Evidence and Proof

Evidence and Proof April 22, 2018


Amman's Khalda Orthodox Church
The Khalsa Orthodox Church in Amman, Jordan     (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


Fairly often, critics demand “proof” from me that the claims of Mormonism are true.


But I don’t believe that such “proof” exists.


To be more precise, I don’t believe that objective, publicly verifiable proof exists, of the type — rather like a proof in geometry — that would compel assent from all who understand it.


Even if God were to appear to me directly, for example, and expressly confirm the existence of historical ancient Nephites (which would seem fairly convincing), I might still be able to persuade myself that I was hallucinating, that I had misheard, etc. — and it would surely be much easier for any who heard my report of the experience at second hand to doubt it.  (Perhaps I’m insane.  Perhaps I’m lying.  [My name is Daniel Peterson, after all.  For some critics, that would be proof enough of dishonesty.]  And so forth.)


On the other hand . . .  Critics quite often say that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claims of Mormonism.


This is also untrue.


There’s plenty of evidence.


Perhaps, though, we need to be clear about the distinction between proof and evidence.


A valid proof leaves no wiggle room for the person who is aware of it.  If proposition A has actually been proven, nobody who understands the proof has the option, while retaining intellectual integrity, of denying proposition A.


However, available evidence often points in different ways.  There may, for example, be evidence suggesting that Harvey killed Bob (e.g., he was found standing over Bob’s body with a bloody knife in his hand).  But there may also be exculpatory evidence suggesting that Harvey couldn’t have killed Bob (he’s known, on the basis of reliable eyewitness testimonies,  to have been elsewhere until fully fifteen minutes after Bob’s desperate 911 call screaming that he was being stabbed).


Moreover, it’s possible that lots of evidence may point in a certain direction, and that almost no evidence may counter it, yet the apparently true claim may still be false.


Ancient people took the fact that we don’t seem to be walking downhill as we move toward the horizon to be evidence that the earth is, in fact, flat.  They also regarded the passage of the sun over our heads each day as evidence that the sun revolves around the earth.


They were entirely reasonable in doing so.


Absent superior evidence that the earth is round, and that it in fact revolves around the sun, their worldview was rationally justified.


There is certainly evidence for the claims of Mormonism.  Joseph Smith’s own account is prima facie evidence, for example.  (We almost always accept first person accounts of an experience if we have no particular reason to reject them.)  The testimonies of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon are evidence.


There are many such pieces of evidence.


A critic may decide — wrongly, in my opinion (just for the record) — that other evidence neutralizes or outweighs those (and other) items, but they surely constitute evidence.


When a critic insists that there is absolutely no evidence in support of Mormon claims, I soon conclude that this critic isn’t a serious discussion partner.


Does the evidence for the claims of Mormonism reach such a level that it should compel belief in the minds of the intellectually honest?  I don’t think so.  I think there are legitimate grounds for doubt.


Does the evidence against the claims of Mormonism reach such a mass that continued belief is only possible at the expense of intellectual integrity?  Again, I don’t think so.  I hear this claim from time to time, but I believe it to be too confident by several light years.


The claims of Mormonism are, I think, right about where they’re supposed to be:  Not so obviously true as to coerce acceptance, and not so obviously false as to make acceptance illegitimate.

I can’t agree with some of my fellow believers, who imagine that the evidence for Mormonism is so strong that only deliberate, willful blindness can explain failure to be persuaded.  But I also reject the claim of detractors of Mormonism, that its falsehood is so transparently obvious that only naked dishonesty or ignorance can account for failure to recognize it.


All that said, though, I personally think that there are certain pieces of evidence — I’ve always ranked the testimonies of the Witnesses high among them — that tilt even a secular judgment toward the truth of Mormonism.  But critics nonetheless can, and do, reject those testimonies.


Ultimately, under conditions of insufficient data, we can choose to make no decision — which is, itself, a decision — or else we must summon up everything we have, including (for Latter-day Saints) the testimony of the Spirit, but also, in various degrees, what are sometimes called “gut feelings,” and make our choice.  It’s in this somewhat shadowy realm, in which “we see through a glass, darkly,” that our decision to be disciples or not must necessarily be made.


Posted from Amman, Jordan



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