If your Latter-day Saint Twitter forays ever touch on philosophy or theology, you’ve probably come across Tarik LaCour. LaCour is a growing figure in the Latter-day Saint intellectual community, no doubt largely due to the unexpected nature of his takes on almost everything. His social media leaps from brooding observations on science and philosophy to deadpan quips about politics and sports.
In fact, the way LaCour evades easy categorization is surely part of his draw. He’s pessimistic, but not cynical. He cares about social justice but frequently deviates from popular narratives. Just when you think he couldn’t possibly get more esoteric, he switches to sports commentary. His imaginary conversations with his toddler, Chloe, range from Stoic wisdom and stanning Hume to witticisms on economics and heartfelt gospel truths. He’s a devout member of the Church, but openly embraces scientism (his Twitter handle is @realscientistic). Perhaps it’s his commitments to naturalism that allow him to balance his dogged persistence with dispassion, looking calmly forward to the moment when all truth will be explainable.
In short, LaCour’s got something to offer everyone. Just don’t expect it to come packaged in niceties.
Meagan: Tell us a little about where you’re from.
Tarik LaCour: I was born in Washington D.C., but I have little to no recollection of it. We moved to Riverside, CA, when I was 5 years old, and I was raised there. I now live in Bryan, Texas, and am a Ph.D. student in philosophy and an M.S. student in psychology, with future affiliations with the Anderson and Bernard labs, the former working on perception the latter on neuroimaging. While I am a transplant, I consider myself a Texan.
M: Were you born into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
TL: No, I am a convert. I was baptized on August 30, 2009, and confirmed on September 6, 2009. Prior to my conversion, I was a Protestant, though I was a bit of a skeptic in my youth. I kept that to myself however and continued to study and ask questions on my own because I got no answers from so-called Sunday School “teachers.”
M: Can you explain a bit more in-depth what your work focuses on and what you studied in undergrad?
TL: I primarily work in cognitive science (with an emphasis on cognitive ontology); philosophy of psychology (with an emphasis on consciousness, emotions, the relationship between neuroscience and psychology, empiricism vs. nativism, and perception); and ethics (with an emphasis on metaethics, moral epistemology, moral psychology, and normative ethics).
As an undergrad at UVU, I studied in a very pluralistic department, where many of the faculty were in the continental tradition. However, a few philosophers there were in the analytic tradition and took the findings of science seriously in their work, and they helped to shape my approach and thinking about the subject. I was very influenced by the logical positivists in my time there, though that waned in the latter part of my undergraduate career. The teachers who helped shape my thinking were Shannon Mussett, Michael Minch, Brian Birch, Kelli Potter, Chris Weigel, Eric Stencil, Thi Ngyuen (though he has now moved to the University of Utah), Karen Mizell, and Elaine Englehardt. Minch and Mizell early on pushed me to work harder, which has made graduate school much easier. I can’t thank them all enough. I was very lucky to have such good teachers.
M: So, you generally reject metaphysics, is that correct?
TL: Most metaphysicians in the analytic tradition (I am thinking here of people like David Armstrong, Peter van Inwagen, Saul Kripke, David Lewis, and Hilary Putnam) do what the empiricist philosopher of science Bas C. van Fraassen (an idol of mine) calls pre-Kantian metaphysics. This type of metaphysics is done independently of science and is seen as a foundation on which science can be built.
But this is an empty dream, and as David Hume famously said, this type of metaphysics should be cast to the flames because it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion and, I would add, eternal boredom. So, with the logical positivists, I strongly reject this type of metaphysics.
M: How would you respond to the claim that not all knowledge can be gained scientifically?
TL: It depends on what a person means by science; I think that philosophy, mathematics, and history are also a part of science. Science is not simply rote experiment, though that is one large component of it. Theoretical physics, for example, has large portions that are not connected to experiment, but of course, theoretical physics is still a part of science. Science deals with things that are in principle almost certainly untestable, such as the assertion of multiple universes that are causally unconnected to us. But all of science is connected to experience. And religious experience, like any other, can be studied by anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience. But that does not mean that religious claims are false, it only means that they can be studied by scientific means.
M: You mentioned that science doesn’t deal in proofs but that this is a popular misconception. Do you think this creates hang-ups for people who see science and religion as somehow incompatible?
TL: I think this is so. But I think the reason most people think that religion and science are incompatible is because they read scripture in a certain way, and expect scripture not just to tell us how God has a relationship with us, but they also see it as a science textbook. And because religious texts don’t tell us much about the nature of the world (other than that God made it but not exactly how He did) some see religion as not making advances while science does. Also, some people see faith as believing without evidence, though this is not how scripture nor how philosophers and theologians understand faith. Faith is not a way of knowing things; it is trust and commitment to that which you have good reason to think is true. Faith without evidence is not faith at all.
Another part is that proponents of science who happen to be atheists many times do not read sophisticated approaches to religion, and proponents of religion who are not themselves scientists do not read much science or know how science and religion are connected. In part that is because science is so vast and specialized, as is philosophy and theology. And philosophers have a bad habit of not taking the answers that science gives us seriously, which brings shame and disgrace upon philosophy.
M: Which philosophers and scientists have most defined your thinking?
TL: As my friend Hanna Seariac will tell you, I think Hume was right about everything. But in addition to Hume, Daniel Dennett and Alex Rosenberg would be what I call my philosophical trinity. Both Rosenberg and Dennett are disciples of Hume and take science very seriously in their respective research.
Patricia Churchland, who founded the philosophical school of thought known as neurophilosophy, has also been a tremendous influence on me. For those who don’t know, neurophilosophers are philosophers who take the findings of neuroscience and apply them to traditional philosophical questions, such as how do we gain knowledge, do we have free will, etc. Neurophilosophy is different from the philosophy of neuroscience, as the latter is related to foundational issues in neuroscience itself while the former is a method of answering philosophical questions.
Jesse Prinz, who is Hume reborn as a rockstar, is also influential. On the science side, my biggest influences are William James, Michael Graziano, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Antonio Damasio, and Charles Darwin
M: Let’s talk about consciousness for a moment. Your view on this topic is somewhat less mainstream, is that correct?
TL: My view of consciousness, known as illusionism, is certainly a minority position though it is defended by eminent philosophers and scientists such as Susan Blackmore, Peter Carruthers, Andy Clark, Dennett, Keith Frankish, and Michael Graziano.
M: Can you explain what it means to be an illusionist?
TL: One of the key questions about consciousness is accounting for how consciousness feels from the inside or first-person; this is known as phenomenal consciousness among scholars. So for example, it seems that if you and I were eating cheeseburgers (this is a very hypothetical example, I hate cheese on hamburgers, but I digress) I would know what it is like for me to taste the burger, but not what it is like for you to taste the burger. And since we are made of materials that generally don’t seem to have this type of experience, this creates a bit of a puzzle, because we would need to explain how non-conscious things somehow give rise to this subjective aspect that we can feel and recognize for ourselves, but that others can’t. This is known as the hard problem of consciousness, a name coined by philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers.
Illusionists think that phenomenal consciousness does not exist and that this first-person aspect of consciousness is an illusion, hence the term illusionism. For us, the question is not how does this type of consciousness arise because we think that it doesn’t, but why are people so sure that they have it and why are we so unwilling to give up the idea that we have it; this is called the hard question as Dennett calls it in Consciousness Explained.
It should be noted that when most people talk about consciousness, they are talking about phenomenal consciousness. So if you deny we have phenomenal consciousness it is tantamount to saying that consciousness doesn’t exist. Dennett and Frankish don’t like saying they don’t think consciousness exists, but I have no problem saying it doesn’t. Many people call Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained Consciousness Explained Away because Dennett argues that this subjective aspect of consciousness doesn’t exist.
M: What does it mean to say consciousness does not exist?
TL: To say that consciousness doesn’t exist is to say that a certain quality people think they have they don’t actually have. There is nothing it is like to be you; you are just an amalgamation of chemicals that can be understood by physics, neuroscience, and psychology, and there is no special property those sciences don’t account for. In short, as Moses said, man is nothing in that he is not any different from the rest of the world that can be understood through scientific means and he deludes himself if he thinks otherwise. But don’t be nonplussed about it; drink a Dr. Pepper and go on with your life.
M: So, if consciousness is an illusion, do we have free will?
TL: Some illusionists, like Blackmore, deny free will, though her reasons for doing so have little to do with illusionism about consciousness. For example, Galen Strawson thinks that free will does not exist but claims that illusionism is the silliest idea anyone has ever had. But I personally think that we have free will, in that while we are causally determined to do what we do, we have degrees of control over our actions and are able to act in accordance with reasons for our actions, even if our reasons for doing so are causally determined by our brain states.
M: Are there ways that the gospel influences how you approach scientific inquiry?
L: Einstein wondered why the world was intelligible at all, and given that I believe that God organized the world, I am not surprised that the world can be understood in a rational way as I think God is the paradigm of a rational being. So, in that sense, God and the gospel affect my scientific thinking. But I don’t use God of the gaps reasoning, plugging in God for lack of knowledge; I keep diving further until I get an adequate causal explanation.
M: Would you say that your confidence in God gives you reason to believe that there always will be an answer for every question and that those answers will ultimately vindicate Him?
TL: What you are referring to is known in philosophy as the principle of sufficient reason, that everything has some reason or explanation for why it happens. As an empiricist, I reject the principle, however. I don’t think everything has an explanation; things just happen at times and nothing explains why they have to happen the way that they do. But as a scientist in training, I look for an explanation in causal terms as much as I can, while being open to the fact that there may be no explanation. Fortunately, many times there is an explanation.
M: You recently presented at FAIR. Do you mind explaining your topic a little here?
TL: At FAIR, I defended natural theology and stated that Latter-day Saints should engage in it. Natural theology is arguing for the existence of God without the aid of revelation or scriptures. So, if it is successful it will show that atheism is false (or is at the very least less plausible than theism), and revealed religion has the possibility of being true, and you go from there. The basic question is whether or not God exists. If he does, it is possible that Mormonism is true and it is something we can continue to investigate. If God does not exist, then Mormonism is an interesting artifact for anthropologists to study, but we need not waste our lives worrying about it.
M: So, you are striving to prove the existence of God without religion?
TL: That would be a good way to state it, but not entirely. For example, as Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and N.T. Wright have written at length, there is good reason to believe in the resurrection as a historical event, and that would involve using information given to us from the gospels and the letters of Paul. But in doing a case like this, you would not treat them as scripture but as a bundle of separate documents that may contain a historical core.
M: You’ve also written recently about race and the priesthood. Can you say a little about what led you to write about that?
TL: Race is not a pleasant subject to write about, even for a pessimist. But I felt I needed to write something in light of the murders of our brothers Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and our sister Breonna Taylor. They are the public face of many black people who have been brutally murdered for no reason and gave America and the Church the opportunity to examine themselves and see what racist tendencies we presently have, and what in the past has caused us to be where we are today. As an American and Latter-day Saint who happens to be black and has a bi-racial daughter, I felt a duty to speak out.
M: Absolutely. I, for one, thought your piece was beautifully written. Can you summarize some of your thoughts about race and the Church here?
TL: Well, it is complicated. I am a devout believer in the Restored Gospel, but I have never been one to deny the obvious. The Church has a race problem, and it won’t go away until it is properly treated. Now, to be clear, we are in a much better place in 2021 than we were in 1978. President Nelson recently condemned racism in the strongest terms, and before him President Gordon B. Hinckley also condemned it. I laud them for doing that as they didn’t have to. But the fact remains that some still harbor racism due to the priesthood ban. Until the ban is said to be wrong, as well as the modern and past defenses of it, we won’t get to where we need to be. Note however that this is not a demand I have; President Nelson and those who work with him will have to decide how we proceed here. And I sustain whatever choice they make, as they are far brighter and have been put in that position by the Lord. Sustaining them means I will sustain how they choose to proceed. Even if I disagree with it.
M: Have you experienced racism within the Church? If so, what would you like people to know about this problem?
TL: Yes, but it has been mild. Some of it has been people saying that I talk like a white person (apparently black people cannot be refined and educated). People close to me have said that there has never been any racism in the Church, and that had me floored. Others have said that mixing of blood (by this they mean interracial marriage) is not a good thing. And I have seen looks from other people as my wife and I have come to church. But I haven’t had what I would deem vile or cruel racism in the Church. By and large, I have been treated very well and I am happy to be a member. Flawed and all, Latter-day Saints are generally good people and I am glad to be numbered with them. I would hasten to add that I also have a high degree of tolerance for this type of thing, and most of my friends and half of my family are white, so my perspective may be very different from other black members. So, don’t take my word on this as the full story as what is to be a black Latter-day Saint.
M: You seem to have a very balanced attitude about this, even though it can’t be an easy subject. Why is that?
TL: People have other reasons to dislike me such as my commitment to scientism, my strong endorsement of evolution by natural selection, and my view that there is no more meaning or purpose in life than what you put into it. But, as one of my heroes, James Madison would say, the opinion of the public is one the things you should care about least. Lots of wisdom in that small Virginian. I look forward to meeting him in the postmortal life. I just see our time as limited, and I don’t waste time worrying about what I can’t control. I focus on what I can and my life and blood pressure remain healthy and my mind stays sharp. Good enough for me.
M: What would you like to see happen among other members of the Church—black and white—to help improve race relations?
TL: So many things. But one would be on the white side [acknowledging] that racism is still happening and that it needs to be discussed and acted upon. We should be discussing this in our Sunday School, Elders Quorum, and Relief Society meetings. Racism can’t go away if we don’t acknowledge its existence. On the black side, I hope that we can be frank about the issues we see, but I hope that we will not be too harsh with our fellow white members. I think that they are doing the best they can with what they know. We can speak the truth in love. Love will be the key to conquering this issue and most issues. But, we have to be frank about where the issues lie. I would also say, on both sides, that while racism is a big issue, it’s not the only one. So, we need not be myopic on it either.
On a personal level, I hope that members will read books like Religion of a Different Color by my dear friend W. Paul Reeve, For the Cause of Righteousness by Russell Stevenson, or Race and the Making of the Mormon People by Max Mueller. These are all very good books that explain in detail how we got to where we are today.
M: Ok, this is really great practical information. Thank you for the book recommendations. In closing, do you have further reading recommendations for those who would like to familiarize themselves better with your approach to philosophy and research interests?
TL: 10 would be too many, 5 would be too short, so I will compromise with 8:
Lisa Feldman Barrett, Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain—It is possible that the complex thing in the universe is the brain, yet most of us don’t know much about that 3-pound blob of flesh that controls all that we do. In this brief book, Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is a pioneer in neuroscience and psychology, gives us a brief tutorial on brains. She talks about how and why brains evolved, shows that different parts of the brain work together to do things and that much of what we do is determined and can be known beforehand. As much a book of science as an epic, this is one you will want to have in your library.
Michael Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain—Illusionism is usually seen as a philosophical view of consciousness, but in this book, Graziano shows that illusionism is an empirical theory of consciousness. He argues for what he calls the attention schema theory, that evolution has equipped the brain to be sensitive and attentive to certain kinds of information, making consciousness a construction of the limited part of information that our brains are able to process. Evolution never ceases to amaze, and Graziano shows us that consciousness is neither mysterious nor inexplicable as some would like to believe.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature—This book is Hume’s masterpiece, where he explores the nature and acquisition of human knowledge, emotions, and morality. It is an excellent fusion of empiricism, naturalism, and skepticism. In particular, his discussion of induction in 1.3.6, personal identity at 1.4.6, and reason not being the foundation of morality in 3.1 are simply spectacular. No matter how many times one reads this book, it is both chilling and invigorating at the same time. My favorite work of philosophy and the founding work of cognitive science.
Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—In this book, Dennet focuses on the theory of natural selection, showing that it is not merely a theorem of biology. Rather, natural selection is a universal acid (Dennett’s term) that also changes our view of our place in the world, the nature of knowledge and morality, and whether there can be true progress at all. Like Hume’s book, this is another chilling work. But it ends on a very happy note, and no one writes like Dan Dennett in contemporary philosophy; he is a river of gold wrapped in an uncanny wit.
Jesse Prinz, Beyond Human Nature—One of the contemporary debates in both psychology and philosophy of psychology is whether or not human nature is hardwired into us by our genes or whether culture shapes most of who we are, the so-called nature vs. nurture debate. This debate is an ancient one, but work in genetics has brought more empirical data to the debate. Prinz is very much on the nurture or empiricist side of the debate, arguing that nurture shows why there is so much variety between and within cultures. One of the best defenses of empiricism against nativism, this is a must-read for those who think they transcend their genes.
Peter Carruthers, The Centered Mind—We often think that most of what we choose to do is a conscious choice, though we know some of it happens unconsciously. Carruthers begs to differ; he thinks (no pun intended) that all of our thought is unconscious and that it only comes to mind later, too so that we think we are making choices that have been made already. Carruthers does believe in free will, however, and this book is as much a book of science as it is philosophy. Can’t recommend it enough.
Bas C. van Fraassen, The Empirical Stance—Many philosophers call themselves empiricists; very few philosophers give a defense of what it means to be an empiricist. Van Fraassen argues that what characterizes an empiricist is a persistent rebellion against metaphysics, in particular a demand for explanation, and having our beliefs being subject to reassessment in light of science. One of his key ideas is that science is not so much a way to gain belief as much as a way to give up our beliefs. Beautiful insight.
Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality—My friend Walker Wright directed me to this book, saying my ideas in philosophy were very close to Rosenberg’s. Don’t let the book’s title scare you, this book has very little, if anything, to do with atheism, at least after the book’s opening pages. Rosenberg claims that his philosophical system is known as scientism and coins the term scientistic as one who adheres to it. Scientism is a blend of metaphysical naturalism, reductive physicalism, and scientific realism, which will lead one to a rather pessimistic view of the world, our place in it, and what ultimately matters. Rosenberg also takes on many of the central questions of philosophy through the prism of scientism and gives answers to them that are sure to arouse a wide range of emotions in people. After Hume’s Treatise, it is possible no book has influenced me more. If nothing else, Rosenberg will make you laugh out loud several times.