Critical Thinking: a Primer for Latter-day Saints

Is critical thinking destructive to faith?

How can we fortify our own thinking skills and learn to spot errors in common criticisms of our faith?

This presentation offers a simple primer on critical thinking; slides are available for viewing and download here:

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Latter-day Saint Epistemology

Here we explore some concepts is Latter-day Saint epistemology: how we know what we know, and why we believe things we believe.

Epistemology is a set of important choices that we make in a life of faith, and the better we understand the choices available to us, the more mature and defensible our belief system will be.

Slides for viewing and download:

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On Informed Consent

I consented to be baptized a Latter-day Saint at the age of 8, and my basic understanding was that everyone was doing it, so I may as well too. Plus, a girl I had a crush on was baptized, so I didn’t want to feel left out of that club.

There are a lot of things I was not informed about when I gave my consent at the age of 8, and I’ll offer a list of some of them here.

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We’re all biased. Let’s explore how.

We all have biases of different kinds. Below is a collection of typical biases, many of which are useful in discussions of faith.

Adapted from a full list of cognitive biases at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

Anchoring or focalism The tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor”, on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (usually the first piece of information acquired on that subject).

Attribute substitution Occurs when a judgment has to be made (of a target attribute) that is computationally complex, and instead a more easily calculated heuristic attribute is substituted. This substitution is thought of as taking place in the automatic intuitive judgment system, rather than the more self-aware reflective system.

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Positively Biased for Conference

If you are hitching your happiness to things being a certain way, it’s a setup for suffering.

-Tara Brach

As General Conference approaches, Latter-Day Saints are going to be hearing conflicting messages on social media, and they can generally be grouped into two themes:

  • General Conference is coming, and we get to hear teachings from prophets. Hooray!
  • General Conference is coming, so brace yourself. There will probably be things said that are harmful or insensitive. You need to steel yourself against the possibility of being hurt.

The first theme is one that views Conference as a time of rejoicing. It affirms that Conference speakers are good people and that their messages are inspired. Whatever they say, it will be for our good.

The second theme views Conference as threatening. It is neutral or negative about the motivations and/or divinely-ordained callings of the speakers, and it doubts the capacity of the hearer to process conference messages in a healthy way.

Both themes reflect bias, and bias is not a bad thing. Everyone brings their biases and worldviews to every part of life — including faith — and people who claim to be unbiased are just demonstrating another form of cognitive bias called the Bias Blind Spot. For a lengthy list of cognitive, emotional and other forms of bias, see here.

There is no such thing as an unbiased viewing of General Conference, but it is possible for us to be mindful of what we bring to the Conference experience and respond to our biases (and conference) in ways that lead to our growth.

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Spiritual Experiences, Motivated Reasoning, and Objectivity

A sometimes-perplexing issue in Latter-Day Saint epistemology is the question of how we value what we call “spiritual experiences.” We believe that God can communicate to us through powerful feelings, which critics sometimes dismiss as the elevation emotion, as if they have somehow determined that God cannot or would not use the medium of emotion to communicate with us. I have a little more in-depth discussion of what we call “spiritual experiences” here in my post on epistemology, and I also recommend Blake Ostler’s FAIR presentation on that topic. We also have a collection of witness testimony that gives a good idea of the breadth of our experiences.

But for the sake of this discussion, I want to focus on the question of our feelings. Are they valuable in helping us to know what is true? And to what extent? Are they more or less valuable than reason?

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That is Not Gaslighting.

That thing that really bothers you, doesn’t bother me is not gaslighting.  It’s expressing a difference in perspective.

I and many other people are aware of this thing that you find distressing, but we are at peace with it is not gaslighting.  It’s an affirmation that different people can process things in different ways.

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What is Discernment?

Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world.
And also Satan hath sought to deceive you, that he might overthrow you.
Behold, I, the Lord, have looked upon you, and have seen abominations in the church that profess my name.

Behold, verily I say unto you, there are hypocrites among you, who have deceived some, which has given the adversary power; but behold such shall be reclaimed; (D&C 50)


Nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God (Joseph Smith)

How can I tell when my thoughts and feelings are my own, or revelation from God? How can I tell if an emotionally-satisfying narrative or activity is good for my soul, or would lead me away from God?

The answer to both questions is discernment.

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