Time to Act

Lest anyone come to this blog and get the wrong idea from my post on Al Gore, I offer this editorial from probably the most respected scientific journal in the world:

“Time to Act”, Editorial from the 30 Jun 2009 issue of Nature:

Without a solid commitment from the world’s leaders, innovative ways to combat climate change are likely to come to nothing.

It is not too late yet — but we may be very close. The 500 billion tonnes of carbon that humans have added to the atmosphere lie heavily on the world, and the burden swells by at least 9 billion tonnes a year (see page 1117). If present trends continue, humankind will have emitted a trillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere well before 2050, and that could be enough to push the planet into the danger zone. And there is no reason to think that the pressure will stop then. The coal seams and tar sands of the world hold enough carbon for humankind to emit another trillion tonnes — and the apocalyptic scenarios extend from there (see page 1104).

Nations urgently need to cut their output of carbon dioxide. The difficulty of that task is manifest: emissions have continued to rise despite almost two decades of rhetoric, diplomacy and action on the matter. But that unhappy fact should not be taken as a licence for fatalism. Governments have a wide range of pollution-cutting tools at their command, most notably tradable permit regimes, taxes on fuels, regulations on power generation and energy efficiency, and subsidies for renewable energy and improved technologies. These tools can work if applied seriously — so citizens around the world must demand that seriousness from their leaders, both within their individual nations and in the international framework that will be discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December.

As essential as it is, however, simply agreeing to cut emissions will not be enough. The fossil fuels burned up so far have already committed the world to a serious amount of climate change, even if carbon emissions were somehow to cease overnight (see page 1091). And given the current economic turmoil, the wherewithal to adapt to these changes is in short supply, especially among the world’s poor nations. Adaptation measures will be needed in rich and poor countries alike — but those that have grown wealthy through the past emission of carbon have a moral duty to help those now threatened by that legacy (see page 1102).

Even a complete halt to carbon pollution would not bring the world’s temperatures down substantially for several centuries.

The latest scientific research suggests that even a complete halt to carbon pollution would not bring the world’s temperatures down substantially for several centuries. If further research reveals that a prolonged period of elevated temperatures would endanger the polar ice sheets, or otherwise destabilize the Earth system, nations may have to contemplate actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Indeed, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is already developing scenarios for the idea that long-term safety may require sucking up carbon, and various innovators and entrepreneurs are developing technologies that might be able to accomplish that feat (see page 1094). At the moment, those technologies seem ruinously expensive and technically difficult. But if the very steep learning curve can be climbed, then the benefits will be great.

More radical still is the possibility of cooling the planet through some kind of ‘geoengineering’ that would dim the incoming sunlight (see page 1097). The effects of such approaches are much more worrying than those of capturing carbon from the air, however. The cooling from geoengineering would not exactly balance the warming from greenhouse gases, which would cause complications even if the technology itself was feasible — something for which the evidence has been circumstantial, at best.

But discussions about the possibilities offered by geoengineering could also lull the world’s leaders into complacency — if they lead them to believe that the technology will provide an escape hatch if the climate ever does reach a tipping point. This does not mean that the discussions should be avoided, but rather that the speculations need to be backed up with a solid body of research. Moreover, geoengineering research should be framed not as a hope for deus ex machina fixes to sudden global deterioration, but as a palliative cushion for the worst excesses of the peak years that are inevitable even after emissions start to be cut. A world slightly shaded from the Sun while its carbon levels are brought down by means of active capture would be a strangely unnatural place — but not necessarily a bad one, compared with the alternatives.

Research on local and regional interventions to cool Earth should be undertaken now — ideally in a way that provides basic information to climate researchers. Most sciences are in the habit of poking that which they study to gauge its response. Climate researchers lack such a tradition, and might have something to gain by starting one up. The attention to far-off goals, however, must not obscure short-term opportunities. In addition to cutting CO2 emissions, global leaders should curb the release of other substances warming the climate, notably methane and soot, also known as ‘black carbon’. Tackling such pollutants will bring other benefits, too, such as reducing the respiratory problems associated with cooking over smoky fires and with high levels of tropospheric ozone.

With so many challenges still to be faced, the climate problem may seem insurmountable. But there is still time left to act, and there is hope to be found in human ingenuity. Humans have a long history of finding new ways to tackle problems, and new ways to circumvent the worst. Without commitment from the highest levels, such ingenuity is likely to come to naught. But with such a commitment, and with a worldwide determination to make a serious cut in emissions, there is much that can usefully, and invigoratingly, be done.


My name is Arthur, and if you can’t tell from the name of my blog, I’m a taller than average redhead. I’m 31 years old and single. I started college right after high school, but I didn’t end up finishing at the time, and that’s what I’m working on now. I’m living and working at a bank in Seattle, Washington. Not too long ago, I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Washington with a double major in English and Spanish, and I am thinking about going back to graduate school in the near future. But now I’m really getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back a few years, say 150 or so.

Many of my ancestors had been living in the United States for a long time, some in the northern colonies and some in the south. I don’t know much about most of them, but I do know that in the mid-1850s, my ancestors heard about a new religious movement that started in western New York State, founded by a young man named Joseph Smith, Jr. I don’t know what experiences they had that convinced them, but they decided to become members of the church he had founded. During the early history of this church, the followers of Joseph Smith’s religion, derogatively called Mormons by their enemies, moved around from state to state, looking for a friendly place to stay, but often getting into conflicts with their non-Mormon neighbors, which led to frequent and violent confrontations. After Joseph Smith was assassinated by an angry mob, many of his followers decided it was time to pack up again, and they made a bold and risky venture across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains and settled near the Great Salt Lake. I don’t think any of my ancestors were among the very first to make this journey, but eventually they did. Many people died making the journey, and at least one of my ancestors was among this number. Meanwhile, the rest of my ancestors were in England, Denmark, and Sweden, listening to the missionaries who had come to spread the word, and all of these ancestors eventually found their way across the Atlantic Ocean and on to Utah Territory.

Thus, the stage was set for a series of marriages, babies, and more marriages, and then finally my parents met at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They got married at one of the LDS temples, and then moved to Dover, Delaware, where Dad worked in the Air Force, and in 1975, Mom gave birth to twin boys, Bryan and Bryce. When Dad finished his time in the Air Force, they moved to Washington state, where in 1977 my sister Heidi was born, and in 1979 I was born.

Dad worked at the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington, and he really didn’t like his job. Eventually Mom and Dad decided that they wanted to buy some land and try a more simply life. They couldn’t find anything affordable in Washington, so they moved all the way across the country and bought a 40-acre piece of land in northern Maine. Very, very northern. It wasn’t a very popular place to live, so the price was right. At the time, I was about 2 years old.

So my first memories are of this property, far from any city, any town, and pretty much anything else. We had no electricity and no running water. Our bathroom consisted of a bucket and a small tub for sponge baths. We had a family, and we had books. We had a generator that we would run occasionally and be able to listen to the radio. But it was a very simply existence. I suppose I was happy. I didn’t know what I was missing, and there are worse things than growing up without Sesame Street. You might ask how my parents tolerated this kind of life, but I think they really liked it while it lasted. Dad had to work, however, and we were just so far away from anywhere that the commute was a heavy drain on his time and energy. We still went to church, of course, even though it was a long drive away from our property. Scripture study and prayer were daily rituals in my house, and a week would not be complete without a long drive to and from church on Sunday and a Monday spent with the family in the church-recommended Family Home Evening. Religion was thus a ubiquitous presence in my life.

When I was about 5 years old, we left the property and moved south to Presque Isle, Maine. Dad no longer had to commute so far to work, and the family was a lot better off now. We were quite poor, but I was happily unselfconscious of that fact. We had enough food and a decent enough place to live, and that’s nothing to complain about.

I was baptized and became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on the very day I turned 8. The LDS church teaches that 8 is the age at which one becomes accountable for one’s actions. The church was all I had known, and I wanted to prove how willing I was to do what I thought was right. I remember coming out of the water and feeling an amazing sense of awe, knowing that I had made an important commitment to keep God’s commandments and always be faithful to the church.

A year later, my parents had a big surprise in the form of my youngest brother Joshua. I suspect that Mom and Dad had thought they were done, but no, now I had a baby brother. Shortly thereafter, Dad got a better-paying job with the U.S. Customs, and we moved to Calais, Maine, where I was to spend the next 9 years.

The most interesting thing about Calais was that we lived right on the border with St. Stephen, New Brunswick, in Canada. We went to church meetings in Canada, attended U.S. Boy Scout meetings in Canada. We could have become the best smugglers in the world, because since Dad worked for Customs, every officer on both sides of the border knew us, and they just waved us through. But alas, we were good Mormons, and we would never have done something like that.

My brothers, sister, and I were all pretty good in school, and I certainly tried as hard as I could to do well. But Heidi and I were kind of living in Bryan and Bryce’s shadows, because the teachers had all seen how smart they were. I guess it wasn’t so bad for me, but Heidi was only two years behind them, and so her teachers always expected a lot from her. Bryan and Bryce were excellent at Math, and Heidi and I were both more interested in subjects like History and English, although I think we both did pretty well at everything.

Bryan and Bryce graduated from Calais High School as co-valedictorians, both National Merit finalists, and got full scholarships to Alfred University in western New York. Meanwhile, back home Heidi got sick of school and managed to graduate a year early, only one year behind Bryan and Bryce, while I became a freshman at high school. When Heidi graduated, she didn’t have quite the grades that my brothers did, but she was glad to be done, and she decided to join the Navy as a Cryptologic Technician. Bryan and Bryce were also in the Army National Guard, so you could say that we’re a family of military people, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at us.

Bryan and Bryce spent two years in college and then decided to serve missions for the church. Bryce went to Curitiba, Brazil, and Bryan went to Montreal, Canada, where he served as a Spanish-speaking missionary (no, that’s not a typo). They both served for two years, and then came home and finished their degrees at Alfred. In 1997, I graduated from high school, and I was as surprised as Mom and Dad when we found out that I would be the valedictorian. I guess I just wasn’t quite as obvious an overachiever. Maybe it was the fact that I frequently had trouble waking up in time to catch the bus for school. I didn’t have the highest grade by much; actually I think I didn’t have the highest grade, but some of my classes counted for more since I took all of the hardest classes I could. At any rate, I graduated and moved on to Colby College, a really good little school a few hours away from home, where I planned to spend one year, serve a mission like my brothers, and then come back for three more years to graduate with a degree in English.

Around this time, Bryan and Bryce came back from their missions and went back to Alfred. When I went to Colby, I didn’t do nearly as well as I should have, because for the first time in my life I had distractions like cable television, and I spent too much time catching up on popular culture and not enough studying for my classes. But it was a good experience, and I am sad that I never saw Colby again.

I knew that I wanted to go on a mission after my first year of college. It had never really been much of a decision for me; it was what I was supposed to do, so I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to stay in the U.S., and I wanted to learn a foreign language, and I got both of my wishes, being called to Torreon, Mexico. Around this time, Heidi got out of the Navy and came back from Okinawa, where she had been stationed since she finished her training. It was definitely nice to see her again before I went off to Mexico for the next two years.

But first, starting in October 1998, I spent two months in Provo, Utah, in the Missionary Training Center. I had lessons in Spanish, and in missionary techniques and church doctrines. It was actually a wonderful experience for me, even though it was hard work. After two months in Provo, I boarded a plane for Mexico, confident in my language skills and brimming with enthusiasm to give as many people as possible the chance to hear the truth.

The first few months in Mexico were very difficult for me. The people seemed to speak a different language than the one I had learned in Provo, my companion had little patience with me, and people often laughed at my terrible Gringo Spanish. But I made things really hard on my companion, because I was a self-righteous prick who wanted to follow every rule but was completely incompetent at missionary work.

Eventually I did get a lot better at Spanish and at missionary work. I served in six different areas with about ten different companions, and over two years we did teach a lot of people and baptize quite a few. Missionary work is very hard, and often very depressing, but occasionally you get a reward, seeing someone’s life change for the better, seeing a drunkard father become more responsible, seeing people that initially rejected you accepting your message. These moments are few and far between, but these are the moments that provide the motivation for the endless weeks of drudgery. It wasn’t all hard work, though. The church members in the area in which we worked were wonderful people and showered us with kindness and friendship, especially in the smaller towns. One of my areas was really difficult, though. It had only recently been opened up for missionary work, there were very few members, and the people were very unreceptive. Food was expensive, and we didn’t have enough money to eat much. By the end of my mission, I was very eager to go home, despite a few good friends in my final area that I knew I would miss terribly. But it was with an eager heart that I boarded a plane to return to the U.S.

But the situation back home had changed a lot. With all of their kids gone but one, they had decided that enough was enough, and they had moved back to Utah after many years in other parts of the country. They had bought a piece of land so far removed from civilization that after a heavy rain it was impossible to go to the nearest town. This time they weren’t quite so primitive, because they installed solar panels for electricity. One of their reasons for moving to Utah was to be closer to family members, but they also moved there, and wanted to be in such a remote place, because they suspected that something terrible would happen when the Y2K Disaster of Insufficient Digits struck. I was still in Mexico when it happened, but I do wonder what was on their mind when nothing at all happened. I’ve been too polite to ask. Of course I was mindlessly unskeptical back then. I didn’t know enough to question their decision, and I decided that if they thought it was a good idea, who was I to tell them no? This wasn’t their only time being taken in by pseudoscience. I remember one family vacation where we visited a friend of an uncle, who read our auras. He told me that I have a red aura, but I don’t remember what properties that’s supposed to give me. It doesn’t matter, though, because auras don’t exist.

But anyway, when I got back from my mission, things were a lot different from when I’d left. The family had a lot less money, and I didn’t think that I would be able to go back to Colby. In retrospect, I probably could’ve gotten enough financial aid to keep going to school, but I ended up listening to Dad and joining the Navy. I don’t know why I trusted his advice so much, especially after the Y2K goof. Oops. But I joined the Navy in the Nuclear Power field. I spent a couple of months in St. George, Utah while I made my decision and worked at an unpleasant job giving telephone surveys. That job was probably one of the biggest factors in my hasty decision to join up. Even boot camp had to be better than talking on the phone all day and bothering people about customer service surveys.

But it was not to be so. Boot camp was like a strange alternate reality, where people somehow cared about the most ridiculous things, like making sure the trash can was always empty and our underwear neatly folded. We marched and marched, singing ridiculous marching tunes about how the Navy is better than the Marine Corps. I thoroughly enjoyed church, the only place I was free to let down my guard, and even fall asleep, without fear of being yelled at. See, being yelled at was something I was completely new at. I’d been reprimanded for not having enough faith to baptize ten people every month, but not yelled at. So that was very difficult for me. In the real world, you expect to be yelled at when you deserve it, which is rather seldom. But boot camp is not the real world, and it doesn’t matter whether you deserve to be yelled at or not. If you don’t deserve it, they’ll find something. Boot camp was only two months, but it seemed like eternity, and other than the yelling and the physical training, it was entirely dull. And you’re constantly being told that if you really screw up, you’ll be sent back to the beginning and have to do it all over again. Not at all like in the movies. But eventually the two months were over, and I went back to the real world.

At school, there was still a little bit of marching at first, and a little bit of the military discipline, but eventually you get used to that, and it’s not nearly as frightening as it is at first. Eventually you realize that they’re perfectly harmless people just doing their job. I spent a little over a year in a training base near Charleston, South Carolina, where I learned how to memorize and regurgitate, and I did it very well. So well, in fact, that I graduated Electronic Technician (Nuclear) A-school with the highest grade in the history of the program (up to that point, at least). I went home on leave in September of 2001 after finishing A-school (my parents now lived in Salt Lake, down the street from Heidi), and I was woken up one morning with the news of the horrendous attack of September 11. They didn’t have television, but we did listen carefully to the radio, and I am ashamed to admit that my greatest concern was probably not for the 3,000 that were killed but for the possibility that my military service had just gotten a lot more dangerous. But despite my fears, my life didn’t really change at all. I went back to Charleston, finished my training at Nuclear Power School, and then went up to a training center near Albany, New York, where I saw for the first time what my job would actually be. And then I became terribly depressed.

At my third school, a prototype of a nuclear submarine, I would spend hours just staring at books pretending to study, too unmotivated to actually study, and unable to just get up and go home. But somehow I still managed to finish the work I needed to do, and in January 2003 I moved to southern Georgia and checked in to the USS Louisiana, a ballistic missile submarine whose entire purpose is to go out to sea and hide so that other countries that have nuclear weapons are too scared to fire them at us. Of course this is a very boring mission, so we spent most of our time running drills, usually very stupid and unrealistic drills. Everything is set up on an 18-hour day, so that you spend 6 hours on watch, and then 12 hours off watch, in which you perform maintenance, run drills, and occasionally sleep. When you first get there you have to get qualified as well, and that actually takes about 18 months if you stretch it out as much as possible. Eventually I did get qualified, and before I left I had become one of the senior guys in my division. But that doesn’t take long. In my particular job, almost everyone gets out at the first opportunity, which means that the people who are left move up pretty quickly whether they want to or not.

In 2004 I got engaged. I met Beth when I came back from one of my patrols, and a good friend of mine just happened to mention a new family that had moved into the ward (that’s the basic unit of church organization) whose daughter was visiting from school in Hawaii. We did go on one date, and it was fun, and I thought that because she was going back to Hawaii that it was over. A few months later I just happened to be on leave and doing nothing in particular, and a good friend and I decided to go up to Ohio to attend the wedding of Beth’s sister. Things worked out really well, and when I drove back to Georgia I had a girlfriend, albeit a long-distance one. After this we talked on the phone a lot, and the next time I saw her she came back to Georgia to go to a Navy ball with me. These are really horrible occasions where people dress up in uncomfortable uniforms (with 13 buttons on the front of the trousers) and there’s way too much ceremony for it to really be a party, but Beth was gorgeous and I rather enjoyed it. By this point I was getting ahead of myself, and the next time she came to visit, right before I next went out on patrol, I took her down to St. Augustine Beach and asked her to marry me, and she said yes. It was certainly the happiest day of my life, but it’s rather sad to think about it now.

When I came back from sea she didn’t really want to talk about it. I was taking leave and I was going to visit her in Hawaii. She started acting weird when we talked about me coming to see her, and a couple of days before my flight she told me flat-out that she didn’t want me to come. Things were too busy right now, and she just wouldn’t have enough time to spend with me. Of course I was crushed, but I believed her when she said that things were just really difficult for her, and that there would be a better time later. So I decided to go visit my parents instead. I couldn’t afford tickets at such short notice, so I decided to drive to New Mexico, where my parents now lived. I drove all day, having to take a long detour around a section of the freeway that had been damaged by Hurricane Ivan. Late that night, planning to find a motel at the next convenient stop, I was getting a little sleepy and realized just in time that I was about to crash into a slow-moving truck in front of me. I swerved into the other lane, but ended up overcorrecting, losing control, hitting the side of the truck, and then going off the road into the median. Luckily for me, the median was just grass. I was unhurt, but my poor car was not so lucky. I got towed back to Mobile, Alabama, and while I waited for the driver to give me a lift to a motel, I called Beth to tell her the bad news. After expressing her condolences for my accident and relief that I was unhurt, she took the opportunity to break up with me. Perhaps it was best, since I was still rather in shock from my accident, and what’s a nail in the right hand when you already have one in the left?

I stayed in Mobile for several days waiting for the verdict on my car. The motel rooms were full because of the hurricane, and I actually think it’s possible that I found the last motel room in Mobile, and it was certainly not the room I would have wanted given a choice. At last the verdict came that my car was a total loss, and I was stuck in Mobile. Amazingly, Beth’s dad took off from work early to come pick me up, and I got back safely to Georgia. I saw Beth a couple of times afterward, but as one might guess it was rather awkward.

The next year my boat, the USS Louisiana, transferred from the Georgia base to a base in Washington State, which meant that I had to move as well. I spent my last year and a half in the Navy in Washington, and finally got out of the Navy in January 2007. But during the year or so before this my life changed profoundly.

For most of my time in the Navy, I still believed wholeheartedly that the LDS religion was true, even if at times I was very lazy about church attendance and only went to church because a friend was dragging me there. During this time I also started reading a lot of books, something I had mostly stopped doing since joining the Navy. At first I read mostly fiction, but eventually I became more curious about other subjects, turning to books of history and science, which I had never really cared about except for the required reading for class. There’s not a single moment I can point to, but during my reading I encountered a lot of ideas that contradicted my religious beliefs. I certainly did not set out on a quest to examine my religious beliefs and decide if they were right. But slowly I became skeptical, and I finally found myself turning to the internet and looking for the criticisms that people were making about the church. Much to my surprise, I found that the critics of the church made a lot more sense to me than the church doctrine, and I found that official church books and other sources had neglected to tell me a great deal of information about the history of the church and the evidence upon which belief in the church is based. Many vital doctrines of the church are absolutely refuted by uncontroversial scientific facts, and I found, to my surprise, that the highest authorities in the church seem to place more emphasis on whether a claim is faith-promoting than on whether it is true. My faith was shattered, and I struggled for some time with a crisis of identity, truth, morality, and purpose, trying to make sense of a strange new world in which my old assumptions were simply meaningless and I had no idea how to live in a world in which the LDS religion is not true. I struggled to redefine and reevaluate my world, deciding that the atonement of Jesus is a myth, the creation of Adam and Eve and the flood of Noah are myths, and Joseph Smith, Jr. was a power-hungry charlatan.

At the end of this crisis of faith, I came to a few conclusions. I do not believe in God or in any other supernatural beings or powers. Every holy text that has ever existed, and every religion that has ever been formed, are the product of the brilliant imaginations and sometimes blatant ignorance and savage cruelty of mortal men and women. To say that a book like the Bible was written by men, and not by the inspiration of God, is not to demean the book, but to give credit where credit is due. It does not demean the Bible, but instead praises those who wrote it. I can see the book for what it is rather than trying to see God’s hand in every page and in every savage genocide. And I now see the Book of Mormon and the other LDS scriptures as obvious frauds, written by Joseph Smith himself in order to satisfy his own delusion of grandeur. Perhaps at the end, he even believed it himself.

One obvious implication of my loss of faith is that all of my ancestors, who sacrificed so much, and crossed an ocean and a vast continent, all to follow their new religion, were sacrificing needlessly, suffering needlessly; that in the end, their sacrifices meant nothing; those who died along the way did it for nothing, for a delusion of a boy prophet who became a King of his own people. At the same time, it is all too easy to consider that by rejecting the religion for which they sacrificed so much, I am rejecting them and betraying their legacy and their sacrifices. But in the end, these desperate arguments cannot win; for a false religion is just as false whether it is easy or hard. “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it,” said Oscar Wilde, and I suspect that this is exactly the situation in which he would wish his insight to be applied. It doesn’t matter how much my ancestors were persecuted for their religion, or how many died in crossing the plains. True is true, and false is false: and their suffering cannot change the verdict.

Another thing that obviously crossed my mind was whether my two years spent on the mission were completely wasted; and on this question I reached a more satisfactory answer. Absolutely not, because I am made up partly of the genes I inherited from my parents, and partly of the experiences I have had. I have no idea who I would be today if I had not served a mission, or if I had not joined the Navy. I might be better off, or I might be worse off. I have no idea. But I like where I am today, and I would not give away that experience for the doubtful prospect that I might have turned out better. I would have to give away two years of memories, friends that I laughed and cried with, hard work that sharpened my character, and challenges that forced me to adapt new skills. I would be giving away the opportunity to live in a foreign country and learn a foreign language, opportunities that I believe everyone should have. And if I gave all this up, merely because I thought the time wasted, I would be giving away a great deal of good, with no idea what would take its place. And so no, no matter how much I would not serve a mission now, I do not wish that I had spent those two years engaged in a different task.

I may have majored in English and Spanish, but I have an enormous variety of interests that I wish to explore here in this blog: some of my reasons for rejecting the LDS religion and other religious beliefs, and the beautiful ideas of science, philosophy, and other areas of study. I wish to point to some of the best resources on the internet, and perhaps help others to find the ideas that I have found so powerful and compelling. I wish to create a collection of my writing to which I can point when people ask me what I believe, and what I enjoy.

This is one answer to the question, “Who am I, and why am I here?” But it’s not the only answer.

I am here because many billions of years ago, a dense point of matter expanded rapidly, forming protons, neutrons, and electrons, and then hydrogen and helium. As the matter quickly expanded, some pockets of material were denser than others and eventually formed into galaxies. Within these galaxies some areas were particularly dense with matter and formed into stars, giant balls of hydrogen and helium, some of which were even more gigantic than the rest and burned up their fuel quickly, becoming red giants converting helium into heavier elements and eventually exploding in a powerful supernova and scattering the heaviest elements into space. In one of these nebulae of gas and heavy elements, a rather insignificant star formed in a rather insignificant corner of the Milky Way Galaxy, perhaps the northern Maine of the galaxy. Around this star some of the material formed into planets, and on one rather insignificant little speck of a planet, an amazing thing happened. The hot, hellish planet slowly cooled, and a wacky little molecule known as water found a home on the surface of this unfriendly-looking sphere. Within the primeval oceans of the planet great numbers of organic molecules thrived, and over the next billion years some of these molecules became arranged into a more complicated molecule with the extraordinary ability to create copies of itself. Over the millennia and eons this molecule mutated innumerable times, and sometimes the mutations produced beneficial features and made the molecule more complicated, to the point where it became DNA and was surrounded by numerous parts that helped it to survive and pass on its genes. As the organisms became more complicated, some evolved the ability to convert carbon dioxide into water, and over countless years the atmosphere of this planet filled with oxygen and created an ozone layer that allowed organisms to come to the surface. Some organisms evolved the ability to breathe in this strange new toxic gas called oxygen, and as the seas filled with life, some creatures evolved the ability to live part of their life on land, and then eventually to live their entire lives on land. Enormous trees and giant reptiles evolved to create a beautiful, green, dangerous planet, and surviving the hunger of the giant dinosaurs was a tiny shrew-like creature. Then a great asteroid hit the planet, destroying the dinosaurs and many other species, and when the planet recovered from this extinction, this tiny shrew-like creature had evolved into numerous creatures much larger, that now ruled the earth in the absence of the great dinosaurs. These mammals diversified over the millions of years that followed, and eventually a tree-dwelling ape evolved the ability to come down from the trees and walk upright. The brain of these creatures exploded in size, allowing them to use complicated tools, and eventually language. Now able to speak to one another, they became highly social tribes of hunter-gatherers, eventually domesticating a few plants and animals to better suit their needs and adopting a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle. One of these groups, the Indo-Europeans, migrated from western Asia to Europe, displacing or absorbing much of the previous population, and many of the descendants of these Indo-Europeans migrated to the continent of America and settled in the plateau by the Great Salt Lake. 130 years later or so, two of these people gave birth to me. And that is why I am here.

Some of these events may seem implausible to some, or insufficiently explained, but I see this as not as evidence that some supernatural power is involved, but instead as a hopeful clue that our knowledge of our universe is not yet complete, that there is still work to be done and a great mystery to be solved. And if these events seem impossible to some, I think not. This is what atoms do if you give them 14 billion years.

Some may find it depressing to imagine that we are a mere afterthought of an afterthought, that there is no grand purpose to our existence, no life after death, no cosmic justice and no eternal reward. But why should we place so much emphasis on the future, when the present is here for us to enjoy now? I didn’t exist before I was born, and I don’t suppose I will care after I am gone. But I do wish to live life now. To love, to learn, to laugh. These are the things that I can do. Life is meaningless only if I cannot find anything to fill it with meaning. And meaning is all around me, waiting to be found, if only I am willing to see it.

This is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago on April 6th and submitted to an Ex-Mormon website.

Having been brought up in the LDS church, I was taught to expect simple answers, to see the world in black in white. One of the clearest examples of this type of thinking was my belief that Jesus of Nazareth was born on April 6th. On what evidence did I base this belief? Only on the fact that certain books I trusted told me that a man who died long before I was born, Joseph Smith, Jr., had received a revelation from God that told him this fact. I accepted what these books said about Joseph Smith just like I accepted what other books said about the moon or the sun. From my acceptance of Joseph Smith as prophet and of a continuous succession of living prophets, I accepted that any question that was important for this life had already been answered by God in revelations to his living prophets. Any question that God had not answered, well, there would be time for those later. There was no room in my mind for an unanswerable question. Although we might have uncertainty about particular questions in this life, that uncertainty would always be resolved. Those questions that we might not have answers to in this life, we would be given answers to in the next, our curiosity fulfilled. Science had certainly done wonderful things, but it was far better to live in such a way that I would be in the presence of God to have my questions answered, than to spend a lifetime exploring my questions but lose the opportunity to reach the presence of God. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

I was intensely interested in big questions. I knew that there was life on other planets because the scriptures said so, and they must look like us, since they were also created in the image of God. But would we ever find them before the end of the world? What was our Heavenly Father like when he was a man? Was he an ordinary someone like me, or was he the Only Begotten, the Savior, on his world? What were our Heavenly Father’s brother gods, sister gods, parent gods, and grandparent gods all like? Did each of them rule their own universe, or did they each rule over distant worlds in our own universe? Would I ever be good enough to qualify for the celestial kingdom, to become a god for myself, to create my own worlds? I would have to study hard, mastering physics and chemistry and biology as well as the gifts of righteousness and spirituality. But I didn’t have to worry about physics now, because I would have millions and millions of years of time of preparation for becoming a creator of worlds. I needed to focus on following the straight and narrow path that would get me into the celestial kingdom. All the rest would follow from there, and there would be nothing but time. So although I was intensely interested in finding out the answers to my questions about the universe, answering those questions in this life seemed rather trivial compared to the greater task of learning the gospel and following the commandments. But ultimately, I knew that all my questions would be answered. There was no room for doubt. There was no such thing as an unanswerable question. There would come a day when we could look back at a movie of history, look back at the birth of Jesus, look back at the flood of Noah, look back at the Garden of Eden, and then I would know how these things took place. Trying to answer them now seemed meaningless, since I had only 70 or 80 years in this life, but an eternity in the hereafter.

But certain things I knew beyond question. One was that Jesus was born on April 6th. I knew this because according to a few books I trusted, Joseph Smith said that Jesus was born on April 6th. Sometimes I would think about this. Occasionally on April 6th I would stop and think, “Today is the day that we really ought to celebrate Christmas, since this is the actual day that Jesus was born.” I was aware that some people were trying to guess the time of year that Jesus was born based on clues in the Gospels. I learned that some people have tried to guess the exact date by assuming that the new star that is mentioned in the Bible refers to an actual astronomical event that can be discovered even now, and they have suggested exact dates for the birth of Jesus. But whenever I was aware of all this guesswork, I thought that if only they would accept that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, they would have a sure answer, and they wouldn’t have to guess any more. To accept the LDS church is to let go of uncertainty and doubt, to accept that we can know the truth, not by reason, but by divine revelation. If our questions are not all answered in this life, we just need to wait. They will all be answered in the next.

When I let go of the LDS church, I let go of my entire way of thinking about the world. I let go of Jesus of Nazareth. I let go of God. Perhaps most importantly, I let go of the idea that it is possible to know anything beyond doubt. But the sure knowledge that I lost was replaced by something far greater. I can live with doubt. I don’t know what will happen to me when I die. I believe that when I die, I die. That’s it. But I don’t know. I could die tomorrow. I could die in fifty years. But I can live each day to be happy now rather than to be happy in eternity. My father died last year, and I believe I will never see him again. He’s buried in the ground, and he’s gone from me forever. And yes, that is sad. But I have perhaps forty or fifty years left to live, if I am not eaten by a bear or run over by a car before then. I have forty or fifty years without my father. If there were a celestial kingdom, and either my father or I were not good enough, if we didn’t pass the test, then I would have an eternity without my father. Which of these situations is worse? To face loneliness and grief in this life only, or to endure an eternity of loneliness and grief? And yet according to LDS doctrine, this eternity of grief, of wishing to go back and live a better life, will be the reward of the vast majority of God’s children. Those who are united with their loved ones for eternity are the few who are called and chosen, the few who live righteously and become gods.

When I let go of the LDS church, I let go of my certainty about the universe, and I became insatiably curious. I no longer had an eternity to learn physics and biology. If I wanted to learn it, I had to learn it in this life. As I entered the world of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, I found such a wealth of knowledge, such a treasure trove of beauty and wisdom, that I felt spiritually fulfilled in a way that I had never thought could exist outside of the LDS church. Certainty was replaced with skepticism, revelation was replaced with reason, and reverence was replaced with wonder. We humans are able to apply our reason to learn about the composition of distant stars, the origin and eventual fate of the universe, and the history of the earth, even long before there were any humans to record its history. We now know that there are planets orbiting other stars, and someday in the distant future we may send a messenger to make contact with another world and another form of life. Questions that I had always expected to receive an answer to in the next life may indeed be answerable in this one. This is a sense of wonder that I had never even imagined when I thought that perfect knowledge would be a heavenly reward for righteousness. But this knowledge that we have gained in this life is also not free of charge. It requires extraordinary dedication on the part of those who spend their lives studying a small piece of rock that the rest of us would pass by without giving a second glance. It requires extraordinary bravery on the part of those who venture into the unknown in search of knowledge.

This knowledge also requires us to put aside our need for certainty. In the world of science, we must settle for the most reasonable answer. Deciding which answer is most reasonable can be tricky, but we cannot expect to establish the truth beyond all doubt. Certain questions may never be answered. When did the universe form? 13.7 billion years ago, more or less. Or so the current theory suggests. It could be wrong. But why did the universe form? We may never know. And I can be content not knowing, because I believe that the scientific method is the only way we have to establish an objective truth. I agree with the philosopher Bertrand Russell when he said, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” There is an end to our ability to know, but I do not believe that we are close to that end.

So I have let go of my need for certainty, and as a result of this letting go, I am now more certain than ever that I live in a wonderful world that is plagued with problems, a world that is full of wonderful people and a few bad apples, a world that is a tiny paradise in the middle of a hostile universe. Alan Bean was an astronaut on Apollo 12, the second mission to land on the moon. In his closing comments to the excellent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, he remarked, “Since [returning from the moon], I have not complained about the weather one single time. I am glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic. I’m glad there’s people around. One of the things that I did when I got home – I went down to shopping centers, and I’d just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something, and just watch the people go by, and think, ‘Boy, we’re lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden.’” As a member of the LDS church, I thought that we lived on a cursed world, a world plagued by sin and death, where we had to live righteously so we could be restored to a better place. This world is the best place in the universe. No matter how much we search, we will never find another place better suited for us than right here. The Garden of Eden was not lost 6,000 years ago. The Garden of Eden is being lost right now. And we are the ones who are losing it. So letting go of a promise of a better life in the hereafter has allowed me to awaken to the need to improve this life here and now. So I don’t know what, if anything, may await me when I die. But this earth will continue to exist for a few billion more years. Nature may decide to eliminate our species soon, or perhaps we may exist still for many millions of years. But we must ensure that we do not cause our own demise. Of this I am sure.

Today is the 6th of April, a day that reminds me that I don’t know exactly what day Jesus was born. Some people suggest that he didn’t even exist; most scholars, even atheist scholars, believe that he did. The evidence is very scanty: a few verses written long after his death, written by firm believers in the divine calling of Jesus, each author contradicting the other. They tell of great events: wise men travelling from the east, following a new star in the sky; angels appearing to announce the birth of the Savior; a virgin giving birth to the Son of God. I don’t believe that these wondrous events occurred. I believe that Jesus was the child of Joseph and Mary, born in Nazareth (not Bethlehem), and became a great teacher, moralist, and revolutionary thinker. He was far ahead of the religious leaders of his time. It is not surprising that he attracted great followings, and that people thought he was something special. A branch of Judaism developed that followed the teachings of Jesus, and some of these followers decided to write down the history of the life of Jesus before the oral histories of his life were lost forever. But the events around his birth were long forgotten, and they assumed that his birth must have been marked by miraculous events: a star in the sky, wise men from the east, a virgin birth. They assumed that he must have been born in Bethlehem to fulfill old prophecies. They assumed that he must have been descended from King David. These are the assumptions that they made, and perhaps they were right; I believe they were not. But the real events of his birth, including the date and the year, are completely lost to us. There will never be an opportunity to watch the movie of the Earth, to discover the exact circumstances of his birth. I will not meet Jesus in the hereafter to be able to ask him. We must be content to simply accept our lack of certainty, and accept that we will never know. There is much that we can know. But in order to know what we are able to know, we must set aside this desire for perfect knowledge. We must set aside the hope of divine revelation. We must seek the answers for ourselves. We must use our reason, and use the evidence in the ground and in the heavens. We must ask the right questions, and always keep asking new questions and accepting the answers that best fit the evidence. Faith is not a way of knowing. Faith is, as Mark Twain wisely wrote, “believing what we know just ain’t so.” We should never accept the easy answer because it is comfortable. We should search for the truth. And the truth, according to Jesus of Nazareth, will set us free.

Today I read Al Gore’s long essay in Rolling Stone about (what else?) the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the urgent need for action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and while I agree with the substance of what he’s saying, I was intrigued by this passage:

After World War II, a philosopher studying the impact of organized propaganda on the quality of democratic debate wrote, “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false.”

The context of this passage is a condemnation of the organizations and individuals who profit from our current lax policy on greenhouse gas emissions and are sowing doubt among the public about the reality of climate change. Gore is clearly using this quote to back up his belief that when powerful institutions use their money and influence to spread misinformation, we the people will find it more difficult to know what is true and what is false. I think this is probably true, but I was curious about this mysterious person he calls “a philosopher.” Could it be one of the gods of 20th century liberal political philosophy like John Rawls or Karl Popper? Maybe the philosopher made this statement as part of a scathing condemnation of relativism. In a previous era, I would have had to comb through a library full of philosophy books or just ask dozens of people who were familiar with philosophy until I found someone who knew where this quote came from. Now, thanks to Google and online texts, I was able to locate and read the source within seconds. It is from “Aphorism 71” of Minima Moralia by the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. Now I am something of a philosophical novice, but I immediately recognized Adorno as one of the founders of the Frankfurt School and of Critical Theory, someone who would be unlikely to agree on much of anything with Karl Popper, or indeed, with Al Gore. I don’t know very much about Adorno’s philosophy specifically, but I do know that he is one of the main influences of the contemporary philosophers who take delight both in turning questions of truth into questions of power and in attacking the very heart of the distinction between true and false. So, I thought, what if Adorno’s meaning is exactly opposite the meaning that Gore is intending?

Here is Adorno’s “Aphorism 71” in its entirety (translation: © 2005 Dennis Redmond, Gore’s passage highlighted):

Pseudomenos [Greek: liar]. – The magnetic power which ideologies exert over human beings, while they have become entirely threadbare, is to be explained beyond psychology, in the objectively determined decay of logical evidence as such. It has come to the point that lies sound like truth, and truth like lies. Every statement, every news report, every thought is preformed by the centers of the culture-industry. What does not bear the trusted mark of such preformation lacks credibility in advance, all the more so that the institutions of public opinion garnish what they send out with a thousand factual proofs and all the power of conviction which the total apparatus can bring to bear. The truth which would like to do something against this, bears not merely the character of something improbable, but is moreover too poor to break through in direct competition with the highly concentrated apparatus of dissemination. The German extreme sheds light on the entire mechanism. When the Nazis began to torture, they did not merely terrorize people both inside and outside the country, but were at the same time the more secure against exposure, the more savage the atrocities became. Its sheer unbelievability made it easy to disbelieve what, for the sake of peace, no-one wanted to believe, while simultaneously capitulating before it. Those who trembled in fear told themselves that things were much exaggerated: well into the war, the details of the concentration camps were unwelcome in the English press. Every horror in the enlightened world turns necessarily into a horror story [Greuelmärchen]. For the untruth of the truth has a kernel, to which the unconscious eagerly [begierig anspricht] turns. It does not only wish for horror. Rather Fascism is in fact less “ideological,” to the extent it immediately proclaimed the principle of domination, which was elsewhere hidden. Whatever humane principles the democracies marshaled to oppose it, were effortlessly rebutted by pointing out that these do not concern all of humanity, but merely its false image, which Fascism is man enough to divest itself of. So desperate however have human beings become in their culture, that they are ready to cast off the frail signs of a better state of affairs, if only the world does their worse side the favor of confessing how evil it is. The political forces of opposition however are compelled to make use of the lie, if they do not wish to be completely extinguished as completely destructive. The deeper their difference from the existent, which nevertheless grants them shelter from a still worse future, the easier it is for the Fascists to nail them down as untruths. Only the absolute lie still has the freedom to say anything of the truth. The confusion of truth with lies, which makes it nearly impossible to maintain the difference between the two, and which makes holding on to the simplest cognition a labor of Sisyphus, announces the victory of the principle in logical organization, even though its military basis has been crushed. Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The reconfiguration of all questions of truth into those of power, which truth itself cannot evade, if it does not wish to be annihilated by power, does not merely suppress the truth, as in earlier despotisms, but has reached into the innermost core of the disjunction of true and false, whose abolition the hired mercenaries of logic are anyway feverishly working towards. Thus Hitler, who no-one can say if he died or escaped, lives on.

This is pretty hard for me to understand, which is not surprising, given Critical Theory’s well-earned reputation for obscure writing and a Socratic reluctance to clearly state one’s beliefs. Adorno seems to be much less of a relativist than his intellectual heirs, but the “truth” he is defending is probably Marxism, and the “ideologies” he is attacking probably include the liberal political philosophy of Locke, Mill, and Rawls that Al Gore holds so dear. People who have studied Critical Theory more than I have may correct me on this interpretation, but Adorno seems an unlikely source of political inspiration for Gore. I don’t know if it would be quite accurate to call this quote mining, since I don’t fully understand what Adorno is trying to say. But I’m pretty sure that Al Gore doesn’t either.