God of the Gaps

June 6, 2007 | 46 comments
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Is it really such a bad place to be?

Over at his blog, DMI Dave draws attention to the extended interview transcripts from “The Mormons” at the PBS website. Dave has mined these transcripts for especially interesting bits, and he proffers the following, from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, on the origin of the Book of Mormon:

I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, … [he] could have written that book.

Insofar as I understand Elder Holland’s remarks here, I read him to be making a kind of argument from incredulity: naturalistic explanations for the origins of the Book of Mormon are unconvincing, he suggests, and thus the book’s origins must be divine. He’s making the God-of-the-gaps move, in other words, pointing out a lacuna in current rational consensus, and filling in the blank with an act of God. The logicians among us will be quick to point out the fallacy of the argument from ignorance; someone will surely pronounce below that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The God-of-the-gaps has taken it on the chin of late, as well, particularly from the new and newly bellicose atheists.

I find it difficult to refute these criticisms: the argument from ignorance is faulty, in its classic form; furthermore, the glad tidings of science have indeed required religion to relinquish some claims and sublimate others to the states of metaphor and historical residue. Defenders of religion and dovish scientists respond that faith is most secure when it is insulated from rational inquiry by an epistemological firewall, what Stephen Jay Gould, in the context of the evolution fracas, has called the “non-overlapping magisteria” of religious and scientific accounts of the universe. And they’re right, too: faith probably is less vulnerable when it retreats within the pale of intuition and subjective experience, rather than holding its stead in the empirical world where it risks falsification.

But if it is risky for religion to make falsifiable claims—that is, if it is risky for Elder Holland to make historical and textual rather than merely interpretive comments about the Book of Mormon—this is also perhaps the braver and more coherent course, particularly for Mormonism with its known and knowable grounds of faith: dialogical, propositional, interpersonal communication with God, who is fundamentally natural and material, and observation of God’s works in the material world. The historical and textual gap in which Elder Holland finds the divine origins of the book is not occupied by an irrational appeal to the unknowable, but rather by an alternate hypothesis that may be bolstered by external empirical evidence at some point in the future. Of course, such evidence may never be forthcoming; therein lies the risk.

The evidentiary, verificationist ground to faith has its own internal challenges, to be sure: how, for instance, if miracles are not supernatural disruptions of natural law but rather providential exercises of the same, is one to recognize the work of God? These questions are real, but they invite answers rather than evade them, and it is this Mormon confidence in the knowable that makes the gap, perhaps, a more hospitable home for the divine.

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46 Responses to God of the Gaps

  1. Dave on June 6, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks for the link, Rosalynde. For those who haven’t noticed, the PBS site also posted a complete transcript of the entire four-hour series (it makes about 150 pages when printed). PBS has really done a nice job supporting the series with material made available through the website.

  2. Geoff J on June 6, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Very nicely said Rosalynde. I agree with you — the gaps in human knowledge remain more than wide enough to remain a hospitable home for the divine.

  3. Frank McIntyre on June 6, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Good thoughts Rosalynde.

    Also, it is worth remembering that the gaps are not something we control. Nor are they random creatures. The gaps lie where God chooses to keep or put them. The non-gaps are where God chooses to not have them. At some level, this makes the whole discussion less enthralling, but perhaps more intelligible.

  4. RoastedTomatoes on June 6, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    The difficulty in these discussions often lies in figuring out where the gaps are. Advocates of intelligent design see a lot of gaps where other biologists seem to find standard non-gaps. Same thing with the Book of Mormon — advocates of an ancient text seem to see a lot of gaps where advocates of a 19th-century text see non-gaps. Which is what it is — but it raises another part of the problem with God-of-the-gaps arguments. Not only are the arguments sometimes logically tricky, as Rosalynde discusses but also quite reasonably addresses, but claims of gaps are contentious and difficult to mediate.

  5. mlu on June 6, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Proof is not available, which is a common situation when dealing with historical interpretations, whether of the Resurrection or of Brigham Young\’s role in Mountain Meadows. Appeals to what seems reasonable and to what fits our experience of the world is a normal way of proceeding. \”Reasonable\” is quite a different standard than \”logically irrefutable\” but it is the best standard for all sorts of real world thinking.

    We don\’t persuade those who don\’t want to be persauded with these approaches, but it\’s important to say what we have concluded and to give our real reasons anyway, since people are so afraid of having opinions that others don\’t have.

    I would say that the more we know of what it takes to make a text like the Book of Mormon and the more experience we have of divine assistance in our own efforts at things, the more reasonable Joseph Smith\’s story seems.

  6. Clark on June 6, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    One has to be somewhat careful rejecting all arguments from silence or ignorance. While this often is a fallacy in some cases it isn’t. Consider induction. Say I have a bag of 50 beans and I pull out randomly 49 beans and then return the bean to the bag. Now in those 49 tries I find only white beans. Am I justified in believing the beans are all white?

    Of course that’s a bit of a silly example and some will say it doesn’t apply.

    Consider an other example. I’m a teacher with a C student with poor writing abilities who suddenly pulls out this amazingly well written essay that suggests far more knowledge than he has. Am I justified in saying someone else wrote it?

    The problem with the “God of the Gaps” arguments tends to be that it is holding out hope against induction. This is what happens with evolution. There can be overwhelming inductive knowledge but the Creationist holds out hope, appealing to the lack of deductive knowledge.

    The JS example is somewhat different since it ends up being a debate from induction to Joseph’s capabilities. However since for some, the naturalistic critic for example, the alternative is too bad to imagine, one says Joseph did have these amazing abilities. And of course, as we see with Vogel, a lot of circumstantial and inductive arguments are entailed to justify this conclusion. The believer, on the other hand, takes their incredulity as evidence for God even though strictly speaking it doesn’t follow inductively. But then lots of other stuff is added in, albeit typically far more weakly than the naturalistic critic.

  7. Frank McIntyre on June 7, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Clark,

    I think the white beans example is a perfect illustration of how not to think about the gaps argument. Gaps are not randomly chosen like beans. They are determined by God. In which case you cannot apply a law of averages and start making declarations like you can with beans (unless you think there is no God involvement, in which case you aren’t proving, you’re assuming).

  8. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 10:33 am

    Dave, you’re very welcome! Thanks for bringing the material to my attention.

    Geoff, thanks for your comment. I think it’s not only the width of the gaps themselves—that is, how much of human experience conventional rational inquiry can’t explain, or can’t explain better than faith—but also, as I suggest in the post, what kind of knowledge one fills them with that makes the Mormon God of the gaps a different and more perhaps legitimate approach to the divine than other god-of-the-gaps gestures. I do think that these “gaps” have significantly shrunk and continue to shrink, and that this is a threat to religious faith; this is the risk of making claims that are in some senses testable.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Frank, why do you think that God has precision-engineered the lacunae in our knowledge? Isn’t it possible, for instance, that Nephite archaeology has been effaced by chaotic geological events or uncoordinated human actions rather than by God? (This is a different sort of gap in our knowledge, of course—not a deficiency in the conventional rational approach to the origins of the Book of Mormon, but a deficiency in the faith-infused-but-still-knowable Mormon approach.) Or, to take another problem, do you think God has prevented or will prevent neuroscientists from working out the precise brain structures and processes that correlate with consciousness?

  10. Brian Jeffries on June 7, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Is Elder Holland making a god of the gaps argument or is it an application of Occam’s razor? God of the gaps arguments are generally used when there is no scientific explanation available and so God is invoked as an explanation in the absence of any other. But since the divine is attributed to the translation of the Book of Mormon by the agent of translation, wouldn’t the onus then fall on those who disagree to prove that God indeed was not involved? And these explanations all seem to be tortured at worst, highly complex and strained at best.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 11:11 am

    RT, I appreciate your comment, and it’s very much on point. Clark invokes Vogel, who is germane here in precisely the way you suggest: Vogel represents the furthest extreme of the position that Elder Holland rejects “out of hand”; Elder Holland sees a gap where Vogel sees none. These are indeed messy issues, but I suppose this same messiness plagues any body of social or textual inquiry: is the secularization thesis adequate? which hypothesis best explains the Q1 Hamlet? etc It’s my feeling that despite the messiness, we ought to soldier on toward some kind of verified (or potentially verifiable) answer, rather than abandoning the questions.

    mlu, your comment is also very much on point: what do we do about questions that imply evidentiary answers, but for which the evidence is irretrievably lost or untestable? I think I agree with your answer: we work from reason and plausible explanation. For most Mormons, spiritual witnesses also compensate for these losses—although, because Mormon revelation is taken to be propositional, this doesn’t take one entirely outside the realm of knowledge.

    This problem, of course, isn’t unique to religious questions: the entire project of evolutionary psychology suffers from the same difficulties with hypotheses that are basically untestable.

  12. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Clark, I was hoping you’d comment. I’m interested in your analysis of induction and deduction in the god-of-the-gaps problem; I hadn’t thought of things in that way. I think I understand how you’re using it in your discussion of the Book of Mormon problem—but could you say a bit more about that? What do you mean in your final sentence about “other stuff being added back in”?

    Brian, if I understand you correctly, I think we’re in a basic agreement: although Elder Holland’s remarks take the rhetorical form of an argument from ignorance (ie God of the gaps), the fact that his alternative explanation is itself a putatively knowable hypothesis changes the ground a bit. I don’t know how to determine on whom the onus falls, but I tend to agree with you that the conventional naturalistic explanations are still inadequate (I don’t know about “tortured”).

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 7, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    I do think that these “gaps” have significantly shrunk and continue to shrink, and that this is a threat to religious faith

    In my mind the real gaps that create religious belief are gaps in our ability to provide for our own comfort and safety. I’m sure the diminution of intellectual gaps plays a role but the diminution in material gaps is far more significant. The Book of Mormon seems to bear this out.

  14. Adam on June 7, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Is the shrinking of gaps really a threat to faith? Isn’t faith, by definition, independent of reason? Could faith even be the rejection of reason?

  15. Frank McIntyre on June 7, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    RW,

    That’sa good question. I know that God put a “precision – engineered” veil of forgetfulness over us when we entered mortality. I know there are numerous scriptures about when signs are and aren’t appropriate. I know of numerous examples when disciples were admonished to keep miracles hidden. I know Moroni wouldn’t let lots of people see the plates, and then took them back after the translation. I know lots of things that suggest strongly that God is not going to let himself be revealed except when He so decides. Thus I doubt His revelation or lack thereof is a random process any more than His answers to prayer are random.

    I could _assume_ that we uncover facts about God randomly, in which case:

    1. I could at least start to infer what the gaps might look like based on what the non-gaps look like. From which I would perhaps infer things about God’s involvement or lack thereof.

    2. I would have a model that assumes God is uninvolved in one way, and then I would infer that he was also uninvolved in another way. But I would be relying on the first assumption of uninvolvement to get to my second.

    Also, since I think God has a hand in a great deal of innovation, I don’t think it would require Him holding us back so much as Him not giving out.

  16. greenfrog on June 7, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    In my mind the real gaps that create religious belief are gaps in our ability to provide for our own comfort and safety.

    I’m with Adam G. on this one. Otherwise, in the defintional absence of knowledge, how do we explain our preference for belief in a kind, wise, loving God, versus the universe of alternative explanatory beliefs we might use to explain the gaps (Matrix architect, spaghetti monsters, etc.)?

  17. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    Adam G., that’s a really good point—that it’s material security perhaps more than understanding of the universe that crowds out faith— although, as usual, the US would suggest itself as an exception. And, of course, scientific and technological knowledge themselves have driven our phenomenal increase in standards of living.

    Adam, lots of defenders of faith and science, old and new, would I think agree with your characterization of religion and empirical knowledge: they’re two different animals, they ask and answer different questions by different means. I think some strands of Mormonism, at least, require us to let the two compete on the same grounds.

  18. greenfrog on June 7, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    The wording of Frank’s recent post (#15) suggests another dimension to this discussion that I hadn’t previously considered. His recitation of facts that he knows reminds me that the measure and positioning of one’s perceptions of gaps depends greatly on how one evaluates the evidence. As I understand his approach, it begins with strongly faith-based assumptions — though I’m prepared to have him tell me I’m wrong, and that his knowledge is based on empirical evidence (including his own experience). If I’m right about his assumptions — that statements by LDS leaders and scriptures accurately describe the things they purport to describe — then they are, in some ways, prior to the beliefs that rest upon those foundations. IOW, his foundational beliefs are, by definition, not god-of-the-gaps reasoning, as the latter depends upon the foundations, and so would not be, itself, a product of such reasoning.

    Frank, have I misunderstood or mischaracterized your thoughts?

  19. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    greenfrog, I’m so pleased that you’ve commented on a post of mine! As I said, Adam’s point is a really good one, and your expansion, too. Gaps in knowledge and gaps in security might overlap pretty extensively in lived experience, however, since it’s the unknown and unpredictable that can’t be guarded against, and thus inspire the most fear.

  20. greenfrog on June 7, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Rosalynde,

    I am inspired by all of your posts. Usually, though, it’s the kind of inspiration that makes one attend Conference and sit quietly in one’s chair, glad to be there.

    …it’s the unknown and unpredictable that can’t be guarded against, and thus inspire the most fear.

    I wonder, sometimes, what the world (and the gospel, for that matter) would be like if we were able to pass through our own fears to the other side.

  21. Rosalynde Welch on June 7, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    greenfrog, regarding your #18: One of the points I tried to make in the post is that, at least in certain strands of Mormon thought, faith-based and empirically-based beliefs are one and the same, because revelation is propositional and, often, testable. Joseph seems to have understood revelation this way, and in the Kirtland temple and elsewhere he tried to make this sort of dialogical revelation available to all. I haven’t experienced this kind of revelation, to be sure, but it does seem to be what Joseph experienced and taught.

  22. greenfrog on June 7, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    #21 — that’s a helpful reminder, though I’m not sure that the proposition of a pre-mortal life and a divinely imposed veil of forgetfulness is a testable proposition.

  23. Frank McIntyre on June 7, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    greenfrog,

    I can’t tell. I didn’t understand which beliefs you were talking about where, sorry.

    But let me say that whatever I believe, many arguments about God-of-the-gaps depend crucially on the assumptions one brings to them. And without making any assumptions (about God’s involvement in which gaps there are) there often is very little to say.

    And since I am going to have to have some assumptions, I might as well look for them in the scriptures.

  24. greenfrog on June 7, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Sorry to have been unintentionally opaque.

    I identified in my colloquy with Rosalynde one such assumption-implicated fact: the existence of a veil of forgetfulness that impedes knowledge of a pre-mortal existence. I have presumed that your assertion of knowledge with respect to that fact is based upon your assumptions about the reliability of others’ reports and descriptions of such a veil of forgetfulness, rather than based upon personal experience relating to the veil of forgetfulness. I was hoping you’d correct me if that presumption is incorrect, and your knowledge is based on first-hand experience.

    And since I am going to have to have some assumptions, I might as well look for them in the scriptures.

    That conclusion, depends, I suppose, on your assumptions.

  25. nephi4 on June 7, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    This past year I have been struggling with my testimony of the Book of Mormon. Did Joseph Smith truly translated it? Did he write it? Is the BOM an ancient work or a more modern work?

    Assuming that the Book of Mormon is every that it claims to be, why isn’t there more physical evidence to support the BOM (like DNA or Archeological)? The only thing I can think of, is God must have a reason for not letting more physical evidence come forth yet.

    Perhaps God wants to test the members of his church? Maybe He wants us to rely on only the Holy Ghost for a testimony instead of physical evidence. Maybe the Lord wants his church to remain small (less that one percent of the world population) until the Millennium? I Don’t know, but I wish I did?

  26. Frank McIntyre on June 7, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    “That conclusion, depends, I suppose, on your assumptions.”

    Precisely!

    And, in like manner, my description of the veil comes from the fact that such is the teaching of the Church, and so I think it likely to be true. On the empirical side, I _believe_ I was in the pre-existence and I _know_, empirically_, that I don’t remember it, ergo I forgot– which forgetting I am calling a veil and attributing to God (since I believe He sent me). A pretty straightforward conclusion mingling empirics and assumptions or beliefs. Clearly, though, my views are based on a set of assumptions (or beliefs or faith).

    Unlike many other views, which are based on just as real but less clear and often unexamined assumptions or beliefs.

  27. Frank McIntyre on June 7, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    nephi4

    This is exactly the sort of thing I was getting at. If evidence were randomly discovered, should we expect more evidence than we’ve got? But the fact that God took back the plates suggests he is not interested in giving out evidence. And so we should not expect too much in that direction. Funny how many records of the Mayans got destroyed when the Spanish came through.

    That said, there are some marvelous pieces of physical evidence for the Book of Mormon. Just not so many as to replace doubt.

  28. Bev P on June 8, 2007 at 4:24 am

    One of the issues that troubles me a little sometimes, as a scientist with a lively faith and love for the church and the gospel, is that we don’t talk much about two things.

    One of them is that the method of science, with its dependence upon empirical evidence – evidence of the consensually verifiable senses, is firmly grounded in an act of faith that empirical evidence is the only justifiable means of knowing truth, its foundation premise. Hard boiled and evangelistic scientists sometimes don’t acknowledge their own acts of faith. There’s an article by Noel Reynolds, which I can’t find this morning, on the switch to empirical evidence as criterion early in Christian history, which he saw not as the salvation of the infant church, but as its road to apostasy. Science is only one breed of epistemology, and it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to verify or disprove the findings of one breed with the evidence of another.

    The other is that, as we are corporeal beings here, the veil being a metaphor for the temporal limit of our knowledge to not very long before our births [but don't get me going on pre-natal learning], our affirmations of personal witness – eg of God in the gaps – might also be construed as empirical evidence. But this is evidence supplied through proprioceptive senses, unverifiable, giving rise to qualia, those phenomena only knowable to the individual. The way we get round that unverifiability and reach consensus is because we have a strong cultural procedure. We explicitly instruct our neophytes to make particular kinds of attributions. We teach them how to recognize the witness of the Holy Ghost, which is another way of saying that we teach them to associate an attribution of spiritual witness with the conjunction of the experience of a nonspecific autonomic arousal and experiences of prayer or reading the scriptures or other religious acts. We also attribute to divine intervention the sudden and unpredicted confluence of elements of knowledge we had not previously linked. A physiological explanation might suffice, in the establishment of a new synaptic connection between previously unlinked neural networks that have recursive loops enabling self awareness, as neurons continue to grow in our corporeal brain.

    That sounds rather cynical or faithless, but I don’t mean it to at all. I am perfectly happy with the notion that if I am made in the image of God, that it makes perfect sense that my physical body will have the means designed into it to be in touch with my maker and Father. And that my will [whatever that is] and His might have something to do with the occasions where we are in contact. The faith of the scientist and the empiricism of the faithful might make better companions than the polemicists of either order might propose. And let us give full credit to the fellowship of the family and the saints, ftf or ethereal, in reinforcing our attributions and keeping us on the path toward home.

  29. Rich on June 10, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Isn’t faith, by definition, independent of reason? Could faith even be the rejection of reason?

    Yikes! Abandon reason and you are actually less than the “lower” life forms you evolved from. Good grief, faith absent from reason is the stuff that continues to propel flat-earthers and creationists forward.

    The problem with putting your faith into some assumed “God must be in this Gap” is that when said gap is filled by science or new understanding, your faith, falsely applied, is most certainly (and rightly/justly) exposed for what it really is — misguided.

    Think about it — truth begs scrutiny. It invites inquiry. It welcomes examination. It loves debate. It encourages analysis. It laughs at controversy! What then have we to fear when we indeed have the truth?

  30. John G on June 12, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    No, faith is not independent of reason by definition. Where did that definition come from? The definition of faith as given in the Lectures on Faith is:

    Faith is:
    1. A gift of God
    2. A principle of power
    3. Assurance (see the footnote in Heb 11:1)

    Since we are talking about faith in God, we can reason that if God assures me (the gift) that I can move a mountain (the power) I can do it . . . unless God is a deceiver.

    For all of you who accuse Elder Holland of a “God of gaps” argument … I would claim that you completely missed his point. In my words, Elder Holland was saying, “God has revealed to me that the Book of Mormon is just what it claims to be and for those of you who have not received such assurance, given Joseph Smith’s level of education, etc. can you explain how he wrote the book and included such remarkable things as chiasmus, multiple authorship (from word print analysis), etc.”

    The gap is created by those who don’t have access to a full range of sources of truth, not Elder Holland.

  31. Kaimi Wenger on June 12, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Hmm. I don’t really see anyone “accusing” Elder Holland of making such an argument.

    Accusation implies that one is doing something bad, something that one ought not do. If I say, “Rosalynde eats chocolate chip cookies,” I’m giving a description, not making an accusation.

  32. John G on June 12, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Perhaps the word “accuse” is not the best choice but the statement, “He’s making the God-of-the-gaps move, in other words, pointing out a lacuna in current rational consensus, and filling in the blank with an act of God. ” implies more than a “description.” I am suggesting that there is more to Elder Holland’s comment than the interpretation voiced in that statement and many that follow it above.

  33. Rosalynde Welch on June 14, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Frank, you wrote: “But the fact that God took back the plates suggests he is not interested in giving out evidence. And so we should not expect too much in that direction. ”

    I disagree with this. God taking back the plates is not the paradigmatic Mormon instance of revelation (indeed, it’s not a known instance at all, since the event is entirely inferred); Moroni’s appearance and instruction is. And in this paradigmatic instance, a physical person, Moroni, delivers a propositional message, the existence and location of the plates, that is afterward verified empirically, in Joseph’s recovery of the same. Given this model of revelation, I think it is indeed puzzling that so little empirical verification of the BoM has been forthcoming; indeed, I think ‘fessing up to the puzzlement reflects a stronger commitment to the Mormon idea of revelation than does the “ho hum, God does what he wants, it’s none of it knowable” approach.

  34. Matt Evans on June 14, 2007 at 11:35 am

    “Given this model of revelation, I think it is indeed puzzling that so little empirical verification of the BoM has been forthcoming”

    Rosalynde, it would seem that comparing the modes God used to reveal truths to Joseph Smith with the modes he uses to reveal himself to the world generally is unhelpful because Smith’s experience was extraordinary. Because we know God chooses to hide himself from us more than he did from Joseph Smith, Moses or the Brother of Jared, I don’t think we can escape concluding, as Frank does, that God chooses which and how many fingerprints he leaves behind. Biogenesis has fingerprints of one pattern, the Book of Mormon’s being too complex to dictate without recourse to previous notes, another.

  35. Frank McIntyre on June 14, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    I agree with Matt. Joseph’s “model of revelation” was that he got to see all sorts of things that the world did not. That is not a proof for your case but a rejection of it. Or rather, a rejection of it for everybody who isn’t the head of a dispensation.

  36. Rosalynde Welch on June 14, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Matt and Frank, it’s evident that Joseph’s revelatory relationship with God has proved to be exceptional. But I disagree that Joseph’s idea of revelation was proprietary—that only he (or the current prophet) should be able to communicate with God in a dialogical, verifiable mode. On the contrary, Joseph worked to provide these experiences to his followers; his preoccupation with temples and temple-building, for instance, was motivated by this desire to bring open revelation to all, as in the reported events in the Kirtland temple. In other words, I believe Joseph did intend his experience with Moroni and the plates to be paradigmatic for all Saints. Most of us—including prophets and apostles—seem not to have opened the kind of revelatory vein Joseph claimed for himself and offered to his followers. I don’t know why this is.

  37. Rosalynde Welch on June 14, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Bev, thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry I didn’t see it for a few days. You make a number of excellent points, and your resolution to the challenge posed by the new technologies that allow us to see the neurological correlates of spiritual experiences—”I am perfectly happy with the notion that if I am made in the image of God, that it makes perfect sense that my physical body will have the means designed into it to be in touch with my maker and Father”—is more or less the best sense I’ve been able to make of the problem, as well. It still leaves me with the question I posed in my final paragraph, however: on what basis can I distinguish between what we might call “providential neurochemistry” and ordinary or even pathological neurochemistry? And if the neural processes that correspond to my witness of the Spirit are physiologically indistinguishable from the neural processes that correspond to someone else’s spiritual feelings about, like, New Age spirituality, where does that leave me?

  38. Rosalynde Welch on June 14, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    John G, if Elder Holland had wanted to claim a solely revelatory basis for his conviction of the Book of Mormon, then he would have said precisely as much. But that’s not what he said; he quite clearly made a God-of-the-gaps argument in the passage I quoted. However, as I go on to argue in the post, it’s my view that a Mormon God-of-the-gaps is a more viable philosophical and theological position than traditional Christian versions of the same—although not without its own challenges.

  39. Frank McIntyre on June 14, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    “Most of us—including prophets and apostles—seem not to have opened the kind of revelatory vein Joseph claimed for himself and offered to his followers. I don’t know why this is.”

    I bet you could guess. The scriptures are saturated in reasons why people fail to have revelation.

    On your broader point, I am fine with the claim that Joseph’s experience was not unique and that he and God want all of us to have similar experiences. My point is that such experiences do not appear to hinge on one’s proficiency with a test tube so much as one’s devotion and obedience to God. Thus, it is God who decides the gaps (both public and private). Hence inference based on the gaps should take that into account, though one does see misguided attempts to treat the gaps as random draws (as in Clark’s example).

    Plausibly the public gaps are going to reflect some sort of minimum of public devotion, as higher levels of devotion can be rewarded with more private encounters.

  40. Rosalynde Welch on June 14, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    “My point is that such experiences do not appear to hinge on one’s proficiency with a test tube so much as one’s devotion and obedience to God. Thus, it is God who decides the gaps (both public and private). ”

    Frank, I don’t follow this at all. Empirical knowledge need not be obtained with a test tube; five senses, give or take a few, work just fine for lots of us. Why couldn’t devotion to God produce empirically verifiable revelation?

    The scriptures tell us that miracles have ceased because of people’s faithlessness. Doesn’t that undermine your own position that God carefully and absolutely determines when and how to leave fingerprints?

  41. Frank McIntyre on June 14, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    I think the reason you “don’t follow thi at all” is because there is a disconnect in what we each think we are discussing.

    I am saying that God acts to decide what information is available to us, publicly and privately. Thus gaps are not in any sense random and inference about what the gaps look like that is based on our knowledge of the non-gaps is pretty much shot. I think you are arguing about something else.

    Your point is somehting like Mormonism rests on actual things happening to people and those religious events are grounded in empirical reality. I am fine with that. I completely agree.

    This miscommunication is surely my fault as my comments on the thread are tangential to your point.

    I am talking about the tendency (that one can see even on this thread) to say things like “well, as knowledge advances, science tends to be right and religious views wrong. Therefore we should expect that process to continue”. Such an argument relies upon comparability between the known and unknown that is naive about God’s role in the process of learning.

  42. Frank McIntyre on June 14, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    “The scriptures tell us that miracles have ceased because of people’s faithlessness. Doesn’t that undermine your own position that God carefully and absolutely determines when and how to leave fingerprints? ”

    No. If I tell my son I will give him a cookie if he reads his scriptures I am still the one who determines when he gets a cookie.

    “Empirical knowledge need not be obtained with a test tube; five senses, give or take a few, work just fine for lots of us.”

    The test tube part was rhetorical flourish. I was talking about empirical methods used in a manner unconnected to faith.

  43. Rich on June 14, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    I am saying that God acts to decide what information is available to us, publicly and privately. Thus gaps are not in any sense random and inference about what the gaps look like that is based on our knowledge of the non-gaps is pretty much shot.

    Surely you jest. If Jonas Salk decided to swig beer and watch TV instead of tirelessly hunt for a cure for polio, God would have put that knowledge into his head anyway? Because God needed millions of kids to suffer paralysis and death because it was part of some (seemingly twisted) non-random agenda?

    To hell with agency. Forget about study and research. We’re just robots on a pre-programmed, predestined course that God controls when and where discoveries are made, despite whatever efforts (or lack thereof) we put into them anyway…

  44. Frank McIntyre on June 15, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Rich, if my argument sounds that dumb to you, it is probably because you do not understand what my argument is.

  45. John G on June 16, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Rosalynde, How can you be so sure that Elder Holland didn’t make a revelatory claim about his belief in the Book of Mormon? The text of the interview has been edited. In all of the times I have heard him speak of the Book of Mormon, he has always claimed his testimony came as a witness of the Spirit. Only when speaking to those not in tune with the Spirit does he pose the question, “How would you explain it in view of the unlikely genesis?” To me, that is different than a God of the gap conviction.

  46. DKL on June 16, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    It warms my heart to hear you use words like “verificationist grounds” ad “falsifiable claims.”

    It seems to me that Holland is making an argument from preponderance of evidence, rather than from ignorance. Thus, the most that he’s guilty of is posing a false dilemma.