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The Book of Abraham and Logical Fallacies 101


In a recent Facebook discussion on the Book of Abraham, I asked the question, “Why should I trust Ritner over Muhlestein?” I posed this question after reading both Kerry Muhlestein’s arguments for human sacrifice during the Middle Kingdom period of Egypt (Abraham’s era), as published in the Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 51/2 (2008): 181–208, and Robert Ritner’s counter-argument in response to the Church’s new Gospel Topics essay. I offer an evaluation of Ritner’s critique and gave my reasons for finding Muhlestein’s argument more persuasive. After a little prodding, I got a couple of great answers that give me some additional perspectives to consider on this question.

As a non-expert on Egyptian things, or even ancient Near Eastern things, I try to read different points of view carefully and critically evaluate them to the best of my ability, but I am not going to let someone else hijack my opinions simply because they appear to be smarter than me or to have read more than I have. Especially since the experts here are not unanimous (Muhlestein, too, is an Egyptologist, after all). So, while I appreciate the alternative points of view, I am going to continue to do my own thinking on the matter. 

But, after getting some great responses, I also got this from a certain anti-Mormon who is rather well-known for his abrasive hostility toward any and all who defend the faith. In answer to my question, he states:
Easy. Because Kerry has a history of being wrong about things no Egyptologist should be wrong about, and he’s borderline dishonest at times. Oh, and there is the fact that Ritner is literally Kerry’s teacher’s teacher.
Whether or not Muhlestein has been “wrong about things no Egyptologist should be wrong about,” or “borderline dishonest” I will not judge. I am, after all, not an expert, and neither is this critic. While I am more than willing to do my best to judge between the pronouncements of different experts, I would never dare to say that either Muhlestein or Ritner is so obviously wrong that he is dishonest or should not be an Egyptologist. That would be incredibly presumptuous of someone who completely lacks any training in the field. (Of course, this particular critic has never shied away from such brazen chutzpah when skewering “apologists.”)

 To be certain Muhlestein’s wrong on something requires either (a) one has the expertise to know, or (b) one trusts some other expert who says he is wrong about it. (I think I know what this critic has in mind, and if I am right, then Ritner is again the expert he is relying on to say Muhlestein is wrong.) Since the issue is why one expert should be trusted over another, this just becomes circular reasoning:
  1. Expert X (probably Ritner) says Muhlestein is wrong about something, and embarrassingly so (I guess?)
  2. Therefore, Muhlestein is wrong about things an Egyptologist should not be wrong about
  3. Therefore, we should trust Ritner more than we should trust Muhlestein.

I am looking for some kind of cogent analysis that explains why one expert (Ritner) should be trusted over the other expert (Muhlestein). So, this kind of reasoning does not really get us anywhere. This is especially so since, regardless of whether Muhlestein has been wrong on some other issue(s), that is no guarantee that he is wrong about the topic under discussion. Thus, this is really just a type of red herring, meant to distract from the current topic at hand. It is also a sort of ad hominem, and specifically it is poisoning the well, since it attempts to simply discredit one expert (Muhlestein), rather than actually explain why he is wrong on the topic at hand.

It could also be argued that this either a hasty generalization, or a sweeping generalization. These are two opposite fallacies, but if you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain how this could be both. The critic is not clear about what things Muhlestein is supposedly wrong about, or how often he is wrong, so it is impossible to really know if it is a general rule that he is wrong. However, based on my background knowledge, I suspect he is basing this on a very specific claim Muhlestein has made in the past, and hence this appears to be a hasty generalization derived from a specific case. Then, he is applying that generalization to a specific case, for which independent analysis is available. Hence making a sweeping generalization without considering the specifics of the case in question.

Then there is his assertion that Ritner should be trusted because he is “literally” Muhlestein’s “teacher’s teacher.” This is nothing more than an appeal to authority, and a rather illogical one at that. Can students never come to know more than their teachers? By this logic, the very first Egyptologist in the world would be the smartest, and greatest authority on all things Egyptian—after all, someone is Ritner’s teacher, who also had a teacher, who also had a teacher, so on and so forth until we reach the first Egyptologist. But, at least in theory, scholarship is getting better and better, as each generation builds on the last, “standing on the shoulder of giants,” if you will. Thus, if Ritner being Muhlestein’s “teacher’s teacher” means anything, it is that Muhlestein’s scholarship is two generations down the line, and hence better. Not that I would actually make that argument—to do so would be to commit the sweeping generalization fallacy.


Did you even know that so many logical fallacies could be committed in just two sentences? I’ll stick with my own best judgment of the differing points of view, after careful reading and critical thinking on arguments from both sides. I’ll happily supplement that with the informed commentary of those who have done the same. But you can keep your fallacy ridden rants, thank you very much. 

Comments

  1. Why do you agree with Muhlestein? And what are your thoughts on his essay response? I guess specifically his rejection of Abraham's sacrifice being remember in later Egypt, and his conclusion of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers?

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  2. As for myself, I take a similar approach. Ritner has his own issues, and there are a number of aspects of what became Facsimile 1 that raise questions with respect to the interpretations of critics and professional Egyptologists.

    For instance, Ritner translates the remaining, extant Egyptian word at the end of the column of text above the lion couch as "justification (?)" but his own translations in other parts of his work seem to go against that translation (as do the lexicons), for the equivalent of "justification" is m m3'-hrw when the reconstructed text in the column is m3'. The remaining portion of the letter extant in the column before the two-character Egyptian word shows that it wasn't m but most likely a t character, which can mark the feminine or an infinitive. Why is this important? The remaining word that he reconstructs, with which reconstruction of the word I agree but not his translation, can also represent an abbreviated form of a like word that actually carries the meaning of offering, sacrifice, or being fit for offering! That isn't a funerary theme in the context of the vignette. On the other hand, that is a Book of Abraham theme.

    Another question given to us by this roll of papyrus is as to why it is that the Egyptian text surrounding the vignette has nothing to do with what is going on in the vignette itself! The Egyptian text speaks of having a splendid burial, etc. But the vignette itself does not depict a burial or an embalming.

    In fact, the person only partly on the lion couch is fully clothed and accessorized, and is depicted very much alive and kicking, with both arms up in a position not indicative of a person rising from sleep, as would be expected from what is now thought of as a resuscitation scene (Egyptologists used to say it was an embalming scene of some kind until it was realized that the fellow on the lion couch wasn't dead).

    But, what also adds to the questions with respect to this vignette is the 'Anubis' figure missing an arm. We already know that a person drawn as Anubis can actually be a human priest. We have other examples of humans drawn as gods, one in particular being a Roman Age papyrus that clearly labels a human priest propping up a mummy before his mourning wife as "Anubis."

    But, the fact that this representation on our vignette underlying Facsimile 1 is missing an arm is somewhat surprising because of the way in which it appears to be Martial form, Martial forms being used to represent persons in a way to indicate violence and warlike or menacing tendencies or nature, which Martial forms typically are drawn with one arm missing.

    So, we here have depicted a person alive, moving, and clothed, on a lion couch, with both arms up instead of the one that should be up, both arms not in the position indicating rising from sleep as should be the case (one arm at side with one arm raised elbow up with hand to face), the person is not fully on the lion couch but has the 'Anubis' figure standing between the man's legs and the lion couch (in the original), a Martial form of the person standing in said position between man's legs and lion couch, and we also have a word at the top of that scene that can be translated as having something to do with offering, sacrifice, or of being fit for offering.

    That sounds more like a Book of Abraham theme than a peaceful funerary depiction of someone rising to life with the assistance of a Martial form of Anubis missing an arm. Even there, that would be unusual, if it really is just another funerary scene as the Egyptologists keep telling us, because Anubis doesn't help one to rise to life. He prepares one for entry into Amenta (the realm of the dead).

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