Yesterday was a day that will live in infamy. (In my little personal history, anyway.)
I needed to be in Irvine, California, for a Sunday fireside at 4:30 PM, Pacific time. My usual practice, if I need to be somewhere for a lecture or something, is to travel to the location at least the day before. I don’t want to risk having everything overturned by a flight delay. However, because of my long-scheduled (and multiply rescheduled) interview on Saturday with James Allen and because of a meeting thereafter with our principal filmmakers, I couldn’t go down on Saturday. So Sunday it had to be.
My Sunday flight from Salt Lake City down to John Wayne Airport in Orange County reached the air space over Las Vegas, where we made three loops around the city before returning to . . . well, Salt Lake City. (I couldn’t help thinking of the pilot’s closing words in this commercial for Yorkshire Airlines — except that my flight lasted considerably longer than twenty minutes. A Yorkshire reference isn’t wholly inappropriate, though: One of my maternal ancestral lines is solidly rooted in Yorkshire, just south of York itself.) Apparently there was a risky weather system along our route, somewhere northeast of Los Angeles, and the plane evidently lacked sufficient fuel to go around it (or something like that; they weren’t overly communicative); at one point, the pilot told us that there were many flights into the Los Angeles basin that were being rerouted.
Anyway, upon returning to Salt Lake City, we deplaned and waited for the aircraft to be refueled. (The Delta agent at the gate said to me that she had never seen anything quite like this in her twenty-seven years of working for the company.) And then we waited some more. And then we waited some more. The departure time kept being revised. And then we boarded the plane again, and we waited some more. And waited some more. And then there was an announcement that there was some sort of paperwork issue involving the aircraft’s weight balance. By now, I had been in communication with the folks down in southern California. They said that they could delay the fireside a little bit. Until 5 PM, or perhaps a little beyond. I should still come. Eventually, the plane’s doors were closed. And then we waited some more. Finally, they said that the external temperature had grown so warm that the weight-balance issue now required fourteen people to voluntarily leave the flight.
I was first off the plane. Combining a taxi ride with a lift from one of my sons, I reached my home just in time to do the fireside virtually, only a little bit late — with the united help of my wife and my techno-wiz friend Tom Pittman. Altogether, today’s efforts at travel, which took me from southern Orem to southern Orem, occupied almost exactly nine hours. Very satisfying! I understand that my plane finally reached John Wayne Airport at about 6:10 PM, California time. Thereafter, I would have needed to deplane and then make my way to the passenger pick-up area. It would have been a little bit too late for me to have done a live 4:30 PM fireside at the Irvine Stake Center, which is located roughly twenty minutes from the airport
A few days ago, I posted a blog entry entitled “Do any arguments against the Church have any merit?”
My answer to that question was that, in a sense and from a certain perspective, a believer’s answer must be “Ultimately, no.” Here is what I wrote:
Since the Church is ex hypothesi true, there can be no genuine evidence that it is false. Of course, there can be seeming evidence against its claims, evidence that reasonable people might well regard as genuine and damning, though, on the assumption that the claims of the Church are true, what seems to be genuine, damning evidence against it must ultimately prove not to be such. . . . It’s in that sense that I say that there can, in the end, be no valid evidence against the claims of Mormonism. Ultimately, you see, there can never be proof that something that is true is actually false. . . . I am saying that my conviction that the claims of Mormonism is true entails the corollary conviction that arguments against its truth are, in the end, wrong. emphasis added)
Please note my repetition of the phrase in the end and of the word ultimately. Those words are fundamentally important to understanding what I said.
I knew from extensive past experience that my assertion would be received by The Usual Suspects with derision and indignation. Why? Because I knew that they would misunderstand it. And why did I know that they would misunderstand it? On the simplest level, of course, because they have a long track record of hostile incomprehension and there was no reason to expect a sudden improvement on their part. Over the course of roughly fifteen obsessively-focused years, they’ve built up an image of me as cartoonishly incompetent, fundamentally dishonest, unashamedly malicious, greedily mercenary, and impervious to even basic logic. And, given that background, absolutely everything I do or say is immediately understood in a manner that is not only consistent with that image but that reinforces and confirms it.
“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something,” quipped the famous American writer and “muckraker” Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), “when his salary depends on not understanding it.” More relevantly in this particular case, it’s difficult to get The Usual Suspects to understand something when their view of me (and therefore, it seems, given the amount of daily attention that they devote to their view of me, depends upon a gross misunderstanding of me.
So what did I mean when I wrote that, in a sense and from a certain perspective, a believer’s answer to the question of whether or not there is any valid evidence against the claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must ultimately be “No”?
Here are some things — drawn from real online claims asserted about me — that I definitely didn’t mean:
I wasn’t coming out of the closet as a fundamentalist or as a solipsist. I wasn’t acknowledging that my mind is utterly closed or that my beliefs are true “by definition” or declaring that no conceivable evidence can count against them. I didn’t declare my refusal to consider contrary evidence. I wasn’t saying that the Church is true simply because I believe it to be true or that all counter-evidence can simply be dismissed because it’s false “by definition.” I didn’t advocate “confirmation bias” or assert that one should never question one’s assumptions, or that evidence is irrelevant to my predetermined conclusion. I didn’t say that supporting reasons are irrelevant for belief, or that subjective “feelings” are enough. I didn’t dismiss reality. I certainly didn’t appeal to my own “feelings” and I didn’t announce that the truth doesn’t matter.
Some have noted that absolutely anything can be true ex hypothesi, and that a Catholic or an Evangelical could mutatis mutandis make exactly the same statement that I made. To which I respond that, Yes, she could. Exactly! I was talking about the implications of a hypothesis, not about whether the hypothesis itself is or is not true. On the hypothesis that muskrats are bigger than elephants, a grizzly bear, which is bigger than a muskrat, would need to be considered bigger than an elephant. On the assumption that the Moon is really made of green cheese, moon rocks, which are obviously not made of green cheese, cannot be authentic.
I meant that, on the assumption that the claims of the Restoration are true, there can in the end be no valid evidence against them. Granting the assumption that the claims of the Restoration are true, however, does not entail that there are, or can be, no facts that seem plausibly to count against those claims. Thousands of instances could be listed that would make my logical point, but here are a few examples of cases where the evidence at one time seemed to strongly indicate a conclusion that, in the end, turned out to be false:
- There appeared to be an abundance of evidence supporting a geocentric understanding of the solar system, ranging from the common daily experience of seeing the sun and moon rise and set and the stars wheeling overhead to the coherence and explanatory power of the Ptolemaic model, which was created not by benighted morons or rubes but by some of the most brilliant minds in human history. That’s why that model lasted for so many centuries. In the end, though, after the work of Copernicus and Kepler and others, we understand that it’s only seeming evidence. (Though it must be noted that Tycho Brahe, the greatest observational astronomer of his post-Copernican age, continued to believe in a modified geocentric model of the solar system.)
- In 1989’s famous “Central Park jogger case,” five young black men were convicted of raping a white woman. They served between five and fifteen years for the crime. In 2002, though, a man named Matais Reyes confessed to the crime and DNA evidence confirmed his story. The evidence that seemed to demonstrate the guilt of the “Central Park Five” didn’t actually demonstrate it at all.
- The French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier coined the name Vulcan to refer to a small planet that, he proposed, existed in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun. He was trying to explain certain peculiarities in the orbit of Mercury. Its existence would, he thought, have accounted for them. But no such planet was ever discovered. And, eventually, the orbit of Mercury was explained in detail by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Seeming evidence for Vulcan turned out, in the end, not to be evidence for Vulcan at all.
- The theory of “phlogiston” was first postulated in 1667 by a German physician named. Johann Joachim Becher. It was, he suggested, a fire-like element that was contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion. The theory accounted for burning processes such as combustion and the rusting of metals — which are now jointly termed oxidation.
To make things clear: Imagine an all-knowing observer of these cases. (Call him God, if you like.) He would already know, in advance, that the evidence adduced for a geocentric model of the solar system, for the guilt of the “Central Park Five,” and for the existence of Vulcan and of phlogiston was only seeming evidence. Likewise, a non-omniscient human entertaining the possibility of heliocentrism, doubtful about the guilty verdict in the case of the “Central Park Five,” and/or unpersuaded of the existence of either phlogiston or Vulcan would also, ex hypothesi, have entertained the possibility that the evidence seeming to support them was only apparently supportive of them.
When I said that there can be no ultimate evidence against the claims of the Restoration, I also said that I was saying so ex hypothesi. — which is to say that I was speaking on the basis of the assumption that the claims of the Restoration are true. What I said follows from the hypothesis that they are true. It is in accordance with that hypothesis.
Likewise, on the hypothesis that pi is precisely 3.0, no evidence against that proposition could possibly be sound. (Just for the record, that hypothesis happens to be false.)
I was not announcing that the claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are exempt from examination. I was saying that, on the assumption that those claims are true, there could, per that assumption, be no knock-down proofs that they aren’t. If, to the contrary, I were to say “Yes, I believe that the claims of the Restoration are true but I believe that there are facts that prove it false,” that would seem rather strange, wouldn’t it? What kind of a person believes x while simultaneously holding that there exists decisive proof that not-x?
I’m under no delusion, of course, that folks who seem to be fiercely determined to portray me as malevolent, unprincipled, and a blithering idiot are likely to rethink their position. (Some of them have been at this pretty relentlessly, pretty much daily, for fully fifteen years or so.) But they’re a tiny minority. I just want to be sure that normal people understand what I wrote.