Epistemology: Why the Focus?

I’m trying to drive at whether there is a way to justify Mormon knowledge claims and perhaps get at whether there are uniquely Mormon ways of knowing. It may seem like I’m taking a bit of circuitous route. I want to get at why people have worried about the things they have the past few centuries. It can often seem like epistemology is so dominated by specialists each debating such nuanced points that the big picture is lost. Last week I got at why we should even care about knowledge. I hopefully showed that there are two reasons to care. The first is to be honest about all those statements we make involving the word “knowledge.” The second is that as both individuals and a society we’re better off when we try to justify our beliefs. Or, put an other way, we’re better off eliminating as many false beliefs as is possible.

Today I want to take a short trip across some of the main issues in epistemology. Rather than focus on this the way a philosopher might I want to look at it with an eye to practicality. Why are these issues? In doing so I’ll be dealing with them on a somewhat superficial level. I more want to get at why we might want to worry about these things rather than getting into the minutiae of the arguments that are still going on over them. I think they are important but they tend to get focused on primarily as abstract intellectual puzzles rather than real human concerns.

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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.

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Mormon Ways of Knowing

Years ago I got a call from someone from one of the major LDS book publishers. (It’s been so long I can’t remember which – although it definitely wasn’t Deseret Books) They were planning on publishing a kind of Mormon dictionary that addressed many of the topics within Mormonism using short scholarly entries. The main emphasis was less the summation than to have a pretty thorough bibliography for each entry. They were calling me because several people had suggested that I was the best source for the topic of Mormon epistemology. Now I have to confess this never made much sense to me as I know there were many people better qualified. (It had already been years since I’d been in academia) I loved the idea of the project though so I agreed.

I spent several days at the library going through every book on Mormonism and all the articles from journals like Dialog, Sunstone, BYU Studies and others. Quite to my surprise there was a paucity of articles to select from. What was available (books like McMurrin’s The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion) were in my view pretty poor.

The project ended up coming to nothing but ever since then I’ve wondered why there was so little carefully written about Mormon ways of knowing. Now in recent years there has been a real blossoming of LDS Studies with theological and philosophy journals like Element not to mention interesting studies in other sources. Still despite a few papers (such as Dennis Potter’s work on reformed epistemology and LDS or Alexander Struk’s “The Hermeneutics of Testimony”) the question of Mormon ways of knowing hasn’t received the attention I think it deserves. (There are undoubtedly recent papers I’ve not read — I’ve been so busy I’ve not made it to the library in a few years to check sources I don’t read regularly)

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Spiritual Gifts: The Cessationist Controversy from an LDS Perspective

Debate over spiritual gifts is about as old as the first New Testament passage describing them. Paul’s discourse and description of the gifts in 1 Corinthians is a response to the first-century Church’s turmoil over the nature and practice of these gifts.

The Montanist heresy is evidence of continued confusion in the second and third century.  From references found in Eusebius and others we learn that one of the greatest arguments between Montanists and the Church in Asia Minor was whether or not true prophecy could take place in an ecstatic state of hallucination and frenzy. Writings by Hilary and Ambrose suggest that the gifts of prophecy and speaking and interpreting in tongues were present in the Christian church well into the fourth century. Beginning with the fifth century, theologians such as John Chrysostom began to lament the waning of these gifts, though revivals continued to crop up periodically. In A.D. 1000 the Rituale Romanorum (Roman Ritual) defined glossolalia as prima facie evidence of demon possession. But in the centuries following, prophecy and tongues were found in groups such as the Waldenses in the 1100’s, the Franciscans in the 1200’s, the Anabaptists in the 1500’s, the Quakers in the 1600’s, the Methodists of England in the 1700’s, the Second Great Awakening in the 1800’s, and the Pentecostal Revival in the U.S. in the 1900’s.

Spiritual gifts, especially those of tongues and prophecy, Continue reading “Spiritual Gifts: The Cessationist Controversy from an LDS Perspective”

Give Me Proof of Eternity…

You probably shouldn’t even read this post unless you have a poetic soul.

…but if you do, you might have these strange melancholy moods, where you read sad poetry for days, and don’t eat.  When I’m in this mood, I read my main man Algernon Charles Swinburne, Victorian poet.  I discovered Charles when I read his poem The Garden of Proserpine. You’ll probably recognize it–especially the last two stanzas which hauntingly embrace the inevitability of death. Continue reading “Give Me Proof of Eternity…”

The Truth of Personal Narrative

Bart Ehrman has pointed out that the popular view of Paul and his conversion makes it difficult for historians to evaluate what actually happened to make him “turn around.”  In the scriptural record Paul does not present himself as a guilt-ridden legalist whose realization that the law was impossible to keep led him to find forgiveness in Christ and motivated him to bring the good news of release to those burdened with guilt complexes like his own.  Ehrman calls this view “fiction” and “widespread misperception” and instead directs us to Paul’s own accounts found in Acts chapters 9, 22, and 26.  The problem is that these accounts are difficult to harmonize; as they differ in several details.  Paul’s recounting of the event is suspect because he is remembering the event long afterward and reflecting upon it in light of his later experiences.  Such a conundrum finds a parallel in our own Mormon foundation narrative of Joseph Smith’s first vision.  In Joseph’s case, he leaves at least seven narratives, each a bit different, each a bit contradictory of the others. Continue reading “The Truth of Personal Narrative”