June 17, 2009 at 8:07 PM 39 comments

New Scientist is a British weekly scientific magazine with a very strong emphasis on a secular view of the world.  I put up with its regular gratuitous slaps at theists  (particularly American theists) because every couple of weeks it comes up with a gem of an article that makes you view the world differently, and it can involve almost any scientific discipline. It clearly doesn’t depend upon Restorationists for its readership.

So I had to laugh when I stumbled across an article (available on-line only to New Scientist subscribers) last year where an unknowing reference to a liahona-like navigation tool popped up in the middle of a story about a sea wreck.  I thought I’d share a summary of it because so few Restorationists may have seen it.  Make of it what you will.

The Roman general Marcellus took the Greek city state of Syracuse for the Empire in 212 BC.  One of his strategic objectives was the capture of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, since the engineering genius of Archimedes would have been of immense value to the Empire.  Archimedes died in the sacking of the city, so Marcellus had to make do with seizing whatever he could of Archimedes engineering models and works.

“One of Archimedes’s creations was saved, though. The general took back to Rome a mechanical bronze sphere that showed the motions of the sun, moon and planets as seen from Earth.”

The Roman author Cicero saw the device in the First Century BC, but described something thought to be beyond the technical capabilities of the ancient Greeks. Historians generally ignored the story.

“Now, however, research on the battered remains of a mysterious ancient device suggests that Cicero was telling the truth. While the ‘Antikythera mechanism’ is not the same one seen by Cicero – it was not made until a century later – it proves that clockwork mechanisms like the one he described really did exist, and that ancient Greek technology was far more advanced than thought.  Freshly deciphered inscriptions on its dials also hint at the origins of this technology.

“The device was discovered more than a century ago by sponge divers from the Aegean island of Symi.  In 1900, after a gale blew them off course, they took shelter by a barren islet called Antikythera.  When the storm abated, they went diving.  Instead of sponges, the divers found a large heap of bronze and marble statues.  They had happened upon an ancient shipwreck.”

Among the ancient treasures was a corroded lump of rock, set aside as unimportant, until it cracked open to reveal a complicated mechanism hidden inside.

“The battered artefact became known as the “Antikythera mechanism”, and it caused excitement and consternation.  Until then, not one gearwheel, pointer or scale had been found from antiquity.  Nor have any been found since; the Antikythera mechanism remains unique.

“In recent decades, however, a series of researchers have dedicated large parts of their lives to studying the mechanism.  From their combined efforts, including X-raying its internal workings, we at last have a fairly complete picture of what the Antikythera mechanism did.  It turns out that it was a hand-wound clockwork device used to calculate the motions of the sun, moon and planets as seen from Earth, as well as to predict solar and lunar eclipses.

“The complexity of the design, and the fact that it incorporated state-of-the-art astronomical knowledge, suggest that the maker cared a great deal about the accuracy of the mechanism. 

“… The presence of supply jars from Rhodes suggests the vessel stopped off at the island shortly before sinking.  The astronomer Hipparchus, whose theories are embodied in the mechanism’s gearwork, worked on Rhodes just a few decades before, leading some scholars to suggest that the Antikythera mechanism was made on the island.

“Cicero also visited Rhodes around this time.  In fact, he wrote about a second bronze model of the heavens ‘recently constructed by our friend Posidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets that take place in the heavens each day and night’.  Posidonius was a philosopher with a school on Rhodes in the first century BC, just at the time the Antikythera ship sailed.”

Inscriptions of month names on the device lead researchers to suggest (Nature, vol 454, p 614) that the mechanism originated several decades before the wreck in Western Greece — quite possibly in Syracuse.

“…the link to Syracuse, plus Cicero’s description of Archimedes’s model, hint that he could have been the original inventor of this type of gadget, with the Antikythera mechanism part of a technological tradition that he started.

“We know from ancient texts that Archimedes pioneered the use of gearwheels to achieve different force ratios – to lift weights, for example.  And one of the few biographical details we know about him is that his father was an astronomer.  So it wouldn’t be completely unexpected if he had the idea of using his gearwheels to model the motions of the heavens. Tantalisingly, one of his lost treatises was entitled ‘On sphere-making’.

“The theory of epicycles [circles moving around the perimeter of larger circles] was very new when Archimedes lived, if it existed at all, and astronomers had no way to model the elliptical orbits of the moon and sun.  So his original design might have been relatively simple, perhaps a schematic model showing the sun, moon and planets rotating around the Earth at various but constant speeds. Later, other craftsmen could have built on this, coming up with more sophisticated gearwork to incorporate the latest astronomical knowledge – including that of Hipparchus – as it became available, with the designs being shipped across the Greek world.  Hipparchus is chiefly known for his insistence on what now seems obvious to us: that astronomical theories should accurately match observations.  Perhaps he or his work influenced a switch from a schematic spherical model to a mathematical calculator that displayed the precise timing of celestial events on flat dials.

“Modelling the heavens with geared devices ran alongside a parallel tradition of modelling living creatures such as people, animals and birds.  These did not use gearwheels, but were instead powered by steam, hot air and water.  This seems to have started with the engineer Ctesibius in Alexandria in the third century BC, who specialised in water clocks incorporating automated figures.  Archimedes worked with Ctesibius in Alexandria before he moved to Syracuse, so perhaps the seeds of both traditions – modelling planets and living creatures – were sown there.”

The trail goes cold at this point in history, with geniuses at the North end of the Red Sea.  Perhaps Ctesibius was the originator of these technological traditions.  But we don’t always see the origins of ideas that lead to technology.  For example, there is contested evidence that astronomers in China may have begun development of “armillary spheres” in the 4th Century BC that would have allowed them to measure declination and right ascension.  Cultures often ascribe inventions to heroic figures within their cultures who later become famous, without recognizing how ideas have passed back and forth among cultures.

So perhaps we’ll find that a more primitive brass “round ball of curious workmanship” goes farther back than we’ve yet found. As I said, make of it what you will.

Entry filed under: archeology, Book of Mormon, history, Mormon Scripture.


39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. MH  |  June 19, 2009 at 1:13 AM

    So perhaps this Brass Ball was left in front of Lehi’s tent by a Greek traveler? Man, I bet they were lost without it! But how did Lehi know how to make it work?

    • 2. FireTag  |  June 19, 2009 at 1:42 AM

      Well, clearly not lost, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. 😀

      The interesting thing is the description of the liahona as a round ball of curious workmanship. If we didn’t have the Book of Mormon as background guiding our thinking and had to imagine a compass or director, someone in our culture would probably think of something that tells east, west, south, and north — and that only requires a planer object. The need of the third, spherical dimension in the operation would be unnecessary, and spheres are harder to make than boxes.

      Remember The Wrath of Khan? “Linear thinking, Captain.”

  • 3. MH  |  June 20, 2009 at 12:46 AM

    FireTag, I find this so interesting–it seems really plausible to me that a ball of curious workmanship to map the stars would have been exactly what Lehi used.

    I do remember The Wrath of Kahn, but I haven’t watched it for a long time. I own it so I’ll have to watch it to see where that line comes from.

    • 4. FireTag  |  June 20, 2009 at 1:04 AM

      Use the fast forward, it’s the key to the final battle in the movie.

  • 5. bewarethechicken  |  June 24, 2009 at 2:22 PM

    I think the criticism of the Liahona is not that such a thing couldn’t have existed, but that the authors of the Book of Mormon refer to it as being like a “compass” which didn’t exist, making reference thereto suspicious at best.

  • 6. FireTag  |  June 24, 2009 at 3:52 PM

    I think you’re opening the question — for which there is an extensive historical database which I can’t begin to parse here — of how the “translation” process is supposed to have worked.

    There are some theories of translation for which the term “compass” is a big problem. There are others for which “compass” is confirmatory.

    My working hypothesis is the theory Givens describes in “By the Hand of Mormon”. In that theory, the writer puts down the term he uses, even if the word has nothing to do with the concept as it exists in the mind of the translator. The translator gets the closest equivalent of the word, not the concept, in his own language, if such a word exists.

    I’m not sure what closer English equivalent than “compass” would have been available to Joseph to whatever word Mormon and/or Nephi used to mean “thing that told us which direction to go” when they didn’t use the word Joseph translated as “director”.

    That’s why I find the shape description so interesting, because that’s NOT a concept Western culture would have used in a 19th century story — whether written be a highly educated or not so educated man.

    The big navigation problem in our history wasn’t finding direction, it was finding longitude. I don’t know if the liahona solved that problem, or if it simply solved the problem of knowing when to head away from the coast — so that the journey was really a leap of faith that you’d arrive somewhere before you ran out of supplies.

    • 7. bewarethechicken  |  June 24, 2009 at 5:08 PM

      I understand the Givens theory, but it would only work if Momon/Nephi were writing the word “Liahona” and JsJr then looked at that word and translated it to the closest English word – which was “compass”. The theory breaks down in practice, however. Instead, the writer of the BoM says (paraphrase): “the Liahona was like a compass.” So the writer was trying to explain to someone what the Liahona was and was using a word that the reader would understand. But if you are suggesting the Brass Ball was the Liahona – what was Nephi/Mormon comparing it to that would be understood by someone in days pre-compass?

  • 8. FireTag  |  June 24, 2009 at 5:40 PM

    The brass ball found in the Med is clearly centuries later than anything Nephi would have had, so I’m not suggesting more than that what is found has characteristics which match the specific description of the artifact in the Book of Mormon, which would not normally go with a 19th century description of a compass, and that those characteristics are likely to be more closely related to any 6th Century BCE that did exist than modern techs are.

    I’m still unclear about what your objection to Givens interpretation is here. Unless I’m missing something, Mormon wasn’t explaining what the liahona was like to a 19th century person. The reader knew what the writer knew. So “Moroni, my boy, the liahona was like a blumbarq” doesn’t change anything vis a vis Joseph, even though Moroni might have understood what a blumbarq was perfectly well.

    Mayans got around somehow. Maybe Joseph should have translated the term as “street sign”. 😀

  • 9. bewarethechicken  |  June 24, 2009 at 10:13 PM

    I agree a blumbarq could be anything – but the question is, what? If the Liahona was like a compass, why didn’t (per Givens theory) he translate the book “Moroni my boy, the compass was like a compass?” Why in one instance does the translator conform an unknown word to a 19th century English word and in another instance, does not?

    If there was another thing that was “like a compass” so that Moroni could understand what the Liahona was by comparing them, then, what was that thing? That’s the point. There were no compasses – or anything like compasses at that time. Surely you’re not suggesting a street sign is similar to a compass? What navigational tool of that time frame was so like the Liahona (ie, a compass) that Moroni would understand?

  • 10. FireTag  |  June 25, 2009 at 12:01 AM

    BTC: Maybe I’m dense. Can you give me a pair of scriptural citations so I can read specifically the context of what you’re referencing as being different?

    People clearly managed to get around in ancient times without tools like compasses. They had mental constructs, often multiple mental constructs within the same culture, to function. Why would you expect that cultures so different from ours would have all of their ways of expressing a construct have a one-to-one match with our constructs.

    I got a real education during the past year doing technical editing projects describing the NextGen air traffic control system that the Federal Aviation Administration is trying to put in place. Besides learning to appreciate the miracle that is really involved in getting a plane from one airport to another, I also learned that the same concept being described by one author in Chapter 4 was described using an entirely different word in Chapter 6 of the same document — and even though I was technically literate and it was my own culture, I did not know that the two words meant the same concept.

    Now Givens is a heavy-weight-enough scholar to defend his own work, but before we bother him, do you contend that anyone knows enough about the intracies of Mayan culture to explain what concepts they did use for overland navigation (forgetting anything about the Book of Mormon for a moment)?

    For all we know, maybe it really was something as simple as putting up a colored stick at every road split next to the road running most nearly east-west. Maybe it was an elaborate religious carving with the symbol for the clan running the city the road went toward. Maybe it was a wooden tower on the highest hill visible from any particular location. Maybe it was different systems on royal roads and in the backwoods — and different systems would have different words for the different concepts employed.

    As far as I am aware, Mayans didn’t even regard east as covering the same number of degrees of the “compass” as north does. East was roughly the direction where the sun rises — which we moderns would assume covers no more than about 45 degrees (based on the inclination of the earth’s orbit and the point where the sun rose in different seasons), not 90 degrees. North was the direction to your left when you faced east, and would be about 3 times as “large” as East. But even that mental translation depends on hidden assumptions relating the sense of direction among Mayans to calander understandings based on assumed associations with lunar months. We do not know how other cultures think with the reliability you seem to assume. (We can’t even figure out Iran or Korea!)

    I was shocked to discover that it was only a mere few centuries ago that Europeans took great joy in chasing cats through the streets to burn them alive.

    It seems to me that until archeology can answer those types of questions, you’re asking the BofM to pass tests a completely historical artifact from Mayan culture couldn’t pass.

    • 11. bewarethechicken  |  June 25, 2009 at 9:57 AM

      This is your blog, FireTag, so anytime you feel like this isn’t the right forum for this discussion, just let me know.

      The particular passage (there are several) that I’m referring to is from Alma 37:38:

      “And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director–or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it.”

      Obviously, Alma is trying to describe something unfamiliar (the Liahona) by comparing it to something familiar (ball, director, compass).

      Two questions arise: first, if as Givens suggests, when coming to a word for which there is no equivalent in 19th century English, then JS Jr uses the closest English word: “compass”. But if this were true, why doesn’t the passage read: “…or our fathers called it compass, which is, being interpreted, a compass”? For Liahona is not an English word and doesn’t have a direct English interpretation – therefore, by Givens’ theory, JS Jr should have used the English interpretation.

      Second, if the Givens theory were applied to the second word “compass” – what was the thing for which there was no English word, that the word “compass” was the closest thing to? A wooden tower on a high hill or a street sign or an elaborate carving is nothing like a device you hold in your hand and points to a static point using magnetism. If Alma were referring to a word for one of these things, surely the closest 19th century English word would have beeb “street sign” or “map” or “landmark” or “guide post”.

      The characteristic of a 19th century compass that makes it like the Liahona is that the compass is held in your hand and points you in a particular direction no matter where your starting point. And nothing like that existed till the 12th century.

      So either JS Jr was able to use his own interpretation of words on the plates and his interpretation was very loose (obviously a compass is nothing like road sign), which calls into question other areas that this loose interpretations may have been used; or Alma’s audience had no idea what this magial Liahnoa was to the point that they needed it explained, but they knew exactly all about a hand-held self-directional pointing device, notwithstanding such a thing wasn’t invented for another 1800 years.


  • 12. FireTag  |  June 25, 2009 at 11:29 AM

    NOTE: BTC’s quote is from Alma 17:71 for anyone following along using a CofChrist Book of Mormon (chapter and verse numbering is totally different, but the text of the two versions is generally the same).

    Again, you’re making a cultural assumption that the way in which a blumbarq is compared to a compass in Alma’s writing (as edited by Mormon) is that it points in a direction and uses magnetism to tell the way. But Alma then had to spend the next several verses explaining to his listener what the device did and how miraculous it was. So clearly, Alma’s son did NOT think blumbarq was a physical concept for an ancient compass, but for a cultural referent that did make sense to him. In Alma’s culture, Alma had to talk separately about physical properties because someone would NOT compare the liahona to something else on the basis of physical properties. Joseph got the comparitive term that conveyed the proper cultural referrent (a functional one, not a mechanical one) of blumbarq to him. If the Mayans navigated by “paying” an old laborer no longer able to work the fields to sit by the side of the road all day and tell travellers which turn to take, do you think God would have considered it useful to have blumbarq translated as “watchman” instead?

    “Liahona” needed no translation at all, of course, because it was a one-of-a-kind object to both cultures.

    You and I are trapped in a scientific western culture, my friend. We don’t know other ways of looking at the world. But such ways have always existed.

    So we have to stop trying to force the ancients to get into our heads and think the way we think. Before we can evaluate the claims of the Book of Mormon the way we do the Bible, we have to spend as much effort getting into the heads of the Mayan and Olmec cultures as we’ve none with the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Hebraic peoples.

    Ironically, the Antikythera Mechanism has nothing to do with magnetism, so presumably any more ancient predecessor wouldn’t have played that trick either. And today the proper cultural reference would not be compass, but computer. Look at how the NY Times described the device in the automatically generated list of related articles before the comments.

    • 13. bewarethechicken  |  June 25, 2009 at 11:51 AM

      So you are adopting the theory I suggest that JS Jr took tremendous liberties in finding the best possible 19th century English word when coming accross a word that didn’t translate literally. That is to say, instead of saying “man who sits on the side of the road and points” he said “compass.” To me this is a huge revelation. To me, a man sitting at the side of the road is nothing like a compass other than the basic concept that they point the way. If JS Jr could take these huge subjective leaps – then what other leaps did he take? What theological understandings do we have from the BoM that are instead wild translations of JS Jr?

      For example, wWhat if he saw the word “spregantz” and translated it “laying on of hands” when it really meant “kissing”? Both things involve touching – one could surmise just as subjectively that JS Jr took what he felt was the closest english words – but was as far off on a tangent as comparing a man by the road with a compass.

      • 14. FireTag  |  June 25, 2009 at 1:01 PM

        You are again presuming what you assert as a conclusion, Chicken. That Joseph is “receiving”, but there is no “sending” going on, so it is a process which we can comfortably fit into our notions (limited as they are) of historical reality.

        He would not be OFF TANGENT by comparing a man by the side of the road to a compass. He would be ON TARGET because pointing (the function) was the important concept for Alma to convey to his son the listener.

        That’s the whole point. It’s not subjective at all; its quite objective but translates one culture for another and does not give either special knowledge through translation that is not available to the other. That puts it on the same status as the experiences recorded at pentecost in which people speaking in one language understood another.

        If your underlying argument is that neither the Book of Mormon nor the Bible can be miraculous because the spiritual doesn’t interactact with the physical, I can’t help you. I say we look for “ground truth” in regard to both Books and fit what we find into the best overall theories of reality we can.

        I hope you stick around and get a glimpse of how big and unexpected the totality of reality is as science keeps finding things.

  • 15. FireTag  |  June 25, 2009 at 11:41 AM

    My blog stats are telling me that this post is getting a lot of traffic from Saints Herald. For this of you looking at this blog for the first time — welcome, all — I’d also like to suggest that you look at the post below entitled “Science Tribes” and check out the Orson Scott card link there. It is exceptionally relevant to the discussion on this thread.

    Thanks for reading.

  • 16. bewarethechicken  |  June 25, 2009 at 11:54 AM

    Also, I don’t see anywhere in any of the articles you site anyone saying that this “computer” is a navigational tool – but more of a calendar. Where are you finding the notion that it is anything like a compass? Am I just missing it?

    • 17. FireTag  |  June 25, 2009 at 1:22 PM

      Indeed, the New Scientist article points out that the Greeks never developed the technologies they had to practical uses. Neither they nor the Romans used it to navigate since it was ineffective at offering any navigation advantages within the closed Mediterranean. It was enough to understand the way the cosmos worked in the Greek culture.

      To quote:

      “Historians have often scoffed at the Greeks for wasting their technology on toys rather than doing anything useful with it. If they had the steam engine, why not use it to do work? If they had clockwork, why not build clocks? Many centuries later, such technology led to the industrial revolution in Europe, ushering in our automated modern world. Why did it not do the same for the Greeks?

      “The answer has a lot to do with what the Greeks would have regarded as useful. Models of people and animals, like those of the cosmos, affirmed their idea of a divine order. Gadgets like Hero’s were also used to demonstrate basic physical laws in pneumatics and hydraulics.

      “It has been suggested, for example, that Hero built his steam engine, in which steam escaping from nozzles in a metal sphere caused the sphere to spin, to disprove Aristotle’s argument that movement could only be generated by pushing on something “unmoved and resisting” – the Prime Mover. Despite Hero’s demonstration, Christians later adapted Aristotle’s argument as proof that their God exists.

      “Rather than being toys, devices like the Antikythera mechanism were seen as a route to understanding and demonstrating the nature of the universe – a way to get closer to the true meaning of things. To what better use could technology be put?”

      To what use other cultures would have put any predecessors of the technology, who knows? But if I’m on a multi-year journey that covers latitudes in which I’ve never seen the sky, a device that tells me where objects are going to be in the sky after a given number of days after winding (which the A device does) tells me a lot about latitude, at least.

      That’s why the Chinese played with ancillary spheres in the first place.

  • 18. bewarethechicken  |  June 25, 2009 at 1:30 PM

    I’m not sure I understand what you think my conclusion is. If the answer to BoM anachronisms such as the use of the word “compass” is that God can do miracles, then the discussion is over for I cannot debate that point. If God wanted us to read “compass” so sent that info to JS JR, then, so be it.

    But theories such as Givens’ are therefore irrelevant. God could have easily given compasses to the Mayans and then swept them away. There’s no need to “defend” the anachronisms. There’s also no need to try to provide evidence, such as “liahona-shaped calendars” to support the book’s historicity.

    • 19. FireTag  |  June 25, 2009 at 3:27 PM

      I’m saying it isn’t an anachronism at all. Historians prior to 1900 disbelieved Cicero’s account of things like the A device, as noted above, BECAUSE IT DIDN’T FIT THEIR CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS of what such a device would lead to in later technology. Joseph Smith took what he was given — claiming that it was given divinely — and the ground truth now says that Joseph outscored his contemporaries on this issue. There were round brass balls of curious workmanship modeling the heavens as early as the Roman conquest of Greece.

      Your second paragraph again shows an insistance on predicting HOW God should behave instead of any openness to evaluate the data as to how He DOES behave. If it helps you adjust, think of God as the Vorlons. But the business of science is about learning how to better fit our ideas about reality to what we discover — not in trying to force field truth to fit pre-existing notions. If we did that in ANY scientific field, we’d no longer make any progress at all.

      Keep testing and be open to revising your ideas. To paraphrase Haldane, “The universe is not only stranger than people imagine. It’s stranger than people CAN imagine.”

  • 20. bewarethechicken  |  June 26, 2009 at 9:33 AM

    Fire Tag, we seem to be talking past each other. My second paragraph says that God can do anything and that “theories” trying to figure out why/how He does things are pointless. I’m not sure how you can interpret that as me “predicting how God SHOULD” do things or closing my mind to possibilities. My intention was quite the opposite.

  • 21. FireTag  |  June 26, 2009 at 10:47 AM

    Perhaps we are talking past each other, but I’m too much of a scientist to believe that the way the world works doesn’t tell me something about its origins. Were I to become an atheist, I would still spend my time understanding ultimate reality to discover truth.

    As a matter of fact I am a pantheist. I believe God is the system. He is neither part of the system nor external to the system. From some of your belief expressions on other sites, I suspect there are some similarities in our belief systems in that regard when you speak about God being in all of us..

    Creationists most often make the argument that God can do anything, even fake the fossil evidence. So studying evolution only takes us away from Biblical truth. But even that argument would tell me something about their God. Their God would be capable of massive deception. So even then, the study of the fossils would be worthwhile..

    The A mechanism is one data point that supports the notion that the Creator can and does convey historical information directly. It does not prove the Book of Mormon. But it’s not the only such point that shows up in fields where the study of 19th century history is not the authoritative scientific discipline to rely upon.

    The word “compass” is precisely the word theories such as Given’s predict should occur in the context of the verse you cited, so I simply do not see why you regard it as an achronistic.

    To use the example of the discussion of Rosa parks on the “Sexual Policy in the Church” thread on Saint’s Herald blog (linked from my home page blogroll), John Hamer understood the context of “cracker” in regard to the Civil Rights Movement. Not being American, you acknowledged you didn’t. So John translated correctly the functional content of the word “cracker” as “bigot”, not “snackfood”. If the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, we’d expect the communication of the plates to be at least that intelligent.

  • 22. bewarethechicken  |  June 26, 2009 at 11:17 AM

    And if the Book of Mormon is a 19th century creation, we’d expect to see slip-ups in references, such as referring to chariots, compases, horses, etc. -which we also do. So I guess it’s just a matter of where you start as to what conclusions you draw. I don’t think it’s a matter of looking at it through any particular cultural lens. If one assumes that the Book of Mormon is historical, one may explain away most anything – especially when one is not bound by typical scientific logistics.

  • 23. FireTag  |  June 26, 2009 at 3:05 PM

    If one assumes a 19th Century explanation (be it some combination of fiction and/or hoax), such explanations ALSO become subject to scientific criticism by relevant disciplines for evaluating fiction and hoaxes. As I emphasize in Science Tribes , there remains a very lively scientific debate on those issues which the Cof Christ largely does NOT participate in due to a lack of broad academic resources. Most of our academics are committed to 21st century tasks of higher priority to denominational issues.

    We do a fairly good job of understanding Restoration 19th Century History, we do a fairly good job of understanding Christian and other religious theology, but in other areas, the professional debates relevant to the Book of Mormon are being carried out by LDS and non-denominational scholars.

  • 24. bewarethechicken  |  June 26, 2009 at 3:13 PM

    I would certainly like to be made aware of any non-denominational scholar who is engaged in any debate about the Book of Mormon; particularly one where the non-denominational scholar supports the historicity of the book with scientific method.

  • 25. FireTag  |  June 26, 2009 at 4:35 PM

    I believe I said that a lively debate continues. If you don’t know THAT much, start with Givens — which has a 56 page reference list of books and articles PRO AND CON — and that only touches on the archeology and the literary arguments from an historical perspective.

    Card can help you with understanding the problems with the fictional scenarios — things that Joseph gets right that people in the 19th Century get wrong.

    Morgan Deane (on the blogroll at Mormon War) can help with the things that Joseph got right with the military science. He also has a marvelous post about fundamentalist Christians who seem to confuse the validity of an argument with the politics of the person making the argument. There seems to be a lot of that going around, and it isn’t limited to fundamentalist Christians.

    I’ll try to share from time to time some more about how Joseph got some things right in geophysics, let alone cosmology, that his more knowledgable contemporaries missed. And I’ll point to emerging evidences against the “faith” when they emerge.

    That’s what the Science and Theology portion of the blogroll is for.

  • 26. bewarethechicken  |  June 26, 2009 at 4:47 PM

    You said there was a debate between non-denominational scholars and LDS. You said this was, in part at least, a scientific debate. The references you site are all denominational LDS. I know that the LDS and other restoration groups debate.

    The most convincing evidence is that collected by LDS/CofC and other scholars that were raised their whole lives believing the BoM is historical fact, but when they actually seek to prove it or explain it, they realize for themselves that it is not. I would be interested to see this ever happen the other way around – ie. someone seeking to disprove it, is convinced of its historicity.

  • 27. FireTag  |  June 26, 2009 at 5:39 PM

    I am not sure of whether such studies exist. Anecdotal evidence abounds on both sides. But Givens references are not all LDS. He includes both pro and con authors in abundance. Certainly Morgan works heavily from standard military science texts and is expert in ancient militaries unrelated to the BofM. And if you don’t think a Hugo winner can teach you something about how fiction about unknown cultures would actually give itself away, from whom can you learn?

    I am more troubled by any notion that the valisity of arguments are to be evaluated by the politics or religion of the people making the argument — to be convinced by who changes their minds or how many, rather than what quaklity of evidence caused them to change their minds. It’s a culture of “science” of which I’m sceptical.

    I don’t believe that the universe will expand to infinity or collapse because Einstein said so, I believe it because I’ve had to do the whole @&$)&% series integratio-by-parts myself to get the series coefficients and then evaluate the possible convergence conditions. I believe the periodic table because I had to derive wave equations and then solve the Schroedinger equation that resulted — not because the teacher told me so.

    If a Mormon has a valid argument, the argument doesn’t stop being valid because he’s Mormon, BTC. The essence of science is that it’s falsifiable and reproducable. Theology must be at least partially falsifiable and/or reproducable or there is no touchstone between science and theology. So we test what we can, even if it is to test how our own brains respond to “personal revelation”. And we remain open to better understanding.

  • 28. bewarethechicken  |  June 26, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    I’m not sure I said Mormon arguments are invalid, but you yourself said there was a debate among non-denominational scholars. I suspect you did that for the very reason that you want to add legitimacy to your argument. There are many reasons for bias, as you are quick to point out.

    You say there is anecdotal evidence on both sides. This is not true. There is perhaps some anecdotal arguments on one side (arguments, not evidence) and very strong, time tested, verifiable evidence on the other. One of the problems of LDS scholars and BoM apologetics (I’m sorry for the harsh word, I’m not sure a better way to say it) is that they tend to frame the debate as your friend Card did – between the BoM being an ancient record, or it being a hoax. But that’s not the debate.

    The debate is what is is more likely: that a flying dead person (angel) visited a young man and gave him golden plates that no one can verify because later on the angel took them away, and on these plates was a language no one had ever heard of but the man was able to translate them anyway with the help of a magical power; or that a man with a history of treasure hunting and get-rich-quick schemes got together with his friends to make up a story that would make them rich and famous.

    This is not to say the former is not true, but there is plenty of evidence, not anecdotal, that dead people don’t fly, that gold plates don’t appear and disappear, that people can’t translate languages by looking in hats, etc. And, as you say, the only “evidence” that the former theory is true – is anecdotal at best.

    Rational/logical/scientific arguments don’t work in this sense. Faith-based arguments might, but when one tries to make an evidence/logical-based argument, it must miss the mark by a wide margin.

  • 29. FireTag  |  June 26, 2009 at 7:44 PM

    BTC: A few monor points first. Card’s arguments, if you read them, are relevant to any type of fiction applicable to the Book of Mormon, not merely to a hoax. You argue that there are unexplained anachronisms. Card argues that there are FAR too few anachronisms, and (as things like the Brass Ball point out) too many things the Book gets right. So does Morgan.

    The anecdotal evidence I referred to has to do with the testimony of many people starting out on one side of the issue and then going the other way. As I said, I know of no statistics going either way.

    For example, my grandmother was so convinced that all of this Mormonism stuff was nonsense it almost broke up her marriage with my Grandfather when he converted to RLDS without discussing it with her first. Then, alone in her home fixing Sunday dinner for her kids while my Grandfather was in another city seeking work during the depression, she heard a disembodied voice ask her how she could condemn these people when she didn’t even know their beliefs. She proceeded to go through the house carrying a carving knife trying to find the “hoaxer”, but ended up going to church on her own that Sunday night and was eventually baptized. My grandmother was not a scientist, so nothing she says counts as “scientific evidence”. I wouldn’t suggest that it convince you.

    It seems that the fundamental issue may really be that you can’t see any way to integrate a belief in an active God with a scientific worldview. I’m trying to suggest that reality is bigger than you or I can imagine. Perhaps you’re having better luck in the parallel universe where right now we’re arguing the opposite positions than we are here. But people do succeed in that integration all the time.

    Dead people don’t fly. OK. So an angel can’t be simply a dead person flying.

    Evolution doesn’t stop. The best non-theistic theories of consciousness we have (admittedly primitive) suggest that the evolution of consciousness requires nothing biut survival advantage and sufficient complexity. How much complexity do you think exists in a structure as elaborate as an infinite, multidimensional multiverse in which we don’t even know that space or time are the fundamental constituents? So what consciousness may exist, even in a non-theistic explanation? And of what might it be capable? How do you place scientific limits on how such consciousness can interact with our senses, when we’re still trying to figure out how our own consciousness interacts with our bodies.

    Remember the old saw, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Compared to what’s out there, we’re all ancient Greeks playing with our epicycles to preserve our limited models of the way the world works.

    I know this is an important issue to you right now, since you’re making it on multiple blogs, not just here. And I know from those blogs you’re pretty fed up with the church (for good reason in my opinion) right now as well and want nothing much to do with people who don’t see what you see the way you see it.

    It probably feels like everything but your intellect has betrayed you about the church over the past decade. I’ve been there. In some ways I’m still there and expect to stay that way. I wanted final answers and resolution. But you never get final answers in either theology or science. You just learn more fruitful ways to ask the questions.

  • 30. bewarethechicken  |  June 29, 2009 at 9:43 AM

    The issue is not really important to me, I am also very open and willing to discuss the theological implications of the BoM and am respectful of those who have a spiritual belief in the veracity of the BoM.

    My issue is merely with the attempt to prove, scientifically, the truth of the BoM and, by extension, God Himself. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I believe it is disingenuous to do so by drawing false equivalents, such as Card does, or as anyone does who tries to put the burden of proof back on the skeptic.

    There is no debate with or among non-denominational scholars about the existence of Big Foot, or the Loch Ness Monster or Santa Clause, or God Himself – because each one of these, at its core, would violate all known understandings of science. This does not mean it is not possible that each one exists, but as you know, one does not posit a theory and begin a debate. One must first show some credible evidence sufficiently equal to the magnitude of the theory.

    If Card or anyone else wants to suggest the BoM is truly historical, they will have to come up with more than anecdotal evidence to do so. Such evidence may reinforce the spiritual belief of believers, but doesn’t begin to come close to sway neutral observers.

  • 31. FireTag  |  June 29, 2009 at 11:20 PM

    I’m not quite sure of proper protocol when essentially the same comment applies to discussions going on in multiple blogs, but the comment below is also posted on the thread “Comparing the Book of Abraham against the Gospel of Judas” at Mormon Heretic (see link on this blog’s homepage) so that the most people can contribute to the conversation.


    One of the first things my physics advisor hammered home to me as a graduate student was: “It only takes one unicorn to prove the existence of unicorns.” By which, of course, he wasn’t making a comment about unicorns. He was making a comment about a philosophy of doing science.

    The philosophy is wholeheartedly endorsed within the physics community as part of our scientific ethos, and I suspect it extends throughout the “hard” sciences. Once a question enters the scientific arena, we are no longer allowed to ignore data that is inconvenient to the theory. We don’t ignore “outliers” – without justification other than the theory we’re testing – without providing a scientifically credible rationale for doing so, even if the rationale is stated to be random measurement error. And if we say “random error”, we continue to use the outlier in our confidence assessments.

    At the very least, physicists must acknowledge the anomaly of the outlier. In other words, all of the scientific evidence comes in, or none of it does. Indeed, my discipline encourages me to pursue the data precisely because it’s in the conflict between experimental data and theory that we make progress toward better theories. For example, physicists have been chasing a minuscule deviation in the theoretically predicted acceleration of satellites traveling away from the sun (the so-called Pioneer anomaly) for a couple of decades now, and the more very clever explanations for the anomaly fail, the more people start to focus on the problem, and the more disciplines they bring to bear on it. Maybe it will turn out to be nothing; maybe it will turn out to be a decisive test between General Relativity and a competing theory of gravity called Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND). That’s why physicists continue to look.

    And it doesn’t matter what motivated the measurement in the first place. We get to question processes and procedures in measurement, but we are ideally supposed to try and do “blind testing” on the identity of the observer, much like a medical researcher is not supposed to know which doctor provided a test sample, but only the protocol followed in taking the sample.

    To apply this ethos to the unicorn example, the prevailing theory, based on reams of scientific evidence, is that no one-horned horses with magical powers exist. So if someone purports to have found a unicorn skeleton, I may be perfectly justified in ignoring the claim and put it down to hoax or misidentification of known animal by someone who had a little too much of the wrong beverages. Life is short, and I can’t investigate everything.

    Then a photographer takes a picture of the skeleton, and I see the picture over breakfast, and I don’t recognize the animal. Life is still short.

    Then a Customs agent tracking an exotic animal smuggling ring sees the same photograph, impounds the skeleton to see if it might be a dead rhino, and Customs pays for an anthropologist to take a look. The anthropologist concludes that the skeleton is a horse with one horn. Now I am perfectly justified scientifically in continuing to believe that one-horned horses do not have magical powers. But I am also scientifically required to modify my original theory to conclude that there is probably a genetic mechanism that can produce a birth defect that will cause a horse to grow a horn.

    Now a biologist asks for a DNA sample because she thinks understanding the mechanism might be very useful in looking for mechanisms to speed bone healing in humans or domestic animals. Her motive may be altruistic, academic, or profit-driven. It doesn’t matter. Now the skeleton is firmly on the scientific side of the ledger, and any and all scientific technique becomes fair game to use.

    Somebody questions the skeleton’s discoverer, and finds that it washed up on a river shoreline. Tracing the river currents backward, they find 100 such skeletons, freshly killed at a single location. Now we have to expand our explanations away from hoax to include the possibility of a mad genetic engineer or unappreciated environmental toxin. Still more disciplines become involved. Still not a hint of magical powers, but my scientific theory of “unicorns” has to continually adjust to explain all of the findings, or it stops being scientific by this philosophy of science. There is no longer any going back to the original theory that the unicorn is the result of a hoax or a fool.

    The plates of the Book of Mormon may be an artifact that we can’t examine, but the Book of Mormon itself can be examined. We can examine both the Book of Abraham and at least fragments of the documents from which it originated. It is possible to reach different conclusions about each book independently (Historically, the LDS and RLDS branches of the Restoration obviously did).

    But the study of these Mormon scriptures crossed over the line from purely theological consideration to scientific consideration several million Mormons and more than a century ago, when Mormon studies itself became a recognizable scientific discipline. It doesn’t matter that the controversies arose over competing faith claims. The competition found things, including things that point toward both “yes” and “no” to the question of whether the Book is a 19th Century document.

    It is impossible to have a scientific explanation of “Mormonism” that leaves out a scientific explanation of the Book of Mormon. If the theory proposed is some form of fiction or hoax, than things that don’t fit the fiction or hoax theory must be noted as outliers or anomalies, and until explained, a scientist in my discipline must hold open the possibility of modifying the theory to best fit ALL of the data. I don’t expect to end up with anything “magical”, but I do expect to end up with a better picture of both science and theology. That’s been happening to me for the last half-century, and I surely hope it doesn’t stop now.

    I recognize that other disciplines take different approaches. This is the very point I tried to make in the blog post “Science Times”: different scientific “tribes” have different views of how one proceeds in dealing with unexpected results, but none of the tribes, including my own, get to pronounce final judgment on why we search for answers or when we stop.

    So who has the burden of proof? Depends on the jury.

    I give highest weight to the personal revelation that has guided my life. My FAITH POSITION is that the Book of Mormon contains substantial portions of historically accurate information that allows me to regard it as “sacred” in a way I would not regard it if I became convinced it was “fiction”. I use it to judge and formulate my own behavior as I use the Bible. Indeed, it helps me decide how to interpret the testimony about Jesus in the Bible, not simply to echo the Bible’s witness.

    But I became a physicist in the first place because of one of those personal revelatory experiences in which I was commanded to study science, so I give next highest weight to what my position as a physicist tells me to conclude: the Book of Mormon is one big anomaly with insufficient evidence yet discovered to falsify either a 19th Century or ancient origin, and with sufficient evidence uncovered to raise serious scientific questions about either explanation. Consequently, my position as a physicist does not so much tell me what to believe as it tells me that pursuing more evidence is important. As I tried to make the point more explicitly in the post “Hot Jupiters and Privileged Scriptural Frames”, questions about Book of Mormon historicity, however resolved, will tell us something important about how to pursue peace and justice and the purposes of Christ in our modern world.

    BTC, I gather from your comments that you would give weight only to what rationality (and perhaps even reductionism) would tell you. So you’ll have to make a personal decision as to what the evidence says to you and what rationale you use. If you regard the questions as settled, then you do.

    There is no “neutral observer” here. There are just us little organisms trying to figure our way around this great big reality according to the way God and/or evolution (assuming they aren’t the same to begin with) hardwired us to do.

  • 32. bewarethechicken  |  July 1, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    I read The Herald this morning and maybe President Veazey says it better than I do:

    “The Book of Mormon’s witness of Christ is not finally dependent on external confirmation, such as archaeological evidence, but on the witness of the Spirit in the faith community. Beliefs about hte Book of Mormon are matters of personal conscience and faith.”

    • 33. FireTag  |  July 1, 2009 at 12:35 PM


      For someone who doesn’t focus on miracles, you certainly do manage to go without sleep for a long time 😀 There used to be a short radio program in Detroit (don’t know if it was national) called Chickenman that had the tag line: “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!” Your productivity on multiple blogs each day is astonishing.

      Thanks for pointing out Steve’s statement, which is now posted on the news “what’s new” sub-menu at I like the entire paragraph, as it encompasses BOTH my faith and scientific positions on the subject.

      “It seems the Book of Mormon defies any simple explanation or theory. The book invites the reader to explore the gospel of Christ with the spiritual eyes of faith in an increasingly skeptical age. The Book of Mormon’s witness of Christ is not finally dependent on external confirmation, such as archaeological evidence, but on the witness of the Spirit in the faith community. Beliefs about the Book of Mormon are matters of personal conscience and faith. However, it is important to remember that we are not called to believe in a book; we are called to believe in and worship the Living God revealed in Jesus Christ.”

  • 34. bewarethechicken  |  July 1, 2009 at 2:32 PM

    And I couldn’t agree more. You and MH seem to think I am an opponent of faith or the Book of Mormon (or someone who doesn’t focus on miracles). That is not and has never been my point. It has merely been that one cannot prove faith, with science. That’s it. If you want to step into the world of objective science, you cannot use miracles to explain things.

    If you think the Book of Mormon is historical and want to tell me your testimony, then I’ll listen. But if you want to show me scientific evidence, then you’d have to begin by answering the anachronisms.

    Otherwise, it’s like those people that thought God was coming to get them in a space ship behind the moon. They may have been right. Their faith is as valid as anyones. But if they try to prove it to me by showing the possibility for space flight, then they wil be barking up the wrong tree.

  • 35. bewarethechicken  |  July 1, 2009 at 5:43 PM

    Oh and have you read much Marcus Borg? I like his concept of Panentheism, rather than Pantheism.

  • 36. FireTag  |  July 1, 2009 at 6:44 PM

    I have read Borg’s last attempt (to my knowledge) to give a book-length view of Jesus as “vindicated by God” I’ve also come across panentheism in terms of Whilehead’s process theology. It is not a concept that satisfies me because “system + God = larger system” in that approach, and I’d immediately be interested in understanding the larger system.

    (Whatever process theology may be on philosophical grounds, it’s based on physics that has been outmoded for about a century, by the way. I doubt Whitehead himself would propose it today since he was a pretty fair mathematician and was trying to achieve a systhesis between science and theology.)

    So I go to pantheism, but it sure looks nothing in my thoughts like the pantheism of the Romantics. The posts “Duality and Divinity” and “You’ve Read this Post Before” are just setting the stage for such discussion.

    And I fully intend to address your comment 34 in my next post, God and the Federal Aviation Administration willing.

  • 37. Bishop Rick  |  July 11, 2009 at 12:23 AM

    The Liahona had spindles that pointed the direction Lehi/Nephi should go…for anything they needed. Sometimes it lead them to food, thru the wilderness, to the promised land. Not sure how it did this, or why (other than pointing to food) it was better than navigating by the north star.

    Also, often times the Lord wrote messages on the Liahona and it only operated on faith.

    This doesn’t sound like anything that has ever existed, then or now.

    Just a thought.

  • 38. FireTag  |  July 11, 2009 at 1:25 PM

    Navigation by the North Star isn’t useful for travel through the southern hemisphere (which would be required to go around Africa to cross the Atlantic, or to go into the South Pacific to avoid the tropical easterlies in crossing the pacific).

    But the larger and more important point you’re raising is that the Liahona’s appearance and use imply that “personal revelation” and technology were mixed from the beginning of any historical culture we’re describing here — unlike the modern West with separate spheres of influence in thought. It’s almost as if the mix is “automated devination”, in which the gears turn each day and patterns are then read as “signs”. If one is faithful, the signs lead in the right directions, failure implies a lack of faith.

    The growth of prophecy out of soothsaying is a pretty well documented historical connection in the development of the Biblical religions, and seems to be replicated in JS’s own story. The Wiki articles about the Olmec artifact “compass” and possible relationship to geomantic ideas are particularly interesting here.

    Geomancy as we now know of it developed later, of course, but may be an example of how more primitive, less scientific cultures may have generally thought.

  • […] 26, 2009 In comments on a recent post on this blog, I said the following: “Evolution doesn’t stop.  The best non-theistic theories of […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


June 2009

Most Recent Posts

%d bloggers like this: