long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Legacy post: simplicity

Another legacy post on the setting of the Book of Mormon, slightly edited.


William of  Ockham
The simplest explanation is usually the best, a principle often described as Occam's razor.
"Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."

On the topic of the setting of the Book of Mormon, there are two basic perspectives. 

One accepts the New York Cumorah as a "pin in the map" which drives the interpretation of the geographical passages in the text. 

The other rejects the New York Cumorah in favor of a Mesoamerican setting, explaining that the Cumorah in New York was a folk tradition but the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in southern Mexico.

Pursuant to Occam's razor, we can ask, which narrative requires the fewest assumptions, explanations, and qualifications?

Which explanation is the simplest?

Which set of assumptions makes the most sense to you?

The North American setting based on the New York Cumorah has one assumption.

1. Assumption: Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knew that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the place where the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations were destroyed. 

Everything directly attributable to them is consistent with that setting (such as Moroni telling Joseph the plates were in the "hill of Cumorah" the first time they met, Joseph referring to the hill as Cumorah before he even got the plates, Joseph referring to this in D&C 128:20, Oliver having visited the repository in the hill, his declaration in Letter VII that it was a fact, David Whitmer explaining that the messenger took the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah before meeting Joseph in Fayette, etc.). Contrary ideas are not directly attributable to them; therefore, these contrary ideas were produced by other people who either (i) didn't know what Joseph and Oliver said or (ii) rejected what Joseph and Oliver said.

The Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs setting relies on a series of assumptions:

1. Assumption: Joseph Smith didn't know where the Book of Mormon events took place.
2. Assumption:  Lucy Mack Smith misremembered what Joseph told her about Moroni's first visit and about passing by the Hill Cumorah where he met with Moroni in early 1827.
3. Assumption: In D&C 128:20, Joseph Smith incorrectly reported "Glad tidings from Cumorah... the book to be revealed" because he didn't learn about Cumorah until he was translating Mormon 6:6 in 1829.
4. Assumption: David Whitmer misremembered when he said he had a specific memory of the first time he heard the word "Cumorah" in 1829, directly from the messenger to whom Joseph had given the plates in Harmony when the messenger said he was taking them to Cumorah. 
5. Assumption: Oliver Cowdery (or another unknown person) at some unspecified date started a folk tradition that Cumorah was in New York, based on an incorrect and ignorant assumption.
6. Assumption: When Oliver, as Assistant President of the Church in 1835, published an article claiming that it was a fact that the hill in New York was the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6, he was merely expressing an incorrect folk tradition. (Letter VII)
7. Assumption: Joseph, for unexplained reasons, passively adopted Oliver's erroneous speculation and had it widely re-published, including in the 1841 Times and Seasons.
8. Assumption: Joseph, who wrote very little himself, and, according to Wilford Woodruff, barely had time to sign documents they prepared for him, nevertheless wrote a series of articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons about Central America that he left anonymous (signed Ed.) for unknown reasons.
9. Assumption: Those 1842 articles were either (i) prophetic confirmation of a Mesoamerican setting or (ii) evidence that Joseph relied on scholarship to learn about the setting of the Book of Mormon.
10. Assumption: Modern LDS scholars have correctly determined that (i) early Church members had incorrect beliefs about the location of Cumorah and (ii) Cumorah cannot be in New York because that is too far from Mesoamerica.
11. Assumption: All Church leaders who reaffirmed or corroborated what Joseph and Oliver said about Cumorah were also wrong because they merely expressed their own incorrect opinions.

Again: Which set of assumptions makes the most sense to you?

In assessing the two sets of assumptions, it's important to recognize that both sets of assumptions involve interpretations of the text and can be corroborated with extrinsic evidence from archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc.

For references to the sources for the assumptions, see 



Here are some relevant quotations about simplicity.

“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein

To which Groucho Marx replied:

“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
― Groucho Marx

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
― Isaac Newton

“Why did they believe? Because they saw miracles. Things one man took as chance, a man of faith took as a sign. A loved one recovering from disease, a fortunate business deal, a chance meeting with a long lost friend. It wasn't the grand doctrines or the sweeping ideals that seemed to make believers out of men. It was the simple magic in the world around them.”
― Brandon Sanderson, The Hero of Ages

“People who pride themselves on their "complexity" and deride others for being "simplistic" should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.”
― Thomas Sowell, Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays

“..things are never as complicated as they seem. It is only our arrogance that prompts us to find unnecessarily complicated answers to simple problems.”
― Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

“I am not a genius, I am just curious. I ask many questions. and when the answer is simple, then God is answering.”
― Albert Einstein

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