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Epistemology Stress – Mormon Style

I live in Salt Lake City, which provides a front-row seat for religious issues affecting the LDS subculture. Recently there has been intense discussion concerning a one-word change to the introduction to the Book of Mormon (BOM). For details see the following articles:

In the Deseret News

In the Salt Lake Tribune

The brief version is this: the LDS church has historically taught that western hemisphere Indians are direct descendants of the ‘Lamanites’, which the BOM claims in turn descended from a small band of Israelites who migrated from Jerusalem. The BOM has an Introduction, which is not part of the material produced by Joseph Smith, and past editions stated in that Introduction (quoting the Deseret News now): “all of the people chronicled in the book ‘were destroyed, except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians’“ (italics supplied).

But the new BOM edition has changed ‘the principal ’ to ‘among the’, so the reading is now “they are among the ancestors of the American Indians”.

While this change is not to LDS scripture itself, the concept that Indians are primarily descended from BOM Lamanites has been verbalized by LDS General Authorities for years and widely believed by the membership.

So why the change? Because after DNA testing of over 12000 Indians the secular conclusion is that most early inhabitants of the Americas came from Asia across the Bering Strait. There is (unsurprisingly to Adventists) no evidence for the BOM claim of Hebraic origin.

Some reader comments to the above newspaper articles include:

“I believe that if a person has a question, they can pray for the right answer.”

“look to the source, not the philosophies of men.”

“if DNA science wasn't valid and reliable, there would have been no need for the Church leaders to have changed the introduction wording.”

Well, what criteria should an LDS believer use? Prophetic authority? Science? Both? If both, then what should one do if they seem to disagree? And would the church undermine its revelatory authority if its claims were subjected to scientific scrutiny?

By now the observant SDA reader is likely to feel some déjà vu, as Adventism has also experienced conflicts between faith and science. Different context, same problems. And that’s because the root cause is more fundamental than the faith/science context. It is epistemological – i.e. how do we gain knowledge?

Stated simply, we humans have two different basic sources for knowledge – authority and experience. Then we extend that base by reasoning. And authority comes in two flavors – grounded either naturalistically or super-naturalistically. Naturalistically grounded authority could be taken as a special case of experience as we, in theory, could verify the authority ourselves. Supernatural authority, in contrast, delivers information that might not be naturalistically verifiable.

The LDS dilemma, above, pits presumed supernatural authority against human-derived understanding. And while the context is barely interesting to an Adventist, the foundational question of knowledge-grounding is a universal human issue. So how might we proceed?

Some take the fideistic option of choosing revelation over anything knowable (directly or indirectly) from human experience. Technically called Divine Command Theory, the ‘bumper-sticker’ version is ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.’ This option seems to have the twin virtues of loyalty to God plus recognition of human limitation. But it also has serious weaknesses, rarely discussed in church contexts but thoroughly critiqued throughout the history of ideas. After all, there are a lot of prophetic wannabes out there. How does one decide among competing authorities unless there is some appeal to experience-based sources?

Others allow a naturalistic perspective to override any presumed divine command, resulting in a God-of-the-Gaps position, where any time there is an apparent conflict between revealed vs. naturally grounded conclusions – then naturalism wins. So, for example, if science seems to demonstrate that the earth is very old and death has been present throughout all that time, a literalistic interpretation of Genesis would need to undergo serious overhaul, possibly to the extent that people like the apostle Paul would not recognize the result.

Most of us are likely to be almost congenitally predisposed toward compatibilism – i.e. believing the two streams of knowledge-grounding come from the same source. Then faith and science will resolve. Yet we are stuck if we cannot discern the anticipated resolution. What then? Will we be willing to live with the resulting dissonance? Or will we seek to relieve our distress by trumping one source over the other?


Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.

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