Upstate New York Exists, so Mormonism Is True

January 8, 2008 | 60 comments
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You will recall that in July Atlantic bloggers Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat agreed that the Book of Mormon was “a remarkably crude and obvious forgery.” To his credit, Ross Douthat later retracted the claim and promised, in effect, that he’d wade into the weeds of history, archaeology and comparative theology before he made judgments like it again.

He’s not waded in very far, because he has recently made a claim about the Book of Mormon and Mormonism that doesn’t hold up once you unpack it.

Noah Feldman recently wrote that the Mormonism’s “implausibility” is mostly superficial. As quoted by Douthat,

Even though “there is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt,” Feldman writes, for most people “antiquity breeds authenticity,” because “events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time.”

That sounds right to me. But Douthat disagrees. He argues that

Mormonism’s problem – and a major reason why its tenets are often “dismissed as ridiculous” (as Feldman puts it) by mainstream Christians – is that the Book of Mormon doesn’t seem to stack up nearly as well in this regard as, say, the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

I heard this same type of argument a lot on my mission, mostly from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even as a mind-numbed Mormon cultist for Jesus I could see that the argument was applesauce.

It turns out that there is indisputable secular evidence that Rome existed and Jerusalem existed. There is even decent evidence as these things go that a man called Jesus and man called Peter existed. But there is also indisputable secular evidence that upstate New York existed and that Nauvoo existed. Joseph Smith also existed, it turns out. In fact, the scientific evidence for Joseph Smith and the early places and people of Mormonism is much, much better attested than for the New Testament. But no one cares. The existence of Jerusalem doesn’t prove that Christ was resurrected. The existence of Palmyra doesn’t prove that Joseph Smith saw God.

In contrast, proving the Resurrection would prove Christianity. Similarly, because of the Book of Mormon’s miraculous provenance, proving the Nephites would prove Mormonism. But though I’ve seen suggestive arguments for both, they have not been proved.

So Feldman’s comparison looks pretty good. The non-miraculous historical claims specific to Mormonism are better attested than the non-miraculous claims of early Christianity. And the miraculous claims of both remain unproven, Mormonism’s specific claims attracting more ridicule because there are fewer of us making our claims and fewer years in which we’ve made them. Fools mock.

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60 Responses to Upstate New York Exists, so Mormonism Is True

  1. NoCoolName_Tom on January 8, 2008 at 1:54 am

    While on my mission we asked a particular man (a minister, I believe, but it’s been a while and I don’t want to dig my journals out) why he believed the Bible was true. He responded that “They’ve dug it all up, all over Israel; it all happened just like the Bible said.” I supposed my companion had heard that particular explanation once too many times (the man had started the argument off with the fact that there was no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, to which I had naively referred to Itzapa Stella 5), but my comp just started off: “I know that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were real people because I’ve been to Mississippi. I’ve seen the riverboats and the river. I know that there are lush forests and swamps throughout there. I know that those books by Mark Twain really happened. I believe in Tom Sawyer.” The man had a look on his face that seemed (to me, at least) to say that the point got across, but I’ll never know for certain because he somewhat justifiably slammed the door on us.

    The example has always stuck with me, of course.

  2. Kirk Reid on January 8, 2008 at 9:44 am

    A friend and I were at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park in London a number of years ago, where was no shortage of theatrical and bombastic preaching for either religious or political points of view. There were also a number of young Muslim men approaching people who were listening to various Christian preachers, trying, in effect, to do ‘missionary work’.

    We got into a great conversation with one ardent, pleasant and (seemingly) intelligent young Muslim guy who had perked our curiousity by telling us he had “absolute and incontrovertible” proof that there was only one god. His enthralling conversation and serious, convincing manner led us to expect something that might actually be intellectually ‘Wow!’

    When the moment came, we waited with intense interest for the slamdunk theological clincher. The young man pointed up to the sky and asked us, “What do you see up there”.

    “Clouds, the sky, the sun, birds.”

    Exactly,” said our young friend, his eyes gleaming with triumph and complete seriousness. “If there was more that one God we would see them fighting up there.”

    We were speechless.

  3. Ivan Wolfe on January 8, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I heard a speech by Terryl L. Givens, where he said (this is my paraphrase from memory), thay while one might say that the entire Book of Mormon was an allegory and not historical and the BoM might still be considered scripture and Joseph Smith a prophet, that’s almost a non sequitur. The real issue is whether the Angel Moroni and the First Vision and the hole in the ground on the Hill Cumorah were all real.

    (this is me now) – “Historical” proof of the events in the Book of Mormon, even though many won’t admit it, winds up being historical proof of the Angel Moroni appearing to Smith. It’s fairly common to say that the truth of the church hangs or falls on the truth of the Book of Mormon, but I usually take it a step further. The truth of the Church hangs or falls of the truth of the BoM, including the story of how it came about. Mere focus on the text itself is (sometimes) beside the point. Solid archaeological evidence for Nephites would be evidence for a whole lot more than just the Nephites. That’s the unspoken fear many critics of the church have, even if they refuse to admit it.

  4. BHodges on January 8, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    In the Book of Mormon God has given us a wonderful chance to have faith with evidence. As Givens points out in By the Hand of Mormon, but more succinctly and quickly in his interview on “The Mormons,”

    “I came to the conclusion, in large part through my study of the Book of Mormon, that for faith to operate, and for faith to have moral significance in our lives, then it has to at some level be a choice. It can’t be urged upon us by an irresistible, overwhelming body of evidence, or what merit is there in the espousing of faith? And it can’t be something that we embrace in spite of overwhelming logical rational evidence to the contrary, because I don’t believe that God expects us to hold in disregard that faculty of reason that he gave us. But I do believe that the materials are always there of which one can fashion a life of belief or a life of denial.

    I believe that faith is a revelation of what we love, what we choose to embrace, and therefore I think [it] is the purest reflection of the values that we hold dear and the kind of universe that we aspire to be a part of. And so it comes ultimately as no surprise to me that the evidence will never be conclusive on one way or the other. I think that there’s a purpose behind the balance that one attains in the universe of belief.”

  5. Dave Kitchen on January 8, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Adam,

    This same thought occurred to me a few weeks back (I posted on MADB). If historicity is the test, then the D/C is a more reliable volume of scripture than the Bible. Nearly all of the locations, people, and events documented in the D/C have historical support. Kirtland exists. Oliver Cowdery was a real person. You get the picture. The best part is that now the Book of Mormon has a substantial amount of historical support also because the D/C states that it is a true and historic record.

  6. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    I am a non-Mormon, so I am unsure about responding to this — if my comment here crosses the lines of your posting guidelines, please just let me know and I will bow out (gracefully, I hope).

    But this strikes me as totally begging the question. Sure, Jesus (most probably) existed, and there\’s evidence of that; and Joseph Smith likewise. But the cases aren\’t comparable because Smith made (or translated) historical claims, claims that were central to his claim to revelation in a way Jesus did not. If those historical claims are false, it casts severe doubt — perhaps irreparable doubt — upon Smith\’s claim to divine revelation. Whereas Jesus\’s claims are generally non-falsifiable (how do you confirm or deny the idea that he was God incarnate?).

    Further, a one-time, specific historical claim such as the resurrection has a totally different epistemic status than a broad sweeping history such as that presented in the Book of Mormon. The former is, by its nature, hard to get historical evidence before or against; the latter can be spoken to by history, archeology, even DNA evidence. (I am trying here to leave the issue of the truth or falsity of Mormon believes aside, and just comment on their epistemic status.)

    I don\’t even think that this distinction is one that a Mormon needs to deny. As proof, let me quote an interview with Terryl Givens from this very blog: \”this barrier [the true/false issue] was put there by Joseph Smith, not by FARMS or fundamentalist Mormons or missionaries or Mormon academics. Mohammed claimed to receive scripture from a divine source. But mere claims to visions and resulting holy writings are not falsifiable. Physical plates and a purported history of Mesoamerica are. So Joseph’s story was immediately and invitingly falsifiable in two ways from the very beginning.\”

    So whether or not you think that Mormon beliefs are true, it seems indisputable to me that they have a different status than the claims of other Christian sects, or other religions (for the most part anyway). So there are certainly grounds — whether or not one believes them valid — for saying that Mormonism is less plausible than other religions.

    (Once again, I am trying to say this as a non-believer interested in, and respectful of, religious epistemology, who nevertheless remains a non-believer. If I give offense, I apologize in advance.)

  7. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    “Similarly, because of the Book of Mormon’s miraculous provenance, proving the Nephites would prove Mormonism”

    Ding!

    That’s it! People don’t see it, but it’s true. If tomorrow even a single absolute proof of the Book of Mormon via archeology were to show up (say an inscription that starts “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents”) then tomorrow we’d all know with absolute proof there is a God and all faith would be over. Hurray!

    Oh, oops, that destroys the plan of salvation.

  8. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Stephen Frug,

    I’m not getting your point. Yes, Mormonism is a bit of a dichotomy: true or not. You can’t excuse it as “vague inspiration from God to a man” like you can Islam if you want to not believe in it but not call it a fraud. That part I see.

    But that’s just it. The comparison made was to the resurrection. That’s an equal dichotomy. Christ was physically resurrected or He wasn’t. Everyone that saw him faked it or they didn’t. Mormonism and Christianity are the dichotomy religions. The rest of religions aren’t. They have greater room for middle ground.

  9. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Bnielson,

    My point is two-fold.

    First, the amount and type of evidence which speaks to the truth of the Book of Mormon (and thus of Smith’s claimed revelations) is, by the nature of its claims, orders of magnitude greater than that of the resurrection. The latter (to oversimplify a complex issue) comes down to the veracity of a handful of witnesses. The former, dealing as it does in a broad sweep of history, leaves evidence available to many different academic disciplines in a wide variety of ways. It’s not equal because the claims of the BofM are far more testable than the claim of Jesus’s resurrection.

    Therefore — second — the plausibility of Smith’s claims are necessarily different from those of Jesus; the comparison (again, as a matter of their epistemic status) does not hold.

    – I hope that’s clearer.

    (I don’t see, by the way, that Christianity is a ‘non-middle-ground’ religion in its non-Mormon varieties: certainly a lot of moderate contemporary theologians are willing to say Jesus had something like the “vague inspiration from God to a man” that one could claim of Mohammed. I grant you that’s not the main version believed in, but it seems to be one that a lot of people do accept.)

  10. Matt Evans on January 8, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    Stephen makes a good point.

    Adam’s idea is based on the Mormon (and creedal Christian) belief that God is in some sense hiding — he chooses not to speak with the voice of thunder every day. He doesn’t want to be too obvious. Convincing evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity would too obviously prove that Joseph Smith’s story was true.

    To a non-believer, however, the Book of Mormon’s historicity is more easily proven false than is Christ’s resurrection, because its claims are grander. It’s the same reason critics argue against the universal flood and animal dispersion from Mt. Ararat more than they do against Joseph’s miraculous interpretion of dreams. They’re both miracles and evidence of the supernatural, but one is more easily “falsifiable” than the other.

  11. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Sir, I appreciate your candor and your courteous tone. Let me try to reply in the same way.

    First I would say that the distinction you draw strikes me as something like special pleading (albeit unintentional). If you wanted, you could have just as easily have declared that Mormonism has the epistemic advantage because the historical claims that Mormonism makes about the Nephites are the sort of thing that could have happened, from a secular perspective, while the Resurrection is the sort of thing that can’t. You could have argued that Mormonism has an epistemic advantage because its “broad, sweeping” claims are more provable or testable than one-off claims like the Resurrection, which should be treated as dubious because of the non-testable nature of the claim.

    But I don’t think any of that matters much. I’m not evaluating any of these claims from the standpoint of abstract points about epistemics. I’ve looked at some of the rationalist, evidentiary arguments for the Resurrection and for the historicity of the Book of Mormon and in both cases the arguments were intriguing but did not constitute proof.

    A few other points worth mentioning: (1) I notice that what Feldman compares is one-off events like the First Vision, so maybe he would find your point persuasive? (2) I think Feldman’s point is not that Mormonism and the New Testament are equally ridiculous–its that from a secular perspective they both are so far beyond what’s reasonable that the different treatment accorded them is puzzling. (3) I think Mormonism could easily survive if the Book of Mormon turned out to be wrong about its history but the First Vision were really proved to have happened. Though its unlikely to be so proved or disproved, for the reasons you point out. To the extent mainstream Christianity has an epistemic advantage, it may be simply because some elements of mainstream Christianity have given up on the ‘broad, historical’ claims, like Noah and the flood.

  12. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    To a non-believer, however, the Book of Mormon’s historicity is more easily proven false than is Christ’s resurrection, because its claims are grander.

    For some definitions of “grander.” Christ rising from the grave to put death and sin under his feet is about the grandest thing I know.

  13. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    You could have argued that Mormonism has an epistemic advantage because its “broad, sweeping” claims are more provable or testable than one-off claims like the Resurrection, which should be treated as dubious because of the non-testable nature of the claim.

    That’s not actually totally opposed to what I’m saying. I’m saying that Mormonism is both more confirmable (if true) and more disconfirmable (if not true). For those who unreservedly think it true, this is an advantage; for those who think it false, it is a disadvantage. I’m trying to stay neutral on the actual question of truth or falsity — obviously it depends on one’s view of the historical, archaeological, etc, evidence. What I’m saying is not that Mormonism is at a disadvantage, but that it is founded on claims which can be more easily adjudicated in secular disciplines.

  14. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I’m not evaluating any of these claims from the standpoint of abstract points about epistemics.

    Fair enough; you need not. But I’m saying that for those of us who do, the claim that Mormon doctrines are more implausible has a plausible grounds besides simple disbelief or bias. You seem, in your post, to say that the “plausibility” of Mormonism is indistinguishable from that of other Christian denominations; I think there are grounds for denying this — grounds which, on a meta-level (i.e. epistemic status), can be equally agreed to by Mormons and gentiles. (As a Jew, I always find it funny that I’m a gentile here… :> )

  15. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Stephen,

    Adam already answered better than I could, but let me reply anyhow. (Don’t you love adding nothing to a conversation.)

    Mormonism has forms that survive not believing in the historicity of the Book of Mormon too. Thus Icomparison I made holds. Actually, they seem exactly the same to me.

    And I disagree with you that Joseph Smith’s claims were grander. I’m just not seeing that, I’m afraid. Someone coming back from the dead with claims of a missing body and 1000 witnesses (of which only 2 or 3′s testimony survive today) is pretty grand.

    To be honest, I think it would be more accurate to say that Mormonisms claims seem to be more readily proven or disproven or more readily rejected as literal because Mormons are fewer in number and truth is socially constructed.

    There are more believing Christians, so believing that the evidences of the resurrection seem “solid” seems easier to many. There are also more Christians that don’t believe in the resurrection, so believing the resurrection is ahistorical also seems easier.

    Outside of that difference, I am not seeing your point that they are in some way different.

    Oh, I like Adam’s point that the Book of Mormon might actually seem more “real” because, who knows, maybe Joseph Smith really did find some plates and figured out some way to translated them. Long shot, to be sure. Actually, so long not worth considering, but there you go.

  16. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    “What I’m saying is not that Mormonism is at a disadvantage, but that it is founded on claims which can be more easily adjudicated in secular disciplines”

    This is what I don’t understand Stephen. If you understand what Adam (and I) are saying, we are saying there will never be “proof” of either until faith is no longer required for salvation.

    But they also both seem impossible to disprove. How in the world are you going to disprove a limited geographic model of the Book of Mormon allowing for wide views of “translation”? I would submit that you don’t. Well, unless science gets to the point that we can travel back in time, catalog every single native american there and translate their languange to be sure that they aren’t Nephites. You can’t disprove things through lack of evidence.

  17. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    (1) I notice that what Feldman compares is one-off events like the First Vision, so maybe he would find your point persuasive? (2) I think Feldman’s point is not that Mormonism and the New Testament are equally ridiculous–its that from a secular perspective they both are so far beyond what’s reasonable that the different treatment accorded them is puzzling.

    1: I think that the First Vision and the resurrection are probably equivalent… unless the first vision would be totally vitiated by disproof of the Book of Mormon, in which case not. (I won’t say anything on that last point, because I’m not sure I know enough.)

    2: That may be his point, but I think he’s wrong. From a secular point of view, *much* of the New Testament could be true even if the resurrection was not — e.g. the basic facts of Jesus’s ministry, his teachings, etc. This is largely true because of the provenance of the NT — four different witnesses, writing decades after the fact, readily admits a mix of truth and myth. The provenance of the BofM, on the other hand, means that it is more reasonable to take it as a whole or not.

    Put otherwise: if the (unique) historically testable claims of BofM are false, than the entirety is cast into doubt (or, conversely, if true, then given very serious evidence in its favor). Whereas the NT can more readily be a mixed bag.

    In SAT terms, you’re saying that Jerusalem:NT as Upstate New York:BofM — but that’s not true, as the NT is about Jerusalem but the BofM is about kingdoms without other supporting evidence. The analogies are, rather either
    Resurrection:NT as History of Early Americas:BofM (and, as I’ve argued, Early Amerian history is more provable/disprovable than the ressurection)
    or
    Life of Jesus:NT as Life of Joseph Smith:(secular) histories of Mormonism
    … the latter of which aren’t called into general doubt.

    – Hope this clarifies rather than makes less clear!

  18. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    You seem, in your post, to say that the “plausibility” of Mormonism is indistinguishable from that of other Christian denominations; I think there are grounds for denying this — grounds which, on a meta-level (i.e. epistemic status), can be equally agreed to by Mormons and gentiles.

    I see your grounds, but I don’t think one is compelled to adopt them, even coming at them from your meta-level perspective. To adopt it, you would have to do the following, I think: (1) reject some kind of rule that rules out incredible one-off events absent strong evidence and (2) conclude that the abstract likelihood that broader historical claims are more provable or disprovable than a one-off means that the broader historical claims are in fact more proved or more disproved than the one-off. Neither seems very compelling to me. But as far as I can tell you are only arguing that such a view would be plausible, and I can probably agree with that.

  19. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Mormonism has forms that survive not believing in the historicity of the Book of Mormon too.

    If true, then you may well be right. I’d be interested in learning more about those variants.

    But they also both seem impossible to disprove. How in the world are you going to disprove a limited geographic model of the Book of Mormon allowing for wide views of “translation”? I would submit that you don’t.

    I don’t want to get too deeply into this, because I don’t want to get into directly challenging Mormon claims here on this blog. So let me simply say that in general history can more easily confirm/disconfirm big claims (battles with thousands of participants, the existence of big kingdoms, etc.) than it can narrow claims (*any* event claimed to be witnessed by a few hundred people.) So I think the epistemic statuses here are quite different, without the slightest necessity for time travel. — And I’d better leave it at that.

  20. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I really think your #17 is offbase. As I said in the earlier post, the apples-to-apples comparison is to compare events that would prove Christianity with events that would prove Mormonism. So the Book of Mormon is not comparable to the merely historical parts of the New Testament at all. It doesn’t matter if the NT is a mixed bag, because the mixed parts don’t help validate Christianity’s claims.

  21. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Adam at #18 (unless the numbers are redone):

    …I must admit that I couldn’t quite follow what you’re saying here, despite two-reads. The abstraction is just a bit too thick. If you try again, I might be able to reply.

    I will say this: I am simply trying to apply the epistemic standards of secular history as I understand it. I don’t think I’m putting forward anything particularly novel here — at least, not intensionally so.

  22. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    So let me simply say that in general history can more easily confirm/disconfirm big claims (battles with thousands of participants, the existence of big kingdoms, etc.) than it can narrow claims (*any* event claimed to be witnessed by a few hundred people.)

    Again this strikes me as a case of special pleading. One could equally well say that in general history can more easily confirm/disconfirm events from eras with which we are in historical continuity and that haven’t suffered discontinuities on the scale of the Columbian collapse. On the whole I tend to think that the Book of Mormon historical claims are more provable/disprovable than the Resurrection, but not very much so. And I don’t get there by arguing about abstract, general epistemic considerations. Since we have two defined things, I can look at the actual epistemic considerations present in both and the actual evidence available.

  23. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    “So let me simply say that in general history can more easily confirm/disconfirm big claims (battles with thousands of participants, the existence of big kingdoms, etc.) than it can narrow claims (*any* event claimed to be witnessed by a few hundred people.)”

    Fair enough. I disagree. I suppose I see where you are coming from, however. I just don’t think you understand the difficulties you will encounter trying to even pin point a single big battle in the Book of Mormon for the sake of trying to challenge it. Actually, I don’t think you could do it at all.

    “Mormonism has forms that survive not believing in the historicity of the Book of Mormon too.”

    The Community of Christ allowed for this interpretation of the Book of Mormon more as a parable. They still survive today but lost most of their membership. And obviously there are many types of people in the LDS church and I know a few Mormons that believe the Book of Mormon is fiction but are still active Mormons. Admittedly a belief like this, lacking the social network that Protestantism has to back it up, is really hard to maintain. So obivously it’s rare.

  24. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    t doesn’t matter if the NT is a mixed bag, because the mixed parts don’t help validate Christianity’s claims.

    If that’s your only concern, then fine. But I was responding there to the question of why the secular world would treat the two texts differently (your point #2 in post 11 above). The point is that (say) a secular historian could very reasonably read parts of the NT for evidence about Jerusalem, whereas the BofM is only evidence about early American history if you accept its provenance, and therefore its divinity. There are ample reasons to treat the texts differently from a secular perspective.

  25. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    “There are ample reasons to treat the texts differently from a secular perspective.”

    That I agree with. But I thought we were discussing the validity of the divine truth claims of religions, not how much of their sacred texts are considered historical.

  26. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Re: both #22 and #23… I am trying to tread lightly here, and might not be able to answer this without getting into areas that aren’t appropriate for this blog. So, minimally:

    #22: Historians (and archaeologists, etc.) have done a lot of good work on pre-Columbian history – and are doing more and more all the time. It’s different than, say, doing history on 20th century America, sure. But it’s not a blank curtain beyond which we can’t look.

    I don’t see it as special pleading; I see it as a (basically banal) statement of how historical epistemology works.

    #23: not sure I can appropriately respond, except to repeat, again, that I’m simply going by the norms of secular history here.

  27. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    But I thought we were discussing the validity of the divine truth claims of religions, not how much of their sacred texts are considered historical.

    …Except that the divine truth claim of Mormonism (at least in the most common variants, which hold the BofM to be history and not parable, contra what you said about the other groups above) can be evaluated on historical grounds — because it’s foundational text, claimed by its founder to be revealed, makes historical claims — whereas those of most other religions can’t, because their foundational texts don’t make claims that can be adjudicated by secular history. (Some other religions do make such claims of course, e.g. biblical literalism which holds the earth is thousands of years old. But a great many don’t.)

  28. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    #21. Let me have another crack at explaining what I meant in #18.

    You are arguing that if “broad, historical” claims are in general more provable and more disprovable than claims about one-off events, than it follows that a specific “broad, historical” claim is either less plausible or more plausible than a specific one-off event.

    I disagree. My first reason is that probability doesn’t work that way. A certain kind of claim may be much more likely to be proved or disproved, but that doesn’t mean that it is in fact proved or disproved.

    My second reason is that I don’t think it is necessary to equate provability with plausibility. Because one-off events are much harder to disprove, its perfectly sane in some circumstances to require more proof of a one-off event to give it the same plausibility that one would give a broad, historical claim based on less proof.

    P.S. It occurs to me, thinking about Noah and the flood, that ‘broad, historical” claims can always be converted to one-off events by positing a one-time miracle that removed the evidence for the “broad, historical” claim.

  29. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    The point is that (say) a secular historian could very reasonably read parts of the NT for evidence about Jerusalem, whereas the BofM is only evidence about early American history if you accept its provenance, and therefore its divinity. There are ample reasons to treat the texts differently from a secular perspective.

    Totally agreed. My point all along has been that comparing the New Testament tout court to the Book of Mormon tout court is an apples-to-oranges comparison if you’re trying to compare the validity of mainstream Christianity’s truth claims vis-a-vis those of Mormonism.

  30. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Historians (and archaeologists, etc.) have done a lot of good work on pre-Columbian history – and are doing more and more all the time. It’s different than, say, doing history on 20th century America, sure. But it’s not a blank curtain beyond which we can’t look.

    We don’t know nearly as much about pre-Columbian America as we do about the Mediterranean in antiquity. But if you can find anywhere where I claimed the advent of Columbus acts as a blank curtain, I’ll eat my hat.

    I don’t see it as special pleading; I see it as a (basically banal) statement of how historical epistemology works.

    If historical epistemology is solely concerned with “broad, historical” claims versus claims of one-time events, to the exclusion of considerations about historical continuity, than historical epistemology is an ass. Here’s betting it isn’t.

  31. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Wow, my head is spinning.

    Stephen, I really do see your point that the Book of Mormon makes claims that at least in theory could be proven or disproven. Thus Mormonism hangs on the possibility of a proof or disproof. But wouldn’t that be techincally true for the resurrection as well? We recently had the Jesus Family Tomb attempt to prove that Jesus’ body was in fact buried.

    I think where I’m disagreeing with you is two fold: a) I don’t see much chance of there ever being a disproof of either, but who knows, b) I don’t believe the fact that there is not a lot of evidence by modern standards means much because it fails to disprove it.

    However, yes, you are right that in theory there might be a way to disprove the Book of Mormon. But likewise there might be a way to disprove the resurrection. Perhaps what you are getting at is that you think a disproof of the Book of Mormon is more likely because it wasn’t a “special event” but instead history? (This seems to be what you are saying)

    If so, I see what you are saying, I’m just disagreeing.

  32. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Adam is way better at this than I am. I’ll let him finish what I’m saying in carefully crafted academic language. :)

  33. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Adam:

    If historical epistemology is solely concerned with “broad, historical” claims versus claims of one-time events, to the exclusion of considerations about historical continuity, than historical epistemology is an ass. Here’s betting it isn’t.

    That’s not what I said. What I said was that the epistemic grounds were different. People are still arguing over whether or not the Rosenbergs were spies for the Soviet Union (as they were accused of and executed for). They are arguing over it, not simply excluding it. But no one could possibly argue that the Soviet Union did not exist.

    As for “historical continuity”, it’s not a standard term, as used in that sense. We look at the evidence we have, consider its nature, its provenance, etc. The type and amount of evidence varies radically in different types of questions and periods.

    Bneilsen:

    ….Perhaps what you are getting at is that you think a disproof of the Book of Mormon is more likely because it wasn’t a “special event” but instead history?

    That’s close enough, yeah. Although, again, I am trying very hard not to claim that it’s more likely to be disproven — I want to respect community standards here! — but simply to say that, either way, it is more provable or disprovable. Hence my focus on epistemic standards.

    And I will refrain from commenting on the rest of your comment (esp. paragraph 2 of comment 31) since it would force me into areas that are — as I understand the comment policy — inappropriate here. If you want to take it to email, or argue in comments on my blog, I’ll be happy to get into it.

    All:

    …If I disappear from the conversation here for a while, it’s not because I haven’t enjoyed it, nor because I’m trying to duck out of it, but because I have to go, y’know, work and run errands and stuff. (Up until this point I’ve been replying as fast as I can type, more or less). I’ll try to check back in tonight.

    Thank you all for your hospitality, and your conversation.

    Best,

    SF

  34. Matt Evans on January 8, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Adam and bneilson, let’s leave the Book of Mormon aside and observe the same issue, from the neutral perspective, in the bible. The story of Noah’s ark, with its claims of universal flood and animal dispersion, raises more issues than does Joseph’s interpretations of dreams. They are both miracles, but the secularist has more reason to doubt the flood and dispersion because not only are they miracles, they’re miracles that allege facts on the ground.

  35. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Stephen,

    I think we all understand what you are saying. You are saying you think you have a disproof of the Book of Mormon thus Mormonism will not seem as valid as other religions to you.

    Until you actually try to take that disproof and sit down with an equally knowledgeable Mormon to “prove” your point, you won’t understand mine.

    Matt, I think we all got it. I think the issue here is the level of acceptance of a “disproof” of the flood itself, because of course many who believe in it believe it wasn’t supposed to originally be interpreted as “universal.” Thus your example is valid to my point. Any disproof someone thinks they have will quickly just cause a reinterpretation of the believers point of view. It won’t actually disprove anything.

    But this would be true of just about anything. If I find out that atomic particles don’t behave as per the laws of physics (newtonian physics) I just reinterpret physics to accept the new info. You may hate my example here, but this is how it would appear to a believer’s point of view.

    Thus try as you might, this line of logic isn’t going to work and actually resolves nothing. And of course that was my original point.

  36. Ray on January 8, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Fwiw, I think we are in the exact same boat. The Mormons are just in a smaller compartment that most Christians can’t see through their windows.

    One historical example: I was a history teacher. Try proving the existence of the middle ages throughout much of the world. The nobility obviously lived in castles in some areas, but there is essentially no evidence of the illiterate masses from over 1,000 years ago.

  37. Stephen Frug on January 8, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I think we all understand what you are saying. You are saying you think you have a disproof of the Book of Mormon thus Mormonism will not seem as valid as other religions to you.

    Quite frankly, that is very much *not* what I’m saying — indeed, it’s what I have worked very hard to avoid saying. As I have said over and over, I am trying very hard not to get into what I think about the truth of the Book of Mormon. I am talking about the epistemic standards by which (owing to the nature of its claims) it can be judged — not what that judgment should be. (As you probably know better than I, plenty of Mormons take on the historical questions from a BofM-is-ture point of view, so it’s not like dealing with the issues means coming down on one side rather than another.)

    I am saying that different types of claims should be judged differently — and that the BofM makes different types of claims than, say, the New Testament. I am not, repeat *not*, saying what I think about the BofM or that other people should agree with me (not here; as I said, if you want to talk about that elsewhere, fine.)

    But I will depart from that rule long enough — and one time only — to say just this: I agree that “Mormonism will not seem as valid as other religions”, as you ascribe to me. As an atheist, I think that all religions are equally valid from a metaphysical point of view (i.e. not valid at all); but as someone who has seen how human communities can work, I think that a great many religions can be “valid” as a way of life, i.e. help people build meaningful, moral lives, even if their basic claims are (in my view) false; and that this is equally true of Mormonism as it is true of other varieties of Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam, etc.

    (Matt Evans is paraphrasing what I’m saying well — and, maybe, saying it better.)

    SF

  38. Mitchell on January 8, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Ray: You were a history teacher? I had no idea…

  39. Ray on January 8, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    #35 – bnielsen, not all of us get that from Stephen’s comments.

  40. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Adam and bneilson, let’s leave the Book of Mormon aside and observe the same issue, from the neutral perspective, in the bible. The story of Noah’s ark, with its claims of universal flood and animal dispersion, raises more issues than does Joseph’s interpretations of dreams. They are both miracles, but the secularist has more reason to doubt the flood and dispersion because not only are they miracles, they’re miracles that allege facts on the ground.

    Matt E., my point precisely is that we shouldn’t set aside the Book of Mormon for abstract debates about epistemics. In any case, I would think that a secularist would a priori be more skeptical of Joseph’s dreams than of the ark story. A universal flood with one fella riding out because he believes he was ‘inspired’ to do so is very unlikely from a secular standpoint, and in fact the evidence shows that it didn’t happen, but its at least theoretically possible from a secular standpoint. Whereas Joseph predicting the climate and political events for the next 14 years isn’t. Notice also that the climate and the political events are ‘facts on the ground.’

  41. bnielson on January 8, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I apologize if I misunderstood.

    However, I clearly am not getting the point at all. I thought I had it, but I guess not.

    It *seems* to me that Stephen is saying somethings are more provable or disprovable and a history like the BoM falls into this category. It seems to me that I’m saying that as much as this might seem correct to Stephen, it is in fact not true.

    Example of the flood. Let’s say Stephen uses this as an example. The “universal flood” is in the bible and can be proven or disproven. So we go out and experiment and prove that no universal flood happened. So he shows the data to me (whom believes in the flood as described in the bible) and i say “oh, yeah, you’re right, I guess the flood wasn’t universal after all. I must have misunderstood what the Bible — which I know to be true — was actually saying.”

    So while it might seem like this should be a testable historical point, in fact it’s not. That’s what I’m saying.

    And here’s the rub. As much as this might seem like a dodge to someone, I might be right. The bible might in fact be true and I might in fact have just misunderstood it. We might all die and go to heaven and God might say “yeah, it was all true, but you misunderstood it. It was actually just a little flood that filled all of Noah’s world.”

    So in other words, I can’t see how Stephen can possibly be correct that there is some way to test certain miraculous claims more so than others since they all still end up being open to interpretation and the interpretation can easily shift as new evidence comes in.

    Does this make sense?

    I think maybe Stephen is saying “there are certain standards that others will try to apply to you.” Yeah, that seems right to me. It just doesn’t seem like that would actually be validly true as no knowledgeable believer would ever agree that they can’t change their interpretation given new facts. You’d then have to go out and disprove this new interpretation, etc.

  42. Rosalynde Welch on January 8, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Stephen, I agree with many of the points you’re making about the epistemological basis of Mormon claims. It’s a very risky business for a religion in the scientific age to make falsifiable claims, and both the pitfalls and the potential rewards are high, as you’ve indicated. I dealt with similar themes in this post here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3864#more-3864 Thanks for the care with which you’ve respected community norms here. You’re well within our guidelines, and very welcome to participate as you have.

    I do take issue with your contention that New Testament claims are in a different epistemological class than Book of Mormon claims. It seems to me that the relevant distinction should be between “fundamentally testable” and “fundamentally untestable” claims, not between “easily tested” and “tested with difficulty.” Both the BofM and the NT make both testable and untestable claims: in the case of the former, that Nephites existed (testable) and that, say, Lehi had a vision of a tree of life (untestable); in the case of the latter, that Jesus turned water to wine (testable), say, and that he had a special commission from God (untestable). I agree that New Testament claims like the resurrection and the miracles are only tested with great difficulty—very probably insurmountable difficulty, since the physical evidence was largely biodegradable. But they are not fundamentally untestable claims, and in this sense I think they are epistemologically—if not practically—similar to the testable claims made by the Book of Mormon.

    As a side issue, I am not sure that you are right when you say, as you did in 17, that “the provenance of the BofM, on the other hand, means that it is more reasonable to take it as a whole or not.” It’s possible to accept the provenance of the BoM—that it actually does represent a record of an ancient people—while dismissing some of its internal claims as the prejudices, myths or bad historiography of that people.

  43. greenfrog on January 8, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Rosalynde,

    Do I understand your post (#42) to be distinguishing between subjective and objective experiences, the former being “untestable” and the latter being “testable”?

    If I’ve gotten the point correctly, I’m not sure it’s really a fundamental point. We gather data and make decisions all the time that draw inferences about subjective conditions from objective facts. The information theory folk picked up on that a while back and developed interesting things like the Turing Test, but the question of state of mind has been subject to practical proof and evidence accumulation as long as murder has been treated differently than accidental death.

    By definition, circumstantial evidence is different than direct evidence, but both are factual bases upon which we draw inferences about existence (subjective and objective, respectively), and then we act on them.

    For that reason, I suspect that for most people (and so I understood Stephen’s point), the more important difference between the stories of Mormonism and those of more traditional versions of Christianity is the availability of evidence of either sort, not the epistemological questions of whether subjective conditions/events can ever be objectively determinate.

  44. Rosalynde Welch on January 8, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Greenfrog, thanks for the response. I think you may be right that I have mis-parsed the falsifiable/unfalsifiable distinction above. With new fMRI technology, it is indeed possible to test whether or not a person is having a dream—or, more generally, their state of mind during religious experiences. (If I recall, one such experiment did precisely this, recently, looking at the brains of pentecostals speaking in tongues. It’s difficult to know what to make of the results.) The correct distinction between falsifiable and unfalsifiable claims would be between statements of fact and statements of values. Still, though, I think the larger point stands: both the BoM and the NT make both kinds of claims (BoM: Nephites existed/ every good gift comes from Christ; NT: Jesus lived again/charity never faileth), though the evidence for the falsifiable claims in the NT is probably unrecoverable.

    You are undoubtedly correct most people don’t grasp/care about the epistemological questions. (I think Stephen does both, to his credit.) But I think most people don’t approach the problem correctly. :)

  45. Matt Evans on January 9, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Adam, the feast and the famine are facts on the ground, but our knowing that Joseph correctly predicted them beforehand is the real question. And secularists would argue that it’s not even theoretically possible that Noah could have built a boat that housed 500,000 animals and their provisions for 40 days, or that there’s enough water to cover the earth so deeply a boat could float onto Mt Ararat (98% of the world’s water is in the oceans already — if that number were 100%, the oceans would be about 30 feet higher).

    So, among Mormons and others who spiritually believe the Boof of Mormon is what it claims to be, we can say and believe that the Book of Mormon can’t be proven empirically because it would undermine faith and essentially prove the existence of angels, which God doesn’t want. We can’t expect *others* to be convinced that’s why there’s no archeological evidence, however, just as we don’t believe the reason Jane Mental Ward’s predictions appear not to have come true is because if they were too obvious, people would flock to her for the wrong reasons.

    When people dismiss the Book of Mormon because of secular evidence, I think it’s right of us to ensure they understand we believe the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is proved only by spiritual means and the witnesses.

  46. Kirk Reid on January 9, 2008 at 11:37 am

    #42 It’s possible to accept the provenance of the BoM—that it actually does represent a record of an ancient people—while dismissing some of its internal claims as the prejudices, myths or bad historiography of that people.

    Excellently said. I wish this were pointed out more often because although it’s clearly axiomatic in the treatment of historical texts, it somehow seems dispensed with in historical criticisms of the BoM.

    It’s also roughly true of the biblical flood. There’s plenty of evidence for a ‘local’ but catastrophic flood in the area – not least as possibly a result of the gargantuan break-up of the Laurentian ice sheet. Noah’s story becomes more implausible the more the flood is defined as ‘universal’ ‘and the more we don’t admit the possibility that biblical historiographers exaggerated, mythologised and added details of poetic license to a real event because they were focused on trying to communicate its spiritual impact and meaning in terms of man’s relationship with God.

  47. Rosalynde Welch on January 9, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    “essentially prove the existence of angels, which God doesn’t want”

    Matt, why do you think God doesn’t want to “prove the existence of angels,” by which I take you to mean provide observations of the supernatural realm?

  48. Ray on January 9, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    #42 – Just to echo Kirk, that was extremely well stated, Rosalynde.

  49. Adam Greenwood on January 9, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    I think he does want to prove it, RW, just as he wants to prove the truth of the Book of Mormon, but not through science. He doesn’t want angels to be the object of study. He wants Himself to be the subject of questions.

  50. Matt Evans on January 9, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Matt, why do you think God doesn’t want to “prove the existence of angels,”

    I don’t know why (this is really a question about the necessity of faith), I just know that he doesn’t. If he did, he’d have shown them to all of us.

  51. Rosalynde Welch on January 9, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Sorry, Matt, my question was unclear. What I meant was: on what basis do you conclude that God doesn’t want to prove the existence of angels?

  52. Matt Evans on January 10, 2008 at 3:07 am

    “on what basis do you conclude that God doesn’t want to prove the existence of angels?”

    That he chooses to hide them from us. No one would doubt the existence of angels if we routinely saw, heard and touched them.

  53. Kirk Reid on January 10, 2008 at 3:23 am

    Matt: God hides eternity in general from us, though.

    Adam, Rosalynde, Matt: is it the right choice of word to say God wants to ‘prove’ anything?

  54. Matt Evans on January 10, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Kirk, I have no commitment to the word “prove.” Initially I framed it as God not wanting to “undermine faith.” In both cases we’re acknowledging that, for whatever reason, God refuses to remove cause for doubt.

  55. Kirk Reid on January 10, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Yep, agree with you on that. I’ve always suspected that it’s not merely a case of God refusing to remove cause for doubt, by for instance ‘revealing all’ in a spectacular light show, but that the doubt is as much a distance we have to and should travel as the time from birth to death or the miles from one place to another on a journey. God can no more remove the doubt than he can suddenly place Los Angeles and New York City side by side for the convenience of a business traveller.

    I don’t think death and discovering that there is an afterlife suddenly dispels the doubt either, I’m sure doubt continues there in numerous ways, since there’s not only doubt of God and truth but doubt inGod and truth (and self).

  56. manaen on January 12, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    #42 It’s possible to accept the provenance of the BoM—that it actually does represent a record of an ancient people—while dismissing some of its internal claims as the prejudices, myths or bad historiography of that people.

    A possible example of the “bad historiography of that people” was mentioned in the 12/1983 “Ensign” (8th paragraph in section titled “Major Changes in the Various Editions”):

    “In Mosiah 21:28 and Ether 4:1, the first edition had “Benjamin” where the name of Mosiah now appears. In fact, King Benjamin would not likely have still been living in the historical period described by these verses. In the 1837 edition, the Prophet Joseph made this correction.

    “We can only speculate about the cause of this error. Book of Mormon scholar Sidney B. Sperry has posed this interesting question: ‘Was it an inadvertent slip of the tongue on the part of Joseph Smith as he dictated his translation to Oliver Cowdery, or did he translate correctly an original error on the part of Mormon, the abridger of the Book of Mormon?’ (The Problems of the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964, p. 203.)”

  57. Eric Fodge on January 16, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Arguing over the epidemics of epistemology is a lot like playing “whack-a-mole”

    If I have faith that pearly gates of heaven will one day open for me, must I need to find empirical evidence that there are in fact pearly gates to solidify this faith?

    Or maybe if the doctrine tells me that the gates swing open and one day it is discovered that the gates slide open, could this new information nullify my faith in God?

  58. Eric Fodge on January 16, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    *epistemics

  59. Matt Evans on January 16, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Critics of the Book of Mormon see it as a failed prophecy. They see Joseph Smith’s claims about Moroni and the Book of Mormon to essentially be prophecies about the unknown, specifically that the Indians were descended from the Hebrews, and that for over a thousand years they had a large and complex civilization with language and religion from ancient Israel. To critics, the inability of archeologists and biologists to find any evidence for this civilization means that Joseph Smith’s prophecy was false.

  60. Brandon on February 3, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    I have an very open mind. Who is to say that something really happened unless they were there. I am sure Joesph Smith found something. Perhaps he was searching like many before him for why an Irish Monk by the name of Saint Brendan came here. That within it\’s self is another story that many people have doubts too.

    We understand that the world has lost much of it\’s past. There has been people with power and money coming here long before Columbus. I believe they were trying like Mr. Smith to find perhaps sacred relics of that of Christ and possibly even gifts handed down my King David.
    For me the truth is within a dream that is hidden in the heart. Many years ago I stopped thinking and stayed open and asking, what\’s next. When I was around fifteen I met a good friend at school that was Mormon. There was something important about him. At the time I did not know about his beliefs. Time went on and I lost track of him. Seven years later we met again and was introduced to his family. After going to the temple for six months I was baptized as a Mormon.
    The story of Christ showing himself to Native Americans was very important to me. There was something more to that story. True or false I felt there was going to be more to it later.

    Three years later I went to a used book store just to browse. Was pulled to start in the back right part of the store. There I came upon well over fifty National Geographic Mag. Once facing them my first one that I pulled out was a 1977 issue of a story of Saint Brendan, Did Irish Monks Discover America.
    Like pieces to a puzzle I kept humble and felt this was a sign.

    Years later there many other things that unfolded. I felt that I needed to travel to upstate New York because there must be more to unearth. A few months later after making that choice I met a friend. We became real close. It was only an year later she was to move to New York City to live with her brother. She was very devoted Catholic and place a great deal of love in Christ. I trusted this was the time to search. So after six months I left from Houston, Texas to

    Massachusetts where my mothers side of the family is from. It was the only place I could go to start out being that I had no money and education.
    While there in Western Mass. I got a job loading up trucks for a Grocery Store. Once there I met a young man that I was drawn to. My heart was open to listen and follow whatever he said. He went on tell me about the Army National Guard. I agreed to talk to recruiter and two weeks later I was in Fort Benning, GA, home of the infantry. Both of my grandfather served in the Army. My grandfather from Mass. was Jewish and married a French Irish women, my grandmother.

    Before I left Mass. for my training I studied New York State for a Guard unit. that was close to my friend in NYC. I picked Peekskill, NY. As time went on I found there was a strong connection between France and Ireland. I never made it up to where Joseph Smith found the tables but when I transfered to Peekskill our first training mission was to Iceland. Just within six months I was being brought to an Island where it is said that Saint Brendan came to before heading to what many called the Promise Land, the Land of the Saints (America).

    A lot of what is in books is fragmented. Not all but most should be taken lightly. We all must go on our own spiritual journey to find the truth. Many people will have much to say about your path that you are but we must stay focused and humble. I take everything that has happened to me lightly. My grandmother was big into puzzles growing up and that has been my tool for patience and learning. Everything on our way is pieces of some bigger picture. Just work with what is given to you and do not try to figure it all out until the last piece is in place.

    The great river that divided the land is the Saint Lawrence River. Brendan made his way past what is now New York. There is much more to my story. I pray that you all make your own journey in life and get physically involved.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.