The Argument from Silence, Part 9: Mormonism’s Missing Golden Plates

The Argument from Silence, Part 9: Mormonism’s Missing Golden Plates February 5, 2016

I began this series with a Bayesian interpretation of arguments from silence and then proceeded to use that interpretation to evaluate various arguments from silence about Jesus and God. In this post, I want to assess an argument from silence against a central claim of Mormonism, namely, that the Book of Mormon is the English translation of golden plates which church founder Joseph Smith received from the angel Moroni.

If we abbreviate “the golden plates are nowhere to be found” as S, let B represent our background knowledge, and let M represent the claim, “The Book of Mormon is the English translation of golden plates which church founder Joseph Smith received from the angel Moroni,” then the missing links argument can be summarized using the argument schema I outlined in Part 1, as follows.

(1′) S is known to be true, i.e., Pr(S) is close to 1.
(2′) Relative to background knowledge B, the intrinsic  probability of M is not very high, i.e., Pr(M | B) is not very much greater than 1/2.
(3′) ~M gives us more reason to expect S than M, i.e., Pr(S | ~M) > Pr(S | M).
(4′) Other evidence held equal, M is probably false, i.e., Pr(M | B & S) < 1/2.

In plain English, this becomes:

(1”) The golden plates are nowhere to be found.
(2”) Prior to examining the evidence, the intrinsic probability of M is not very much greater than 1/2.
(3”) We have much more reason to expect that the golden plates are nowhere to be found on the assumption that Mis false than on the assumption that M is true.
(4”) Therefore, other evidence held equal, M is probably false.

The typical Mormon explanation for the absence of the golden plates is that Smith returned the golden plates to Moroni once he finished translating them. How convenient!

Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that Moroni really did reveal the plates to Smith, just as Mormons claim. While it is no doubt possible that Moroni took the golden plates back once Smith was done with them, it’s also possible (and no less antecedently likely) that Moroni never asked for them back. In fact, even on the assumption that this special revelation took place, we would still have good reason to expect that the plates would still be available for inspection today. Why? Well, considering the radical differences between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism, not to mention the numerous moral failings of Joseph Smith which undermine his credibility as a witness, we would expect that both God and Moroni would desire that better, objective evidence of Smith’s claims be retained.

For anyone who isn’t already a Mormon believer, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that “Smith returned the golden plates to Moroni” is just an ad hoc, “just so” story designed to explain away the clear evidence that Smith was a fraud.

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