Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mormonism and the Falsification Challenge

Clark (repeatedly): I don't think though that one can simply neglect facts. Far, far from it.

From Anderson's critique of Mormonism:

23. I think facts matter, and therefore cannot accept the following: "Our individual, personal testimonies are based on the witness of the Spirit, not on any combination or accumulation of historical facts. If we are so grounded, no alteration of historical facts can shake our testimonies." (Dallin H. Oaks, "1985 CES Doctrine and Covenants Symposium," Brigham Young University, Aug. 16, 1985, page 26). (italics mine).

I think there is a conflict between Clark's position and that of Oaks. Now I realize this raises some issues that you run into in dealing with, say, Catholicism. The hierarchy sometimes say things that the more thoughtful faithful would not accept.

I'd like to ask Clark (and the other Mormons) this question. What kind of historical or archaeological evidence would it take to falsify the Book of Mormon. HT: Tony Flew.

9 comments:

JD Walters said...

I'm reading Richard Ostling's "Mormon America", which is a fascinating book. I highly recommend it. So far as I can tell it's generous to a fault, and the authors do not take up either one position or the other on the authenticity of BoM.

Nevertheless, in reading the history of the "Book of Abraham" affair, it seems to me that Mormon history should have been falsified right then and there. Joseph Smith claimed that he translated BoA from an Egyptian papyrus which turned out to be nothing but an ordinary funerary scroll. The rationalizations which leading Mormon scholars have made for that discovery seem to me desperately ad hoc and quite pathetic. Nothing of comparable magnitude has turned up regarding NT history, certainly not the Dead Sea Scrolls which were related to Christianity for an entirely different reason than early critics thought.

In my criticism of Mormonism, however, I don't look for ways to falsify Mormon history. Mostly the theological kookiness is just too much for me to accept. After reading King Follett's discourse I just had to admit, and I think Mormons should too, that the divide between Christians and Mormons is indeed very wide. Where Joseph Smith got his wild ideas from, God only knows, but his is clearly 'another gospel', and the Apostle Paul would probably have cursed the prophetic butt off Joseph Smith, just like he did to those preaching the circumcision or that there is no resurrection from the dead.

And Joseph Smith also consciously revised, altered and twisted the KJV to suit his own interpretations. I'm sorry, that's just not something I feel could have a reasonable dialogue about. Christians insist that their interpretation of the Bible must be based on the best available ancient manuscripts. There's just no excuse for butchering the text like he did.

chris g said...

I hate to be blunt, but this type of discourse [Oaks said, you said] isn't likely to accomplish much. I can't see it ended up in anything other than argumentation. While some prefer this type of discourse, and proof, I think this is the fundamental problem brought up before.

Conversations based on meanings and intent seem much more ameniable to the way things actually are. Now I know this doesn't provide a good forum for academic discussion, but I think we err when we mistake precision for accuracy.

Because there are so many sources of ambiguity with things tied to religious experience, I think one step black and white right/wrong approaches are naive. It just assumes a degree of comparmentalization that I don't think exists in these areas. For instance, if you came from an average home, what would it take for someone to prove your mother didn't love you?

I have a hard time imagining a construct that would disprove religious testimony without denying large aspects of normal experience. One may not like religion, but trying to disprove it may have quite a few unintended consequences. I would suspect allowing a reasonable range of ambiguity is wiser than over precision.

chris g said...

As to the Book of Abraham, and the other issues mentioned, I would suppose descriptions of Joseph's looking into his hat instead of at the plates to translate could give some possible explanations on both sides. Either it was made up, or translation didn't use the text the way I would translate a paper.

Now I certainly understand why some people don't accept these reasonings. But forcing perspectives because of cultural history while more palatable to some, just doesn't appeal to me. "Kookiness" is a poor measure when one looks in an unclouded mirror. I think a better approach might be to see if the destination agrees with one's values. If it doesn't don't go down that road. But perjoritive projections just don't open up many paths for me.

Dennis Monokroussos said...

Chris G wrote:

"I have a hard time imagining a construct that would disprove religious testimony without denying large aspects of normal experience. One may not like religion, but trying to disprove it may have quite a few unintended consequences."


How exactly to handle religious experience claims is a tricky question on which Victor and many of his readers are bound to disagree. There may well be at least a partial case for religious experience based on an analogy with everyday human-to-human testimony, but Walters and others don't seem to be rejecting religious experience per se, but only LDS religious experience claims.

Why? Is this special pleading? I don't think so: Walters et al are claiming that the BoM is (wildly) unhistorical and that LDS theology diverges significantly from Christian theology. If he's right about these claims (and I'm inclined to think he is, though I'm not defending that here), then rejecting the LDS "burning in the bosom" has no interesting implications for trusting testimony.

A better parallel is this: if someone testifies to the occurrence of events I have no independent reason to believe happened and strong independent reason to think did not happen, and which contradicts the word of someone I strongly believe to be a relevant authority, then I am justified in rejecting his testimony.

Maybe Walters should avoided the word "kookiness", but that doesn't undermine his basic argument or indicate that the dispute is purely subjective.

chris g said...

but Walters and others don't seem to be rejecting religious experience per se, but only LDS religious experience claims.

I guess that is the point I have trouble with. I can certainly see why one would want to show this, I just don't know how possible it is. Certainly one can and should try for varying levels of probability, but how distinguishable is this resolution from the fuzziness induced with any supernatural belief?

On one level it seems to pre-suppose historic supernatural beliefs are more reasonable than current ones. I would suggest they are of the same class.

I agree distance can make things like this easier to accept, however, I think one of the benefits of Mormon belief is it really does throw these issues to the fore front. Believing Jesus' miracles because they are well documented does not seem fundamentally different from believing miracles surrounding the restoration of the CJCLDS because of documentation. Belief from this type of evidence, in my mind, just isn't a good approach for supernatural claims.

Now I know people disagree with this, and this may be at the heart of the discussion, but were mormon beliefs to become state supported for the next millennium or so, I wonder how things would be different? The error associated with any position seems to outweigh meaningful precision. Certainly people will disagree, but I have a hard time imagining how to remove contextual projections from the equation.

Throwing the BoM into the discussion is an obvious choice because it offers a good chance to disprove it's history. But again, I believe issues there may suffer the same fate. Conclusions largely depend on the lens one uses.

if someone testifies to the occurrence of events I have no independent reason to believe happened and strong independent reason to think did not happen, and which contradicts the word of someone I strongly believe to be a relevant authority, then I am justified in rejecting his testimony.

I would say yes. I also think such a position would reject any religious claim. I know many here believe Christian history minimizes independent reasons against its position, but as mentioned above, I personally don't.

I guess overall I just worry about the wisdom in trying to tell people what religious experiences are or are not appropriate. It seems to put one in a place best reserved for God. Certainly people feel called to help others distinguish the wheat from the tares, but I just don't think such approaches are overly wise. I suspect they end up setting up counter productive situations.

Clark Goble said...

If one believes (as I think has been fairly well established) that there are no "absolute facts" only interpretations we take as facts then there is no contradiction. Note that Oaks qualifies his statement with, "no alteration of historic facts..."

Put an other way what Oaks is saying is that what is put forth as facts aren't always facts.

Beyond that it's hard to interpret Oaks too much since you don't provide context for his quotation. I'll make a wild guess and say that they matter.

Let me add that this has been my contention in the whole discussion. That hermeneutical issues are being swept under the rug. Some wish to say that there are simply context independent evidence that counts as facts. I strongly disagree.

The issue is that facts obtain their meaning from a context. (Something Elder Oaks, who is well educated, knows) To repress that fact/context connect is fairly misleading in my opinion.

Clark Goble said...

As to the question at hand (since I do sense you really wish to attack LDS apologetics and aren't really interested in the other issues). What would it take to falsify the Book of Mormon. It's a hard question. Given that silence isn't falsification and given what the text (as opposed to individuals) says it's hard to think of something that would outright falsify the Book of Mormon in the usual sense of that term. At least that is reasonable to be expected from archeological evidence.

That's not to say that it is plausible for folks to believe it. Nor is it to ignore archaeological problems. Just that none of these rise to the level of falsification given the vagueness of the text and the issues inherent.

Clark Goble said...

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

Jason said...

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

I think that's a fair enough turnabout question.

Aside from addressing a potential super-falsifier situation in a later thread of Victor's, I answer this question more specifically at the end of my most recent commen down on the "Mormon epistemology, DNA, and falsification" thread--which I'm afraid is about to run off the bottom of the main screen.

I would have posted it here, but most of that (long) comment involves putting together story-contexts from replies to an earlier comment (and questions) of mine. (Or would that be appropriate to go ahead and post here? This thread won't run off the bottom so soon. {shrug})