What do you know?

April 27, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 5:51 pm   Category: Personal Revelation

There have been a couple of interesting discussions going on recently about what we can know or not spiritually and the hypothetical possibility we could be deceived about our faith. I like this topic. And since today is my birthday, I think we should talk about it. (You must obey the birthday boy after all).

First, Dave (bless his ecumenical heart) took the increasingly popular position that claiming that one “knows” the Church or Book of Mormon is true (or that Jesus is the Christ or that Joseph Smith is a prophet or that God lives) is an arrogant thing to say. He and many others prefer to simply say we have faith in those things. They ask: After all, isn’t that more accurate? Rusty posted on what he would do or feel if he discovered he had been deceived all this time about the church and it was all made up.

My question is: What can we say we know? Can I say I know who my genetic parents are? Of course I can. My earliest memories are with them. They tell me I am their son. I look and sound an awful lot like them. But then again… Maybe I have been deceived. Maybe they are really my Aunt and Uncle who adopted me when I was a newborn… I look and sound like my aunts and uncles somewhat too. How can I really know they are my genetic parents? I could get genetic tests done but how would I know if there was a conspiracy going on and the results were doctored? Am I being presumptuous when I say I know who my parents are? Perhaps I should just say I believe I know who my genetic parents are or that I have faith concerning who they are instead?

So how about this faith/knowledge I have in God and the scriptures and his ancient and modern prophets? What do I base that on? Well, I spoke with God and He spoke back to me. I was undeniably communicated with by an invisible Divine being outside of me. I felt/heard undeniable messages and power and love from that Divine source/being. I know what I felt. I know what I learned. Not only that but I have repeatedly heard/felt that voice/power in my life. So the upshot for me is that I personally know that God lives. Not only that but part of what was communicated to me was that I can trust with surety what God tell me to be true. Because of that I now say I know Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was a prophet, the Book of Mormon and other scriptures are true, etc. The key is that because of this dialogue I have had with deity I know those things are true in a more sure way than I know who my own parents are. I’m guessing many of you also know these things with much more surety than you “know” George Washington was once a president of the U.S. or what you real given name was, etc.

Of course the next question is why is it that some people can claim to hear God talking to them and others can’t hear it. To answer that I recommend you check out my recent post called Ears. The post points out that some people can hear and discern things in music that are completely indiscernible to many others. The aural facts are there but not all can hear them. So it is with hearing God. But we can train our physical ears and begin to hear things that we were deaf to before. So it is with our spiritual ears. For those with trained musical ears, when they hear something out of tune they know it is out of tune.

So it is with Spiritual ears; when you know, you know.


  1. Let me return the favor, Geoff, by blessing your faithful heart. I’m not sure I phrased things quite as bluntly as you summarized it above, but my general point is that we too easily dismiss the faith claims or prayer experience of other Christians. Maybe your composite term faith/knowledge is a useful compromise that covers, in a gentle way, the whole range of conviction that various believers develop.

    Comment by Dave — April 27, 2005 @ 11:05 pm

  2. This issue fascinates me as well. I am especially intrigued as to why we should expect anyone to test out our religion when they probably feel it is unnecessary, while this is precisely our reasoning for not trying out their religion. But I am a novice and will shutup and listen to the adults for now. Happy birthday!

    Comment by Benjamin K — April 27, 2005 @ 11:39 pm

  3. Thanks Dave,

    I think you are right that part of the problem is with semantics. “Knowing” as a result of revelation from God is certainly not something we Mormons claim exclusivity on — quite the contrary in fact. We rely on the ability of others to know truth from God in all of our missionary efforts. I think the basic message of missionaries is: We know this is true because God knows this is true and he told us. If you really seek, God will tell you and you will know whether it is true or not. But since those of other faiths like the term “faith” in lieu of our term knowledge “perhaps” the best approach is to call it faith/knowledge outside of our own circles to ensure clear communication. (I have always believed that effectively communicating religious concepts outside of our community must be related to the Gift of tongues actually. I think that must be a gift you have, Dave.)

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — April 28, 2005 @ 9:27 am

  4. Benjamin K,

    Great input. No need to keep opinions to yourself on these things. We may be the only ones willing to say anything.

    You bring up an interesting potential point. I think in most cases what people of diferent religions “know” is not a problem. What Mormons know and what those of other faiths know does not contradict. Both groups know that God lives, Jesus really is the Christ, the Bible is the word of God, keeping God’s commandments is the right thing to do etc. Those of Non-Christian faiths can know via revelation truths taught to them as well. The Mormon claim is that in addition to those things we also know that God has restored many other useful tools and principles through modern prophets. The hope is that we will believe all truth and reject all falsehood. For the most part the claims of what we actually know are completely harmonious with the knowledge claims of other religions. Sure, we reject many of the creedal details of many religions, but that is rarely the part that is held most dear spiritually to them anyway. When others investigate Mormonism we want to keep the baby (the pure truths) and dispose of the bathwater (the unnecessary man-made creedal add-ons).

    Of course it is not always that cut and dry. Some people feel that they have received direct revelation from God that contradicts the foundational parts we are certain God believes. For instance someone might feel that God told them to run from the Book of Mormon as a falsehood. In that hypothetical case I could imagine several reasons for the incongruence (based on what I have been clearly told by God).

    1. It was their spiritual ear failing them. The good news about this one is that God will reward all for their honest attempts to hear him. Whoever misreads the messages from him may miss some blessings but will be treated justly and mercifully by a loving God (that applies to us all).
    2. Additional truth really was not in the person’s best interests (yet). We are judged by what we know. If we can’t handle additional truth why would God want us to know them? For that same reason I shield my little children from all sorts of truth right now because they cannot deal with it yet.

    I think of these two because I think they apply to all of us on all new truths. Mormons are no different from anyone else in that regard.

    It may sound arrogant to say others are just wrong if they say God told them that the BoM is false, but this is a binary thing after all — either God did give us the BoM or He didn’t.

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — April 28, 2005 @ 10:00 am

  5. What can we say we know?

    Personally, I think we can say we “know” what we experiance. E.g., I know when I prayed about a certain thing, I fealt a certain way. I know that when I looked into my child’s eyes, I fealt a certain way. Some people may know that they had a dream or saw/heard certain things. The analyses of what we know results in our beliefs and theories.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 28, 2005 @ 11:38 am

  6. In my experience, many non-denominational Christians are relatively appalled at the idea of praying to know the truthfulness of something. I assume they view LDS testimony as something akin to, “if it feels good, it is right,” and hence as a very dangerous notion. If that is how they view it–that we assess truth based on our emotions–then I’m not surprised by their skepticism.

    Now, I don’t know if non-denominational Christians believe their testimonies are based purely on reason or not, but as I’ve pondered things, I’ve realized that a purely logical testimony is perhaps the most fallible. Along the lines of what J. Stapley has said, feelings that stem from an outside source are more-or-less undeniable. If I touch a hot stove, I feel little doubt that the burning sensation in my hand is really a construct of my own mind. However, if we rely only on reason to determine what is true, unless we are omniscient, we can never have certainty. There are simply too many variables, too many hypotheses for us to come up with. To think that we are knowledgeable enough to be absolutely foolproof in a rational assessment of something as grandiose as God is, in my opinion, ridiculous.

    This may not sound all that impressive, but it was something I feel I needed to realize at one point.

    Comment by Benjamin K — April 28, 2005 @ 12:23 pm

  7. Great comment in #2 Benjamin.

    During the fall quarter a couple of months ago the institute had me teach an introduction to Mormonism class designed for non-members. Can you imagine them saying choose whatever text you want and go with it? ME? Anyways, the class was actually quite the success. We eventually had about 10 non-members attending every class turning in homework and everything.

    During the class on faith we really got into the differences which exist between having faith, excercizing faith and knowing. We basically acknowledged that faith in the scriptures is more often than not defined as belief, nothing more, nothing less. When we say faith now (following the tradition of Talmage) we really mean “excercizing belief” or “excercizing faith.”

    One person in the class eventually defined the difference between faith and knowledge as “faith means that ther is still doubt, however small.” I fully agree with that, regardless of the statments that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time.

    Later on in the class I said I was going to read a number of way in which we MIGHT know. Raise your hands when you think that you would know something.

    1. We are told so.
    2. We have hunch.
    3. We feel good.
    4. We have a dream.
    5. We sense an inner voice.
    6. We actually hear an audible voice.
    7. We see a vision.
    8. We actually touch Christ’s hands like Thomas.

    Of course even then we can’t be absolutely sure that we aren’t imagining it all, but there is no reason for doubting. Once we get down here at the bottom of the list we are talking about “perfect knowledge” as described in the scriptures.

    My Sunstone 2005 post deals with a lot of these issues as well.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — April 28, 2005 @ 1:52 pm

  8. I “know” that I’ve have overwhemling feelings of love/joy/happiness on several occasions while I’ve read the BoM. I have no clue whether the BoM is ‘true’, because I don’t know how to define true.

    Is True (1. Each prophet faithfully recorded the events the Lord wanted) AND (2. Mormom faithfully edited the events the Lord wanted) AND (3. Moroni placed the plates in the ground and revealed them to Joseph) AND (4. Joseph faithfully translated each character) AND (5. All changes made to the BoM since Joseph are approved of the Lord)?

    Perhaps the BoM is “good enough” for the Lord’s purposes, but I believe, because God allows free will, the contents of the BoM would be different (but still good enough) if written by other prophets.

    Comment by Daylan Darby — April 28, 2005 @ 3:04 pm

  9. Wow, I just realized how bad my spelling was in my last comment. Sorry about that.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — April 28, 2005 @ 3:25 pm

  10. Nice comments all. I guess this kind of question inevitably leads down philosophical paths about what “knowing” something really means. The real question I was trying to get to is: When is it appropriate to say we know something? Or more specifically, is it inappropriate to say we know these spiritual things.

    So here is another thought exercise to try for those of you who (along with me) know the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Let’s say you met God and he told that only one of the following things you know is actually true:

    — The Book of Mormon is true ancient scripture vs. your biological parents are really your biological parents.

    I’d choose the Book of Mormon option.

    Why? Because the evidence wins out. God told me that the BoM was true but he never told me about my parents. I have encountered more irrefutable evidence from God about the BoM than I have about my biological parents. (Of course I never bothered to ask him about my parents…)

    So if I can say I know who my biological parents are without anyone second guessing me, why do we second guess each other when we talk about things we know via revelation?

    Maybe the answer is in how controversial a topic is… I suspect the more controversial the topic, the more people object to strong language like “I know”.

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — April 28, 2005 @ 3:49 pm

  11. “I have encountered more irrefutable evidence from God about the BoM than I have about my biological parents.”

    You are one messed up puppy.

    Your whole post is laden with the implicit insecurity of the historicity of the BofM.

    When spirituality requires a constant repetition of whether this artifact or that artifact is “true” is de facto evidence of its falsity.

    Lose your talismans and open your mind.

    Comment by Sean — April 29, 2005 @ 9:19 am

  12. You are one messed up puppy.

    Ha! It’s nice to meet you too, Sean.

    I’m glad I’ve at least ticked someone off. (If I’m not annoying anyone it is a sure sign I’m not speaking the truth boldly enough.)

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — April 29, 2005 @ 9:32 am

  13. I think “controversial” is the right answer, but two parts to it:

    1) What’s at stake. If the BoM is true, then the onus is on me act with that knowledge. If you say the BoM is true, then it lends some validity to that claim. Contrary, it matters nothing to me if your parents are your biological parents. (And it means very little to me if the people who raised me and claim to be my parents are actually my biological parents.) Since more is at stake, generalities are less valuable.

    2) Correlation. If you were to test if your parents are your biological parents, there is evidence: physical similarities, birth certificate, DNA testing, etc. Granted, it could all be a big conspiracy–but what’s the probability of that? (That is, (a) is there a compelling reason to falsify all that? (b) how many people are decievers, and can they all keep the secret? etc. ) With the BoM, though, there seems to be less correlation than with you/your parents. Then, throw in a measure of testing that essentially isn’t repeatable between people (“that feeling”), and it’s understandable why we should be more careful about the validity of the BoM than of our parents genes.

    Comment by Pris — April 29, 2005 @ 9:41 am

  14. Good points Pris.

    I think the problem is that not enough people do what is necessary to say “I know” one way or the other about these important and controversial spiritual things. For instance, I think all Christians ought to at least attempt to put the work in to improve their spiritual ears enough to receive irrefutable personal revelation that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Our scriptures tell us that such knowledge is one of the Gifts of God:

    To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. (D&C 46:13)

    True, when that Christian (regardless of denomination) receives the promised revelation and knows that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, professing such knowledge will offend non-Christians. But does that change what she knows? Does that mean she should be ashamed to reveal it? That is the point of the post — if we know something we need not be ashamed to reveal it even if it scandalizes a few others who don’t know or who hope it is not true.

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — April 29, 2005 @ 10:30 am

  15. I agree that you cannot really say that you KNOW that your parents are your biological parent unless you are tested. In this same sense you cannot know that God exists. You certainly believe it very strongly, but anybody can see where error could have crept into that conclusion. I do know that my parents raised me, be they my biological parents or not. I know it because it passes every epistemic test for knowledge short of full blown skepticism.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — July 26, 2005 @ 8:05 pm

  16. Actually, testing would not let me know either. How would I know if the tests results were doctored by this possible conspiracy? How do you know your memories are real and not false implants? Science fiction is full of stories of such things. How do you know they aren’t true? How do you know you’re not actually living in The Matrix? The answer is you don’t. You have faith in it all.

    My post is about the things that I believe I have the most evidence as truth as a result of soul-changing revelation. All other things follow that when it comes to “knowing”.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 26, 2005 @ 8:42 pm

  17. What if YOU did the test? I think this would definitely pass the necessary epistemic tests.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — July 27, 2005 @ 8:33 am

  18. Nope. (Though it would be getting closer I guess). Conspiracies can run very deep, you know. They could doctor the instruments. Any Sci-Fi film can tell you that. And the whole experience memory/past physical experience thing can be sketchy too — hence we get Nibley’s daughter and her accusations.

    Anyway, in my life the most real and un-forgeable knowledge I have is that seared into my soul by God himself. That is why the truth I learn through that method is top on my list of things I know.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 27, 2005 @ 8:45 am

  19. If you are going to be such a stickler then we can never know anything at all – full blowm skepticism. I like the quote (I forget who) that reality (what we can know) it that which still exists when we stop believing in it. Of course even this doesn’t stand up to full blown skepticism, but then again nothing does. It’s just that there is no good reason for believing in full blown skepticism.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — July 27, 2005 @ 8:56 am

  20. I am simply pointing these things out in response to your rather absolutists comments in that other thread:

    There are no degrees of knowing. There are of conviction, but not of knowing. And the scriptures, philosophers and common sense tell us that we have not received a perfect knowledge in the strictest sense without actual physical experience.

    You seem to have drawn a line about when you know something. My comments here challenge that line. The line between knowing and believing is not universally accepted and I don’t accept the line you proposed in that comment.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 27, 2005 @ 1:23 pm

  21. You are right about my comment to a very large degree. A perfect knowledge, which is how I define 100% surety, has no doubt in it. This, I assume doesn’t take into account the “matrix” scenarion, but I don’t Moroni had that kind of thing in mind when he said it. I guess a perfect knowledge is acheived when one experiences the emotions, hunches, hearing with the ears, seeing with eyes and touching with hands all at once. Aside from the matrix scenario or flat out lunacy this is a good of knowledge as one can get.

    Of course, I suppose (and this is your point I imagine) that there is such a thing as an imperfect knowledge. This is not 100% surety and I would claim is any information gained by anything short seeing, hearing and touching something. (I assume I don’t need emotions and hunches to know that there really is a keyboard under my fingers right now.) I suggest that the varying degrees of imperfect knowledge are really degrees of conviction, conviction being a strong form of faith. We simply say “I know” as (a sometimes abusive) short-hand for this.

    If we really know something then it is impossible that it is wrong. Not that we feel it impossible to be wrong, but that it really is absolutely impossible for it to be wrong. Given this view, then we know very little.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — July 27, 2005 @ 3:30 pm

  22. Indeed!

    And as such, most of us draw our own line where we feel comfortable saying “I know” something. The point I was making in this post is that I have found the “knowledge” I have received as a result of personal revelatory experiences to be the most reliable in my life so I place that on the knowledge side of the line — so much so that I am more confident in it than I am of commonly believed historical facts or even my own name or parentage. It is sort of a ranking of beliefs/knowledge I guess.

    (BTW — There are some things I feel comfortable saying I know and lots of others I believe as a result of those anchor things. I have never really catalogued the differences, though. )

    Comment by Geoff J — July 27, 2005 @ 3:42 pm

  23. Now this I could accept, however, it would seem that this “knowledge” falls short of 100%. Maybe 95%?

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — July 27, 2005 @ 4:05 pm

  24. Ha! I’m assuming anything that crosses that line I get to call a personal 100%. Maybe that is different than a Universal/absolute 100% though…

    Comment by Geoff J — July 27, 2005 @ 4:22 pm

  25. There’s the catch! How can something be above 100%? Of course numbers are purely arbitrary, but I would put the line when people say they know at about 90% give or take a few.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — July 27, 2005 @ 4:33 pm

  26. There’s a set of ideas from probability theory that can help give some structure to this conversation. The numbers with respect to confidence of belief in this framework aren’t arbitrary at all. It’s called Bayesian statistics, and, in combination with utility theory from economics, it can help us structure this discussion.

    The basic mechanism here has to do with what kind of a bet would seem fair to a person. (We won’t actually do the bets, we’re Mormon. But I will ask what seems fair.) A fully rational individual judges bets by the expected value formula; the value of each outcome is multiplied by its probability. If the expected value of winning is greater than the expected value of losing, then the bet seems fair–actually, more than fair. So checking whether a bet seems fair is a good way of checking what your belief score in a particular proposition is.

    A belief of 1.0, or 100% means that there is no possibility of the other alternative being true. So let’s consider the following bet. A) If the Book of Mormon is a genuine ancient history, then I pay you a dollar. B) If the Book of Mormon is not a genuine ancient history, then you agree to give up your exaltation.

    Let’s use dollars as our utility unit for analyzing this bet. So the payoff from outcome A is +1. The payoff for outcome B is some immense negative number–possibly negative infinity. For present purposes, let’s rather lamely stipulate that this payoff is actually -100,000,000,000,000.

    If your belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is actually 1.0, what is the expected utility of this bet? It is 1.0 * 1 – 0 * 100,000,000,000,000 = 1. So you would definitely take the bet and happily look forward to spending your free $1 in the next life.

    What if your confidence in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is instead only 0.99? Then the expected utility of the bet is 0.99 * 1 – 0.01 * 100,000,000,000,000 = -999,999,999,999.01. This small change in belief would be enough to make you turn this down as a sucker bet.

    Altering the stakes appropriately, such hypothetical bets can help you determine your actual level of belief in a given proposition, such as Book of Mormon historicity. This gives us belief numbers that have a genuine philosophical and mathematical foundation.

    That said, I am unsure how helpful it is to assign different terms to different degrees of belief. Maybe “knowledge” in one context has to be 0.98 and in another context it can be as low as .80. By the way, in Bayesian theory, the only way to get a belief of 1.0 is to witness an event that is literally impossible under any alternative hypothesis. As long as we have access to explanations such as insanity and hallucination, it seem unlikely to me that any mortal experience could ever produce a 1.0 belief level in the divine.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — July 28, 2005 @ 11:30 am