On Evidence, Knowledge, and the Whims of the Heart

Continuing on the theme of the LDS testimony and how Mormons come to “know” some things that science can’t confirm, I’ll address a common misunderstanding. Mormon “knowledge,” some say, is based on the whims of the heart. It’s entirely subjective. What the Mormon claims to be knowledge about morality, for example, has no basis except feeling. When others seek that same knowledge by prayer, they may come to completely different conclusions, so how can Mormon knowledge be trusted? It lacks a reproducible, trustworthy standard. (If there’s a better way to express this objection, let me know.)

However, we are not left on our own to the whims of the heart without evidence or standards. There are four factors to consider here:

  1. On key issues of morality and doctrine, we have been given standards to rely on in the form of God’s statements in the scriptures and through modern revelation to living prophets. While these are not infallible standards and frequently leave room for debate, they generally provide clear and inspired guidelines for us. Of course, ideally our conscience and our growing sense of personal morality or the whisperings of the Spirit in our life agrees with the standards we are given, but that is a topic for another post someday. For now, let me state that whether we should feel responsible to heed the standards and teachings of the Church depends in large part on whether the Restoration was indeed a divine event, which leads us to the next point:
  2. We have a remarkable tool to assist us in both intellectually and spiritually evaluating the reality of the Restoration in the form of the Book of Mormon. We are challenged to put this book to the test and determine if it is a mortal fraud or the word of God in a process involving mental study, pondering, and prayer to obtain personal revelation. 
  3. Regarding the divinity of the Book of Mormon, God has not left us without serious evidence to move us to take it seriously and to help us overcome objections to it. This evidence includes the remarkable testimonies of many witnesses, not just to warm feelings but to encounters with real metal plates and even a real angel and the voice of God in 3 cases. There have been many other evidences of the Book of Mormon since that time, such as specific sites in the Arabian Peninsula that support details in the Book of Mormon in ways that Joseph could not have fabricated even if leading scholars had guided him, and other issues such as the discovery of chiasmus and other gems in the book itself. I believe these evidences are not meant to convert and will never be enough to convert, but are mercifully given to give us strength to continue moving forward. 
  4. As one explores the Gospel, the evidences and intellectual satisfaction isn’t just from the Book of Mormon (sometimes that comes last, if at all). There is a remarkably sound and logical worldview, compatible with a great deal of recent scholarship, regarding many basic claims of the Church. Scholarship into the ancient world and early Christianity can support claims of apostasy, of lost scripture, of ancient covenant making practices and other practices compatible with LDS teachings and temple worship, etc. The LDS story of God’s ancient pattern of continuing revelation through authorized prophets and apostles, lost through apostasy, and now restored, fits well with a knowledge of the Bible and history. The Restoration brings profound and intellectually satisfying knowledge about the scope of God’s salvation, the work for the dead, the relationship we all have as children of God, the relationship between man and God, the purpose of life, the purpose and eternal nature of families, the destiny of man, and so forth. Subjective? Yes. These truths resonate with my soul and with my expanding view of the world and the cosmos as I learn more. It truly is delicious and intellectually fulfilling. But I can’t prove it with a peer-reviewed publication. You have to be willing to move forward a step or to on your own to see if anything is there. 

Moving forward (or exercising a little faith and taking a step toward learning more) is the key, and the mind has to be part of that. Each human is different and will approach these matters with different needs, assumptions, and concerns, but there is a common core that can bring us to share what we dare to call knowledge of some of the aspects, not all, of our faith. This is usually a lengthy journey, though, with many factors involved. The journey includes seeing how the Gospel affects our lives, how prayer works, and how God works in our lives. It’s a combination of experience, of tangible results, and learning through the Spirit (yes unscientific, subjective, fuzzy learning from an unseen but masterful Tutor–the kind that can transform people into Saints, even if also scientists). 

Consider the journey of Arthur Henry King, a majestic human being whose life radiates a love of Shakespeare and of the greatest literature. Twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth, this erudite scholar of English literature was rarely impressed by what humans wrote, but when he read the testimony of Joseph Smith, he had an interesting intellectual and possibly spiritual experience as he pondered the words and the man. That was the beginning of his journey toward conversion. Read the story of Dr. Arthur Henry King’s reaction to the Joseph Smith History

Or returning to the issue of science and testimony, consider the journey of a real “rocket scientist,” an MIT astrophysicist, Dr. John S. Lewis (Jr.). Dr. Lewis, now Brother Lewis, is Professor Emeritus of Planetary Sciences and former Co-Director of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Arizona. He was previously a Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Recently, he was a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is one of the world’s coolest universities IMHO. He has written seventeen books, including undergraduate and graduate level texts and popular science books, and has authored over 150 scientific publications. In scientific lingo, this guy rocks. Now read the story of Dr. John Lewis at Mormon Scholars Testify. This is a man who grew up using his brain to explore the not just science but also questions of religion. He had come to doubt organized religion and ministers out for hire, but recognized that the Bible taught things like anointing and laying on of hands that were denigrated in modern times as things of the “primitive Church” no longer applicable today. Here is one excerpt, but please read the whole things and see his video testimony also:

The next Sunday afternoon the missionaries arrived. We hustled our children out of the room lest they be contaminated by these unproved proselyters. We sat down, Peg with her arms folded and a less than inviting look on her face, and I threw out a nearly equally cordial challenge: “I must warn you that we have a very negative view of organized religion. We are Christians, but we have come to the sad conclusion that there is no church out there that has any real authority or power. We fear that the true church was lost in the century or so after the death of Christ and the Apostles.” Much to our astonishment, the older missionary smiled back at me and said, “Have we got news for you!”

The next few weeks were an intense blizzard of activity. The missionaries visited us daily, usually staying for dinner. All the questions about religion that had been haunting us for years, polished by reading, among many others, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, the Popol Vuh, the Book of the Hopi, the Upanishads, the writings and lives of John of the Cross, Teresa de Avila, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Søren Kierkegaard, and the inspirational Christian works of C. S. Lewis, were aired. Usually the missionaries had a ready and satisfactory answer. Sometimes they confessed ignorance, went to study out the issue, and returned with answers. Never once did they shoot from the hip with unsatisfactory answers, as the Holy Spirit testified to us of their truthfulness. Here at last, in full integrity, was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ we had found in the Bible, trimmed of the inventions of uninspired men. All the purity of truth that pervades and underlies Christian belief was laid out as a seamless, clean, unblemished cloth. All the sectarian dross was washed away. Paul’s vision, in I Corinthians, of a single, united Church free of doctrinal contention alone remained. And the doctrinal foundation of that true church could only be known with certainty by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, as prescribed by the Epistle of James. Through that testimony the strength and integrity of Christian doctrine was restored to me, based on the firm foundation of the Bible and building a single coherent, harmonious Church upon that foundation, free of the divisive doctrinal disputes of the other churches I had studied. Biblical scholarship, however important, was an artifact of the intellect, rarely capable of resolving doctrinal disputes. Faith, by contrast, was the key to salvation; not just belief in anything, but belief in things not seen which are true – and the truth could be known spiritually. The intellectual and legalistic Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul that engulfed the Old Testament had been illuminated by the New Testament’s gift of the Holy Spirit, which threw light into the darkest corners of scriptural commentary. The Holy Spirit was truly a “guide for the perplexed” with greater authority than Maimonides.

Like I said, this scientist rocks. He gets it. He was finding intellectual and spiritual fulfillment in the bold and clear vision presented by the Restored Gospel. A lifetime of seeking, pondering, and studying prepared him to recognize the intellectual strength of our basic message. I have much to learn yet from him and his approach, and definitely need to catch up on my reading. He continues, addressing the issue of science and religion:

As a professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT, I was on the forefront of the exploration of the Solar System. Much of my work centered on the earliest history of the Solar System, essentially on the mechanics of creation. I was intimately familiar with the evidence, from the chronology of planetary formation through the geological history of Earth, the cratering record on the planets, the composition and evolution of their surfaces and interiors, and the relationships between ancient small bodies (asteroids and comets) and the planets. I was also familiar with the literature of “scientific creationism,” which I found to be appallingly bad, full of glaring factual blunders and astonishing lapses of logic. I found their personal interpretations of scripture to be indefensible in the face of overwhelming evidence. Their mindset seemed to be that science was the opposite of religion; that their interpretations of scripture were right and anyone who disagreed with them must be evil, intent on destroying religion. But the geological record is as much the work of God as the scriptures are. They together constitute two independent witnesses, satisfying the Old Testament requirement that two or more independent witnesses are required to attest to truth. That the two witnesses, science and scripture, should see different things is no surprise. After all, your own two eyes see different scenes; each eye sees things the other does not see, but by combining the witness of your two eyes you can see in depth, something neither eye can do alone. To assume that one witness is correct and the other is lying is to lose all perspective. It is to become half-blind. As the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin expressed it, “Science and religion are two complementary faces of one and the same underlying reality.”

I see no conflict between science and religion. I see many conflicts between the misunderstandings of science and the flawed interpretation of scripture of men who lack both scientific knowledge and guidance by the Holy Spirit. I invite any person who desires to strengthen his understanding and testimony of creation to study both the scientific and scriptural evidence prayerfully, with the goal of learning and understanding. Properly understood, this study will provide you with a rich and deep perspective. Science will tell you the when and where and how of creation; the scriptures will tell you who and why.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its long tradition of free inquiry and of individuals prayerfully testing every point of doctrine for themselves, is fully compatible with the scientific method. 

To that, I will say Amen! 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

6 thoughts on “On Evidence, Knowledge, and the Whims of the Heart

  1. When people seek existential comfort and moral guidance, they seem just as able to find it Pentecostalism or Islam as in Mormonism, yet if they're seeking answers to the timing of a solar transit of Mercury they can find it only in Einsteinian, not merely Newtonian, physics. One demonstrably works and the other doesn't. Religious matters are not so clear-cut. There's no historical progression, never any emerging consensus, because there's no external validation. Jeff, you keep saying there is such validation, but there isn't. The LDS method of external validation that you are extolling here completely lacks anything remotely resembling the control of external variables, and anyone interested in being honest here knows exactly how misleading experimental results can be in the absence of controls.

    My bigger point, Jeff, is that there do indeed seem to be importance differences between the kind of knowledge produced by science and that produced by prayer and testimony — differences whose significance you apparently hope to drown in torrents of irrelevant bluster. Rather than goad you into unleashing a flood of yet more cheap apologetics, I would ask you to do some higher-order reading and thinking. Is it too much to ask you to read some of the books I've suggested? Or to think a little more critically about the limitations of your own method? If the LDS method is so superior on questions of morality, then why, for example, didn't prayer and knowledge lead Brigham Young to do the right thing in response to the Church's greatest moral crisis (Mountain Meadows)? Why did he fail to do so simple a thing as conduct a full, honest investigation and bring the criminals to justice?

    Remember that one of the strengths of science is that scientists themselves are encouraged to disprove scientific hypotheses. The most powerful critiques of science come from within science itself. Who but scientists brought down Lysenko and exposed the Piltdown hoax? A scientist can honestly examine a scientific error or hoax and do so from within science itself. Einstein could critique Newton and remain a scientist. Yet where is the Mormon who can honestly critique Mountain Meadows and remain within the Church? One of the key elements of the scientific method, its relentless, built-in skepticism and self-criticism, is completely lacking in your church. Why is that? What are some of the problems with that? Can you think about these things honestly? Or is being Mormon basically one endless pep rally for the faith?

    — Eveningsun

  2. "Scholarship into the ancient world and early Christianity can support claims of apostasy…"

    Scholarship has failed to construct a Christian "ur-religion" which matches the LDS religion. There are parallel practices and teachings between Mormonism and various early Christian groups, but there is no single early Christian group which shares all of these parallels. For example, there are parallels between LDS teachings and what some call proto-orthodoxy (which logically must be considered proto-apostasy from an LDS POV, since the orthodox church is regarded as apostasy). There are also parallels with various gnostic groups, but all the scholarship into early Christianity fails to support the contention that there was one early Christian group from which all others sprang and which contains all the parallels that Mormons have with early Christianity. In other words, the LDS view of the great apostasy is not born out by scholarship.

  3. You're bringing up chiasmus again? Chiasmus is not proof of ancient Semitic provenance because it also occurs in the Doctrine and Covenants which does not claim to be a translation of an ancient Semitic work. I know, some Mormon physicists have a paper showing why chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants is likely to be accidental while chiasmus in the BoM isn't, but this really isn't what their paper showed. It only dealt with the hypothesis that chiasmus could be an accidental result of using repetitious elements.

    The bigger picture here is that in order to support the claim that personal revelation provides knowledge, you appeal to boilerplate apologetics about how the Book of Mormon couldn't be fabricated by Joseph Smith. What's the link between the two? Even if we stipulate that the Book of Mormon is an inspired work and actual history, this doesn't enable us to determine prospectively which of the ideas and/or feelings that pop into our head are true revelations from God and which are the products of our own minds. This is a dilemma that believing LDS are faced with all the time. Is that dream that I had about my grandson a warning from God or the product of my imagination? Is that good feeling I have about moving and taking a new job a revelation or simply my own wish? The most true-blue believing Mormon can't tell in advance. Even Joseph Smith apparently couldn't always tell later in life, which is remarkable given the highly specific and voluminous amount of revelation packed into the Book of Mormon. That's why personal revelation is a lousy way to ascertain propositional knowledge about the external world, allegations of fabulous successes of occasional prophets from the past notwithstanding.

    Is revelation a good way to ascertain moral knowledge, as you also assert? Morality comes from our instincts. If you want to call that revelation, then fine. There is broad agreement among most people about what these instincts dictate but also some degree of variation between different groups of people. In fact, it's very much like human biological characteristics in general.

    Do LDS prophets teach moral claims that are not also provided by the moral instincts of average Americans? They used to (e.g. polygamy). Now they basically teach a conservative American view of morality shared by people from a variety of faiths. Perhaps this is by revelation, but it isn't all that revealing.

  4. Eveningsun I would like to respond to your comment or question, "Yet where is the Mormon who can honestly critique Mountain Meadows and remain within the Church?"

    It shouldn't be too hard to find a Mormon who can critique a bunch of people that murdered innocent people and remain in the Church. I guess you could say I am one of many? Why do people bring up mountain meadows and act like it was ordered by the prophet? This act was carried out by a local group of people that acted on their own.

    Earlier in your comment you question the LDS way of confirmation by the Spirit. Why is it we must confirm our testimony within the bounds you have set?

  5. Bunker, I'm not acting like Mountain Meadows "was ordered by the prophet." I don't think it *was* ordered by the prophet. What you, despite your pretensions to honest critique, are failing to acknowledge is that the prophet was also a governor, and that *after* the massacre he had both a moral-religious and a political responsibility to use his considerable powers, as both a spiritual and secular leader, to investigate fully and vigorously and bring the perpetrators to justice. With the exception of the long-delayed, halfhearted, and largely unwilling prosecution of Lee, he never did so. The terrible problem of Young's career, and the single most significant key to his character, is the complete inadequacy of his response to the massacre, his shameful lack of commitment to justice. Faced with the greatest test of his moral leadership as both governor and prophet, this shamefully sectarian failed utterly, yet he is still revered by millions. I have yet to hear an active member of the Church (including you) give these simple facts their due consideration.

    — Eveningsun

  6. I find it amazing that you blame Young for lack of prosecution of Lee or other conspirators because of his position. He served as governor of Utah until April 1858. This would only allow 7 months for investigation since the incident occurred in September 1857. I cannot claim to know how long this sort of thing would take during a winter in Utah but I imagine weather could play a role. He was replaced by Governor Cumming. Governors at that time were appointed by the president of the US and would be for decades until elections were allowed for that purpose. Maybe when Utah became a state? So your claim that the simple facts were being ignored by us Mormon folk isn't entirely factual since Brigham Young didn't really hold that position for a sufficient time following the massacre to be effective. I wonder why the prosecution took so long under the federal government since they took up the investigation almost right after the massacres came to light . I imagine the Utah War and then the Civil War slowed the investigations quite a bit. Finally in 1874 nine men were indicted and only one was tried and finally executed, John D. Lee of course.
    Was this a travesty of justice? I believe so. Was it Brigham's fault? Don't think so. Did he have authority to investigate after losing the governors seat. No. His only authority remained in the Church.

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