Friday, December 7, 2007

Do You Know What I Know?

So I posted a pretty long post a few days back about what it means to really “know” something, but I felt like it was too long, too cynical, and too preachy of a post. It now exists only as a draft and it will probably stay that way. But I don’t want to completely abandon this train of thinking, so I’m going to give you the abridged version of The Dragon’s argument concerning knowledge:

Our definition of “knowing” something in the church is different from the universal idea of “knowing” something. Knowing, in the universal sense, implies that one has evidence such that the truth of something is an indefectible certainty. In other words, there can be no doubt whatsoever and there must be undeniable proof. Knowledge is more than just belief or faith.

In the church we say that we “know” a lot of things to be true. In reality, we only believe that we know. Why is that? It is because our evidence for believing things (like the church is the only true church, the Book of Mormon is true, etc.) does not provide undeniable proof. It might be considered strong proof, but one can still doubt the verity of such things. This means we don’t know- we just believe.

But what about a spiritual witness? Doesn’t that provide certain evidence so that we can say that we really know? Spiritual experiences can also be doubted, so they cannot be used as indubitable evidence to claim sure knowledge. Again, they could be classified as strong evidence, but that still only lets us believe with reason- it doesn’t allow us to say that we know.

This is why I really disliked that General Conference talk about knowing that you know that you know. Not only is that confusing, but it is impossible when it comes to spiritual ideas. At best you can believe that you know that you know- but that doesn’t mean that your belief is true.

Then why are we so set on testifying that we know things? I think it’s because we are taught to say that we know and because it can be comforting- even empowering. And apparently it’s not enough to just have faith or believe. It’s almost taboo to say “I believe that…” during a testimony meeting. I had a talk with Luisa about this the other day and I really liked her explanation of things. She said that we come to the point where we believe so strongly that something is true, that the best word we can come up with to describe the feeling is knowing. I mean, come on- who wants to say I believe that I know…? She also pointed out that she thinks it’s refreshing when she hears someone say, “I believe that…” or “I have faith that…” –it sounds honest. I personally think the insistence on using “I know” so copiously in the church manipulates people into thinking that they know things. Maybe this is part of the reason that people (like my parents) think that our church brainwashes people.

Really, how can we say we know truths that the rest of humanity does not know when we, in the church, have created our own definition of knowledge?

Okay- so that was still pretty long, but it’s a big idea.


Skyhawk said...

That is the whole point - you will NEVER know (or obtain knowledge) if you don't believe first....remember the helix?

1) Learning a principle
2) Putting the principle into practice
3) The WITNESS (or the physical, tangible evidence)

This is the great secret that defies all philosophical thinking! Typically, one would think that you would test an object before you use it - but in this case, you much use it as fully as you are capable before you know that it works. I guess, if you REALLY think about it, you ARE testing's just being tested under every condition and circumstance, including the only ones that would arise if you were a complete believer.

Believe me, you can know. You may call me closed-minded, but I think the opposite: I really want to know what is right and true, and I continue to walk down that road of searching. But, there is no sense in denying that which I already know along the way.

draco said...

Yes- and I love the helix! And I agree that you have to believe something before you can know it. But even the helix (Hebrews 11 and Alma 32 for those not familiar with Elder Bednar's helix analogy) doesn't offer undeniable evidence. For examle:

1)I learn the principle of tithing.
2)I tithe faithfully.
3)I prosper economically.

It's true, this could be considered strong evidence for believing in the principle of tithing. But can I say that I KNOW that tithing is a true principle based on this pattern? I can certainly doubt that my financial welfare is a direct consequent of me tithing, and I cannot prove undeniably to anyone else that my financial welfare is the consequence of tithing. Therefore I am only justified in saying that I have reasonable belief that tithing is a true principle. This is true for every spiritual "truth" that we encounter- even the existence of God.

Unfortunately, there is no escaping philosophical thinking. :) Even the helix is a philosophy. And how do we even know that the helix theory is true? If our "knowledge" is based on feelings or what any authority has said, then we cannot say that we KNOW for sure, for these sources can be doubted.

For the record, I do believe in God and in many other spiritual concepts and principles. I even have faith- that is, I act on what I believe. But belief and faith, no matter how strong they may be, do not equate knowledge (There is no such things as imperfect knowledge, by the way. We either know or we do not know). So we "know" that the church is true in the same way a Muslim "knows" that his religion is the only true faith or in the same way that I "know" that it will rain tomorrow.

And no, I don't think you're closed-minded at all, Skyhawk. :)

Peter said...

In a recent post I described a feeling of vindication in learning that a same gender relationship was good. How did I come to know it?

1. I learned the principle. I discovered that it was possible to be with other guys.
2. I put the principle into practice.
3. It made me happy. I was able to measure that happiness, and thus I received a "witness" indicating that it was right.

So can I say that I know that it is right for me? I say yes. For me, the formula works and is a legitimate way to know something.

That means, though, that another person could learn the principle of the Law of Chasity, keep the law in a differently gendered relationship, and receive a witness that it is true. They would then say that they know that homosexuality is wrong and that the law of chastity is true. Why is that so bad?

I'm ok letting them say what they know. And I'm ok saying that I know something that contradicts what they know (if that made sense). It would be unfair for me to say that what I know is any less valid than what they know, and I'm not willing to give up knowing what I know. So lets all know and let know.

Skyhawk said...

I'm glad you don't think I'm closed-minded...I'm sure some people do.

Tithing analogy: Very good logic and point. Paying tithing won't give you that tangible evidence referred to in your blog. It will make a good case, but that nonetheless is intangible, refutable evidence.

However, the knowledge I refer to is something that I would consider to be one of my greatest desires, and I am a long way from achieving this goal. I also think it's the same knowledge you are referring to, and the same knowledge you have desired for a long time. And there's only one way to get that.

It is the sure knowledge that this gospel is the full and complete truth. This is physical, tangible evidence (which is very, very REAL, physical and tangible) that only comes to those who prepare themselves and believe first, then act upon that belief without failing or faltering. It is the same knowledge given to John the Revelator, which in turn is given to us in 1 John 3. As a matter of fact, it was given to all the apostles in John 14. And it is promised to us as well, not just those of apostolic nature.

Of course, we know that this also can be denied...we have all studied it, and some of us have witnessed it firsthand. But there does come a point that even with physical evidence, a person simply has to make the choice.

And, yeah, we've had this conversation before.

draco said...

You know that it made you happy, but given that evidence you only believe that it was right, that is, if your idea of rightness is based on some spiritual notion. I guess it really depends on what you mean by "right" (wink wink).

Ultimately, I think it would be more accurate to say "believe and let believe."

It is impossible for two people to KNOW two contradicting ideas because that implies two opposing realities. It IS possible for two people to BELIEVE two contradicting ideas.

draco said...

Spot on, Skyhawk :) It all comes down to faith.

Peter said...

"It is impossible for two people to KNOW two contradicting ideas because that implies two opposing realities."

You're the philosophy expert, so I'm curious, has anyone ever discussed the possibility of multiple realities before? It's a concept that makes my head spin, but maybe someone more intelligent than I has been able to theorize and legitimicize some sort of mulit-reality world.

I may not be able to legitimicize it, but I am ok letting there be two conflicting truths. (and yes, I realize that legitimicize is not a word, but you have to admit it sounds cool)

biggins said...

I didn't pay enough attention in my philosophy class last semester (the only one I've ever taken) so maybe there are some good answers to this question, but is it really possible to ever know anything in the sense that "one has evidence such that the truth of something is an indefectible certainty. In other words, there can be no doubt whatsoever and there must be undeniable proof."? Are there any examples of anyone knowing anything under this definition? It seems like it might just be too strict a standard to hold knowledge to.

Neal said...


I would say yes, if more than one person experienced that truth at the same time. For example, when Peter James and John restored the Priesthood to Joseph and Oliver, they both knew with absolute certainty the truth of many Gospel principles (i.e. life after death, the mission and atonement of Christ, the reality that the Church was being restored as promised, etc.) They could not deny or doubt what they had experienced because they had experienced it together. They knew with a perfect knowledge at that point. This is called "The Law of Witnesses", as it says "out of the mouths or two or three witnesses shall every word be established".

Its true that the rest of us must have faith that the experience they describe is true, but they themselves KNEW. Experiences like that are not limited to Church founders, and can and do happen to regular folk like us.



draco said...

Good question, biggins! It depends on if you're an empiricist, an idealist, or (more extremely) a solipsist (there are a variety of other philosophical perspectives of knowledge as well). I'll just address solipsism since it is perhaps the most limiting. A solipsist would say that the only thing that is knowable with undeniable certainty is the phenomenon of consciousness. One cannot know if anything exists outside of himself or if he himself even exists. All ideas are based on reasonable belief rather than knowledge. But like I said, that's a pretty extreme view and I don't want to go into all the details of why someone would be a solipsist.

Most people are empiricists- they define knowledge from their sensory perceptions. But beyond that, this knowledge has to be provable to other people. This is where, as Neal mentions, the law of witnesses comes in. If Joseph and Oliver truly witnessed what they say that they witnessed, then they indeed KNEW (empirically speaking). However, since they cannot prove to us that Peter, James, and John actually appeared to them, we cannot know for ourselves- we can only trust their account. In other words, we can only have faith or reasonable belief.

Further, we can only have faith or believe that such experiences can happen to regular folk like us because we ourselves have not yet had such an undeniable experience and no one who claims to have had one can offer proof of their experience.

I know that this all might sound anti-testimony and maybe even anti-religion, but those are not the implications that I draw from these arguments. Rather, it helps me to better understand the importance of faith- a choice to believe or even just a hope for something that we cannot perfectly know and understand. Faith is beautiful; it shows courage, humility, and a desire to make the most of this life.

Neal said...

I live your words, Draco! Beautifully said.

biggins said...

I thought this post at Times and Seasons had some interesting stuff to say on this question, especially the penultimate paragraph:

draco said...

Oh I believe that people believe that they know that it's true- but that doesn't mean that they really know- they just can't help believing and then they call it knowing.