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I know that I know—Part II

I studiously avoided listening to General Conference this weekend, instead preferring to do things like introduce myself to the Standard Model of particle physics. One conference talk worked its way through my defenses, however: Dallin Oaks’ talk on Saturday afternoon.

His talk was about what it means when a Mormon says they “know” that various claims are true. I’ve covered that ground before, but I can’t resist responding in detail to Oaks’ talk.

A testimony of the Gospel is a personal witness, borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true. Such facts include the nature of the Godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the Atonement, and the reality of the resurrection.

Knowledge is defined in many ways. I believe that Oaks is using it similarly to the classic philosophical definition of knowledge: believing a true proposition and having a good justification for believing it.

Various questions arise as we hear others bear testimony or as we consider bearing testimony ourselves. In a testimony meeting, a member says, “I know that the Father and the Son appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith.” A visitor wonders, “What does he mean he when he says he ‘knows’ that?” … What do we mean when we testify and say we know the Gospel is true?

Contrast that kind of knowledge with “I know it is cold outside” or “I know I love my wife.” These are three different kinds of knowledge, each learned in a different way. Knowledge of outside temperature can be verified by scientific proof. Knowledge that we love our spouse is personal and subjective. While not capable of scientific proof, it is still important. The idea that all important knowledge is based on scientific evidence is simply untrue.

I agree that not all forms of knowledge come from the scientific method. Some forms of knowledge are personal and not yet completely subject to scrutiny by the instruments of science, like knowing that you love you wife. If the statement is rephrased as “I know that I feel loving emotions in connection with my spouse”, it states more precisely what we usually mean when we say that we love our spouse.

The assertion that “I know the Gospel is true” can also be stated more clearly by saying “I feel certain that the Gospel is true.” This feeling of certainty is the part of the statement that can’t be subjected to scientific scrutiny. The truth claims of the Gospel can, however, be examined and evaluated through the scientific method or other knowledge-gathering techniques. Someone can’t refute that a person feels certain that the Gospel is true. That feeling of certainty doesn’t imply that the Gospel is true.

While there are some evidences of gospel truths, scientific methods will not yield spiritual knowledge.…

It is true that science does not deal with metaphysical ideas. Oaks seems to make two assumptions. The first is that the search for knowledge is confined to two players: science and religion. There are other ways to evaluate metaphysics which involve neither the scientific method nor religious faith. Logic and human reason are not bound by the constraints of scientific empiricism nor of religious faith. Reason has something to say about metaphysics. We can use our reasoning faculties to judge Mormonism’s claims.

The second assumption is that all Gospel claims are spiritual claims. There are many physical claims made by Mormonism that can be evaluated scientifically. For example, the historicity of the Book of Mormon can be evaluated through archaeological research, DNA evidence, and other means because it makes claims about the physical world.

When we know spiritual truths through spiritual means, we can be just as sure of that knowledge as a scholar or scientist is of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods.…

If knowledge of spiritual truths is “just as sure” as scientific or scholarly truth, then Oaks is admitting that Mormon testimonies are not justifiably certain. Any good scientist will tell you the probability that their results are false. Every good scientist admits the possibility that their theories may be disproved or refined by future evidence. Putting a testimony on par with scientific truth is to admit the possibility that testimonies are false.

It’s not fair, however, to put various spiritual claims on par with scientific claims. Various kinds of knowledge are more or less justified. The knowledge that gravity attracts two objects with mass is vastly more justified than the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected. The first can be readily observed by everyone; the latter requires a lot more faith in the truth of things that can’t be observed.

How can we come to know and testify that what [Joseph Smith] said was true?… The first step in gaining any kind of knowledge is to really desire to know.…

This desire to know can be benign if it is objective. Someone who wants to find out whether or not Mormonism is true and will accept any good answer they find is on safer ground than the person who wants to learn that Mormonism is true and will be disappointed or fearful if it’s not.

Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.

This statement is more disquieting than astonishing to those who know about the “saying is believing” cognitive bias. When a person makes a statement that they believe to be false, they later have to subconsciously justify why they made a false statement. If they believe themselves to be an honest person, their unconscious mind has to reconcile that belief with the fact that they made a false statement. If there was very little reason to say it (e.g. they weren’t paid to say it) then their mind might subconsciously think that perhaps the statement wasn’t false after all.

For example, if a person isn’t sure that Mormonism is true but they make public statements that it is because they felt social pressure to do so, they might begin to believe their statements were the truth. They might subconsciously think “I’m not a dishonest person, but I made a statement that I’m not sure is true. I’m not the kind of person who is influenced by social pressure, so that must not be why I said it. I must have said it because somewhere deep down I know that what I said is true.” Instead of doubting their honesty or integrity in the face of pressure—a possibility that is painful to contemplate—the mind convinces itself that the statement was truth.

This is why repeatedly sharing a Mormon testimony is a good way to come to feel that Mormonism is true. In my experience as a Mormon missionary, this was called the “fake it till you make it” principle. If you’re not sure that Joseph Smith was a prophet, just pretend like you know it to be true, tell other people that you know he was a prophet, and before you realize it you’ll believe what you’re saying.

There has never been a greater need for us to profess our faith privately and publicly. Though some profess atheism, there are many who are open to additional truths about God.

This is interesting to me because it is the first mention of the concept of needing to witness to atheists that I can remember. Non-believers of all stripes are increasing in numbers. It will be interesting to see how the LDS church attempts to address it. I personally don’t know what Mormons can say to principled atheists. I think they would be more successful sticking to their strengths.

Our children should also hear us bear our testimonies frequently. We should also strengthen our children by encouraging them to define themselves by their growing testimonies,…

Does anyone else find this chilling? It’s a great recipe for groupthink and indoctrination. Take any given belief, for example the belief that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and form a child’s identity around that belief by telling them that’s what makes them special. They now proudly proclaim to the world that they are a believer in Santa Claus. What happens when someone tells them that Santa Claus is just a children’s story?

The question of Santa Claus’s existence is no longer just a question of facts. The child’s identity is now bound up in the question. Saying that Santa Claus doesn’t exist is an attack on their identity. If Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole, then that makes the child feel less special. Rather than accepting that they aren’t exceptional, the child will tend to protect their identity and ignore contrary evidence.

We live in a time when some misrepresent the beliefs of those they call Mormons and even revile us because of them. When we encounter such misrepresentations, we have a duty to speak out, to clarify our doctrine and what we believe. We should be the ones to state our beliefs rather than allowing others the final word in misrepresenting them.

Oaks doesn’t admit the possibility that someone could be critical of the undistorted doctrines of the LDS church. I try my best to avoid distorting Mormonism when I criticize it. I hope that I’m successful given that I probably know as much or more about Mormonism as the average Mormon. Yet I still find plenty to criticize.

Anyone can disagree with our personal testimony, but no one can refute it.

Something that can’t be refuted isn’t necessarily true. Russell’s Teapot is the classic example of this. I dare anyone to refute that there is a teapot and saucer orbiting the sun between the orbits of the Earth and Mars.

Members who have a testimony and who act upon it under the direction of their church leaders are sometimes accused of blind obedience. Of course we have leaders, and of course we are subject to their decisions and directions in the operation of the church and in the performance of needed priesthood ordinances. But when it comes to learning and knowing the truth of the Gospel, our personal testimonies, we each have a direct relationship with God our Eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ through the powerful witness of the Holy Ghost. This is what our critics fail to understand. It puzzles them that we can be united in following our leaders, and yet independent in knowing for ourselves.

Oaks uses a subtle ad hominem attack to say that critics simply don’t understand how the Gospel works, as if they just couldn’t get it through their thick skulls.

Perhaps the puzzles some feel can be explained by the reality that each of us has two different channels to God. We have a channel of governance through the prophet and other leaders. This channel—which has to do with doctrine, ordinances, and commandments—results in obedience. We also have a channel of personal testimony which is direct to God. This has to do with his existence, our relationship to him, and the truth of his restored Gospel. This channel results in knowledge. These two channels are mutually reinforcing. Knowledge encourages obedience, and obedience enhances knowledge.

From personal experience I know that it is common in the LDS church to follow the directions of church leaders even though the person disagrees with the counsel. The reasoning is usually along the lines of “I know that the Book of Mormon is a true book, therefore I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, therefore I know that the church that he set up is God’s church, therefore my church leaders were put in their positions by God, therefore their counsel is God’s counsel, therefore I will obey.” If following whatever a leader tells you because they’re your leader even when you disagree with them doesn’t count as blind obedience, then I don’t know what does.

Also, the “[belief] encourages obedience and obedience enhances [belief]” formula could be stated for any religious hierarchy, including dangerous cults. This isn’t something to brag about.

We all act upon or give obedience to knowledge. Whether in science or religion, our obedience is not blind when we act upon knowledge suited to the subject of our action. A scientist receives and acts upon a trusted certification of the content or conditions of a particular experiment. In matters of religion, a believer’s source of knowledge is spiritual, but the principle is the same.

They are only the same if we don’t look too closely. Scientific knowledge has proven much more reliable over the years than religion at consensus forming. Science isn’t perfect. It has had many missteps over the years. However, a person investigating the laws of thermodynamics will reliably find them confirmed. There are very few people who doubt these laws (i.e. those trying to build perpetual motion machines). A person investigating religion can end up with any number of answers with no strong justification why one religion is better than another. This diversity of religious belief is a direct result of the ambiguous nature of religious evidence.

In all of our testifying, we should avoid arrogance and pride.…

One way that I wish Mormons would be more humble in their testifying is to realize that they, being fallible human beings, may hold false beliefs even though they feel certain about them. Saying that they know something is true and they can’t be wrong is tantamount to claiming that they are infallible. Not only is that arrogant, it’s downright blasphemous to put themselves on the same level as their God.

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  1. Lincoln Cannon said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    In general terms, I agree with much of Oaks’ talk. There are valuable aspects of human knowledge, particularly in esthetics and ethics, that cannot be attained (except as observations of what they are subsequent to their initial formation) through the scientific method. Indeed, I’d go so far as to argue that the Holy Spirit is an esthetic.

    Where I would disagree with some interpretations of Oaks’ talk is when persons suppose the Holy Spirit to be the best source for knowledge about physical matters. While I acknowledge that one may conceivably learn to extrapolate from spiritual experience to physical experience, that is like extrapolating from smells to sights. When I smell a rose with my eyes close, I may with some degree of success assume that rose will be visible when I open my eyes. However, seeing a rose makes me certain that I see a rose — definitionally. Thus, when we make physical claims extrapolated from spiritual experience, we should be prepared to adjust the interpretation of our claims as new physical evidence becomes available.

  2. Seth R. said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    Actually, I don’t think Oaks was pointing out the need to testify to atheists at all. Re-read his statement. What he is in fact saying is – “look the atheists aren’t interested in learning about God, but there are plenty of OTHER people who are.” Almost seems like he’s writing you off…

    As for the cultish groupthink… Are we really that cultish Jonathan?

    And if so, are we any more cultish than your last employer-mandated company retreat? Or youth summer football camp? Or the Sierra Club?

    As for the statement “I know”… It’s never been my favorite and I never use it in bearing testimony. Last testimony meeting, I actually read a passage from the D&C on spiritual gifts – and how they are different for everyone – and flatly admitted that I don’t “know” whether all this stuff is true, predicted that there were others like me in the audience, and pointed out that according to the D&C passage I had just read, not everyone in the audience is even going to get the opportunity to “know” for themselves.

    Reception was a mixed bag. A couple older members came up to me after the meeting with concern on their faces and bore their own testimonies and encouraged me to get my own. A couple others quietly let me know the message was VERY appreciated. But nothing else happened.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

    Actually, I don’t think Oaks was pointing out the need to testify to atheists at all. Re-read his statement. What he is in fact saying is – “look the atheists aren’t interested in learning about God, but there are plenty of OTHER people who are.” Almost seems like he’s writing you off…

    That was my first impression too, but as I thought about it (I had plenty of time to think about it as I transcribed it) I wasn’t so sure anymore. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was optimistic. He might be writing atheists off, though. Either way, it’s still interesting.

    As for the cultish groupthink… Are we really that cultish Jonathan?

    And if so, are we any more cultish than your last employer-mandated company retreat? Or youth summer football camp? Or the Sierra Club?

    Cultishness is a spectrum. All of those things you mentioned fall somewhere in the spectrum, just like the LDS church. I’m not going to say that the LDS church is a cult. It has its cultish aspects.

    As for the statement “I know”… It’s never been my favorite and I never use it in bearing testimony. Last testimony meeting, I actually read a passage from the D&C on spiritual gifts – and how they are different for everyone – and flatly admitted that I don’t “know” whether all this stuff is true, predicted that there were others like me in the audience, and pointed out that according to the D&C passage I had just read, not everyone in the audience is even going to get the opportunity to “know” for themselves.

    I commend you for your honesty. I never had the guts to say what I really thought while I was in the church. With the greater availability of information that casts doubt on the claims of the church, I think the church is going to need to accommodate itself to the idea of accepting people who don’t “know” and don’t ever expect to.

  4. BEEHIVE said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 3:39 pm


    You know, my PB said that sharing my testimony would bring me comfort and joy. Would that be because I would be lying to myself?

    About children. I am having somewhat guilty feelings about encouraging the belief in Santa Clause to my son. Because I know the truth about him, I can’t bare the day when I will have to fess up. I wonder if parents within the church, but don’t believe, feel the same way. Will they be destroyed when they have to explain that the church is not true?

  5. Lincoln Cannon said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    Ah, come on. Santa exists! I am Santa . . . and my kids know it.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    You know, my PB said that sharing my testimony would bring me comfort and joy. Would that be because I would be lying to myself?

    In my fake-it moments, I did feel a sense of relief. It was like someone was prodding me saying “Now that wasn’t so hard was it.” No, it wasn’t so hard to profess knowledge of something that I didn’t really know, and it felt good to be part of the group. Maybe I did know after all, I thought to myself. That nagging feeling that I wasn’t being completely honest never went away for good.

    I wonder if parents within the church, but don’t believe, feel the same way. Will they be destroyed when they have to explain that the church is not true?

    This is what prompted me to investigate the church more deeply. I wanted to be completely honest with my children. I couldn’t say with complete honesty that I “knew” that Mormonism was true, but I wanted to be able to.

    I’m not such a non-believing-yet-participating parent, but I imagine many of them signal their feelings in subtle ways.

  7. Seth R. said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

    If my kids ask about Santa, I say he’s a mostly fictional character. My daughter doesn’t think Bugs Bunny is a real character, she doesn’t think Dora the Explorer is a real character. What basis does she have for thinking Santa is any more real – unless we parents intervene and encourage such notions? If she asks about it, I’ll tell her, he’s was a member of the medieval Church in Turkey who did some good stuff and died a long time ago. The other stuff is just pretend.

    As for Christ, of course I tell her he was a real person, and of course I believe in the miracles and will teach her likewise.

    Any parent who thinks they are going to raise their own kids without forcing their own biases on the little tykes is just fooling themselves. In fact, letting your kids choose for themselves is even more damaging than imposing your belief system on them. My kids may grow up to resent my religion. They may rebel against me. But even then, at least they’ll have a direction in life – a point of reference. I’m doing them a favor.

    Better than some so-called open-minded parents who essentially feed the kids to the wolves and tell them to sort out their own beliefs – in spite of the fact that the kid is freaking FIVE YEARS OLD and hasn’t got the first idea of how to form a belief system. Kids come into the world naturally looking to mom and dad to give them some direction. Refusing to provide that direction isn’t just bad parenting, it’s irresponsible and mean.

    Parents need to grow a spine and realize that parenting isn’t some cosmopolitan personal vanity project. It isn’t about whether you appear to be fair, or whether you look “open-minded,” or whether you’re “the cool dad,” or whether you’re meeting some self-help book’s guidelines. It’s about raising kids. And it really isn’t about you.

    Who cares if you end up looking like some close-minded zealot? The point is whether the kids turned out all right. Loss of “hipness” is a small price to pay for well-raised kids.

  8. Matt said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

    Great post, Jonathan. I really enjoyed it. Wish I could have had it to read last Sunday but this will do just fine.

    Reminds me that the entire church is built on witness testimony of the sort:

    Interro: So tell me, did you see it with you physical eyes or with your spiritual eyes?
    Witless: What’s the difference?

    And this then is the core of the issue. Religon has a private vocabulary with special definitions for words like “testimony”, “witness”, “truth”, “knowlege”, etc which it controls … and holds perpetualy outside the reach of science or other forms of secular inquiry by virtue of their so-called religious context.

    But I much prefer Thomas Paine’s take … that such is a form of lying and what mischief can arise when a man lies to himself so completely.

  9. Matt said,

    April 7, 2008 @ 11:30 pm


    In this Oaks speech and elsewhere (eg. between sessions BYUtv ran a special on Henry Eyring) is a repeated association with science. Clearly this is a message that the church is pushing: “true science and true religion … come and get it. -A message from the Chuch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ‘The Mormons’”

    Unlike you, Jonathan, I was unfortunate enough to have listened to both Sunday sessions. It just kept striking me that what the Mormons have mastered is the ability to thoroughly mainstream the outward appearance and other aspects that scream respectability. I found myself listeneing to the words wondering how such a respectable-looking-sounding human being could be saying such things with so much grim certainty. It just boggles — and what’s worse: but a few years ago I was totally on the take. No so long ago, Oaks was my idea of true LDS intellectualism.

  10. Green Oasis » Freethinking Parenting said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 5:42 am

    [...] recently expressed some opinions about freethought parenting. It’s a topic worthy of it’s own post, so I’ll respond here. Any parent who [...]

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 5:49 am


    As you may have noticed, I responded in a post.


    Exactly. If someone accepts “spiritual” witnesses as valid, at least they should acknowledge that they are not the same as physical, openly observable facts. Let’s be at least that honest with ourselves.

    I used to like Oaks, too. It still boggles my mind once in a while that I believed the way I did without examining the assumptions that underlaid my beliefs. To be honest, I should have followed up on my nagging questions that were pointing to those assumptions, but I was too caught up in the idea that questioning implied doubt, a fatal character flaw.

  12. Lincoln Cannon said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 7:38 am

    How much of your perspective on this matter is self-flagelation for your own sins of interpreting your religion in a manner that required you to lie to yourself? I’m asking this intending neither apologetics for the LDS Church, nor any kind of assumption that the LDS Church has no responsibility in these matters.

  13. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 8:01 am


    That’s an excellent question that I’ll have to ruminate on for a while before I’ll have a solid answer. Examining my unconscious biases is hard work.

    My first reaction is to wonder what the difference is between self-flagellation and saying “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

    My conscious feelings when I contemplate my past beliefs is one of surprise and amazement, not so much remorse. I do wish I had found out earlier, but my life is what it is and can only unfold in time as circumstances permit. To find peace, I need to let it be.

  14. Matt said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    I’m not really looking for peace ’cause this seems to be the quest that led me astray to start with. I’m looking for trouble … I’m convinced that in this world the pursuit of truth always brings trouble … you know, kinda like what our ancestors who joined the church were willing to endure.

    Peace is for the dead. ;)

    Lincoln, I’d really like to hear about the type of interpretation which does not require the big lie. You know, the “righteous” as opposed to the so-called “sinful” interpretation.

  15. BEEHIVE said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    “Ah, come on. Santa exists! I am Santa . . . and my kids know it.”

    O.K. Santa, I will be sending you my son’s list come Dec. :)

  16. Lincoln Cannon said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    Hi Matt. I have observed many ways to understand, participate in and feel the inspiration of Mormonism without lying to one’s self — which is not to say I haven’t observed dishonest approaches to the faith. I won’t pretend to be capable of outlining such an understanding to you here in a few words, but invite you to visit the web site linked from my name if you really want to find out how honestly crazy I am.

  17. Lincoln Cannon said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    Beehive, I invite you to become a disciple of Santa and manifest Santa in you.

  18. Matt said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 2:31 pm


    Does a man who is lying to himself know the truth of it? I expect not, At least not until his lie has been exposed to him and therein lies the catch. This is the reason that folks like Jonathan and I speak of being boggled by our past beliefs.

  19. Jacob said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

    But really, when we think about it, we know that quarks exist. Brian Greene (and several others) know that strings exist. Where’s the really proof? Almost all of particle physics in conjecture.

  20. Jacob said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    Man, I can’t spell today. Drop the extra ‘ly’, please!

  21. Matt said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    “almost all of partical physics is conjecture”

    Other than the rather ridiculously uninformed sensationalism of this comment … And? Is there something here you think can be generalized to the epistemology of science?

    BTW, did Brian Greene say he “knows” that quarks or strings exist?

  22. Kari said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 8:26 am


    Having been through the exact same experiences you have outlined on this blog (which I only recently discovered), I would recommend that you read “On Being Certain” by Robert Burton. He does an excellent job outlining the whole concept of knowledge and certainty as simply an expression of our underlying neurobiological circuitry, and discussing why we may feel we are certain about things, despite evidence to the contrary. As a neurologist myself I felt that he did an excellent job outlining and summarizing much of the scientific evidence in explaining belief in this manner.

    One of the most fascinating studies on belief and certainty was done by Ulric Neisser, and referenced by Burton. Neisser asked the students in his psychology classes, in the days immediately following the explosion the Challenger in 1986, their memories; where they were, what they were doing, how they felt, what they saw, etc. Two and a half years later he interviewed them and asked them about their memories of the Challenger disaster. What he found was that almost none of them remember things the way they had described them in their original description. And almost all were convinced that their current memories were the “right” ones. One student even went so far as to say, “yes, that’s my handwriting, but that’s not how it was.”

    If these students could feel so certain that they were “right”, what does that say about our abilities as humans to “know” anything about God based purely upon feelings, or “a still, small voice”?

    The book is a fascinating read, and I would highly recommend it.

  23. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 8:07 am


    Thanks for the recommendation. It’s now on my local library’s hold shelf waiting for me. :)

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