Certainty: Blessing or Curse?

Speaking to a group of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith once said that if he had the lungs for it, he would preach a sermon that would make all of them shut their mouths and go home until they knew something about deity. He then asked the following question: “Why be so certain that you comprehend the things of God, when all things with you are so uncertain?” (TPJS, p. 320)

Why, indeed? Latter-day Saints are well known for declaring their beliefs with the preface, “I know…” It’s simply not enough to say, “I believe….” In fact, the “I know” phraseology is so common, that in order to add emphasis, some will go further, with statements like, “I know with every fibre of my being….” In the LDS community, this emphatic certainty is looked upon as a desireable thing, so much so that those who are less emphatic in their affirmations can be looked upon as a bit defective. This “knowledge” is often, in fact, presented as one of the great offerings of the LDS church. Hugh Nibley, in many of his works, referred to what he considered the “terrible questions.” “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” To Nibley, these were universal questions faced by all mankind, and not being certain about the answers made a person unbearably anxious.

I’ve been certain before. I was so certain that I spent thousands of dollars and hours, scouring everything I possibly could about the doctrine and history surrounding the object of my certainty. In fact, I was so certain, that I compared my level of certainty with that of other LDS church members, and felt I came out ahead of most. One might say I made a certain ass of myself.

Then the unimagineable happened. I became uncertain. That uncertainty may have come in bits and pieces over time, but there was actually one particular moment, when my certainty was irretrievably lost. I don’t know that I was prepared for it. I physically felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me. It was a traumatic experience. I frankly had no idea at that time what to do about my uncertainty, and what it would mean for my life. Having become uncertain, the world was suddenly supposed to come crashing down around me. Yet it didn’t.

I do not consider myself an atheist by any means, but at the same time, I no longer personally feel comfortable with the idea of an individual, personified deity. I’ve spent time examining other faiths, such as paganism and buddhism, and gleaned some useful insights, but I remain uncertain concerning many things about how this universe works.

Much to my own surprise, I have found a level of peace and joy in my uncertainty. In fact, it’s fair to say that I am happier at this point in my life, than I ever remember being. My uncertainty allows me to appreciate the world around me in a way I never did when I “knew” that I had the answers. I’m more open to others. I don’t mentally flog myself when I make mistakes. At least for now, uncertainty works for me.

I find myself wondering about certainty now. What was it that I found so intoxicating about certainty before? How did certainty affect my interactions with others, and with the world around me? Was it even possible to be certain, without being prideful? Why do those who are certain have such a fear of uncertainty, and why do those who are uncertain recoil when faced with the certainty of others?

I don’t know. After all, as I said, I’m uncertain.

Comments

comments

69 comments for “Certainty: Blessing or Curse?

  1. May 29, 2008 at 9:53 am

    It does indeed seem that many members have glossed over the prophetic words of Jacob:

    “Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways.” (Jacob 4:8)

    For whatever information and insight we do have about God, there clearly is a lot that we have yet to find out. Unfortunately, these holes in our understanding are often dismissed or ignored, and what is left is aggregated into an assumed accurate understanding of God. But somehow, I don’t think that the concept of God that this renders for us does him any justice. I think leaving some open space for these “depths of the mysteries of him” is crucial to an accurate picture of the divine. In fact, God himself said:

    For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! (D&C 19:10)

    How great indeed.

  2. Guy Smiley
    May 29, 2008 at 10:22 am

    The bottom line is, testimony should be of simple things, and we can’t expect to know anything about complexities. We need testimonies of specific core issues, not mysteries. So knowledge of specific important core doctrines IS a desirable thing. You are taking Joseph Smith’s statement out of context.

  3. May 29, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Nick,

    John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories podcast about Fowler’s Stages of Faith helped me understand and cope with the experience of going from a certain to an uncertain state of mind unexpectedly. That podcast discussed the concept of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” spoken of by St. John of the Cross in the 1500’s I believe, where God suddenly feels distant, and that sudden removal of the foundation of our faith is at first terrifying. The overall point is that the Dark Night of the Soul need not be interpreted as a negative event, or a sign of God’s displeasure or anger with you over something you’ve done. Rather, it can be a phase where God is opening your heart and mind and preparing you for further light and knowledge. Perhaps that is what we are reading about when Joseph Smith cries out and asks God “where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” or when Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    KC pointed out a helpful scripture to me along these same lines. Speaking of the good king Hezekiah, the scripture says: “God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart.” (2 Chron. 32:31.)

    Overall I think the question of whether certainty and uncertainty are good or bad depends on how we choose to handle and react to them.

  4. May 29, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Guy, can explain your view of the context of Joseph Smith’s statement, so I better understand why you feel I am taking it out of context? As I understand the context (including the historical context) of the above statement, Joseph was preparing to teach the people some very untraditional concepts about deity, ideas that he would fully expand on soon after, in the King Follett discourse. Now, I’ll grant that a few LDS members now suggest that those ideas are not “important core doctrines,” but I think the vast majority of LDS members believe they are.

    I’d like to see you, and others, explore why certainty is a “desireable thing.” Conversely, can certainty be harmful to us? I look forward to your comments!

  5. May 29, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Overall I think the question of whether certainty and uncertainty are good or bad depends on how we choose to handle and react to them.

    Great start, Andrew! Care to elaborate? 🙂

  6. John Nilsson
    May 29, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Certainty which is based on subjective experience alone, no matter how powerful at the time or what we label it (the Holy Ghost, the Buddha, the collective unconscious, conscience, emotion) is always psychological, and thus can be easily destroyed by either objective evidence or by another subjective experience. We need an interplay of both to get outside of ourselves and our own perspective. The history of the human race, partially contained in the scriptures, and also in more secular records, should teach us this if nothing else. I am certain of this! 🙂

  7. Lulubelle
    May 29, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Nick,

    I share your feelings. I went from “I know” to “It must” to “I don’t know.” And with the church, probably even “it’s probably not but I can’t ever leave because of what it would do to my family.” I have to say that this un-knowledge and maybe even the “probably not true” feelings have made me more comfortable with life in general. I’m less fearful, I’m not eaten up by complete shame and guilt over everything, and I am at peace. For me, the guilt that I felt over everything I did (i.e. wearing a tank top, sipping ice tea, not loving the temple) was mind numbing and I bordered on hating myself. Why couldn’t I be a TBM? Why oh why oh why? I enjoy life more, I’m more forgiving or myself and others, I’m more tolerant, all of which I thought was Christlike to begin with. Is this a good thing? I don’t know, but for now it seems to be.

  8. May 29, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Nick-great post, and an important topic. I have studied Emotional Intelligence quite a bit in my graduate program, and being comfortable with uncertainty (I think Goleman calls it “Tolerance for ambiguity) is a key factor. Being comfortable with uncertainty is a sign of an emotionally intelligent person. Many of us religious folk tend to decide on certainty in order to avoid facing ambiguity, imho.

    I agree with Andrew, in that how we react is more important. I want to think about this some more though.

  9. thinker
    May 29, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Nick, i commend you on your mental and spiritual liberation. many people do not share the same fate as you when they find themselves at the the crossroads of “truth” and mythology.

    Joseph Smith was a believer and a practitioner of uncertainty. He gave us three different and distinct accounts of a singular event, the “first vision”.

    We will remain uncertain, because God himself is bound by the Uncertainty Principle, that is, if you believe in libertarian Free-Will.

  10. austin s
    May 29, 2008 at 11:19 am

    “What was it that I found so intoxicating about certainty before?”

    Clearly certainty gives assurance. No matter how uncertain you are, I think you must have some bedrock in your life to be happy, whether it’s family, friends, love, religion, God, work, etc. You will find yourself wandering aimlessly and depressed if you can’t be certain of anything at all. At least, that has been my experience. For some people, then, the logic probably goes that if you can’t be happy without some certainty, certainly the more certainty the better! I don’t agree with that, I think there needs to be room for uncertainty and doubt and exploration, but I think that being able to tell yourself you are 100% certain about almost everything gives you a lot of safety. The whole “all is well in Zion” mentality.

    “How did certainty affect my interactions with others, and with the world around me? Was it even possible to be certain, without being prideful?”

    I definitely think it’s a difficult thing to believe that your church is the “only true and living church on the face of the earth with which the Lord God is well pleased” and still be humble and tolerant and Christlike. I don’t, however, think that that difficulty is a good reason to stop believing it. It may be a difficult truth, but if it is truth then we should accept it and do our best to overcome the downsides associated with knowing it. Similarly, there are many people who are very critical of those who are very certain, so this goes both ways. It’s easy to slip into a prideful way of thinking “I am so liberated and enlightened, those poor, ignorant, brainwashed religious fools can’t even comprehend my level of understanding!” So I don’t see being certain as really any less problematic (in the pride department) than being uncertain. Either way, you need to try very hard to keep an open mind.

    “Why do those who are certain have such a fear of uncertainty, and why do those who are uncertain recoil when faced with the certainty of others?”

    This is my favorite question you’ve posed here. Is it a fear of being wrong? A fear of the other? The unknown? I don’t know, but I’ve seen it manifested a lot, in my own life and in the lives of those I know.

    I think certainty is certainly a “desirable thing,” though I agree with you all that there MUST be room left for new truth to enter in. Preferably a lot of room. Certainty is good because it prompts action on our parts–seeking out God, praying, keeping his commandments, repenting. Without any religious certainty I think one may investigate religions and have some curiosity, but never really get anywhere, basically treading water. And if we’re going to become more like God, which I believe is the purpose of this life, we have to start acting.

    Good post!

  11. Benjamin O
    May 29, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I have come to the conclusion that life is largely about learning to deal with unknowns, the uncertain, and the dark road ahead. Isn’t that what the whole concept of faith is about?

    It’s saying “I don’t know. I have uncertainty because I cannot prove this or that, but I choose to trust this way because I hope for this.”

    Take some of my statements the other day regarding JS and the first vision. I said then, and I’ll reiterate, that I know that Type 0 visions (Glimpses) do occur. These are minor, there merest touch of God. I followed that up with a few comments about my faith in God. Here’s the difference. I know my personal experience. I have data and fact of what happened, as unreliable and flawed as human first-hand experience may be (and it’s pretty bad, but it’s all that most of us have most of the time). I have uncertainty regarding God, but lots and lots of hope. Do I absolutely 100% know that God is real? No, because there are too many philosophical problems for that to be a plausible statement. Am I comfortable with the statement that I am certain enough that I will act and behave in a certain way? Yes. Because I have an accumulating body of evidence that indicates that God is real.

    Maybe its because I am trained as a psychologist, where the data is NEVER good enough to be certain about much of anything. Where effect sizes and correlations of .32 are rejoiced over, and a 6% improvement is considered worthwhile. Uncertainty is a given in that environment (the only thing we really know is that we won’t know for sure). So if in my scientific endeavors I have to be uncertain, why should I seek for further certainty in my religious endeavors? I am comfortable with seeking for further knowledge and truth, but always realizing that there will be more to know and learn. Eternal progression is a concept that I love. But it implies a lot uncertainty now and for a long long time.

    So while many members of the church may revel in the surety that things are a certain way, I am just as happy to say “I don’t know, but I will certainly try to look for a beginning to an answer.” Yet when people speak to me, they will say that I sound authoritative, because I speak with confidence despite that uncertainty.

    Oh well.

  12. Ray
    May 29, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Nick, thanks for this. I believe STRONGLY in both certainty and uncertainty – in the need for both in each individual life. I hope I can explain succinctly, since that’s not my default – as you all know.

    My favorite definition of faith is the one that combines “the substance of things hoped for” with the motivation to pursue those unseen things. Next, as I’ve said here before, I believe that life is about becoming, not just understanding – and that becoming trumps understanding if only one must be pursued. So, I see a need for balance in this discussion of certainty vs. uncertainty.

    In practical terms, this means I believe in enough certainty to move forward and “plant and nurture the seed” – believing that if you do so you will understand more fully and gain more certainty. However, the real problem occurs when certainty closes off any desire to continue to learn more – about a particular concept or about all concepts.

    Without a measurable degree of certainty, growth just won’t occur – since time will be spent “trying to understand better” rather than “trying to live better”. Personally, I would rather try something and learn at a very practical level by my success OR failure than not try something and never learn except in theory.

    In summary, I want to be more and more certain of the details about which I care deeply, even if I never am certain of everything. I just don’t think there is time in this life to learn enough to be certain of everything – and I think that is a central concept of the Restoration. Think about continuing revelation in that light: Protestantism essentially said, “We know enough to get what we want;” Joseph said, “I don’t, and you don’t know enough to get what I want.”

    Finally, fwiw, it bothers me greatly when someone says with certainty that I can’t know with certainty. As I said to a commenter on FMH recently, “To you, my root beer float is crap; to me, your root beer float is your root beer float. The difference is important.”

  13. Neal
    May 29, 2008 at 11:42 am

    In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defines three types of holding something to be true: trowing, which is when something is neither subjectively nor objectively sufficient to be held as true, believing, which is when something is subjectively but not objectively sufficient, and knowing, when something is both subjectively and objectively sufficient to be held as true. By this logical definition, I claim that Latter-day Saints (or anyone else) can “know” anything religious–the proofs and confirmations we are given are only subjectively valid, and can only be so to hold their value.

  14. May 29, 2008 at 11:47 am

    “. . . who will say, that he absolutely and infallibly KNOWS his peculiar construction of the words of scripture to be correct? Has any man in these days a secret revelation from God, declaring his interpretation to be perfect, and that of his neighbor erroneous?”

    —John Sherman. ONE GOD IN ONE PERSON ONLY: And JESUS CHRIST A BEING DISTINCT FROM GOD, Dependent Upon Him for His Existence, and His Various Powers; Maintained and Defended. . . . By John Sherman, Pastor of the First Church in Mansfield, (Connecticut.) . . . (Worcester [Massachusetts]: From the Press of Isaiah Thomas, Jun., September, 1805), p. ix.

  15. May 29, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Interesting post, Nick.

    When I was a young person I struggled with doubt. I was never someone who “had the gift of faith.” However, my efforts were no less sincere than those who felt they knew with certainty. When it came time for me to put away the religion of my youth, I dropped it with a breath of relief. It was like putting down a heavy stone.

    Mormons say that anyone can gain a testimony through prayer, fasting and study. I did all those things and really never had anything to show for it except almost overwhelming cognitive dissonance.

    You might chalk this up to a moral failing on my part. Like many people, though, I think my behavior improved after I discarded my prior system of belief. I became more generous with others, less judgmental of difference and showed more personal integrity in many areas of my life. (My theory: people tend to behave better when they are under less stress.)

    A question I have is this: why does belief come easier for some people than for others? Is it just a character trait like curiosity, assertiveness, extroversion, etc.? If you can get past the official position that prayer works for everyone (it doesn’t), what are you left with? The usual LDS explanation (faithfulness in the pre-mortal existence, being “a choice spirit,” etc.) just deflects the question by pushing it back to a hypothetical earlier phase of existence.

  16. Ray
    May 29, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    #15 – I wish I could answer that, MHH. I have no certainty whatsoever in my ability to do so.

  17. Bruce Nielson
    May 29, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    I agree with everything Nick said. I went through an experience similar to what he describes… except probably less dramatic since I was born uncertain and will die uncertain. (Except that I’m not certain about that last statement.)

    I would just like to add that while Nick applies his post to believing LDS people, it really could/should be applied to unbelieving ones as well. The degree of certainty towards the church amongst the less believing or unbelieving is very very high on the bloggernacle. Way too high to be rational. It must therefore ultimately be classed as a subjective (religious?) experience (even if entirely couched in rational terms) equal and opposite what Nick describes and has the same ramifications.

  18. Matt Thurston
    May 29, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Nick, I followed the same trajectory, from being absolutely-certain to not-so-certain to uncertain. The emotional rollercoaster that accompanied the journey was similarly predictable, from feeling happy/content to feeling anxious/confused/sad to eventually feeling peaceful/happy again.

    It’s interesting, because I started the journey obsessed with finding answers to my questions, of finding the “truth.” My assumption was that the answers were “out there,” somewhere… that the answers were not only attainable, but applied to the entire human race. But at some point universal answers and truth became irrelevant, lost in a delicious fog of relativity and perspective. My obsession for answers remained however, but they switched focus from “out there” to “in here”… in other words, why do we believe/think/feel the way we believe/think/feel?

    Knowing whether or not Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus in a sacred grove was impossible. As such, the question was just not interesting to me. What was (and still is) interesting to me is “why” some people believe/think/feel Joseph saw God and Jesus, and why some people do not.

    The answer to that question may be as elusive and maddening as the answer to the question of why some people feel attraction towards the same sex, and some people feel attraction to the opposite sex. So, while personal experience is obviously a factor, our feelings of “certainty” (religious or otherwise) is likely encoded in our DNA. It’s nature and nuture all over again. As I mentioned in a previous post, a recent book by Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not suggests as much:

    http://www.amazon.com/Being-Certain-Believing-Right-Youre/dp/0312359209/ref=wl_it_dp?ie=UTF8&coliid=I17V5B2L9LT2ER&colid=20EILXW56ER0A

    A description: “In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we “know” something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this “feeling of knowing” seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.”

    In the end, we all must fine our own perspective, our own understanding or window to what we believe/know. That is the first journey. The second journey for most people (and faiths) seems to be to convince others of what I/We have come to believe/know. While such a journey is not without merit, (albeit ultimately impossible), I’m starting to think the more important second journey is to understand how/why/what others believe/know. This has proven difficult for me to learn, as I’m pretty certain about my uncertainty, and feel the world would benefit if others were uncertain as well. But I learn more about myself and others, and I feel closer to the “divine,” when my approach is: “This is my story; what is your story?”; rather than: “This is my story; read/pray/study so you’ll also believe my story.”

  19. Guy Smiley
    May 29, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Nick,

    Certainty is a desireable thing because it is the rock of revelation, as Jesus said in 3 Nephi, that his basic doctrines are what we build on so that we don’t fall as the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. That is taught in the Primary song, and that is the core of the gospel so that we are not tossed about by every wind of doctrine. As that one youtube video that was just posted here on this site shows, if you have testimony about core doctrines, then you have questions about the other mysterious things that you don’t understand. They don’t become doubts, because you know the core things that all else builds on are true. They are just merely questions about insignificant details rather than doubts. Having doubts about core issues means that you are built on the sand and can be swept away. There’s my answer to your request for a response.

  20. John Nilsson
    May 29, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Bruce,

    Good observation. I find Richard Dawkins to be annoying, more so than Carl Sagan was, for the same reason.

    MoHoHawaii,

    I am coming to think that genes may play somewhat of a role in the degree of certainty which people hold about their beliefs. I can be convinced otherwise, of course, because I am not completely certain. We see an echo of this from our most orthodox Mormon friends, who talk freely about “believing blood.” Although I do not believe in the concept of blood determining beliefs, worthiness, or anything else, this crude formulation may be an intuited observation that genes play a role, and/or that religion is inculcated socially. We could do twin studies separated at birth to test this hypothesis, I suppose!

  21. John Nilsson
    May 29, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    GuySmiley,

    In addition to being certain about core doctrines, are you certain that the doctrines you are certain about are “core doctrines”?

    I will respectfully disagree with your scriptural exegesis. Certainty is not a concept which can be introduced into the verses you cite. One can, with weak faith, build her or his house on the rock of Christ, not the rock of revelation, in faith, which implies and includes doubt, and be as safe from the storm as those with complete certainty. “Building” indicates action, not belief. Acting “as if” despite doubt is fine with God, it appears. One ought not to build their house on the sand, which would be anything but Christ and His teachings.

  22. May 29, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Thank you, Guy Smiley, for your doctrinal disposition on why you feel it’s important to have a testimony of what you consider core LDS doctrines. Forgive me if I misunderstand what you’re saying, but from both your comments, it appears to me that you are expressing a fairly common feeling among LDS, that “delving into the mysteries” is dangerous to one’s testimony of LDS doctrine, and that one should (as has been said by a few general authorities) “leave the mysteries alone.” It appears to me that my isolated comment about voracious study of such things led you to comment on this, and you are expressing a viewpoint that by engaging in that sort of study, I was “building on sand” with regard to my religous faith. That is certainly (no pun intended) an interesting topic of conversation in itself, and perhaps it deserves a separate post/thread of its own.

    I would venture to say, however, that testimony is not entirely a synonym for certainty, at least in the sense of this discussion. By “certainty,” I refer more to the feeling of already having final, complete answers to one’s spiritual questions. When one is “certain,” one has firmly concluded the matter in their own mind, perhaps even to the point of refusing to give consideration of any kind to other viewpoints or ideas.

    Joseph Smith dealt with this behavior constantly, because even the early Latter-day Saints brought with them ideas of which they were already certain, and when Joseph contradicted those ideas (he called them “traditions”), they “flew to pieces like glass,” as he described it. In fact, Joseph complained often about this phenomenon near the end of his life. He referred to “great big elders” who were “too wise to be taught.” He said that teaching new ideas to the Latter-day Saints (in general) was like trying to split a hemlock log, using a piece of cornbread for a wedge and a pumpkin for a sledgehammer (using modern terms, of course). He taught that some “set up stakes,” essentially saying “thus far may god reveal, and no further.” In other words, even when people believe that a man literally speaks for deity, their “certainty” in what they’ve already heard (often what they’ve already heard from other men who they also believed spoke for deity, as was the case in the 1978 priesthood revelation) can be problematic.

  23. Kent
    May 29, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    I must quote Orson Scott Card:

    “Knowledge is just opinion that you trust enough to act upon.”
    Children of the Mind

    …”the story the oversoul tells me fits all the facts that I see. Your story, in which I’m endlessly deceived, can also explain all those facts. I have no way of knowing that your story is not true-but you have no way of knowing that my story isn’t true. So I will choose the one that I love. I will choose the one that, if it’s true, makes this reality one worth living in. I’ll act as if the life I hope for is real life,and the life that disgusts me-your life, your view of life-is the lie.”
    The Call of Earth

  24. Ray
    May 29, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Nick, it sounds like the modern LDS generally are better about accepting change and uncertainty than the early Mormons. I’m glad you approve of LDS-ism over Mormon-ism.

    (I don’t know how to make an emoticon that is grinning while sticking its tongue out, but I just couldn’t resist making this comment – even if only to show how easy it is to take someone’s words and twist them into something you KNOW they don’t believe – and that last part was NOT directed at Nick but meant only as a general commentary.)

  25. Kent
    May 29, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    And Terryl Givens (“The Mormons”)

    “My idea going into this study of the Book of Mormon, especially the section dealing with evidence for and against its historicity, was if the Book of Mormon is true, then it has to stand up to the most rigorous assaults and critiques that skeptics and nonbelievers can make. So I made every effort to honestly, fully investigate every criticism, every objection that’s ever been made to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. One has to suspend judgment in a number of cases, because it’s hard to say when the evidence will all be in, but at the present there are still a number of unresolved anachronisms and problems and ambiguities in the text.

    But I felt satisfied that there was in every case a corresponding weight on the other side of the equation, which actually led me to, I think, some very important insights into the nature of faith and how faith works. I came to the conclusion, in large part through my study of the Book of Mormon, that for faith to operate, and for faith to have moral significance in our lives, then it has to at some level be a choice. It can’t be urged upon us by an irresistible, overwhelming body of evidence, or what merit is there in the espousing of faith? And it can’t be something that we embrace in spite of overwhelming logical rational evidence to the contrary, because I don’t believe that God expects us to hold in disregard that faculty of reason that he gave us.

    But I do believe that the materials are always there of which one can fashion a life of belief or a life of denial. I believe that faith is a revelation of what we love, what we choose to embrace, and therefore I think [it] is the purest reflection of the values that we hold dear and the kind of universe that we aspire to be a part of. And so it comes ultimately as no surprise to me that the evidence will never be conclusive on one way or the other. I think that there’s a purpose behind the balance that one attains in the universe of belief. …”

  26. Kent
    May 29, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Blake Ostler gave a great presentation entitled “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment” which I found insightful:

    “So, I would like to distinguish between two types of knowledge claims. First, I’ll call these the “Insane Epistemological Certainty” claims – with emphasis on insanity. We must be able to completely discount all rival interpretations of our experience or we cannot claim knowledge, at least that’s the claim. The problem is that only an insane person really worries about whether they are a brain in a vat or stuck within the Matrix. So I’d like to distinguish that from a second type of knowledge which I call “Pragmatically Meaningful Knowledge.” Based on all of our background knowledge, and the way that we must live our lives, to trust our experience is the only thing that really makes sense; and I suggest that it’s the same with religious experience. It’s the only thing that really makes sense of our experience.”

  27. Yet Another John
    May 29, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Of one thing you can be certain: There are those that are very certain about their uncertainty and are very uncertain about others’ certainty.

  28. Bruce Nielson
    May 29, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Yet Another John,

    I’m not certain I followed you.

  29. Yet Another John
    May 29, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Bruce,

    I’m certain you didn’t. I certainly couldn’t be certain that I am certain about what I’m certain about.

  30. May 29, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    “Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.” –Voltaire

    Nick,

    Great Post. I personally feel that acting upon truth from science or rigorous historical scrutiny is more valid then “spiritual revelation”.

    And I think it is important that we do act upon truth when confronted with it. We would never have the great technology we have now if scientists didnt act upon truth.

    And we wouldnt have been graced with great men like Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-FSB agent that was killed, most likely by the FSB, for standing up and ousting Russian secret services of staging Russian apartment bombings and other terrorism acts, against innocent civilians, that helped to bring harliner and anti-western candidate Vladimir Putin to power.

    “Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained. – Gandhi”

    Alexander’s commitment to truth ended in his martyrdom…the same can be said for Joseph Smith.

  31. John Nilsson
    May 29, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    The only problem I have about classifying spiritual experience as the kind of pragmatically meaningful experience Blake Ostler writes about is that we are agents in many ways of our own experiences. I can choose to read a Zen Buddhist text, and thus potentially open myself to that worldview, or I can forgo that experience, trusting my own experiences which confirm LDS points of view. Experience often just happens, but we also select as much, if not more, of our experiences. I can guarantee that my experiences, including spiritual ones, would have been different had I married a Lutheran woman instead of an LDS one, to use a simple example.

  32. Kent
    May 29, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    John, have you read Blake’s entire presentation? I think he addresses your concerns.

  33. Ray
    May 29, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    John (#30) – or I can choose to read a Zen Buddhist text, and thus potentially open myself to that world-view **and the richness of that perspective that can strengthen my testimony of Mormonism**, or I can forgo that experience, trusting my own experiences which confirm LDS points of view **but rob myself of the insight I received from the Buddhist text**.

    I’m not saying one approach is *always right* and the other is *always wrong*. I’m jsut saying that the outcome depends on the attitude and perspective we take into the project more so than the objective parameters of the project.

  34. Bruce Nielson
    May 29, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    >>> I personally feel that acting upon truth from science or rigorous historical scrutiny is more valid then “spiritual revelation”.

    Not so fast, Steve.

    You have a strong moral sense that you act upon (in all your posts and comments) and I’d dare say not an ounce of it is provable or even evidential from science or rigorous scrutinty of any kind. Morality itself has no scientific basis and can really only be felt inside — i.e. it’s a “spiritual revelation” just as you are claiming is less valid.

    And yet you’ve clearly organized your life around this moral sense of yours (as well you should, btw) far more so then any of your scientific knowledge that you hold. And yet it’s really just a “spiritual revelation” too.

    This is probably a post for another time, but I doubt “moral law” has any realistic possible scientific backing at all. (If anything, science really suggests that morality doesn’t exist and it’s a figment of our imagination or an artifact of evolution that can be disregarded as desired.) We just all accept it as real and can’t fathom denying it. (Even while understanding it somewhat differently in many cases.)

  35. Hope
    May 29, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    What I find intriguing is the actual word certainty. Do we really know what we are saying when we say that we’re certain? It actually originates from the Latin root certus which means to sift through or often to discern. Its now evolved to its current meaning which is; to be certain, one must be positive, with out doubt, and usually requiring proof. Yet we often tie the word, “I know” to certainty, and I think there is a difference between the two. To know, one doesn’t neccisarily have to be certain.

    I really enjoyed this post, your a talented writer.

  36. discostu
    May 29, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about whether someone can be truly certain or not. I personally don’t believe that anyone is capable of being categorically and continuously “certain” about anything–whether we’re talking spiritual or temporal matters. What we tend to believe and accept as “true” is so inextricably connected with our frame of mind and other surrounding circumstances at that given time, that our “certainty” is only capable of surviving for as little as an instant. I have been “certain” about many things in my life at various junctures only to realize later that maybe I’m not so certain anymore. Of course, this leads you to question whether you were ever “certain” to begin with. What I have come to accept is that “certainty” exists on some plane a few feet above our heads–like the sky to a fish submerged in a pool of water. Occaisionally, we, like the fish, are able to jump briefly out of the pool into the air above us and in that instant, we are certain of where we are and what its like to be there. But gravity always pulls us back to the pool of uncertainty where we are left to wonder whether we ever really saw the light we only now barely remember.

    I don’t fault anyone for getting up in church and claiming to be “certain” about this or that. I believe that, in that moment, they are completely certain of what they claim to be certain of. We should stop trying so hard to retain complete and categorical certainty about spiritual matters–it simply cannot be done. Life will always throw ideas and controverting “proof” which forces us to re-examine and question our fundamental beliefs. The trick is to not forget those brief moments of certainty with which we are occasionally blessed and strive to make every effort to escape the pool of doubt which always surrounds us.

  37. John Nilsson
    May 29, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Bruce,

    If what you’re saying is true about the non-existence of moral law, or “natural law”, then heaven help us all. What else can people of different worldviews unite on? The scary thing, and you might be right in your skepticism about the existence of natural or moral law, is that other than that, science is the only truly international worldview we have left. That’s conceding a lot of ground to the paradigm that Stephen is advocating.

  38. Thomas Parkin
    May 29, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Nick,

    Great stuff in #21.

    In so far as certainty is fixity, it prohibits learning and is probably more anathema to the ‘gospel’ – which is a process of continuous expansion – than any ohter thing.

    I’ve got so many things I’d like to add – and no time!

    ~

  39. Bruce Nielson
    May 29, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    >>> If what you’re saying is true about the non-existence of moral law, or “natural law”, then heaven help us all.

    You’ve got me backwards, John. I’m not saying moral law doesn’t exists. I’m saying it *does* exist and thus spiritual revelations — which is what moral law is — are primary in terms of how we exist, define ourselves… in what makes us human and who we are. Spiritual revelations are all important and all encompassing in our existence and in the meaning of life. (I’m also claiming that Stephen may not “say” he believes in the certainty of spiritual revelations compared to science, his “acts” of making his moral sense, a spiritual revelation, the center of his life contradicts this claim. And thank goodness.)

    Science is secondary and much much less important — though still valuable, of course.

    And science rarely matters as much as people act like it does. For example, in truth, I’m not certain the world is round (though I have no problem saying “I know the world is round”, even though I just mean “knowledge on authority”) but it doesn’t matter because whether the world is really round or really flat is not going to affect anything about me or anyone I know in the near future. I’m not saying that knowledge isn’t useful… it’s just not useful to me so I’m not even interested enough to go study it further and find out for myself. I just accept it on authority and move on with my life because of it’s near total non-importance to me.

    In short, I’m agree with discostu. 🙂 I think we have built a false paradigm around “certainty” out here on the old bloggernacle. The truth is that very little is certain, if anything, and your standard “Simply Faithful Mormon” has as much or more claim on the “certainty” of their testimony than I do on the the world being round. And they have as much claim to certainty as Stephen does on the morality he’s built his life around.

  40. hawkgrrrl
    May 29, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Eric Fromm said, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” The older I get the more uncertain I am about most things. This is a human condition–Mormons don’t corner the market on thinking we are certain about things that no one can be certain about. I’ve said before, I don’t let the things I don’t know interfere with the things I do know. But the list of things I know distills over time.

  41. Angie
    May 29, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    ” I no longer personally feel comfortable with the idea of an individual, personified deity”

    In my opinion, the first and the greatest of all the questions that we must answer is “If a god exists, what is his/her/their true nature?” And the next question is, “How does this god communicate to me?” After we have answered these two questions, then we have everything we need to find all truth.

    And a brief thought about this questions from #15:

    “why does belief come easier for some people than for others? Is it just a character trait like curiosity, assertiveness, extroversion, etc.?”

    I think that easy faith/a believing heart is a character trait, bestowed by God. And it exists in some and not others, just like every other character trait and spiritual gift. We are all (potentially) the body of Christ, and each person’s individual character and gifts can benefit the others. Just like patience, a sense of humor, etc. Those of us without a natural affinity for belief can develop it, and we will grow through this process – just like someone who lacks easy compassion can grow by learning to be more tolerant and loving.

  42. Ray
    May 29, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Hope, well said. We really are dealing with a different definition than the original.

  43. Admin Alert?
    May 29, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I posted a comment 12 hours ago that has yet to be cleared from moderation… thanks in advance.

  44. Nick Literski
    May 29, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ve released the comment.

  45. Guy Smiley
    May 30, 2008 at 12:26 am

    In response to: “it appears to me that you are expressing a fairly common feeling among LDS, that “delving into the mysteries” is dangerous to one’s testimony of LDS doctrine”

    Absolutely not. I’m the first one to say that everyone should be speculating on which star kolob is, or where zarahemla was, or if adam had a bellybutton. I’m expressing the fact that that stuff isn’t core testimony, and core testimony is what is certain, while everybody’s various candidates for zarahemla are as numerous as the stars in the heavens. I think Cerro Vigia is a pretty kool Cumorah, althogh Cerro Rabon is a good one too. Maybe we should go digging down there and see if we can find a cave with cool stuff in it.

  46. May 30, 2008 at 6:26 am

    #39 – Bruce…thank you for that. I didn’t think about the sense of morality as a form of revelation. Thank you for that. And I hope I dont give the wrong impression because I very much believe in revelation…but am somewhat sceptical about it EVEN when it is my own personal. Thanks Bruce.

    And John I agree…the only form of probability with which we can come together on is that of scientific probablity. Nevertheless…I think most people in the world want happiness and do not want death, killing and chaos but like justice, love and cooperation. Don’t ask me why…perhaps it is evolutionary, entropy based, or spiritual….however I think that the innate reasons for this desire can be preprogrammed due to our cooperation as a evolving species…and I dont see this as mutually exclusive from our spirituality.

  47. John Nilsson
    May 30, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Bruce,

    Ah, I see what you are saying.

    To my understanding, revelation could potentially disclose the content of moral law, but the act of revelation itself is the disclosure, not the content. That is, moral law and revelation are not synonymous. If they were, an Islamic text revealed by Allah with detailed prescriptions for social interactions would probably line up a bit more nicely with Jewish or Christian accounts of revelation about the proper modes of social interaction.

    Stephen,

    The scientific method is the strongest possibility for a unifying international paradigm our world has right now. Just think of the global warming discussions taking place. Yet, humans have given the direction of inquiry a specific bent, towards preserving those values you cite of justice, peace, love, and cooperation. This indicates to me the possibility of a moral law existing behind or above all of the cultural trappings of our particular lives which we glimpse imperfectly. These values could have been selected for naturally, but that for me does not answer the final question of why THESE values, (or if they might not be encouraged by the parameters of the physical universe, a la an anthropic principle), which seem consistent over the span of recorded history.

  48. Bruce Nielson
    May 30, 2008 at 8:50 am

    >>> To my understanding, revelation could potentially disclose the content of moral law, but the act of revelation itself is the disclosure, not the content. That is, moral law and revelation are not synonymous.

    Yes, but it’s the “knowledge” of moral law that is the “spiritual revelation.” Somehow, John, you know (or think you know) what moral law is. Somehow Steve does. Somehow *everyone in the world* does. Where is this knowledge coming from? How can it be accounted for?

    Did they find it out via scientific inquiry? Is there some rational thought processes that lead us all to it? Do people go to school and start out with no understanding of moral law and then we program them to accept it via book learning?

    That line of thought is a dead end. If morality is merely an artifact of evolution, for example, then we certainly have no basis for (to use an example) the moral outrage we feel over our early ancestors in America owning slaves. Who are we to pit our evolutionary developed moral sense against theirs and judge ours superior? Yet, we all *know* we can and we all *know* we’re right. How do we know that?

    (And isn’t that really just asserting that there is some absolute standard for morality that time can’t change even if the entire world votes and decides it was morally okay at the time? Which, be definition, makes it something other than an artifact of evolution, btw.)

    There is no rational explanation for this phenonmenon that doesn’t result in abandonment of believing morality exists and is real. But the fact is that we all “feel it” and nothing more. It is “merely” a spiritual revelation how we receive knowledge of moral law.

    But since we all base our lives around this spiritual revelation (no matter what your religious preference, even atheist), I assert this means that spiritual revelations are already widely accepted by every living human being (unless they have no higher brain functions at all) as the primary and most important source of knowledge available — the source of knowledge that you can and will organize your life around.

  49. NM Tony
    May 30, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Bruce,

    Your statement that morality has little or no scientific basis is incorrect. There are numerous scientists who are in active study concerning the nature of morality and altruism. For example, Steven Pinker, Marc Hauser, and Austin Dacey are among the more prominent scientists working on this and showing that morality can indeed be a biological and evolutionary process In fact, there is strong and empirical evidence that a moral code and altruism exists among more primitive life forms (some have even suggested that it may include the bacteria E. coli). Most of morality is subjective based on cultural traditions and learnings, but there are some very basic moral overlaps among all cultures (e.g. murder, theft, adultery are considered wrong on various levels in most if not all cultures.).

    In order to keep this from being a total threadjack, I think morality studies are essentially based on the uncertainty and implausibility that a supremely moral being is in charge of our moral judgment, especially when one evaluates the abhorrent morality of deity in scripture. As far as having a moral sense of seeing slavery as immoral, we still have a basis for the injustice of dehumanizing an individual and exploitation. Furthermore, humanity has a capacity for empathy and learning, as do many primates. All in all, there seems to be more evidential certainty that morality is indeed an evolutionary artifact. But science discovery is based on uncertainty and inquiry, which is why dogma is such taboo in scientific inquiry–though some scientists still fall into dogmatic thinking. Nevertheless, uncertainty is still a pivotal role in science.

  50. Bruce Nielson
    May 30, 2008 at 10:53 am

    >>> Your statement that morality has little or no scientific basis is incorrect.

    I didn’t say that, NM Tony. You are conflating scientific knowledge about how morality forms with knowledge of morality itself. The first is scientific. The second is pure feeling and is innate and is NOT discovered via scientific inquiry. We are born with the capacity and it is formed in part via our upbringing. It is “felt” and that is how we “know” it. Thus it is a “spiritual revelation,” regardless of whether it comes from God or evolution. This was my point, at the time, nothing more.

    However, let me go one further, NM Tony, you say you think morality is just an artifact of evolution, but do you really believe that? That is to say, do you live your life as if morality was merely an artifact of evolution? Consider this:

    If morality simply arises from the natural world and evolution (let’s call that hypothesis A) as opposed to from an absolute source (let’s call that hypothesis B) than we have no “moral grounds,” if you will, for feeling outraged over early American’s in the south owning slaves.

    They simply formed a “different” morality than we do today in an attempt to replicate their DNA efficiently via the evolutionary process. They did so at the expense of someone else’s DNA, but it was an effective method (and isn’t that’s the basis for evolution, natural selection?) and arose from evolution as much as “morality” did. So strictly speaking one approach isn’t “better” than the other. They are both just biological strategies that both have pros and cons.

    The “moral outrage” we feel over slavery is just evolution tricking us into creating an environment where we can replicate DNA. But wanting to hold slaves to improve one’s life at the expense of others is exactly the same — evolution tricking us into creating an environment where we can replicate DNA. There is no difference between the two. They are both just biological strategies. We are free to ignore our moral outrage as much as we are free to ignore our drive to dominate others.

    Do you believe that NM Tony? If you don’t, then you actually hold to hyothesis B — that morality is absolute — whether you claim to believe it or not.

  51. Bruce Nielson
    May 30, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Just a clarification. NM Tony’s misunderstanding of what I said probably arose from this statement I made:

    This is probably a post for another time, but I doubt “moral law” has any realistic possible scientific backing at all. (If anything, science really suggests that morality doesn’t exist and it’s a figment of our imagination or an artifact of evolution that can be disregarded as desired.)

    He apparently thought what I was calling “moral law” was the same as “moral sense.”

    Just to be clear, I was not denying here that science doesn’t back the idea that we all have a moral sense. (Seeing how it’s one of the most obvious observations that can be made, science would be pretty bad to deny that.)

    My point was actually exactly what NM Tony said in #49. That science is at odds with the idea that this moral sense has any sort of absolute standard that exists. (i.e. it’s a “moral law” of the universe.)

    My other point is that none of us believe that “moral law” doesn’t exist. None of us. We might say we do, but then immediately we act contrary to that way of thinking. We all accept morality in a sort of “aboslute sense” no matter who we are. For example, we get outraged over dead people that did something we felt was wrong (e.g. owned slaves) as if there was some absolute standard of morality that we can compare them to.

    But if science is right, we are just being silly because there is no absolute moral law by which to do this comparision. We are just comparing them to our currently accepted and fully culturally derived “moral sense” when in fact they just had a completely different culturally derived “moral sense” alien to ours. No comparison is possible.

    But do you really believe that? I don’t.

  52. May 30, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Re #41 (Angie)– I agree with you that certainty, or strong belief in general, comes more easily by nature to some. I think that’s why I think the phrase “gift of faith” is apt.

    But what do we make of this? I think there are two possible conclusions.

    The first is that people who have less believing natures are morally disordered (“hard of heart,” etc.) and should coax themselves into belief in order to right this moral failing. The idea is that prayer works for everyone if they would just give it a chance and be patient when listening for the answer. The answer received (for example, a testimony of The Book of Mormon) will be the same for every right-minded, sincere person.

    The second is that religiosity is not a universal moral good. In this view, prayer works for some people but not for others. Some people might pray about The Book of Mormon and receive a testimony. Others might not. Others would be highly skeptical of its claims of historicity. None of these people can claim moral superiority. Instead, it is their moral duty to work together to solve common problems and live in peace with one another.

    The problem with any religious claim of universality is the risk of sectarianism. Once there are multiple, competing groups with a claim on universal truth, conflict ensues. “Certainty” is a dangerous thing.

  53. John Nilsson
    May 30, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Bruce,

    Your argument about morality and evolution reminds me of philosophical determinists who deny the existence of free will and yet we see THEM continue to make decisions!

  54. Bruce Nielson
    May 30, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    >>> Your argument about morality and evolution reminds me of philosophical determinists who deny the existence of free will and yet we see THEM continue to make decisions!

    Actually it’s the same argument exactly. No matter how much you deny free will, you still continue to act as if it’s real.

  55. Ray
    May 31, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Nick, if you want a perfect test case for this post, you need look no further than Hawkgrrrl’s fallout theory post. It illustrates something I have believed for a long, long time:

    The more certain someone is that they see the full picture and know the full truth, the more they are likely to retain that certainty even if the things about which they are certain change radically. I would be willing to bet that most of the most vitriolic, hyperbolic, bitter, intolerant ex-mos once were among the most certain Mormons when they were active. When they believed, everyone who didn’t were sinners, unlike them; when they left and changed their beliefs, that basic perspective didn’t change.

    I find that fascinating, and I think it speaks volumes about the risk of being an active Mormon who is totally convinced that we are completely right and everyone else is completely wrong. I can’t find that in ANY of our standard works – or as the consensus of any of the FP’s or Q’s12. Such an unrealistic stance on one extreme probably tends to swing one to the opposite unrealistic stance on the other extreme when it is shattered. Unfortunately, the person doing the swinging rarely understands why they swing so far.

  56. Guy Smiley
    May 31, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    “find that fascinating, and I think it speaks volumes about the risk of being an active Mormon who is totally convinced that we are completely right and everyone else is completely wrong. I can’t find that in ANY of our standard works – or as the consensus of any of the FP’s or Q’s12.”

    See, that is the point. I know that the Church is true. That doesn’t mean that I’m naive enough to think that we have the answers to everything. We happen to have truth on the KEY points of salvation, and the KEYS of authority. We have yet to get revelation on many KEY issues. Other Churches have much truth. Other religions that are not even Christian have much truth that even we don’t have. But they are missing the keys and the KEY to salvation. That is the paradox here. That is why the Lord has given truth to all the world and we cannot be arrogant to think that we have keys to everything. Some have the keys to this or the key to that. We happen to have the key to salvation that is the keystone to all truth. If you guys can’t see that, then I’m sorry for you.

  57. May 31, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Ray–I’ve been thinking about that idea for sometime, in the sense that rather than the spectrum being a line, it’s more like a circle where the aggressive ex’s are not far off from the aggressive actives. Some are so certain the church is a cult and a fraud, and you have to wonder if they were just as certain on the other side when they were members. Frankly, I see the church in this case as a great sifting tool. People’s reactions to the church are very telling about their personalities. I do realize you can’t discount social experience either, however.

  58. hawkgrrrl
    May 31, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Ray, I think that’s a great point. People who are very certain they are right (regardless of the argument) get so entrenched in their assumptions that it’s hard to back out of them, and various assumptions cling to that certainty like metal filings to a magnet. When those assumptions are proven false, it’s like the rug was pulled out, and so it’s impossible or difficult for some people to see each assumption and belief separately and uniquely and to evaluate those assumptions individually. The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. This can happen to any of us, but it’s even harder the more entrenched someone is in being certain they are right. Even one of the original 12 was known as a doubter, although you could make the case that they all were to an extent – that’s an important lesson. You could be one of Jesus’ closest associates and still not fully understand the object of your faith. I wish Jesus had said, “I came not to bring answers, but questions.” That’s what I think anyway.

  59. Kari
    June 1, 2008 at 1:20 am

    Nick,

    Excellent post. I would suggest that certainty is neither a blessing or a curse; for some is just is.

    In his comments, Matt Thurston references an excellent book, On Being Certain, that I would recommend that you read if you can. Dr. Burton, as a neurologist, argues for the materialist view that, like much of our personality, the sense of certainty or uncertainty that we have about any particular subject is neurobiologically based. Obviously, if one doesn’t believe in the materialism of modern neuroscience then you won’t find yourself agreeing with Dr. Burton. I have found that thinking of certainty is these terms allows me to be more understanding and tolerant of those who express such certainty. They really are certain; they really do know for all intents and purposes.

    Blake Ostler, in his presentation at FAIR conference that has been reference, is one that argues against this materialistic understanding of our self. I obviously don’t agree with some of his basic assumptions and points, but it is a good counterpoint to Dr. Burton’s book.

  60. Kari
    June 1, 2008 at 2:56 am

    Bruce,

    I find your distinction between “moral law” and “moral sense” to be very interesting. However, I am not sure I would agree with your basic premise. The problem with believing that there is an ultimate moral law is that it requires an a priori belief in a lawgiver. Without such a lawgiver, there can be no absolute moral law.

    But which lawgiver? Jehovah? Allah? Buddha? Vishnu? While much of their moral teachings are similar, there are significant differences. As a Christian, I would assume that you believe that absolute moral law can be found in the Bible. As a Mormon, I assume that you adjust biblical morality with the teachings of the Book of Mormon and latter-day prophets. But if this is the case, then how can you really believe in an absolute moral law? It becomes a matter of whatever deity says that the moment. Hence, we have slavery being acceptable and supported by scripture (“There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.” Rev. Alexander Campbell). We have polygamy (both polygyny and polyandry) being acceptable at certain times, and not others (Jacob 2:23-30). We have murder and genocide being acceptable at certain times (particularly in the Old Testament, but some have interpreted BY’s teaching of blood atonement as supportive of such). And of course, Mormon history shows that it’s even ok to be “lying for the Lord” when necessary. Certainly no absolute moral law.

    We are also left with the conundrum of attempting to convince others that their particular moral views may not be correct. How do we convince a modern Muslim extremist that it is immoral to commit terrorist acts, if their interpretation of the Koran says that it is morally acceptable, even desirable, to do such things? We must convince them that their lawgiver, Allah, is the wrong authority, or we must convince them that their interpretation is incorrect, despite the multitude of religious leaders telling them otherwise. A tall order indeed when determining moral law depends on determining who believes in the correct authority.

    Now what if human morality really were an evolutionary process? Doesn’t that open up the possibility that moral “law” could be developed in a way that isn’t an appeal to authority? That we, as humans, could develop an understanding of what is right and wrong without needing a supreme being to tell us?

    It becomes possible that certain things we now hold as moral certainties are such because we developed an innate (by which I mean neurologically wired within our brains if a full materialist view of neurobiology) understanding/sense/knowledge of those things. That somehow the development of this moral sense was evolutionarily advantageous.

    It also allows us to adapt our moral sense towards other things. Your example of slavery is the perfect case study. As we progressed as a people we have come to understand that all humans are worthy of respect, and that it is not right for a human to own another human, despite the fact that the bible would allow me beat my slaves (implicitly supporting slavery as an institution, as Alexander Campbell stated).

    Do we really feel outrage about past actions that we currently find morally wrong? And if we do, is that really an argument in support of the existence of “moral law”? Or do we more commonly find ourselves thinking that it was unfortunate that our forefathers felt that slavery was fine and are glad that we have progressed as mankind to recognize that slavery is really reprehensible.

    Mormon teaching, at least as I was taught growing up in the church, would support this. I was always taught that the majority of slaveholders, particularly among the founding fathers of the US, were generally righteous and honorable men who were living in a time in which slavery was acceptable. Hardly supportive of the view that moral law is absolute across time and place.

    The problem obviously with believing in morality as an evolutionary process it obviates a need for a lawgiver. This, ultimately, is what makes “evolutionary morality”, and evolution is general, so unpalatable to religious believers.

  61. Bruce Nielson
    June 1, 2008 at 10:56 am

    >>> Now what if human morality really were an evolutionary process? Doesn’t that open up the possibility that moral “law” could be developed in a way that isn’t an appeal to authority? That we, as humans, could develop an understanding of what is right and wrong without needing a supreme being to tell us?

    I could ask the reverse question as well. If it is just something we, as humans, “develop [as] an undrestanding” of “what is right and wrong” then it is for us as human beings to remake it at our whim.

    >>> I was always taught that the majority of slaveholders, particularly among the founding fathers of the US, were generally righteous and honorable men who were living in a time in which slavery was acceptable. Hardly supportive of the view that moral law is absolute across time and place.

    What is hardly supportive of a view that moral law is absolute across time and place? That we don’t judge those that came before us for a higher moral view that they weren’t ready to understand? (Note the implicit belief in absolute moral law for your original statement to have even been made.)

  62. Ray
    June 1, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Mosiah 9:1-2 describes the failed attempt of the first party sent to observe the Lamanites and destroy them – that Zeniff saw that which was good among them and felt, rightly, I believe, that they should not be killed. Verse 3 is interesting with regard to this post:

    Zeniff says: “And yet, I being **over-zealous** to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land, and started again on our journey into the wilderness to go up to the land.

    Zeniff was a good man. He opposed killing Lamanites when he actually saw them and realized they weren’t the demons he had been led to believe they were. He actually fought to prevent their deaths. However, he also was “over-zealous” in his all-consuming focus on what he wanted. He was absolutely certain he was right – and it led to years of bondage and heartache and conflict and despair.

    There is a lesson in there for passionate, active Mormons and ex-Mormons and everyone in between. If we become over-zealous, we end up obsessing over something that would be better left behind and moved beyond – and more of us end up as slaves to our obsession than we realize.

  63. Kari
    June 1, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    I could ask the reverse question as well. If it is just something we, as humans, “develop [as] an undrestanding” of “what is right and wrong” then it is for us as human beings to remake it at our whim.

    If you believe that it is for us to remake at our whim, then you don’t understand the basics of neuroscience, evolutionary neuroscience, or evolution in general. If it were in the ability of any creature to make themselves “more fit” evolutionarily “on a whim” then we would see new traits developed, and even speciation, occurring all the time. But I have yet to meet any animal or man who could change their inherent make-up in any conscious fashion. It’s the basic tenet of biological science and evolution, one cannot change genetic make-up and physical features at will (ignoring, obviously, the current American love affair with plastic surgery 😉 ).

    The materialistic view that many neuroscientists espouse is simply that the brain entirely causes the mind (as opposed to dualism, which is the belief that the brain and mind are distinctly separate entities). There is a lot we know about brain function and mental functioning, to the point that we can localize areas in the brain that are responsible for certain action; conscious vision, unconscious vision, hearing, emotion, memory, and speech all have areas in the brain that are responsible for that function. A recent study (very limited in scope) has even shown that “the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” (“Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain”Nature Neuroscience, published online on 13 April 2008)

    Localization of specific activities in the brain is seen as indicative that many higher functions are a result of brain activity (and nothing else), including our moral sense. This moral sense is likely a complex interaction between multiple regions of the brain, and does develop and change over time (and I can give you some specific examples of immoral activity from brain dysfunction if you wish).

    Our morals today are different that the morals of the 18th century. While I recognize that it isn’t official church doctrine, I was always taught, as I stated earlier, that the morals of our founding fathers were different than ours. They were generally righteous men who were led by God to found the US. Being slaveholders was within the norms of the time (and consistent with religious teaching then) and was not going to be a considered a sin for them. If that’s not being taught a form of moral relativism, then I don’t know what is.

    It’s human nature to view ourselves as better and more advanced that those that came before us. That does not mean there is an absolute moral law that we now understand but that they didn’t. It means that our moral sense is different. We judge past generations against our moral sense, and find it regretful that their moral sense was not as advanced as ours. What will our descendants 300 years from now find abhorrent in our our morals? I believe that there will be something. Does that mean that there are yet to be absolute moral laws given to them that we aren’t ready to understand? If that’s the case, then how can we consider them to be absolute if they are dependent on the ability, or inability, to live and follow them?

  64. Bruce Nielson
    June 1, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    >>> If you believe that it is for us to remake at our whim, then you don’t understand the basics of neuroscience, evolutionary neuroscience, or evolution in general. If it were in the ability of any creature to make themselves “more fit” evolutionarily “on a whim” then we would see new traits developed, and even speciation, occurring all the time

    No, but I am free to choose which evolutionary impulses I choose and there are merely pros and cons of each approach. To say one is “better” than the other would be silly if “morality” is just, as you say: “somehow the development of [evolution because it] was evolutionarily advantageous.”

    >>> If that’s not being taught a form of moral relativism, then I don’t know what is.

    How about teaching that both forms of morality, theirs and ours, are of equal value and that there really was nothing “wrong” per se with owning slaves nor something “wrong” with deciding not to as a society. Now THAT would be moral relativism. But no one, not even you, seem to be advocating that position. So it would seem we are all admiting an absolute morality here. (Or at least assuming it.) The idea that we believe our morality higher than their is not a form of moral relativism. It’s built on the assumption of absolute morality.

    >>> It’s human nature to view ourselves as better and more advanced that those that came before us. That does not mean there is an absolute moral law that we now understand but that they didn’t. It means that our moral sense is different.

    Now you are just restating the very point I made in #51. Are we really just in agreement and saying it in different ways?

    Kari, to be honest, I’m not sure where you are trying to go with this. You make some statements that only make sense if we assume the existence of absolute morality, i.e. “As we progressed as a people we have come to understand that all humans are worthy of respect, and that it is not right for a human to own another human,” and other statements that seem to deny it, i.e. “It’s human nature to view ourselves as better and more advanced that those that came before us. That does not mean there is an absolute moral law that we now understand but that they didn’t.”

    Thus its hard for me to understand what you are trying to say. Or more likely, you are simply confirming my point that no matter how much a person asserts there is no absolute moral law, they will continue to believe and act as if there is.

    I did go on to make the point that I see science as undermining the idea of absolute morality as a real existing law. Based on your last post #63, you seem to agree with that point. I’m less certain if you agreed or disagreed with that idea in #60. In any case, since we seem to agree, I see no reason to pursue this point further.

    I suspect, Kari, that you are arguing not with something I said but with something that you *think* I believe.

    You seem to be arguing with me that the existence of belief in absolute morality doesn’t prove beyond doubt that there is a God. But I haven’t made that argument.

    My oringinal point was very simple: That our sense of morality is something we feel and is thus a “spiritual revelation” regardless of what the source of it is. Even if you are right that it arises from evolution as a biological process, that feeling of morality itself is still, for all intents and purposes, a “spiritual revelation.”

    It seems to me we are saying exactly the same things now:
    1. Moral sense is real to us and is a “feeling” we are endowed with and that we naturally act as if it’s absolute.
    2. Science does not support the idea that there is such a thing as an absolute moral law and at worst undermines the idea
    3. Yet we all act and feel that there is an absolute moral law (even if there isn’t and we’re just evolved to feel that there is) so we — whether we mean to or not — continue to judge others by our standards of morality on the assumption that morality exists as a law of the universe

  65. June 1, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    The degree of certainty towards the church amongst the less believing or unbelieving is very very high on the bloggernacle. Way too high to be rational.

    That is a brilliant insight.

    I think that easy faith/a believing heart is a character trait, bestowed by God. And it exists in some and not others, just like every other character trait and spiritual gift. We are all (potentially) the body of Christ, and each person’s individual character and gifts can benefit the others.

    Seems to agree with the scriptures that discuss it, for what that is worth.

    religiosity is not a universal moral good

    I got interested in 12 step literature in the thought it might be useful for grief recovery. It isn’t, too much, but it has some fascinating things to say about the difference between religiosity and spirituality. Similar things come up when they teach nurses about dealing with people in hospitals or who are dying.

    Myself, I’ve got to prepare another ethics lecture. I may even have a CD of them coming out sometime later this year. But morality and ethics may well be different as well.

  66. June 1, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    “Certainty” regarding the restoration of the church through the prophet Joseph Smith can be acquired in only one way according to the scriptures—it has to be revealed (Moroni 10:4-5). If we arrive at “certainty” in any other way it will eventually turn to uncertainty.

    Another way of saying this is that God has so designed the world that the natural man can not find God on his own (1 Corinthians 2:14). God cannot be found via the tools used to acquire knowledge. All the advancements of science in recent generations does not include a discovery that allows mankind to communicate with God.

    If incontrovertible archeological evidence were to be found today that the Book of Mormon is indeed a true record, and the Smithsonian were to put this evidence on display, would the world beat a path to our missionaries to be baptized?

    Certainly the church would grow in numbers but what percentage of the world truly be converted? And in two hundred years where would mankind find themselves?

  67. Hymn331
    September 15, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    Nick – just discovered this post. Brilliant. Thanks. I’m going to memorize that quote from TPJS as justification for not always having to say “I know…”

    Hymn331

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