Thursday, February 5, 2015

Eppur Si Muove

Eppur si muove . . .
In 1633, Galileo Galilei was brought before the Inquisition, charged with being "vehemently suspect of heresy" and forced to "abjure, curse and detest" his scientifically-derived conclusion that the earth moved around the sun. Under threat of torture and perhaps death, he recanted, yet managed to quietly stamp his foot and mutter to the ground, "Eppur si muove." 

Translation, "And yet it moves . . ."

What he meant, of course, was that the facts spoke for themselves. No matter what he (under duress) or the Church might proclaim to the contrary, the truth was the truth: the earth revolved around the sun. He knew it. He was still convicted of heresy, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. In a beautiful irony, after his death Galileo's right middle finger was eventually preserved and now sits in a museum in Florence, flipping the bird towards the Vatican for all of eternity.
Which brings me to a discussion of Truth (with a capital T). My stated objective of this year's spiritual quest has been "My Search For Meaning After Mormonism." Are meaning and Truth synonymous? I would propose that while objective Truth does exist, we then construct subjective meaning out of it--or around it. I've accepted that we live in a universe of quantum uncertainty.  But I still feel the pull of my compass needle towards some bedrock magnetic vector of truth. Man, I want to unearth that magnet, press my face to it, and then live in accordance with it. Once unearthed, how broad will it be? What will it be its shape, its texture, its shine? No, we'll never know it all, perhaps not even the slightest part. So within all of this "not knowing," can we know anything? Is anything certain in this uncertain existence?

One of my favorite Mormon hymns has always been, "Oh Say, What Is Truth?" by John Jaques.

Oh saywhat is truth? ’Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch’s costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.

Yes, saywhat is truth? ’Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire.
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies,
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies:
’Tis an aim for the noblest desire.

The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp

When with winds of stern justice he copes.
But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast
And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes.

Then saywhat is truth? ’Tis the last and the first,

For the limits of time it steps over.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.

Beyond the sometimes archaic language of this hymn (firm-rooted bulwarks, costliest diadems, fell tyrant's hopes--huh?), here lies the articulation of my concept of objective truth: it doesn't matter what we think of it, it simply is. It is the brightest prize, should be sought after to the ends of the earth, should weather the worst, and should be left standing even when the heavens depart and the earth ceases to be. Eternal, unchanged, evermore. When I used to profess my faith and testimony, it was in the service of this framework of truth. A hope in things not seen by my weak, fleshy eyes, but which yet were in some objective way True--verifiably, eternally True. (See Alma 32:31)

Now,  a person may believe, with every fiber of her being and beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the first humans came into existence 6,000 years ago in Missouri, or that the Book of Mormon is a historical record of the ancient peoples of America who descended from Jews. But that doesn't change the fact that those things are objectively false. You're free to believe them, just like you are free to believe in Santa Claus. But the case is closed on their truthfulness, and someone's fervency, or claims to privileged evidence or authority, does not persuade them to become true.

Are there relative truths within those claims? Perhaps. The sun sure looks like it moves around the earth. There are relative truths in Mormon doctrine, sure, and many objective truths, too. But what is the definition of Christ-like love? What constitutes a family? What is the purpose of life? These are relative interpretations or constructions. We create lists of things we believe to justify our preferred narratives of Manifest Destiny or God's Chosen People or whatever paradigm seems to best fit our current agenda. We create scriptures, have visions, promulgate legends, idolize leaders, build temples, all symbols which are eventually accepted as literal depictions of some essential facet of this mystery of life. But are these things True? Well, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

And yet . . . I do believe in objective truth. Please note that this is an open-ended belief: our understanding of what is true will continuously evolve. I'm committed to evolving with it. But gravity was always true, the speed of light was always constant, even before we had the slightest notion of what those concepts meant. In the end, I believe the Truth will always rise to the top, damn the Inquistion. Not immediately, but over time, through the application of the scientific method, the false will be winnowed away, and the truth prevail, thrusted upon the firm-rooted bulwarks of the fell tyrants' s costliest diadems. What cataclysm would have to befall civilization for us to regress to believing in a flat earth, or Greek humoral medicine? In the big scheme, the Truth Train moves in only one direction. Objective truth exists--within our agreed upon reference frame-- independent of the attitude and inclinations of the observer. 2+2=4. Gravity. DNA. These things exist. There are equations that define them that were just as true at the Big Bang as they are today at M.I.T. They are observable, quantifiable, verifiable, predictable, reproducible facts of existence. The fact that human minds have discovered, articulated, and harnessed these scientific truths inspires reverence. And the corollary of this is equally important: things can be proven false. And why devote your precious life to something false?

Religion was held up to me by my well-intended parents and church leaders as a fountain--the only trustworthy fountain--of real truth, everlasting truth. The rest of the world was decaying into moral relativism, science was deceiving people with things like evolution and dinosaurs, but the Church would always stand firm in defense of God's absolute truths. In fact, on my way out of the church, I was given by a bishop, counter-productively, a talk given by the Mormon prophet of my youth, Spencer W. Kimball, titled "Absolute Truth." This talk is an exercise in fallacious logic, spiritual hubris, and bullying. In it, he delineates certain truths which he deems in the most emphatic way beyond contention or corruption. Among these are Adam and Eve, the Great Flood, the Resurrection, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. Oops. Was he just confused, or was he lying?

Speaking of relativism: interestingly, Albert Einstein did not want to call his most famous theory "Relativity." In fact, he initially called it "The Theory of Invariance." What a different connotation that has! Einstein had discerned that observations (such as time, length, and mass) were relative but predictable, yet only because there existed fundamental constants and laws, such as the speed of light, whose constancy transcended reference frames.

Here's an explanation of how these semantics have had philosophical implications:
"Albert Einstein was unhappy about the name 'theory of relativity'.  He preferred 'theory of invariance'.  The reason is that [one] cornerstone of his 1905 theory of relativity is that the measured velocity of light is the same (invariant) regardless of any relative motion between a laboratory and the source of light.  What Einstein feared came to pass when the popular catchphrase of his theory became 'everything is relative.'  It was snatched up by people not acquainted with the scientific context, who regarded the theory as evidence in support of their own social views." 
--from "Social Theories First" by Arthur Miller, New Scientist, Jan 2006
Einstein never said or believed that "everything is relative." He once said, "Relativity applies to physics, not ethics." But even for his physics of relativity, the backbone was always invariance and constancy. Therein lay objective, predictable, verifiable Truth. And that Truth--the predictable order of the universe--was God to Einstein. (And then quantum came along and blew that up, introducing uncertainty, another frequently misapplied term. Getting over my head now, so will save that for later.)

To be blunt: to me, the contextual truth of Mormonism has become, like Galileo's middle finger, a tremendous irony. It is a religion founded on and justified by the claim that God chose and spoke directly to Joseph Smith, revealing to him the unadulterated absolute truth of his One True Church and "things as they really are." (Jacob 4:13) And yet as those ostensibly absolute truths revealed by Joseph and his successors are systematically shown to be false through modern science and research (see: Book of Abraham), there is, in my opinion, only one recourse for the believer who desires to maintain his faith: retreat to the relative. Who can penetrate that subjective realm to disprove a person's faith, which is, by definition, irrational?

This retreat to the subjective is on full display in the church's recently released, official yet unattributed essays, which attempt to spin the church's plethoric dirty laundry in a positive direction. (How do you put positive spin on God's prophet secretly marrying other men's wives under threat of destruction by an angel with a sword?) Yet all the spin in the world can't disguise the obvious conclusion: the Church, no matter how well-intentioned or beloved, is simply not True. Not like it defines itself, as "the only true and living church on the face of the whole earth." (D&C 1:30)

A believer may protest, cry heresy, shun the heretics, cast them out, censor their speech. But truth marches on. And there is only one way this ends, my friends. As Martin Luther King once said, "The moral arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." And may I add, good Reverend, towards Love and Truth.

Eppur si muove.

(As inspiration for this post, I'd like to acknowledge this excellent essay, written by a believing Mormon, about John Dehlin's impending excommunication set for Feb 8th, a modern-day trial of heresy.)

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