Mormon blogging lost a friend last week, as reported in this T&S post. Clark Goble was a regular contributor from the very beginning of LDS blogging, as well as a frequent commenter here at W&T. He often brought philosophy into his commentary, so with a nod to Clark I’m going to try to carry on that tradition. Let’s talk about philosophical questions, the kind that spur insightful discussion but don’t lead to clear answers. There are also empirical questions, moral questions, and aesthetic questions. I’ll circle back around to Mormonism at the end, as theological questions are a lot like philosophical questions, which does not sit well with the Mormon sense that every religious question should have a short and sweet gospel answer.
Empirical Questions. Data answers empirical questions. Sometimes more data is needed, and sometimes the needed data may never become available or accessible, but if it did an answer could be fashioned. The continued success of natural science, a set of empirical disciplines, sometimes leads to the idea that data can answer every question, that all relevant questions are empirical. That is certainly not the case, and recognizing what kind of question one is dealing with is a necessary preliminary step to knowing what kind of answer one is looking for. Most historical questions fall under this category. Finding new documents after digging around the archives can dramatically change our view of particular past events.
Moral Questions. Life is full of moral choices and issues. These are not data-driven questions that admit to clear answers. For some insight, let’s hear from Jean-Luc Picard, that moral giant of our time. In the Next Generation episode “Conundrum,” he and the crew are tricked into attacking a technologically inferior race. When pressured to follow orders and continue attacking an obviously mismatched foe, Picard replies:
I feel as though I’ve been handed a weapon, sent into a room and told to shoot a stranger. Well, I need some moral context to justify that action, and I don’t have it. I’m not content simply to obey orders. I need to know that what I am doing is right.
We all want a moral context to justify our actions, whether we are commended to do something or whether we face a free and unfettered moral choice. We want to feel that what we are doing is right. We want to know that what we are doing is right. Feeling seems to trump knowing here. We rely on moral intuition and conscience a lot more than data and rational thinking when it comes to moral choices.
Aesthetic Questions. While not central to our discussion, I have to throw this in. It rounds out Plato’s trio of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, which he thought came together in the highest form or idea that organized thought and the world. In this context, the word beauty includes symmetry and proportion and propriety and fittingness. Nothing out of place. Think of Mormon temple grounds, the building and the landscape, how carefully they are laid out and how pleasant and uplifting it is to stroll around there. I was surprised one day to have a coworker, not in the slightest degree Mormon, tell me one day that he would drive up to the Oakland Temple once in a while and just walk around the grounds because it made him feel good. Think of Steve Jobs, who complained that computer equipment and programs, however efficient, were just ugly and inelegant. He insisted that Apple products were beautiful and inspiring.
Philosophical Questions. So if philosophical questions are not empirical, moral, or aesthetic, what are they? Philosophical questions can discuss empirical or moral or aesthetic issues, but not in the same way that science, ethics, or art and literature criticism do. Often philosophical questions are seen as second-order questions, at one remove from the direct questions that engage a topic. So ethics treats particular moral questions directly, while meta-ethics talks about the concepts and framework that might be relevant to that attempt. So in meta-ethics there are cognitivists who think an imperative like “thou shalt not steal” can be deemed true or false in the same way that a sentence like “George Washington was the first president of the United States” can be. Non-cognitivists see things differently, with moral imperatives making normative claims, not truth claims. But if a moral claim isn’t justified by reference to truth, what exactly gives it moral force? Power? Persuasion? Emotional feeling? This is a philosophical discussion that leads to insight but not clear answers.
Theological Questions. I see true theological questions as a subset of philosophical questions, sharing the feature that they can lead to insightful discussion but not lead to straightforward answers. Predestination versus human agency is a good theological example, paralleling the determinism versus free will issue in philosophy. In the LDS view, God is certainly in control of things and sees all future events, which is why He can empower prophets to utter prophecies about the future, yet at the same time we all have agency to make free decisions, some of which alter the future course of events. You can get very frustrated if you approach this as an empirical question that should provide a clear answer if the right sort of data could be produced. I don’t think you are ever going to get a clear answer. It’s not that sort of question.
Mormon Questions. So what does all this mean in a Mormon context? I’m just going to throw out some suggestions and let readers chime in with their own views and experience. First, I think many doctrinal questions are theological questions that do not lead to clear answers, but the LDS approach want to see these as empirical questions that, with the support of a scripture or two, give a clear answer. Take the nature of God. In Christian theology, the Trinity and the nature of God have been profitably discussed for two thousand years. The discussion continues. The modern LDS view is that the details, the data, of the canonical First Vision account solves the problem: God is two embodied beings, separate persons, along with a third omnipresent disembodied spirit being, also a separate person. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three separate Persons but One Eternal God. I think that’s giving an empirical answer to a theological question. It’s not so much whether that is the right or the wrong answer as much as that is the wrong *kind* of answer. It’s like if you ask a child which came first, the chicken or the egg, and they confidently reply, “That’s easy. The egg.”
Second, I think the LDS approach resists engaging with moral questions. Instead, principles and commandments are quoted, loyalty and obedience are invoked, and a clear behavioral path is identified. That’s an institutional context, not a moral context, as Jean-Luc would say. This neglected moral sense leads to strange consequences. I sat in a Sunday School lesson on Alma 30, the story of Korihor, with everyone nodding along that he got his due. No! Lynching people is morally wrong! We shouldn’t trample people to death or string them up at the nearest tree just because they preach different religious ideas than we have or because we think they are a witch (that is, because we think Satan whispered in their ear). The average member seems to think that if the Church says to do it or if it’s written in a manual or handbook, it can’t be wrong. The Church has trained the membership to think in terms of obedience rather than morality. That is institutionally convenient but pastorally deficient.
Conclusion. Summing up in a few phrases: We should think hard about the kind of questions we are asking or considering. We should look for moral issues hiding in institutional contexts, and grapple with them. We should engage with theological questions for the insight that comes from a good discussion rather than looking for simple answers.
I’m sure readers have other examples. Have you seen a fruitful discussion short-circuited by a loud, confident, simple answer? Why do we endorse moral agency (thinking about the right thing to do) but constantly talk about unquestioning obedience?