Religion as Secular Epistemology

Well, we have ourselves a new president. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

A week or two ago, Brandy Siegfried mentioned Ron Suskind’s article “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency.” I didn’t read the article, but I heard Suskind talk about it on NPR, and found it very interesting. Suskind says that if Bush wins, there will be a civil war within the Republican party. The two camps are the “reality-based” camp and the “ideology-based” camp. In other words, some in the administration believe that policy should be set based on empirics, where others believe that policy should be driven by what they believe to be right, regardless of the (alleged) facts on the ground.

Though Suskind’s structuring of the coming debate seems calculated to expose the ideologues as stupid, I’m not quite as ready to write them off. We have several reasons not to trust empirical data, one of the greatest of which is that much of the data being produced by ‘objective’ sources is in fact driven by ideology. Thus, if your vaunted empirics are tainted anyway, why not just choose what your gut tells you? Still, it’s hard in this rational age not to be persuaded by the reality-based camp and their graphs, lazer pointers and science. Something tells me they’ll have an uphill climb in the second Bush administration. The astute observer will watch how this conflict unfolds over the next four years.

But stepping past politics (is that possible on a day like today?), I want to talk about the way we navigate this conflict in our own lives as Latter-day Saints. Many of you may be much more rational people than I am, but I admit to having been driven to factual conclusions by my ideology many times, instead of the other way around. As Mormons, I think we’re especially susceptible to this. We know the truth, we think of it as absolute, so what is to keep us from inferring new data points in the larger world, from our central core of truth?

Some examples of factual conclusions that are often drawn based on inferences from the gospel: Homosexual behavior is a sin. Therefore, homosexuality is unalloyed choice. God would not make someone predisposed to sin, therefore anyone who is gay came by that orientation as a result of their own perverse decisions. I suspect there are few reading this that subscribe to these conclusions. On the other hand, I suspect there are many here (including myself) who have held this belief at some time in their lives. (Admit it, you were much less enlightened on this topic back in junior high).

Another example: Past prophets, and the Proclamation on the Family have declared that women ought to be primarily concerned with the nurture and raising of children. There is a half-stated subtext in the church that women ought to stay home with the kids. Therefore, kids whose mothers do not stay home suffer. If you buy this line of reasoning, you jump quickly on board with any study that finds increased chances of deviancy or depression in kids without stay at home moms, and you probably give little weight to studies that find no such correlation. Again, the trust truth, damn the data.

Lastly, abortion is wrong. Therefore, a fetus is a life. Therefore, abortion is murder.

All of these are examples of our willingness to expand gospel principles into the hurly-burly uncertainty of real life. I think it’s a noble impulse, and one that suggests confidence in our beliefs. However, the dangers are obvious. First, it’s just so darn easy to be wrong. We should not trust our willingness to draw logical extensions from doctrines, when the results fit so perfectly into our world view. If logic tells us that some doctrine x necessitates some secular fact y, we might do better to question the link than to instantly rely on y. We may yet learn new doctrines z and j and l that show easily how y is not required.

Second, when we follow these little logical links into the world, we find that many people who hold our doctrinal beliefs do not share our secular conclusions. This tempts us to make yet another logical jump– and conclude that these other people must not really believe the doctrines, if they cannot accept what follows from them. All based on good logic, of course, but incorrect a lot of the time.

Any good faith will tell its adherents something important about the world. The truth claims of the LDS faith are even more majestic, claiming to circumscribe all truth into one great whole. And yet, we should be conscious of the fact that we do not yet know all the truth that will make up that great whole. In fact, when we see the whole, we may be surprised by some of its parts. Is our understanding of the gospel sophisticated enough to accept some fact that seems contrary to our principles? Are we able to accept the dissonance that comes with such a task? Or should we continue on, doggedly affirming that reason can be attached to doctrine to create a flashlight that will illuminate everything we bump up against? Again, I think it’s an ambitious project, but I’ve made too many incorrect doctrinal conclusions to feel like it’s a good idea. Here’s hoping the two Republican camps find some middle ground, and that we can as well: let true principles lead you to hard facts, and let hard facts lead you to true principles.

30 comments for “Religion as Secular Epistemology

  1. One of the great lessons I draw from a part of Church history that most think of as an embarrassing blunder:

    It has been a fairly solid doctrine that Christ was the literal offspring of a corporeal God. From that, the early brethren quite reasonably concluded that God the Father must have had physical relations with Mary because, well, that’s how babies are made, right? And from there, we get Orson Pratt (or Hyde? I can never keep them straight) constructing long sophistic justifications of how it must not be a sin for God to have intercourse with one of His own children outside the bands of marriage, or how Mary was celestially married to her own Heavenly Father, or…

    Of course, we in the “Star Trek” generation have little problem with the idea of artificial insemination mixed with teleportation, so the necessity of the moral rationalization of those early brethren is lessened considerably for us. I’m not saying that that’s how God did it, of course, but simply that the conceptual framework is in place for us to consider options other than the only one those early brethren could imagine.

    All of which says to me that whenever I take that single step from what God has revealed to my first “And therefore,” I have increased my uncertainty by an entire level of magnitude, and each succeeding “Therefore” in the chain of deduction will magnify any errors in my initial extrapolation.

    Thus, I draw a very distinct line between “Homosexual behavior is a sin” and the first “Therefore,” or any of the others in the list of examples you gave. And I always do my darnedest to mark off that distinction for myself: From this point on, I am trusting to my own intellect, and all standard disclaimers apply.

  2. Ryan, I find myself in the somewhat terrifying (for me) position of agreeing with almost every word you’ve written.

    Nathan, I like your line-drawing idea very much. The only trouble I see is that I think maybe some reasoning from revealed truth is part of our duty to be “anxiously engaged” and to love the Lord with our minds. While noting the degree of uncertainty is a very good idea, I think sometimes we have to proceed despite that uncertainty. How do we do that righteously?

  3. Here is an example of inferential reasoning in a 1995 article by President Faust:

    “There is some widely accepted theory extant that homosexuality is inherited. How can this be? No scientific evidence demonstrates absolutely that this is so. Besides, if it were so, it would frustrate the whole plan of mortal happiness. Our designation as men or women began before this world was. In contrast to the socially accepted doctrine that homosexuality is inborn, a number of respectable authorities contend that homosexuality is not acquired by birth. The false belief of inborn homosexual orientation denies to repentant souls the opportunity to change and will ultimately lead to discouragement, disappointment, and despair.”

  4. Also: Suicide is a mortal sin, akin to murder. Therefore, anyone who commits suicide is damned.

    Kristine wrotes:
    The only trouble I see is that I think maybe some reasoning from revealed truth is part of our duty to be “anxiously engaged� and to love the Lord with our minds. While noting the degree of uncertainty is a very good idea, I think sometimes we have to proceed despite that uncertainty. How do we do that righteously?

    I’d suggest with a great deal of humility. It’s true that often science is wrong, or at least tentative, and therefore the “facts” can sometimes be in question. But Mormons of all people should, I think, be aware that the “facts” of our religion are also often tentative. There are two reasons for that.

    The first is the obvious one: we believe that God will continue to reveal truth to us. Therefore we do not have all of the truth now. Since a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, we should therefore always be small-c conservative in how we apply that knowledge by filtering it through a lens of charity for others. Maybe homosexuality is a choice, maybe it’s not; but pending further revelation on the matter we should, I think, always err on the side of being kind to homosexuals and withold judgement.

    The second is probably more controversial. Although we have revealed truths, the interpretation of those truths is in our own hands, and is therefore susceptible to error. The Proclamation on the Family is (perhaps) revealed truth. But what does “concerned with the nurture and raising of children” mean, exactly? That’s up to us. Our religion may be true, but our understanding of it is not necessarily so.

    We are just as liable to be flawed in our interpretation of religious truths as we are in our attempts to understand scientific truths. The difference appears to be that scientists are usually open to the possibility of errors in interpretation, because the nature of the scientific method throws those errors directly back in their faces. A scientist will start with a scientific principle, make an inference, and then perform experiments to figure out whether the inference is correct. If it’s not, it gets thrown out. Religious inquiry is less structured. When making religious inquiries I think maybe we need to adopt a similar attitude: make an inference. Look at the facts, see if they fit, and if not accept the possibility that the inference is wrong.


  5. “Though Suskind’s structuring of the coming debate seems calculated to expose the ideologues as stupid, I’m not quite as ready to write them off.”

    You really should read the Suskind piece. The president’s ideological handlers are not presented so much as stupid, as dangerous. Suskind quotes McKinnon and co. as in the business of “creating realities,” not studying realities or muddling through reality (black is white, and white is black, say it enough times and it becomes true). Granted, the folks out in the heartland who think Bush is God’s other son are presented as naive bumpkins.

    This story is, of course, nothing new. Suskind’s tale of O’Neill’s experience in the White House, Clarke’s stories, Whitman’s troubles, Diullio’s negative experience with the Bushies all attest to the problems that pragmatic and thoughtful policy wonks (even those who are also very religious) of the Nixon and Ford strain of the party now have with Bush et al.

    The editors of The Economist write in their book, Right Nation, that all this is a consequence of Goldwater’s successful bashing of Rockefeller and Romney.

    Governing by instinct means you don’t need to do your homework.
    For what is worth, I’m trying to teach my kids that doing your homework is important.

  6. Does inferential reasoning appear in the scriptures as well?

    For example, we are told that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones…” However, there is no record of a direct revelation to that effect (Section 130 is labelled “items of instruction”, not a revalation like most other sections) or of Joseph making physical contact with the Father. He may simply have drawn the (to him) obvious conclusion that because he saw a corporeal being, that must be the true nature of the being.

    Of course, we of the Star Trek generation have no trouble imagining alternative explanations.

  7. Thank heavens for our common star trek ground.

    Last lemming, here’s another instance of inferential reasoning in the scriptures, one that’s always made me sort of uncomfortable: “Behold, I say unto you that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity, wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell. For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.”

    I agree that Mormon’s take on this matter makes sense, but it scares me when he states that those who do not follow the same logical course as he does are to be quickly tossed to hell. The way he infers from God’s justice and love that little children need not be baptized is jump that I would argue is not absolutely logically necessary. So the fact that those who don’t make it with him are awful, horrible people, is sort of surprising. Especially when Mormon says he had to pray about the issue to find an answer, a few verses earlier. What am I missing here?

    By the way, I roughly follow (and endorse) Nate’s system: make your extrapolations, but DO NOT rely on them as gospel, constanly update them, and seek the spirit in trying to stretch eternal principles into the mundane corners of experience.

  8. From the recent “First Presidency Statement on Same-Gender Marriage”

    “As a doctrinal principle, based on sacred scripture, we affirm that marriage between a man and a woman is essential to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.”

    This struck me when I read it. It seem to say that the First Presidency derived their position by reading the scriptures. This surprises me, because for the most part the standard works are vague or silent about these issues, and mormons rely mainly on extra-scriptural sources to make sense of our doctrines. The scriptures themselves seem to be open to many interpretations.

    To what extent are teachings from church leaders based on their interpretations of the scriptures? Can their interpretations be flawed? To what extent are we required to favor their interpretations over our own?

  9. I wonder if what is at work is here is nothing more than the common fallacy of affirming the consequence. It goes like this:

    If A then B.
    Therefore, A.

    For example:

    If abortion is murder, then abortion is a sin.
    Abortion is a sin.
    Therefore, abortion is murder.

    The fallacy here is a variation on a valid form of argument known as a modus tollens, which goes:

    If A, then B.
    Not B.
    Therefore, not A.

    For example:

    If Nate were not boring, he would avoid posting on logic.
    Nate does not avoid posting on logic.
    Therefore, Nate is boring.

    My point (beyond the simple joy of pedantry) is that it is possible to identify the source of our unease with greater precision. The advantage with this is that we are left with some tools for figuring out why some inferences are better than others. I am fine with placing caveats on inferences that we seek to draw from the Gospel, but I also want to affirm the value of this sort of reasoning and look for ways of improving its quality. Hence, I am skeptical about blanket warnings to beware of human reasoning. Let’s beware of human reasoning, by all means, but lets also draw distinctions between good human reasoning and bad human reasoning.

  10. Wow, Nate. For being so boring, your last comment was actually a nice defense of the potential for using our own capacity for reasoning to grow spiritually. I think we sometimes dismiss that possibility too easily.

  11. Incidentally, the fact that an argument is logically fallacious does not mean that the conclusion is false. It simply means that the argument does not justify the conflusion. The argument about abortion sketched above is fallacious, but that fact tells us nothing about whether or not abortion is murder.

  12. Ryan –

    Re: the Mormon/baby baptism thing – You’re probably missing the specific cultural context. When I read that chapter, I get the idea Mormon has a specific person (or group) in mind.

  13. Logan, Nate, and Kristine:

    I don’t have a problem with using reason and rational thought to apply the gospel to our lives. In fact, that’s what I encourage. However, I think the project becomes more damaging than beneficial as soon as we decide that the logical extensions of the doctrines are as trustworthy as the doctrines themselves. By all means, draw conclusions about the ancestry of Native American peoples based on the Book of Mormon. Just know that your certainty of the Book’s veracity might not supply sufficient certainty to ground that proposition. And realize that if someone proves you wrong, they won’t be taking the Book of Mormon down with them.

    Ivan– you’re probably right. He was definitely speaking to the great and abomindable church, which we all know is the Catholic church, from which we can fairly assume that all Catholics are hellbound. :)

  14. Don’t you think sometimes Dubya just says he feels it in his gut because he’s tired of arguing? The Iraq issue in particular is very complicated, and explaining your policies to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, each with a different set of presuppositions, would get old, fast. I’ve seen enough analysts produce enough different kinds of reasoning that I think it’s far from clear that Dubya seriously is not basing his decisions on relevant facts.

    Of course, it does a nice job of fanning the flames of anger with the president to say he is willing to take the country to war, etc. based on a supposed inspiration from God, or a mere hunch.

    Such irrationalist explanations also work nicely to prevent one’s having to consider whether there might be sensible reasons for what the administration does. I’m not saying they haven’t made any mistakes, but isn’t the implication of irrationalism a bit of a cop-out?

  15. It is hardly an innovation for a political figure to offer a less complete answer than someone might want. Kerry did plenty of that. Why don’t we just read Bush’s references to his gut as another way of giving the typically incomplete answer of a politician?

    That said, I completely agree with Ryan’s post!

  16. Ryan, I didn’t mean anything directed at you by my comment (although I’ll admit I often do).

    A twist on this, as far as applying the gospel to our lives, is that I think it’s possible for different people to come to different conclusions about what’s right for them and both be right. Based on individual circumstances there could be different correct courses of action; people can get legitimate confirmations of the Spirit about their logical deductions that seem to contradict the confrimations of others. At least I think so. And because so many of our decisions don’t involve whether or not to commit murder or adultery or other *big* things, I think these contextually based differences in logical deduction and spiritual confirmation are actually fairly common, at least in terms of making choices, if perhaps less so regarding questions of doctrine.

    My point is that when others disagree with our own interpretation and application of gospel principles it doesn’t necessarily mean that one person is wrong. The willingness not to stubbornly cling to our interpretations is equally important in this case. Of course, every disagreement doesn’t mean that both are right, either, I suppose. How do you know? I guess that’s why they call it working out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

  17. Ryan –

    The Catholic Church managed to establish churches in the New World that early (during Mormon’s time)? No wonder the Nephites fell into apostasy!!!!


  18. Now you understand how diabolical they really were. We’d know a lot more about the ancient meso-American Catholics if they hadn’t been around to wipe the plain and precious mentions of simony and transubstantiation from the gold plates.

  19. For those interested, here’s the original thread on Suskind, “The End of Faith.” Personally every time I hear Suskind I find him less and less persuasive. (He was on NPR at lunch today again) I truly think he doesn’t get what for want of a better term I’ll call conservative Christianity. I think he truly sees it as a threat and therefore looks for it everywhere.

  20. BTW – one other point. I think faith, in the Bush sense, has as much to do with faith in a William James sense as anything. i.e. would you turn off the light if you didn’t have faith that the light switch worked? I think Bush comes up with some big visions (i.e. democracy in the mid-east) and then follows through on that.

    Now I have and will continue to criticize him for his implementation, but I’ve rarely had much to criticize him over in the big picture, except perhaps stem cells.

    Regarding Nate’s excellent points, I’d merely caution that such methods of reasoning are only bad if they are not accompanied with testing and the attempt to falsify ones ideas. (Peirce called that method of logic abduction) And there, I suspect, Suskind has more of a point. It is in that arena of planning for the failure of ones ideas or asking hard questions that I think Bush fails. It was the main reason I was reluctant when I voted for Bush.

  21. I think Nate’s points about fallacies open up the real problem. Perhaps the problem inherent in the project of drawing logical conclusions is the rational, reductionist approach to the “doctrines.” Perhaps Aristotelian logic (and its various descendants) does not serve ultimately in our work in the scriptures. It seems to me that Western thinking has this problem in it: it assumes that the terms are all understood and clear, and then it proceeds to draw from those terms an a priori conclusion that may or may not have anything to do with the scriptures (for example) in question.

    An example might clarify this:

    If we are trying to evaluate whether abortion is murder (if we use Nate’s earlier example), first we have quite a project before us just in understanding what it means to say that “abortion is a sin.” Before we have any logical access to any conclusion that may be drawn validly (and not in the fallacy from which I draw this example), we need to get at what is being said in such a statement. What, after all, is sin? And what does it mean to say that abortion is sin? And what do we mean when we talk about murder?

    I don’t think, as I’ve said before, that the scriptures are overly concerned with giving us a list of rules or statutes, but that they present a history of teachings, and we find ourselves, somehow, in that history of teachings. The point might just be, then, to let such reasoning go and to take up in its place thinking, study, projection, reception, even Hegelian logic. There is more to understand than logical consequence.

  22. Really great, Ryan, and all commenters. Another example (to add to the growing list) of what you’re calling inferential reasoning might be the racist justifications for the priesthood ban: blacks were not to hold the priesthood, there must have been some reason why, and from there we were off to the (horrifying) races. The cautionary example of the priesthood ban makes me extremely uncomfortable in exploring the reasons for the gay marriage ban, not wanting to fabricate similarly horrifying fictions; on the other hand, I feel driven to find correlative social data points (as you call them), particularly if I must vote (that is, act socially and publicly) on the matter.

  23. Joe,
    You said:
    “I don’t think, as I’ve said before, that the scriptures are overly concerned with giving us a list of rules or statutes, but that they present a history of teachings, and we find ourselves, somehow, in that history of teachings. The point might just be, then, to let such reasoning go and to take up in its place thinking, study, projection, reception, even Hegelian logic. There is more to understand than logical consequence.”
    Do you mean, then, that we are free to interpret the scriptures to fit our history and justify our condition?
    Why would the Lord give us the WoW that is designed for the weakest among us, only to give us scriptures which only the philosophical are capable of interpreting, leaving the great unwashed in the desert in terms of really understanding what they mean? Could it be possible that the intuitive response to sins such as abortion might be right? How much thought does one have to give to defining a cesspool when one is drowning in it?
    There are logical consequences that exist despite all the thinking, study etc.that we might engage in. I believe that the scriptures do have rules and statutes that do apply in a universal and eternal way in spite of our wishing they would do otherwise. Ours is a defining time but I don’t believe it is the scriptures that have to be defined.

  24. Just wanted to point out that you’re really talking about two different things. The one is ignoring empirical evidence because it conflicts with truth claims. The other is drawing inferences from truth claims to other truth claims. For instance, you gave the example of “Lastly, abortion is wrong. Therefore, a fetus is a life. Therefore, abortion is murder.” I scratched my head for a while trying to find the empirical claim in that one. :) Actually, I think pro-lifers are more likely to co-opt scientific evidence to support their claims.

  25. Adam

    If Ryan’s conclusion that we don’t have all truth and that new truth may cause us to draw different conclusions, then what about pro-choicer’s who are more likely to co-opt religious truths for scientific evidence that is not yet etched in stone – or has science now reached that point where all has been discovered and there is no new truths to be revealed thru science?
    And where does science co-opt religion re: pro-lifers?

  26. Larry,

    I don’t mean at all that it requires a philosopher to interpret scriptures… perhaps the very opposite. I wonder how many American saints recognize that they are philosophers. Our school system and especially universities raise up quasi-philosophers, well-trained in all the arts of misunderstanding. In the mission field, I encountered many folk who had never been to a day of school in their lives, and they could interpret scripture more clearly and coherently than many American saints.

    I think that God is speaking in the scriptures through angels and prophets to the weak and the weakest. He invites all to come to Him, but few scriptures seem to be saying that there are logical consequences when different invitations are combined. My reference to, for example, Hegelian logic is not a claim that the revelations are purely temporal (if they were, they would necessarily exclude God), but is aimed at pointing out that perhaps our discussions of the scriptures should account for our cultural predilections. It is very easy to assume the terms of the discussion are clear, but a little study in ancient culture, languages, context, etc., is very revealing–even disconcerting. But the disorientation should result in a reorientation that gives us more intimate access to the meaning of the text.

  27. Adam, If the conclusion, based on very ambiguous doctrine, that a fetus is a living being with moral status equal to that of us post-birth individuals isn’t an empirical claim, I don’t know what is. Or maybe that was why you placed the smiley face?

    Further, I disagree strongly with your statement that the pro-life crowd bases its fetus-as-life position on science. Yes, the arguments are couched in scientific terms and even some research, but the position hardly depends on the empirics. If science suddenly proved conclusively that fetuses are non-living entities, I doubt it would change many minds among those who believe otherwise (including me).

    So you’re right that pro-lifers are more likely to co-opt science for their cause, but they’d be happy to reject it if it contradicted them. That shows, to me, that science has very little to do with their empirical claims.

  28. Guess I ought to quote something, that has a perspective about the debate.

    ADVICE TO FELLOW DEMOCRATS, from The Backseat Philosopher:

    Many Democrats think that our patience and understanding are our weakness. “We don’t know how to fight like the Republicans,” we all told ourselves after Florida 2000. “We have to be more like them: tougher, meaner.” “We have to energize our base more.”

    Actually, no. Our error is that we Democrats actually are far less understanding than we think we are. Our version of understanding the other side is to look at them from a psychological point of view while being completely unwilling to take their arguments seriously. “Well, he can’t help himself, he’s a right-wing religious zealot, so of course he’s going to think like that.” “Republicans who never served in war are hypocrites to send young men to die. ” “Republicans are homophobes, probably because they can’t deal with their secret desires.” Anything but actually listening and responding to the arguments being made.

    And when I say ‘responding,’ I don’t just mean ‘coming up with the best counterargument and pushing it.’ Sometimes responding to an argument means finding the merit in it and possibly changing one’s position. That is part of growth, right?

    Read the whole thing, which is quite perceptive.

  29. If there is any humor in this situation it is that both sides think *exactly* the same thing about each other. Each side thinks the other to be astonishingly stupid (you may add any other adjective…both will use it against the other). I think we have reached the point where we should acknowledge that the only high ground is in reality nothing but arrogance and simply recognize that each voting block exists, has a right to exist and does not need any assistance in order to exist.

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