Possiblism and Bayes, Part 2

13 Jul

Possiblism and Bayes, Part 1 – http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/possibilism-and-bayes/

There is another way to think about distorted reasoning in the context of Bayes’s rule. This is a consequences of a person starting off with an exceptionally high prior probability based on an epistemology that leans heavily on trust in authority as sufficient grounds for accepting a truth claim, or counting as evidence some sense of direct revelation  (subjective spiritual experience).  Let’s take it through the basic formulation again in the context of the Book of Mormon.

First, let

  • H = the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon (BoM) is True
  • H* = the hypothesis that the BoM is False
  • B = the Pre-DNA background evidence
  • E = the new DNA evidence (containing no Israelite markers)

Second, the relevant prior probabilities (with LDS-friendly assignments). Now we represent the person who has repeatedly testified in public, “I know the Book of Mormon is True.”

  • P(H|B) = probability BoM is true given pre-DNA evidence = 0.99
  • P(H*|B) = probability BoM is false given pre-DNA evidence = 0.01

Next, the relevant updated probabilities are

  • P(E|H,B) = probability of the DNA evidence given the BoM is True = 0.1
  • P(E|H*,B) = probability of the DNA evidence given the BoM is false = 0.9

Note that this gives an LDS-friendly 0.10 (or 10%) chance that no Israelite DNA would show up in the Americas even if Lehi, Ishmael, etc. had as many offspring as the text suggests. This 10% forces the other to be 90%, since they must add to 1oo%

This leads us to what we are after, the probability the BoM is true after updating the prior probability (99%) with the new DNA evidence

  • P(H|E,B) = updated probability that BoM based on new DNA evidence

This final probability is determine completely by the previous ones through Bayes theorem. It is the only rational conclusion that can follow that honors evidence.

.                                              P(H|B) x P(E|H,B)
P(H|E,B)  =    ______________________________
.                         P(H|B) x P(E|H,B)  +  P(H*|B) x P(E|H*,B)

.                                       0.99 x 0.1
.                  =      _____________     =  0.92
.                           0.99 x 0.1 + 0.01 x 0.9

Here we see that even strong contradictory evidence drops the belief probability from 99% to 92%.

If the person felt 99.9% certain, the posterior probability would only drop to 99.1% certain.

If a person is deeply committed to an idea based on a faith-based epistemology, it will take an extraordinary amount of contradictory evidence to make them doubt, or even reach the 50:50 level.

Of course, ours minds do not tend to Bayesian assessments – we ignore the right term in the denominator.  Indeed, for a person to hold beliefs with a “provisionality” on par with how a scientist trusts a thermometer over her sense of touch when her hand that’s been steeping in ice water, the person would have to accept that our brains are “steeping” in “ice water.” It’s tough to arrive at that level of detachment – and it might not be a healthy state to achieve, except, perhaps, temporarily in critical circumstances.

Taking Stock of Jesus’ Boarding House

18 Jun

Doctrine and Covenants

Section 124

Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, January 19, 1841.… Verses 56–83, [Microeconomic] instruction are given [spoken by Jesus through Joseph Smith]  for the building [financing] of the Nauvoo House [Hotel with a bar];

56 And now I [Jesus] say unto you, as pertaining to my boarding house which I have commanded you to build for the boarding of strangers, let it be built unto my name, and let my name be named upon it, and let my servant Joseph and his house have place therein, from generation to generation…

60 And let the name of that house be called Nauvoo House; and let it be a delightful habitation for man, and a resting-place for the weary traveler, that he may contemplate the glory of Zion, …

62 Behold, verily I say unto you, let my servant George Miller… Lyman Wight… John Snider, and … Peter Haws, organize themselves …

63 And they shall form a constitution, whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house.

64 And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house, and they shall be permitted to receive fifteen thousand dollars from any one man for stock in that house.

65 But they shall not be permitted to receive over fifteen thousand dollars stock from any one man.

66 And they shall not be permitted to receive under fifty dollars for a share of stock from any one man in that house.

67 And they shall not be permitted to receive any man, as a stockholder in this house, except the same shall pay his stock into their hands at the time he receives stock; …

69 And if any pay stock into their hands it shall be for stock in that house, for himself, and for his generation after him, from generation to generation, so long as he and his heirs shall hold that stock, and do not sell or convey the stock away out of their hands by their own free will and act, if you will do my will, saith the Lord your God.

70 And again, verily I say unto you, if my servant George Miller, … receive any stock into their hands … they shall not appropriate any portion of that stock to any other purpose, only in that house.

71 And if they do appropriate any portion of that stock anywhere else… they shall be accursed, and shall be moved out of their place, saith the Lord God; for I, the Lord, am God, and cannot be mocked in any of these things.

72 Verily I say unto you, let my servant Joseph pay stock into their hands … but my servant Joseph cannot pay over fifteen thousand dollars stock in that house, nor under fifty dollars; neither can any other man, saith the Lord.

73 And there are others also who wish to know my will concerning them, for they have asked it at my hands.

74 Therefore, I say unto you concerning my servant Vinson Knight, if he will do my will let him put stock into that house for himself, and for his generation after him, from generation to generation … and I will accept of his offerings, for they shall not be unto me as the offerings of Cain, for he shall be mine, saith the Lord.

76 Let his family rejoice … he shall be honored in the midst of his house, for I will forgive all his sins, saith the Lord. Amen.

77 Verily I say unto you, let my servant Hyrum put stock into that ….

78 Let my servant Isaac Galland put stock into that house; for I, the Lord, love him for the work he hath done, and will forgive all his sins; therefore…

80 Let my servant William Marks pay stock into that house ….

81 Let my servant Henry G. Sherwood pay stock into that house….

82 Let my servant William Law pay stock into that house….


Let’s Shake On It

18 Jun

The Doctrine and Covenants

Section 129

Instructions given by Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, February 9, 1843, making known three grand keys by which the correct nature of ministering angels and spirits may be distinguished.

When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.

If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.

If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—

Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.

If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.

These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God. 

Reference: https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/129?lang=eng


If Jesus did hie to Kolob

12 May

If Jesus did “hie” to Kolob, and if hieing means traveling at nearly the speed of light – the cosmic speed limit – then Kolob is less than 2000 light years away. That’s pretty distant – about 12,000 trillion miles [1].

But we now know that Earth is 27,000 light years from the center of our Milky way galaxy, whose full diameter is 100,000 light years!  Therefore, to hie from Earth to Kolob, relative to our Galaxy, is like driving from Akron to Columbus Ohio relative to the continental United States. Hardly an impressive “hie.”

Now if we step back and consider that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the Universe, with the nearest one being 2.5 million light years away – well, it seems Joseph’s Godhead is a rather provincial trio.

And so modern science broadens the perspective Joseph offered in his “revealed” 19th century cosmology. I suppose we could always posit wormholes to get us out of his rabbit hole [2]. Or, bite the bullet and accept a smallish godhead kingdom. Or, we could just deny modern science and its pesky speed limits. Or, we could just ignore the whole thing and “just believe.”

It can be so easy to just believe – and then so difficult not to believe – and then so difficult to believe – and then easy to not believe. I did not exactly hie to disbelief.


[1] hie – verb: to go quickly.

My Truthy Press Secretary

18 Apr

I’ve been following the science of unconscious cognition for several years now. It’s been “consciousness” raising. I’m now convinced – at least in some “self-conscious” rational sense – that most of my “choices” are deeply influenced and prefigured by introspectively inaccessible brain “modules” that strategically inform (and misinform) my conscious “press secretary” module. The latter is the one that so effortlessly vocalizes socially self-serving truthy narratives to convince and impress others, as well as myself.

Somehow demoting my conscious self to such an auxiliary role doesn’t bother me – or so it seems. Perhaps it’s because it seems to get along so well with my “hidden layers” now that they all abide the same naturalistic universe. Or perhaps this view procures some other benefits – such as putting distance between me and groups whose metaphysical baggage I don’t want to tote around. Can you see what’s going on here? My multiplicity turns me to wondering about the “true” reasons I embarked on my journey out of Mormonism and then theism.

When I let my mind trip back to former Mormon moments I can almost capture those fleeting emotions in the act of cutting away my faith. Could it have been simple boredom? Was it feeling repulsed by overreaching TMI-filled testimonies? Was it that patronizing Bishop side-hug? Maybe it was the broken zipper on that dorky triple combination leatherette “suitcase” I lugged around.

I remember feeling very depressed after my third (and final) visit to the temple in 1986. But the dread that preceded that visit might be a false memory – as apparently many are. I can’t recall consciously fretting about the church sucking away my life-time. And yet my fretful decision to change careers soon after entailed limiting my exposure to callings with plausible deniability. I remember that thought.

As it turned out, I went fully inactive before starting that new career with nary a response from any church leader or member- including family.  Perhaps there were responses, but they were all subliminal. Beneath my polite reticence I was sending the message: “Stay back. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone” – and they granted me that space. Evidently people communicate more information through body language and tone of voice than the words themselves. This too provides plausible deniability.

Only years after going inactive did I get around to substantial Mormon-debunking research. At the time it seemed fueled by anger over being betrayed after stumbling across Quinn’s books. But I now suspect it was driven more by shame over my own stupidity – for not letting gold plates and racism move me to the exit earlier – and now I was stuck with it.

I suppose that debunking was still productive. It fed my conscious press secretary line upon implausible Mormon line. That made me feel better about where I ended up and prepared my press secretary with good justifications for my leave-taking.  The odd thing about this is that my press secretary has never gotten around to speaking to anyone but myself and a few close non-Mormon friends – oh yes, and blog readers who can only identify me as “JT.”


Books by D, Michael Quinn

  • Mormonism and the Magic World View
  • Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power
  • Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power

Popular Science Books on the Adapative Unconscious

  • Strangers to Ourselves:: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (Timothy D. Wilson)
  • Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Leonard Mlodinow)
  • Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocriite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Robert Kurzban)
  • Whose in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (Michael S. Gazzaniga)

Concerning cognitive illusions associated with conscious experience

  • Perplexities of Consciousness (Eric Scwitzgebel)

Joseph’s Caricature of Egyptian “Caractors”

6 Apr

The Historian Dan Vogel recently presented an interesting three-part analysis of the “caractors” Joseph Smith claimed to have copied from the gold plates. Vogel has made a couple dozen of videos covering Joseph Smith and early Mormon history (see below).

What makes Vogel’s analysis particularly interesting is that he identifies internal textual features that suggest a progressive degrading in Joseph’s ability to create novel caractors as he proceeded.  This moves beyond finding parallels of potential scripts that Joseph may have altered. [1]

Part 1.  Joseph Smith Makes a Sample of Characters


Part 2. Book of Mormon Characters Examined


Part 3. How Joseph Smith Invented Reformed Egyptian



[1] For example, see the analysis of the “Detroit Manuscript” by Richard Stout and William Moore:




A Strategic Witness for the Mormon Right

29 Mar

The Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks recently gave a talk, “A Witness to God,” at BYU-Idaho devotional [1, 2]. I learned of it through an interesting panel discussion on the Mormon Expositor podcast, which prompted my own reading (after 2 minutes of trying to watch). [3]

Here is my outline of his talk, interpreted through the lens of a pigeonholed “anti-Christ.”  Yes, sadly, I am now such a bone fide Christian bogeymen courtesy of the apostle John as reconstituted by the apostle Dallin.

I. Welcome all Christian-like Mormons.

  • You too are fundamentalist Christians (So get ready to join forces with them).

II. The true threats to the fabric of your beings are atheists and secular humanists.

  • Atheists are the true anti-Christs. The “Great and Abominable Church” is no longer the collection of whorish apostate Christian sects. It’s everything atheists and secular humanists associate with (and I’ve got this single New Testament verse as a proof text, which I am pulling out of context [4]).
  • They want to replace our true absolute morality with unbridled moral relativism (even though they have done much good in the world).
  • By glorifying reason secularists subvert the wisdom of God (most of which we admittedly don’t comprehend.)

III. Here’s what you’ve got to do.

  • Ramp up the god-talk through your private prayers and greetings  (particularly with Christmas and sympathy cards).
  • Ramp up your god-talk in public settings (like public schools and town meetings).
  • Demand your “free exercise of religion” (which means imposing ours on others using our collective political influence).

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us us join forces with the Christian right to battle the anti-Christ (and stop gay marriage).


So, what’s going on here?

I’ve recently noticed Mormon leaders making Christian right-sounding noises. Perhaps it’s been going on for a while – but Oaks was sure trumpeting some here. Feels like the transformation is almost complete.

It’s interesting to see an “apostle” of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”(D&C 130)  sidling up to the sects whose clerics were used to represent the devil not so many years ago [5]. Indeed, this was the major point of Oaks talk – redefining the “great and abominable church” in terms of atheists/secularists. Pretty clever move – very strategic. But his “making a deal with the devil” seems like – to me anyway – an act of desperation and weakness.

While there are relatively few overt atheists in the US, they do dominate the intellectual landscape and are winning arguments that play by the rules of reason and evidence [6].  In that regard, I think Oaks and other conservative Christian leaders are justifiably scared – and, perhaps, suffering from beaten egos.

Indeed, despite the massive herds they can so easily persuade to fall in behind them, they don’t get much respect at the “grown-up” tables – unless they can deliver votes. And this is because they are not growing up. Their dogmatic views are stuck in the information-poor past. They bring nothing new or useful to broader conversations about our pluralistic and complex future.  Their “spiritual method” of producing “knowledge” is good for little more than confirming ancient dogma and buying up and developing real estate. And it doesn’t take much surface scratching to reveal that their lip-flapping is mostly about preserving the narrowly circumscribed interests of their own oligarchy [7].

And so, Falwell-esque bombasticisms are all Oaks can muster as he seeks to make – or pretend to make – Mormonism into just another fundamentalist Christian bubble [8]. The strategy seems to be to find shelter and support in their frothy midst.[9]

Bubbles of the world unite!


[1] The video: https://video.byui.edu/media/Dallin+H.+Oaks+%22Witnesses+of+God%22/0_n6vr7aeb

[2] The transcript: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/witnesses-of-god

[3] http://mormonexpositor.com/66-responding-to-witnesses-of-god-by-dallin-oaks/

[4]  The antichrists referred to in 1 John 2: 18-19 were members of the “John’s” church who broke away due to doctrinal differences – not their atheism.  They were Docetists who believed fully in Christ, but that He was completely divine and only appeared (from the Greek word dokeo) to take human form. This is made clear in 1 John 4: 2-3.  There were very few, if any, atheists in “John’s” day. Therefore, this passage cannot be used against  atheists or secularists any more than against any non-Christian religion.

[5] The Mormon temple endowment ritual used to portray the devil dressed up like a 19th century Christian cleric.

[6]  We should keep in mind that many religious people are secularists with respect to how the public and government institutions of a pluralistic democratic society should be run.

[7] For Mormons, democracy and  the U.S. Constitution are provisional, serving to protect the the institution until the time when the priesthood can take the reigns of a true theocracy.

[8] I count the acceptance of Biblical literalism through the added support of its exclusive scripture (e.g. the Book of Mormon and Book of Moses confirm the Tower of Babel and the Flood as historical) as a defining feature of Fundamentalism.

[9] One commenter on this talk used the wagon train analogy: “Mormonism is once again circling the wagons and holding their head low.” Yes, and I would add that their strategy is to first paint their own wagons to look more like the dominant Christian Right wagons and then find an inconspicuous safe spot among them. (See http://mormonexpositor.com/66-responding-to-witnesses-of-god-by-dallin-oaks/)


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