See part one here.
Again, Taves uses very little cognitive science until she turns to the question of the translation. To do so she compares the Book of Mormon translation to Helen Schucman’s writing of A Course in Miracles. Schucman’s case is particularly useful because in a private interview she described the process. Schucman said she, “didn’t hear anything,” the process was “strickly mental,” but still “it wasn’t my voice” (247). Schucman said the process wasn’t automatic writing and that she could “stop and start the flow at will” (247-50).
Taves then looks at research on “highly hypnotizable individuals” (HHs) for insight into how this process might have worked for Schucman and Smith. Such individuals can easily go in and out of such a state and may even learn to control the process. In such a state HHs can tell very vivid narratives as though they are experiencing a complete different place (254). Taves gives the example of a student of researcher Ernest Hilgard for how vivid these experiences can be. At a party, the student had been hypnotized, during which he described a setting in Victorian England so vividly that he believed he was recounting a past life. Despite this belief, the student went to Hilgard for analysis of the events to get a further perspective. Under hypnosis, Hilgard had the student enter other settings, including the Old West, where the student gave equally vivid descriptions and felt like he was there (250-51).
Taves then wonders if something like this happened for Schucman and Smith. Were they HHs who had honed their abilities: Smith with his seer stone and Schucman with her note pad? Cues and objects help HHs to control the process, and Taves points to Smith’s treasure digging and Lucy’s statement about the narratives Smith would tell the family “as if he had spent his whole life with them” as the kind of practice Smith underwent in preparation for the translation (252). The implication of the experiments on Hildegard’s patient is that the experience is quite powerful and vivid, and feel different from composing a story (251).
At the same time, though Schucman’s experience did have some similarities to Smith’s, recorded conversations with God, angels, or the dead are much more common than claims to supernatural translation of ancient texts. In addition, Schucman was older, had a much better education, and composed her text over a much longer period. As the same time, combining Schucman’s experience with Hilgard’s patient’s does create some overlap with Smith’s experience. The patient felt like he was experiencing the past in such vivid detail to feel like he had really been there. The research on HHs also seems relevant in the ways they can learn to control these states. Can we apply this research to people like Smith and Schucman?
Having been Ann’s student and having some experience in the field of religious studies, I know that the objections to such methods are generally twofold: 1) that cognitive science is complex and nuanced and thus difficult to apply to past figures that we cannot get into the lab, and 2) cognitive science violates epoche. That is, it’s contentious and impolite to subject people’s religious experiences to these kinds of scientific and naturalistic methods.
As mentioned in the previous post, Taves seeks to transcend such objections through a thorough study of all topics involved as well as being thoroughly engaged with the advice and objections of scholars both inside and outside the faith. Again, Taves hopes “that this book models a way of playing fair with people’s deeply held beliefs, whether religious or not, without having to bracket one’s own” (9). Can one take the naturalistic view that Taves has to explore such revelatory events as the Book of Mormon translation and still “play fair”? Is Taves method a useful approach to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, or will her reception fall along the old battle lines?