Knowing: Why Care?

Why do we care if we know rather than merely believe? Both in religion and life in general? I think that typically we appeal to an ethics. There are several ways this occurs.

The first is that we have a community notion that knowledge entails beliefs that are true and have a certain degree of justification. If I go into an employer and say I know how to program in C++ and Python and I’ve never programmed in my life then we recognize that is a lie and that it is wrong to tell that sort of lie. In a sense we recognize that in most cases to say we know when we don’t know is deceptive. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to believe something we don’t have good reasons for or even to believe when we have reasons not to believe. It just means that when we claim knowledge we’re making a specific claim and we have a duty to make sure we’re being truthful about what we say. Given that it’s fair to ask when we actually do know something.

Most people think we have more of a duty beyond just being honest about how we use words though. It is better to know what is real than to merely believe based upon poor reasons. That is there is an intellectual duty to become informed. The reasons for this duty might vary. It may be based upon pragmatic reasoning –- an informed educated populace leads to a better society. (Certainly few of us would want to live in the ignorance of past cultures) It might be due to a duty we have towards others – either as a duty as citizens or a basic ethical duty towards our interactions with others which demands we become informed about them and our interactions with them. We could numerate numerous reasons. Ultimately though very few people think we are better ignorant than knowledgeable.

I think that the primary reason justification is so important is that beliefs have consequences. It is from belief that we act. Some might even say that if we really want to know what someone believes we should try and understand how they would act. That is that how we would act under circumstances is but the other side of belief. If out actions have ethical implications we must worry about then it follows that we should worry about what our beliefs are. We should want to have correct beliefs so as to better have correct behavior.

From a religious perspective this is doubly true. We’re told that

The heart of the prudent getteth knowledge;
and the ear of the wise seeketh knowledge
(Proverbs 18:15)

Probably the clearest pronouncement is

And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come; and whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning. The Spirit of truth is of God. I am the Spirit of truth, and John bore record of me, saying: He received a fulness of truth, yea, even of all truth; And no man receiveth a fulness unless he keepeth his commandments. He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things. (D&C 93:24-8)

While we can dispute when we do or don’t have knowledge and the importance of a certain intellectual humility, it does seem that Mormons have a religious drive to know. Further within a religious context it seems clear that we are to seek knowledge of these important truths.

It must be said that not all know. If Mormons are guilty of anything it is probably putting such a thrust on learning and knowledge that there is extreme pressure to claim one knows whether or not one actually does.

I take one of the messages of D&C 46:13-14 that some can know while others may believe these people who know without knowing themselves.

For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.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. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

To me there are a two things we should acknowledge:

  1. It is better to believe truth rather than error
  2. Paying attention to what justifies our beliefs is a good way to come to correct beliefs.

The question is what justifies our beliefs. The very term suggests yet an other connection with ethics. Just as we can talk about when a person is justified in a particular action ultimately when we talk about when a person is justified in belief we are talking about what they should have done. There is an intellectual duty we have as we think about our beliefs.

Unfortunately there is very little agreement upon what that duty is beyond that we have one.

36 Replies to “Knowing: Why Care?”

  1. For the most part, I agree with everything here. Where I start getting nervous, however, is when we read Mormon passages which endorse truth, knowledge and learning and we think that those passages are talking about academia. God saying those things to a bunch of farmers through Joseph Smith is something very different than the interpretation which those of us who value higher education are apt to put on it.

    I think Clark’s framing the issue in terms of ethics is spot on though. However, I worry that deep issues surrounding universal/relativism and lurk close by. Not to get to ahead of Clark’s posts too much, but the ethics regarding knowledge claims in an undergraduate philosophy class and the school of the prophets seem very, very different to me.

  2. I’m pretty sure that we’re confusing two modes of knowing here. It isn’t essential or even all that important to know facts, or what in Latin is expressed by the verb sapere. It is essential to know God the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent in the sense of interpersonal knowledge in the sense connoted in Latin conoscere. We may not know that God lives in one sense but know it in another sense. We cannot convey to another the sense of knowing connoted by conoscere. We can speak such knowledge, but even if one fully grasps what we convey, they don’t know what we know.

  3. Blake, for these introductory posts I’m really trying to keep it very general and practical. Epistemology within the analytic tradition definitely is much more fine grained. However that’s a bit of a problem in that there are so many different schools of thought. I did link to the SEP which does a great overview of epistemology. I’m going to briefly touch on some of the topics mentioned there but getting at that nitty gritty isn’t my aim.

    My goal is much more first adopting a charitable critical stance so people understand why these issues are important. While admittedly a lot of philosophical writings of the past century are driven by the novelty factor due to the publish or perish incentive, broadly each school of though has real practical concerns for why they focus on things the way they do. We may disagree with their conclusions but I think we have to read charitably and understand why people think these issues important.

    The other issue is as you say there are many types of knowledge. Epistemology proper tends to focus just on propositional knowledge justified by a particular sort of reasons. (With a few exceptions since externalism has a big place in analytic philosophy) I think that particular approach is problematic for a variety of reasons. But I think there are reasons why they take that approach.

    Jeff, I agree there are plenty of areas of knowledge. One thing I didn’t get into but could have is the whole question of where to focus our energies. We’re quite finite so we have to pick and choose where to worry about justifications and what topics to focus in on. And, since I’m a pragmatist, I tend to see the lived experience as quite key which puts me in a much broader arena than some narrow conceptions of epistemology.

    That said I think that if you contextualize Joseph’s statements on knowledge you’ll see that he was seeing what we’d call academic studies as a very important part of religious knowledge. Yes his academic studies were pretty primitive in many ways. Yet he saw them as very important.

    I’ll be diving into the heart of the matter this weekend so hopefully people don’t mind these first two posts that were pretty broad and introductory.

  4. Blake,

    I think your version of knowing is certainly important, but I don’t think it covers enough. Surely the believer will want to say “I know that… (the church is true, Jesus resurrected on the third day, etc.)”. I grant that your version is probably not subject to the same ethical considerations that Clark’s version is, but I think the latter is indispensable.


    While I don’t want to suggest that academic studies bare no relation to the knowledge which the scriptures speak of, I think the differences are far more important than the similarities, if only because they are so easy to overlook or take for granted. I don’t think the skepticism and criticism of the academy had any place in the latter. Nor do I think that evidence or logical consistency were AS important. And so on.

    Yes, Joseph and Co. did recognize the value that the academy offers us. However, it seems clear to me that the rules they lived and learned by were very different from those of, say, the French Philosophes and other Enlightenment figures.

  5. Well I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll probably do one more quasi-introductory post and then delve deep into the heart of my Peircean conception of Mormon knowing.

  6. Clark and Jeff: I address these issues at some length in 3 chapters of my 4th volume of Exploring Mormon Thought. I adopt a Kierkegaardian reading of Kant to do so. The assertion of “knowing” is vacuous in terms of public discourse but valid for purposes of having interpersonal knowledge which cannot be conveyed to another by conveyed words or information.

  7. Clark,

    Given my Rortian inclinations of late, I look forward to your Peircian take on the matter.


    Given my Rortian inclinations of late, I’m not terribly keen on a Kantian or Kierkegaardian approach to much of anything. Granted, it’s been a really long time since I read your book (and my perspective was *very* different back then) but any kind of rationalism or individualistic existentialism are going to be strongly resisted.

  8. I’m not a fan of Kierkegaard but I’m curious to see what you write Blake. I have a hard time accepting that knowledge is vacuous in public discourse but then I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. Typically I think in public discourse what counts is the justification component of knowledge. (This is why I think many forms of reliabilism are problematic) While I didn’t address it in my post above I do think the inter social types of knowing are quite important.

  9. I think that’s exactly right, Clark. In terms that are relevant to your original post, I see “statement S is true” as being very closely analogous to “act A is moral”, which in turn means “we are not justified in punishing act A”. In otherwords, the social element runs all the way through truth claims.

  10. Jeff G and Clark: Any public discourse that reduces to anthropological meaning or mere social usage couldn’t possibly amount to knowledge in the relevant sense — as Wittgenstein would have it. In fact, if “justification” reduces to “that is just what we do in this form of life in this culture” then there is no knowledge in the relevant sense.

  11. Im guessing Clark will probably discuss it in a different post, but I’m not sure what you take the relevant sense to be. If it means more than beIng able to successfully navigate the social world in which we find ourselves, you’re probably right that I don’t account for it. But then, I don’t see why I should either.

  12. Jeff: If knowledge of ethics is also based on what just happens to be the practice, linguistic or otherwise, in the communities in which we just happen to find ourselves, then moral obligation is shallow at best and non-obligating in any obligatory sense at worst. That is why you should account for it.

  13. I guess I just have a hard time imagining any other way that we come to know about moral rules. Since a Mormon version of divine command theory and a sort of biology based intuitionism both seem to fit nicely in my account, I can’t help but wonder what other source there might be.

  14. “…Mormon version of divine command theory and a sort of biology based intuitionism both seem to fit nicely in my account, I can’t help but wonder what other source there might be.”

    I had never thought of it that way. I think my version of ethics is more a rejection of Mormon ethics. (not related to post)

  15. “…a rejection of Mormon ethics.”

    An explanation or link? From what I’ve read, I thought you were a staunch Rawlsian.

  16. Yeah, of course, but I have also tried to develop a more Kantian (Rawlsian) Mormon ethics. I go back and forth as to whether this is possible within Mormonism. At the moment, I am Broadway in NYC…all things are possible!

    I am also heavily influenced by Rorty. I should post on that soon….

  17. I’m not sure there is a Mormon ethic. Although I’m not quite sure what that even means.

    I’ll avoid ethics for the most part simply because I don’t think much of philosophical ethics. But I don’t think that entails it’s just descriptive of practice. I do think practice is pretty important. So while I’m not a utilitarian in the least I think it important information if we find certain practices make people happy in both the short run and long run.

    To the degree I adopt an ethical stance at all it’s probably Moore’s who simply takes some agreed upon starting points. I’m not sure we can do better than that.

    In terms of reasoning I think we can talk about cases where justification seems strong and justification seems weak or worse. I don’t think we can find a simple rule that will give us everything.

  18. Chris,

    It seems to me very strange to mix a Kantian/Rawlsian approach to ethics with Rorty’s. I know that Rawls’ and Rorty’s political positions are very similar to one another, but their defenses of them seem almost mutually exclusive. As for myself, my position is very much influenced by Ken Binmore. I would definitely recommend his books (Game Theory and the Social Contract vol. 1-2), but it is a bit of a long and tedious read. In the end, I think the biggest problem with his approach is the same as Rawls’: namely, there is no reason for a person to ever willfully forget (or pretend to forget) the facts of life. The only reason why somebody would do that is for moral reasons…. but those are the very things I thought we were supposed to be explaining!


    I think I have been a little more willing to dip into the ethical mud than you have, but I don’t think our end positions are all that far apart from each other. My reason is that the rules of accurate description are themselves ethical rules, and when we turn theses rules back upon themselves I see no reason to expect a fully consistent or complete result. In other words, I think ethics is the Godelian knot of analytic philosophy.

  19. Jeff: No, my theory of ethics is deontological through and through and thus Kantian but not Rawlsian. I think that mere pragmatism and mere descriptive ethics are really ethics but politics. It is wrong to do invasive scientific tests on a few humans without their consent (and in some circumstances even with their consent) even if it greatly benefits humanity in the long run. I think that the failure to have a moral theory that makes such things wrong makes the exposes the moral as an immoral theory.

  20. That I definitely remember from reading your 1st volume, Blake. I also know of your antipathy toward constructivist ethics in general. (I do wonder what your feelings are toward Nietzsche. If I were to venture a guess, he’s public enemy number 1 in your book.)

    Many consequentialists would run with your example in the following way: Even though it might be morally permissible to do such tests for the greater good, it is morally impermissible to not condemn such tests. In other words: yes, we are morally required to condemn torture, even though sometimes torture might be the right thing to do. While I’m guessing you reject the distinction between the act being wrong and our approval of the act being wrong, can you give a reason for rejecting this distinction?

    (I personally think this is point where philosophy begins to eat its own tail, but I’m curious what your thoughts are on the subject.)

  21. Jeff: A moral theory that requires us to condemn as wrong what is right to do is just plain incoherent and — well — just stupid. It isn’t merely morally “permissible” to do such experiments if one is a consequentialist, it is a moral duty (to the extent there is any sense of duty at all in such quasi-ethical theories) to do what results in the best. However, if I were a consequentialist, I would argue that a promoting a sense of peace and tranquility requires inventing a made-up human right that the government must protect — the right to human dignity or some Kantian idea like that.

    Justice then becomes the fear of suffering injustice “from one’s own point of view.” It is this latter qualifier that kills the theory, however, because from my point of view it is better for everyone involved if only a certain class of people to which I belong is protected while a minority of others can be used for such experiments. Hence the justifiable logic of Nazism on such a view.

    Human rights, moral duties and doing what is right for the mere reason that it is right to do all become mere fictions on the view you present. That is a price that is too high to pay and disregards what is truly fundamental about ethical duties and our sense of right and wrong.

  22. I’m somewhat partial to your response, but on a different level. I don’t think such consequentialist reasoning is incoherent or stupid… *but* it does seem to paint itself as an immoral theory.

    In other words, suppose that it is better overall if we violate some minority group. Suppose further that it is better overall if we condemn the violation of some such minority group. Even though there is no logical contradiction between the two, the very act of uttering or writing the first sentence is condemned by the second sentence.

    We are thus left with a moral dilemma, which is how my comments relate to Clark’s post. If the rules of epistemic justification (whatever those might be) are themselves just a kind of ethics, what reason do we have to suppose that our turning ethical rules back on themselves will not result in a genuine moral dilemma in the form of a godelian knot? In other words, I have serious doubts that it is possible to give a fully complete and consistently justified account of the ethical rules which constitute a complete and consistent justification.

  23. It seems to me that the issue ends up being what can count as evidence for ethical justification. As I read the two of your comments it seems to presuppose one must have a correct meta-ethical theory. I’m pretty skeptical of that. I think we can know somethings are ethical without having a meta-ethical theory. For instance I can know that logic justifies reasons so that if I know the premise I can know the conclusion without knowing whether it is immoral to make a copy of my friends music CD.

    But maybe I’m missing something.

    Certainly if we demand a full comprehensive system then “turning ethical rules back on themselves” will be problematic. If we can know parts without knowing the whole then I don’t see the problem.

    Blake, when you say pragmatism isn’t really ethics but politics what do you mean by pragmatism? I assume Rorty’s neo-pragmatism rather than classic pragmatism.

  24. Clark,

    I absolutely agree. If anything, I was trying to say that meta ethics is itself part of the phenomenon it attempts to study, and therefore is somewhat suspect.

    Ethical rules are good so we use them. The rules of liberal science (as I like to call them) are good so we use them. However under certain circumstances we can expect many of these rules to come in conflict with others creating ethical dilemmas which cannot be decided by ethical rules since these are the very rules which are in question.

    It is because of this that Blake will reject naturalism since it seems to conflict with rules and claims that we are morally required to affirm. I will then reject Blake’s account since it seems to conflict with other rules and claims that we are morally required to affirm. And round and round we go. Who is following the “correct” set of moral rules in these dilemmas that we confront? Meta analyses are pointless at this point since they are constituted by there very rules in question.

    And I think that this is Blake’s beef with pragmatism as politics. There is no final arbiter other than the interests of the individual.

  25. “I’ll avoid ethics for the most part simply because I don’t think much of philosophical ethics.”

    And to think that I love you anyways.

  26. “It seems to me very strange to mix a Kantian/Rawlsian approach to ethics with Rorty’s.”

    Rorty’s essay on Rawls’ “political” turn is very much were I am at. I will try to dig for the title in the morning. This will need to be worked out at some post dissertation date.

  27. “it does seem that Mormons have a religious drive to know.”

    This is what they call transference. You have a religious drive to know. Others may have a religious drive to circle the wagons. With some people, getting through to them is like trying to pry open a clam with your fingers. Fortunately, the atonement is equally valid for all. Although the lovers of truth are in for a less bumpy ride (spiritually speaking).

  28. Interesting Chris. I’ve actually read *very* little of Rorty. I know enough to say that our positions on many things are very similar, but the path that lead me to that position included very little, if any of Rorty’s works. In particular, I do not share his confidence that all the concepts which he sees no use for can or ought to be so carelessly tossed aside. I think Darwinian reasoning inspires a bit more caution than he seems to think.

  29. And I think that this is Blake’s beef with pragmatism as politics. There is no final arbiter other than the interests of the individual.

    I understand that. I just don’t understand why he calls that pragmatism.

  30. I’ve been holding off posting the next entry so I don’t hog the blog during my guest period. But I’ll probably upload it tonight one way or the other.

  31. Chris,

    I just read Rorty’s paper on Rawls. It presented him in a very different light than I was accustomed to, which was a good thing. While I’m not sure if he gets Rawls exactly right, Rorty’s version is far more congenial to me than the overly rationalistic one I’d always heard of.

  32. Jeff,

    Political Liberalism (1993) presents a major addition to the work of Rawls. Many view it as Rawls abandoning his early work. I view it as a restatement or clarification. Like Rorty, I think that Political Liberalism does a better job of articulating the role of democracy in a just society.

  33. Yeah, I have never read it, but had always heard it as an a backing off of sorts. I can definitely see how most philosophers would side with the “earlier” Rawls while Rorty & co. would side with the later.

    I guess my problem now is that I don’t see the point of Rawls’ thought experiment if it’s meant as an expression of rather than a justification for the liberal welfare state.

  34. Again, I’m confused by most of this– Mormon ethics? I’ve never taken an ethics class, but were I to just blindly put something out there, I’d go along the lines of the powerful sociological influences of Mormon culture (as opposed to religious doctrine) on those of us who live in southern Utah. On that line, ethics seems to be a relative term because as long as you conform, ie don’t drink or smoke and never miss church, you can get away with a lot of ethical lapses. Which seems ethical to a lot of Mormons.

    Anyway, the know vs. believe debate bothers me no end. Because I don’t even know if I actually exist, let alone all the other stuff I’m supposed to know regarding the church. But sometimes I think I know things. Like that people who judge you if you don’t say “I know” are basically cold-hearted Nazis.

  35. Annegb,

    I think what Clark is asking when is it morally permissible (or perhaps required) to to say “X is true”? The boy who cried wolf makes for a good example of the moral nature of truth claims, IMO. As such, I think the belief/knowledge distinction is almost a distraction. Whether the boy knew there was a wolf present or merely believed it was beside the point. What mattered was whether there was a wolf or not.

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