2 Nephi 2, Part Three — A Valid Argument?

IV Is Lehi‘s Sermon on Universal Opposition a Valid Argument?

When I conceive of any defined noun, say a horse, I have divided up the world into two spheres, things that are horses and things that are not horses. Every definition of X implies a not X definition. Lehi’s dualistic argument is a valid as long as it stays within the realm of human language and conceptualization.

But Lehi’s argument is invalid when he starts to insist that for every X there is a not X that actually exists. Let us suppose that a female kills all males on the planet. Females would exist, and males would not exist, except in the mind. The existence of females does not prove the necessary existence of males. Just because righteousness can be proven to exist, that does not mean that evil and hell necessarily exist anywhere but in the mind. Just because things exist that are acted upon, does not mean that there are necessarily things in existence that act without being acted upon. Lehi’s argument is invalid because it confuses concepts, language and actual existence.

A second problem with Lehi’s argument for dualism is a problem with sloppy categories. Lehi refers to sensibility and insensibility. These are necessarily complementary opposites in a dualistic system. The concept of righteousness also implies the dual category of “not righteousness.” But, “not righteousness” is not the same thing as “evil.” Not righteousness may be a simple lack of moral content. The concept of heaven necessarily implies a concept of not-heaven. But not-heaven is not necessarily the same thing as hell. This confusion of definitional categories is a second element that undermines the validity of Lehi’s argument.

But despite its logical problems, there is something profound and urgent about the symbolism of Lehi’s argument of opposition. As with most Mormon revelations, it reflects the historical setting of its audience, but never in any simply or automatic fashion. If religion is the projection of the human soul upon the cosmos, then the argument tells us something of the depth of the Mormon prophetic soul and the symbolism of its salvation. By trying to demonstrate the necessity of evil and hell, it reminds us of the ubiquity of evil in every life and the childish bullying in even our most honored institutions of health, art and religion. It seems that no matter how aggressively we ring them out, large institutions are saturated with evil. No matter how strict the Sunday School, sooner or later, every human footstep bolts to a dark path. If evil does not exist necessarily, at least it seems to exist necessarily. But why? Like any rich symbol, the mythology inherent in Lehi’s argument simply provokes our thought.

Yes, Lehi recognizes the coming hell—the universal Judgment Day. The extinction of millions is staring us in the face. It is real and it is serious. The lots have been cast amid the storm, and the lot has fallen upon us. The wide-eyed crew stands aback, speechless. But Lehi does not go quietly into that dark night. He refuses to find easy comfort in the doctrines of Calvinism or Universalism, in the consolation of inability or the doctrine of denial. But out of his intense pessimism, flows the living water of possible survival—the possibility of an ultimate optimism in Lehi’s symbolism of salvation.

There is no greater advocate for the possibility and hope of human effort among conservative Arminians in the early nineteenth century than the Book of Mormon, even though few there be that find it:

Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves —to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.   2 Nephi 10:23

Lehi is addressing something more than abstract theology. His revelation in 2 Nephi 2 comes (as Tillich taught us) as an answer to the concrete problems of existence—death, guilt and meaninglessness. In our age, when existence is tipping in the storm of societal and environmental collapse, this symbolism reminds us who we are and where we stand, and the unseen power of choice within the horrible frailty of every human soul and institution.


2 Nephi 2, Part Three — A Valid Argument? — 8 Comments

  1. Lehi was not playing some intellectual logic game. His simple spiritual declaration that there must be opposition in all things is a valid spiritual truth. Trying to reduce it to a logical fallacy entirely misses the point.


  2. Glen,

    An argument is when one reaches a conclusion that something is true based on certain other statements and logic. Here is what Lehi says in his own words:
    1-“It must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” 2-“If not so. . .” 3-“There is no God” and “neither the earth” 4-Therefore “it must needs be that there is an opposition.” From the very clear plain and obvious meaning of Lehi’s own words, we can see that Lehi is making an argument. If you have a complaint, you need to bring it up with Lehi. I just work here.

    Now since I think we can both agree that Lehi is obviously arguing for opposition in all things, we ought to be prepared to ask if it is a valid argument. A valid deductive argument is an argument in which, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. In other words—“Is Lehi’s logic compelling?” I argue that it is not a valid argument—his argument is not compelling. That does not necessarily mean that his assertion is not true. I argue that in certain respects, his beleif in opposition in all things is justified. If you have reason to believe that Lehi’s argument is valid, I am more than anxious to hear you. “Think that you may be wrong” as one Cromwell urged.

  3. A strong ending to a strong series. Thanks, Mark.

    Have you ever published or considered publishing anything on the Book of Mormon in a Wesleyan, Methodist, or Arminian journal? That might be an interesting way to spark some interfaith conversation.

  4. I have never considered publishing in any of these journals. Any suggestions on which journals? I clearly need to get out more.

  5. Good food for thought Mark — an analysis of the argument, the relevance of the message to 19th century thought, and the potency of the Lehi’s message.

    I agree that there is too much using the Book of Mormon as a hammer causing many to miss out on its content. The same is true with other aspects of Mormonism too.

  6. What a wonderful series of posts, Mark. I especially like the idea that Lehi’s argument, while not valid, nevertheless works powerfully upon its readers to get them to consider their relationship with the cosmos moral terms and in such a way that they feel that they can hope to bring about positive things therein.

    I am reminded of the pervasiveness of suffering in Buddhism, which, to these untrained western eyes, looks like it is practically a reified property of the cosmos. Suffering simply is, and yet one can lessen the suffering of the self and others through detachment and right action. For Lehi there is opposition in all things, the overcoming of which is given particular urgency by its identification with evil, however poor the logic involved.

    I think it would be interesting and perhaps useful to put this back into the context of the Book of Mormon narrative, wherein Lehi speaking to Jacob by way of consolation, since “in [his] childhood [he had] suffered afflictions and much sorrow,” which will be consecrated “for [his] gain.” To me it seems like this is a way to encourage the person who has been through a lot of tough times, and needs the encouragement of thinking that suffering and setbacks are just part of the deal, but that everyone can overcome by choosing to act in a certain way, no matter what the opposition.

    My apologies for reducing your more nuanced argument to a simplistic admonition of this kind, but I thought the flawed argumentation of Lehi was more intelligible to me if it served to console the reader (not to mention Jacob) that toughing it out, and continuing to make the right choices, was inherent to the divine plan and actually worth it.