Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Apologetics, Pizza and Philosophy

     I was twelve years old. Our Deacon’s Quorum adviser told us there was enough pizza for each of us to have four slices, including the boy who would be arriving late.
     Being overweight and not wanting to be accused of eating more than my share, I took only three pieces. My strategy was to very slowly pick at the pieces of pizza as we watched the video. And that’s what I did.
     When the late boy arrived, there was no pizza left. He was not too happy about that. Then one of the boys, with great indignation, said that he had seen me take 9 pieces of pizza – a whopping 9 pieces! He had been watching me, he said, and counting how much pizza I took.
     I knew I had only taken three pieces, but the evidence was stacked against me: I was known for eating a lot of food, the pizza was in fact gone, or missing, and to top it off there was an eyewitness who claimed to have seen me take it.
     I denied the charge, but to no avail. I wanted to get to the bottom of it, but before I could, the Quorum adviser chimed in and told us that we were not to say another word about it. Perhaps he thought he was doing me a favor. Perhaps he thought I had taken the pizza and he was sparing me embarrassment. But quite the opposite was true – I wanted justice, and I wasn’t getting it. The prosecution had its day and I was not allowed to cross-examine. I wasn’t allowed to clear my name.
     And thus the evidence of what really happened was hidden away.
     Now let’s say that in a hundred years from now someone decides to write a biography of my life. Somehow they dig up an old journal from one of the boys who had been at the pizza night with me, and the journal states as a fact that I took 9 pieces of pizza when I was only entitled to 4 pieces, that I had even been seen doing it and yet I turned around and lied about it.
     Now suppose the historical biographer factors that into a narrative of what I was like as a child. The biographer would perhaps be praised for conducting such exhaustive research into my early years, and he would probably be considered thorough and objective.
     But the historian would be wrong, and his narrative would be tainted.
     Rather than being the type of boy who would steal pizza and lie about it, I was a boy who took one slice less than he was entitled to and ate my pizza slowly over the course of two hours.
     The boy who accused me was not known to lie, and I’m not accusing him of lying, I’m accusing him of being wrong.
     But, you might ask, how could he be wrong about something so straight-forward as watching me take pizza out of a box and put it on my plate? Isn’t it just his word against mine?
     Well, let’s suppose I go to a magic show and afterwards I tell you that I saw a tiger turn into a house-cat. Are your only options to either believe me or to think I’m lying? Of course not. Most likely, what I actually saw is not what I thought I saw. I probably drew a false inference from what I saw, and I then claimed to have seen the thing which I had actually only inferred and not seen. For instance, I may have seen a tiger on stage and then seen the tiger momentarily covered up, then the cover was removed and I saw a housecat. I then inferred that the tiger turned into the housecat. Due to the imperfection of language, my statement that “I saw a tiger turn into a housecat” does not convey the factual substance of what I actually saw, but only conveys the conclusion I reached.
     Likewise, due to the imperfection of language, my accuser’s claim to have seen me take 9 pieces of pizza does not tell us what he actually saw. It tells us his conclusion rather than giving us factual evidence with which to reach our own conclusions.
     His inference hides evidence.
     This puts us in a position where if we are to believe his account we must not merely trust that he is honest but must also trust his judgment in place of our own.
     This hidden evidence prevents us from finding the truth.
     For instance, he may have seen me pull 3 pieces of pizza from the box and put them on my plate – something which I freely admit that I did. But then the lights went down and the video came on. He may have seen me stand up at some point and walk over to the table where the food and drinks were made available. I may have refilled my cup with soda then sat back down with the same 3 pieces of pizza on my plate, creating the illusion that I had taken a second helping of pizza. A while later, he may have glanced over at me and still seen 3 pieces - from which he inferred that I had gone back for thirds and a total of nine pieces.
     That’s a plausible explanation. I don’t know for certain that it transpired that way, but the burden of proof is on the accuser. That’s because he’s the one making a claim.
     Yes, I am also making a claim by saying that I had only 3 pieces, but neither side is disputing that I took those 3 pieces – the question is whether I took an additional six. The accuser says I did, and is therefore creating a burden of proof for himself.
     Yes, another thing I did was lay out for you a scenario whereby my accuser may have been tricked by an illusion and made a false assumption. But that scenario doesn’t need to be proven. The purpose of the scenario is to demonstrate that we don’t have enough data to decide whether or not his inference was valid. To serve its purpose, the scenario need only be plausible, which it is. But I don’t need to even present a scenario such as that in order for my point to be valid. The scenario only illustrates that evidence is hidden from our view, and this is denying us the ability to judge for ourselves.
     The larger issue here is that we need to differentiate between objective evidence and inferences drawn by others. We don’t have the luxury of cross-examining the witnesses of history or allowing the accused to speak in their own defense.
     Like a magician’s stage, the past has many secrets which are out of view. The best available data is not always enough to draw a conclusion, and can in fact be highly misleading. Our desire to know a detail of history is not sufficient cause for pretending that we do in fact know it. Sometimes the evidence is there, other times it is not.

As knowledge shines forth in the Last Days, the Lord lights my path of faith with His Spirit.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Rethinking the "Book of Joseph"

     As my friends and readers know, I like to question things - exploring new ideas and trying not to take anything for granted.
     One example is the belief that Joseph Smith said that his papyrus collection contained both a book of Abraham and a Book of Joseph.
     The reason this sort of information is important is because it sets the tone for how we interpret other facts. For instance, the theory that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyrus which is now missing takes a hit if Joseph claimed there were two separate rolls - because that would mean two rolls are missing which need to be accounted for, not just one - which makes the theory less plausible.
     Alternatively, the missing papyrus theory would be bolstered if Joseph Smith said he was referring to only one document. This would allow for the possibility that Abraham had written a book and then Joseph of Egypt redacted a small part of Abraham's book, and the small redacted version is what ended up in Joseph Smith's papyri. From that small redacted version, Joseph Smith could then have restored the full Book of Abraham - the book written as Joseph Smith said, "by his own hand" and helping us understand why Joseph included that phrase, since the phrase "by his own hand" draws a distinction between Abraham's own version and the later redacted version(s).
     If that's what Joseph Smith was talking about, then it could go a long way toward solving the Book of Abraham puzzle. A small redacted excerpt could have fit on the missing end of the Hor papyrus scroll.
     So let's explore the possibility.        

     There is little evidence that Joseph Smith himself said that Abraham's writings were on one roll and Joseph's writings were on a separate roll. For one thing, Joseph Smith was not keeping a journal at the time of his alleged statement. It's easy to see how if Joseph Smith said something about the papyri containing the writings of "Abraham and Joseph," people could assume he meant that the writings of the two Patriarchs were on separate rolls (since we tend to perhaps think of scripture in terms of each prophet having his own separate book).
     In the context of my theory, one possibility is that Joseph of Egypt put together a few things Abraham had said about the Egyptians, for the purpose of talking with Pharaoh about Abraham's time in Egypt and about Egyptian history. 
     This would seem to square with a statement from Parley P. Pratt:

The record is now in course of translation by the means of the Urim and Thummim, and proves to be a record written partly by the father of the faithful, Abraham, and finished by Joseph when in Egypt.

     Pratt is talking about a single record which both men (Abraham and Joseph of Egypt) contributed to, and the wording of Pratt's statement is consistent with the redaction idea. This would account for why Joseph Smith never really talked about the contribution from Joseph of Egypt, due to the fact that Joseph Smith restored the original Book of Abraham, the one written by Abraham's own hand, not the redacted excerpt passed down perhaps in the extra space on the Hor roll. 
     We only have one account of Joseph Smith mentioning a connection between Joseph of Egypt and the papyri, a statement made soon after the purchase of the papyri. This one statement attributed to Joseph Smith reads:

… with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt

     This quote is from History of the Church, which was written in a first-person style as if Joseph was himself speaking, but was actually a compilation of statements which were primarily written by others. 
     Howard C. Searle explains:

Although little of the subsequent history was dictated or written by the Prophet himself, writers used his diaries where available and retained the first-person narrative style throughout.

      Although unfamiliar to us today, this first-person editing practice for compiled materials was quite common and acceptable at the time. Historian Michael D. Quinn observes:

Our present standards concerning plagiarizing, footnoting, and editorial adherence to the original manuscript did not begin to penetrate even professional historical writing in American until nearly fifty years after the original composition and editing of Joseph Smith's history, and were not generally reflected in non-professional histories until long after B.H. Roberts prepared the second edition of that history in 1900. 

     So, the quote attributed to Joseph actually appears to have come years later from Phelps, which means the quote reflects only his understanding of the situation and his memory of what Joseph said. Unfortunately, it was a complex situation. And Joseph's method of translation does not require us to assume that he was even looking at the rolls of papyrus or explaining to his scribes which roll(s) he was talking about when he identified that the papyrus contains the writings of Abraham and Joseph. Moreover, the account from Phelps could also be tainted by the public perception about the rolls as it developed over the intervening years.
     In a letter to William Frye, Oliver is known to have made a statement describing his understanding of the Book of Joseph. In the history of the Church, this statement was also wrongly attributed in first person to Joseph.
     The letter written by Cowdery states in part:

The inner end of the same roll (Joseph's record) presents a representation of the judgment. At one view you behold the Savior seated upon His throne, crowned and holding the scepter of righteousness and power, before whom also, are assembled, the twelve tribes of Israel, the nations, languages and tongues of the earth, the kingdoms of the world over which Satan is represented as reigning, Michael the Archangel, holding the key of the bottomless pit, and at the same time the devil as being chained and shut up in the bottomless pit.

      It's not surprising that Oliver took occasion to “study it out in his own mind,” in accordance with the commandment which had been given specifically to him in D&C 9:8. In no way does Oliver attribute this information to Joseph Smith, or claim that it was an actual translation. Rather, Cowdery states that it is self-evident: “The evidence is apparent upon the face, that they were written by persons acquainted with the history of the Creation, the fall of man, and more or less of the correct ideas of the notions of the Deity.”
     Cowdery's letter was printed in The Messenger and Advocate, of which Cowdery was editor, and, accordingly, I believe that's where the rumor of the roll of Joseph started. Cowdery plainly believed the Tshemmin roll was doctrinally significant, and since the writings of Abraham were being translated from the other roll, it would be reasonable to deduce (in Cowdery' s shoes) that the Tshemmin roll contained the “writings of Joseph” which Joseph Smith had evidently said something about. Again, I believe Joseph most likely said something about the papyri containing the writings of both Abraham and Joseph, but we have no way of knowing what his exact phraseology was.
     Some people may still choose to assume that Joseph Smith said the Tshemmin roll contained the writings of Joseph of Egypt. But if Joseph Smith was on trial, there would be no direct evidence to make that case. The only people who are known to have claimed that the Tshemmin roll contained the writings of Joseph of Egypt are people who would have had no personal means of knowing.
     These people can't be witnesses to any particular roll being the Book of Joseph, or being a record of anything else, unless they had the ability to translate. And the only one who did claim to have that ability, Joseph Smith, appears silent on the matter except for a quote which is attributed to him in a history known for routinely attributing statements to him which he did not make.
     One might wonder, if a misconception existed then why didn't Joseph correct the misconception? Well, if he became aware of the problem, then perhaps he did correct it – at least to anyone asking him about it in person.. But the question is when or if he became aware of the problem. He had a lot happening in his life.
     Did anyone ever ask him to clarify? I don't know that they saw any need. Once Joseph said something to the effect of finding the writings of Joseph and Abraham, and people could see for themselves that there were two rolls, the people could have seen that as sufficient grounds for their assumption, and then Oliver's publication of the letter, with those two words, “Joseph's record,” solidified the assumption.
     But wouldn't it have come up frequently in conversation? Not if Joseph only talked about the Book of Abraham. It's easy to say that everyone should have gotten together and talked about every conceivable misunderstanding and gotten them all cleared up, but that's hindsight - how many misunderstandings took place which were in fact cleared up, but we don't know about because they were cleared up before anyone wrote about them?
     Perhaps there is information of which I am unaware, but I see no reason to assume that Joseph Smith associated the Tshemmin roll with Joseph of Egypt.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Critic's Chair

A number of years ago, my dad shared with me a parable about a grandfather. It goes something like this.

Many centuries ago, a certain young man was visiting his grandfather for the summer. After a few weeks had passed, the boy grew restless and asked his grandfather if they could go into town. The grandfather thought it was a fine idea, so off they went, with the old man on his donkey and the young man walking alongside.

As they passed some strangers, they heard whispers... "Can you imagine a grown man making a child walk while he rides comfortably on a donkey? That poor boy."

Feeling embarrassed, the grandfather switched places with his grandson.

Soon, they passed another group of strangers. "What a spoiled child. That old man is trudging along while a perfectly healthy lad rides a donkey!"

Once again embarrassed, the grandfather decided there was room for both of them on the donkey.

They passed another group of strangers. "Look! That donkey is carrying two people! Are they trying to kill it? That poor thing."

At his wits end, the grandfather decided they should both just walk alongside the donkey.

Soon, a group of strangers was pointing and laughing. "A perfectly good donkey, and neither of them has the good sense to use it!"

The moral of the story here is that you can't please everyone. I would also add: You can't always be pleased. At least, as long as we live in an imperfect world and we have imperfect knowledge, we will always be able to find fault with others.

In particular, I think of the countless criticisms engineered against Church leaders.

Do we not realize that Church leaders also live in this imperfect world, and their options are limited like the rest of us?

For example, some people are offended that the LDS Church built a mall (using investment funds only, not tithed funds), on it's property to the south of temple square. Personally, I see it as a great way to prevent inner city entropy, to beautify the area and to engage the public and tourists. That's in addition to it being a good investment. But to anyone offended, I would ask what the Church should have instead done with that property which it owns? Should the land just be a field for antelope to roam?

I'd like to see a criticism-proof idea, complete with cost/benefit analysis demonstrating with certainty that something else would have been a better use of the property.

This is the problem with many critics. They are like children throwing a fit over adult concerns that they don't understand. "But I want to have ice cream for dinner!" "You are mean because you won't buy me that toy!"

Which brings me to another example. From time to time, I hear someone complain about a Church leader flying First Class on an airplane. But what is the cost/benefit breakdown? First, the cost. General Authorities preside over a worldwide Church and spend a great deal of their time traveling. What arrangement do they have with the airline? And then, benefits. General Authorities have security and privacy concerns. They have heavy workloads, and limited time. They also need rest, to allow them to perform their duties in the many areas to which they travel.

No critic can deny that first class airfare offers greater opportunity for work and productivity during a flight, for resting as needed and for more security and privacy.
And critics don't know the cost, because we don't know what arrangement the Church has with the airline (although critics call that a lack of transparency, it is really none of their business).

These are practical concerns, in the real world. The critics might as well criticize themselves for owning cars - paying for gas,  repairs, insurance, etc. - despite the option of public transportation. Why not get rid of their cars and donate the saved money to the charity of their choice? Do the critics not realize that people are starving in the world, while they drive their air conditioned vehicles?