Does complexity mark revelation as such?

Faithful and good readers. Apologies for my absence. Shortly after my last post, I attended the Philosophy of Science meetings in Montreal, and then was called upon to sit on a EPA Scientific Advisory Board. That was earlier this month and required me to read about 1500 pages of documents to prepare. I was also teaching two classes. Excuses, excuses. I will try to do better.

The prophet offers a challenge to those who see the revelations he has received and doubt that they are genuine. He suggests that you try to write one. If you cannot, then you ought to accept that they came from God. If they are just the works of a man, then they should be reproducible by a man or a woman, or at least reproducible by the wisest among us. It is worth quoting the verses in full:

“And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, than produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there be any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. 2.023

But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith. 2.024.” [1]

(And you thought you were going to read D&C 67: 6-8 didn’t you.)

What are the markers of revelation as such? Is irreproducibility a marker? When I was a missionary asked the investigators to consider as they read the Book of Mormon whether “a man could have written this book.” I’ve been thinking about the way we approach scripture and what marks it as a sacred text. Tradition? President Kimball specifically rejected the Song of Songs from the Old Testament so that doesn’t seem to be it. Revelation marking itself by self-reference has always seemed problematic, “Why do you believe the Bible?” we used ask the people of Arkansas where I served my mission. “Because the Bible says it’s true?” Some would answer.

Complexity lately has been used as a marker for revelation. Sometimes Mormon apologetics has suggested complexity as a way of signaling that certain texts cannot have been produced by a given person situated at a certain time given the internal structure: Chiasmus, literary structures, etc. This seems to be a species of the ‘Intelligent Design’ argument (which if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know I think is bad science and bad theology).

The logic seems to be, if we can show that the Book of Mormon could not have been written in the 19th Century, we must accept its source claims. As in intelligent design, this serves to create a ‘God of the Gaps’ problem. If, for example, we find chiasmus in other period writings or we find immensely complex constructions (e.g., see the writings or Opal Whitley, who as a child constructed a complex world which she wrote of paper scraps and when compiled contain a complete and coherent imaginary world of subtle complexity) we are left with the problem of explaining the nature of the complexity, and its use by God as a hint that we should accept something as being from Him. Is complexity sufficient for marking revelation or establishing the credentials of the Book of Mormon?

I ask because, my area, computer simulation is making huge leaps in understanding and unmasking complexity. So if in the near future we may be able to apply an algorithm for estimating complexity. If it gets a certain score do we accept it as revelation based on computer simulation (they recently did this with whale song to show that the information content was insufficient for conveying enough information to be considered a language).

At some point, computer assisted literary analysis using AI ought to be able to give us a cracking good estimate of complexity, situated in time and place of texts, and use of external sources. Will our testimony be based on these analyses?

Let’s pretend that computers actually can do such an analysis. Should we really make the extrapolation that the most complex, or hard to reproduce, or most textually anomalous text for a given time comes from God? This seems to be an assumption in many of the attempts to prove the Book of Mormon using such methods; i.e., that such things mark it as being given by God. To me this agenda seems flawed in principle, because suppose we find that the BM, through complex artificial intelligence computer programs, lies outside of the norm for texts of the period by a long ways? Do we wave that before the world and give a hardy QED slap in the air that faith is now unnecessary because we’ve reduced doubting the Book of Mormon to being just a probabilistically unsound stance? And what if the Koran smokes us in complexity, or Opal Whiney surpasses it in textual complexity? Do we add those to the canon?

The strategy used by Mormon apologetics largely stumbled in situating the text using archeology, and proofs in that arena largely turned out to be harmful for many people’s faith. Will this happen with literary analysis? Will it end like those who pegged all their belief on finding Zarahemla in Guatemala? It sets up a problematic situation if your predictions and analyses sometime in the future have better explanations than the ones you now offer by presuming to show that God makes himself known though his ability to manifest himself in complexity or in low probability events.

I am not arguing that such efforts are a waste of time. Heaven forbid. I’ve been reading Grant Hardy’s book, Understanding the Book of Mormon with hungry fascination. And I think that answering anti-Mormon dismissals using such analyses has an important role to play at any given time. Apologetics allows a space that provides temporary breathing room, while people form a more appropriate relationship with the text. But in the end, I think the approach has to be flagged as providing reasons for continuing taking the texts as interesting and worthy of exploration, but, not as a means to faith. Or even a means of propping up faith. I don’t think God is reveled in the extent of complexity. And this has to be kept in mind lest we forget the purpose for the text, to lead people to a relationship with God.

I’m offering this as a note of caution because I saw the naïve enthusiasms of early archeology backfire to the point where it is hardly mentioned anymore (except among bona fide crazies who move the setting of the Book of Mormon around willy-nilly to match the latest fad in spotting the narrow neck of land). I see those same kinds of enthusiasms in textual literary studies of our scripture today.

Scripture is marked for me in the manifestations of the Spirit. Not in textual complexity or situational inexplicability. Call me skeptical (or call me Ishmael), but I don’t think literary studies are going to turn out to be the unmasking of God. God is not hiding in the details. He is open and ready to form a direct and personal relationship with you. He’s not hiding in the latest statistical improbability.

[1] The Qur’an Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali

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19 Responses to Does complexity mark revelation as such?

  1. Jared* says:

    Interesting questions. A while ago I did a series of posts (see here and links at bottom) that was along somewhat similar lines as your thoughts here. I was grappling with how, given the similarity of arguments, one could accept the Book of Mormon but reject ID. In short, I decided that the context and background knowledge makes the difference.

  2. SteveP says:

    Thanks Jared*. I’m not surprised you’ve hit this. (And let me just say as an aside, I hope people realize what a treasure you are to the blogging world and science. Your blog is stunning in the depth of analyses you do on a variety of science topics. Your take on climate change, evolution, and everything you touch is gold. Please people tune in to Jared* above. It should be on everyone’s feed. If you are not a regular reader you are missing some of the best science reporting and analysis going on, not just in the LDS blogging community, but science blogging anywhere. Seriously.)

  3. Cap says:

    I hope this makes sense in relation to this…

    I think . . . or rather, have slowly come to know that if we look too deeply into the “why’s” or “literal” aspects of scripture we fall harder if something doesn’t fit. (Hence the ID Evolution debate). Looking for complexities in scripture or to find God will only lead to more complex complexities that do not coincide with each other.

    I am learning, or have found, that the most I can get out of scripture is how it directly relates to me and my own life and where that can lead me. I think a great portion of doctrine is based off of God’s understanding of empathy, or his own empathy. Sure there is doctrine in the scriptures, but there is no feeling in the world like that of reading a scripture that touches you to the point of tears. And there is nothing more dangerous than reading the complexities of the scriptures and forgetting the spirit and attempt to learn of God through often times irrelevancies and through . . . well, complexities.

  4. Gustav says:

    I thought it was interesting during this last general conference on e of the general authorities (can’t remember which) said that the “Book of Mormon is not a history book,” I think people get to caught up on historical and archeological truths they forget that the scriptures contain truths about how to live are lives, treat others and come closer to God. Those things matter more.

    I’ll call you “Ish”

  5. Cap says:

    I find it interesting that people have a need to prove the Book of Mormon physically. I think the biggest evidence I’ve ever had was how I felt about it reading and praying.

    Also, I believe it was Elder Nelson who said that the BM is not a history book.

  6. Jack says:

    Finally, science has something to say about the Book of Mormon’s authenticity and we’re afraid the whole thing’ll boil to something analogous to the ID debate. I say, so be it. IDers haven’t put the breaks on science. Neither will scientific inquire into the scriptures cease because some knuckle heads try to tie up the gaps with it.

    The truth will be shouted from the roof-tops in the latter days — and all things will be revealed. Science must play a part eventually in establishing God’s work, as scary as that may seem.

  7. Cap says:

    Jack . . .

    I think science can give many valuable incites into God’s work. (Look here) but I think the issue here is that complexities through the Book of Mormon should not be viewed as faith building, (or faith destroying, for that matter). It isn’t a fear of ID being proven right, (I have no fear that’ll ever be proven), but a call to look beyond trivial things in the BoM, like where the narrow strip of land is, and obtain some real meaning and value.

  8. Senile Old Fart says:

    For the digitally immature, what is a “feed,” and how do I get Jared*’s blog on mine?

  9. Cosmology, not complexity, is the prime literary indicator in revelation, as Nibley pointed out. It is the proper and traditional use of cosmological metaphors – astral imagery derived from things seen in Earth’s ancient skies – that marks true revelation. That’s why prophets like Moses and Abraham were instructed in that discipline or understanding. That’s why John, Ezekiel and Daniel used the same iconography. (Oh, you didn’t see that?) It is the constant in all revelation. When those indicators are used as a deciphering tool, it’s child’s play to recognize real revelation and to properly interpret it. All the prophets, including the Savior, used this cosmic imagery. It’s standard procedure – traditional – for all prophets. In fact, it is the missing key to comprehending both the imagery and metaphor of prophetic visions and that in our temple rituals: THEY ARE ONE AND THE SAME. This is the key that all scholars – LDS or otherwise – have overlooked entirely because our modern paradigm does include those ancient truths. It has been removed from our culture and our tradition by science and religion, just as Nephi said it would be. Joseph Smith sought to reinstate the knowledge that would unlock that imagery for us. It’s the arcane stuff we experience in our temple rituals. But we fail to recognize it as such. Therefore we fail to recognize the connection of temple ritual to the imagery of prophetic visions. What happens inside our temples is the same stuff we see on the outside: planets, suns and stars. It’s the same stuff the Lord showed to Abraham and Moses. We search elsewhere in vain.

  10. Jared* says:

    Oh my heavens, Steve!

    Senile Old Fart,

    After you ratchet down your expectations a little, go to If you are using Google Reader or something like it, plug that website in and you’ll be subscribed.

  11. Mrs.Andy says:

    I took a BYU Book of Mormon class from John Welch who is on the FARMS committee – we used his book as a companion book to the Book of Mormon for the semester. His book was called “Re-exploring the Book of Mormon.” In it, he discusses chiasm, bows and arrows, Jewish traditions with 3 sons asking questions (parallels to Helaman, Shiblon & Corianton) and many other topics. I’m sure it is because it is the way he taught that I came away from the class with the idea that only the Spirit can testify of the truthfulness of the scriptures, but once you are converted and have a testimony of the Book, all the other proof and evidence that can be found by study and research will strengthen your conviction. However, all the evidence and proof in the world cannot convince someone to believe that the book is authentic or true. How many examples can we name of people who witness miracles and still are not converted or quickly fall away. The cold hard facts that feed the intellect cannot nourish a hungry spirit that is craving a witness from the Holy Ghost. How difficult it is to balance, but we need to listen with our mind AND with our hearts to know when something is true.

  12. SteveP says:

    Cap I think you hit the nail on the head with Jack’s misunderstanding the role of science in understanding the material world.

    Anthony, Sorry but the idea that there is secret esoteric knowledge in the heavens harkens back to astrology, not our faith. I tend to think Moses got a view similar to the Hubble Telescope. Not esoteric knowledge developed largely the Middle ages.

    Mrs. Andy! I think Jack Welch’s work is of great value to our Church. I think of it as interesting, but not necessary to faith as you describe.

  13. Matt Thorley says:


    I wonder if you are conflating complexity with information? While they are often related, they are not the same thing. There are naturally occurring structures, like crystals, that can become very complex, but do not naturally convey information. Information may indeed be complex, but complexity is not information. So while I agree that I would not accept complexity as a marker for revelation, information may be another story. I suspect information may well be a marker for revelation.

    I agree with you that God is not hiding in the details. In fact, I believe that some day when we see more clearly than we do now, we will see the hand of God in almost every good thing. Until that day, we are required to live by faith and reason, and the direct and personal relationship with God you describe must be some form of communication. There must be some physics associated with that communication, although that is another discussion entirely, but my point is that if the spirit of God can “whisper” truth to your soul, that is information being communicated to you by some physical means. And as far as we know, information never occurs naturally. It always comes from a mind. The fact that we may receive information (enlightenment) from God is faith promoting for me.

    I know you are not a fan of ID, but I have never heard a natural explanation for the information contained in DNA. The fact that I haven’t heard a natural explanation for the information contained in DNA doesn’t preclude it from existing, but I’m still waiting. I know you dismiss that argument as “God in the gaps”, but I think it is a valid argument and I am still waiting. In the mean time, I like Alma’s comment to Korihor that “all things denote there is a God”.

  14. Rich says:

    Duane Jeffrey approached this idea of complexity from a different angle some years ago in an article for the local paper that I found extremely helpful:

    “Three variations on a diabolical theme

    The Daily Herald, July 2005

    This column is not really aimed at the “Intelligent Design” discussion that has drawn attention in the state the past few weeks, but it certainly applies.

    Intelligent Design (I.D.) proponents love to pick out the nice complexities of existence and argue that they reflect a designer of some sort. But one also has to deal with the world’s uglies. If we’re going to look at complexities, believe me, the uglies are every bit as complex as the pretties. Let’s take three of them today.

    I choose these because the July 15 Science magazine features an update of research efforts being pursued by a remarkable consortium of organizations dedicated to reducing human suffering rather than just getting rich.

    That remark, admittedly snide, is justified because most of our private research organizations (which do wonderful work, be it recognized) work only with those human diseases which will bring in cash by way of marketable products. But if the afflicted people don’t have the money to pay for those products? “Let somebody else do the research.” So it is that major diseases of the Developing World (or those that afflict only a very few people in our own midst, so-called “orphan diseases”) get very little research funding. But in the 1990s an international consortium, including both governmental and private agencies in the U.S. and Europe (primarily the U.K., Spain, France, and Sweden), turned attention to three major tropical diseases caused by trypanosomes.

    These are single-celled parasites belonging to the biological kingdom Protista (or Protoctista). They are not bacteria since they possess cell nuclei and other complex internal structures. The three diseases, in order, are:

    Leishmaniasis, native to 88 countries on four continents (Asia, Africa, South America and central North America. Caused by 20 or more species of protozoans of the genus Leishmania, these are transmitted by sand flies. Some forms are self-healing and “merely” leave disfiguring scars. Other forms cause anemia and fevers and then kill. Slowly.

    Chagas disease, native to 18 countries in Central America and South America. Chagas is caused by infection with Trypanosoma cruzi; infections may be relatively mild though they are especially lethal in children.

    The disease may seem to go into apparent remission for years, but the parasite is really just invading all the major organs of the body and may then produce decades of debilitation, or cause death due to damage to the heart, esophagus or intestines. It is transmitted by bites and fecal deposits into breaks in the skin by a group of insects called assassin bugs.

    Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, endemic in 36 African countries lying within 15 degrees of the equator. Caused by various species of protozoans of the genus Trypanosoma, this disease is conveyed by tsetse flies. It causes severe debilitation for decades and eventual death due to central nervous system failure. But it constantly shifts its protein coats so as to present literally thousands of different targets for the body’s immune system to combat. Complex? Diabolically so.

    Nice little creatures, these, which collectively produce a “disease burden” on developing countries of scores of millions of patients, most of them weak, debilitated and unable to do productive work. But they consume resources from the able-bodied. Vaccines are either non-existent or minimally effective; drugs for treatments are also of poor quality and are often toxic to the patients as well as to the parasites. Both vaccines and treatments, such as they are with the poorly developed health systems, are very expensive and well beyond the means of most victims.

    But the above-mentioned consortium has now sequenced the genetic systems of these parasites. We’ll summarize their results next time.

    Duane Jeffery is a professor of zoology at Brigham
    Young University.

    -end of article-

    If an intelligent designer-God would indeed deliberately target innocent children, the weak, aged and the infirm with such nasty things, that would make him, in my mind, a sadistic creep (certainly not a god I would choose to worship). I’m far more comfortable with the idea that those things evolved on their own through the processes of random mutation and natural selection.

    I believe Agency is not just for us humans. I believe that everything God created possesses it. I see God allowing our (all creatures) participation in a dynamic Creation process a much more compelling idea, than a micro-managing-tinkerer-puppeteer-god who is continually pulling the strings and making us (and the rest of creation) dance to some pre-scripted, static stage drama. Surely He has better things to do!

  15. Anthony says:

    I personally have mixed opinions about your post. I understand the argument for not basing our faith on materialistic reasoning. At the same time, however, I feel like in some instances it’s necessary. My father has recently left the faith, and it seems to me that much of the reasoning behind his leaving is historical and scientific. He’s mentioned to me quite often the lack of DNA evidence for the BoM, as well as various facts from church history as well as early christian history. Unfortunately I feel like much of the answers my family and others have tried to give him is essentially spiritual in nature, saying he needs to focus on gaining a spiritual testimony, and not worry so much about all these temporal issues. This has led him to think that all religion is essentially, in his words, “faith and mysteries”, where religionists are practicing blind faith based on spiritual experiences which, though these experiences may be strong, may have come from who knows what source, that one who believes in God believes in him all material knowledge to the contrary.

    I am not giving up on him, and I feel like in order for him to come back to the faith, we have to meet him, at least to some extent, on his terms. I feel like I have to get it across to him that believing in God isn’t completely faith and mysteries, that I can have faith and still feel like I’m not completely deluding myself. And I feel that things like the complexity of the BoM are perfectly valid arguments in that case. Sure it’s not something that I’m going to hang my whole hat on, but it’s not something I have to throw away either.

    When opponents of the church attack us on scientific or historical grounds, does our response necessarily have to be non-scientific and non-historical? It seems to me somewhat of a lame-duck answer if they do.

  16. Anthony says:

    As an addendum to my last post:
    I just don’t see how or why we should completely try to separate the spiritual from the material realm. Yes, our testimonies should be primarily spiritual. But that doesn’t mean that material knowledge should not come into play at all. For example, let’s say we rewind the time clock and replay history a little different. Let’s say that Joseph Smith, after completing the BoM, takes Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris into the woods, and they come out with Joseph claiming that they all had seen a vision, while Oliver, David and Martin all say “No, we didn’t really see anything.” Same with all the eight witnesses. And let’s say that somehow Joseph still manages to raise the money, without Martin’s help, to publish the BoM. But as soon as he publishes it, his entire family and Emma all say, no, it’s a lie, and we can attest to several points at which Joseph fabricated it.

    Now fast forward to today. I read the Book of Mormon, I read Moroni 10 and pray about it and have a strong spiritual impression that the book is true. Now, even if I have a strong spiritual impression that the book is true, I am going to have serious issues with the authenticity of the book of mormon, and rightfully so. All historical evidence shows that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Should I completely ignore that and join mormonism because of my spiritual experience. Honestly I don’t think I would. By joining mormonism I would be denying all of my material reasoning in favor of my spiritual experiences. That just doesn’t sit well with me. The truth is the truth whether it’s material or spiritual. If there is a spiritual truth, then it should not be completely at odds with all material truth.

    I personally don’t see much difference in the scientific arena. By having some dependence on the fact that there were so many witnesses of the Book of Mormon and that they were all true to their testimonies to the end, I leave myself vulnerable to the possibility that someday there may come forth some authentic document that says that all of those witnesses were lying. If that document eventually comes forth, then it seems to me that anyone dedicated to the truth would necessarily have to reevaluate their hypotheses. Nevertheless, the stories of the witnesses is a strong indicator to me that the Book of Mormon was indeed inspired of God, and that my spiritual experiences are not just spiritual delusions. Why should I throw that away? To me it is the same with scientific matters. Yes, scientific knowledge is subject to change, so by depending on it, I am making myself vulnerable. But at the same time if I depend completely on things that are invisible, how can I know that I’m not deluding myself?

  17. Anthony says:

    As I re-read the last few paragraphs of your post, I realize you’re actually quite in line with my reasoning, so I guess take my previous comments as simple embellishment of your last few paragraphs. 🙂

  18. SteveP says:

    Anthony, thanks for sharing this. I’m sorry to hear about your Dad. On this blog I’ve tried to establish that there is no reason that science and our faith need be enemies. The problem is that many takes on science by well-meaning members of the LDS faith are decidedly anti-science and hold inappropriate suspicions about the role of science. Then when people like your dad are confronted with the power of science its easy to take these pseudo-science stances as the best we have to offer and so easily dismissible. Very good scientists are faithful members of the church and are contributing to making Mormonism a science friendly place. Many fundamentalist attitudes remain dominant and create an embarrassing situation for Mormon scientists confronted with these scientific disasters purporting to represent Mormon thinking about science. They tend to hold up things like Intelligent Design and other forms of anti-science as the Mormon view. It’s a piety. Conversely, I’ve never seen a scientific attack on Mormonism. Some do shoddy pseudo science work like the DNA attacks giving a scientific gloss to what are non-scientific attacks. (You may want to look at my take why the DNA attack is a non-issue). Tell you Dad that there is good science going on among Mormons. There is no reason to lose your faith over something like DNA or Evolution despite attempts by some to claim the two are incompatible (often citing outdated opinions of general authorities as evidence and trying to claim the church has a stance on things like evolution when the church constantly points out that they do not).

  19. Anthony says:

    I agree. I think I misinterpreted your post as an attack on apologetics in general, instead of a more specific warning regarding taking the BoM’s complexity argument too seriously. However, I do still see value in the complexity argument, as long as its conclusions do not overreach. As you said, it should provide “reasons for continuing taking the texts as interesting and worthy of exploration, but, not as a means to faith.” It’s a foot in the door but nothing more.

    Regarding your thoughts on AI algorithms that could evaluate complexity in literature, I take a bit of a skeptic’s view on that. I’m a CS grad and work myself in simulation (although discrete event, so a little different area), and I often come across the simple difficulty of “sellability” when it comes to complex simulations. At some point if your simulation becomes so complex that the simulation’s rules are difficult to understand in layman’s terms, it becomes very difficult to convince people of its validity. This is especially true for an area that is as widely accessible and “graspable” as literature. If I walk up to some Joe and say I have a program that uses neural nets and genetic learning algorithms to evaluate such literary elements as irony, plot development, conflict, etc. Joe will probably tell me that he doesn’t need my complex algorithm, that he can read the book himself and tell me if it’s complex. While computer simulations can be invaluable in tackling concepts that are very difficult for us to grasp, such as climate change, our brains are high speed processors of language, human interaction, tension and pleasure, and that’s what literature is all about. Computers still have a long way to go to match our brains in that realm, and even when they do, the very requirement of such high complexity will become a hard sell for people who can just read the book. The argument that a small town farm boy must have been inspired to bring forth a complex book like the book of mormon, that argument will always resonate with people, specifically because they don’t need some complex artificially intelligent program to tell them that the book of mormon is true. They can read it themselves. To me the two main points that must be true in order for the complexity argument to still work are:

    1. Joseph Smith was a small-town farm boy
    2. The book of mormon is complex

    To me, whether or not the Koran or Opal Whitley also wrote complex literature, or whether chiasmus was known in Joseph’s time, is pretty much irrelevant. If chiasmus was known in Smith’s time, then it essentially becomes another Ethan Smith type scenario. Yes, there was literature already out there that the book of mormon could have borrowed from, but one is still quite constrained in finding any real evidence that Joseph actually had access to that literature and studied it. Obviously there’s no proof one way or the other here. It is simply a good argument for saying, hey, this is worth looking into some more.

    Anyway, you should probably put a word limit on posts, because I’ve definitely gone over it. :->

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