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I know that I know that I know that I…

Something about his voice made me tune in. It was a cross between a kindergarten teacher reading storybooks and the voice-over guy who does almost all of the movie trailer narrations. The effect was simultaneously overly dramatic and condescendingly disingenuous. He sounded conscious of his own profundity. His tone grated on my nerves, but it made me listen to his General Conference talk about personal testimony, the only talk that I payed much attention to all weekend.

“If you want to know that you know that you know, a price must be paid.… I know what I know, and my witness is true.”

What does that even mean? What price do I have to pay if I want to know that I know that I know that I know? Can I get by with less if I just want to know that I know?

All joking aside, I can only make sense of what Douglas Callister said if what he means is that he is really, really, really confident that what he believes is true. That isn’t what he said, however. He said that his witness is true in some absolute, unmistakable way. “You can trust in me,” he seemed to say.

In fairness, he also taught that the only witness which counts in the end is our own, but his tone seemed to imply that we could rely on his beliefs until we knew for ourselves, no need to doubt.

I think most people will agree that we human beings are limited. We can’t know everything. Our knowing is confined to some subset of everything.

I would go further to say that we can’t know anything with absolute certainty. We rely on the trustworthiness of our own minds. To know anything absolutely, our minds must be in perfect working order with all the facts available to it. Here, we run into a bootstrapping problem: how can we know that our minds are in perfect working order? It is nonsensical to think that we can use our minds to judge their own fitness. If a mind is unfit, then it could erroneously judge itself fit because of its unfitness.

It is tempting to wonder whether God could intervene here making it possible for us to know something with absolute certainty. I can’t imagine what form that intervention would take. We would still be forced to wonder how we could be sure that our impression that God gave us perfect knowledge is true? How do we know that we know? Answering that by “prayer and fasting” we can know that we know seems ignorant of the problem at hand.

I can’t see any way to escape this trap. The honest must admit to themselves that they will never know something with absolute certainty. There must always be doubt, if we are honest. We may be very confident in our beliefs, but that doesn’t make them true. In other words we can say that we believe that we know, but anyone who says that they know that they know isn’t being honest with themselves (or the church).

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  1. George said,

    October 10, 2007 @ 12:51 am

    I don’t think that there is a human on the face of the entire planet who doesn’t have doubt or sin in their heart. Those who strive for perfection become exhausted and either break down or go against the world because the world is corrupt. We should accept our condition as humans and we shouldn’t arrogantly display that I know that you know what I know to be true…

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    October 10, 2007 @ 9:36 am

    Mormons (and others, I believe) have a strange obsession with perfect knowledge. Those who believe that they’ve achieved it show their hubris.

  3. Cliff said,

    October 20, 2007 @ 10:28 am

    I think you’re too deeply into Hod(intellect) and are not allowing yourself enough Netzach(emotion). Your comment “How do we know that we know? ” is not simple, and has been around from the beginning.

    Having experienced ‘Truth’ from God myself, I cannot answer your question, either. It just IS. Just like your life. I guess that’s hubris.

  4. LDS Anarchist said,

    October 20, 2007 @ 9:58 pm

    Knowing is over-rated. Belief is emphasized in the scriptures, not knowledge. Mormon culture ought to emphasize it, too.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    October 21, 2007 @ 7:12 am


    I realize that rational thought (Hod) has its limitations and that it’s always balanced by more intuitive thought patterns (Netzach), but I guess my beef with this talk is that he gives the impression that perfect confidence = absolutely correct. Perhaps there is a kind of confidence that I have no experience with that only ever corresponds with correctness, but I have strong doubts about that. From what I have experienced, anyone who doesn’t believe that they can be wrong usually is.

    LDS Anarchist,

    Agreed. The first step is for people to start proudly declaring from the pulpit that they believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and so on.

  6. Cliff said,

    October 21, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

    Some people have the gift to believe on another’s words. For them, that talk is a blessing indeed.

    Yes, he seems to go a bit too far in his presentation. I can see that. Though we all are sheep, we don’t all thrive equally by eating the exact same stuff.

    Doubts are ok as long as they don’t migrate into refusing the possibility. Your observation works 99.9% of the time, IMO. Makes life interesting, eh?

  7. Jonathan Blake said,

    October 22, 2007 @ 9:58 am

    As a skeptic, I don’t count believing on another’s words as a virtue. At best, it is something we do when we cannot verify something for ourselves; it’s a halfway measure.

  8. Jason Richards said,

    October 30, 2007 @ 9:48 pm

    I can’t see any way to escape this trap. The honest must admit to themselves that they will never know something with absolute certainty. There must always be doubt, if we are honest. We may be very confident in our beliefs, but that doesn’t make them true.

    Unless of course, she has been release from her chains and allowed to look back at the forms and the fire, and ultimately to exit the cave. Isn’t That what the mystics, poets, prophets posit? …that they have seen reality, and it is far more than the shadows on the wall that we call the phenomenal or empirical or material world.

    ‘Course they could just be deranged…. after all we’ve only ever seen the shadows on the wall. –substitute the Matrix analogy, or the Hindu/Buddhist concept of Maya/Samsara, or what have you for Plato’s Cave–

    Hey I hope you don’t mind me posting to some of your earlier entries. I haven’t kept up with your blog like I would like to.

  9. Jonathan Blake said,

    October 31, 2007 @ 11:09 am

    Hey Jason,

    No worries about commenting on older stuff. By all means, please do.

    Not having had a full blown mystical/prophetic experience, I can’t comment from direct knowledge, but I can’t imagine an experience that would surmount the epistemic barrier to certainty. What about an experience itself tells the experient that they can trust their knowledge completely? How is this different than another person’s absolute confidence in their beliefs?

    I just don’t see a way out of the Matrix. Once you leave one Matrix, are you sure you don’t inhabit another still?

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