Guest Post: Justifying Visions

Mark Bukowski got degrees in philosophy and psychology at UCLA, studying with the noted scholar of German idealism Robert Solomon and Angela Davis, a student of Marcuse. While an undergraduate he became a bit of a student radical, marxist and atheist. In graduate school he studied William James and John Dewey under Jon McDermott and became convinced personal religious experience could justify statements about religion. He also became convinced by Wittgenstein that philosophical problems were often just semantic misunderstandings with language inadequate to express experience. Those insights proved to be life changing. He left academic philosophy although he’s remained an armchair student. He sought out a church based on personal revelation and other principles he thought true. He found the Church and has served in callings ever since.

We’re really excited to have someone of Mark’s experience to offer a different perspective on things that I think many Mormons take for granted.

Justifying Visions

We as Mormons believe that testimony is the foundation of belief — that our personal experiences of communication with God are what justifies our beliefs as “true”. Such personal revelations we term a “testimony”.

This principle is implied in various stories both Biblically and in the Book of Mormon, and taught explicitly in a few scriptures. We have Moroni 10:4-5 which tells us to “ask God” about the truth of the Book of Mormon, and of “all things”. We have James 1:5 which teaches us to “ask God” if we lack wisdom, and we will receive it “liberally”. We also have 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 which teaches us to “quench not” the spirit of prophecy, and to “prove all things; hold fast to that which is good”.  These are principles we all affirm, and belief in these principles has changed my life immeasurably for the better.

We Mormons say we have a “testimony” of Joseph Smith’s vision and the doctrinal beliefs implied by it, but are visions reliable sources for religious truth? Are we essentially trying to justify someone’s report of a hallucination to justify belief in our faith?

Contemporary philosophers who call themselves “Pragmatists” or “Neo Pragmatists” teach principles which might help us understand this issue better, along with findings from neuroscientists.

Let’s look first at a philosopher, Richard Rorty, who himself happens to be an atheist. Ordinarily we might consider that a “bad thing” in our attempt to justify religion — but if an atheist is himself sympathetic to religious views, what better ally could we have?

In his book “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” Rorty says this:[1]

To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences, there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

What is he saying here? He is speaking about our experience of consciousness as we look out at the world around us. Surely this world is “real” but the way we see it, is being filtered through our senses, our perceptions and our brain. Clearly the world “out there” beyond our senses, is not our creation. There are chairs and tables and rocks, walls which limit our passing through them and real cliffs to fall off of. These are the “effects of causes which do not include human mental states”. Chairs and tables are not human mental states. But truth is about sentences and not about things — truth is a property of sentences and not of things. We may speak of a “true wheel” when it is properly aligned, but mostly we are concerned with what theories or beliefs, or linguistic statements are “true”. And I do not know how we could dispute that language itself is not a human creation. We may say that God created it, and I accept that myself. But in Mormon parlance, God Himself is an exalted Human, so if God created language, it is still a “Human” creation. We might say, using the same logic, that God created “truth” as well, so there is still no conflict there between our faith and this notion.

But how do these “causes which do not include mental states” actually cause mental states? This is a thorny issue for philosophy which for this post, we will skip. There is an entire discipline in philosophy dealing with the “mind-body problem” which is beyond the scope of this discussion[2] but I believe there is a philosophical solution which we will not discuss here. We will also skip the full epistemology

Instead, let’s turn from philosophy to Neuroscience to consider the basics of how this might be said to operate.[3] There is a fascinating talk by a neuroscientist named Anil Seth on the TED website which discusses this.[4]

What are the properties of consciousness? What should a science of consciousness try to explain? Well, for today I’d just like to think of consciousness in two different ways. There are experiences of the world around us, full of sights, sounds and smells, there’s multisensory, panoramic, 3D, fully immersive inner movie. And then there’s conscious self. The specific experience of being you or being me. The lead character in this inner movie, and probably the aspect of consciousness we all cling to most tightly. Let’s start with experiences of the world around us, and with the important idea of the brain as a prediction engine.

Imagine being a brain. You’re locked inside a bony skull, trying to figure what’s out there in the world. There’s no lights inside the skull. There’s no sound either. All you’ve got to go on is streams of electrical impulses which are only indirectly related to things in the world, whatever they may be. So perception — figuring out what’s there — has to be a process of informed guesswork in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is to form its best guess of what caused those signals. The brain doesn’t hear sound or see light. What we perceive is its best guess of what’s out there in the world.

So it appears that both Rorty the philosopher and Seth the neuroscientist would agree that though the world is clearly “out there” what we can know about it is fully found in mental states. And Rorty would also include that all we can say about those mental states is found in language. That would appear to be tautological and therefore prima facie true — certainly it is true that “all we can say” must be said in a language of some kind, including of course gestures etc.[5]

Let me make clear the importance of what is being said here. All we can know about the outside world – all of science, all of religion, all of art, poetry, the Game of Bridge, Impressionist Painting, Basketball and Kung Fu fighting are found in human mental states. When I say things like this people sometimes take me to be a solipsist or what in philosophy is called an “Idealist” but I am in neither of those camps.

The world as it is out there but the world as it is, is only known “through a glass darkly” as we look through our human frailties including cultural prejudices and biases.

So now in turning to visions, are there brain chemicals involved in visions? Yes of course, but there are brain chemicals involved in every perception of the outside world and eveything we know as well.

— So to say simply that “brain chemicals cause visions” is trivial because brain chemicals could be said to cause everything else we know as well.

Using the argument that “brain chemicals” cause visions becomes irrelevant, it is a distinction without a difference. Do visions “represent the outside world”? I suppose it depends on what you mean by the terms “represent” and “outside world” when all that we know are mental states. Does a brain chemical “represent” the color nuances of a sunset? Do grooves on a vinyl record or digitized signals on a disk “represent” Beethoven’s Fifth? Do 26 possible squiggles on a page “represent” accurately the fullness of the experience of loving someone or every bit of knowledge and emotion known to humankind?

Now surely when one takes a psychedelic substance, one hallucinates and has erroneous perceptions precisely because the “brain chemicals” are out of balance. Mental illness seems to be caused by similar changes. I am certainly not suggesting or recommending such a path to truth — obviously if one is intentionally receiving erroneous perceptions about our surroundings, such a step is highly dangerous and foolish. To think as Rorty might have, one is intentionally altering the relationship between the “causes which do not include mental states” and the mental states they cause. It is like intentionally becoming mentally ill for recreational purposes — not a wise move!

But now let’s get back to Rorty’s view. We cannot speak or know anything about what is NOT a mental state, but there are “causes” of such mental states.

What causes could they be? We can only know those causes as our minds will allow – as the filters of human perception will allow. We perceive a “cliff” as something we do not want to jump off of and know instantly that It is dangerous, but even if wepurposes – not foolishly jump anyway, all the way down we will still be having human perceptions of what it is like to fall off a cliff. And at the bottom — if we survived – we would use human words to describe the experience as humanly perceived and would probably not use the human word “pleasant” in the description. So the cliff certainly is “real” but we experience the cliff through our limited perceptions.  We cannot walk through walls, but thankfully we experience what we call “walls” and do not even try to walk through them in the first place. But still what we experience is our own mental states of these things in the world.

Scientists are no exception when it comes to examining “the outside world”. Scientists still have human perceptions of what their gizmo-meter says is happening in the world, which is telling them that their humanly invented theory of what is “out there” is “true”, and then they repeat the process called in human language an “experiment” which enables them to predict that if they do the same process over and over they will get the same human perception from the same human process with their humanly invented gizmo-meter every time.  And then they put the ideas into math, which are the rules by which humans think, and natural languages which is how humans communicate, and “publish” them in a “journal” so that all other humans interested in their humanly perceived ideas can predict their human experience to “confirm” their human theory which is often more about how humans perceive the world than anything. That’s fine, and useful! It gets us to our perceptions of a place we call “Mars” or wherever we want to go!

And in human language, we call these scientifically observed human perceptions which predict other human perceptions “facts about the world”.

And all the while the brain chemicals locked in our skulls are spinning up visions of what is outside.

But are they really describing what is “out there” or what humans think is out there?

What’s the difference?  Does it matter? It certainly matters in science, especially and most directly in medicine. Certainly to call these ideas “theories of men” is not to disparage for one moment their importance to human life. Everything important to human life is clearly included in the thoughts and experiences of mankind, simply in evaluating a truth or a thing to be “important” in the first place! But the importance of theories has nothing to do with their nature. They still are based on human perceptions, no matter how important or unimportant they are.

Can simple thoughts, beliefs and ideas “cause” real changes in the world? On one level this is an almost trivial point. One has an idea to build a skyscraper or write a book. One makes plans, thereby exercising faith to do so, and takes all the necessary steps to accomplish the goal. Over time and through action, the goal is accomplished. The idea or thought has “caused” a real change in the world. Another way we might say this is that faith has “moved mountains” or at least several thousand tons of steel!

But can belief itself – a mental state – cause a change in the world by mere belief it can happen, alone without the believer taking action?

Science has verified, and even routinely accounts for the fact that this happens! The “placebo effect” is an unexplained but well known phenomenon which routinely causes statistical models for medical testing of new medications and other medical procedures to adjust for its effects.  In certain cases, the mind reacts to a “fake” medication as it would to the “real” medication, and the condition improves.

So in conclusion, it seems to me that we have established pretty well the notion that what we know as “reality” is not necessarily what is “really out there” but it might be.  In principle we cannot prove what is “really out there” because all we can access is what our minds and brains allow us.

As has even been said by a famous physicist, the final access to reality may always remain beyond our understanding.[6]

So if it is true that we see now “through a glass darkly” even from a scientific perspective, in both physics and neuroscience, how does that affect religion? If one of the most important atheist philosophers of our time can only speak in terms of “effects of causes which do not include human mental states”, it is only common sense to conclude that since human knowledge requires a human mental state, those causes are unknowable to humans as we are, through sensory perception.

I think clearly the question for non believers who rationally and honestly try to deconstruct the question of what the “cause” of a mental state of one receiving a vision is, must be highly complex, and ultimately inconclusive. Was that mental state pathological or did it result in a positive life-change, perhaps not unlike psychosomatic healing or the “placebo effect”? Looking at truth pragmatically, if such an event has led to beliefs which improved the lives of millions immeasurably, could the beliefs in such an event be considered even by the most skeptical atheist postmodern philosopher, as for example Rorty, be considered “true” within the “sphere” or “language game” of the believers community? The answer is most assuredly “yes”.[7]

Perhaps Mormon students of religion would do well to consider postmodernism and pragmatism as a philosophical friend of religion at least for teaching those of a secular bent about the gospel. I have personally had some success with this approach. Though some have condemned these views, my experience has shown that they can be invaluable tools for communicating for those seeking a context in which to understand Mormonism. Like Paul on Mars Hill, we must preach the “unknown god” to those in the marketplace in their own language.

For believers on the other hand, there really is only one question, and that becomes “Was the vision from God?”

The answer to that one is easy.  All one has to do is ask God himself and he, as the ultimate “cause of effects which are not mental states” will give you your answer which will be in fact a “mental state” itself which we call a “testimony”.


1. Richard Rorty, “Contingency Irony and Solidarity”, p. 5

2. I believe a clear statement and possible solution of this problem can be found in the philosophy of Thomas Nagel, and others but we won’t get into it here due to space considerations.

3. At this point I am skipping a discussion of what D&C 93 calls “spheres” of knowledge and jumping from the philosophical “sphere” to the scientific “sphere” and doing so quite consciously. In a general way I would justify this step along the lines of what Wittgenstein would call changing “language games” for purposes of communication to a general audience. But in this case I do not think there is any conflict because I am not trying to justify philosophical propositions with scientific propositions- I think I am separating them and using science only to illustrate the meaning of the philosophy which to some can be quite opaque in discussing anti-realism.

4. How your brain hallucinates your conscious reality at 4:27.

5. Here again a discussion of Wittgensteinian language games and the private language problem might be very productive but is beyond the scope of this post at this time.

6. Yet another important consideration which would include a discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Copenhagen Interpretation for a fuller explanation of the argument. But here, I think Susskind summarizes the problems well.

7. Yet another important consideration which would include a discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Copenhagen Interpretation for a fuller explanation of the argument. But here, I think Leonard Susskind summarizes the problems well.

72 comments for “Guest Post: Justifying Visions

  1. I have become convinced personally one of the most useful statements regarding how to start to evaluate the consequences of my own choices/actions has been attributed to Jesus the Christ in the gospels included in the New Testament: “by their fruits ye shall know them.”

    I find this statement particularly powerful because it reverberates with the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees as provided in the Book of Mormon. It also reverberates, at least for me, with the account of Lehi’s dream about the “tree of life” (as that tree has been called).

    Beyond these metaphors and allegories lie a phenomenon I will call a “type,” quite deliberately invoking the Jungian concept of archetypes. Whether others agree with me about this has ultimately become irrelevant to my belief in this. These “types” work in many ways to help me develop greater personal understanding, so they have become dear to me.

    Such a claim might be labeled a testimony, but notice the personal nature of this “testimony.” I claim it irregardless of whether others agree with me or recognize a similar experience within themselves. It is both semantic and experiential for me, and therefore means more to me than it may to others, even if they have semantic understanding of my “testimony.”

  2. “All one has to do is ask God himself and he, as the ultimate “cause of effects which are not mental states” will give you your answer..” In the context of my experience and the reported experience of many others (i.e at least my mental state about that subset of mental states), the quoted statement is a flippant, unhelpful comment too easily susceptible to interpretation as a negative judgment on those to whom God has given no answer to their heartfelt questions.

    “Looking at truth pragmatically, if such an event has led to beliefs which improved the lives of millions immeasurably, could the beliefs in such an event be considered even by the most skeptical atheist postmodern philosopher, as for example Rorty, be considered “true” within the “sphere” or “language game” of the believers community? The answer is most assuredly “yes”.” This may imply a good way to understand Mormonspeak such as “I know the Church is true.” But it doesn’t work particularly well for some of those (many) who are members of more communities than Mormonism where their other communities play different language games with the same words. Their unsettled mental state may be exacerbated by their Mormon community’s failure to acknowledge that there are such inconsistent language games being played.

    So there you have an attempt to describe my mental state of the moment. It could be different soon.

    p.s. I don’t disagree with most of the OP, though I sometimes think that “true” has more important meaning(s) in the context of religion than its function as “a property of sentences.”

  3. Angela Davis, well that got my attention

    Wondering if you are related to the great Charles Bukowski? (May I recommend POST OFFICE to any LDS readers out there wishing to commune w/ the gentile world on an unusually deep level)

    So, if I’m reading this essay correctly, there may be something to Marian apparitions after all? – especially since these “sometimes are reported to recur at the same site over an extended period of time” (Wiki). I thought so. Vedantic & Catholic visions are frequently spectacular, i.e., more the way the galaxy is actually constructed, as opposed to the LDS variety which may well occur in a potato field.

    Jerry’s reference to Jung is apt. We should teach Jung in Sunday School, along with Marcuse: “Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is invested in [a majority of] the people.” This may be useful in coming months …

  4. It seems appropriate in the context of this dialogue to ask this question:

    How does a boy,whose apparent cultural understanding did not reach much beyond a sharecropping situation in upper-state New York in the early 1800s, demonstrate an understanding of Jungian or other archetypes, as well as an understanding of Plato and the “figures” and “shadows” of the Platonic/Socratic cave through that published work called the Book of Mormon? I believe Hugh Nibley raised this argument at a previos time.

  5. In my own opinion, one of the “miracles” of the Book of Mormon is how distinct ancient intellects could still be recognizable when interpreted through the intellect of an 1800s American farm boy.

  6. Such is the nature of Genius, Bro Schmidt, not necessarily untouched by Inspiration. The two seem hand-in-glove – thus the oxymoron when Harold Bloom essentially dismisses JS as a garden-variety religious genius. What the hell is he talking about?!

  7. Jerry, I agree with you that when I read Joseph, I marvel at his “intuitive” (we would say “revelatory”, but here I think it is important to use both Mormon and secular vocabularies) brilliance to combine elements of Kant, Schiller and later American philosophical trends when there is clearly no possible way he could have been aware of these ideas. Jung of course is in that same philosophical zip code when we think of a Human God seen as an Ideal Human and his son Christ, as our exemplar whose example we are taught to follow. For Mormons I think our Father in Heaven, and Christ functions exactly as a Jungian Archetype. I learned all this stuff from German philosophy and then I read Joseph, and there were so many affinities there I just surrendered at how he applied this stuff to a Christian framework. This was no coincidence that some farm boy thousands of miles from these philosophers “intuitively” came up with a very similar world view.

  8. Yes, Jungian Archetypes can be a useful framework for thought and I have also been impressed with Joseph’s affinities for ideas explicit in philosophies to which he could have had no exposure (though I was reading Joseph before I was reading Kant, Schiller and others). But I’m not at all sure I want to make much use of Jung in the context of defending visions in view of his first and his later visions/dreams during a period of near madness. Jung’s “father was a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, and many of his relatives were ministers too. This was oppressive to Jung, and at the age of eleven or twelve he had a vision that shocked him profoundly. In this, he saw Basel Cathedral with God above it seated on a golden throne. The Almighty let drop a titanic turd that shattered the cathedral roof, and the death-blow to Jung’s Christian faith came when he felt nothing at all at his confirmation, the religious initiation of which he had been led to expect much. A good deal of his later work can be viewed as a quest to replace the faith he had lost.”

    A Presbyterian sermon I heard in Edinburgh made such extensive and repeated use of Jung’s early vision that I’ve not been able to take Jung (or the specific details of others’ youthful visions) thoroughly seriously since then. That is quite likely merely my personal and perhaps temporary reaction.

  9. JR, I think we have to accept the spirit of James 1 and Moroni 10 as well as the usual interpretation that “asking God” will always lead to Mormonism. This is a complicated world and we are all complicated people. I personally look back at my life and feel strongly that if I had not gone through my atheist, Germanic philosophy stage, I would not have learned the philosophy that I needed to have learned in order to find the church. On the other hand, like any student of philosophy, I know feel that what I personally believe is pretty much “absolutely true” in the sense that I am no longer shopping for other points of view, and that my views bring me fulfillment and comfort. So in a sense I am saying that I believe that “all roads lead to Rome” (Salt Lake City?) in the long run but each of us have our paths to get there. My view would be to continue following the spirit- or in secular parlance- “your gut” and it will lead you where God wants you to be at least temporarily to learn all the lessons you need. We LDS say that “every knee shall bow” and I am confident that in the final analysis that will be because the truth will become obvious to each of us.

    And I definitely agree that Mormons need to learn secular language games because in the final analysis we are all children of God looking for meaning and peace in our lives, and living a life-style and taking action toward goals we see as world and life changing.

    We all want things to get better, and people to get better, and clearly that is one thing that unifies us all!

  10. P, no relation but I did meet him once at a reading and he told me there could be no other “Bukowskis”. I told him to go to Chicago and look in the phone book. It’s a very common Polish name! My opinion is that he was an absolutely brilliant writer who chose subject matter which was….. less than elevating, and so I would not recommend his work generally to an LDS audience without them knowing it is “X” rated-

    Regarding visions in general, Marian or Jungian, hallucinatory or not, I see these all as any other claims or thoughts of humans, to be evaluated as we do so “by their fruits”. Maybe Jung took those experiences too seriously. That is not for me to say, but I think that is possible. The point I am making here is that dreams and visions should be evaluated as any other assertion by a human of what they have thought or seen

    I kind of see philosophy as an affliction actually as well and pretty useless except for those who need it. So I would not recommend it for Sunday School. For some reason some see it as “higher level thinking” while I just see it as therapy for those obsessed with the details of how arguments work or don’t work. Most folks don’t need that thank goodness!

  11. Mark, I’m not quite sure what you meant by “philosophy” – as in “pretty useless except for those who need it.” There are, e.g. a number of philosophical arguments embedded in sermons found in the Book of Mormon. Some of them seem pretty useless — because they don’t work. Maybe you only meant Jung and Marcuse or other extra-scriptural philosophy. But, of course, all of scripture was extra-scriptural until it was canonized by agreement of whatever church organization canonized it. Since, “[i]n principle we cannot prove what is ‘really out there’ because all we can access is what our minds and brains allow us,” it would seem there is no such thing as scripture unmingled withe the philosophies of men and/or women. Maybe you are saying thinking and talking are useless “except for those who need” them. I doubt that I have grasped what you’re getting at or vice versa.

  12. JR, that was just a comment about Wittgenstein who believed that philosophical problems were ultimately semantic problems which could be resolved by thinking clearly about language. That really is not about the OP, but for another time. Wittgenstein said the aim of philosophy was to “show the fly the way out of the bottle”, in other words to use philosophy to solve the “maze” of linguistic confusion in people’s minds. Like a doctor, the philosopher’s mission should be to “cure” misunderstandings. Once the patient is cured, there is no more a need for the doctor. Similarly, once all the philosophical problems are solved, there is no more need for philosophy. My point was a simple one, that there are wonderful righteous people who live wonderful lives who have never had a philosophical question or concern, and thus have no need for philosophy. I did not mean to imply anything more than that.

  13. Yes, Mark, “there are wonderful righteous people who live wonderful lives who have never had a philosophical question or concern, and thus have no need for philosophy” until they encounter a life event or situation they do not know how to deal with. At that point, some of them will need to resort to “philosophy,” though perhaps not in the sense of Wittgenstein’s limited, prescriptive definition of the word. In the end, his prescription seems to have led to a lot of analytic philosophy that was itself more prescriptive about how various words should be used, than it was descriptive of linguistic confusion. That analytic philosophy stuff did not seem to be effective to lead anyone out of the maze – whether linguistic, ethical, epistemological, or otherwise philosophical. At least that appeared to be the case in the philosophy PhD program I dropped out of some decades ago. But now I think I understand what you meant.

  14. This dialogue has proven so fruitful for me personally I want to thank all commenters and Mark. This has all happened outside of church oversight and CES, and as far as I’m concerned this shows not that the church is ‘obsolete’ but preperatory. It is NOT the end to understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but a spring board in our personal relationship with the Christ.

  15. Jerry, thanks for your kind words. I think we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of all that Mormonism could be as we as godlings gather ideas from various sources and take this “matter unorganized” and build our own mini-worlds “like unto the worlds others have hitherto created!”

  16. Obviously coming late to this discussion, and not sure I understand everything (anything?), I’d like to address Mark at 2:54 pm August 5.

    I read the OP as making the case for the possibility or arguability of visions as effects that are not mental states. Having made the case for possibility, it seems to me that there are several tests available. One is the fruits test. Another is the common experience test. Either or both could be false positives in several ways, but surely good fruits is indicative and common experience is also indicative.

    So then I find it jarring to read “we have to accept the spirit of James 1 and Moroni 10 as well as the usual interpretation that “asking God” will always lead to Mormonism.” Isn’t this a question, a test, a demonstration? Rather than a “have to accept”?

    I pose this all as someone who has, on the one hand, been personally and individually blessed with (less than a handful) of “visions” in my life, about which I have zero reason to question that something happened but continue to wonder whether the experience is an effect or a mental state, and all of which could easily be expressed as testimony. However, despite being native “Mormon” with all the requisite myths and vocabulary (the multi-generation thing and etc.) none of my “visions” affirm Mormonism in any distinctive or unique way. (I suppose the answer may be that my path is one of the very long and winding paths.)

  17. Christian, you are absolutely right, and I apologize for the typo, but very glad you caught it. I meant to say “I think we have to accept the spirit of James 1 and Moroni 10 as well as the usual interpretation that “asking God” will NOT always lead to Mormonism.”

    Those three little letters make a huge difference obviously! I hope that helps! I think Rorty would say that mental states are the effects of causes which are not mental states, so on his view, it would be an error to ask if a vision was an “effect or a mental state”.

    This is hard to clarify because we are talking about the limits of how we speak about the things we see. Any description automatically distorts the effect. What is reality -“really”? Well the thesis here is that we cannot know what reality “really is”, only our own mental states caused by whatever it is. We cannot get “out” to the object to perceive it independent of perception and perception itself is a “mental state”. So all we know about reality is our mental states.

  18. Mark, What a huge difference those three little letters make! Reading the first version, I had thought I just couldn’t grasp which left field you were out in and chose to let that one go. I have made plenty of typos myself, even before I had a finger in a splint,

  19. Thank you, Mark (Anonymous :-)). As for mental states, causes, and effects, I recognize the difficulties of language and accept that in an important sense everything is mental states. It does seem to me that we are in search of a way to talk about some kind of external or prior or original cause, be it a Mormon interventionist anthropomorphic God (or the Holy Ghost), Jungian archetypes, a societal gestalt, Atman, or other. Something that tests as “good” (which is of course complicated in itself), and that is in some fashion accessible by human beings more generally than just me. Ultimately, is it “just” me, “just” my neurons firing, or something bigger?

  20. JR, glad it helped, I can see that reversing what it said was a little….. important! I have to be more careful to proof my comments. I hope this one shows my name this time!

  21. christian, I think actually there is a bit of a lesson in this error I made, in that it is through error that we really learn that solipsism is totally unreasonable. Were I inclined toward solipsism, which I am not, your pointing out the error and my acknowledging it would be impossible, logically speaking. So to answer your perhaps rhetorical question, I think it is clear that there is much more going on here than “just neurons firing”

  22. Sorry for the delay commenting – my internet was down all weekend due to some work being done on my basement.

    My own views are in some ways radically different from Mark’s, yet on a practical level remarkably similar. That is I tend to think that what we mean when we make claims is predictions about future possible experiences. So to say a vision is from God is to make claims about future experiences with God and how I’d view my visionary experience. To the degree my predictions are correct, it’s hard not to say I know it was of God. I think that largely deals with say JR’s objections about different language games.

    Christian, in one sense I think your question just raises the question of how we’d tell it was just neurons firing, God or “me” in some other sense. In other words how do we distinguish between such claims in terms of future experiences? If we can’t, then we can’t tell them apart in any serious sense. If there is a way of distinguishing them by future experiences we just need to become clear upon how.

    I think this gets complicated since from my perspective it’s impossible to have an experience without it entailing mental states. (I suspect Mark agrees) So that bit that is extra we have to theorize about. So for instance if it is from God, we should expect future communication from God.

  23. Clark, I am currently unable to cram my widely varied and merely occasional experiences that I would insist are communications from God into your theory of expecting future communications from God. For now I’ll chalk that up to having less confidence in my understanding of your theory than I do in those few divine communications. (That is not to say, however, that I have consistently understood the divine communications in the same way either, e.g. knowing JS was a prophet of God does not entail knowing which of his statements were divinely inspired or that I understand them correctly.)

  24. Clark: I would argue that “predictions about future possible experiences” should include the possibility of and predictability of future experiences _for others_. I think that’s both important and complicated.

    Mark: “not solipsism” seems necessary but not sufficient. Even if we all agree that there is an external reality to be experienced, it is a further move to consider visions generally or any particular vision as an effect of that external reality.

  25. “And in human language, we call these scientifically observed human perceptions which predict other human perceptions “’facts about the world.’”

    Or, in the case of Donald Trump and his trumpettes, “alternative facts about the world.”

  26. Interesting post, Mark — and welcome to the blog as our latest guest.

    The Book of Mormon itself makes a straightforward connection between visions and dreams (1 Ne. 8:2). And we know the brain and mind can quite easily create dreams (some of which we remember) with little or no sensory input from the outside world. Dreams are internally generated. So a Mormon is on good doctrinal ground to assert that, like dreams, visions are internally generated as well. It’s not at all clear why the universal practice within the Church is to talk about visions as referring to external things and events when the scriptural equation of dreams and visions seems to imply that visions are internally generated.

    While the First Vision has always had a place in the Mormon narrative, the Church in the last third of the 20th century did not hold out dreams and visions as warrant for a testimony or to convert. Instead, there was the good fruits argument, there was the prayer experience argument (Moroni 10:5), and there was the belief that there was evidence to support the Book of Mormon. Only as the real-world evidence approach lost credibility (genetic evidence against the Book of Mormon account as generally taught in the Church; no archeological evidence of Nephites; the Abraham papyri that were discovered but did not turn out to correspond to the Book of Abraham text) was more reliance shifted to dreams and visions.

    But it’s not really clear what warrant anyone has for rejecting the claim that *all* dreams (common to most of us) and visions (waking dreams, rather more uncommon), as opposed to almost all, are internally generated.

    I discussed dreams in more detail in an earlier post, “Troubling Dreams“, discussing a recent Conference talk by Elder G. Scott on the topic.

  27. Dave, aren’t you making a false dichotomy between “prayer experience” and dreams or visions? I can’t speak for anyone else but most of the investigators I knew of had their prayers answered not at the time of praying but later – often with dreams. I think I’ve mentioned before the investigator (not mine although I taught him on splits) who would dream what he’d read in the Book of Mormon the next day. While I don’t think everyone need have such experiences (I never have) they seem common in the discourse I experienced most of my life. I also just don’t see a break with a discourse of visions.

    As for rejecting the claim all are internally generated, doesn’t my example suffice? I recognize no one else here has that experience, but for those who have it or at least see it second hand it’s pretty compelling. (Knowing details about what you haven’t read as a predictor of future experience)

    This quickly gets us to the case that we simply don’t have the same experiences. Lots of people claim visions, prophetic dreams, or other types of revelation. Some people I doubt had the experiences while others I trust due to my experiences with the. Of course none of those are compelling to me as my own experiences. And of course I’m fallible – I can be wrong both about those I trust and even my interpretations. But doing the best I can to be skeptical I’m simply convinced on the basis of those experiences.

  28. Clark, you said:
    “That is I tend to think that what we mean when we make claims is predictions about future possible experiences. So to say a vision is from God is to make claims about future experiences with God and how I’d view my visionary experience. To the degree my predictions are correct, it’s hard not to say I know it was of God.”

    On one hand I think that is an easy objection to overcome- certainly in order to become LDS in the first place, one must have had a “testimony experience” which they believe is from God. The baptismal and temple recommend interviews guarantee an affirmative answer to various questions beginning with the phrase “Do you have faith in and testimony of…” And note I framed my conclusion with the notion that it was “easy” for members to ask God for a testimony experience, since presumably they have had earlier such experiences simply to become a member. I would also question the whole idea that any claim is an empirical claim requiring it to predict future experiences. “My knee hurts” does not require my knee to hurt in the future. What am I missing?

  29. Dave, thanks for the welcome, and it appears we are on the same wavelength; I agree completely.

  30. Mark, the way I’d deal with that is that sentences like “my knee hurts” requires first meaning about “knee” and “hurt.” Those are general terms and the way we make sense of them is by having an understanding of potential tests (whether we actually conduct the test in a particular case or not, the meaning of the term is wrapped up in the potential ways we could verify something is a knee rather than an elbow). With the meaningfulness of any “testimony experience” it will likewise be made up of general terms whose meaning is in terms of future possible experiences. It’s true that meaning can not be purely wrapped up in future experiences since past experiences are what allow us to understand the very notion of “knee” or “hurt.” But fundamentally their meaningfulness is caught up in future potential.

    So with regards to a testimony it isn’t just the future. However I’d add one further element which is the way human memory functions. When I remember something the memory is re-stored by the brain. However the way the brain stores this isn’t how we’d think of keeping the original memory. Rather memories are always fragments which are “filled out” by the brain when we recall them. When the brain stores them again it’s not the original fragments but this new recreated “experience” which is partially formed by our beliefs, fears and overall situation at the time of remembering. Effectively it’s somewhat corrupted.

    The implication of this is that if you remember during a period of doubt and stress those original testimony experiences will be reconceived in terms of your doubts. They cease to be the same memory but are transformed. (Likewise old experiences might be transformed and expanded as well – a good reason to be somewhat skeptical of distant memories of spiritual experiences) The implication is that repetition in some fashion of spiritual experiences is important. Typically in Church rhetoric we call that a “living testimony.” But that implies that a living testimony requires this repetition of a sort that demands future experience for its stable meaning.

    I’d add in a final point that our knowledge is never a “once and for all” affair even independent of the problematic place of memory. After all our knowledge presupposes interpretation of the phenomena in question. But that is the result of a process of inquiry yet when should inquiry end? I’d argue that we’re usually always in the middle of a process of inquiry that may affect the meaning of our experiences. As such we can never separate one experience from the future experiences which make it meaningful. I hear strange voices while walking down a path. The next day my friends talk about a motion activated voice box they put up for Halloween. That should dramatically change how I interpret the original experience.

  31. Clark, as you have pointed out, we agree in most areas, but this is one in which we differ. This is an area in which I think Wittgenstein shines in looking at ordinary language in its simplicity in letting the “fly out of the bottle”. I don’t think the meaning of a proposition is tied up in potential tests, except perhaps in empirical assertions made by a third party. I personally don’t have much trouble with the verification, even absent potential tests, of whether or not it is my knee or elbow which hurts. I have no idea what those tests could possibly be. I think your explanation is overly complex, which doesn’t of course make it wrong, but I cannot figure out in which theory of truth these assertions could be considered true or false. Wittgenstein and Thomas Nagel would simplify the whole problem into making a distinction between the grammar of first person and third person statements. Third person statements (with the subjects “he” “she” “it” or “They”) are usually about observations or experiences we may share. “The cat (third person) is on the mat”. These statements are logically quite different than first person statements, which are statements strictly about the person making the statement, and are not based on experiences or observations which can be shared easily. “I feel pain in my knee”. First and third person statements cannot be made logically equivalent, so statements about observable phenomena cannot be logically equivalent to third person statements. PART 1 OF A 2 PART COMMENT

  32. PART 2
    (for some reason, if the reply is too long, the reply box obliterates the “post” button at the bottom of the page)

    So for example the statement “Mark is showing brain activity of xyz at brain location abc” cannot be made logically equivalent to “Mark’s knee hurts”. Similarly the statement “Light of angstrom unit value qrs is entering Mark’s eye” is not logically equivalent to “Mark is experiencing the color called ‘red'”. This is a fairly standard argument against physicalism. Nagel especially makes the point that statements about experiences cannot be reduced to descriptions of brain activity. The richness of the experience of the colors in a sunset cannot be reduced to scientific statements about angstrom units or brain activity. What is lacking is the point of view of the statement. Inevitably empirical observations (3rd person) take on a different point of view than a statement about a subjective experience (1st person)

  33. Sorry about that “post” problem. The old theme here at T&S has a bug and hasn’t been updated. I’m trying to figure out the css that is doing that. Just haven’t had a lot of time to do it.

    Note that I didn’t say the meaning of a proposition was tied up in that. Rather the meaning of the constituents of the proposition is. This seems relatively common sense. How can I use “knee” in a sentence unless I can distinguish “knee” from “elbow”? If I can do that then the meaning is wrapped up in the ways I end up being able to do that. However that isn’t an issue of the point when I utter the proposition/sentence but are tied up potential measurements in the future.

    To put this in more Wittgenstein like terms, if we appeal to language judges in a game, they have to be able to make the judgment in some fashion. But that means they have to be able to make that judgment whenever the proposition is repeated. Now I personally don’t quite like the way Wittgenstein deals with parts of a proposition and I’ll avoid that discussion. But I think for the question at hand that’s not really an important disagreement.

    All my point is that sentences have parts we recognize and those parts have a function that can’t be separated from future experience. While we can get more detailed in those disagreements, I’m not sure it really affects the question at hand. It seems safe to say that whatever I dream, en-vision, have revealed, or say, makes use of general things. The meaning of those things can’t be limited just to the moment I have the experience for them to be meaningful. So to give an example, when I have the experience of petting my dog, the dogness isn’t limited to the moment of my petting the dog. It is something broader that must deal with past and future experiences of dogs. Likewise since it is petting my dog, there are those past and future experiences with my dog. Ditto for petting and all the other ways I could deal with the experience linguistically. Those components that allow it to be meaningful have that aspect tied to the future that are essential for their meaning.

    Note how this gets around Rorty’s criticisms though since the issue isn’t what you’d translate things into but rather wraps such questions up into deferred state. The issue after all isn’t what we think or translate at any given moment but more the ways we’d try to establish meaning. This is important since this seems a necessary step before one can talk about truth. This already makes use of Rorty’s criticisms. After all we can always distinguish different senses of a word. Say the meaning as understood at the time of utterance (which may be vague) verses meaning that would in the future be established. That’s important for terms we talk about like justice which aren’t tied to any particular understanding but some future agreement. So Rorty’s approach of talking and reaching consensus is already embraced within the terms. Likewise are issues of future experience which may radically cause us to reformulate meaning. As soon as we can make a distinction then that distinction is significant. Further it might be significant for the meaning of earlier utterances. i.e. consider statements about the aether in say the 1890’s. What do they mean?

  34. Clark, thanks for your reply. I think there are areas upon which we disagree, as we know, and we are not likely to resolve those here. I do not recall Wittgenstein saying anything about “language judges” or “constituents” of propositions, so perhaps you could reference those for me. Of course I am talking about the Wittgenstein of the “Investigations” as opposed to the “Tractatus”- perhaps that is the confusion. Famously the two books take opposite views, the Tractatus being the foundation for much of positivism, which he later renounced. So I also do not see how that refutes Rorty since I am unfamiliar with your first point about Wittgenstein. I also have been unable to find internet sources for it as well, so I would appreciate a reference, if it is worth pursuing here.

    But these are tiny tiny details about speaking about the gospel of Jesus Christ which of course have no relevance really to the overall truth of the gospel

  35. By judges I just mean people who determine if an other person is not playing the game correctly. So to talk about the community act of judging implies linguistic judges. It’s just the idea that there are correct and incorrect uses of words. By way of analogy to say the example of bad grammar if we are playing a game of hockey I make a penalty, there’s a judgement I’ve acting inappropriately within the game with certain acts as consequence. Wittgenstein, it is true, doesn’t talk about judges or referees. While I’m not using Wittgenstein’s particular jargon, I’m here thinking of his “On Certainty” and in particular his critique of Moore. Given it involves Wittgenstein’s dealing with skepticism and individual experience it seems very pertinent to our discussion. Quoting him might be useful.

    Moore has every right to say he knows there’s a tree there in front of him. Naturally he may be wrong. (For it is not the same as with the utterance “I believe there is a tree there.”) But whether he is right or wrong in this case is of no philosophical importance. If Moore is attacking those who say that one cannot really know such a thing, he can’t do it by assuring them that he knows this and that. For one need not believe him. If his opponents had asserted that one could not believe this and that, then he could have replied: “I believe it.”

    Moore’s mistake lies in this – countering the assertion that one cannot know that, by saying “I do know it.”

    I recognize that both Wittgenstein & Rorty explicitly sees language games as having no judges or referees. But I think just treating the notion of correct vs. incorrect is sufficient.

    The point ultimately is just that how I use words appropriately is never just a matter of the present but also the future. There are two ways of dealing with this. We can say there are simply multiple language games or a changing language game. Or we can say there’s a single game where some of the judgments of appropriateness are deferred. I think they end up being equivalent.

    A perhaps simpler way of putting this is that if meaning is use with context mattering, then the shifting of contexts implies something fundamental about meaning. (I recognize he said “in most cases meaning is use”) So what I’m getting at is that our intents can’t be bound up only in the present. Wittgenstein rejects an idealized meaning outside of all possible contexts towards a usefulness in a particular context. Yet when I write something I intend it to be available in contexts I can’t imagine.

    This isn’t a minor point to the things discussed here. Rather it’s a key feature of why revelation, visions, and so forth have to be repetitive in a certain sense to be able to function.

  36. Reply to all: Frank Jackson is a philosopher who understands these issues and is very good at explaining them in ordinary language. The argument “It’s all chemicals” just doesn’t work.

    “Tell me everything physical there is to tell about what is going on in a living brain, the kind of states, their functional role, their relation to what goes on at other times and in other brains, and so on and so forth, and be I as clever as can be in fitting it all together, you won’t have told me about the hurtfulness of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, or about the characteristic experience of tasting a lemon, smelling a rose, hearing a loud noise or seeing the sky. There are many qualia freaks, and some of them say that their rejection of Physicalism is an unargued intuition. I think that they are being unfair to themselves.
    They have the following argument. Nothing you could tell of a physical sort captures the smell of a rose, for instance. Therefore, Physicalism is false. By our lights this is a perfectly good argument. It is obviously not to the point to question its validity, and the premise is intuitively obviously true both to them and to me”

  37. Great conversation, but wait, the author of the OP seemed to suggest he had a solution to the mind-body problem! Um, please, write another OP and fill us in.

  38. Clark, thanks for your reply but I think we are ending up going in circles about this one, unfortunately.

    Your quote of Wittgenstein, in the last line, says this:
    “Moore’s mistake lies in this – countering the assertion that one cannot know that, by saying “I do know it.”

    But then you say:
    “I recognize that both Wittgenstein & Rorty explicitly sees language games as having no judges or referees. But I think just treating the notion of correct vs. incorrect is sufficient.”

    The reason Wittgenstein said that Moore was wrong was that Moore was asserting that he “knew” that he was “correct”. What Wittgenstein said in your quote was that we cannot “know” what is correct- that “correctness” itself is contingent on a context and a usage within a context. W. was attacking M for an internal inconsistency in M’s statement.

    It is like accepting the Bible is true because it says so. The difference is that the BOM has an internal test- “ask God” and either you get an answer or not. By it’s very nature, the BOM at that point becomes based on contextual belief. It defines its own language game precisely in Moroni 10, where it says “Ask God”. Those who believe, believe. The BOM defines its own criteria of correctness.

  39. John, thanks for your comment. Um, I would have been happy to solve the mind-body problem, had I enough intelligence to do so, but even given that, that was not my objective. The mind-body problem was “dissolved” years ago by Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Nagel among others, years ago as one of many confused ways of speaking about the brain and mind. What I have discussed at some length here is the difference between first person and third person statements and the Frank Jackson quote above shows well, I think, that the richness of human experience found in first person statements cannot be captured in third person statements.

    I will provide three references, the first two geared for a general audience, and the last, which is more technical and discusses this in detail. If the powers that be want me to do another OP, that’s fine but I think the solution to the problem is already clear.

  40. Mark, fixed what I think you were pointing out. They just don’t have up commenting editing because of how many resources it takes. I think they are planning on switching hosting companies once the payment on the current one runs out. Hopefully one that is fast enough to handle all the visitors plus editing.

    To your point, all I was looking at was the implications in terms of time and context of what you just said. So I don’t think we’re as at odds as you suggest. If correctness is relative to a context and contexts change, then correctness changes. Therefore correctness is itself in part a matter of the future. To say one knows something at time A says nothing except in context. But again, what is the context.

    You are suggesting that the text gives the context, but the text must be interpreted and those interpretations are also indexed to a context. So even what context defines the language game is variable.

    Moroni 10:4 in particular is exceedingly vague. God will answer, but what constitutes an answer? As the understanding of that changes, the criteria changes. Ex-Mormons who at one time thought they had an answer now think what they received wasn’t an answer. In that case merely saying one knows isn’t really a response. It can’t be for the reasons you just listed. The only place I’d differ from you is in saying the Book of Mormon defines the language game. I don’t think it is ever able to do that for a variety of reasons. It may constrain them somewhat but that’s the best it can do.

  41. Clark, thanks for the fix, and – ok I was fine with what you were saying there until the last 3 sentences. You said:
    “It can’t be for the reasons you just listed. The only place I’d differ from you is in saying the Book of Mormon defines the language game. I don’t think it is ever able to do that for a variety of reasons. It may constrain them somewhat but that’s the best it can do.”
    That’s where I lost you. For me, it is saying appropriately that “you will have an experience from God to show you your belief is justified” Either you judge that to be true or not. I don’t know what you mean by “the reasons you just listed” or the rest.
    Yes, what you believe as “true” changes over time in science and religion and we have to come to grips with that. Is Pluto a planet this week or not?

  42. Mark, Let me add Bernardo Kastrup ( to the list of philosophers who have written extensively on this issue. As for neuroscience, while neuroscientists believe that the brain is the sole source of our experience of reality, they cannot explain how brain activity is experienced as consciousness. Panpsychism doesn’t solve the problem.

    What is ignored in the OP is all of the evidence in support of supernatural events, in particular near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and mediumship. While it is generally believed by Mormons that Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ as actual physical beings, that the Book of Mormon was revealed by God through him, and that he had numerous revelations from God (many now found in the Doctrine and Covenants) his experiences tend not to be considered in the context of numerous other similar experiences. For example, materializations have been witnessed in many home circles, there are other channeled works comparable to the Book of Mormon, and communication with spirit beings is not uncommon. It seems to me that where Mormonism runs into problems is in the belief that God is a physical being with a brain which is the source of all his thoughts and actions and that we will eventually have an existence similar to God, and that God (Jesus Christ), a physical being, was the sole communicator with Joseph Smith. And yet the fact is that billions of spirit beings seem to be getting along just fine and to be progressing without physical brains and are able to communicate intelligently with each other and us mortals. Bottom line, God is not the only source of other-worldly communication, and possibly not even a significant source.

    Tom D

  43. Tom D, thanks for your reply. Mormon thought says nothing about God having a brain which may or may not function like ours. All that has been taught about God’s body is that it is controlled and nourished by “spirit” instead of, “blood”. I have never seen such an assertion that God has a brain that functions like ours, and I cannot see how those kind of physicalist ideas about God could be proven anyway. I agree 100% with you that Mormonism is not the entire answer to every spiritual experience of humanity, and yes I have intentionally left out much of what you bring up, due to lack of space. We are encouraged to read the best books on these subjects, pray about them, and make our own judgments. I see Joseph Smith’s revelations as one source of truth, whose model of God as a glorified human is the answer to humanism and fortunately from my point of view, eschews a metaphysical realm full of man-made constructions to justify how such an unseen realm can be “true”. Joseph’s revelations point to individual beliefs which we can “verify” for ourselves and affirm that now we see “through a mirror darkly”, leaving open many interpretations about the nature of spiritual reality. We practice orthopraxy as opposed to orthodoxy. My beliefs are that Mormonism is compatible with postmodern theories of truth and is a theistic humanism raised to the level of theology. I certainly agree that physical brain states cannot explain consciousness, so I am happy to agree with you fully on that one. I will look at your link, and thank you for posting.

  44. Mark, thanks for the links. Interesting reads. Mind is language, Rorty says. I cannot disagree, but that it develops through evolutionary grunts is sheer speculation—maybe right, maybe not. Consciousness goes beyond verbal language and has sub-conscious and unconscious forms (dreams, visions, intuitions, deja vu’s, etc.). But also, the body is language (biochemical, electromagnet, RNA/DNA, etc.). Matter is language (atoms, quantum particles, and the laws that bind them). Consciousness is just language that can read itself–a curious phenomenon that still remains problematic. Perhaps you can enlighten–though this is completely off thread, so jettison any desire or need to do so here.

    Two other points semi-related to the thread. Moses 6.4-7 seems to suggest that the Priesthood is language (aka the language of Adam is a Priesthood). Thoughts?

    The other point is more clear and precise: Pluto is a planet and only dwarf-scientists disagree. “)

  45. John, yes I think you are on to something serious and I have done some thinking about this, beyond the scope of this OP but somewhat related. I do not agree totally with Rorty and the question of the contingency of the self based on the contingency of language is precisely where we part company. Put another way, Rorty believes that we are “programmed” by language/culture, and I do not- I think there are pre-linguistic statements and experiences, like visions and meditation experiences. So I would modify Rorty to say, as a tautology, that all we can say about reality is formed by language. And yes that means that language creates reality as we know and speak about it. Furthermore in Genesis and in Abraham and Moses, God defines the first day etc. by “calling” it -defining it- into “existence”. This discussion itself is a discussion about the priesthood organizing reality through language and that is abundantly clear in any scripture which says that God organized the world through his WORD, or gave a command, and the elements obeyed. Jesus commanded the elements and calmed the seas, by his verbal command. Genesis says that God “called” day and night into existence and “called” the day and the morning the “first day”. There are almost too many examples to be quoted about the “power of God’s word” which parallel the power of the priesthood. Maybe we can get into it at length later. But each of us, defining our own realities, are creating our own worlds from “matter unorganized” right now, as our Human Father does.

  46. John, I ran out of space and could not add another word, but I want to make it clear that I firmly believe that God is an exalted Human who differs from us infinitely in righteousness and progression, but He is of the “same species” as we are, as perhaps a worm and a butterfly are of the same species but yet far apart in development. Furthermore as far as matter is concerned, I think Mormons are materialists in that we believe that spirit and matter are one, but that in metaphor, spirit is “more refined”. I furthermore think it is important to distinguish between metaphysical statements which purport to describe the final nature of reality as even “reality is language”- which arguably is a metaphysical statement, and a matter of faith and certainly not science, and subject to verification within the context of a community. So I am speaking in two different language games here at once- the Mormon context and a philosophical context. I believe both “translations” are “true” within their contexts. Both are powerful metaphors for the way I see reality and I see no conflict.

  47. “Perhaps Mormon students of religion would do well to consider postmodernism and pragmatism as a philosophical friend of religion”

    Aha!!! A Mormon apologist confessing to invoking postmodernism to defend Mormonism.

    Sorry apologists, but you DO appeal to postmodernism and relativism to defend a very positivist religion that is absolutist about truth. You guys are walking contradictions.

    Plus, what exactly is a vision, and why accept some people’s claims to visions and not others? Why not accept that some witch doctor in Uganda had an encounter with evil spirits who told him that some guy’s business will fail unless the witch doctor performs a child sacrifice? Think I’m making this up, I’m not: I have no more reason to believe that a witch doctor actually encountered evil spirits than I do a Mormon who claims that the Mormon God or the Holy Spirit revealed to them that Mormonism is true.

  48. #1 Yes Mark, I am following your two different “language games.” And so here is something that both language games can muse:

    Some years ago I took a couple months to read several books and articles on the theory of evolution and evolutionary biology. I wanted just to update my sense of the literature, though I was mostly focused on the big theory of the origins and organization of life. The origins of life are still highly problematic in evolutionary theory with no known primer for the real beginnings of the first proto-cells.

    One night in my studies I sat meditating on what I had read, and similarly when I meditate in Church, I sometimes fall asleep (okay, actually in Church I tend to fall asleep before I get to the meditation, but let’s just ignore that right now.) During my sleep I had a very curious dream. Two personages approached me, both were brown-robed Benedictine monks. They asked me what I wanted to know. I told them I wanted to know how life began. They then explained it to me in sheer simplicity. I was overjoyed at the elegance of the answer, but as dream logic always goes for me, as they finished their explanation everything they had said began fading from my memory. In panic I asked them to explain it again and one of them smiled calmly and said, “Just remember this, the key to life is language.”

  49. #2 Well fiddlesticks! that’s all I got after all the secret’s of the universe were revealed to me. Still, when I awoke I wrote that statement down on a piece of paper that I have kept in my journal ever since. And ever since, I have been musing around the philosophy of language and its relation to life and reality.

    It is in this context that I have thoroughly enjoyed your OP. One thing I have noticed, however, is no one ever takes the time to actually define “language.” Everyone seems to assume that it is only the spoken and written variety. This is no small oversight. When one considers that both matter and consciousness (spirit) maybe considered epiphenomenons of pattern-making systems, language is perhaps the best metaphor when describing the genus of the system. “In the Beginning was the Word” turns out to be a very prescient statement. Want to take a crack at giving me your definition of language? Again, entirely up to you.

  50. Steve S. Sorry Steve, you should leave what Mormons believe to Mormons. Alma 32, Moroni 10, and the other scriptures I quoted are hardly positivist. Rorty himself, an atheist, was sympathetic to religious positions like Mormonism. I have no need for you to tell me what I believe. Positivism is clearly dead. Are there some Mormons who do not understand that their position is not compatible with Positivism? Of course, just as there are some critics who believe erroneous ideas.

  51. #3 And finally, I found this experience very interesting. In my studies I was not focused on language whatsoever. The dream of the monks came from left field. I had never connected language with biology before. Actually, I was studying cosmology when I began my studies of evolutionary theory as a subset of my studies, and it turns out the language metaphor for cosmology has provided me with many insights I would have never picked up on.

    Is this just my brain linking two unrelated synaptic charges in a moment of rest? We can reduce all dreams/visions down to physical processes, but that still does not diminish whatsoever the sympathetic power of logic, intuition, and revelation that are produced by those processes—especially when they come unsought for when trying to solve a complex problem or puzzle. If Joseph’s First Vision was only a synaptic discharge so what? Look what it led to?

  52. Mark, I think I’m just making the point that texts don’t speak. To take Nietzsche’s quip there are only interpretations. So the “when” of when I speak of a text matters. That’s really all I’m saying. You can’t say the Book of Mormon defines the language game. Rather the reader(s) do. The text offers constraints just in the trivial fact we don’t make texts say anything — even if we could. (Although of course they may become quite strained – as I recall Umberto Eco played with that his his great novel Foucault’s Pendulum)

    Steve, I’m not sure Mark considers himself an apologist. I hate the term “postmodernism” for reasons we’ve discussed before. But I thought Mark would be interesting precisely because he does engage so much with Rorty. However most apologists don’t share Mark’s approach. Indeed I think it’s a fairly controversial position for many. (Which I’ll fully admit was in part why I invited Mark – I thought it’d be a very interesting take)

    Mark and I, while very similar in some ways due to our common pragmatic background, end up differing greatly over the question of realism. That is he’s primarily Wittgenstein, Rorty and Dewey whereas I’m primarily C. S. Peirce who thought the greatest threat in philosophy was nominalism.

  53. John, I don’t think it is possible to use language to define itself any more than a camera can take a picture of itself. One must somehow be “outside” of a context to describe the context. That is precisely the difference between first person and third person statements and why we have mirrors to look at ourselves, but even then we do not see ourselves “as others see us”. The point of view of the describer is essential in any statement. But I would include any symbolic information exchange as “language” I guess. Math, music, sign language etc. certainly qualify in my opinion. But you raise an interesting point about “life” which I think is also undefinable, at least in one sense. Mormons believe that there was “no death before the fall”. I take that to mean that there was no death until there was the concept of human “death” with all its implications of grief, the loss of a loved one, and even the realization that if my loved one died, I will die too. That experience itself is a fall from innocence! Without that loss of innocence, one does not understand the human significance of the word “death”. So it becomes obvious in that context that there could not possibly be a human sense of “death before the fall from innocence”. There is a reason we are repeatedly admonished to apply the scriptures to our own lives, and to consider ourselves as if we are Adam and Eve. Each of us has his or her own fall. Many take these stories literally. I have no problem with that, or the fact that they can be taken multiple ways in a historical sense, or a non-historical sense.

  54. John, #3, my earlier post was after reading your number 1 and two but not three. I think that your monk dream was a flash of insight where you realized that all we can speak about are linguistic symbols, not “reality itself”- again a tautology, but one nobody seems to notice. In another language game you could say that perhaps it was your unconscious revealing this principle to you, or God revealing it to you, or whatever other linguistic description that works for you. There are many ways of seeing it. And yes, if you want to see Joseph’s first vision as “only” a synaptic discharge that becomes your religious position! It cannot be proven, and you take that on faith. If you want to think it was “God” or his “unconscious” it is still an interpretation within your own mind that makes your world work, where another belief in its place would not work. Whatever position you take, your other options are limited. And of course my position which I take on faith is just as limited. I have already analyzed all the possible ways I could take these stories, and this position I have taken seems to work the best for me, and have not found anything better. That’s about all I can say about my beliefs- I take them on faith just like everyone else.There are many atheists today to see their position as a “religious” one and both Rorty and Nagel are in this category. Nagel has actually said that he “hopes” God does NOT exist. That is clearly a faith position about God’s non-existence

  55. Mark, Mormonism may not be positivist in the traditional Comtist usage of the term (which rejects religious explanations of truth), but it is in the colloquial sense of the term. Positivism is defined on as “the quality of being definite, certain, etc.” Mormonism is a positivist religion in that sense. It expresses very bold uncompromising certainty about truth. Consider Gordon B. Hinckley’s words on faith in a 1995 conference talk: “Certitude is certainty. It is conviction. It is the power of faith that approaches knowledge—yes, that even becomes knowledge.” On Alma 32, read it carefully. It portrays faith as certain, not uncertain. Verse 21: “if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” In other words faith is to hope that the things you have already predetermined to be true are actually true. Verse 34: “And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing.” Moroni 10:5 is all about the certainty as well: “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Full truth of all things can be known by the Mormon version of the Holy Spirit. You can’t just believe whatever you want and call it Mormonism. The LDS leaders’ words inform what Mormonism is and what Mormons are supposed to believe. Apologetic defenses of absolutist Mormon beliefs do not define and inform what Mormonism is. In fact they are often at variance with traditional Mormon teachings. Also, Rorty was sympathetic to agnosticism and spiritualism. It is a massive stretch to say that he was sympathetic to Mormonism.

  56. Clark, sorry my friend but I am puzzled. We seem to be getting so close! You said:
    “Mark, I think I’m just making the point that texts don’t speak. To take Nietzsche’s quip there are only interpretations. So the “when” of when I speak of a text matters. That’s really all I’m saying. You can’t say the Book of Mormon defines the language game. Rather the reader(s) do. The text offers constraints just in the trivial fact we don’t make texts say anything — even if we could.”

    There are only interpretations? By whom? The reader. If the reader makes the interpretation how can you say “we don’t make texts say anything – even if we could? Who is the “we” who is NOT making the text say anything ?

  57. Clark I think we are making a prima facie case here for Wittgenstein saying these problems are linguistic confusions!

  58. Steve, yes Mormons believe in certainty- no question. But what is certainty? It is precisely what John Dewey says it is in his book “On Certainty”. It is a solution to a problem that allows a person to take action. First a problem arises, and a solution sought. The solution produces a “certainty” for action. Certainty is certainly, I think, a sense of satisfaction with an answer which allows one to go forward. In a religious context, certainty is a sense of satisfaction and internal peace. If you definition is different please elucidate but do not go further into positivism because that is a dead end. I am certain you will see the answer.

  59. Steve- brain skipped – that is “Quest for Certainty” by John Dewey. Wittgenstein wrote “On Certainty”- also highly relevant here. But in both cases certainty is an internal state of satisfaction.

  60. Steve- this will be the last one, I suggest you google “rorty mormon” for a lesson or two about Rorty and Mormonism. He was married to a Mormon, herself a philosophy professor in Utah, she had a home teacher, and his girls were raised Mormon. He discussed his views on science as being compatible with religion in which he used his wife’s situation as a professor who was a believer, but he disguised her in the talk as a Catholic, but does also mention Mormonism. I can link to the video if you like but it is an hour long and the conclusion is not on the video. He said on multiple occasions that he could believe in a religion in which Jesus was a “friend” to mankind. Wittgenstein definitely had views sympathetic to religion as well.

  61. Mark, please do link the video. Disguising his wife as a Catholic suggests that he was embarrassed to introduce her as a Mormon. Here is Rorty on Mormonism from an interview published in Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself, 74: “The Romantic suggestion that we see religion as a form of poetry helped us see that a democratic society can and should tolerate people who make up their own religions–as Blake and Joseph Smith did.” He clearly sees Mormonism as made-up, but accepts that people have a right to make stuff up and find followers. Here he is from an interview published in The Future of Religion: “One solution is for everybody to go out and found a new church. There is a good book by Harold Bloom…. He discusses the Mormons, the Christian Scientists,…. The motto of the book is that no true American believes himself younger than God…. Of course, shortly after one of these private American churches is founded, it develops its own little Vatican and becomes one more horrible authoritarian institution.” So he clearly regards Mormonism to be a “horrible authoritarian institution.” He sure sounds like some sympathist. I just don’t get it. An avowed atheist philosopher says a couple of seemingly nice things about Mormonism all the while still dismissing it as made-up and authoritarian and he is called a sympathist to the religion. All the while an atheist ex-Mormon says the same thing and is met with aghast reactions by believers that he/she is an anti-Mormon blinded by extremely biased and wrongheaded critics.

  62. To add to my comment above, what irks me is how believing Mormon bloggers and apologists find some esteemed philosophers such as Jung, Badiou, and Popper who are anti-positivist and maybe a bit more reluctant to express their beliefs that religious truth claims of varying sorts are complete hokum than other traditional positivist philosophers and atheists, dig up some isolated quote expressing seeming sympathy with religious belief, and then use that to suggest that Mormonism has all of these non-Mormon scholarly allies and that their wisdom trumps the supposedly short-sighted, positivist, and facile ex/non-Mormon criticisms. Don’t tell me that any one of these esteemed philosophers would seriously consider for a moment that Jesus actually appeared to ancient American Jews and that Joseph Smith translated an actual record of this occurring. I have every reason to believe that if we could sit any one of these philosophers down and ask them point blank if they would consider validating central Mormon truth claims as having actually happened that they would repudiate them just as strongly as the so-called “positivist” philosophers. Not too long ago, Alain Badiou said in an interview that he was none too pleased with religionists using his words in support of their different religions: “And so I have to deal with this sort of religious co-opting of my work and I have to propose a subtraction of my work from it.” I also remember Givens raving about Ann Taves as a sympathist. Taves said that Dan Vogel was probably correct that Joseph Smith fabricated the Gold Plates.

  63. I also remember how Mormons used to fawn over Harold Bloom as some seeming ally of Mormonism because of what he had to say in his 1976 book. And then Bloom wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 2011 saying that he not only pleasurably agreed with Christopher Hitchens, criticized by religionists as a “positivist New Atheist,” that Joseph Smith was a fraud and a conjurer but that Smith was a “superb trickster and protean personality.”

    Bottom line: the anti-positivist postmodern thinkers aren’t as sympathetic to religion as many religionists like to think and are probably more in agreement with the supposed “positivists” about the (non)truthfulness of religious belief that the religionists themselves.

  64. Mark, by saying we don’t make texts say anything, I’m speaking in a practical sense. While we of course have that power we never do it. Why? Because our interpretations are not purely volitional. (Which is getting a bit beyond the topic so I won’t push that too far) If I go outside I can’t just by sheer force of will make myself interpret the sky as orange when it is blue. In the same way we’re in interpretive communities and what we believe texts mean is in part tied to that. That’s not to say we don’t have any flexibility. We do. But, to use Umberto Eco’s metaphor, the text is not purely closed nor open.

    To your other point, I’m actually quite open to many problems being linguistic confusions. Where I part ways with Wittgenstein (or at least how people frequently use him) is that I don’t think it’s the only worry. Again though this gets wrapped up in the temporal questions of how meanings change for people that Peirce was focused upon.

    Steve, I think that’s a place where the dictionary isn’t too helpful. But beyond that all people are certain about some things. They may entertain intellectual doubts but don’t really doubt. So by your use everyone is a positivist. That’s not too helpful. I certainly agree that some have pushed postmodernism too far. But as we’ve discussed many times, I think it’s a much more minor position within Mormonism than you do. Even someone like myself who is deeply influenced by the Heideggarian and Levinasian phenomenological tradition really is not in any way a postmodernist of the sort you mean. I also think that the classic logical positivists are mistreated and used as caricatures to warn new generations from as if they were the boogeyman. While I think their project failed, it worked better than most want to admit.

    As to Bloom, while there were elements that I think we justly thought were insightful, it was pretty clear in his book back in the 90’s on Joseph as a gnostic/kabbalistic creative genius that he thought Joseph a fraud. I don’t think apologists embraced things as uncritically as you suggest. (Alan Goff’s review is a good example) In a certain way Bloom is following closely in Brodie’s footsteps. She too had a respect of sorts for Joseph even if her views overall were repellant to most Mormons. Where I think Bloom was interesting was that he saw how Joseph used scripture and read it both carefully yet imaginatively. (We’d say inspired, but Bloom will only concede a poetic imagination) I think though that’s a big step up from how most critics take him. For most imagination is only significant in that Joseph was a skilled trickster and con man. His religious drive is always subservient to that prime focus. (Not everyone, Vogel is much harsher than Bloom of course, yet I certainly get the sense he has a similar respect for that aspect of Joseph)

    I think though you want too manichaean a position. We either completely oppose them in every way or completely accept them. Rather I think we should trace through their arguments and engage them carefully. Accept the truth where it is and point out the assumptions and errors. It’s just not a black and white issue.

  65. Steve, Steve, what does one do with you? You are such a literalist! I would suggest to you that many, especially those likely to be here, see things figuratively. How are we to liken the scriptures to ourselves, or even “consider ourselves as if we are Adam and Eve” without walking around in fig leaves? Yes there are many misunderstandings of Mormonism, everyone has a right to their opinion, but I personally create my own world out of the matter unorganized here on the jungle floor while the dinosaurs of past ages battle it out above me. Positivism- even your brand- is dead. Google that one!
    I would suggest studying Wittgenstein, or Rorty’s view of language games or “vocabularies” and the video below will help that.

    Here is the link to the video:

  66. Clark, Mark, you’re too hung up on what the proper definition of postmodernism/positivism is (which have well understood colloquial definitions). That is beyond the point. Non-Mormon philosophers are not Mormon allies so stop invoking them as if they are and as if their views somehow lend credibility to the LDS church’s truth claims. I have never once heard a non-Mormon philosopher talk about how it might be plausible that Jesus appeared to ancient Americans, which is a cornerstone claim of Mormonism that the religion cannot do without.

  67. “Heideggarian and Levinasian phenomenological tradition”

    Ooh, wow, sounds so impressive! Whatever that is, it is most certainly not the key factor in what is shaping what you believe about truth. The teachings of the LDS church clearly have a much more influential role. In a desperate attempt to sound intellectual and independent thinking you invoke esteemed philosophers’ words (often out of context) and try to convince others (and yourself, probably yourself mostly) that you are arriving at belief in Mormonism because of some philosopher or another. This is simply not believable given your deeply Mormon background and surroundings and the fact that your target audience is intellectual Mormons. A huge part of your motive for studying philosophy is to justify your belief in Mormonism. It is not strictly philological. A solid set of Mormon teachings are unquestionable truth in your mind, and you just bend and twist famous philosophers’ words around to make your belief in Mormon teachings sound more legit that they really are. I cannot overemphasize how little any of the philosophers you invoke would be interested in validating Mormon truth claims.

  68. “Steve, Steve, what does one do with you? You are such a literalist!”

    Uh, no. The LDS church is extremely literalist in its teachings. I’m simply reminding you of what appears to be an inconvenient truth for you. You, Clark, and other Neo-Apologists are trying to invent a sort of Mormonism that is somehow compatible with modern reason and is symbolic and methaphoric. But this new Mormonism that you are creating is a complete distortion of what Mormonism actually is and actually teaches.

  69. Steve, I suppose we just have to agree to disagree. Even McMurrin saw the connections between Mormonism and Pragmatism, William James, et al. I found the church through my studies of William James and German philosophy, as an agnostic philosophy grad student at the age of 31. Alma 32 is a perfect explication of Pragmatism. Even on this board the connections have been discussed again and again, here is one example here and there are many others elsewhere.

    Thanks for your input but I think I will make my own decision about what Mormonism “really is” and what it means to me in my life and in my callings when I have to make decisions about what Mormonism is or is not. I wish you well.

  70. Clark, I think empirical observations made by two or more people and individual interpretations of texts are like apples and oranges but frankly I have kind of lost track of how this relates to the OP directly. I really like if-then arguments. If Bukowski is not sure how this relates, he is a Bozo. He doesn’t know how this relates, therefore he is a Bozo. Makes sense to me!! But perhaps it would be good to summarize at this point exactly what the status of the argument is as you see it.

    Yes I would agree that a statement about Pluto should not be taken to be a statement about the existence of God, but I can see how one might use the majesty of the universe including Pluto as an “evidence” for a Divine Creator. I personally don’t find that to be very good “evidence”, but that is a judgement call. Certainly in a poem, say, such an interpretation might be reasonable.

    So yes, I think we can agree that one is not free to reasonably take any possible interpretation of a text, but certainly there is often, not always though, a lot of leeway possible.

  71. Mark, I might make a post on the topic later. I’m kind of behind in posts due to the lack of internet at my house the past week and a half. Google’s coming over to fix it now that the painters are gone. I’ll probably do the next chapter of Future Mormon first. More or less it’s just a point about how contexts change with time and how that affects meaning.

    Steve, this sounds a bit like the infamous true scotsman or worse, the silly purported distinction between internet and chapel Mormons with only chapel Mormons having authentic Mormonism. If that’s your point I’d just disagree. Most members, for completely understandable reasons, don’t find the nuances of doctrinal debate terribly interesting. I’m not sure it’s fair to assume people who haven’t considered the issues as the only authentic type of Mormonism. For several reasons not the least of which being that to me the Apostles are exemplars of being Mormon yet they have a diversity of stances on these sorts of things. The fiction of “chapel Mormons” as a category makes it convenient for critics to disagree with Mormonism. Yet it’s ultimately a rather unfair approach.

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