Mormon Prophets and Circular Reasoning

C Reasoning

1. The united voice of the First Presidency can “never lead the church astray” [Wilford Woodruff], “…or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord” [Joseph Fielding Smith].  The phrase “lead the church astray” is ambiguous but perhaps it can be restated more broadly to mean…

(N). Never to instruct or direct the church body toward the performance of actions that are inconsistent with God’s will … and never to proclaim doctrines that would cause the church body to hold beliefs which are false.  Now, it might be objected that (N) is too broad a definition and something more specific was meant by the phrase “lead the church astray”; perhaps a state of extreme apostasy whereby the church now stands in direct opposition to the mind and will of God but where errors of a more trivial nature might not necessarily result in the First Presidency having “led the church astray”.  However, to claim such, one would have to find the following argument logically and morally acceptable:

i. The First Presidency has declared that X is the true doctrine of God (or X is a divinely directed policy)

ii. Every member now believes X to be true doctrine/policy because it was declared such by the First Presidency

iii. X is not a true doctrine/policy

iv. Thus every member who believed X to be true was misled by the First Presidency

v. But, in so doing, the First Presidency did not lead “the church astray”.

Clearly (v) is difficult to tolerate if we accept (i-iv) and thus (N) appears to be the most sensible way of defining the phrase “lead the church astray”.

But however we choose to define the phrase “lead the church astray” matters little when we include President Joseph Fielding Smith’s version of the same doctrine:

“I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord”.

Let’s assume, therefore, for the sake of argument, that the phrase “never lead the church astray” is inextricably coupled with the phrase, to never “send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord”.

  1. The united voice of the First Presidency can “never lead the church astray” [Wilford Woodruff], “…or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord” [Joseph Fielding Smith].

So how can we know that (1) is true?

Consider three options: (a) we can know that (1) is true because it was proclaimed by the united voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of the First Presidency can “never lead the church astray”.  Circular reasoning mark 1!  Why?  Because the ‘evidence’ supporting the claim is the claim itself the fallacy of which should be obvious.
This same circularity appears when we assume the claim to be false.  If (1) was false it would not have been proclaimed by the united voice of the First Presidency because the united voice of the First Presidency can “never lead the church astray”.  Thus, option (a) cannot justify the truth of (1).

What about option (b)?  You can know that (1) is true because it has been revealed through God’s prophets that a person can receive a spiritual witness from God confirming the truth of what a prophet has said.  Now I can appeal to actual evidence supporting (1) as opposed to merely restating (1) as though it were evidence for (1).  Improvement.  Or so it seems.  Imagine I receive a spiritual assurance that (1) is false [or, conversely, after study and prayer I receive NO spiritual assurances that (1) is true].  If spiritual evidence [or the lack thereof] is authentic and admissible evidence then I now have a good reason for rejecting (1) and, furthermore, I would have confirmation that the united voice of the First Presidency has “led the church astray” by proclaiming (1) to be true.

We can restate option (b) in the following way:

(b) I have received spiritual confirmation that (1) is not true and that the First Presidency can lead the church astray and send forth counsel that is not in accordance with the mind and will of God.

The problem with (b) is that it does not count as admissible evidence disproving (1) [in the eyes of the church leadership] for the following reason:

(P) I am not a prophet and so whatever spiritual confirmation I may receive could not possibly count as admissible evidence disproving (1).

In fact, 10 million people might all receive (b) and even then their revelations would not be considered admissible evidence for not one among those 10 million voices is a prophet of God nor are they together a revelatory body equal in authority to the First Presidency [in the eyes of the church leadership].

Therefore, option (b) delivers a contradictory state of affairs where a person(s) might receive spiritual evidence that (1) is false … which, simultaneously, is not evidence that (1) is false because such evidence is considered inadmissible because of (P)… leaving the only possible alternative that (1) must be true because the united voice of the First Presidency can “never lead the church astray” [see option (a)].  Thus we have shown that (1) is not a genuine ‘true or false’ proposition and the invitation to seek a personal spiritual confirmation of the truth of (1) is a meaningless invitation because (1) cannot be shown to be false via a personal spiritual confirmation.  Therefore, the only [admissible] spiritual evidence I could possibly receive in relation to (1) is that (1) MUST be true.  But if I already know that there is only one admissible answer I can receive in relation to (1) what point is there in me seeking it?  We end up with an embarrassing state of affairs whereby the claim we wish to prove (1) dictates that spiritual evidence is admissible (P) if and only if it supports the claim we wish to prove!  Thus, option (b), commits the same fallacy of circular reasoning as option (a) and therefore, cannot justify the truth of (1).

TNT

Leaving option (c) [Perhaps there are more options?] I can know that (1) is true if and only if the President of the church (and by extension the First Presidency and the twelve) are “removed out of {their} place” [Wilford Woodruff] by God Himself (by some means unspecified).

We can restate (1) in the following way:

1a.  The united voice of the First Presidency can “never lead the church astray” unless they attempt to the lead the church astray and are “removed out of {their} place”.

If they are “removed out of {their} place” this would constitute evidence that they were attempting to lead the church astray and would prove the truth of (1a).  The problem with option (c) is that we do not know nor has it anywhere been explained what would count as evidence that a prophet has been “removed out of {his} place” by God and not by natural causes.  A lightning strike from heaven perhaps?  The sudden death of the offending prophet(s)?  The sudden onset of disease or disability?  If death alone constituted evidence of apostasy then the church has been in apostasy ever since Carthage.  What else other than the sudden death of a prophet would constitute evidence that a prophet or prophets have been “removed out of {their} place” and how could such qualify as evidence for (1a)?

Far worse, however, is that option (c) implies that all proclamations made by former First Presidencies MUST be true because none of them were ever “removed out of {their} place” by God.  Had they attempted to lead the church astray by violating (N) [as above] God would have ousted them from office.  Thus all previous First Presidency utterances MUST be true or else (1a) is false.  This means that, for example, when the First Presidency in 1947 [letter to Dr Nelson] and again in 1949 [Official Statement] justified the priesthood ban on the grounds that black people were not entitled to receive the priesthood by virtue of their pre-mortal conduct, nor was it acceptable for black and white people to marry (an “idea repugnant to most normal-minded people”) echoing the words of Brigham Young that black people had forfeited their right to the priesthood on account of their fathers having “rejected the Holy Priesthood” – promulgating this belief among the Latter-Day Saints and instructing church leaders NOT to ordain blacks to the priesthood – such a course of action MUST have been consistent with the will of God or else they would have been “removed out of {their} place” for violating (N).  No First Presidency or President of the Church was “removed out of {his/their} place” (as far we know!).

Thus, if it was true to proclaim the above doctrines in the 1850’s, and true again in 1947 and true again in 1949, then it MUST be true to claim the same today or else Brigham Young and the 1949 First Presidency would have been “removed out of {their} place” for “leading the church astray”.

In 2013 the following statement was made in an essay on the official church website (unquestionably with the full knowledge and endorsement of the First Presidency):

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavour or curse, or that it reflects actions in a pre-mortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

One wonders whether the Prophets, Seers and Revelators of the past were aware at the time that they were only “theorising” when they were “prophesying”, “seeing” and “revealing”?  Clearly, the notion that they thought they were “theorising” is too intellectually insulting to entertain further.

Now, assuming that God is not a liar and does not instruct His prophets to proclaim as doctrine or inspired policy that which is not doctrine or inspired policy or to “…send forth as counsel…” that which is “contrary to the mind and will of the Lord” … then either Brigham Young and the First Presidency of 1949 or the First Presidency of 2013 have “led the church astray” and/or “sent forth counsel that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord”. One or the other position is wrong.  They cannot both be right.

Therefore, in summary, (a) and (b) cannot justify the truth of (1) because they commit the fallacy of circular reasoning.  Option (c) fails to justify the truth of (1a) because: i) it sets forth an unverifiable condition for confirming its truth and ii) it has been refuted by history insofar as at least two First Presidencies have proclaimed contradictory doctrinal positions neither of whom were or have been “removed out of their place”.  If nothing else the above reasoning demonstrates that Mormons who doubt the supernatural origin of prophetic claims have very good reasons for doing so; reasons the logical power of which ought to be acknowledged by the leaders of the church and not lightly dismissed. For to imply in the face of these reasons that a Mormon doubter simply lacks the commensurate faith required to proceed in the gospel is insulting in the extreme.

 

Notes:

Wilford Woodruff –

https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/od/1

Joseph Fielding Smith –

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=-FToijpH-aAC&pg=PA846&lpg=PA846&dq=Joseph+Fielding+Smith+never+send+forth+counsel&source=bl&ots=CaUBoQYl8_&sig=y9VSFaf5QwfU_aU9av2Y6uKOxtE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj0hfqf3MXKAhXFvBQKHZ0MA8YQ6AEIHzAA#v=onepage&q=Joseph%20Fielding%20Smith%20never%20send%20forth%20counsel&f=false

Race and the Priesthood Essay –

https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

Letters to Dr Nelson –

https://archive.org/stream/LowryNelson1stPresidencyExchange/Lowry_Nelson_1st_Presidency_Exchange_djvu.txt

1949 First Presidency Statement –

A Statement from the First Presidency:

I am not the author nor the owner of any pictures used above.

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