Charles Irvin Fain was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1982 kidnapping, sexual assault and drowning of 9-year-old Daralyn Johnson. Fain, who was unemployed and living with his parents in Redmond, Oregon at the time of the crime, had lived in Idaho until June 1981. He returned to Idaho in March of 1982 to look for work. Fain moved in with a neighbor of the Johnson family, and in September of 1982, police asked that he provide hair samples. Fain agreed, and those samples were the key evidence against him in his trial. The jury found Fain guilty, primarily on the forensic testimony of an FBI specialist about the hairs, and the testimony of two jailhouse informants who claimed that Fain made “incriminating statements” about the case.
With the help of new attorneys, Fain was able to get the physical evidence tested under a new DNA testing process known as Mitochondrial DNA Testing. Results of those tests not only excluded Fain, but pointed to two other suspects. The US District Court judge who originally would not consider Fain's innocence claims vacated the conviction on July 6, 2001 and ordered prosecutors to either retry or release Fain. Fain was released from the maximum-security facility in Boise, Idaho on August 23, 2001.
What if you were a juror who sat in judgment of Mr. Fain at his original trial? How would you feel when you learned that DNA evidence had overturned the conviction that was based on your judgment made “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Would you maintain your belief in Fain’s guilt? Would you continue to tout the witness testimony you received almost 20 years earlier as worthy of greater weight and consideration than the new DNA evidence offered by Fain’s defense team? Or would you re-examine your verdict in light of this new evidence? And what on earth does this have to do with Mormonism?
Vulture, a pseudonymous regular participant at the New Order Mormon site,
recently sparked an interesting discussion on how New Order Mormons can
reconcile profound personal spiritual experiences with their skepticism about
Mormonism’s foundational truth claims.
DV’s post and the discussion that followed go to the heart of Mormon epistemology—how do we gain knowledge and how much faith can we justifiably have that the things we think we know are actually true? It is convenient to think in terms of burdens of proof and weighing of evidence in formulating a response to these questions.
The first question to ask with respect to the foundational truth claims of Mormonism is “who has the burden of proof?” (technically, I should probably refer to this as the “burden of persuasion,” rather than the burden of proof but the phrase “burden of proof” is popularly understood as synonymous with the more technical term).
Most, I think, would agree that in the context of religious claims, the burden should be on the party asserting the claim. For example, a Mormon missionary might say to someone: “the Book of Mormon was an ancient record written in Reformed Egyptian, inscribed on gold plates by a series of Israelite prophets who sailed to America more than 2000 years before Columbus. The gold plates, buried for millennia, were delivered by a resurrected ancient American prophet, now an angel, to a young farm boy named Joseph Smith who lived in upstate New York in the 1820s. Joseph Smith translated the record ‘by the gift and power of God.’” The burden of proving these assertions properly rests on the Mormon missionary.
The next question to ask is “how heavy is the burden of proof or, in other words, what is the standard of proof?” In American law, there are varying standards of proof depending upon what is being asserted and the context in which the assertion arises. Probable cause is the lowest standard, used to convince a judge to grant a search warrant, for example. In the criminal law context, this standard does not require that the assertion made actually be proven, only that there is enough evidence to suggest that a crime was probably committed. The preponderance of evidence standard (called the balance of probabilities outside the United States) is used in most civil cases and simply means that, given all the evidence, the proposition is more likely true than not. In some instances, a higher standard is employed: a showing of clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing means that, according to the evidence, a given proposition is substantially more likely to be true than not. Finally, there is the standard required to obtain a criminal conviction: beyond a reasonable doubt, which means there is enough evidence supporting the truth of a proposition as to render unreasonable the belief that the proposition is false.
So, which standard applies to the foundational truth claims of Mormonism? Skeptics are fond of the aphorism “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” I think it is probably uncontroversial to state that the foundational truth claims of Mormonism are extraordinary. Can anyone seriously argue that such claims do not require extraordinary proof? Can anyone argue with the assertion that, at the very least, the foundational truth claims of Mormonism ought to be subject to a standard that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt? I suspect many faithful Latter-day Saints would have no problem accepting this standard. Many times I have heard testimonies borne in which the bearer claims to know “beyond a shadow of doubt” or “with every fiber of my being” or “beyond any doubt whatsoever,” statements which reveal that for at least some Mormons, proof beyond a reasonable doubt ought to be a standard that the foundational truth claims of Mormonism could rather easily hurdle.
It is important to note that I am not saying that the truth of a proposition depends on the standard of proof employed; rather I am saying that the acceptance of a proposition as true depends on the standard of proof employed. The Book of Mormon, for example, is either a literal history of ancient American Israelites or it is not. The truth of the matter does not depend on the standard of proof employed. But my acceptance or rejection of the truth of the proposition does depend on the standard of truth employed (as well as the weight given to the evidence in support of the proposition measured against the standard of proof.) As an epistemological matter, it is unreasonable to accept propositions as true that fail to meet the standard of proof—the proposition may be true, but for an individual to accept it, the burden must be met; otherwise, the individual acts irrationally and is epistemologically imprudent.
Desert Vulture’s original post was about how he should deal with the fact that he had had personal spiritual experiences that led him to believe in Mormonism but that he has had subsequent exposure to other evidence—external, or objective evidence—that causes him to question the LDS church’s foundational truth claims. I have also had spiritual experiences, the most powerful of which brought about my conversion and baptism into the church.
When considering how personal spiritual experiences fit into the body of evidence concerning Mormonism’s truth claims, it is good to ask the question: how is this evidence to be used? Is it to be used to persuade others or simply to convince the person who enjoyed the experience?
If the latter, it is noteworthy that in the American justice system, a person cannot serve as a witness and also sit on the jury. The two roles are separated: subjective evidence may be offered in the form of witness testimony, but the triers of fact—the jurors—are supposed to be detached, objective, impartial. We have this system because long experience has demonstrated that people who have obtained evidence through subjective experience, while they may make a good witness, invariably give undue weight to their own experience when balanced against other evidence. I submit that an individual’s subjective experience provides some evidence as to the truth of a given proposition, but its credibility and weight is determined not by the individual who had the experience but by objective triers of fact.
Not all evidence carries the same weight. How much weight should be afforded to a subjective personal experience? Well, if it’s all we have, maybe a lot. For example, suppose a man robs a convenience store. The only witness is the store clerk, who looked the defendant square in the eye for a good 30 seconds, soberly noted his hair and eye color, height, weight, clothing, and getaway vehicle. No hard, or forensic, evidence is found. Can the defendant be convicted on the testimony of the store clerk alone? Yes, it happens all the time. But change the facts. Suppose that there are multiple witnesses to the robbery, all of whom identify a different suspect. Suppose also that video surveillance footage is available clearly showing this other suspect pointing a gun at the store clerk, leaving the store with a bag full of money. The police track down this other suspect and find him at home thirty minutes after the robbery, with a bag full of money. This other suspect was also foolish enough to leave his fingerprints on the counter at the store. Upon further investigation, the police discover that the man initially identified with absolute certainty by the store clerk has an alibi—he was at work at a restaurant on the other side of town during the time of the robbery and has 30 witnesses who can verify his whereabouts. Now how much weight do we afford the store clerk’s subjective testimony?
Why the change? Because in the face of overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to re-evaluate the evidence, and shift the weight we are willing to afford certain types of evidence—especially subjective, personal experiences.
So, what does all this have to do with Mormonism? Simply this: in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, a person might reasonably be justified in relying upon a spiritual experience as a barometer for truth. For some propositions that do not lend themselves to proof or disproof, it may be reasonable to grant some weight to a spiritual experience. However, when analyzing a demonstrably falsifiable proposition where a surfeit of evidence overwhelmingly points to a conclusion diametrically opposite that suggested by the spiritual experience, it is reasonable to re-evaluate the weight originally afforded the subjective experience in light of the new evidence.
I had a spiritual experience while reading and praying about Mormonism. I interpreted that to mean that the foundational claims of the church were true. I re-ordered my life around those claims based on that experience. In recent years, I have obtained a wealth of new evidence that calls into question my earlier verdict. This evidence applied to the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham is no less certain than the evidence that freed Charles Irvin Fain from prison. The same type of DNA evidence that overturned his conviction has demonstrated that one of Mormonism’s foundational truth claims—that the Book of Mormon’s Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the American Indians—is false. Like the jurors in the Fain case, I thought I could trust the witness testimony I had received. In light of new evidence, however, it seems reasonable to re-evaluate.