William James

William James
We must get by on what truth we have today, and be willing to call it error tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Claims Of Knowledge In LDS Testimony Meetings

The question was put:

"In testimony meetings, we often say, "I know that such and such is true." But do we really?

Ether 3

19 And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting.

I've never seen Christ. Wouldn't it be more accurate to use the word "believe" rather than "know"?"

To which I responded:

Common definitions of "know" include:

verb (used with object) 1. to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty: I know the situation fully.
2. to have established or fixed in the mind or memory: to know a poem by heart; Do you know the way to the park from here?
3. to be cognizant or aware of: I know it.
4. be acquainted with (a thing, place, person, etc.), as by sight, experience, or report: to know the mayor.
5. to understand from experience or attainment (usually fol. by how before an infinitive): to know how to make gingerbread.
6. to be able to distinguish, as one from another: to know right from wrong.
7. Archaic. to have sexual intercourse with.
â??verb (used without object) 8. to have knowledge or clear and certain perception, as of fact or truth.
9. to be cognizant or aware, as of some fact, circumstance, or occurrence; have information, as about something.
â??noun 10. the fact or state of knowing; knowledge.
â??Idioms11. in the know, possessing inside, secret, or special information.
12. know the ropes, Informal. to understand or be familiar with the particulars of a subject or business: He knew the ropes better than anyone else in politics.

I suppose you could break down the word "know" into two basic elements. One element consists of the criteria an individual uses to decide whether to accept something as being certain. The second element is a sort of declaration that the world at large must accept that thing as certain because of the individual's criteria being satisfied. The weight to be given to any claim of knowledge must be based upon the strength of the criteria used by the declarant in arriving at his or her conclusion.

In the LDS faith, as well as in many others, subjective spiritual experience is typically the primary criterium which people rely upon. There is often a deep mistrust of logic and science which are often dismissed as "the philosophies of men." One need only listen to the varying testimonies of people claiming to have revealed truth to see that it is extremely unlikely that spiritual experience is a reliable method for learning the truth. Recently, I was watching a special on National Geographic about Jerusalem's holy sites and the religions which consider them holy and significant. I was struck by the testimony of a muslim woman who stated that when she entered a particular mosk, she felt the presence of God all around her, implying that such an experience was confirmation that Islam was true. It sounded almost identical to LDS accounts of entering an LDS temple.

If we are ever to get past the "well only my spiritual experiences are genuine" stage of argument, it seems to me we have little choice but to engage in real debate and philosophy based upon science and empirical data. "I know the church is true," while it may be a comforting statement to some, offers little help in a critical analysis.

Faith still must play a role. But we must not become so obsessed with having the absolute answer to all things of a spiritual nature that we start to ignore the things which tend to contradict or undermine the beliefs we have.

My personal opinion (which I have admitting that I do not actually know myself) is that most or all of the people who say in church that they "know" such and such really don't know it, but rather have faith in it, combined with subjective spiritual experience which they have interpreted to be a confirming witness.

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