A common observation of Mormon apologetics, and FairMormon in particular, is that their explanations are rarely internally consistent. The explanation for one issue contradicts or conflicts with the explanation for another issue. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter much that they contradict each other. Other times, they really do damage to their arguments.
One case in particular is when FairMormon addressed the survey the Open Stories Foundation conducted about understanding Mormon disbelief. In this address, FairMormon pointed out problems with the scientific nature of the survey and whether the results could be considered valid or statistically representative of the people who leave the Mormon church. For this post, I don’t care if the problems are valid or significant. Instead, I want to focus on Problem #2 and its implications for the multiple First Vision accounts.
Here is what FairMormon said about Problem #2 (emphasis and color added).
Problem #2: Difficulties with memory and retrospective accounts
Mormon Stories’ efforts to use the survey to construct a narrative of why some Mormons disbelieve highlights a second difficulty: “Autobiographical memory is a constructive process:….People’s current goals and knowledge influence recollections.”  This applies to everyone. One author makes the same observation in his analysis of secular and sectarian ex-Mormon narratives: “after-the-fact narratives are inherently unreliable in establishing the authenticity of actual occurrence.” 
Mormon Stories’ questionnaire asks people to describe why they made a decision in the past. What were the factors that led them to conclude the Church was not what it claimed to be? A change in religious worldview can be a major life event, so memories might well be vivid. However, the psychological literature is clear that conclusions about our past mental state based upon retrospective reporting are also highly unreliable. “We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences—unknowingly and unconsciously—in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of a specific incident, or even of an extended period in our lives, that says more about how we feel now than what happened then. Thus, without knowing it, we can modify our own history.” 
“Unfortunately,” noted the National Academies Press in 1988, “asking people about the past is not particularly helpful: people remake their views of the past to rationalize the present and so retrospective data are often of uncertain validity.”  As a recent popularization put it, “Today, there’s broad consensus among psychologists that memory isn’t reproductive—it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced— but reconstructive. What we recall is often a blurry mixture of accurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs, needs, emotions, and hunches. These hunches are in turn based on our knowledge of ourselves, the events we try to recall, and what we’ve experienced in similar situations.”  A variety of biases affect such efforts to establish past views, beliefs, and influences, especially about a subject as emotionally-freighted as religion. 
Someone in the Open Stories Foundation has had instruction on social science research techniques. This is evinced by the insertion of a disclaimer stating that Mormon Stories’ survey is not statistically rigorous. Despite this, Mormon Stories still wishes to use the survey to construct narrative, and encourages the audience to draw conclusions based upon the responses. But, as the experts warn, “hindsight bias…is ubiquitous: people seem almost driven to reconstruct the past to fit what they know in the present. In light of [a] known outcome, people can more easily retrieve incidents and examples that confirm it.” 
It is thus not clear what can be concluded from such a survey, save that Mormon Stories’ audience now agrees with Dehlin.
So, let’s compare this to the First Vision accounts. The first one we know about was written by Joseph Smith in 1832 — 12 years after the First Vision was purported to have taken place. Other accounts of the First Vision (dictations or secondhand accounts) were recorded in 1835, 1838, 1840, 1842, 1843, and 1844. Clearly, the gap in time falls into the “after-the-fact narratives are inherently unreliable in establishing the authenticity of actual occurrence”.
Additionally, the details of the various accounts vary drastically. In one, he sees Jesus and is forgiven of his sins. In another, he only sees angels. In another, he sees God the Father and Jesus Christ and is told to not join any church but that he will start a church instead. These changing details conveniently fit with changes in Joseph’s theology, and needs he had in keeping control of the church he was running. Grant Palmer’s “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” does a much better job detailing this than I can do in a blog post. This fits with “We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences–unknowingly and unconsciously–in light of what we now know or believe”. Also, “people remake their views of the past to rationalize the present and so retrospective data are often of uncertain validity”.
Congratulations, FairMormon, you’ve successfully proven why we shouldn’t trust the differing accounts of the First Vision. Oops!
(cross posted from uncorrelatedmormon.wordpress.com)