I am not an epistemological philosopher, but I wish I were. How do we know? What can we know? What can be considered valid evidence upon which we can with assurance construct a narrative of truth?
For Mormonism, spiritual knowledge is a critical component of our very identity. Perhaps unique among Christian denominations, we claim to actually know things. And not just anything—we claim to know the very basis of existence for the entire human family. Our so-called Sunday School answers are startling in their audacity. We definitively state we know where we came from, why we are here, and what happens when we die. And we do not just mean to know these things in some general, theological basis; the foundation of Mormonism is its claim that we can individually and uniquely know these things. So how exactly do we know these things?
In my experience, as members of the church we base our claim to knowledge on one of the following:
- Everybody I know says they know, so it must be true. We accept the statements of knowledge from others we trust at face value. We accept knowledge as presented because it is presented as knowledge.
- I feel comfortable and happy when I act in conformity with what has been presented to me as truth, so it must be true. We accept our current understanding of truth when life is good; our worldview is justified by the fact that life is going well and vice versa.
- I feel good when I make public statements affirming that I know. The so-called “fake it till you make it” model, this focuses on the feelings during the moment of affirming truths. If you feel good and empowered and ennobled while making a certain claim, it must be true.
- I have had a consistently positive upbringing within my epistemological framework, so I know it is true. This is the perception that gradually and over time, truth has been instilled through regular and consistent adherence to the prescribed worldview. No major revelation or discrete experience but rather the evidence gleaned from a lifetime of consistency is what is necessary.
- I have witnessed a remarkable experience that cannot be explained through traditional, rational methodology and that reinforces what I was taught to be true, so I know it is true: From something as simple as finding car keys after praying to witnessing a miraculous healing following a priesthood blessing, these are milestone experiences that demonstrate that the previously held beliefs are anchored in truth.
- I have had a transcendent experience with the Divine. I can never properly describe it to others, but I simply know. We generally do not hear about these experiences as frequently, but we know they exist, whispered perhaps in hushed tones in intimate gatherings. These are the out-of-body, witnessing the Savior, being brought into God’s very presence type of experiences.
These methods of obtaining truth all suffer from one pernicious, irreconcilable, and fatal flaw: confirmation bias. Simply put, the brain is wired to readily accept information that conforms to preexisting viewpoints and to discount information that does not. It is an unavoidable fact of human existence: we seek to confirm what we already believe. Study after study demonstrates conclusively this phenomenon in experimental and real world examples (see here for a good overview of the literature). Unfortunately, I fear confirmation bias permeates how we speak of knowledge within Mormonism, yet we refuse to acknowledge it lest our foundation for knowledge erodes in the ensuing onslaught.
My testimony and belief in the church has been a function of all the epistemological frameworks discussed above. Accordingly, my theological struggles and faith crisis has largely been driven by recognizing my own confirmation biases in each case. For example:
- Everybody I know says they know, so it must be true. So what happens when I meet lots of people who say they know it isn’t true? What happens when a good friend prays and is told that the Book of Mormon is not true? What happens when those who once said they knew it was true now say they were deceived all along? As I meet more and more of the 99.90169% of the world that does not share my faith and my worldview, the diversities of opinion, nay knowledge, reduce this premise to shambles.
- I feel comfortable and happy when I act in conformity with what has been presented to me as truth, so it must be true. What about all those times when I was not happy? Mormons are not immune to the difficulties of life, we just have a unique ability to discount the bad and emphasize the positive. What we generally say to counter doubt during periods of unhappiness and suffering is that some of it is a result of disobedience and some of it is meant to test us to see if we will remain faithful. (How we distinguish between these two is not entirely clear.) But even with this caveat, the Protestant Ethic remains strong within our cultural DNA. Wealthy, happy, successful families within the church are evidence of our adherence to truth. So what happens when I see others who are happy, successful, content, and comfortable without my truth claims? Even more disconcerting, what happens when I am happier when I do not live in conformance with what has been presented to me as truth?
- I feel good when I make public statements affirming that I know. What happens when I begin to feel awful and like a hypocrite when making such claims? What happens when others talk about how they felt good making public statements directly contrary to my faith? Passion for a subject can certainly invoke lots of feelings, and I trust less and less my emotions and feelings in public settings. There are simply too many cultural, emotional, and egotistical variables at hand in such a setting.
- I have had a consistently positive upbringing within my epistemological framework, so I know it is true. But we all downplay the negative moments, we forget them, we ignore them. We forget any questions or doubts we had growing up, interpreting them as moments of weakness, anomalies when compared with faith-affirming moments. We forget and downplay moments of shame, fear, self-loathing, and unhappiness. My missionary journal reads like a hagiographical account of a remarkable saint from the middle ages, but my memories—many too potent to be forgotten—recount a very different experience at times.
- I have witnessed a remarkable experience that cannot be explained through traditional, rational methodology and that reinforces what I was taught to be true, so I know it is true. Perhaps nowhere is confirmation bias more potent than here. I have participated in miraculous priesthood healings and in failed priesthood healings. The feelings, the words, the emotions, the experiences were nearly identical. So why do I not write down or record the failed experiences? Why does God help one family start their broken down car in the cold winter on a forgotten road but fail to assist another family in securing food so they won’t starve? I’m certain both prayed fervently and with great faith. Why do prayers sometimes work and sometimes not? Again, Mormonism has potent responses to these accusations: God’s ways are not our ways, everything works together for our good, not every prayer can be answered because we must grow by faith. And at some level, I really do accept these concepts. But surely then, if we are going to discount all the faith-diminishing stories as beyond our comprehension, then we cannot possibly use stories from the other side of the coin as a rational basis for knowledge!
- I have had a transcendent experience with the Divine. I can never properly describe it to others, but I simply know. Here I tread carefully. Because I know I have had experiences with the Divine. I simply know…. But I don’t quite know what it is exactly that I know. I know there is a God through subjective, personal experiences that I cherish and cannot properly communicate to others. But is it a God as my culture and upbringing lead me to envision? Is God constrained by my own preconceived notions? D&C 50:12 suggests that he reasons with us so that we may understand; but my own understanding is flawed. I have had profound experiences, prophetic inspiration if you will, that have not been born out by later events. I suppose one LDS strategy is to ascribe such experiences to the Devil and his minions, but such an argument destroys what remaining confidence I have in my ability to properly distinguish the Divine at all. For indeed that is the worst of all confirmation bias loops: anything that reinforces your preconceived notions is truth and anything that presents a different worldview is false and of the devil. It is a perfectly circular argument that ingeniously prevents any new information from ever influencing perspectives and knowledge.
Where does this leave me? I know of God. I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has truth. The church teaches true and correct principles frequently and with great effect. I believe Joseph Smith had remarkable revelatory experiences. I will serve those around me, operate on the premise of faith, and support the church.
But I cannot do more than believe in the church. I do not know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. I do not even know what true means in that context.
Because there is plenty of evidence on the other side of equation. We ignore that evidence to our collective and individual peril. I fear that our frequent and bold assertions of knowledge go too far and leave us feeling vulnerable to—rather than welcoming of—new and additional information:
- When we know “beyond a shadow of doubt” that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and his son Jesus Christ exactly as he described in 1842, how do we deal with the multiple other accounts from Joseph Smith himself that frequently contradict and complicate the narrative?
- When we “stand on our feet before you” to declare that we know that there is no substantive difference between the voice of God and the voice of the Prophets and apostles, how do we respond to accounts of major disagreements among the Brethren on substantive and theological issues? How do we deal with the very mortal failings of leadership within all levels of the church?
- When we “testify with every fiber of our being” that the church is true, the only strait and narrow path back to God, that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on the face of the earth, including in all historical and scientific fields, how do we process new information that may contradict or refute these assertions?
As one begins to be aware of such, it is startling how much evidence really can be brought to bear against the truth claims of the church. Now some may feel impelled to reject every related to the church the minute some conflicting information is presented and accepted. But this is just the other side of the confirmation bias equation: discovering faults everywhere that reinforce the sense that the church or leaders or whatever is a fraud.
So I want to believe, but for better or worse I am acutely alert to the danger of confirmation bias. My belief is a choice, a choice not entirely founded on substantive information or truth. Yes, I have had experiences with the Divine; I recognize them and acknowledge their significance. At the same time, I do not quite understand them. I will hold fast to what I have been given, as Elder Holland recently said. But I now readily acknowledge that there is much, indeed much more than I previously envisioned, that I do not know.
Yes, recognizing confirmation bias undermines our confidence in our own ability to form definitive conclusions about anything. But is that necessarily a bad thing? While complete dogmatic confidence motivates remarkable exertions in defense of that truth, the downside is we are unable to progress upon receipt of new information. Awareness of confirmation bias is of course the first step. We can all question our own conclusions a little more, recognizing our inherent penchant to find evidence only when we want to see it. Let us be careful with the phrase “I know,” and perhaps focus more on faith, the first principle of the Gospel. And I will continue to search for a way to know without insisting that its inevitable shadow of doubt disappear.