The Problem of History – First a Fake Example

Bruce Nielson doubt, historicity, history, Mormon 33 Comments

In my past posts I discussed the impossibility of knowing what really happened in history as well as the problem that, believe or disbelieve, we all have much riding on how Mormon history is interpreted. Either way, it’s your personal religion at stake. 

The problem with me saying that is that, well, we all know it’s true — for other people. But due to the narrative fallacy, we think we’re the exception not the rule.

To prove that, at times, we’re all the rule, I am forced to start with a fake example because it is the only way to not derail the conversation immediately.

When Family History and Church Collide

I was studying my family history about an ancestor named Isaac Washington Pierce, Sr. Around the same time I was reading History of the Church. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the two connected; my ancestor is mentioned in History of the Church.

Isaac Pierce was part of the Kirtland camp that left Kirtland to follow Joseph Smith to Missouri. He is listed as being part of the camp on page 93 of History of the Church, Vol 3.

But more importantly the death of his baby, which happened while making the journey to Missouri, is recorded.

Under the Saturday, September 15 entry it states:

“Here T.P. Pierce’s child died, and was buried on Sunday, near Elder Keeler’s house.” (History of the Church, Vol. 3)

But now we have a bit of a problem, the name recorded is “T.P. Pierce” but there is no T.P. Pierce in my family. So could this be another Pierce? Perhaps. But there is no other “Pierce” family listed amongst the Kirtland camp even though History of the Church Vol 3, p 91 – 93 give a full list of the members of the camp.

Our best guess is that T.P. Pierce is Isaac’s wife, whose name is actually Phebe Baldwin Pierce.

But wait, it gets even more messy; my family’s records show the death of Isaac and Phebe’s baby as September 13, 1838, not September 15, 1838. But the Kirtland camp recorder records no deaths on September 13.

Could this be two different Pierce families with two different babies that happened to die two days apart? Well, while we can’t rule out the possibility entirely, the odds are very low. The fact that there is only one I.W. Pierce family listed as being part of the camp on the camp’s constitution and the fact that the initials are close to right – at least they got the “P” right even if it’s in the wrong position – and the fact that there is only one baby’s death recorded twice but within 2 days of each other makes it very likely that this is the same family and same baby’s death we are recording.

And yet we have two dates for the baby’s death. How could this happen? Well, it’s not hard to see that a mistake was obviously made. But which is the mistake? Is it History of the Church or is it my family’s history?

But is this really a concerning discrepancy? Of course not. Discrepancies like this happen all the time in the historical record. Historians must deal with such inconsistencies.

What If It Were Miraculous?

Though this discrepancy is unconcerning, let’s pretend for a moment that we’re dealing with something miraculous rather than mundane. For the sake of argument, pretend like the death of this child connected to a miraculous truth claim of a religion. Let’s get really crazy and let’s pretend that the son of Isaac Washington Pierce Sr. (named Isaac Washington Pierce, Jr.) went on to found the Completely Reformed and Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (CRRLDS) and that his foundational miracle was the visit of an angel and a dictated revelation from the angel that in parts states:

“I come to deliver these truths to you on the 13th of September, the very date of the death of your father’s child when part of the Kirtland camp traveling to Missouri. For God is mindful of your family.”

We now have a miraculous event tied to one of the two dates in question, which means that the inconsistency just took on a whole new level of importance. What before was clearly just the natural inconsistency of the historical record now becomes the basis for denying the truth claims of the CRRLDS.

So let’s imagine we are anti-CRRLDS’s making an argument that the revelation in question was fraudulent.

The Anti-CRRLDS for September 13 Date Being Wrong

The CRRLDS is clearly making up their founding revelation. The revelation claims to have been delivered on 13 of September, 1838, the date of the death of the Sr. Pierce’s child. But the Kirtland camp recorded keeper gives us the truth date as 15th of September.

Let’s consider this rationally, what are the odds that the camp record keeper in the Kirtland camp, who was keeping a daily journal, got this date wrong? Pierce Jr. fabricated this revelation on the date he thought the child died, but we know he used the wrong date. My guess is that angels don’t make mistakes like this.

The Apologist Response for September 13 Date

There are two dates recorded, but we feel that the parent’s personal records in question are more likely to be correct. We all know that daily journals sometimes get written days later with retro dates and this could easily be a mistake.

 

What I find interesting is that the Anti-CRRLDS argument really seems like a good argument. It would cause me to pause and wonder at the possibility that the foundational revelation for the CRRLDS is a fabrication.

And I also have to admit that the apologist response seems weak; it seems like a lame reaction to an obvious factual problem. (“Is that the best you can do?” I think to myself.) Given that I’m not really a fan of the CRRLDS I think this would be a sufficient argument to make me simply dismiss their truth claims out of hand.

But wait! Let’s switch the dates around and try this again! Pretend that the revelation had the date that is listed in History of the Church instead of the date in the family records.

The Anti-CRRLDS for September 15 Date Being Wrong

The CRRLDS is clearly making up their founding revelation. The revelation claims to have been delivered on September 15, 1838, the date of the death of the Sr. Pierce’s child, as recorded and published in History of the Church. . However, we know from family records that the real date of the death of his child was September 13, 1838.

Let’s consider this rationally, what are the odds that the family remembered the death of their own child wrong? Pierce Jr. fabricated this revelation on the date he thought his father’s child died, but we know he used the wrong date. My guess is that angels don’t make mistakes like this.

The Apologist for the CRRLDS for September 15 Date

There are two dates recorded, but we feel that the Kirtland camp recorders date is more likely to be correct. After all, camp recorders often record right on the very day whereas family records are probably recorded later.

 

Oh my goodness! The Anti-CRRLDS statement still seems strong to me. And the apologist rebuttal still seems weak. I know myself well enough to know I’m still going to dismiss the CRRLDS out of hand based on this attack.

But how could this be? How can either way seem like a legitimate attack and in both cases the apologist rebuttal seems weak?

Two Improbables

The reason both attacks seems strong and both rebuttals seem weak is because the odds of either date being wrong is highly improbable. It makes little sense to our minds that a daily note keeper could record a death on the wrong day but it makes no more sense to us that a family could mis-remember the death of a baby and record it wrong. Yet one of these two improbables happened. The apologists must defend an improbable event to a skeptical audience either way.

When there is nothing miraculous involved with the inconsistent dates, there is really no reason to worry about the improbability of either event, so our minds fill in the gaps without effort. When there is something miraculous at stake, our natural skepticism – and by this I mean our natural bias – kicks in and suddenly the inconsistency seems like a counter proof to the miraculous event.

The Illusion of Information

But does the date discrepancy tell us something meaningful about whether or not the CRRLDS revelation is made up or not?

Since we know this is a real non-miraculous historical discrepancy, and since we know there is no such thing as the CRRLDS, we know this is a made up foundational revelation. But that fact – that this foundational revelation is made up – is literally unrelated to the date issue. It’s like trying to determine the stock market using astrology. The inconsistency of the dates tells us nothing about whether or not this foundational revelation of the CRRLDS is made up.

Let me say it again: Despite what an effective counter argument this seems to be in proving the CRRLDS revelation a fraud, the fact that there is an inconsistency in the dates literally told us nothing about whether or not the CRRLDS revelation was a fraud. Nothing as in zippo, nada, nill, nothing, not a single thing at all.

Both of the “anti” attacks are really just narrative fallacies. Both are 100% information deficient because they convey, in Black Swan terminology, only the illusion of information.

By comparison, the apologists defense really does convey useful information because it concentrates on what we don’t know. It is unfortunate that our brains simply aren’t wired to recognize that the apologists are more factually right then the attackers.

Just the Facts Ma’am

This example will illustrate the problem of history in general and LDS history in particular: so much of it is only the illusion of information. Yet our brains are incapable of identifying the difference between real information and the illusion of information. Yes, there are facts here, but what are they really?

In my made up scenario the undisputed points are: [1]

  1. The baby died either on September 13 or September 15.
  2. There was a foundational “revelation” for the CRRLDS that mentions one of the two dates.
  3. The foundational revelation may or may not be a fraud.

The narrative used by the anti-CRRLDS to “prove” that the foundational revelation is a fraud supplies no information but instead is a good story that helps the information stick in our minds. Our minds, grasping for such a story, can’t help but feel that somehow the narrative conveys additional information that is probably true.

But as we’ve shown, the narrative actually conveys no information at all. All it’s really doing is taking an inconsistency that was naturally supplied by the historical record and then playing off our natural bias against the CRRLDS to help us form a narrative fallacy that explains the data points in an unfriendly way.

Did the Inconsistency Matter In the First Place?

But did this inconsistency even matter at all? I can prove it didn’t. Let’s take our anti-CRRLDS and demand an answer to the one question that really did matter: if the two dates matched would that have convinced them that the revelation was true?

Well, it would seem that fact 1 and fact 3 are unrelated then, because apparently even without an inconsistency, the revelation is still believed to be a fraud. This whole inconsistency never meant a thing to anyone. It’s merely a misdirection to justify a predestined conclusion.

Conclusions

This made up example illustrates the ease with which we can confuse a narrative fallacy that conveys no information at all with real information. It also illustrates that our biases play a substantial role in how we judge narrative fallacies as being meaningful or not – even when they are obviously not meaningful. It also demonstrates that that history is naturally full of improbable inconsistencies and that the existence of these inconsistencies tells us nothing about whether or not the events or related events were fraudulent. It also demonstrates that even if the inconsistencies in the historical record did not exist the probability of fraudulence does not change.

Notes:

[1] I hesitate to even call the above “facts” because in reality the only “facts” we have are that someone said the baby died and died on one of those two days. It’s, of course, possible that baby didn’t die, or that we had two babies, or that both dates are wrong. But since no one is disputing any of that, I’ll stick with my simplified list, even though this list isn’t actually a list of real facts either.

Comments

comments

Comments 33

  1. I think this is a brilliant post. There is something funny about the way we need to latch onto “facts”. I’m reading a book titled Predictably Irrational which discusses how our decisions are based on irrational interpretations of the “facts”. Our brains just aren’t wired like we intuitively think they are.

    Anyway, I think you did a great job pointing out how difficult trusting the historical record is since we infer meaning where there is none.

  2. Post
    Author

    Kent(MC),

    Yes, this is what I’m really trying to say. The problem isn’t he “historical record” per se, it’s the way our brains are wired to understand/misunderstand it. We mix fact and fiction with no means of knowing the real difference.

    I’m not sure there is much we can do about it but preach more tolerance over varied interpretations of history.

  3. Very good points about narrative fallacies. It has long been my opinion that apologetics are irrelevant for this reason, although OTOH, I’m glad someone’s on that wall.

    “It’s like trying to determine the stock market using astrology.” Given the current economy, that’s not the worst idea I’ve heard.

  4. Whether the event happened on September 13th or 15th neither confirms nor disproves the veracity of the events that were purported to have happened on that date. That’s your point, right?

    But is that the argument of the critics? If Joseph Smith records the First Vision as happening during in the midst of the “relgious revivals” of 1820, but the revivals actually occured during 1816-17 and 1824-25, then either: 1.) Joseph misremembered; 2.) Joseph misrecorded; or 3.) Joseph made it up. (Obviously, there are other alternatives as well, like Quinn’s argument that the Revivals really happened, but weren’t widely reported.)

    But pointing out other alternatives doesn’t necessarily disprove or negate the critics argument, does it? The argument is still valid, just not definitive.

    I see History as a springboard towards interpreting one’s own meta-story. For some reason the Bright Eyes lyric springs to mind: “There is no truth. There is only You and what you make the truth.”

  5. Bruce, my adventures in family history have altered my view of history as well. While reading through the diaries and journals of various persons in the same wagon train, I was shocked by how inconsistent their descriptions of events were, along with dates, etc.

    For example, several people chronicled detailed conflicts with the Native Americans, with one pioneer referring to them as “little witches” and “little devils” who would steal everything that wasn’t nailed down. But others in the same wagon train mentioned only friendly encounters with Native Americans, and some made statements in more absolute terms about how they “never had any trouble the Indians.” Other accounts actually paint the Indians as heroes who on occasion rescued them from starvation. Again, we’re talking about people who were all in the same wagon train.

    Who was telling the truth? Who was lying? Who was recalling correctly? Who was mistaken?

    But the really interesting thing to me is that these various, conflicting diaries and journals are “documented, historical records” that any historian can selectively rely upon to portray the Indians in whatever manner he/she pleases, negative or positive. Through the selective use of bona fide historical sources, a historian could present a very compelling, “documented,” description of the Indians as either “little witches” or heroes. But of course, you wouldn’t know you’d been told only half the story because historians don’t have a habit of coming out and telling you about all the contrary sources he/she overlooked or omitted.

  6. So if I understand this all correctly, there is 1. the actual event and what happened; 2. The accounts, both written and oral (which may be written down at some point) and then 3. interpretation of those accounts.

    So even as eyewitnesses to the event, one person’s view on it will be different than another’s.

    So, in other words, do we ever REALLY know what happened? Even if we were there?

  7. Post
    Author

    “I see History as a springboard towards interpreting one’s own meta-story”

    I completely agree with this, Matt.

    “But pointing out other alternatives doesn’t necessarily disprove or negate the critics argument, does it? The argument is still valid, just not definitive.”

    Okay, this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Let’s take a narrative fallacy that Joseph Smith is a fraud because he talks about 1820 revivals but there is no evidence for them so he was just making it all post facto.

    Is this a “valid” argument? Well, it depends on what you mean by “valid.” If by “valid” we merely mean “it’s one possible explanation that fits the facts in the historical record as we currently have them” then beyond doubt it’s “valid.”

    But what if by “valid” we mean “it makes a more factually compelling case (as opposed to emotionally compelling case) than the alternatives”? Well, this simply isn’t true.

    People do misremember dates and this is quite common. Joseph’s 1832 account, for example, places the 1st vision 2 years later, if I remember correctly. So at a minimum, Joseph misremembered one of the two dates. This is completely normal and happens all the time in later remembrances. Getting dates wrong in a remembrance tells us nothing about if the memory is real or not. And, as you pointed out, there is also the possibility that the 1820 date is correct and the historical record is just deficient.

    Thus the original argument that a lack of 1820 activity recorded is suggestive that Joseph made it up is actually a 100% information deficient narrative — at least on the point of fraud vs. not fraud. It tells us nothing at all. There is still equal possibility, regardless, that Joseph did or didn’t make it all up.

    What it does give us is a good story that fits the facts to a certain point of view. I do not want to downplay the importance of such narratives. Their lack of information doesn’t mean they don’t play an important role in life in how we choose to understand ourselves and the world around us.

    But as far as actually telling us something that we didn’t already know — i.e. Joseph either made the first vision or he didn’t — it added nothing to the conversation. Yet it *seems* like it did. It’s the fact that it seems like it adds information that I find so facinating.

  8. Post
    Author

    “So, in other words, do we ever REALLY know what happened? Even if we were there?”

    That’s a good question, Jeff. I would not agree with a view of history that says it contains no information at all. That should be obviously not true. But no, we can’t ever know very much with certainty because it’s always filtered through the views, memories, prejudices of the witnesses. And memories are often just wrong. Our own memories must always be questioned, as you say.

    That is why historians normally give more credence to earlier written accounts than later remembrances. That is why they give more credence to multiple accounts. It’s why first hand accounts are more valuable than hearsay. Etc. This all seems right and proper to me.

    Also, the fact that we can’t know what really happened in history doesn’t mean, for example, we can’t be basically completely positive, for all intents and purposes, that World War 2 happened. (The triangulation on that event is pretty high, obviously.)

    So again, I in no way am suggesting that all narratives are equal.

    What I am suggesting is that when a narrative contains no information, we aren’t really wired to tell the difference between a meaningful one and a less meaningful one. I think Matt’s example of the 1820 revivals is a really good example of this. We freely intermix information deficient narratives with real information without any idea of the difference, at times.

    #5: Andrew, great example.

  9. Great post, Bruce – and Andrew’s example is perfect.

    Thought exercise:

    A store is robbed. 30 minutes later 3 young black men are seen exchanging money in a nearby parking lot. Three people witness this exchange. One is an elderly white woman; one is a 40-year-old Hispanic man; the third is another young black man.

    If each person is told of the robbery and asked if they know of anything that might be related, chances are that there are going to be two or three different responses – and chances are the nature of at least one response is going to be a surprise, based on the stereotypes we might assume from the description of each witness.

  10. “So, in other words, do we ever REALLY know what happened? Even if we were there?” I don’t think we do. People have reconstructed memories of things that never happened (if you have kids, you’re familiar with this), or their memories fade or they simply didn’t understand it at the time. I also find that my perspective on my personal experiences changes over time. Sometimes I feel I was passive in a situation; other times, I think I had more control. I forget what happened in what order, but I remember feelings more vividly than events. And when I had conflicted feelings at the time, they play more or less prominent roles when I think back. When I talk to other people about our shared experiences, things that I have completely forgotten were prominent memories to them and vice-versa. Meaning is totally subjective.

  11. Sorry for a possible aside, but it might be apropos. Given the lessons learned in today’s installment, how do we approach the recording of our own personal history? How do we read our own history later on? Does writing regularly in a journal minimize the infiltration of erroneous or hyperbolic information, or does it reinforce our own delusion of history? How does the counsel to keep a personal journal reflect our LDS perspective on the nature of eyewitness experience in the context of faith and practice? And does it give us insight into how we view ourselves in light of our own religious history?

  12. Historical records and scientific evidence are usually somewhat complicated and ugly. Despite this, by gathering many pieces of evidence, it is often possible to develop a story that is highly probable. The ‘do we ever REALLY know what happened’ philosophy is true, but it isn’t very useful. (BKP?)

    What is the alternative? Rely soley on our ‘feelings’ to assess historical truth? Should we believe that the book of mormon is a true historical record based on how we ‘feel’ about the book, or should we make some effort to assess the evidence?

  13. Post
    Author

    SteveS,

    You ask many good questions. I haven’t really gotten to my “what do we do about it” outside of suggesting more tolerance to alternate points of view.

    But I think your underlying question is “if narratives in history aren’t so reliable, how should we act differently or doubt our own?” (Good questions, of course.)

    I think one thing to consider, is that since there is no way to know which narrative is right or wrong in many cases (most cases?) that it probably makes the most sense to pick the one you want and go with it. I say this in all seriousness, even though it sounds like I’m joking. My point being that you are going to do this anyhow, but just not realize it. So it’s probably helpful to make it a conscious decision instead, where possible. (Seems like Ray says this a lot – i.e. “My father used to tell me I was smart enough to justify whatever my beliefs are, so I might as well justify the one’s I want.”)

    I think this is amazingly good, though obviously counter intuitive, advice.

    I am not advocating ignoring information. (This is what some people will think I just said.) And I’m not advocating just making up beliefs either. (Some will think I just said that as well.)

    What I am advocating is embracing your narrative fallacies fully but with an understanding that it’s a narrative fallacy worth embracing; or more to the point, why you wish to embrace it.

    Armed with this answer, you can probably guess that I don’t really think it matters whether or not you choose to record your journal daily or years after the fact, as long as it’s a narrative you wish to embrace.

    This reminds me of the whole seagulls thing. There seem to be people that honestly think the fact that the early Mormons didn’t see it as miraculous somehow undermines the miraculous narrative that has been created around it. But does it really make sense that God didn’t send the seagulls just because the early Mormons didn’t think of it as a miracle from God yet? Or is its miraculous nature perhaps independent of people’s perceptions at the time?

  14. Post
    Author

    “Should we believe that the book of mormon is a true historical record based on how we ‘feel’ about the book, or should we make some effort to assess the evidence?”

    Bill, you are posing two separate questions as if they were one. Let’s just take the second half for now. Should we make some effort to assess the evidence of the historicity of the Book of Mormon?

    I challenge you to show me even one person, believing or unbelieving, that says we shouldn’t.

    At issue is how to measure the probability of conclusions based upon the agreed upon evidence. Or if it’s even possible to.

    Going back to the Black Swan analogy, the Book of Mormon people are a Black Swan. It would be far easier to prove they existed than to prove that they didn’t. If you find a Black Swan, you’ve proven there are Black Swans. But 10,000,000 white swans prove nothing. Thus it is understandable why there are intelligent people that both believe and disbelieve the Book of Mormon as historical. In many ways your conclusion will ultimately be whatever your null hypothesis was. And, yes, that might be based upon an perception of an answer to prayer.

  15. This is fantastic, Bruce. Thanks.

    This is a difficult concept to digest because it strikes at the heart of how we perceive ourselves and what goes on in the world around us. For example, we often disparage the media for its portrayal of events (often with good reason) but implicit in such criticism is the suggestion that our personal observations (and conveyances) of the same events would be entirely “accurate.” I think what you have thoughtfully pointed out is that this is not necessarily so.

    It forces us to re-think, on a fundamental level, what it means to gain “knowledge.”

  16. “Should we make some effort to assess the evidence of the historicity of the Book of Mormon? I challenge you to show me even one person, believing or unbelieving, that says we shouldn’t.”

    The church seems to be headed down this direction. There are many talks that encourage evaluation of the book of mormon, the book of abraham, etc. based on the text itself and prayer, rather than scientific/historical evidence that would seem to support or detract from the believability of the text.

    “At issue is how to measure the probability of conclusions based upon the agreed upon evidence. Or if it’s even possible to. Going back to the Black Swan analogy…10,000,000 white swans prove nothing”.

    I disagree. 10,000,000 white swans probably proves that most swans are white. And most reasonable people, after having seen 10,000,000 white swans would be skeptical of the existence of black swans until they saw some evidence. The burden of evidence rests with the black swan crowd. Black swawns may exist, but you can’t expect people to believe in them based on the lack of evidence that they don’t exist.

    You can make similar arguments about Bigfoot, the easter bunny, the tooth fairy, etc. People don’t believe in these things just because they can’t conclusively prove that they don’t exist.

  17. Bruce,

    Nice post. One possibility about the account with the baby:

    Baby dies on September 14 during the night. Family is unsure exactly when in the watches of the night the child expired. Due to physical tasks performed during the journey, the death is not reported to the camp recorder immediately. The recorder settles down with his log after lights are out and writes no baby died today. The next entry in the morning records the death.

    We have to check our assumptions at the door on entering and leaving the historical enterprise. If we know enough about the culture and living conditions prevailing at the time, we can then make further educated guesses about the propensity of early nineteenth century Americans to interpret time more loosely than their early twenty-first century countrywomen, etc. etc.

    Which is why I prefer the educated guesses of those who have made the study of a particular era their forte than those approaching a subject with little or no prior training.

    That said, Bruce, for all that I agree with many of the points you make here, it is dangerous for religious faith grounded in historical events to come to terms with the slippery nature of historical inquiry. It is not so much the discrepancies that you point out which can be interpreted variously, as the fact that new sources can always be uncovered which shed new light on the old sources, which makes one’s theology dependent on the professional historian.

    Is theology timeless when resting on such shifting sands?

  18. I know I bring this presentation by Blake Ostler a bunch, but look at how he answers questions he was fielded, especially about the nature of the brain not being a hard drive. These are questions that we could be asking Bruce.

    Q: Did Joseph Smith see the Father and Son as two different beings in the First Vision or not? Given your theory of translation of the Book of Mormon, why is the metaphysical distinction between the members of the Godhead not more emphasized in the book?

    A: You mean the Book of Mormon? Well I assume…I’m going to answer this first. “Did Joseph Smith see the Father and Son as two beings in the First Vision or not?” Yes. “Given your theory of translation of the Book of Mormon, why is the metaphysical distinction between members of the Godhead not more emphasized in the book?” I’m going to tell you that memory, and what we do, is changed every time we think about it and remember it. The human mind is not a static hard drive onto which we dump information. Every time we think about something, new neural connections get made. In fact, I can tell you that I know more about my spiritual experience at 14 years of age at this point in my life, than I did when I was 30 and hadn’t thought much about it or remembered it very well. The fact is that as I have reflected on it I’ve realized and learned on it more and more, and there were things that I experienced when I was 14 that I didn’t learn until I was 40, or 50. And so the fact that Joseph Smith realized only later the significance that there were in fact two Beings, and that was to be emphasized, that doesn’t bother me at all. It’s simply the nature of human experience. “Why isn’t it emphasized more in the Book of Mormon?” Well, I’ve written an article that suggests it is emphasized, you’re simply preferring to look at those passages which don’t emphasize it. {laughter} And that’s true, by the way. Those who argue for modalism in the Book of Mormon are reading it with a particular set of glasses on and I don’t believe the set of glasses is very clear, I think you need to clean the lenses.

    Q: If the experience of the Spirit gives us knowledge (say, that God is real), then it follows that what I know is true. Knowledge entails justified true belief, so how could I possibly be wrong about what I know to be true as you seem to suggest?

    A: Well, first of all, knowledge as justified true belief is a very difficult thing, because if anything is justified, that means it has to be true. There are long philosophical arguments about justified true belief. How could you be wrong about what you know? You can’t, but you could be wrong about what you think you know; that’s the simple answer. {laughter}

    Q: What should you conclude when your spiritual experience conflicts with logical and tangible evidence?

    A: This is a very good question. First I would suggest this, there’s nothing more immediate than your own experience. Only you know what your experience is. If it conflicts with logic? Trust me, I’m very good at logic and I know there are a lot of ways to do logic to make it conflict with just about anything I can come up with, that’s what I do for a living {laughter}. And tangible evidence? We don’t know what evidence is until we have all of our basic premises and axioms in place to begin with. You see, when I see through the lens of faith what counts as evidence is different than when I don’t see through the lens of faith.

    In fact, I found something very interesting among people who have lost testimonies. Almost invariably they will say, “I had a testimony and then I decided, ‘I’m going to take a look at this without relying on spiritual experiences or the way that I see things when I trust the Spirit. I’m just going to see what logic or evidence provides.'” The fact is that evidence isn’t self-interpreting, and logic is only a very useful tool for arriving – and I am very “Humean” about logic. All logic is ex post facto to prove what we already feel is true; how’s that?

    Q: How can one find the truth when two people experience two opposite things while praying about the Book of Mormon? One gets the feeling it’s true, the other gets the feeling it’s wrong?

    A: Well, I say trust your experience. I will tell you in my experience if the person gets the feeling it’s wrong, I’d like to talk to that person. I’ve never known such a person, but I have no doubt that there are such persons. Trust your Heavenly Father. What I said was that the experience that anybody else has is not evidence for us. If somebody else has a different experience, I think I have good prima facia reason for believing my own experience as opposed to theirs. What else can I do? And it comes down to faith. Am I going to trust my heart or not? Am I going to have an open heart or am I going to close it? That’s the bottom line. So trust your own experience and if your own experience tells you that the Book of Mormon just can’t be, and God confirms that, then go with God.

  19. Post
    Author

    “The church seems to be headed down this direction. There are many talks that encourage evaluation of the book of mormon, the book of abraham, etc. based on the text itself and prayer, rather than scientific/historical evidence…”

    LOL Bill. This, itself, is just a convenient narrative fallacy you are making up to justify your beliefs.

    “I disagree. 10,000,000 white swans probably proves that most swans are white. And most reasonable people, after having seen 10,000,000 white swans would be skeptical of the existence of black swans until they saw some evidence.”

    Bill, did you read the previous post: the book review of the Black Swan? The fact is that Black Swans exist, even though only 10,000,000 white ones were seen to that point. The issue is where in the world you actually live.

    The real truth is, we just don’t know via objective or factual means. So it’s an open game that can be interpreted validly in more than one way.

    So long as you assign the burden of proof to the Mormons (a burden they don’t accept), I can completely see why you are drawing the conclusions you do. But your decision to assign the burden of proof to them is, to be frank, the only fact that actually mattered in the narrative you built.

    And let’s face it, if there is someone that has a reason to want to believe the Book of Mormon is true, say because of an answer to prayer, or even just because they grew up with it and like it, we’d fully expect the burden of proof to be on you, not them, and that would be a perfectly rational thing for them to expect of you. But when the burden of proof is on you, it’s you that seem empty handed.

    Which is really the point I’ve tried to make a million times before: our beliefs affect who has the burden of proof in our minds. i.e. what is your null hypothesis (the default hypothesis you are going to assume minus strong evidence.)

    For Bill, this is simple: The Book of Mormon is wrong unless there is definitive proof. Answers to prayer don’t count. There isn’t definitive proof, thus his null hypothesis is that the Book of Mormon isn’t true. Nothing else is going to matter.

    All Bill must now do, given that default view, is have a decent narrative fallacy to explain away all positive evidence. This is an incredibly easy bar to reach.

    Alma 36? No worries, it’s just chance. Prove to him that it *didn’t* happen by chance. Found bountiful? Ah, it’s just clever interpretation of the directions, etc. Prove to him that it’s definitely the real Bountiful.

    Given Bill’s point of view that the Mormons have the burden of proof, I simply do not blame him for his conclusions. He is rationally concluding exactly what I’d expect him to conclude.

    But that’s just Bill. His view won’t and shouldn’t matter to anyone but Bill.

    Interestingly, since so much of the world is uncertain, the assignment of the burden of proof is often the only thing that matters in the debate. If you have it, you lose, if your opponent has it, you win.

    Think of all the debates that could be shortened to nothing by having both parties declare that they assign the burden of proof to the other side and then agree to disagree. I say this tongue in cheek, but honestly, how many political debates boil down to nothing more than assigning burden of proof to the other side and the rest is rhetoric alone? This is exactly why it’s so painful for me to watch presidential debates.

  20. Post
    Author

    “Is theology timeless when resting on such shifting sands?”

    Good question. I’ve got no answer at this time. I’ll think about it.

    I guess we’ll have to also ask if the sand is really shifting just because there are lot of new interpretations or if we are shifting and the sand isn’t. And how could you tell the difference between those two when they, presumably, feel exactly the same?

  21. “LOL Bill. This, itself, is just a convenient narrative fallacy you are making up to justify your beliefs.”

    I could give several references, but it seems like you aren’t interested in discussing it in a rational manner.

  22. Post
    Author

    Bill, if I misunderstood what you were saying, I apologize. Let me try to explain a bit better. If you are still mad, then I’ll agree to disagree with you.

    It seems to me that you are taking the LDS teaching that there is a God and He answers prayers and you can base your life around that principle and you are perverting it to mean that you should ignore positive proof to the contrary — i.e. don’t just trust answers to prayer when certainty isn’t possible, but trust it over the discovery of a Black Swan that proves you definitively wrong.

    Perhaps I misunderstood, but I honestly thought that was what you were saying.

    If that was what you were saying, then your ad homenin attack on me was unjustified because I was right. You are simply choosing to interpret (i.e. it’s a narrative fallacy) belief in God and in prayer as a belief that Mormons try to get you to ignore proof. No believing Mormon sees it that way, but you do because it’s consistent with your world view.

    But there is no quote you could come up with that could justify such a position. The first position – belief in prayer over a lot of negative narrative fallacies, yes. Your re-interpretation as ignoring proof, no.

    The problem here is that, if I’m right in my post, then you may not be able to tell the difference between positive proof against (i.e. finding a Black Swan disproving Mormonism) and a good narrative fallacy that, in your bias, you’ve decided contains information disproving Mormonism. (And I may not be able to either.) You might honestly interpret that the LDS Church is saying this and still be wrong. Or you might honestly think you have a disproof of the LDS church (I use “proof” in the technical sense — 100% proof) and not realize you don’t.

    But let’s go back to the very good point you just made: who has the burden of proof?

    I just said that if it’s the Mormons, then you are right, why bother believing, because there isn’t enough evidence to prove them right. So I don’t blame you.

    But now you seem to be saying Mormons have to ignore proof against their beliefs and that the LDS church is steering people away from looking at that proof. If this is true, you are implicitly claiming proof. Thus you have now taken the burden of proof on yourself. Game, set, match. You’ll lose every time.

    If you disagree, then let’s make this simple, please produce said proof that beyond doubt proves the LDS Church wrong. If it’s not 100% proof, then I think I’m justified in calling it a narrative fallacy. One that, I’m sure, matters to you, but doesn’t to me.

  23. Bruce (#7) said, “Thus the original argument that a lack of 1820 activity recorded is suggestive that Joseph made it up is actually a 100% information deficient narrative — at least on the point of fraud vs. not fraud. It tells us nothing at all. There is still equal possibility, regardless, that Joseph did or didn’t make it all up.”

    Interesting. Coincidentally, I had lunch with Andrew Ainsworth today and we were talking about something somewhat related to this post — possibility vs. probability. Both variables are relevant. When discussing the First Vision occuring during a suppossed 1820 religious revival, the possibilities for discrepancies between Joseph Smith’s account and the historical record are endless, but the various possibilities are not equal. So I’m not sure that there is “equal possibility” of fraud vs. not fraud.

    Of course, the probability one assigns to various possibilities will be highly influenced by context, background, and one’s meta-narrative. Yet one more reason why, to quote Hawkgirl, “apologetics are irrelevant,” at least for non-Mormons. And why criticism is largely irrelevant to Mormons.

  24. Post
    Author

    “So I’m not sure that there is “equal possibility” of fraud vs. not fraud. Of course, the probability one assigns to various possibilities will be highly influenced by context, background, and one’s meta-narrative.”

    Actually, I wouldn’t disagree with this. You are probably right. The “probability” of fraud vs. not fraud (to use the example we are using) are probably not equal. Indeed, they are NOT equal because one or the other is true and the other is false. So in reality one is 100% likely and the other 0% likely.

    But we have no way of measuring those probability except via our “highly influenced context, background, and meta narrative.”

    Put another way, we could have just said: “we have no way of measuring the probabilities” or even collapse it down to “we just don’t know.”

    That being the case, they are, for all intents and purposes, equal odds to us. As pointed out in my previous post, lack of information and randomness have no effective difference.

    I guess I need to add a disclaimer. I am NOT saying that if we don’t know for certain then that somehow means the odds are all even. If I roll a die but don’t look at the result, I don’t know for certain if it’s a 6 or not, but I know the odds of being a 6 or 1:6.

    But imagine a die that returns 1 to 6, but not evenly distributed. But you don’t have any idea, or any way of knowing in advanced, what the distribution is (you’re not allowed to test in advanced.) History is like that! All the “reasonable” possibilities essentially become equally likely, not because they are equally likely but because we don’t have enough information to assess our narratives.

    But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a situation where a historical narrative ends up being somehow directly linked to probabilities, and thus measureable. I can’t think of an example of this off hand, but it’s certainly a possible to have happen. But if that situation did come up, it would be obvious.

    Oh, I have an example! Just thought of it. I used to play D&D when I was a kid. I can’t remember when I noticed, but claims to having personally rolled or seen someone roll a character with all 18 except one or two 17s for all 6 of their attributes is very common. I know probably 10 such people that have made such a claim. (You roll on 3 dice to get the number.)

    This is an example of where the possibilities can actually be measured for probability. It should be obvious that probably none of them actually did this since the odds of all 18s (or with one or two 17s) are so low as to be basically none. While I can’t rule out the possibility, I can measure the probability using easy measurements that no one would argue with and I can basically assume fraud or at least serious self deception. So this is an exception to what I am saying, but it’s obvious why it is and we can easily agree upon the methodology.

    Later on, the idea occurred to me that it’s pretty common in D&D to “cheat” by rolling the dice and throwing out low dice or to “reroll because it fell on the ground” if it’s a low roll but not if it’s a high roll. Given these fairly commonly accepted means of “cheating” this changes the odds considerably and it is possible (though still improbable) that some of these stories are “true” but just very exaggerated. Most likely some are still just outright lies for the sake of cheating in the game, especially the ones where there was no witness and the person just shows up with their self rolled character.

    Now that I think of it, Freakonomics gives a number of good examples of where we can actually reconstruct history using probabilties. But all of them are obvious counter examples that are measureable by statistical analysis. That isn’t true of first vision fraud vs. not fraud.

    “Yet one more reason why, to quote Hawkgirl, “apologetics are irrelevant,” at least for non-Mormons. And why criticism is largely irrelevant to Mormons.”

    Bingo! Put another way, we could just say: apologetics are for believers and criticisms are for non-believers. Apologetics create a narrative fallacy where Mormonism is likely and criticism creates a narrative fallacy where it’s unlikely. You choose which narrative fallacy you believe but you don’t get to know which is actually true.

  25. Post
    Author

    “There is still equal possibility, regardless, that Joseph did or didn’t make it all up”

    Oh, Matt. One other clarification. My statement above didn’t mean that there was equal probabilty of fraud vs. not fraud in this context. It means whatever that possibility is, it didn’t change due to the possible misdating of the revivals. Both narratives are still quite believable and we have no way of measuring the probabilties of one over the other. The addition of the narrative doesn’t help determine the real probabilities other than as a “gut feel” which — I will assert — is actually just starting with the conclusion you already had and building a story to fit it. (At least in this one example.)

  26. When something happens today, tomorrow I can get buy multiple newspapers and watch multiple news programs that discuss what happened yesterday. Chances are I will read multiple and even radically different explanations for what happened – yesterday.

    Yesterday is history, and yesterday is messy and disputed. The 1800’s are in a different universe.

  27. Bruce, my adventures in family history have altered my view of history as well. While reading through the diaries and journals of various persons in the same wagon train, I was shocked by how inconsistent their descriptions of events were, along with dates, etc.

    Which becomes more important when we are dealing with very few sources.

    I’m going to tell you that memory, and what we do, is changed every time we think about it and remember it. The human mind is not a static hard drive onto which we dump information. Every time we think about something, new neural connections get made.

    NPR had an interesting report on this very topic, and how important memories, which are reviewed more often, become more mutable.

    ——–

    I recently took twelve depositions in five days (and had to squeeze in two mediations as well). It was striking how the stories of the various neighbors differed and how people remembered things.

    ——–

    I very much like this sequence of posts, and how it fugues with The fact is that evidence isn’t self-interpreting, and logic is only a very useful tool for arriving – and I am very “Humean” about logic. All logic is ex post facto to prove what we already feel is true; how’s that?

    Ray has it right.

    Thanks again for this series of posts.

  28. For any of you that are interested, we had a series of posts about the nature of historical inquiry and the practice of Mormon history at the Juvenile Instructor a while back. They try to outline how historians create narratives, the problems they encounter in so doing, and the methods they use to try and overcome said problems. If your interested you can check out , , and

  29. Post
    Author

    Joel, I’d be very interested. Unfortunately the links didn’t come through. Click on my name and it has a way to contact me. Send them to me and I’ll put them into your post there.

    That or else you can just try again. If you put in href tags it should work.

  30. Interesting series of posts. I’m going to skip over the core of the message (about narrative fallacies) *for now* and point out a few reasons *why* I would be suspicious in the first place.

    The *Saturday*, September 15 History of the Church entry says that the child was buried *Sunday*…OOOOOHHH IN THE FUTUREEEEEEEEE.

    OK, so, you say, no, that meant last Sunday….but then it would REALLY be kinda freaky that the family records the kid’s death on September 13…so they buried the kid alive and it took him half a week to final go down and out?

    But I see what you mean…this tells me no information. After all, that we even see two entries would suggest to me that there was, in fact, a death of a child…sometime. One conclusion seems likelier than the other (that the family got the date right and it was the 13th, the Church History got the date wrong and it was the 15th…and that the event did, in fact happen but the family reported the death later…I recognize that my explanation has a lot of holes — for example, I recognize that in *my way of thinking* which doesn’t represent anyone else’s way of thinking but my own…it would make more sense for a family to have more intimidate details of a death in the family…and it might even make sense to hide the details of a death to the general community for a few day), but once again, this is just illusion of information fallacy.

    but as other posters have hinted in your other series…it doesn’t seem that we need treat all narratives equally. Even if we can’t disprove an event, it may be more practical or impractical to believe it or not. It’s relatively low-key to believe that a death occurred. Death happens. It’s not particularly magical. Such a small thing does not require too much “rigor” to stand in our minds.

    Huge religious events do not happen frequently. it seems to demand more rigor. One would expect that one wouldn’t get these details wrong…for something of much larger magnitude. Once again though, it’s not the date discrepancy that leads people to disbelieve, but really, what colors people’s narrative interpretations is that something so incredible that has so little evidence isn’t easily believable in the first place. So it’s not, “haha, this date has a discrepancy so this mystical event did not happen.” (This would be falling trap to a brain malfunction via narrative fallacy.) It’s more like, “This mystical event already seems hokey — such an outstanding claim requires something outstanding, but we aren’t finding that, and all of these conflicting historical points *aren’t helping it.*”

    I mean…we all now know that black swans do exist…but should we tell people to believe in it when they’ve never seen one (and in fact, neither have we). It is so easy to produce the one piece of evidence that would falsify the claim that they do not exist — produce one black swan. This is basic science; science isn’t *verifiable* but it is *falsifiable*. Even Einstein noted that no amount of experimentation could prove him right, but a single experiment could prove him wrong. But until it is done, one should not necessarily believe in black swans and one should not necessarily believe that Einstein and the rest of the scientific field are wrong (the Black Swan theory comes into place in an entirely different, yet subtly so, position: it points out that we might fall susceptible to say the ambitious and falsifiable “I believe black swans don’t exist” when all we should be saying is “I don’t have a belief in black swans.”) One narrative is more pragmatic to believe in than the other.

    The real critical difference is spiritual experience. That would change which narrative is more pragmatic to believe in. But everyone doesn’t get the same experiences to every thing, so even this isn’t so predictable and scientific.

  31. Post
    Author

    Andrew S says: “The Black Swan theory comes into place in an entirely different, yet subtly so, position: it points out that we might fall susceptible to say the ambitious and falsifiable “I believe black swans don’t exist” when all we should be saying is “I don’t have a belief in black swans.”) One narrative is more pragmatic to believe in than the other. The real critical difference is spiritual experience. That would change which narrative is more pragmatic to believe in. But everyone doesn’t get the same experiences to every thing, so even this isn’t so predictable and scientific.

    Andrew! You nailed it!

  32. Maybe I misread the posts but are you saying that when the historical facts contradict your beliefs it is okay to ignore this challenge to the authenticity of your beliefs as the historical record is not to be trusted as people record history and events very differently to each other.

    Someone said

    “When something happens today, tomorrow I can get buy multiple newspapers
    and watch multiple news programs that discuss what happened yesterday.
    Chances are I will read multiple and even radically different
    explanations for what happened – yesterday.

    Yesterday is history, and yesterday is messy and disputed. The 1800’s are in a different universe.”

    The street I live on was built in 841AD and we know all the owners of every house that has been on this street since 1030AD. Yesterday is only messy an disputed when you want it to be and it suits your purpose.

    The 1800’s are very close in the historical timeline and you see them as cloudy for your benefit. Even Dan Brown has a greater and more accurate grasp of history!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *