Friday, January 29, 2016

More on perspective, perception, and consensus

What color are these chess pieces?

I think they're black.

What color do they look to you?

The science of perception helps illustrate my point about perspective and consensus. I can't emphasize enough that each individual's interpretation of the geography passages of the Book of Mormon are determined largely by the individual's own background.

If you've been raised your entire life to picture Book of Mormon events in Central America, it will be very difficult for you to "see" a new concept. This is even more true if you've read (or written) extensively on the topic.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this phenomenon is the "finding" of "correspondences" between the Book of Mormon text and Mayan culture. These are completely illusory; similar "correspondences" can be found in virtually every human culture.

IOW, if you're predisposed to believe in the Mesoamerican setting, and especially if you've made a career out of promoting it, you will find it very difficult to see the Book of Mormon in a different setting.

Go back to those chess pieces. Do they still look black? They should.

If it was possible, I would show another person the following image and ask what color they chess pieces are. You already think they are black; the other person would think they are white. Yet they are the same in every way.

If you isolate the pieces, you will see they are identical. They are neither black nor white. They are random shades of grey. This is apparent only if you put them on a solid background.

That's why I propose a solid background, based on modern revelation and the teachings of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. If everyone would use that background, the geography of the Book of Mormon would become apparent and we'd reach consensus.


Here's an abstract from Nature magazine that points out the significance of backgrounds (described as context in which a target is embedded):

Image segmentation and lightness perception

The perception of surface albedo (lightness) is one of the most basic aspects of visual awareness. It is well known that the apparent lightness of a target depends on the context in which it is embedded, but there is extensive debate about the computations and representations underlying perceived lightness. One view asserts that the visual system explicitly separates surface reflectance from the prevailing illumination and atmospheric conditions in which it is embedded, generating layered image representations. Some recent theory has challenged this view and asserted that the human visual system derives surface lightness without explicitly segmenting images into multiple layers. Here we present new lightness illusions—the largest reported to date—that unequivocally demonstrate the effect that layered image representations can have in lightness perception. We show that the computations that underlie the decomposition of luminance into multiple layers under conditions of transparency can induce dramatic lightness illusions, causing identical texture patches to appear either black or white. These results indicate that mechanisms involved in decomposing images into layered representations can play a decisive role in the perception of surface lightness.

The examples given show how identical objects look different depending on context (or background). In the first one, the chess pieces are identical. Only the background is different. Here, the background is designed to look like fog or smoke:

The authors explain: "the corresponding chess pieces on the two surrounds are identical." 

In the next one, the disks (or moons) are also identical. "In both cases, the figures on the dark surround appear as light objects visible through dark haze, whereas the figures on the light surround appear as dark objects visible through light haze."

Perspective and consensus

Achieving a consensus about Book of Mormon geography will require considerable effort not because people who accept the Book of Mormon as scripture have different objectives* but because people have different perspectives.

Here is a graphic representation.**

This grey bar is the setting for the Book of Mormon as described by the text.

It is consistent throughout--a constant shade of grey. Anyone can see the consistency in the bar. If you're not sure, download the image and test it in Photoshop or any other imaging software. 

The grey bar is like the ideal abstract map; i.e., theoretically, everyone reading the text should be able to come up with the same idea about the internal geography of the Book of Mormon.

But of course, that's not what happens in the real world. No two people reading the text will come up with the same abstract map. It's impossible, actually. The distances and directions given in the text are so vague that no two people can independently think of exactly the same interpretation. For example, one person's idea of "northward" varies from the next person's idea because there are 180 degrees (or more) of range one could think of as "northward." 

Even when a group of people come together to reach a "consensus," their conclusion will differ from another group of people. This is why we have dozens of proposed settings for the Book of Mormon.

People bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the text. They have different perspectives. This is shown in the next illustration:

The bar in the center of this image is the same grey bar I put at the beginning of this blog. Now, with the gradient background, the bar looks lighter on the left and darker on the right, even though, in fact, it is one constant shade of grey.

The grey bar is like Book of Mormon geography; although it is internally consistent, it looks different to different people depending on their perspective. This is how we end up with theories that the Book of Mormon took place in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Baja, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Malaysia, Eritrea, etc. Even among Mesoamerican proponents, there are numerous variations.

So how do we reach consensus? How do we get to the point where we're all seeing the same shade of grey?

Look at the grey bar again and see if you can tell what is different about it here compared with how it appears with the gradient background in the image above.

Yep, you see it. The difference is it has a consistent background. When the background is solid white, the consistency of the grey bar is apparent.

To reach a consensus, we need to have a consistent background against which to view the text. I propose that, for believing Mormons, that consistent background should be the information given by the text itself, by modern revelation and by the teachings of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. These include a few key points:

1. Both Lehi and Mulek crossed the Atlantic ocean (1 Nephi 18)

2. The Hill Cumorah is in western New York. Period. There are no other "Cumorahs" in the background. (D&C 128 and Letter VII)

3. The plains of the Nephites, mentioned several times in the text, are in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. (Joseph Smith's letter from Zion's Camp)

4. The Lamanites, as of 1830, lived in New York, Ohio, and Missouri (D&C 28, 30, 32).

5. Zarahemla is in Iowa, across from Nauvoo. (D&C 125)

Now, I realize some people will not accept these elements of a consistent background. These elements contradict their traditions. They represent a different paradigm than the one they have promoted for decades. To accept this consistent background would require that they change their perspective and, in many cases, repudiate what they have written.

In other words, it's a test of their objectivity and pursuit of the truth.

I propose that LDS scholars apply the scientific method to the hypothesis that these five elements are a consistent background for the Book of Mormon. 

If they do so, I think they will find, as I did, that a background based on these 5 elements is consistent, and makes the consistency of the text stand out, just like the consistency of the grey bar is apparent against the solid white background.

Short of agreeing on a consistent background, the confusion and controversy about Book of Mormon geography cannot be resolved.

Like millions of other Mormons, I grew up thinking the Book of Mormon took place in Central America (Mesoamerica) because that's what all my Church teachers said, that's what all the Church media depicted, and that's what all the LDS scholars taught. FARMS, BYU Studies, the Maxwell Institute--even the Ensign--promoted the Mesoamerican setting.

I've previously described how I changed my mind after decades of accepting the Mesoamerican theory. I had read all the LDS publications (and a lot of non-LDS publications), visited sites in Central America, discussed the issues with a variety of people, and read the text over and over. It became increasingly apparent that the Mesoamerican theory was flawed.

When I discovered the whole theory was based on a historical mistake--that the Times and Seasons articles were not written or even approved by Joseph Smith--the Mesoamerican theory unraveled completely. The only thing keeping it going now is decades of tradition among a handful of LDS scholars.

Instead, the text, early Church history, archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, and linguistics all point to a North American setting.

In my experience, most Church members understand this easily. They are not deeply invested in the Mesoamerican setting; in fact, most of them think it doesn't make much sense anyway. It's not that difficult for them to change paradigms. When they see the North American setting, their questions are answered and their faith in the gospel is enhanced by reaffirming their testimony of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's role as a prophet.

Consequently, I invite anyone interested in the Book of Mormon to read the text with the consistent background I've proposed above. The more people who do so, the sooner we can reach a consensus about Book of Mormon geography--finally.



*Actually, I'm not sure that everyone has the same objective. I like to think we all want to know the truth and we all believe the truth will support the text, but in the last year I've encountered some LDS scholars who seem more intent on defending their past publications than on pursuing the evidence wherever it leads. Just read the Interpreter to see what I mean.

**I adapted this from wikipedia user Dodek, available here: 

Monday, January 4, 2016

How to avoid dogmatism

Dogmatism is one of the principle obstacles to consensus. I've thought a lot over the last year about the psychology involved when people accept or reject new information and perspectives. This post comments on overcoming dogmatism.

Bertrand Russell made a good point when he wrote "The most savage controversies are those as to which there is no good evidence either way." Now, I have my problems with much of what Russell wrote, but I think he made some good and relevant points on this issue, so I'll expand the quotation before commenting.

"To avoid the various foolish opinions to which mankind are prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.

"If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men by the simple device of asking Mrs Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don't is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone."

In my experience with most proponents of the Mesoamerican setting, they think they know about the North American setting, the Times and Seasons, and so forth. It's a fatal mistake they continue to make. Their willful ignorance is evident not only in their writing but in their Orwellian suppression of information and viewpoints that contradict their beliefs.

Here's what I say to anyone who seeks a consensus on the question of Book of Mormon geography: make the observation yourself. Don't trust what someone else has written about the "other side." Examine the information yourself.

Russell continues:

"Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the text of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If someone maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction."

If you want to see good examples of this kind of anger, read the late-era FARMS material or the current Interpreter (which are basically the same thing). It has been fascinating for me to observe (first hand as well as in writing) the angry responses of some Mesoamericanists. Notice I say some. I know other proponents of Mesoamerican theories who are rational and objective. Not many, but some.

It is at this point that Russell writes what I originally quoted: "The most savage controversies are those as to which there is no good evidence either way."

Russell was referring to theology when he wrote that. I think his point is more effective if one assumes he meant to write "convincing" or "conclusive" instead of "good." There is almost always "good" evidence in the sense that someone will accept it; if there is zero evidence, there is zero belief. The evidence may consist in someone else's say-so, but that is still evidence. Even the Mesoamerican theory has "good" evidence in the sense that some people believe still it.

The quality of evidence is particularly problematic with respect to interpreting historical events, which by its nature requires some degree of inference and trust in sources, combined with a basic understanding of human nature.

"Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants."

I agree that most aspects of theology are opinion when shared with others, but like most LDS, I also think theology accommodates knowledge (such as insights given by the Spirit). The Book of Mormon is a unique example of a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, if one accepts that evidence. Russell's concept of knowledge here really means an objective, demonstrable, repeatable fact such as simple arithmetic, but it could also extend to facts of geology, archaeology, and history. As a former Mesoamericanist myself, I'm empathetic with the anger of those current Mesoamericanists who sense, but don't want to admit, their beliefs go beyond what the evidence warrants (or, worse, contradicts evidence they would readily accept if only it didn't contradict their theories). Some have accused me of "excoriating" other authors, but I don't think I have, I don't mean ti, and hope I don't come across that way because the reality is, I enjoy differences of opinion and the process of analyzing arguments. What I don't enjoy is the suppression of information and alternative points of view that occurs at fairmormon, BMAF, the Interpreter, and the Maxwell Institute. The people in those organizations and publications, IMO, manifest the anger Russell discusses for the reasons Russell lists.

"A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own... seek out people with whom you disagree."

I'll conclude with this one, because I think it is essential to reach any sort of consensus. I've sought dialogue and meetings with several Mesoamericanists, who outright refuse to even have lunch together. These are the dogmatic authors you read at fairmormon, BMAF, the Interpreter, and the Maxwell Institute. I've scratched the surface of their irrationality, fear and dogmatism on the bookofmormonwars blog, so I won't belabor that here, but it's a point to emphasize, so I'll repeat Russell's comment again:

"A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own... seek out people with whom you disagree."

Why is it hard?

I don't think it will be difficult for most LDS to reach a consensus about Book of Mormon geography, but I suspect it will be difficult for a few individuals, so I want to explore that here.

From the time I shared early drafts of The Lost City of Zarahemla a year ago (some under the title Who can Hinder?), I've received a range of responses. Some readily agreed with my conclusions about Benjamin Winchester and the Times and Seasons. Some told me it never made sense to think that Joseph Smith could have acted as editor, publisher and author for the Times and Seasons while doing everything else he had to do, so they were glad there was good explanation for the historical events that made sense and was supported by evidence. Others, particularly at the Maxwell Institute and the Interpreter, opposed my conclusions, not because of the evidence but to defend their personal beliefs.

Here's an excerpt from my book, Brought to Light, which will be available next Tuesday (January 11, 2016).

"I realize some people will never accept evidence that contradicts their long-held opinions, particularly where they’ve published those opinions, and particularly where they’ve published those opinions their entire careers. But I also realize that many people who are not so deeply invested want to know the truth and appreciate different perspectives on history."

Hugh Nibley made this observation on this topic: "You cannot prove the genuineness of any document to one who has decided not to accept it... When a man asks for proof we can be pretty sure that proof is the last thing in the world he really wants. His request is thrown out as a challenge, and the chances are that he has no intention of being shown up."

Those interested in reaching a consensus need to recognize it may be difficult, but they must be committed to honestly and objectively considering all the evidence before insisting on a particular conclusion.

How about a consensus by known locations?

As I mentioned in my previous post, no Biblical scholar tries to figure out Biblical geography by first developing an abstract map and then searching around for a geography that fits.

Why not?

Partly because it's impossible, given the paucity of information. Partly because it's an irrational approach to take when no two people will come up with the same assumptions, let alone the same application of those assumptions. But mainly because it's pointless: we already know where some key locations are, such as Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee.

It's the same with the Book of Mormon. The information given in the text is too vague to support a coherent abstract map. It's anyone's guess how far one city is from another, for example, or even how far a Nephite would travel in a day.

But we do know the location of at least one key location: Cumorah.

This is also the sole location unequivocally common to both the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations.

How about if we at least reach a consensus on that location?

We can start by re-reading Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII.

I realize many people insist Cowdery was speculating and was wrong, but the only reason they take that position is because of their belief that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America. Isn't it obvious that this approach is putting theory before fact?

Cowdery said it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites were at Cumorah in New York. Joseph Smith concurred. He had his scribes copy Letter VII into his own journal and had it reprinted at least twice during his lifetime. No early Church author questioned Cumorah in New York.

These are simple facts. If we can't reach consensus on these facts, there is little hope of reaching a consensus on anything else.

In fact, in my opinion, if we can't reach a consensus on the validity of what Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith had to say about Cumorah, there's no point trying to reach consensus on any other aspect of Book of Mormon geography. Those who reject Cowdery's Letter VII reject him as a credible witness. They are rejecting the man who wrote the text as it came from Joseph's dictation, who received revelations with Joseph, who was present with Joseph for the ministrations of John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Moroni, Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Lord Himself.

When I explain to people that so many LDS scholars reject Cowdery's teaching about Cumorah purely because of their insistence on a geography set in Mesoamerica, they don't believe me--until I refer them to, the Interpreter, and the Maxwell Institute so they can see for themselves.

When you read those sources, you'll find all kinds of debate about which river in Mesoamerica was the Sidon, which of a dozen locations was Zarahemla, etc. It turns out, when you read the material published by those sources, that the only actual consensus they've reached on the topic is that Joseph and Oliver were wrong about Cumorah.

It's astonishing that the one point every LDS should agree on--that Cumorah is in New York--is the one point about which the LDS scholars have reached consensus. Except their consensus is that Cumorah is not in New York!

Letter VII is widely available online. Here is a link to the relevant passages in Joseph Smith's own journal:!/paperSummary/history-1834-1836&p=89

A short commentary with additional resources is available here.

Consensus by abstract map?

People are talking about reaching a consensus about Book of Mormon geography by focusing on an abstract map, based on the text.

In my view, this is impossible, and therefore pointless. No two people will independently come up with the identical abstract map. For one thing, the text is vague about distance and direction. A Boy Scout couldn't find his way through a small forest if he had only vague instructions about distance and direction. For another, the landmarks that are given use generic terms that are susceptible to multiple interpretations.

It's easy to see this by comparison with the Bible. There is disagreement about such basic locations as Mount Sinai. I don't think anyone could reach a consensus about Biblical locations based solely on the descriptions in the text.

Take Genesis 39:1.

And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.

Does this mean Egypt was a valley, or that Dothan was on a mountain? How far away was Egypt? In what direction?

Then we have to figure out how this description be reconciled with Genesis 13:1: "And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south."

No Biblical scholar tries to come up with an abstract map. Why should Book of Mormon scholars try to do so? 

2016 year of consensus

With everyone in the Church focusing on the Book of Mormon as the course of study for Gospel Doctrine classes, this is the time for everyone to come together on Book of Mormon historicity issues, including geography.

With the publication this week of Moroni's America, I'm going to comment regularly on ways to reach consensus.

I'm optimistic that this will be a breakthrough year for everyone who loves the Book of Mormon.