A Model of Information and Prophetic Counsel

Suppose Heavenly Father wishes to convey some important information to us that will be useful to our salvation. Now we know that He can communicate with us but that He limits that communication to be based on faith (ours or those around us). Thus, getting answers from God involves a cost in terms of faith and effort (see D&C Section 9). Starting from this point, one can write down a simple model of prophetic guidance that lets us understand what we observe:

Assume everyone wishes to know some value T (if it helps, pretend it is the exact percentage of tithing we are to pay). We can receive an estimate of this value but our estimate is “noisy” in that it is error-laden. Thus we get information Y with Y = T + e, and e is the error. If e is big (negative or positive), then our estimate Y is not very close to T. If e is 0 then we are fine. But we don’t know e or T, we only have Y.

Case 1: Robinson Crusoe
If we are the only person available, we go with Y=T, since we don’t really have anything else to go on. This isn’t great if e can be very big, but it is all we have.

Case 2: Dark Ages
Suppose there are many of us, each with a different estimate of T. Thus we each have a different Y. If we think that on average, our errors cancel out (so that e is as often too low as too high), we can average our Y’s and call that the best guess T. Then we all do that. We may all be very wrong if, in fact, the e’s don’t “cancel out” (average to 0). But that is all we can do. This is one of the many justifications for democracy– it aggregates information. This view also gets you things like the Iowa Electronic Markets.

Case 3: The Restoration
Suppose we are in Case 2, but some person (call this person a prophet) is known to draw e’s close to 0 (so that Y is always or typically close to T). We should take advantage of this fact. This could happen in one of two ways:

A) Suppose we believe our Y contains separate valuable information that the prophet’s Y does not. Thus we would wish to average our Y’s together, though we may wish to give more weight to the prophet. There is a nice little mathematical formula for how to do this, but basically it amounts to giving more weight to people who have high-quality draws. In this model, since one never actually believes the prophet to be exactly right, one always modifies the advice by one’s own information. One believes some combination of one’s own Y and the prophetic Y (you can add in other people’s Y as well). This will give you the best available guess.

B) On the other hand, it may be that we have basically no good information once one accounts for the prophet’s statement. Thus the only reason we get a different Y than the prophet is because we have trouble “getting the signal” and so have a noisy measure of T. In this case, we should totally ignore our Y, and assume T equals the Y revealed by the prophet. This may be the case if the prophet is also aggregating together information to determine the Y he tells you.

Note 1: Case 3 requires us to decide about how close the prophet typically is to the truth, and whether or not we have separate information that the prophet is not privy to. But even those who ignore their own Y and just follow the prophet are not assuming infallibility, far from it! Case 3B makes no claims about prophetic infallibility (though that would be fine), only that the prophetic statement includes all the useful information available to you. Personally, I think that Case 3B is a pretty good guess of where we stand on relation to information stated in General Conference.

Note 2: God authorizes servants so that we know who has the good information.

Note 3: How good our Y is is likely to be a function of our own efforts at prayer, obedience, etc. It may be that, in our current mortal state, it is easier to verify a truth than to receive one. Thus it may be low cost to take the prophet’s Y to the Lord and ask if this is the best available one. It may be much easier to get an answer to that query than to receive a high-quality Y from one’s own efforts. Thus we confirm the prophetic counsel as part of the process of confirming the prophet’s standing as the best available information.

Note 4: If each person has a different correct T, this presents a problem for general revelation. In this case, the Church may take no stand because there is no one one correct answer that is worth giving. It also may go to localities and offer advice specific to that location (stake conference). Or one’s best counsel may come from a local “prophet” (bishop or head of family) that has a better signal than you. Lastly, it may be that our individual guesses are so off that it is better for the prophet to give a universal guess that is perfect for no one but is better than what we’d do individually. See the first few verses of Section 89 where we get a revelation that is geared to the weakest among us, but was then applied to all.

Now there are other reasons to obey counsel than the one given above. This is not a Grand Universal Theory of Prophets. It is just a little model that may give some insight to what we observe.

8 comments for “A Model of Information and Prophetic Counsel

  1. Nate Oman
    June 28, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Frank: One potential problem is that you seem to assume that the value of the prophetic Y is exogenous to the model, determined solely by T and whatever the value of prophetic e is. What happens if we assume that God, the prophet, or both are strategic actors? Hence, the value of Y that they announce may be based on their assumptions about how we respond to the prophetic Y. This seems quite likely. For example, it does not seem implausible to suppose that prophets sometimes take strident positions on particular issues because they assume that the decision making of members will be colored by their own Y. It may well be the case that if they were not acting strategically, but merely stating their “true” Y that its value would be different than the Y that they actually announce.

  2. Frank McIntyre
    June 28, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    That’s right. In the post I note that one justification for 3B is that the prophet already aggregates information. This is step 1 to strategic behavior.

    Assuming that God acts strategically is a fine assumption, but suppose the prophet says something and you do it. Was God not sufficiently strategic to know that you’d do what you were supposed to? So if he knows you are obedient, He can give you the best signal. If He knows you are a bit of a flake who never actually obeys it may be optimal for Him to give advice that is “too strong” or information that is not as useful as the truth because he is constrained by your disobedience.

    Thus our disobedience leads to us getting worse information. This sounds familiar

  3. Nate
    June 28, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    Frank: You are assuming that the only strategic actor is God acting with perfect information. What if prophets, God, and people are all acting strategically with varying levels of information?

  4. Frank McIntyre
    June 28, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    Here is the obedience set of strategies for people and prophets:

    People — Accept the prophet’s signal as the best information
    Prophet — receive God’s counsel and tell everyone

    In such a world, it seems clear that God’s strategy is to give the best signal that faith allows. If the other agents follow the strategies above, then God will best help them by giving the right revelation.

    Next consider a world where people start messing with the advice they are given. Tell me a set of strategies that does better (as in gives a better outcome) than the set I gave above. I fully accept that God may find it optimal to give different advice in such a situation. But that is because he is constrained by their strategy. If they obeyed, he could just give it to them straight. Although one could come up with exceptions, I can’t think of any that would be compelling.

    Adding a constraint to an optimization problem will never get you a better outcome than the unconstrained optimization problem. So people’s strategic behavior just makes things worse. In that case, if we adopt an obedience strategy we do as well or better because God knows we will obey.

    If we are not obedient, then we get into a mess which I think is reflected in the scripture that disobedience and doubt leads to less knowledge and eventually hell.

    I’m not sure what adding in the prophet as a seperate strategic actor gets me. Did you have something in mind? The prophet knows more about God than the people and less about the people than God. So he seems to be in a bit of a middle-man position strategically.

  5. greenfrog
    June 28, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    Doesn’t concluding this…:

    “but some person (call this person a prophet) is known to draw e’s close to 0”

    …require recourse to either Case 1 or Case 2?

    “Known” how and by reference to what? Either individual belief, subject to the same e as Mr. Crusoe, or collective belief, subject to the same e as the serfs of the Dark Ages.

    There is, post-Dark Ages, however, another source of information: science, which (in its most reliable and peer-reviewed form) could be considered a combination of Case 2 and Case 3, collective through peer-review and the capacity for repetition leading to identical results, and based upon a source with a relatively low e value, that is, a source that follows the scientific method.

  6. Frank McIntyre
    June 28, 2004 at 3:45 pm


    I thought about throwing in another case where one weights each person’s Y differently based on how good a draw they get. This is what you are referencing, In, for example, the Iowa Markets, you signal this low variance by spending a lot of money. In science, there are people that many people think are really smart, and so their opinion is accorded higher weight. Experiments are fine, but unless you do the experiment it is still part of someone else’s information set, and so must be aggregate accordingly.

    “Doesn’t concluding this…:

    “but some person (call this person a prophet) is known to draw e’s close to 0″

    …require recourse to either Case 1 or Case 2?”

    This is true of any information. You have to get it from somewhere. Case 2 has the same problem since you must assume something about the value of other’s information. The Science Case you mention also requires some method for determining who has low draws. In the simple version of Case 3 I take as given that there is such a prophet and we know who they are; for most of us, that is where we stand. The personal witness of the prophet’s authority that we are all encouraged to get is an example of Case 1. So is the confirmation I talk about in Note 3. As I note there, it may be easier to get confirmatory revelation of prophetic authority than to get one’s own set of independent revelation. Once we know who the prophet is by Case 1, we can use that knowledge for any later questions by applying Case 3.

  7. greenfrog
    June 28, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    If Case 3 is always a special version of Case 1 or Case 2, do disagreements regarding conclusions within a community always boil down to Case 1 or Case 2 — either individual knowledge vs. individual knowledge or individual knowledge vs. collective knowledge?

  8. Frank McIntyre
    June 28, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    By “special case” you mean that one must appeal to Case 1 knowledge in order to use Case 3? This is just as true of Case 2 and the Science Case. Both require some individual knowledge from which one expands.

    As for communit decisions, if everyone in the communit accepts the prophetic authority of a given person, one could use Case 3. It is only in communities when such knowledge is not accepted that you have to decide how to aggregate it.

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