Wasted Metal: Why is there so much Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?

The following analysis is probably not original to me, but I’ll share it anyway because I haven’t heard anyone else say it yet. If you know of a similar analysis, please share in the comments.

Among the many topics it discusses, the Book of Mormon covers these two points:

  1. Writing on metal plates is hard
  2. Great are the words of Isaiah

Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of these (the first is an obvious fact, and the second is a popular viewpoint with some merit to it) but these points actually come into conflict within the Book of Mormon, in a manner that calls into question the Book’s authenticity.

First, let’s consider the business of writing on metal plates. This is not an easy task, and as you might expect, the writers in the Book of Mormon write frankly about the troubles involved. Jacob mentions how hard the actual engraving on metal is (but also mentions the advantage that plates have over less durable writing surfaces) and Moroni appears to talk about it, too. Jarom mentions that the plates themselves are small, as do several other writers, including Amaleki and Moroni; this is separate from the difficulty of engraving, but still a real problem with metal plates, because you have to get the right kind of metal, and you have to get enough of it, and you have to pound it into sheets, before you can engrave anything. To alleviate the space problem, the writers employed a special compact writing system that they call “reformed Egyptian”, which saves space at the cost of clarity (it’s debatable whether this reformed Egyptian exists at all, but for the time being, we can acknowledge that giving up writing quality to save space is the sort of exchange that any writer might make if they had to do all their writing on metal). The message is clear, consistent, and realistic: writing on plates sucks.

Then there’s the business of Isaiah. According to this source, there are 20 complete chapters of Isaiah that are included in the Book of Mormon, with minimal alterations and no abbreviations. The text itself explains why: Nephi chooses Isaiah to persuade his brothers to believe in Christ, Jacob reminds us that Isaiah had a special message for all of the house of Israel (including the Nephites), Abinadi quotes a chapter to chastise some wicked priests, and Jesus himself is quoted as saying that “great are the words of Isaiah”. Everyone values Isaiah as a mighty prophet, revealing Israel’s future and persuading all to come unto Christ.

But why did they go to the lengths of quoting entire chapters of Isaiah?

No sensible person can dispute that it’s hard writing on plates; it takes more time, more effort, and more precious material than nearly every other method of recording data. In the face of such difficulties, you take every measure possible to reduce the amount of writing you have to do, including getting rid of all redundancy. And here, the conflict arises, because all the writers of the Book of Mormon had to know that they would be adding redundancy by quoting Isaiah. Nephi, and all his contemporaries and descendants, had access to the brass plates, which included the writings of Isaiah. When Jesus arrived, he commanded the people to search the words of Isaiah, confirming that the people still had them. Mormon and Moroni might be excused for including some Isaiah, in case people in the future no longer possessed the prophet’s writings, but Moroni claimed to have seen our day by the power of God; didn’t he see that we would have the complete works of Isaiah, so that he and his father wouldn’t have to transcribe any of it? Remember: the Book of Mormon gives us no new writings of Isaiah, nor even an improved translation of existing writings. So why did the writers waste their time, stress their hands, and squander their metal on preserving something already well-preserved?

If we take the Book of Mormon at its word, we can only conclude that the writers were very, very stupid. But there is an alternative explanation: the writers of the Book of Mormon were not writing on plates.

I previously linked to an analysis that disputes the existence of “reformed Egyptian” (all the Egyptian writing systems we know of are less compact than Hebrew), but the analysis also discusses other characteristics of the Book of Mormon that are inconsistent with writing on plates. There are very many repetitions that do not seem to add any information or clarity. Consider Alma 21:19, that ends with “serve him, or be his servant“. Did those four words tell us anything new? Or consider 3 Nephi 11:37-38: it is not an exaggeration to say that those two verses have the exact same message, so why bother writing both? Then there are incredibly wordy passages (the critic takes one passage of 423 words and reduces it to 79; judge for yourself if any information is lost). Anyone engraving on metal would have to be very stupid and very stubborn to subject themselves to such useless effort. But someone writing on parchment, or dictating, would not have the same difficulty. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the text in the Book of Mormon was never written on metal plates.

There is good reason to suspect that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century document. There is also good reason to suspect that Joseph Smith was capable of writing it. These reasons become more compelling when we see that the Book’s official origin story is virtually impossible; we would have to accept that multiple generations of prophets of God were utter morons who wore out their hands and used up their gold for nothing. Rejecting the Book’s declared origin may lead you to frightening conclusions, but for the sake of honesty, you have to face them. To quote P. C. Hodgell: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” You owe yourself nothing less.

The Bullet Hole: Thoughts on the necessity of God (or lack thereof)

I have recently been rereading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’ve found an argument of his that, in my opinion, nicely illustrates the divide between theistic thought and atheistic thought. Here is is, from the end of chapter 3:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Dawkins’s question here is: if life, the universe, and everything could not exist without a creator, then how can their creator exist without an even greater creator? After all, if order and complexity cannot exist on their own, then how did our universe’s creator (who must be orderly and complex in order to design such a universe) come into existence? In my opinion, it’s a good question, but a theist might see it as missing the point. I shall explain with an analogy.

You are examining a crime scene, and you discover a small hole. You examine it closely, and you conclude that it is a bullet hole. If it is, then you can strongly conclude that a gun fired that bullet, and someone pulled the trigger on that gun. Now, this conclusion actually raises more questions: What kind of gun was it? Who made the gun? Who fired that gun? Why did they fire it? Where did the shooter come from? Where did the gun maker come from? And so on. But even if we never get an answer to any of these questions, we can still conclude that a human fired a gun, because we have the bullet hole, and there’s only one way to make such a hole.

The theist position is that our existence is like that bullet hole, and the creator is the one who fired the bullet. Questions like “Where did the creator come from?” are interesting, but even if we never get an answer to such questions, we still know that there is a creator responsible for our universe. Ignorance in one area does not refute knowledge in another area. (For another example, consider abiogenesis and evolution: even if we know nothing about how life got started, we can still know that life evolved)

This is not to say that theists do not try to answer questions about the creator. Indeed, most of them are quite preoccupied with the question of the creator’s motives. Consider Rick Falkenstein, who became a creationist last month. After concluding that something created us, he asserted that created things have a purpose and set out to find that purpose, rather like a crime scene investigator trying to figure out a shooter’s motive. Both of these are smart choices, if we grant their initial assumptions. Wouldn’t it be good to know why our creator made the world, just as it is good to know why someone made a shot? Of course, even if we never get answers to these questions, that doesn’t change the conditions that prompted us to ask the questions in the first place. The bullet hole is still there.

But what if the hole was not a bullet hole?

Fake bullet holes are available for purchase. Holes that look like bullet holes can fool the untrained eye, just as this hole did (and this hole as well). Forensics textbooks insist that it takes “training and experience” to properly distinguish bullet holes from similar marks. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine an unskilled investigator trying to determine the motives of a shooter that never existed as they examine a hole that wasn’t actually made by a bullet.

Now go back to the subject of creation, and you can see the point I’m trying to make: our reality looks like it was created, until you examine it more closely. Creationists have made many arguments, some of them quite sophisticated, and scientists have refuted them all. The design that Falkenstein sees is simply not sufficient to prove the existence of a designer. No bullet hole, no bullet, no gun, no shooter. It’s that simple.

Millions of people have looked at life, at the earth, and at the stars, and have concluded that someone must made all this. Some being, however strange, must have laid out the order we see. But our instincts fool us; great minds have sought that being, and have not found it, bringing back only evidence of order arising by itself. Many have desperately tried to prove a creator’s existence in the face of this evidence, but sound minds have rejected their offerings. It appears that our tendency to see a creator’s handiwork is simply part of our tendency to see patterns that aren’t there. Bullet holes, man… they’re everywhere.

We really shouldn’t go on like this. Endlessly looking for things that aren’t there does us no good, whether we’re looking for gods or guns. If anyone can offer sound evidence of a great creator, then let them come forth and do so, but as it is now, when I look at life, the universe, and everything, the only bullet holes I see are the ones we’ve made ourselves.

Muchas gracias, Eliezer Yudkowsky – an open letter

Dear Eliezer Yudkowsky,

I wish to sincerely thank you for the works that you have written and published, most especially your magnificent work of fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It is an enjoyable and engrossing story, and my wife and I found happiness reading and discussing it together.

But that’s not really why you wrote that story, is it? Entertainment is all well and good, but what you really want is to educate people, so that we can actually know and apply those methods of rationality you mentioned. Well, it so happens that your book worked; I did learn something from Harry’s adventures, and I used it to improve my own life.

Earlier this year, I went down to Nogales (the Mexican half) with a friend, on a mission. I was there to have a good time being a tourist, and also to obtain six bottles of Mexican vanilla (my wife wanted some for herself and some to share with family and friends). I had brought with me 20 American dollars. My wife assured me that this would be enough to cover any expenses I would encounter.

Well, as my friend parked his car in Nogales (the American half) and we approached the border, I thought about that money, and wondered if it would be enough, and I remembered Chapter 6: The Planning Fallacy when Harry gives that little lecture about being sufficiently pessimistic and reveals the gold he secretly swiped from his vault. I decided that I, too, wanted to have enough money to buy what I really wanted, and withdrew 40 more dollars from the nearest ATM. I then followed my friend to the moneychanger’s office, where we converted our dollars to pesos, and we crossed the border.

I spent every last centavo, and it was great.

I bought some chocolate in brand names that I’d never seen before. I had a strange and lovely meal in a very authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I bought a locally-knitted jacket for my daughter, and I probably overpaid because I have no experience bargaining, but I could afford the loss. I bought a little silver bracelet for my wife. And I bought six of the largest vanilla bottles I could find. My trip was a complete success.

So, Mr. Yudkowsky, if you ever lie awake at night, wondering if you’ve ever actually succeeded at helping anyone be more rational, remember that you helped me, at least a little. Even now, there sits in our kitchen a vanilla bottle as long as my forearm, and it wouldn’t have been half as big if not for you.

Thank you again, and good luck to you,

I’m Back!

Greetings, netizens! I have returned!

You might have noticed that this little blog of mine was missing for a spell. Why? Because I was trying to become a teacher, and teachers are not allowed to have personal lives. Have a picture of yourself holding a couple drinks? You’re fired. Or how about a photo of your beau touching your (clothed and covered) boob? You’re fired! And God help you if you’ve got any naked photos. In light of these and similar concerns, I thought that my frank political posts might be a real liability to my intended future career, so I hid them away.

Well, I’m not trying to be a teacher anymore (the reasons why being a story for another time) so let the posts run free! I’m here, I’m opinionated, and I want you all to know it! Let freedom (and verbosity) ring!

Hello again, world. It’s good to be back.

What’s in your PC’s diet?

Question for you, readers: would you eat a meal if you did not know the ingredients?

If you’ve got food allergies, the thought is probably enough to make you cringe. There could be anything in that mystery dish in front of you. How do you know it hasn’t got traces of something that will give you hives and diarrhea for the next 3 days? Best not to even touch the stuff. You can’t trust it.

Now, another question: would you eat a meal if you were not allowed to know the ingredients?

And when I say not allowed, I mean Not Allowed. You can’t ask what’s in it, you can’t test what’s in it, and if you try to guess what’s in it, you have to prove you’re not reverse-engineering the food or else you’re liable for infringement. You just have to take the chef’s word that it’s safe… assuming you can trust the chef, of course.

Would you eat this secret food? Would you feed it to your children? Would you even feed it to your dog?

If not, then why are you feeding secret food to your robot?

“I told you I was FORTRAN-intolerant. Now I’m going to have to take a core dump.”

By “robot”, I actually mean your computer. And what is food for a computer? Software, of course! The code is what makes it go. Now, code is not exactly like food, but it is vital to your machine; it won’t run without it. And what is in this vital code? Chances are, you don’t know and you’re not allowed to know (according to this Wikipedia article, Windows still dominates desktop systems, and even OS X commands more share than Linux). Your computer is running off of secret sauce, and you have little hope of ever knowing what problems there might be with it.

So with this in mind, I think it’s time to take a fresh look at the old “open source” issue. Instead of asking, “Is open source better?”, we should be asking, “Why is closed source even legal?”

The fact is that closed source is a real danger to us, just as much as food allergies. Bugs and flaws in our software leave us vulnerable to attack from crooks and spooks, and trying to hide the source doesn’t slow them down at all (noted security expert Bruce Shneier has addressed this topic over and over and over – there’s no security in obscurity). Closing and locking the source only prevents honest people from finding and fixing the bugs. In addition, closed source software also creates a “lock in” effect, in which the vendor can essentially hold users hostage, because the users stand to lose so much data or productive capacity if they switch products. Monopolies of this kind are very lucrative, which is why closed source software persists, but they are inherently hostile to users, and they do not deserve any of the legal protections they currently enjoy (such as copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and end-user license agreements).

People who try to sell products to you, but insist on keeping secrets concerning the very products they are trying to sell you, are not worthy of your business. Don’t eat food if you don’t know what’s in it, don’t fund an agency if you don’t know what it’s doing, and don’t run software if you can’t see how it’s written. Open source is the only way to go.

“My teeth wouldn’t look this bad if I had just used FLOSS!”

Embracing WordPress

For a good long time, I had a Livejournal account, because back in the day, LJ was cool and neat and the happening place to be. But that ship has sailed, and so must I. So, farewell, old LJ, and welcome, WordPress! It’s where all the cool kids are, and since I’d people to actually read and discuss what I write, I can’t really afford to ignore network effects, can I?

Anyways, this is my new home. Hello, world! You’ll be hearing a lot more from me.