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A secular approach to prophecy


Every idea that does not come from science must come from somewhere. Usually it is from ourselves. So everyone is their own prophet!

This page looks in detail at three questions:

  1. What is a prophet?
  2. What is revelation and why does it matter?
  3. How do we find the best revelation?
The next question - why believe in a prophet - is answered here.

What is a prophet?

There are several different meanings of the word "prophet:"

1. In general, anyone who has inspiration. (Inspiration and revelation are the same thing.)

2. When we speak of prophets in a positive sense, we imply that their inspiration is valuable. In other words, it comes from a superior source. In other words, they get information from God. (For how this happens, see the page on answers to prayer.)

3. When we say "the" prophet, we mean the one who has the final say in case of disagreement. In other words, the one who presides - the Church President. It is an organizational thing (see the page on authority). For more about how prophets are human, but should still be followed, see the page on deep doctrine.

"And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake?
would God that all the Lord's
people were prophets"

- Numbers 11:29

Defining revelation, from a naturalistic point of view

I would suggest that revelation IS NOT fundamentally different from science. They are both extremes on the same continuum. Science deals with those things that can be clearly defined and unambiguously communicated - such as physical quantities. Revelation deals with those things that are hard to define and lead to disagreements - e.g. right and wrong.

Attempts to define revelation:

1. As supernatural communication?

But if we understand it sufficiently it ceases to be supernatural - it enters the natural realm. On the other hand, if it can never be understood by reference to natural experience, it is literally meaningless.

2. As communication that claims to be from God?

We are not interested in what people claim, but in what it really is.

3. As communication that is genuinely from God?

If we have to start by proving the nature of God, and that he communicates with a particular person, then we will progress very slowly indeed. A more practical solution is to look at the nature of such communications, and go from there.

4. As some claim that goes beyond science - e.g. it cannot be falsified?

No, because every statement can be falsified, as long as it is defined clearly. For example, if I say "you will go to heaven" you can test this statement if you wait long enough.

The real issue is EASE of falsification. E.g.

The importance of clarity

"In 1927, the year that Heisenberg announced his "uncertainty principle," Niels Bohr also described the 'principle of complementarity' for quantum systems: for every measurable quantity there exists a 'complementary' measurable quantity. The more accurately one measures one, the more impossible it becomes to simultaneously measure the other.

"Born told us that at the end of Bohr's magnificent lecture, someone in the audience asked him, 'What, then, is complementary to truth?'

"Born said his colleague replied, without any hesitation, 'Clarity.' "

- http://www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/letters/l18hei.html

A good definition of revelation

Revelation is ANY statement that "just is" - that does not base its authority on the scientific method. In practice, this implies a higher power (e.g. God) or else nobody would care what your revelation said.

Famous examples of 'it just is' are the declaration of human rights and the American Constitution (where it says certain truths are 'self-evident.' See the page on non-science for more examples.

Explaining and clarifying this definition

Science and revelation contrasted

In general, science deals with the simple, and revelation with the complex.

Of course, it is quite possible to apply revelation to simple things (e.g. "I prophecy it will rain today"), and science to complex things (e.g. a scientific morality), but the success rate in those cases is very low. Why?

Every idea can be traced to either science or revelation

Revelation is that form of non-science that claims to come by inspiration. Unlike other forms of non-science, it does not claim to be just a convenient way to muddle through until something more scientific comes along, but claims to be absolute truth.

Ultimately, all forms of knowledge are either science or revelation.
Coming from man or God.
Or, out another way, horizontal or vertical.
Hugh Nibley refers to them as sophic or mantic.

See Hugh Nibley's articles on "sophic" and "mantic" in "The Ancient State" (available from FARMS)

Revelation as "ultimate truth"

Note that ultimate truth refers to our understanding at a particular point, as our understanding will inevitably change and (hopefully) develop with time. Note also that the source of the revelation becomes of paramount importance. With regard to Genesis, I trust God, but I do not trust "creation scientists."

The power of revelation:

Revelation is essential in those areas where science cannot tread: the assumptions behind science, the use of science, etc. If there are areas that are not open to science (either logically or in practice - e.g. because of complexity or human bias) then we inevitably fall back on argumentum ad lapidem "it just is." In which case, the wise person identifies those statements and their origins (hence talk of "gods") and attempts to at least make them consistent (hence organized religion). Anyone who does not (IMO) is hiding from reality.


I agree in particular that revelation does not need to attack areas that are open to science. That would just make us intelectually lazy. And revelation does not need to challenge science - it is already in a superior position.

An analogy

Revelation and science are like an elected government and the various civil servants (non-elected officials charged with gathering data and making policies work - I don't know what they are called in America). The government holds the power. This power is based on nothing more than (the electorate's) opinions, with no attempts at justifying them. In contrast, the civil servants have the statistically valid data and do the actual work. Yet despite their greater scientific validity, they just serve the government.

An example: the Book of Mormon

Much of the text of the Book of Mormon is history. History in itself is not revelation. What makes it revelation is the meaning that is drawn from that history. It is, for example, possible to see it as a genuine ancient record, but carrying no authority, revealing nothing about God, and showing signs of its ancient authors' weaknesses. However, the way we choose to use the Book of Mormon (as representing God's dealings with man, and as ultimately defined by a living prophet) makes it a revelation.

Ten reasons why revelation is superior to science

1. It is more open minded

Science (in the traditional naturalistic sense) considers revelation to be unthinkable. Therefore it is closed minded.

Revelation frequently refers to science. Therefore it is more open minded

2. The alleged superiority of science relies on a "straw man" argument

Pitted against Dark Ages religion (no claims to new revelation) and modern religion (claims to be based in rational thought - e.g. not revelation at all)

3. Revelation is more honest

Atheists try to equate science with atheism. But this is false.

Atheist scientists rely on revelation (unprovable assumptions) - e.g. hypoheses that cannot be proven, or the concept of "purpose" in living things, or laws that just appear from nowhere.

Modernists claim there has at least been progress - yet they use the same old methods and make the same claims as in ancient times

4. It is more successful

No predominantly atheist society has ever survived for more than a couple of generations.

5. It is the basis for human rights

Non-science is unavoidable, and is thus the basis for all other beliefs and actions, including human rights. All non-science is based either based on pure logic, or based on the idea that "this is right because it just is" - in other words, revelation.

Democracy, human rights and ownership of capital (for example) only exist because people just believe they are right. People who fight for these things have (on the whole) not thought them through. They thus (in practice, such as in an election campaign) appeal to their own revelations, to their own source of higher knowledge. Any effort at constructing a rational scheme of ethics is an attempt to explain and justify them after the event.

It is true that some schemes are purely rational - for example, people institute laws because otherwise there is chaos. But these are secondary to the fact that chaos is undesirable, due to the irrational desire for life.

The fact is that most of life is irrational - that is, driven by the belief that "it just is." It is true that we can construct rational models to explain things, but only by pushing the "it just is" further away. Stephen Hawkins' "it just is" is just as necessary as any other prophet's "it just is."

6. It is more realistic

Revelation is less na´ve, less "pie in the sky:" It does not say "one day we will explain everything." Scientists have been saying that since Greek times, and still every horizon leads to new unknowns.

7. It is always at the frontier of science

Physics leads to metaphysics. Biology leads to life. Where science can go no further, where it gets very interesting, we find revelation.

8. It is copied by science

Whenever they try to make science meaningful, scientists have to use the language of religion - truth, beauty, creation, purpose, etc.

Its priests are more accessible

[ Note: the following comments deal with cosmology in particular. They are not true of the more mundane sciences, which can be practiced by anyone in their own home, with little difficulty. ]

The ordinary person can test the claims of revelation. This is not true of science, except in a superficial way.

For example, in "A Brief History of Time," Hawking tells us of the origin of the universe, and why it has no need of God. Why does he conclude this? Because he managed to devise some equations that treated time like space, and therefore he did not need to say "what caused it?" Thus, the universe is self-existant.

The medieval church men came to the same conclusion centuries ago, and it was not too impressive then either. Why? Because, like the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz," when you get closer you find that the nuts and bolts are very ordinary, and subject to error. But at least the Wizard of Oz could be approached by an ordinary person. The High Priests of Science are just not accessible to anyone outside their specialism.

9. Science is only ever a tool of revelation

Only works when translated into technology - then at the mercy of politics, public opinion, etc.

10. Without revelation, science is both pointless and limited

So science is fundamentally unable to study superior beings. It has to look downward, while revelation is able to look upward.

How to understand the mind of God
Plus some notes on "absolute truth"

Understanding a superior being is outside the scope of science (see "why revelation is superior to science"). So it can only be done by revelation. If a superior being exists, he has to make himself know. But how? The following is adapted from a discussion with an agnostic:

"It is foolish to even attempt to deal with anything that cannot be understood by the human mind."

But when God chooses to make certain things understandable, these things can be understood.

"It is difficult, but not impossible, to understand a superior intellect. For example, I am struggling with the proof of Godel's first incompleteness theorem."

But Godel is perhaps only twice as intelligent as you. Plus he comes from roughly the same historical background. So it is reasonable to make the attempt. God, however, would be 1000 times more intelligent, with vastly different experience.

"There are no moral absolutes although we would hope that there were."

My position is that moral absolutes are only absolute from our perspective. For example, human rights are absolute to all intents and pourposes. Absolute is just a term of convenience.

"Quite simply, if we knew them, we would state them, rather than simply continuing to insist that they exist without stating them."

A good argument for a living prophet! The church is always stating these "absolutes" - they are called "commandments". Yes, we can all conceive of conditions under which a commandment may not apply, but that makes them just like the laws of man. The fact that we can sometimes see beyond them does not invalidate them as worth following.

"The Catholic position is that 'we can never hope to fully understand the mind of God'"

We can understand the mind of God, but only by becoming like him. In the same way, a teenager will rebel against their parents, but ultimately become like them. That is how Mormonism differs from Catholicism - the potential to become like God. But granted, that will not happen straightaway, for the reasons given (differing intelligence and experience).

Conclusion: how to understand the mind of God

Right now, we can understand our relationship with him (because that involves our direct experience). For example, I am personally satisfied that God's law "thou shalt not kill" is a very wise rule, even if there are exceptions. I am also satisfied that "honor thy father and mother" is well worth following, even though it may require interpretation. Step by step, line upon line, I become more and more convinced that the things I learn from the prophets / scriptures / good feelings / etc. are reliable.

In summary, we can learn obedience as a result of intellectual freedom, and we can accept these things because they lead to more freedom (e.g. a world with less killing is a world with more intellectual freedom)

Who are the greatest prophets?

How do we organize a chaotic world full of prophets?

The only solution is to have a leader. The best leaders are always visionary.

Which prophet would make the best leader?

The greatest potential source of information is from a superior being. So the best prophet would be the prophet of a superior being, and not just of himself.

How can we avoid abuse of power?

1. By making a distinction between power (e.g. respect that is earned) and authority (from the need to be organized).

2. By separating church and state in such a way that people can leave a church if they wish.

3. By having a radically different concept of government: one that combines the best of democracy, authority, capitalism, socialism and anarchy. It is summed up by Joseph Smith, when he was asked how he managed to govern so many people:

"I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves."

That is the ideal for the world. When people are able to organize themselves, they do not need a great police force, welfare system, or legal system. The leader becomes mainly a figurehead. He is there in a crisis when needed, but most of the time just gives common-sense good advice.

Result: more freedom.


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