Authority Roulette

June 21, 2006 | 99 comments
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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.
or
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.

___________________________________________

Some interesting talks:
Elder Faust in 1989 on Continuous Revelation
Prophets entry in True to the Faith
Elder Eyring on Finding Safety in Counsel

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99 Responses to Authority Roulette

  1. Matt Evans on June 21, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Great ideas, Frank.

  2. DavidH on June 21, 2006 at 11:43 am

    An LDS version of Pascal’s wager? Except the wager is not on whether to believe in God, but on whether to believe in following Church leaders without exception.

    I regret, however, that I cannot necessarily “sustain” this approach, given the counsel, which may or may not be in error, against wagers and other forms of gambling.

  3. Seth R. on June 21, 2006 at 11:44 am

    The problem is that the Prophet is a generalist. He is the one most likely to be right OVERALL.

    But not necessarily in the particulars. In this area, there are many rank and file Mormons who will likely find themselves more likely to be right than the Prophet on a small and limited issue (which is why, I suspect, that most Prophets try to avoid mucking around in the particulars).

    Prophets are pretty good about leaving the membership appropriate scope for personal application of preached doctine.

    But it’s when we start talking about Wards, Mission Fields, Gospel Doctrine classes, Boy Scout troops, that things start to get more murky.

    Can local leaders who are possibly more likely to be right than the Prophet within their own stewardship maneuver enough to implement their knowlege for the benefit of a stake, mission or ward without running afoul of correlated materials?

    And what if the official administrative implementation of Prophetic verse is sketchy at best? My own example:

    1. Japanese members receive new translation of BoM because the old one was literally unreadable for common Japanese folk.

    2. Prophetic counsel urges us to read, study, and treasure the Book of Mormon. Missionaries should be presenting it to anyone and everyone they possibly can.

    3. Other less well known General Authority commentary talks about physically treating the book with respect. Other commentary talks about handing out these books to “plant seeds” in the hearts of the people.

    4. There is a surplus of old, unreadable Japanese Book of Mormons in missionary apartments throughout Japan (most apartments had close to 400 extras in boxes in the closet).

    5. Someone in the Tokyo Church Office Building notices the glut and decides that each missionary, and each member may receive one copy, and one copy only, of the wonderful new translation. Missionaries will not receive new translations for their proselyting efforts until they have lovingly, responsibly, and sincerely handed out every last copy of the old translation sitting in their closets. Member and missionary sign-up sheets were created, distribution of the new books was closely tracked. No new translation for new investigators or the general Japanese public.

    6. The administrative mandate is given to the Mission Presidents. Mission President gives inspirational talks on the power of the “Book of Mormon.” He endorses the official policy, APs and ZLs are brought on board. A new category is added to each missionary’s weekly status reports. We are ordered to get these old books distributed. We are forbidden to dump them in the trash, or even to drop a copy in every bike basket (all bikes in Japan had baskets) at the local train stations.

    Frank, what am I supposed to make of this situation under your paradigm?

  4. Ryan Bell on June 21, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Frank, I largely agree with what you’ve stated here. However, while the theory is attractive, it is less reassuring in practice, as with any broad explanation of things that relies on averages.

    That is, people that accept that the prophet is right 60% of the time (which I imagine you’ve intentionally set too low to avoid irrelevant arguments about the actual number) will also know that on any single question, there’s still a 40% chance that he’s wrong. And even though they know there’s a 50% chance of being wrong by themselves, they might easily think that if they invest a great deal of thought, reasoning, prayer, etc. in the question, they can beat the odds on this particular issue.

    I think that’s actually how it plays out in most cases where a putatively faithful Latter-day Saint deliberately decides not to follow the prophet in a particular instance. One would admit to herself that the prophet is right most of the time; then one would conclude that this instance is an outlier, for whatever reason (this is politics– outside the prophet’s stewardship; he acted alone or unofficially; he has not accounted for my individual situation, etc). This move tends to level the field, since I can see conditions on the ground, and he can’t. Now I can conclude that my own investigation and analysis has raised my chances of being right in this instance, so me and the prophet are equal authorities on this one question. This is the same mentality that leads one to play the table with lower odds but a bigger payout when certain factors are in place (“I recognize that the other table has slightly better odds of paying out, but the other table also has larger, though rarer payouts– still, I’m feeling hot tonight so I’ll go with the lower odds/bigger payout table)

    I might suggest that this problem would be solved by a little adjustment in the numbers. If we set the prophet’s likelihood of being right up where it probably belongs– between 90-98 percent in my view, and mine where it belongs (probably between 65-75 percent), there is a bigger distance to make up before I believe my own judgment is equivalent to his. Still, the point is that even when one agrees with your general point, the difference can still be made up quite easily in one’s mind if they relegate to themselves extra points on a specific question.

  5. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    Seth,

    “In this area, there are many rank and file Mormons who will likely find themselves more likely to be right than the Prophet on a small and limited issue (which is why, I suspect, that most Prophets try to avoid mucking around in the particulars).”

    I agree with this. I sincerely doubt that the prophet would be better at picking my favorite ice cream flavor than I am, but part of the prophetic calling is that the prophet knows better than to speak on the subject of “Frank’s favorite ice cream”. I think this is something that prophets have improved on over time, as the Lord teaches the leaders when to make statements and when not to.

    “Frank, what am I supposed to make of this situation under your paradigm?”

    The whole point of the model, of course, is that nobody is infallible. It sounds like you think you’ve found an occasion where #1 is right in relation to a particular local leader and a particular situation. Figuring out if that is the case is, of course, your problem. You might choose to sustain them anyway, or course, because it is their stewardship, but that doesn’t change the fact that you think it is the wrong course. Offhand, though, I would guess that local leaders are less likely to be right than the prophet, and so #1 would occur more often.

    DavidH,

    Yes, of course you are right. This model is only for people who experience uncertainty. Carry on :)

  6. DHofmann on June 21, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    “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.”

    Actually, since you’re posing the same question to each person (yourself and the prophet), it’s like getting a chance at each of the tables as part of the same wager. I think that gives you an 80% chance of success. (Are there any statisticians here?)

  7. Seth R. on June 21, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    Frank, I guess we could add that disclaimer to the “lower levels” of leadership. But it only addresses part of the problem. In this day of a correlated Church, Prophetic will is often equated with the implementations.

    The way the sketchy BoM logistics solution was presented to us missionaries, it seemed like it had come down “from on high.” At least from the Area Presidency anyway. And we missionaries were definitely taught and encouraged to regard our Mission President as only slightly lower than Gordon B. Hinckley. His words were commandments for us (note: I have nothing but respect and admiration for both my mission presidents and I don’t think the BoM thing was really their idea).

    The line between “prophecy” and “policy” is really blurry in our religion.

  8. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    Ryan,

    “Still, the point is that even when one agrees with your general point, the difference can still be made up quite easily in one’s mind if they relegate to themselves extra points on a specific question.”

    Yeah, this is #1. I think it is easy to delude oneself into thinking #1 happens more than it really does, especially when one has strong preferences about what should be true.

    Also, I hope this framework clarifies what the actual issue is. Many times people are under the impression that the argument is about how often the prophet is wrong, but really the actual question is about the difference between how often you vs. the prophet are wrong.

    What is not compelling is that people try to buttress their claim to #1 by pointing out times they feel the prophet has been wrong. But this is only half the question.

    And yes, I did set the numbers low for the sake of the example :)

  9. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    D,

    You seem to be thinking about it like you have “two shots” at the jackpot, which would obviously sound better.

    But for the same money, you could have two shots at the high probability jackpot, which is even better. Just think through a $2 jackpot for a $1 bet with the probabilities I gave. You play 100 times, spending 100 dollars. If you play at the high table, you get back about (.60*2*100) $120. If you play at the others you get (.5*2*100) $100. Playing half your money on each gives a payoff of $110, which is 55% jackpot. That’s the analogy I was making.

  10. Julie M. Smith on June 21, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    This is interesting, Frank. I wonder how it would apply in these situations:

    (1) A matter of historical but not current importance. Pick your poison: blacks and the priesthood, polygamy, Adam-God, etc. When the current prophet is teaching something different from a previous one, do we have an obligation to act as if the previous one were right?

    (2) Personal application. I think we could all agree that the current counsel of the church, to pick an extremely non-controversial example , is that mothers should be home with their young children wherever possible. How do I go about determining whether my situation constitutes a ‘wherever possible’ or if it is a ‘not possible in this case’? It seems to me that after all is said and done, I am left relying on my own combination of inspiration and perspiration. Which I guess is my way of saying that your roulette wheel looks good on paper (er, pixels), but in real life doesn’t necessarily change what I have to work with when I make a decision. Even on counsel with less wiggle room, we have scriptural examples of people being commanded to act otherwise (Nephi, Abraham). Unless I am missing something, your paradigm doesn’t allow for these kinds of exceptions.

  11. Duane on June 21, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    What if it could be demonstrated that a third roulette wheel pays out at 70% over time? You would be an idiot to not play that roulette wheel. So if the Quakers, with their consensus model of making decisions, are “right” more often than modern prophets have been, then we ought to become Quakers?

    Your model assumes that we can identify what “getting paid out” or being “right” is in order to make the rational decision. How is this done? If you define “right” simply as following the prophet, then you have gamed the system. If you define right as learning God’s will, then you are back to the original problem–what is the best way to learn God’s will. Implicit in your analogy is that there is some means of learning whether we are “winning,” but beyond saying that we “win” when we follow the prophet, I don’t see that you have provided an answer to the basic question. The result is your argument looks something like this: You win when you follow the prophet. How do I know if I’ve won? Because the prophet is right more often than you are. How do I know he is right more often than me? Because he is better at knowing God’s will. How do I know he is better at knowing God’s will? Because you win when you follow the prophet.

    If your point is simply that believers in prophets should believe the prophet–well I can get on board with that. But that is because you come to the table already agreeing that you “win” when you bet on the prophet (BTW, I love the gambling analogy–it gives your post a delicious irony).

  12. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    Julie,

    I am not sure why (1) is a problem. We have good doctrinal reason to suspect that current prophets are better at telling us what we need than past ones, if the two contradict.

    As for (2), I think the Church has tried to be clear about what “whenever possible” means. But let’s stear clear of that firestorm to the general question of how does one know if one is an exception? Well, in this case, one is not actually attempting to say that the prophet is wrong, since the prophet makes clear that there are exceptions. So yes, God does leave you to make your own decisions and no, believing the prophets will not solve that for you. You will still have to make lots of hard decisions.

    As for Nephi and Abraham, the really amazing part of the story is the fact that they had to decide if they were receiving revelation or not. And we know they were. Thus #1 applied to them. Of course, they were acting as prophets in those cases, so they do fall outside the paradigm in that sense. I guess we could add as a subtype:

    1a: Were the prophet in this situation, he would do or believe as I do about it, regardless of the general counsel. Thus I am not really believeing anything differently than the prophet.

  13. Julie M. Smith on June 21, 2006 at 12:56 pm

    Frank, my point with (1) is that there seems to be something a little wiggly (or Orwellian) about freely acknowledging that prophets were wrong in the past while acting as if they are right about everything now. I’m not sure how your proposal addresses that, unless you are just willing to live with that wiggliness.

    And I think we are in basic agreement on (2), which is that, even if we accept your proposal, we still have to do a lot of hard work in determining what to do with counsel, which then leads me to wonder: What does your proposal really accomplish?

    I’m not sure that I can read Nephi as acting as a prophet in that story because his father would have been the presiding authority of their group at that time. He clearly isn’t The Prophet, so your 1a doesn’t work for me.

  14. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    Julie,

    1a works because that is what Lehi would have done or so Nephi surely believed.

    As for (1), this is the whole point of the post, knowing later that something is wrong is all well and good, but you can’t predict what that will be now. So yes, one can readily acknowledge fallibility and still act the same as somone who believes in infallibility, because you cannot, today, tell the difference.

    And that is what my model “accomplishes”, if you like. It rationalizes why it makes sense to act in a way that looks like you believe in infallibility, even if you don’t.

    Second, it clarifies what the issue is. See my comment to Ryan.

  15. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    oops, I meant “my comment to Ryan”. I’ve changed it now.

  16. greenfrog on June 21, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    If the game is to make $$, and if I agree that it makes sense to take a document’s or speaker’s simple, reflexive assertion of accuracy (“I am accurate,”) then I agree with the conclusions offered.

    But I don’t think the game is to make $$, nor to attain spiritual security — it is to become like God, Who has none of the benefits of spiritual security, but rather always has to make every decision exactly right.

    And our Church leaders almost never simply assert their accuracy — they explain why I should conclude they are right. It’s when those explanations don’t hold up under scrutiny that (for me, at any rate) the world presented in the opening post gets complicated. We’ve seen here and elsewhere in cyberspace discussions of whether the explanations should be treated as post hoc inventions that should be disregarded when they don’t hold up — IOW, we should still accept the conclusion, even if we don’t accept the major premise or the minor premise (or both). I find that position more than a little dissatisfying. Here’s why:

    The proposed model assumes static probabilities of success — no matter what I do, I can’t change the 50% table’s yield; no matter what I do, I can’t change the 60% table’s yield.

    Blessedly, we aren’t stuck with oracular pronoucements and our calculations of probabilities of accuracy, so we can improve on 60% accuracy (or 98%, or 98.999999%, or whatever) by paying attention and thinking.

    Scientist A performs certain procedures and asserts “X.” Scientist A then describes the procedures followed and, using some combination of facts, logic, inference, analogy, metaphor, and intuition, explains why s/he concludes “X.” Scientist B may, using only Scientist A’s data set, identify ways in which Scientist A’s conclusions can be improved on. Scientist C may, using slight modifications to Scientist A’s procedures, produce different data and, using that different data identify ways in which Scientist A’s conclusions can be improved on.

    And so on.

    And the conclusion under consideration, which originally had a probability of 60% accuracy, at the end of the process, is going to a higher probability of accuracy, even though it isn’t exactly what Scientist A said.

    So when a Church leader says, “Do X because of A, B, and C,” I’m grateful for the “because…” as it enables me to improve the odds that X is the right thing to do in my particular situation — either by matching my situation to the ABCs, or by recognizing that I have better information about C than the leader. In that event, I may (subject to lots of questions and thinking about covenants, etc.) conclude that X(ABC’) is the right thing to do, not X(ABC).

  17. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    I don’t really like the term correlation because it implies that the leaders of the church are correlating their will with other leaders of the Church. That is not the point – the objective of correlation, rather, is to correlate the leader’s will with God’s will – the idea being that anything they feel equally inspired about is much more likely to be a faithful representation of how God feels about the matter – it is a scheme for filtering out personal errors and idiosyncrasies.

    Adam-God, by the way, was *never* the doctrine *of the Church*, for several reasons – Brigham Young could not convince the other leaders of the Church that he was right, that he received any sort of revelation on the subject, that it was compatible with the doctrine of the resurrection. Futhermore the Church as a whole almost completely sided with Orson Pratt. That does not mean that A/G was necessarily false of course, but it does mean it is not, and was not ever Church doctrine. It was a teaching of Brigham Young that was rejected, presumably because others were inspired to see that there were serious problems.

    A similar thing with blacks and the priesthood. Revelation? What revelation? The whole problem in the Brigham Young era is that the Church ignored D&C 107. The aftermath of the Young era has taught us abundantly that placing all doctrinal authority in the hands of one man, with no regard to apostolic consensus is a dangerous thing to do. Perhaps every once in a while a prophet like Joseph Smith comes along whose every word on nearly every matter is golden. But most leaders are only say 98 or 99 percent golden. We need apostolic consensus to filter out that one or two percent. So the leaders labor to achieve a near unanimous consensus on every matter they speak upon. That is why we don’t get First Presidency statements any more, we get First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve statements, unanimity adequate to convincingly establish divine authority according to the D&C.

    There is also a separate issue of authority as delegated discretion. In a variety of matters right is *defined* as what the appropriate leaders direct. If you ask God he will say – don’t ask me, I delegated responsibility for that matter to so and so. There is no Platonic truth out there for the answers to all questions. Authority in the Church is all about divine legitimization of both *revelation* and *discretion*. Too many people talk about authority as founded in revelation alone – that is ridiculous – authority is more commonly a matter of *stewardship* than revelation alone.

    So the key in many matters is to decide – is that policy, whatever not only well advised, but is it within the bounds of the leaders stewardship and discretion. This goes all the way to ordinary members – people want to say Aha! you are not following prophetic teaching X when the answer is more appropriately is ones life a reasonable expression of both revealed principle and cooperation in the inspired and localized implementation of the kingdom of God.

    A Bishop does not need a revelation to legitimize every possible sort of decision – that is Protestant talk – Mormonism speaks of *agency*, and a leader’s agency or priesthood stewardship is to exercise his own discretion in harmony with direction and revelation from above. Same with us. Why do we have to be so bipolar about everything?

  18. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    greenfrog,

    You are welcome to your view of the world. But I think whisperings of the spirit are not always conveyed as a set of reasons to be shouted from the rooftops. Thus leaders offer ABC to persuade, but I believe that they are doing that because, in addition to whatever logic ABC carry, they received inspiration which constitutes reason D.

    Thus, for all the reasons ABC pro and con, the reason the Church adopted polygamy was because God told them to. And so reason D is the key.

  19. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    greenfrog,

    “But I don’t think the game is to make $$, nor to attain spiritual security — it is to become like God, Who has none of the benefits of spiritual security, but rather always has to make every decision exactly right.”

    I don’t even know where you are going with this. You are not going to get anywhere close to exactly right in mortality. The question is can you improve on the odds you get by following the prophet. You are free to decide that question as you wish, but I think the Church’s position is rather clear. Furthermore, it is coherent.

  20. Seth R. on June 21, 2006 at 1:37 pm

    No Mark,

    If you’ve ever sat through Bishopric meetings and read through the statements that Salt Lake sends to each Bishop, you’d realize that correlation is just as much about mundane, secular Church management as it is about keeping the Church in line with God’s will.

  21. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    Suppose that, worst case, we adopted (horror of horrors) a Nielsen model of the Church as a leaderless democracy where all members were equally righteous and equally inspired – that inspiration came to each through a noisy channel or from behind a darkened glass. Of course we assume (contra Nielsen?) that there is divine inspiration to be had.

    Now all of the members sit down in a vast council and try to come to a consensus representation of what the will of the Lord is on a matter. Each person by nature, background, training, etc. has his own peculiar variety of error or spin on the inspiration he receives. Presumably however, that error of inclination is roughly normally distributed (according to the law of large numbers in vector form), such that the mean or consensus representation is *much* more accurate on average than the representation of an average individual.

    Indeed we could come to that consensus representation simply by conducting a series of votes about various aspects. Even with that yes/no majority rule, if all members are generally rightoeus and inspired the result will be greater than the belief of an average member. In fact the view of the average member on any particular point will differ from the mean by the standard deviation in each dimension.

    So the assumption that the average member knows better that the councils of the Church based on personal insight or inspiration is even on such a model roughly equivalent to asserting that the standard deviation is closer to the will of God than the mean is. The doctrine of antinomianism is deviance.

  22. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    Seth, I think you are misreading me. I am saying that the doctrine of the priesthood is that in such secular, mundane matters the will of the leaders holding the appropriate keys *is* the will of the Lord in such matters. That is what delegation, stewardship, agency is all about.

  23. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    To take it to an extreme, if I ask for strawberry ice cream, instead of chocolate, and the choice is within the bounds of my legitimate descretion, my delegated agency and stewardship over my own body – the body I have only as a consequence of a divine gift, then my choice is legitimate, and indeed carries divine authority because *he* delegated that choice to me, in all righteousness.

  24. Seth R. on June 21, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Actually, I think that the “Prophetic Mantle” is just a much about having authority to screw-up in God’s name as it is about the authority to get-it-right in God’s name.

    If I tell my 13 year old son to watch his younger siblings while mom and me are at a movie, I expect he’ll likely get it wrong several times during the evening. But dogonnit! Someone has to be in charge!

  25. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    The problem is of course that if the prophets “screw up” very much their mantle dissapears because prophetic effectiveness is usually contingent on honor – honor from above and honor from those who they preside over.

    We have no basis for explaining the Apostasy other than a gradual withdrawal of divine sanction because the leaders gradually “screwed up”. The leaders preserved the honor of men quite effectively, but they lost the honor of God.

  26. Scotth on June 21, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    Frank, for me to subscribe to your conclusions, I have to have some faith in the premise, i.e. that prophets are more likely to be right than any other source. Unfortunately, this premise suffers from a deficiency of definition. What am I to assume that the prophets are right about what? The further we get from the founding of the church, the less our prophets are apt to prophecy (i.e., foretell future events). If President Hinckley were to stand and predict a terrorist attack, an economic collapse, or some other quantifiable event, and were right 60% of the time, then yes anyone would be foolish not to listen to him. (If he were to do so with even a 30% success rate, he would have everyone from congress to wall street listening to him). Rather, modern prophets proscribe personal behavior. The outcomes are less quantifiable.

  27. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Mark (21),

    Interesting thoughts.

    Scott,

    “I have to have some faith in the premise, i.e. that prophets are more likely to be right than any other source.”

    I’m glad that is clear because the whole point is to clarify that this is the right question to ask.

    “Rather, modern prophets proscribe personal behavior. The outcomes are less quantifiable.”

    Can you clarify your concern a little? Suppose the prophet says we should do X. There is some probability that God wishes us to do X. Whether or not that probability is known, it is perfectly “quantifiable”. As is the probability that we can figure out if God wants us to do X relying upon other sources. We then have to make a guess about whether or not to do X. And that decision, if we are wise, should be very much related to thinking about our relative correctness vs. the prophet’s.

  28. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    The primary purpose of prophecy is not to tell us about the future, it is to tell us what the will of God is for us *right now*. Prophecies about the future in scripture are generally confined to grand themes of scattering due to iniquity, the coming of the Messiah, repentance, gathering, restoration, judgment, Advent, and resurrection.

    Isaiah appears to have known much more about the detail of God’s plans for the future, but it is hard to tell about prophetic detail until after the events have past. The grand themes are more than adequate, in most cases. Testimony of such things is based completely on inspiration, not hard external evidence.

  29. Seth R. on June 21, 2006 at 2:42 pm

    Mark,

    If the prophet is automatically removed by God when he screws-up, why does the D&C include detailed instructions for how the Quorum of the Twelve should proceed in disciplining or removing a prophet?

    Secondly, not all screw-ups are worthy of losing your office as the narrative of the Bible repeatedly demonstrates.

  30. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    The prophet is not automatically removed, struck by lightning, whatever. That is silliness. I was speaking of the withdrawal of the spiritual mantle of authority, not the formal removal from office.

    The detailed instructions in the D&C is God’s prescribed scheme for removing a prophet due to iniquity – impeaching a prophet for high crimes and misdemeanors, as it were.

    The first is informal and based on the spirit – it is what happens whether a person is removed from office or not. The second is the responsibility of others. The first happened during the Apostasy, the second did not – because the leaders went after the doctrines of men rather than the doctrines of God, they had plenty of support from below (notable incidents to the contrary), but lost much of their legitimacy from above.

  31. CS Eric on June 21, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    I hope you don’t mind if I apply your thoughts to a real life example. There seems to be some debate in the Bloggernacle as to whether the Proclamation on the Family has any real meaning beyond some sort of policy letter. Some have made the point that they feel free to ignore it.

    I believe the Proclamation has (or should have) a bit more weight than a “policy letter.” Why? Several reasons. It was first read by the prophet from the pulpit. Since its publication, I don’t recall a General Conference without its text being referred to, if not the subject of a talk. It has also been the basis of several articles in the Ensign, the Church’s official publication. It seems like the leadership of the Church takes the Proclamation very seriously. If they do, then I think I should, too. But even as specific as it occasionally gets, it is also general enough to allow for exceptions based on individual circumstances.

    Another example of the general to the specific. One of the best branch presidents I ever had deliberately did not include all of the programs of the Church in his branch. He concluded that the branch had neither the resources or the need for all of them. When he was finally released, it was because he had served his allotted time, not because of any perceived rebellion.

  32. Dan Y. on June 21, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    Let’s assume that the goal is to do God’s will as often as possible and grant Frank’s assertion in #18 that besides the reasons ABC that we can see, a reason D that we cannot see (but that is available directly or indirectly to prophets) might be present for some fraction of issues. First of all, assuming that we even imperfectly account for ABC and D, the number of issues on which we should expect to disagree with prophets might be relatively small (few of us are advocating murder, unkindness, rumor mongering, etc.). If so, a number of people, though still a minority, may go through to the end their life with having done God’s will more often than they would have had they always followed the advice of prophets. Question: would these people be better off in the judgment than those who strictly followed the prophets?

  33. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    I would say that the Proclamation on the Family is as close to scripture as anything non-canonical ever is. It is authoritative doctrine now, and could be official scripture with a single sustaining vote in general conference.

    Informally, of course, anything spoken when moved upon by the Holy Ghost is scripture, the mind of the Lord, the will of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. I have that testimony with regard to virtually everything said in general conference, so it is almost all scripture to me, and to anyone else with the same feeling.

    The obligation here is not to prove a doctrine from first principles – that is almost impossible, but rather to start from the assumption that leaders are inspired and try to determine what God has in mind in them saying that, to be willing to be persuaded and inspired, and hold to a principle through a healthy blend of faith, reason, and inspiration – the three pillars of a strong testimony. Experience is the fourth.

  34. John Taber on June 21, 2006 at 4:08 pm

    “But even as specific as it occasionally gets, it is also general enough to allow for exceptions based on individual circumstances.”

    The members who have it on their wall and worship it like some kind of icon wouldn’t agree with you on that.

    I don’t have a problem with anything in the Proclamation, though I don’t consider it scripture (and don’t think it will be any time soon.) I do have a problem with those who use it like a club – like the Elders’ Quorum President who told me when I was 29 that finding a wife was more important than finding a job.

  35. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 4:09 pm

    I don’t think the prophets *want* people to strictly follow them like Pharisees, but for each of us to gain a testimony of the principles they teach and act accordingly. The true spirit of the law, and not the letter alone.

    By the way, one problem with the roulette model is the assumption is that the outcomes of each trial are independent, where in actual practice doctrines are highly correlated. The precepts of God’s plan for us are bound together in one great whole, such that if the prophets are right on one point, they are exceedingly likely to be right on the others as well, varying of course with how fundamental some particular principle or point of doctrine is.

    God is not arbitrary on such things, either jointly or individually. The coherence of truth is a *major* factor in the prophets favor, something that in the long run will give them 99%+ probabilities of being correct on any given point, not something ridiculously low.

    Either that, or they would fail consistently because their model, was not coherent with God’s, or worse because there was no unity of truth in the first place. If one does not believe in the unity of truth, and the divine authorship of a plan of salvation, then everything truly is a crap shoot, and the gift of prophecy is meaningless.

    The success of prophetic declaration is highly dependent on the fact of soteriological coherence – that there is a rational, divinely authored plan of salvation coherent with eternal principles and natural laws, and not precept as the scattering of chicken bones or reading of tea leaves.

  36. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    Too many local leaders cannot distinguish between presidency and dictatorship.

  37. Doc on June 21, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    I have spent a lot of time lurking and really pondering this. I wonder if we are not looking at it all wrong. For example, the original apostasy took place because of what exactly? People had their own traditions, tried to work too much of it into the gospel, limped along, eventually lost authority and pretty much veered off track and revelation stopped, If I understand things correctly. I am no historian, but this is the correlated teaching of the church in the missionary discussions. What if outright prophecy and revelation stopped because the church as a body was no longer righteous and open enough to receive it?

    They argued too much among themselves. Could not the same thing be happening now. I mean, we’ve been told the authority won’t be taken, but could the reason the leadership appears to have less to reveal to us in regareds to theology have to do with our righteousness as a church body.

    Do we really listen and do those things asked of us by the leadership in their counsel? Are we really unified in practice? I’m just not so sure. I think the movement to correlated gospel teaching is largely a result of our inability to have civil discussion regarding these things as a church and as a society at large. People on the left or the right (pick your favorite fringe) want to of course have God on “their” side and try to pull things their direction.

    What if we really started taking the teachings of the Savior to heart? What if we learned to look at all our neighbor’s as children of god and learned to see them the way the Lord sees us? What if we could all learn not to be defensive, not to dismiss those who don’t agree with us out of hand? What if we all learned to focus first on the beam in our own eye before focusing on the mote in anothers?

    I have to believe that if we did truly let these things into our hearts, suddenly the “faults� of our leaders would be less glaring, Suddenly, the Lord could reveal things openly and if we discover our understanding was wrong, we would be glad at the chance to gain a more perfect knowledge, even if to our background it seems totally strange at first. If we were all more loving and kind to eachother, and had a greater portion of the spirit with us, maybe the truth would never seem strange, although I have to believe some truths are just currently beyond our understanding (temporarily). In short, I think a major barrier to a unified theology in the church is our lack of unity, being of one heart and one mind. It is always instructive to me to learn about events in scripture where the author writes more happened here but it is too sacred to share. As when Christ visited the Nephites in the BOM. Certain facsimiles in the Book of Abraham are “not to be revealed at this time.�

    Certainly Joseph Smith was very bold in his theology and authoritative in his declarations and he taught some very radical things that the world at large is still very uncomfortable with. What happened to him? He was murdered by a mob. This type of thing has happened over, and over, and over again throughout scripture to prophets of old, the savior, the apostles. Maybe the price of having priesthood authority on the Earth remain is that prophets cannot be so free to boldly declare “thus saith the Lord� without some group with an agenda ready to pounce, to twist context, to take easy offense. Then they proceed to rake up fear and distrust of the our secular or fundamentalist christian or insert your favorite anti-church agenda here society.

    So what is the Lord left to do. I believe he does what he can. He pokes and prods us toward the right direction to the extent we can stand it. He moves us toward valuing the worth of souls, helps us learn to love eachother, Lifts us up, ennobles and redeems people, not just in the church, but throughout the world in an environment were he can work with our prejudices without anyone getting hurt, and we can learn to respect eachother’s differences and withhold judgement. Then eventually when we reach of critical mass of these elect, he will be ready to come and teach us the things we have been unable to hear for so long. Maybe when we become what we need to as a church and people, a Zion, then the theology can follow, but not until then.

    Maybe I’m too idealistic, but cynicism is too easy and too prevalent today. Cynicism leads us to judge others in the most negative light possible and see others as only there faults. Cynicism is not what builds me up. Trying to live a Christlike life, that is. The Brethren aren’t perfect, but maybe if we worried more about our own perfections, maybe if we learned to deal with their humanity more charitably, then the Lord could in return lead us more effectively through them.

  38. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Eric,

    I think that is an interesting example. I hope we don’t turn this into a Proclamation thread, as that is a subject worthy of its own post.

    Dan,

    That’s an interesting question to which I really don’t know the answer. Obviously one could imagine somebody believing exactly as God believes purely by dumb luck.

    One could also imagine somebody trying to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge but they don’t die because they land in an open garbage truck on the road below. Does God judge them a suicide? I have no idea and I’m glad it isn’t my problem. :)

  39. Paul Mortensen on June 21, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    Frank:

    I like your analysis and find it quite apt. My spouse is amazed at my ability to identify fallibility in prophets yet still maintain a testimony of them and every time she expresses this sentiment I resort to the very explanation you provide. The only issue unresolved by your paradigm is the question, “Who is the Prophet?” That question one has to answer based on faith. If one claims Mormonism as one’s faith then the current President of the Church is the Prophet. I think a lot of individuals uncomfortable with your paradigm really have faith issues greater than, “Is GBH God’s mouthpiece on earth.” It’s hard for someone to claim Mormonism without claiming the Prophet as well.

  40. Fielding Mellish on June 21, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    Doc (#37): Interesting comments.

    Regarding the early, general Apostacy of the Christian Church, you said: “People had their own traditions, tried to work too much of it into the gospel, limped along, eventually lost authority and pretty much veered off track and revelation stopped…”

    I wonder, did the early leaders of the Chirstian Church realize they’d lost authority? Did the members? I think not. Their leaders no doubt continued to preach that their authority would not be taken away, that the members should continue to have faith and follow them or risk the judgment of God.

    Regarding the LDS Church today you said, “Could not the same thing be happening now?” Same question: Would the leaders of the LDS Church today know if they’d lost authority? Would the members? Again, I think not.

  41. Frank McIntyre on June 21, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    Fielding, I think I’d notice if all the Apostles died. In fact, I bet a lot of people would.

  42. Doc on June 21, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    It was made abundantly clear when the priesthood was restored that it would not be again taken from the Earth, so If you believe in the restoration, you know it is here to stay. My question is not have the leadership lost their authority, but are they held back because of our lack of unity and faith, as well as problems in greater society as a whole. Conference is more and more prosciriptive as an earlier post noted. I think there may be a very good reason for that, and it may involve looking at ourselves. That is all I’m saying.

  43. Doc on June 21, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    Fielding,
    The apostles, died. When the priesthood was restored it came with a promise that it was not going to again be removed. My point was more to illustrate that perhaps the reasons why the prophets are making many more proscriptive exhortations than illuminating theology may have to do with OUR collective righteousness. Perhaps WE are the limiting factor. We are told that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and I have faith that He will.

  44. Fielding Mellish on June 21, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Lame response, Frank. I don’t think the original apostacy was that simple, nor do I think a new apostacy, were it to happen (or have already happened), be so simple.

    Fortunately, we’ve got you to point the way…

  45. Dan Y. on June 21, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    Cue the piano and the primary chorister with his/her scolding hand motions.

    Follow the prophet,
    follow the prophet,
    follow the prophet,
    his prior belief of the wa-ay is more correct than your prior belief of the wa-ay with probability in the open interval (0.5,1) ….

    Has kind of a nice ring to it, doesn\’t it? (Sorry, I couldn\’t resist.)

  46. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    Anybody who thinks that the doctrine of *the Church*, or the apostolic consensus, is less than say 98% accurate, and 100% dependable in essentials, has a serious problem of faith on their hands. The Catholic church is probably 90% or more accurate in doctrine, people that follow it faithfully are drawn closer to Christ – the main thing missing is the ordinances. In fact some LDS come *extremely close* to creedizing the gospel with almost exactly the same problems as the Hellenistic creeds spoken of as *an abomination* by the Lord. Creeds are a problem because they assume that we have a perfect interpretation of scripture – they shut down future revelation and inspiration as to what gospel principles really refer to. The semantics of the gospel are *deep*, not thin. Creeds are invariably about thin semantics or their exact opposite mysteries so deep no one can begin to comprehend.

    Now these days we seem much of the opposite problem – so many do not believe in the gospel in any definitive sense at all. The way some people talk, I might well conclude that Confucianism is more accurate then their vision of the plan of salvation.

  47. Gander on June 21, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    One characteristic of our Mormon culture is that there exists only one \”prophet\”, whose word is final. I am curious as to how this meshes with older cultures in the scriptures where prophet seems to be more indicative of someone who talks to God and cries repentance. Scriptures seem replete of examples of prophets existing as contemporaries (Samuel the lamanite & Nephi), both of whom are obviously talking to God. Is one more \”prophet\” than the other? (But this may just be a question of semantics.)

    That being said, could a prophet arise today in say, Sudan? Someone with whom God speaks and commands to prophesy and call repentance. Yet this person has no knowledge of our Church and operates outside the LDS hierarchy. Is this person a prophet?

    My question is: can multiple prophets exist in our day? (And I don\’t mean a smart alec answer about how our apostles are prophets, seers, too.)

  48. Jim F. on June 21, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    Mark Butler: You’ve made an important point when you say The Catholic church is probably 90% or more accurate in doctrine, people that follow it faithfully are drawn closer to Christ – the main thing missing is the ordinances.

    We should drum that into our heads. The difference between us and other churches isn’t so much a matter of beliefs (though. of course, we differ from them in some respects). It is a matter of ordinances and authority to perform those ordinances. Because of that, even if our beliefs were exactly the same as those of some other church, we wouldn’t be the same. The prophet can give us guidance in both doctrine and social practice, but he is more important as the person who holds the authoritative keys than as the person who teaches us doctrine.

  49. Adam Greenwood on June 21, 2006 at 11:05 pm

    Excellent, excellent, Jim F. I would further add that the areas where my Catholic and Protestant friends have beliefs that most err from revealed truth are the areas that seem to have the least effect on their lives.

  50. Seth R. on June 21, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    I heard someone (on the nacle?) state that:

    “The Roman Catholics say the Pope is infallible, but nobody in the Church really believes that, while the Mormons say the Prophet is not infallible, but nobody in the Church really believes that.”

  51. Mark Butler on June 21, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Gander, that is a question of semantics – it depends on how we define prophet. I don’t think anyone here is a medieval realist who insists that the term prophet has a perfect definition in a heavenly dictionary somewhere, or even worse that the essence of prophecy subsists only in prophets and not in any other persons, with a binary black and white duality.

    John the Revelator teaches the opposite, in fact Hebrew metaphysics in general in non-binary:

    The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy
    (Revelations 19:6)

    Now a spirit is not something one either has or doesn’t have, it comes in degrees. So many people outside the church, especially sincere Christians have a degree of the spirit of prophecy. No man can say that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Holy Ghost, right?

    However the main problem with prophecy outside the Church, is that without a correct understanding of the gospel doctrines, one is extremely unlikely to understanding anything greater, and most outside the Church (and some inside) have a relatively defective understanding of fundamental principles of the gospel due to creeds that constrain and limit God and effectively put a stop to further inspiration on the subject.

  52. Beijing on June 22, 2006 at 12:05 am

    Would you call this 2(a) or perhaps 3:

    Knowing and believing as God does is my goal, but I choose to work toward that goal by another method. Not by obeying imperatives I don’t understand from just one privileged source, but by building my own understanding through my own observation and experience, trial and error.

    Like wanting to work through the problem sets in the math book rather than copying down the answers from the back of the book, even though the answers in the back are right far more often than I am.

  53. mullingandmusing (m&m) on June 22, 2006 at 2:36 am

    I am curious as to how this meshes with older cultures in the scriptures where prophet seems to be more indicative of someone who talks to God and cries repentance. Scriptures seem replete of examples of prophets existing as contemporaries (Samuel the lamanite & Nephi), both of whom are obviously talking to God.

    I think this is also an issue of the nature of the times in which the prophets found/find themselves. God needed separate prophets on different continents in ancient times because they didn’t have airplanes, internet, satellite, etc., which allows the word of our prophets (yes, all 15 of them) to get around the world much more easily. I think what defines a prophet in the sense that we use it today is priesthood authority and ordination.

  54. Galileo on June 22, 2006 at 2:47 am

    Hey Frank, I’ve got some math for you.

    What if the truth is that, on binary yes-no questions, the prophet is right 80 percent of the time, I am right (when I reason without taking into account the prophet’s view) 60 percent of the time, and our opinions are uncorrelated. The point here is that both my opinion and the prophet’s opinion are at least _somewhat_ better than a random guesser (which we can charitably assume is the case; Frank’s 50 percent did not specify that the issue was binary). Suppose that given the truthfulness of an issue, my view and the prophet’s view are independent. Then we have the following probabilities when true answer is yes:

    .48 Prophet says yes. I say yes. [Both right!]
    .12 Prophet says no. I say yes. [I’m right and he’s wrong!]
    .32 Prophet says yes. I say no. [He’s right and I’m wrong!]
    .08 Prophet says no. I say no. [Both wrong!]

    Now for conditional probability. Bayes formula. If a priori each even has a 50 percent change to be true, then then GIVEN that prophet and I agree X is right, X has a .48/[.48+.08] (about 86 percent) chance to be correct.

    GIVEN that prophet and I disagree, the prophet’s view has a .32/[.32+.12] (about 73 percent) chance to be correct.

    What is my point here? Well, if I have a finite amount of energy to do good, shouldn’t I, rationally, put the bulk of my energy into the areas of service where the prophet and I agree (e.g., humanitarian relief, perpetual education fund) and a lesser amount into supporting the prophet in the areas where the prophet disagrees with what I would believe without consulting the prophet (e.g., support for constitutional amendment banning gay marriage)?

    In fact, why should I even any energy at all into an area where there is only a .73 chance I am doing good (and a .27 chance I am doing harm) when there are other areas of service where there is a .86 percent chance I am doing good (and a .14 percent chance I am doing harm)?

    Now, if I have a neighbor whose brain is an empty slate (no opinions), then I can do some service by encouraging the neighbor to support more fully the areas where I and the prophet agree than the areas where we don’t. [Neighbor, I’d recommend you skip the anti-gay-marriage rally and come with me to the soup kitchen instead — please not that gay marriage is only an example here —- please don’t let this turn into another discussion of SSM!]

    By convincing others to ignore the prophet’s counsel in some areas — in order to focus more fully on the prophet’s counsel in other areas — I am increasing the amount of good my neighbors and I can collectively do.

    So I’m right to stand up to the prophet when I think he’s wrong?

    Right?

    Or wrong?

  55. Julien on June 22, 2006 at 4:18 am

    Frank,

    “[…] it makes sense to act in a way that looks like you believe in infallibility, even if you don’t.”

    This sounds to me like an apology for acting contrary to your beliefs in order to comply with the instruction to always listen to the prophet…

  56. Dan Y. on June 22, 2006 at 8:01 am

    I think Galileo (#54) has highlighted an important point. If I can’t do both, it is better to limit my focus to the prophet’s teaching that I agree with than the one I don’t (assuming that I don’t consider blind obedience to be an intrinsic good).

    Unfortunately, I find that the tradeoffs I am faced with also tend to include some other alternatives that the prophet hasn’t directly dealt with, e.g., should I go down to the soup kitchen, fire off a letter on SSM that I don’t personally agree with to my Senator, watch the NBA game on the tube, or boot up the computer and check out the latest bloggernacle discussions? My third and fourth alternatives are chosen more than they probably should be. Put another way, and speaking only for myself, Galileo’s point is probably more important in principle than in practice.

  57. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 10:04 am

    Julien,

    Actually not. I have basically no issues with prophetic counsel. I have a very low opinion of my ability to run the Church, and perhaps because of this I find it easy to accept prophetic statements as the best bet I will get.

  58. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 10:07 am

    Beijing,

    You are right to call this 2a, as this is the sort of thing I was thinking of. Here is the flaw I, personally, see in this. Given that God says something to the prophet to tell us, that is intrinsically a statement that this is a piece of information that we are better off getting some help from Him.

    It is like your math book example, but God provides the answers to the odd questions, leaves us to figure out how to derive them, and leaves all the even ones undone.

    So it seems to me that claiming an exception under 2 is essentially claiming that you know better than the prophet when God should give us hints. And so you’re back to the roulette wheel.

  59. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 10:38 am

    Galileo,

    I think Dan makes an excellent point, but let me respond to it from another angle. Namely, you are clearly working under claim #1 when you say that the probabilities are uncorrelated and your unconditional probability of being correct is at least 50%.

    Essentially, you are saying that you can improve upon the prophet’s claim because you have access to information that he doesn’t where that private information is good stuff. But I don’t see that this is a particularly good assumption here, because the relevant information coming from the prophet is that he believes God said X. What private information do you have about that which is likely to improve on the prophet’s original guess? I think one could make a claim in some cases that a personal revelation would be such information, but just the standard public info is certainly not going to cut it. Personal revelation contrary to the revealed counsel is also a little dicey unless one is pretty confident in its quality and source, but surely the Lord does that when he has exceptions to make for individuals. Regardless, that would not qualify you to talk to your neighbor, because it was a revelation for your action, not one for everybody.

    The second point is that your revisitation of the model has the prophet making statements like X is good for the world, Y is good for the world. And then you decide which to do. And so when we get statements like this, I think we do exactly what you say and tend to concentrate on the ones we like (scripture study over family history, for example). Now, there are diminishing returns, so one actually could do both things profitably with finite time, but we’re losers and tend not to. The problem there is that we are losers, not that the prophet is off.

    Your examples, though, were of timely current issues, in which case the fact that the prophet speaks on it _now_ is a message that it is something that should take priority. Thus when he says “X and Y are good”, he is saying “the best thing for members to do now is both X and Y”, at which point there is only one statement about joint action and you are back where you started without your two-statement world.

    Thus when the prophet is expressing views over how to spend time with a limited budget, the tradeoffs between X and Y are not added information you bring to bear, they are included as part of the original statement, speaking generally, and not dealing with somebody’s particular time crunch.

    This finite time issue does not affect beliefs (or votes), just actions over a limited budget. As I noted in the post, there are added reasons to obey counsel as a matter of sustaining or covenanting.

    Now as for your blank slate neighbor, this is where you are really asking for it. He’s dumb as a rock, but not you?

    Is that because you’re learned, or just wise? :)

  60. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 11:52 am

    Duane,

    I missed your comment the first time around. Yes, this post is about what to do given you believe the prophet is more than just another wise old man. I am not claiming that a toy gambling analogy will prove that everyone should be LDS! People who do not have the testimony of the prophet being a prophet in at least some meaningful way are not really going to get much out of this model cuz the model is for members.

  61. Scotth on June 22, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    Frank,

    Regarding your question of my posit that prophets proscribe behaviors with less quantifiable outcomes. It is really quite simple. A prophet says that a plague of locusts is coming. It either does or it doesn’t. The prophet test can be satisfied.

    A modern prophet says that we will all be happier if we go to church, be nice to our wives, and don’t drink alcohol. OK, wow, I am happier, he must have been a prophet. Now the prophet tells me to help change the constitution. Well, I was happy when he told me to not drink alcohol, so… sure! He must be right on this one. He tells me not to marry a woman I love because she is a different race… sure! He must be right on that one too.

    All I’m saying is that your basis is flawed because we can’t determine if a prophet’s prophecies are prophetic if he doesn’t prophecy. When a prophet tells me how to live and promises some vague terrenal happiness and everlasting life, our ability to judge him as a prophet becomes less certain.

    Even if a prophet gets it right 60% or 3 out of 5 times, blindly following him would be ridiculous if the other two times he told you to take a second wife or kill a neighbor who had commited murder.

  62. DavidH on June 22, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    “Knowing and believing as God does is my goal, but I choose to work toward that goal by another method. Not by obeying imperatives I don’t understand from just one privileged source, but by building my own understanding through my own observation and experience, trial and error.”

    I agree with this approach. I also agree with Frank’s approach. That is, as part of my personal mental model of the universe, I have come to “understand[] through my own observation and experience, trial and error” that there is value to me in listening carefully to teachings of Church leaders, and to “hold it in [my] hand awhile, shaking it gently” (in the words of Elder Eyring). I am not prepared to say I would in all cases obey an “imperative[] I don’t understand from just one privileged source”, but in some cases I might. For now, I see “through a glass darkly”, but that is what I see.

  63. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Scott,

    I see, you want the probabilities to be empirically derived based on past revelations. But a not insubstantial part of the probability is actually coming from a testimony we get from God, as opposed to empirically observing how smart the prophet is. Thus this is not a model about how to get the probabilities, although that would make an interesting post. It is a much simpler thing than that.

    As for your “second wife” example, once again this is because you believe that in this situation, you are more likely to be right than the prophet. The framework works fine, you’ve just decided that #1 applies.

  64. Adam Greenwood on June 22, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    “By convincing others to ignore the prophet’s counsel in some areas — in order to focus more fully on the prophet’s counsel in other areas — I am increasing the amount of good my neighbors and I can collectively do.”

    No. Your model might explain why it makes more sense for you to spend your time doing X instead of Y, but the time you spend trying to convince your neighbor accomplishes neither. In the real world, there will also be people who think Y instead of X, so if y’all think your duty is to persuade people to adopt your preferred subset of the prophet’s views, the result is that you do no good and a lot of arguing (hello, Bloggernacle!). Really, you’re better of just doing X without preaching against Y, which is, I believe, the Mormon consensus about how to act when you refuse to go along with the prophet.

  65. Galileo on June 22, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    You’re right about my blank slate neighbor. He really is dumb as a rock. But be that as it may, he does everything I tell him to do, so I do feel some responsibility to him. You see my problem?

    I don’t know that any of the issues I mentioned (perpetual education, anti-gay-marriage advocacy, humanitarian service, giving to poor) is more “timely” than the others, and the prophet is speaking about all of them “now,” so this point didn’t really make sense to me (not that I want to enter into a debate on the relative urgency of these particular issues—I think reasonable people can differ on this). Nor do I really think that when the prophet highlights a dozen ways for us to serve the world he means that he wants all of us to do all of them. And even if he does, we still have to decide how to divide our energy among them, so the decision over where to devote our energies doesn’t go away.

    More interesting was your clarification of the your view of the ability of prophets to make mistakes. Seems to be a kind of efficient market hypothesis. The prophet (the market) may be wrong, but nobody else has any special information that is not already included in what the prophet (the market) reflects. (True, there are those who, in hindsight, happened to be right at the time, but they were just lucky.) In other words, you take it as axiomatic that you cannot, by combining what your heart and head tell you with what you hear from the prophet, be right any more often than you can be blindly following the prophet on everything. Of course, if you truly believe that then the prophet’s best guess (once you have heard it and factored it into your opinion) becomes your own new best guess, so there is no conflict. You are replacing “absolute faith that the prophet’s is right” with “absolute faith that the prophet’s guess is the best one possible.”

    On the other hand…. others take the view that sometimes prophets (like most humans) occasionally make mistakes that many or most people around them easily recognize as mistakes at the time. I’m sure we can think of some good examples of this. It is not clear that prophets have access to all the available information when they make general statements about what is good for the world (think of some of the comments on blacks and the priesthood or interracial dating that would really make us cringe today, say). Sometimes—very often, in fact—the prophet’s own view is changed by information received from others. (Of course, it is clearly the case that when prophets make statements that are supposed to apply broadly to all/most individuals, the individuals have information, spiritual guidance the prophet doesn’t.)

    So in conclusion, while I agree that your strong axiom resolves the main issue I raised, I don’t really believe that such a strong axiom can be completely true.

    I bet the prophet doesn’t believe it either.

  66. Galileo on June 22, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    Actually, on second thought, I’m not even sure that your strong axiom completely solves the puzzle. The reason is that the prophet doesn’t give us as much information about his own priors as a complete market would. He doesn’t say things like

    “Same-sex marriage will do X amount of harm the traditional family — ninety percent sure”

    or

    “Missionary work in Japan will do Y amount of good — seventy percent sure.”

    or give you probability distributions on the amount of good or ill a particular policy will cause.

  67. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    Galileo,

    On timeliness, all the timely issues are things that we can each do some of, thus the statement is a joint statement about ways to spend our time. It is not just a set of unrelated statements as in your model.

    Sure, prophets can make mistakes. But you are still making the classic error of ignoring the cost while trumpeting the benefit. You wish to talk about times the prophet has made “obvious” mistakes But how often will you make the opposite error of thinking he is “obviously” wrong when he is actually right? You won’t? My, you are a clever fellow :)

    As a side note, what mistaken official statements about blacks or race by the prophet you are referring to I do not know. If you’re going back to the JD era, well I think we know the probability of the prophet misspeaking were higher then. Which brings up the point about the prophet revising his views. I think that does happen prior to releasing official statements– especially now, but do you think this helps your argument? It shows he is weighing the evidence in a way you, lacking his keys, probably cannot do very well. This reduces the likelihood that you can add something he has not weighed. In fact, if you think you have private information that he will find useful, you should send him a letter outlining your reservations so he can include them and give the new best guess. You say he probably will not read your letters? Does that tell you something?

    You can easily see that the scriptures recognize fallibility and so give special weight to pronouncements made by multiple witnesses or by unanimous groups. So I think you are trying to make my claim into something strong enough to ignore. As I said in the original post:

    “While it may be the case that [we can know something better than the prophet] 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.”

    That is the case in which I think the strong axiom holds or, at least, holds so often that you can’t figure out when it doesn’t well enough to help you. As for personal revelation to suit our own circumstances, I think I hit that one in my last comment to you as well as an earlier comment to Julie.

  68. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    The “storng axiom” is that the prophet’s statement contains enough of your good information already such that when you add in your good info plus all your wrong information you can’t improve on his probability. If the prophet is right 97% of the time, you plus the prophet are not right more than that (on official statements generally agreed upon by the prophets).

  69. Frank McIntyre on June 22, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    David, nice comment.

    Adam, you’re right. Galileo’s model acts as if it is free to spend time convincing his neighbor to do X over Y when the reason he has to choose between the two is because he has such very limited time…

  70. Galileo on June 22, 2006 at 8:49 pm

    Frank,

    “But you are still making the classic error of ignoring the cost while trumpeting the benefit. You wish to talk about times the prophet has made “obviousâ€? mistakes. But how often will you make the opposite error of thinking he is “obviouslyâ€? wrong when he is actually right? You won’t? My, you are a clever fellow.”

    “In fact, if you think you have private information that he will find useful, you should send him a letter outlining your reservations so he can include them and give the new best guess. You say he probably will not read your letters? Does that tell you something?”

    “Adam, you’re right. Galileo’s model acts as if it is free to spend time convincing his neighbor to do X over Y when the reason he has to choose between the two is because he has such very limited time… ”

    Somewhat heated. Lots of sarcasm. But hey, wait a minute. I never said most of this stuff! The whole thing about prophets not reading letters was completely your idea. (On a side note, what exactly is it supposed to tell me when prophets don’t read letters? That the prophet is busy? That one letter is not important? You seem to have something in mind here…)

    I also didn’t say the “60/80 percent” model is “right” — in fact, I think your strong axiom is roughly the right way approach to getting around it. I just don’t think the strong axiom is “completely true.” (Do you?) I also don’t think the efficient market hypothesis is “completely true.” I agree that most people who try to beat the market/prophet with the information they have obtained from personal observations and reading the newspaper will fail more often than they will succeed. On the other hand, some church policies fail and some succeed and it is not _always_ the case that the prophet is the first one to realize that a policy has failed.

    Adam and Frank, I didn’t say I should spend any significant “time” away from good activities to convince my hypothetical “dumb as a rock” and “blank slate” neighbor. The idea of the (admittedly a bit silly) hypothetical was that I make an offhand comment and he does what I say. (Now, I am giving up all kinds of good activities to waste time blogging with you fine gentlemen, but that’s another story… ;-) )

    “On timeliness, all the timely issues are things that we can each do some of, thus the statement is a joint statement about ways to spend our time. It is not just a set of unrelated statements as in your model.”

    We can each do some of “all the timely issues”? Do you have any idea how many “timely issues” there are? Hundreds? Thousands? (Let’s see, there’s global warming, there’s genocide in Darfur, there’s teen pregnancy, there’s gang violence, there’s imminent famine, there’s temple work…) The prophets address a darn good many of them. And anyway, you ignored my point that even if you are the superman who can do a little bit of every good thing under the sun, you still have to decide how to divide your energy among these good things.

    *************************

    Moreover, I think that people who are uncomfortable with the church’s position on political issues tend to make poor advocates for those issues. The following, for example, would make a fairly ineffective bumper sticker:

    “I am deeply conflicted because my heart tells me that the church’s approach to homosexuality causes a great deal of unnecessary pain to very vulnerable individuals, and it has caused great distress within my own family, and I find it wholly conceivable that the church will rethink it’s position on these issues in a few years — just as it did for blacks in the priesthood. However, out of loyalty to the church and out of an intellectual belief that the prophet is more likely to be right than I, I am asking you to support the constitutional amendment.”

    [Again, I am not calling for discussion of SSM. You can substitute your own example here.]

    In all seriousness, people with the feelings such as those described in the quote above have to think carefully about how they can support the prophet without violating their own conscience.

    Part of the whole idea of faith is following your heart and personal conscience against the odds (6 billion people think I’m dead wrong—including most of the people smarter than I am that I know—and only a few million think I’m right). You simply have to do what you personally think is right. And you have to find ways to serve the world that you can do well and that you feel good about.

    Not everyone is a unshakeable, faithful, and blissfully unconflicted as Frank and Adam sometimes seem to be. (Perhaps I am misreading you?)

  71. ed, change your handle on June 22, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    If the prophet tells me to do one thing (perhaps thou shalt not kill) and the Holy Ghost tells me to do another thing (kill Laban) whom do YOU say I should follow? What if the issue is not so dramatic? As for me, I will follow the H.G. (begging the Lord to confirm His direction).

  72. Adam Greenwood on June 22, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    How about this then?

    “I am asking you to support the constitutional amendment.”

    Unfortunately, I am unshakeable, faithful, and so on only in accepting what the prophet says, not in doing what he says. I’m no further along than y’all.

    “Not everyone is a unshakeable, faithful, and blissfully unconflicted as Frank and Adam sometimes seem to be.”

  73. Mark Butler on June 23, 2006 at 12:29 am

    The whole process of spiritual growth, eloquently described in Alma 32, is for us to come to a shared knowledge of the truth, becoming sanctified through obedience.

    Obedience is not an end in itself – it is there to help us learn and grow unto a unity of the faith. And how can we possibility come to a unity of the faith unless we at least give our divinely appointed leaders the benefit of the doubt?

    And further to study out the question in our mind, not from first principles of our earthly knowledge alone, but rather in terms of trying to understand what our leaders have in mind, and what spiritual principles motivated them, indeed motivated the Lord to give such direction in the first place.

    The question really is not whether such and such a principle is rational, because reason is an extraordinarily weak way to demonstrate *anything* – borderline impotent until you start adding experience into the picture, but rather to try to understand the dictates of the spirit and the order of the kingdom of heaven.

    If God and (indeed gods) have any free will at all, reason or rationality will be inadequate to explain their every decision, even when all our experience of this mortal life is added. We have to seek the principles of heaven and the ordinances thereof to understand.

    The short answer on gay marriage is that God has ordained otherwise for reasons that we do not completely understand. The plan of salvation is consistent and rational, but cannot be derived from reason alone. If I give you a math textbook can you prove Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor?

    So why does it seem everyone is so reluctant to let God have any *authority* or creativity, to grant, ordain, and decree according to a creative exercise of principles we barely understand? It is almost enough to make one want to be a Calvinist – they know how to *worship* God.

    If there is any reason why KFD type theology has been saved for this last dispensation is that people end up not being able to distinguish between the authority of God’s opinion and their opinion. No wonder we need neo-orthodoxy – we can’t handle the truth.

    We are more than willing to follow the laws of men, and to bow to the dictates of enlightened opinion, even laws and dictates we disagree with, and yet we treat the laws of God as largely inconsequential whenever they do not make perfect sense to us.

    We not only need the faith to follow principles we do not completely understand, we really need to quit measuring God by earthly standards, and instead gradually seek to understand what God thinks on the matter and why he thinks it. If we stick with trying to understand God in secular terms we will be ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.

    It would be nice if BYU and other institutions to seek this objective, but practical considerations always seem to put the cart before the horse – attempting to understand God in terms of the world, instead of the world in terms of God.

  74. Frank McIntyre on June 23, 2006 at 12:51 am

    “Somewhat heated. Lots of sarcasm.”

    I’m actually shooting for sardonic, but that’s hard to hit online. In any case, I’m sorry if I was projecting unto you the recalcitrance of the computer program that I was debugging today.

    “The whole thing about prophets not reading letters was completely your idea. ”

    Indeed, this is a rhetorical device which completely fails to work in this medium. Oops. What I failed to convey was that this was what you were hypothetically saying, because it is the sort of thing people often say.

    On to the substance:

    1. “Timely” is a distinction I was trying to make between things the prophet asks us to do now, specifically, as opposed to the things he always asks us to do. Thus I would say the recent amendment vote and reading the BoM by year’s end are the two most recent examples. These are things where the advice is already accounting for the fact that we have limited time. As I said before, we do prioritize non-timely things all the time. Thus we should do both scripture study and family history, but these are not what I am calling “timely” counsel because they are general and always applicable. Arguably, President Hinckley’s emphasis on more temple attendance would also be timely.

    2. “in fact, I think your strong axiom is roughly the right way approach to getting around it. I just don’t think the strong axiom is “completely true.â€? (Do you?)”

    Well it sounds like we largely agree, then. Although I must say you sure managed to disguise that fact in your last post :). I’ll tell you what I think. I think that the strong axiom is sufficiently true that I doubt my ability to accurately and usefully identify when it isn’t. And I am well aware that I am overly given to preferring my reasons to others, thus opening that box is likely to make me worse off.

    3. “Moreover, I think that people who are uncomfortable with the church’s position on political issues tend to make poor advocates for those issues.”

    This is sometimes true, but often because they do not actually believe the prophet is right. Thus they aren’t really following through on the model. Perhaps they are incapable of doing so, who knows? But, on the flip side, in my California ward our go-to man on the state vote there started out conflicted and ended up being an excellent advocate, after some pondering and prayer. Sometimes, nobody preaches like a convert.

    4 “have to think carefully about how they can support the prophet without violating their own conscience.”

    This, I think sounds like more than it is. What in the world does it mean to stay “true to one’s conscience”? Is this scriptural of a tradition of the fathers? I don’t see this as a duty at all. As Neal Maxwell put it, the whole point is to lose ourself to God’s will. So if by conscience, you mean the Light of Christ I don’t see that as a problem. But nor do I see any reason to privilege the light of Christ in me over prophetic statements (from Christ) just for the sake of doing so. To me, the conscionable Christian behavior is to work hard to discern God’s will, using whatever tools we have available, and then do that. Put another way, if (hypothetically) God himself tells me X, and then I say “that’s fine for you, but I need to follow the Light of Christ within me and do Y”, is that coherent? I think it sounds ludicrous. As a disclaimer, I am not saying the prophet is God, I am just trying to figure out the “conscience” rhetoric I here on this subject.

    As an aside, the fact that a bunch of smart people (and dumb people for that matter) have never prayed about the Book of Mormon and many who have haven’t gotten an answer is a tragedy, but doesn’t in itself make my answered prayer less informative. My guess, judging from my mission, is that most people do not sincerely pray about the book, most don’t pray at all about it, and so aren’t really qualified to judge it.

    5. “Not everyone is a unshakeable, faithful, and blissfully unconflicted as Frank and Adam sometimes seem to be. ”

    I’m with Adam here. I am not particularly good at doing good. But I have no emotional turmoil about believing that following the prophet is an optimal way to do good when the prophet actually says something on a subject.

  75. Ed Johnson on June 23, 2006 at 2:24 am

    I just want to point out that comment #71 is not by me.

    To the other “ed,” would you please change your handle? I know it’s your name too, but I’ve been posting frequently as “ed”in these blogs for over 2 years, so in practice it’s as if you’re impersonating me.

  76. Galileo on June 23, 2006 at 4:11 am

    Well, for some of us, the Twain “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” line rings at least partially true.

    We’ve known so many people from other faiths whose conversion prayer stories sound exactly like our own, that rationally, the good feeling many receive when praying about the BoM does not seem (from a perspective as a scientiest) especially strong evidence. We’ve known plenty of people who _seem_ to be just as sincere as the Mormons we know who have prayed and _seem_ to have have received different answers.

    We believe because the God we have caught glimpses of in our prayer, study, and meditation is the one we have consciously decided to devote ourselves to. But the internal turmoil persists. The possibility remains that this God we have caught glimpses of in our prayer, study, and meditation is partially a product of our own hopes and imagination and/or partially wrong and/or not not especially well represented by certain statements of the prophet (an inspired but imperfect man) on certain issues.

    Adam and Frank do not struggle with testimonies or apparent contradictions. For them, faith is not believing what you know ain’t so. It is not believing what, on a rational level, seems more likely to be false than true. It is believing what _is_ true, plain and simple. Truth is truth. Facts are facts. Why should anyone doubt? They just pray about the Book of Mormon, God will tell them it’s true, and their course of action is clear.

    This is why Adam and Frank don’t really “get” the way that many of us have to struggle quite hard when our conscience contradicts a church teaching. Sometimes the emotional sense that the church teaching is wrong can be almost as strong as the emotional confirmation we have had through prayer that the church is true. It is hard not to doubt in such situations. So instead you say, “I’m not going to leave the church over this, but I am going to focus on the areas of church doctrine that I am capable of supporting” and you move on.

    It sometimes seems that if church leaders really as well informed as your strong axiom suggests, then would preface many of their statements by lines like “I am about to ask you do something incredibly counter-intuitive. It will seem like I am asking you to torture and severely injure your fellow man. It will cause an enormous amount of pain to many of those you love. Your intellect will tell you it is completely wrong. But you have to trust me that it is right.” But they don’t say that because they are not conflicted either. To them, they are just asking you to do what is almost self evidently right. So just do it.

    Incidentally, I was also in CA during prop 22, and our own ward go-to man got very carried away with strident rhetoric against those he disdainfully called “conscientious objectors” who did not put up the lawn signs, put bumper stickers on their cars, etc. Alienated most of the ward and ended up having to be reined in a tad.

    But the proposition did pass.

  77. Julien on June 23, 2006 at 8:18 am

    Frank,

    “I have a very low opinion of my ability to run the Church, and perhaps because of this I find it easy to accept prophetic statements as the best bet I will get.”

    I completely agree with you on that one, but that was not what I was trying to say. To “accept prophetic statements as the best bet I will get” does not necessarily mean acting as though I believe prophets are infallible without actually doing so. And in the above statement you seem to reduce the area of advice you are willing to accept from prophets to be in connection with “run[ning] the Church” – but that’s not the only area in which we receive prophetic counsel.

    I really like your analogy to a roulette game, but I think your previous statement I quoted in my first comment is not the necessary consequence from that. Taking counsel from a source I believe to be “10% more likely to be true than any other” doesn’t imply acting as though it was infallible. If that was really the case, then it would free me of the duty to make my own judgment.

    (Sorry for the delay in the responses – I guess I’m seven hours before you in Germany/Belgium)

  78. Frank McIntyre on June 23, 2006 at 8:55 am

    Ed,

    I really think your personality disorder is starting to get the better of you. Perhaps you should see a doctor?

  79. Frank McIntyre on June 23, 2006 at 9:37 am

    Julien,

    “Taking counsel from a source I believe to be “10% more likely to be true than any otherâ€? doesn’t imply acting as though it was infallible.”

    Well, if I believed infallibility, and the prophet said X, I would do X. If I believed the roulette model I present here, and the prophet said X, I would do X. This is the sense in which one is behaving the same as the guy who believes infallibility– you believe and do X. It doesn’t mean one needn’t also continue to seek personal confirmation and so forth.

    As for making “my own judgment”, choosing to believe X is my judgment so I am not sure what you are saying here. I get plenty of opportunities to be wrong on my own, so why should I turn God down if I think he’s giving, through the prophet, advice on something tricky?

  80. Frank McIntyre on June 23, 2006 at 10:52 am

    Galileo:

    “Alienated most of the ward”

    Really, how do you know this? I don’t know that I’ve ever known what most of the ward thought, but maybe I’m just uniquely bad at it. You also go on for a while about how Adam and I see the world. This is a little surprising and I think you’ve missed some important stuff. I think faith is, in the end, a gift from God.

    “But they don’t say that because they are not conflicted either. ”

    Leaders don’t say things a certain way and you figure it is because they don’t “get” that some have a weak testimony? I am not sure you have such a fine bead on the GA’s either.

    I’m sorry you continually battle doubts about the Church being true. I addressed this, I think, in my #1 in the original post. Acquiring and keeping testimony obviously, is not what this post is about. It is about the implications of testimony. So I can see why you might find it frustrating if you are still trying to figure out the proposition that I take in my model as an axiom in order to think about its meaning. But the beauty of T&S is that we can, at times, take faith as a given and think about what follows, rather than limiting ourselves to whether or not the Church is even true and re-hashing that all the time. I’ve been there and done that. It can still be fun and certainly it is important, but it isn’t the alpha and omega of discourse. I hope you’d agree.

  81. Adam Greenwood on June 23, 2006 at 11:32 am

    “It is hard not to doubt in such situations. So instead you say, “I’m not going to leave the church over this, but I am going to focus on the areas of church doctrine that I am capable of supportingâ€? and you move on.”

    This is, however, different from trying to proselyte your undecided neighbor. If you’re doing that, I don’t think you’re really conflicted at all.

  82. Karl D. on June 23, 2006 at 11:51 am

    It is pretty easy to add doubt to Frank’s model and get the following result: An individual still believes that the President of the Church is a prophet but the individual also follows his/her own view when the two conflict.

    Suppose you believe there is 51% chance that the President of the Church is a prophet.
    Also, suppose that if he is a prophet then there is still a 60% chance he is correct, but if he is not there is only a 30% he is correct. If this is the case, then your subjective probability that the prophet is correct is 0.51*0.6 + 0.49*0.3 = 45.3%.

    In some sense of the word you still “believe” the President of the Church is the prophet, but you also think you are more likely to be right.

  83. Frank McIntyre on June 23, 2006 at 12:34 pm

    Karl,

    Certainly one can do that, and it falls into the category 1 I mentioned in the post. It is perfectly possible (and common) to believe that one is more likely to be right than the prophet. Billions of people probably do believe that.

    I have said this a couple of times already, this post does not somehow prove that one should be LDS or that one must follow the prophet. It is about clarifying the reasons why one would disagree with the prophet so that one can evaluate those reasons. Often, discussions about authority gets clouded behind talk of “following one’s conscience” or “the prophet is not infallible” or “the prophet is always right”. While there is content to those statements, they are often poorly thought out.

  84. Karl D. on June 23, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Frank,

    Good point. I didn’t really mean it as a critique of your setup, and certainly not a critique of your overall point “It rationalizes why it makes sense to act in a way that looks like you believe in infallibility, even if you don’t..”

    I made my comment because I got the impression (misimpression?) that some were dismayed that your setup didn’t allow for doubt. I just wanted to show that it actually easily accomodates doubt, and that if you want one can rationalize “not following but still believing positions.”

    Also, I really liked the post Frank. Of course, I would have entitled it, “The Prophet First Order Stochastically Dominates You.”

  85. Frank McIntyre on June 23, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks Karl, I see your point.

    As for the title, I admit it’s better than mine, but do you really think what this post needed was to put the words “Prophet” and “Dominates You” in the title? :)

  86. Dan Y. on June 23, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Frank,

    Re: #80 “implications of testimony ……the proposition … that I take in my model as an axiom”

    How consistent is it to take as an axiom “I know GBH is a prophet” and posit anything less than a 99.99999 percent probability that the prophet is right “when one restricts to statements the prophets actually officially make and generally agree upon” (from the original post)? Might not Karl’s modification in #82 be the more natural assumption when there is some non-negligible possibility that the prophet is wrong?

    I don’t know the answer, I’m just asking. And I’m not trying to turn this into a debate on P(GBH=prophet), though for myself, I’m at best, in the situation you impute to Galileo of “continually battling doubts” for precisely the reasons he brings up in paragraphs 2 and 3 of #76.

  87. Dan Y. on June 23, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Frank, in other words, maybe you shouldn’t be too surprised that some commenters wanted to bring weak testimonies into the discussion. I realize, though, that is is your model and you can specify it however you wish.

  88. greenfrog on June 23, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    As an aside, the fact that a bunch of smart people (and dumb people for that matter) have never prayed about the Book of Mormon and many who have haven’t gotten an answer is a tragedy, but doesn’t in itself make my answered prayer less informative. My guess, judging from my mission, is that most people do not sincerely pray about the book, most don’t pray at all about it, and so aren’t really qualified to judge it.

    From one aside to another:

    If you discredit alternative experiences by ascribing every one of them to hidden insincerity, your conclusion is inevitable.

    If, on the contrary, you posit that your experience is not fully replicable by similarly situated sincere persons, you may want to develop a model that accounts for both their reported experiences and your own. Of such efforts, communities are made.

    Can we anticipate Zion’s one heart and one mind are to be constructed by picking only those whose experiences match ours?

  89. Galileo on June 23, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    Frank,

    Sorry if I my take on your point of view (suggesting you did not “get” or were somehow insensitive to people with doubts/contradictions) was a bit narrow or unfair. I will retract my previous statements and say instead, “Frank, you are the type of person who would write a post like post #80.” This is a statement we can both agree on, and it sums up my point far better than my previous comment.

    Speaking of unfairly characterizing one another, you have also misstated my points (I think deliberately, because you were making fun of them). But to be clear: casting the whole business in terms of “weak testimonies” was your idea. I do not think that “having a weak testimony” and “recognizing and/or acknowledging an apparent contradiction” are the same. Do you? You can do the latter without having doubts. The latter could be a matter of thoughtfulness and/or courtesy.

    I’d go further. I don’t even think “having a weak testimony” and “having doubts about church policy” are the same. The “strength” of a testimony is not measured by the absence of doubts, but the strength of the love for the Lord and the commitment and desire to learn. There are some who take great pride in having thoughtful doubts. There are others (are you among them?) who take great pride in not having them. (“Rarely mistaken, never in doubt,” as they say.) But I think that if one is not overly prideful in either direction, occasional thoughtful doubts/questions/struggles/recogniction of apparent contradiction can be part of a strong and healthy testimony.

    If the prophet says “that car is purple” and you think to yourself “it looks green to me” that may or may not be a sign of a weak testimony. The church leaders might do you a favor by saying “That car looks green on closer inspection you’ll see that it’s purple,” or perhaps even explaining why it looks green or at least mentioning that it looks green. But I think that, to most church leaders, the car simply looks purple. I don’t think you recognize the issue, but I think the car look purple to you too. So perhaps our experiences are too different for us to have a meaningful discussion on this phenomenon.

    And anyway, you now say this phenomenon is beyond the scope of the discussion, right?

    Incidentally, I don’t think any church leader would be so undiplomatic as to say something to the effect of “I’m sorry you’re struggling with your weak testimony. Personally I am way, way beyond you.”

    But in case you really did mean well, let me give you the obvious polite response:

    Thanks for you sympathy. And congratulations.

  90. Frank McIntyre on June 24, 2006 at 2:09 am

    Dan,

    I think that’s a good point. Karl’s model is a natural one and I’m fine with that. It just seems to me that there is nothing new there. If I doubt the prophet enough, I won’t follow him. To me this seems too obvious to has out in a post, but perhaps it isn’t.

    Greenfrog,

    “If you discredit alternative experiences by ascribing every one of them to hidden insincerity, your conclusion is inevitable. ”

    I don’t do this and I’m sorry if you got that impression from my comment. It is not what I said or intended. As for why some sincere people don’t get an answer, let me confess that to me the surprise is that some people do. It amazes me every time I hear about somebody’s personal revelatory experience with the Book of Mormon. It amazes me when I have those experiences. So there you go.

  91. Frank McIntyre on June 24, 2006 at 2:13 am

    Galileo,

    I thought you were talking about struggling with testimony because you claimed Adam and I didn’t (implicitly as a contrast) and you spoke of internal turmoil of knowing about God and the Church. I don’t care what phrase you attach to this. Certainly those with weak testimonies are described by what you wrote, but I am not wedded to your auto-desciption being a sufficient condition for weak testimony. Nor was I attempting to misread you. But you have to understand that when people only have a few comments on the internet to go by, we are bound to make errors in figuring out where you are coming from.

    “If the prophet says “that car is purpleâ€? and you think to yourself “it looks green to meâ€? that may or may not be a sign of a weak testimony.”

    OK, here is what really I have trouble understanding, not in a hostile way, I just honestly and truly find it curious– not that you think the prophet could be mistaken, but that one could ever be so sure about any moral issue such that comparing it to knowing a color placed in front of you is even vaguely relevant. I know you are just using it as an example, not literally. But I think part of your example was to convey the notion that sometimes the prophet said things about which you strongly disagreed, and I am trying to figure out why you give such high value to your priors.

    You repeatedly brought up gay marriage as an example, but most social issues would do as well. It seems to me that a really big moral reason to favor or oppose some action is how it affects the exaltation or eternal happiness of some weighted sum across people. But how in the world am I, on my own, going to know how any moral issue is going to affect the eternal outcomes of anybody? I would be a lunatic to think that introspection was going to be able to tell me that. I would need to know literally billions of relationships and causal chains stretching well into the next life. I am completely at a loss without some guidance from God. I can, I guess, ignore the eternal issues if God said nothing that I could use to get guidance, but if I think He’s spoken I’ll jump at the chance, even if sometimes its wrong. I can and do use the scriptures and prayer for this too. But I know that whatever I come up with could very easily be way off, because I’m mortal and my information is woefully limited.

    So yes, absolutely, if the prophet said “this is blue” but it looks green to me that is going to be rough going, or as Elder Eyring put it, a time to ponder and think because we do not understand (and beginning to wonder if the prophet is right on this or if he’s gone nuts)..

    But I am completely at a loss as to how one achieves sufficient clarity on any doctrinal, social, or religious issue to the point where you think you can beat the prophet out, unless you think he is worse at getting revelation than you are at the above-mentioned billions of calculations and estimations. So it isn’t that I disagree with your discussion of the prophet as fallible. I just can’t grasp how you are so sure of your stance on any of these issues, given how abominably complex they are, such that you strongly disagree with the prophet.

    Regardless of all this, basically you are talking about exception 1. I think we both already agreed that the strong axiom really does hold, although perhaps(?) you think you can figure out when it doesn’t while I don’t think I can. Given that, it seems to me that we aren’t all that far apart on the original question.

    Of course, usually you write back to say how I’ve misinterpreted you, so perhaps I’m wrong :).

  92. Frank McIntyre on June 24, 2006 at 2:16 am

    “But in case you really did mean well, let me give you the obvious polite response:

    Thanks for you sympathy. And congratulations. ”

    I take it that this is sarcastic? Am I being faux-congratulated for how righteous I think I am? If so, I am pretty sure you have been getting completely the wrong impression about what I am trying to say.

  93. Dan Y. on June 24, 2006 at 10:32 am

    Frank,

    There is another way to look at Karl’s model besides simply saying that sufficient doubt in the prophet leads a person to disregard him: At least for certain parameters (given the other probabilities used by Karl, any probability greater than 2/3 that the President of the church is a prophet will do the trick), a person should follow the prophet even if both of the following apply:

    A. They don’t have a certain belief in the President of the church as a prophet.
    B. They believe a prophet can be wrong on a fair number of issues.

    Your model boils down to: A person should follow the prophet (who they know to be a prophet with certainty), even if B applies.

    The implication of Karl’s model seems at just as interesting and just as unobvious as the implication of yours. (And I do think your model is interesting.)

  94. Frank McIntyre on June 24, 2006 at 4:11 pm

    Dan,

    This is certainly true and if you think it makes the model more interesting, I am happy to agree with you! I was mostly just thinking about it as a number, and not worrying whether the number came from type A or B, as the implications for obedience were the same in either case. What I found less interesting was not so much the idea of allowing for A as the idea of assigning very low probabilities to the prophet being right. It seemed trivial to me that this meant one did not folllow the prophet.

    But you and Karl are right that it does make for interesting symmetric cases of people who do not follow the prophet, even though they assign a non-trivial chance to him being inspired.

  95. Galileo on June 24, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Frank,

    After a bit more thought, I wonder if maybe this whole model is a bit misguided.

    I think the correct reason to follow the prophet (or the stake president, or the bishop, or the elder\’s quorum president, or the choir director, or a military leader) is _not_ that these people are always more likely to be \”right\” than you are, but because we are good soldiers in the Lord\’s army. They have been called to be our leaders and we have been called to obey.

    I expect you might concede that your strong axiom fails extremely badly for choir directors (even though choir directors are called of God and _are_ entitled to receive revelation for their choirs). Many musically inclined members can tell when the choir director is off pitch, or singing at the wrong tempo, or way off base in myriad other ways. They follow because when they are in the choir it is their job to follow. The choir functions best as a unit. The choir director is a mortal doing his or her best and needs our support.

    Whenever I read church history — the way decisions are actually made in discussions and consulations — it is striking to me how much of the work God leaves to the mortals in charge to work out for themselves. Sometimes these are great moral issues, but often they are practical day to day decisions (how many missionaries to send to China, what real estate the church should purchase, how a ward should be divided, whether a stake needs a Spanish speaking branch, which night should be ward temple night, how to invest church money). I think the church leaders can and do make mistakes all the time. And they are certainly _not_ always the most well situated people to understand what will work and what won\’t (nor am I, certainly). They are incredibly human. Even carefully crafted official pronouncements (e.g., on blacks and the priesthood) and church-wide strategies (how to organize the church welfare system) or doctrinal statements (how exactly did the Book of Mormon translation go; who wrote the Book of Abraham) are made by humans who frequently make mistakes, learn from them, make mistakes again, and learn some more.

    But I think that when a battallion leader says \”charge\” you charge, even if you know for a fact that the decision is not the best decision to make. I also think there is some danger in saying \”I follow my leaders because they are more likely to be right than I am.\” It is dangerous because there will inevitably come a day when you feel that — on the particular issue in question — you are better qualified than your leader to make the decision. And you may very well be right.

    These are the days when your support for your leaders is truly tested. It might not be as clear cut to you as \”this car is purple,\” but (speaking from my own experience) it might be close.

    One example: The reason the Prop. 22 issue hits close to home for me (and I keep bringing it up, despite a determination not to start a discussion about this) is that I did follow the prophet on this issue. I followed the prophet despite a personal feeling that what I was doing was wrong. I followed the prophet, and I felt guilty about it. Not the usual state of things—usually I feel guilty for not following the prophet. Nonetheless, I felt guilty. And I still feel guilty. And I don\’t know that I could do it again.

    Not that I understood then or think I understand now much about the long term effect of this particular legislation (for all I know, its failure may have triggered a serious of events leading to nuclear war, or avian flu, or even the destruction of the family everyone was talking about), but because so many aspects of our whole approach to homosexuality, so much of the language used by the advocates, so many of the tiny details of church\’s statements and tactics and attitudes felt wrong to me. Deeply, viscerally wrong. I think President Hinckley is a phenomenal, wonderful, truly inspired man. I can\’t think of anyone on this earth I respect more. But I don\’t think this is his area of expertise. I think he\’s learning just like we are. The brethren grew up in an era when much less about homosexuality was known and it wasn\’t talked about much. Today, I think there are many people who understand this issue better than many church leaders. This seems almost as clear to me as the car being green. Am I one of these people? Highly unlikely. If I were running the show, I would undoubtedly make far worse mistakes than the ones being made now. So what do I do?

    These kinds of conflicts are very rare for me. Most of the time I am happy with what my leaders (at all levels) decide and have no reason to think I am more likely to be right than they. But sometimes they are wrong. Or, at least, sometimes I think they are.

    So Frank, you could ask yourself this. If this day ever comes when _you_ become convinced that the prophet is making a mistake (you\’ll have to suspend your belief in your model to imagine that this is theoretically possible) — and that he is asking you to do something deeply and seriously wrong — will you do it? Out of loyalty to the prophet? How far will you go against what \”feels right\” in order to support and sustain your leaders?

    Not an easy question for me. Is it for you?

    Galileo

  96. Frank McIntyre on June 24, 2006 at 9:18 pm

    Galileo,

    Now you’re talking. As I said in the original post, there are other issues to consider besides this one:

    “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.”

    And I wrote a post a year ago about a third reason given by Elder Eyring. So I think of this more as one angle to consider, not the one true reason to follow the prophet. Mind you, I think it is sufficient, intellectually, as a reason. And I think it helps clarify discussion when people start talking about prophetic fallibility or “following one’s conscience”. But there is definitely more to be said about authority than what I said here.

  97. conscience on June 25, 2006 at 12:50 am

    The Duke of Norfolk: Oh confound all this. I\’m not a scholar, I don\’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can\’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!
    Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

  98. Frank McIntyre on June 25, 2006 at 9:50 am

    conscience,

    As you know, what More’s “conscience” had trouble getting over was very related to the King ignoring the authority of the Pope…

    So if by conscience one means “I should do what I think God wants me to, despite pressure to not do that” well this whole model is exactly about trying to figure out what God wants you to do.

  99. Adam Greenwood on June 26, 2006 at 12:21 am

    Frank M.,

    You are exactly right that most issues where people disagree with the Prophet are really unknowable things. Would it change our minds if we knew that 99% of people with behavior X rejected exalting ordinances in the next life? Yep, but none of us knows this, or is even close to figuring this out, which is why I’m suspicious of my Catholic friends who think everything can be reasoned. Or of Mormons who are essentially disagreeing with the Prophet on a matter of first principles.

    Galileo,

    there’s a lot of truth and beauty in your #95