How do we ‘know’?

April 11, 2010
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Today at church we had a testimony meeting.  This is a somewhat unique sermon style where the bishop invites the people in the congregation to come to the microphone and share their testimonies or personal witness stories.  They simply go up to the front if they feel like they should, and it is usually very uplifting and enlightening.  You can learn how the gospel impacts a person directly.

You’ll often hear phrases like, “I know that God lives,” and “I know Jesus died for my sins,” and “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”  Sometimes visitors come away from these meetings non-plussed by our uber-confident ‘knowledge’ of things.  It got me thinking.

Whenever someone says they know something, they are saying they have high confidence that their belief coincides with objective truth.  We do this all the time.  You say, “I just know the dentist is going to lecture me on flossing” because 1) he’s done it before and 2) you still haven’t been flossing.  Your previous experience and the evidence of your behavior lead you to this prediction.  There are many ways we gather knowledge; I’ll list a few here for illustration:

  • Personal experience (five physical senses,  sense of balance, pain, hunger, etc.)
  • Emotion and intuition (love, fear, instinct, etc.)
  • Experiences of others (advice, anecdotes, biographies, etc.)
  • Logical and mathematical proofs (a priori)
  • Found evidence (archeology, historical documents, paleontology, forensics, etc.)
  • Robust scientific experimentation that controls for all variables (physics, chemistry, etc.)
  • Scientific experimentation/observation that controls for variables where possible (sociology, political science, economics, etc.)

We all tend to have some level of confidence in these methods, some more than others, depending on many factors, but each of these can lead a person to say “I know…” if the learning method is compelling enough.  Even so, many would argue that none of the methods I listed above are capable of producing reliable knowledge of things as transcendent as God.  Archeological digs might lend credence to a religious belief, but surely not firm knowledge.  These critics have a point, so I would add one more item to the list:

  • Revelation from God

God speaks to His children in various ways.  He gave Joseph prophetic dreams that came true; He spoke to Moses from a burning bush (and also face-to-face).  He sent an angel to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus.  Joseph Smith saw and listened to the Father and the Son in a grove of trees.

To Joseph of Egypt, Moses, Mary, Smith and many others, those experiences were indisputable.  They had every right to declare, “I know” instead of “I believe,” and they did.

For most of us, though, the glorious visions and visitations of heavenly beings haven’t yet happened.  For us, God has promised another form of revelation: a personal witness of spiritual truths through the power of the Holy Spirit.  He is available to bear witness of the Father and the Son.  “By the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).  This witness may be less dramatic or conspicuous than an angelic visitor, but its convincing power may be even more sure than a vision (see Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151; 1 Nephi 17:45-46).  Because of His subtlety, it may take many prompts for you to hear the Holy Ghost and again many more before you trust them enough to say “I know.”  But it can happen.  This is how I know God lives and that Jesus is the Christ.

You can know, too.  Like other modes of learning, it won’t necessarily come in an afternoon of mild curiosity, but it will with dedicated seeking, knocking, and asking over the course of weeks and months and years.  Begin now and you will taste the deliciousness that is the knowledge of God.

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10 Responses to “How do we ‘know’?”

  1. TD

    Hi. I’m trying to learn about LDS. I want to know what the average LDS member’s stance on vegetarianism is? I know you are to avoid tobacco, alcohol, etc, based on some dietary guidelines set out in some book (sorry, I can’t remember where!). However, I am also under the impression that you are to practice vegetarianism except when in dire straits. Is my understanding accurate? It’s compassionate, and it’s one of the factors that has piqued my interest in LDS.

  2. Thaddeus

    Here is the scripture in D&C 89 that you’re referring to:

    ” 12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
    13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
    14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;
    15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.”

    Eating meat is not prohibited by the Church. As it says, animal flesh has been ordained for the use of man. We are instructed to eat it sparingly and with a thankful heart. Since no firm direction has been given by modern prophets with respect to these verses, we should individually consult with the Lord to learn how much is too much for us.

    Frankly, I could use a little evaluation on this matter myself. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. To the poster above here are a couple of links on the topic of vegetarianism I recently stumbled upon

  4. TD

    Thanks for the reply. I know the question would have been better asked in the comment thread for “What Can’t Mormons Do” but I didn’t want to post my question after the discussion that had already taken place there.

    I am making my way through this site, trying to learn more about Mormonism. I am sure I will have more questions as I go. 🙂

  5. Great post. There’s one gentleman in my old ward that struggles with saying “I know” but we use it all the time in life circumstances that we have far less evidence and belief in. Thanks for the good outline.

    It is like Hugh Nibley said when he was asked if his research proved the Book of Mormon. He said nothing will ‘prove’ the Book of Mormon. People have been working on the bible for much longer and haven’t come to that conclusion yet. It is proven to you at the moment you have accepted the evidence presented to you. (paraphrasing a bit)

  6. Chris

    I hope I don’t come off as too contentious with this comment (and subsequent comments).

    I think it is always important to ask ‘How do you know?’ And many LDS respond with ‘by the Spirit.’ So, according to Moroni 10:3-5 (and the D&C), we will gain a testimony by the Spirit through our feelings. But let’s take it one step further back. How do you know that the feeling you got was directly from an external spirit being (ie the Spirit of God) and not just a fulfillment of a complex set of natural human desires?

    How do you explain the spiritual experiences of other religious people? I understand that many LDS think that all religions have some truth and God will guide people to various truths for whatever reasons. This seems confusing to me because it seems backwards to me that God would willingly testify to a person about the truthfulness of a religion that only has some of the truth.

    Now I understand many LDS also believe that people are simply deceived by satan thinking that the feeling they received is from the Spirit but in reality is from satan. But how are you so sure that you aren’t deceived (or mistaken that the feelings you get are actually a result of a fulfillment of a complex set of natural desires)?

    How can we be so sure that feelings are good enough evidence for the existence of God (and also the LDS church)?

  7. Thaddeus

    Chris, thank you for visiting our website and for your insightful question. While you’re here, please take a look at our comment policy.

    How can we be so sure that feelings are good enough evidence for the existence of God (and also the LDS church)?

    I have asked myself that question many times. How far can I trust my feelings? Is there spiritual communication, and if so, am I really experiencing it?

    Well, there is no such thing as evidence so compelling it can’t be ignored, doubted, or denied. To be convinced is a choice. The threshold for “good enough” evidence is personal.

    In the end, there is uncertainty about everything. Am I really typing this, or am I merely a brain in a vat dreaming of typing this? Sometimes we just have to trust our experiences and be open to learn new lessons along the way.

    Revelation from God is very real to me and I have become convinced of His power and concern for me. I could site examples of his communications and interventions, but the question, “is that good enough evidence?” will always rest on a skeptic’s lips.

    See Blake Ostler’s FAIR talk “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment

  8. Chris

    Thanks for the response. I’ve actually seen that video before! 🙂 I also made a comment on it (as z1freerider):

    1. So, lens manual talks about divine manual author.
    2. To know this, you must pray to receive a lens.
    3. You believe the manual.
    4. You receive lens which shows you that there is a divine author.

    Why did you take step 3? What reasoning do you base your initial trust in the bible or what somebody else said?

    I also think that the lens analogy isn’t quite accurate for similar reasons why the salt analogy isn’t. The lens (spiritual experience) may show a picture. But what is the picture? The description of the picture has always been relative to the cultural setting and environment of the picture taker. A Muslim will see an Islam picture, a Mormon an LDS one, an atheist an inspirational yet godless one, etc. Why should we assume that our interpretation of the spiritual experience is the absolutely correct one? The agnostic atheist proposes that there is something going on that is only of human origin because of the varying degree of interpretations. Confirmation bias, affirmation bias, and other natural explanations are simpler (make less assumptions) than the Holy Ghost explanation. What reason does the Mormon have that says his interpretation of the Spirit is more correct than others’ experiences? How can somebody say that his is from God and that others are partially from God or even from the Devil?

  9. Chris, here are a few snippets from Mr. Ostler’s talk. I hope they serve to answer your questions the way they have answered mine.

    On whether our lens is most accurate:

    “Now let me be up-front about what I won’t do, because I can’t, and because it trivializes what I want to focus on. I will not give some argument or evidence to try to persuade you or anybody else that your spiritual experiences are valid and trustworthy. If I were to attempt to argue with you to prove that to you, I would only show and prove (quite conclusively) that I believe that in reality there is something more basic and trustworthy than spiritual experiences; that is, the arguments I would give you. If I were to argue in that way, I would show conclusively that I really don’t believe what I am about to tell you. Now in saying this I’m not stating that I won’t give reasons, or that I won’t do my best to reason with you. I am saying, however, that at bottom, these arguments are not what is most trustworthy and basic in Mormonism. What is most basic in Mormonism is the individual experience of the Spirit.

    On applying spiritual experiences to others:

    “Now, I will also argue that it is a mistake to take spiritual experiences as evidence for anyone but the person who has the experience. The fact that I’ve had an experience doesn’t mean that you have some reason to believe. It only means that to the extent that you find that I might have something useful to say, that maybe you could do it too. I will, in fact, suggest that to see these experiences as evidence for other people misunderstands the role they play in our lives. In fact, I will argue that that would be like, well in a sense, idolatry, or trying to commit adultery, as bad as that is. However, I will also suggest that these spiritual experiences are so powerful that they reorient everything in our lives, they become the basis through which we see.”

    On what knowledge is:

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

    And Chris, please understand that our purpose with this post and with this website is not to show that our lens is superior. I’m not trying to prove I’m right. I’m writing about what my experience has taught me and inviting others to trust their own experiences in the same way.

  10. Chris

    How do you know that your spiritual feelings are trustworthy? How are you able to verify that the feeling you had really is from the Holy Ghost? I often hear LDS say that the Spirit testifies of all truth. This is why many other people of other religions feel the Spirit because their religion has some truth. But how can we know this isn’t the case for the Mormons? What if the feeling you get is only because God is testifying of the some truth in Mormonism, but in reality his one and only true religion is somewhere else?

    Derren Brown is a popular magician and an atheist in England. You can find one of his videos on youtube where he pretends to be a Christian minister who can convert atheists to believers simply by touching them. It’s quite remarkable the emotional feelings that some of these atheist converts have when Derren performs his ‘magic’. I think the video is call ‘The so called Messiah.’