Propositional Knowledge: Is there any other kind?

May 14, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 2:14 pm   Category: Personal Revelation

On a recent thread, RT made the following comment:

I think the Spirit rarely gives propositional knowledge; it instead gives experience and comfort. The Spirit primarily reveals God as a being, we get to know God and Jesus Christ through the Spirit, as the New Testament suggests — note that the phrase is know as in become acquainted with, not know about as in have propositional knowledge regarding. Knowing someone involves joint emotional experience and the development of empathy, not the acquisition of true sentences. The Spirit likewise is called the Comforter because we receive God’s love, compassion, and comfort through it. Again, none of these involves propositional knowledge. (RT in this comment)

RT asks us to imagine a scenario in which a person has feelings which are spiritually meaningful, but carry no content with respect to propositions. After some time and effort, I have been unable to imagine such a scenario.

The sticking point for me is that these feelings either mean something or they don’t. If they do mean something (which RT seems committed to), then the meaning can be stated in terms of propositions. For example, consider the proposition

(1) God exists.

Either the feelings of the spirit confirm this truth or they do not. Perhaps there is no God and the good feelings we associate with the spirit are explainable in some other way. It is an open question. Now, if the feelings of the spirit can be legitimately interpreted to support the proposition that God exists, then they do, in fact, convey propositional knowledge. RT seems committed to this when he says that “the Spirit primarily reveals God as a being.” That can be stated as a proposition. In fact, I can’t think of any knowledge which cannot be stated as, or be shown to rely on, propositions.

It does not stop there, however. If the feelings of the spirit are given for the purpose of helping us to know God in a genuine relationship with “joint emotional experience,” then they must convey more content than the mere existence of God. They must be teaching us something about the character of God, something about his attitude toward us, and even enough about Him that we can rely on him for somewhat grandiose promises (resurrection, life eternal, etc.). To have the kind of relationship suggested by the scriptures, we need to add propositions like the following:

(2) God is good.
(3) God loves me.
(4) God is able to save me.

Notice that these are foundational propositions. If these weighty propositions can be communicated through the spirit, then why not lesser ones like the veracity of the Book of Mormon? I see no justification for calling the statement “the Book of Mormon is an ancient document” a proposition while denying that propositional value of the statement “God is good.” Both are propositions and both can be confirmed or denied by the spirit, unless there is no such thing as the spirit, in which case, neither can be confirmed or denied by the spirit.

The analysis thus far has been considering whether there can be such a thing as propositionless knowledge. I have explained why I am having a hard time imagining propositionless knowledge. Please correct my thinking on this as necessary.

In addition (and as a final point), I have a hard time seeing how RT’s view of the role of the spirit can be supported in the context of Mormonism. Later in his comment, RT says that “the Spirit’s essential purpose is to provide a personal experience of and connection with God, rather than propositional knowledge.” And yet, the Mormon Church was founded because a young Joseph Smith asked God which of all the churches was true. He received an answer. Nearly the entire D&C stands as a witness to the fact that God can communicate propositional knowledge through revelation. It was a theme of Joseph Smith’s ministry that the revelations of God were available to everyone. It seems odd, at best, to suggest in this context that we cannot approach God with deeply held concerns over our eternal status and receive an answer from God. As always, I am open to correction on this final point as well.


  1. Well said Jacob.

    I was left scratching my head at what seemed to be a chorus of commenters that cheered RT on when he made comments like the one you quoted. He said more of the same in a responding post over at ZD:

    In today’s church, personal revelation is almost without exception a description of the kind of experience Moroni discusses — experiences in which we learn truth as goodness, not truth as factual theological propositions. The other kind of revelation, the kind that produces scripture, is just different. It doesn’t interpret itself (just as personal revelation doesn’t), but it does serve as an explicit message regarding theology in a way that personal experiences of God’s goodness simply don’t.

    I am admittedly baffled by this argument of his. He seems to be saying, for example, that the answers God gives us to our yes or no questions are never(?) actually yes or no but rather something like “I’m good and I love you”. If that were true I can’t see what value praying for answers to important questions would have at all. Imagine some scenarios:

    Q: God, should I take this job I have been offered?
    A: “I’m good and I love you”

    Q: God, should I marry so and so?
    A: “I’m good and I love you”

    Q: God, was Jesus really resurrected?
    A: “I’m good and I love you”

    You get the point. If God can’t or won’t ever give us simple yes or no answers then why should we bother asking in the first place? And if he gives us the same non-relevant response (or “personal experiences of God’s goodness”) to every question then how is that relationship building at all? One could have that sort of relationship with an answering machine.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 14, 2007 @ 3:46 pm

  2. Jacob,

    I agree completely with the general sentiment here. Any sort of remembered experience that cannot be represented in propositional form, even in principle, hardly deserves the name knowledge at all.

    In practice though, there are certainly real perceptions and experiences that are difficult to communicate if only for the lack of appropriate language. For example, one would be hard pressed to explain what salt tastes like to someone who had never tasted salt before.

    But shared experience solves that problem pretty well, even if creating a new semantic primitive is necessary. And one might well argue that any experience that cannot be subject to that sort of transformation (even in principle) is not knowledge of some sort of mind independent reality at all, but rather nothing more than an artifact of perception hardly deserving of the term – sampling noise, more or less.

    Comment by Mark D. — May 14, 2007 @ 10:01 pm

  3. Geoff,

    Thanks for the link over to Kiskilili’s follow up post. I didn’t follow that thread and was unaware that RT further developed his point over there. I’m a bit embarrassed to have posted this not knowing beforehand, but so it goes. I am caught up on my reading now, and I think my misgivings stand. Your point about the answering machine makes one of the points I was trying to make far better than I did myself.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 14, 2007 @ 10:46 pm

  4. Mark,

    Good points. You got me thinking. I agree that communication between people poses its own set of problems, particularly when we are limited to the use of spoken and written language. If I really want someone to understand what salt tastes like, I get a salt shaker. With the spirit, there is no spirit shaker, so it can be problematic if there is no shared experience to rely on.

    However, the main problem I’m talking about in the post has to do with interpreting our own spiritual feelings, which does not require us to communicate them to someone else. Even so, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that such experiences must be able to undergo that sort of transformation, at least in principle. If we try to interpret the meaning of our spiritual feelings in any way, it seems we are forced into this sort of transformation in which we boil our experiences down into something propositional.

    I agree with the person who urges caution in such an endeavor. It seems to me that we are prone to interpreting spiritual feelings as supporting more propositions than they actually do. However, if they are to mean anything at all, then they must be expressible as propositions.

    If I am reading along in the Book of Mormon and suddenly find myself moved by the spirit, what can I conclude? That the Book of Mormon is an ancient document? Perhaps not. That the passage I am reading is true? Not necessarily. That I should keep reading? Maybe. That there is something good about the Book of Mormon. Likely. I don’t know which, if any, of these conclusions is the correct interpretation of my totally vague hypothetical experience, but if there is no statement of this sort that I could sign up for believing as a result of the experience, then I would have to conclude that the experience was essentially meaningless.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 14, 2007 @ 10:47 pm

  5. Jacob,

    I think what we really need is a more nuanced breakdown of revelations. I am not sure what the scale should consist of though. We could try to break it down by the type of intelligence that is communicated. I think this is the direction RT was heading and what he is calling “goodness” is similar to the “burning in the bosom” our scriptures tell us that should affirm true propositions.

    But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. (D&C 9: 8)

    As far as I can tell, RT seems to want to divorce that burning in the bosom affirmative revelation from the yes or no question that is supposed to be pondered on and asked prior to such affirmations. I think that is a bad idea.

    But pondering a question and seeking affirmation is just one category of the revelation we can receive. As you mentioned, sometimes we receive a variation on the “burning in the bosom” when we have asked no questions at all. Perhaps it is as we listen to a sermon or read scriptures or just ponder on some subject. I agree that those unexpected spiritual feelings/manifestations can be hard to interpret in terms of propositional knowledge. However, it seems to me that one method of sorting out truth from such experiences is to move back to the D&C 9 pattern and study our experience out in our minds again. As we sift through the circumstances we might be able to boil down a key yes or no question related to the unexpected spiritual experience just as D&C 9 instructs. Perhaps we will fail in such attempts to figure out what the intended message was but at least we are trying, and practice at anything helps us get better at it over time.

    I think the same principle applies to other forms of unsolicited revelation too — dreams we suspect are inspired, impressions we get out of the blue, etc. If we don’t try to further uncover the information/intelligence that is being sent to us then how will we ever expect to get better at receiving and comprehending the various and sundry useful bits of information God is willing too share with us all (if we will have ears to hear)?

    Comment by Geoff J — May 15, 2007 @ 10:29 am

  6. Jacob, if I might join in here for a moment (with no intention of highjacking the thread). . . there certainly is a lot of buzz in American evangelicalism today in this discussion over propositional truth. Emergent Christianity is seeking to loose its moorings from traditional Christianity rooted in propositions. One of the reasons is that some of the young people never experienced God in their upbringing in traditional denominations. Not too long ago, a fellow by the name of Blackaby, became a national bestselling author with a book entitled Experiencing God. There is a hunger to not just know about God, but to really experientially know God. One of the Greek verbs in Paul’s prayers expresses this very thing. This is all good.

    But where there is a good pendulum shift, there is always the dangers of swinging too far in one direction. Though I am not well-versed in the flood of new literature on emergent Christianity in America, I sense there is a growing disdain for propositional knowledge. If emergent Christianity trumps traditional Christianity in America, the implications will be far reaching.

    Where we might disagree on what is foundational propositional knowledge for faith, nonetheless, I appreciate your discussion.

    Comment by Todd Wood — May 15, 2007 @ 10:42 am

  7. Interesting comment Todd. Here is the wiki I found on the subject of emerging Christianity or the so-called emerging church movement. I can understand why this conversation reminded you of that debate.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 15, 2007 @ 10:51 am

  8. the Spirit’s essential purpose is to provide a personal experience of and connection with God, rather than propositional knowledge.

    The obvious example is the feeling of spirituality in say a fast and testimony meaning. No propositional content but clearly something meaningful. Although I take Joseph’s warning about pseudo-spiritual experiences “where no intelligence is communicated” as a necessary check on those who would neglect propositional knowledge. This is why there really isn’t a mystic experience in Mormonism. Sure we all like the feelings of the spirit but they are a means to an end.

    An other example of non-propositional knowledge, by the way, is when you are being led by the spirit but only recognize in hindsight that you were being led. i.e. the spirit wasn’t giving you propositions that you interpret and then act on. Rather there was a much strong harmony in ones actions. The “obvious” example of this is speaking in tongues. This is a gift of know-how and not necessarily knowledge-that. Most of the spiritual gifts are seen as hugely important but few involve propositions.

    Comment by clark — May 15, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  9. Todd,

    There does seem to be some overlap between the movement you refer to and the debate over propositional knowledge here. I am not familiar with Emergent Christianity, though, so I can’t be sure. To the extent that it is stressing the importance of having personal experience with God, I agree with it completely. In fact, Mormonism has always been big on the idea that each person needs to be grounded in their own witness of the truthfulness of the gospel, etc. I assume this is a view shared by most Christian religions, actually. I think we’d be hard pressed to find someone advocating that we only learn facts about God.

    As you said, if the pendulum swings so far that there is disdain for propositional knowledge, that is problematic. I believe that faith stripped clean of propositions is not really faith at all. There must be something we have faith in, right? So, I think we agree on this point, thanks for the tip on emergent Christianity.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 16, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  10. Clark,

    I am not so certain that there are is no propositional content to the spirituality in a fast and testimony meeting. After all, this is a meeting where people get up and bear witness to their knowledge of various spiritual truths. The presence of the spirit would seem to confirm these truths to the listeners, no?

    Your example of being led by the spirit unknowlingly is interesting. I certainly agree that the spirit can act in various ways and we may not be aware of it (in which case it is not an example of non-propositional knowledge, but of no knowledge whatsoever). However, I am arguing that if the time ever comes that we become aware of it (even in retrospect) and we find any meaning in it whatsoever, then this involves a mental transformation of the experience into propositions.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 16, 2007 @ 10:49 am

  11. Yes, the spirit often accompanies propositions. Further via context one can sometimes derive propositions. But it typically isn’t the pure giving of propositions the way one often gets when praying about a particular problem.

    But my point wasn’t so much about whether propositional knowledge can be conveyed in F&T meeting. It was that the spirit as feeling need not bring such.

    Regarding whether being led by the spirit isn’t knowledge, I’d disagree. But that’s because I tend to see practice as knowledge.

    Comment by clark — May 16, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  12. Jacob, fascinating discussion. I think a lot of the support you see for RT’s point is a reaction to one of either two philosophical undercurrents: logical positivism or foundationalism.

    The positivists believed (if I understand correctly…) that all knowledge is either logical or empirically verifiable, and that any metaphysical claim is meaningless. The problem is that this ignores relegates a whole lot of human experience to that which is meaningless (e.g. it is hard to give love and beauty positive meaning, and yet they have very important and meaningful roles in human experience).

    Foundationalism argues, I believe, that knowledge can be built up based on basic beliefs. The problem that many have with this view of knowledge is that it essentially reduces all knowledge to merely propositional knowledge. So I think the salt example provides a good example of the weakness of this approach: to describe salt propositionally might amount to describing the chemical makeup of salt and listing the scientific properties, but this is different than experiencing salt.

    I don’t think you are really making positivist or foundationalist claims, at least explicitly, but I think a lot of the reactions you see are reacting to these approaches. Also, if neither of these philosophical approaches are taken, then the question is what meaning propositions really have. Propositions can be formed in pure mathematics, but how does that map into the real world? Sometimes, quite well, but is this ultimately the structure of the universe? Can the universe ultimately be explained in terms of well-functioning scientific laws and their propositional counterparts, or is every experience unique and therefore not adequately captured in any propositional sense? In other words, if every proposition has an infinite number of exceptions, in what sense is a proposition meaningful as a proposition? (That is, how is a proposition distinct from a [subjective] description if it is not meaningfully universalizable?) Perhaps propositions are only a convenient way to communicate shared experience, but this isn’t the way that “propositional knowledge” is usually interpreted, and we are then talking about ordinary language with all its logical ambiguity rather than propositional language. This, very very roughly, is my take on why philosophy of language has become so important in recent philosophy.

    This isn’t a very clear or well-argued comment, but I hope it give an impression of at least some of the philosophical currents which I think underlie a lot of the reaction you are seeing in support of RT’s views. I’m not saying that everyone showing support for RT’s view has thought through these issues very deeply (I know I’ve only scratched the surface…), but they are indeed core issues that are very much unresolved in contemporary philosophy, and I think the effects of this trickle down into our conversations in interesting ways that reflect many of these deeper issues.

    For what it’s worth….

    (I’ve had several other comments on other threads caught in the spam filter, not sure how regularly or carefully you guys check that, but when I’m at my normal computer I don’t think anything gets through….)

    Comment by Robert C. — May 19, 2007 @ 9:53 am

  13. Robert,

    Excellent points. I will think on this and perhaps comment again later, but I have to just scream for a moment that we have been losing your comments in the spam filter. This frustrates me deeply, I’ll try to watch the filter better. (And if you still have my email address, feel free to ping me when this happens.)

    Comment by Jacob J — May 19, 2007 @ 10:03 am

  14. Hey Robert,

    Next time you are at your regular computer make a comment then email me and we’ll de-spam that IP/computer.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 19, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  15. The Feast blog (and FPR) has been marking my comments as spam too (and very few other commentors), so I think the problem is more something on my end than your spam filter….

    Comment by Robert C. — May 19, 2007 @ 11:23 am