Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Mormon epistemology, DNA, and falsification

Let’s try to put the pieces together of a discussion that I started about LDS beliefs. I live in a part of the country where the LDS church is very prevalent, and I get a fair number of LDS students in my classes. When students write papers about Mormonism, I find that often they don’t really want to argue that Mormonism is true, or criticize arguments against it.

There are several lines of thought that have to be distinguished. One claim I made was that one could generate a historical case for the New Testament miracles that you could not generate on behalf of the miracles in the Book of Mormon. I did not say that I thought that these miracles could be justified to the satisfaction of all reasonable persons, but just that there is a substantial amount of evidence supporting the historical reliability of the New Testament. The New Testament seems to be about real people living at a real place and time, the writers of the New Testament seem to have been intimately familiar with the various parts of the ancient world, as has been shown by archaeological evidence. Archaeological support for the Book of Mormon seems to be nonexistent. To make matters worse, there is apparent archaeological evidence suggesting that the events in the Book of Mormon could not have taken place as reported. To this I have gotten responses from atheists suggesting that the evidence for Mormon miracles is stronger than the evidence for NT miracles; the Mormon miracles they have in mind, though, are the Angel Moroni giving the Gold Plates to Joseph Smith (which is testified to my several signed witnesses). Portions of the New Testament, the atheists say, are supported by evidence, but what is supported is not the miraculous element in those accounts. One can, after all, write a fictional story about Phoenix, Arizona, making reference to Van Buren
Street, or Chase Field, or the America West Arena, and at the same time include fictional elements, either.

I really need to lay out what I think is the strongest way of laying out the historical case for Christianity, but I want to save that for another post. I will not say, however, that the case for Christianity can be justified by historical evidence alone, in a vacuum as it were. Clark seems to think that some kind of evidential argument for the Christian miracles is doomed to disaster, in that some kind of Humean objection can be brought against it. Miracles, by definition, are events in a very infrequent category; as such they have such a low prior probability that any testimonial evidence will be insufficient to justify them. Viewed from this perspective, both the Christian and the Mormon will be defeated by the religious skeptic. Only if religious experience is brought into view do can we perhaps see the possibility of a case made for these religions.

My own view of prior probabilities and miracles is that we cannot generate objective single-case prior probabilities on the basis of observed frequencies, and that therefore our own perspectives, however we might have come by them, have to figure into the way in which we evaluate miracle claims, or any other claims for that matter. Thus I’m not at all surprised that an atheist like Keith Parsons finds the evidence for Christ’s resurrection inadequate, and that William Lane Craig finds that the evidence more than suffices. This is laid out in the paper I wrote for Internet Infidels in 1998. My overall epistemology is what I would call Bayesian subjectivism. Antecedent probabilities are subjective, but must be calibrated in the light of fresh evidence. My claim is only that if we come to the evidence for the NT miracles without an overwhelming reason to disbelieve them prior to investigation, the case in their favor is reasonably strong, and ought to persuade many (though perhaps not all) open-minded inquirers. Those who are familiar with Stephen T. Davis’s work on the Resurrection of Jesus will recognize that my position more closely resembles his view than, say, that of Josh McDowell, who think that that case for Christ is so overwhelming that only someone refusing to face the truth can deny them.

Clark wants to distance himself from a kind of defense of Mormonism that maintains that, regardless of what evidence might be thrown against Mormonism, the Mormon can hold fast to his or her own experience of a “burning in the bosom” and thereby dismiss all objections.

We might consider four types of cases where a Mormon faces objections, to see how this appeal to experience might work.

1) A charge of lack of evidence. This isn’t a claim that there is evidence against Mormonism, this is a claim that we simply don’t have good reason to accept the Mormon claims. The charge is simply that there is no externally verifiable evidence. Here, the appeal to experience seems sensible.
2) A Mormon (or a Christian) is intellectually outgunned. How many people have been in the situation of dealing with an intellectual opponent who just knows more than you do, and who can out-argue you. Do you give up your beliefs forthwith when that happens. You come out of discussions with that person feeling sure that you must be right and that he, in spite of his superior knowledge, must be wrong, but you feel you lost the debate. When Keith Parsons and I lived in the same house I thought that in a number of discussions I scored some good points, but that his knowledge of philosophy and theology was somewhat greater than mine, and so I thought he won more arguments than I did. (He had already begun graduate studies in philosophy; I was still getting my M.div.) Someone in that situation might end up making a personal experience appeal to hold on to what seems most real to them. I have heard atheist philosophy professors complain, “I showed my students in class today that all the arguments for belief in God are bad, but they still believe. What’s wrong with them?” To which I am inclined to ask in reply “How can someone so well-educated in philosophy be so epistemologically naïve?”
3) Suppose some substantial counter-evidence is presented to a Mormon. I take it this is what Clark thinks is happening in the case of the Nielsen Hayden arguments that I alluded to. He says this about it:
For any claim there will be arguments for and against. Even in science there are often what science calls outlayers in the data. Typically the scientist will, if there is other evidence sufficiently strong, discount such data. Please note that this is not simply ignoring such data. If the data falsifies a claim then it simply can't be so discounted. (Thus, for example, I think scientific data overwhelmingly falsifies most literalist readings of the early chapters of Genesis) This is where Book of Mormon apologetics is valuable. Say what you will about the strength and persuasiveness of such arguments, but they don't rise to the level of falsifying the Book of Mormon.

So there is a distinction to be drawn between evidence that perhaps counts against the book of Mormon and that which falsifies it. Perhaps Mormon experience should be sufficient to beat back counter-evidence but not out-and-out falsification. Mormon apologetics is at least sufficient to undermine the kind of falsification that we find the case of, say, a YEC reading of early Genesis. The young earth just doesn’t fit the facts, and version of Christianity that rely on it have to be revised or abandoned. However, the criticisms of the BOM don’t reach that level of falsification, and so a reasonable person who has a Mormon experience can continue to be a Mormon even if they don’t know how to refute Nielsen Hayden exhaustively. However, this brings up a fourth category:
4) Falsification. Now I do think there is some evidence against the BOM which does meet that standard, and that is the argument from DNA. If Mormonism is true, we should expect a DNA similarity between people of Hebrew origin and Native Americans, whom Mormons call Lamanites. However, the DNA evidence does not support the Book of Mormon, the DNA evidence supports the Bering Strait theory that suggests that Native Americans came over the Bering Strait. From the Anderson critique we find this statement of the case:

When I was growing up in Southern California, I had direct contact with the Mormon Church's Lamanite Placement Program. The Lamanites in this program were Native American youth from Arizona, and New Mexico who, during the school year, moved off the reservation to live with white suburban Euro-American Mormon families. Since this program was run by the church under the direction of prophets, I understood Lamanites lived in Arizona and New Mexico.

Also, from reading the Doctrine & Covenants (one of the canonized Mormon scriptures), I understood from passages about teaching the Lamanites the Gospel, that Lamanites also lived in Missouri.

And I recall the photos in the introductory pages of the 1950s-1970s editions of the Book of Mormon of ancient ruins in Central America, and the Hill Cumorah in Upstate New York (where the Golden Plates were buried). From those, I inferred that, as the Book of Mormon claimed, the Native Americans' "principal ancestors" were the people of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, the people of the Book of Mormon must have been all over the North and Central American Continent like Joseph Smith wrote about the Jaredites (only one of the peoples described in the Book of Mormon):

"Jared and his brother came on to this continent from the confusion and the scattering at the Tower [Tower of Babel], and lived here more than a thousand years, and covered the whole continent from SEA TO SEA, WITH TOWNS AND CITIES..." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 267.)

I grew up understanding that temple dedicatory prayers were prophetic. Indeed, the prayer at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple was canonized in the Doctrine & Covenants. It's interesting that almost without exception in the past 75 years or so, every Mormon temple that has been dedicated in Central and South America, and the Islands of the Pacific, has, in its dedicatory prayer, been mentioned as a place that will bring the blessings of the Gospel to the Lamanites who presumably make of the principal population of that country.

Finally, as a missionary in Germany from 1981-83, I regularly showed the official Mormon Church produced filmstrip Ancient America Speaks. It presented what the rest of the world identifies as Inca and Mayan ruins, as ruins of the Book of Mormon peoples. The photos of the ruins in the filmstrip covered a wide geographical area.

So from all of those evidences I personally knew about or experienced, I believed the Book of Mormon people were spread all over the Western Hemisphere.

Imagine my surprise when DNA studies in recent decades conclusively revealed virtually no Hebrew DNA among Native Americans. On the contrary, the DNA findings revealed that the ancestors of the Native Americans came from Asia. How could that be if the Book of Mormon was about Jewish ancestors, and was about a civilization that "covered the whole continent" and indeed, according to prophetic utterances, the entire Western Hemisphere?

We always clearly understood the Book of Mormon to be the "keystone of our religion." As missionaries, we emphatically taught the principle that if the Book of Mormon is true, then the Mormon Church is true. Now that the Book of Mormon has been completely discredited, any member with a shred of intellectual honesty, who cares to remember their own past and life experiences, must conclude the entire religion is a hoax.

There is no other option.

Maybe I'm wrong, but this looks like scientific falsification to me, as serious as the kind that can be advanced against a YEC reading of Genesis.


chris g said...

I'm no biologist and haven't really followed the DNA debate very closely - it just doens't provide an answer for my view of BoM history.

I think it certainly closes the case for an "empty" arrival scenario and such. But I tend to see that as a red herring anyway. Resolving the DNA of a few dozen people in the presence of a few million certainly seems out of reach. As a bit of an aside, I really enjoyed Menzies 1421 book, flaws and all.

Personally, I find it interesting how mormon views are pretty accepting in their integration of scientific views. They seem to evolve at a pace some may not like, but in many cases I think it is important for thinking and reasoning to morph from one's context not replace it. Such changes can be rather dramtic as your cited article demonstrates. Science is good at quick changes, but I am not sure people intertwine it as much in their moral reasoning as they do with religion. I could see that slowing down the rate religious views incorporate science; perhaps even to the speed of implicit cultural change.

As for the falsification angle, I suspect many mormon views have quite a few layers that induce sufficient error to cloud the precision required here. Now this may or may not be a good things, but it does seem to be the way it is.

I just don't think outright falsifications are possible for many, perhaps all religions. My unreasoned view is probability claims frequently get swamped by contextual preferences. One may be better off finding some other way to choose, if one is so inclined.

exapologist said...

Hello Victor,

It seems to me that orthodox christianity is in the same boat as the mormons on this score. If the NT is as reliable as you say, then Jesus clearly and repeatedly predicted the eshaton within his generation. Since it's been roughly twenty centuries since then, I take it that his generation has passed, and yet The End hasn't occurred. How is this not a falsification?



Jason Pratt said...

Quick note to exapologist: the NT also reports Jesus cautioning that He didn't know for sure when it would happen. (It's one of those story details sceptics love to harp on for other reasons. {g})

Well, hm...

Okay, I can see (for reasons I won't go into here--lots of interconnected implications) that this would close the case for an "empty" arrival scenario. But I'm not sure this help the BoM case any.

First I need a clarification: I was under the impression (possibly mistaken) that the reason Jesus appeared to North Americans in the BoM is due to the presence of some of the 10 Lost Tribes (or at least their their blood descendents) in the area. Jared & family clearly wouldn't be from that; the story of Babel predates even Abraham (much less the children of Jacob, much much less the destruction of the Two Kingdoms comprised many centuries later of their descendents.)

I will suppose, then, that Jared & family are supposed to be Semitic (of the stock of Noah and his family), but are _not_ the remnants of the 10 Tribes. (i.e. two arrivals in NA.) The issue, then, would be whether there was a seriously large population of indigenous people in NA that can be accounted for on 'x'-interpretation of the BoM story, already in existence in Jared's day (not the day many centuries later when members of the 10 Lost Tribes arrived.)

a.) The language would seem to indicate that the effects of interbreeding spread across the whole continent--down into Central/South America? Pacific Islands? Upper Northwest? Carribean? How feasible is this from a small initial population? i.e., if the population is small enough to explain why the DNA doesn't look Hebrew (among a proportinately large initial population), then wouldn't it be proportionately small enough to stay relatively regional?

Possibly a claim of literary hyperbole stylism may be made here. I have no idea to what degree such stylism is acceptable at all in BoM exegetical/hermeneutical studies; and there is the further question as to what the hyperbole is supposed to be emphasizing anyway. (Plus there are possible story contexts that have to be reckoned with over against hyperbole claims in this case--I have no idea.)

This would seem to be related to the (reported) BoM claim about the descendents of Jared being the "principle inhabitants", _founding_ cities etc. Does that really square with a non-empty proportionately large indigenous population?

b.) Where exactly are these Native Americans supposed to have come from, then? I mean the ones whose Asian DNA is supposed to have absorbed Semetic DNA (let's be fair, not Hebrew per se--no Hebrews yet) to the extent that no one can detect it in ancient blood stains etc. Are there multiple arks in the BoM story? (I honestly don't know.) Does the BoM ramp down the flood effects? (That would seem to be a point in its favor, if it does. {g}) There doesn't seem to be sufficient time between the dispersion from the ark, and the Babel incident, for Native Americans to get to America, much less become established there to the extent that Jared & family, arriving several generations later, would be absorbed so thoroughly into a identifiably distinct blood-type/genetic structure that we can't find the traces now.

These are also the basic crits against taking the OT story too literally; though there seems to be a bit more leeway in the OT, insofar as it can be read as a reminiscence of real events misunderstood to be more wide-reaching than they actually were. It isn't as though the OT talks about a man from the Babel incident actually going to, say, Indonesia, detailing his life (and the life of his descendents) there.

I note as one possible defense, that these people are supposed to be Lamanites. Who is this Laman? A descendent of Jared? (If so, no defense along this line--and more internal evidence in favor of reading the BoM to mean Jared's descendents _are_ supposed to be the principle Native Americans.) Or, one of the pre-diluvian patriarchal family heads a few generations after Adam? (If so, how are they supposed to have survived the flood--does the BoM address this question?)

Please note that I ask these things in ignorance of the details. As an editor, story coherency is a hobby (and profession) of mine.

Jason Pratt

exapologist said...

If only it were that easy...

I agree with mainstream scholarship that Jesus was a failed eschatological prophet. Such a hypothesis, if true, would be a simple one that would make sense of a wide range of data, including the following fourteen pieces of evidence:

1. John the Baptist preached a message of repentance to escape the immanent judgment of the eschaton. Jesus was his baptized disciple, and thus accepted his message, and in fact preached basically the same message.
2. Many (most?) of Jesus’ “Son of Man” passages are most naturally interpreted as allusions to the Son of Man figure in Daniel. This figure was an end of the world arbiter of God’s justice, and Jesus kept preaching that he was on his way (“From now on, you will see the Son of Man coming with the clouds…”). Jesus seems to identify himself with this apocalyptic figure in Daniel, but I'm not confident whether this identification is a later redaction. Either way, it doesn't bode well for orthodox Christianity.
3. The earliest canonical writing (I Thess): Paul taught an immanent end , and it mirrors in wording the end-time passages in the synoptics (especially the "Little Apocalypse in Mark, and the subsequently-written parallels in Matthew and Luke).
4. Many passages attributed to Jesus have him predicting the end within his generation (“the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent therefore, and believe the good news”; “this generation shall not pass away…”; “you won’t finish going through the cities of Israel before…”; “some of those standing here will not taste death until…”; "From now on, you shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds")
5. A sense of urgency permeates the gospels and the other NT writings: e.g., must hurry to send the message to the cities of Israel before Daniel’s “Son of Man” comes; leaving all to follow him; even burying one’s parents has a lower priority…; Paul telling the Corinthians not to change their current state, since it’s all about to end --- don’t seek marriage, or to leave slave condition, etc., since the end of all things is at hand; and on and on, all the way through the NT corpus)
6. Jesus and Paul taught a radical "interim ethic". This makes sense if they believed that the eschaton would occur within their generation.
7. Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.
8. There is a clear pattern of a successive watering down of Jesus’ prediction of the eschaton within the generation of his disciples, starting with Mark, and continuing through the rest of the synoptic gospels. By the time we get to John, the last gospel written, the eschatological "kingdom of God" talk is dropped (except for one passage, and it no longer has clear eschatological connotations), along with the end-time predictions. Further, the epistles presuppose that the early church thought Jesus really predicted the end within their lifetimes. Finally, this successive backpedaling continues beyond the NT writings and into those of the apocrypha and the early church leaders, even to the point where some writings attribute an *anti*-apocalyptic message to Jesus. All of these things make perfect sense if we suppose that Jesus really did make such a prediction, and the church needed to reinterpret his message in light of the fact that his generation passed away, yet the eschaton never came.
9. The fact that virtually all the NT authors believed the end would occur in their generation makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims
10. The fact that the early church believed the end would occur in their lifetime makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims
11. Sanders’ argument from the criteria of authenticity: the passages that attribute these predictions to Jesus pass the criteria of multiple attestation (and forms), embarrassment, earliest strata (Mark, Q, M, L, Paul’s earliest letters, the ancient “Maranatha” creed/hymn) etc.
12. Jesus’ parables: virtually all explicitly or implicitly teach a message about an immanent eschaton
13. Jesus’ “inversion” teachings (e.g., "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first"): a common theme among Jewish apocalypticists generally. The general message of apocalypticists is that those who are evil and defy God will not get away with it forever. The just are trampled, and the unjust prosper; thus, this situation will needs to be inverted – as they will be when the “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel comes to exact God’s judgment
14. The fact that the first generation church didn’t write biographies about Jesus, but instead the second generation church wrote the gospels composed of bits of sayings attributed to him, would make sense if his followers believed that the End would occur so quickly (based on Jesus’ teachings) that such a task would be pointless.

But suppose all of this is wrong -- or at least wrong in the one respect that he didn’t mean “this generation” in the way it seems. Still, he did say that the end would come soon, and his apostles said that these were “the last days” etc.

Furthermore, the book of Revelation:

-He’s talking about events within the authors’ day
-Attributes a quick return to Jesus
-Using cipher language, he names Nero as “the Beast” (in ancient languages such as Hebrew and Greek, letters served double-duty as numbers. Thus, it was common to refer to someone without actually saying their name by stating the number that the letters in their name adds up to. Well, Ceasar Nero’s name adds up to 666, and he was ruling and persecuting the church during the time that the book of Revelation was written. In fact, some manuscripts of Revelation have the number read ‘616’, which turns out to add up to a slightly less formal version of Nero’s name!), thus clearly indicating that the end was immanent
-But it’s been about 2,000 years since then!

And so, no matter which way you slice it, the “statute of limitations” has run out on Jesus and his apostle’s claim for an immanent end. But if so, then by OT standards, Jesus was quite simply a false prophet, in which case he’s not a person that a reasonable and ethical person should follow.

It needs to be emphasized that this line of reasoning isn't controversial among mainstream, middle-of-the-road NT critics. I'm not talking about a view held by the Jesus Seminar, or earlier "radical" form and redaction critics like Norman Perrin. Rather, I'm talking about the kinds of considerations that are largely accepted by moderates who are also committed Christians, such as Dale Allison and John Meyer. Indeed, conservative scholars of the likes of none other than Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright largely admit this line of reasoning. Why are they still Christians, you ask? I'll tell you: by giving unnatural, ad hoc explanations. For example, Meyer gets around the problem by arguing that the false prediction passages are inauthentic; Witherington gets around the problem by saying that Jesus preached that the immanent arrival of the eschatological kingdom "might" be at hand(!); Wright gets around the problem by adopting the partial preterist line that the immanent end that Jesus predicted really did occur -- it's just that it was all fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem.

To all of this, I say what should be obvious: you know, deep in your gut (don't you?) that such responses are unnatural, ad hoc dodges of what we know to be the truth here: Jesus really did predict the end within the lifetime of his disciples, but he was simply wrong.

Notice that the claim here is different from one often confused with it, viz., that Jesus happened to say some things that could be interpreted as saying that the end would occur in his lifetime. This isn't the claim I'm making. Rather, it's the much stronger one that Jesus *was* an eschatological prophet -- the end time prediction was what he was all about. It wasn't a message tangential to his central message; it *was* his central message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

By the way: this case completely undercuts Craig’s “Inference to the Best Explanation” argument for the resurrection of Jesus: the likelihood that a god would resurrect a false prophet is precisely 0. The same result is true if you construe Craig’s argument in terms of Bayesian confirmation theory: the posterior probability that a god would raise Jesus from the dead, given that he’s a false prophet, is much, much lower than 1/2.

Jason Pratt said...

Before we really get into this, Ex--this is significantly off the topic Victor established for this thread. Not that I wouldn't like to jump into it, but Victor set up this particular thread to discuss a topic that hasn't been much discussed around here.

I know a lot about NT story characteristics and theology. I _don't_ know a lot about BoM story characteristics. (More about their theology, but I'm primarily a metaphysician, so...) I'm curious about the details, and I'm glad there are some fairly literate Mormons around to talk about them with us. We've been prepping for a discussion of this sort of thing for a while. I'm hoping to see a lot of discussion and new info (or new to me anyway) on this, before I get back to an internet connection on Monday.

By contrast, the topic you're hammering on is _not_ new to me (nor to any other Christian apologist around here).

Since you _have_ insisted on foisting this into the conversation, though: technically, no, what you're talking about is not a falsification of largescale historical claims being made by the NT as being actually existant (which would at least be parallel to the topic Victor has set up for discussion). It's a falsification of one kind of inerrancy theology (mixed up with a bunch of other things, none of which are falsifications of largescale historical claims being made by the NT as being actually existant, either.)

So: in order to keep from distracting from the topic Victor has prepared this thread to discuss, would you mind terribly letting us discuss it, and save this _other_ debate for another time? (The reason I wrote a 'quick note' was not to toss the issue away with a all-purpose fix--otherwise I wouldn't have added my parenthetical comment. I wrote it to answer, in essence, 'the topic is a lot more complex than that.' You have now demonstrated that, indeed, as I very quickly indicated, the topic is a lot more complex than that. Thank you; even though most of us knew that already, I'm sure.)


exapologist said...

Hi Jason,

I agree. I think I went too far afield with respect to the topic of this thread -- sorry. I see that Victor has started a new thread on this topic.

All the best,


chris g said...

Just to clarify, I am not sure how representative any of my views are of general mormon thought. The religious beliefs aren't very fixed, and seem optimized to work with rough conceptions, not philosophic logic.

People may say they believe something, but this may be out of step with the conviction they actually have to that belief. They may also be using that conviction as a rough justification for other connections. Some ideas may just serve to let other things coalesce. Hence the very real "moving target" complaint. My guess is there is a fairly fundamental homogeneity that allows this flexibility. ie it is good at providing a feel of things, and then building on that in an iterative fashion. Perhaps the best way to say it, is the belief structure is largely built on freedom and the importance of maintaining flexibility. From my point of view the outward appearance of uniformity and such may be a balance to the freedom that exists in other areas. But then that is just my hunch.

I was under the impression (possibly mistaken) that the reason Jesus appeared to North Americans in the BoM is due to the presence of some of the 10 Lost Tribes (or at least their their blood descendents) in the area.

Perhaps, but one has to question what definition is used for the Lost Tribes. Some people take a literal approach, some take a fairly figurative approach. We also have to wonder how much some of the prophets projected their ideas onto things, and how much Joseph projected his ideas onto the translation. Was the initial communication for detail or idea? etc. This doesn't make conversation fun, but I just thought I would be up front about the problems of precision.

Projecting reasons or motifs for Jesus' visits seems to induce quite a bit of error. So while some mormons would be comfortable saying Jesus was visiting the 10 Lost Tribes, as you say, how much blood lineage would be left after 6 centuries of intermingling? Because it can be fairly amiguous, I am not sure how far one would want to build on this idea.

if the population is small enough to explain why the DNA doesn't look Hebrew (among a proportinately large initial population), then wouldn't it be proportionately small enough to stay relatively regional?

(I am assuming you are talking about the Nephites (~600BC, and not the Jardites tower of babel time)

It certainly could have. However the events don't go down that road. I believe apologists have a number of possibilities. It certainly appears once it looked like the Nephites would stay established, the locals tried hard to eradicate the new settlers. In the conflict and growth I would guess quite a few things got hybridized. I could see the idea of Nephites being useful for a ruling class. I believe in cases of hybridization people try to accentuate minor differences.

Where exactly are these Native Americans [the jaredites as principal inhabitanats] supposed to have come from, then?

Well archeology seems to indicate North America was populated for some time. There is the pre-clovis debate and such. I tend to side on the pre-clovis side of things. I suspect people were a lot more migratory than we give them credit for. It is just most migrations didn't take root very well.I really can't imagine things being empty when the Jaredites arrived after the tower of Babel. Again I would suppose many essences of that group were hybridized by the locals. There were quite a few cycles of war that would facilitate even more hybridizing. By the time the Nephites "discovered" the Jaredites, many ties would be pretty non-existent. Throughout the Book of Mormon, scripture seems to be one of the few key uniting elements with the culture's history.

As for flood effects, nothing that I am aware of is mentioned about it in the book of ether (story of Jaredites). Like you say, I would be quite surprised if it was anything other than a localized occurrence. Like other Christians, some mormons take things more literally, but I wonder if that isn't more for symbolic reasons and other meaning making.

As for the Laminites, Laman was part of Nephi's family who arrived around the time of Jerusalem's destruction ~600 BC from Israel. However the term Laminite seemed to evolved rather quickly. After a very short time, "other" is probably the best usage for it. Also the Nephite story appears to have a couple of waves of expansion and amalgamation to it that would further muddle things up. Again the scriptural tie seems to keep things together through various re-inventions. But that is more my opinion than anything else.

Hope that clears things up. I am not quite sure where you are wanting to go with things though.

Steven Carr said...

I have an article Miracles and the Book of Mormon which uses exactly the same sort of literary analysis that Christians apply to the Book of Mormon and apply the same standards to the New Testament miracle stories.

But, of course, they are to be judged with a different measure.

Anonymous said...


Most Christian apologists that I read and hear no longer try to tackle Mormonism on the basis of history. Not that the history is on the side of the BoM, but for the fact that BYU, Mormon professors have written volume after volume of possible scenarios to deal with the history.

So in effect, there is so much to argue against historically if you deal with all of the possibilities that you can never make headway.

I think the arguments now deal much more with doctrinal issues.

Anonymous said...

Victor wrote,

>If Mormonism is true, we should expect a DNA similarity between people of Hebrew origin and Native Americans, whom Mormons call Lamanites.

Even if we could find such a thing as “Hebrew DNA” among Native Americans, we would find it impossible to find a “standard Hebrew DNA” with which to compare it. To date, scientists have identified only one ancient genetic marker among Jews, the Cohen marker, which is found in many Cohens and about 2-3% of all Jews, as well as among other non-Jewish peoples. This marker has, in fact, been used to argue for conversion to Judaism of the black Lemba of southern Africa and the “b'nei Menasch” of southeast Asia. But most modern Jewish DNA, and especially the maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA, appears to come from a continuous stream of converts to Judaism since the Babylonian exile. Lehi and Mulek left Jerusalem before that exile, and there was no need for Cohens or Levites among the Nephites, because their prophets held the Melchizidek Priesthood and could perform any of the ordinances of the lesser Levitical Priesthood, independent of their ancestry.

DNA study of populations is still in its infancy, and I think it would be a stretch to say that at this point it can substantiate or falsify any theory on the origins of any population. However, if DNA evidence falsifies anything about the Book of Mormon, it falsifies only the "straw man" that we Latter-day Saints have, unfortunately, erected ourselves -- the idea that the immigrations of Lehi and Mulek provided the sole ancestors of Native Americans.

I grew up believing the “sole ancestor” tradition, and many LDS still believe it. But it has never been official LDS doctrine. The opinion that the Lamanites "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" is, in fact, still printed in the introduction to the Book of Mormon. This, however, should be treated as the opinion of an anonymous editor and not as official LDS doctrine. For myself, I have come to believe that the text of the Book of Mormon shows this opinion to be just plain wrong.

Throughout our history some LDS scholars have maintained a much broader view of Native American ancestry, and in recent decades -- long before the DNA controversy, a majority of LDS scholars have come to agree that the text of the Book of Mormon does not support our popular tradition. Lehi and Mulek could only have made a very minor contribution to the genetic makeup of today's Native Americans.

Because we are led by living prophets and fully expect continuing revelation, and because we truly believe in and try hard to practice the principle of repentance, -- a principle which many Christians dismiss as “dead works” -- Latter-day Saints present a moving target to our enemies. We do not hold the rigid view that all scripture – including Latter-day scripture – is completely free of human error, and we especially recognize that our interpretations of the scriptures are subject to modification upon discovery of new truth – whatever the source. While not yet taking an official view on DNA science, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has recently posted on its web site a number of articles by LDS scholars that favor a broader view of Native American origins:,15331,3885-1-18078,00.html. (Short alias: ).

That's a lot of technical reading, some of it beyond my grasp, although I'm trained as a chemist. But it has convinced me that one can expect neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon to be falsified by DNA studies. I recommend in particular the next-to-the last article in the list, which I found easy to understand. “Who Are the Children of Lehi?,” by D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2003.,

On one line of his pedigree, Stephens graces his genealogy to one Fargallus, who was born in Ireland in A.D. 680. He shows that there is less than one chance in 10 billion that his own documented descent from Fargallus could be demonstrated from his own DNA, assuming even that a sample of the DNA of Fargallus could be produced. He compares this with the very short genetic pedigree of his wife, who together with two brothers, were adopted by an LDS couple from the same set of unidentified birth parents. "In my wife’s case, and mine, I believe, memes are stronger than genes. The many wonderful things most important to her to pass on to the next generation, and the next, come from her upbringing. They are linked to her undying faith in her Savior Jesus Christ and her belief in the restored gospel."

Meldrum and Stephens point out an important doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon, one with which John the Baptist, (Matthew 3:7-12) and Paul (Romans 8:15, 23),23#15 agree, that one participates in the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not through physical inheritance, but through acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the Lord's view, memes trump genes.

A key passage in the Book of Mormon that points to adoption into the House of Israel as more important than physical ancestry, and which specifically applies this principle to the origins of Native Americans, is the parable of Zenos, found in the longest chapter in the book – Jacob 5: Zenos was an ancient Hebrew prophet whose writings are missing from the Masoretic text and the apocrypha but were contained in the brass plates, which were brought from Jerusalem by Lehi. (I like to fantasize that someday a goatherd somewhere in the Near East will stumble on a clay jar containing a "backup copy" of the writings of Zenos, after which the whole issue of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon will become moot.)

Zenos likens the House of Israel to an olive vineyard. The scattering and gathering of the House of Israel is compared to the cutting of "young and tender" shoots from the "tame" olive tree (those claiming to be of the house of Israel, but falling into apostasy) and the grafting of these shoots into "wild trees" (gentiles) all over the world. Branches from "wild" trees are also grafted into the "tame" tree, and thereby both roots and branches of the tame tree are preserved. The process will eventually be reversed to restore the House of Israel, both root and branch, and in the latter days, the House of Israel will be restored to all their lands of inheritance (on all continents) and again bring forth good fruit. Finally the vineyard will be burned. Jacob, a son of Lehi, taught this parable to his small group of immigrants primarily to teach them how it would be possible for the Jews, who would reject Christ during his mortal ministry, to finally build upon “the great, and the last, and the only sure foundation." (Jacob 4:14-18)

Jacob specifically applies the parable of Zenos to his people, urging them "to cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you," lest they be hewn down and cast into the fire. (Jacob 6) A sub-text to his message, missed until recently by many LDS, is that Jacob's people themselves had been cast out of Jerusalem and were being grafted into the "wild" trees that were already growing in the land. Jacob was warning them that unless they would cleave unto God, they would be overcome by the false traditions and religions of the people among whom they had come.

The True Vine is Jesus Christ, who was worshiped by the Nephites 600 years before his mortal ministry. (1 Nephi 15:1-20: See also John 15:1-11 ). All who accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ are grafted into the True Vine and become the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whether or not they are physically descended from them.

A dominant message in the Book of Mormon is that racial pride will inevitably cut us off from the True Vine. How ironic that anti-Mormon pseudo-scientists are trying to apply genetic science in an effort to discourage people from heeding that vital message!

Tracy Hall Jr.
Provo Canyon, Utah

chris g said...

Any tool or idea can be used malisciously. I don't fault people for trying to apply science to things they don't understand or think are incorrect. The problem is how easily approaches get overextended: but then again that tendency really can't be removed without pretty much destroying the scientific paradigm.

It just seems the more such a paradigm permeates things, the more important freedom of thought becomes. If not, I would suspect things get counter productive pretty quickly.

Lippard said...

It seems to me that the Mormon religion falls apart on archaeological, anthropological, biological, historical, and moral grounds, to name but a few.

A mere study of the history of Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion seems to me to be quite sufficient to show that the religion was invented by Smith, a con artist treasure hunter and that the Book of Mormon was created based on some popular tales of the time about the origins of Native Americans (including outright plagiarism from popular works telling those tales).

Mormons can and do, if pressed, create more epicycles to try to save their religion from falsification. But this strikes the outsider as a complete waste of time and effort.

What's interesting to me is that there are millions of believers in the LDS religion, and most of them don't really care about the underlying history and details, and I don't really see much difference between LDS and Christianity in that regard. Why should we not think that Christianity stands in the same relationship to Judaism that LDS stands to Christianity? If Joseph Smith had lived longer ago, the LDS church had achieved political power sufficient to allow it to wipe out negative publications (except for some few quotations in the works of those responding to them), how would the evidence for LDS be different from the evidence for Christianity?

Anonymous said...


You just couldn't resist making that facile analogy, could you? It amazes me how skeptics can work with just about anything to make a case for their skepticism. Sure, there are some interesting parallels between the Mormon/Christian and Christian/Jewish situation. Both new movements started in a time of religious foment and unrest ("Burned-over" area in NY, occupied Palestine). Both claimed supersession over their 'parent' religion (although this was not so in Christianity from the beginning; initially the disciples of Jesus were Jews, plain and simple). Both claimed to introduced new Scriptures (even that is not entirely true; in the very early days of the Christian movement Christians appealed only the Jewish Scriptures, whereas Mormonism began with BoM). Beyond that the two historical situations are so different as to be virtually beyond comparison. People's view of religion was different. Their means of expressing it was different. The events leading up to the founding of the two religions were utterly disanalogous.

Jason Pratt said...

Note: this is thread is about to run off the bottom of the main page, but I couldn't find an equally suitable place to post an answer in the newer threads. I'll try to make reference back here if I comment in a Mormon pro/con discussion later.

Chris: {{one has to question what definition is used for the Lost Tribes. [etc.]}}

While I appreciate the digression (sort of), this isn't really what I was asking about. I only brought the topic up in order to make a topical distinction between timeframes involved in the story contexts. i.e., if, when talking about Jared, we _aren't_ (as seemed reasonably obvious to me, but I wanted to make sure, thus the request for a clarification) talking about people arriving from the 10 Lost Tribes, then this has implicative results for a defense based on a largescale population already in existence in America with Jared's arrival (thus explaining why the bloodtypes have always been found to be Asian, not Palestinian or Semitic or whatever.)

On the other hand, now that I think about it, I can see how a related criticism could be made along the lines of 'So, if there is practically no identifiable blood-line left, then why did Jesus show up?' I can provisionally imagine defenses for this along the line you provided, though.

{{(I am assuming you are talking about the Nephites (~600BC, and not the Jardites tower of babel time) }}

No, I was talking about the Jaredites of Babel Tower time. But since you discuss the Nephites (and since, perhaps, the same principle could be applied to the Jaredites?)...

{{It certainly appears once it looked like the Nephites would stay established, the locals tried hard to eradicate the new settlers. In the conflict and growth I would guess quite a few things got hybridized. I could see the idea of Nephites being useful for a ruling class.}}

Useful for a ruling class, where? Among the Native Americans? A small number of ruling class among them might be useful for explaining a wide spread of cultural-power effect (cities being established for instance); but it doesn't seem to be very useful for people trying hard to eradicate the new settlers. (But I may have misunderstood what you were talking about.)

{{I really can't imagine things being empty when the Jaredites arrived after the tower of Babel.}}

Those were the Native Americans I was asking about--where did _they_ come from? (i.e. the Jaredites arrived after the tower of Babel incident--a rather odd distance for them to travel, all things considered?--and, per theory, would have to find an Asian-blooded population already in such numbers in America that the Jaredite Semitic bloodtype basically disappears subsequently from detection in the population pool.)

That being said, if the flood is considered to be of limited scope (misunderstood by eventual chroniclers to be of much wider scope), and if the creation story is taken to be more figurative than strictly literal (somewhat like reverse-prophetic imagery), then there could of course be large Asian-extraction populations in the Americas already; and that would nix biological crits from this angle.

_That_ being said: it doesn't seem very feasible for a chronicle of Jared and his family to be written, that simply never mentions this large indigenous population. Even in Nephi's story, the indigenous population (the Jaredites?) play a more-or-less natural and important role in the story of the struggles of the new arrivals, yes?

(Or does Jared's story mention such an indigenous population? I'm trying to pre-guess potential corrections and solutions.)

{{Throughout the Book of Mormon, scripture seems to be one of the few key uniting elements with the culture's history.}}

Do you mean scriptures the Jaredites and the later Nephites were bringing? (I'm unsure of what you're talking about here.)

{{As for the Laminites, Laman was part of Nephi's family who arrived around the time of Jerusalem's destruction ~600 BC from Israel.}}

Okay--hadn't expected that. (Learning new info is always fun. {g})

So, somehow a term borrowed from a descendent of Nephi, becomes applied to all the peoples of this land. How does this happen? (And if "other" is probably the best colloquial usage that evolved from it, then why are they calling themselves 'others' as a general title? On the other hand, if the title is being applied by Joseph Smith and/or the author of the brassen discs, then why would these people 'evolve' the term to mean 'other'?)

Tracy, in her (his?) informative post, makes some decent point-defenses; but adds more story details that I'm trying to sort through. Lehi and Mulek leave Jerusalem before the deportation of the tribes (from which subsequent deportation, one way or another, Nehi etc. are accounted). Why would Mormons get the idea, even if it's only an accidentally created straw man, that these two families provide the sole ancestors of Native Americans (i.e. to be there when Nehi & Co. arrive)? Do they have anything to do with Jared? Does their story (and Jersualem's?) predate Jared by some significant amount of time? I ask, because I don't seem to find Tracy mentioning Jared, so I'm missing a plot link here.

Obviously, it can be agreed that (according to story contexts) the Lamanites can hardly be the principle ancestors of the American Indians; if Laman is actually a descendent of Nephi who was already having to deal with a strong established population. (Though this gets back to the question of how the term 'Lamanite' got attached to Native Americans in the first place, which I'm curious about.)

Tracy: {{[quoting Stephens] "In my wife’s case, and mine, I believe, memes are stronger than genes. The many wonderful things most important to her to pass on to the next generation, and the next, come from her upbringing." [...] In the Lord's view, memes trump genes.}}

I certainly have no intention of disputing this principle. But it does bring up another history-related criticism (again).

The argument here is that cultural upbringing is more important to pass on, and not-incidentally far more identfiable and traceable as such, than genetic traces. This could, I suppose, be put together with what I have understood (perhaps wrongly?) to be a typical Mormon claim that these people preserved a more accurate version of the original Jewish scriptures (at least--they could hardly have preserved a more accurate version of the original NT scriptures) and ideas; thus explaining not only the divergence between scriptural form and (more importantly) theological ideas, but why the Mormon version should be accepted over-against traditional Judeo-Christian versions where the two sets differ.

Yet, I am also being given explanations for why practically none of this extremely important cultural heritage seems to have survived in the Native American tribes themselves; requiring virtually all of it to be rediscovered from scratch via the brass discs (which no longer exist for scholarly study and reference after having survived for so long to be used by Joseph Smith. One could point to the rediscovery of scriptural texts in the Temple during the rule of post-Davidic kings as a parallel, but the situation in this case seems vastly more extreme--to the extent that the parallel can only be considered superficial at best.) The plot-threads on this score don't seem to be adding up yet.

(I will add that the parable of Zeno doesn't seem to actually have anything to do, specifically or otherwise, with the _origins_ of the Native Americans, at least insofar as Tracy has reported it. At best, it can be applied to the Native Americans in much the same way as Paul's analogy of the vine in the Romans epistle could be applied to them: anyone can be grafted, by God's grace, into the promises of God to Israel. Very far from being a bad point, of course, but not germane to the question at hand.)

{{(I like to fantasize that someday a goatherd somewhere in the Near East will stumble on a clay jar containing a "backup copy" of the writings of Zenos, after which the whole issue of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon will become moot.)}}

Hasn't this already happened, in effect? We already have the official backup copy of the writings of Zenos on the brass plates, don't we? (If we don't actually have those, for some special theological reason--and I gather that we don't, though I don't know the ostensible reason--then I'm dubious why the same special theological reason wouldn't apply against a goatherd just stumbling someday on a scroll in a clay jar somewhere, too.)

Meanwhile, since it was brought up elsewhere: what exactly are the story-links supposed to be, between the Old Egyptian papyrus for translation and the brass discs for translation? (Other than apparently the OE papyrus being limited to the Book of Abraham, whereas the brass discs would seem to cover the BoM total.)

On other fronts: there seems to be some kind of category error involved in Chris' reply to Victor's question about what it would take to falsify the BoM. This is a rather different sort of thing than Chris' counterexample, which was "What would it take for someone to prove your mother didn't love you?"

I'm willing to be pretty generous about defenses (even if only provisional ones) against historical crits on BoM historical claims. But an answer of this sort _does_ seem to be trending toward Victor's original complaint: that sooner or later it doesn't matter what the logical math points toward, because what ultimately matters is how strongly it _feels_ like it's true.

Put another way, when Victor asks his question about what (if anything) might feasibly falsify Mormon _historical_ claims, Chris' answer seems to involve a categorically different topic: worrying about the wisdom in trying to tell people what _religious experiences_ are or are not appropriate (as he tells Dennis.)

Which, in turn, looks (now) to have been what Clark was also aiming toward, in my discussion with him last week. Ignoring problems may be a bad thing to do, but ultimately _it doesn't matter_. The religious experience is what justifies the belief; because the context of the religious experience is what the data should be read within. (Instead of, say, vice versa--this being despite what might seem like the obvious fact that not all religious experiences can be validly pointing toward the same truth.)

After that, there really can be very little (to no?) reason for a Mormon and a non-Mormon to be discussing the data. The non-Mormon hasn't had the "Experience" yet.

Clark: {{To play turnabout, what evidence would you accept as falsifying the existence of God? Or, to be easier, the resurrection?}}

Actually, I sympathize with Clark's complaint about being asked what he might accept as falsifying the BoM--there might be too many layers to begin answering the question, even aside from reference to a religious experience powerful enough to relegate all problems to secondary status at best. (Though I haven't actually been _given_ any such complex and interlocking layers yet.)

That being said, I am prepared to answer these questions.

I would accept proper metaphysical logic as falsifying the existence of God (whether in regard to this or that characteristic, or altogether), if such logic could be given. This would also, not incidentally, provide falsification for the resurrection claims that I accept to be true: whatever the historical data might otherwise be, _that_ interpretation _couldn't_ be true.

In the case of historically falsifying the historical claims, I would be pretty far along the way toward accepting them as being mistakes (or even outright inventions) if attempts to synch them up with what was accepted as historical elsewhere broadly failed. (That's why it would be called a _historical_ falsification of the _historical_ claims.) This is distinct from having reason in the first place to believe the claims are historical, to this or that degree.

Let us suppose, however--which is true in my case--that after I work out the metaphysical logic, I arrive at an expectation for God to enact a certain kind of historical plan somewhere, involving the selection of a 'chosen people', an Incarnation, a willing sacrifice by God to (and for) His own betrayers, a Resurrection, a withdrawal for some indeterminate amount of time... that sort of thing. Naturally, I would be curious to see if this sort of story had actually happened yet. And obviously there is a set of texts which match up with this expectation: texts I was careful _not_ to appeal to when doing the metaphysical math.

Does this mean I am _therefore_ required to accept these texts as being historical?

No--I am not. I can be _suspicious_ in favor of their historicity, but responsibly speaking I need to withold _that_ conclusion until I do a historical analysis of the texts. I might find instead that these are _only_ some very detailed version of 'preparatio evangelica'.

If, however, I find that the texts hold up reasonably well on the criteria I would use to evaluate other purportedly historical texts from the general times and places to which the stories ostensibly date, then I can responsibly draw a conclusion to believe that the events I was _otherwise_ expecting have indeed already happened historically. (After which, I will be prepared to pay attention to the sources, even if still critically so, to see if they have information I lack.)

But what about mystical experiences? Well, I can also speak on that, as someone who _does_ in fact have strong mystical experiences on occasion: I would be (and am) still very wary about drawing an inference from _that_ data to the veridicality of a theological or historical claim. I am self-critical enough about my own thoughts and feelings to recognize that unless they synch up with what I perceive on other grounds to be objective truths, then I can't really trust them to be what they happen to _feel_ to me to be.

Now, a critic can mutter about the interconnecting web of experiences being (by tautology) experiences themselves; and there are epistemological problems involved in chasing that rabbit too far down the hole. But even Clark has to admit that such interconnections of context etc. are important for judging belief content.

Ultimately, I have to appeal to the action of reasoning in regard to the data, whether the data is a textual claim or a mystical experience or whatever.

Jason Pratt

Anonymous said...

Trained to write fiction is an interesting article showing are ancient writers were trained to put in accurate information to cover up the basically fictional elements and how the author of Luke/Acts hides his identity, in total defiance of how real ancient historians would write,

Anonymous said...

I would like to look at the kind of argument made here against the Book of Mormon and compare it with Stephen Davis's response to the problem of the early Christian expectation of the imminent parousia posted elsewhere on this same blog. Note that Davis doesn't dispute the evidence. He agrees that early Christians erroneously expected the kingdom to come in power and glory and end the mortal life as we know it within the same generation that Christ lived. He gives several explanations. Jesus didn't write the NT, so he could have been misunderstood (even in the writings of the NT). Thus, he quite correctly rejects inerrancy. Some of what was prophesied could be understood to have occurred when Jesus was resurrected. The NT mutes the notion.

The response to this DNA argument is much the same. The DNA argument is based on a false and naive view of scripture and what the Book of Mormon says. The quote from Anderson demonstrates such naivte -- almost no Mormon scholar accepts the Book of Mormon as a description of all of the ancestors of American Indians or believes that it refers to a civilization that covered the entire New World -- and that view is based on a close reading of the text.

Indeed, the better reading is that it refers to a small group of people that entered a larger population and that we shouldn't expect to find such DNA of middle-eastern peoples. Moreover, there is no such thing as "Hebrew DNA" -- what is it we're supposed to find that discredit the Book of Mormon?

Further, asserting that there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon is simply uninformed. It may be that there is no concrete archaeological evidence, but there are a number of evidences that are pretty good. The location of a site in Arabia that corresponds well with the text; the presence of Hebrew literary forms, rituals and legal forms, and so forth could be relied upon as solid evidence in favor of its authenticity. I personally find such evidences soundly presented and quite persuasive.

So the lack of evidence for a hypothesis that is easily shown to be based on a naive view of the text isn't a falsification. On the other hand, a letter from Joseph Smith that said something like -- "just kidding" would likely do the trick.

Doug Forbes said...

Modern Jews and American Indians have pre-Columbian genetic links that are acknowledged by the scientific mainstream. For example, 31% of Native Americans in the US belong to the Q-P36 lineage group (Hammer 2005). About 5% of Ashkenazi Jews (Behar 2004) and 5% of Iraqi Jews (Shen 2004) also belong to the Q-P36 lineage. Clearly they have common ancestors. Most scientists may not hold the opinion that the link is as recent as 600 BC but the assertion that DNA evidence refutes the Book of Mormon is baloney.