Review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics

After a few warm-up posts last month (here, here, and here), it’s time to get serious about apologetics. Greg Kofford Books just published Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson. The book is a collection of essays by a variety of LDS scholars giving their informed view of the development and current state of Mormon apologetics. Some defend it, some critique it, others offer proposals for a new and improved approach. Three chapters at the center of the volume look at the neglected issue of the role of women in LDS apologetics and its impact on female readers — I hope to have a separate post on those essays next week. In this review I will look at six of the fifteen essays in the book that I find most interesting, then offer some general comments on the volume as a whole. [Note: At the publisher’s site, you can see the table of contents and preview a couple of the essays, as well as read a Q&A with the two editors.]

Foundations

In the opening chapter, Blair G. Van Dyke reviews relevant terms and ideas in “Critical Foundations of Mormon Apologetics.” Negative apologetics offers “responses to criticism already levied against Mormonism”; positive apologetics provides “arguments that justify the faith and fortify her position ahead of disagreements and criticisms.” Evidentialism aims to present objective evidence supporting LDS claims; fideism stresses subjective faith over objective evidence, rejecting the adequacy of evidence and reason for attaining knowledge of divine things or faith sufficient for salvation. Van Dyke notes that “Mormons consistently manifest strains of fideism” and that the Church Education System “manifests strains of anti-intellectualism that rival ultra-conservative American Evangelicals and Pentecostals in their approach.”

But times are changing, and for the Church as a whole Van Dyke notes a distinct shift back to evidentialism, forced by the Internet. He offers the Church History Department and its Joseph Smith Papers Project, as well as the ongoing work of the Maxwell Institute, as manifestations of that shift. He also notes the 2007 publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows by three LDS historians (who were granted full access to LDS archives to support the project) as evidence of the new approach, as well as Elder Ballard’s 2016 address to CES educators (“The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century“) in which he tells teachers to become very familiar with the Gospel Topics essays and to quit dodging serious questions by their students. Van Dyke sums up the present state of affairs as “the internet-spawned revival of the importance of scholarship in pursuit and acquisition of truth and faith.”

In Chapter 7, Brian D. Birch covers some of the same ground in “The Intellectual Cultures of Mormonism: Faith, Reason, and the Apologetic Enterprise.” He emphasizes two speeches by LDS General Authorities that set the tone for official approaches to scholarship and apologetics in the 20th century: J. Reuben Clark’s 1938 address to Church educators directing them to teach the gospel using just the scriptures and quotations from LDS leaders, and Boyd K. Packer’s 1981 address to Church educators warning against using “academic training” and “professional training” to evaluate or critique LDS beliefs or LDS history. But, like Van Dyke, Birch observes a recent shift toward scholarly engagement, noting the publication of the Gospel Topics essays and Elder Ballard’s injunction to study them carefully.

Speaking more directly to Mormon apologetics, Birch notes the strange fact that the large BYU Religion program (several departments) offers almost no courses or study in the broad field of religious studies. That’s not surprising in light of the earlier directives from Elders Clark and Packer. At BYU, only the newly reoriented Maxwell Institute is presently undertaking and publishing work in that field. Birch sees this new initiative as “an important test case in determining how the intellectual cultures of Mormonism will be negotiated as the Church moves forward in the Information Age.” He defines apologetics as “a reasoned defense of faith” that employs arguments that are “subject to rational scrutiny and evaluation.” My sense is that the tentative official support for the entry of LDS scholars into the field of religious studies, coupled with the advice of Elder Ballard to CES educators to broaden their discussions, seems to reflect a preference for confident dialogue akin to positive apologetics rather than defensive responses in line with negative apologetics. The Gospel Topics essays certainly take the approach of building a case for faith claims rather than responding directly to criticisms of LDS claims.

A New Mormon Apologetics?

With those two essays as a review of the development of Mormon apologetics, one might expect the following story to be told: A New Mormon Apologetics is emerging, modeled by Terryl Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt (Deseret Book, 2014) and Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Deseret Book, 2015) and stressing positive apologetics, sound scholarship, and dialogue with the broader religious and scholarly community. However, none of the other essays in the volume argue for that straightforward claim. First, traditional Mormon apologetics of the defensive variety is still around and isn’t going away, as shown by several essays in the first third of the volume. Second, the authors who see promising new developments take a rather nuanced and varied view of what those new developments are. Let’s look at the last four essays.

In Chapter 12, “Conceptual Confusion and the Building of Stumbling Blocks of Faith,” Loyd Isao Ericson objects to the idea that evidence and reason can be used to defend religious claims. He argues that traditional apologists, in mounting such a reasoned defense, are unintentionally lending credibility to the stance of critics who use evidence and reason to attack Mormon religious claims. His definition of a religious claim is narrower than the average reader might expect. He distinguishes, for example, between the claim that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God (a religious claim) and the claim that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an authentically ancient text, and between the claim that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God (a religious claim) and any particular details of his biography. He asserts that “the religious claims that apologetics seeks to defend or prove using secular scholarship are conceptually different from that which scholarship can show.”

Loyd quotes some serious scholarship to support this idea. Would additional biographical details about the life of Jesus — empirical data — lend any additional insight to definitively resolving doubts about the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation? No, not really. Perhaps the language games we use to express and compare empirical data and claims are not commensurable with the language game used to discuss religious claims. And at the level of human psychology, he notes that a “believer’s view of the divine translation of the Book of Mormon is informed by her belief of it being the word of God, not the other way around.” All of this sounds vaguely like fideism, but Loyd claims he is “not proposing a religious fideism whereby religious claims are outside the realm of reason or immune from criticism altogether.” Whatever it is, this line of thinking is rather counterintuitive. It suggests both critics and traditional apologetic defenders of religious claims, Mormon or otherwise, don’t really understand the nature of what they are doing. If, following Loyd’s argument, religious claims are that insulated from empirical inquiry or historical critique, it’s not really clear to me how one would go about defending or critiquing religious claims.

In Chapter 14, “Toward a New Vision of Apologetics,” Joseph M. Spencer looks at two different types of apologetics, one done by “minimalists” who defend against faulty criticisms and clear the ground for a later discussion about the possibility of Mormon claims, and a deeper approach that works by “constructing positive rational arguments for the truth of the Restoration,” thereby establishing the plausibility of Mormon claims. But, rather like Loyd in the preceding discussion, Spencer thinks this whole apologetic project is misguided. He thinks (and I’m rather freely paraphrasing his argument here) that salvific faith is like a belief hurdle we have to clear. Traditional apologetics wants to lower the hurdle. Spencer thinks God’s plan is to strengthen the runner to be able to clear the existing hurdle. The faith hurdle itself is part of God’s plan of salvation. Better that we not tamper with it.

Again, this is rather counterintuitive. Chew on this sentence, for example: “The point of constructing rational arguments for the truth of Mormonism’s faith claims is to reveal the coherence and richness of faith in the Restoration, not to predispose people to actual conviction regarding its truth.” I suspect a wide variety of Mormons think the whole point of the Mormon apologetic enterprise is to predispose people to actual conviction regarding its truth.

In Chapter 13, David Bokovoy tackles “Shifting Intellectual and Religious Paradigms: One Apologist’s Journey into Critical Study.” Every religious scholar has an interesting story to tell, starting from their childhood formation of traditional beliefs, then moving through a decision to undertake advanced study in a religious field, the slap in the face delivered by the cold hard facts of the matter, and finally whatever religious beliefs the completed scholar still maintains, from reasserting the traditional views to complete rejection of any religious belief. Bokovoy defends historical cricitism (the scholarly approach to the study of scripture) and argues that approach is compatible with properly formatted Mormon faith claims. I’ll post just just one quote from the essay: “Scripture is not a manual. It is a springboard to enlightenment.”

The last essay, Chapter 15, is Seth Payne’s “Apologetics as Theological Praxis.” He provides an alternative context for apologetic discussions and articles. Seth holds that “religious apologetics must be approached as a devotional act” and argues for more awareness of “the pastoral theology which motivates all Christian ideals of friendship, empathy, and compassion.” He cites the foundational text at 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” He stresses the tone (gentleness and reverence) rather than the substance of an apologetic defense, but not simply as a more effective way of doing apologetics. It’s not as if a gentle approach is recommended because it is more persuasive to listeners. He is suggesting gentleness and reverence is called for even if it is less effective. It’s just the right way for a Christian to go about explaining and defending one’s Christian beliefs, doing so “as an expression of our inner convictions and commitments.” To do otherwise is, in a sense, to betray the gospel one is trying to defend.

Seth acknowledges that “a well-researched, humbly presented, and rigorous defense of specific doctrinal or historical truth claims” is worthwhile, and that such information “can be enlightening, inspiring, and uplifting.” The pastoral imperative here is that it is better to serve than to get “bogged down by dogma, policy, tradition, or authority.” That view is certainly reflected in the LDS approach to religion at the local level. Your bishop is familiar with LDS norms and practices and is very willing to serve, but it’s a coin toss whether he knows more about LDS history and theology than you do. I’d even argue that a man who knows his LDS history and theology is less likely to be called as a local leader than one who doesn’t. LDS apologists may not, on the whole, generally embrace Seth’s version of pastoral apologetics, but local leaders and members do a fair job of unknowingly but sincerely practicing what Seth calls pastoral theology. And that is an encouraging thought.

Conclusion

Here’s one observation that I take from my reading the essays in this volume. A generation or two ago, the term “Mormon apologetics” referred to a fairly well defined set of arguments and defenses, “traditional apologetics” defending standard Mormon faith claims. Now, there is not simply a new and improved version of Mormon apologetics to succeed or complement traditional Mormon apologetics. There is a wide array of discussions that continue or have branched off from that initial field: traditional apologetics, new positive apologetics as typified by Givens and Mason, a form of official apologetics as with the Gospel Topics essays, pastoral apologetics as outlined by Seth Payne, religious studies scholarship examining and discussing the same LDS doctrines and practices that apologists often discuss, and so forth.

The Fellowship of the Apologists is broken. In its place, new voices and new approaches have arisen. This is, I think, for the best.

30 comments for “Review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics

  1. Clark Goble
    September 14, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Great review. I’ll have mine up soon. (I’d hoped to have it up last week)

  2. Anonymous
    September 15, 2017 at 12:44 am

    Hey Loyd! They spelled your name right!

    -Tory

  3. Wally
    September 15, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Nice, helpful review. “I’d even argue that a man who knows his LDS history and theology is less likely to be called as a local leader than one who doesn’t.” That is a very perceptive comment. This may be because a knowledge of history and theology acts as a sort of roadblock to administrative advancement, or it may be that administrative duties divert a person from getting a good education in history and theology. It’s a two-edged sword.

    Either way, one development we see in the Church is that those who wind up in leadership roles, especially the more demanding ones, are increasingly administrators rather than theologians or even scriptorians. I’ve seen time and again where a young up-and-comer is called into a bishopric in his late twenties or early thirties, then becomes bishop, then serves a stint on the high council, then gets called into a stake presidency, perhaps even as president. His ecclesiastical responsibilities often make it difficult for him to attend Sunday School or priesthood meeting. These individuals are often woefully uninformed even about the Church’s official take on doctrine and scriptural interpretation. And being up to speed on the history or more difficult aspects of our theology is just out of the question. We have General Authorities who may have authority, but they are not really authorities on anything except administrative policy. We see this in Elder Ballard’s admission that sometimes he has to ask scholars questions about aspects of our religion. Our leaders, by and large, do not understand history or doctrine, except in a very superficial manner. They don’t have time to worry about such peripheral matters.

  4. September 15, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Wally, I think you’re right about an overemphasis on administrative skills and experience — not that we want to promote leadership that can’t manage the week-to-week business of running a segment of the Church, but there are skills besides business and law that ought to be represented in the leadership. Part of this is rooted in a longstanding LDS mistrust of certain professions (theology, history, science, psychiatry). Part of it is rooted in leadership insecurity (if you don’t know history or theology, the last person you want around as a junior colleague is a historian or theologian).

    On the positive side, the rise of the Church History Department in recent years and continuing support for BYU’s science departments in all fields are positive developments. We could sure use a couple of historians and philosophers in the Seventies quorums rather than yet another lawyer or successful real estate guy.

  5. Clark
    September 15, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    I suspect those who self-select with an interest in philosophy, theology and history are typically academic oriented with less of a chance of solid personal skills and pragmatism that might fit the actual needs of a Bishop or Stake President. That’s not to say all businessmen are personable nor that all academics aren’t pragmatic. But there is a definite bias.

    That said several of the apostles are academically oriented. Several have been University presidents. My impression is that the doctrinal knowledge of the Apostles is underrated even if not all are the same. (Although that was always true) For instance it’s hard to look at Elder Oaks as see ignorance there. Ditto Holland. More than half the Apostles have been University professors.

    Also regarding distrust of disciplines psychiatry and theology I’ll grant you. But science? Outside of the narrow issue of evolution, I don’t see much of a conflict at all. And coming from a science background I’ve certainly never noticed any distrust. You still have some people who emphasize a no death before the fall interpretation of Genesis. So Elder Nelson goes in that direction although I’m not sure he goes as far as the classic GAs from the 70’s through 90’s on the issue.

    Again while we might quibble that a medical doctor isn’t a scientist, two of the Apostles are such. And of course Elder Eyring’s father was a famous scientist. Alas we no longer have an actual scientist as an Apostle.

  6. Matt Calhoun
    September 15, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    “If, following Loyd’s argument, religious claims are that insulated from empirical inquiry or historical critique, it’s not really clear to me how one would go about defending or critiquing religious claims.”

    Loyd was spot on at first. LDS truth claims are not asserted on the basis of modern reason nor can they be defended by using the tools of modern reason. The average member believes LDS doctrine on feelings, not on a reasoned basis. These religious claims are outside the realm of reason.

    But Loyd wants to have his Mormonism and eat it too, suggesting that the religious claims of Mormonism can be understood and defended by invoking reason. Sorry, but Mormonism’s keystone truth claims (Joseph Smith having revelations, Jesus appearing in the ancient Americas, etc.) are objectively unverifiable and cannot be tested through modern reason.

  7. Clark Goble
    September 15, 2017 at 11:01 pm

    Matt, I think the average person doesn’t reason out much. That’s as true about any other aspect of life. I’m not sure the average person matters ultimately. Rather the question is whether a truth claim could be asserted via reason. But of course reason needs data to work with so it’s those empirical aspects and their interpretation that end up being crucial. To say that such things are “objectively unverifiable” of course raises the question of what one means by objective verification and whether that in turn can be verified. i.e. the traditional problem of logical positivism that led to it’s largely being abandoned after Quine.

  8. Matt Calhoun
    September 16, 2017 at 11:17 am

    “Rather the question is whether a truth claim could be asserted via reason”

    I think the question is what religious claims do you consider to be reasonable and which do you consider to be unreasonable and what criteria (based on modern reason) are you using to determine that. The issue is Loyd contradicting himself. He proposes fideism and then walks it back.

    “raises the question of what one means by objective verification”

    What do you think objectivity is and what constitutes verification? Do you believe in these concepts, or is your aversion to the so-called “logical positivism” (whatever that even means) so great that you don’t believe that any claim can be said to be objectively verified?
    Where is the verification that Joseph Smith saw God? You might say, well lots of people believed that, and that is the verification. OK, how did they arrive at such a belief? They claimed that they felt (this is the key word here) God manifesting that to them.

  9. Clark Goble
    September 17, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    I certainly don’t support fideism of the sort Loyd Ericson seems at times to support. I know some have gone in for that but I’ll confess I’ve never understood the attraction of a radical fideism ala Kierkegaard. But I also recognize people are deeply moved by him even if ultimately he doesn’t move me in terms of fideism.

    But I do agree we are leaving vague an unanalyzed exactly what we mean by “reason.” If I have by reason of extensive experience reason to trust someone and they ask me to do something that seems unreasonable am I acting irrational to obey? I don’t think so since I have that background of experience where they knew what they were doing and the humility to recognize my knowledge is incomplete. Now were I asked to do that the same but without that background of experience with validated trust would it still be reasonable? No.

    To the question of objectivity, I raise the meaning because people are frequently inconsistent when they use the term. How I use it depends upon context. Typically I just mean some set of descriptions that don’t change depending upon how I’m thinking about it. That is a set of descriptions that remain stable through many changes of context.

    As to logical positivism (also called logical empiricism) was a movement in the early 20th century that was deeply influential and arguably remains so even though it fell into disrepute in philosophy more than 60 years ago. The basic idea is that something is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified — typically by any inquirers. This has the implication that ethics, music and metaphysics were all consisted meaningless. (That’s not to say they were not valuable just that they lacked content) The problem was that it depended upon many premises, not the least of which being that it was true the unverifiable was meaningless which could not itself be verified.

    Many critics of religion, especially those without much philosophical sophistication, tend to make claims that come close to either scientism or logical positivism. Typically they discard private experience as a ground for verification. The problem with this is that of course any new truth starts out grounded in private experience. Further many and perhaps most of our knowledge isn’t public in the sense they demand.

    If discussion doesn’t stop at that point (and it’s shouldn’t since of course there’s lots of examples of private knowledge) the debate shift to what counts as grounding knowledge. Typically critics then attempt to devalue private experience as “mere feeling.” But for most believers personal revelation simply isn’t just feelings. Indeed typically feelings are a trapping associated with revelation but are not the content of the revelation itself. (This was emphasized by Joseph Smith in the editorial “Try the Spirits” where ironically he criticizes those who focus on feelings rather than intelligible communicated information.

  10. Loyd Isao Ericson
    September 18, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    To quote D.Z. Phillips (who I quote in my chapter re: fideism):

    A religious belief is “not established by means of evidence and cannot be overthrown by means of evidence either. That is not to say that they cannot be overthrown by means of evidence either. . . . In what ways can religious pictures lose their hold on people’s lives? Does the undeniable fact that they often lose their hold mean that contrary evidence has been found which shows the picture to have been mistaken? . . . A religious picture loses its hold on a person’s life because a rival picture wins his allegiance. A tragic event in a person’s life may make him unable to respond in the way the religious belief demands. Or a person may bring moral objections against the religious picture. In such circumstances, the religious picture may be called senseless, but it is important to recognize that that this has little in common with demonstrating the falsity of an empirical proposition. The situation is far more akin to a radical moral disagreement, where one evaluative judgment is brought to bear against another.”

    I obviously didn’t make my point clear enough–a point, which for myself, came more clear to me through recent personal experience–and that is that religious beliefs (as I define them) cannot proven, defended, or disproven through traditional apologetics. Those cannot say anything about the BofM speaking the words of God or the LDS Church being the instantiation of God’s community. However, that does not mean that those things stand separate from reason. Rather, they can be proven or disproven to the individual if those things continue to or fail to call out to them. For many–and I would argue this applies to most who are leaving Mormonism today–it is not because of history or DNA or whatever that they are ultimately leaving the LDS Church, it’s because they do not feel inspired by it. If they felt they were still feeling called by the Church, that God was speaking through it, that it was good and nourishing for them, they would stay and find ways to make those issues non-issues for their faith. But they aren’t feeling that, and following Alma’s logic and their own reasoning, they decide the fruit is rotten.

  11. Clark Goble
    September 18, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Loyd, thanks for chiming in. I appreciate it.

    I think you raise a significant point that does need to be addressed. (And to be clear, I don’t think you were always expressing fideism just that at times you seem to support) That is different people can look at the same evidence and pick different conclusions. I can look at all the arguments and evidence of the critics and not be troubled whereas some clearly find themselves unable to believe.

    One way to look at this is that there’s something other than formal conscious reason at work. And I agree completely with that. People’s conclusions are not purely based upon conscious reason. Further I don’t think beliefs are volitional. That is my belief is something that happens to me and not something I pick.

    In addition though I think we could say that the evidence in question and debated simply isn’t the only evidence people are interpreting. So even if it is true that we may not be acting purely in terms of reason, that’s not all that’s going on.

    More to the point though “reason” is doing a lot of work here and it’s not at all clear what we’re arguing. It’s easy to talk about reason as deduction. However even in the hard sciences there’s a lot of induction and other leaps going on. Those are still considered reason but have more “slippage” in terms of ensuring everyone agrees upon conclusions.

    To your final point utilizing Alma 32, like you I think reason is often still going on. However we have ethical expectations of how people ought behave. So many might see Joseph or other leaders doing things they have a hard time reconciling with their own ethical expectations. i.e. expectations related to contemporary views of racism or feminism As you note they might then see the fruit as rotten. Where I’d disagree with you is whether apologetics can do anything to change that calculus. I’d fully agree it can’t be determinative. Primarily because ethics and norms ultimately aren’t amenable to evidence in the same way that historical facts are. I don’t think that means apologetics can add nothing – if only because in many cases the facts do matter for how people perceive early racism or sexism.

  12. Matt Calhoun
    September 18, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    “Typically they discard private experience as a ground for verification.”

    Is it always grounds for verification? What do you think of people who claim to be the reincarnation of some past human being or life form? If you believe in the LDS teachings about the pre-earth life, the afterlife, and resurrection, you cannot possibly consider reincarnation to be within the realm of possibility. I think it would be reasonable to say that you are just as dismissive of claims to reincarnation over lack of verification as many non-LDS and former LDS are of Joseph Smith’s claims to have received divine revelations. I also think that it is reasonable to believe that had anyone of us been born in India that we would be more likely to believe in reincarnation. Have you considered the possibility that you are the reincarnation of another person who died before you were born? Have you prayed about it? Have you performed any rituals to connect with the cosmos to gain insight and revelation into this question? Do you regularly reflect on your dharma and how well you are fulfilling it so that when you die you can achieve release from the cycle of reincarnations?

    You may criticize the critics of LDS truth claims for dismissing them over a lack of verification. But aren’t you just as dismissive of claims to reincarnation and other religious truth claims that are mutually exclusive with those of the LDS church? Or are you willing to give the possibility of reincarnation just as much consideration as you are resurrection? Are you willing to give countless private accounts of reincarnation being true just as much weight as you are to private accounts of LDS truth claims being true?

  13. Matt Calhoun
    September 18, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Loyd,

    Reason is all about using evidence and argumentation to defend, prove, and disprove. If religious claims cannot be proved, defended, or disproved, then they are not asserted within the realm of reason. You’re trying to reconcile two mutually exclusive ideas. Religious truth claims about the cosmos and history are made on revelation, intuition, feeling, and faith. What is the typical LDS response to where the evidence is for LDS truth claims? Pray about it and seek a revelation or strong feeling. Lots of people make all sorts of claims to truth, which cannot all possibly be true, because they believe that they have a revelation or strong feeling. The FLDS claim to know that Warren Jeffs is a true prophet on nearly the same basis and in nearly the same format as LDS people claim to know that Thomas S. Monson is a true prophet. Could it be that both are equally true prophets?

  14. Matt Calhoun
    September 18, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    One last point:

    “Many critics of religion, especially those without much philosophical sophistication”

    The philosophically sophisticated in this world tend not to be religious or prone to defend traditional religious truth claims. Even the renowned philosophers who are religious, such as Charles Taylor, are not prone to defend traditional LDS truth claims nor would we expect them to do so. It is one thing to defend the existence of God, but a whole ‘nother thing to defend Jesus appearing in the ancient Americas.

  15. Clark
    September 18, 2017 at 11:56 pm

    Matt, of course I can distrust someone else’s claims of verification. Indeed I frequently do. That’s not an argument against private experience grounding knowledge though. So merely pointing to competing and incompatible beliefs doesn’t really establish much. Again in regular day to day life you regularly trust yourself against others. Whether you are justified in that depends upon the nature of the experience in question. I’d certainly agree most people aren’t terribly self-critical or engage in reflexive inquiry. But just because most don’t doesn’t entail you can’t do it.

    As for whether I’m dismissive of others – often of course. It just depends upon what the basis for my knowledge is. If you are walking down the street and someone claims to see aliens on the street I bet you dismiss their claims do. Further I bet you think you are justified in doing so – even if there were a group all claiming to see it when you didn’t.

    We’re getting a bit afield from Dave’s post though. All you’re really critiquing is the epistemology of private experience. I’ve done two posts this year on that topic if you are interested.

    Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

    The Open and Closed Texts of Theology ” (more in the comments)

  16. Carey F.
    September 19, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Not trying to be snarky, but not making it to SS or EQ (or RS) isn’t going to prevent anyone from learning theology or Mormon history on the level that its being discussed here.

  17. Matt Calhoun
    September 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Clark and Loyd, you are trying to make a case that LDS truth claims (i.e., Joseph Smith saw God, Jesus resurrected) can be defended on reasonable grounds. What I’m saying is that they can’t. You can accept them on faith, in other words, a strong belief rooted in intuition and feeling and, more often than not, confirmation bias, but that’s it. If you are willing to dismiss ideas like reincarnation on the basis of being unreasonable, then it is a double standard to accept resurrection as being reasonable. The evidence for both is equally lacking. The only basis is personal feeling. Clark, you say that belief in religious claims for religious people is more than just feeling. I struggle to see on what grounds people are staking these claims beyond feeling? I understand that Joseph Smith actually claimed to witness spirits, God, and Jesus Christ, but pretty much all LDS followers claim feeling. They claim to FEEL the spirit. And it is the basis for virtually all belief in LDS truth claims for both leaders and followers. The same goes for similar types of truth claims made by other religions. The adherents claim feeling as the basis for belief.

  18. Clark Goble
    September 19, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Matt, I recognize that’s what you are attempting to say. My point is that to make that argument depends upon problematic claims. You can see this when you say, “if you are willing to dismiss ideas like reincarnation on the basis of being unreasonable, then it is a double standard to accept resurrection as being reasonable.” But it’s not at all a double standard since the evidence available to me for each claim is simply different.

    When you say the evidence is equally lacking you are making a claim about what constitutes evidence. But here’s where your argument is like the positivist argument from the 1940’s. You can’t establish in a non-question begging way your claim about evidence.

    My sense is that you recognize this which is why you immediately turn to feeling. However my testimony and I suspect most here simply isn’t feeling. Nor is it for most people I’ve discussed these issues with. I don’t want to deny in the least that there are members who might fall into the epistemological problems you outline. However you move from that into the claim we all do. And ironically without evidence for that claim.

  19. Matt Calhoun
    September 19, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    “But it’s not at all a double standard since the evidence available to me for each claim is simply different.”

    Fine. What is the evidence for resurrection? How is it better/stronger than the evidence that people claim to have for reincarnation? Maybe these aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe some resurrect and others reincarnate. Still, you talk about how there is evidence but fail to mention what that evidence is.

    “However my testimony and I suspect most here simply isn’t feeling.”

    What is it then? I don’t quite get it. It seems like most LDS in fast and testimony meeting talk about strong feeling as the basis for their beliefs.

    I’m not trying to make this a discussion about the evidence for resurrection. My point is simply that you are clearly trying hard to reconcile LDS teaching and belief with reason, but it just doesn’t pan out. I solidly believe that the two are irreconcilable and that all attempts to reconcile will fail, so why try? I also think that I don’t bear as much of a burden as showing that religious truth claims and reason are irreconcilable as much as you bear a burden showing that they are. Why not just resign yourself to do what so many other LDS believers do and just appeal to feeling, authority, and faith (in the sense of strong belief without evidence, or at least strong evidence)? So many LDS believers flat out disregard apparent counterevidence to their religious beliefs or other contradicting beliefs (such as reincarnation) and claim to believe just because. They are content in their beliefs, find personal inspiration in them, and don’t care about the naysayers.

    Once you can make ideas such as Joseph Smith seeing God accepted and found significant across cultures without having to drastically reshape those cultures and cause them to conform to predominant LDS norms and culture, then we could call those claims reason-based. However, people are only accepting such LDS-specific truth claims because of cultural conditioning by the LDS church and its members. People haven’t had to be culturally conditioned to accept that airplanes can fly or that people built gigantic pyramids in Egypt 4500 years ago.

  20. Clark Goble
    September 20, 2017 at 10:05 am

    Matt, for hopefully obvious reasons I’m not going to talk about my personal experiences. But again, I went through most of this in those pages I linked to. As to F&T meeting I can’t speak for the ones you’ve been in. I’ve been in very few where the details of spiritual experiences have been shared. At best pretty vague terminology is used. People with experiences typically only share them in certain settings.

    The basic issue is whether there could be private or semi-private experiences which could ground knowledge in the beliefs you list. You appear a bit inconsistent on this point since you seem to acknowledge some experience like Joseph claimed would ground such beliefs yet also clearly don’t think he actually had those experiences.

    As for “why not resign myself” it’s because I think you’re representation of Mormonism is just plain wrong. It’s not what most believers I talk with believe in the least.

  21. Matt Calhoun
    September 20, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    “for hopefully obvious reasons I’m not going to talk about my personal experiences”

    Right there you have given a perfect example of how your beliefs are incompatible with reason. In modern reason, evidence is shown at great detail for others to verify and test. In modern reason, there is no concept of something being “too sacred” to share, which is why, I’m guessing, you are withholding this supposed evidence of LDS claims.

    I’m not saying that you haven’t had such experiences (did you witness a spirit or deity or something?) that to you are solid evidence of the truthfulness of LDS truth claims, but in the language of reason, these would not hold water and I simply don’t have a reason to inform myself about reality based on what you say. It would sound silly in an environment of modern reason to make bold claims about truth and then base them on Clark’s sacred experience which I can’t tell you about, but he had one, just take my word for it. There are so many other other claims of the paranormal, Marian apparitions, visits with dead ancestors, visits by Vishnu in avatar form, etc., which people appear to claim to true on similar grounds to Mormonism, that we couldn’t possibly accommodate these within the discourse of modern reason. All we can do is declare these to be objectively unverifiable and exclude them from the realm of what we can know about nature and history based on reason. Revelation, spiritual experiences, and other culture-exclusive forms of “knowing” things about the cosmos that cannot be verified are simply not the same thing as reason. Reason is not culture-specific knowledge and is not based on culture-specific evidence. Praying in the prescribed Mormon way about something is not a valid form of inquiry in modern reason. It is a culture-specific form of inquiry to obtain culture-specific “knowledge”, or perhaps more correctly termed, gnosis.

    I have had many interactions with LDS believers and have repeatedly asked if they have thought and prayed about reincarnation and would be willing to consider the possibility that that is true to the same extent that they believe in LDS truth claims. I have yet to get a straight answer out of people about this. If it is supposedly reasonable to believe in resurrection, then why not reincarnation?

    “I think you’re representation of Mormonism is just plain wrong”

    Mormonism has always been about someone making truth claims based on authority. It is basically a massive appeal to authority, namely the authority of Joseph Smith. It has never been about reasoned discourse. Joseph Smith said something to be a revelation, therefore it is. You just believe and accept. You don’t question, because that is culturally taboo. I have never heard a believing Mormon claim that some piece of the Doctrine and Covenants was Joseph Smith just making stuff up. But I don’t know, are you willing to question the divine nature of the D&C, for instance? Are you willing to give the idea that it is made-up just as much consideration as the idea that it is divine? Or is the former idea simply too taboo for you?

  22. Matt Calhoun
    September 20, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    One last thing, I think that by saying that such an idea is what some so-called “logical positivists” of the past said and then proceeding to dismiss such ideas as wrong because the logical positivists were debunked, wrong, or whatever, is really just a bad excuse not to engage the idea. It is a cop-out.

    I might as well say that your thoughts sound like those of the Orthodox Mormon Theologians (or whatever name or made-up category) of the 1950s. And their ideas were shown to be wrong, therefore you’re wrong.

    I’m not even sure what exactly logical positivism, or scientism, or whatever is (nor do I really care). In fact, I only really hear the term as a sort of knee-jerk reaction by not just LDS believers but also believers in other religious traditions, whenever someone disagrees with them and says that their beliefs might be wrong (because how dare someone call into question ideas such as Muhammad visiting Jerusalem in one night on the back of a flying horse, or what have you) or might not square with reason (and I am not saying that to attack LDS beliefs, but merely as matter of fact). I think it is a cheap tactic to try to lump someone together with some other group of thinkers who supposedly had these anathema ideas.

  23. Clark Goble
    September 21, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Regarding privacy entailing incompatible with reason, after working for some years on physics with a security clearance where I could only speak of such things with a select few I’m pretty sure that invalidates your claim about what constitutes reason.

    To say something is private is simply to be talking about a different issue from whether it can be verified.

    Regarding authority, while authority certainly is an issue I’d dispute the way you put it. If God tells me something I feel I am justified to the degree I have reasons to think he knows and have reasons to think his communication is trustworthy. It’s analogous to any expert testimony. So I’d certainly agree that say the ways I know Jesus was resurrected are ultimately an appeal to authority. I’m not sure that means it’s an appeal to Joseph Smith’s authority. It certainly isn’t for me although I can’t speak for everyone.

    Regarding the positivists, it’s not a cop out, it’s a way to pointing to extensive arguments on the subject. You might disagree with those arguments in which case I’m more than happy to discuss it with you. But some education on the subject simply is necessary before it’s worth talking about. These things are very well researched and written about in academics. I even posted a link to a very well written article on it to help you get up to speed. So I’m not “copping out” or avoiding the discussion. Quite the opposite. I’m more than happy to discuss it but you need to get the basics down so discussion is possible.

  24. Matt Calhoun
    September 21, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    False equivalences all over the place. Not to mention dodges all over the place.

    1) What information about physics has the US government kept entirely secret? I would imagine that the most safeguarded was information for how to make nukes, and yet the US’s mortal enemy North Korea is making them. Are you safeguarding evidence about the truthfulness of Mormonism because of fear that someone might obtain it, convert, and get saved? It doesn’t make any sense. The argument I frequently hear is that evidence for Mormonism is not made readily available so that that people exercise faith. But that supports my point that Mormon belief is faith-based and therefore not compatible with reason. Plus even if the US is safeguarding information about nukes, we all know they exist and have a good sense of what destruction they can do. They aren’t safeguarding information so that people will exercise faith that their experiments are true.

    2) I’ve asked repeatedly, where is the verification that Joseph Smith saw God? This is unverifiable. As I have said before, lots of people believe to have private experiences leading them to know that they are reincarnated. Belief in reincarnation is not a claim made on the basis of reason. Are you willing to defend that it is? You have yet to show how and why Mormon truth claims can be defended on reason and other religious truth claims, such as reincarnation, cannot. To say that all religious truth claims can be defended on reason is lunacy.

    3) Muslim suicide bombers claim to be following what God told them to do. Are they acting reasonably? Appealing to authority isn’t necessarily unreasonable. It just depends on who the authority is and on what grounds they are making their claims. Appealing to an authority who claims revelation is much different from appealing to an authority who has informed themselves through modern education and work experience.

    4) “These things are very well researched and written about in academics.” Again, I have to repeat, modern academia, just like the most renowned philosophers, does not support Mormon truth claims. The only academics who support Mormon truth claims have been Mormons for years, and are mostly born and raised in the LDS church. Mormon truth claims have not gained any traction outside the BYU environment. Plus, many Mormon intellectuals who do try to defend Mormon truth claims claim that the only know to truly know that they are true is by praying and feeling the spirit. They acknowledge that they cannot be defended using the tools of modern reason.

  25. Clark Goble
    September 21, 2017 at 11:47 pm

    1. There was a lot but since I signed my life away I can’t tell you what it was. But it’s not what you outline. I did work on diagnostics for nukes, so you’re right it’s vaguely related but also related to other types of fusion reactions. So much of the work I did was also on ICF projects using lasers and tritium pellets. Laboratory fusion explosions.

    As for why the evidence isn’t readily available, I think it is readily available. But it’s readily available only on a personal not public level.

    In any case you’re going down a tangent. The example of secret physics was merely an example that disproved your claim about reason. You said reason was public. I gave an obvious well known counter-example. Thus your argument failed.

    2. The verification that Joseph saw God that I know of comes from God or other such figures. As I said I have zero problem admitting that at a certain level many (but not all) of the epistemological grounding rests upon appeals to authority. It’s just that it’s not the kind of appeal to authority you present. Nor is it necessarily an unjustified appeal to authority. (After all in many cases appeals to authority are completely sound)

    3. Not knowing why individual suicide bombers are acting I can’t speak to whether they’re acting rationally. Certainly I can imagine cases where they were acting rationally in terms of the information they had. That seems quite different from whether we’d agree they were acting rationally with the information we have. After all when discussing reason we have to acknowledge the problem of what information we reason with.

    Again though I’m not appealing to an authority who claims revelation though but rather appealing to revelation itself. I fully agree that blind faith in some human authority is problematic. I can’t t think of any major religious doctrine I believe I know that I think I know because of an appeal to Joseph Smith or some other prophet. I suspect that’s true for most believing Mormons. It just honestly seems weird that you even think that given how Mormons talk about all this.

    I mean I can completely understand you’re disagreeing with us. It’s just interesting that you get wrong what we believe so fundamentally though. It’s not as if personal revelation is a minor part of Mormon belief. It’s the ground underneath which everything else is girded.

    4. Not sure how you keep missing what I’ve said. I’m not saying modern academics lead to Mormon truth claims. I’m saying fairly well known things in academics explain why you keep making bad arguments. Saying why your argument is bad is not saying my argument is right. This is logic 101. I’m trying to help you make better arguments. You can have a bad argument for a true conclusion and a good argument doesn’t necessarily entail a true conclusion.

  26. Matt Calhoun
    September 22, 2017 at 2:35 am

    1) “You said reason was public.” You are distorting my words. Read what I wrote again: “In modern reason, evidence is shown at great detail for others to verify and test. In modern reason, there is no concept of something being ‘too sacred’ to share.” Don’t government physicists with security clearances show at great detail their evidence for others to verify and test? I have never heard of government not revealing information because it was “sacred.” Secret is not the same thing as sacred. The government keeps their research secret so as to not let criminals and competing states compromise it in some way, not because the knowledge might not be valued as actual knowledge by doubters and skeptics. A good many states have highly valued nuclear technology, which the US tried hard to keep secret, when they obtained it. Many believing LDS don’t share supposed evidence for their claims because of the milk/meat philosophy and the idea that you don’t cast pearls before swine. The belief is that if they share “sacred” personal “evidence” to a skeptic that they won’t regard their “sacred” experience to be real evidence. The idea is that you have to culturally condition someone first before sharing culture-specific evidence about some truth claim with them, for only then will they be more likely to accept your “sacred” experience as real evidence. Your equivalence just doesn’t work.

    2) The verification that Joseph Smith saw God is culture-specific. In LDS culture, feeling the spirit is regarded as evidence of God revealing that Joseph Smith saw God. In order to get someone to accept this as evidence they have to be conditioned. In modern reason, there is no cultural conditioning needed to get people across cultures to accept something as true. And this is what sets reason apart from a good number of religions.

    As for appeal to authority, I will qualify what I said before. Mormonism is not reason-based because its main tenets are based on Joseph Smith receiving revelation (not a body of independent researchers conducting reasoned inquiry and rigorously questioning and verifying each other’s evidence and data), which is objectively unverifiable. By contrast, I can obtain the same/similar knowledge as an expert witness in a court by seeking similar study and work experience. However, you can’t achieve prophethood by imitating Joseph Smith, can you? There is a huge difference between authority and expertise. In the world of modern reason, there are no authorities, only experts. In Mormonism, there are authorities with authoritative views that cannot be questioned because you must accept a certain core of beliefs to be true simply on the basis that an authority figure said that they were true. In the world of modern reason, every idea can be subject to question. In Mormonism, massive offense is taken if someone questions key tenets.

    3) “Not knowing why individual suicide bombers are acting I can’t speak to whether they’re acting rationally.” You’re really going to leave space open that Muslim suicide bombers are acting rationally??? I think you’ve dug your pit deep enough here that we can quite well bury you.

    4) “I’m not saying modern academics lead to Mormon truth claims.” I never said you were. Your invocation of quite well-known academics and philosophers to defend the possibility of Mormon truth claims being true implies that these leading academics and philosophers would be willing to back Mormon truth claims. This idea is insane.

  27. Clark Goble
    September 22, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    1. The difference between sacred or secret ends up being pretty subtle at best. After all people aren’t afraid of sharing such things just not in most public settings. So you’re trying to draw a difference I just don’t see. I’ve talked about my experiences quite often. But more importantly you are attempting to deny that your critique here rests purely upon evidence being public to be part of reason. Think of your inner mental states. Those are essentially private, yet you would never argue you can’t reason with them. Pain being the obvious one that is discussed in epistemology the most. So even if you don’t like the physics example I can supply numerous other counter-examples to your claim.

    And of course the other move I can easily make is simply to put the burden of argument on you. You are claiming that to be reason evidence must be “shown at great detail for others to verify and test.” What’s your argument for that claim? I think I can easily show counter-examples of why it’s wrong but you’ve provided no reasons that it is true.

    2. It is not at all clear that evidence is culture specific unless one adopts a kind of cultural relativism that sees scientific evidence as cultural specific as well. Again what’s your argument for this?

    3. Your claim here is just repeating your prior claim. It’s not reason because it’s not “objectively” verifiable with objective meaning public in a strong sense. But again you’ve not demonstrated that is true.

    4. I never asserted what you claim here at all. Again (and I was very explicit) I was talking about why your arguments are invalid. Inferring from that claim that somehow I’m arguing that because of that my claims are therefore true is very erroneous reasoning.

  28. Matt Calhoun
    September 22, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Tell me an example of what you believe to be a religious belief that is not compatible with reason and we’ll go from there. For as far as I can tell, you seem willing to accept Islamist suicide bombing as based on reason. If that is the case, I think I’m arguing with a crazy person. It cannot possibly be that all religious beliefs are compatible with reason. What you need to show me is what these unreasonable religious beliefs are and then show me what makes Mormon truth claims reasonable and how you distinguish Mormon truth claims from the truth claims of other religions. Lots of people claim to have seen God, gods, spirits, deities, or even to be God (consider Sri Sathya Sai Baba whose followers were taught that he was God). How are any of these claims more or less reasonable or unreasonable (depending on how you see it) than the idea that Joseph Smith saw God and received revelations? I just can’t see what criteria you are using to make such a distinction. Hence I categorize all of these claims to divine witnesses as objectively unverifiable and not worthy of reasoned discussion to determine their veracity. You don’t believe them on reason, you believe them on faith, tradition, intuition, personal revelation, or whatever means that are not accepted as part of modern reason.

    You seem to be missing every one of my points and/or simply not validating them and giving back responses only to score points in a sort of game you are playing rather than honestly engage my arguments. I am beginning to find that having a reasoned discussion with you is a near impossibility.

  29. Clark Goble
    September 22, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    You honestly can’t think of any rational reason for being a suicide bomber? You lack imagination. Your a poor teenager living in a hell of a world. You are depressed and want out. People are offering more money than your family makes in a lifetime if you become a suicide bomber. Your sister needs medical care. Is it irrational to do it?

    As for religious beliefs incompatible with reason, I think someone who believes in the Bible purely on faith ala the stereotype of Kierkegaard with zero evidence that the miraculous events narrated happened is behaving irrationally. (Which is not to say they are being bad of course) It’s easy to come up with these.

    For how I distinguish truth claims for me (since we’re talking about the justifications for a particular person for a particular belief) is whether there’s evidence. It’s just that you persist in thinking that doesn’t count.

    I am engaging your arguments. You just keep making bad arguments and seem unable to understand why they are bad. Further for many of your key claims you don’t even bother to make an argument. (Such as why rational evidence needs to be examined by everyone – what’s the evidence for that?)

    Let me help you. Let’s take the example from one of the links I provided that you didn’t read. It’s useful because it’s something both of us probably disbelieve and doesn’t have the baggage of religion so you can see the logic better without prejudice coming to bear.

    Let us say you are walking in the forest one day and bump into a cloaked spaceship.[4] You know something is there because you can feel it with your hand. You walk around it not knowing anything about the technology enabling it. You know you are in good health with no mental problems. Do you know it’s a spaceship? Well I’d say what you might be nearly justified in your leap, it’s probably going a tad too far. Maybe it’s some high tech device from Los Alamos that partially broke down. You just know there’s something there beyond our technology. You may believe it’s a spaceship but thinking through it you’re probably getting ahead of yourself in your interpretation.

    You decide to come back with some friends. It’s gone. Neither you nor they see it or feel it. Are you still justified in thinking there was the hidden object? Again I’d say yes. But recognize that this is completely a private experience. You are unable to share the experience even though you can describe it.

    The next day you come back. It’s back and this time a door opens up and an obviously non-human humanoid steps out. It talks to you and says his ship broke down and he’s under the Prime Directive not to interfere but that he’s determined some food he’s able to digest and could you get him some. He continues that you aren’t to tell anyone about it. You give him (although you’re not sure it’s a “he”) some food and he eats it. He tells you his warp drive broke down and he should have it fixed soon. You say that’s impossible because as a physicist you know faster than light travel is impossible. Further that if you did it you’d have a working time machine. The alien replies, “fat lot you know and if I were trained as a physicist instead of an underpaid pilot servicing deep space probes I’d prove it to you.” You reply that’s nonsense and the fact he can’t prove it just demonstrates it’s false. He turns to you, rolls his eyes, and says, “then how did I get here?” He then enters the spaceship and flies off, never to be seen again. No one else saw the spaceship since of course it was cloaked.

    Now as a physicist who believes in General Relativity I’ll admit I don’t think it’s possible for aliens to visit let alone go faster than the speed of light. Further I don’t believe anyone who claims to have seen an alien. But even so I’d say that for a person who had this experience that they were justified in believing in aliens, spaceships and possibly even faster than light travel. Now since I’ve never had that experience and don’t think it would happen I’m not so justified. Indeed if someone came up to me making those claims I’d not believe them at all without some very good reasons.

  30. Matt Calhoun
    September 23, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    “You honestly can’t think of any rational reason for being a suicide bomber?…” I said Islamist suicide bomber. The suicide bombers aren’t all poor teenagers trying to make money for their families. I’m not saying that some aren’t, but the primary reason for the suicide bombing is to be a shahid (martyr) over economic concerns. Irrational superstition is what is driving suicide bombings by Muslims far more than any rational justification. Plus, the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated, well-to-do, and could have easily lived out their lives in relative comfort in the US. Irrational superstition is the only explanation for their acts. You really jumped the shark by leaving open space that Islamic suicide bombing could possibly be justified on modern reason.

    “I think someone who believes in the Bible purely on faith ala the stereotype of Kierkegaard with zero evidence that the miraculous events narrated happened is behaving irrationally”

    You’re basically saying that to believe something purely on faith is not rational/reasonable. Therefore do you think that faith does not equal reason? That is what I have been saying all along. I don’t know what the stereotype of Kierkegaard is. I think you gave an unintelligible non-answer here. Part of the game you’re playing.

    “Such as why rational evidence needs to be examined by everyone”

    Again you distort my words (more game-playing on your part). You really seem to be tripping on your tongue to nail me on this, but you can’t when you correctly represent my words. Back to your unbelievably false equivalence of you having a private “sacred” experience and physicists doing top secret research. Physicists with top secret security clearances test and verify each other’s ideas and experiments, don’t they? Plus, we have every reason to believe that were information about these physicists’ top secret experiments to leak out that they would valued as not only reasonable but highly valuable by physicists across cultures. Let’s say that you were discussing your “sacred” experience with other believers and one of them recorded you secretly and leaked you talking about your “sacred” experience. Do you really think that that would be seen as reasonable and valuable by people across cultures? No.

    On your excerpt, reason requires non-culture-specific (in other words objective) verification. There are simply too many claims about the supernatural that we couldn’t possibly consider every last one of them to be reasonable.

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