I suggest that the physical object that Joseph had in his possession was not literally ancient gold plates, but plates of his own creation which talismanically represented the "gold plates" of his visions, aiding his mystical translation of those visions.
Beliefs are not merely concepts in our mind, they actively shape our perception of reality, and even form that Reality.
Joseph's experiences seem to parallel those he "translated" in the Book of Mormon, perhaps indicating a deeper spiritual-mystical allegory and myth.
A tradition of a "heavenly book" runs through many traditions, including Mormonism with its "gold plates." What spiritual reality might these traditions be pointing to?
If Joseph made the plates he had in his possession, then didn't he lie in saying otherwise? Maybe there is more to it, which ties into the mystical nature of his visions.
It's taken more time to write about this reconstruction, because it is perhaps a more sensitive subject, and more complex, than any I have written before about Mormonism or Christianity, yes, even more so than Jesus or Joseph Smith (which might be an indication that something is off-kilter). The Salt Lake City based Latter-day Saints take the Book of Mormon very seriously as a holy text, as scripture revealed by God, similar to the Bible, and perhaps even more important than the Bible. The Book of Mormon is one thing that makes them unique, their own testament of the divinity of "Jesus Christ," which they believe is also evidence of the unique prophethood of Joseph Smith and the divinity of the church he organized as God's "true church." But I think the truth may be much more nuanced.
There was a fascinating show that my wife and I watched last night on Mind Field with Vsauce (Michael Stevens). It was season 3, episode 7, titled "Behavior and Belief."
In my paper "The Book of Mormon as Literary Alchemy: Joseph’s Magnum Opus and the Philosopher’s Stone," I suggested that the "gold plates" that Joseph Smith had in his possession were not actually made of gold, and did not actually contain ancient historical records like Mormons traditionally think. But that doesn't mean that there were not "gold plates" which were a kind of "hidden treasure" that Joseph really did discover within himself, which was the source of real divine wisdom, "ancient wisdom," and which he taught could be found within all people as well.
Joseph Smith's activity in bringing forth the Book of Mormon can be viewed as a project of alchemy, which was influenced by his affiliation with treasure digging, the folk magic worldview, the Hermetic tradition,1 as well as his many mystical spiritual experiences. I suggest he initially sought to bring the “gold plates” of his visions into material reality, and in the process discovered the true “gold” was within himself, the elusive Philosopher’s Stone.
I suggest that the translation of the Book of Mormon was Joseph Smith's alchemical Magnum Opus, or "Great Work," a transmutation of his own base desires for materialistic gold and treasure into the highest spiritual realizations of human atonement in God consciousness, and a realization or awakening of eternal life in his Self, even theosis, which he continued to preach for the rest of his life.