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How you can know the Church is true

Introduction

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we often say things like "I know that God lives," and "I know the church is true." Some people scoff at this, and say "How can you possibly know? You only believe." Some people who have studied a little (I stress "little") philosophy are especially dismissive. (The words "great and spacious building" come to mind.) But if you look a bit deeper into philosophy, you will see that it is perfectly accurate to say "I know."

In fact, we can know the church is true, with as much certainty, and probably more certainty, than we know anything.

Please note that this page is about WHETHER we can know something, not about WHAT we know.


Do feelings count as proof?

How would God talk to us?

It makes sense that God would provide evidence of all kinds, including feelings. Why should he limit his methods?

What about mistaking emotions for answers?

Feelings are like noises. Noises or feelings on their own mean nothing. But the right kinds of noises in the right context can form words. So it is with feelings. For example:

Be careful how you interpret feelings!

When we learn something and then feel good, it is easy to conclude that God approves of what we have learned. But be careful.

For all these reasons, it is possible for be misled, to feel we have a testimony of different, conflicting ideas. We need to approach feelings, as everything else, with wisdom and patience.

What is knowledge?

So, the ideas make sense, we pray about them, we get good feelings, and we are careful to avoid the traps identified above. Does this now constitute knowledge?

The study of knowledge is called Epistemology (Greek episteme, "knowledge"; logos, "theory"). (The philosophical summaries on this page are largely based on Encarta, 1995.) Epistemology is concerned with:

  1. The definition of knowledge and related concepts,
  2. The sources and criteria of knowledge,
  3. The kinds of knowledge possible
  4. The degree to which each is certain,
  5. And the exact relation between the one who knows and the object known.

The big question here is - how certain can we be about our beliefs?

The theme of this page is devoted to the ideas of the great philosophers, and how they relate to knowledge of the restored gospel.


The Great Philosophers

The Sophists

In the 5th century BC, a leading Sophist, Gorgias, argued that nothing really exists, that if anything did exist it could not be known, and that if knowledge were possible, it could not be communicated.

Response:
If this is true, then our only hope is God. God has power to understand everything, he is able to link all living things, and he can understand, adapt to, and communicate directly with, our individual thoughts and feelings. If you have experience of this, then you are able to break free from the restrictions identified by Gorgias. You can therefore have access to knowledge.

Another prominent Sophist, Protagoras, maintained that no person's opinions can be said to be more correct than another's, because each is the sole judge of his or her own experience.

Response:
Note that this does not mean all ideas are equal, only that we (as mortals) cannot judge another. However, God can judge us because he has access to (and understanding of) our thoughts. I can have knowledge of God through my own experience, and thus I can have knowledge of right and wrong.

Plato

Plato tried to answer the Sophists. He postulated the existence of a world of unchanging and invisible forms, or ideas, about which it is possible to have exact and certain knowledge. The things one sees and touches, he maintained, are imperfect copies of the pure forms studied in mathematics and philosophy. Accordingly, only the abstract reasoning of these disciplines yields genuine knowledge, whereas reliance on sense perception produces vague and inconsistent opinions. He concluded that philosophical contemplation of the unseen world of forms is the highest goal of human life.

Response:
If the pure forms of mathematics and logic are taken to a vastly more complex scale, they lead to the laws of fundamental physics and the inescapable facts of human behavior - in other words, the basis for all human experience. God understands these, just as a mathematician understands algebra.

When God gives us revelation, he is in effect giving us a tiny glimpse of the ultimate abstract reasoning, adapted to our limited understanding. In the same way, when a physicist takes a measurement in the real world, he is gaining a tiny glimpse of the ultimate abstract laws, according to his/her limited understanding.

So, just as Plato can have knowledge of mathematics insofar as he understands it, so you or I can have knowledge of heaven , insofar as we understand it.

Aristotle

Aristotle agreed about the abstract, but maintained that almost all knowledge is derived from experience. Careful observation and strict adherence to the rules of logic, which were first set down in systematic form by Aristotle, would help guard against the pitfalls the Sophists had exposed.

Response:
I agree! Prayers are answered. God's commandments work. This is my direct experience, as interpreted in the light of reason.

Stoics and Epicureans

The Stoic and Epicurean schools agreed with Aristotle that knowledge originates in sense perception, but against both Aristotle and Plato they maintained that philosophy is to be valued as a practical guide to life, rather than as an end in itself.

Response:
There is nothing more practical than the teachings of the gospel: the route to a better life.

Aquinas

The Scholastic philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in regarding perception as the starting point and logic as the intellectual procedure for arriving at reliable knowledge of nature, but he considered faith in scriptural authority as the main source of religious belief.

Response:
He was right to an extent - but the authority of scripture is not in the written word, but in personal testimony, from personal experience. Hence Aquinas and Aristotle do not fundamentally disagree. They both lead to the same knowledge - that God lives!

Rationalists

For the rationalists (e.g. Rene Descartes), the main source and final test of knowledge was deductive reasoning based on self-evident principles, or axioms.

Response:
This also leads us to a knowledge of God. See
the page on logic for details.

Empiricists

For the empiricists (beginning with Francis Bacon and John Locke), the main source and final test of knowledge was sense perception.

Bacon inaugurated the new era of modern science by criticizing the medieval reliance on tradition and authority and also by setting down new rules of scientific method, including the first set of rules of inductive logic ever formulated.

Locke concluded that one cannot have absolutely certain knowledge of the physical world.

Response:
This is the basis of religious belief. Our senses - what we see (that scriptural promises are fulfilled), hear (the word of God, which makes so much sense), and touch (the love of others), all indicates that God is real. But the most powerful senses are our internal senses - the feelings we get from moment to moment from our bodies and brains. These also provide evidence (e.g. we feel happy, unhappy, peaceful, pained, etc.). Thus we have knowledge of God.

And if knowledge of the physical world is indeed limited, then by the extra evidence of how God sees things, we have potentially more certain knowledge than other people. (This knowledge can, of course, be tested.)

Berkeley

The Irish philosopher George Berkeley agreed with Locke that knowledge comes through ideas, but he denied Locke's belief that a distinction can be made between ideas and objects.

Response:
Then the greatest knowledge comes from the greatest ideas. No ideas are more profound, useful, or far-reaching than ideas revealed by God.

Hume

David Hume continued the empiricist tradition, but he did not accept Berkeley's conclusion that knowledge was of ideas only. He divided all knowledge into relations of ideas (mathematics and logic, exact and certain but provides no information about the world) and knowledge of matters of fact (sense perception).

Since no logical connection exists between any given cause and its effect, one cannot hope to know any future matter of fact with certainty. Thus, the most reliable laws of science might not remain true.

Response:
In contrast, the promises of God are certain. For example, prophecies are fulfilled and righteousness leads to happiness. Thus, it follows logically that when a perfect and all-powerful being says he will do something, he will do it. If Hume is right, then religious knowledge is more certain than scientific knowledge.

Kant

Immanuel Kant agreed with the rationalists that one can have exact and certain knowledge, but he followed the empiricists in holding that such knowledge is more informative about the structure of thought than about the world outside of thought. He distinguished three kinds of knowledge:

Since the time of Kant, one of the most frequently argued questions in philosophy has been whether or not such a thing as synthetic a priori knowledge really exists.

Response:
I have a concept of God. I have experience of God. That experience leads me to conclude that certain other things are also true (e.g. the nature of God and his work). So I have all three kinds of knowledge.

Hegel

Hegel (19th century) inspired an interest in a historical approach to knowledge.

Response:
This is a very fruitful field of study. History shows the hand of God at work, and the success of principles that are revealed by God. This is the way that the Bible works - give us the history, and let us draw our own conclusions.

Pragmatism

The American school of pragmatism (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey) said all beliefs should be judged by their usefulness as rules for predicting experiences.

Response:
By this criterion, I have knowledge of God, because his teachings work! He gives reliable rules for national prosperity, personal happiness, and everything in between.

Phenomenalism

Epistemology in the 20th Century

Phenomenalists contended that the objects of knowledge are the same as the objects perceived.

Response:
Then, when Joseph Smith had his first vision it was not just a vision, but an actual visitation of God the Father and his son Jesus Christ.

Neorealists

Plato was a realist - he argued that there was a real world (of pure forms) independent of observation. Neorealists go further, and argue that the real world does indeed exist independently of ourselves, and can be discovered through observation.

Response:
Yes, and we must not forget the physical reality of angels and of heaven. This is the LDS view, that a real and physical heaven does indeed exist. We believe in it mainly because certain prophets have actually met angels. (See Moroni 7:22-32.)

Critical realists

Critical realists (in between Phenomenalists and Neorealists) held that although one perceives only sensory data such as colors and sounds, these stand for physical objects and provide knowledge thereof. Since we can gain clues about an external reality, we can still improve our knowledge, step by step.

Response:
This is what the scriptures teach:
1 Corinthians 13:12 -
"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." Isaiah 28:9-10 - "Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little"

This is the only kind of knowledge possible, and this is the kind of knowledge we have.

Logical empiricism (or logical positivism)

Wittgenstein said that there is only one kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge. Much that had passed for philosophy was neither true nor false but literally meaningless.

Response:
Just as the scriptures teach - the wisdom of men is foolishness. The restored gospel is not just the result of logical speculation, but it is real knowledge, a form of scientific knowledge: Is the result of experience, practice, and millions of people "experimenting on the word" (see Alma 32).

Linguistic analysis

Linguistic analysts undertake to examine the actual way key epistemological terms are used—terms such as knowledge, perception, and probability—and to formulate definitive rules for their use in order to avoid verbal confusion.

Response:
This is probably the key to the whole matter. People use words like "truth" and "belief" without explaining what they mean. In my experience, disagreements often come down to not talking about quite the same thing. That is the purpose of this web page: to show the different definitions of knowledge, and thus, in what way we can say we have knowledge of God.

Austin

John Langshaw Austin (a linguistic analyst) argued that to say a statement was true added nothing to the statement except a promise by the speaker or writer. Austin does not consider truth a quality or property attaching to statements or utterances.

Response:
At first glance it seems as if Austin is arguing that everything is meaningless, but not so. To say "this is true" can imply that "it passes every conceivable test," or "every detail of it is true," or "every interpretation of it is true." These ideas are difficult or impossible to prove. It makes more sense to make modest, testable claims.

Hence when, I say that the church is true, I mean that it passes every worthwhile test so far devised. By "the church" I mean the official teachings of the church (those in the scriptures and spoken at General Conference, for example). By "passes the test" I mean the church comes out as strong as or stronger than any alternative system of teachings. By "worthwhile" I mean tests of issues that affect human needs.

The bottom line:

All the problems of epistemology are solved when we realise that God can talk to us.

 

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