Last Sunday, I mentioned a philosophical question I had in my mind and the comfort I received from the Lord after receiving an answer. In that post, I also mentioned that this question and answer led me to rethink the way I pray. Let me start with some information.
In Logic, we learn that it is a fallacy to use something to verify itself. Let me give you an example from my Logic textbook from class (I’m not making this up):
The Book of Mormon is true because it was written by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith wrote the truth because he was divinely inspired. We know that Joseph Smith was divinely inspired because the Book of Mormon says that he was, and the Book of Mormon is true.
Let me add that I don’t go to BYU, this is a secular class at a secular university. I thought it was quite amusing to find something like that in my textbook. So, never mind the example, it should be obvious that this is circular reasoning. We can’t use the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith to verify each other. We need a confirmation from an independent source, such as the Holy Ghost in this case. Can you imagine what our life would be like if we just believed anything that claimed to be true?
After we discussed this example in class (no one knew I was LDS), I began to think about this and approached my teacher after class. I asked him, “Let me ask you something, how do we know that Logic is true except through a logical process? And how do we know human reasoning is true except through human reasoning?” He told me that I wasn’t the first person to think of this, and there is a field called Meta-Logic that tries to understand why we use Logic, but the fact of the matter is, Logic is just the best we can conceive of given our brains, and all we really have to go on.
Which basically means that we can’t really say that we know anything, except maybe that we ourselves exist (cogito ergo sum). Christian theologian William Lane Craig, in his debate against atheist Peter Atkins, argues that in order to believe Science, there are just some things that we have to assume are true despite the fact that we can’t prove them to be true, such as that other minds exist, that the speed of light is constant, that the Universe didn’t appear five minutes ago with the appearance of age, etc. We may say that we can derive strong inferences about the Universe based on the evidence we experience in what we think is our memories.
But the obvious conclusion, one that hardly needs proving, is that human reasoning is flawed.
Then again, our minds are pretty amazing at the same time. In fact, there are lots of things a human mind can do that a computer or an animal’s brain can’t do, such as contemplate its own existence. So can we rely on our own thoughts or not?
When I came to my revelation outlined in the last post, I was praying for an answer, sort of, but really I was just thinking. In hindsight, I think that most answers I get from God come from this type of activity. In a way, one could say that I wasn’t necessarily having a conversation with God, nor was I asking for an answer, but I was trying to align my thoughts with God’s thoughts, at least momentarily. Or, in other words, I was trying to think how God thinks for a short amount of time, so I could see the purpose and answer to my nagging question. Now, I don’t have the capacity of thinking as the Lord does. For that, I would need God’s mind, which I don’t have. I have a man’s mind. And yet, as I thought, I was trying to see the Universe as God sees it.
The “Classical” Model of Revelation as taught by the LDS Church could be built in several ways. I will represent it thus:
Dilemma -> Study -> Ask -> Revelation -> Act -> Confirmation
Or, in other words, we encounter a dilemma, we study the issue out in our minds, we ask God to give us an answer, he gives us revelation, we act on that revelation, and then He reveals to us a confirmation through the Holy Ghost that we did the right thing.
In “real life” however, things aren’t quite so perfect. Sometimes we ask and we get no revelation whatsoever, then we have to act on our own accord, when suddenly God confirms to us that we made the right decision. Sometimes we receive revelation out of the blue, telling us to do something or solve a problem we didn’t know existed. The different elements of the revelation model can happen out of order or not at all. I received my answer as I was studying, before I had really asked God a question.
Perhaps it was because, for a small moment, God allowed me to think as He thinks.
Isaiah says it quite elegantly in Isaiah 55:7-9.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Of course, we don’t have the capacity for thought that the Lord has. Any type of revelation I receive is like a two-dimensional shadow of a three-dimensional object. Most would find my “answer” to my previous question (music) to be completely unsatisfactory, and I would say to them that this is because it is one possible shadow of the three-dimensional object of the question, and that a different shadow would be more satisfactory to them. That’s why it’s personal revelation.
But it’s kind of interesting to think that perhaps I got a small, two-dimensional glimpse of something bigger. So that will be my goal as I pray now. Perhaps prayer does not always have to be a rote, rehearsed, structured thing. Perhaps the studying and meditating is just as important, and as we try our best to align our thoughts with God’s thoughts, or at least force our thoughts through the lens of God, we will be given more glimpses of what he sees.
Don’t just think. GodThink.
I should copyright that.
Good that you asked that question about human reasoning and logic, and I’m glad for your teacher’s answer.
In fact, we do come with a conclusion something like what the meta-logicians have hinted at. We don’t really know about *truth* or not…but rather about what *works*. This is similarly so for any circularly reasoned argument — the premises can be valid, but then, the circularity does not allow us to establish soundness or truth.
I think, though, that going through the argument that WLC uses (which, he is a masterful debater, not going to lie), you come up with rather nihilistic and solipsistic arguments (which you alluded to, in fact). Which is not altogether problematic with me, but when Craig makes his points, this does not in and of itself justify his position. Rather, it tears down everything.
I think the argument that people are trying to make is…why are we compelled to believe certain things? For example, it could be true that the universe started 5 minutes ago, and that our willingness to believe in carbon dating (which could be a sensory sham, albeit a very consistent one) is based on things that are only circularly proven…but in this case, I guess to use the words of Elder Packer which have sometimes been used against him: “Some things that are true aren’t very useful.” And in this case, I think we should really figure out that we are going for useful, and in fact, this may be something better suited to be conflated with truth (but then again, making that argument only works because of the circular appeal of usefulness in finding “better suited” things). So, I would suppose that you can be compelled to believe that it makes most sense or that it is most useful to believe in God, in Godthinking, in higher planes, etc., in which case you go with what is most useful.
But as to the question of what actually is the case, the jury is still out on that, and for reasons that WLC presents. You could be attributing things incorrectly or taking bad faith claims. This isn’t to say abandon them…but don’t take everything so seriously.
lol, i got on a tangent and chewed your ear off and you didn’t even realize it until you got to this sentence!
Excellent post, Arthur. I think it is easy to lose sight of how little we really know – on both ends of any spectrum or sides of any discussion.
This is why, at the most fundamental level, I only say I “know” for myself – based on my own experiences, for now, subject to further clarification. Iow, I “know” some things for myself, but I might not know anything fully. I know what brings me joy, both now and over time in the past – but not fully in the future; I know what I wanted to believe at various points in my life and what I want to believe now – but not fully in the future; I know what has worked and works for me in my marriage previously and now – but not fully in the future; etc.
Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems state that for any system (he was referring specifically to number systems), there are statements within that system that cannot be proven only by using the system. In other words, one must use knowledge outside a particular framework if one expects to prove the truth of everything in a framework. This fits well I think, with the idea of meta-logic expressed by the instructor of your class. Also, it provides some interesting parallels to the “provability” of God’s existence, of the truth of the Church, etc. Testimony is based on faith, not on empirical evidence, although observation and experience can provide structure and meaning to testimony. It requires “something” beyond our physical senses to “prove” the truth of God, of Joseph Smith’s divine mission, etc.
1. There is no proof of God and Josesph divine mission bdyond emperical evidences. Testimony can be established if indeed God was made known to you by a physical appearance as Joseph Smith asserted.
2. Just because one believe God exist does not mean He exist.
Ray, I think your description of your knowing was a wonderful example of faith. Alma a philosopher prophet recorded in the Book of Mormon talked in the same way. (http://scriptures.lds.org/alma/32/28#28)
I know for myself God exists, Christ is his son and the Savior, Joseph Smith and a man to follow, and the Book of Mormon is a pattern of truth. because of the process Arthur discussed. As Alma described these truths “enlarge my soul”, “enlighten my understanding” and are “delicious to me”.
Thanks Arthur for the post. I found it enlightening.
Great post Arthur, I highly enjoyed it, and I’m sure I will reflect on it in the future, esp. when I start thinking myself into the abyss. Andrew S.’s comment (We don’t really know about *truth* or not…but rather about what *works*) really hit home to me as well. I can almost feel my next testimony or talk changing a bit. This has truly been edifying.
For me, it speaks to the stubborn part within myself. I should have put this in my post, but I’m always touched by the testimony of the blind man in John 9.
25 He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.
26 Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes?
27 He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples?
28 Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples.
29 We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is.
30 The man answered and said unto them, Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes.
It’s a testimony that can never be taken away. “Look, I only know what I know and what I’ve seen. But I can tell you right now… I was blind before, and now I can see. Who are YOU to tell me I’m not?”
In my own life I equate it to my own testimony. “Never mind what the Bible says or the Book of Mormon says or Bart Ehrman or William Lane Craig or whomever. I know what I know. I know my own observations. I have a system that I’ve worked out that works for me. Who are YOU to do violence to that system? I know what I’ve observed. May God be my judge…”
Arthur – Great post. I really enjoyed it.
Andrew S – Thanks for your comment. It made a great counter-argument.
In the end though, I’m not trying to tell people, “OMG UR RONG GIVE IT UP,”
just rather that the picture is actually a lot more complex that it is. As Arthur writes in #7, he “ha[s] a system that [he’s] worked out that works for [him].” If this is true, I have no place, and indeed, he is right to ask, “Who are YOU to do violence to that system.”
My only point is this…others also have systems that work for them. Systems with amazingly different conclusions than the one we may have. So we have to realize that our systems are formed by “what works for us,” and what makes sense subjectively to us, but this says rather little about what is objectively true or universally true. As long as we stay out of the game of trying to assert universal truths, no problem. But when we get into that game, we better be sure that we have something more to back that up than “what works for us,” when what “works” is subjective and can differ per person.
#9. I agree with that, which puts me at odds with some who would, for instance, legislate many personal decisions regarding morality.
But then again, we DO need laws to govern the people, and those laws must be created based on a general majority or consensus. Do not kill, for instance. There seems to be general consensus on that. There may be those who have a personal system that says, “I must kill others and take their stuff.” We can’t entirely let everyone go by their own system, as internally consistent as it is. So what should the yardstick of general consensus be? I guess Democracy answers that question, in general. I guess once we move from the speculative or abstract, things get murky again.
Should we be able to drink alcohol? What about taking LSD? What about absynthe? What about salvia? Four different substances with mind-altering effects that we legislate completely differently. Why? Does everyone have their own personal system? Not really.
We still get into problems with the general majority or consensus…for example…is killing wrong just because the majority of people disagree with it? Is it “right” if a majority do not agree with it? Is gay marriage wrong as long as a majority of people will vote it down, but right if a majority will vote it in?
Is it “right” if a majority of Christians consensually determine that Mormons aren’t Christian and are a dangerous cult?
Or shouldn’t there be a way to determine unpopular “rights” and “wrongs?”
Democracy is woefully inadequate because the general consensus can agree on thing that deliberately hurt minority positions. But, this is precisely why we have minority rights (unless the majority decides to write those out).
Of course, then again, what is “right” or “wrong” is subjective too…because for each question I propose, I could probably find people who’d be on both sides of the equation, people who would point out that I have personal biases that make me think some things are right/wrong/whatever…and in fact, that’s my point. Everyone has these biases…so a person’s ideas about right and wrong do not say anything about objective/universal rights and wrongs…rather, they reveal more about the individuals we are dealing with and their biases. So instead of hitting at something that is universally true, maybe the best we can do is hit at something many individuals can agree with. Or whatever.
It could very well be that “right” and “wrong” are universally meaningless terms, but we have just become so blind to our personal and subconscious subjective impressions that we want to project onto the universe. Yet, even if this is true, this is meaningless…because we are VERY GOOD at projecting the subjective as objective. We don’t just want to personally feel x is wrong…we want to be able to say, “I know x is wrong and everyone should recognize this.”
Andrew… that’s a very long way to negate yourself in the end. 🙂
Well did Churchill say that Democracy is the worst form of government except everything else we’ve tried.
Issues like same sex marriage lead me to think of the following scenario.
Say I had a time machine that can travel into the future. If I could go forward and see the effects of same sex marriage on society, say same sex marriage had an overall benefit when all the factors were weighed (children growing up and being well-adjusted, nuclear families strengthened, etc.). If I came back in time and told everyone my findings, what would that change? Assuming everyone believed me. Would some people say, “Well, I’m going to vote against it anyway, because it’s just wrong.”
Now imagine the opposite is true. I discovered that same sex marriage had an overall negative impact. Some people would still say, “Well, it’s the right thing to do, so I’m going to vote for it no matter what the outcome is.”
If my hypothetical is accurate, then people are acting on a certain value system that is independent of the outward data or results. I would submit that this is an accurate look at people…
The point being that not only do we have our own systems of belief, but they seem to be based on so many different things… how can we trust that at all? It’s a good question.
Arthur, beg pardon? Negate myself in the end?
I like your appeal to authority, but let’s keep some things in mind…democracy works with a particular condition: we have protection for minority rights. For whatever it’s worth, let’s just remember that the U.S. Constitution would never have gotten off the ground precisely because the Founding Fathers were so wary of the potential of tyranny of the majority — a major concession — the bill of rights — had to be made. And the constitution furthermore allowed for checks and balances, etc.,
This is neither here nor there. I’m not trying to say you should believe it just because the FFs did. that would be an appeal to authority…but I would ask if you personally feel this is reasonable.
We don’t have time machines, unfortunately. But we also didn’t have time machines to determine the impact of giving women the right to vote, of the impact the abolition of slavery would have on the South’s economy, on states’ rights, etc., We didn’t have time machines to determine the impact a great number of radical social changes would have. Am I trying to wrap them all up and say they are all the same thing? No, but I’m saying that crippling conservatism and contentment with the way things currently are isn’t so uncontroversial as you might want it to be.
You’re right: people act on certain subjective value systems. Objective and external results may in many cases be irrelevant because people are operating on the subjectives instead. Yet, at the same time, people do internalize and value these subjective systems. “How can we trust that at all” is at heart of the same question a nonmember would ask a member who says, “Just have faith!” or “I have spiritual experiences that show this to be true.” The thing is…this doesn’t show that. It shows that subjectively, the spiritual experiences an individual has tell us about that individual. What may “work best” for him. It doesn’t show that objectively, what is borne of those spiritual experiences is true. (It doesn’t show that they are false either.)
So, in the end, we have very subjective belief systems. And we’re trying to work through our subjective experiences, others’ potentially differing subjective experiences, and a wild guess stab at what is externally and universally true. Even in the case that our wild guess stab is completely wrong, I think we should still try to find a medium that can be charitable enough to others’ subjective experiences without vitally compromising our own…if such thing is possible.