Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Arandur comments on How to Convince Me That 2 + 2 = 3 - Less Wrong

53 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 September 2007 11:00PM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (390)

Sort By: Old

You are viewing a single comment's thread. Show more comments above.

Comment author: Arandur 28 July 2011 10:22:17PM *  0 points [-]

I am well acquainted with the notion of absence of evidence, thank you; I touched on this point above, stating that, although absence of evidence does count as points against the case I make, positive evidence makes stronger points. Were this not the case, then physicists wouldn't be searching for the Higgs Boson; they'd be restricted to theories which are readily explained by only the particles we have evidence of.

A disproof of the Book of Mormon, then, must rest upon just that: disproof. With that in mind, let us examine further those points raised in the link you provided.

Archaeological Fallacies
First, four technologies are mentioned which were "unknown to Mesoamerica": chariots, steel swords, bellows, and silk.

An explanation of the word 'chariot' can be found here.

Many explanations have been made re: steel swords; the reference made in this case comes from the book of Ether, speaking of the Jaredites. I offer the below quote as a counter:

In light of contemporary conditions in Mesoamerica, one can understand this passage a number of ways. Although the blades of most macuahuitls in Mesoamerica were made from obsidian, the Aztecs are known to have had war clubs studded with iron instead of the usual obsidian. There are even examples in Mesoamerica of ceremonial macuahuitls with feathers replacing the obsidian blades.

Various types of material, including iron, replaced the usual obsidian of the macuahuitl, and such a weapon could thus be described as a sword with a metal "blade." Another possibility is to equate this Jaredite steel with the "steel" of the King James translation of the Old Testament, which actually refers to the Hebrew word for "bronze."

Finally, we need to understand that Mosiah translated Ether's plates into social and linguistic concepts with which he was familiar. Mosiah, as king, possessed Laban's sword, a steel weapon that was passed down as one of the insignia of royalty. In translating Ether's record, Mosiah might thus have given the Jaredite kings steel swords, like the one he himself possessed, because in Mosiah's society a king was expected to have a steel sword as his royal weapon.

Bellows are only mentioned in the locale of the old world, not in America, making this a non-point.

Regarding silk: An LDS publication, and a non-LDS publication, "Silkworm of the Aztecs" by Richard S. Peigler, Ph.D., Curator of Entomology, in Museum Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1993): pp. 10-11 (published by the Denver Museum of Natural History, both show evidence of silk in the Americas.

A note on cities in America comes again from Jeff Lindsay:

As for the account dealing with peoples in the New World, Book of Mormon geography best fits the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (southern Mexico, Guatemala), where a number of sites, cities, etc., have been tentatively correlated with Book of Mormon locations. The best treatment of this is in John Sorenson's An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. He offers fascinating correlations, very strong (in my opinion), though only a small fraction of the archaeological work has been done that is needed to confirm most of the specific proposals. The Lamanites in the Book of Mormon may correlate well with a part of the early Mayan civilization or one of the other cultural groups in ancient Mesoamerica. The peoples described in the Book of Ether could very well be part of the Olmec peoples from the same area. A number of Mayan legends and the few surviving writings provide interesting parallels with Book of Mormon concepts. Could write much more on this if you're interested. Bottom line: yes, there are real places and there were real people described in what is truly an authentic ancient record. But we are in our infancy when it comes to understanding Mesoamerica. Until scholars are able to do more work there, the argument from silence should be applied with caution.

Further, as noted above, the details of Lehi's journey through the Arabian peninsula have been well correlated with actual places, some with names matching those found in archaeological studies.

Anthropological fallacies

Most stunning of all, the BoM never once indicates that the American continent was anything but uninhabited when the refugees from Jerusalem arrived.

I'm sorry, but this is plainly wrong. We have known for quite some time that the Nephites were not the only inhabitants of ancient America; the Jaredites are an example attested in the Book of Mormon.

Biological fallacies
My goodness, what an intriguing question this is. I'll defer to Jeff Lindsay, who has done much work on this subject, and who has cited many good primary sources, lest there be a complaint against my using his work too many times.

Linguistic fallacies
I once again defer to Jeff Lindsay:

One of the most interesting evidences of transoceanic contact between the Old and New Worlds is the Bat Creek Hebrew inscription found by a Smithsonian expedition in Tennessee in 1889. (The Bat Creek Stone and other interesting oddities of archaeology, including pre-Columbian maize in India, can be seen at the Archaeological Outliers site.) Anti-Mormon writers such as the Tanners have spent much effort trying to argue that the writing on the Bat Creek Stone is not Hebrew. However, non-LDS scholar J. Huston McCulloch has now shown that the Bat Creek inscription, once thought to be Cherokee, "fits significantly better as Paleo-Hebrew" (J. Huston McCulloch, "The Bat Creek Inscription: Cherokee or Hebrew?" Tennessee Anthropologist, Vol. 13, Fall 1988, p. 116, as cited by Matthew Roper, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4, 1992, p. 212). McCulloch's recent work confirms Cyrus Gordon's original hypothesis about the inscription, namely, that it was from between 70 A.D. and 135 A.D. and represented Old World writing (Science Vol. 2, May 1971, pp. 14-16, as cited by Paul R. Cheesman, BYU Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 85). Carbon-14 dated wood and brass bracelets associated with the inscription date to between A.D. 32 and A.D. 769 (Ibid., pp.107-12, 116) - definitely before Columbus. Cyrus Gordon, a respected non-LDS scholar, wrote:

The Bat Creek Inscription is important because it is the first scientifically authenticated pre-Columbian text in an Old World script or language found in America; and, at that, in a flawless archaeological context. It proves that some Old World people not only could, but actually did, cross the Atlantic to America before the Vikings and Columbus....The discredited pre-Columbian inscriptions in Old World scripts or languages will have to be reexamined and reevaluated, each on the merits of the evidence, case by case. (Cyrus Gordon, "A Hebrew Inscription Authenticated," in Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, 1:71,80, as cited by Roper, op. cit.; for more on this controversial issue, see also J. Huston McCulloch, "The Bat Creek Inscription: Did Judean Refugees Escape to Tennessee?" Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1993, pp. 46-53, 82, and the differing view of P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "Let's Be Serious about the Bat Creek Stone," Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1993, pp. 54-55, 83.)

While critics will repeat old arguments that the Bat Creek Stone is a forgery, it is important to recognize that "there is absolutely no indication that the inscription is a forgery, in the first place, other than the circular, and therefore unscientific, argument that being Hebrew, it must surely be a fake" (J. Huston McCulloch, "The Bat Creek Stone: A Reply to Mainfort and Kwas," Tennessee Anthropologist, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring 1993, p. 16, emphasis added, as cited by Matthew Roper, FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, p. 142). David H. Kelly has also found serious evidence of several pre-Columbian inscriptions of European origin: "We need to ask . . . where we have gone wrong as archaeologists in not recognizing such an extensive European presence in the New World" (David H. Kelly, "Proto-Tifnagh and Proto-Ogham in the Americas," Review of Archaeology, Vol. 2, Spring 1990, p. 10, as cited by Roper, op. cit.). More evidence for scholarly acceptance of Old World scripts in the ancient Americas can be found in W.R. McGlone et al., Ancient American Inscriptions: Plow Marks or History? (Long Hill, Mass.: Early Sites Research Society, 1993, as cited by Sorenson, 1993, p. 21) and Jacques de Mahieu, "Corpus des inscriptions ruiniques d'Amerique du Sud," Kadath 68, Brussels, 1988, pp. 11-42 (cited by Sorenson, 1993, p. 21). More relevant research has tentatively identified hundreds of possible links between Uto-Aztecan languages (in Book of Mormon territory) with the ancient Hebrew language (work by Brian D. Stubbs, including "A Curious Element in Uto-Aztecan," The Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, Vol. 23, 1998 [according to second-hand sources - I have not yet read this article]; "Elements of Hebrew in Uto-Aztecan: A Summary of the Data," F.A.R.M.S. paper, 1988; "Looking Over vs. Overlooking Native American Languages: Let's Void the Void," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 1-49).

It Takes a Thief...
I will not deign to justify this. Any examination of the story, from either side, will show that this is neither a rigorous disproof or in fact unreasonable.

Lost in Translation
B. F. Sperry writes a response here to the question of Harris vs. Anthon. As for the Book of Abraham, I would be remiss not to refer you to Jeff Lindsay's excellent three-part piece.

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 July 2011 11:03:25PM *  7 points [-]

Edit: I meant to cover this point first, but I left it out before.

I am well acquainted with the notion of absence of evidence, thank you; I touched on this point above, stating that, although absence of evidence does count as points against the case I make, positive evidence makes stronger points. Were this not the case, then physicists wouldn't be searching for the Higgs Boson; they'd be restricted to theories which are readily explained by only the particles we have evidence of.

This really isn't how it works. Absence of evidence is evidence of strength proportional to the expectation of evidence if a given proposition is true. So if, for example, you propose that there is an elephant in a room, and then you investigate the room and see no sign of an elephant, then that is very strong evidence that there is no elephant in the room. But if you propose that there is a mouse in a room, and you investigate and see no sign of the mouse, then that is only weak evidence that there is no mouse. You will have to update your confidence that there is a mouse in the room downwards, but much, much less than you had to update in the case of the elephant.

In both the case of the elephant and the mouse, actually observing the elephant or mouse would be extremely strong evidence; you could still be wrong if you were hallucinating or someone had contrived an extremely clever way of creating an illusion of either, but it would still force you to greatly strengthen your probability estimate for an elephant or mouse being in the room. It's psychologically compelling to try to generalize this into an broad principle, that positive evidence is always stronger, but in fact as with the case of the elephant, negative evidence can reach arbitrarily high strengths depending on how strong the expectation of evidence is. Likewise, positive evidence can reach arbitrarily low strengths depending on how likely it is that the observation would be forthcoming without the proposition being true. For instance, if an alleged psychic describes a crime scene, and the police confirm that the description is accurate, this is not strong evidence that the psychic had any sort of vision of the scene if their description is statistically likely to apply to any crime scene of that type.

The defenses you've linked are extremely weak. Apologists of any religion can rationalize this degree of agreement with evidence, but the fact remains that given what we know about Mesoamerican civilization, the Book of Mormon does not remotely resemble what we would expect a legitimate text from that time and place to be like, the most we can say is that it is not strictly impossible for it to be so.

If you're already strongly invested in a religious narrative being true, then something like

After reading about the discovery of fossilized bison along with the mammoths recently found in Mexico (Associated Press, Oct. 30, 1996), perhaps one could speculate that bison were treated and named as cattle. If buffalo or bison had been in Joseph Smith's vocabulary in 1829, perhaps a more specific term might have been used in the translation, but "cattle" (perhaps as a generic term) may have been the most accurate translation for whatever word was used in the Nephite language.

may seem like an adequate defense, but a person who is merely impartial to the religion will simply ask "How likely is that?" Well, given that when animals are raised domestically for food like cattle, archaeologists can consistently find concentrations of their remains in human settlements along with food refuse, and there is no evidence whatsoever of bison being domesticated in Mesoamerica, or anywhere in premodern America at all, and besides which this was over twenty years after the Lewis and Clark expedition and Joseph Smith should have been quite aware of the existence of buffalo, the answer seems to be "very unlikely". Other defenses given on that page are similarly uncompelling.

I recommend checking out this article. It's about martial arts, but it generalizes extremely well. Once you become personally invested in a set of beliefs, your demands for arguments in its defense will be much weaker than a person without the same investment. Works of apologetics such as the ones you've linked may satisfy a believer to keep their package of beliefs, but this is very different from singling them out to an impartial individual to adopt them.

Having read a considerable number of works of apologetics for various religions, I cannot say that Mormonism stands out for having an atypical degree of support. It is at best typical, and the evidential standards among religions are already extremely low.

Comment author: Arandur 28 July 2011 11:39:48PM 7 points [-]

Your point is well taken, and I will meditate upon it. Thank you.

Comment author: novalis 29 July 2011 12:35:16AM *  3 points [-]

Re "Silkworms of the Aztecs", have you read it? Because these people say that the evidence for it existing is weak. I don't have access to JSTOR and I don't have Aaron Swartz's hard drive, so I can't look it up myself.

Comment author: Arandur 29 July 2011 12:02:49PM 1 point [-]

Well, that's disconcerting. Sounds like everyone's copying off everyone else. ;3 Problems in academia, indeed. The final post on that thread does seem to indicate that the article does exist; would you like me to attempt to gain a photocopy, so I can verify your suspicions?

Comment author: novalis 29 July 2011 04:22:00PM 0 points [-]

Well, I have to admit that I'm curious, but really only mildly. I mostly gave up trolling Mormon missionaries after high school. I just thought it might be an interesting article, which is why, while skimming this thread, it is one of the two things I googled -- the other being the Bat Creek stone.

Comment author: Arandur 30 July 2011 12:20:15AM 0 points [-]

:3 I am glad to hear you gave up on trolling the missionaries. I realize that they can be annoying... and some of them may deserve a bit of trolling, from the stories I've heard... but most of them are hard-working young men who really do believe in what they're saying.