“Knowing” & Other Leaps of Faith

Andrew doubt, faith, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, questioning, testimony, thought 72 Comments

I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps the greatest difference between Mormons along all points of the spectrum is not the degree of faith they have in God, or Joseph Smith, or the Church, or its leaders, but rather, is in the degree of faith they have in themselves.

When it comes to the question of how mortals can discover unseen, divine truths, Mormons typically respond that such truths can be discovered by personal revelation from God through the Holy Spirit. Although Mormons vary in their views about what that means exactly, it seems Mormons generally agree it is a process that involves: (1) information gathering and analysis (“study it out in your mind”); (2) praying to God for guidance or for a confirmation of your studied conclusion; (3) perceiving and interpreting God’s response in the form of “spiritual impressions” in our hearts and minds; and (4) using scripture and the words of living prophets as a standard by which to judge the authenticity and accuracy of what we believe the Holy Spirit has told us.

Although Mormons seem to generally agree that is the correct process for receiving personal revelation, they seem to differ more widely in their level of self-confidence or self-doubt about whether they are able to successfully distinguish between authentic spiritual impressions from the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and inauthentic imaginations of their own hearts and minds on the other. It seems we seldom recognize or call attention to this issue of our self-confidence in our spiritual discernment, but that it frequently lays beneath the surface of our religious discourse.

For example, I think we can often overlook the fact that whenever we say we “know” an unseen truth because it has been “revealed” to us “by the Holy Spirit,” we are necessarily basing that statement on an unstated but extraordinary leap of faith. That leap of faith is our supreme confidence in our own ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit, and to separate or distinguish it from our own thoughts or feelings that might be acting as “impostor” spiritual impressions.

I think we often regard statements like “I know the Church is true” as being strong expressions of a person’s belief in someone or something else. But I wonder whether we realize that such statements are just as much a statement of belief in ourselves; specifically, in our ability to discern the Holy Spirit with a high enough degree of accuracy to say that we “know” the thing that we believe has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.

For example, the statement “I know that Joseph Smith is a true Prophet because the Holy Spirit revealed it to me” inherently contains another unstated profession of belief: “I am capable of discerning and interpreting the Holy Spirit with such a high degree of accuracy that I can be certain about the conclusions I’ve reached about what I believe it has told me.” Mormons who have a high degree of self-confidence in their powers of spiritual discernment are comfortable making that second silent statement (assuming they realize they are doing so), while others who experience self-doubt may not be.

Those who feel comfortable making professions about what they “know” though the Holy Spirit are often encouraged, commended, and affirmed in their professions of certainty (assuming they are doctrinally sound). But those who do not feel comfortable professing their beliefs in terms of “knowledge” and “certainty” are often viewed as spiritually weak or deficient. They are seen as doubting God, or the Church, or Joseph Smith. But perhaps the main person they doubt is themselves.

I must admit I’ve had to think twice about whether it is truly a virtue to be supremely confident in one’s own ability to discern the Holy Spirit, and about whether it is truly a vice to have self-doubt. Because from the perspective of a faithful, active Mormon, both of these mindsets have significant downsides, such that neither seems obviously superior to the other.

In short, the problem with having a supreme confidence in your ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit is that you’re less likely to recognize when you’re wrong; and the problem with having self-doubt in your ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit is that you’re less likely to recognize when you’re right.

Ironically, some of the scariest skeletons in the closet of Mormonism have come from individuals whose supreme self-confidence in their ability to discern the Holy Spirit led them to make statements, sometimes in books bearing titles suggesting they constituted official Church doctrine, that in retrospect turned out to be dead wrong. These individuals were admired for their strong, unflinching expressions of their convictions. But one wonders if a little less self-confidence on the part of those individuals might have dissuaded them from purporting to speak for the entire Church in certain terms about the many “mysteries of the kingdom.” And perhaps a little self-doubt would have opened minds and hearts enough to challenge some traditional but questionable policies so they could be discarded sooner than they ultimately were?

But of course, self-doubt has its drawbacks as well. If we have too much self-doubt, we may find ourselves among that class of persons that is ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. We may be eternally seeking to re-invent the wheel that we’ve already discovered, but have failed to recognize.

I’d love to hear your perspective on these thoughts I’ve been having lately, and I’d particularly be interested in hearing your suggestions about how we can balance our level of self-confidence and self-doubt in our own powers of spiritual discernment with an eye toward maximizing their benefits and minimizing their drawbacks, if that’s possible. And if forced to choose between self-confidence and self-doubt, which do you prefer?

Comments

comments

Comments 72

  1. I had a rather devastating set of events pass through my life which almost utterly destroyed any confidence I had in myself and being able to discern the Spirit. At the time, I now have to admit, I had crossed the line of pride, thinking I was expert at parsing Spiritual promptings. The Lord showed me otherwise.

    There is a balance, as you say, in believing oneself divine enough to be spiritually in tune and knowing oneself mortal enough to make mistakes. I think the key comes in asking God how He feels about you. It is a very frightening thing to do, but once He has shown you who you are, you can’t help but be both humble and awestruck.

    Through years of struggling with the aftermath of the aforementioned events, I have come to realize that even if I cannot have perfect faith in my own ability to understand the Spirit, I can have faith that the Lord will find a way to tell me in a way I understand. So long as I genuinely want to do His will, He will find a way to communicate that will. And, if He does not, it is because He chooses not to. All I must do is seek and be willing to do, remembering to remain open to further promptings as they come.

  2. I think you’ve hit on something very insightful. In regards to spiritual evidence, I like to use this analogy:

    You are driving in your car with your friend. You pass a sign on the side of the road that is red. “That sign is red” you say to your friend. “No, that sign is blue” your friend says. Shocked that your friend could be so wrong, you think he is joking. But no, he is seriously, and equally shocked that you cannot see that it is blue. Finally you decide to park the car and walk up to the sign to take a closer look, but upon closer inspection you still conclude that it is red and your friend is still confident it is blue. (We’re assuming of course there is no history of color blindness from either of you). So should you be less confident that it is red, because your friend thinks it is blue? What if 100 people drove by and said it was blue? Even so, you cannot prove it to him and he cannot prove it to you.

    So to bring it back to this conversation, we have a lot of faith in what we see, even though it is possible that our eyes can be deceived. But yet we have to have faith in our eyes (or else we’d go crazy doubting everything), but yet not so much faith that we do not at least consider overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But lacking such evidence, we default to trusting our eyes. Our spiritual eyes can also be deceived, but by default we trust them unless we have overwhelming reasons not to. The amount of contrary evidence that is required to make us doubt our spiritual eyes, I suppose is related to how much “faith in ourselves” that we have. And I agree with you that both too much faith and too little faith can be problematic. That brings to mind the scripture about not trusting in the arm of flesh. Perhaps it’s talking, in a smaller way, about ourselves as well?

    So that’s just a long way to say: I agree.

  3. “If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.” – Thomas Szasz

    I think this is a great post Andrew and is very pertinent to what we discussed the other day. For days after I had been thinking about our conversation and it appears that you might be thinking about it too.

    The basics question here is “What is knowledge?” And this is basic philosophical epistemology.

    Let me state my position…I am a scientist/medical student and I have suspended my disbelief about the “mission and solipsism” of the Church/Joseph Smith so that I can enjoy it as a rational observer. I think that ultimate a priori truth can only be found in science and subjective a posteriori truths have limited value for learning about the external world, yet they have great value for learning about the “space within”. My spiritual experiences have always been personal, subjective and never applicable to a wider audience…and if they were I would realize I had gone crazy.

    I know you enjoy Buddhism Andrew…and I am unaquainted with Buddhist teachings though I would like to read more up on him sometime soon. But from the little I know, and I am probably wrong, is that Buddhist skepticism is different to that of scientific skepticism in the sense that it focuses on Bodhi…..”awakening” or “enlightenment” and focuses less on a priori truths.

    Though I enjoy learning to be self aware and concious I realize that there is a limit here to knowledge of objectionable truths. And I personally think that rationalism and inductive reasoning are the only way to move aware from the idiocy of global skepticism.

    After all, What is knowledge and what is belief?

    We dont need 100% certainty to know that something is very probable and significant. Knowledge is essentially where external truths and beliefs overlap. Thus our belief system and world view must be paradigmatic.

    When these arent….is when we change our beliefs….because we cannot change truth…just as we cannot change the fact that 2+2=4. And if we do not then we suffer from cognitive dissonance or unparadigmatic thought. HOWEVER…if it is more comfortable to live in the cognitive dissonance of unpardigmatic thought then in reality we will remain therein. Just the same as if someone cannot face the fact that the church is not what it claims to be whilst going to church with their family, teachings classes etc etc….they will remain therein and keep believing in the complete mission of the church though it is illogically aligned with the facts. And this doesnt mean that the person is not a good person or that they are not doing what they think is best. And it doesnt even mean they are irrational…it just means their knowledge is conciously or unconciously incorrect.

    We need to find a belief system that makes best sense of the world and truth and then we can have knowledge….that will set us free. And this is why I adopt the political views and religious views I do…not because I want to….but because they are the beliefs that have helped me best reflect the world we live in. If I could…I would love to know for certain Joseph Smith was a Prophet and America is the most lovely and just and kindest country in the world…but this means that my paradigm of thought does not reflect the evidence and reality. It does not mean that I am projecting my need for absolute truth from one side of the spectrum to the other and it doesnt mean that I am overly confident. And faced with new evidence I will change accordingly.

    Just as with scienctific method, our mind works using propabilities…however we are subject to emotion, prejudice and incorrect beliefs. In statistics we can never be 100% sure but we can be very close. And there is a certain degree of probability when something becomes significant. I feel we should not let our emotions, prejudices and incorrect belief systems come in the way of highly probably truths or unlikely truths.

    Yes…life and history are messy…but there are definite things we can deduce through empiricism, rationality and aligning our belief systems to them. Skepticism is useful but it becomes useless when you begin to doubt that Stephen Wellington is even writing this…

    But after all I have written I realize that faith often goes against all I have said…which is why I think the gospel is so beautiful….being learned and rational can hinder sublime and often irrational thing that is faith.

    The truth and to live therein is all I ask for.

  4. “If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.” – Thomas Szasz

    I think this is a great post Andrew and is very pertinent to what we discussed the other day. For days after I had been thinking about our conversation and it appears that you might be thinking about it too.

    The basics question here is “What is knowledge?” And this is basic philosophical epistemology.

    Let me state my position…I am a scientist/medical student and I have suspended my disbelief about the “mission and solipsism” of the Church/Joseph Smith so that I can enjoy it as a rational observer. I think that ultimate a priori truth can only be found in science and subjective a posteriori truths have limited value for learning about the external world, yet they have great value for learning about the “space within”. My spiritual experiences have always been personal, subjective and never applicable to a wider audience…and if they were I would realize I had gone crazy.

    I know you enjoy Buddhism Andrew…and I am unaquainted with Buddhist teachings though I would like to read more up on him sometime soon. But from the little I know, and I am probably wrong, is that Buddhist skepticism is different to that of scientific skepticism in the sense that it focuses on Bodhi…..”awakening” or “enlightenment” and focuses less on a priori truths.

    Though I enjoy learning to be self aware and concious I realize that there is a limit here to knowledge of objectionable truths. And I personally think that rationalism and inductive reasoning are the only way to move aware from the idiocy of global skepticism.

    After all, What is knowledge and what is belief?

    We dont need 100% certainty to know that something is very probable and significant. Knowledge is essentially where external truths and beliefs overlap. Thus our belief system and world view must be paradigmatic.
    Knowledge

    When these arent….is when we change our beliefs….because we cannot change truth…just as we cannot change the fact that 2+2=4. And if we do not then we suffer from cognitive dissonance or unparadigmatic thought. HOWEVER…if it is more comfortable to live in the cognitive dissonance of unpardigmatic thought then in reality we will remain therein. Just the same as if someone cannot face the fact that the church is not what it claims to be whilst going to church with their family, teachings classes etc etc….they will remain therein and keep believing in the complete mission of the church though it is illogically aligned with the facts. And this doesnt mean that the person is not a good person or that they are not doing what they think is best. And it doesnt even mean they are irrational…it just means their knowledge is conciously or unconciously incorrect.

    We need to find a belief system that makes best sense of the world and truth and then we can have knowledge….that will set us free. And this is why I adopt the political views and religious views I do…not because I want to….but because they are the beliefs that have helped me best reflect the world we live in. If I could…I would love to know for certain Joseph Smith was a Prophet and America is the most lovely and just and kindest country in the world…but this means that my paradigm of thought does not reflect the evidence and reality. It does not mean that I am projecting my need for absolute truth from one side of the spectrum to the other and it doesnt mean that I am overly confident. And faced with new evidence I will change accordingly.

    Just as with scienctific method, our mind works using propabilities…however we are subject to emotion, prejudice and incorrect beliefs. In statistics we can never be 100% sure but we can be very close. And there is a certain degree of probability when something becomes significant. I feel we should not let our emotions, prejudices and incorrect belief systems come in the way of highly probably truths or unlikely truths.

    Yes…life and history are messy…but there are definite things we can deduce through empiricism, rationality and aligning our belief systems to them. Skepticism is useful but it becomes useless when you begin to doubt that Stephen Wellington is even writing this…

    But after all I have written I realize that faith often goes against all I have said…which is why I think the gospel is so beautiful….being learned and rational can hinder sublime and often irrational thing that is faith.

    The truth and to live therein is all I ask for.

  5. “If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.” – Thomas Szasz

    I think this is a great post Andrew and is very pertinent to what we discussed the other day. For days after I had been thinking about our conversation and it appears that you might be thinking about it too.

    The basics question here is “What is knowledge?” And this is basic philosophical epistemology.

    Let me state my position…I am a scientist/medical student and I have suspended my disbelief about the “mission and solipsism” of the Church/Joseph Smith so that I can enjoy it as a rational observer. I think that ultimate a priori truth can only be found in science and subjective a posteriori truths have limited value for learning about the external world, yet they have great value for learning about the “space within”. My spiritual experiences have always been personal, subjective and never applicable to a wider audience…and if they were I would realize I had gone crazy.

    I know you enjoy Buddhism Andrew…and I am unaquainted with Buddhist teachings though I would like to read more up on him sometime soon. But from the little I know, and I am probably wrong, is that Buddhist skepticism is different to that of scientific skepticism in the sense that it focuses on Bodhi…..”awakening” or “enlightenment” and focuses less on a priori truths.

    Though I enjoy learning to be self aware and concious I realize that there is a limit here to knowledge of objectionable truths. And I personally think that rationalism and inductive reasoning are the only way to move aware from the idiocy of global skepticism.

    After all, What is knowledge and what is belief?

    We dont need 100% certainty to know that something is very probable and significant. Knowledge is essentially where external truths and beliefs overlap. Thus our belief system and world view must be paradigmatic.
    Knowledge

    When these arent….is when we change our beliefs….because we cannot change truth…just as we cannot change the fact that 2+2=4. And if we do not then we suffer from cognitive dissonance or unparadigmatic thought. HOWEVER…if it is more comfortable to live in the cognitive dissonance of unpardigmatic thought then in reality we will remain therein. Just the same as if someone cannot face the fact that the church is not what it claims to be whilst going to church with their family, teachings classes etc etc….they will remain therein and keep believing in the complete mission of the church though it is illogically aligned with the facts. And this doesnt mean that the person is not a good person or that they are not doing what they think is best. And it doesnt even mean they are irrational…it just means their knowledge is conciously or unconciously incorrect. (On the premise that the evidence the person has seen about the church justifies their conclusion.)

    We need to find a belief system that makes best sense of the world and truth and then we can have knowledge….that will set us free. And this is why I adopt the political views and religious views I do…not because I want to….but because they are the beliefs that have helped me best reflect the world we live in. If I could…I would love to know for certain Joseph Smith was a Prophet and America is the most lovely and just and kindest country in the world…but this means that my paradigm of thought does not reflect the evidence and reality. It does not mean that I am projecting my need for absolute truth from one side of the spectrum to the other and it doesnt mean that I am overly confident. And faced with new evidence I will change accordingly.

    Just as with scienctific method, our mind works using propabilities…however we are subject to emotion, prejudice and incorrect beliefs. In statistics we can never be 100% sure but we can be very close. And there is a certain degree of probability when something becomes significant. I feel we should not let our emotions, prejudices and incorrect belief systems come in the way of highly probably truths or unlikely truths.

    Yes…life and history are messy…but there are definite things we can deduce through empiricism, rationality and aligning our belief systems to them. Skepticism is useful but it becomes useless when you begin to doubt that Stephen Wellington is even writing this…

    But after all I have written I realize that faith often goes against all I have said…which is why I think the gospel is so beautiful….being learned and rational can hinder the often irrational and sublime thing that is faith. We are safest when we act within the little yellow circle of knolwedge. But then does faith mean we have to act outside the little yellow circle of knowledge? I think it also means we should find out truth so that our knowledge can expand….and thus our capacity for faith can expand. Hence the commandment…know the truth and the truth will set you free.

    The truth and to live therein is all I ask for.

  6. I have come to the conclusion that what this life is really all about is this exact point–learning the boundaries of our own trust. I know that I am ultimately going to fail to express what I am trying to get across here because I’m not sure it can be articulated properly.

    Life is a test. The test is not about learning to be perfect as in, ‘never do anything wrong’ perfect, because we can’t do that. It’s learning to be perfect in the sense of having a perfect sense of your own character. Learning to understand who you really are. The real test is to come to understand when you are making the right decision and when you are not. To perfectly understand the difference between the inspiration and the emotionally fueled desperation that we often feel.

    I know I’m not articulating this very well, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that learning the difference between what we truly have had revealed and truly know and what we do not know is a big part of our mortal purpose here. If we can simply master that one thing, we will be very very far down the path toward exaltation. The most spiritual people I have met were the ones most willing to examine themselves in a truly honest way. Not looking for reasons to doubt the Lord, but also not being too trusting of themselves. That balance is nigh impossible to strike for some people, but I know some who have, and I deeply admire them.

  7. Andrew,

    I think you’re amazing. Very good thoughts. While I can’t comment much on them now, I just wanted to let you know I enjoyed it.

    If there is a thought I’d like to add, it’s this: that self confidence and self doubt are not a factor only in spiritual discernment, but also in more worldly knowledge (epistemological) as well. In fact, this whole issue repeats itself in areas of “discerning” things like church or world history (for example.)

    I see that some people are supremely confident that they “have it all figured out” while others aren’t so sure and realize the limits of such knowledge. (There also seems to be varying levels of “confidence” in epistemological matters vs. spiritual matters, etc.)

    Also, I see that some people have very little or no confidence in spiritual discernment (perhaps not even believing spiritual things exist) but supreme confidence in their ability to discern worldly knowledge. While others (FLDS?) might have no confidence at all in worldly knowledge to the point of discounting it entirely while having supreme confidence in their ability to discern spiritual things.

    So I think this adds another dimension to what you are saying, but it’s really the same issue.

  8. This post, with the comments made thus far, remind me of a conversation had among several individuals who recently died. Each of them has full and complete recall of their life on earth, but they have no evidence whatsoever of earth than their memories. Their conversation centers on whether they should trust all of their memories and feelings or should they only believe what they are now experiencing. One conversant, a scientist on earth, explains that he is an atheist and remains an atheist and bears his scientific witness that we should only believe what we can see and demonstrate with the scientific method. Memories and feelings need to be ignored, he asserts.

  9. Jared…your interesting but fictitious story presumes many things which for me take the lesson out of it. Is it meant to deride atheists or those who feel there is insufficient evidence to believe in the paranormal?

    Your story puts forth the classic rationalism vs. empiricism debate…whether we should trust our reason or our sense experience.

    The maxim of Pragmatism by Charles Sanders Peirce is very much applicable to your story and holds middle ground between the two:

    Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: DO NOT BLOCK THE WAY OF INQUIRY. Although it is better to be methodical in our investigations, and to consider the economics of research, yet there is no positive sin against logic in ‘trying’ any theory which may come into our heads, so long as it is adopted in such a sense as to permit the investigation to go on unimpeded and undiscouraged. On the other hand, to set up a philosophy which barricades the road of further advance toward the truth is the one unpardonable offense in reasoning, as it is also the one to which metaphysicians [and religionists] have in all ages shown themselves the most addicted.

    I think you are amazing too Andrew. 🙂

  10. Wow, some insightful comments already. My favorite line from each:

    SilverRain (1): “I have come to realize that even if I cannot have perfect faith in my own ability to understand the Spirit, I can have faith that the Lord will find a way to tell me in a way I understand.” This makes sense to me. I know if my children are not understanding what I say, I adapt my message and methodology to find a way that finally “gets through” to each individual child of mine. Wouldn’t any loving God do the same?

    Mike L (2): “Our spiritual eyes can also be deceived, but by default we trust them unless we have overwhelming reasons not to.” That expresses so well my internal “burden of proof” allocation. By now after being active in the Church for 29 years that I can remember, there are just too many experiences I’d have to ignore or revise before I could ever conceive of leaving it. It’s a high burden, and I haven’t been given any “overwhelming reasons” that overcome that high burden.

    Steve W. (3): “We need to find a belief system that makes best sense of the world and truth and then we can have knowledge that will set us free.” This one has my mind spinning about all the ways that self-confidence and self-doubt can “set us free.” I still don’t know which one wins that battle.

    Benjamin O (4) “[L]earning the difference between what we truly have had revealed and truly know and what we do not know is a big part of our mortal purpose here.” Well said. That test becomes infinitely more complex when we’re not just faced with the decision of whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not, but also given the choice of what means or methodology we’re going to use to test that proposition. Our choice on the latter question could completely determine our conclusion on the former.

    Bruce N (5) “Also, I see that some people have very little or no confidence in spiritual discernment (perhaps not even believing spiritual things exist) but supreme confidence in their ability to discern worldly knowledge. While others (FLDS?) might have no confidence at all in worldly knowledge to the point of discounting it entirely while having supreme confidence in their ability to discern spiritual things.” Yes, that truly is fascinating to see how we can treat our confidence in acquiring worldly knowledge so differently than our confidence in acquiring spiritual knowledge. Do you think there is a justification for doing so, or do you think it is wise to apply the same level of self-confidence or self-doubt to both?

    Jared (6): “One conversant, a scientist on earth, explains that he is an atheist and remains an atheist and bears his scientific witness that we should only believe what we can see and demonstrate with the scientific method. Memories and feelings need to be ignored, he asserts.” Great analogy. And that’s why I’m sticking with my own experiences.

    Thanks for the great responses. I’m going to be tied up at work today but I’ll be responding to your comments this evening.

  11. Jared…your interesting but fictitious story presumes many things which for me take the lesson out of it. Is it meant to deride atheists or those who feel there is insufficient evidence to believe in the paranormal?

    Your story puts forth the classic rationalism vs. empiricism debate…whether we should trust our reason or our sense experience.

    The maxim of Pragmatism by Charles Sanders Peirce is very much applicable to your story and holds middle ground between the two:

    Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: DO NOT BLOCK THE WAY OF INQUIRY. Although it is better to be methodical in our investigations, and to consider the economics of research, yet there is no positive sin against logic in ‘trying’ any theory which may come into our heads, so long as it is adopted in such a sense as to permit the investigation to go on unimpeded and undiscouraged. On the other hand, to set up a philosophy which barricades the road of further advance toward the truth is the one unpardonable offense in reasoning, as it is also the one to which metaphysicians [and religionists] have in all ages shown themselves the most addicted.

  12. >>> Yes, that truly is fascinating to see how we can treat our confidence in acquiring worldly knowledge so differently than our confidence in acquiring spiritual knowledge. Do you think there is a justification for doing so, or do you think it is wise to apply the same level of self-confidence or self-doubt to both?

    To be honest, I think it depends on what type of “worldly knowledge” we are talking about. I don’t doubt the repeatability of science, so I think we can have great confidence in it to continue to repeat.

    But, as a culture, we seem to place the same sort of confidence in the myths built up around science (I loved C.S Lewis’ article on the “myth of evolution” as opposed to the “science of evolution”, for example. Bear in mind Lewis believed in evolution.) and in scholarship, which are really not similar to science at all.

    Consider, for example, how much faith we put in financial advisors that statisically have no useful knowledge about our financial futures.

    And consider, how much faith we sometimes have in a historian’s personal points of view about history and how we treat it as almost ‘scientific’ knowledge at times even though it will be easily thrown asided and overturned by some future historian with a differing personal point of view who was able to make a more convincing argument then the other guy.

    “Worldly Knowledge” is not all built equally. Some areas that we treat with great respect don’t deserve the certainty we place in it. Others do.

  13. Nice, Andrew.

    I like the anecdote told by Brigham Madsen about himself and Sterling McMurrin, both U of U history professors and notorious Mormon skeptics. Brig and Sterling were walking down from their offices to grab a burger and shake off-campus. The sky was a brilliant blue, and springtime was evident everywhere with new life and vegetation. Sterling stopped walking, turned to his colleague, and said, “Brig, what if we’re wrong?”

    That’s the kind of attitude I try to foster about the deepest things of life. I believe what I believe, orthodox and heterodox, using the evidence available and my best judgment. A week does not go by, however, without me taking time to wonder about the possibility that I’m wrong.

    The phrase I like best to describe this is close to what Stephen said above, and encapsulates the need to get on with life as well as the recognition of our fallibility: “commitment amid uncertainty.”

    In the meantime, until the Beatitudes are revised to include “blessed are the spiritually self-confident”, I’ll err on the side of self-doubt.

  14. #8 Stephen wrote: …in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: DO NOT BLOCK THE WAY OF INQUIRY…

    This is precisely what I was trying to convey in the fictitious story.

    Nephi said it this way: 1 AND now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
    2 But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught. 2 Nephi 33:1 – 2)

    The man/women who achieves a Phd in academia and an 8th grade education in things of the spirit is going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the things of the spirit.

    Many LDS achieve a Phd in both.

    I’m leaving for a meeting so I can’t complete my thought now. This is a great post and I appreciate all the comments as well.

  15. Andrew says…”This one has my mind spinning about all the ways that self-confidence and self-doubt can “set us free.” I still don’t know which one wins that battle.”

    Andrew…you have set up the false dichotomy of self-confident and self-doubt in gaining objective knowledge though it is probably a true dichotomy when exploring subjective experience and personal feelings about events. In each case, the humility to be confident and the confidence to be humble are paradoxically important.

    The real dichotomoy you should be looking for in gaining knowledge is between 1)Our beliefs 2)Reality.

    They have to correlate for true and useful knowledge to be attained. This knowledge will allow us to have a humble confidence, though not a total certitude, to our paradigm of thought and the importance of actions and faith from there.

    After all Brigham Young said, “This is the greatest wealth we possess: to know how to direct our labors rightly.”

  16. Thank you for one of the best posts I have ever read, Andrew! For forty-five years, I have been searching for a way to articulate my frustration regarding over-confidence in spiritual “discernment.” You have finally given it to me.

    I can’t offer anything so good in return, but here are three snippets from history which may lend a little context . . .

    “‘The freewill Baptists are the most numerous here, and their doctrines the most popular. This order are wretchedly ignorant in divine things; the word of God is slighted and contemned, even by their teachers, and the Sabbath profaned. They follow visions, dreams, and revelations, (given, as they say) immediately from Heaven, which they not only believe, but know to be true. . . .'” —Eliphalet Pearson, A Sermon Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Ephraim Abbot to the Pastoral Care of the Congregational Church and Society in Greenland [New Hampshire] Oct. 27, 1813. By the Rev. Eliphalet Pearson LL.D. (Andover [Massachusetts]; Flagg and Gould, Printers, 1813), 28, citing “an affecting communication” which Pearson had “received, from a respectable character.”

    “. . . I arose and fell on my knees to pray, and called on the Lord for help, and inquired of him . . . While crying before the Lord, a solemn impression came into my mind . . . Then I prayed to God, if the impression was from him, that he would increase it; and if the impression was not from him, that he would remove it from me. The impression increased . . .” —Levi Hathaway, The Narrative of Levi Hathaway, Giving an Account of His Life, Experience, Call to the Ministry of the Gospel of the Son of God, and Travels as Such to the Present Time. . . . (Providence: Printed for the Author, by Miller & Hutchens, 1820), 59, describing Hathaway’s 1814 experience near Rochester, Massachusetts; compare to Doctrine and Covenants 9:8-9.

    “At length, one evening at a prayer meeting, I felt a struggle of soul roll on for the blessing. I felt as if, live or die, I must have it. I resolved by grace, that I would not give over. I said, here, Lord, I give myself away. That moment I was enabled to believe that God would then, for Christ’s sake, effect this work in my soul. I had thought, that when I received this gift, I should be something, but found myself less than nothing, and God was all in all. One of the brethren asked me, if I had received the Holy Ghost? I answered, it is something. My witness was not so powerful as I wished for, but I had peace like a river, and knew it was something different from what I had ever felt before.” —William Pitts, The Gospel Witness: Containing Evidence that the Holy Ghost is Given to All That Believe. Together with the Journal of a Travelling Preacher; And the Religious Experiences of Several Persons. To Which is Subjoined A Sermon, Delivered by an Indian. By William Pitts, Preacher of the Gospel (Catskill [New York]: Published by Junius S. Lewis and Co., for the Author [U. C. Lewis, printer, Newburgh], 1818), 110-11, from “The Experience of Chloe Palmer, formerly Chloe Blakely, written by herself” (pp. 108-11).

  17. Bruce says:

    “Consider, for example, how much faith we put in financial advisors that statisically have no useful knowledge about our financial futures.”

    Mathematical models are inherently flawed…though useful they are not totally accurate because of the extraneous variables they are unable to predict or control.

    History is also different to scientific knowledge. You must learn how to read history…obtain multiple sources etc. But ultimately the story of a historical character is from the attitude and perspective of the individual. A lot of historical facts are agreed upon, some even tested scientifically, whilst others are debatable.

    Did the Nazis invade Poland? YES…..we have historical evidence for it.
    Did the Nazis burn down the Reichstag? Probably, but we don’t know because we do not have historical evidence.

    Jared….

    The general consensus from the scientific method is that the paranormal is unproved.
    However…I agree that we need to be both knowledgable of ourselves and of the world around us.
    Thanks for that great scripture. 🙂 One of my favs.

  18. I look at it this way:

    I have full confidence that what I believe is “true” for me, therefore, for myself, I know it to be true. I have no confidence that what I believe is “true” for anyone else, since they have to discover what they feel to be true.

    That’s not a relativistic stance, as it sounds initially. I just look at it like Nephi did: I know what I have seen and felt and experienced. It’s truth “as I understand it”. I’m not a bit perturbed that my current “knowledge” differs from my earlier knowledge – and I’m not concerned at all that others will read this and say that I don’t “know” anything, but that I merely “believe”. It feels like knowledge *to me*, so I accept it as knowledge *for me*. If I explain it to others and they translate it as “belief” for them, fine; if they feel what I feel and translate it as “knowledge”, fine.

    Some have the gift to know; others have the gift to believe those who know. Fwiw, everything I have read on this blog and others convinces me that such a distinction pretty much covers everyone – those who follow what they feel they know and those who follow whoever is the most convincing to them. I’m fine with both, and I try not to force one on the other.

    I just think that most people are too stuck on quibbling over definitions that they want to impose on others and not open enough to letting individuals self-identify as honestly as they can on a personal level – and that “natural man” tendency is alive both inside AND outside the Mormon Church. It certainly is alive and thriving here.

  19. I’ve had a similar line of thought the last few months. When we testify, we say that we “know” something is true, but do not use that phrase in its more widely understood sense. Elder Oaks touched on this in our most recent (April 2008) conference. Your characterization of this as faith in ourselves addresses some of the shorthand that I perceive in LDS communities when testimony is born. When we say “I know X” we tend to mean “I have had experiences which I attribute to God (or His Spirit) and which, taken together, affirm my belief in X.” When those unfamiliar with this usage hear such statements, they may interpret them improperly. Likewise, to those who prefer consistency in their usage of “knowing,” a certain level of discomfort in making such statements of certainty seems understandable. Thus, Elder Oaks recognizing different kinds of knowledge, and ways of knowing, represents (to me, at least) an affirmation of this disconnect.

    I wonder if some of the perceived arrogance or self-righteousness that those of other faiths find in us stems from the combination of this self-confidence you identify together with a high degree of doubt that others could receive answers with which we do not agree. Kudos to you for drawing out this line of thought–awareness of these tendencies can enhance our ability to interact with other faith communities as well as to advance our own faith (and faith in our faith).

    In any case, I think that the answer to our self-doubt about our ability to accurately receive, discern and interpret spiritual promptings comes through repeated experiences of hearing and responding to the Lord’s call. Trial and error are a part of this, which make our continuing in belief a matter of faith. No meta-level certainty seems possible on the philosophical. Yet as we engage ourselves with the scriptures, prayer, and actions, our spiritual perception and discernment may become increasingly accurate. The relationship developed over time creates the foundation upon which we can build faith as we receive new insights and revelations through the spirit. The regularity of experience allows for the benefits of individuality (keeping self-confidence in check by reserving judgment until we have sufficient personal experience) while maintaining the benefits of having confidence in the established bases of faith (avoiding being trapped in self-doubt entirely).

    At least, those are my preliminary thoughts… I can’t say I’ve thought everything through enough to say I won’t retract something as comments progress.

    Thanks,
    MattM

  20. One thing, I think we could improve upon, is the ability to express doubt. There are times in all of our lives when Faith is easy, obvious and strong. Then, there are times when doubt is stronger and we question.
    I find that not being able to discuss doubt, makes it grow. Additionally, if I brougth it up, I think I would be received poorly as “unfaithful” or “sinful.”
    However, that being said, how to change?

  21. I thought this was a great post. As far as finding a balance, I’m reminded of the language of inferential statistics. Within statistics there is a kind of acknowledgment that you have never really proved anything beyond some amount of doubt. Rather you make statements about the likelihood of finding what you found if it was not really there. Making the mistake of identifying a thing that does not really exist (claiming to ‘know’ when in fact the thing you ‘know’ is not true) is called a Type 1 error, and making the mistake of not finding a thing that actually exists (doubting what is actually the case) is called at Type 2 error. With statistical tests it is virtually impossible to eliminate both Types of error. Decreasing the likelihood of a Type 1 error often increases the likelihood of a Type 2 error and vice versa.

    Anyhow, when statisticians are faced with the choice of which type of error to be more careful of they often weigh the potential consequences of both types of errors. For example if you went to a Doctor for a check-up and she thought she saw cancer cells, she would likely be less worried about the possibility that she was wrong (a potential type 1 error) because the consequence of her making a type 2 error (failing to identify an actual cancer) are much worse. In this situation although there is some possibility that you don’t have cancer, you will be treated as though you do because the consequences of a potential type 2 error are so much worse (death) than the consequences of making a type 1 error (you get medicine you may not have needed).

    The way to decrease the likelihood of making a type 1 error is to make the test much more stringent. Of course this has the unintended effect of making you less likely to
    find an actual difference/effect/thing even if it really exists. The way to decrease the likelihood of making a type 2 error is to increase the number of observations you have. Basically you can be more confident about a conclusion you have observed many times, than you would be about a thing you only saw once.

    Anyhow, some of these ideas are hard to express and maybe hard to follow. So I apologize if this comment is confusing.

  22. This is a great discussion! I’ve been working on a blog post for the near future on the question of whether certainty is a blessing or a curse. I think it will dovetail nicely with some of what you’ve said here, Andrew!

  23. Not to pick on doubters, but

    Isn’t it possible to be overly self-confident in our knowledge that we don’t know something? Take Alma’s example: I think some of us are unwilling to acknowledge that a seed is good, and will doubt all the way until it becomes a tree.

    The irony is, if you doubt the seed, you’ll never see the tree.

  24. I will second the first question in Amelia’s comment. I have a hard time accepting it when someone says, “I know you can’t know.”

  25. AmeliaG–I agree that shifting the pendulum too heavily toward self-confidence in not knowing something poses just the problem that you propose. Alma suggests that the antidote is an attitude of optimism (desiring to believe). As such, we really do “pick on doubters” if we leave off at saying it’s wrong to doubt; however, if we suggest that they “experiment” and act as if they do believe, we then create an atmosphere for the cultivation of the requisite relationship of faith that can serve as a foundation. And if(when) the faith does not germinate, we are then forced to resort to other explanations (inadequate germination period, improper soil, etc.) which can account for both the “failure” of the experiment without rejecting its overall efficacy. In short, under this approach, a doubter may retain the optimistic attitude (desiring to believe), while remaining in doubt (inadequate germination period, etc.) while believers address issues of knowing if/that you know.

    Nick–I look forward to reading what you’re putting together!

    Stephen–Thanks for your encouragement. I’m fairly new to the blogging scene, but I enjoy contributing what I can… Feel free to peruse what I’ve put together thus far on my blog.

    LoriD–I posted recently on my blog in relation to addressing “hard” questions and doctrines–I believe it was my Bread of Life post… You might be interested. Basically, I conclude that expressing and reckoning with doubt are essential to conversion.

    And I agree to the general sentiment that this entry has generated great discussion. Don–I wonder if your inferential statistics application (assuming that I got my brain around it) would actually substantiate (to a degree) my suggestion that nurturing a relationship over time, including trial and error, might be one avenue toward reaching the balance alluded to in the opening post.

    Thanks all,
    MattM

  26. When a church members says, “I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and my Savior, I know Joseph Smith is a prophet, and that we belong to the only true church”, what gives someone the right to say such a thing.

    I answer–experience.

    A member of the church who has fulfilled the spiritual law to acquire a testimony of the Book of Mormon and has received an authentic experience through the Holy Ghost has the right to declare this kind of testimony.

    Does this mean that every word that they speak or write thereafter is infallible? I don’t think so. Especially in light of this scripture:

    For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little… 2 Nephi 28:30

    This scripture says that the Lord gives us “knowledge” incrementally. According to my understanding this can mean that as His children we can interpret a scripture, using our powers of reason, in a certain way, only to have our interpretation greatly altered when additional light and knowledge is given. Isn’t this inherit in the process of receiving knowledge line upon line, here a little and there a little?

    For example, consider how our knowledge of “salvation”(1) has been altered incrementally since the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It has evolved by the process of receiving line upon line, here a little and there a little.

    The prophet Alma didn’t know what happened to the souls of men between death and the resurrection. He inquired diligently of the Lord regarding this. An angel was sent (not an impression). He learned part of the answer in comparison to what we know today (Alma 40:11-14). Just taking the information provided by the angel, I can see how those who taught and wrote in that day could have, erred by employing “supreme self-confidence in their ability to discern the Holy Spirit [which] led them to make statements, sometimes in books bearing titles suggesting they constituted official Church doctrine, that in retrospect turned out to be dead wrong.” I believe this is a good definition of fallibility. Certainly it is forgivable, and does not negate all that such a person contributed.

    Lastly, I can testify as I wrote in the beginning paragraph. I can do this because of experience. My testimony is not based on “impressions of the spirit” alone. I know by scared experiences that transcend impressions of the spirit and are similar to what Alma experienced and recorded in the Book of Mormon. By the way, and this is important, I’m just an average member of the church. The Lord is no respecter of persons.

    (1)73 BC Alma 40
    1832 D&C 76 All saved except sons of perdition
    1832 D&C 88 Saved according to the law one lives
    1836 D&C 137 Desires of our heart
    1918 D&C 138 Missionary work in the spirit world

  27. This is a bit of a flame, but I’ll put it out there anyway.

    When I was 5, I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny.

    I had the experience of finding money under my pillow in the mornings after I would leave a tooth there the previous evening. I would find new presents under a tree on xmas morning.

    Does that mean these mythological beings were true ?

    At this point in my life, I feel that basing ones world view of truth on feelings alone is completely absurd, but thats what we were told to rely on as Mormons.

  28. I also want to add that our touchy feely radar is flawed if people of other religions can claim to have the same spiritual experiences and faith as Mormons, but believe in something completely different, so why rely on this radar with regard to spiritual matters ?

    For me, I’m still trying to find my “spirituality” since leaving the Church. Perhaps I will never gain a spirituality as it is defined by modern religion. Or maybe I am just burned out for now on that stuff and time will bring me around to something.

    Or maybe I could start a new religion ! The Church of Don.

    Nah, doesn’t have a good ring to it….

  29. Donald, you couldn’t be more wrong in saying that Mormons are told to rely on “feelings alone.” Andrew accurately summarized the general consensus among Mormons about what it means to receive revelation from the Holy Spirit, which goes far beyond mere reliance on feelings. If it’s your impression that Mormons are told to rely on feelings alone, I personally have to wonder how active a Mormon you are, or were, because I have a hard time believing any active Mormon would have such a complete misunderstanding of such a basic doctrine.

  30. Mo’Betta, In Don’s defense, I have heard individual Mormons say things like, “Trust your feelings” in such a way that it sounds like what Don describes. I agree, that’s not the Gospel as I believe it – or that I believe is taught by “The Church”, but I can understand how Don could have reached that conclusion.

  31. @Ray

    Exactly. I bring up the tough questions that I was wrestling with, like for example, Joseph Smiths polygamy and polyandry (and marrying 14 year olds) and I am told to read the scriptures and pray (ie: get that feel good thing so you don’t have to think anymore about it)

    Worse is the person I’m asking just bares there testimony at me and has NOTHING else to say or refute the knowledge that put the question in my head in the first place. The recite their feelings.

    I’m sorry, but feelings don’t override knowledge, just like my knowledge when I learned that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were in fact myths. You just can’t go backward in time and forget what you know.

  32. For me, I’m still trying to find my “spirituality” since leaving the [LDS?] Church. Perhaps I will never gain a spirituality as it is defined by modern religion.

    I can relate, Donald. For me, this stems in part from Mormonism’s overarching claims of objective truth. Over the course of 26 years, I based all my most important life decisions on a personal conviction that Mormonism was TRUE, rather than just GOOD. When I concluded (very painfully) that Mormonism did not represent objective truth, it no longer held the power to inspire me. A “good” Mormonism simply wasn’t sufficient to earn my devotion, and at this point in my life, I’m unable to place similar trust in any other system of worship.

    I’m finding myself attracted these days to “philosophies of life,” rather than worship. I’m currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I’m finding it quite profound and inspiring. I now have a few introductory works on Buddhism, which I intend to delve into next. It seems that this is allowing me to avoid my old obsession over whether I have “THE TRUTH.” Instead, I’m learning to focus on what brings joy into my life—i.e., what is GOOD.

  33. @Nick

    I have heard that book title mentioned many times, I think its time I went and picked up a copy at the bookstore.

    It was the LDS church I left, and the process did leave me feeling very jaded about religion in general.

    I think I’m mostly past my anger stage, but there is still a little left as you can probably glean from my posts.

    You are absolutely right, we need to focus more on what brings joy into our lives.

  34. I have heard that book title mentioned many times, I think its time I went and picked up a copy at the bookstore.

    Heh…Likewise, I’ve heard for many years that it’s a wonderful book. Each time I considered buying a copy to read, it just didn’t feel like the right time. This time, it did feel right, and I’m benefitting greatly.

  35. Nick and Donald–with nothing but respect for you and your right to make choices for the direction you take in life, I would like to ask a question. Why do you spend your time in the Bloggernacle?

  36. Jared, many of my friends are Mormons, and Andrew is one of them. I come by here to read his entries and sometimes I feel compelled to comment. That about sums it up.

  37. Nice post. Another monkey wrench in the issue is that where we fit on the Certainty-Doubt spectrum may be entirely beyond our control. The following book, only recently released, “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not” says that “certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact” and 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.

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

    I’ve long wondered how much being a “Good Mormon” has to do with winning the genetic lottery. In other words, if you are spiritually sensitive, hetrosexually inclined, predisposed towards certainty, etc. you make an ideal Mormon. But if you are more predisposed to hard logic, homosexuality, doubt, etc. you better run for the hills!

  38. Donald said, “I’m sorry, but feelings don’t override knowledge…”

    I find it interesting that people who leave the church often criticize its members for over emphasizing their “feelings” in place of using their brain or “knowledge”. Ironically enough, I don’t think those people ever felt that they could scientifically prove that the church was true to begin with. In fact, nobody can either prove nor disprove of the truthfulness of the church. As Andrew pointed out, it comes down to belief and interpretation. I’d like to add that not only are “feelings” interpreted but so are the “facts”. For example, if we establish that Joseph Smith was married to a 14 year old as a fact, one person’s interpretation may be that he could therefore never be a prophet. Another person would not interpret or conclude the same thing. After all, the Bible does not let us know the ages of all the prophet’s wives so we don’t have an established threshold of what would qualify or disqualify someone as being a prophet, based on the age of their wife.  Therefore in religious matters are feelings any more subjective than knowledge? Since neither side can prove their interpretation, belief in religion simply comes down to faith. So when DAMUs criticize us for not turning on our brain enough, what they are really asking is for us to turn off the spirit.

  39. If one is certain, then does one really have faith? Can one really have faith without doubt? Are faith and doubt mutually exclusive, or do they work in us in some kind of symbiosis? You have certainly stirred the pot…

  40. (I haven’t read the comments yet – so I apologize in advance if I repeat someone else’s comment)

    For example, I think we can often overlook the fact that whenever we say we “know” an unseen truth because it has been “revealed” to us “by the Holy Spirit,” we are necessarily basing that statement on an unstated but extraordinary leap of faith. That leap of faith is our supreme confidence in our own ability to accurately discern the Holy Spirit, and to separate or distinguish it from our own thoughts or feelings that might be acting as “impostor” spiritual impressions.

    I don’t see how that is a leap of faith. At least no more a leap of faith than my ability to engage in any knowledge-building process. If someone asks me what 7×6 is and I immediately say 42 am I necessarily engaged in a leap of faith? I don’t see why I would be. Of course some might be engaged in a leap of faith but I don’t think all necessarily are.

  41. What a powerful and inspiring thread!

    Donald and Nick at #29 – 31: My five brothers and three sisters and I were raised Catholic. There was a little manmade bridge over the railroad tracks in our town, and there was a sign near it that read, “Not a Public Crossing”. We figured it was only for Catholics to use. (To roll your eyes far enough back into your heads about this, you need to know that Catholics in that day placed great weight on the superiority of the Catholic school over the public school. So we thought this bridge was for Catholics, but not for “Publics”.)

    When I attended a Catholic university, I learned things about Catholicism that I didn’t know. I had many “Wait, wut?” moments. Once I learned how many areas where doctrine and I parted ways, it lost its power to inspire me, just as Nick described about the Mormon church.

    So 35 years as a Catholic, 10 years as a United Methodist, and 5 years scratching my head have passed. Paradoxically, while “good” Mormonism isn’t enough to generate the desired connection for Nick, the “good” in Mormonism is precisely what attracts me now as an investigator.

    But “true”? I’m not so sure I’ll ever get too worked up about what (if anything) can be objectively proven. And nobody but God can ever challenge what I believe to be spiritually proven. Remember Curly in “City Slickers”? He holds up one finger and [paraphrase] says the secret to life is just one thing. And that one thing is what you’ve got to figure out for yourself. That’s what TRUE is for you.

  42. OK, onto the comments.

    Stephen (#8) The maxim of Pragmatism by Charles Sanders Peirce is very much applicable to your story and holds middle ground between the two:

    I’m glad someone brought up Peirce. Peirce really changes how we think of the whole process. Instead we have those things which we can’t doubt and then the question of whether we are pursuing inquiry. The original post seems tied up, I think, in that question of doubt. But Peirce is quite right I believe in that doubt and belief are not volitional. They happen to us. Our part is in terms of inquiring. Typically the problem is people who don’t inquire (or inquire only down narrow lines).

    As a practical matter though that which we can not doubt we hold as knowledge.

    As an aside, a couple of years ago I wrote a series of blog posts on the issue of Mormon knowing largely inspired by Peirce. Here’s the first post and there are links to the others at the end. The discussion of Peirce in that context might be of interest to some here.

    Don: (#19) Within statistics there is a kind of acknowledgment that you have never really proved anything beyond some amount of doubt.

    Peirce would ask if this is a paper doubt – that is I write that there are doubts – or is it real doubt. That is do I act like I doubt. Philosophers and perhaps many scientists like to talk about paper doubt but that’s not really doubt at all. To borrow someone else’s example – if you pass a stop sign dozens of times on both foot and in vehicles and see it as red do you really allow for any doubt that it is red?

    Donald: (#25) At this point in my life, I feel that basing ones world view of truth on feelings alone is completely absurd, but thats what we were told to rely on as Mormons.

    I don’t think knowledge of the sort given in testimony meetings can be reduced to relying on feelings. I don’t think feelings alone establish anything and I don’t think the Church claims they do.

  43. #35:
    Nick and Donald–with nothing but respect for you and your right to make choices for the direction you take in life, I would like to ask a question. Why do you spend your time in the Bloggernacle?

    That’s a fair question, Jared. The fact is, I see many beautiful and worthwhile aspects of Mormonism. I also continue to find Mormonism fascinating from an historical and sociological perspective. Further, I continue to have many LDS friends, who I still enjoy conversing with on these issues. I hope that gives you a good start. 🙂

  44. #39:
    I find it interesting that people who leave the church often criticize its members for over emphasizing their “feelings” in place of using their brain or “knowledge”.

    Brent, you’re right that such a criticism, standing alone, is unfair. I can’t speak for every person who has left the LDS church, but I can speak to my own observation and frustration. There are some very vocal religionists who are so extreme that they will shamelessly refuse to consider any data which they even think could conclude with their religious ideas. Some of these folks happen to show up in the bloggernacle on a regular basis, and they frankly embarass those of you believers who are rational.

    Mind you, I’m not talking about believers who are willing to put issues “on the shelf,” and choose to simply have faith while waiting for more complete answers to the questions that challenge them. I can respect that. Rather, I’m talking about those who are so worried about having their faith challenged, that they will completely shut out any evidence or observations which don’t fit their religious ideas. On the WAY extreme end, for example, I’ve actually met one or two LDS who, because Joseph Fielding Smith once said mankind would never reach the moon, conclude that the devil influenced NASA officials to fake moon landings, in order to “deceive the very elect.” People like that should be criticized, and I’m betting you’ll agree.

  45. Criticized for thinking it – no, as wrong as it is; criticized for saying it – yes, that’s probably an accurate description of my own feelings. People in general (myself included, I’m sure) often don’t realize just how ludicrous their pet theories sound to others.

  46. Clark (# 44) That’s a good point about paper-doubt. It makes me think about the idea that we may not consider faith true faith until it is acted upon. Is there a term for doubt that leads to action?

    As it relates to the post, my personal belief is that if God exists and cares what we do/believe, our actions would carry much more weight than our beliefs or lack thereof.

  47. Folks, thanks for all the great comments today. There are too many to respond to individually, but I’d like to make a couple concluding points and make a couple things clear.

    First, Ray and others disagreed with the argument that we can’t ever know anything. I’m not sure whether they were responding to someone else’s comment, or if they interpreted something I said in my post as asserting that we can’t ever know anything. Obviously, the assertion that we can never know anything is self-contradictory. It’s the same as saying “I KNOW that we can never KNOW anything.” I’ve re-read my post and I didn’t see anywhere that I said we can never know anything, so I’m assuming those comments were not directed at my post.

    To be clear, I believe we CAN KNOW many spiritual things. However, it is also possible to THINK we KNOW something that we actually don’t, or that isn’t true. When we recognize the possibility of being wrong, that is where self-confidence versus self-doubt in the correctness of our conclusions comes in. And so it takes faith in ourselves (our logic, our reason, our spiritual discernment, etc.) to say that we KNOW something. That was the main point.

    Clark (42), I’m surprised that you seem to bristle at the idea that our professions of “knowledge” require faith in ourselves, and I’m surprised that you used an example of a mathematic equation to argue that our view of what we “know” through the Holy Spirit does not necessarily require faith in ourselves. I think doing a math equation is different from the process of spiritual discernment. To use your example, we all agree on the value of the numbers 6 and 7 and the concept of multiplication. So do you really see the process of discerning the Holy Spirit as analogous to performing a mathematic equation? I don’t know many people who do, but it seems such an argument would tell me that you have a very high level of confidence in your spiritual discernment. I pass no judgment on whether you’re justified in having a high level of self-confidence in that respect; some people deserve to have a high level of self-confidence in their spiritual discernment, and you certainly could be one of them.

    Also, I am always surprised and intrigued by readers’ reactions to the same post. For example, I’m always intrigued when I see a stalwart Mormon like Bruce N. and an ex-Mormon like Nick L. respond positively to the same post, or when some faithful Mormons see a post as inspiring while other faithful Mormons see that same post as focusing too much on doubt or undermining the foundation of knowledge.

    For the record, I’m a very active Mormon who loves the LDS Church, bumps, warts and all. So I certainly did not intend, nor did I expect, that anything I wrote could possibly undermine anyone’s faith. Personally, I find the challenge of wrestling with self-confidence and self-doubt to be one of the most exciting, interesting challenges we can face. And I don’t think doubt is bad per se. It’s not the question of whether we doubt that’s important; it’s how we RESPOND to that doubt. And I find that the greater the doubts, the greater the faith one needs to develop to overcome those doubts. Which is why I ultimately find discussions about doubt so faith PROMOTING. So thank you all for a great discussion today.

  48. Andrew–that last comment could be a post all by itself! I love it! This is a topic that I have thought a TON about in my life, and have not reached many conclusions. I greatly appreciate your insights in this post (as well as others’).

    “surprised and intrigued by readers’ reactions to the same post” – While blogging certainly has some glaring limitations, this is one thing I love about it. This post particularly has been interesting in terms of the reactions. For me personally, I don’t feel comfortable saying the word “know” in most cases (save a few) related to spiritual things. But then again, what does “know” really mean, anyway? If we do “know” something, what does that mean?

  49. Amen, Andrew.

    I hoped it was clear that I thought the post was exceptional, but after re-reading my #16, I realized that might not have been the case. My only point was that there is more than one way to look at “knowledge” – and my way is to agree, essentially, with you. Because we all see what we see (which can change, btw), we each have to work out our own understanding of what we believe and know. “Self-skepticism” relates to me in that I am skeptical of my ability to know everything, so I’m constantly trying to figure it out more fully.

    I think we are in agreement on this one; we just say it differently.

  50. Andrew…I think the world of you mate and I hope you dont take this too harshly.

    But I was just thinking today how narsisistic this post topic is….self-doubt vs. self-confidence.

    Be pragmatic…look at the data…we shouldnt be so arrogant as to dismiss it and adopt an agnostic position without inquiring.

    THEN….have doubt or confidence in the evidence…not in yourself.

    Great post Andrew…thanks.

  51. Thanks for this post, Andrew. I have thought a great deal about relative knowledge because it has niggled at my mind how many people deride the use of the word “know” in testimony. I decided to write a little about it, but didn’t want to burden this thread with a long and divergent topic.

    I am glad you put into words things that I had only nebulously grasped.

  52. Great post Andrew. A couple of random and quick comments.

    Helen Whitney was quite taken with the “know” comments. She said this was unique in her experience with religion and people of religion.

    Bart Ehrman, the great New Testament scholar has said that he realized he was in the wrong place at church when the only part of the liturgy he was only able to say and believe was “He was convicted by Pontius Pilate and hung on a cross”. Interesting that he could only say believe and not “know”.

    The dynamics of Mormonism is interesting since we seem to be unique in “knowing” and yet we pride ourselves that we have no creed.

    I remember in the early 1990s Pres. Hinckley giving a talk on certitude and shortly after I realized that the only thing I was certain of was that I have very little certainty. When one does a google search of Pres. Hinckley and certitude it is amazing how many hits. Here is one I thought interesting:

    “Certitude is certainty. It is conviction. It is the power of faith that approaches knowledge — yes, that even becomes knowledge. It evokes enthusiasm, and there is no asset comparable to enthusiasm in overcoming opposition, prejudice, and indifference. Great buildings were never constructed on uncertain foundations. Great causes were never brought to success by vacillating leaders. The gospel was never expounded to the convincing of others without certainty. Faith, which is of the very essence of personal conviction, has always been, and always must be, at the root of religious practice and endeavor.” Gordon B. Hinckley, “Faith: The Essence of True Religion,” Ensign, Oct 1995

  53. Andrew (#60): Clark (42), I’m surprised that you seem to bristle at the idea that our professions of “knowledge” require faith in ourselves, and I’m surprised that you used an example of a mathematic equation to argue that our view of what we “know” through the Holy Spirit does not necessarily require faith in ourselves. I think doing a math equation is different from the process of spiritual discernment. To use your example, we all agree on the value of the numbers 6 and 7 and the concept of multiplication. So do you really see the process of discerning the Holy Spirit as analogous to performing a mathematic equation? I don’t know many people who do, but it seems such an argument would tell me that you have a very high level of confidence in your spiritual discernment. I pass no judgment on whether you’re justified in having a high level of self-confidence in that respect; some people deserve to have a high level of self-confidence in their spiritual discernment, and you certainly could be one of them.

    The issue is what makes something a leap of faith. That is why do you need faith in yourself? Because, as you noted in your post, I have to have faith in my skill and ability. But that’s as true of mathematics as it is of spiritual matters. Math only seems different because it’s a skill we tend to take for granted and think that we could verify it after the fact easily. But the issue isn’t how easy our conclusions are to verify through other means but rather the degree to which my immediate skills in a particular context can be trusted to provide a reliable answer. Put an other the issue is the reliability of me to provide correct answers.

    Thus to me you are conflating two issues: public verification with individual abilities. But those ought be kept separate. Once you separate them then either this leap of faith is involved in any assertion by an individual (in which case it seems far less significant) or else it’s not a leap of faith at all.

    Really what I was trying to get at is what it means to have a leap of faith.

    Certainly it is the case that some skills are more reliable than others. I have much more trust in my ability to do simple arithmetic than correctly interpret revelation for instance. But I’m not sure that entails a “leap of faith.”

  54. Clark,

    The leap of faith comes in when you realize that your perception and interpretation of spiritual impressions is fallible. When you realize you’re capable of error, it takes faith to trust in your conclusions.

  55. Not really, at least not in any sense beyond the trivial sense. That was my point. I can be fallible doing mathematics. I more than recognize I’m capable of error. It doesn’t take much to trust my conclusions. I’m still not clear where the difference is. At best it’s a difference of degree in that I recognize I’m better at some things than others. Clearly I’m better at simple math than I am at distinguishing revelation in detail. Yet were I to try and do detailed calculus all these years since I did it last I suspect I’d recognize more fallibility. Does that mean it takes more faith to trust my conclusions?

  56. Clark,

    I think you’ve successfully proven that we may have different understandings of the same words, which is probably why you apparently didn’t understand my point. That’s OK. It happens from time to time.

  57. Hey Andrew,

    I was reading about US and World history til late late last night and for about 2 hours in the library this morning I was reading Chronicles of the Twentieth century. (should have been doing some work.)I really got to see social-conflict theory from both sides.

    I was loving it and learning various sides of issues.In the shower I realized a bit more of what you are talking about with this thread. Perhaps you are speaking out of maturity and experience. I think that is the arguably a great thing about getting older and wiser…you are more inclined to become a “rational observer”. Nevertheless…I still think there are somethings to be decisive on but yet still not be radical and irrational.

    Hope you are doing well mate. You are awesome.
    Stevo

  58. I appreciate this post. I’ve had some similar thoughts lately as well. It’s an interesting balancing act, and I feel like it’s a good struggle to balance the two sides. Once thing I thought of that really hits home to me is Alma 32, when he compares “the word unto a seed”. That little experiment has helped my faith in some things grow into certain knowledge. (Such as the seed of the Book of Mormon).

  59. Pingback: Points of Interest, #15 « Mind, Soul, and Body

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *