Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Debate: Mormonism is not a Christian religion

Here's a debate I had where my opponent defended the resolution: Mormonism is not a Christian religion.  Since Mormonism has something to do with Jesus, you might think Mormonism ought to fall under the Christian umbrella.  But a lot of people think the whole worldview of Morminism is so radically different than traditional Christianity, that it's not even the same religion.  It only appears to be so because the vocabulary is the same.  Although the words are the same, the meaning is quite different.

Although I'm skeptical myself that Mormonism falls under the Christian umbrella, I thought I'd play devil's advocate in this debate and argue that Mormonism is Christian.  I figured it might be a learning experience for me.  Here is my opening:

I question whether Mormonism falls under the Christian umbrella, too, but I'm going to play devil's advocate in this debate because I don't think most of Pro's arguments are all that strong. Maybe in the process of the debate, he can strengthen them or come up with better ones. Or maybe he'll convince me that they're stronger than I thought they were.

Before we can say that some entity (x) is a member of some category (y), we first have to define y. Pro didn't give us a definition of Christianity, although we might be able to infer his meaning from his arguments.

First, let's look at where this word came from. According to Acts 11:26, Jesus' followers were first called "Christians" in Antioch, presumably by outsiders. The word, "Christian," comes from the word, "christ," meaning "anointed one." It's the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word, "moshiach," or "messiah." So they likely called Jesus' followers Christians because they were following a messiah, namely Jesus. So a "Christian" is somebody who hails Jesus as the Christ.

With that minimal definition in mind, Mormons are obviously Christians. They hail Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

Perhaps we could be even more specific about the meaning of Christianity. The apostles, after all, had a message about Jesus they were spreading around that included some very basic information they called "the gospel." It was preserved in an oral tradition that Paul tells us about in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. It includes these facts:

1. Christ died for sins.
2. He was buried.
3. He rose from the dead
4. He appeared to Cephas.
5. He appeared to the 12.

It's a matter of controversy whether the rest of the appearances were part of the original oral tradition Paul conveyed, but those five things, at a minimum, defined what the Christian message was. Mormons believe all five of those things, so they are Christians.

Now, perhaps Pro is defining "Christian" differently than I am. Perhaps he means to equate a Christian with a saved person. But as far as I know, the early Church never defined "Christian" that way. In fact, it is evident in a number of books in the New Testament that there are some people within the Christian church who will not be saved (cf. Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Corinthians 11:13, Galatians 2:4, 2 Peter 2:1, etc.). Although these people are condemned as being false brothers or false apostles, and although the implication seems to be that they are not really part of God's elect, they are nevertheless part of the Christian community, and the New Testament never denies that they are actually Christians.

Any reasonable person should admit that it's possible for two people to disagree on at least some points of doctrine even if both of them are Christians. In fact, it's possible for two people to be saved even if they have doctrinal differences. People differ on whether spiritual gifts are active today, whether the return of Christ will happen before or after the tribulation, whether God predestines a particular group of people to eternal life, etc. So the mere fact that Mormons may be wrong on some doctrine is not enough to say that they are not Christians.

Now let's look at Pro's reasons for thinking Mormons are not Christians.

Mormon scriptures are not the word of God

Granted. However, there have been debates within Christianity on what writings are the word of God.[1] Catholics and protestants disagree on whether the Apocrypha is the word of God. In the first few centuries of the church, there were disagreements over whether the book of Revelation was the word of God.[2] Nobody ever said somebody wasn't a Christian just because they had disagreements over the canon. If believing in the wrong books means that you're not a Christian, then either Catholics or protestants are not Christian.

Mormons believe in false gods

Mormons believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each God just as Trinitarians do. They just differ on the question of whether they are the same God. Whereas Trinitarians believe they are the same God (though distinct persons), Mormons believe they are distinct beings, which logically entails that they are distinct gods. Now, some Mormons will claim that they are monotheists on the basis of the intimate unity between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [3], but I think that is just a semantical game and shouldn't be taken seriously. Mormons are, without a doubt, polytheists.

But I question whether somebody can be excluded from being Christian on the basis of the extra erroneous beliefs they have. Suppose, for example, that I believe all of the essentials of the gospel, but in addition to that, i also believe in unicorns. Since my belief in unicorns is not a denial of any of the essentials of the gospel, I'd still be a Christian. So, if a Mormon happens to believe in some other god that doesn't actually exist, but they nevertheless believe all the essentials of the gospel, then they're still Christians.

Let's look at 1 Corinthians 8, which Pro brought up. If you read the whole chapter, Paul is saying it's okay to eat food sacrificed to idols because we know there is only one God. But, he says, "Not all men have this knowledge" (v.7), and we should "take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (v.9). In other words, it's a sin to violate your own conscience (as Paul argued in Romans 14), so we shouldn't eat meat sacrificed to idols if it will lead another person to think it's okay, even though they think idols represent real gods. Paul's advice only makes sense if these others, with weak consciences, are fellow Christians, because why else would they even be concerned about eating meat sacrificed to idols? So Paul is acknowledging the existence of Christians who think there are other gods.

Mormons deny their depravity

Christians differ on the extent of their depravity. You have Calvinists on one extreme who think we are so depraved that we are completely unable to come to Christ unless the Father draws us, and you have Pelagians on the opposite extreme who believe just as the Mormons do, that we are in a state of equilibrium. Between these two extremes, there is every shade of belief. These are doctrinal differences that are, at best, secondary to the core of Christianity which I explained above.

Mormons hold to a false gospel

Mormons pour different meanings into their words than other Christians, and this leads to confusion. Mormons talk about salvation in two different senses--general and individual. By "general salvation," they mean salvation from sin and death by the atonement of Christ. To be saved is to be raised to eternal life, and they believe almost all people are saved in this sense by grace alone. If they're guilty of any heresy, it's in believing too many people will be saved. They are nearly universalists.

By "individual salvation," they mean "exaltation." Exaltation is something that happens to some of those who are saved in the general sense. It is similar to what mainstream Christians think of as "rewards," which even good Calvinists will admit are earned by good works (1 Corinthians 3:14).

Mormons, perhaps, use the word "salvation" incorrectly, but they nevertheless believe in salvation, by the usual meaning of the word, is by grace. The confusion comes in the fact that Mormons usually use the word "salvation" to refer to exaltation rather than in the general sense. But if you just look at the substance of what they believe rather than the words they use to describe it, their belief in general resurrection is equivalent to the reformed belief in salvation by grace alone.

As far as the gospel is concerned, Paul defined the gospel in 1 Corinthiains 15:3ff, and Mormons fully subscribe to what Paul said there.
[1] The Canon of the New Testament, by Bruce Metzger
[2] Ibid. p. 104
[3] http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/

Monday, December 02, 2013

Is Star Trek Technology Achievable?

This is one of my favourite debates I've had on debate.org, although the voters decided that I lost the debate.  It's not exactly religious, but I do think there are metaphysical implications that are relevant to Christianity.  I'm just posting this one for fun.  We argued specifically about transporter technology.  Here is my opening statement:


Thank you for coming to tonight's debate. A couple of people have already expressed interest in the debate, which I hope means we'll get a good voter turn out. I will try to do my part to keep it interesting.

Before we talk about whether Star trek transporter technology is achievable, we first need to talk about what they do.

1. They are able to send groups of people at the same time to remote locations and back.

2. They work by recording all the information about the person, disintegrating them, sending their parts along with the recorded information to a remote location, and reassembling them from the information and the original parts.

3. They are able to send people through solid walls.

Star Trek transporters unachievable for at least three reasons:

I. Disintegration and assembly problem

Transporters already exist. Cars, transport whole humans, in groups, to remote locations and back without disentigrating them. But in Star Trek, people must be sent through barriers at very high speeds. A whole human cannot pass through walls or survive traveling through space without a breathing apparatus, so they must be disassembled.

But how much? It won't do to cut their arms and legs off and ship them to Dr. Frankenstein who puts them back together. Nor will it do to break them down at the molecular level since cells cannot pass through walls. Breaking them down to the molecular level won't do because molecules cannot travel through barriers like we see on Star Trek. Breaking the molecules down to atoms won't work either because atoms cannot pass through walls unless they are porous enough, and space ship walls need to be air tight. Subatomic particles also have trouble penetrating barriers. Protons and electrons can just barely penetrate skin. Neutrons have great penetration power, but not enough. Three feet of water, by itself, is enough to attenuate most neutrons. But for our transporter to work, we need all of the neutrons in our body to pass through all the barriers. We can't have even a fraction of them attenuated if we want to reassemble the whole person.

We're going to have to break the subatomic particles into something more basic. We're going to have to convert the mass into energy, preferably in the form of electromagnetic radiation.

But that creates an insurmountable problem. The amount of energy contained in the mass of one human is enormous. A person weighing 160 lbs on earth has a mass of about 72 kg, which is equivalent to 1.5 x 10^3 megatons of TNT.[1] The most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated only released 100 megatons of TNT.[2]

Things are further complicated when we have to reassemble the parts because we have to convert electromagnetic radiation into subatomic particles, such as protons, then fuse those protons into nuclei. It would require an insurmountable amount of energy to perform anything like that.

II. The recording problem

The information required to record everything about a person is prohibitive. There are about 60 to 90 trillion cells in the human body.[3] Each cell is extremely complex, containing thousands of proteins in different arrangements.[4] Each protein is made of long chains of amino acids. The shortest known protein is 20 amino acids long.[5] DNA is made of roughly 3 billion base pairs[6] ordered in a unique sequence in each person.

The brain presents a problem all its own. The brain has about 200 billion cells and about 125 trillion synapses, which is more than all the switches in all the computers on earth combined.[7] To preserve the person, all of the information in the brain must be accurately recorded and transmitted. If anything is missing, it could affect a person's cognitive functions, including their memories, personality, and bodily functions.

All of this information would have to be recorded by some type of computer with more switches than there are atoms in the human body because it's not enough to record each atom. The exact location of each atom must also be recorded relative to every other atom as well as all the chemical bonds between atoms. And there are about 7 x 10^27 atoms in a 70 kg body.[8]

We don't have the technology to build a computer that could process that much information. There is a limit to how powerful computers can be and how small recording devices can be. The smallest possible computer is a quantum computer that can store qubits of information on single atoms. Nothing smaller than that will work because of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Quantum computers suffer from stability problems, though, and it's questionable whether they can ever be made to be reliable.

Another problem is how to collect and process the information from the body and transmit it to the computer's storage device, which I'll go into more detail about later if I can.

The two factors I have mentioned so far make Star Trek transportation unachievable by mortals, but the next factor makes Star Trek transportation unachievable even by immortals.

III. The problem of identity

Before our Star Trek transporter works as it ought, we must be able to transport the person himself and not just create a replica. The problem with Star Trek type transporters as that they kill a person by disassembling them and use their old parts to create a new person who happens to be just like the one who died.

Let me use a thought experiment to illustrate.[9] Let's say you build a card house, and you accidentally and knock it over. But you had hoped to show it off, so you decided to rebuild it. And such is your memory, that you are able to rebuild it exactly like it was before with each card in its original position. If so, then this second card house would not be the original. You've just used the same cards to build another card house just like the one before.

If you're unconvinced, suppose that instead of you, somebody else knocks it over while you're not around. Then they use those same cards to build a card house exactly like the one you built. Surely the one they built isn't the same one you built even though they're made of the same cards and even though it looks the same. It doesn't matter who does the building. If the new card house is not the original card house when somebody else builds it, then it's not the original when you build it either.

In the same way, if a transporter disintegrates you, then your parts are used along with your recorded information to build a new person with those same parts, then it is not the original person. It's a duplicate.


My opponent explained some of the research in tele transportation, but none of them overcomes the problems I've raised. The article inThe Independent explains how information was transported using quantum entanglement. No substance was transmitted. The Chinese were only able to create a replication, not a transportation. The only article my opponent cited that might give us hope is the last one where solid matter was transported. But if you read the article, the 100 atoms were not actually transported. Rather, there were two collections of atoms 0.5 meters apart, and the "excitation, or spin wave state" of one collection was transmitted to the other collection by means of photons. None of these experiments are relevant to Star Trek transporters.

[1] http://www.1728.org/einstein.htm

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba

[3] http://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/building-blocks-life

[4] http://www.hfsp.org/frontier-science/hfsp-success-stories/how-many-protein-molecules-do-we-have-our-cells

[5] http://www.science20.com/princerain/blog/smallest_protein

[6] http://web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/redirect.shtml

[7] http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-20023112-247.html

[8] http://education.jlab.org/qa/mathatom_04.html

[9] Lest somebody accuse me of plagiarism, I am copying this from a discussion I had on a message board, but this is my original work.  http://community.beliefnet.com/go/thread/view/43851/26687825/Jehovahs_Witnesses_And_Immortality_Of_The_Soul?pg=4