the way it is. You can choose to participate, or not. Write something smart, rather than whiny, and everything will be fine.

  57. Chino Blanco on September 6, 2007 at 6:52 am

    There’s an old post over at Mormon Metaphysics that had a line that this thread has brought to mind …

    “To what degree is the adherence to particular forms of discourse about God over a direct approach to God a form of idolatry?”

  58. Chino Blanco on September 6, 2007 at 7:55 am

    Oh well, so I’m the only one who harbors an unnatural affection for whinging pommes (and extended threadjacks).

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