J. Nelson Seawright put up a post last week that is clearly a Trojan horse designed to undermine liberal Mormons. Sure, it disguises itself as a discussion of how to conceivably be more correct than the General Authorities; but this is obviously just a front. So let me warn all the liberals away from this trap before they reap the whirlwind.
If you are a liberal Mormon, the very last thing in the world you want is to invest in a model that says the best available signal of truth is a poll of Mormons. You’ll get destroyed. You’ll lose almost every time. It will be a bloodbath. Don’t go there. Most Mormons do not agree with you on contentious issues in Mormonism, and you know it. Truth by poll is really, really bad for the minority view.
Furthermore, as Mormons, we already have staked a very strong position against truth by poll. As we’ve all noticed, 99% plus or minus 1, disagrees with us about the divinity and truth claims of the LDS church. So yes, we have testimonies born of the spirit that what we believe is true, and no poll is going to take that away. That is because, fundamentally, we reject the idea that on average people are right about the gospel. For the natural man is an enemy to God.
OK, so put that aside and let me mention a couple other points from JNS’ interesting post, which is, I think, a response to my original post here. I am going to do my absolute best to make this a low jargon diet.
1. JNS uses in the background some very intuitive proofs showing that, in general, an average across a bunch of people (all considered equal) is more reliable than any one of them. It does not, in any way, show that that average is better than the prophet. It does not say that averaging enough people will yield the truth, any more than averaging squirrel heights will tell you the height of a zebra. Of course, if you assume that people on average are more right than the prophet then you will get that result. When JNS says:
“In fact, for a huge range of assumptions about error structure, it is possible to construct a perspective that totally disregards the position of the General Authority but is nonetheless superior to that of the General Authority.”
One might get the impression that he is saying that his result is typically the case. But, though perfectly correct, the statement is a little confusing. There are an infinite number of error structures, so for most things that can happen, there are indeed a “huge range of assumptions” that will yield that result. But all of them have the characteristic I mention above–they assume that people as a group are a better signal than the General Authority. This is not proven, it is assumed. There is another “huge range” of assumptions under which the GA is the best signal. And, in fact, there are a “huge range” of assumptions under which the best path to truth is to read squirrel entrails. But we would, in general, not believe those assumptions. You may go off whichever assumptions you wish– they are, really, a matter of faith.
2. So let’s assume, with the model JNS presents, that the best signal of truth is the average of the rank and file membership of the Church. Then let’s ask them if they think we should follow the prophet or a poll of members. I bet they will say we should follow the prophet. So under either model, following the prophet looks smart! If you disagree with me on that poll it just makes it all the more obvious that we don’t even know what people believe, much less whether they are right on average.
3. Suppose we want to average between the prophetic view and the communal view. Well, if the prophet took into account the communal view before he started then that will never help unless we are better at taking it into account than he is. But if there is one thing that internet discussion make obvious, it is that people have widely different views on what the communal view even is, much less how to integrate it with the prophetic one.
Now suppose that the prophet ignored the communal view but we knew it (we don’t) and, although it is somewhat biased (meaning on average it is not quite right), we’d like to integrate it into our estimate of the truth. Since we don’t know the size of the bias, we could easily mess up and get a worse estimate. We lack the information to optimally combine the two.
4. I love the law of averages and there are lots of places in which it can do wonders. JNS has used this to make an excellent point about counsels. This law of averages is almost surely a component in why the Lord has a law of witnesses and a rule about unanimous quorum decisions holding special force. There is, as Elder Ballard so pointedly has reminded us, safety in counsels.
But the voice of the people, well, we know from scripture that the minority usually picks wickedness and the majority picks good. Except, of course that sometimes they don’t when the land is ripening for destruction. Not great. We do, though, have a variety of counsel saying that “the safest course” is to follow the prophet. So it appears that, for the “error structure” that actually exists but we can’t see, following the prophets is best. We could poll the members and I bet they would say the same thing :).
5. JNS’s model (and the earlier version I used) is one where there is one truth for all of us. If we are talking about decisions that vary by person, we could also write down that model. In that case, a general conference talk is probably going to only give some general principles and ask us to take it from there, based on our circumstances. This is the smart thing for the GA to do, and seems to be exactly what they often do (see Elder Oaks’ talk on divorce for example). This also represents about 99% of the decisions we have to make in this world. We have plenty of opportunities to use our own light and knowledge to make decisions, as well as to confirm the guidance of the prophet.
This doesn’t begin to exhaust all the interesting ways of thinking about prophetic authority and probability, but the post is already too long. Many thanks to JNS for giving me a reason to think about the subject again. And let me state my view that the prophet really is the safest course. He gives us counsel when he thinks it will be a net gain to us. The Lord guides the Church, as a whole, through him and the other men with the keys. As I modeled mathematically in my prior post, and as countless prophets have made clear, they need not be perfect to be worth following very closely, because we also are not perfect, nor are we given the keys to guide the Church.