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Which LDS Truth Claims are Falsifiable?


smac97

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A few weeks back we were discussing Martha Nibley Beck's book, Leaving the Saints. I said:

We've talked about Martha Beck on this board. A lot.

Here's a roundup.

Many of the few falsifiable claims she made in her book have, in fact, been falsified.

So if she cannot be trusted about claims that are falsifiable, why on earth would we trust her about claims that are not?

Cinepro promptly accused me of "baiting" critics with this comment. I did not understand his comment in the first instance, but then I saw that on another board (one decidedly unfriendly to Mormonism) he made some comments which clarified things.

In Cinepro's view (and those who agree with him), some (all?) fundamental claims of the LDS Church are falsifiable (I also suspect that Cinepro believes that some of these falsifiable claims have, in fact, been falsified).

So, putting Cinepro aside, I would like to initiate a discussion based on three questions to our critics:

1. In your view, which LDS truth claims are falsifiable?

2. In your view, which LDS truth claims have, in fact, been falsified?

3. What methodology did you employ in formulating your responses to the above two questions?

Thanks,

-Smac

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I think a big point of contention revolves around what is a "truth claim." Critics argue that lots of things that church leaders have said have proven to be wrong (revelation to sell the BOM copyright in Canada). Apologists argue that those are unimportant or simply instances that demonstrate the fallibility of church leaders but none of these affect the church's "truth claims."

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I think a big point of contention revolves around what is a "truth claim."

Well, I would define it as a claim by the LDS Church that is important or central to its claims of being God's kingdom on the earth.

But perhaps this term needs some attention.

Critics argue that lots of things that church leaders have said have proven to be wrong (revelation to sell the BOM copyright in Canada).

Let's itemize these "lots of things."

For example, the Canada Copyright issue. Was that revelation "falsifiable?" Was it, in fact, falsified? What sort of methodology is used to reach affirmative answers to these questions?

-Smac

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1. In your view, which LDS truth claims are falsifiable?

The existence of Nephites and Lamanites is potentially falsifiable. However, I don't think it has been falsified as of yet.

We can now translate Egyptian. Thus, we can look at the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham and see if Joseph Smith translated correctly.

2. In your view, which LDS truth claims have, in fact, been falsified?

To my understanding (i am no expert in BOA apologetics) the facsimiles, as translated by Egyptologists != Joseph Smith's translation. Thus, we can show, at least in this one instance that Joseph Smith did not translate correctly.

3. What methodology did you employ in formulating your responses to the above two questions?

The idea of Occam's razor intuitively make sense to me. I also tend to defer to experts and their consensus in areas where I am a non-expert. I at least give their views significant consideration. Given this, IMO, the most simple explanation for Joseph Smith's translation of the facsimiles is that he did not have the ability to translate the Egyptian on the facsimiles.

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How about the claim that a resurrected angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith in the attic/bedroom of the tiny Smith cabin in 1823? If it could be shown that the ceiling was too low for an angel of Moroniâ??s stature to float above the floor in that tiny room filled with sleeping Smiths without hitting his head, then that would disprove the claim that he really did so.

Or how about the claim that God is from the planet Kolob? At least a few Mormons have realized that if God really lives on Kolob then he must be able to travel faster than the speed of light, because otherwise God wouldnâ??t be able to travel from there to here in reasonable amounts of time. Thus, if it could be demonstrated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, it would disprove the assertion that God resides on Kolob.

Or how about the claim that the sick can be healed with priesthood blessings? The Pharmacology industry has a battery of sophisticated double-blind tests to determine the efficacy of treatments for various conditions. These same types of tests could be used to determine whether or not priesthood blessings are more effective than a placebo (e.g. olive oil that wasnâ??t consecrated).

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The existence of Nephites and Lamanites is potentially falsifiable. However, I don't think it has been falsified as of yet.

I agree as to the latter proposition. As to the former, can you elaborate? How would you go about falsifying the existence of Nephites and Lamanites?

We can now translate Egyptian. Thus, we can look at the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham and see if Joseph Smith translated correctly.

To my understanding (i am no expert in BOA apologetics) the facsimiles, as translated by Egyptologists != Joseph Smith's translation.

"!=" means what, exactly?

Thus, we can show, at least in this one instance that Joseph Smith did not translate correctly.

So Joseph Smith's translation of The Book of Abraham is, in your view, falsifiable. Is that correct?

The idea of Occam's razor intuitively make sense to me. I also tend to defer to experts and their consensus in areas where I am a non-expert. I at least give their views significant consideration. Given this, IMO, the most simple explanation for Joseph Smith's translation of the facsimiles is that he did not have the ability to translate the Egyptian on the facsimiles.

So a rule of thumb ("The simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation") and deference to "experts" in a particular field is your preferred methodology?

Thanks,

-Smac

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Let's itemize these "lots of things."

For example, the Canada Copyright issue. Was that revelation "falsifiable?" Was it, in fact, falsified? What sort of methodology is used to reach affirmative answers to these questions?

David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 30-31:

"Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copyright, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father's house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada."

"Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copyright, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil." So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copyright was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man."

Edit: Here is Fair's response (i.e., the revelation was conditional and David Whitmer's account is not reliable).

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How about the claim that a resurrected angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith in the attic/bedroom of the tiny Smith cabin in 1823? If it could be shown that the ceiling was too low for an angel of Moroniâ??s stature to float above the floor in that tiny room filled with sleeping Smiths without hitting his head, then that would disprove the claim that he really did so.

Okay. So explain your methodology.

Or how about the claim that God is from the planet Kolob? At least a few Mormons have realized that if God really lives on Kolob then he must be able to travel faster than the speed of light, because otherwise God wouldnâ??t be able to travel from there to here in reasonable amounts of time. Thus, if it could be demonstrated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, it would disprove the assertion that God resides on Kolob.

Okay. Can you demonstrate this? What is your methodology?

Or how about the claim that the sick can be healed with priesthood blessings? The Pharmacology industry has a battery of sophisticated double-blind tests to determine the efficacy of treatments for various conditions. These same types of tests could be used to determine whether or not priesthood blessings are more effective than a placebo (e.g. olive oil that wasnâ??t consecrated).

Okay. What would your methodology be on this one?

I look forward to you scientifically accounting for such variables as the faith of those involved and the will of God as pertaining to the sick person.

You don't seem to be taking this exercise very seriously.

Cinepro and his compatriots had a whole thread sneering at how oblivious I am as to the "falsifiable" and "falsified" claims of Mormonism. And the best you can come up with is suggesting that Moroni's appearance to Joseph Smith is falsifiable?

-Smac

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Life after death is falsifiable. If, after I die, I do not in fact continue to exist then I will have falsified the claim. I won't be in any position to benefit from that knowledge, however.

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I agree as to the latter proposition. As to the former, can you elaborate? How would you go about falsifying the existence of Nephites and Lamanites?

This would, at present, be very difficult. I believe it would require a full DNA "profile" of all North American natives to demonstrate the non-existence of Israelite ancestry.

I don't think this will happen anytime soon. Thus, my use of the word potentially.

"!=" means what, exactly?

Computer geek terminology. "Does not equal"

So Joseph Smith's translation of The Book of Abraham is, in your view, falsifiable. Is that correct?

No. That is not correct. I was very precise in my language. My comments refer only to the canonized facsimiles.

There are too many outstanding questions about the KEP to draw conclusions about the BOA as a whole.

So a rule of thumb ("The simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation") and deference to "experts" in a particular field is your preferred methodology?

I would say generally speaking yes when it comes to the analysis of things academic. There are of course, exceptions.

For example, I am a theist. My belief in God is not supported by experts or evidence but rather, my life's spiritual experience.

My contention is that the facsimiles can be shown to be erroneous translations of Egyptian. There may indeed be "truth" or good principles in Joseph Smith's translation. That is for each reader to decide.

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David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 30-31:

"Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copyright, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father's house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada."

"Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copyright, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil." So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copyright was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man."

Yes, I'm familiar with this. So what is your methodology here? Are you suggesting that Whitmer's statement amount to a falsification of the revelation in question?

How do you account for the following?

1. Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian and Recorder, has characterized the revelation as having been conditioned on "the successful sale of the copyright on the worthiness of those seeking to make the sale as well as on the spiritual receptivity of the potential purchasers." How does your methodology address this point?

2. Hiram Page, who was one of the individuals sent to Canada, laid out the event in a letter in 1848. Page wrote that the revelation Joseph Smith received conditioned success upon whether those individuals in Canada capable of buying the Book of Mormon copyright would have their hearts softened. When unable to sell the copyright, the four men returned to Palmyra. Hiram Page stated he for the first time understood how some revelations given to people were not necessarily for their direct benefitâ??in fact, Hiram Page believed that the revelation was actually fulfilled. Was he wrong? How does your methodology go about objectively rebutting Page's opinion?

3. The FAIR Wiki article makes a good point: "One must remember that not only was Whitmer looking for evidence to support his theory that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet, but he also wrote with no fear of contradiction, as all the witnesses to the event were dead." So how does your methodology address the flaws in Whitmer's credibility on this point?

4. Whitmer's account was made 57 years after the events in question. How does your methodology determine that his recollection is accurate (particularly where it differs from those of the actual participants - see here)?

I look forward to an exposition on your methodology.

Life after death is falsifiable. If, after I die, I do not in fact continue to exist then I will have falsified the claim. I won't be in any position to benefit from that knowledge, however.

I thought it would be obvious that falsifiability must be apparent to us.

-Smac

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Okay. So explain your methodology.

Reconstruct the scene and see if it is plausible given the physical dimensions of the room.

Okay. Can you demonstrate this? What is your methodology?

What's my methodology for proving that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? Are you serious?

Okay. What would your methodology be on this one?

I look forward to you scientifically accounting for such variables as the faith of those involved and the will of God as pertaining to the sick person.

I would use the same methodologies used in clinical trials. Perform a double-blind test using consecrated oil vs. a placebo. In principle, it could be demonstrated whether or not a priesthood blessing administered with consecrated oil is more effective than a placebo. Statistically, each group should have the same amount of faith. Regarding "the will of God", I don't know how to measure that. But if priesthood blessings were shown to be no more effective treatment for a disease than a placebo, could we infer anything about the will of God and/or the effacacy of the priesthood blessing from that?

You don't seem to be taking this exercise very seriously.

Cinepro and his compatriots had a whole thread sneering at how oblivious I am as to the "falsifiable" and "falsified" claims of Mormonism. And the best you can come up with is suggesting that Moroni's appearance to Joseph Smith is falsifiable?

If one were to hold Mormonism to the same standards that you hold anything else, a lot of it is easily falsified. That's why I don't take this very seriously. It takes a lot of special pleading (e.g. "the will of God") to get around this. That's what I think, at least.

What's your position? Are any of the claims of Mormonism falsifiable, at least in principle?

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1. In your view, which LDS truth claims are falsifiable?

All of them

2. In your view, which LDS truth claims have, in fact, been falsified?

None.

3. What methodology did you employ in formulating your responses to the above two questions?

Pragmatism of William James, John Dewey and Wittgenstein. Faith based claims are only verifiable or falsifiable by the difference they make in our lives.

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What's my methodology for proving that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? Are you serious?
I'm curious. What would be your methodology for proving that absolutely nothing can travel faster than the speed of light?

Wouldn't you have to know far more about what is and isn't possible given technology and methods that we know nothing about at the present time?

It sounds rather like an ancient Greek proving that man can't fly. Well, no he can't physically flap his arms and expect to get off the ground under normal circumstances, but we've found ways around that limitation.

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The notion of falsifying a paradigm of great generality itself, has been severely criticized. Read, for instance, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or Myths, Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study of Science and Religion, or Godel, Esher, and Bach.

One problem is that Mormonism is not set of static doctrines and immutable, "Official" teachings and unchanging practices. Rather it is a network of interconnected assertions, notions, and interpretations, and practices which is itself, subject to growth and re-evaluation. Ongoing revelation and the openly declared fallibility of the leadership is built in. Critics prefer knocking over houses of cards, and then congratulating themselves for their penetrating skepticism. But in my view, they have not really penetrated those basic LDS premises.

We can, on the other hand, assess, and periodically reassess various claims, in light of new insights and information. Brodie, for instance, thought that she'd falsified the first vision by claiming that no one had heard of it before 1838. That particular claim has not done well in light of new knowledge., including earlier accounts being discovered in the archives. That doesn't prove the first vision. Just that many claims to have falsified this or that may be under-minded either by new information, or by reexamining the assumptions that frame other queries.

Assessing is a far better word to use than falsifying. I think it encourages a broader inquiry, and a more realistic consideration of the limits we have in approaching the questions.

Kevin Christensen

Pittsburgh, PA

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All of them

None.

Pragmatism of William James, John Dewey and Wittgenstein. Faith based claims are only verifiable or falsifiable by the difference they make in our lives.

Ahhh... I love pragmatism! And, I completely agree with you.

However, we are working with two definitions of falsifiable. In the heart of a believer, you are correct, nothing is falsifiable inasmuch as the belief has a positive operative impact in the believer's life.

But what do we do when faith makes specific factual claims about history, geology, etc... We are dealing with two different paradigms. If I believe that the Rocky Mountains are made of marshmallows and this belief leads me to greater happiness, then this belief is indeed true. The paradox of course, is that the Rocky Mountains are in fact NOT made of marshmallow.

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This would, at present, be very difficult. I believe it would require a full DNA "profile" of all North American natives to demonstrate the non-existence of Israelite ancestry.

Okay. But I don't think we will ever have such a profile. Do you?

Also, according to this fellow (Steve Peck, a professor of biology at BYU), even a complete profile of all North American natives would not solve the problem:

I find the Lamanite-DNA question, like, sooo boring.

Consider this : You are only related to your children by half. They only share a half of your DNA. Your grandchildren, half of that again or about a fourth. You loose your genetic contribution to the future at a rate of about 2^N where N is the Nth generation down your line of descendents. So after about 25 generations, or around 625 years, your contribution is only about 1/33,000,000. Because our DNA has about 3,000,000,000 base pairs, and only 0.1% of that varies among humans (the rest are the exact same sequences (which is why we all sort of look alike)). This implies that you will have descendents with no detectable signature of your varying DNA. In population genetic science, this is related to what they call â??coalescent theoryâ?? in which genes from previous generations become identical by descent. Meaning that if you go very far back into the past at all, the people (or organism of any kind) with that particular gene, got it from the same ancestor. But much of that DNA gets lost rather than passed on. Lots and lots of your real ancestors donâ??t make much of a contribution genetically to you at all. Entire villages of your ancestors have disappeared from contributing to your varying DNA.

In Mitochondrial DNA itâ??s worse. You are looking at a single line of your many branching tree of ancestors. Go look at your genealogy chart hanging there on the wall of your frontroom, trace back your motherâ??s motherâ??s motherâ??s . . . etc. How many of those branches in the big branching tree of your ancestors are missing from that line? Hello, all but one.

Bottom line: a very small population of your actual ancestors give you the DNA youâ??ve ended up with, and its signature. So there could be loads of people descended from Lamanites without a lick of their DNA.

Read the whole thing.

So I come back to the question of falsifiability. Is the existence of Nephites/Lamanites falsifiable?

No. That is not correct. I was very precise in my language. My comments refer only to the canonized facsimiles.

Oops. I apologize. I meant to correct that. You were indeed referring to the Facsimiles.

So are there any variables here? And does your methodology account for them?

For example, this FAIR Wiki article discusses Joseph's translations of the facsimiles. It notes that "Some of Joseph's interpretations are similar to those of trained Egyptologists, but most are not." How does your methodology account for the instances where Joseph's interpretation jibes with those of modern-day experts?

The FAIR Wiki article also describes two theories (the first posited by Kevin Barney, the second by Richard D. Draper, S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes). Does your methodology take these into account?

There are too many outstanding questions about the KEP to make conclusions about the BOA as a whole.

But you have enough data in hand to feel comfortable in saying that Joseph's translations of the facsimiles have been falsified. Is that correct?

My contention is that the facsimiles can be shown to be erroneous translations of Egyptian.

Okay. So how does this work out to be a falsification of a "truth claim" of the LDS Church?

-Smac

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Yes, I'm familiar with this. So what is your methodology here? Are you suggesting that Whitmer's statement amount to a falsification of the revelation in question

I think Whitmer's statement, if accurate, does amount to a falsification of the revelation in question. If the actual revelation is published and it is conditional, then this all goes back into the unfalsifiable realm.

I look forward to an exposition on your methodology.

My "methodology" is to determine what the truth claim consists of (likely a major point of contention), whether it was made by the church (another major point of contention) and then analyze the existing evidence to determine whether it is false (another major point of contention).

I suspect that SethPayne's example of the BoA facsimiles is better than the one I gave.

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[...]

What's my methodology for proving that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? Are you serious?

[...]

It's my understanding that Cerenkov radiation is caused by particles traveling faster than the speed of light.

Am I wrong?

Granted that the infinite amount of energy required to accelerate to the speed of light tends to falsify that a physical G-d can travel from one point in space to another in speeds greater than light -- but maybe glorified beings are made of tachyons. :P

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I'm curious. What would be your methodology for proving that absolutely nothing can travel faster than the speed of light?

Wouldn't you have to know far more about what is and isn't possible given technology and methods that we know nothing about at the present time?

It sounds rather like an ancient Greek proving that man can't fly. Well, no he can't physically flap his arms and expect to get off the ground under normal circumstances, but we've found ways around that limitation.

My claim isn't a function of methods or technologies; it is about the fundamental nature of space and time. I'm aware that there are innumerable speculations about how to somehow get around the implications of Special Relativity, nevertheless, those things are in the realm of conjecture. Very few things have been proven true with the certainty of Special Relativity.

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It's my understanding that Cerenkov radiation is caused by particles traveling faster than the speed of light.

Am I wrong?

Granted that the infinite amount of energy required to accelerate to the speed of light tends to falsify that a physical G-d can travel from one point in space to another in speeds greater than light -- but maybe glorified beings are made of tachyons. :P

My understanding is that the speed of light in a vacuum is the universal constant which can't be breached. Light travels slower through other mediums. So, for example, if the speed of light through water were 75% of the speed of light through a vacuum, youâ??d get Cerenkov radiation if you pushed a particle through water at more than 75% the speed of light in a vacuum.

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My claim isn't a function of methods or technologies; it is about the fundamental nature of space and time. I'm aware that there are innumerable speculations about how to somehow get around the implications of Special Relativity, nevertheless, those things are in the realm of conjecture. Very few things have been proven true with the certainty of Special Relativity.

But your claim was "Thus, if it could be demonstrated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, it would disprove the assertion that God resides on Kolob."

Leaving aside the fact that LDS theology doesn't claim that God resides on Kolob but near it, your claim was in effect that God does not have a way around Special Relativity.

How can you prove that God doesn't have a way around Special Relativity?

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My understanding is that the speed of light in a vacuum is the universal constant which can't be breached. Light travels slower through other mediums. So, for example, if the speed of light through water were 75% of the speed of light through a vacuum, youâ??d get Cerenkov radiation if you pushed a particle through water at more than 75% the speed of light in a vacuum.

You're probably right. Iâ??m far from educated, and only have the faint memory of a handful of articles a friend gave me about a year ago on â??faster-than-lightâ? junk.

I donâ??t think youâ??re right in regards to this statement though (at least the last part):

â??â?¦the speed of light in a vacuum is the universal constant which can't be breached.â?

I thought a University team did a experiment/study a few years back where they showed that light travels faster through atomized Cesium gas than it does through a vacuum(?) Or am I just bungling stuff again?

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Reconstruct the scene and see if it is plausible given the physical dimensions of the room.

So in your view, non-plausibility = falsification?

What's my methodology for proving that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? Are you serious?

Quite.

Also, how do you account for things like wormholes?

Also, how do you propose to prove that God is incapable of doing things beyond the present comprehension of man?

I would use the same methodologies used in clinical trials. Perform a double-blind test using consecrated oil vs. a placebo. In principle, it could be demonstrated whether or not a priesthood blessing administered with consecrated oil is more effective than a placebo.

"In principle?" How would such results be useful without taking into account the variables I described (faith and God's will)?

Statistically, each group should have the same amount of faith.

"Statistically?" How do you propose to measure such a thing?

Regarding "the will of God", I don't know how to measure that.

Is the will of God an important component of such blessings? According to LDS doctrines, obviously so.

So if you can't account for this variable, what value would your study really have?

But if priesthood blessings were shown to be no more effective treatment for a disease than a placebo, could we infer anything about the will of God and/or the effacacy of the priesthood blessing from that?

So falsification by inference. Is that where we end up?

If one were to hold Mormonism to the same standards that you hold anything else, a lot of it is easily falsified.

Really? Can you elaborate on this?

That's why I don't take this very seriously. It takes a lot of special pleading (e.g. "the will of God") to get around this. That's what I think, at least.

I agree. I think the truth claims of the LDS Church are not particularly susceptible to falsification.

I also don't think any truth claims have been falsified.

What's your position? Are any of the claims of Mormonism falsifiable, at least in principle?

"In principle?" I suppose so. But the methodology would have to be clear and relevant.

-Smac

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