What Do We Know, And How? A Look At Orthodox Latter-Day Saint Epistemology

Introduction: Expanding our Categories

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  In discussions of epistemology, it is common practice to make distinctions between belief, justified belief, and knowledge.  Generally unaware of these distinctions, Latter-Day Saints have sometimes employed binary categories of knowing/not knowing in expressions of personal conviction, and doctrine/not doctrine when discussing boundaries of belief.  We embrace more and better distinctions among these concepts.  Professions of knowledge are appropriate when one possesses experiential or revelatory confirmation of a principle; when one possesses none of those things, professing knowledge out of cultural or other forms of pressure can have the effect of thwarting our spiritual progress, giving us the sense that we have arrived at an important destination when in fact we have barely begun the journey.  Personal knowledge of gospel truths is a lifetime pursuit, and until knowledge is obtained, the decision to exercise hope, belief, trust, or confidence is a perfectly valid form of faith.

Similarly, the binary categories of doctrine and not doctrine can be expanded into more accurate categories of doctrine and teachings, which vary in levels of both confidence and importance.  Moreover, the simple process of looking for an authoritative voice to determine the validity of a principle, can be expanded into a consensus-based epistemology where church teachings are evaluated in consultation with revelation, intuition, experience, scripture, scholarship, and other inputs.  The united voice of the leading quorums of the church, and the recency of teachings, are the strongest possible criteria for evaluating whether any given principle rises to the level of binding doctrine.

As shown in the above Venn diagram, faithful epistemology involves looking for convergence and consensus among a variety of sources. In addition to the sources above, we might include the scientific method, critical scholarship, tradition, and a number of other sources. None of these sources is infallible; each source has strengths and weaknesses for contributing to various kinds of questions. As we mature, we learn to prioritize and evaluate our sources, and select which sources are applicable to our specific questions. This process is also followed by nonbelievers, who find reasons to dismiss sources like revelation, experience, and institutional religious authority.

Openness Includes Mutual Transparency

New Testament scholar Craig Keener correctly asserts that “Plausibility structures—what intuitively strikes us as rational—are culturally determined.” (Miracles, p.237). Orthodoxy must be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about gospel concepts, a process that often necessitates the expansion of our plausibility structures. The refusal to modify one’s plausibility structures is a hallmark of both fundamentalist and progressive approaches to faith, which seek to validate individual emotional needs and commitments at the expense of truth.

Where we differ from other approaches to inquiry is in our insistence that new ideas, especially new ways of thinking about gospel concepts, be subject to scrutiny using Christian epistemology, with attention to the impact of worldview and ideological commitments.  One of the primary Christian ideological commitments concerns the purpose of inquiry itself: the recognition that inquiry serves a purpose, and that purpose is a profound reorientation of the soul, called conversion.  Paul counseled against engaging in doubtful disputations with people who are weak in the faith (Rom 14:1), and profane and vain babblings that lead to ungodliness (2 Tim 2:16); and explained that a characteristic of people who are mired in sin is that they are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  Christian healing is a function of conversion, and it includes a healing of the intellect.  This process of conversion and healing of the soul is the ultimate purpose of all Christian inquiry.

This laying of these commitments on the table, and insistence that others do likewise, is sometimes dismissed as so much postmodernism.  And it is true that this approach to inquiry shares some important elements in common with postmodernism, particularly a skepticism toward claims of neutrality and objectivity.  This is important, as there are areas of academic study, particularly in history and the social sciences, where arguments against scripture and sacred history are presented as rational and even scientific refutations of orthodox Christian beliefs.  Any honest appraisal of history must include open discussion of the worldview and biases of historians, and the methodological parameters within which they have chosen to operate.  When it comes to scripture, the field of Biblical Studies has become a vast morass of conflicting narratives and theological assertions offered under the pretense of scholarly neutrality.  This field offers much of value to the believer, but any honest participant in this field must be candid about the chaos in their field, and equally candid about the personal, institutional, and cultural scholarly commitments that have created it.

Christian epistemology does not share the methodological burdens of secular scholarship.  Christians forthrightly assert that truth is personified in Jesus Christ, and that the relational knowing experienced by the believer carries validity equal to any other standard for knowledge.  Christians have been cautioned to “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”  This exhortation implies that some Christian knowledge is to be held back, not subject to scrutiny by people whose intellectual and other commitments would cause them to misuse and abuse it.

Another difference between Christian and secular epistemology is our view that choices we make in pursuit of knowledge, and how we treat what we are given, are some of the many ways that we express to God what and whom we love.  The imagery of Christian knowledge in the form of pearls implies great value relative to other things, and that once obtained, the knowledge is to be protected and cherished.  To trample pearls under feet is to bury their value under our own intellectual and other commitments, whether those be fundamentalism on the right or an insistence upon egalitarian theology on the left.

In contrast with secular inquiry, in a life of faith, a perceived need to account for every possible objection to our spiritual understanding amounts to unhealthy intellectual scrupulosity.  For the converted Christian, intellectual openness is akin to examining our pearls from new angles, and occasionally polishing and reshaping them.  In our inquiry, this takes the form of improving our assumptions, our definitions, and our understanding of context and other factors that contribute to our Christian beliefs.

Realistic Expectations for Scholarship

We do not insist upon strict adherence to the principle of noncontradiction, but in areas of inquiry where there are competing theories asserting a basis in rationality, such as in naturalistic theories of the provenance of the Book of Mormon, it is reasonable to insist that proponents of theories explain why opposing theories are flawed.  Absent this engagement with competing theories, scholarship reveals itself to be not a search for objective truth, but rather a showcase of scholars’ abilities to imaginatively theorize and interpret data in ways that fit within personal and even institutional plausibility structures.  This point is important; when theorists naively assert superior epistemology based in enlightenment rationality, they also bear the burden of explaining whether it is possible to produce theories that are at once rational and false, and how that process occurs.  Nonbelieving historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan correctly said of the multiplicity of theories in his field: “that stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.”

To the extent that the field of Mormon Studies manifests the same tendencies, it bears the same problematic burden of credibility.  Moreover, the field of Mormon Studies bears the same limitations that scholar Walter Wink attributes to Biblical Studies: “People with an attenuated sense of what is possible will bring that conviction to the Bible and diminish it by the poverty of their own experience.” (Quoted in Miracles, p.139).  Scholars of Mormon Studies bring to their efforts varying levels of personal experience with the phenomena they are researching, and personal experience largely determines the range of possible conclusions available to any particular scholar.

We recognize that orthodoxy can accommodate a healthy pluralism; in areas of belief where revelation is silent or ambiguous, as in questions surrounding the mechanism of creation or the exact locations of Book of Mormon events, we welcome charitable exchange of competing views.  Even in areas where revelation is direct and clear, the examination of well-considered opposing viewpoints can lead to more mature mental models and definitions of terms, leading to better understanding of revelation.  To avoid problems of credibility that characterize secular scholarship, orthodox inquiry should manifest openness and transparency about the worldview and epistemic commitments of the inquirer.

One of the most consistent areas of conflict between orthodoxy and secular scholarship, is in the tension between scholarship and witness testimony.  When scholars engage with sacred history, they are confronted with witness testimony of supernatural phenomena that have been seen and experienced.  This is a conflict where harmonization and reconciliation are often impossible.  To give one example, John Dominic Crossan’s search for naturalistic counter-narratives to New Testament accounts of demonic possession, led him to formulate a hypothesis that these New Testament accounts were misdiagnoses of a form of psychosis found in revolutionary societies.  This imaginative hypothesis can never be reconciled with the thousands of current examples of Latter-Day Saint witness testimony of demonic possession and exorcism.  Catholic philosopher Peter Van Inwagen articulates the problem as follows:

First, “ordinary” Christians (Christians not trained in New Testament scholarship) have grounds for believing that the gospel stories are (essentially) historical—grounds independent of the claims of historical scholarship. Secondly, New Testament scholars have established nothing that tells against the thesis that ordinary Christians have grounds independent of historical studies for believing in the essential historicity of the gospel stories. Thirdly, ordinary Christians may therefore ignore any skeptical historical claims made by New Testament scholars with a clear intellectual conscience.

In pursuit of openness to new conceptualizations of gospel principles and sacred history, there will inevitably emerge questions of what constitute appropriate boundaries for belief.  In other words, how much reconceptualization is too much?  In our pursuit of accurate history and true doctrine, how exactly do we delineate between baby and bathwater?  A good and reliable boundary is found in testimony offered by witnesses, and witness testimony can be evaluated for reliability according to secular standards of credibility, sober-mindedness, lack of coercion, and speaking against one’s own self-interest.

To apply this principle, we can consider the Biblical account of the flood: there are conflicting theories as to the provenance of the account, as well as its scope and meaning.  The flood is mentioned in restoration scripture, but absent contemporary witness testimony, we find a healthy discussion of different possible approaches to interpreting and contextualizing the relevant scriptures and gospel principles.  By contrast, questions as to the importance of temple ordinances are answered conclusively in the testimony of experiences among credible witnesses — some of whose experiences occurred before their exposure to the Church — wherein ancestors and other loved ones have communicated their need for ordinances performed in Latter-Day Saint temples.  In the case of the flood, lack of current witness testimony of this phenomenon allows for broad exploration of possible approaches to our narratives.  In the case of temple ordinances, the abundant witness testimony of credible and sober-minded people sitting next to us at church constitutes an impenetrable boundary of belief.

Christian Epistemology

Core concepts of Christian epistemology are found in the New Testament accounts of the ministry of Jesus Christ and in the letters of the Apostle Paul.  We adhere to the principles of epistemology that they espoused.

Epistemology in the Gospels

The ministry of Christ served to upend common notions of many different religious concepts, such as blessedness, righteousness, power, loyalty, and belonging.  In addition to these, however, Christ taught principles of epistemology that were disruptive in His time, and continue to be disruptive and even radical in our day.  The following are five core principles of Christian epistemology that Christ taught and practiced during His mortal ministry:

  1.  The divinity of Christ is revealed.  In Matthew 16, Christ says to Peter that “flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my father which is in heaven.”  Human beings, including ones trained in relevant fields of scholarship, are only ever capable of putting forward theoretical perspectives on the historical Jesus and the revealed Christ.  Those theoretical perspectives are a function of our worldview, our assumptions, and the data that we are willing to consider, and the methodologies we choose to employ.  By contrast, knowledge of the revealed Christ is a gift that comes through revelation.
  1. Knowledge of Christ is given to simple people.  In Luke, we are given this profound statement from the Christ:

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.

All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him. (Luke 10:22)

This statement implies a democratization of knowledge of God; high socioeconomic status and/or academic training are advantages in many areas of life, but when it comes to personal experiential knowledge of God, they often constitute a hindrance to understanding.  Revelation is available to people who approach their questions with no more intellectual sophistication than a child.

  1. Committed action is a precursor to understanding.  Christ taught that “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17)  This is a reversal of our normal, rational tendency to evaluate systems for soundness and validity before offering them our commitments of time and resources.  However, the epistemic model taught by the Savior and reiterated in Alma 32, depicts knowledge as a plant that bears fruit (Luke 8:15, Alma 32:37).  In both of these contexts, the heart is portrayed as soil that can vary in quality. Personal commitment to gospel living creates the “soil conditions” of holiness and humility, from which can sprout belief that bears validating evidence, or “fruit”.
  1. Belief precedes evidence.  This is another powerfully counterintuitive element of Christian epistemology, and it is expressed in Mark 16:17 “And these signs shall follow them that believe…”.  To believe is a choice, and it is a choice that is made in the context of plausibility structures.  

Culture is not the only factor in the development of our plausibility structures; they can be informed by life experience (or lack thereof), our neurological wiring, our stage of life, or a number of other factors. The scriptures teach that belief is a gift (D&C 46:14) that can be sought (v.8).  Moreover, we learn in Mark 6 that when Jesus returned home to His “own country” of Nazareth, it was a return to a culture of nonbelief, where his people were unable or unwilling to see past the human dimensions of Jesus’ personal history (“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?”).

Having been raised in a nonbelieving culture, Jesus undertook an extended period of fasting in the wilderness and emerged from the experience relieved of his culturally-informed plausibility structures.  Speaking from personal experience, he would later say of evil spiritual influences, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).  In these stories and teachings we see the role of fasting in Christian epistemology: the fasting-induced experience of physical depletion shifts mental resources away from the maintenance of rigid plausibility structures, opening the mind and heart to new possibilities.  In Isaiah’s great discourse on proper fasting, he describes the spiritual breakthroughs made possible by this physiological state: “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn… Then shall you call and the Lord shall answer, cry out and He shall say ‘Here I am.’” (Isaiah 58:8-9).  This relationship between physical depletion and spiritual receptivity is likewise observed in scriptural accounts of revelation occurring following prophetic ascents to mountaintops.

In sum, Christianity is not without empirical and other forms of evidence, regardless of whether that evidence is readily and universally verifiable. Orthodox epistemology reverses the enlightenment’s causal relationship between evidence and belief.  Plausibility structures do not determine what is real; they only determine how much of reality we are willing to embrace.  Belief can be chosen, but the choice is constrained by our plausibility structures, which are a product of our culture and other factors.  Fasting and other devotional activities can facilitate the dismantling of overly narrow and rigid plausibility structures and enable the perception and acceptance of spiritual dimensions of reality.

  1. Witness testimony of lived experiences is of greater epistemic value than abstractions.  A story in Luke illustrates the relationship between the two: in chapter 7, we learn that imprisoned John the Baptist had grown disillusioned and sorrowful over his unmet expectations for the fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic mission.  After his followers notify Jesus of John’s feelings, Jesus tells them “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.” (v.22)

In contemporary phrasing, Jesus seems to be saying John, can I ask you to focus on this simple question, of whether the power of God is manifest in what we are doing, right here and now, in the present?

In Restoration terms, it is possible, particularly in our youth, to form simple and comforting mental models around questions such as the provenance of scripture and processes of translation; the goodness (defined in presentist terms) of authority figures; the inerrancy of church teachings; and so forth.  Confronted with new information that conflicts with our mental models, our natural response is often one of disillusionment and sorrow, similar to that expressed by John the Baptist.

In this situation, it is a posture of intellectual integrity to do as Christ suggested, and explore simple and verifiable questions about God’s involvement in the work of the church, particularly in our unique efforts in missionary and Temple work.  For example, questions of exactly how Joseph Smith conceptualized “translation” at various points in time are interesting and worth exploring, but shed very little light on the larger question of whether the Church is what we claim it to be.  For that question, credible witness testimony of the gifts of the spirit experienced in missionary and temple work is much more directly relevant.

To illustrate this point more specifically, Jesus met Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration without having accounted for questions raised by the Documentary Hypothesis.  Mary Magdalene was visited by the resurrected Christ without having viable theoretical models for intertextual borrowing among the Hebrew prophets.  Mary Whitmer was visited by an angel and shown plates without having a thorough grasp of the relationship between prophets and their surrounding culture.  Emmeline B. Wells experienced a temple theophany without understanding competing theories for the provenance of the Book of Abraham.  Presently, as people are brought into the church through revelatory experiences and given miraculous manifestations with ancestors seeking temple ordinances, their witness testimony carries far more epistemic value than any of the aforementioned questions, or other “brain teasers” like them, that exist only in the realm of abstraction.

For this reason, it is important to note that orthodox epistemology is radically egalitarian. The newest Latter-Day Saint convert in Guatemala is capable of grasping the reality of the Restoration every bit as much as the Ivy League-educated theologian.

Pauline Epistemology

Christian epistemology is further developed by Paul, whose life story hinges on a fundamental disruption of his culturally-informed plausibility structures while on the road to Damascus.  In Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, he lays the groundwork for Christian epistemology among his readers using a broad statement:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will nullify the understanding of the intelligent.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the learned debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? God was pleased to save those who believed in the foolishness of preaching, because in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom. For Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek wisdom. But we declare to you a crucified Christ, to the Jews a scandal and foolishness to the Gentiles. But to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ is the power and wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is greater than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18-25, Wayment)

In this passage, Paul uses language of “foolishness” and “weakness” in a frank concession to those would evaluate Christianity using epistemologies that are foreign to it.  Christianity, Paul concedes, is ridiculous.  Unless, that is, someone possesses a different mode of perception: what Isaiah and his New Testament admirers like Paul describe as eyes that see and ears that hear.  Paul tells the saints at Corinth that rival epistemologies, such as wisdom among the Greeks and signs among the Jews, are inadequate to convey the reality of God.  Also inadequate are the tools and methods of the “learned debater” and the “wise man,” neither of whom can confer personal experience that constitutes the only authentic and reliable knowledge of God.

Paul explains that the counterintuitive nature of Christian epistemology is by divine design:

Consider your calling, brothers and sisters, that there were not many who were wise according to human standards, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish of the world so that he might shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, those who are nothing, to bring to nothing what is regarded as something so that no human being can boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:26-29, Wayment)

Paul regards human weakness as an important aspect of God’s system, there to prevent idolatrous worship of the system instead of its Creator.  Paul views his own ministry as a case study in this principle:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I came not with excellent speech or wisdom as I proclaimed the mystery of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I was with you in weakness and fear, and in great trembling. And my speech and my message were not with a persuasive word of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit and power so that your faith would not be in people but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5, Wayment)

Finally, Paul offers an absolute prerequisite for knowledge of God, in receptivity to The Spirit:

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit of God so that we might understand the things freely given to us by God.  And we speak about these things, not in words taught by human wisdom but in those taught by the Spirit, speaking spiritual things to those who are spiritual.  The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolish to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are discerned spiritually.  But the spiritual person discerns all things, and he is scrutinized by no one.

Obedience and Knowing

This final point of insight speaks to our insistence upon giving heed to men and women who are ordained servants of God. Evil speaking, accusation, and/or outright rejection of God’s servants causes loss of the Spirit, which results in a downward spiral of loss of spiritual knowledge and sensitivity. Individuals often try to reassure and justify themselves by both consuming and engaging in more and more accusation until it becomes a compulsion. It is common for people in the downward spiral of apostasy to spend multiple hours a day in a frantic and compulsive pattern of consuming and sharing videos and articles of accusations toward the church, its leaders, and its members past and present.

Long before the advent of the Internet, Thomas B. Marsh explained this process in his personal history:

“I have frequently wanted to know how my apostasy began, and I have come to the conclusion that I must have lost the Spirit of the Lord out of my heart.

The next question is, ‘How and when did you lose the Spirit?’ I became jealous of the Prophet, and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; and then, when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, … I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad.”

Our historical experience as Latter-Day Saints constitutes a vast epistemic laboratory, from which we can derive important — and sometimes painful — lessons, as did Thomas B. Marsh.  From these observations, President Dallin H. Oaks once concluded accurately that “We cannot have the companionship of the Holy Ghost—the medium of individual revelation—if we are in transgression or if we are angry or if we are in rebellion against God’s chosen authorities.” (March 1997 Ensign)

The converse of these principles is also true. A personal orientation of informed and patient obedience toward God’s servants enables an upward spiral of growth, learning, revelation, insight, and healing shared between an individual and other members of the community of believers. If nonbelieving epistemologies are characterized by contention, intellectual entropy, and compulsive accusation, adherence to orthodox epistemology produces serene and patient people, full of grace and wisdom to offer the world around them. Jesus referred to this as having within oneself “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14)

Epistemology in a life of faith, then, has as much to do with the development or deterioration of the soul as it does with the processing and evaluation of information. Restoration scripture describes this reality:

It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell (Alma 12:9-11).

The “lesser portion of the word” might be a simple understanding that living the gospel makes one happy, or an emotionally appealing perception that “Jesus is kind.”  The greater portion of God’s word is a personal understanding of God’s sweeping purposes for humanity, that in restoration scripture caused Enoch’s heart to swell “wide as eternity” (Moses 7:41).  The greater portions of the word are the difficult, soul-stretching aspects of Eternal Life, the impossible choices that cause God to weep with both joy and pain.

The “hardening of the heart” can be a function of one’s preference for sin, but this hardening can also be theological in nature: an expression of one’s preference for God to operate in different ways than He does.  Hardening of the heart can be a refusal to accept God as understood in a combination of scripture, prophetic insight, and witness testimony.

A Note on “Spiritual Experiences”

Latter-Day Saints often use the phrase “spiritual experiences,” and unfortunately this phrase connotes in some minds the emotional response that we have to spiritual phenomena, or just a moment of emotional intensity. That does not even begin to address the breadth of spiritual experiences — encounters with God — that inform Latter-Day Saint epistemology. For a broader and more representative list, see here. It is important to understand that many of our spiritual experiences do not have any emotional component whatsoever, and many of them involve tangible physical evidences. For an example of this, see Greg Trimble’s mission experience, Gene R. Cook’s story of the recovery of his scriptures, or my personal story of the May 1977 Ensign hanging on the wall in my home office.

It is extremely important that Latter-Day Saints exercise caution and discipline in attaching only the appropriate level of meaning to spiritual experiences. A spiritual experience demonstrating God’s involvement in one’s life or in the work of the church does not necessarily validate beliefs that the earth is young, that the scriptures are inerrant, or any number of other propositions. Those all need to be evaluated with the appropriate combinations of epistemic sources.

Personal spiritual experiences should also be evaluated and understood in light of other sources, especially the united voice of the men and women who lead the church. The importance of this concept is illustrated in NT Wright’s insistence that Christians inform their personal experiences of Christ with rigorous historical understanding of Jesus in his historical context:

As a pastor, I am only too well aware of the problem of serious self-deception: more than one priest, defending indefensible actions, has said that he or she sensed the presence of Jesus, apparently endorsing his or her scandalous behavior. It’s not enough to say you feel something, even the presence of Jesus, very strongly. Lots of people feel all sorts of things very strongly. In order to know that you’re not just making it up, not fooling yourself—and if you don’t think that’s a danger, your skeptical friends ought to tell you—you must be able to say that this Jesus, who we know in prayer, this Jesus we meet when we are ministering to the poorest of the poor, this Jesus we recognize in the breaking of the bread, this Jesus is the same Jesus who lived and taught and loved and died and rose again in the first century. We must believe and confess that he did indeed inaugurate God’s kingdom, die to bring it about and rise again to launch the consequent new creation. We must know who Jesus himself actually was and is.

This is, if you like, the personal version of the larger point which Ernst Käsemann made in the 1950s: if we don’t do historical-Jesus research, difficult though it may be, we are helpless against the ideology that manufactures a new Jesus to suit its own ends… You have to do the history, otherwise the church can be dangerously deceived. As John Calvin said, the human mind is a perpetual factory of idols. And one of those idols, those homemade gods, can be named “Jesus”—not least by those who claim to be canonical or orthodox Christians.

(Jesus, Paul and the People of God, 119)

The Choice to Believe

The quest for knowledge is like every other quest in God’s great plan of happiness.  What we seek, and how we seek it, are ways that we indicate to God what we love.  This is important because God’s ultimate intention is to give us what we love, whether that be God’s life and God’s understanding, or something different.  That something different might be abstraction, self-affirmation, rational certitude, or any number of other things that we crave.  Unlike secular epistemology where we give assent only to ideas that fit within our plausibility structures, knowledge of God is personally experienced and the process of knowing God involves communion with God, or it is not knowledge of God. The fact that this personal knowledge is not empirically verifiable by others or even appreciated by others, does not make it any less representative of reality.

In scripture, the heart is associated with belief and understanding, and is depicted using imagery of soil. Hosea beautifully encourages the people: “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” (10:12).  In the parable of the sower, Jesus uses the imagery of soil to depict the heart as varying in its capacity to sustain seeds of “the word” through a process of growth and bearing fruit.  In Alma 32, Alma describes our ability to “nourish” the soil of the heart (v37), where we have planted seeds of understanding.  In his sermon, he encourages thirteen judgments of “goodness,” as well as enlightenment and enlargement of the soul, and defers judgments of truth and knowledge until latter stages in the process of inquiry.  The choice to believe, then, is not a matter of weighing abstractions on a set of scales until there is a tip in one direction or the other.  It is more a matter of creating healthy soil conditions in our hearts and minds, undertaking experiments on the word, patiently observing, discerning the fruit, and continuing that process throughout our lives.

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst. Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.  (Alma 32:41-43)

7 thoughts on “What Do We Know, And How? A Look At Orthodox Latter-Day Saint Epistemology”

  1. I feel like your epistemology is a dangerous recipe for serious confirmation bias. Scientific methods try excruciatingly hard to root out any kind of bias that could taint their conclusions.

    How does your epistemology guard against that?

    To be more specific:
    There are millions if not billions of witness testimony’s for any number of belief systems that are counter to each other. What makes one witness testimony valid, and another not? If you go by sheer number of witness testimonies by upstanding, credible individuals, it would indicate a different truth than the one advocated here. I’d bet catholicism or Islam would have the most.

    Acting in faith, committed action preceding evidence, etc not only run counter to scientific methods but are key elements of confirmation bias. What safeguards do you put in place to not be led astray by confirmation bias?


    1. If I might comment on your letter…you exhibit a lot of potential defeaters for belief but you don’t actually address any principles by which true belief can be discerned. Following this pattern, we might as well just save time by going straight to Munchausen’s trilemma: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnchhausen_trilemma. There you have it. Nothing can be known, only believed. All that which we call knowledge is really just our triangulation of our observations with our plausibility structures, cultural constructs which for all intents and purposes are just socially legitimated biases. All axiomatic knowledge systems face an ultimate circularity, even logic and mathematics. There are no exceptions. Furthermore, there are unambiguously true things that can never be known (see Godel’s incompleteness theorems: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems). And Bell’s inequalities (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bell-theorem/) indicate that our most confidently-held and epistemically secure laws are not above question. The point? Every epistemology can be pinned down and poked full of holes. Our unaided minds simply don’t have access to absolute truth. Faith in one thing or another is inescapable. It is a fact of life, and should not be feared.

      Next, some comments.

      You say: “I feel like your epistemology is a dangerous recipe for serious confirmation bias. Scientific methods try excruciatingly hard to root out any kind of bias that could taint their conclusions.”

      Let’s go to some quotes from your letter to parse this out. I noted your section on confirmation bias says the following: “Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypothesis. We tend to draw conclusions and then find evidence to support that conclusion. It is the root cause behind thousands of debunked scientific studies, unjust wars, moral panics, and conspiracy theories. ” If this definition is to be accepted, then we must extend credit where credit is due. Confirmation bias is not merely responsible for the debunked studies, the unjust wars, the moral panics and the conspiracy theories; it is responsible for ALL studies, wars, panics, and theories. There’s no such thing as a truly free-ranging investigation: every inquiry, like a bowling ball, goes rolling down a lane flanked by the bumpers of our canons of rationality, our plausibility structures, “life experience (or lack thereof), our neurological wiring, our stage of life, or a number of other factors” as Dan puts it. Or, as he puts it another way, “Plausibility structures do not determine what is real; they only determine how much of reality we are willing to embrace.” We cannot investigate anything without doing so according to our rules, to what we know, which are preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. They must necessarily guide our judgement or else we have no rules to judge by. It’s literally impossible to look at anything without resorting to previous beliefs. Confirmation bias is a function of the mind, part of the process of inferential reasoning. I would ask by what authority we interrogate the function of our minds using only another function of our minds, as if we could judge the part by the sum without calling into question the sum and thus our metric of judgement. A house divided against itself falleth. I do not believe in the infallibility of introspection: playing this game of second-guessing is a forked royal road to contrarianism or paralysis. I consider neither to be an acceptable outcome, especially given the momentous and neutrality-prohibitive nature of religious choice.

      In the letter you offer a prescription for escaping confirmation bias. “To overcome Confirmation Bias one must observe the evidence, and THEN draw the conclusion. As new evidence is produced, the conclusion must be abandoned and reevaluated.” This does not, however, actually do anything to deal with confirmation bias as you have defined it. You have defined confirmation bias as the tendency to interpret things in ways that square with our past conclusions: by necessity this requires first observing the evidence. Evidence must be observed to be interpreted, no? Isn’t confirmation bias dangerous because it affects which conclusions we draw from observing the evidence? A further question must also be asked, because there’s never just one conclusion implicated in any inquiry. Per Thomas Kuhn, networks of hypotheses are always tested together. We make judgements based on prior learning and judgements. How many of these conclusions must we abandon first in order to ensure that confirmation bias does not corrupt our upcoming conclusion? You can’t rid yourself of all prior influences in order to make each new judgement, it isn’t possible. The idea that you can suspend judgement and rationally consider the evidence independent of any prior judgements is not merely implausible but incoherent.

      Dan has challenged enlightenment rationalists to account for whether or not rational theories can be false (which they observably can) and if so, how? I would also extend to you the following challenge: how can you reliably judge between true judgement and confirmation-bias judgement, in order to guard against overcorrection? That is a real danger: what’s to stop you from unfairly balancing the scales in favor of things you disagree with, out of fear of confirmation bias? How would you know if you were doing that, and how would such contrarianism be any better, more reliable, more truth-prone than confirmation bias? Axiomatic rejection of anything which could be confirmation bias =/= truth. It’s honestly a choice between biases, in which case I would argue that confirmation bias is the lesser evil: it at least allows for consistency.

      With regard to scientific methodologies, they don’t actually minimize confirmation bias. That’s because confirmation bias does not occur on the level of observables but on the level of the abstract conclusions we draw. Scientists strive to collect accurate data, but data collection/observation is not where confirmation bias does its damage. It resides in the realm of the conclusions we draw. Scientists are just as wedded to their previous judgements and rules as the rest of us. Scientific methodology tries to limit conflicts of interest and ensure accurate data collection, but it doesn’t really do anything to stop the influence of prior beliefs on conclusions. In fact, the scientific community encourages specific ways of thinking about things. So there isn’t actually that much bias-mitigation.

      The crucial problem with your warnings of confirmation bias is that, by these standards, it can ultimately be argued that any conclusion we draw which coheres with our prior beliefs can be attributed (by those for whom it is convenient) to confirmation bias. This is not a practical way to live or think, and we don’t have the luxury of being ivory-tower philosopher-kings who can puzzle out the perfect way to draw conclusions. Long story short? Confirmation bias-as-defeater is unsuccessful. How are you supposed to know that you are drawing true conclusions if you’ve pegged your own rational process as untrustworthy? If your rational processes are infected with confirmation bias, how can you trust them to guide you safely out? A house divided against itself falleth. Frankly, to get out you’d need an external source of knowledge with infinite time and resources with which to pursue it. You’d need God.

      Furthermore, confirmation bias can only account for the interpretation of phenomena: it cannot create them. You still need to provide a causal explanation of experiences with God. “Brain chemicals” isn’t going to do it because, on any naturalistic viewpoint, our entire world is brain chemicals. Sight, sound, taste, touch, every sense, and the same higher-order logic which you use to condemn spiritual activity as brain chemicals…are all brain chemicals themselves. What does this do to their truth value? A house divided against itself falleth. And how can you confirm these sources of information without relying on them and thus lapsing into circularity? A house divided against itself falleth. Nevermind that you still must posit a cause, and all this comes before you engage with divine activity with observable effects like those which Dan discusses. We have no choice but to trust.

      Regarding your specific thoughts on witness testimony: for there to be actual parity regarding religious experiences between denominations, you’d have to examine the phenomenology, the “raw feels” in other words, of reported experiences. Similar brain activity does not mean the same sensation is being experienced by the subject, and unless you can establish that then you don’t actually have a contradiction because you don’t have the same experience. The amount of religions and religious followers who base themselves on religious experience are often overstated in these sorts of arguments as well; they neglect the role that tradition plays in the formal epistemology of faiths like Islam and Roman Catholicism.

      On a more fundamental level, the question assumes a fundamentalist view of inspiration and divine engagement with mankind, which assumes that there can only be one divine revelation and that in pristine purity. All revelation is mediated through human beings and the various influences which weigh on our minds, thus it is not surprising that religious engagement would reflect that human diversity. Religious traditions are syntheses of divine action, preexisting human ideas, and cultural pressures. I am not surprised to see God’s light diffracted among the various religious traditions, and I see no reason why He should not act to sustain them and the good that they do. Nor do I see any reason to believe that God is the only spiritual influence out there. Nor do I think that, if I did see any such reasons, they would be binding on God.

      Dan says something extremely insightful: “Christians forthrightly assert that truth is personified in Jesus Christ, and that the relational knowing experienced by the believer carries validity equal to any other standard for knowledge.” Emphasis: “relational knowing.” We aren’t dealing with abstracts because we are pursuing more and higher aims than those “new thing[s]” after which the Greeks perpetually chased. Witness experience is more important than abstract propositions accessible only to inferential reason. It’s a matter of relationship. Thus, they can have theirs and we can have ours, and God deals with us on His terms, His will be done. The existence of continuing revelation implies that we are presently wrong about some things. I acknowledge that and do not fear it. But I do know what I have seen and experienced, and I know the relationship into which I have been invited, and it is in this that I trust, let everybody else do what they may.

      Christian epistemology was radical in the first century and it is radical now, because it is fearless. Perfect love casteth out all fear. We need not live, like W.K. Clifford, in the horrible fear of being made a dupe. We already are considered foolish, why bother correcting the impression? “Enlightenment” epistemology will accept only those beliefs which it is coerced into endorsing, living in eternal fear of mistaken abstracts. This is a bootstrapper epistemology, entirely dependent upon the self, suitable for mankind to extend itself towards its limits in pursuit of self-aggrandization. But such an anthropocentric epistemology cannot help us to transcend ourselves and reach higher. To exalt us, God knew we needed a different way of knowing.

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