Monday, June 27, 2016

KnoWhy #130 Why Did Mormon Give So Many Details About Geography?

I'm getting a lot of questions about the latest KnoWhy. I posted about it here because it's a topic I've addressed on that blog before.

Plus, I went to get back to the Six Hats discussion.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Six Thinking Hats - White Hat thinking

One of the challenges of reaching a consensus about Book of Mormon geography is the different ways people approach the problem. To compound it even more, there are different ways of thinking about the approaches!

From time to time I'll discuss thinking processes. For now I'll look at Edward de Bono's concept of Six Thinking Hats, the title of one of his books. You can get lots of information from googling the title.

Here is a summary from his web page:

You and your team members can learn how to separate thinking into six clear functions and roles. Each thinking role is identified with a colored symbolic "thinking hat." By mentally wearing and switching "hats," you can easily focus or redirect thoughts, the conversation, or the meeting.

None of the hats is right or wrong; they are just different, each with an important contribution. From what I've observed in the discussions about Book of Mormon geography, there is a lot of Red Hat and Black Hat thinking. Not much White Hat or Green Hat thinking. I'd like to see more White Hat and Yellow Hat thinking, along with Green Hat.

In the interests of civility, I'll forego giving examples. They are easily found.

For now, I'll focus on Chapter 7 - White Hat Thinking: Facts, Truth and Philosophers.

De Bono starts with the question, "How true is a fact?"

He explains: "Truth and facts are not as closely related as most people seem to imagine. Truth is related to a word-game system known as philosophy. Facts are related to checkable experience."

I keep hearing arguments framed like this: "Joseph Smith never received revelation about Book of Mormon geography." Of course, that's not a fact. It cannot be checked. It's an assumption designed to support a pre-existing belief (or hope) that supports a particular narrative. One could also characterize it as an inference from available evidence, but that's just as subjective as the assumption.

As de Bono explains, "White hat thinking is concerned with usable information." Usable information can be categorized on a "spectrum of likelihood" such as this list from p. 41:

Always true
Usually true
Generally true
By and large
More often than not
About half the time
Sometimes true
Occasionally true
Been known to happen
Never true
Cannot be true (contradictory)

He asks, "How far along this spectrum is it permissible to go with the white hat role? As before, the answer to that question lies in the framing of the information... The purpose of white hat thinking is to be practical. So we must be able to put forward all sorts of information. The key point is to frame it properly."

Using the Joseph Smith example, what are known facts? One well-known Book of Mormon commentator likes to point out, with respect to the translation, that while we have evidence of what Joseph said the plates said, we don't have evidence of what was actually written on the plates. (I think that argument is fundamentally flawed, but it serves the purpose of making the translation fluid enough to accommodate whatever theory of geography one wants.)

A similar argument can be made with all of history. Recorded evidence is only evidence that such and such was recorded. It's not evidence that what was recorded was accurate, complete, or objective. We have to assess the credibility and reliability of the witness who wrote the record.

Joseph wrote only very brief accounts of his experiences. The most extensive account attributed to him is found in the Pearl of Great Price, titled Joseph Smith-History, but he didn't even write that. It was compiled by his scribes. We have accounts of him reading his history, and presumably he made changes. We have one example where his scribe suggested an addition, apparently taken from Letter VII, which Joseph accepted, but by and large, there is little documentary evidence of Joseph writing any of that history. Same with the Wentworth letter and other printed material. Unless it is holographic--in Joseph's handwriting--, or unless we have detailed accounts of his participation, we can't tell if he wrote it personally, or if he dictated it, instructed others to compile it, or left it completely to others to write without his even seeing the final product.

The next most extensive account is in the eight letters Oliver Cowdery wrote to W.W. Phelps. Because Oliver said he wrote the account with Joseph's assistance, and because so much of it contains details about Joseph's thought processes and Joseph's experiences to which Joseph was the only witness, there is good reason to conclude that Oliver got this information from Joseph directly. Other parts of the account include Oliver's own experiences, such as with John the Baptist. Throughout, Oliver was careful to distinguish between his speculation and what he called facts.

Applying white hat thinking to the accounts of Joseph's experiences should give us a list of facts that everyone involved with the discussion can agree on.

When we do this, we can realize that statements such as "Joseph never received revelation about Book of Mormon geography" are not facts.

Of course, people will counter that it is not factual to say "Joseph received revelation about Book of Mormon geography." That's true. The most that can be said is that Joseph said he received revelation about Book of Mormon geography, at least with respect to the place where Moroni buried the plates.

A list of such "White Hat" facts would clarify what is fact and what is inference, assumption, hope, etc.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

KnoWhy #128 - What Did It Mean To Be “King Over All The Land”?

Book of Mormon Central gives us yet another KnoWhy that focuses on Mesoamerica here, complete with this passage: "In fact, both Mesoamerica and the ancient Near East had systems of kings similar to that described among the Lamanites." Of course, such a system of kings is common throughout the world, wherever human cultures have developed. Often such rulers are called a "high king" or "king of kings" because they ruled lesser kings. They are known in Europe and Asia as well as Mesoamerica and the ancient Near East.

It was also a common system in North America, where the Indians were organized as tribes, with rulers we call "chiefs" but have also been called kings. In some areas, they had "paramount chiefs" who ruled over regional chiefs. Unlike in Mesoamerica, we don't have ancient records of the North American civilizations (which is why we need the Book of Mormon to know their history*). Nevertheless, the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon align with what we know about ancient North America and the traditions that survived until European contact. These are the people designated by the Doctrine and Covenants as Lamanites.

Here's an example of a hierarchy of rulers among Native American Indians from a National Park Service web page, discussing the tribes in the Chesapeake region.

Political Systems
The political and government systems of the Chesapeake natives were complex, and they varied from tribe to tribe.

Most tribes had a chief, called a werowance or weowansqua in the Algonquian languages. A chief's duties were primarily in military, diplomatic, and religious matters. They governed with the assistance of priests and councilors. Some tribes were led by a council.

In some cases, tribal chiefs paid tribute and allegiance to a paramount chief. Tribute often took the form of food and goods in return for leadership, protection, and support in times of difficulty.

For example, at the time of John Smith's voyages, Powhatan's paramount chiefdom included as many as 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes (not all of the Algonquian-speaking groups in the region). It is quite possible that Powhatan perceived Smith as the chief of the English and wanted to bring him into the paramount chiefdom.

The power of a paramount chief was not absolute and had to be earned. Powhatan acquired his position partly through inheritance but also through his own leadership, personal charm, force and spiritual reputation.

Captain John Smith called Powhatan and other paramount chiefs "kings" or "emperors." While this is not a perfect metaphor, it gives an idea of how the English perceived the high status of paramount chiefs.
*One wonders why we would need the Book of Mormon to know the history of people living in Central America, because those people left abundant records that archaeologists and linguists can read today. By contrast, the indigenous people in North America--the ones designated as Lamanites in the D&C--did not have written records. Without the Book of Mormon, we would have no way of knowing their history. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Alma 17 and another KnoWhy

I haven't posted here for a while because of some other projects, but I wanted to mention something about Alma 17. Book of Mormon Central posted a KnoWhy on the topic of Ammon smiting off the arms of his enemies, and I wanted to add a North American perspective.

For me, the D&C integrates well with the Book of Mormon in many ways, but only when I think of the Book of Mormon in a North American setting. Alma 17 is a good example of why.

I recognize that others find settings outside North America more appealing, and that's fine with me. I just keep wishing Book of Mormon Central would offer people more than one perspective. Other people might also find more affinity with the North American setting, and even those who prefer a different setting presumably want to know why others prefer the North American setting.


The key verse is this: “[The servants] went in unto the king, bearing the arms which had been smitten off by the sword of Ammon, of those who sought to slay him; and they were carried in unto the king for a testimony of the things which they had done”
Alma 17:39

The KnoWhy gives examples from the Middle-East and Mesoamerica. Those are good examples. War trophies are found throughout history and around the world. The practice is not exclusive to Egyptians or Mayans or Aztecs. Last year archaeologists found a site in France that was several thousand years old and contained a pile of severed arms beneath the remains of a family. Even during World War II, President Roosevelt was presented with " a letter opener made from the forearm of a Japanese soldier. 'This is the sort of gift I like to get,' Pearson quotes FDR saying, although the president did not touch it." Reference here.

The practice of severing arms as war trophies is known around the world, but since I'm focusing on the North American setting for the Book of Mormon, I want to give an example or two from North America.

John Wesley Powell's Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Volume 9, 1887-88, contains a section on war trophies. On pages 482-3, you can find this explanation:

The use of necklaces of human fingers or of human teeth is to be found in many parts of the world, and besides the fingers themselves, we find the whole arm, or in other cases only the nails. The Cheyenne did not always restrict themselves to fingers; they generally made use of the whole hand, or the arm of the slaughtered enemy. In a colored picture drawn and painted by one of themselves I have a representation of a scalp dance, in which the squaws may be seen dressed in their best, carrying the arms of enemies elevated on high poles and lances.... There is no doubt in my mind that this custom of the Cheyenne of cutting off the arm or hand gave rise to their name in the sign language of the "Slashers," or "Wrist Cutters"...

Kohl assures us that he has been informed that the Ojibwa will frequently cut fingers, arms, and limbs from their enemies and preserve these ghastly relics for use in their dances.

The report also includes an example of the Algonquin who kept the arms of their victims.

The Book of Mormon account does not refer to the use of severed arms in dances, but it does suggest that neither the King nor his subjects seemed shocked at the practice of severing arms. It was Ammon's power that impressed them.

The point is, we can find examples of cultures around the world where severed arms were used as war trophies. But with respect to Book of Mormon geography, we can consult the scriptures to get a more specific indication of where to look.

The Algonquin and Ojibwa were among the tribes visited by Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson and Peter Whitmer Jr. These tribes were identified in D&C 28, 30 and 32 as Lamanites.