Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Challenging Issues & Keeping the Faith: The Book of Mormon and modern science

Published: Monday, April 25 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

While critics seem to want secular “proof” for the Book of Mormon, that’s not how science works.

In most areas of science, cases are built with supporting evidences. Evidence, it must be remembered, is data supporting a position. This data is often open for debate and discussion. Evidence does not typically prove a position but is information consistent with the position of the theory or claim.

As previously explained, even in the hard sciences some theories approach near-proof only with the accumulation and interlocking of multiple pieces of evidence. A single piece of evidence could be an anomaly, a singularity or even a coincidence. As the number of interlocking pieces increases, the strength of the proposition increases as well.

Critics frequently like to pull out the “biased Mormon” card when any evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon is suggested. They claim to prefer the conclusions of “objective” scholars — by which, of course, they mean “non-Mormon” scholars. This myth of “objectivity” will be addressed in coming months, but for now it should be noted that most scholars would agree that — especially in historical studies — there is no such thing as a completely neutral observer.

As E.B. Banning (not LDS) of the department of anthropology at the University of Toronto explains, “Even in the hard sciences, such as physics, data are theory-laden and the kinds of data collected are influenced by the kinds of instruments available. … Having decided what kinds of ‘facts’ we want, how do we measure them? … We are always sampling and deciding what kinds of facts and data to collect and ignore. … It is important to stress that all data is ‘filtered’ through the investigator’s senses and instruments” ("The Archaeologist’s Laboratory," 8).

Ben Jeffares, a (non-LDS) post-doctoral fellow at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, has some interesting thoughts on this as well (Philosophy of Archaeology, "Blackwell Companion to the Philosophies of History and Historiography"). Jeffares correctly notes that in archaeology (as in virtually all scientific research) some lines of evidence are more secure than other lines of evidence, and constructing an account of the past can become a balancing act between conflicting lines of evidence.

Because past peoples cannot be questioned or studied directly, “the inference from material remains to behavior is of course problematic,” notes Jeffares, “and much theorizing in archaeology can be traced to this problem.”

While an archaeologist can examine and empirically measure direct evidence — such as “pierced shells, bones, what appear to be stone tools, charcoal,” etc. — the data doesn’t speak for itself and must be interpreted by the archaeologist.

“Should the carbon dating be taken seriously? Or does the patterns of change in tool types give a better chronology? (Are) … the relationships between pieces of evidence … meaningful(?) … Has the charcoal for dating been disrupted by later burials? … Is this site representative of a regional pattern? … Does the change of tool types represent the evolution of a technology? Do the pierced shells represent a unit of exchange and what economic value do they have?”

It’s not always easy to interpret the meaning of data and how it was understood or utilized by those to whom it belonged. “It is one thing to infer that an animal has been butchered by humans and not dogs,” explains Jeffares. "It is quite another to infer an (artifact’s) religious significance …  As archaeologists try to infer facts about past political institutions, and then on to ideologies and religious beliefs, inferences become increasingly difficult and open to question.”

Noting that there are interpretative factors in archaeology and that no archaeologists are in complete agreement in the interpretation of the data is not akin to saying there is no general agreement among New World experts regarding some details of the lives, habits, theologies, etc., of New World cultures. Nor am I claiming that non-LDS archaeologists and LDS archaeologists have contradictory views of New World cultures or that any theory is as good as any other theory.

I’m a firm believer that science is self-correcting and that the general consensus of most scientists typically represents a correct conclusion. My point is, however, that all archaeologists interpret the data in light of a variety of other influencing factors.

Unfortunately, for most of church history few people really examined the Book of Mormon with a scholarly eye. In the absence of rigorous examination, assumptions were made which frequently led believers and critics to ask the wrong questions. As Jeffares explains, "... if theory and evidence really are intertwined in important ways, then which theories one chooses, and where hypotheses come from, matters. Archaeology is not solely driven by its data. It is also driven by the questions archaeologists wish to ask. It is this theoretical side of archaeology that now generates the most debate.”

If we forego traditions and folk-assumptions about the Book of Mormon and apply the methods of modern science and scholarship to what the Book of Mormon actually says and does not say, we find that the book paints a picture which is amazingly similar in many ways to the same picture painted by New World experts about the ancient cultures during Book of Mormon times.

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