The Book of Mormon as Automatic Writing:
Beware the Virtus Dormitiva

Review of Scott C. Dunn. “Automaticity and the Dictation of the
Book of Mormon.” In American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon,
edited by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, pp. 17-46.
Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002. $21.95.

The Book of Mormon as Automatic Writing: Beware the Virtus Dormitiva

Reviewed by Richard N. Williams

In scene 23 of The Imaginary Invalid, Molière satirizes learned explanation and pretension.
His satire is acute, as good satire should be; it has a sharp point that is
then driven home. In this scene, the learned professor deals with the question
of just how it is that opium is able to produce sleep. His explanation is
that it is because of its virtus dormitiva—that is, its “sleep-producing power.” The
term virtus dormitiva has been
adopted to refer to any empty explanation—to any attempt to explain
through simple redefinition. A definition does not explain, even when it is
offered in Latin. An explanation that is a virtus dormitiva leaves every bit as much to be explained after its
adoption (as an explanation) as before it was offered (as an explanation).
The central thesis of Scott C. Dunn’s essay “Automaticity and the Dictation
of the Book of Mormon” turns out to be a classic example of explanation
by virtus dormitiva. It is this
very fact that makes a review of this essay so difficult.

Because Dunn offers nothing more than a virtus dormitiva, the difficulty faced by a reviewer centers around two
conclusions toward which an astute reader is drawn: (1) If Dunn is right
and the Book of Mormon is the product of automatic writing, the reader of
the Book of Mormon is left to decide whether the source of the book is God
or some other source, and whether the content of the book is true (doctrinally
and historically). (2) If Dunn is wrong and the Book of Mormon is not
the product of automatic writing, the reader of the Book of Mormon is left
to decide whether the source of the book is God or some other source, and
whether the content of the book is true (doctrinally and historically). Careful
analysis shows that if the central thesis of Dunn’s essay is taken seriously
and on its own terms, it is, in a profound sense, irrelevant. The only other
reading that can make sense of the essay is that it is meant to be a weak
refutation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon based on a sort of “guilt
by association” strategy by linking the book with “spiritualism.”
In our days, the linking of religion to spiritualism is common, even as it
was earlier. Some see this as a positive thing. But to most, including Dunn,
I expect, it is a negative thing. It provides grounds for some to dismiss
religion as occult nonsense or for others to diminish traditional religion
by absorbing it into a much grander and ineffable cosmos. Both of these tactics
are dismissive of the restoration of the gospel and inimical to the claims
of Mormonism.

That Dunn’s thesis—that the Book of Mormon resulted from automatic
writing—is a bona fide virtus dormitiva is easy to demonstrate. Definitions of “automatic
writing” abound even on the Internet as well as in other sources. Common
elements of these definitions include the following: The written material
comes from communication from an unknown source outside the writer’s own explicit
consciousness. Automatic writing is often attributed to persons now dead.
Automatic writing often results in the “medium’s” writing (or dictating
) faster than normal so that the written project is finished faster than might
be expected from a human author writing his or her own material. (This description
is in keeping with the definition offered by Dunn, pp. 37-38 n. 5.)
Any person seriously investigating the Book of Mormon to know whether it is
true surely seeks to know such things as: What is the source of the book?
Is it from God, or is it simply human imagination? Did it come from prophets
who are now dead? How could Joseph Smith have written the book in so short
a time? How could he dictate for such long periods and never need anything
read back? What was the role of the interpreters or seer stone? If the answer
to these questions is that the Book of Mormon resulted from “automatic
writing,” one may be impressed for a time—until it becomes blindingly
clear that “automatic writing” is purely a descriptive term that
offers a new name for the process that produced the book, but is not an explanation
at all because it leaves each of the original questions unanswered.

For the foregoing reasons, Dunn’s central thesis is difficult to take seriously.
And because of this, Dunn’s purpose in writing the essay is unclear. At best
it might be concluded that he is interested in the occult and is simply pointing
out interesting parallels between the Book of Mormon and incidents of “automatic
writing.” This sort of stuff hardly threatens the authenticity of the
Book of Mormon, nor should it weaken anyone’s testimony of it any more than
referring to prophecy or spiritual discernment as “extrasensory perception,”
or faith moving mountains as “psychokinesis.” Dunn might be accused
of trying to weaken individuals’ faith in the Book of Mormon by a strategy
of “guilt by association” with the occult. As much as one who really
believes the Book of Mormon to be what it claims to be might resent this strategy,
one should not be fearful of it, chiefly because, as demonstrated above, its
central thesis is nothing more than a contemporary avatar of the pretentious
virtus dormitiva and thus is irrelevant. At the end of the day, it may
not matter very much whether we call it “automatic writing” or “translation.”
The proof of just what the book is lies in the power of its doctrines and
in the confirmation of the Holy Ghost as to its truthfulness and, ultimately—whether
revealed to all of us in this world or the next—whether there actually
were gold plates, a being named Moroni, and a colony of Israelites in America
before the Europeans arrived. In light of these issues, both Nephi’s and Moroni’s
farewells are intriguing (see 2 Nephi 33:11 and Moroni 10:27).

In the last few pages of his essay, however, Dunn seems to reveal his motives
as he ends his seemingly innocent and merely interesting thesis of the connection
between automatic writing as a paranormal phenomenon and the coming forth
of the Book of Mormon. He does this by bringing into his argument some of
the old and tired contentions against the authenticity of that book. Examples
include the use of New Testament language and expressions that surely could
not have come from ancient American plates and, therefore, must have come
from Joseph Smith or his unconscious mind. This ignores the fact, however,
that, strictly speaking, Joseph’s work was not a translation in the sense
we use the term today. He was obviously not reading the plates since the language
of the plates was, by its own admission, a dead language. The Book of Mormon
describes the “translation” process used by Joseph. In this passage
the Lord, speaking to the man who would bring forth the Book of Mormon to
the world, says: “thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee”
(2 Nephi 27:20). Thus the translation of the plates is really the Lord’s
own, not Joseph’s. One might expect the Lord to use revelatory language in
one hemisphere and epic consistent with the revelatory language used or to
be used in other hemispheres and epics to teach the same gospel. One might
also expect him to use language in his translation that mirrors as much as
possible the language of his other books of scripture, the language that religious
seekers of truth will already know, love, and recognize by the power of the
Holy Ghost. Dunn’s conclusion that his automaticity thesis “clarif[ies]
the translation process” is false (p. 33). It does nothing of the
sort. Attribution to an unknown, broadly spiritualist source clarifies nothing.
Rather, as a virtus dormitiva, it requires
explanation of a more difficult and arcane sort than that already offered
by Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon itself.

Dunn raises other issues that have traditionally been used to cast doubt
on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. I will not respond to them. They
do suggest, however, that Dunn intends his thesis about automatic writing
to be a refutation of the Book of Mormon.1 For this
reason I will demonstrate why, aside from its being irrelevant, his thesis
should be rejected on other conceptual grounds.

First, the Book of Mormon appeared more than two decades before the rise
of modern spiritualism in America. Many histories of what is sometimes referred
to as “Modern Spiritualism”2 trace
its beginnings to the experience of the Fox sisters in New York in 1848. Thus,
at least, it should be noted that the coming forth of the Book of Mormon does
not fit into a well-established spiritualist movement of the day. All the
examples of supposed automatic writing that Dunn cites postdate the Book of
Mormon, most by quite some time. This timing issue affords the automaticity
hypothesis little face validity. The Book of Mormon cannot be shown to have
resulted from the spiritualist movement, nor is it claimed by the movement
as a harbinger.

Second, Joseph Smith never invoked traditional spiritualist experiences or
explanations, unlike spiritualists of the nineteenth century. When I was first
contemplating writing this essay, I contacted a professional colleague of
mine whose expertise is in the psychology of religion and who is well qualified
in matters of spirituality and spiritualism in the history of religion. His
initial response to the automaticity hypothesis was that it seemed odd since
Joseph Smith, unlike mediums and spiritualists of the nineteenth century,
never invoked spiritualism as a source or influence. For most spiritualists,
the channeling or mediumship is the crucial issue, but Joseph never made such
claims. Rather, he consistently reported that the source of the message was
the metal plates and that his own translation occurred by the gift and power
of God; he was able to show the plates to several credible witnesses who testified
of their existence.

A third reason to reject Dunn’s thesis is that explanation in terms of the
unconscious mind begs the question. To suggest, as Dunn does, that the automatic
writing that supposedly produced the Book of Mormon drew upon Joseph Smith’s
own unconscious mind invokes very tenuous assumptions about the unconscious
mind (pp. 24-26). The examples Dunn cites are very mundane compared
to the scope of the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, they simply presuppose that
prior inputs come out later from the unconscious mind. The content of the
Book of Mormon is such that it seems quite unlikely that Joseph could have
been exposed to inputs sufficient to produce the text of the Book of Mormon.
For me, the most difficult issue involves the sophisticated doctrines clarified
in the Book of Mormon. From where could the extensive and comprehensible doctrines
about the fall, the atonement, and the covenant of Abraham have come? For
something to come out of Joseph’s unconscious mind, it must necessarily have
first been stored there. I am aware of no theory of the unconscious mind that
would support the possibility that the unconscious mind is capable of innately
possessing or manufacturing such complex things as the Book of Mormon. Nor
am I aware of any context in which the explanation of a phenomenon in terms
of the unconscious mind has been taken as a genuine clarification. The unconscious
mind is, and always will be, a type of virtus dormitiva
so long as the answer to the question “What is the difference between
the unconscious mind and the conscious mind?” is necessarily that “the
unconscious mind is unconscious.”

My fourth objection toward the thesis that the Book of Mormon arose from
automatic writing is that it violates the principle of parsimony. Religion
and religious phenomena have been the subject of critical analysis over centuries.
Skeptics have attempted to substitute nonreligious, or at least nonsupernatural,
explanations for religious and supernatural ones. The strategy is always the
same because it follows a rational line of analysis. The analysis goes like
this: Some phenomenon X (the Book of Mormon as translated scripture) is really
Y (automatic writing). However, this
critique only works—that is, it is only compelling—if Y, the proposed
new explanation, can be seen as more logical, rational, empirically demonstrable,
or more parsimonious than the original phenomenon X. For example, according
to some interpretations in the discipline of psychology, all seeming acts
of agentic choice are taken to be really just
the result of meat and chemicals in the body. Although this explanation
in reality fails, it illustrates the tactic in that meat and chemicals, at
least, can be examined empirically and that they are associated with some
other types of responses, such as digestion and reflexes. So if some people
are inclined to reduce more ephemeral things like agentic acts to more material
things like the presence of meat and chemicals, the explanation might be persuasive.
This explanatory tactic, I believe, has always been at the heart of the conflict
between science and religion.

However, in the case of Dunn’s automaticity hypothesis, it must be remembered
that it would be one thing to suggest that the Book of Mormon is the product
of some well-documented, scientifically verifiable phenomenon (one known through
replication to be responsible for related phenomena). It is quite another
thing to suggest that the Book of Mormon is the product of a suspect and innately
unverifiable phenomenon associated with the occult. As such, Dunn’s criticism
of the Book of Mormon (and his article is a criticism in the sense that it claims the book is
not what it portrays itself to be) has the form of reductive arguments bolstered by parsimony, but
it violates that very parsimony in offering an explanation of the Book or
Mormon that is more suspect, less verifiable (remember the witnesses to the
plates and the translation process), and more mystical than the phenomenon
it seeks to replace. Parsimony is very much on the side of Joseph having been
given the translation of the words on the plates by the Spirit of God.

Traditional skeptics often ask believers to give up a belief in a miracle
in the face of a simpler and more reliable explanation. Dunn asks us to give
up a belief, verified for millions by the confirmation of the Holy Spirit,
in favor of an explanation that is less empirical, more occult, and more arcane
than the belief itself. This is a classic example of virtus dormitiva,
and a very bad bargain.


For a look at automatic writing, which some critics have offered as a possible
explanation for the Book of Mormon, see Robert A. Rees, “The Book of
Mormon and Automatic Writing,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1
(2006): 4-17.

2. See, for example, (accessed
16 November 2006).