“Apologetics and Falsifiability”

 

Irrelevant, but a nice photo

 

Stephen Smoot has a nice new entry on the FAIRMormon blog:

 

http://www.fairblog.org/2013/12/14/apologetics-and-falsifiability/

 

 

  • http://servileconformist.typepad.com/servile-conformist/ Patrick Mefford

    From the nice new entry:

    “This sampling above is by no means exhaustive, but it does show that the Church’s formerly most visible apologetic entity did not shy away from embracing the principle of falsifiability in its apologetic efforts.”

    I LOL’ed at Stephen equivocating criticism with a principle of falsification. The latter is about making explicit reasonable conditions for the defesability of an argument/method/hypothesis, not about exposing said argument/method/hypothesis to criticism.

    I think what good brother Birch was trying to convey there was that if you are going to argue (for example) that the 8 witness statements provide good prima facie evidence that Joseph Smith really had gold plates, your work should also include conditions that would undermine the strength of your argument and how those conditions could reasonably be met.

    • DanielPeterson

      I think that you meant “equating,” not “equivocating.” The verb “to equivocate” is intransitive.

      One could, I suppose, “laugh out loud” at such an obvious and indisputable error. But that would be rather small.

      • http://servileconformist.typepad.com/servile-conformist/ Patrick Mefford

        Oh Snap!

        • DanielPeterson

          There’s a fine line between criticism and mockery.

    • Stephen Smoot

      Hi Patrick,

      You actually raise a valid criticism of my blog post. I was not careful enough in distinguishing criticism with the principle of falsification. Let me clarify here.

      Birch, in his article, says his understanding of how apologetics needs to be falsifiable is “the extent to which these ‘buttressing’ arguments are revisable and subject to academic scrutiny” (p. 59). In other words, as I understand him, Birch is saying that an apologetic cannot simply default to supernatural or non-falsifiable explanations if it wants to have academic credibility. (This is actually what Birch goes on to say in the second half of his article.)

      My point in listing examples where FARMS has criticized past apologetic efforts (even of FARMS material) was to show that, by Birch’s own criteria, LDS apologists have been producing apologetic material that is capable of being scrutinized and falsifiable. There have been plenty of past apologetic efforts that have appealed to scrutable data and evidence, including apologetic efforts to defend the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, etc. These apologetic efforts, as my blog post shows, have meet with various levels of success, as they’ve been critiqued on purely academic grounds. Think, for example, of John Gee criticizing Joe Sampson for his (Sampson’s) wild linguistic theories about Egyptian, Hebrew, etc. This is a good example of a falsifiable apologetic effort by Sampson being heavily scrutinized by another apologist.

      In other words, that FARMS has criticized other apologetic efforts is not the falsifiability principle in and of itself, but is rather evidence that Mormon apologetic efforts have been falsifiable.

      As such, I believe the examples I cited in my blog post should satisfactorily show that certain apologetic efforts to “buttress” faith have proven worthy of critique, and thus Birch’s point on this matter, in my opinion, needs to be revised.

      I hope this helps clarify things.

      Cheers,
      Stephen Smoot

      • http://servileconformist.typepad.com/servile-conformist/ Patrick Mefford

        Hi Stephen,

        I’ve given your response some thought, but I think your
        clarification still misses Birch’s overall point. Birch is saying that
        apologetics has a place at the table when it comes to Mormon studies as long as it adheres to the standards of good scholarship but do your examples showcase good scholarship? I don’t think so and I’d point to FARMS overall insularity during its existence as evidence of that.

        Scholarship requires a community committed to certain
        intellectual virtues and divergent viewpoints in consistent engagement, something that FARMS never even had a pretense of. I’ve argued elsewhere, contra David Bokovoy, that apologetics is certainly capable of good scholarship and has a place in the scholarly community so it’s not like I have some a priori commitment against Mormon apologetics.

        Gee taking apart some crackpot idea about linguistics or
        exposing the rank pseudo-science of FIRM is all well and good, but this isn’t the kind of engagement Birch is talking about. How many Non-Mormon authors did FARMS publish? That question is too easy. How many articles got submitted by Non-Mormons? I’d be curious to see if Dan would answer this second question.

        If your immediate response is that FARMS never intended to
        air the views of critics or apostates, you’ve immediately disqualified FARMS from ever really being considered scholarly outside a Mormon sphere. Check out the link below, it goes to a PDF of the table of contents for the 2009 issue of Philosophia Christi, which is a journal from the Evangelical Philosophical
        Society with the help of Biola University.

        http://www.epsociety.org/philchristi/tocs/pc_toc_11-1.pdf

        There is more than one prominent philosopher who is a well-regarded critic of evangelical beliefs (even some atheists) who are given just as much space as the faithful to argue their points. Biola isn’t exactly hotbed of atheism and liberal theology; it still requires its employees to sign statements of faith that would be illegal if it was a public university.

        That is scholarship. That is why an atheist philosopher can
        publish in Philosophia Christi and not have that publication excluded as part of his scholarship by his or her own department. Can you think of someone at BYU who had that issue? I can.

        • DanielPeterson

          Thank you, Patrick Mefford, for civil disagreement. It’s refreshingly different from the place where I first encountered you.

          PM: “FARMS overall insularity . . . Scholarship
          requires a community committed to certain 
intellectual virtues and divergent viewpoints in consistent engagement, something that FARMS never even had a pretense of.”

          Not so. FARMS was all ABOUT engaging divergent viewpoints. It wasn’t insular at all in any substantive sense. FARMS writers constantly cited non-FARMS sources and responded to non-FARMS authors and non-FARMS positions. Those affiliated with the organization, and those who wrote for it, were always acutely aware that they were arguing for a minority position against which there is and
          always has been considerable push-back. It’s impossible, in fact, for a sentient Latter-day Saint to be unconscious of that fact. Moreover, FARMS articles and books themselves went out, as much as we could get them out, into a world disposed to resist their positions and arguments. We routinely presented at national academic conferences in acceptable academic ways, regularly had a booth at such
          conferences in order to publicize our books and periodicals, etc.

          In fact, in a very real sense, we WERE the divergent viewpoint.

          PM: “How many Non-Mormon authors did FARMS publish?”

          Not very many, but probably more than you think. Off hand, I can think of Paul Owen, Carl Mosser, Terry Stocker, Ze’ev
          Falk, Carl Johannessen, Michael Heiser, and Margaret Barker. There are likely a number of others. And, additionally, there were some merely nominal Mormons, as well.

          I’m not sure that I see the significance of this. FARMS was created to foster a certain kind of Mormon scholarship and
          publication. There are plenty of places for non-Mormon authors and non-Mormon viewpoints to be published; there were relatively few venues, definitely not enough for the volume of work that we sought to do (and did), for specifically Mormon approaches to Mormon scripture and
          doctrine. It seemed (and still seems) to me rather unimportant that non-Mormon authors and viewpoints be published specifically by FARMS or the Maxwell Institute.

          PM: “How many articles got submitted by Non-Mormons?”

          I couldn’t say with any precise accuracy. Many submissions didn’t come to me.

          But, again, this seems a minor issue, of dubious relevance.

          PM: “If your immediate response is that FARMS never intended to
 air the views of critics or apostates, you’ve immediately disqualified FARMS from ever really being considered scholarly outside a Mormon sphere.”

          Why? It seems to me that the scholarship of an article or a book is validly judged only by the quality of the evidence and the logic that it employs. What appears above or below that article in a table of contents, what appears on adjacent
          pages in a catalogue of books, is precisely irrelevant to judging the scholarship or lack thereof in any particular book or article.

          If a Rembrandt sketch were displayed on a wall flanked by a child’s crayon drawing on one side and a magazine illustration on the other, that would hardly be reason to deny that the Rembrandt was great art. If a concert featured, in this order, an amateur rendition of “Chopsticks,” the Vienna Philharmonic performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the Ohio Express reprising their immortal “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve Got Love in My Tummy,” that would be pretty flimsy grounds for claiming that Beethoven’s work wasn’t real classical music.

          PM: “That is why an atheist philosopher can 
publish in Philosophia Christi and not have that publication excluded as part of his scholarship by his or her own department. Can you think of someone at BYU who had that issue? I can.”

          I would be genuinely interested in hearing about this story.

          • http://servileconformist.typepad.com/servile-conformist/ Patrick Mefford

            Dan: “Not so. FARMS was all ABOUT engaging divergent viewpoints. It wasn’t insular at all in any substantive sense. FARMS writers constantly cited non-FARMS sources and
            responded to non-FARMS authors and non-FARMS positions.”

            But that is a one way street and not the sense I had in mind. A lot of academic journals have specific themes for any given issue where two or more viewpoints are offered
            and discussed on something specific. A substantive sense in FARMS’ case would entail the targets of lengthy reviews getting some space to offer a defense, to allow a real exchange to occur in the same pages or in the very least in the same journal sometime down the road.

            Dan: “Those affiliated with the organization, and those who wrote for it, were always acutely aware that they were arguing for a minority position against which there is and always has been considerable push-back. It’s impossible, in fact, for a sentient Latter-day Saint to be unconscious of that fact.”

            I don’t see how it matters if you are a minority position or not. Doing good scholarship is doing good scholarship and merely responding to something in print and citing an appropriate source isn’t 1/10th of what it means to do good
            scholarship.

            Dan: “I’m not sure that I see the significance of this. FARMS was created to foster a certain kind of Mormon scholarship and publication.”

            I found this comment interesting, because Stephen Smoot’s blog post at FAIR gave the impression that
            this certain kind of Mormon scholarship is acceptable by Birch’s standards and if I’m reading Birch correctly then it would be significant.

            I mean, there was a reason why so many roundtables with different kinds of authors were included in the new issue. It is modeling the kind of scholarship that sees the significance of allowing Non-Mormons to publish their relevant work despite their confessional loyalties.

            If this is unimportant to you well…

            Dan: “There are plenty of places for non-Mormon authors and non-Mormon viewpoints to be published”

            But Mormon Studies doesn’t mean Mormons talking about Mormon points of view. That sort of sectarian activity has its place (again let me champion the idea of Mormon theologians!), but it seems this journal is aiming for a high academic quality and not a confessional publication like The Interpreter.

            Dan: “If a concert featured, in this order, an amateur rendition of “Chopsticks,” the Vienna Philharmonic performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the Ohio Express reprising their immortal “Yummy, Yummy,
            Yummy, I’ve Got Love in My Tummy,” that would be pretty flimsy grounds for claiming that Beethoven’s work wasn’t real classical music.”

            There are a few problems with this analogy as I see it. First, all your examples (some not quoted) were aesthetic judgments, but I don’t think anyone really judges a good
            piece of scholarship along aesthetic lines.

            Second, a piece of scholarship like a journal article or a monograph isn’t some kind of discrete thing that is locked up in a vacuum; it is always responding to something and
            was probably created in an atmosphere were ideas were exchanged.

            Think about how the scholastics did disputations. When Anselm and Aquinas wanted to offer proofs for the existence of God, they really didn’t have atheists to argue
            with. So they did their best trying to anticipate objections to their own ideas and went from there.

            Things get better when your “opponent” (for a lack of a better term) is actively engaged with you. Leibnitz was at his best when he was arguing with Spinoza, Russell did his best when Wittgenstein was his student, so on and so forth.

            I’m not overly familiar with your academic work, but there are times when something you did enriched my life (METI was one) and your debate with Robert Spencer is one that really comes to mind in this instance. Your interaction with him real time was so much better than any standalone editorial essay could have been. I think what made
            it so useful was because you were able to interact with Spencer’s ideas.

            It is the same thing with scholarship.

          • DanielPeterson

            PM: “A substantive sense in FARMS’ case would entail the targets of lengthy reviews getting some space to offer a defense, to allow a real exchange to occur in the same pages or in the very least in the same journal sometime down the road.”

            We did feature two very substantial exchanges like that, because I invited them.

            On only two other occasions did subjects of reviews ask for the right to respond. In both cases, before I could answer, they withdrew their requests — which I would certainly have granted.

            And please do recall that the “Review” was only a relatively small part of FARMS activities and publications.

            PM: “I don’t see how it matters if you are a minority position or not.”‘

            It means that there was always an engagement with contradicting ideas — which were essentially omnipresent.

            PM: “Doing good scholarship is doing good scholarship and merely responding to something in print and citing an appropriate source isn’t 1/10th of what it means to do good scholarship.”

            I quite agree that doing good scholarship is doing good scholarship. (How could I possibly disagree with a tautology?) I never said that merely responding to something in print and citing an appropriate source, in and of itself, makes something good scholarship.

            Dan: “I’m not sure that I see the significance of this. FARMS was created to foster a certain kind of Mormon scholarship and publication.”

            PM: “allowing Non-Mormons to publish their relevant work despite their confessional loyalties.”

            Nobody ever prevented non-Mormons from publishing their relevant work.

            FARMS was never the only venue available, and I’m unaware of any complaints from non-Mormon writers and scholars, ever, that, if they couldn’t get into FARMS books or periodicals, they were blocked from publication.

            This is a problem that never happened.

            PM: “If this is unimportant to you well… ”

            Not unimportant. Simply misconceived.

            PM: “Mormon Studies doesn’t mean Mormons talking about Mormon points of view.”

            That’s a part of it, of course, But not the only part. I’ve never suggested otherwise.

            PM: “That sort of sectarian activity has its place (again let me champion the idea of Mormon theologians!), but it seems this journal is aiming for a high academic quality and not a confessional publication like The Interpreter.”

            I see no reason why confessionalism and high quality should be regarded as, by nature, mutually exclusive.

            PM: “There are a few problems with this analogy as I see it. First, all your examples (some not quoted) were aesthetic judgments, but I don’t think anyone really judges a good piece of scholarship along aesthetic lines.”

            Actually, the second illustration wasn’t authentic. But, if the fallacy of the perfect analogy obscures my point, I’ll do it again: Publishing Einstein’s paper on general relativity between an essay by Lamarck on the one hand and, on the other, a piece by Lysenko wouldn’t make it bad science, unscientific, or unscholarly.

            PM: “Second, a piece of scholarship like a journal article or a monograph isn’t some kind of discrete thing that is locked up in a vacuum; it is always responding to something andwas probably created in an atmosphere were ideas were exchanged.”

            And, again, the way of evaluating it is to consider how well it engages with the relevant data and ideas.

            PM: “Think about how the scholastics did disputations. When Anselm and Aquinas wanted to offer proofs for the existence of God, they really didn’t have atheists to argue
            with. So they did their best trying to anticipate objections to their own ideas and went from there.”

            Which is perfectly consistent with what I’ve said.

            PM: “Things get better when your “opponent” (for a lack of a better term) is actively engaged with you. Leibnitz was at his best when he was arguing with Spinoza,”

            Were they published in the same journal? By the same publishing company?

            If not, you’re agreeing with my point.

            PM: “Russell did his best when Wittgenstein was his student, so on and so forth.”

            Probably true. I have nothing whatever against active engagement with contrary ideas. I’ve been doing it all my life.

            PM: “I’m not overly familiar with your academic work, but there are times when something you did enriched my life (METI was one) and your debate with Robert Spencer is one that really comes to mind in this instance. Your interaction with him real time was so much better than any standalone editorial essay could have been. I think what made it so useful was because you were able to interact with Spencer’s ideas.”

            Thanks for the kind words.

            Churlishly, though, I will say that I found that debate unsatisfying on several levels, and would prefer written exchanges via articles and books. (I’m still thinking of taking Spencer on in that way.)

            PM: “It is the same thing with scholarship.”

            Again, I’m entirely in favor of active, rigorous engagement with opposing ideas.

            I’m not sure that we really disagree on this as much as you may think.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    It seems to me that “falsifiability” doesn’t belong in the religious realm. Ask someone in the sciences what this term means to them.

    How can one disprove the faith claims made by the religious? Apologetics is not science, and therefor the term seems meaningless. If used by the religious, the term falsifiability, in my opinion, means “have a nice argument” and my the best wordsmith be the victor. Again, not close to anything science offers.

    • Scott Clark

      You would of course include the multiverse or the many worlds of quantum physics in this? And what would you make of Kuhn’s critique that essentially means one scientific construct (parfadigm) is falisifed by another scientific construct? Just dismiss Kuhn outright?

      And by the way if falsifiability means that something was right before but is now wrong that would also mean that current knowledge is subject to revision; that is, it might be wrong. (And it is an obligation of scientists to prove it wrong if it can be.) So why then all the confidence about the current scientific consensus? Kuhn answers this and it doesn’t have much to do with sciencists as scientists but with scientists as human beings. Or is he just tilting against the onward triumphant march of Descartes?

      • Lucy Mcgee

        Scientists have been driven to consider the multiverse model by using theories (which are falsifiable) which have been shown to accurately describe the known universe and which can make predictions about it. There are many different possibilities of the multiverse depending on which theories physicists employ The multiverse remains within the realm of Popperian science because the theories which lead to it, are falsifiable even though the various multiverse models can’t be explicitly refuted.

        It may very well be that theoretical physicists have the idea of multiple universes all wrong and that future discoveries will prove them wrong. Scientists understand that prudence is necessary when theorizing about invisible spaces but that doesn’t mean models can’t be constructed, even though they exist on the boundaries of scientific thought.

        Science is always expanding the boundaries of knowledge and developing better tools which means that today’s ideas at the boundaries of science, may be shown to be correct or minimally, partially or completely incorrect. The unknown drives science.

        Religious apologetics, it seems to me, is set up to defend often supernaturally based occurrences which rely on faith claims believed as truth. This is not science. Say that someone is trying to convince me that the Prophet Joseph Smith, translated the Book of Mormon using seer stones. What science could be used to prove or disprove such a thing?

  • RaymondSwenson

    Scientific theories are assertions about the logical or causal relationships between observed “facts”. Theories that inherently cannot be tested or falsified may appeal to our sense of orderliness, elegance, or explanatory power, but they are not reliable elements for a larger understanding of observed reality.

    It is clear that many of the elements of Chrstian religious doctrine are based on reported observations from witnesses to rare phenomena, what are called miracles because they are outside the consensus norm of daily experience. The most central miracle was the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and his several appearances as Christ, the Son of God, over time and space. The acceptance of miracles as part of reality depends on our acceptance of the witnesses who attest to them.

    Miracles are similar to crimes, events which are not reproducible at will, but which were nevertheless real, and which have logical and social consequences. We have to rely on witnesses, both those who observed the unusual events directly, and expert witnesses who can draw conclusions from various observed facts whose meaning is not immediately obvious to the untrained eye. We rely on such witnesses every day in our courtrooms, making decisions that have major impacts on the lives of many people. Relying on similar witnesses when drawing conclusions about religious miracles is just as logical as the operation of a judicial system.

    The Mormon movement began with the eyewitness testimony of miracles, from not just Joseph Smith, but also of several of the people he first brought into his circle. Eleven of them attested to the reality of the Book of Mormon record, and three of those to the reality of the Angel Moroni, custodian of the record. One, Oliver Cowdery, witnessed other angels, including John the Baptist, apostles Peter, James and John, Moses and Elijah, and Christ. The Book of Mormon, Alma Chapter 32, invites us to “experiment upon the word”, trying out the doctrines in our lives and seeing if they are fruitful, and therefore true. Moroni promises that, if we perform his experiment, we can witness our own small miracle of communicative revelation from God. Mormonism is built on an express logical structure of witnesses and logic and testing of propositions. The notion of believing propositions for no reason is foreign to Mormonism. The authors of “The Book of Mormon” musical completely misunderstand this as they depict a missionary who talks himself into believing things without a logical basis. Mormons base their faith on very specific facts, attested to by witnesses, including themselves.

  • Stephen Smoot

    Hello Bob,

    Just a few observations.

    1. “How should one evaluate this claim of apologetic works “buttressing” faith?” Well, if I understand your question correctly, I suppose one could look and see how many people have credited the work of Mormon apologists for “buttressing” their faith. You can start with me. :-) The problem is that it’s impossible, short of a Church-wide survey, to tell for sure.

    2. “I ask because it begs the question of who is seeing value to this “faith buttressing” impact of such apologetic works? The apologists or The Church?” Considering that the Church has, in the past, referred people to work done by FairMormon and the organization formerly called FARMS when addressing sensitive issues (like back when Simon Southerton and Tom Murphy were making a stink over Native American DNA) I think the answer is both. I’ve seen both General Authorities and lay members alike use FairMormon, for example, in apologetic efforts. Elder Christofferson did it a couple of months ago in one of his sermons up at BYU–Idaho. I also know anecdotally that other prominent, “high ranking” General Authorities look very favorably at FairMormon.

    So take that for what it’s worth.

    3. “Given the direction the Church took with respect to the MI and FARMS last year – seems like a fair question.” I don’t think the “new direction” of the Maxwell Institute is a good indicator of what the Church thinks of apologetics. I will let Dan comment on this more if he wishes, but my understanding, based on what some very reliable sources have told me, is that there was really no Church involvement in ousting Dan and the changes at the MI, and that the decision to dismiss Dan came from “local” administrators, as it were. So I would urge caution on this point.

    In fact, go look at the recent Church announcement explaining the one-time priesthood ban and compare it to what FairMormon has been saying this whole time. Now I’m not saying that the Church directly relied on FairMormon, since I have no evidence to back that up, but I am saying that the approach the Church has taken on this matter is in many striking ways similar to the approach that FairMormon has taken all these years. This should hopefully caution those individuals, primarily on the Internet, who like to claim that the Church disavows the “traditional apologetics” approach (whatever that means) of the likes of FairMormon.

    Hope this helps.

  • DanielPeterson

    Bob Oliverio: “the direction the Church took with respect to the MI and FARMS last year”

    “The Church” took no “direction” regarding the Maxwell Institute and FARMS last year. “The Church” had nothing whatever to do with what happened last June.

    To claim otherwise is pure, baseless mythology.


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