Transcendent Nephites

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Kishkumen
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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Kishkumen »

Yes, Physics Guy, you well illustrate the problem with this approach in our times. It is the value placed on myth and the ignorance of its uses that makes this an unacceptable trade for the false belief that anything we read about the past can be known as it actually happened. People will persist in believing that they know Jesus was resurrected because the New Testament tells them so, and they will stake their lives not of their faith in Christ but in their false knowledge of a historical event. Similarly with the Book of Mormon, it is not faith really to hitch your wagon to Mormon's and Moroni's edited version of the story of Nephite civilization. It wouldn't be even if we could be confident that it happened, but people will insist that their confidence springs from the knowledge that someone wrote about it in antiquity, so it must have happened and is worth believing in.

Well, I can tell you that the infant Augustus crawled out of his basket laid on the floor by his nurse and climbed to the top of a tower to make obeisance to the rising sun. Ergo, I know he was a god, and I know that a witness saw him ascend to heaven in the form of an eagle at his funeral. There was a witness who said so. So my god Augustus smiles upon me from the heavens and tells me I, too, one day can ascend to the starry realms if I perform virtuous deeds in the heroic tradition. My beliefs are even older than Jesus, and they have honorable and educated witnesses. So, they must be true. I can't help the fact that people abandoned the well attested and verified truths of Greco-Roman civilization to embrace the copycat, mixed up version of insignificant persons in the East. I don't know how anyone can possibly believe anything written by nobodies in gutter Greek anyways.

But, that is our weakness as human beings. We always look out for novel stories that capture our imaginations and then sit around philosophizing about them endlessly. We can't help ourselves. We're going to do it.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist

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Physics Guy
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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Physics Guy »

I think that’s all quite true. I might suggest that it’s more reasonable to accept ancient authorities when what they recount is inherently plausible and jibes well with other evidence, even if ancient stories are of negligible weight in evidence for those amazing events that we might most like to believe really happened in the wonderful past. Even when what the ancient texts say is coherent and plausible, though, I think a lot of their credibility is a function of how little it matters.

If I want to have a definite picture to hold in mind about what happened at the battle of Alesia then maybe taking Caesar’s account as not totally fictitious (and accepting it as Caesar’s) won’t hurt me. If I’m wrong, then Oh damn, and anyway how much better could I have done? It’s not as though I could have viewed the centurions’ bodycam films. If I plan to build a bridge using Roman cement, on the other hand, I’m not going to trust ancient say-so at all. I’ll test that supposedly awesome cement recipe for myself before it goes in my bridge.

How much more credence am I going to give to ancient say-so on subjects like eternal salvation? I've never understood the concept of scriptural authority. It just makes no sense to me, as a theist, to think that there could be a prior concept from which we can deduce the author of reality ... and that proposition which comes prior to God Almighty is this rambling old book. That's like Falstaff discovering Shakespeare by reading a wine label. Someone's confused about levels.

I might have learned that cement recipe by reading ancient texts, though. I understand that Romans did have great cement with desirable curing properties that have only recently been redeveloped. The reason why this cement took so long to redevelop, I further understand, is that no texts with a useful recipe actually did survive. But they could have, in principle.

Texts like that would have had a value that had nothing to do with authority. We could have learned something from them that we might not otherwise know, but we wouldn’t be believing it was true just because the ancient texts said so.

We might not have learned that good cement recipe from an ancient text but I do think there is a lot of other good content in some ancient texts. The kind of content I mean would be just as good if it had just been made up by some kid on Instagram. Some Roman ideas have lasted even better than their cement. Poems can be more durable than bronze, as a poem that has outlasted a lot of bronze puts it. An equation is forever.

My question about the Book of Mormon, though, is how much of it still seems valuable if its supposed ancient provenance is entirely discounted. I’m not saying that fraction is high for any real ancient text, but is it higher than very low for the Book of Mormon? Is it higher than zero?

Honest questions. I haven’t read much of the Book of Mormon myself, but so far my panning hasn't turned up any gold. What have I missed?

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Gadianton »

I think we need a baseline. I propose Paul H. Dunn and his war stories as the baseline. Is there value to Dunn's stories after coming to learn they were complete fabrications? If so, what is that value, and is it enough value to justify an industry of circulating the stories and exploring the stories in commentaries? If the answer is 'yes', then the Book of Mormon could be valuable for the same reason. If the answer is 'no', then the choices are either Dunn's stories don't qualify as myth or are an inferior kind of myth. So it's either, accept Dunn's stories as valuable myth, or explain what is different about the Book of Mormon. If there is a good explanation, then I think it would save a lot of time getting that on the table first with people who take a common-sense approach that myth only works when you don't know it's myth.
Lou Midgley 08/20/2020: "...meat wad," and "cockroach" are pithy descriptions of human beings used by gemli? They were not fashioned by Professor Peterson.

LM 11/23/2018: one can explain away the soul of human beings...as...a Meat Unit, to use Professor Peterson's clever derogatory description of gemli's ideology.

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

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I think the myths or fabrications benefit those who promulgate them and without the deception, the lies wouldn't work. Paul Dunn starred in his tall tales and used them as a justification of his authority. Joseph Smith used his fabricated stories as a mechanism to gain a religious following with him as the humble leader and private sex coach. The Bible not surprisingly claims Israel is God's people and the Book of Mormon claims the decendants of the puritans are God's new people, destined to take the gospel, with humble superiority of course, to the world. I personally thought a lot less of Dunn after his deception was discovered and I left the church due in part to historicity problems.

However, I think there might be some benefit of inventing myth if the invention isn't about the living and claims to authority. I love good fiction like anyone and it can be certainly a vehicle to teach morals and act as a unifier to a group.
Last edited by Dr Exiled on Fri Sep 11, 2020 9:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Physics Guy »

To take a crude example, the fable about the fox and the grapes is an obviously fictitious story with talking animals, but it lets everyone in on a significant psychological phenomenon, that it's easy to console yourself for losing something by telling yourself that it probably wasn't really that great, the grapes were probably sour. That's worth knowing, whether you want to console yourself for missing out on something or weigh bad reviews posted by people who missed out. The fable only works because most people have already almost realized its point before hearing the fable; it just triggers conscious recognition. Without that pithy fable, though—or something like it—I think a lot of people could go a long time without consciously realizing how the sour grapes thing works and therefore feeling worse or being unduly influenced by the biased negativity of grumpy losers.

So for me that's an example of a way in which a myth can be useful even when you know it's a myth. It tells you something true that you might well not have otherwise known, at least not as clearly as you know it thanks to the myth, because the myth expressed it so well.

On the other hand there are definitely stories whose only value lies in their authenticity. Remember back long before Twitter when cool stories used to circulate in forwarded e-mails? They were like, "This guy gave a lift to a middle-aged female hitchhiker and she turned out to be the widow of Nat King Cole." It was a whole genre, once you'd seen enough of them. The stories themselves were all surprising in the sense of being a bit weird, but actually pretty lame, just as stories. Yet people forwarded them all around the world because they had these gee-whiz authenticity hooks involving real famous people and places. A funny thing was how the fame had to be B-list level. Nobody would have forwarded a story about giving a lift to Elvis, because everybody knew that if anything like that had been true they'd already have heard it. But it couldn't be a story about the second cousin of a back-up singer, either, because then it wasn't even a story at all. If it was a university it couldn't be Oxford or Harvard, but it couldn't be Broken Stump State; if it was a scientist it couldn't be Einstein and it couldn't be me.

So it was something about Niels Bohr bumping into Nat King Cole's widow at Duke. You know, Niels Bohr, the famous physicist. Nat King Cole, the great singer. Duke, the basketball team. Those real and actual places and people that are super important and that you've definitely read about a few times before. Anyway, those were stories whose sole value lay in the titillating thought that they were literally true. If you had prefaced them with, "Once upon a time ..." and presented them as fictions nobody would have had any interest in them at all.

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

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Exiled: "I think the myths or fabrications benefit those who promulgate them and without the deception, the lies wouldn't work. Paul Dunn starred in his tall tales and used them as a justification of his authority."

That's all true, but as Physics guy pointed out, the fable of the fox and grapes is a fictitious story worth telling. But that raises the question: Can a story that's merely fictitious be a myth? Most people I think would believe that a myth is a fictitious story that some people at least, really believe, or at least really believed at one time. The next natural question is whether myth and fabrication go hand in hand in all cases.

It's very possible that Dunn's stories were uplifting war stories that are worth telling, and had they been told as uplifting story-telling only, they might be worth every dime of their proceeds. However, because they were outright fabrications, they fit into PG's category of "value lies in authenticity". However, I imagine that had Dunn disclaimed the reality of his stories and told them as stories, as parables (the excuse he tried to cough up) that such stories could circulate and through the natural process of community-based yarn spinning or I might use the term 'emergence', become community myth, myth that even lost the knowledge that they were supposed to be just stories. In such a case, it seems that we could have a myth that might escape the "value lies in authenticity" clause that is essentially the exact same story as one that was told by Dunn himself in the real world.

I think that myth and fabrication go comfortably hand-in-hand when the fabrication is community based, rather than intentionally by a conspirator or conspirators. The word "myth" seems to take an alternative meeting when it's essentially referring to fraud. If the community exaggerates the story until the stories actually happened to Dunn himself, that seems to be way more okay than if Dunn simply lied and said it was him.

Extend this to the Book of Mormon and the Bible. There may be parts of the Bible that cover large stretches of time that are the results of conspirators. But it was a long time ago, wasn't personal with us or anybody we know, and the Bible as a whole seems to fit the bill of a community fabrication over a long time. If that community product is what makes it count as real myth, then the question of authenticity is secondary. That a street minister misrepresents the Bible doesn't have to ruin the Bible for us when we learn about the documentary hypothesis.

But the Book of Mormon is different, if it's the intentional fabrication of Joseph Smith or Joseph Smith plus a couple conspirators, intentionally marketed as real, and in relatively recent history. Because it's a couple hundred years old and central to a community with a history, it probably wins some points against Dunn's stories even if both are equally false and malicious.

So popularity matters as much as content? An unrelated example that comes to mind is Ayn Rand. Rand wasn't a good philosopher or a great story-teller, but boy did she find her niche with the right people. Because of her popularity and identity woven into American life, you could write a thesis on Ayn Rand, or publish about Rand's ideas in a scholarly journal, and it's legitimate, whereas had the same ideas and books never gained public acceptance, it would be dicey to pull a "neglected Mendel" and publish something about her work.
Lou Midgley 08/20/2020: "...meat wad," and "cockroach" are pithy descriptions of human beings used by gemli? They were not fashioned by Professor Peterson.

LM 11/23/2018: one can explain away the soul of human beings...as...a Meat Unit, to use Professor Peterson's clever derogatory description of gemli's ideology.

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Physics Guy »

I agree that it's a bit fuzzy whether fables count as myths, but I'm not sure the distinction really matters here. Myth or fable, I think we're talking about ways of reading religious scriptures in general, and the Mormon scriptures in particular, that make them valuable even if they are admitted not to be accurate history, and even if they are admitted not to be ancient texts that are unreliable as history but to be modern pieces of pseudo-historical fiction.

Can there be value in a story even if it never actually happened but was simply made up in a recent time, in a cultural context that we already know well from other sources? Could there be enough such value in the Mormon scriptures to be worth speaking about as value in comparison to the value that the Mormon scriptures are supposed to have by traditional Mormon believers? Or is it rather that without the literal acceptance the Mormon scriptures are of no more than academic interest—a pennies-on-the-dollar remnant of the precious treasure that Mormon scriptures were supposed to be?

As I've said, I ask this as a genuine question because I don't know. I'm willing to listen to anything. There is one possible line of response of which I am skeptical in advance, though. That's the line that says Okay, there was no Nephi or Moroni, but the stories in the Mormon scriptures are still framed in halos that turn their banalities into profundities, because these books came from the Prophet Joseph Smith who was a genuine latter-day Prophet every bit as good as Isaiah or Moses ever were in their days (insofar as they had days).

I'm skeptical of this because I don't see how Smith can pull himself up by his bootstraps like that. It's too tight a circle. The only claim to Prophethood that Smith has is his miraculous translation of the Mormon scriptures. If they're nothing special then he's nothing special. So he can't make them special because they were made by a special person. Something in the loop of scriptures and prophet has to be impressive on its own. They can't just each provide the authority of the other, especially when the closed loop has only two elements. That circularity is too patent to stand for even a moment.

The angle of popularity is an interesting one. I think the Ayn Rand example is good. I see little value at all in her books, but they were popular enough to make them acceptable subjects for academic study. Ideally the academic study would not focus on the content of her works in themselves but on the more interesting topic of why the heck people like them. But I concede that you probably could write a thesis just about Rand's novels as such, and no doubt people have, simply because they are popular.

The vagueness of what Symmachus meant by "transcendence" is the original sin of this thread, but I think it's a felix culpa because I don't know what this thing is, either, but I agree that it's something worth seeing more clearly. So at the risk of completely misinterpreting Symmachus I'm going to restate the issue in my terms.

Different kinds of value can be found in texts or somehow attached to them.

1) Literal truth is one kind of value. It's a currency which is ultimately backed by the practical usefulness of learning what could happen in future by learning what has happened before.

2) Another kind of value in a text is that it tells you something worthwhile about the present that you wouldn't otherwise have known, even if it expresses that concept symbolically or ironically or any old way at all. Fables with insightful morals are an example, but recipes for concrete are another.

3) Some kind of impressive provenance can somehow make a text valuable no matter what it says. Banal statements suddenly become interesting if you know that they were made by Abraham Lincoln.

4) Popularity also works. A text that millions of people admire thereby acquires actual value. Mormons "sustain" their Apostles and Prophets. They sustain their scriptures as well.

Items 1) and 2) might be worth folding together, and 3) and 4) seem to resemble each other in some ways as well, because "impressive provenance" probably boils down to some form of popularity. So maybe I really only have a two-item list.

Any more entries?

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Gadianton
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Re: Transcendent Nephites

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I would probably come at value in a different way. At least, in my mind as I try to answer the same questions I'm thinking about it differently. I'm thinking, what is it that makes something valuable to a person or a community? why is one thing valuable and another isn't? I suppose I make a distinction between academic value and personal / community value. Clearly, if the Book of Mormon isn't ancient, there is little hope it will be of value to antiquarians. And for believers, as you point out, it's a pretty tight circle: Joseph Smith is a prophet because the book is ancient and it's real history. IF that's how a community frames it, then taking the ancient element away brings the house of cards down. But I suppose I don't tie the "ancient" factor to "literal (historical) truth". We might say objectively, it's obvious that literal truth about the ancient world is valuable, but is that the real reason it's valued by Mormons? I think we get a glimpse of how that isn't the case from the apologists who argue for the Book of Mormon as ancient, but not necessarily "literal history" at every point. In fact, Brandt Gardner has even argued stuff like, exaggerating/fabricating epic battles is a mark of ancient construction. What's not negotiable for apologists is that it must be ancient because that is the objective fact that secures Joseph Smith pulled off a miracle.

That's why I've considered Emode as a possible way out of historical truth. If it were an epic novel written by Shakespeare in the spirit world, provable as 15th century English document, it would still retain its miraculous, epic, and magical core. It's like an onion. Literal history is a layer that peels off to get to an ancient document. But 'ancient' is a layer that gets peeled off to reveal the true core: the miraculous production. In other words, it's not quite "the book of Mormon is real history therefore Joseph Smith is a prophet" but "the book of Mormon is a miracle, therefore Joseph Smith is a prophet". And by miracle, I do mean there must be some kind of "How could he have known!" factor that proves the matter to the willing dupe.

And I do think there is some room here for believer evolution. This is why I see Grant Hardy as a great genius. Getting back to what I said about dealing with subjective value, how a community values something can evolve. As an extreme example, take a Trump supporter whose estimation of Trump grows with every lie he tells. The bigger the lie, the more "liberals" freak out, and the greater the satisfaction to the contrarian mentality. It's theoretically possible that the Book of Mormon could become valuable in proportion to audacity of lies it's built upon. I don't think we're there, nor do I see that as the direction Mormonism is going, but I'm just pointing out it's really hard to constrain how a thing can provide value to somebody.

What feels non-negotiable to me, as I've said, is a miraculous production of some kind -- it has to be part of something big, and it has to be hard to explain how Joseph Smith could have pulled it off. Liberal Mormonism deflates both of those elements, which is why I don't see it as viable. But I just don't see conservative Mormonism as essentially tied to literal history, but instead to a miraculous production.

I may be rambling now, but back to Grant Hardy. Hardy took "CHiPs" -- the naïve fairy tale where good is good and bad is bad and produced "The Shield", where moral gray intensifies the drama. That's only possible to sell amidst consumer preferences shifting toward gritty storytelling. I don't think he'd get very far pushing his revelations of Moroni as a hot-headed murderer to the followers of Joseph Smith. And let us not forget, the Joseph Smith story itself is also a "story" that is processed by people who have story-consumption preferences. Maybe the idyllic Joseph Smith story can handle an update? Maybe it could even become more powerful in a gritty reboot? The apologists suggest that Joseph Smith didn't know that much about the Book of Mormon. That's how they explain his references to North American geography that they reject. Given the love an American audience has for mystery and deception and cyberpunk: instead of Joseph Smith being a boring bastion of truth, what if he were a "punk" caught up in a conspiracy where little is as it seems? Maybe the gold plates were just a prop, and the mechanisms of what lies beyond this world are arrived at through plot twists?

I see a lot of flexibility that could retain value of the Book of Mormon as fiction for the Mormon community, which is a pretty bizarre bunch. I don't see infinite flexibility though. I do not see the hope for liberal Mormonism, which eschews all magic.
Lou Midgley 08/20/2020: "...meat wad," and "cockroach" are pithy descriptions of human beings used by gemli? They were not fashioned by Professor Peterson.

LM 11/23/2018: one can explain away the soul of human beings...as...a Meat Unit, to use Professor Peterson's clever derogatory description of gemli's ideology.

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

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Physics guy, "any more entries?"

Perhaps people find inspiration that they really desire. Consider the Illiad. Though there may have been, or perhaps not so much have been, a Trojan war it is the actual story which has had mythic power for people. People can care about the themes of courage and respect.

Perhaps it could be added that some texts become such a part of a culture that they can be used for thinking and communicating by making reference to events or themes in the book. The Illiad was used that way in ancient times I have heard. The Bible has been used that to the present.
......
Perhaps the matter of inspiration would be connected to technical observations about how to be more like what inspiration might cause a person to aspire to be.

I might want to add Romeo and Juliet has having mythic power by exploring what meaning for people the myth of romantic love may have. It reveals something about us.

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Physics Guy »

I don't suppose that we can identify objective value in texts independent of whatever value people find in them, but on the other hand I don't think that people's subjective judgements of value are just arbitrary. I think that there's usually some kind of practical reason why people value things, at least when the stakes are high enough. The strategies that people are consciously or unconsciously applying may be flawed but I think there's usually at least some sense behind them, though not necessarily the sense that people articulate consciously.

If Grant Hardy is positioning Mormon scriptures as authentic ancient texts but unreliable history then I can see how that might be a radical change for many Mormons but it doesn't seem like a big change to me. What Gadianton says fits my own more superficial impression that the content of the Book of Mormon has always been mostly a placeholder, anyway. All it really has to do is support the frame of Miraculous Book, because that supports Smith and the Church. So the story of the Nephites could be entirely a satirical fiction as long as it's an ancient satirical fiction recovered through miracles by Joseph Smith, Jr.

Sometimes something has an awesome active ingredient that doesn't really need its conventional trappings. You can leave out the vermouth. Other times the trappings are the only good parts. The chocolate coating is thin but it's better than the ice cream inside.

I should probably just have lunch, but I'm trying to bring in the thought from up-thread about brands. I tried to argue above that branding, with its cues that generate real if subjective experiences, can be a legitimate part of a product in its own right, at least for some kinds of product. But okay, just because branding can be a real source of value doesn't mean that we can live by branding alone. You can sew a Gucci label onto polyester and sell it for ten times the price, but that's still just twenty bucks. For big tags you need fine leather by Gucci.

For what it's worth my superficial impression as a non-Mormon is that the authentic ancient pedigree of the Mormon scriptures is the designer label without which the products won't sell. They're ice cream bars, not martinis; scrape off the chocolate and advertise them as Lite, and no-one will buy them at all. And being a channeled text by Shakespeare might be better than "Smith made it up," but it's not chocolate. I mean, ancient Jews in America is the kind of thing you can imagine being directed by Spielberg. Channeling Shakespeare is at most PBS.

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Re: Transcendent Nephites

Post by Physics Guy »

huckelberry wrote:
Sat Sep 12, 2020 10:11 am
Some texts become such a part of a culture that they can be used for thinking and communicating by making reference to events or themes in the book. The Illiad was used that way in ancient times I have heard. The Bible has been used that to the present.
That's a good point. Shared stories create vocabulary.

That's a kind of value that sort of combines my first two numbers, which were about telling us about the real world, and my last two numbers, which were about branding-like cues telling us that this text has value. We only value a story as vocabulary if it lets us refer to something that we think is real but which would otherwise be hard to express. But a text can only work to communicate this way if there is an audience that appreciates the story this way, effectively authorizing the story's entry in the dictionary.

The value of texts as vocabulary involves our other two main kinds of value so far, but I don't think it just reduces to them. It has at least as much distinctness from them as my 1) and 2) or 3) and 4) pairs have from each other. So I'd accept it as a genuine 5). If I collapse my two pairs, this would get number 3).

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