The Evidence Still Does Not Change Sides

Our Mormon protagonist, still shaken by his discovery about the book of Abraham, now discovers another fact:

(A) Although Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon from ancient golden plates, there are many passages that evidently borrow from the King James Bible in particular.

Our protagonist considers this for a while and then thinks, (B) “God is just more tolerant of this sort of thing than I realized…”

On my earlier post, Michael Bolin commented:

While this is technically correct, it is worth noting that something akin to the evidence changing sides does happen, due to the practical difficulty with assigning probabilities. Namely, realizing that some fact is true, which in itself lowers the probability of the original hypothesis, may cause one to assign different values to the probability of a bunch of other facts given the hypothesis, such that the net effect after taking those other facts into account is to make the hypothesis more likely than it would have been if one had taken those other facts into account without the original observation.

I responded at the time:

It’s not clear to me what you are saying in practice, and seems to me that such a thing cannot happen without a violation of the laws of probability (this does not necessarily mean it cannot be reasonable, if the meaning is that you realize that your prior probability distribution was simply mistaken in the first place).

This is in fact what is happening when our protagonist concludes that God is more tolerant than he supposed. Fact (A) is evidence against the truth of Mormonism. But when this fact is considered together with the original fact about the book of Abraham, our protagonist concludes that “God is tolerant about false claims about the origin of his revealed texts” is more probable given the truth of Mormonism than he originally supposed. This is a change in his prior probability distribution, and it weakens the evidence against Mormonism found in the two claims about the Book of Abraham and about the Book of Mormon.

If someone in fact adjusted his probability of the truth of Mormonism based on the fact about the Book of Abraham, then discovered (A) and adjusted his probability of (B) by changing his prior, then the probability of Mormonism being true might indeed become somewhat higher than it was simply after the discovery about the book of Abraham.

However, several things should be noted concerning this:

(1) In practice, people have a very hard time admitting that there is any evidence at all against their position. Now if someone believes that the Book of Abraham was in fact translated from an ancient Egyptian manuscript, he would probably realize (if he thought about it), that if this turns out to be false, it would be evidence against Mormonism. Consequently, if he thinks that Mormonism is true, he likely sets a prior where it is nearly impossible for Smith’s claim about the book of Abraham to be false. In other words, he more or less thinks that if the Book of Abraham was not translated from the Egyptian manuscript, Mormonism would be false. But when he realizes that the Book of Abraham was not translated from the manuscript, he does not conclude that Mormonism is false, but rather tries to make the evidence change sides. So in effect he already adjusts his prior, and in fact in an inappropriate way, because even if his original prior was excessively against the possibility of the fact about the Book of Abraham, that fact is objectively evidence against Mormonism, not in favor of it. And when he discovers fact (A), this too is evidence against Mormonism, and he should adjust his probability in this direction, and not in the opposite direction.

(2) If someone actually adjusted his probabilities in the appropriate way after the discovery of the first fact about the Book of Abraham, the discovery of (A) and the conclusion (B) could somewhat increase the probability of the truth of Mormonism over what he supposed it was after the original discovery about the Book of Abraham. However, according to the new prior, both the fact about the Book of Abraham and the fact (A) would still constitute evidence against the truth of Mormonism, and thus the probability of Mormonism would remain less than it would be with the new prior but without the facts concerning the origin of the texts.

(3) Similarly, there is little reason to suppose that the final probability of Mormonism would be greater than the original probability before the change in the prior. Rather, you would have something like this:

  1. Original probability of Mormonism: 95%.
  2. Probability after adjusting for discovery about the book of Abraham: 25%.
  3. Probability after adjusting for fact (A): 10%
  4. Probability after adjusting the prior with conclusion (B): 75%.

Of course these are randomly invented numbers, and in practice a real person does not adjust this much, and his original probability is likely even higher than 95%. Nonetheless it is an illustration of what is likely to happen in terms of the evidence. Even after adjusting the prior, the facts about the origins of the texts simply remain evidence against Mormonism, not evidence for it, and consequently the final probability remains less than the original probability.

The evidence still does not change sides.

Sola Me

Just as the Protestant doctrine that the ultimate authority in matters of revealed truth is Scripture alone is referred to as sola Scriptura, the idea that I am personally the ultimate authority regarding the content of revelation could be called sola me (credit for this name goes to Michael Bolin.)

The idea that faith implies absolute subjective certitude turns out to result in such a claim of absolute personal authority. For example, suppose someone holds this doctrine regarding faith, and also happens to believe that it is a matter of faith that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. Thus in effect he holds that the probability that women will be ordained in the Catholic Church is 0%. According to the rules of evidence, therefore, he can never admit that women have been ordained, no matter what evidence he observes, e.g. even he reads on the Vatican website that the Pope has ruled that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was mistaken; he reads news reports about bishops all over the world ordaining women; he sees women celebrating Mass at his parish and at other parishes; and so on. If he ever admits that the Catholic Church has ordained women, then he would have to admit that he was mistaken in the first place to claim that he had absolute subjective certitude.

This does not imply that in such a case he would denounce the Catholic Church and lose his faith. On the contrary: someone who claims that he has absolute subjective certitude of such a thing is claiming that it is impossible for him to lose his faith, no matter what happens, not even if he observes such evidence. In practice, in a case like this, this would result in the person adopting sedevacantism or a similar position, namely one implying that his observed evidence is not really relevant to the Catholic Church, but to something else. The result is that the person in effect holds the doctrine of sola me: he claims to possess absolute authority to judge about what is revealed, and his personal authority, being absolute, must take precedence over everyone else in the world. Richard Ibranyi is a good example of the extremes to which this can be taken.

It could be objected that this only happens if the person is mistaken about what is revealed. If it is actually revealed by God that women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church, then in fact they cannot be, and the evidence described will never be observed by anyone, and thus the bad consequences of this position can be avoided.

But this is the point. Something revealed by God cannot be wrong. This is objective certainty. But this is not the same as subjective certainty precisely because the individual can be mistaken about what is revealed. Thus Muslims are mistaken in believing that Islam is a divine revelation. Nor can it be said, for example,  that Muslims are wrong about what is revealed, but Catholics are not wrong, and consequently it is right for Catholics to claim absolute subjective certitude. For Catholics also disagree about what is revealed. Thus many Catholics claim that it is revealed in Genesis that human beings were not produced by a process of evolution, but were directly created by God, while other Catholics deny this. Thus Catholics (and likewise any other individual, holding any religion whatsoever, or no religion) can be wrong about what is revealed, and consequently cannot have absolute subjective certitude regarding such matters.

Someone could object again, essentially in a way suggesting that even in terms of internal disagreements, his own position is true and the position of others is false. Thus in regard to the creation of man, someone could say that it is a question of fidelity to the Magisterium, which has taught that the idea of human evolution is acceptable, given certain conditions. One problem with this is that it assumes that those who hold the direct creation of man to be divinely revealed are unfaithful to the Magisterium, and if they claim to be faithful to it, they must be lying. For if they are honestly trying to be faithful to the Magisterium, then such fidelity does not exclude being mistaken about what is revealed, and thus one cannot have absolute subjective certainty about the content of revelation based on such fidelity.

And so it goes on. Someone can continually add conditions, reasons why he himself is correct about what is revealed and why others are mistaken. But it is clear what is happening here: even if the person happens to agree with someone else about the entire contents of revelation, there is no guarantee that this will continue to happen. And if a disagreement ever comes up, the person will need to provide a reason why he is right and the other is wrong. And since he is claiming not only that he happens to be right, but that he is absolutely certain to be right, he holds the doctrine of sola me, just as much as Richard Ibranyi: he claims that he alone in the world is the ultimate judge of what is revealed by God.