Musement and Alma 30


One of the more controversial arguments in the Book of Mormon is found within Alma’s response to Korihor in Alma 30. Korihor asks Alma to “show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea show unto me that he hath power….” (43) Alma responds that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (44)

Most people cast this debate as between the humanist skeptic of religion and the believer. Alma’s response is thus seen as a variation on Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God. Paley argued that if we found a watch on the ground we’d assume an engineer had designed it. In the same way creation makes us assume a creator. Now the argument is pretty bad for a variety of reasons, not the least of which self-organization and complexity is pretty well scientifically established. We find it not just in evolution but in very easy to observe phenomena ranging from protein formulation to the formation of various structures in thermodynamics. At this point complexity and self-organization is so well established any argument that depends upon it being false (as Paley’s does) seems quaint.

The question is whether Alma is actually making a variation on Paley’s argument. I don’t think he is.

In his argument Alma never makes any statement about complexity or man made things. Rather he is pretty clear that “all things denote there is a God.” In other words it’s directly within our experience of natural phenomena that we encounter the idea of God. To Alma the signs Korihor demands are all around him. While I think it’s fair to read this as a kind of spiritual experience as we think about things, I’m not sure that’s what Alma means. Just as he never mentions complexity he never mentions the spirit or revelation in the argument. Now I’ll admit one could easily argue that when he talks about the testimony of the prophets he’s talking about witnesses of spiritual encounters. Without rejecting that reading though let me suggest a other approach.

The great American philosopher, physicist and chemist Charles Sanders Peirce had a rather interesting argument for God. Unlike his better known contemporary, William James, Peirce tended to think through issues not in terms of psychology but the hard sciences like chemistry. To Peirce logical analysis and careful inquiry were what was important in ones considerations. He distinguished his form of pragmatism from that of James. James tended to view religion through a more subjective lens of how an individual responded to religious beliefs in their practices. To Peirce while we learned truth through the consequences of a belief being true, he saw those consequences more in terms of scientific measuring such as found in chemistry or physics. Tied to this Peirce developed a type of logic he called abduction. Abduction is a type of inference that is somewhat different from the more familiar induction. It’s a type of reasonably accurate guessing roughly akin to how scientists form hypothesis. Now Peirce didn’t think abduction entailed truth. It still needed to be tested the way scientific theories are tested.

One of the better examples outside of science of Peirce applying the logic of abduction is actually his argument for God. He called this The Neglected Argument for God. His argument can’t really be understood independent from his notions of science and philosophy. So it can be a little difficult to follow for someone not already familiar with Peirce. Peirce argues that when we sit back and think about the natural world though a sense of intellectual play or what he calls musement, the idea of God comes naturally to mind.  I’ll try and sketch it out the argument for you and then say why it makes sense to apply to Alma.

For Peirce inquiry always arises from objects we encounter as an object or surprise or wonder. When we encounter objects we try and think of an explanation for this surprise happening. We tend to believe the explanation that seems most believable to us. This happens as a matter of instinct. That is one explanation above others often presents itself as the most likely. This is the process of abduction as Peirce conceives of it. This doesn’t typically happen instantly but through a process of inquiry and thorough analysis.

The whole series of mental performances between the notice of the wonderful phenomenon and the acceptance of the hypothesis, during which the usually docile understanding seems to hold the bit between its teeth and to have us at its mercy, the search for pertinent circumstances and the laying hold of them, sometimes without our cognizance, the security of them, the dark laboring, the bursting out of the startling conjecture, the remarking of its smooth fitting to the anomaly, as it is turned back and forth like a key in a lock, and the final estimation of its plausibility, I reckon as composing the First Stage of the Inquiry.

In certain circumstances as we sit back and muse on the world around us in a more general way, we will intuitively be led to think of God as an explanation. Note how this is different from Paley. He makes no argument about necessity or complexity. Rather it’s a thought that comes to us as we rationally think through science and our encounters with the world.

…in the Pure Play of Musement the idea of God’s Reality will be sure sooner or later to be found an attractive fancy, which the Muser will develop in various ways. The more he ponders it, the more it will find response in every part of his mind, for its beauty, for its supplying an ideal of life, and for its thoroughly satisfactory explanation of his whole threefold environment

Now merely being plausible isn’t sufficient. It takes continued inquiry. Peirce argues that as we think on it and continue to inquire that this belief increases in strength. The belief isn’t volitional but is a consequence of inquiry. We simply can no longer doubt the belief.

In the first place the Plausibility of the hypothesis reaches an almost unparalleled height among deliberately formed hypotheses. So hard it is to doubt God’s Reality, when the Idea has sprung from Musements, that there is great danger that the investigation will stop at this first stage, owing to the indifference of the Muser to any further proof of it. At the same time, this very Plausibility is undoubtedly an argument of no small weight in favor of the truth of the hypothesis

Peirce never argues that we simply accept the idea. His whole notion of science entails continued inquiry and continual testing. But if the belief persists, as a practical matter it is beyond doubt.

Without here discussing how strong Peirce’s argument actually is, let me note how similar it is to Alma. First Alma mentions that the belief of those around in God counts as a kind of evidence – that is they’ve conducted the test (see Alma 32) and found the belief true. Further he notes how things testify of God. But how do they testify? As we think of them they lead us to belief in God. He’s not saying that the things require a belief in God as a deductive consequence. Rather he says that as we think on them they testify of God. That is to think about them leads us to a belief in God.

Of course not everyone musing, as Peirce did, comes to the same conclusions Peirce did. Peirce merely has faith that if inquiry is continued everyone will. (Although as always, he’s open to changing his own views as he inquires after things) Somewhat unsurprising Alma’s claim that all things testify there is a God isn’t persuasive to Korihor. He wants a stronger sign. (Which he later gets, much to his detriment)

The Neglected Argument for God is certainly not a standard argument for the existence of God. It doesn’t make belief in God a necessary conclusion of some premises. It is just that with musement or intellectual play we are led inexorably to a belief in a purpose for this world and a belief in a Creator. But the argument is at best an argument for how musement leads to this. The only way to see if it does is to engage in the practice ourselves and see if we are led to such a belief. The argument doesn’t force us to believe in God. Rather it establishes that with the proper attitude, the belief comes to us on its own.

19 comments for “Musement and Alma 30

  1. I think you’re basically correct. That is, Alma is describing an abductive process, not a proof from design. However, I think you are also correct when you lead with “Alma’s response is thus seen as a variation on Paley’s argument.”

    (Apart from vocabulary, where abduction and the Neglected Argument are surely less well known . . . ) then why continued attention to a proof from design rather than abduction? I suspect it’s because we intuit that abductive reasoning has at least three ‘faults’: (a) it does not make God a necessary conclusion; (b) it is fraught with confirmation bias (among other possible errors); and (c) however effective for learning and persuading oneself, it fares poorly in arguing that others should believe. In the end, the advocate ends up saying ‘go find out for yourself.’ Which perhaps is the whole point.

  2. Well thanks for providing the technical language for what I’ve been doing all my life.

    BTW, speaking of the inductive/abductive process of reasoning, I find Alam 30:44 quite amazing. Alma says that the earth is in motion, and that the planets are in motion in their “regular form.” Well this is quite amazing. No flat earth/static geocentrism here. We do not know how exactly they conceived their universe, but the scripture in question shows they knew the earth to be in motion. Does that mean they believed that the earth turned on its axis as Hercaclides of Pontus theorized? Or does it mean that they knew the earth moved around the sun?

    Adding to this enigma is a similar verse in Helaman where the prophet Nephi declares “for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun” (12:15). Well that is definitely a heliocentric system.

    Alma’s comment that the planets move in their regular form indicates that they had been meticulously measured. In any case, by the first century BCE some scholastic/priestly group of Nephites had most likely figured out a heliocentric system. Sorry, totally off topic.

    Finally, I spent last night in Ophir, Utah, in the middle of nowhere, underneath a very dark sky and with my telescope. I saw about 30 Perseid meteors in the few hours that I was there. I also looked at planets, moons, galaxies, nebulae, stellar nurseries and star clusters, remnants of stars, as well as seeing the ISS and a couple iridium flares. I pointed out the constellations and saw the bright band of the Milky Way. Every time I do this I am filled with awe. With my classical music playing in the desert, surrounded by the stars, I always feel the presence of God. Critics would simply declare that I am interpreting an aesthetic. But wonder and reverence can introduce the divine within ones’ self.

  3. Complexity in nature coming about on its own is not scientifically proven. In fact it is the exact opposite. Science hasnt a clue how complex life arose. They claim lots of scenerios but none of which they can prove. The only proof we have is that complexity in nature only comes from a design preceding it. That is a fact, is provable, yet scince turns away from such a notion because it involves the reality of God.

  4. Rob (3) Life isn’t the only example of emergent complexity. Follow the link I provided in the article. The examples I gave were from physics. The problem with Paley is that his argument hinges on emergent complexity not being a thing.

    John (2) I think offering terminology, abduction, is amazingly helpful. However thinking through the logic (and it’s by no means settled it should be called logic) is quite helpful and important. Sadly Peirce while wildly indirectly influential through James, Dewey and others, was a neglected figure for various social reasons. But he developed a lot of key logic and anticipated a lot of discoveries others later made in the early 20th century. Unfortunately he spent the end of his life in poverty due to alienating powerful people at Harvard and elsewhere. He owed a lot to James for what what meager money he had. He’s been largely rediscovered the past few decades and has again become extremely influential in many fields. Some, like semiotics, are tied to his logic of signs. But he pops up in cognitive science and other fields as well.

    The question about Book of Mormon astronomy is pretty intriguing, I agree. Contrary to many people’s assumptions, heliocentric astronomy was actually known in the ancient world. The pythagoreans came close with the heavenly bodies rotating a central fire. (From a galaxy perspective I suppose correct but they thought the sun orbited it every year which was wrong) A true “modern” heliocentric astronomy was not developed until Aristarchus of Samos around 270 BC. But that’s over 300 years after Lehi. Unfortunately his writings are lost and we just have indirect mentions.

    If we’re going to postulate a heliocentrism probably the best source is the quasi-heliocentrism of the pythagoreans. The ones we know of also are quite late – about 150 – 200 years after Lehi. If, as some speculate, Lehi was a metal trader from the northern kingdom it’s plausible he had some intellectual contact with the precursors of such groups. Pythagoreanism more or less developed in its initial form somewhat contemporary with Lehi. (Maybe around 50 years after Lehi left) Lehi would not likely have encountered such groups in Greece but perhaps via indirect influence from Syrian cities where traders met. The Pythagoreans had influence in many places. (For instance Hippasus, often credited with the discovery of irrational numbers, was from Italy, about a century later) The earliest Pythagoreans living before Pythagorus in the sixth century, aren’t as well known and are usually known from later references. Brontinus is the best known and almost nothing is known of him beyond apparently writing some texts under the name of Orpheus. Since we know so little, we don’t even know if they held the quasi-heliocentrism of later figures.

    However of course it may well be that the idea in Alma doesn’t come from Lehi at all. The mayans had a heliocentric system although given the paucity of records it’s probably impossible to know when this developed. (I say that out of ignorance of mesoAmerican studies though) The ideas appear in the Dresden codex that survived the Spanish. At minimum though it seems save to say that their astronomy was more advanced in many ways than the ANE.

    Christian (1) I agree with everything you say.

  5. I Have All Things as a Testimony

    What evidence do you have
    That there is no God?
    Or that Christ cometh not?
    I say unto you:
    You have no evidence save it be your words only.

    I have all things as a testimony
    that these things are true.
    And you also have
    all things as a testimony to you
    that they are true.

    Will you still deny the testimony of everything?
    Will you deny the evidence of all things?

    Will ye say: “Show unto me a sign,” when you have
    the testimony of people everywhere
    and all the prophets
    and all the scriptures?
    These should be “signs” enough.

    All things denote there is a God.
    All things stand as a sign and a witness that there is a God:
    even the earth
    and all things that are upon the face of it
    and its motion
    and also all the planets which move in their regular form.

    All things witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

    Will you deny all these witnesses?

    [Alma 30:40-45 ed. ]

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Some things said here led me to these ideas: 1) Not all self organization is created equal. 2) “All things” implies trying to take in the totality of everything, more than just parts. This is, on the face of it, where Alma is going.

  7. Point of order,
    Most proteins do not self assemble into their biologically relevant tertiary or quaternary structure, rather they are assembled by chaperone proteins.

    While there are some forms of molecular self assembly, most are accidents of geometry that did not require precise placement with angstroms of precision of gazillions of iterations. In fact, most self assembled monolayers are full of defects which would be u unacceptable if life depended on uniformity.

    Iow, the puerile examples listed as supposed proofs to refute the watch example are fairly specious and faulty.

  8. Just to defend Paley again here, physicist David Deutsch says “If you can understand it, then you can program it. If you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it.” While science can describe and observe various emergent phenomenon, this is very different from actually understanding how and why various complex forms DO emerge. Once we understand it, we will be Gods ourselves, because we will be programming our own emergent phenomenon from scratch (not simply piggybacking on pre-existent emergent forms which we don’t fully understand as we do now). We can put God in this gap in our understanding because the gap is infinite, at least according to LDS theology, and to many scientists like Deutsch. That is why I worship the God of the Gaps.

    But I like the Neglected Argument for God, even though I’m not sure I totally understand it. Isn’t it saying that the evidence for God comes, not from the object of our contemplation, but arises from the way in which our mind interprets the object? God exists because we believe Him to exist. Is that what it is basically saying?

  9. Nate (8) I think almost by definition complexity isn’t understandable, although it can be modeled in various ways. I think postulating a God of the gaps for the functionality of complexity seems fundamentally wrong for a slew of reasons. Computational complexity being just one example. (I can easily write computer programs that are so complex I can’t understand all that’s going on – that doesn’t mean there’s a God of the gaps in my ignorance of the phenomena)

    I think Peirce’s argument when one gets technical is wrapped up in his notion of abduction. That is we are due to our experience good at guessing. As we continue to progress in our inquiries bad (incorrect) ideas become less believable and are discarded. He meant this as how science works as a general type of inquiry as opposed to other types of “knowledge” like authoritarianism, traditionalism, or so forth. So the god thesis is a response of the community to the phenomena as people entertain it.

    There are obvious arguments against Peirce here that I didn’t engage with. (Such as why scientists are believing in god less, not more) But I was more curious about Alma.

  10. Laserguy (7) the issue isn’t what most proteins do but what self-organizing ones do. I’m not sure what you consider an “accident of geometry” so it’s hard to make sense of what exactly you’re criticizing. The fact self-organization isn’t perfect is not an argument against much at all. Very little is 100% efficient. In any case I’m not here to give rejoinders to Discovery Institute boilerplate. The point is that self-organization is fairly established in most scientific fields and thus Paley isn’t persuasive. A quick google of scientific papers shows a heck of a lot of papers on complexity and self-organization. Even if you think all scientists are simply deluded on the subject, they take it for granted as a feature of the universe.

  11. No Clark gable, I’m a scientist who sees an argument ignoring simple facts and common sense who’s saying, this is a bad argument because it follows faulty logic…
    If you want to ignore the vast majority of proteins and look at a few survival ones that self assembly biologically active, that’s fine, but now youre ignoring statistics and the most probable outcome.

    I have no clue what the boiler plate society is, but you have made a stupid argument. Now own it and come up with a better one…

  12. The argument is there exists an X such that X has property Y. The fact there exists an X such that X does not have property Y is not an argument against that statement.

  13. Clark,
    Not’s not a very accurate abstraction of your argument…

    Let’s try again.
    There exists a category of things X that have the property Y, an example of this is item Z.

    If I point out that Z does not have the property Y, then you should add an asterisk or cross-strike item Z because it does not represent category X. You instead say, ” I meant item Z” , a subset of X, which I admit is strikingly rare.”

    Further, since you are trying to disprove the existence of God using item Z” (an item that does actually fit into category X, and this time actually has property Y), it is valid to to question some of the assumptions going into your argument.

    For instance, what if item Z” was designed to have category X with property Y. You have merely assumed that the fact of property Y precludes designing.

    An example of this would be slinkies and toys. The category is “toy”; the property is “able to walk itself down the stairs”; and the Z” is a slinky. Most toys do not posses property Y, they are not able to walk themselves down the stairs. Slinkies are fairly rare in the toy world, only a small number of toys are slinkies. It would not be wise, therefore to assume that because slinkies are able to walk down the stairs on their own (or after a slight bump), that they were not created. This, in my view, is your exact argument, you see a statistical anomaly that you think proves that no one designed, or manufacturered, the slinky.

    It’s a poor example, remove it from your list.
    It’s a poor argument. Emergence doesn’t disprove God. It just disproves your assumption that “God doesn’t design things with emergent properties.” Faulty assumption and argument.

  14. Laserguy, I thought I was pretty clear in what my argument was. You’re of course free to argue against a different argument but that’s not too terribly persuasive. Second in addition to arguing against something I wasn’t arguing you say I was “trying to disprove the existence of God.” Yet the whole post is a positive argument for God using Alma and the philosopher C. S. Peirce. It makes me think that perhaps you’ve not read what I’ve written at all.

    The attempt to shift from properties to categories seems odd, since I can always make a category out of the things with property P. So I don’t see how this gets you much at all.

    Finally, you say “I point out that Z does not have the property Y.” But of course that’s not what you said at all. You said,

    Most proteins do not self assemble into their biologically relevant tertiary or quaternary structure (emphasis mine)

    Of course saying most don’t have a property isn’t at all the same as saying that one doesn’t have the property. Indeed in the normal usage of “most” you were actually conceding that some do have this property. But my argument only depends upon some having it.

    What you need to argue for is the proposition “there exists no X such that X has the property of self-organization.” But, as the link I provided shows, that’s a ludicrous proposition to assert given the huge amount of scientific literature on self-organization. That’s why I ended saying, “even if you think all scientists are simply deluded on the subject, they take it for granted as a feature of the universe.” You’re of course free to believe anything you want. If you are arguing that self-organization isn’t a major aspect of scientific theory then I think you’re left denying was is easy to demonstrate.

  15. To add, even if you wish to move to a different argument (that self-organization is uncommon) this is irrelevant for my aside in paragraph 2 of the original post. I certainly don’t doubt there are other arguments one can raise. I just brought up Paley’s argument which emphatically isn’t the one your appear to be attempting to make. Again it’s fine to be inspired by Paley and attempt to make a stronger argument than the one Paley made. Exactly how that’s relevant for what I wrote isn’t at all clear to me.

    Now perhaps you wish to argue that Alma is making the argument you’re more comfortable with. This requires first that you flesh out your argument and second show how it lines up with what Alma or Korihor say. I’d simply note that Korihor never brings up probabilities or the like. So it seems doubtful he’s making that argument.

  16. Alma might have replied that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. One does not prove an absence, one only fails to demonstrate a presence, however convoluted the thought processes. Korihor might have responded that presence of something is only evidence of anything if the thought processes and experimental paradigm define it so, as Alma’s do and Korihor’s don’t. We’re never without need for faith and hope and belief and tolerance of ambiguity. But that’s ok with me. Pity it wasn’t with Korihor. Probability theory might have dented him a little, better than being run down in the strreet.

  17. One thing to keep in mind is that Alma and Korihor are living in a culture quite different from ours. Further, we’re really not sure what kind of culture it was. It appears that only a few can read or write. We don’t know the argumentative traditions although it seems fair to say they aren’t familiar with modern logic and probably not even Aristotilean logic. That’s why I think we have to be careful reading modern “proofs” back into the scriptures unless there’s compelling reason.

    My guess as well is that Korihor is tied up with Nehor’s community in some way, although one can’t really tell that from the text. If so, then that has to inform how we read Korihor. I just think treating Korihor like a 20th century secularist is pretty dubious.

  18. Clatk, my problem with your phrasing about self assembly being easy to observe in protein assembly… To the layperson, the most simple reading of this line is that all proteins self assemble. Having had years of experience in this field I know that this is not the case, in fact few proteins self assemble, they are statistical anomalies. You want to build on argument on anomalies, I guess that just makes you an anomalous person. In the end, there are two types of Mormons, those who believe God created mankind, and those that don’t. Which one are you, Clark?

  19. Again, my argument merely rested upon self organization being a thing. Nothing in my argument depended upon probabilities or how common it was. As for your final point, again you are replying to a post that is presenting an argument for God. Clearly you’ve still not read the post.

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