(or how do we know what we think we know)

I am by no means a Philoso­pher, but I think it is cru­cial to address this top­ic here. It can get quite com­pli­cat­ed, and peo­ple have spent life­times, writ­ten dis­ser­ta­tions and count­less books on this sub­ject. But basi­cal­ly, what is need­ed is a reli­able method to iden­ti­fy what is like­ly to be true, and dis­tin­guish­ing this from what is more like­ly to be false.

The Church teach­es that a per­son can deter­mine the truth by what is expe­ri­enced as a result of their pray­ing about it. The clear­est expres­sion of this idea is con­tained in the Book of Mormon:

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eter­nal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sin­cere heart, with real intent, hav­ing faith in Christ, he will man­i­fest the truth of it unto you, by the pow­er of the Holy Ghost.
5 And by the pow­er of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

Moroni 10:4–5

The most obvi­ous ques­tion here, which often doesn’t get asked, is how do we know that this method of iden­ti­fy­ing truth is even valid and/or reli­able in the first place? In order for this state­ment to be ‘true’, the book itself has to be demon­strat­ed to be ‘true’. And how does one estab­lish the book to be true? — By apply­ing the method pre­scribed in the book. This is a clear-cut exam­ple of cir­cu­lar rea­son­ing: “A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true.”

In this way, the basis for this method of iden­ti­fy­ing truth can be seen to be inher­ent­ly invalid, even on a the­o­ret­i­cal basis.

Fur­ther prob­lems are encoun­tered when exam­in­ing how this method is actu­al­ly imple­ment­ed in real-world, prac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions. The idea of pray­ing for an answer from God is by no means exclu­sive to the LDS Church, nor is there any­thing unique in the expe­ri­ences that they have in receiv­ing their answers.

One can review the writ­ings from adher­ents to essen­tial­ly all reli­gious tra­di­tions, and find descrip­tions of fer­vent, deeply felt, inher­ent­ly pro­found expe­ri­ences. Those hav­ing them are con­vinced they are receiv­ing absolute truth direct­ly from God, and that they con­firm the truth­ful­ness of their par­tic­u­lar reli­gious tra­di­tion and under­stand­ing, whether they are Mor­mon, Catholic, Bap­tist, Quak­er, Jew­ish, Mus­lim, etc.

I have recent­ly come across a YouTube video con­tain­ing fer­vid tes­ti­monies expressed by believ­ers from quite a few dif­fer­ent reli­gious tra­di­tions, which elo­quent­ly express what I’m try­ing to address here:

Can She Real­ly “Know”?

Mem­bers of the LDS Church should pay par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the first per­son in this video, a mem­ber of The True & Liv­ing Church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, a polyg­a­mous breakoff from the LDS Church, in Man­ti, Utah. This tes­ti­mo­ny is indis­tin­guish­able from the tes­ti­monies typ­i­cal­ly heard in Fast & Tes­ti­mo­ny meet­ings of the main­stream LDS Church:

I’ve been search­ing for a wit­ness of this work, and of this Church…
“I got my wit­ness, and it’s burn­ing with­in my soul, of how impor­tant this work is, and how true it is. I know it is.
“And it’s hard to believe just a year ago I was in High School, and now I’m in a plur­al mar­riage, and struggling.
“But I know, with­out the shad­ow of a doubt, that this is the Lord’s work, that I’ve final­ly found it. In the name of Jesus Christ.”

Orig­i­nal Record­ing in This Amer­i­can Life April 26, 1996.

How­ev­er pro­found these expe­ri­ences feel, what­ev­er their ori­gin or sig­nif­i­cance, it is thus con­vinc­ing­ly demon­strat­ed that they are sim­ply not reli­able in deter­min­ing what is or isn’t true. Anoth­er YouTube video I came across recent­ly con­tains an excel­lent pre­sen­ta­tion on this top­ic: Mor­monism: What is the Spirit?

Anoth­er use­ful exam­ple involves the var­i­ous talks, speech­es, and books by Paul H. Dunn, a well-known Gen­er­al Author­i­ty, and a mem­ber of The First Quo­rum of the Sev­en­ty, from 1976 to 1989. His talks drew upon var­i­ous events in his life, and thou­sands upon thou­sands of mem­bers tes­ti­fied of how they felt the Spir­it tes­ti­fy­ing to them when hear­ing or read­ing his words, strength­en­ing their tes­ti­monies of the Church.

It turned out that many of the facts and events he spoke and wrote about were either com­plete­ly false, or sub­stan­tial­ly embell­ished. He even­tu­al­ly acknowl­edged this pub­licly, and he was giv­en ‘Emer­i­tus’ sta­tus in his Church call­ing as a result.

My point here is not to crit­i­cize or humil­i­ate Bro. Dunn. Clear­ly, his inten­tions were good, and there was absolute­ly no mal­ice involved. No, the point here is that even though peo­ple were uplift­ed by his talks and books, and could feel the ‘Spir­it’ tes­ti­fy­ing to them, this had no con­nec­tion to whether or not there was any fac­tu­al truth in what they were hear­ing and reading.

Sim­i­lar­ly, mem­bers can ‘feel the Spir­it’ while read­ing the Book of Mor­mon, but this has absolute­ly no bear­ing on whether there is a real, fac­tu­al basis to the events por­trayed in the book.

The les­son here is that this feel­ing of the ‘Spir­it’ is no dif­fer­ent from, and no more reli­able than, what mem­bers rely on as the basis of their Church ‘Tes­ti­mo­ny’, in their ‘know­ing’ that the Church is true. The expe­ri­ences them­selves are real, and can be quite uplift­ing and inspi­ra­tional. But they are use­less in terms of iden­ti­fy­ing what is fac­tu­al­ly true.

As anoth­er exam­ple, I have expe­ri­enced the same feel­ings and emo­tions that mem­bers describe as the basis for their tes­ti­monies, when lis­ten­ing to Mozart’s Requiem, see­ing a per­for­mance of Les Mis­er­ables, or watch­ing a movie such as The Nat­ur­al. Mem­bers’ claims that the feel­ings they expe­ri­ence when read­ing the Book of Mor­mon proves to them that the Book is true, are no more jus­ti­fied than my think­ing that Roy Hobbs was a real base­ball play­er because I was so moved by the events depict­ed in the movie.

I invite the read­er to do some research on the top­ics of ‘Ele­va­tion,’ or ‘ASMR’, and the his­to­ry of reli­gious expe­ri­ence in gen­er­al, to gain insight into the types of expe­ri­ences com­mon to all human beings. This will pro­vide an impor­tant per­spec­tive on the nature of what are oth­er­wise termed ‘spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences’ and their rela­tion­ship to fac­tu­al truth.

For a more detailed dis­cus­sion of this top­ic, please see the fol­low­ing blog­posts I wrote sev­er­al years ago:

How Do We Know Whether Some­thing is True or False
Sci­ence and Rea­son are the Final and Default Arbiters of Truth

Last­ly, I think it is impor­tant to briefly dis­cuss “Heart­Sell ®” in the con­text of how and why we come to believe some­thing is true or even just desir­able. This is a reg­is­tered trade­mark for the mar­ket­ing approach of the Bon­neville Inter­na­tion­al Cor­po­ra­tion, a media and broad­cast­ing com­pa­ny whol­ly owned by the LDS Church.

On a page from their web­site, with the title “Affect­ing Change by Reach­ing the Hearts and Minds of Our Audi­ences” the fol­low­ing quote describes exact­ly what Heart­Sell ® is, and how it can be used:

Our unique strength is the abil­i­ty to touch the hearts and minds of our audi­ences, evok­ing first feel­ing, then thought and, final­ly, action. We call this unique­ly pow­er­ful brand of cre­ative “Heart­Sell”® — strate­gic emo­tion­al adver­tis­ing that stim­u­lates response.”
Bon­neville Inter­na­tion­al Cor­po­rate Web­site*

This tech­nique can thus be used to ‘sell’ any prod­uct, any idea, irre­spec­tive of whether or not there is any truth or real val­ue to it. And with­out doubt, this tech­nique is used exten­sive­ly in the var­i­ous Church media pro­duc­tions, edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, etc., and accounts for why peo­ple feel the ‘spir­it’ and are there­by effec­tive­ly manip­u­lat­ed into draw­ing the con­clu­sion that the Church is true. Those are strong words, I real­ize, but I don’t see any more accu­rate way of describ­ing what is real­ly going on here.

*Note: some­time in ear­ly March, 2015, Bon­neville Inter­na­tion­al removed all men­tion of Heart­Sell from its web­site; the link above now goes to an archived copy of what that page orig­i­nal­ly con­tained. It makes me won­der if this action was tak­en because of the neg­a­tive atten­tion and impli­ca­tions the whole con­cept of “Heart­Sell” had for the Church.

I have found the fol­low­ing books of enor­mous help in com­ing to a bet­ter under­stand­ing of just how and why we come to believe the things we believe:

Why We Believe What We Believe — Uncov­er­ing Our Bio­log­i­cal Need for Mean­ing, Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and Truth, by Andrew New­berg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman

On Being Cer­tain — Believ­ing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert A. Bur­ton, MD

Mis­takes Were Made (But Not By Me) — Why We Jus­ti­fy Fool­ish Beliefs, Bad Deci­sions and Hurt­ful Acts, by Car­ol Tavris and Eliot Aronson

How We Believe: Sci­ence, Skep­ti­cism, and the Search for God, by Michael Shermer

Final­ly, the fol­low­ing book encour­ages peo­ple to use the same crit­i­cal think­ing skills that they use to see how oth­er reli­gions and reli­gious claims are false, in exam­in­ing their own beliefs:

The Out­sider Test for Faith — How to Know Which Reli­gion is True, by John W. Loftus

Per­haps Mark Twain said it best:

The easy con­fi­dence with which I know anoth­er man’s reli­gion is fol­ly teach­es me to sus­pect that my own is also.”

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Exam­in­ing Church Claims — Don Cohen« Fac­tu­al ClaimsExam­in­ing the Fruits of the Church in Practice »
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