Substituting One Speculation for Another

March 16, 2008 | 55 comments
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Our Sunday School class opened this morning with a discussion of the “generals in the war in heaven” nonsense that the Church is trying so hard to quash. Nearly everyone had heard the false quotation, most had heard of the plea to stamp it out, and we all soberly nodded in agreement that we hadn’t been fooled by the story, that we could recognize false tales when we heard them, and that each and every one of us always had and always would demand acceptable provenance for stories before we accepted and passed them along. Then we turned to our Book of Mormon lesson on the Isaiah chapters.

Approximately three minutes later, we were deep in a discussion of how and where and when the Lost Tribes would return, illustrated by a tender testimony that all of the tribes were represented in patriarchal blessings recently given to Armenian converts.

Approximately three minutes after that, a brother stood and declared that the “original manuscript of Isaiah, written by his own hand,” was found among the Dead Sea scrolls and is on exhibit in an unnamed museum in Israel; his testimony was offered in support of the teacher’s printed handout noting that 2 Nephi draws from early and late chapters of Isaiah, thus “refuting the world scholars’ opinions that the first 33 chapters of Isaiah were written by a different person than the last 33 chapters.”

So much for our commitment to reliable confirmation before accepting and passing along tales.

It is easy to fault the credulity of our brothers and sisters who apparently need no citation or even logic before accepting claims like these … but is there not an opposite but just as dangerous a tendency to accept scholarly speculations conclusions as demonstrated proof?

We no longer often hear a teacher declare that Lehi landed near Valparaiso on the South American coast, but I’ll bet most of us have heard or read scholarly claims, declaring with all the passion and conviction of those old-time teachers, that the Book of Mormon is set in this or that specific (limited) geography. Proponents of this theory or that offer attractive reasons for their choices, and it isn’t uncommon to read Bloggernaclers commenting as though one or another of those theories were settled fact.

And which of us hasn’t read a discussion of the possible mechanisms by which God created this earth and put life here, with the church’s official stance of “that has not yet been revealed” being set aside with a claim that “Apostle X didn’t really sign on to that waffling, but instead endorsed my position,” whether evolution, special creation, intelligent design, or something else?

The one that I personally find most disturbing is speculation on the origin of the priesthood ban. When we hear — with thankfully diminishing frequency — that the reason for the ban had to do with pre-mortal valiancy, most of us can correct the speaker. But that false and harmful speculation has been replaced, I fear, with one that is nearly as pernicious: the assumption that the ban was due solely to racism on the part of Brigham Young. It’s an attractive theory — it absolves God of not being as socially advanced as we are, it distances the founding Prophet from an unpleasant practice, and hey, ol’ Brigham was known to have said and done all kinds of whacky things, so why not this, too? Scholars have collected quotations and dates and events, and in all sincerity have laid out very plausible arguments to lay the ban at Brigham’s feet. This theory has become so widely accepted in the Bloggernacle that people refer to it as an established fact, using Brigham’s racism as a building block to other arguments.

I do not know the origin of the priesthood ban, and I’m not proposing an alternative here. I merely wish to point out what should be obvious, that no matter how logically evidence is laid out in support of speculation, it is still speculation. This scholarly conclusion has not been endorsed by any general authority over the pulpit or in print. It is not taught in the Sunday curriculum. If you brought it up in your Sunday School discussions, chances are that virtually no one else in your ward would be aware of the debate. In other words, this theory, regardless of its plausibility, is not doctrine. It may be true; it may be partly true; it may be entirely false. Scholars have been known to be wrong, especially in matters that are not fully subject to the human record.

We have not come very far, I submit, when we are still so willing to accept one “philosophy of man,” even one as zealously promoted and meticulously footnoted as this one, in the service of demolishing another. Speculation is still speculation. [Still working on the right way to restate this line.]

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55 Responses to Substituting One Speculation for Another

  1. mmiles on March 16, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Oh the irony! Classic. Great post ardis.

  2. Ronan on March 16, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Speculation is still speculation.

    Do you really mean this, Ardis? Are the priesthood ban historians only engaging in *speculation*?

  3. Chris on March 16, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    >>no matter how logically evidence is laid out in support of speculation, it is still speculation. This scholarly conclusion has not been endorsed by any general authority over the pulpit or in print. It is not taught in the Sunday curriculum….In other words, this theory, regardless of its plausibility, is not doctrine.

    So just to clarify, speculation becomes fact when it is endorsed by a General Authority or taught in the Sunday curriculum?

    Given General Authorities’ track record with regard to speculation, I think that criterion fails.

    The truth is, everything we understand about the world contains a degree of uncertainty. But we can’t let that stop us. At some point I think we have to go ahead and construct a tentative world for ourselves out of whatever sources and theories we think are most reliable. Because otherwise we’d all be victims of chronic paralysis. The important thing is that we *recognize* the tentative nature of our worldviews and that we be able to distinguish the more from the less speculative, *not* that we avoid the tentative and the speculative altogether.

  4. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Why do so many people so constantly ask me if I “really meant” what I say? Unless I’m obviously trying to be funny (whether or not successfully), why would you doubt that I mean what I say?

    Historians, Ronan, have scholarship on their side, which is not the same as “idle” speculation. But a historian — any scientist, any scholar — can get all his ducks in a row and still be wrong, or incomplete. Even without playing the Hitler card in the form of Holocaust deniers, how many scholars of any controversy — political, religious, scientific, social, historical — have published carefully researched, thoroughly documented, and presumably sincere works, arriving at diametrically opposed conclusions from those of equally dedicated, careful, and sincere scholars whose evidence leads in another direction? How much more is that possible when matters of the spirit — those things not necessarily subject to human record and scholarly research, are involved?

    I’m not saying the priesthood ban historians are wrong, or that their conclusions are nothing more than idle speculation. I am voicing a wish that we would be more cautious about saying “case closed” so early in the game.

  5. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Chris, I didn’t suggest that our human fallibility should stop us from searching. Nor did I say anything that endorsed general authority speculation. Read carefully before commenting, please.

    This post is apparently touching a sore nerve. I think I’ll let the comments (accusations, whatever) fly for a while before responding. Please don’t anyone feel slighted if I don’t get back to you right away. You can count on my reading your reactions.

  6. Jim Cobabe on March 16, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Not sure what I can say about this that is positive.

    Yes, we certainly have problems with representing “truth”. Scientists and (ahem) yes, even historians are always helpfully providing us with more ways of getting it wrong. And not these alone. Every discipline seems just as apt to find ways of explaining why other people’s errors are far more egregious than our own, so we should just overlook the fact that Bohr’s atomic model was childishly naive, and Josephus was an inveterate liar, and the lawyers get 60%. Or whatever.

    Ardis, are you suggesting that we adopt some kind of Diogenes campaign? Perhaps we would all be better off a bit more cynical and sceptical — sadder but wiser.

  7. Chris on March 16, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    >>Chris, I didn’t suggest that our human fallibility should stop us from searching. Nor did I say anything that endorsed general authority speculation. Read carefully before commenting, please.

    So what exactly *are* you saying, then? I read carefully enough.

  8. Ann on March 16, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Chris, apparently not carefully enough to suit Ardis. Try harder, man!

  9. Ronan on March 16, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Ardis,
    I just couldn’t believe that you were really criticizing certain sensible historians of speculation. Of course they may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean their whole craft is “speculation” — something you yourself point out in comment 4.

    I think “speculation” is the wrong word is all.

  10. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    So what exactly *are* you saying, then?

    Pretty much what you said in the last sentence of your original comment — that we recognize the tentative (I called it “speculative”) nature of such conclusions — but without the earlier inference that I don’t think we should engage in scholarship.

    Jim, I suggest only that we don’t jump ahead of what the current state of scholarship can support, that we don’t act as though the last word has been said about any scholarly question. I’ve seen people do that rather frequently lately, claiming that “Brigham Young instituted the priesthood ban due to his racist blindness, therefore …” or “scholars have proven that polygamy was a mistake, so now we can conclude that …” followed by some further attempt to erode LDS belief.

    I learned in geometry that once a theorem has been proven, it can be used to prove more sophisticated theorems; but too many in the Bloggernacle, IMO. are using unproven historical theorems as building blocks for more elaborate ones.

    Ronan, I’d be open to another word, as long as it carries the connotation of incompleteness or tentativeness.

  11. Ray on March 16, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Fwiw, there are many who clamor whenever someone says, “I know,” concerning anything church-supporting but then turn around and use as their foundation the statement that it is impossible to “know” anything – not realizing that such a statement is every bit as exclusive as the original “I know.” The most obvious examples are those who read the latest explanation about why the Church is based on fraud and turn it into a statement of “I know” just as adamantly as those they attack for ignorance and blindness.

    Conversely, and more to Ardis’ point, it seems clear that many of those who rely on academic, scholarly research *tend to be* more prone to ambiguity / nuance in their view than those who do not, and it is truly ironic that some who admit and hold to their more nuanced view on the one hand sometimes make the same type of “I know” statements regarding the more black and white views of those with whom they disagree. Sometimes, it translates into, “I know.” However, it often translates as nothing more than, “I can’t say, ‘I know,’ so I know you can’t say it either.” Iow, “Even though I can’t say, ‘I know,’ I know that you don’t know.”

    It’s human nature to want to know, and academics and researchers are not immune to that nature. We need to be aware of that tendency and not imitate those whose certainty we decry. That’s all I took from Ardis’ post, and I can’t argue with it.

  12. Ann on March 16, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Ray, it’s called militant agnosticism. “I don’t know, and neither do you.”

  13. Jacob J on March 16, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Ardis,

    I totally agree with your sentiment here and I think your Brigham Young example is perfect. Tons of people reject the old folk lore only to replace it with a new folk lore that the whole thing is entirely explained by Brigham Young being a racist. Maybe so, but I am with you in being hesitant to pretend we know that that is the entirety of the story.

    However, I am concerned about that sentence toward the end where you seemed to contrast “speculation” with conclusions that have “been endorsed by any general authority over the pulpit or in print.” The idea that an idea being endorsed by a GA over the pulpit makes something less than speculation is at least as problematic as many of the “speculations” you talk about in the post.

  14. Ivan Wolfe on March 16, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    I learned in geometry that once a theorem has been proven, it can be used to prove more sophisticated theorems; but too many in the Bloggernacle, IMO. are using unproven historical theorems as building blocks for more elaborate ones.

    Yes, but if we followed your advice, 80% of the Nacle would disappear. ;-)

    Excellent post. We could all (myself included) could use a lot more humility in our supposedly learned discussions.

  15. Chris on March 16, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    >>However, I am concerned about that sentence toward the end where you seemed to contrast “speculation” with conclusions that have “been endorsed by any general authority over the pulpit or in print.” The idea that an idea being endorsed by a GA over the pulpit makes something less than speculation is at least as problematic as many of the “speculations” you talk about in the post.

    That’s what I was getting at. I initially read Ardis’s post as implying something like the old fundamentalist argument that since scientific/historical knowledge is limited, religious knowledge is superior– neglecting, of course, to mention that religious knowledge has usually proven as or more limited than the scientific/historical kinds. If that’s not what Ardis was implying, then I apologize.

  16. Dan Ellsworth on March 16, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Ardis,

    I know some of your remarks are referring to me, and I would ask that you be a little more honest about what I say about Brigham Young. I have never argued that he was behind the ban (I don’t know who was), but I feel very comfortable arguing that he had racist views. That doesn’t mean he was a bad person or unworthy of the prophetic office, just that he had racist views — wherever they came from — and that is a fact we would do well to respond to in honest and constructive ways, especially when other people’s religious leaders offend us.

    And again, in this forum, I’ll concede your point (angrily made on MM) that I don’t know Brigham Young. I have read of a lot of amazing things he did in Church history and I have read about how he interacted with my ancestors in their settlement of the Muddy Mission, but I have also read a lot of things about him that have — to put it bluntly — wierded me out. I am not a historian, so I don’t always know which stories and statements are reliable and which are not, or which things he spoke in anger or frustration, when he wasn’t at his best. I suppose I’m like most members of the Church, just trying to see past his rough edges and give him the benefit of the doubt.

  17. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Jacob J., I think I understand your hesitation, but I’m not quite sure how to revise my post. I mean to suggest that if an idea has never been taught by one of those whose calling it is to announce revelation/keep the doctrine pure (or however you want to state that concept), that idea lacks an important element of authority.

    I don’t expect Pres. Monson to weigh in anytime soon on the routine points of history, but the divine institution of the priesthood ban, or the utter refutation of such divine involvement, is the kind of question that can be investigated but not finally settled by human wisdom. Anyone who accepts a scholarly conclusion on divine involvement (or the lack thereof) without prophetic endorsement is granting status to human scholarship that I don’t grant.

  18. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Dan, your post to which I reacted in frustration (not anger) was only one recent manifestation of this “the scholars have spoken so the thinking has been done” acceptance that I find so baffling (er, “baffling” except on those occasions when I fall into the same trap myself, that is). I won’t list the other instances of that acceptance that have appeared in the Bloggernacle in the last few weeks, any more than I would have pointed the finger specifically at you. I’m sorry that I can’t always manage to pull my hands away from the keyboard before I say something that vehement without explaining myself. I apologize to you.

  19. Steve M on March 16, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Approximately three minutes later, we were deep in a discussion of how and where and when the Lost Tribes would return, illustrated by a tender testimony that all of the tribes were represented in patriarchal blessings recently given to Armenian converts.

    But I’ve heard that all ten tribes are represented in patriarchal blessings given to recent Mongolian converts. I’m so confused now…

  20. Dan Ellsworth on March 16, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Ardis-

    No apology needed; I see where you’re coming from. And to be painfully honest, I have not read nearly enough of the scholarship to merit the suspicion of being reliant on the scholarship, and this is especially true when it comes to Utah history. For that, I rely on people like you…should I?

  21. Margaret Young on March 16, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Apples and oranges, I think. The non-doctrinal myths about who we were before coming to earth look beyond the mark. The important doctrine is that we lived with God in a pre-mortal life, and that our mortality has a purpose which is directly connected to that life and to the life hereafter. Our temptation is one of pride–to suggest that some of us were better than others and thus given different circumstances as a “judgment” (Harold B. Lee and others) of our pre-mortal performance.

    Priesthood policy–different issue, but same temptation. The principle is that God is no respecter of persons. The temptation is one of pride–to justify …well, just read what I wrote above.

    It is not speculation to state that there is no written source for the priesthood restriction prior to what Brigham Young said in 1852, and that Pres. Young’s statements were brought into question in 1879, two years after his death. I have heard some speculate that there were secret meetings of the Council of the Fifty during Joseph Smith’s time in which those in attendance were told that Blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood–but there is no record of such a saying. There is Zebedee Coltrin’s memory in 1879, but it appears to be unreliable. Given what we know and what we don’t know, I am far more comfortable (especially considering the racial divide in the 19th Century) believing that common prejudice crept into the Church and that members simply maintained the same ideas they had held before becoming Mormons, i.e., curse of Cain and Canaan. The addition of “valiancy in the pre-existence” would be traced to Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt, but it appears clear that they were speaking on their own.

    I do find that most speculation tempts us to pride, division, and to a belief in conspiracies.

    This is Palm Sunday. Let all men and women sing praise to Him who redeemed us all. Please don’t argue or point fingers. It is unseemly, and most especially on this day of celebration. We ALL have been released from bondage.

  22. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    For that, I rely on people like you…should I?

    Of course you should, Dan. When you look at your computer screen, don’t you see the warm, rosy glow around my comments that is absent from those of the average Bloggernacler?

    I do find that most speculation tempts us to pride, division, and to a belief in conspiracies.

    Which is a good enough reason to identify speculations, even ones with scholarly apparatus.

  23. BRH on March 16, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Maybe the discussion would be aided by a little more nuance in the concluding line: “Speculation is still speculation.” There is, I think, an important distinction to be made between the credulous speculation of some Church members in Sunday School and the informed speculation of historians and other professional scholars, and the concluding line rubs the wrong way because it effaces that distinction. That said, Ardis has made an important point–in discussion, we need to be careful not to use the conclusions of informed speculation too credulously. Informed, careful scholarly speculations demand to be treated in a similarly informed and careful way, and they loose much when we play fast and loose with them.

  24. ed42 on March 16, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    “So much for our commitment to reliable confirmation before accepting and passing along tales.

    It is easy to fault the credulity of our brothers and sisters who apparently need no citation or even logic before accepting claims like these … but is there not an opposite but just as dangerous a tendency to accept scholarly speculations as demonstrated proof?”

    In religion AND politics!

  25. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Margaret, as I wrote, I’m not proposing a new solution or endorsing any previous proposal. I also have no reason to question scholarly findings that no written source earlier than 1852 exists, or any other documented point. I am *certainly* not attempting to revive any non-doctrinal myth, or argue or point fingers concerning the priesthood ban and its consequences. I am only noting that there is a difference between saying “no written evidence exists before 1852″ and saying “therefore Brigham Young’s racism is the sole cause of the restriction” or “scholarship has proven that the restriction was wholly human and not in any way sanctioned by God.”

    This post is about the limits of scholarship, or about our making assumptions beyond the conclusions of scholarship, not to reargue any specific example of the problem.

  26. Ray on March 16, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    #21 – Well said, Margaret. Good night, everyone.

  27. Dan Ellsworth on March 16, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Ardis,

    Your comments definitely glow; mine give stupor of thought.

    I think this one of the things that impressed me most about Rough Stone Rolling is how Bushman weighed the evidence: “This is what people said they saw,” and frankly acknowledged the murkiness of the picture in so many instances. I considered that an asset to his writing.

  28. Margaret Young on March 16, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Ardis–I do hope you know how highly I regard you. I hope I’ve said nothing which felt like an accusation. I think your posts are consistently brilliant, and my time listening to your presentation at MHA was one of the most delightful hours I’ve ever spent. You are a gift to the LDS community.

  29. Bob on March 16, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Science or Scholarship must start with a “speculation”. (a wonder, hunch, idea, curiosity, etc.) But can not stop there. It must then build a Theory or Model, and test it with facts or study. If the Model fails it’s tests (just as in Faith), then it’s back to ponder or speculating. For me, the BY example. is still only in a Model stage, to be tested by the facts and by study. I agree with Ardis. We can not go from “speculation” to folklore or gossip.

  30. mark Hansen on March 17, 2008 at 12:34 am

    I remember years ago reading Card’s “Saintspeak – The Mormon Dictionary” There were two entries that always made me giggle. I wish I could quote them verbatim, but here’s as close as I can get:

    Dogma – A ludicrous idea that you can’t seem to find in your scriptures even though you’re sure you heard a General Authority say it in conference sometime. (See “Doctrine”)

    Doctrine – A concept that I know to be true even though I can’t find it in my scriptures because I’m sure I heard a General Authority say it in conference sometime. (See “Dogma”)

    MRKH

  31. Jim Cobabe on March 17, 2008 at 2:02 am

    There is, I think, an important distinction to be made between the credulous speculation of some Church members in Sunday School and the informed speculation of historians and other professional scholars, and the concluding line rubs the wrong way because it effaces that distinction.

    Hmm…

    My father’s mother was a practitioner of phrenology — in her day, a popular and respected field of science.

    Most of the contemporary “informed speculation” ventured by historians and professional scholars will be in the trash can in short order.

  32. Peter LLC on March 17, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Sorry, but reading conjecture like

    it isn’t uncommon to read Bloggernaclers commenting as though one or another of those theories were settled fact.

    This theory has become so widely accepted in the Bloggernacle that people refer to it as an established fact

    I’ve seen people do that rather frequently lately, claiming that “Brigham Young instituted the priesthood ban due to his racist blindness, therefore …”

    too many in the Bloggernacle, IMO. are using unproven historical theorems as building blocks for more elaborate ones.

    Tons of people reject the old folk lore only to replace it with a new folk lore (Jacob J)

    smacks of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Pics or it didn’t happen.

  33. Joel on March 17, 2008 at 8:08 am

    I agree with Ardis that we must always remember that history is based on informed interpretation of historical records. I think that interpretation might be a better word than speculation because it captures the informed nature of such understandings, but it also leaves room for contrary evidence and possible reinterpretations. I think we always need to remember that history is an art and not a science. Even though science has been proven to be quite fallible and at always driven by human factors, at least you can make hypotheses, conduct experiments, and come to some type of conclusion based on experimentation. History skips the experiment part. There can never be a historical control group or blind trial. It focuses on humans beings which don’t always act logically. Ardis is just admitting what all of us historians know–historians do the best they can with what they have: a very incomplete historical record. General Authorities do the same thing except they use spiritual discernment as their evidence for their choice. The key is to see the humanity associated with both processes.

  34. DavidH on March 17, 2008 at 8:28 am

    I would be surprised if anyone really believed that the priesthood and temple restrictions were “solely due” to BY’s racism. If it were, then the policy would have ended shortly after his death.

    I do think it is legitimate to say something like, “Based on the evidence I am familiar with, it is difficult for me to conclude that God directed the Brethren to institute the restriction.” Or, “The evidence suggests to me that the restriction is more traceable to commonly held 19th and 20th century attitudes and understandings of the meaning and significance to race than to God’s revelation.”

    One question for Ardis, is it speculation to assert that God directed the restriction when there is no evidence of a revelation?

  35. Eric Boysen on March 17, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorm demonstrates that in any formal system there is always unprovable truth and irrefutable falsehood. Does this apply to the world at large? I think so. Does it apply to God or even to His children when they are out of this world (pre- or ante-mortal)? I hope not, but I don’t know.

    In this world there is speculation because there is a veil drawn over our memory of the events we participated in before we came and over the knowledge we had attained in that condition. That is the glass we see through darkly. I have to admit there is a tenetiveness to every conclusion I have ever drawn, and I am forced through my experiences to re-evaluate everything I think I know. Of course I don’t have time for that. I will have to wait for the eternities.

    Meanwhile I have accepted certain things as fundemental and live with the uncertainty.

  36. Ardis Parshall on March 17, 2008 at 9:24 am

    DavidH: It would be speculation for a scholarly historian to assert either the involvement or non-involvement of God; you will note that I have done neither. A theologian, or someone bearing a testimony, could make either assertion; evaluating whether the theologian’s assertion is speculation or not calls for a different — overlapping but different — set of tools

  37. Chris Grant on March 17, 2008 at 10:05 am

    @#35

    Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorm demonstrates that in any formal system there is always unprovable truth and irrefutable falsehood.

    No, it doesn’t. See Torkel Franzen’s Gödel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to its Use and Abuse.

  38. Jim Cobabe on March 17, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Ardis is just admitting what all of us historians know–historians do the best they can with what they have: a very incomplete historical record.

    Incomplete records are just the beginning of the troubles historians suffer from. The biggest problem I see today seems to be treatment of interpretive history as if it were an objective information source.

    General Authorities do the same thing except they use spiritual discernment as their evidence for their choice. The key is to see the humanity associated with both processes.

    The key is to distinguish between two paradigms that are as dissimilar as night and day. Humanity is axiomatic. Inspiration from God is exceptional and precious.

  39. david on March 17, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Eric,

    Just to second what Chris Grant said. First order predicate calculus (what most people think of then they think of “logic”) is complete and was proven so by Godel, hence his incompleteness theorem does not apply. It is a formal system, therefore your statement is false.

  40. Ardis Parshall on March 17, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Night and day? No.

    Good/evil, virtue/sin — those pairs are as different as night and day.

    But we’re commanded to seek wisdom by study and by faith, so I cannot accept a charge that study and faith are so diametrically opposed as you claim.

  41. Joel on March 17, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Jim Cobabe,

    The humanity comes in the way that we evaluate both types of information, not in the sources which I agree are as different as night and day. Human beings can accept or reject revelation in the same way they can accept or reject historical interpretation. The consequences might be different, but the humanity involved in each process is constant. If we don’t see the humanity involved then we set ourselves up for a fall whenever a leader does anything wrong. I can believe that the source of inspiration is perfect, I cannot believe that the receptor of such information is infallible. I think he or she is doing the best they can with the help of the spirit. Historians, at least good ones, do the same thing on a secular stage. They come up with the best interpretations possible based on the information they have. Is the spirit involved? Probably not to the same degree as in revelation, but he will confirm truth.

  42. Jon E on March 17, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Ardis,

    Great post. I\’ve read many of the comments as well and I\’d rather address the original post than any of the reactions.

    \”Scientific Uncertainty\” is a fundamental principle of rational decision-making. What we can be sure of in any production of science, history, or rhetoric is that there will be another side of the coin, an opposing argument, a different interpretation. We are interpretive creatures. We do like to create assertions and develop arguments to \”prove\” the truth of those assertions, but in the end our assertions are based on our interpretation of facts, sensory experience, or otherwise. You\’re right on when you posit a wiser, more conservative approach to fact-finding.

    Socrates spoke volumes when he said \”True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing\”. I think there are things to know- we don\’t know nothing whatsoever, but such a saying ought to cause us to glance at our references- heuristics, schemas, frames of reference, citations, paradigms, what have you. For me, credibility comes from a subjective approach. Objectivity is necessary, but reference to one\’s perspective must be the foundation for such an approach as it guides one\’s objectivity. Even then, uncertainty exists because we cannot fully take on another\’s perspective (Joseph Smith said \”No man knows my history.\”), and we cannot form such a thing into just the right words so that there will be no subjective interpretation of the words.

    This raises a more important question. What can we know and how can we know it? Knowing the Gospel is true is something God promises that we can know. That knowledge is conveyed through spiritual manifestations. These \”manifestations\” sometimes get us into trouble. When I hear about us being Generals and having pioneers bow down, I just get all misty and warm inside. Who\’s to say that\’s not a manifestation and confirmation of truth. Well, hopefully me.

    This does not destroy our art of rhetoric and debate. We are welcome to assert and argue, but a wise person will not stand by his assertions with a figurative bomb strapped to his chest yelling \”me or you, baby!\” Persuasion is an art, just as being persuaded is an art, though more difficult to master.

    In the end, the wise man can say, \”I don\’t know\” and in the Church, we can say, \”The idea of me being a General has no bearing on my identity as a member here and now. I still have so much to do in so little time.\” I try to live by a philosophy of preparing myself today for opportunities I don\’t know about tomorrow. I live in the now. This takes some distrust of such premonitions and speculation. I find it quite liberating. In the Church context, hopefully we can focus on our simple testimonies of being children of God and members of the church, and fulfill our duties today.

    Again, great post. I agree.

  43. Bob on March 17, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    #42: You seem to feel facts and subjective assertions carry the same weight (?) Or, do the same job(?).
    I would hope our “Persuasions” are built on facts , not just rhetoric. There is certainly room for the Subjective, and in the end it may be all that really matters. But a fact can be right or wrong, but I don’t think it can have two sides. ( Two or more interpretations, yes).

  44. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 17, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    A big part of us human beings believing something is that we WANT to believe it. We would be happier and more satisfied with the world if that thing were true. It is the motivation that causes us to seek out the truth of the gospel (“Even if you can have no more than a desire to believe”), as well as the motivation for seeking truth in science, history, and other endeavors. There needs to be an adjective that describes things that not only we CAN believe (believable) but WANT to believe, separate from the alleged qualities that we think make it attractive (e.g. stimulating, comforting, original, insightful, etc.). Believattractive? Believlovely? The problem for a lot of us is that it can be a long, laborious and costly process to make a determination of truth after our heads are initiaslly turned by something believattractive.

    We LDS are taught to rely on the witness of the Holy Ghost to confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon, and Moroni goes on to say that it will confirm the truth of all things (presumably, the ones that are true). I think there is a tendency to forget that to get to the point where we ask the Holy Ghost to confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon, we have read most of a 500 page book, spending hours and hours with it. I suspect that a lot of propositions get put to the “just ask God” test without the prelude of intense and sincere investigation and “pondering” that are the conditions precedent for Moroni’s promise.

    The Book of Mormon comes with the testimony of 12 men–Joseph Smith+3+8–and the very explicit endorsement of the Church and its current and past leaders. Actually reading and pondering its message gives us the experience of whether it is good and fruitful or bad and barren, both intellectually and emotionally. If we believe the Bible narrative of Christ, the Book of Mormon affirms the same Son of God seen there, and is thus confirmed by the Bible narrative. It is a book that could be a product of the world that produced the Bible, a world where God rules over all, where he disperses Israel across the world, yet promises to call it back together, where Christ performs an atoning sacrifice that offers a path back to the Father. Even before we get into the evidence of linguistics and Arabian geography, of Hebrew law and custom, the Book of Mormon provides a straightforward case for itself as being legitimate.

    A lot of the speculation that sounds so believattractive to many LDS and gets passed on through the chain of friends and family lacks any logical or rational evidentiary foundation. We need to be more careful about distinguishing what would be NICE to believe from what we have confirmed through study and THEN through revelation.

    The example of Lorenzo Snow is also instructive. He received a statement from Joseph Smith Sr. about becoming like God, even before he was baptized. Later, he received inspiration that he formulated in his famous couplet. He wrote that, only after the doctrine was publicly preached in the King Follett funeral discourse by Joseph Smith, did he feel proper in sharing that insight with others.

    Those of us who make our living through showing off our intellect have a hard time avoiding logorrhea. I have advised my coworkers that if they want a 10 page legal memo, I can do that in a day, but a one page memo takes twice as long. Showing off our brains with our words is something we are rewarded for in our paychecks and (hopefully) something we got praise for from parents, mentors and peers through our educational experiences, including awards, Phi Beta Kappa keys, scholarships and fellowships, and admission to prestigious institutions. It goes against our grain to be reticent about saying everything we know about anything. Yet we (should) have learned in our academic training and professional experience to avoid making assertions that we cannot back up with acceptable evidence and reasoning.

    Yet one can grow up attending the usual schools and even colleges without learning how to rigorously weigh evidence, construct a defensible argument from verified information, or demolish a poorly constructed argument by someone else. That is the case, I fear, for most people, including those in the Church. My experiences dealing with juries have NOT raised my confidence in the analytical abilities of most Americans, including even the military officers who constitute most members of court-martial panel. (A related observation is that the general American judicial system is not constructed for the purpose of determining truth, but has a philosophical foundation that is derived from trial by combat, mixed with the unrealistic notion that the ideal jury should be uninformed ignoramuses. People walk into juries with their perceptions of the law formed by watching movies and CSI and Law & Order. We are being judged by people who are amateur lawyers. My personal nomination for judicial reform is to put the judge into the jury room to answer their legal questions, and not assume they can correctly understand the often arcane and self-contradictory legal instructions read to them.)

    So we can expect that faith-promoting rumors will be with us for the indefinite future.

    When I discuss something that I think is a logical deduction from the evidence with my Sunday School class, I try to lay out the sources for my information, and identify what is specifically speculation on my part. I try to give a serious hearing to speculations raised by class members, while explaining my reasons for thinking them less likely or not. Yesterday, presenting the same lesson about the reasons Nephi quoted so much of Isaiah, I was interrupted near the start by the visiting stake president asking me to talk about how Joseph did the translation of the Book of Mormon. I discussed the historical statements of his associates and the Critical Text Project and its conclusions. I then identified as my own speculation an hypothesis about the creation of the English language text that Joseph apparently read as he dictated to his scribes. I have discussed my idea with Terryl Givens, John Sorenson and Daniel Peterson, and they could not think of anything about it inconsistent with known facts. But even if I publish it in some forum, it will still be speculation, not something that is entitled to even be the subject of an inquiry to God about its truth or falsity, because it does not affect anyone’s salvation or exaltation in any way. It only squeaks into my lesson because it is part of what I see as I read the Book of Mormon, and as far as I can tell in my over a decade of teaching Gospel Doctrine lessons in California, Utah, Washington, and Idaho, nobody has gone off the deep end as a result of being in my classes. I am not even confident of how much they remember from one week to the next. But while we are in the class, I try to engage the text of the scriptures as much as possible.

    What I hope my neighbors take away is a feeling for how truth-filled the scriptures are, not as a reservoir of Oprah-like homilies that appeal to our vanity, but as the challenging voice of God and those who dealt with him directly. I think if they appreciate the scriptures as that, they will find less of a need to make up things, or latch on to things that are shiny baubles compared to the real flinty truths in the scriptures.

  45. annahannah on March 17, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    I had the frog jumping out of hot water story in my SS

  46. A. Nonny Mouse on March 17, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    David (#39) Wikipedia takes issue with you…

    “Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, referring to a different meaning of completeness, shows that if any sufficiently strong effective theory of arithmetic is consistent then there is a formula (depending on the theory) which can neither be proven nor disproven within the theory. Nevertheless the completeness theorem applies to these theories, showing that any logical consequence of such a theory is provable from the theory.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_completeness_theorem

  47. East Coast on March 17, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Ah, yes, wikipedia, the final arbiter in any debate…

  48. david on March 17, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    A Nonny Mouse,

    Arithmetic is not first order predicate calculus, that’s why the incompleteness theorem applies. Any valid formula is also provable using first order logic. Read the book Chris Grant recommends, I am sure that all of this is explained in detail, much better than I can.

  49. david on March 17, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Ah, yes, wikipedia, the final arbiter in any debate… Yes, but you have to know how to read it correctly, even then, you get what you pay for.

  50. Kevinf on March 17, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Raymond, # 44,

    “…how truth-filled the scriptures are, not as a reservoir of Oprah-like homilies that appeal to our vanity, but as the challenging voice of God and those who dealt with him directly. I think if they appreciate the scriptures as that, they will find less of a need to make up things, or latch on to things that are shiny baubles compared to the real flinty truths in the scriptures.”

    I think that deserves a Niblet nomination as a great comment. But along with that, why not an exhortation to learn to deal directly with God ourselves? The challenge, as you point out, is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing no more than to ask, or as you put it, quoting Alma 32, having “no more than a desire to believe”, and take the next warm fuzzy feeling as a confirming witness. My reading is that Alma 32 is a blueprint for learning how to learn to really recognize the spirit, and one that requires working from small to more complex things very carefully, as the constant reminder is that your “faith is not yet perfect”, nor the knowledge.

  51. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 17, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    #50–Kevinf–Thanks for your comment. Alma Chapter 32 was a critical part of my gaining a testimony. Unlike anything else I have read in the Bible, or just about any other scripture, it laid out a procedure for moving from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. Alma’s path to faith does not involve blind leaps, but careful consideration of the propositions to be tested, a commitment to complete the test, active effort in supplying the obedience and attention and reverence required for the seed to grow, and monitoring of the response of the seed as it grows and over time bears fruit. I loved the whole concept of an “experiment upon the word” and “your mind doth begin to expand.” It sounds like it was written to address those of us in the Boomer generation who lived through the era when drugs were touted as a path to satori (enlightenment).

    One element in the criticism of the Intelligent Design critique of Darwinian evolution is that ID cuts off inquiry, rather than inviting the researcher to explore new ideas, and that the fruitfulness of a theory is considered to be one of the hallmarks of a true hypothesis. I disagree with the criticism of ID, but I find that criterion of fruitfulness to be in Henry Eyring’s statements about both science and Mormonism. He originally pursued his Absolute Rate Theory because it produced interesting and fruitful results, before it had been fully confirmed by experiment and had a theoretical framework explaining why it worked.

    Mormonism is, in my experience, tremendously fruitful in responding to our investment of study, producing intriguing insights about all sorts of things, not just religious ones. The Book of Mormon by itself, seems to me to be generative of all sorts of studies and explorations. I think one of Hugh Nibley’s remarks, and one that I hear from folks at FARMS on occasion, is that the simple fact that there is so much that can be found in the book, that invites exploration in a wide field of knowledge, across many disciplines (not only ancient history, geography, and Egyptology, but also geology [supervolcanoes]), demonstrates that it is far more than a literary creation. You might be able to assemble something similar today with a team of scholars, but how in the world did a farmer in a frontier village do it at age 24 in 1829? One of my speculations is that the Book of Mormon came forward at a moment in time when it was simply impossible to produce such a work through extant scholarship. If it were published in the last century, the critics would be looking for ghost writers all over the world of scholarship, polymaths like Hugh Nibley. But the fact that it was published in 1830 closes that option completely. None of the ways that books are normally written explains it.

    So we Mormons believe all sorts of extraordinary things, but our experience with criticism and even persecution should teach us, of all people, to be skeptical of assertions that lack proper provenance.

    One final note: Mormons are not the only people who are drawn to “faith promoting rumors.” One of the most ubiquitous set pieces in environmentalist popular literature is the denunciation of the wasteful ways of the white man made by Chief Seattle. It is in elementary school textbooks and posters and gets dragged out every Earth Day. The fact that it was written by a white publicist as a well-intentioned fiction makes no headway in quelling the myth, even for people who are told to their face by the author that it is fictional. A little consideration of the language of the text makes the notion that it is inauthentic obvious. But it lives on because it is what people WANT to hear about modern civilization and the crimes of America against not only Native Americans but also the earth itself–never mind that one of the most popular scientific theories is that the megafauna of the Ice Age were wiped out by overhunting by the ancestors of today’s Indians.

    My personal take on the popularity of Global Warming is that it appeals to the same urge to indict mankind for profligacy, regardless of science for or against. This would not be the first time that Congress has acted against an alleged threat that was mostly mythical (e.g. the Edmunds-Tucker Act). Modern educated people laugh about the pious depiction of George Washington by Parson Weems, but the mythologizing about John F. Kennedy and other more recent figures has proceeded apace, with far more distorting effect on our political decisions.

  52. flora on March 17, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    What amazing Sunday School class discussions you have!

    All we ever do in ours is read from scriptures and then talk about how we can apply the lessons in our 21st century lives. ho hum

  53. Ellis on March 17, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” Francis Bacon. The evidence that we believe in the most does not come out books or original documents. The evidence we believe the most is how we feel about something. All these rumors and speculations make people feel better about things. Isn’t it better to believe BY was racist than that the ban was inspired and that Joseph Smith knew it all the time. That lets everyone else off the hook.

    Some cynic said that history is just an excuse for telling lies about the dead. It is all just rumors and “interpretation”. In some measure I agree as no historian is ever totally unbiased.

    Good post Ardis.

  54. Bob on March 17, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    #53: “Isn’t it better to believe BY was racist than that the ban was inspired” No. For over a hundred years, Mormons felt better believing that it was inspired.
    It’s Ok to change how we feel. But how we feel, is poor evidence. That’s why 50% of Marriages end in divorce.

  55. Jack on May 14, 2008 at 11:04 am

    I served in Armenia. I don\’t know about all 12 tribes, but i know of at least six or seven. I don\’t doubt, however, that all 12 will be found as soon is there is a stake with a patriarch.