Mormon Knowing

When I first got invited to blog I had several topics I was really excited about. Then life came at me fast and most of those projects fell between the cracks. What I want to do is return to them but cut to the chase a little more swiftly.

I’ve talked about knowledge quite a bit. Especially with posts like Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 1 and Part 2. Here’s my theory about a way of Mormon knowing that can deal both with the typical lay member as well as explain how an informed member can claim to know religious truths.

1. Belief is not volitional. When I go outside I believe whether the sky is blue or pink based upon my experience of seeing it as blue or pink. When it’s blue I can’t make myself by pure will believe it pink.

2. That which I can not doubt I must treat practically as true. It’s easy to say I believe or disbelieve. But actually believing is acting as if the belief is true. My actions betray what I believe.

3. Reality acts on me and changes my beliefs. It is the blue sky acting on me that makes me believe it is blue. That action may take place within an experience but it comes from outside myself.

4. I choose where to place my attention. This is one of the few things I can directly choose. I can act. I can look. But I don’t get to pick my own consequences.

5. Over time reality thus makes me disbelieve false beliefs and believe true beliefs if I inquire rigorously regarding the objects in question. My engagement with things shapes my beliefs. I can hide from things and cut myself off from inquiry or I can engage with things through inquiry. As things act upon me that affects my beliefs. This doesn’t mean I’ll immediately have the truth. But it means over time if I allow it I’ll come towards truth.

6. Knowledge can’t entail infallibility. Frequently when we believe we know we are wrong. So we can’t confuse knowledge with absolute infallibility. The feeling of being certain isn’t the state of being certain. The feeling of being certain is just the belief that you know.

7. From (3-5) inquiry is determining where to put my attention so I can direct myself towards truth. The key question of knowledge thus isn’t justification as if justification were steps in an argument as in a math proof. Rather the key question is why our beliefs change and whether we’re doing our duty to inquire.

8. From (1,2,5,6) Stable beliefs that persist through continued inquiry I must treat as true.

Now none of this is to say arguments don’t matter. Engaging with arguments is part of inquiry. To avoid potential questions is to say one lacks faith because one is afraid one might be wrong. Yet at the same time to only look at certain questions without inquiring into why they affect us the way they do is also to cut off inquiry.

Note none of this is to say we’ll all know at the same rate. I picked up mathematics as a child very quickly. Some of my children struggle at it after years. In the same way some may know certain spiritual truths quickly while others are unable to believe. Nor does it mean we’ll all agree in our knowledge immediately. But most likely the reason we disagree is because we’ve not inquired sufficiently about the same things.

Often where problems appear in a religious context is over the dispute about private knowledge. As I’ve argued here in the past this is far less of an issue than it appears. Right now I am alone in my office typing on my keyboard. I can know things about what I’m doing that none of you can. That doesn’t mean I can’t know the keyboard I’m typing on, for instance. In the same way often in life we have experiences that give us knowledge others might not have. It doesn’t make us special or anything else. It just means we’re apt to believe things others might not.

In the same way disagreements are common. Even when it comes to shared experiences we don’t pay the same attention. I think I closed the garage door and it turns out I didn’t. Again what matters isn’t that there is disagreement but whether we use disagreements to inquire.

10 comments for “Mormon Knowing

  1. Clark,

    I’m not understanding your postings. It seems to me that it is important to you to show that typical lay members don’t really know anything they claim to know, and that their testimonies and professions of faith must be discounted because they don’t really know anything they claim to know. Am I perceiving correctly?

  2. JI, I think you’ve got this one backwards. I think Clark is arguing that a testimony shouldn’t be dismissed as mere emotion or discounted compared to other ways of establishing knowledge.

  3. You discount just how overwhelmingly powerful confirmation bias and groupthink can be on the human mind.

  4. Plus, the prose on Mormonism is so vast that people can remain in an echo chamber their entire lives.

  5. JI, the whole point is to explain both how regular people can know as well as how people more critical and sophisticated can know.

    Q, the whole point to inquiry is to try to avoid groupthink. That is to question and take seriously questions. An implication of what I say is that if you’re only listening to people who agree with you then you’re not doing it right. However if you have doubts after looking at questions, the next step is to try and understand how your doubts are shaped by your expectations and whether the premises you’re bringing are fair.

    Certainly I don’t doubt people can stay in an echo chamber. But to me that’s very bad. The problem is that if you fear doing any inquiry because it might raise doubts then you really don’t have much faith at all. That is your fear is demonstrative that you don’t really know.

  6. the whole point is to explain both how regular people can know as well as how people more critical and sophisticated can know


    Do you make any distinction about the quality or efficacy of the knowledge of the two classes (regular people v. critical and sophisticated people)?

  7. Well I’d say regular people can be critical. To my eyes the biggest difference is the quality of inquiry and the economy of picking useful places to inquire. But the point of this approach is to change the topic from static justification to a duty of inquiry.

  8. Maybe my first comment was on track. I would like to believe that a regular member’s testimony of truth can be considered valid even if he or she hasn’t subjected it to critical inquiry.

  9. Well I’d agree although perhaps the question of what counts as inquiry is not clear. I don’t think people need sophisticated inquiry. That is you don’t need to read up on cognitive science, criticisms or religion, or epistemology to say you know. I think you do need to do inquiry though and study. Not enough members do that.

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