I’ve talked about authority a few different times, but I thought I should try writing something up as a post. So here’s a version comparing it to roulette:
If you know that one roulette wheel pays out 60% of the time and the others pay out 50% of the time, you would be a moron to play any other roulette wheel. And so would everybody else. It does not matter that it does not pay out all the time (ie, it is not infallible), because it is still better than the lame 50% alternative. Prophets are like this better-than-you roulette wheel where the jackpot is knowing God’s will. Pointing out that prophets are not infallible is pointless. The standard is not “being always right”, the standard is being more likely to be right than you. And “better than you” is, no offense, a much lower bar. To take your own view over theirs is to say that:
1. I am more likely to be right about this matter than the prophet is.
2. Knowing and believing as God does is not actually my goal. I have some other goal .
While it may be the case that 1 is true in many cases, I find it to be much harder going when one restricts to statements the prophets actually officially make and generally agree upon. For the natural man is an enemy to God and God’s ways are not our ways, making it pretty rough going without some help.
As for 2, while I understand the importance of acting for oneself, and I understand that we must make decisions on our own at least some of the time, it seems to me that I get plenty of opportunities to do this already. And if God feels like speaking to us through a prophet, I’d be dumb to not listen. (How do we know it is God speaking? Well you’re back to the roulette wheel, take another spin).
Alternatively, one could “weigh” the words of the prophet against your own personal views and then make a decision. But, unless you think you are better at this than the prophet (who also weighed the information), you are mixing a worse probability of being right with a better one, which just makes you worse off, because you end up being right less than you could. Thus it is like spending half your time at the 60% table and half at the 50% table, so that you win 55% of the time.
Now, this is not the only reason to listen to the prophet. There are also, for example, covenant issues about sustaining. Even more interesting are the behavioral issues that by precommitting to hearken, you will be able to overcome the temptation to ignore prophets when the going gets really tough, even if you actually do think you know better in some early, easy cases. Elder Eyring talks about this idea (in different language) in the talk I link to below.
Does this view accord with Church Doctrine? I think so. True to the Faith says following the prophet offers the “greatest safety”, suggesting that the prophet is the best at something, but not implying that he is actually perfect. It goes so far as to note that ignoring living prophets will cause us to fail (suggesting a wide margin between our personal probability of being right and the prophet’s). It does not say that the prophet is always right, but it does not need that claim to conclude that we should always follow him.
Is the True to the Faith document right? Maybe so, maybe no. But it is more likely to be right than I am without it.