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Letters from the Universe

So I was a little envious of my wife. She got to teach our daughters a cool story about a Heavenly Father swooping down and creating everything. The basics of the story any toddler can comprehend. And she had cool pictures to back her up.

Then I try to teach them about evolution and modern cosmology and it just doesn’t grab their attention. I don’t have personal experience of how to teach children about evolution and so on because my parents are creationists. There are amazingly few books aimed at really young children on the subject. At least I couldn’t find many. I tried to make it up as I went, but I was doing a pretty crumby job of telling the story.

“So you see, the mammals evolved into apes and then into human beings. Isn’t that cool?”


So, anyway, I was a bit jealous.

Then I found a delightful trilogy of books that take us from the first moments of the Big Bang to modern humans. They take the form of a letter from a personified Universe to the reader. The Universe tells its own story in colorful, comprehensible terms. The words are accompanied by equally colorful illustrations. The reader is placed in the middle of an epic adventure of truly universal proportions.

Born with a Bang starts with the big bang and ends with the formation of planet earth. Along the way we learn about inflationary theory (really!), particles and anti-particles, the formation of hydrogen, the birth of stars and galaxies, and how we are made of the stardust from a supernova. The second and third books, Lava to Life and Mammals that Morph, which I have read fewer times so far, tell our story from abiogenesis to the development of modern humans. I’m no astrophysicist or paleontologist, but everything seems to check out. The authors stuck close to the current scientific understanding.

Any books that can get my four-year-old asking about atomic forces, comparing black holes to bathtub drains, and remembering why grass grows from the bottom-up deserve an A+ in my book.

The books are too long for my two-year-old, though I think she would like the story and illustrations if I just skimmed through. Each page has boldface text which convey the central idea. I think the authors may have intended it just for the purpose of shortening the story for those with a short attention span. I plan to try it out soon.

To top off all the learning about science, the Universe uses its own story to teach the reader important lessons like life is risky, we have to work toward our dreams, diversity is important, and so on.

While this book makes no mention of religious ideas, it is not hostile to religion either. I believe that a religious parent who accepts the current scientific theories (even the Pope accepts the theory of evolution) can benefit from these books. If God acted through the Big Bang and evolution, then these books tell God’s creation story in an inspiring way.

These books present an engaging creation myth that isn’t fiction. I got the books in the hopes of teaching my girls about current scientific theories about human origins. I ended up being inspired by my place in the story of the universe.

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The Mind’s I

I recently finished reading The Mind’s I by Douglas R. Hofstadter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, and Daniel C. Dennett, the Santa Claus-like patron saint of the recent publicly resurgent atheism. Sometimes books come into your life at the precise moment when they will have maximal impact. That happened for me with this book.

It is a collection of writings from authors such as Alan Turing, Richard Dawkins, John Searle, StanisÅ‚aw Lem, and Jorge Borges on the subject of mind, consciousness, and artificial intelligence. That’s exactly what I’ve been pondering lately. The authors present conflicting viewpoints (they promise to make everyone think) and then present their responses to the essay. A simple, very effective format.

The authors delivered on their promise. The book caused me to take a long look at what exactly it means to be a conscious, intelligent being. What is the self? Is there a soul? Can consciousness be explained reductively by interactions of neurons? What gives rise to our experience of consciousness? Many were the thought provoking moments that I spent with this book.

By the way, this is the book that I was reading in that Indian bistro a while ago.

An excellent read.

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Burning Bosoms

I’ve been spending a good chunk of time at Clark Goble’s blog, Mormon Metaphysics. He posted about the problem of evil. I spent a little time over the past month challenging and examining some ideas that people proposed to overcome the problem of evil.

Things got more interesting (and more verbose all around) when Blake entered the fray (I believe this is Blake Ostler). The discussion has veered to the topic of the validity of “spiritual” experiences as a foundation for knowledge and a philosophical attack on naturalism.

Interesting, wide-ranging discussion.

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Soulless Sleep

I was thinking about death and how much I don’t want it. I pondered what it would be like to be dead. Of course, if you believe in a wholly material universe, the answer to asking what being dead will be like is “Mu“. Being dead isn’t like anything because there is no consciousness to experience death. This is so outside our experience (by definition) that it’s frightening to contemplate.

Yet, I thought, it isn’t truly outside our experience because we lose consciousness every night when we enter dreamless sleep. All conscious experience ceases.

Then I pondered what this would mean if we had a soul. As a Mormon, I was taught to believe that my spirit existed before I was born. I had an existence before this life where I reasoned, loved, made choices, learned, and so on like I do here. If this is true, what happens to that spirit when I lose consciousness? Why must that eternal spirit sleep while its physical body sleep? Why does the physical body have power to extinguish the spirit’s capacity to experience and reason and learn while the body sleeps? Surely if the spirit had those faculties before having a body, then those faculties shouldn’t depend on the state of the body.

Perhaps the way I believed before was too simplistic. Perhaps there could be a spirit within me which has an experience entirely independent and inaccessible to my body’s consciousness. Or perhaps the soul has no role in my ability to reason, remember, experience, etc. Occam’s razor applies here. I should be very reluctant to multiply extra entities to explain a phenomenon which has a simpler explanation: I have no soul.

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My Brother and Sister As They Truly Are

I always had to translate my little brother and sister’s words for my parents. Growing up with them, I learned their language much better than Mom and Dad. Their tongues which were too large for their mouthes and their mental retardation prevented them from speaking as well as other children their age. My name was “Duhn’thin” for years. My brother or sister would say something and a blank look would cover my parents’ faces. I’d chime in with what they had said, and life would go on.

Their language was unintelligible to outsiders. I learned this when some neighborhood kids mimicked what they heard my sister say. “Duh, duh, duh,” they taunted her. I loved her and it hurt to see her mocked, but I didn’t want to be dumb by association. I stood by and left my sister undefended.

Years later in high school, I had a chance to redeem myself. I stood outside the locker room when one of the short school buses pulled up. I was looking somewhere else when I heard one of the guys yell “Dog! Ugly!” I turned around to see that my sister was the target of this attack. She attended the same school as I did; she had been mainstreamed as they called it. Redemption would have to wait for another day. The situation stunned me into inaction. I was too ashamed of my sister to stand up and defend her.

To this day, when I hear people say offhandedly “that’s retarded” it feels like an attack on my brother and sister, but I don’t say anything. How do I explain without seeming too thin-skinned?

Even though I loved my brother and sister, I often wished that they weren’t retarded. I wished that they could have been normal. Mormonism holds out that hope. It teaches that mentally retarded children were especially valiant champions in God’s cause during our existence before we were born. As perfect innocents, they are assured of their salvation and exaltation in God’s Kingdom when they die.

As a corollary, I would someday meet my brother and sister without the false burden of mental retardation. I have daydreamed all my life about the day that I would meet them and be able to have a normal conversation. I imagined how they would look: normal at last. They wouldn’t make people feel uncomfortable anymore. They wouldn’t embarrass me anymore. I would be proud to be their brother.

Maybe you can understand why it is heartbreaking for me to give up that hope. I now realize that there is no immaculate soul hidden inside my siblings, untainted by retardation. When they die, no sparkling gem will ascend to heaven. The retardation isn’t the illusion. My little brother and sister are retarded.

Instead of loving my brother and sister as they truly are, I have been hoping to meet someone who doesn’t exist. I have been ashamed of their true selves. I will never be able to talk to them, except in our shared language.

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