Friday, June 19, 2009

Apologetics are Useless

There is no checks-and-balance system. There is no means to determine whether an argument, a method or a conclusion is correct, slightly correct or completely bafflingly wrong. Nothing in place to improve the strength or eventually abandon the claim.

It is nothing more than, “In my opinion, it is possible…” and then whatever follows—no matter how deluded, incomprehensible or salient—as long as there is the remotest possible connection, becomes what is considered a “solid apologetic.”

The field “apologetics” comes from 1 Peter 3:15: “…and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a the reason for the hope that is in you…” The word “defense” is translated from the Greek apologia meaning a verbal defense or a reasoned argument. Simply put—it is explaining why one believes what they believe.

This explanation is given to two possible groups—those who already believe exactly as the Apologist or those who do not. To those who already believe, any explanation is sufficient. (They already believe it anyway.) To those who do not, the Apologist has already prepared an apologia for why they are unconvinced by the Apologist! A truly win-win situation.

Let’s look at how an argument is prepared by a scientist, a lawyer and an apologist. Imagine we have a situation where the claim is, if you add sufficient copper to an experiment, it will turn the solution green. Work with me on this.

A scientist will carefully note the amount of the solution, the type of solution, the amount of the added copper, the conditions, temperature, time of day and so on regarding the experiment. Why? Because she knows eventually she will have to defend (apologia) the claim. To a hostile audience. To other scientists who may not be convinced adding copper is what turned the solution green. She is aware other scientists are going to repeat her experiment, both under the same conditions and different conditions. That scientists are expecting to rely upon results to make subsequent experiments, so they are going to make certain this is the correct conclusion.

The check and balance is the scientist knowing she will have to defend this claim to others who will test, probe, question, replicate and do everything they possibly can to prove her incorrect before being satisfied with her conclusions.

The scientist will therefore do her own re-experimenting under a variety of conditions to bolster her claim. She will approach her own experiment as if she was opposed to the conclusion.

A lawyer is slightly different. The lawyer is attempting to convince a neutral determinator—not a hostile one. A jury uncaring as to whether the copper turns the solution green, purple or does nothing at all. However, a lawyer anticipates having a hostile opponent who will do everything within their ability to show the opposite conclusion. Equally the lawyer has to anticipate how convincing the claim would be to the jury, in light of opposing evidence.

Eventually the check and balance to the lawyer is when the jury finds either for or against him. This conclusively demonstrates the strength of the apologia.

But where do we have that in theistic apologetics? Nowhere! Where is the concern of the opposing argument? Where is the check and balance. Using our same experiment, imagine we have an apologist who…oh…I don’t know…believes the sun turns solutions green. All our apologist has to do is:

1) Show one (1) experiment that occurred in the sun
2) Show the solution turned green.

Voila—they have given a reason, an apologia in support of the claim the sun turns solutions green! And all the sun-worshipping adherents bow in submission—glorifying the “proof” of their belief. So what if the same thing happens in the dark. So what if it never happens when other additives are introduced in the sun.

As long as the apologist shows one (1) instance of it occurring—this is deemed sufficient “reason” for their belief! And if you are not convinced—it is because you don’t like the sun. Or you don’t like heat. Or you never believed in the sun in the first place. Or you want to tell the solution what to do. Or you are a nihilist. The apologist has plenty of reasons why you can’t plainly see it was the sun turning the solution green.

Hyperbole? I think not.

The Book of Mormon indicates (at Ether 9:19) there were elephants in Mesoamerica, at least around 2500 BCE. The problem is, there are no indications of elephants. No bones. No drawings. No anything that would ever indicate the American species of elephant existed.

To the scientist, since elephants have a certain impact on ecosystems, leave remains, and would have been recounted in stories or pictures or sculptures—they realize any claim elephants lived in 2500 BCE Mesoamerica would be a daunting task. They would understand the skepticism of other scientist. Understand the evidence they presented to claim elephants did exist would have to be substantial to convince, or at least sufficiently plausible to give consideration.

To the lawyer, they realize their opponent will scoff and mock them regarding the lack of evidence. That the proofs would have to be presented in such sufficiency, a neutral jury would be convinced. Most importantly, the lawyer must always, ALWAYS maintain credibility with his jury.

An apologist? Heck, his or her audience already believes elephants lived in Mesoamerica in 2500 BCE, all they have to do is present one (1) possible item of evidence, and their apologia is considered sufficient.

So they cough out this drawing of what appears to be elephants on Stela B of the Great Plaza of Copan.

The Stela was made sometime around 700 CE. (Approximately 3200 years after elephants lived!) (H/T to Sam for this drawing.

Looks like an elephant, doesn’t it?

Here’s a helpful tip. If anyone ever gives you a “drawing”—look for the original. See, if you look at a picture of Stela B you will see that the upper parts have been completely broken off! This is NOT a drawing of Stela B!

It is not clear to me where the drawing on the right--the “close up” of the elephants is from--but it may even be another Mayan Structure.

Do you see how useless apologetics is? How a scientist would NEVER present such a drawing, realizing others will attempt to verify it and would question its veracity. How a lawyer knows his opponent will point out this isn’t a drawing.

How incredible the claim! Elephants existed in 2500 BCE—but no bones, no drawings, no stories, no results of their existence. Nothing about them 500 years later. Nothing about them 1000 years later. Nothing about them 2000 years later. More than 3000 years later, one (1) sculpture might have been an elephant, if we “draw in” the broken off bits!

Yet if you and I are not convinced there were elephants in Mesoameria—the apologist doesn’t care. They have done their duty; they have done their apologia. They have given a “reason” and that is all they need do.

Anyone can think up a reason. Catch a two-year-old with their hand in the cookie jar, and they will apologia how they were not stealing cookies. We didn’t accept it from two-year-olds; why would we accept it now?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hits, Misses, Sales, Archeology and Mormons

Thaddeus requested I address his evidences for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. At the moment, I haven’t studied enough to adequately reply to these points. ‘Course, in the blogging world—who does that stop? *grin*

I am familiar, however, with argument techniques, and apologetic salesmanship and this smells much the same. First we have to understand what argument methods and peddling mechanisms are so commonly used to see the similarity.

Hits and Misses

(I am indebted to Why People Believe Weird Things for this point.)

Why are psychics so successful? How do they uncannily discover truths about people they don’t know? Much of this has to do with understanding demographics (if speaking to an audience of 200, “Someone here has had a heart attack” has a huge possibility of obtaining a “hit” due to the common occurrence) and the fact people remember the “hits” and forget the “misses.” The conversation of cold-reading (as it is called) looks like this:

“You have a friend…or a relative…who recently died?”
“Or perhaps was involved in an incident where they could have died?”
“My brother was in a car accident!”
“And I see that you are close to him…”
“Not really—he lives in Arizona.”
“…or close to him in your relationship…”
“No…we don’t talk much…”
“…I see closeness. In age?”
“We are only a year apart!”

“And he is getting better?”
“And he is wishing you two could talk more….”
“He did mention that!”

The person walks away telling their friends, “The psychic knew I had a brother, close in age, who had just recently been in an automobile accident and wants to get together more! A-MAZing!” Yet when we review the conversation we see the person has conveniently forgotten all the “misses”—the psychic started off with death, and closeness, and the general terms were so non-specific, a “hit” was almost a certainty.

Dr. Shermer made another point, that sometimes even the “hits” are not necessarily “hits.” He referenced one psychic who, upon learning a young woman was a widow, stated, “Your husband wants you to know that you will re-marry.” She blurted out, “I recently became engaged!” and considered this a “hit.” But consider three things:

1) Psychics tend to give good news. They are not likely to say, “Your will be doomed to a life of grieving widow, misery and loneliness.”

2) She was a young woman—there is a great likelihood due to her age that she would re-marry.

3) The psychic DIDN’T say, “You are engaged”—rather they said she would someday re-marry. The woman took it as more specific than stated.

This will come up in a bit, but for now remember we tend to recall the “hits” and forget the “misses.”


20 years ago I attended a car show with my father. As one does, I sat in the driver’s seat, felt the steering wheel, switches and knobs. Dad asked, “How does it feel?” Looking for an appropriate word, I settled on, “It feels safe.” A nearby salesperson happened to overhear my comment and rushed over to inform us of all the safety imbued within this particular automobile.

“Do you know the hood has a double-catch safety feature, preventing it from coming loose in an accident and decapitating the driver? The engine is designed to drop, in case of a head-on collision, rather than shove straight back into the front seat. The steering wheel...” And he launched into 5 or 6 different ways in which one would only be horribly mangled rather than killed in case this car was struck by a Mack Truck.

My father and I got the giggles as to how matter-of-factly this person described these horrible events, and how this car would prevent you from being killed out-right, but your feet would be crushed, your pelvis shattered, your neck twisted 180 degrees (but still attached) and so on.

Now why did the Salesperson talk about safety? Why didn’t he tell us about the fuel efficiency, cost of ownership, or choice of colors and fabrics? Because he heard “safe” and (incorrectly) assumed this was the “selling point” we were looking for.

Apologetics sells what it thinks its audience wants to hear. It is designed, NOT to win over the non-believer, but to reinforce what the believer already believes. It tells the person who thinks the automobile is “safe” why the automobile is “safe.”


The confirming archeological evidence Thaddeus refers to is the city of Nahom.

The First Book of Mormon—1 Nephi—discusses the journey of Lehi and his sons (including Nephi, the author of the book) from Jerusalem, through the Arabian Peninsula Wilderness. The area comprised primarily of Saudi Arabia today.

1 Nephi 16:34 records Lehi (and clan) stopping at a place “which was called ‘Nahom.’” (There is some issue as to whether Lehi called the place “Nahom” (having named other areas previously) or whether it had previously been called “Nahom” before their arrival. See The place that was called “Nahom.”)

The problem is—there is no place called “Nahom.” Certainly not on any map in 1830! A few decades ago, a German archeological team discovered a temple in Yemen with an altar donated by “Bi’athar, son of Sawdum, son of Naw’um, the Nihmite.”

Because Semitic languages do not use vowels in writing, “Nahom” would be written. “Nhm.” In the same way “Nihm” would be written “Nhm.” Ah—do you see the connection? Further, because people generally were named after regions (“Israelite” came from “Israel;” “Canaanite” came from “Canaan”) Therefore a “Nihmite” would arguably come from “Nihm.”

The argument is conveniently drawn to conclusion by saying “Nhm” (“Nahom”) is similar to “Nhm” (“Nihm”) and since this is “close” to the area where Lehi and clan were—voila! We have demonstrated Nahom exists!

But let’s look at the “hits” and “misses”…

The Book of Mormon also discusses smelting iron and steel. Coins. Domesticated oxen, sheep, goats and pigs. Fighting with bow and arrows. Fighting with metal shields. Temples. Linen. Silk. Plants such as wheat, barley, oats, rice. The Book refers to horses. See here.

What we find are miss after miss after miss, with one possible hit—“Nahom.” Like our psychic, we would be more inclined to believe it mere coincidence they happened across a hit—especially after so many misses!

Look, imagine I gave you 100 items for discussion. And you find me wrong on 75 of them, 24 of them you can find no information and one you find me correct. Are you inclined to believe (based upon my percentage) that I must be correct on the 24 unknowns? Or, would you say since I was overwhelmingly wrong on the 75, it is pure happenstance I was correct on the one, and I should not be considered reliable on the 24 unknowns.

But is “Nahom” a hit?

There are many problems with the claim the altar demonstrates a place called “Nahom.”

First, it should be noted that even the LDS article indicates the “Nhm” of the Book of Mormon and the “Nhm” of the temple may not be the same letters! The “h” in the Book of Mormon would be the “rasped” Hebrew “h” whereas the “h” on the altar would be the softer “h” of the Arabian dialect.

Second, “Nhm” in Hebrew can mean comfort or compassion. As this was the place Nephi’s Father-in-Law was buried, it could be called “Nhm” by Lehi and the clan.

Third, Joseph Smith wasn’t translating from Hebrew! The exact method of this translation is unclear, but the claim (as near as I can tell) was that the plates were in “Reformed Egyptian” and translated into English (either from the plates, or from letters in the air). The fact Hebrew “Nhm” is similar (albeit not exact) to Arabian “Nhm” may be interesting, but is of no import when the language being translated is Egyptian!

Fourthly, we add vowels as a matter of convenience. How we go from “YHWH” to “Yahweh.” As we do not have the “original” plates Joseph Smith had, we do not even know what letters were in place. Or whether there were vowel markers. Was it “Nhm”? And how did Joseph Smith happen to pick “a” and “o” to come up to “Nahom”? It should be noted in modern Arabic (as I understand it) the verb form dictates the vowels being added. For example, “ksr” could be “kasar” or “kassar” or “inkasar” depending on the verb form. See here. Was there a verb form or indication of what letters should fit?

Fifth, it should be noted the Book of Mormon uses similar names to the Bible. “Nahom” is extremely similar (and would appear the same in written Hebrew) as “Nahum”—a minor prophet.

Sixth, while generally true, it is not always true “-ite” would refer to a place. One need only look at the Nephites in the Book of Mormon (Named after “Nephi”). So a “Nihmite” may not be a locale, but refer to a person—“Nihm.”

Seventh, we don’t know where the Moabites lived. Nor the Hittites. We hadn’t even heard of the “Nihmites” until the 20th century. To claim they lived at our about the place most convenient to the needs of Mormon Apologetics is pure speculation. Yes, the altar was on the Arabian Peninsula. But it was (apparently) given by a person from a different area. Was that by means of money, or the altar, or gift? We don’t know.

Let’s see if we have this straight. Joseph Smith translates from plates written in “Reformed Egypt.” We don’t know what the plates said, because we don’t have them any more. He translates a certain word to English—“Nahom”—a word remarkably similar to a previously known word in the Tanakh—“Nahum.” We see other occurrences of formal nouns being only one letter off from formal nouns in the Bible.

The Book of Mormon makes numerous other claims that are flat-out unsupported by archeology, and if this was not theological—would be laughed out of any respectable university. Simply put—it is wrong time and time again.

No placed called “Nahom” has been discovered. However, we have discovered a writing about a fellow who was “Nihmite”—and while the letters may not be exact, are very similar to what “Nahom” would be if translated from English back to Hebrew. So “Nihmite” might be from “Nihm”—which in Arabic would be “Nhm”—which is similar (but not necessarily exact) to “Nhm”—which is what “Nahom” is when translated from Reformed Egyptian to English and then translated again to Hebrew.

Do I have that straight? Is THAT what is supposed to be convincing archeological proof? Similar letters?

This is where salesmanship comes in. See, a Mormon is looking for confirmation. (The reason we use the term “confirmation bias.”) As thin as this may be—it is sufficient for a person who is predisposed to believing it anyway. Hey—they believed it BEFORE they found Naw’um the Nihmite—this is icing on the cake.

Does a single non-LDS archeologist claim Naw’um must have come from a place called “Nahom”? Now—I have seen cries of “Are you saying all Mormons liars?” when such questions are generally asked. No—I am saying this is confirmation bias. They are looking for substantiation, and this is sufficient. This would have far greater effect if non-LDS scholars agreed “Nhmy” came from what the Book of Mormon calls “Nahom.”

In the end—when it comes to archeology I see far, FAR too many misses. And this one “hit” looks like, at best, a coincidence, but more likely a sales pitch to confirm what the Mormons already believe.

I do not believe it would convince a neutral jury.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Studying Mormonism

Sam has been doing a series on Mormonism, making me realize how unfamiliar I am with this particular flavor of Christianity. We briefly discussed it growing up—hitting the high points. Joseph Smith, Plates of Gold, polygamy. We knew they sent out missionaries, had a choir, and lay claim to the Osmonds.

Since Mormonism was wrong, of course, we only discussed it from the aspect of how it was wrong. Much like we treated any other belief—atheism, Catholicism, Democrats, etc. And due to the extreme brevity of our study, I don’t know very much about it. I am a little embarrassed as to how little I know.

Because of my location (America) and my upbringing, I generally assume people have an understanding about the Bible. I understand where the book of Exodus fits in the Big Picture. Or Isaiah. Or Matthew and Romans. I presume others do as well. Sometimes I am surprised at atheists who proclaim, “I didn’t know that was in the Bible!” or “That’s a good quote—I am going to have to remember it.” I forget others were not as immersed in it as I was.

Yet I have absolutely no idea about the Book of Mormon. Where does Jacob fit? What is Alma about? Or Ether? I find myself both ignorant, and curious to learn more.

Utilizing my method, I went looking for Mormon apologetics. What do Mormons say Mormons believe—not what creedal Christians say Mormons believe. And consequently have spent much time on the FAIR Mormon Apologetic site reading the various articles.

Two over-arching ideas have stood out:

1. “It is possible…”

This is the very bedrock of ALL theistic apologetics, I fear. Having never studied Mormon techniques, I am struck by the similarity in method. Time and time and time again, the proposed solution to a problem is framed, “It is possible…” and then just about anything is inserted after that phrase.

Which leads me to the second striking feature:

2. Pot—meet kettle

For as much as creedal Christianity castigates and ridicules Mormonism, and Mormons defend themselves against these attacks—the similarities are eye-poppingly obvious to an on-looker.

One difficulty with Mormonism is the claim in the Book of Mormon regarding coins, and the use of steel, and numbers of deaths, and certain animals and materials and grains when archeology has not provided proof of these things existence. And so we see the one-two punch:

1. “It is possible….” [animals were called different things] [barley might have existed] [we translated this wrong]

2. “Just because we haven’t found it yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

What made me chuckle, though was the comparison Mormon Apologists do to the Exodus and Joshua’s Genocide. They point out how there is scant (i.e.—none or contradictory) evidence of these things happening, yet creedal Christians believe it—why can’t the same be true of the Mesoamericans?

I wryly chuckle at the concept of proving the Bible wrong as a means to prove the Book of Mormon correct. Perhaps the better answer is they are both wrong!

And I find it fascinating how Creedal Christians respond with, “Even though it may be possible—how likely is it? Shouldn’t we look at plausibility?”

Yep!—the same thing we non-believers have been saying to Creedal Christians! Sure it is possible Judas hung himself, the rope broke, he fell, received a nasty gash in the gut and then wandered into the path of a chariot—but is that plausible?

Mormon Apologists point out the AMAZING accuracy of the prophecies of Jesus written in the Book of Mormon long before Jesus lived. Creedal Christians point out, “Wait a minute. At the time of the writing, the author already knew about Jesus, and was merely ‘back-dating’ what they knew into a story.”

Right. The same thing we say about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Mormons point out how they have a “burning” confirmation of the truth. Creedal Christians guffaw at such a concept. But then reverently refer to the “inner witness of the Holy Spirit.”

Hello? Pot? Kettle?

I am enjoying my study from the aspect of a newbie. Sadly, I see the same tired methodology, resulting in fairly quick dissection.