FAIRMormon welcomes Paul Brooks as a guest blogger.
Paul is from the United Kingdom, runs the website reasonablemormon.com and volunteers at Book of Mormon Central. For a good example of the use of Bayesian analysis in apologetics see G. Bruce Schaalje.
The Probability of Mormonism as Divine
“The Probability of Mormonism as Divine” (authored by R. Keith Widdowson and published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform) uses the Bayesian probability theory to mathematically assess the hypothesis “Mormonism is divine.” The book concludes that the primary hypothesis has a 30% probability of being true.
The first thing to note is that this level of probability is described as not being worthy of abandoning belief:
According to my findings, given our current state of knowledge, it would be reasonable to be a Mormon believer (1).
Naturally when using Bayes’ Theorem, there is a huge amount of subjective scoring involved. Over the course of the methodology used in the book, over 400 individual scores/decisions are made which all contribute to the final probability.
The two-stage mathematical process used to arrive at the conclusion is well documented and the calculations are all correct, but unfortunately I found the final probability was made quite unreliable due to:
- The sub-hypotheses selected
- The scoring criteria selected
- The evidence selected and conclusions drawn
- The characteristics of God selected
Each of these will be discussed below.
The sub-hypotheses selected
In stage one of the book, 16 sub-hypotheses are selected (such as “God chose Joseph”) to test the primary hypothesis “Mormonism is divine,” but the selection does not seem to be intuitive for an overall assessment of Mormonism. Some do not even reflect Mormon beliefs.
For example, the sub-hypothesis “God created the First Cause” is selected to affirm the primary hypothesis, but Mormonism rejects the concept of a First Cause. Most of the evidence presented to affirm the sub-hypothesis (such as quotes from Hugh Ross, and William Lane Craig who has argued against Mormonism’s rejection of a First Cause) would be denied in Mormonism and most of the evidence presented to challenge the hypothesis would generally be accepted in Mormonism. It is a similar situation for “Cosmological Proof of God,” in which again, Mormonism does not hold to these prevalent views such as a “prime mover” God that “could not have failed to exist.”
Another worth noting is “God wants Polygamy,” which is the only sub-hypothesis that states what God wants. Why not choose “God wants Missionary Work” or “God wants Family History”? Both of which are key Mormon teachings from the outset still actively practiced today.
Selecting a more intuitive set of sub-hypotheses would surely increase the final probability dramatically.
The scoring criteria selected
The eight criteria for proof selected to score the sub-hypotheses are all useful except perhaps for “God proof” which is defined as: Direct, objective evidence from God (2). This is highly ambiguous and not explained any further in the book. None of the 16 sub-hypotheses score anything at all for this criteria and it is deemed non-applicable in two cases.
Just what would count as direct, objective evidence from God remains unanswered. Removing this criterion would be an appropriate modification and would naturally increase the probability of the sub-hypotheses.
The evidence selected and conclusions drawn
The overall probability rests firmly on the evidence selected for inclusion in the assessment. It would be near impossible to include all known evidence for and against each sub-hypothesis, so naturally the selection of evidence is hugely important and in this case, greatly contestable.
Without having to complete a full review of each of the 16 sub-hypotheses (and the resulting probabilities), just three examples of contentious points will be shown below, taken from the first sub-hypothesis “God chose Joseph.”
i. The Gold Plates
When presenting evidence to challenge the hypothesis, it is claimed:
So, according to the story, Joseph never showed the plates to anyone even though there is plenty of evidence that he talked a lot about the plates in an oblique way to his friends and relatives. It is evident they didn’t know what the plates really were or what he intended to do with them (3).
The claim that Joseph never showed the plates to anyone is greatly contestable. No evidence in the first sub-hypothesis is included in support of Joseph showing the plates to anyone, so is missing:
- The official testimony of the three witnesses
- The official testimony of the eight witnesses
- Around 200 further testimonies from the witnesses
- The accounts of those who described the plates
Although the witnesses are rightly brought in for the second sub-hypothesis, by this point it must be too late to affect the score of the first sub-hypothesis and to affect the conclusion drawn that Joseph never showed the plates to anyone.
Of course it may be argued that there are issues with the witnesses, including inconsistencies and exact details (see Richard Lloyd Anderson’s response) but there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that none of the witnesses ever recanted their testimonies of actually seeing physical plates, so should definitely not be excluded from any assessment.
ii. The First Vision
It is claimed that:
Had Smith recorded his vision or visitations immediately, in a diary or journal, or told another person right away what happened, these claimed experiences would be more credible (4).
Though the first written accounts were much later than the actual events, it would be a mistake to exclude the verbal accounts shared after the events.
Joseph Smith said of the First Vision:
Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had (Joseph Smith History 1:21).
Joseph Smith said of Moroni’s visitations:
The first thing that I can recollect was a voice speaking unto me, calling me by name. I looked up, and beheld the same messenger standing over my head, surrounded by light as before. He then again related unto me all that he had related to me the previous night, and commanded me to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandments which I had received.
I obeyed; I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger (Joseph Smith History 1:49-50).
These statements from Joseph certainly add credibility to the experiences and should be considered in the evidence to affirm the sub-hypothesis. Further documentation of these events can be found in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, or 19th Century Publications about the Book of Mormon (1829-1844) archive. Even more credibility is added when we also consider the other visions Joseph reported to have had (see below).
iii. The Other Visions
In the conclusion of the first sub-hypothesis, it is claimed that:
There were no witnesses to the visions except Joseph, and he was a poor witness (5).
When evaluating whether “God chose Joseph,” the evidence selected includes only the First Vision and the first visitations of Moroni which were experienced alone, rather than including all of Joseph’s visions relating to his prophetic call including those he experienced with others such as:
- The visitation of Moroni – experienced with Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris
- The visitation of John the Baptist – experienced with Oliver Cowdery
- The visitation of Peter, James and John – experienced with Oliver Cowdery
- The four Kirtland Temple visitations of Jesus, Moses, Elias and Elijah – experienced with Oliver Cowdery
These visions and visitations with witnesses, provide huge support for the sub-hypothesis that “God chose Joseph” which would increase the probability and should be included in the assessment.
The characteristics of God selected
In the second stage of the book (to complete the final probability), an assessment is made to determine what kind of evidence we would expect if God did or did not exist, based on his characteristics. This provides us with the final indicator needed to complete Bayes’ Theorem.
When selecting which characteristics to use, it is acknowledged that “no attempt will be made to analyze God’s spiritual motives, just to understand God based on scientific principles” (6), but I think this is a crucial mistake. The pragmatic characteristics are described as follows:
God would be objective, would value proof, would be honest, would be fair, would be compassionate, would be humble, would be moral, would love everyone equally, would not be capricious, would be open, would be helpful, would not be vengeful but would punish wrongdoings (7).
All the characteristics named above appear to be useful except for “would value proof” which seems very out of place and definitely contrary to a traditional understanding of God who values belief and faith over proof:
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed (John 20:29).
However, by selecting characteristics based on scientific principles (including God values proof), the claim is that if God exists, then evidence such as the following would likely be produced:
- Grove story evidence well documented
- Thorough documentation of Joseph’s selection (8)
From a more traditional perspective of God’s characteristics, it seems counter intuitive to imply that if God exists then we would expect the evidence in favor of Mormonism to be more verifiable. By replacing this characteristic that God values proof with a more traditional characteristic of valuing belief, we would reject a certain expectation of the evidence and the final probability would be adjusted.
The Afterword contains the following acknowledgement:
A study such as this establishes a baseline from which further studies can emerge. Bayes’s theorem allows for adjustments to be made to the findings based on new information. This works because there will be questions about any method and any findings. Bayes allows for this contingency. There could easily be questions about the hypotheses, the selection of evidence and the analysis of it (9).
The points discussed in this review ask key questions of the book’s proposed baseline. The sub-hypotheses selected, the scoring criteria selected, the evidence selected and the assumed characteristics of God make the final probability in my opinion unreliable.
It is highly plausible that performing a further study taking into account the types of criticisms raised above would push the probability much higher, to at least making it mathematically probable that Mormonism is divine.
However, it must be noted that there is complete agreement with the conclusion that “it would reasonable to be a Mormon believer” (10).
Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses
- R Keith Widdowson, 2014. The Probability of Mormonism As Divine. Edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Chapter XIII
- Ibid, Chapter VII
- Ibid, Chapter VIII
- Ibid, Chapter X
- Ibid, Appendix H
- Ibid, Chapter XVI Afterword
- Ibid, Chapter XIII