Utah’s desert monolith and the God of the gaps

Utah’s desert monolith and the God of the gaps November 24, 2020


A mountain in South Dakota
Mount Rushmore National Memorial   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Most of you have probably come across this strange little story already:


Deseret News“Mysterious monolith discovered in remote Utah wilderness: People are freaking out over a monolith discovered in the middle of nowhere in Utah.”


CNN:  “Mysterious monolith found in remote part of Utah fuels speculation on how it got there: The object drew comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s famed 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey'”


What puzzles me about it is how everybody, seeing it, immediately leaps to the conclusion that the mysterious object was created and put in place by an intelligent agent, by either a prankster or an alien.  (One person suggests that it’s the grave marker for Jimmy Hoffa.  Others have proposed that hundreds of thousands of Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia ballots marked for Mr. Donald J. Trump have been concealed in it by Dominion, working together with Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp, the CIA, George Soros, and the specter of Hugo Chavez.)


Some have contended that it can’t be very old, because metal objects in the desert Southwest of the United States very quickly grow bullet holes, while the surfaces of this monolith appear to bequite smooth.  But I don’t find that argument conclusive.  We don’t yet know of what metal the object is made.  It could, for example, be composed of unobtainium, and we don’t know whether unobtainium develops bullet holes in the same way that conventional earthly metals do.


But why posit an intelligent agent as the force behind the monolith?  How often has an intelligent agent proven to be the explanation for much of anything in the thousands of acres of wilderness that surround it?


Isn’t it more likely that it’s just an outcropping of metallic ore that has been left standing after the less resistant sand stone around it has eroded away?  If you look at photographs of it, it’s plainly located in a little hollow that has been . . . well, hollowed out.


Imagining that intelligent beings did this — for what earthly purpose? —  is just as silly as the widespread notion that somebody named Gutzon Borglum was responsible for creating the four seemingly anthropoid “faces” on South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.  In that case, plainly, just like the other hills and mountains in that area, they’re no more and no less than the result of naturally occurring erosion by wind, water, and soil.  (See the 1995 book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, in which anthropologist Stewart Elliott Guthrie proposes that religion originates from the evolutionarily beneficial human tendency to see purposive agents in natural occurrences, as illustrated, for example, in our ability to “recognize” faces in random clouds of atmospheric moisture.). Given an infinity of time, two or four or fifty “faces” are bound to appear not just once but, literally, an infinity of times across the multiverse.  We might be amused by the occurrences of such “faces” on our insignificant speck of cosmic dust, but we shouldn’t be surprised at it.


Move along.  There’s nothing to see here.


Imagining that a purposive intelligence created the Utah desert monolith will only serve to cut off scientific inquiry, just as it has done at Mount Rushmore.  It is profoundly incurious.  Our ignorance of the specific reasons for the shape of this or that rock is no proof that “Gutzon done it.”  However, once the “Gutzon Borglum” superstition became the dominant explanation for those supposed “faces” in South Dakota, the scientists effectively went home.  All inquiry into the mechanism by which unguided natural forces shaped that rock cliff over hundreds of thousands if not millions of years came to a complete stop.


Moreover, the notion that a mind analogous to ours, a person, was required to create “George Washington,” “Thomas Jefferson,” “Theodore Roosevelt,” and “Abraham Lincoln,” as the four adjacent rock formations are whimsically known, is deeply arrogant.  Barely evolved simians such as ourselves, only lately emerged from the primordial tidal pool or deep sea volcanic vent that spawned our single-celled ancestors, like to give ourselves airs, imagining ourselves apart from and superior to nature, but our pretensions are rather absurd, really.


The financial motivations for the “Borglum” hoax are easy enough to discern:  The area around Mount Rushmore is a bustling assemblage of paid parking, restaurants, motels, souvenir shops, and entry fees.  (By the way, what a ridiculous name!  Gutzon Borglum?  Why didn’t the creators of this lucrative scam just go all the way and attribute the scenery to the Flying Spaghetti Monster?). As long as there’s a kind of “Gutzon Borglum priesthood” profiting from this nonsense, along with gullible believers forking the money over to support them, we’ll never be free of the lies.




Incidentally, while speaking with one of my sons this morning about the foundations of morality, the following related idea came up:


Suppose that you’re driving in the eastern United States.  You come to a spot on the road where you see a hill, on which rocks appear in a form that appears to spell out the words Welcome to Virginia.


You have two basic options:  You can presume that those rocks were placed there, in that formation, in order to convey the message that you’re now entering the Commonwealth of Virginia.  But you can also surmise that they simply happen to have occurred in that form.  In the latter case, however, you cannot conclude from the appearance of those rocks that you’re actually entering Virginia.  They convey no message.  Their seeming significance is illusory; they convey no actual message at all.  Unless, that is, an intelligent agent, seeing them, decided to put the state border of Virginia precisely there because he noticed that coincidental rock formation.  But then, in that case, a human mind will have decided to attach a meaning to an entirely random and ultimately meaningless natural feature.


How can you decide?


Are our moral values and inclinations to be taken as messages from something or someone transcendent?  Or are they ultimately to be explained naturalistically?  What status does our moral reasoning have?  Is it, in the end, quite arbitrary and conventional?  The approximate equivalent of adjusting our invented state boundaries to fit a mindless natural given?




Incidentally, too, some folks I know have created a “Treasures of the Restoration Jigsaw Puzzle” that might interest you for yourself or as a gift to others (or, of course, both).  It’s appropriate for 2021’s Church curricular focus on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church history, and seems especially well suited for home church with the coronavirus pandemic lurking outside (along with cold weather in the northern hemisphere):





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