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When What You Already Know Just Ain't So

My friend, colleague, and fellow ward-mate Jordan F. recently put up this post on the "Mantle and the Intellect" at the blog he co-hosts with his brother John--A Bird's Eye View.  In the post, Jordan defends an oft-criticized talk given by President Boyd K. Packer in 1981 titled "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect."  In that talk President Packer, among other things, encouraged LDS church scholars and educators to teach a faith-promoting version of history and to downplay or ignore entirely any facts or evidence from the historical record that could cast the leaders of the church in a negative light.  He discouraged the dissemination of information about church leaders that would show their humanity, telling church educators to focus exclusively on information that supports the Mormon truth claim that God is leading and guiding the leaders of the LDS church.  I disagree with much of what President Packer says in the talk, and with the way he says it.   Jordan has a different view, seeing the talk as "a beacon of light in today’s sea of spiritual darkness that is much of academia."

In his spirited defense of President Packer, Jordan notes that at the heart of Packer's talk is the idea that Mormon history cannot be properly understood without starting with the conclusion, born of the Holy Ghost, that the foundational claims of the LDS church are true.  In other words, the only proper approach to Mormon history for consumption by members of the LDS church is from the perspective of a true-believing Mormon who accepts Joseph Smith as the prophet of the restoration, the Utah-based church as the only true and living church on earth, the Book of Mormon as literal history translated by the gift and power of God, and the authority of those who lead the LDS church as absolute.   In other words, as Jordan puts it, the facts about Mormon history "cannot be properly understood divorced from a belief that God orchestrated the whole thing through imperfect and misunderstanding human beings."  Jordan thinks that, regarding Mormon history, "one MUST look at the foundational events of the Church through a lens of testimony in order to see the evidence of the divine hand in them, and . . . this is also how church history MUST be taught in LDS classrooms." 

In Jordan's post, he points to me as a living example of the "problem" Packer was seeking to prevent with his "Mantle and Intellect" talk.  Jordan quotes  from an earlier post of mine here at Equality Time, in which I discuss my decision to re-assess Mormon truth claims by examining the facts and evidence with my "testimony lenses" off.   This re-assessment led me to doubt, then reject, the literal truth of the LDS church's foundational claims.  And this gets to the heart of the disagreement between me and Jordan.  He thinks that Mormonism's foundational truth claims should be assumed, a priori, and that one's evaluation of church history and doctrine must be filtered to support that beginning assumption.  Any examination, exploration, or exposition of Mormon doctrine or history should be informed by and infused with a testimony of the divinity of the work.  To quote my friend, we should "view the historical record through the lens of faith and our spiritual impressions." I respectfully disagree.

Stripped down, the issue is an epistemological one: is a person's subjective spiritual experience superior to a rational assessment of evidence in arriving at a knowledge of truth with respect to the extraordinary claims made by Mormonism's founder and subsequent leaders?  Jordan and President Packer think that it is.  I don't. 

At its foundation, the Jordan/Packer argument rests on the notion that a heartfelt conviction, once obtained, need never be tested against empirical evidence--information obtained through rational, non-subjective means-- or measured against reason.  One problem I have with this approach is that, objectively speaking, the use of personal spiritual experiences is a notoriously unreliable  method for obtaining accurate information about how the world actually operates.  In areas where personal spiritual experiences can be tested empirically, history has demonstrated that such experiences are poor guides to a better understanding of the world around us.

Another problem is that while the Jordan/Packer approach has the advantage of completely immunizing a believing Mormon from dissuasion, it has the decided disadvantage of being equally capable of conferring the same benefit on the heartfelt convictions of any believer whose faith is based on personal spiritual experience and contradicted by the great weight of available evidence.  Let's take Scientology as an example.  Using the Jordan/Packer approach, if we were Scientologists, we would only read "faith-promoting" histories of Scientology--those which paint L. Ron Hubbard in the best possible light and which either do not mention or excuse any criticism of him.  When confronting evidence about Scientology, we would give the organization the benefit of the doubt in every case.  Where evidence contradicted our understanding of things as taught by Scientology's leaders, we would go with the version espoused by the organization.  The quantum of evidence against the claims of Scientology would be irrelevant.  Rather than consider such evidence or ever draw a negative inference from that evidence (even where such negative inferences might be more reasonable to draw than positive ones), we would instead simply dismiss any evidence that contradicts what we already know to be true through our personal spiritual experience.  Creationists, Branch Davidians--indeed, fundamentalists of every stripe--do the same.  They all view information about their respective religions through the "lens of faith and [their] spiritual impressions."  And when they do, inevitably, their own faith is confirmed.

Another idea Jordan advances in support of suspending reason in favor of faith is that God is testing us by making the truth difficult to discern with observation and reason.  As Jordan says, "it is so easy, and so seemingly logical, to draw negative inferences and conclusions about the motivations and characters of the Lord’s anointed from what we understand of the historical record presently before us."  In other words, we cannot trust our reason; we cannot trust the historical record; we cannot trust logic when these conflict with the "truth" established through a personal spiritual experience.  Even if things "appear" to contradict Mormon truth claims, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the church because we see things "through a glass darkly" while in mortality, and we will be blessed for believing not only in the absence of affirmative evidence but in the face of contrary information.  If it all made sense, I guess the gospel test would just be too easy.  Apparently, God has rigged the system in such a way so things that seem true and things that can be proven true are not really true, while things that seem false, for which the only evidence is a subjective personal experience, are those things upon which God would condition our salvation.  In this model, the more preposterous a proposition, the more likely it comes from God, since more faith is required to believe it, and faith in non-obvious things is greater than faith in that which is apparent to all.  I suppose those with whom God is most pleased are those who believe things for which there is the greatest amount of contradictory evidence.  This should make the UFOlogists and conspiracy theorists sanguine.

Probably the biggest problem I have with the Jordan/Packer approach to evaluating Mormon history and truth claims through the "lens of testimony" is that there appears to be no room for ever re-evaluating the basic assumption that the church's foundational claims are true.  It is a completely closed system.  No amount of evidence, no new information can dissuade the Mormon with a testimony who "chooses" to cling to that testimony no matter what.  How realistic is such an approach?  What if we applied it in other contexts; for example, the criminal justice system?

Let's suppose you are a prosecutor.  You have the responsibility to charge and try someone the police have arrested.  Upon listening to the cops tell their story, meeting the alleged perpetrator of the crime,  and looking at the evidence gathered from the scene of the crime, you become convinced of the defendant's guilt.  As you prepare your arguments for trial, you come upon evidence submitted by the defense that casts doubt on the defendant's guilt.  But you choose to ignore such evidence, or explain it in a way that supports the possibility that the defendant is actually guilty.  You then come upon more evidence that appears to exonerate the defendant.  Again, relying upon your earlier heartfelt conviction that the defendant is guilty, you interpret the new evidence in a light most favorable to your belief in the defendant's guilt.  You choose not to draw any inferences from the evidence that might alter the certainty you feel in your heart about the person you are prosecuting.  Your intellect, after all, can be fooled.  The evidence is imperfect.  You see through a glass, darkly.  Your subjective personal experience--your heart--tells you he is guilty. And that's far greater than the intellect.  So, armed with your superior knowledge (for it is knowledge not gained through a reasoned assessment of evidence but rather from powerful personal experience), you seek to prevent the jury from hearing the evidence that they might think exonerates the defendant.  After all, they may incorrectly draw inferences from the evidence different from yours, and come to the conclusion that the defendant is innocent--or at least that there is not sufficient evidence to convict.  And you continue to pursue the prosecution with zeal.  No amount of evidence, no appeals to logic or reason can dissuade you for "you know what you know."  Applying the Jordan/Packer epistemology in this hypothetical, the prosecutor obtained a heartfelt conviction and was willing to exalt that above all evidence and reason to the contrary.  Would you want such a person in office?  If you think this example far-fetched, there are some lacrosse players at Duke who might have something to say to you.

What does it say about Mormonism that maintaining a testimony of its foundational truth claims requires hiding information, ignoring evidence,  drawing positive inferences where negative ones might be more appropriate, and relying on a subjective experience even when such an experience conflicts with objective evidence? As Reformed_Egyptian, a participant at the Further Light and Knowledge forum put it: "What it all boils down to is: why do I have to be lied to (and to lie to myself) in order to maintain my belief in a true church?"

Comments

Jordan F.

Well, I'm back commenting in my own name just to comment on this post.

OK- it's like Michael Scott when he said he was not going to tell any more "that's what she said" jokes so Jim immediately tested his resolve by making comments amenable to a "that's what she said." Michael caved in less than a minute. I lasted just a little longer.

My main comment is that I agree with everything you say about our differences here. I think you have encapsulated the heart of the matter quite nicely.

You are right, of course, that this epistomology could lead to some funky things. It could lead to a strong belief in, and a refusal to reevaluate, Body Thetans or Lafferty-esque beliefs. And my TBM response to that argument is simply that the TRUE Holy Ghost would not confirm such things to be true, so they are non-starters.

I think your example of the prosecutor is well-meant but ultimately inapposite. I, and I think most Latter-day Saints with jobs like "Prosecutor" would never apply this epistomology to these temporal matters. For example, while I do sometimes take a position for a client and garner all the evidence and law that supports that position, the position must be foundationally sound in that it must be based on REAL facts and law visible to the physical eye. I would never pray about a client's case and ask the Holy Ghost to "reveal the truth of it unto me," nor do I think most TBM lawyers would.

I think some TBM types misapply this epistomology to the wrong sorts of things. One case in point- Politics.

Ultimately, the epistomology you describe me using only can apply in one context- the metaphysical sphere of religious belief. It is precisely because belief is so metaphysical that I see neither a problem nor an inconsistency with applying this sort of epistomological approach to religious belief but not elsewhere.

Jordan F.

That's epistemology...

JV

Jordan wrote:
"Ultimately, the epistomology you describe me using only can apply in one context- the metaphysical sphere of religious belief. It is precisely because belief is so metaphysical that I see neither a problem nor an inconsistency with applying this sort of epistomological approach to religious belief but not elsewhere."

Jesus Christ (through Joseph Smith) wrote:
"Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created” (Doctrine & Covenants 29:34)

As a fully-committed believer, I took what Jesus wrote to mean that there is a spiritual component to "all things", and the spiritual part is the part that Jesus cares about. The law of consecration, Church tribunals, the Constitution of the United States, polygamy, the Word of Wisdom, the proper form of baptism, the proper means of healing the sick, answers to prayers about anything, the laws of physics, all of it and more was included in my concept of "all things". I believed that if a person was "in tune" with the Holy Ghost, the truth about "all things" would be manifest to him or her. (See Moroni 10) That meant Mormons potentially have the inside track on all knowledge, and should dominate the arts and sciences, if they would only live and listen in a way that was worthy of the bestowal of that information by the hand of God.

If you had asked the believing me to comment on your idea that the scriptural process of learning truth does not extend to certain aspects of life, I would have told you that you are artificially limiting the meaning of the term "all things". I am not sure that the average LDS person (including "TBM" lawyers) would add any extra words to that phrase, as your statement above does to a significant degree.

I think what you wrote would probably play very well in some protestant churches, but not the LDS Church. I believe mainstream Mormon thought adheres to the concept that all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, and that the scriptural processes for finding truth are universally valid (though perhaps very hard to master). With that in mind, by employing Packer's epistemology in only one context, you are the one applying it incorrectly, not believers.

-JV

wry catcher

Oh, nothing. I just dig lawyers. Mmm, mmm, good.

Jordan F.

Wait a second here, JV. Are you telling me that as a TBM, you jumped to conclusions about facts and law in your legal practice before evaluating the evidence? I think that despite how TBMs might talk ("all things are spiritual", "pray about everything", etc.) that there really are very, very few TBM lawyers who would form a SPIRITUAL conclusion of some sort about the issues in a case or a transactional deal before evaluating the existing facts and law.

I think there are very few TBM lawyers who would claim to use the same epistemology in arriving at "truth" in their professional jobs as they do to discover metaphysical religious "truths." Are you really claiming otherwise?

Jonathan Blake

Jordan F.,

Why do you believe that Mormon epistemology (for lack of a better term) is valid in one context but not another? To be honest, this sounds like unjustified compartmentalization to protect woo woo illogic from your reasoning faculties.

JV

No, I am not claiming otherwise. I don't believe that the average TBM lawyer jumps to conclusions about facts and law. I am saying that your explanation for that fact is inaccurate. I am saying that it is not necessary (and I would even say it is generally considered heretical) to limit the sphere of knowledge that can be investigated through scriptural methods.

The most common means of dealing with the fact that the scriptural methods are unreliable and ineffective for the purpose they purport to serve is to say that the methods are hard to master, because they require spiritual purity and proper formalities. (See my ET post "Moroni's Pitch" for a more detailed discussion of this point.) Theoretically, however, the scriptural methods are the supreme means of obtaining the truth, and I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a TBM--lawyer or not--who would disagree, regardless of their personal practices.

-JV

John C.

The truth of the matter is that different contexts require different modes of argumentation. The context of law, for example, does not operate from an assumption that the Book of Mormon is the word of God in the same way that discussion an LDS Sunday School does. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to make arguments in a law setting taking the Book of Mormon's truth as a priori correct. There are different standards of proof in different settings. There is nothing wrong with this, nor is it a particularly egregious act of compartmentalization. Calm down, yo.

Jonathan Blake

If everyone in the courtroom and the laws of the land assumed that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, would it be valid to make arguments from the Book of Mormon?

So far, no one has disputed the main claims of this post. I remains unchallenged that this epistemology can lead to all manner of false beliefs. If all of the major points made in this post seem to be conceded, then my question is why is it reasonable to knowingly use a deeply flawed epistemology when better alternatives are readily available?

Jordan F.

JB:

There are no "better alternatives" in the metaphysical realms of religious belief. Because that's all it is- belief! And a hope that what we believe is true.

Sister Mary Lisa

Jordan F ~

"There are no "better alternatives" in the metaphysical realms of religious belief. Because that's all it is- belief! And a hope that what we believe is true."

If only the GAs and the prophet and the missionaries felt as you do. Because as far as I can tell, they tout their religion as being the BEST and ONLY alternative to gaining eternal salvation. And, they not only "hope" that what they believe is true, they claim to KNOW it.

Equality

But Jordan, the problem is that Mormonism's foundational truth claims are not limited to the metaphysical sphere--they invade the temporal, tangible world. If all you were talking about was, say, a belief in God or the afterlife, that would be purely metaphysical. And you would be correct that science and reason might not be superior methods for determining the truth of such metaphysical concepts. But the idea that American Indians are descended from Middle Eastern emigrants (to take one example) is something that science and reason can speak to (and do). Likewise evolution; the Noachian deluge; the Tower of Babel and development of language; etc. Numerous Mormon claims are made with respect to the "here and now"--to the physical, tangible world in which we live. Indeed, some would argue that one of Mormonism's salient characteristics is the blow it strikes against metaphysics. That may be the heart of our disagreement. I am willing to accept the reasonableness of taking a "leap of faith," of "choosing to believe" where science and reason do not provide sufficient evidence to demand a doubting stance. But where testable claims are tested and found wanting, I don't think it is reasonable to simply recast the issue as a metaphysical one to justify believing in something that is demonstrably false.

Jordan F.

I submit that there can be mistaken "beliefs" about verifiable things. And when it turns out that something a believer believes is 100% demonstrably false, then a believer can discard that belief as mistaken and go on.

For example, it is now obvious, thanks to advances in science, that most Native Americans did not descend from the Israelites. BSo I will discard any belief I had that ALL Native Americans somehow descended from Book of Mormon "Lamanites." But that does not mean that NONE did, and until science proves otherwise, I will let my belief in metaphysical revelation to Joseph Smith inform my opinion on the subject.

Going back to Packer's talk, the main point of my post back then on ABEV was that it was not as sinister as many DAMU types make it out to be. To me personally, it was a roadmap for avoiding "apostasy" as I learn facts about the real world that could credibly disarm a testimony. A way for physical facts not to disturb belief in metaphysical principles, with a word of warning against spreading personal conclusions based on facts plus inferences (even logical ones) that could cause others to doubt. It's not the facts themselves that are bad, but the interpretive step utilized in reaching conclusions that, while logical, does not take into account metaphysical evidence: conclusions that also cannot be 100% proved. So long as there is doubt in this context, Packer urges that we rely on metaphysical evidence to reach a "faithful" conclusion if one can be reached at all (i.e., is not completely impossible given the available physical evidence). Looking carefully at Packer's talk, it seems very narrowly applicable to religious belief, more specifically, to certain tenets of the LDS Church. In other words, I don't think Packer intended this as a methodology for gaining temporal knowledge.

For example, the fact that Smith practiced polygamy very early on in LDS Church history- much earlier than is commonly thought or known- does not necessarily mean that he was not a prophet of God. There is no physical way of knowing for certain that Smith did or did not talk to deity as he claimed. There is certainly evidence to suggest he did not, and conclusions that he did not are therefore perfectly reasonable, if uninformed by metaphysical beliefs. The physical evidence available certainly does not DISPROVE Smith's story, even if many things make its veracity unlikely. And this is precisely where metaphysical evidence, such as spiritual "promptings" can sustain belief even if evidence makes that belief unlikely.

Note that this is the obvious dilemma faced by all religious believers of all religious creeds. Given what we know about death, it is certainly unlikely that anyone has ever been resurrected from the dead. But to the believer, the unlikelihood just makes the miracle that much more fantastic!

In the realm of religious beliefs, I posit that it is perfectly valid to rely on metaphysical evidence to support those beliefs where there is even a sliver of doubt regarding whether or not certain things happened.

In other words, in the realm of my own religious belief, unless something is 100% disproven, and thus has null probability of being true, I will believe it as long as I have metaphysical evidence to support it. And if it turns out, as has happened on occasion, that physical evidence disproves what rang true according to my metaphysical evidence, then I will simply correct my thinking on that issue, still relying on metaphysical evidence for others.

And the only realm in which this is proper is in that realm dealing with religious belief. It is not a proper way to form conclusions in science, business, law, or any other physical discipline, in my opinion.

Jordan F.

Another note: If we have such a problem relying on our feelings to help us draw conclusions in the religious realm, why do we have no problem at all relying on them to draw conclusions in other realms?

I am sure that all of you who are married have FELT that you and your spouse were compatible, and have FELT attraction and love towards them. What is love besides a strong feeling for someone else and a hope that it will work? Are we to discount our conclusion that we love our spouses simply because that conclusion is based on feelings?

And it is perfectly reasonable in that more metaphysical context to judge future facts by the previously drawn conclusion that we love our spouses. For example, if we see an attractive member of the opposite sex with all the physical evidence of mutual attraction, most of us would discount that physical evidence to the pre-borne conclusion that we "love" our spouse.

That is because in matters of love, an abstract concept if ever there was one, we trust our metaphysical FEELINGS. Why not trust them in the abstract context of religious belief as well?

Equality

"And if it turns out, as has happened on occasion, that physical evidence disproves what rang true according to my metaphysical evidence, then I will simply correct my thinking on that issue, still relying on metaphysical evidence for others."

It seems to me that this is where you run into trouble. If your metaphysical evidence (i.e., spiritual experience) has convinced you that proposition X is true (perhaps even "beyond a shadow of a doubt" or "with every fiber of your being"), and it later turns out that proposition X is not true, to continue to rely on your metaphysical evidence for the truthfulness of propositions is a fool's errand.

And nothing can be disproven to a 100% certainty. That standard is absurd. It puts all beliefs, no matter how ridiculous, far-fetched, or physically impossible, on the same footing. Nevertheless, I am willing to grant you that: you can choose to believe in things for which there is only a sliver of a chance that they might actually be true (the Jaredite voyage story, for example). But if Latter-day Saints are going to do that, perhaps a little less certainty in rhetoric would be appropriate. Mormons say they "know" things to be true as well as they can know anything. That's patently false. You may believe that Abraham actually wrote the text of the Book of Abraham for example. But that belief is not based on the same kind or quanta of evidence that establishes the earth's revolution 'round the sun, for example. You've admitted as much. If you want to say "I know there is little or no evidence to support my beliefs, and a lot that weighs against it, but I believe it anyway because I want to and nobody can prove to a 100% certainty that it isn't true," well, that's fine. But most Mormons don't say that. And saying that puts the religion on equal footing with every other religion, from Greek mythology to the flying spaghetti monster.

Jordan F.

"And saying that puts the religion on equal footing with every other religion, from Greek mythology to the flying spaghetti monster."

Not really, though. Because those religions aren't true... ;p

Jonathan Blake

Love isn't metaphysical. And love is a good indicator of compatibility because love is one ingredient of living happily with another person. Love makes it easier to cooperate and more desirable to stay with a person. Love is a tangible, flesh and blood reality. So it doesn't follow, for me, that since I trust feelings of love in choosing a life mate, I should therefore trust feelings in metaphysical claims like the assertion of the continuation of life after death. Mating and metaphysics lie in separate categories for me.

It is possible to live a good, fulfilling life without metaphysics. Karen Armstrong in "The Great Transformation" tries to show that the roots of most of the great world religions - Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and monotheism in Israel - refreshingly lacked a metaphysical dimension. Armstrong asserts that metaphysics were added by later, lesser religious leaders.

I no longer believe in fairy tales because they feel good to me just so I can believe in something rather than face my own impenetrable ignorance. I can't know on any reasonable basis whether or not I'm going to continue living after I die, for example, so I make my peace with not knowing.

John C.

Jonathan,
You mentioned better alternatives. What is your standard for declaring one mode of belief better than another?

Jordan F.

Jonathan-

I am glad that works for you (no longer believing in "fairy tales", etc.). It wouldn't work for me.

As far as making peace with "not knowing", that is what we are all doing in our little way, right? I don't "know" exactly what will happen in the "afterlife" any more than you do. I just have my beliefs about that, and my hope that those beliefs are true. And part of getting through this life is making peace with that very uncertainty. I make that peace through my religious beliefs, and that works for me. I am glad you found something that works for you, whatever that is.

John: It's been a while since we last spoke face to face in SLC. I amn not sure I understand your question, but I am not sure I have a "standard" for declaring one mode of belief better than another. Is one mode better than another? I don't really know. I just know what works for me, and what I choose to believe.

Jordan F.

Oops- no wonder I did not understand the question- it was not posed to me. That's why I had trouble seeing what it related to in what I had posted. I was sitting here scratching my head, wondering "what better alternatives?"

Jonathan Blake

Allow me to recast your question: What are my criteria for judging an epistemological strategy?

Primarily, I want a demonstrable ability to confer a clearer understanding of the world around me (shown through an ability to consistently explain and predict the phenomena of my experience). If I'm mistaken about something, I want my strategy to help me recover gracefully. I also want it to give me useful knowledge: something that will help me get what I want out of my existence.

Jonathan Blake

Jordan F.,

By all means do what works best for you, but don't expect me not to critique it. :)

I don't think I understand your use of the phrase "religious beliefs". Let's say I expressed the following: "I think it is 0.1% likely that my consciousness will survive my death. I hope that it does. That would be really nice. But I'm not expecting anything." What would you say differently? Would it only be a difference of probability? If so, is your increased estimation of life-after-death due to your acceptance of feelings as reliable evidence in this case?

This doesn't seem like making peace with uncertainty, not in the way I mean it anyway. I want to see things as they actually are. If the best I can reasonably believe is a 0.1% probability, then I don't want to ameliorate that. What you're doing looks like trying to change the rules of evidence in order to make things seem less uncertain, especially since you recognize that using feelings as evidence isn't appropriate in most other places. You seem to be intentionally inducing personal bias in your beliefs. It's a kind of perverse wishful thinking.

So again, what do you mean that you're trying to deal with uncertainty through religious beliefs? I don't think I get it.

Jordan F.

"I want to see things as they actually are."

And how are they, actually? I don't think anyone can see "things as they actually are" because there is no such state of things. We all see the same sunset, but some see more red, some see more orange, some see more yellow, and some see no color at all. Have you truly figured out, through your disdain of religious "perverse wishful thinking," how to see things as they actually are? Oh please, do tell. I would love to always see things as they actually are. And if everyone could figure out your magic formula, maybe we would all live in peace in this world of ours.

By the way, when you speak of "changing the rules of evidence for religion," which rules are you referring to? I am currently staring at a canon of rules of evidence for use in federal courts, but they are only rules for presenting and evaluating evidence in U.S. federal courts. There is another canon for state court (different ones too for each state), another for practicing in front of administrative agencies, and still other canons for each country's different legal system. Then there are also accepted "rules of evidence" in the scientific community, and in other communities as well. Which one are you referring to? Is there some overarching canon containing these "rules of evidence" that I am changing for religion, to which I should be adhering? Where can I find these rules that I am disingenuously bending?

Jordan F.

As far as trying to deal with uncertainty through religious beliefs, I think you do get it more than you think. What you wrote on a part of your blog describes me perfectly:

"As I read my scriptures and prayed, I felt at peace that I was doing the right thing. I never felt that I could honestly say that “I know that the gospel is true” (meaning that Mormonism is true) like so many others. I never felt that heart-pounding need to stand up in Fast and Testimony Meeting and tell everyone who would listen that I loved God and knew that Joseph Smith was his Prophet.

Even though it was taking longer to receive a convincing witness of the Spirit than I had originally hoped, the peace that I felt about the teachings was enough for me. I believed that if I continued to prove myself faithful, that my doubts would be taken away over time. I didn’t expect a transcendent, mystical experience of God (though I wouldn’t have complained), but would be satisfied if some day I would no longer be plagued by doubts."

While I wouldn't characterize myself as "plagued by doubts," the doubts- uncertainty- still remain about many things. But like you in a previous life, I keep pressing forward, hoping for the day when all will be made clear, and relying on my inner feelings that tell me that day will come.

fh451

Jordan F: "In the realm of religious beliefs, I posit that it is perfectly valid to rely on metaphysical evidence to support those beliefs where there is even a sliver of doubt regarding whether or not certain things happened."

Jordan, does it not bother you that given this standard, your entire belief system and view of life after death, purpose on earth, religious practice, and so forth, is determined only by the fact that you happened to be born into a family that espoused those beliefs and then transferred them to you? It really makes no difference which system you get into, whether it be by happenstance of birth, the fact that the missionaries talked to you at a susceptible moment, or whatever happy coincidence got you there, as long as there is "metaphysical evidence" to support your beliefs, you are justified in claiming them your own and in defiance of any other physical evidence? This just baffles and astounds me. Why bother claiming anything as truth? By that standard, I'll make up any old belief system and be on my merry way! And religious people think that atheists are moral relativists... I just don't get it.

fh451

Jordan F.

"By that standard, I'll make up any old belief system and be on my merry way!"

Sounds good, FH451. Whatever makes you happy. If you do, you won't find me dedicating blog time to rip down whatever you build.

fh451

So I guess the answer is "no, it doesn't bother you."

Jordan F.

FH451:

It does bother me the way you mischaracterize what I said, yes. I never said "physical evidence be damned in the face of metaphysical evidence." I only said that where there is still room to draw various conclusions from the physical evidence, then I will rely on the metaphysical evidence I have from "spiritual feelings" to draw the "TBM-faithful" conclusion, as long as such a conclusion is possible to be drawn.

For most of the matters discussed on this blog, in the 'naccle, and elsewhere in the DAMU, the evidence cited does not foreclose a TBM-faithful conclusion. It may militate against such a conclusion more than it supports the faithful conclusion in some instances (for me, I am thinking of the Book of Abraham), but as long as there is some reasonable doubt (i.e. wiggle room to believe) then I will choose to believe and draw TBM-faithful conclusions.

Note, however, that what I consider TBM-faithful conclusions may be different than what other TBMs consider TBM-faithful conclusions. That much I have realized as I have participated in the bloggernacle. And no, that does not bother me.

Jordan F.

(referring to the comment immediately above):

Bringing it back to Packer's talk, I believe this is all Packer was asking us to do. That, and if we do happen to choose to draw "negative" conclusions from evidence that does not foreclose positive ones, that we not spread those conclusions as if they were truth.

Jonathan Blake

Regarding seeing things as they actually are, I'm not precluding that different people see different things. I'm expressing the idea that I want to be aware as closely as possible of the probability that a claim is true, given my experiences from my perspective. In other words, if all I can reasonably muster through a reliable epistemology is a 0.1% probability that life continues after death, I want to live with that probability, not seek to make the picture look rosier than reasonable epistemology will allow. I don't want to resort to questionable reasoning in order to inflate that probability.

In my experience, religious experiences give widely varying results and therefore can't be relied upon. Ebonmuse just posted about this:

http://www.daylightatheism.org/2007/12/the-default.html

Regarding rules of evidence, there is a common thread through most of the rules of evidence that you cite. I'm not familiar with most of those, but I imagine that all of them on some level seek to counteract personal bias. Two witnesses are better than one, for example, in all the evidentiary systems that I can think of. You seem to be making a special exception when it comes to evidence for religious claims. In this case, you're suggesting that it's OK to listen to personal feelings when the normal rules of evidence prove too inconclusive. You're apparently not bothered by the fact that other people have come to very different conclusions using the same standard of evidence. You seem to disregard good evidence that spiritual experiences almost always confirm the religion of the person having experience. They almost never lead the experiencer to seek out a new religious path. That, to me, is a tell-tale sign of overriding personal bias.

I'm flattered that you read my blog. Those times that you cite were dark. I am happier now that I've accepted my doubts as legitimate and good. I'm no longer fighting against my own mind. Michael J. Fox (believe it or not) said it well: "My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations. Acceptance is the key to everything." (http://www.esquire.com/features/what-ive-learned/michaeljfox0108)

Jonathan Blake

Jordan F.,

Evidence might not foreclose the idea of a TBM perspective (there is precious little proof in this world), but what if it makes it highly unlikely? This, I think, may be where we are different. I try to avoid siding against the preponderance of evidence.

Jordan F.

So you use a preponderance of the evidence standard? How about probable cause?

Jordan F.

"Those times that you cite were dark. I am happier now that I've accepted my doubts as legitimate and good. I'm no longer fighting against my own mind."

I am sorry that you felt they were dark. It sounds to me like you were just trying to do your best to figure things out, just like all of us are. As for accepting doubts, I also feel like I have accepted my own doubts as legitimate and good. In other words, I do not fear my doubts. I am grateful for them. The mystery shrouded by my doubts is exciting and makes life interesting.

Equality

Jordan,

I just want to say thanks for commenting here and engaging me and others in thoughtful discussion. All snarkiness aside, I really do think you are doing exactly what Elder Ballard has encouraged faithful Latter-day Saints to do--participate in a conversation with people about your faith and the church. Members can disengage and avoid discussing difficult topics and concepts, but as Elder Ballard notes, the conversation about the LDS church will continue with or without participation by faithful members. I appreciate your efforts to engage in a way that I think Elder Ballard would approve.

fh451

Jordan said: "Bringing it back to Packer's talk, I believe this is all Packer was asking us to do. That, and if we do happen to choose to draw "negative" conclusions from evidence that does not foreclose positive ones, that we not spread those conclusions as if they were truth."

He was not just asking for people to draw a faithful conclusion, he was asking CES employees and others who use history in their work and writing to not even bring up the contravening evidence. That's a big difference, IMO. He appears to be well aware that these "flecks of history" can be and are damaging to people's faith in the church. People apparently can't be trusted to make important judgements on their own, and since he knows it's true, then the weak need to be protected from themselves.

Jordan also said: "It does bother me the way you mischaracterize what I said, yes. I never said "physical evidence be damned in the face of metaphysical evidence." I only said that where there is still room to draw various conclusions from the physical evidence, then I will rely on the metaphysical evidence I have from "spiritual feelings" to draw the "TBM-faithful" conclusion, as long as such a conclusion is possible to be drawn."

And here is the rub: ".. as long as such a conclusion is possible to be drawn." It will ALWAYS be _possible_ to draw a faith promoting conclusion (in ANY religious/philosophical system) if your standard is such that you use the "metaphysical evidence" as your support. You yourself said that all you needed was a "sliver of doubt" in the physical evidence. That really does sound an awful lot like "evidence be damned!" to me. You obviously don't want to characterize it that way, but that is the picture you are painting. Anybody can raise a sliver of a doubt in their mind over anything. Just look at the Flat Earth Society - all you have to do is look out your window and see a sliver of a doubt that the earth is round. It obviously looks flat! Thus, I stand by my comment that if one chooses to use such a standard of evidence, it really does not matter what you believe in. There is no physical evidentiary basis that one can demonstrate to others the "truth" of anything.

fh451

Jordan F.

"Anybody can raise a sliver of a doubt in their mind over anything."

The term I shold have used, to be more precise, was "reasonable doubt." That is a well-known standard in our legal system, and it is very possible to present evidence to show something "beyond a reasonable doubt." Just look to all the full prisons if you don't believe me. As long as there is a reasonable doubt, there is room to believe.

Flipped around, if there is enough evidence to provide "probable cause", then basing religious belief on metaphysical evidence is rational, in my view. And yes, that can lead to many people believing many different things. I fail to see how allowing for a multi-cultural society with many different beliefs grounded upon probable cause is a bad thing.

Or let's cast it in the language of the standard required for Congress to pass most laws: if there is at least a "rational basis" on which to base some religious belief, then relying on metaphysical evidence until there is more physical evidence is also OK.

I don't think this reasonable doubt/probable cause/rational basis standard is as permissive as you think it is (and as I led you to believe with my imprecise "sliver of a doubt" language), but it does lead to all sorts of various beliefs that differ from my own. What is wrong with that?

We say we believe the LDS church is the "only true and living church upon the face of the Earth." While I see how this could be a ticket to unfettered arrogance (and, unfortunately, it often is among members of the LDS church), it need not be. It is our LDS belief. If someone else has a similar belief grounded upon probable cause and supported by their own metaphysical experiences, more power to them. Perhaps I will believe that their experiences are not as "valid" as mine for some reason, but I could be wrong. It has happened before.

While this reasonable doubt/probable cause/rational basis physical evidence standard as a prerequisite to relying on metaphysical beliefs does allow for a wide variety of religious beliefs (thank god!), I don't think it means that "anything goes" as far as belief. For example, I think it has pretty much been proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is round.

It has pretty much been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, at least to me, that the Native Americans today are NOT primarily descended from Lamanites described in the Book of Mormon. I think the evidence also shows beyond a reasonable doubt, among other things, that (1) Smith told several markedly different versions of his first vision experience; (2) Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Abraham from the actual papyri he purchased from Chandler; (3) Smith had plural wives, some as young as 14, almost from the first days the LDS Church was organized in 1830; and (4) Smith married other men's wives.

Obviously this demands that LDS believers have some flexibility to discard "metaphysical evidence" they had supporting their "testimony" of whatever has been definitively disproved, to the extent they even had a metaphysical "testimony" in such things. I seem to recall McKonkie doing this when the 1978 "revelation" regarding the priesthood was received- he asked people to disregard anything he had ever taught about blacks and the priesthood. Obviously, he recognized that he had erroneously relied on metaphysical evidence for understanding, and his reliance had been misplaced in that instance.

I don't ever remember basing my choice to remain with the LDS Church on whether or not Joseph Smith began taking plural wives before Nauvoo or after. As for the "first vision" experience, the fact that there are several versions is not dispositive regarding whether or not Smith had a marevelous "vision", but it could yield many different interpretations- we have seen them floated in the bloggernacle, around the exmo net, in the damu, in various books and articles, etc.

But until I know beyond a reasonable doubt that the conclusions I draw from the "facts in evidence" are wrong, why not continue the status quo and believe what I have been taught, what my own personal metaphysical experiences tell me is valid? And in the meantime, why not just keep facts that are true but ultimately not useful to myself, as requested? Until I am convinced that I have been lied to or that something truly nefarious is happening, why rabble rouse?

Jordan F.

At any rate, I will concede that you may be right, fh451, about many things, such as your belief about the invalidity of metaphysical experiences, your general conclusions about the LDS church, etc.

And if it turns out that you are completely right, or that the truth is somewhere in the middle between us, then our metaphysical presences can laugh about it over a metaphysical pint in whatever metaphysical existence we find ourselves beyond this life.

Just, sitting where I sit today, with the experiences and imperfect but quite thorough knowledge of issues in LDS church history and doctrine that I have, I choose to disagree, and I am reasonable certain that my disagreement has at least a rational basis. In fact, my own personal (admittedly metaphysical) powerful experiences make me confidence enough about some of my religious beliefs to openly proclaim them in testimony meetings, etc. And any doubt that lingers on the side, or even big huge doubt that eclipses my understanding for a while, just makes life that much more interesting.

fh451

Jordan, what you are presenting now sounds like a much more reasonable approach to evaluation of evidence - if it works for you, that's great! In general I have no problem with people believing whatever they would like to believe when it comes to metaphysical truth, as long as we can find common ground for public discourse and government. I was really taking exception to what I was hearing about the "sliver of doubt" and "as long as it's possible to believe..." and so forth. That standard really sounded like no standard at all. And as you point out, even the "reasonable doubt" standard leads to people embracing all kinds of belief systems. But even then, I question whether many (most?) people have even thought about what evidence they are basing their beliefs on and why they accept them.

Again, getting back to Elder Packer's talk, I still strongly object to the idea that history should be censored in favor of creating a faith promoting story. Because in that case, we ( the metaphorical "we") are pre-judging the evidence and not allowing people to make their own decision by whatever standard they feel comfortable with. Just because you think there is still "reasonable doubt" doesn't give you (as a historian or manual writer) the right to assume that I (as a reader / student) would come to the same conclusion. In fact, it sounds more like there is fear that I would come to a different conclusion, and that would be BAD! But is it really? For whom? If you really embrace free agency and trust the Spirit to guide people's decisions, why not let people make up their own minds with a full set of evidence? On the part of the church, I sense significant conflict of interest - faithful history is good for the church, but not, IMO, so good for the individual.

Have a good day!

fh451

Jordan wrote: "Just, sitting where I sit today, with the experiences and imperfect but quite thorough knowledge of issues in LDS church history and doctrine that I have, I choose to disagree, and I am reasonable certain that my disagreement has at least a rational basis."

I really do think that your decision is "rational," in the sense that you've evaluated the inputs, run them through your computing machinery, and come out with "still true" as the answer. In fact, I would fully expect that someone coming from the believing position would and should require a standard of evidence for a "false" outcome much much greater than what would be required for a non believer. A significant part of our decision making is weighted by past experience and current position. The preponderance and validity of evidence required for one to switch positions is significantly greater than that required for us to simply reinforce our current position. Thus, believers and non-believers form both ends of a sort of "hysteresis curve". I think this hysteresis explains why believers and non-believers simply cannot understand each other's "reasonable doubt" when looking at particular pieces of evidence.

Jonathan Blake

"I don't think this reasonable doubt/probable cause/rational basis standard is as permissive as you think it is (and as I led you to believe with my imprecise "sliver of a doubt" language), but it does lead to all sorts of various beliefs that differ from my own. What is wrong with that?"

There's nothing wrong with respecting people's right to hold divergent beliefs, but the great variety of beliefs based on the same evidence says a lot about the reliability of the evidence to lead to a sound conclusion. If you're OK believing in something that looks as likely as UFO abductions to me, that's your choice. I prefer to avoid flights of fancy. :)

dpc

Jonathan:

"but the great variety of beliefs based on the same evidence says a lot about the reliability of the evidence to lead to a sound conclusion."

This statement is absolutely not true. There is a great deal of divergent beliefs when it comes to ethics. The divergence says nothing about the 'evidence' (i.e, the world around us) on which we base our ethics.

fh451

DPC: "This statement is absolutely not true. There is a great deal of divergent beliefs when it comes to ethics. The divergence says nothing about the 'evidence' (i.e, the world around us) on which we base our ethics."

First off, which "ethics" are you talking about? "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?" "Don't lie, cheat or steal"? I don't see much divergence on those points. But, even if we do see divergence (and note the difference between people believing in some set of ethics and actually following them), your conclusion is unwarranted. You assume that said that people are establishing their ethics from "the world around them" - but I don't know that we can state that as a fact (nor do I even think such a vague statement about "the world" bears any resemblance to evaluating specific historical issues). They could be just doing "whatever feels good" based on no evidence whatsoever. Jonathan's posit, if I understand it correctly, is more specifically about using "spiritual feelings," or as Jordan has been calling it, "metaphysical evidence," on which to base our judgement about God and/or specific religious systems of belief. If anything, I think what you stated could actually support Jonathan's statement - if people are using some idea (or "evidence") from which to generate their ethical system, and said systems are widely divergent, then I would agree that the source is not reliable.

dpc

"First off, which "ethics" are you talking about?"

Ethics = good conduct and right living. The philosophical definition.

"Don't lie, cheat or steal"? I don't see much divergence on those points."

When Danger Mouse remixed the Beatle's White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album to create the Grey Album, was he stealing? Was it wrong for him to do?

Is it okay to conceal from your friend the fact that his wife was cheating on him before she died, if he doesn't know about it?

If you're dating someone (and not married or engaged), is it cheating if you go out on a date with someone else?

I could sit here and write a myriad of different ethically challenging questions that could result in a myriad of different answers. How does an individual arrive at their own personal view? It's a complex question of genes, culture, environment, etc. We are a creation of the world around us, but the world around is a creation of our own.

But the problem with Jonathan's argument is that he is arguing that a scientific metaphysical system is superior to a religious metaphysical system with absolutely no justification. Why exactly are divergent beliefs a problem? On what basis is he arguing that spiritual evidence *should* only point to one possibility? I hear about the 'unreliability' of spiritual experiences all the time, but what does 'unreliable' mean when used in that context? Are spiritual experiences unreliable in making moral decisions or just in forming beliefs? If it is unreliable, what is a reliable method for analyzing and making moral decisions? Science? The general will? A democratic vote? Would any of these systems be more reliable in arriving at ethical decisions?

Jonathan Blake

"But the problem with Jonathan's argument is that he is arguing that a scientific metaphysical system is superior to a religious metaphysical system with absolutely no justification. Why exactly are divergent beliefs a problem? On what basis is he arguing that spiritual evidence *should* only point to one possibility?"

If spiritual evidence (i.e. religious feelings) is used to show that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and at the same time used to show that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God, then that is a problem. If you say that's not a problem, then you've abdicated logic. You've accepted that A implies B and not B. In other words, religious feelings can be used to demonstrate anything. Consequently, they can be shown to demonstrate nothing useful.

"I hear about the 'unreliability' of spiritual experiences all the time, but what does 'unreliable' mean when used in that context? Are spiritual experiences unreliable in making moral decisions or just in forming beliefs? If it is unreliable, what is a reliable method for analyzing and making moral decisions? Science? The general will? A democratic vote? Would any of these systems be more reliable in arriving at ethical decisions?"

When we realize that morality is nothing more absolute or metaphysical than a codification of how we as human beings want the world to be, then science is of tremendous help. Experiences that we usually call "spiritual" can be very useful in transforming us into more loving human beings. Insofar as that makes the world more like the way we want it to be, then those experiences are morally and ethically useful.

And for my token effort at staying on topic, I agree that Packer's suggestion that teachers keep relevant evidence from their students is reprehensible and a sign of fear.

SillyNut

:::::::sits with mouth agape:::::

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