By Richard Packham
This is the text of a speech given at the seventh annual Exmormon conference, April 2002, in Arlington, Virginia
How many of you came to the convention on a commercial air line? It was pretty intimidating, wasn't it? I knew it would be. I called the air line a week ago and asked what I should not bring along. The lady I talked to said, "Well, please don't put any bombs in your shoes." I told her I knew that already. She said, "Don't carry anything sharp, like a pocket knife or a nail file." I said, "How about an emery board?" She said that was OK. She also told me that a ball-point pen was all right, except I have a ball-point pen that could easily be a lethal weapon. So I carried onto the plane for self defense.

Airport check-in was intimidating! The man was going through my luggage. I just knew he would find something and ask me, "What is that?" And I would blurt out, "The First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood!" And he would say, "Has it a name?" "It has!" "Will you give it to me?" "I will, through the X-ray machine!" And I KNEW I would not remember the name!

I understand that the conventional wisdom in Hollywood, which I do not ordinarily recognize as reliable, is that sequels never do quite as well as the original. So I had a few doubts about the theme of this conference "The Odyssey Continues," sounding so much like the theme of the exmormon conference a year ago February, in Las Vegas. My concerns were increased when I was invited to give the keynote address at this conference, since I had given the keynote address at that conference as well. So far in this conference my concerns about sequels have been dispelled. Whether my remarks will dispel or confirm the traditional wisdom remains to be seen. In my talk in Las Vegas I included some remarks about sex, and sex seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, so in planning my remarks for today I tried to think of some way to include sex. I won't reveal yet whether I have done so or not - this will perhaps be an incentive for you to stay awake and pay attention.

At that previous conference I tried to suggest an answer to the question asked often by Exmormons who are on their odyssey out of the church: "Where am I going?" "Where am I headed?" "What is my destination?" And the answer I suggested then - and which I still suggest - is: We are trying to find our true selves, which we had been led by Mormonism to abandon and forget.

One of the most frequently asked questions by those who have recently left Mormonism is: "If Mormonism is false, then what is true? What should I believe now?" In fact, I got another e-mail just a couple of weeks ago, saying exactly that. Sometimes the question is phrased as Pilate phrased it, in the Gospel of John: "What is truth?" (John 18:38) That will be the text of my sermon this evening, along with another passage from that gospel: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32)

That question is only natural, especially if you have spent many years in Mormonism. Mormonism taught you that Mormonism was "the Truth", that Mormonism encompassed "all truth," and that in order to be saved, you must have the truth (meaning the truth of Mormonism). But as a Mormon, your desire for knowledge, for truth, was satisfied by simply asking, "What does the church teach about that?" And your question could be answered by carefully poring over the standard works, current issues of Ensign magazine (but not the realy old ones - you might read the words of a dead prophet, and they don't count), and - as a last resort - fasting and prayer.

Of course your salvation definitely did NOT depend on your having the truth about any details. They were not necessary. The only truth you needed was this: you will earn your salvation by believing and obeying.

As Mormons we became so accustomed to the idea of "the one true church" that when we begin to think that the organization headed by Gordon B. Hinckley is not it, we naturally wonder which church is.

For many years a story has been circulating among the Mormons, and often used by missionaries, called "The Seventeen Points of the True Church." It tells of a group of young college men of various religious backgrounds who were studying the New Testament together to learn the characteristics of the church founded by Jesus. They assumed that if the same church existed today, it would have the same characteristic organization and doctrine. They made a list of seventeen of those characteristics, and after they left college they went out into the world and lost touch with each other, never having identified - at least as a group - the true church. But over the years the amazing thing happened: each one of them learned about the Mormons, and realized that the LDS church had all those seventeen points. They all ended up as Mormons!

Of course the story is fiction, a Paul Dunn type story, invented by a Mormon, but it is taught as a true story, and the list is still used as a missionary tool, and sold at Deseret Book. I'll come back to the Seventeen Points story later and show how, even if it were true, it would not prove anything about Mormonism.

Ever since human beings began to think (sometimes one wonders if some human beings have still not yet begun!), to try to unravel the mysteries of the world we live in - how things work, how to control the world around us - knowledge has been a human goal. Probably mankind's earliest knowledge was simply what worked. How do I make a flint knife? What is the best way to catch a rabbit? Why do these edible roots grow here? How can I make it rain when I want it to rain, and how can I make it stop before it floods my field?

And this is only natural. As human beings we have an obligation to ourselves and to those who depend on us to learn the truth. As one authority put it: "We have the obligation to find out what is truth, and then we have the obligation to walk in the light and to apply the truths that we have learned to ourselves and to influence others to do likewise." I'll tell you later who said that.

How can we learn the right answers to such questions, and how can we know that our answers are correct? An entire branch of philosophy has developed over the centuries to deal with this problem, which has the wonderful name "epistemology": the study of how we know things. And, as with most philosophical questions, there is no universal agreement.

At the one extreme is the ancient school of philosophy whose followers were called the Skeptics. Their position was that it was impossible to know anything at all, since all knowledge must come to us through our senses, and our senses can deceive us. The founder of the Skeptic school was Pyrrho, who accompanied Alexander the Great on his expedition into Asia in the fourth century BC. Like Jesus, Pyrrho wrote nothing himself, and all we know of his teachings is what his later followers said about him. I'll be coming back to Pyrrho later.

At the other extreme from the Skeptics are those people, such as devout Mormons, who have no trouble asserting that they know beyond a shadow of a doubt, with every fiber of their being, that they possess the Truth.

Let me insert here that I assure you that I do not claim to have the Truth. If, in criticizing those who claim to have it, I offend anyone, then I apologize. My intention is not to offend, but to suggest questions. Let me also suggest that Mormons usually find criticisms of Mormonism to be offensive. We do not like to have our cherished ideas challenged. As Jesus said so often, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." (e.g. Matt 11:15, 13:9, 13:43)

The word Truth is sometimes used in a way that implies it to be something that can exist by itself, like energy, or matter. It was sometimes personified in ancient times, as a god, or, more often, a goddess. But truth can no more exist in the abstract than other qualities, such as virtue or honesty or evil. The only valid answer to the question "What is truth?" is another question: "The truth in regard to WHAT?"

I suppose that general question, in a religious context, at least, means "What is the truth about the difficult questions, the universal questions: who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, where should I be going, what lies in store for me in the future?" Of course, if you are Mormon, or if you accept any one of a thousand different religious or philosophical ideologies, you may believe that you have the truth about these issues. The Mormons tell you that they have God's secret plan pretty much in detail, and they KNOW that it is the truth.

But more important than getting (or even searching for) the answers to these questions is the question: How will I know the truth when I see it? How will I know that it is the truth, and not an error, a mistake, a lie?

Our modern technical progress is based on what we have learned by applying what has come to be known as the "scientific method." This method of winnowing out truth from error and superstition has developed over many centuries, beginning with the ancient Greeks, and still being perfected today by philosophers such as Karl Popper, who was still writing in the 1970s.

The principal tool of the scientific method is rigorously attempting to prove any hypothesis to be false. Notice that the scientist does not try to prove the hypothesis TRUE. The evidence which the scientist looks for is negative evidence. To put it another way, the best scientist is the skeptic, the doubter, the critic, the "anti-". Any different approach will not likely produce truth as a result.

And yet the search for truth as conducted by many people who are seeking seeking religious truth, is exactly that: search for confirmation. One Christian correspondent of mine put it very well. I had suggested to him that "More important than finding the truth is to find error and to recognize it as such". He replied:

"I spend my time and energy trying to find evidence to SUPPORT belief in God and Christ. ... I search the Bible, talk to Christians and non-Christians, study books and papers, all to find a way that Christianity WORKS." He quoted with approval a story about a Christian who spoke at a secular university and was confronted afterwards by an atheist. The atheist asked him why, since he seemed to be fairly intelligent, he believed in Christ. The Christian replied that he simply "decided to believe, and then found evidence to support that belief." Just making a decision to believe.

I suggest that you should be very suspicious of people who claim to have found the truth. Seeking the truth is, I think, one of mankind's noblest endeavors. I am saying nothing more than that we should use the same methods of testing claims to truth in religion that we use in any other area of knowledge. Isn't one of the most important steps in the scientific method trying to prove a hypothesis wrong? Something that survives attempts to disprove it survives with a stronger claim to being correct.

He objected that I had spent vast amounts of time to compile the evidence AGAINST religion. But what could that possibly gain me? It seems analogous to doing a math problem, and deciding to prove every other solution WRONG, rather than trying for the correct solution. He just couldn't understand why I would want so desperately to disprove any religion.

I replied that my efforts save me from following a false religion, of which there are thousands. Why would one want to follow a religion that is false, based on superstition, error, some ancient prophet's pipe dreams, my desire to believe, or my own hallucinations? And if it is so easy for me to disprove a religion, it cannot possibly be very divine.

The promises and hopes religions give to their believers are very attractive and inspiring. One wants to be religious, to experience all the benefits of religion-- community, support, feelings of trust and love, the relief of believing in a higher power, etc. That all seems really good.

I think I have those things, but without having to accept or believe anything that is false. Many belief systems promise all those wonderful things. They promise answers to all of life's nagging questions, they satisfy our innate desire to know the answers. But the big problem is that they have just made up the answers. The answers are very unlikely to be correct. But because they are comforting, and because they are not easy to test, and because people like the answers, they accept them on faith. How sad!

That is a frightening idea! Just think: The sentence "I have decided to believe in _____, and so now I will look for evidence to support that belief" is a prescription for gullibility. You can fill in the blank there with practically anything: UFOs, flat earth, young universe, abominable snowman, leprechauns, my fairy godmother, etc. etc. Do you do that in real life? Do you decide, before examining any evidence, that you want Brand XYZ automobile/ computer/ insurance/ investment, and then try to find enough evidence that justifies your decision? I hope not!

The only honest approach is to examine all the evidence you can find on both sides BEFORE you decide what the answer is.

The "scientific method" can work only if there is a way of testing the falsity of the hypothesis. If there is absolutely no way that one could prove a hypothesis wrong, then it cannot be accepted as true, since it cannot be tested. This is the problem with Mormons who insist that NOTHING could convince them that the gospel was not true. What if the prophet announced in general conference that it was all a hoax? Why, I would know that he had succumbed to Satan. What if we found Joseph Smith's handwritten letter admitting that he had invented the whole Book of Mormon? It's a forgery!

If there is no way to prove a religion to be false, then that is an admission that there is no way to identify the true religion. But what are the criteria by which one can detect any false church or religion? Supposing I have no religion at all, but am sincerely examining all religions. Suppose I am willing to accept the possibility that there is some kind of deity. Tell me: how can I identify a FALSE religion?

An entire branch of philosophy deals with the question as to how we know things. It's called epistemology, a Greek word meaning "the study of understanding."

The primary purpose of a brain, whether in human beings or other living things, is to process and store information that may be useful to the organism. Undoubtedly the success of a species depends on the ability of its individuals to use the brain correctly. Fortunately, even though the contents of brains is not generally inherited, each generation can learn, through education, the acquired knowledge of many previous generations. And we do this, generally, to our benefit. We know that even in primitive times and conditions, the older, wiser members of a tribe are considered the custodians of the accumulated knowledge and lore of previous generations.

But, in a tribe that is not stagnant, each generation also adds to that knowledge, and even correct ancient errors.

That process, developed by our human forebears over many centuries, has accelerated tremendously in the last few centuries, and has given us our present highly developed civilizations and cultures.

What began as religion - attempts to explain the natural phenomena of the universe - has become science.

In three areas in particular have the techniques of distinguishing between what is correct - what is an accurate statement about something - been carefully honed and refined: in science, in law, and in history.

I am going to talk about very practical ways of finding truth by recognizing falsity. I am going to use examples that appear often in Mormon arguments, because they may be familiar to you, and because if your Mormon friends or relatives present them to you, you will be ready to respond and show their falsity. But these same tests can be applied to any claim for truth.

First of all, let's get some terminology and basic principles down.

The first basic principle to keep in mind is the burden of proof. This can be stated in several ways, but they all amount to the same thing. It has been recognized since ancient times that it is impossible to prove a negative proposition, such as "There are no unicorns" or "God does not exist." This principle is embodied in western law in the maxim "You are innocent until proven guilty." That is, you do not have to prove that you did NOT commit the crime, because that may be impossible, even if you are innocent. The burden of proof always is on the party making an affirmative statement. If that party cannot prove what he claims, we are under no obligation to believe it, intellectually, philosophically, morally, or legally. In fact, a good argument could be made that our obligation is NOT to believe it.

This rule, like all the generally accepted rules of evidence, is not an arbitrary rule, but has evolved out of our human experience as an important safeguard against error.

This comes into play more frequently that you might suppose. I have had Mormons argue: "Well, perhaps I can't prove that Joseph Smith saw God, but you can't prove to me that he didn't!" The implied conclusion is that he and I are on equally justified ground, and it's as all right for him to believe it as it is for me to disbelieve it. And, he is perhaps correct if my position is simply: "He didn't have that vision!" Rather, my position should be that the evidence presented in support of the claimed vision is insufficient to overcome the contrary evidence that it is a fiction. Therefore I don't believe it, based on the evidence presently available.

Sometimes apologists argue by saying "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." That is a very catchy phrase, but it is NOT a valid principle of evidence, but merely an attempt to avoid the consequences of the burden of proof. Mormon apologists use it when we object that there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon.

Once evidence has been presented, however weak or flimsy, the burden of producing counter-evidence then falls on the oppponent, of course. It is up to the critic of the First Vision story to present the evidence showing the flaws in Smith's testimony. Which is not difficult.

When I talk about something being "true" or the "truth," I mean that it corresponds to reality, to the facts of our universe. Something is true if it still is true even though you don't believe it. To say, "Well, it's true for ME" is in my mind nonsense.

Many people confuse the words "evidence" and "proof." Evidence is any fact that is offered to support a claim or proposition. There are very few claims, however absurd or unbelievable, for which there is not at least some evidence. There is evidence for a flat earth, there is evidence that the sun revolves around the earth: the evidence is how they appear to us. However, superior evidence has shown us that the evidence of our eyes is outweighed. There is evidence that Joseph Smith had a vision of God the Father and God the Son in 1820: his own testimony as the only eye-witness. That testimony IS evidence. Few of us here accept that evidence as convincing, since the overwhelming counter- evidence shows that he was lying.

"Proof," on the other hand, is evidence that is sufficient to convince any open-minded, rational person. That definition, of course, excludes many devout Mormons.

This point is important to prevent your being alarmed when Mormon apologists come up with "evidence for the Book of Mormon," as they do at FARMS - a regular evidence factory, there! Of course there is evidence. Every criminal who ever went to trial and condemned by a jury of his peers was able to present evidence in his defense. The question, of course, is whether that evidence amounts to proof.

But how much evidence constitutes proof? We often hear the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." That, too, is a catchy phrase, but not a valid principle of evidence. Extraordinary claims can be proven by very ordinary evidence. (This maxim is a misunderstanding of John Locke's essay "On Miracles".)

In law, there are three levels of proof that may be required, depending on the seriousness of the question. For ordinary questions, a mere preponderance of the evidence is enough: if the evidence on one side is just slightly better, then that side should get the jury verdict. For issues that are more important, or to prove a claim that is more unusual (for instance, that a properly executed will was produced by coercion), the evidence must be "clear and convincing." If a person is accused of a crime, where the punishment could cost life or liberty or heavy fines, the prosecution is required to prove the case "beyond a reasonable doubt." Those are reasonable standards, it would seem.

Since the claims of any religion, if true, imply that I should change my entire manner of life, obey certain rules and commandments, avoid doing certain things, accept certain other claims on "faith," it would seem only fair to expect that those claims satisfy the same standard as in a criminal case: "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Another basic premise is that both sides of a question should be examined. To present only one side of a case to the jury is not the way to get a fair or accurate judgment. To consider only evidence favorable to a hypothesis, and to ignore contrary evidence, is not a likely path to truth. Even the apostle Paul said, "Test everything!" (my translation; the King James Version translates it as "Prove all things!") Compare Gordon B. Hinckley's statement to the New Yorker reporter: "Don't listen to our critics!"

Another fundamental principle is known as "Ockham's Razor", after the medieval philosopher William of Ockham who first formulated it. It is also known as the "Law of Parsimony." In the law, it is known as the rule of circumstantial evidence. Evidence which directly goes to prove an assertion is called "direct evidence": the unimpeached testimony of an eye-witness, a signed document, the bullet hole in the door. All other evidence is called "indirect" or "inferential" or "circumstantial" evidence, because it only goes to prove an assertion from which a more pertinent fact can be inferred.

When dealing with such circumstantial evidence, the only way to avoid coming to a false conclusion is to follow the rule called Ockham's Razor (I have no idea why the word "razor" is associated with the rule), which says that if there is more than one possible explanation for something, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions or outside facts is the correct one. Or, the simplest explanation is most probably the correct one. In the rules of evidence in law, circumstantial evidence is acceptable only if the fact to be inferred from it is the only reasonably possible inference.

And it is extremely important to remember that bare possibility is NOT evidence. But mere possibility is often treated by apologists as evidence: "It is possible that this is actually Lehi's house!" "If this dating of the horse skeleton should prove to be accurate, then it is possible that it is evidence for the accuracy of the Book of Mormon!" No, as I will show in a few minutes, it is a logical fallacy to accept possibility as evidence.

We use Ockham's Razor in every-day life. If I should come home some day and find a gift-wrapped potted plant on my doorstep, the kind that my neighbor likes, I can explain its mysterious appearance there in any number of ways: 1) an angel brought it; 2) some mischievous boys stole it from my neighbor and placed it here to get me in trouble; 3) a sudden wind blew it from my neighbor's house to mine, and gently and miraculous deposited it here; 4) my senses are deceiving me - there is nothing on my doorstep; 5) my neighbor left me a surprise gift; etc. There are probably other possibilities, but they all must assume more supplemental facts than the simplest: my neighbor left me a surprise gift.

We should also apply Ockham's razor to so-called evidences for claims such as those for Mormonism: What are the possible explanations for the facts about the First Vision story? First of all, what are the facts? What is the undisputed evidence?

Joseph Smith wrote several inconsistent versions of his story. We do not have Smith available as a witness, to cross-examine him. The only evidence is his uncorroborated and self-contradictory story. What is the most likely explanation? We have at least two choices, with minor variations of the two:

1. He actually had the vision, but had trouble remembering its details, and because it was so personal, told no one about it until later.

2. He made the story up over the course of several years.

The first explanation requires us to believe in angels, to believe that Smith would not lie for his own aggrandizement, that he could not remember exactly what happened on such a momentous occasion, and several other really far-fetched supporting elements. The second explanation (he made it up) is very simple, and it explains all the facts. That is Ockham's Razor at work. (Perhaps the "razor" part of the name refers to how it cuts away the bullshit?)

Another example is an argument used by Christian apologists about the resurrection stories. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but that numerous points in the stories of the crucifixion hint that he was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and others, perhaps as part of some scheme to save his life. This, of course, would also explain the many appearances of Jesus to his followers on Easter Morning and afterwards. Some apologists assert that the idea that Jesus did not really die on the cross is "absurd!" However, if one applies Ockham's Razor, one must conclude that the idea that friends of a man condemned to death would try to save him, and that he was seen later, is a much simpler explanation than that he died and then came back to life.

The ultimate fall-back position for an apologist when confronted with criticisms of his logic, of course, is to pooh-pooh logic as "the wisdom of men," that we are allowing ourselves to be "deceived by man." As Boyd K. Packer put it: "The doctrines of salvation are not discovered in the laboratory or on a geological field trip or by accompanying Darwin around the world. They come by revelation and in no other way." The scriptures and teachings of most religions are clear in denouncing thinking for yourself, thinking that you are smart enough to figure things out. And yet the false prophets that they follow and obey are men, and it is not words directly from God that they are obeying, but words from the mouths of those men claiming to speak for God.

Ultimately, it seems to me, if spiritual knowledge cannot be found or defended by logical reasoning, then apologists should stop trying to do so. They should simply stop arguing, and simply abandon the attempt to reason. It would save so much energy on both sides. The very attempt to defend a faith-based position by the use of reasoning is a self-contradiction.

Ironically, one of the best layman's handbooks on the use of reason and logical thinking is co-authored by Norman Geisler, one of the leading evangelical Christian apologists. It is called "Come, Let Us Reason," written with Ronald M. Brooks. Geisler insists that a Christian is commanded to think, to use the mind, citing Matthew 22:37, where Jesus cites the First Great Commandment, to love God with your heart, your soul, and your mind. He also cites I Peter 3:15, commanding the Christian to "give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you." And of course Isaiah 1:18 says "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord." (This is repeated in Doctrine and Covenants 50:10.)

Mormon leaders used to emphasize reason and logic in defending Mormonism. Orson Pratt said, in his series "Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon," that the investigator should carefully examine the evidences of which it is offered to the world: he should, with all patience and perseverance, seek to acquire a certain knowledge whether it be of God or not.... [making] an investigation in the most careful, candid, and impartial manner, ... the evidences and arguments upon which the imposture was detected, should be clearly and logically stated, that those who have been sincerely yet unfortunately deceived, may perceive the nature of the deception, and be reclaimed, and that those who continue to publish the delusion, may be exposed and silenced, not by physical force, neither by persecutions, bare assertions, nor ridicule, but by strong and powerful arguments--by evidences adduced from scripture and reason. Such, and such only, should be the weapons employed to detect and overthrow false doctrines--to reclaim mankind from their errors, to expose religious enthusiasm, and put to silence base and wicked impostors."

The Doctrine and Covenants sees such criticism as an opportunity to "shame" the critics of the church: "Wherefore, confound your enemies; call upon them to meet you both in public and in private; and inasmuch as ye are faithful their shame shall be made manifest. Wherefore, let them bring forth their strong reasons against the Lord.


We can recognize faulty reasoning by becoming skillful at recognizing commonly made fallacies. There are many kinds of fallacies, but some are so common in religious discussions that by learning to recognize them you can perhaps avoid ninety percent of false doctrine masquerading as truth.


If a line of reasoning depends upon assuming the truth of something it is trying to prove, that is the fallacy of circular reasoning, or "begging the question." Like most fallacies, this one has a Latin name: "petitio principii". Here are some examples:

Sections 1 and 67 of the Doctrine and Covenants (given on the same day in 1831) contain assurances from God that the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants are divine, and that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. Those revelations were received through Joseph Smith. This is a particular kind of question-begging: self-validation.

A similar example is St. Paul's frequent assertion that "I lie not." (Rom 9:1, 2 Cor 11:31, 1 Tim 2:7). This statement by Paul has been offered by apologists as proof that Paul is telling the truth. Of course, anyone with whom we deal in real life, and who keeps saying, "I want you to know that I am an honest man!" is precisely the person who arouses our suspicions about his honesty.

How do we know that the Bible is the Word of God? Because the Bible says so (2 Tim 3:16). How do we know that the Jews are God's chosen people? Because the Jews have told us so in their holy scriptures.

Another special kind of circular reasoning is the argument based on a special definition. It's the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, after an example developed by Antony Flew. The version I like is the assertion by MacGregor that no true Scotsman puts sugar on his oatmeal. When it is pointed out to MacGregor that the Angus Campbell, Lord Mayor of Aberdeen, puts sugar on his oatmeal, he responds that the Lord Mayor is no true Scotsman. It's the same argument that many Christians use to assert that Mormons are not real Christians. I know of Christians who insist that the Pope is not Christian. If you write your own definition, and then argue from it, you are arguing in a circle.

The "Seventeen Points" argument is also a fallacy by special definition. You can write a completely different list of characteristics of the early church, and prove that Mormonism doesn't qualify. [See my article "17 Points of the True Church".]


When an opponent attacks the person making the argument rather than the substance of his argument, we are getting a kind of irrelevant and fallacious argument known as the fallacy of "ad hominem," which means "against the person." Mormons often use this fallacious argument against critics of the church:

"You know, of course, that the author of this history of Mormonism is a homosexual!"

"The man who wrote this criticism of Mormonism was excommunicated for adultery."

Unless the issue really is their personal integrity, such arguments are irrelevant to the facts at issue.

Of course, sometimes the personal integrity IS the issue, as when we point out that one should be reluctant to believe Joseph Smith's testimony about his visions, when we know that he spent his youth as a con man and deceiver, and lied to his spouse about his polygamous marriages.

Sometimes apologists will accuse me of an "ad hominem" attack when I tell them that they are being stupid and irrational. Of course, if there arguments are indeed stupid and irrational, that is not an ad hominem argument.


The categorical syllogism, developed by Aristotle, in the classic form "All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal" is probably not as useful as the hypothetical syllogism, also called the conditional syllogism, developed a century after Aristotle by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. Here are some simple examples:

"If the witness is telling the truth, the defendant is guilty. The witness is telling the truth, therefore the defendant is guilty."

"If you have appendicitis, you will have pains in your abdomen. You do not have pains in your abdomen, therefore you do not have appendicitis."

The hypothetical syllogism is probably the most powerful reasoning tool for recognizing what may be true by identifying what is not true. It is the basis for the scientific method. It can take two forms, both beginning with an identical premise with the key words "If.." and "then." "If A is true, then B must be true." This is called the premise. Of course, the premise must be correct, or you will not get reliable results. One form of the syllogism continues: "A IS true; therefore B is true." The other form continues: "B is not true, therefore A is not true."

Like many logical concepts, these also have Latin names. The first form, where A is true, is called "modus ponens", meaning roughly "the method of setting up" because it establishes that something is true. The second form, where B is false, is called "modus tollens", meaning roughly "the method of taking away" because it establishes that something is false.

The two parts of the premise also have names. The "if" part is called the "antecedent," that is, the part that precedes or comes before. The "then" part is called the "consequent," meaning what follows as a consequence of the condition being true.

We use the hypothetical syllogism dozens of times every day, perhaps without realizing the name of it. However, like any powerful tool (such as fire or electricity or atomic energy) it can easily be abused. For each correct use of the hypothetical syllogism, there is a fallacious use that looks very much the same. They are especially insidious because they do look like the genuine article. I think of Saint Paul's comment about how Satan can appear as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:13).

Here is an example of one form of the invalid hypothetical syllogism:

If A is true, then B must also be true; but A is false, therefore B is false. That sounds fine at first glance, but it is invalid, as will be obvious if we apply it a few times: "If the witness is telling the truth, then the defendant is guilty. But the witness is lying, therefore the defendant is not guilty." That of course does not make sense. The defendant's guilt does not have to depend upon the testimony of one witness.

Another example: "If you have appendicitis, you will have pains in your abdomen. You do not have appendicitis (as we have determined from other tests), therefore you do not have pains in your abdomen." I DO have pains, but they are obviously caused by something else.

This fallacious form of modus ponens is called "Denying the Antecedent," since it wrongly proceeds from the fact that the "if" part of the premise turns out not to be true, which means only that we can conclude nothing, one way or the other, about the consequent.

Mormons use this fallacious argument. "If you obey all the commandments and remain faithful, you will be happy. You have not done that, therefore you are unhappy."

The other fallacious form of the categorical syllogism is a corruption of the modus tollens. The correct form, you will recall, is: If A is true, then B must also be true; B is false, therefore A is false. The fallacy argues that B is true, therefore A is true. It is arguing backwards. This fallacy is called "Affirming the Consequent." Here are some examples:

"If you have appendicitis, you will have pains in your abdomen. You do have pains in your abdomen, therefore you have appendicitis." That is fallacious, since my pains may be nothing more than simple indigestion from having eaten too much this evening.

"If the church is true, I will feel happy in obeying all the commandments. I am happy, therefore the church is true."

"If the church is true, then its teachings will help us to be good. Its teachings do help us to be good, therefore the church is true."

"If the church is of God, it will teach correct doctrine about topic X. Its doctrine about topic X is correct, therefore the church is of God."

"If I ask God to tell me the Book of Mormon is true, he will cause a burning in my bosom. I got a burning in my bosom; therefore it's true."

Some of these arguments are not only invalid because they deny the antecedent or affirm the consequent; they are also based on a premise that is unproven. You have to have an accurate premise in order to be able to rely even on correct reasoning. "If you repent and are baptized, you will go to heaven when you die" should be proven before you can get reliable results.

Sometimes a hypothetical syllogism appears valid, but it is based on an unreliable premise:

"If this doctrine is true, it comes from God. It is true, therefore it comes from God." This argument affirms the antecedent, thus it is valid. But it is a corruption of an invalid syllogism: "If a doctrine comes from God, it must be true. This doctrine is true, therefore it comes from God." That, of course, is the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

The "Seventeen Points of the True Church" story, which I mentioned earlier, is faulty, for the same reason (among several others). The Mormon argument is: "If a church has these seventeen characteristics of the early church, it is the true church. The Mormon church has these seventeen points, therefore it is the true church." Of course that is a corruption of the correct premise: "If a church is the true church, it will have these seventeen characteristics." To then say that the Mormon church has these characteristics is to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

Of course the basic premise is also false. Compare this argument: The government of the United States has three branches, with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, etc. etc. A government which has these characteristics is therefore the United States government.

Another example of what appears to be a valid hypothetical syllogism is the argument "If the Spirit tells me that something is true, then it is true. The Spirit tells me that the church is true, therefore it IS true." This is stated in such a way that the antecedent is affirmed. However, it becomes invalid when stated like this, which fallaciously affirms the consequent: "If the church is true, the Spirit will tell me so. The Spirit has told me so, therefore it is true."

You can see that the hypothetical syllogism must be used carefully. Modus ponens can only be used to test the "then" part, the consequent. Modus tollens can only be used to test the "if" part, the antecedent. The rule is: Affirm the antecedent, or deny the consequent, not vice-versa:

[tune: the Battle Hymn of the Republic]
You affirm the antecedent, or deny the consequent.
You affirm the antecedent, or deny the consequent.
You affirm the antecedent, or deny the consequent.
The Truth shall make you free!

The chorus, of course, is: "Modus ponens, modus tollens, (3x)"

The subtitle to my talk included "Lies." Unfortunately, people do lie, especially when they are trying to influence others and cannot do so by telling the truth.

There are some passages in the Doctrine and Covenants which I consider to be true. Of course! It would be incorrect for me to argue from the premise that "If Mormonism is false, its doctrines are all false." That passage is Section 50, verses 17 and 18: "... doth he preach ... by the spirit of truth, or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God."

Or, to put it more bluntly: if someone is lying to you, he's not giving you a message from God.

In a recent issue of Dialogue (vol. 33 no. 3, Fall 2000, pp 97-119) Clay Chandler discussed lying, in particular, lying by prophets and general authorities of the church (yes, he admitted that they sometimes lie). His article was called "The Truth, The Partial Truth, And Something Like The Truth, So Help Me God." He cites a lot of scripture, but not Section 50. And he uses examples from history and church history to show how sometimes lying is justified. Some Europeans lied to the Nazis to protect Jews. In wartime we use deception to gain advantage over the enemy. Joseph Smith had to lie about his polygamy in order to obey the commands of God. It's all the same, says Chandler. (I tend to feel that there is something of a difference there.)

It's all right for church leaders to lie when necessary. Chandler says (p. 118-119): "In the final analysis, what we should really expect from our leaders is not that they will tell us the truth, but instead that they won't betray our trust. ... To maintain that trust, we need to know that our leaders have our best interests in mind. ... When we know and believe that, we will place our trust in them..."

That is a frightening sentence, and not just because it is a good example of circular reasoning. Don't you think you should be suspicious of anyone who says, in effect, "So long as you trust me, it's OK for me to lie to you, because I know what's best for you."?

In searching for the truth, it's probably a good idea to avoid people who think it's all right to lie to you.

Many of us left Mormonism primarily because they lied to us. Mormons are especially good at the "Big Lie": say it often enough and loud enough, and people will believe it. One good example of this is how everyone "knows" that the Mormon church is "the fastest-growing religion in the world." How do you fight that big lie? The most recent example I saw was the article in the Salt Lake Tribune this month, reviewing a book about Mormon influence in Las Vegas. The reporter referred to the church as "the fastest-growing religion in the world." And yet that very same newspaper just a year ago ran an article about how the Seventh-Day Adventist church was growing four times as fast as the Mormons!

I have tried to summarize briefly some of the important tools we can use to help us identify error and to test claims to truth. Time spent in practicing these skills can be very useful. I have only scratched the surface. I urge you to sharpen your analytical skills, not only to recognize when people are using invalid arguments at you, but also to prevent yourself from making fallacious arguments. And we critics of Mormonism are often guilty of that. In fact, as I have reviewed the text of my remarks, I see that I have made a number of statements this evening, which would not stand up under careful scrutiny. Did you recognize them?

Armed with good analytical skills, fortified with practice analyzing phony claims, then, if I may be so bold as to modify scripture, "Ye shall know what is not the truth, and that shall make you free!"

And now I will come back to mention the life of Pyrrho, the philosopher whose teachings were the basis for the ancient philosophical school of the Skeptics. Although his later biographers disagreed on the details of his teachings and the details of his life, all agreed that to be a Pyrrhonian was not to have correct doctrine, but to live a life such as Pyrrho lived (like being a follower of Christ?). And Pyrrho was, by all accounts, a gentle, peaceful, and happy man, who had come to realize that we can live happy useful lives even if we do not know the answers to the great questions. There may be some wisdom there, although it contradicts what we learned in Sunday School.

As the great 19th century American humorist Josh Billings said, "The trouble with people is not that they don't know, but that they know so much that ain't so." But we must keep searching. The quote I gave you earlier ("We have the obligation to find out what is truth, and then we have the obligation to walk in the light and to apply the truths that we have learned to ourselves and to influence others to do likewise") - did any of you recognize it? It's from Boyd K. Packer.

When I spoke last year in Las Vegas, I introduced the discovery for which I am expecting to soon be nominated for some kind of prestigious prize, which I call Packham's Principle. The complete elucidation of it is in the text of that speech, which you will find on my website, so I will not repeat it now. Here is the formal statement of Packham's Principle:

"To clarify, elucidate, or better understand any situation, it will be helpful to remember that everything in some way is sort of like SEX." The shorter version, which you can conveniently carry on your key chain for everyday use, is: "It's just like sex."

I will conclude now by applying Packham's Principle, somewhat as I concluded my remarks at that time: After- dinner speeches are just like sex: There are two basic kinds. One kind is pleasant, entertaining, educational, even memorable. The time passes quickly, and it's over before you know it. Afterwards, you're glad you didn't miss it. With the other kind, you find yourself constantly thinking, is he ever going to finish? In other words, they are just like sex. In any case, I have finished. It was good for me - I hope it was good for you, too.

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©  2002 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included