What does holiness mean?

The purpose of this post is to answer the question: 

What is the meaning of holiness? 

Recently, I have been studying John Searle's philosophy of institutional facts. I find that his philosophy answers many interesting questions in a clear and precise way and relates to many different fields of study including religion and theology.

Searle's philosophy shows how new facts can be created by collectively recognizing the assignment of functions to objects that cannot perform those functions by themselves alone. A useful mnemonic device for logically analyzing these social facts is the formula: X counts as Y in context C as in the example "This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C). I introduce these concepts in more detail here. I find this philosophy very useful in understanding the concept of "Holiness".

The word holy is synonymous with the word sacred. Holy is an english word that has Germanic roots. Sacred is an english word that has Latin roots. In the scriptures there are several different things that are described as "holy" such as the following:

  • Spoken Words and Texts such as scriptures
  • Rituals and Ordinances such as the activities performed in the temple.
  • Objects such as the Menorah or the Arc of the Covenant
  • Art and Architecture such as temples
  • Time such as the sabbath day
  • People such as priests
  • Institutions or communities such as Zion or the Church
Generally speaking, Holy means that which belongs to God or associated with God. Using the language of Searle's philosophy of institutional facts, something is holy if God recognizes it to have a certain status and by virtue of that status, the object can perform a specific function. Here are a few applications of this concept:

A person counts as a prophet when they are recognized by God as being a prophet. The person alone is not sufficient to constitute being a prophet. You need the person plus God's recognition. Someone claiming to be a prophet that is not recognized by God is a false prophet. The status of "prophet" gives certain authorizations and obligations to the rightful bearer of that title. Such authorizations include the right to act in God's name and receive revelation on behalf of other people. Since they are recognized by God, prophets are holy. The Holy Prophets are still prophets even if no one but God recognizes their status.

Emblems of the Sacrament
The Sacrament is blessed (is made holy) if God recognizes it as being blessed. The bread and water count as a symbols of Christ and the act of eating those symbols and remembering Christ count as performing a covenant with God. The bread and water alone are not sufficient to be symbols of Christ by themselves. You need the bread and water plus God's recognition and the recognition of those engaging in the sacrament ritual. The covenants renewed during the sacrament are holy because they are recognized by God.

The priesthood is the authority to act in God's name and use His power. A person counts as having the status of priesthood holder when they are authorized to perform specific functions such as blessing the Sacrament or healing the sick. A person only has the priesthood when they are recognized by God as having that priesthood. God recognizes a person's priesthood when they are righteous and have been given the priesthood by someone else who has the priesthood who has been authorized by a church official such as the Bishop.

The temple is holy because it is God's house. Temples are centers for creating, preserving, and transmitting other Holy symbols. By itself, the physical building that constitutes a temple is not Holy. You need the building plus God's recognition that it is a temple for it to be holy.

I could describe many more religious concepts using these terms. There is a general formula that comes out of these examples:

X counts as something holy if it has a status that is recognized by God in order to perform a specific function that it cannot perform without God's recognition of that status. That status always comes with deontic powers such as rights, authorizations, and permissions, or obligations, duties, and requirements.

Nothing is holy in this context unless God recognizes it as being holy and sacred. And, nothing is holy unless it is assigned a certain status in order to perform a specific function. These concepts should be thought about with an attitude of reverence and we should treat these concepts as God treats them. That which is unholy is that which has a status such that we are obligated to avoid it. God does not dwell in unholy temples. We should likewise not enter unholy places or situations.

Holy objects are different from other social objects (like money) in that an object can be holy even if God is the only person that recognizes them as being holy. Whereas all other social objects exist only if there is a large amount of people that recognize them as existing.

Sources: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/ancient-temples-and-sacred-symbolism-video/ The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle


Why I believe in God

In this post I want to give reasons for believing in God. This post is prompted by comments from my friend Bennion in a previous post. I will first provide reasons for believing in God that I do not accept. Then I will give some reasons why I do believe in God.

Reasons for believing in God that I do not accept
1. I do not believe in God as a matter of some scientific hypothesis. Some atheists ask for evidence for the "God Hypothesis". I don't like that phrase because it implies that the believer is supposed to make some scientific claim about why there is a God. I don't believe that one comes to know God by looking around and finding gaps in our scientific knowledge, and then invoking God as an explanation for those gaps. That is not the right way to think about reasons for believing in God. I think the right way to think about knowing God is to think about how one knows that they love their spouse. I don't have a "Wife Hypothesis" to explain why I experience my wife's existence.

2. I do not believe in intelligent design arguments for the existence of God. Although I believe that there is probably some intelligent influence in the process of evolution, I do not think that influence can be proven scientifically. There are some well thought out philosophical arguments that involve intelligent design, and I do not think they are all as bad as naturalists claim they are. However, I still do not find them convincing enough to count them as evidence for believing in God.

3. I do not believe in any of the traditional theistic philosophical arguments for God. For instance, I do not believe in the ontological argument or any cosmological argument for the existence of God. Concerning these arguments, one famous LDS philosopher, Truman Madsen, once said,

Many of you will encounter, if you haven't, traditional rational arguments for the existence of God. They are all of them afflicted with fallacies. They presuppose in the premises what they claim to demonstrate in the conclusion. And, further, they presuppose in their premises something about the very nature of God.

4. I do not believe that belief without evidence is an appropriate reason for believing in God. Atheists often claim that faith is just belief without evidence, or it is just a way to protect a weak hypothesis. I do not accept these mischaracterizations of faith. Faith is belief with evidence. As Orson Pratt, an early apostle of the LDS church said,

"Faith or belief is the result of evidence presented to the mind. Without evidence, the mind cannot have faith in anything...As evidence precedes faith, the latter should be weak or strong in proportion to the weakness or strength of the evidence … The weakness or strength of faith will, therefore, in all cases, be in proportion to the weakness or strength of the impressions, produced upon the mind by evidence."

Reasons for believing in God that I accept
I believe that there are several reasons for believing in God. I could tell many personal stories, but I will just give one story or example per reason.

1. I believe in God because of personal experiences There are several simple experiences that give me reason to believe that there is loving Heavenly Father looking out for me. One time my mother and I were driving home from Lake Tahoe and our van was stuck in the mud. I don't know exactly where we were, but I remember there were a lot of trees around. We were far away from help at a time when people did not have cell phones. We tried for a long time to get out of the mud by driving back and forth. Finally, we prayed for help, tried again, and immediately got out of the mud and travelled home safely.

2. I believe in God based on answers to prayer When I was around 18, I read the book of Mormon and prayed to know if it was true. I had an overwhelming powerful experience that confirmed to me that it was a true. I have had similar experiences, but that time it was particularly powerful and it has stayed with me throughout my life.

3. I believe in God because of revelation.There have been times in my life when I have received powerful insights similar to my experience when I prayed about the book of Mormon. What was unique about these experiences is that I wasn't praying or asking for the insights that I received. Due to the personal nature of some of these experiences (there are at least 2 that I remember clearly), I would rather not share the specific stories that relate to this reason. I will simply convey that I arrived at some conclusions about secular issues through spiritual means. Only after those experiences did I learn of secular evidence for those conclusions.

4. I believe in the testimony of witnesses I believe Joseph Smith's testimony that he did in fact see God and Jesus Christ. In Joseph's own words, 

I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me...I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it."I believe in the testimony of the living apostles and prophets that have a special witness of the living Christ.

5. I believe that the Book of Mormon provides evidence for Joseph Smith's story.The Book of Mormon is an incredible book. It is evidence that anyone can read and examine. It is available for anyone to scrutinize and many have tried. If one is sincere and open to truth, I believe they will be truly moved by its contents. I think that it is impossible that Joseph Smith could have made it all up.

6. Many other reasonsThere are dozens of other reasons for my belief in God including intuition, pragmatic considerations, logical consistency, and other personal experiences.

Concluding remarks
In most cases, people cannot choose their convictions. For example, if I offered to give you $1000 if you could believe that you were 20 feet tall, you would not be able to do it. When I examine my beliefs and convictions, I find that I do believe in God. The fact that we do not choose our convictions does not mean we can never change our beliefs over time. Nor does certainty imply incorrigibility. For example, I changed my mind about the theory of evolution after sincerely considering the evidence. I have documented that experience here.

In writing these reasons for believing in God, I know that I am opening myself up to scrutiny. I often consider the possibility that God does not exist and I am open to the possibility that I could be mistaken about my beliefs. Many skeptics will think that many of these arguments are easy targets and perhaps not even worth addressing. Since most of the books I read are written by atheists (that is just the nature of philosophy), I encounter many arguments against my belief in God. I consider those arguments carefully and sincerely. After examining and scrutinizing those arguments, I find intellectually and spiritually satisfying responses and I find that I still believe in a loving, personal Heavenly Father and the truthfulness of His gospel.

I want to end this post by recommending reading the testimony of one of my philosophy professors at BYU. You can find a link to her testimony here.

Stephen Hawking, Gravity, and God

When people claim there is a conflict between science and religion, they are often referring to some alleged conflict between the theory of evolution and a belief in a designer God. Sometimes an argument is put forward that is supposed to show a conflict between the laws of physics and a belief in God. Stephen Hawking puts forth such an argument in his 2010 book The Grand Design. His arguments makes several philosophical mistakes that ought be addressed.

Part 1: Hawking, Gravity, and God
In The Grand Design Stephen Hawking along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow put forth a controversial candidate for a theory of everything called M-theory. The bulk of the book is spent explaining this theory which is really just a collection of various theories that try to explain the universe. In the book, Hawking and Mlodinow conclude “because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (pg 180). Anyone with a little training in philosophy can immediately identify the self-contradictory nature of this claim. If we say that X creates Y, then we are already presupposing the existence of X in order to account for the existence of Y. In the first part of the above quote, Hawkings is presupposing the existence of gravity (X) to explain the existence of the universe (Y). Therefore the universe is not created from nothing, it is created from gravity.

Hawking then piles another contradiction on top of his first. In the second part of the above quote, he asserts that, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." If we say that X creates X we already pressupose the existence of X in order to account for the existence of X. This also is logically incoherent. If any scientific theory makes such as obvious error, then that theory ought to be revised or abandoned. 

Throughout his book, Hawking suggests that there is no God because the laws of physics explain the existence of the universe. He writes, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” (pg 180). But how then does Hawking explain the existence of his metaphorical "blue touch paper" that set the universe going? How does Hawking explain the existence of gravity in the first place? He doesn't! He simply presupposes that it exists. Hawking does not know how to explain gravity. To him that is simply where explanations come to an end.

Then why is he so confident in suggesting that God does not exist? Perhaps he has this argument in mind:

Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. (pg 172)

This is the same argument that Richard Dawkins put forward in The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. I offered a rebuttal to that argument in my previous post. Hawking and Dawkins seem to suggest that using God as an explanation for the universe is somehow invalid because it cannot explain the existence of God himself. But if that is true then Hawking's argument is also invalid. One can equally use Hawking's argument against him. Below is Hawking's same quote but I replaced the word God with Gravity:

Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is Gravity which created the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is Gravity, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who or what created Gravity.

Believing that all explanations end in gravity is not logically incoherent nor is it intellectually unacceptable. But, believing that all explanations end in God is likewise NOT logically incoherent nor intellectual unacceptable. Certain beliefs about gravity (like the one mentioned above) or certain beliefs about God may be shown to be fallacious, but the general belief that all explanations end somewhere is not. What is intellectually unacceptable is pretending that one's scientific conclusions show that God does not exist.

Part 2: Hawking, Scientists, and Philosophy
Hawking's logical errors can be explained by his ignorance of philosophy. In the beginning of The Grand Design Hawking lays out some questions about reality including the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Referring to these questions, Hawking writes, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (pg 5)

The irony of this statement is not only that Hawking uses philosophical arguments throughout his whole book, but that the statement "philosophy is dead" is itself a philosophical proposition. Hawking cannot be making a scientific claim here. He is making a metaphysical claim about science. Therefore even when Hawking is trying to dismiss philosophy, he is contradicting himself. I agree with the philosopher Daniel Dennett who said, "There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)

Scientists like Dawkins and Hawking hurt scientific progress when they mingle their own philosophical assumptions with science. Their philosophical pronouncements cause confusion because it gives lay people the false impression that they must choose between God or science when the clash really exists between the scientist's philosophical assumptions and God.


Rebutting an atheist argument against theism

The purpose of this post is to give a rebuttal to one atheist argument against theism. This argument was suggested by Richard Dawkins in the book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design and in the book The God Delusion. The argument was also repeated by my friend Bennion in the comments of my previous post. The argument goes something like this: Any attempt to explain the astonishing variety of life by a hypothesis involving design is misguided because any being able to create life would itself have to be just as complex. In other words, one cannot explain life by invoking a designer or creator, because that does not explain the life of the creator. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins puts it this way:

Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity…. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.

Bennion echoed a similar point:

If you posit, for example, that life was created by God, that doesn’t solve the problem at all because you haven’t explained how God came to exist, and that problem is far bigger than how life came to exist, because God is so much more complicated than a simple chain of self-replicating chemicals.

I will offer rebuttals for this argument from the perspectives of traditional Christianity and LDS theology (Mormonism).

Point 1
Dawkins' argument makes the mistake of trying to discredit one explanation for a particular manifestation of life by saying that it doesn't give an ultimate explanation of life in general. Alvin Plantinga illustrates this point with the following thought experiment.

Suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover some machine-like objects that look and work just like a 1941 Allis Chalmers tractor; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet—look at those tractors.” A sophomore philosophy student on the expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are!” No doubt we’d tell him a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two.

The point is that the leader was not trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity. He was only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it—the tractors. In this context it is perfectly reasonable to explain one manifestation of organized complexity with another. Similarly theists are not trying to give an ultimate explanation for all organized complexity (including God) when they invoke God as an explanation for organized complexity.

Point 2
Well, what about that ultimate explanation? Wouldn't Dawkins' argument apply to a theist's ultimate explanation of God? What is the explanation for God?

There are certain questions that are simply incoherent to ask. For instance the question, "What is the proof for rationality?" This question is incoherent because any argument for rationality must already presupposes rationality. One cannot say that science proves that rationality is valid because science already uses rationality to assimilate evidence and come to conclusions. Also, the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" is incoherent because all explanations already presuppose that something exists. All explanations end in existence. There just can't be any explanation for it. It just is.

Similarly, the question "What explains an eternal being?" is an incoherent question. If God exists then there couldn't be any ultimate explanation for God because God is an eternal being. Atheists likewise don't have any explanation for elementary particles or the laws of nature. They must simply take it for granted that all explanations eventually bottom out in brute facts. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

Point 3
Dawkins' argument is circular because it assumes what it is trying to prove. Dawkins simply starts with the assumption that nature is the way he thinks it is, then tries to show that nature is the way he thinks it is. He assumes that nature is such that any being that exists would have to be created according to the physical laws as he sees them. Then he uses that assumption to show that any explanation for life cannot invoke God since God would have had to be created according to the physical laws as Dawkins sees them.

Dawkins' argument does not apply to theists because he arbitrarily assumes that God is created. Therefore, theists do not believe in the God that Dawkins is calling into question. His argument does not apply.

In this blog post, I have attempted to rebut one of Dawkins' primary arguments against God. I have argued that it confuses an explanation for a particular manifestation for life with an explanation for an ultimate explanation of all life (including God). I argued that Dawkins' argument is trying to address a question that is not coherent. And I have argued that Dawkins' argument is circular.

Richard Dawkins' laments the fact that roughly 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution. I share this concern since it seems to me that the science behind evolution is quite solid and has been useful making medical advances and understanding the history of our beautiful planet. When I personally study about evolution and the variety of life, I feel a sense of awe at the beauty and wonder of nature. Sometimes, I feel closer to God when I study the theory of evolution. So I am concerned that many American's are missing out on this understanding and experience.

Dawkins is a wonderful biologist. I have read his book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution several times. I own the audiobook and the hardcover. I highly recommend it. Dawkins' descriptions of orchids, bats, moths, and fish are just a delight to read.

While Dawkins is a very good biologist, he is a poor philosopher. Dawkins pretends that his arguments are scientific when they are really philosophical. The subtitle of Dawkins book, The Blind Watchmaker says that the purpose of his book is to show how evolution reveals a universe without design. Dawkins inevitably fails because the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the existence of God or a designer.

I believe that one of the reasons why many people don't believe in evolution is that they are constantly told by the "experts" like Dawkins that evolution shows that God doesn't exist. I think these pronouncements by the atheists like Dawkins are harmful for 3 reasons. (1) They confuse philosophy and science, (2) they cause many well-meaning religious people to close off to scientific claims about evolution, and (3) they cause many well-meaning people to close off to atheists in general—many of whom are quite reasonable and have important things to say. If more theists understood that evolution does not threaten their faith, but can possibly enhance their faith, then more people would embrace the theory of evolution.

Reason and Faith

Is there any conflict between reason and faith? According to one epistemological position known as fideism faith is independent of and hostile toward reason. How does fideism define faith? It defines faith as belief without evidence. According to some philosophers such as Kierkegaard, reason cannot fully comprehend God and so one must take a "leap of faith". Martin Luther said, "Reason receives life from faith." Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates concepts as derived from man's senses. The thinkers mentioned above did not categorically reject reason, but they clearly believed that faith has primacy over reason. That means that faith is primary and reason is secondary. There are 2 problems with this way of thinking:

The first problem comes from their definition of faith—"belief without evidence". As I wrote in my last post, this definition is incorrect. I will argue here that it is also dangerous. It is dangerous because any belief without evidence will insulate the believer from feedback from reality. If one holds the view that faith has primacy over reason, then if they must choose between reality and religion, they will choose religion over reality. They will not be able to identify truth when it contradicts with their beliefs. They will be blind and their spiritual and physical growth will be stunted. Islamic theocratic fascism is an extreme demonstration of the consequences of this view. Terrorists commit violent acts that reason would otherwise prevent them from doing.

The second problem is revealed by asking a simple question: How did they come to the conclusion that faith has primacy over reason? The answer is that they used reason. Therefore, they primarily rely on a concept that they regard as secondary. Therefore to say that faith has primacy over reason is self-refuting because they used reason to come to that conclusion.

Evidence and Faith

Some religious adherents believe that faith is "belief without evidence". The religious philosopher Kierkegaard said, "Without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk the greater the faith … [to understand faith] is to understand that faith cannot be understood ... must not be understood … and this absurdity, held fast in the passion of inwardness, is faith, the earnestness of facing the absurd." His picture of faith was as follows:


This picture argues that faith has primacy over evidence. I believe this interpretation is incorrect. I think this misinterpretation partly comes from scriptures that suggest faith is believing withoutseeing. Seeing is one type of evidence. Hearing, smelling, touching, feeling may be other types of evidence. I think that any scripture referring to "belief without seeing" really implies "belief without directly seeing."

Faith is belief with evidence. It simply excludes evidence that comes from direct observation. Why does it exclude direct observation? Because if we have direct observation, then we have no need for faith. Direct observation leads to a perfect knowledge.

We have evidence for many things that we cannot directly observe. We have never seen an atom but we infer that they exist based on evidence. According to my definition of faith, it is appropriate to say that we have faith that atoms exist.

Orson Pratt, one of the original leaders of my religion, said, "Faith or belief is the result of evidence presented to the mind. Without evidence, the mind cannot have faith in anything …Faith in every fact, statement, truth, or proposition which we have confidence in, is, in all cases whatsoever, derived from evidence. Therefore, without evidence, faith can have no existence."

This picture of faith is as follows:


This picture shows that evidence has primacy over faith. Only this type of faith can lead us toward a correct picture of reality.

Reality and Traditional Christianity

This post is belongs to a series of posts on Reality and Mormon theology.

As I mentioned in a previous post, traditional Christianity believes in the Absolutism of God. Some believe that the Absolutism of God implies that God could literally do anything, including making murder good, or making contradictions exist.

This is debatable whether this view was part of original Christianity. Some early church fathers such as Justin and Origen of Alexandria rejected the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. So where did this belief come from? According to some biblical scholars, it entered Christianity in the first century by a jewish philosopher from Alexandria named Philo Judeaus. He attempted to reconcile Hellenistic metaphysics with Hebrew scriptures. "Philo rejected the Aristotelian concept of the world as uncreated...By the end of the second century the ex nihilo doctrine was accepted almost universally in the church..."

This view is generally rejected by LDS teaching. According to Joseph Smith,

You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end.

In other words God did not create reality ex nihilo nor could He. In contrast to Traditional Christiatinty Joseph Smith taught that God is bound by law and not a law unto himself. Some LDS scriptures suggest that those who seek not to be government by law, but seeketh to become laws unto themselves, cannot be sanctified by the law. Becoming a law unto oneself is the ultimate goal of Satan. For example, he wants to choose how to act and he wants to choose the consequences for actions (D&C 88:34-39).