Faith, Knowledge, Belief, and Stochastic Theory Part 1

jmb275 faith, Mormon, questioning 57 Comments

Faith has always been a perplexing topic for me. The definitions we hear in church, and in the scriptures seem to come up short. Furthermore, faith is almost always accompanied by a discussion of knowledge and belief. But faith is generally what is defined in the scriptures, and we typically just accept the colloquial meanings of knowledge and belief.

Our Concept of Faith

We typically turn to two scriptural sources for understanding faith. In Hebrews 11:1 we read:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Additionally, in Alma 32:21 it says:

And now as I said concerning faith – faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

In Mormonism I think we have a hard time reconciling faith in large part because of our scriptures coupled with the “faith” it requires to believe our foundational truth claims. For example, why doesn’t God just come down to all of us and show us an “unmistakable witness” such that everyone “knows” beyond doubt that he is God? Furthermore, rather than a prophet expounding God’s plan, he himself could give it to us so we “knew” it came from him. From The Book of Mormon we have several examples where such “knowledge” was quickly turned to doubt and sin. We use these examples to show that such “knowledge” doesn’t produce the faith required for salvation. Many Mormons will argue that if such manifestations occurred it would be too easy to “know” the truth and faith would no longer be required (which we know is unacceptable since faith is required for salvation). As a sidenote, I’d like to point out the irony that most members “know” the church to be true, which, according to this reasoning means faith is no longer required for most members.

This feels tragically flawed to me. Did Joseph Smith have faith? I think so, yet he ostensibly saw God and Jesus Christ many times and surely “knew” beyond a reasonable doubt that they existed. Was Joseph somehow at a disadvantage because he had actually seen God? Was his faith destroyed by his “knowledge”? Why was Joseph’s vision acceptable, not destroying his faith, but a “sign” would not be acceptable because it would destroy faith?

The situation gets even worse. When someone expresses doubt in the church’s truth claims, they are often labeled as lacking faith. This may feel (to the doubtful individual) like an accusation of being too weak to accept things on faith. Or perhaps that the individual must check their logic and reasoning at the door in order to have the faith necessary for salvation. It marginalizes those who have different thresholds of faith, belief, and knowledge, and elevates those who have faith no matter how ridiculous the claims may be. This type of sentiment may also be responsible for the cultural notion that the widow who sacrifices her last dollar to tithing, rather than buying food for her children is somehow more righteous/spiritual/faithful than one who would not. Examples of faith are couched in terms of individuals who appear to act irrationally to a non-LDS third party observer.

Stochastic Processes

Stochastic processes are processes that are non-deterministic. In other words, they are random, or based on probability theory. To fully elaborate on this theory we need some definitions (I apologize to the mathematics averse, but please bear with me as it will give us some powerful tools to discuss some very important topics):

  • Random variable: a random variable is neither random, nor a variable (crazy I know). Rather it is a function (a mathematical function). A random variable maps the possible outcomes of a random event to a set of unique numerical values. For example, a random variable for a fair two-sided coin might be X=1 (if heads), 0 (if tails).
  • Probability Density Function (PDF): the probability density function describes the relative likelihood for the outcomes of a particular random variable. An example of this could be a regular “bell curve” distribution describing how a group of students performed on a test. We may also refer (with an abuse of notation) to a PDF as a distribution. (NOTE: for the mathematically inclined, I am intentionally blurring the lines between discrete and continuous random variables. Additionally, for simplicity sake I am merging the concepts of probability density function and probability distribution, though they are in fact different)
  • Frequentists: frequentists interpret probability as a measure of probability of an event in a large number of trials. For example, if I tell the frequentist that the probability of landing on either heads or tails of a fair two-sided coin are 1/2 the frequentist may reason as follows: since the probability of landing on either heads or tails is 1/2, that means if we toss a coin a certain number of times, I expect that half the time it will land on heads, and the other half on tails.
  • Bayesians: bayesians interpret probability in a more subjective manner using probability as a measure of personal confidence. If I tell the bayesian the same information he/she may reason as follows: since the probability of landing on either heads or tails is 1/2, and I had to place a bet on what the outcome of one specific coin toss might be, I have no reason to have more confidence in the coin landing on one side over the other. Therefore placing my bet on heads is just as good as tails.
  • Let A be an event or outcome (doesn’t matter what it is), P(A) is the probability of said event occurring.
  • Mean (describes a PDF or distribution): let us loosely define this to be “the most probable event or outcome.” It could also be simply an arithmetic average, but the first definition is better for my purposes. In reality, the mean is the expected value of the random variable where expected value has a precise mathematical meaning analogous to the concept of the center of mass in classical mechanics.
  • Standard deviation (describes a PDF or distribution): let us loosely define standard deviation as the variability from the mean. Often the standard deviation is an indication of how confident we should be in the mean. The proper definition is the square root of variance. Variance is the second central moment of a real-valued random variable.
  • A normal distribution (Gaussian distribution, or bell curve): a normal distribution is the one you are all most likely familiar with – a regular bell curve.
  • The prior distribution: our distribution of confidence before we add any data (may be a uniform distribution, indicating all things are equiprobable).
  • The posterior distribution: the distribution of confidence after accounting for all the data.

Using Stochastic Theory

Stochastic theory allows us to quantify our uncertainty in various processes. This relies heavily on the bayesian concept defined above (for now let’s forget about the frequentists). Bayesians use probability to describe their confidence in a certain event or outcome. Let’s walk through an example:

Let’s suppose I have a class of 30 students. I am going to give them the same exam I gave a similar group of students 5 years ago. From my previous class the results yielded a very nice bell curve (normal distribution) with a mean of 75% and a standard deviation of 2. If I am to predict how well a single student will perform (ignoring all other extraneous information), I might say, with a fair amount of confidence, that the student will score a 75%. The small standard deviation gives me this confidence.

Conversely, let’s consider the same scenario, only this time the previous resultsyielded a bell curve with a mean of 75% and a standard deviation of 10. This time, I might be much less confident in predicting a student scores a 75%, but I still would predict a score of 75%.

We can see that a combination of the mean, and standard deviation, in this example, gives us a mechanism for predicting a student’s score as well as evidence for assessing our confidence in that prediction.

Faith as Confidence

The tools of stochastic theory give us a method of modeling and understanding our confidence in various outcomes or events. I propose a new mechanism for understanding and discussing faith, knowledge, and belief – namely the bayesian notion of confidence. I think this has several major advantages:

  • It levels the playing field and creates understanding. We no longer have to argue over the semantics of faith, knowledge, or belief. We can shift the argument to what really matters – the evidence.
  • It admits all forms of “evidence” including personal spiritual manifestations and allows each individual to weight the evidence as he/she sees fit. That “evidence” can then easily be incorporated into the confidence distribution.
  • It removes the tendency to label. That is to say, it would be acknowledged that those who doubt truth claims have different weights attached to certain pieces of evidence. We might argue over the proper weighting one ought to give to a certain piece of evidence, but one’s weighting does not make him or her more or less faithful, just different.
  • It is intuitively satisfying and generally describes human behavior. I don’t think I’m really elaborating on anything that most of you don’t already know or have thought about. I’m just spelling it out more clearly and hopefully giving you some technical tools for visualizing it.
  • The only definition of irrational is not acting in accordance with one’s confidence. Even those who act according to a “whisper from the Holy Ghost” against their better judgment are seen as rational since they clearly weight the “whisper from the Holy Ghost” more than their judgment.

In part two of this post I will walk through an example of how I think this theory enlightens the faith discussion, levels the playing field, and accurately describes what we really mean when talking about faith, knowledge, and belief.

Comments

comments

Comments 57

  1. In tightening the definition of “faith” to “confidence that something is true”, you have cut out the vast majority of what real faith is. Faith is not merely belief without knowledge, or confidence, or a feeling of conviction. It is all of these things, but they are merely facets of the gem of faith. Faith, as I understand it, is a principle of power. God exercises his power through faith. That alone should tell you that faith means much more than “belief without sure knowledge” or even “confidence”.

    In the scientific realm, which finds truth bottom-up and which tests things through falsification (but never by verification, which is not possible), definitions must be agreed upon beforehand and then kept very rigid or only changed by common agreement. In the religious realm, which finds truth top-down and which tests things through verification, definitions are given to help us sense what is being discussed. We are expected to learn and expand our own internal knowledge of that principle, starting with the definitions given but not ending there. Indeed, in the spiritual realm, we do not have the words to describe adequately the things we experience. The strict scientific method per se doesn’t work with spiritual truths.

  2. I think another critical element of faith is action. It is not just a mental exercise. Knowledge can be, belief can be. But the power of faith is you spiritually create something, and then you physically create it, and you learn by doing it with faith, in ways you can’t learn by just thinking about it.

  3. Re #1 Vort
    Yes, I knew someone would say this. Here’s why I don’t like this.
    1. Faith as power is ambiguous at best. What does this mean? Does this mean having faith for its own sake is powerful? Faith in what? Where does said power come from? In what form? On whose terms? How does it work? The list goes on and on. It seems it takes faith to even have faith in that definition of faith.
    2. This model and definition poorly explains why someone might lose faith in anything. If faith is a principle of power, why do so many stop exercising faith in certain things? Do they not want the power, or is it perhaps that faith does not actually produce power? I suspect the latter and think that the power likely comes from the action which results from the faith.

    If I’m being honest (and I don’t mean this flippantly) I think that faith as a principle of power is a view based in the magical worldview perpetuated by Joseph Smith to help explain his own experiences. Based on the notion that so many others have similar faith but no such experiences it seems to me we would be better served looking for another reason as to why Joseph had his experiences. In a way, I think people “falsify” the faith as a principle of power concept all the time.

    Indeed, in the spiritual realm, we do not have the words to describe adequately the things we experience. The strict scientific method per se doesn’t work with spiritual truths.

    I think I can agree with the first part. But when I read Widstoe’s and Talmage’s writings I cannot agree with the second part. It is clear in the theologies they built that truth is truth is truth and can be understood line upon line using reasoning and rational principles.

    Finally, if you read Talmage’s section on Faith in “Articles of Faith” the number of times “confidence” appears in that chapter is almost as many times as faith. I quite like Talmage’s enunciation on faith, and I think the model I’m describing fits it quite well save in one exception which I will address in the next post.

  4. Re Heber13

    I think another critical element of faith is action. It is not just a mental exercise. Knowledge can be, belief can be. But the power of faith is you spiritually create something, and then you physically create it, and you learn by doing it with faith, in ways you can’t learn by just thinking about it.

    Agreed in part. You’re touching on my point that this is all a semantics game. Call faith what you want, give it the attributes you want. My claim is that the model of confidence better describes human action (even spiritual action). People act because they have confidence in that action or the results that action will produce. Call it belief, faith, knowledge, wisdom or whatever you want, but at the end of the day, people act in accordance with their confidence. To not do this is the definition of irrationality.

    What I’m saying is that I agree that the critical element of faith is action. My model does not dispute that, nor does it make any claims about just “thinking” about things. Rather it removes the ambiguity of splitting hairs in semantic games. Furthermore, as I’ll show in 2 posts from now, this model explains very well why people lose faith.

  5. #3 jmb275
    *** Faith as power is ambiguous at best. What does this mean? ***

    You continue insisting on clarifying the definition first. This is proceeding from the scientific model, which is of limited utility when considering spiritual things. When God says “eternal life”, that phrase does not mean what a naive reading might suggest. It cannot even be fully defined in our English language.

    God requires that we accept his teachings and then learn what they mean. This top-down model is the antithesis of the scientific method, but is common with most spiritual truths.

    ***
    – The strict scientific method per se doesn’t work with spiritual truths.

    I think I can agree with the first part. But when I read Widstoe’s and Talmage’s writings I cannot agree with the second part. It is clear in the theologies they built that truth is truth is truth and can be understood line upon line using reasoning and rational principles.
    ***

    This is non sequitur. Scientific method != reasoning and rational principles. The scientific method is just that, a method. God is not falsifiable, so no amount of scientific hairsplitting will ferret him out.

    The things of God are learned by using God’s methods. For instance, God uses verification; the scientific method uses falsification. God defines words loosely and expects us to spend our lives refining our understanding; the scientific method depends on careful and accurate definitions up front. God reveals important truths as a gift from above; the scientific method depends on us establishing important truths on our own.

    Use all the intellect you can muster. God gave it to you. But you will never understand eternal principles like faith if you refuse to use the appropriate tools. Intellect isn’t it.

  6. The things of God are learned by using God’s methods. For instance, God uses verification; the scientific method uses falsification.

    Verification, otherwise known as “affirming the consequence,” is a logical fallacy. It does not produce reliable results. It is not good reasoning (and hence why it’s not in the scientific method). If this is God’s method, then, as I stated in my article, God requires us to check our reasoning at the door. Since I don’t believe this, I don’t agree with you.

    God defines words loosely and expects us to spend our lives refining our understanding;

    Using verification of course, which is a fallacy. Hmmm, it’s not adding up for me. I suppose that if God’s method is verification then I ought to be able to pray and see if my understanding of faith above is correct then, right? What if I get it verified? Then what will you say?

  7. #36 jmb275
    *** Verification, otherwise known as “affirming the consequence,” is a logical fallacy. ***

    Verification is not the same as affirming the consequent (not “consequence”). Affirming the consequent means making a backward “if-then” statement: “If it rains today, I’ll wear my black shoes. I’m wearing my black shoes, so therefore it’s raining today.” That’s a fallacy. In what way do you suppose that verification is “affirming the consequent”?

    *** It is not good reasoning (and hence why it’s not in the scientific method). ***

    No. It’s not in the scientific method because the scientific method presupposes that our mental models of the world are by their nature incomplete and imperfect — unknowable, in other words. Science deals with things that cannot fully be known, only modeled. Science does not dispute that some things may be fully knowable; it just doesn’t provide any tools to examine such things.

    *** If this is God’s method, then, as I stated in my article, God requires us to check our reasoning at the door. ***

    But of course, God requires no such thing. You are using a straw man.

    *** Since I don’t believe this, I don’t agree with you. ***

    This is a false conclusion. I don’t agree with the nonsense you wrote, either, because it’s fallacious. Yet I agree with myself.

    *** I suppose that if God’s method is verification then I ought to be able to pray and see if my understanding of faith above is correct then, right? ***

    Possibly. I am not one to instruct another on what divine truths he may or may not gain. If God confirms to you your narrow-minded view of faith, then you should believe God and not my judgment that it is “narrow-minded”.

  8. wow, as a professional statistician, I must say that I never thought i’d be reading about stochastic theory on mm. and I really should have taken more bayesian classes. the problem is that I enjoy statistics much more than probability.

    I always enjoy different perspectives, and I look forward to your future posts on this topic. vort, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. joseph smith taught us that god uses natural laws and science to create the earth. science and religion need not be antagonistic toward each other. jmb might be on to something here and I encourage you to give him a chance before you write his opinion off. the pope was threatened by galileo’s heresy that the sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth. science ended up carrying the day and really wasn’t conflicting with religion as the pope first thought.

  9. #8 mh
    *** vort, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. joseph smith taught us that god uses natural laws and science to create the earth. science and religion need not be antagonistic toward each other. ***

    What have I written that suggests I think that “science and religion [are mutually] antagonistic”? I don’t believe that for a moment.

  10. Vort – thanks for ruining a good website. You, sir, are an arrogant [expletive deleted].

    Edit by Mormon Heretic: CW, please no profanity, especially directed at another member.

  11. A couple of things:
    1. I’d like to clarify the first part of my comment in #6. Perhaps I don’t understand what verification means in the sense of which Vort speaks. I still see verification as a form of abductive reasoning, and hence invalid when it comes right down to it (as it is not deductive). Nevertheless, in my third post on this topic I will try to demonstrate why, in fact, abductive (and inductive) reasoning is still a reasonable mechanism (and in fact used in science all the time), but only under one form – namely Bayesian inference. This is why I think Stochastic theory is so powerful. To me, it validates both those who accept the Gospel on faith as well as those who reject it.

    2. Re MH. Bayesian inference is a rapidly growing field in engineering disciplines. With the onset of sequential monte carlo methods, we can compute posterior distributions, in the presence of noise, very rapidly and obtain minimum mean square estimates in real time. One example of Bayesian inference, the Kalman Filter was used to put a man on the moon!

    3. I am definitely not a philosophy major, so my knowledge of various philosophies, logical arguments, etc. is definitely limited. But I think I could consider myself a scientist (or at least an applied scientist). I’m not exactly sure where the conclusions Vort is making about the scientific method come from (philosophy of science perhaps?). So perhaps he is right, though I don’t quite see the scientific method as he is portraying it here.

    4. When I read Talmage’s exposition on faith I see much in harmony with the scientific method, and the concept of confidence. He very explicitly speaks of evidence, knowledge, belief, as well as faith as power as a result of action taken. You can find the Google book here

  12. “In the religious realm, which finds truth top-down and which tests things through verification, definitions are given to help us sense what is being discussed. We are expected to learn and expand our own internal knowledge of that principle, starting with the definitions given but not ending there. Indeed, in the spiritual realm, we do not have the words to describe adequately the things we experience. The strict scientific method per se doesn’t work with spiritual truths.”

    Vort, one of my greatest flaws is that I’m acquainted with just enough philosophy (mostly cherry-picked Wikipedia snippets) to make a fool of myself. The snippet that comes to mind right now is from Kant: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

    “Internal knowledge” and “We do not have the words” may be objectively true concepts. You may well have such indescribable, internal, subjective knowledge, by virtue of some profound mystical experience that is simply beyond human capacity to express. However, referencing it does nothing to edify people who have not had such experiences. To them, all it appears to do is to allow you to elevate you above them as an authority on the subject of whatever thing it is you have “internal knowledge” about, and excuse you from the ordinary rules of argument. It looks, in short, sort of like “It’s a woman thing — you wouldn’t understand.” A punt, in other words.

    If you’ve had the kind of powerful mystical experience that motivates you to believe as you do — wonderful. It is meant to serve as a foundation for your own spiritual growth. It may not be appropriate to raise as a tool for trying to persuade others to agree with you. See D&C 50:10-12, 17-23.

    Back to Kant, one of the concerns I have with “faith,” as religious sectarians often use the term, is that applying the same principle of “faith”, understood as a “top-down” process of assuming the comprehensive truth of a particular sectarian tradition, could just as well make one a Muslim or a Methodist as a Mormon. I see faith rather as a means by which we consider things that are “above reason” — that are by their nature beyond our ability to perceive empirically, such as the existence and nature of God and his will for us. Faith is required to even contemplate those things, for which for most of us there is no evidence of a sort that would ordinarily convince us. But for too many people, the agnostic’s caricature of the imperative “have faith” as “stop asking impertinent questions” isn’t too far off. True faith may well move mountains, but by faith — or at least, by something understood as faith — Muslims stay Muslims, Catholics stay Catholics, evangelicals damn Mormons and everybody else not sufficiently Calvinist, and Mormons stay Mormons.

    I need a better reason for living as I do, then logic that could just as well have me living in some other way.

  13. Vort:

    Re #7

    “Possibly. I am not one to instruct another on what divine truths he may or may not gain. If God confirms to you your narrow-minded view of faith, then you should believe God and not my judgment that it is “narrow-minded”.”

    I became a physicist because I was commanded by God to study science in a spiritual dream I had at the beginning of high school. For once, I can gladly take your advice.

    JMB:

    I am in ecstacy over your subject matter!

  14. #12 Thomas: “Internal knowledge” and “We do not have the words” may be objectively true concepts. You may well have such indescribable, internal, subjective knowledge, by virtue of some profound mystical experience that is simply beyond human capacity to express. However, referencing it does nothing to edify people who have not had such experiences.

    Precisely. Revelation is by its very nature a private, individual experience. It is this skill of revelation that we are to seek and develop. God wants us all to become prophets, not scientists.

    To them, all it appears to do is to allow you to elevate you above them as an authority on the subject of whatever thing it is you have “internal knowledge” about, and excuse you from the ordinary rules of argument.

    Then “they” need to pay closer attention. This is not about aggrandizing any man, even a true prophet to the people (which I most certainly am not). This is about developing the internal mechanisms necessary to become a prophet. The foundation for these mechanisms is faith. The very idea that faith could be discovered through an externally validatable scientific process is antithetical to the nature of faith.

    I see faith rather as a means by which we consider things that are “above reason” — that are by their nature beyond our ability to perceive empirically, such as the existence and nature of God and his will for us.

    Then I take it you agree with me that seeking to find faith through “scientific” means, treating faith as if it were a falsifiable hypothesis, has little or no value.

  15. #11 jmb275: Perhaps I don’t understand what verification means in the sense of which Vort speaks.

    For example:

    James 1:5-6 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, which giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

    Moroni 10:3-4 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    I’m not exactly sure where the conclusions Vort is making about the scientific method come from (philosophy of science perhaps?). So perhaps he is right, though I don’t quite see the scientific method as he is portraying it here.

    I will give my understanding of the scientific method. As you are by your own declaration a scientist, I welcome your corrections.

    1. Observe some natural phenomenon or state.
    2. Develop a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon or state. The hypothesis must be specific enough to be testable. In this context, “testable” means “falsifiable”; you can show some idea to be wrong by showing inconsistencies, but you cannot show it to be right unless you consider every possible variable in the universe, which is not possible.
    3. Test your hypothesis.
    4. If the test invalidates your hypothesis, change your hypothesis to conform with the test or discard it altogether. If the test does not invalidate your hypothesis, continue testing until you invalidate it or until you run out of tests.

    This investigation of models through falsification is a powerful technique that has wrought much knowledge from chaos over the last several hundred years. But it is not revelatory truth. If you want to understand faith and make it operable in your life, you need to use other, much older techniques that have wrought vast knowledge from chaos over the last several thousand years.

  16. #13 FireTag: How is God’s revealing to you that you should “study science” (sorry jmb275 — you apparently did not call yourself a scientist; I was misremembering FireTag’s statement and misattributing it to you) a confirmation of your model of faith?

  17. “God wants us all to become prophets, not scientists.”

    I think he wants us to become both. “By study and also by faith.” Or fides et ratio, for all y’all papists out there.

    “Thomas: I see faith rather as a means by which we consider things that are “above reason” — that are by their nature beyond our ability to perceive empirically, such as the existence and nature of God and his will for us.

    Vort: Then I take it you agree with me that seeking to find faith through “scientific” means, treating faith as if it were a falsifiable hypothesis, has little or no value.”

    Yes — I think. As long as faith faith doesn’t poach into science’s territory. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not capable of being seen through a telescope. Because when faith tries to address the latter things, it frequently gets embarrassed.”

  18. #17 Thomas: Personally, I don’t believe for the smallest moment that God cares a whit about us all becoming scientists. Yes, we are to learn. Yes, we are to be wise. But it is part of the old Athanasian teachings that ideal worship consists of everyone being a philosopher.

    As long as faith faith doesn’t poach into science’s territory.

    Faith moves mountains and parts seas. Is that science’s territory?

  19. jmb:

    I am a modeler by profession and so use Bayesian statistics all day every day. It’s my default world-view and the best way I have to relate to faith. I’ve tried to explain my thoughts and feelings to my ecclesiastical leaders but without much success. It’s nice to meet someone with whom I can relate on these issues.

    Vort:

    Your scriptural examples provided for “verification” and your understanding of the scientific method demonstrate that you either do not understand Bayesian statistics or faith or both (I’m leaning toward the last option). Neither the James nor Moroni references seek to define faith nor do those references shed any light on the nature of faith. What both references do explain is how to gain a testimony and the requisite role faith plays in that process. A better reference for understanding the nature of faith would have been Alma 32 where the prophet clearly expresses faith in terms of confidence intervals in a discrete taxonomy of belief-faith-knowledge. In v34 the prophet goes so far as to declare faith “dormant” when knowledge is achieved. From v36 on Alma then follows the same pattern as James and Moroni explaining the role of faith in gaining a testimony “line upon line.” Regarding the scientific method your #4 is grossly mistaken. The test in #3 either causes the observer to accept or reject the null hypothesis. If the null hypothesis is not rejected then the observer goes back to the drawing board (no one engaging in science “changes [the] hypothesis”). If the null hypothesis is rejected then the observer shares his findings with others, others repeat the experiment, and if those others’ experiments also produce the same result the hypothesis morphs into a theory. If even more observers replicate the experiment and reject the null hypothesis then the theory morphs into a law. These are confidence intervals a-la belief-faith-knowledge.

  20. #19 PaulM: you either do not understand Bayesian statistics or faith or both (I’m leaning toward the last option)

    Perhaps you’re right.

    Neither the James nor Moroni references seek to define faith nor do those references shed any light on the nature of faith.

    Nor did I suggest they did so. I was giving examples of divine verification, not of faith. Reread my comments carefully to see this.

    A better reference for understanding the nature of faith would have been Alma 32

    Rather than giving me “a better reference for understanding the nature of faith”, which I was not attempting to do, you would be more helpful to give me a better reference for understanding the role of divine verification through revelation. I thought my two examples were reasonable.

    In v34 the prophet goes so far as to declare faith “dormant” when knowledge is achieved.

    If this is your view of the totality of faith, what do you make of Ether 12? Do you believe that each of those examples is showing a person whose faith is becoming dormant after the object of their faith is realized?

    Do you believe that the account of Enos is an account of his faith becoming dormant? Why, then, does God command that we (including Enos) ask in faith?

    Do you think that Jacob’s account in Jacob 4:6 is just the precursor to faith becoming dormant?

    It is clear to me in all these instances that the word “faith” stands for a much larger, more powerful idea than the simple example given by Alma in Alma 32. Alma was speaking to people who understood almost nothing about prayer, revelation, or faith. He gave them a simple example to show how faith can increase as the word grows in our hearts. He examined, as it were, a single facet of faith, not the entirety of the subject.

    Regarding the scientific method your #4 is grossly mistaken. The test in #3 either causes the observer to accept or reject the null hypothesis. If the null hypothesis is not rejected then the observer goes back to the drawing board (no one engaging in science “changes [the] hypothesis”).

    Really, PaulM, this is a meaningless semantic distinction. The idea of science is that you formulate a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it by showing contrary results or consequences. The way this is typically done is by formulating a default “null” hypothesis, positing no relationship between the elements you are considering, and then disproving it. This has nothing at all to do with my point, which I think you must know.

  21. #18 As long as so-called faith doesn’t demand that I deny the evidence of my lyin’ eyes that said seas never got piled up higher than Mount Ararat, I can live with it shifting around the odd bit of geography.

    N.B., I seem to have overlooked that line Adoratio verus philosophia est in Quicumque vult.

  22. Vort:

    Alma 32 does a better job of explaining your definition of verification than James 5 or Moroni 4. James and Moroni skip the detailed explanation contained in Alma 32:36-43 and that explanation resembles hypothesis testing more closely than your description of top-down verification– a concept that sounds more like magic in your telling than useful intelligence. Ether 12 merely reinforces the idea that knowledge is not required for salvation (a point Alma makes in 32:17-19 as well). In the faith/confidence taxonomy salvation is dependent upon something greater than belief but less than perfect knowledge (faith). Your references to Enos and Jacob seem non sequiteurs as nowhere in either reference is the leap made from faith to knowledge– nor is it required. Faith is not the all-powerful cosmic genie you want it to be. Faith is a motivation to action and in that way it is closely related to Bayesian theory. Let’s examine the belief-faith-knowledge taxonomy by assuming we are rational beings and let’s suppose that belief represents a confidence interval of .3, faith = .7, and knowledge = 1. If I merely believe that living a chaste life will help lead to salvation am I likely to act upon that belief? No. If I have faith that living a chaste life will help lead to salvation am I likely to live a chaste life? Yes, but there’s also the possibility that I will lose my resolve at some point and sin but as long as I maintain faith the probability of recidivism is still low (plus by exercising faith in another principle, repentance, I can be made whole a-la Enos). If I know that being chaste will help lead me to salvation then I am sure to live a chaste life– anything else would be irrational and Alma 32:19 assumes people are rational beings.

    That you think our disagreement with respect to the scientific theory boils down to a semantic argument truly indicates that you do not understand the relationship of Bayesian statistics to hypothesis testing. Rejecting the null hypothesis merely means that it is not likely that chance or some other variable produced the observed results of the experiment. Testing over and over by many different observers through time gradually reduces the likelihood that the observed results are the product of chance or another variable. Proper hypothesis testing never “attempt[s] to falsify” anything– it merely takes the more cautious, conservative, and humble approach (remember how in Alma 32 he emphasizes the importance of humility in developing faith) when moving from belief to faith to knowledge.

  23. #4 JMB
    I agree that confidence is a big part of faith, and so statistical models of probabilities and confidences could lead to more confidence intellectually.

    But faith also includes hope. Hope in Christ, or a desire to want to follow Christ or be like Christ. This becomes a personal element that include lots of factors. Some is knowledge and confidence of what we can define about the world around us, but some still involves an internal desire or hope to belief something, whether we can explain it or not…but through spiritual confirmations, we can suspend our intellectual pursuit at times (not always, not irrationally) in hope the answers will come later as we continue to act on the hopes and dreams we have today.

    I’m not saying it is not intellectual. Just that it is not only intellectual, and some people gain confidence through their emotions, feelings, spiritual experiences. Faith is not just about confidence, it is also the desire to gain confidence.

  24. You can know that God exists without having faith in His nature. Knowledge is not mutually exclusive with faith. Alma teaches that faith is only dormant in that thing after faith has been exercised and proven to be valid.

    It is not that God asks us to “check our reasoning at the door” it is that He asks us to come to know Him well enough that when our reasoning conflicts with His word, we willingly suspend disbelief until He can teach us to understand.

    Faith is not what we do, it is why we do it.

    I believe your model is attempting to illustrate that.

  25. Re #15

    I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    Though I think we’re straying from my intent a bit here, I think this is an interesting discussion. After thinking about this a bit, I think I see what Vort is saying in terms of verification now. It seems very fuzzy to me though. The problem with “affirming the consequent” is that it isn’t stated that the antecedent is the only sufficient condition for the consequent. In the context of spirituality, I might pray and ask if my model above is “true.” Suppose God says “yes” (verification). I would wrongly conclude however, that I am completely correct. I suspect this is why Vort includes the oh-so-important detail of “spending our lives refining” the truth. If we get enough verifications, or feedback, we might use abductive reasoning to conclude that this (that is, whatever we’re praying over) is the “best” explanation. The funny thing is, however, is that this is EXACTLY what stochastic theory describes via Bayesian inference.

    So I guess I fail to understand why Vort does not agree. Perhaps he doesn’t understand Bayesian inference, or stochastic theory and simply concluded that since my model was “scientific” that it could not describe faith. I think this holds to a magical worldview that there is some mystical element in faith that makes it more than what it seems.

  26. Re Heber13

    But faith also includes hope. Hope in Christ, or a desire to want to follow Christ or be like Christ. This becomes a personal element that include lots of factors. Some is knowledge and confidence of what we can define about the world around us, but some still involves an internal desire or hope to belief something, whether we can explain it or not…but through spiritual confirmations, we can suspend our intellectual pursuit at times (not always, not irrationally) in hope the answers will come later as we continue to act on the hopes and dreams we have today.

    I think I’m not explaining it very well. You’re still stuck on definitions. Faith can include hope, even hope in Christ (though I find that limiting since I’m sure Muslims have “faith” but not in Christ). Keep in mind this has nothing to do with physical observations, or anything external per se. It is a model of the internal process that (I think) goes on in someone’s head. As I said, the only definition of irrational is not acting in accordance with one’s own confidence (not anyone else’s). One might take a leap and act irrationally in order to find new information (in Monte Carlo terms this is called a random walk), but that information is quickly incorporated into the confidence distribution.

    I’m not saying it is not intellectual. Just that it is not only intellectual, and some people gain confidence through their emotions, feelings, spiritual experiences. Faith is not just about confidence, it is also the desire to gain confidence.

    Same thing here. It is not “intellectual” or emotional, or anything else. It is a model. The emotions, feelings, spiritual experiences, physical observations, etc. etc. are all EVIDENCES that are USED to shape the model.

    I’m not saying here that you’re wrong. I’m saying that this idea accounts for what you’re saying, you just don’t see it…yet. Hopefully I can adequately describe it in my next article.

  27. #25 jmb275:

    The problem with “affirming the consequent” is that it isn’t stated that the antecedent is the only sufficient condition for the consequent. In the context of spirituality, I might pray and ask if my model above is “true.” Suppose God says “yes” (verification). I would wrongly conclude however, that I am completely correct.

    In my experience, you would not so conclude, which is why your application of “affirming the consequet” is misplaced here. No one is ever “completely correct”. However, if you were seeking a course of action, your verification experience would impel you to proceed to the next step, feeling your way forward, as it were. Similarly, if you were seeking enlightenment on a spiritual or doctrinal issue, your verification experience would nudge you in the direction of truth.

    Note that the overall process — proceeding carefully, sometimes boldly, in fits and starts — looks much the same as the scientific model. The difference I see is in how we gain knowledge. In science, we establish an idea and see how robust it is by beating on it, and if it doesn’t fit in with our other observations we modify or abandon it. In revelation, we establish truth ultimately by revelation from God, and then we cling to that revelation and value it, even when we don’t understand how it fits in with the rest of our worldview or if it seems momentarily inconsistent.

    So I guess I fail to understand why Vort does not agree.

    I disagree with your narrow definition of “faith” as something greater than belief but less than knowledge. That is an aspect of faith, I believe, but faith as a principle encompasses much more than that. You cannot adequately discuss faith while limiting its meaning to “strong belief without knowledge”.

    Perhaps he doesn’t understand Bayesian inference, or stochastic theory

    This is true. My understanding of both is limited.

    and simply concluded that since my model was “scientific” that it could not describe faith. I think this holds to a magical worldview that there is some mystical element in faith that makes it more than what it seems.

    In what possible way do you think my idea “holds to a magical worldview”? I fully reject mysticism in any of its forms, so what you say makes no sense to me.

  28. Post
    Author

    I disagree with your narrow definition of “faith” as something greater than belief but less than knowledge. That is an aspect of faith, I believe, but faith as a principle encompasses much more than that. You cannot adequately discuss faith while limiting its meaning to “strong belief without knowledge”.

    Hmmm, I don’t recall saying that. In fact, the whole point was to do away with that notion. I thought I made it clear by pointing out why that was wrong. I’m not sure why exactly you drew that conclusion. I think you haven’t understood what I was trying to say. Perhaps this is my fault for not explaining more clearly. Though admittedly, I still have at least two posts to write to fully explain.

  29. Perhaps he doesn’t understand Bayesian inference, or stochastic theory

    I have to say, that goes for me to. I thought the first one was a kind of aspirin and the second was some kind of intestinal trouble.

  30. Re Thomas #29
    Sorry, that’s why I had to include so much background information, and only draw weak conclusions in this post. The next post will be better.

    BTW, when you use a blockquote tag, use an ending tag a la XML style to end it. That way your words won’t be confused with someone else’s.

  31. Re Vort
    Incidentally, it is frustrating to an author to try and explain something only to have it derailed by someone who doesn’t fully understand, or who draws erroneous conclusions. It would be oh so nice of you to next time perhaps recognize you might not fully understand before offering such strong certain conclusions.

    I’m sure you have an excellent rebuttle that makes me feel like an incompetent bozo since I’m not the world’s best writer, but it would be nice if you simply acknowledged you might not have it quite right.

  32. #28 jmb275

    Hmmm, I don’t recall saying that. In fact, the whole point was to do away with that notion.

    This is my mistake. I attributed PaulM’s confidence interval example to you.

    I am interested to find out what you mean when you state:

    We no longer have to argue over the semantics of faith, knowledge, or belief. We can shift the argument to what really matters – the evidence.

    The evidence only shows “things” that we define as having meaning. If we cannot narrowly define faith — and I believe we cannot — then I do not see how stochastic (or any other statistical) analysis can benefit its study.

  33. #31 jmb275: What you describe is the normal life of a writer. Readers misread, misinterpret, or just ignore what you write, so you have to keep explaining yourself. What is it you think I don’t “fully understand” or have drawn “erroneous conclusions” about? If you explain those to me, I can either clarify my thoughts or admit that I waded in unprepared.

    I’m sure you have an excellent rebuttle that makes me feel like an incompetent bozo

    Is there a purpose behind such insults thinly disguised as self-deprecation? I don’t see how it moves the conversation forward.

    it would be nice if you simply acknowledged you might not have it quite right.

    Have I failed to do so when I have understood myself to be wrong?

  34. Re #32
    That’s exactly the point. Evidence, in this model is whatever we define as having meaning. If spiritual manifestations are “evidence” to someone, then they will provide one more verification hence further refining the “confidence” model. Likewise, if someone doubts the validity of spiritual manifestations, evidences of that nature refines the confidence model in a different way. The term “confidence” in Bayesian statistics has a significant meaning. It is not defined a priori, but it is what is represented by the distribution. That is, as I said in the piece, the distribution (however it looks) represents the “confidence.” For some people a specific curve might be “knowledge,” for others only “faith,” and others still only “hope.”

  35. Re #33 Vort

    What you describe is the normal life of a writer. Readers misread, misinterpret, or just ignore what you write, so you have to keep explaining yourself. What is it you think I don’t “fully understand” or have drawn “erroneous conclusions” about? If you explain those to me, I can either clarify my thoughts or admit that I waded in unprepared.

    I just did in #28, and you clarified in #32. Fair enough.

    Is there a purpose behind such insults thinly disguised as self-deprecation? I don’t see how it moves the conversation forward.

    Look, over the past several days you have thinly insulted, or otherwise frustrated virtually every commenter and author on this site. Perhaps you are extremely adept at pointing out the flaws in everyone else, but are less refined in acknowledging your own. I don’t know. All I know is that the sentiment here (that any visitor will pick up) is that you’re a jerk. But you don’t seem to realize it. And the key is in your next statement.

    Have I failed to do so when I have understood myself to be wrong?

    The key is, you NEVER understand yourself to be wrong. You are always right. No one on this entire site, no author, no commenter has ever disproved your statements, or otherwise been anything other than a tiny molehill over which you gracefully leap. That’s just fine. We could all only hope to be so brilliant. But most of us aren’t.

    If you really do want to influence people for good, and show them why you represent Christ’s church (officially or otherwise), the tactic is to validate people when they make good points, be compassionate in replying, and admit when you might not have it quite right even if you believe you do. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, or insult you. Just trying to impart some of what I’ve learned over the course of my rather short (by comparison to yours) life.

    You are clearly intelligent, and make good points. I think many here could learn a great deal from your wisdom (I know I’ve taken pause to think about your comments and seriously examined them and, I think, learned something). But the form and tact is all wrong.

    BTW, since this is the internet, I have to acknowledge that you could very likely be a troll that is purposely provoking us all (we’ve had this many times in the past). I’m making the good faith assumption that this is not the case here.

  36. #35 jmb

    …the sentiment here (that any visitor will pick up) is that you’re a jerk…
    …you NEVER understand yourself to be wrong. You are always right…
    We could all only hope to be so brilliant…
    I’m not trying to…insult you.

    What would you have said if you were trying?

  37. What would you have said if you were trying?

    Sorry, I’m really not trying to be insulting, I promise. I’m trying to bluntly make an observation. I cannot speak for everyone, but as I read the comments it is clear (I think) that there is general distaste for your style from authors and commenters alike. I hope I haven’t offended. If so, I apologize, that is not my intent.

    I honestly mean it when I say I think I could learn a lot from you. You are much older than me (no offense intended here) and as a result (from experience) probably much wiser. You are clearly intelligent and have many good arguments. I mean that sincerely. But you have to understand the way you come across. And much of the problem is in the fact that you NEVER understand yourself to be wrong. That is a major turn-off for everyone.

    Re Thomas
    Are you trying to start a fight here? Knock it off! 😉

  38. #38 jmp275:

    …you’re a jerk…
    …you NEVER understand yourself to be wrong. You are always right…
    I hope I haven’t offended.

    If I said the above to you, would you believe me?

  39. Personally, I think confidence modeling is a much more accurate reflection of what people mean when they say faith. I’m no expert on these theories, but my familiarity with basic stats leads me to believe that.

  40. I think the reason Vort doesn’t follow the argument lies in the fact that he wants to use his definitions. He is putting constraints on any of the replies that he hears because its’ not coming back to his view point.
    So thus, if your not discussing the op according to how he sees it, you are all wrong.

  41. @JMB

    I am with you in thinking Vort is a troll, he is absolutely never wrong and he purposely takes the things that we say and twist them all around to make himself feel smart and make the rest us look stupid.

  42. Observation. I do not want to talk “smack” to anybody. Please take this simply.

    Vort, what exactly are you intentions when visiting this site? Is it to add content to the original post and following dialogue? Perhaps you are interested in providing new views and ways of looking at concepts many struggle with. BTW, you have done both of these things. Maybe you simply want to derail the discussion by sending the original post in a variety of directions. You are the only one who can answer my question about intentions. Might I suggest you examine your intentions honestly and be clear on what you want to accomplish when you comment.

    My intention is not to call you down. I am not an author. I do not comment often. I follow the posts regularly. I have noticed a shift as of late. I don’t believe in all of us believing the same thing. I am certain there are years upon years of life experiences among all of us who visit this site. We visit for varying reasons. I personally have much to offer, but have chosen not to jump in yet. I am seeking internal peace and personal growth. When I feel contention, I pull away. That is my choice and I alone am responsible for it. You obviously have much to say and I have learned. Would you consider tempering the way you respond? Make your points and allow others to do the same, but without antagonism. I would personally appreciate it. I do not like skipping over your comments. I can learn from you. We can have opposing thoughts and not have discord.

  43. #43 Soroto: Thank you for your comments. I will try to answer your question: “What exactly are your intentions when visiting this site?”

    I do not know exactly what my intentions are. I was told about this site by a coworker who frequented it, and it looked interesting. I suppose I have many feelings that contribute to my participation: Some posters have interesting questions or scenarios; some respondents give compelling answers or ideas; some people, both posters and respondents, seem to offer as LDS doctrine clearly non-doctrinal ideas, sometimes even antithetical to LDS doctrine as I understand it. So I just sort of pick around, respond, whatever.

    There is my honest take on my intentions. I certainly do not intend to derail discussions, though my bluntness and unwise word choice obviously has caused offense on more than one occasion. I will try to temper my responses, as you suggest.

    To be fair, the antagonism comes from both directions, and in my opinion I’ve received a whole bunch more than I’ve given. But be that as it may, your advice is sound.

  44. I find it funny that this blog post was just the setup to JMB’s next post. We haven’t even gotten to the point of the blog and people are flaming out! Imagine what’s going to happen when the real meat is served up. The whole site will crash from the millions of hits and commentary.

    JMB, I am intrigued with your idea and look forward to your next post.

  45. #44 Vort: Thank you for your honesty. I acknowledge you for examining and expressing it. I agree that the negativity is not all one sided. I apologize for not expressing that to you. My intention was to do exactly that. At times I do not remember as well as I want to.

    For me, this site presents opportunities for us to share life experiences that have brought growth to us and might possibly assist others. It seems we all grow at different times and in different ways. This is the nature of life. It also presents a place where we can dialogue with those who may be struggling with certain religious concepts. I would not want you to feel excluded from the community. Again, I thank you.

  46. Jmb

    Thank you for being so eloquent in your response to Vort. Though I think he was explicitly and routinely dismissive to the women posters who were not the writer of the post. That is where most of my frustration from him stem. I find it totally rude when someone continuously dismisses what one says, just because it doesn’t fit within their parameter of what the gospel is suppose to be and then is pompus and arrogant enough to say your not engaging in the conversation. We are all engaging in the conversation, I generally don’t get pissed off, so this past week was totally out of character for me,however he needs to stop coming across as if he knows everything about the gospel. NO ONE PERSON CAN KNOW THAT MUCH ABOUT EVERY SINGLE SUBJECT THAT HAS BEEN POSTED SINCE HE’S VISITED THE SIGHT. To proclaim that he does, shows insensitivity and immaturity.

    I don’t know that he is as smart as every says, or if he is just using some very clever rhetoric devices to make it appear as if he does, in any case its’ pretty d*** annoying and it doesn’t really promote discussion, because he wants to control everything, including how one responds

  47. FWIW – It is evident there has been dissension this past week. Novel idea that is probably far too simplistic: How about we tuck in our ruffled feathers, agree to move on, and make the decision to honor, value, and respect the personal opinions of all who post and comment? Poosible? Oh yeah!!!!

  48. But be that as it may, your advice is sound.

    Vort, this is humor. FWIW. I don’t do advice. It is rarely solicited and seldom listened to! I made a suggestion and you got to choose whether to act on it or not. Splitting hairs? Perhaps.

  49. Re Vort
    I sincerely appreciate your honesty. I agree the antagonism has been both ways. I apologize if I have come across antagonistic. I also appreciate Soroto’s lovely message. Thank you.

    Perhaps some background/info on this site will help. The authors on MormonMatters are very diverse. Some of us are full fledged believers. Some of us have been atheists and/or are atheists. Some of us have had crises of faith and doubt some foundational LDS truth claims, but have subsequently found reasons to stay LDS for spiritual reasons. Most of us were born and raised LDS and so we have a pretty clear idea on what traditional Mormon doctrine is (whatever that means), what the culture is, etc. Some of us love some aspects of the church, but doubt some truth claims. Some of us just have more liberal views. We have a wide variety of professions including therapists, PhD students, executives, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, statisticians, and amateur historians, etc. But I daresay that all of us have some views in which we align closely with cultural Mormonism, and some views in which we do not align with cultural Mormonism. Note the critical term there, “cultural.” In the LDS church the gamut of possible beliefs runs very wide and most of us have carved a niche out in there somewhere.

    Most importantly, none of us here are interested in destroying faith, the church, or Mormonism in general.

    There are many sites in the bloggernacle that ONLY discuss things from a faithful perspective. Frankly, we are not one of those places, though we always insist on being respectful to the church. Overall we do try to discuss things from a faithful perspective but we do not limit the possibilities or censor for a nonfaithful perspective.

    Again, although I am a lifelong member of the church, I do not think that I understand all the doctrines perfectly, or even as well as you do. So I am positive I can learn something from you. I appreciate your willingness to try and temper your comments a bit.

    And as Soroto says, let us move forward and move on.

  50. “NO ONE PERSON CAN KNOW THAT MUCH ABOUT EVERY SINGLE SUBJECT THAT HAS BEEN POSTED SINCE HE’S VISITED THE SIGHT. To proclaim that he does, shows insensitivity and immaturity.”

    Except me, of course.

    Can’t a proudly immature insensitive guy get some love here?

  51. Re #51
    Yes, but since the spot of obnoxious-know-it-all-insensitive-immature-wikipedia-using amateur philosopher was taken, we didn’t have room for another! But you can relinquish your spot if you like 😉 .

  52. Oh yes, and BTW, if it’s not clear how to do XML tags, here’s some instructions:
    To do a blockquote say:
    <blockquote>This is what I want to quote</blockquote>
    The “<>” is a beginning XML tag, and the “</>” is an ending XML tag. There are other cool tags too, specifically available in WordPress, and most (if not all) HTML tags are supported.

    If you didn’t need those instructions then just tell me to go put my head in the sand!

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