Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mormon epistemology, part 2

Before I share the email I wrote about James 1:5, I want to share a few things I've heard from Mormons themselves about how they came to be Mormons.

They all rely on a subjective experience to substantiate their beliefs, but they don't all describe the subjective experience in the same way. Some describe it solely in terms of their subjective experience, and some say it is a combination of their subjective experience and the evidence for the Book of Mormon.

Most Mormons who have explained their subjective experience to me explain it in terms of some sort of feeling or emotion. A Mormon friend of mine has tried to explain it to me a few times. The last time, I had a chance to ask her questions about it. She would explain something, and I'd say, "So you basically base it on your feelings?" And then she would explain some more, and I'd ask the same question. She didn't dispute that it was based on her feelings. She just seemed to think I wasn't getting it and needed more explanation. But she did explicitly use the word "feelings" to describe her experience then and in previous conversations. She did tell me in one of our conversations (or email; I don't remember) that it's something I would have to experience for myself before I could understand it.

Just last Friday, a Mormon explained to me how she came to be a Mormon. She said she grew up in the LDS church, and around the age of 12, she began to have doubts. After struggling with the doubts and praying about it, she had a profound experience that caused her to believe. While trying to explain her experience she said that it was not a feeling. She just said that when she reads Paul, she can't help but love him, and she has the same experience when she reads the Book of Mormon.

Later in the conversation, she started giving me objective reasons to believe the Book of Mormon was true. She pointed out the Hebrew chiasmus poetry found in the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith could not have known about. And she pointed to Smith's lack of education in comparison to his prolific writing as evidence that the Spirit was teaching him. She didn't say whether these things had any bearing on her belief. She may have just been trying to give me reasons to believe. After all, the reasons we believe things are not always the reasons we give other people to believe. One might use an alibi to prove their innocence, but the alibi is not why the person believes in their own innocence.

The first Mormon missionaries I talked to over ten years ago wanted me to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, and they told me God would reveal the truth of it to me. I didn't read the whole Book of Mormon back then, but I did pray about it. I had a rather negative feeling about it at the time. Recently, I have read the whole Book of Mormon and no longer feel the need to pray about it. I'll say more about that in a future blog entry.

I talked to some Mormon missionaries about a year ago, and we talked for at least an hour just about epistemology. They based their beliefs entirely on their subjective experience. I asked them what they thought about FARMS, which is a Mormon apologetics organization that attempts to defend the Book of Mormon using objective evidence. One of them told me they thought FARMS was misguided, because their beliefs were not supposed to be based on objective evidence, but on the witness of the Holy Ghost. He even went so far as to say that no evidence or argument could overturn his belief. If I could show him from the Bible that Mormonism was false, that would just cause him to have doubts about the Bible. I am not kidding.

Lastly, as I've mentioned before, the Mormon fellow I had the email exchange with told me that his beliefs are based on a combination of his subjective experiences and the objective evidence. He said that one, by itself, could lead a person astray.

Part 3


At 10/01/2008 1:35 PM , Blogger Alma said...

The problem with your explanation of Mormons' subjective experiences, is that your own conclusions are likewise based upon subjective interpretations of scripture. Everybody likes to say that just take what's written, but in reality, everyone has a paradigm that is colored by bias, individual experience, and preference. You may think your perspective is objective, but it's as subjective as any Mormon's.

At 10/01/2008 2:27 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Alma, I think you and I are using "subjective" and "objective" in different senses. You seem to be using "subjective" to mean "influenced by bias, etc.," and "objective" to mean "free from bias, etc." That is not the sense in which I'm using the words. By "subjective," in this context, I mean, "first person private," and by "objective," I mean "third person public."

I guess all knowledge is subjective in the sense that it happens strictly in the mind and that it's first person private. We have the subjective world of the mind that every sentient being experiences, and then we have the objective world that exists outside the mind. But what connects the subjective mind with the objective world?

In my view, what connects the two is warrant, or justification, or reasons, etc. The distinction I made in this post between subjective experiences and objective evidences assumes this connection. If something happens purely in the mind with no warrant, justification, or reasons to connect it with the reality outside of the mind, then that's what I mean by a "purely subjective experience."

You seem to be suggesting that a person whose belief is based purely on a subjective experience is on the same epistemic level as somebody who tests their subjective notions against an external standard such as the Bible. While I can agree that biases and preconceived notions can contribute to our interpretation of the Bible, it seems obvious to me that such an effort is less subjective in your sense than relying purely on a subjective experience.

If studying the Bible were as subjective as you claim it is, then nobody would ever change their beliefs as a result of reading the Bible. They would always interpret the Bible in a way that is consistent with what they already believe.

But even the most liberal scholars will acknowledge that the Bible is not that ambiguous. Bias doesn't leave us at a complete loss as to what anybody who writes anything means. We can test our preconceived notions against vocabulary, grammar, syntax, context, etc. A person's interpretation may not always be perfect. Misunderstandings happen. But understandings happen, too.

My own conversion to Calvinism disproves your contention. I converted to Calvinism in spite of every bias and preconceived notion against it because the arguments and the words of the Bible convinced me.

Suppose two people wanted to find out whether there were any cookies in the cookie jar. One of them had a dream, and in the dream they saw clearly that there were cookies in the cookie jar. The other actually went and looked in the cookie jar. Which of them do you suppose is more justified in their belief about the contents of the cookie jar?

At 10/01/2008 10:56 PM , Blogger Alma said...

Rather than tying the meaning of subjective and objective to bias, I’m using the dictionary definitions: “of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers” is objective knowledge while subjective refers to an individual’s perception which may not be observable to others. You might think George Bush is a bad president. That’s subjective based on a perception. If you think George Bush is President of the United States, that’s objective because it is perceptible to everyone.

You seem to be suggesting that a person whose belief is based purely on a subjective experience is on the same epistemic level as somebody who tests their subjective notions against an external standard such as the Bible.

That’s exactly what I’m suggesting; because your choice to use the Bible as an external standard is entirely subjective. And the fact that people change their beliefs as a result of reading the Bible is a perfect example of subjective experience. Everyone who reads the Bible doesn’t become a Calvinist; and Calvinists have become Catholics and Mormons and Methodists. If reading the Bible were an objective perception everyone would become a Mormon—or something else.

I believe your analogy to the cookie jar falls short. When an angel of God appeared to Joseph “in a dream” should he have acted on the instructions he received in that “subjective” experience? When Paul saw the Lord on the road to Damascus—a subjective experience because no one else saw Him, I think the information was more pertinent than whether or not someone dreams about a cookie jar.

At 10/02/2008 1:26 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Alma, feelings, burnings, etc. are purely subjective because they are first person private. The Bible, on the other hand, is an objective source of information because it is third person public. Only you can experience your feelings, but both of us can look at the Bible.

If your feelings tell you one thing, and my feelings tell me something else, we are at an impasse. But if you interpret the Bible one way and I interpret it another way, there's room for debate. We can present evidence and argument to substantiate our respective views.

In the case of a purely subjective feeling, there is no justification, warrant, grounds, or anything to connect the feeling with the reality outside the mind. In the case of Biblical exegesis, there is justification, grounds, and warrant for connecting ones interpretation with the reality outside the mind.

The cookie analogy fits. In the case of a dream about the cookie jar, a person has nothing to connect his subjective experience with extra-mental reality. In the case of the person who looks in the cookie jar, he has grounds for connecting his mental belief with extra-mental reality.

The mere fact that people disagree does not render all interpretations equally valid or subjective. And it certainly doesn't render Biblical interpretation just as subjective as relying on a feeling. All it demonstrates is that people make mistakes. The mere fact that some people make mistakes is no indication that all of our opinions are equally valid or subjective.

When an angel of God appeared to Joseph “in a dream” should he have acted on the instructions he received in that “subjective” experience?

Assuming it happened, Joseph Smith should've tested his experience with the scriptures. After all, Paul said that "even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). And John said, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1).

At 10/03/2008 6:50 PM , Blogger Alma said...

I didn’t say anything about feelings or burnings. I referred to dreams, just as you did—but in a biblical context. I’m a little pleased that when I referred to “Joseph” being visited by an angel of God in a dream, you thought I was referring to Joseph Smith rather than Joseph the husband of Mary. (You completely ignored my reference to Paul’s vision.) Now, let’s see if you’re consistent. When you thought it referred to Joseph Smith, you said he needed to “test his experience with the scriptures.” Given that I was referring to Joseph the husband of Mary, how would you suggest he could have tested the angel’s instructions? And, since we’re still talking about a purely subjective experience, why do you accept the account of his vision? Why do you accept any of the supernatural events found in the Bible? I submit that it is entirely upon subjective feelings, nothing more.

The cookie analogy doesn’t fit because you begin with the a priori assumption that the dream is merely happenstance. But if you begin from the perspective of an authentic vision (entirely subjective) did Joseph (husband of Mary) experience something real? Was there "justification, warrant, grounds" for him to take his family to Egypt?

I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they know they are saved. When I ask them how they know, they tell me: “Because the Bible tells me so.” When we look at the passages they’re relying on, we find their interpretation is even more subjective than the experience a Mormon might relate. The fact that it’s debatable doesn’t make it any less subjective and it certainly removes it from being objective.

I am interested in knowing what scripture you think Joseph Smith should have used to test against his experience with either God the Father and the Son, or with Moroni?

At 10/03/2008 10:12 PM , Blogger Sam said...

I didn’t say anything about feelings or burnings. I referred to dreams, just as you did—but in a biblical context.

The disagreement between us is whether a purely subjective experience (i.e. something that happens solely in the mind) can justify a belief about reality outside of the mind. Dreams and feelings are alike in this sense. That's why I used the cookie jar analogy. It illustrates that a person who can connect what is in his mind with what is in reality has a more justified belief than a person who cannot connect what is in their mind with what is in reality.

You completely ignored my reference to Paul’s vision.

Paul's vision was not subjective in the sense I've been using. This event didn't just happen in his mind because his companions heard a voice (Acts 9:7) and saw the light (Acts 22:9) and they fell to the ground (Acts 25:14). Clearly this wasn't something that just happened in Paul's mind.

Dreams, on the other hand, happen solely in the mind. The only way to connect what happens in a dream with what happens in reality is to have some justifying reason to do so. Otherwise it's purely subjective, and there's no warrant for thinking it's anything other than a dream.

Given that I was referring to Joseph the husband of Mary, how would you suggest he could have tested the angel’s instructions?

If anything the angel said to him contradicted anything in the scriptures, Joseph could have known the angel was not from God. If God intended for Joseph to marry Mary, he would've done whatever was necessary to cause Joseph to do so. Apparently the dream was enough. But I suspect Joseph had also heard about Mary's experience before he had the dream. He had that to go on. Plus, he would've been familiar enough to know that everything was consistent with the scriptures--he was from the family of David, he was from Bethlehem, etc.

And, since we’re still talking about a purely subjective experience, why do you accept the account of his vision? Why do you accept any of the supernatural events found in the Bible? I submit that it is entirely upon subjective feelings, nothing more.

I believe in God because of the philosophical arguments for his existence, and believe God to be the God of Jesus because of the historical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus. I accept the new and old testament cannon on the authority of the early church. There's no feeling involved.

Was there "justification, warrant, grounds" for him to take his family to Egypt?

I don't think we have all the details of what happened, but just based on what we do have, I think Joseph had plenty of warrant for connecting his dream with reality. First, nothing about the dream contradicted anything in the scriptures. Second, given that Herod had a violent streak concerning threats to his throne, Joseph probably would've been warranted in hiding even without an angelic visitation. Third, Joseph had already had one dream with an angel, which would've given him warrant in trusting future similar dreams.

The fact that it’s debatable doesn’t make it any less subjective...

Of course it does. A thing can only be debatable if there are evidences and arguments that one can appeal to. If something is purely subjective, there are no such evidences and arguments. Evidences and arguments are open to third person examination.

I am interested in knowing what scripture you think Joseph Smith should have used to test against his experience with either God the Father and the Son, or with Moroni?

I don't think Joseph Smith had any such experiences, but assuming he did, he should've used all of the scriptures. If anything revealed to him in these visions contradicted anything in the scriptures, Smith should've known that it was not God or an angel from God who was speaking to him. As for us, we can look at all the things revealed to Joseph Smith to determine that he was not a prophet of God. As you can imagine, a whole book could be written on the subject (and probably has been). I plan to post some blog entries on it in the future, so I'm not going to go into detail in the comment section. You can respond when I post those blog entries.

Alma, if you think feelings alone are enough to justify a belief, how do you decide whose feeling has more authority? How do you determine the propositional content behind a feeling? Why would you rely on your own feelings instead of a Muslim's? What reason do you have to think your feeling has anything to do with reality? If you and I are on equal footing epistemologically, then why do you disagree with me?

At 10/04/2008 11:06 AM , Blogger Paul said...

I was thinking you two might be talking past each other.

Sam is talking about assessing truth merely based on feelings vs. the examination of external things. Alma is saying that even the external things are understood or accepted through the filter of our intrinsic subjectivity, e.g., whether we come to a feeling in our heart, a vision, or the Bible, we bring our own biases and interpretive filters to bear.

Some points:

The Mormon seems to be implying that feeling/experience = truth, i.e., if you have an experience at all, then it trumps all other considerations. Included is the experience of Joseph Smith and his alleged visitation: since he had a vision, it must be a true vision. These assumptions about experience seem to me to be the primary problem with the Mormon ideology. It is a non sequitur, especially given the fact that they have a source of authority (the Bible) that warns that bad ideas/experiences can and will present themselves. Experience should be subjected to the same scrutiny that we apply to texts and philosophies. Mormons prove again and again that it is not: the experience trumps everything, including reason itself.

Since the Christian and Mormon have the Bible in common, and it is an external thing that we might inspect and debate, then that seems the most sensible touchstone even if our biases may cause us to lean in different directions in our interpretations. There is at least something to debate, unlike with feelings. It is impossible to argue over whose feelings are stronger and more genuine. One may as well argue over what it feels like to be a rock. It also seems that if Mormons actually hold the Bible to be Scripture, then they should at least, in principle, be able to agree that any experiences we have must not run contrary to its clear teaching. But they cannot say this unless they first admit that some experiences can be inauthentic or deceptions. That, then, gives grounds for questioning their own experiences. The Christian claim is that both our personal experiences and interpretations of Scripture can be flawed, and what Alma has said only confirms this idea.

Regarding the biblical visitations, it is not the case that every instance was accepted without question. Zacharias (John the Baptizer's father) asked of the angel, "How will I know this for certain?" and Gideon demanded many signs. Even Paul was blinded for days and then received miraculous restoration of his sight before receiving the full teaching of the Gospel and baptism by a follower of Jesus. Even so, as Sam points out, none of these people were receiving something contrary to the themes of the Scripture that they previously accepted. None of them were hearing angels say that the entire system had gotten muddled and needed an overhaul, as Smith asserted. The closest to that was the idea that the people had turned aside from it (e.g., John would "turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God"), but not that the Lord their God was something entirely different than what they had taken Him to be all this time. Paul's conversion was the closest to a radical change of mind, but he was simply coming around to the warranted conclusion (I bet he knew all about the powerful preaching and miracles) that Jesus was, after all, the long awaited Messiah. We contend, though, that the Mormon teaching is not harmonious with the grand themes of Scripture or the consensus of the church fathers.

At 10/06/2008 10:12 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam and Alma,

Interesting conversation; I am enjoying it. However, I do think Alma has raised some points that are not adequately addressed. While Mormonism may be slightly more subjective (using the term as you defined it, Sam) it is so statistically insignificant as to the subjectivity of this described Christianity as to make no difference. Like saying one person is 55.3% subjective and the other is 55.4% subjective. Is there that much difference between the subjectivity?

There are three (3) points I would touch on:

1) The Bible.
2) The use of sola Scriptura
3) Dreams.

The Bible

Sam, you said:

Sam: The Bible, on the other hand, is an objective source of information because it is third person public.

Sam: I accept the new and old testament cannon on the authority of the early church.

I would disagree that “The Bible” is as objective as painted here. First of all, “the Bible” is a collection of separate books. But it is disputed which books are to be included amongst various churches in Christianity. There is some subjectivity even in picking the books. While it may not be your subjectivity, it was someone’s subjectivity at one time.

And you indicated you accepted the canon of “the early church.” Which “early church”? This is a very broad time period. If you picked the canon of the church of 100’s as compared to the 200’s as compared to the 300’s CE, you would find very different canons.

By what objective method did you determine which exact moment in time within “the early church” the canon you determined to be incorporated in your Bible? And how is it that the Protestant canon developed? They picked the most popular books read in the churches which agreed with their doctrine!

To give an analogy, imagine if someone decided to come up with an “official” hymnal. They decide to use the songs that most (but not all) churches liked to sing. However, the only churches included in consideration were the Baptists, ‘cause the other churches were heretical. Is this an objective (third-person public) means of determining what books are to be allowed, or is there some “feelings” or first-person private determination being made?

You made a key statement (in my opinion):

Sam: The mere fact that people disagree does not render all interpretations equally valid or subjective.

I agree. However, I would also state the opposite as well: The fact some people agree does not make interpretations (or in this case—the canon--) objective either. Otherwise you determine objectivity by majority opinion. Which would cause a conflict with the idea of opinion being subjective. If enough subjective opinions agree-does it become objective?

Secondly, even if we manage to agree on the books, there is subjective opinion as to determining the original writing of the book. This area includes the tension between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, the Documentary hypothesis, authorship and dating of the books of the Tanakh, as well as the language, the content, the dating and the authorship of the books of the New Testament.

Thirdly—if we agree on the books, and the original wording, we introduce subjective opinion as to the translation of those words, thanks to Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek all being dead languages. You are quite aware of the discussion between YEC’s and OEC’s regarding the “correct” translation of “yom” (“day”) of Genesis 1. We don’t know what “Raca” actually was in Aramaic (hence the reason most translations simply leave it “Raca” rather than attempt to translate this Aramaic word). And one of the most key words, if not THE key word when it comes to the Bible as a source is theopneustos of 2 Tim. 3:16. “God-breathed” or “inspired by God.” A made up word, created by combining two words. While we can speculate what those words mean, it is still a speculative (dare I say “subjective”) determination.

Think about someone reading our English. “Chalkboard”—a word made up of two words, “chalk” and “board.” Because we know, we understand this to mean a certain material that one can write on with “chalk.” But now take “whiteboard.” Would this word mean one writes on it with “white”? In fact, absent knowing what it was, most would presume the color of the writing on it is “white.” If we knew “whiteboard” only, we would presume a “chalkboard” was the color of chalk. It is not. If we knew “chalkboard” only, we would presume a “whiteboard” was written on with “white.” It is not.

And don’t even get me started on “blackboard” which is neither black, nor written on by black! *grin*

Fourthly, as pointed out by Alma—even if we agree on the books, agree on the words, agree on the translations, we are still left with interpretation issues. Was Exodus intended to be historical or allegorical? Or the events in Joshua and Judges? Or Noah’s Flood? Is 1 Tim. 2:8-15 limited to the culture of the time, or is it still applicable today? Or are only parts still applicable today? What parts of Acts of the Apostles contain doctrine, what parts contain description and what parts are not historical at all?

I question how some people agreeing on some things about some parts of some books becomes a third-person objective standard.

Now, you may point out that Mormons and Christians use the same Bible, as in the same canon, the same writings, the same translations and even some of the same interpretations. So in the discussion between Mormons and Christians, there would be more agreement, and hence more objectivity when using the term “The Bible.”

I would agree. I am writing this more as an outsider (a way, WAY outsider), who sees little difference in the subjectivity between the two groups.

Sola Scriptura

I know you did not use this exact term, but you mentioned Joseph should have “tested his experience with the Scriptures” regarding his dreams; I am spring boarding off of that. If you believe there is more in determining what God is communicating today, then please understand I am not speaking directly of your position. Obviously, if you think there is more, this introduces the question of “what is that?” and how objective that extra-communication is.

Again, I see the use of this method as subjective. While we can objectively determine what “sola scripture” IS; the question remains whether applying this method is subjective (based upon feelings) or objective (third-person public).

Look, this “burning in the bosom.” Does anyone really have a question as to what this means? We understand it to be a strong feeling, a compulsion, an extra-ordinary experience. We are able to communicate with each other, using this term, and while we may not be able to exactly frame it, the communication is effective. It is “third-person public” by the fact the public understands the meaning.

In the same way sola scriptura is understandable in the third-person public. We can communicate it. Yet the deeper question is whether its application is objective or subjective. Does God condone slavery? Does God condone polygamy? Does God condone genocide in certain instances? If ALL we used was sola scripture--then one would have to answer these questions “yes.” Instead I see people using their societal impacted conscience to attempt to dance around these questions to come up with different answers than just “yes.”

Further, sola scriptura is self-defeating. If all we used was the Bible, then to determine the canon, we would need the Bible to make that determination for us. As you know, there is no list of the books in any book in the Bible. (If there was—it would raise the issue of question-begging.)

Instead, what determined the canon was Church authority. (As you pointed out.) But if church authority is valid to determine what is inspired, we lose the sola in sola scriptura since it wasn’t the only thing used to determine God’s communication to us! It is a curious thing indeed when questioned as to how we get our canon, we are informed “church authority;” yet when asked what we use to determine God’s desires, we are told we cannot use “church authority.”

Is “church authority” subjective or objective?

What if God came to you in a dream? Actually did. And said, “Sam, I have had it with the Apocalypse of John in the New Testament. I would think by now, you all understood that to be the writings of a mad person. Please inform the world the cut that book out!”

Now, under sola scriptura you would have to reject this revelation. Yet there is nothing in sola scriptura preventing it from occurring, OR preventing it from being true! There is nothing in sola scriptura mandating Revelation must be in the canon. How do you test this with your experience with scripture?


I, too, was caught with “Joseph.” I thought Alma was referring to Joseph Smith as well.

What “scriptures” would you have Joseph test his experience? You indicated Joseph would know this was consistent with the scriptures because he was from the line of David, from Bethlehem, etc.

But wait a minute—Christian interpretations of Jewish scriptures was a radical departure from the Judaism of the time. The reason most Jews rejected the notion of Jesus being the Messiah! How can we say Joseph would have gained this new insight into a much different interpretation of the Tanakh? Look at these points you raised:

1) Joseph from Bethlehem. Even if he was (questionable based on Luke 2:4), there is a question as to the interpretation of this prophecy. Micah 5:1-2 talks of Messiah coming out of “Bethlehem Ephrathah”—little among thousands of Judah. The question is whether this meant a city, a clan or an individual. Even agreement it had to do with the Messiah leaves it open whether it necessitated the messiah come from the city of Bethlehem.

2) Joseph from David. Yes, but the genealogy of Matthew 1 indicates Jeconiah as one of Joseph’s ancestors, raising the issue as to Joseph being able to have the Messiah. See here for an explanation of the problem, and a possible resolution. And if we claim Joseph knew Mary was through the line of David, we have the problem of Solomon not being in Mary’s line. Luke 3:31 (assuming different genealogies) See here for an explanation of the problem.

3) Born of a virgin. Would Joseph have used the Septuagint or the Masoretic text when testing this with the scripture? (I presume you are familiar with this problem.)

4) Isaiah 7:14 says his name would be “Immanuel.” An angel that said “Call him Jesus” would, by testing the Tanakh—be wrong.

There is a great deal of hindsight speculation as to what Joseph could have tested or not.

Again, while I see some objectivity—we can communicate the terms “Bible” and “burning in the bosom” so that third-party public understands what is being communicated, I see a great deal of subjectivity in using these objective events. Even on an individual basis.

Is “burning in the bosom” all that different from William L. Craig’s “inner witness of the Holy Spirit” where he says:

“By that I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as "God exists," "I am condemned by God," "I am reconciled to God," "Christ lives in me," and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity's truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it. “



Alma: I am interested in knowing what scripture you think Joseph Smith should have used to test against his experience with either God the Father and the Son, or with Moroni?

I, too, am interested in this question and look forward to your future blog entry.

At 10/07/2008 12:13 PM , Blogger Sam said...


You, Paul, and Alma have convinced me that I'm just not being clear. If I was being clear, I don't see how you could disagree with me. You, especially, seem to completely misunderstand how I'm using the words "objective" and "subjective." Let me try one more time, and this time, let's just forget about the words "objective" and "subjective." Instead, let's just look at two ways of arriving at beliefs.

All thinking, feeling, believing, knowing, experiencing, perceiving, etc., goes on in the mind. There's no doubt about that.

And there's no doubt that there is some sort of reality. Reality is what is so. Unless we are all solipsists, there is a reality that exists outside of our minds. There's the external world, for example.

Before a person can know something about reality, the belief in their mind must correspond to the reality outside their mind. But that, by itself, isn't enough. There also has to be some kind of connection between what goes on in the mind and what goes on in reality. Reality has to have something to do with what is going on in the mind. If there is a complete disconnect, then it's just a coincidence that the mind corresponds to reality.

When a belief corresponds to reality, the belief is true. When there is some justification for connecting the belief with the reality, and the belief is true, there is knowledge. I'm just using the classical notions of truth a correspondence with reality, and knowledge as justified true belief.

In the case of a dream, a feeling, an impression, an adrenaline rush, or whatever, when taken by itself, there is a disconnect between that mental experience and reality. There's nothing to connect the two. A strong feeling that a Mormon gets that the BOM is true may cause the Mormon to become absolutely certain, but without something to connect the experience with reality, he can hardly call it knowledge.

In the case of somebody who examines the BOM, looks at the evidence, etc., he's got something to connect his mental belief about the BOM with the reality of the BOM itself. He's got reasons, evidence, warrant, grounds, etc. That's what connects the mind with reality. That's what makes beliefs justified.

Surely it's obvious that a person who has reasons, grounds, warrant, justification, etc., to connect his belief with reality is on better epistemological footing that somebody who only has mental phenomenon with no connection to reality. I don't see how anybody can seriously dispute that.

Of course I'm not claiming that anybody can examine evidence without the influence of bias. And I'm certainly not claiming that a person who has reasons and evidence to back up their beliefs is infallible.

I'm resisting the urge to give a point by point response to you because most of what you said is irrelevant to the point I've been trying to make, which seems to me to be a pretty modest point, and I don't see how any reasonable person could disagree with it.

At 10/08/2008 8:50 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam, three quick points:

First, I apologize for misunderstanding your point. I think I have it, but I hope you recognize I was not, in any way, attempting to misrepresent what you were saying.

I am still curious as to how you would respond to Dr. Craig. More quotes from the article I cited:
” A person who knows that Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Spirit may also have a sound apologetic which reinforces or confirms for him the Spirit's witness, but it does not serve as the fundamental way in which he knows Christianity to be true. If the arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences are successful, as I claim they are, then Christian belief is also warranted by such arguments and evidences for the person who grasps them, even if that person would still be warranted in their absence. Such a person is doubly warranted in his Christian belief, in the sense that he enjoys two sources of warrant. So evidential arguments on behalf of Christianity are, in my view, sufficient for knowledge of Christianity's truth but they are not necessary for knowledge of Christianity's truth. “ (emphasis in original)
“Must the ground for faith be evidence? That is the question. We've already seen that evidentialism is bankrupt. Many of the things we know are not based on evidence. So why must belief in God be so based? Belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel is not a blind exercise of faith, a groundless leap in the dark. Rather, as Plantinga emphasizes, Christian belief is part of the deliverances of reason, grounded in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, which is an objective reality mediated to me from God.
What is true is that evidence, as it is defined in these discussions, plays a secondary role compared to the role God Himself plays in warranting Christian belief.”
It would seem Dr. Craig holds the “inner witness” as being equally sufficient warrant for knowledge as evidence. In fact, he would appear to say evidence is secondary to this “inner witness.” I don’t see any difference between an “inner witness” and a burning in the bosom.

Do you think it is different? Or do you disagree with Dr. Craig?

Secondly, it may be I am giving more credence to this “burning of the bosom.” I am presuming (perhaps incorrectly) it is grounded in at least some rational, relational evidence. To utilize your cookie jar analogy.

On the one hand we have a dream about cookie jars having cookies in it. On the other, a person who looks in the cookie jar. It is not as if this dream is completely disconnected from reality. Cookie jars have been known to contain cookies! *grin* And on the second point, we are discussing a spiritual entity on a spiritual plane, inaccessible from our natural world. It is not as if we can look in the “God jar” and inspect God.

I would agree, however, if the person claimed they dreamed a cookie jar contained a live elephant, as compared to a person who argued about the displacement of an elephant as compared to the size of a cookie jar. I think the second person has the better argument.

It may be I see this “burning of the bosom” as being on par with the “I think God is…” I hear from so many Christians.

Thirdly, I see no difference between a person telling me of their belief based upon a feeling, and a person writing their belief. While not applicable to all of the Bible, there are certain passages that are little more than “I think…” 1 Cor. 7:1-16 comes readily to mind. That was (partly) the point I was attempting to make. Simply because we all can agree it is in The Bible, does not necessarily make this any more than written “burning” as compared to oral “burning.”

Sorry for the confusion.

At 10/08/2008 12:14 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Don't worry, Dagoods, I didn't think you were intentionally misrepresenting me. I just thought I wasn't being clear.

I know what you're talking about with Bill Craig. He's got a version of that article published in his book, Reasonable Faith, which I have, and he's taken a lot of criticism for his Holy Spirit epistemology.

I'm not entirely sure what Craig means by "witness of the Spirit." If he means to refer to the same sort of experience that Mormons do when they refer to their "burning in the bosom" or their "feelings" that things are true, then I disagree with him. I especially disagree with him that evidence could never overturn that witness. I think that's absurd.

But I don't think that's what Plantinga was arguing. Plantinga was arguing that belief in God is "properly basic" in the same way that our intuitive knowledge is properly basic. There are some items of knowledge we all have that don't require evidence before we can know them, and Plantinga thinks "God" fits into this category.

I haven't actually read Plantinga's books on Warrant. I'm just going on what I've read about Plantinga on this issue. The difference I see between foundationalism and Mormonism is that in foundationalism, there are certain items of knowledge that are just sort of built into our heads. We don't infer them from anything. We know them immediately upon reflection. There is no burning or feeling that we then interpret as the voice of God telling us something or anything like that. We simply find ourselves believing things. In Mormonism, the burning or feeling is interpreted as God telling us that something is true. I see no warrant for such an assumption, and much reason to doubt it. Feelings don't have propositional content, there's no way to determine what feeling is supposed to correspond with what proposition, there are plenty of plausible alternate explanations for these feelings, many people who have these sorts of feelings base contradictory opinions on them, these feelings are supposedly the basis for synthetic a posteriori items of knowledge, and these feelings lead people to believe things that I think the evidence indicates are mistaken.

At 10/09/2008 1:00 AM , Blogger Alma said...

I especially enjoyed DagoodS’ observations, and mostly agree with them. Unfortunately, the discussion has expanded to more comments than I have the time to adequately provide responses. So, I’d like to make a couple of observations:

I don’t think you’re characterizing the Mormon position appropriately when you say our reasons for belief are “feelings alone” or “merely based upon feelings.” As a practicing Mormon I would never agree that my reasons for faith were limited merely to feelings. You claim that you believe in Christ “because of the historical arguments for the resurrection,” and you accept the canon of the Bible by an appeal to authority. DagoodS pointed out how vague such an appeal really is; and I’d like to point out that the “historical arguments for the resurrection” ultimately rest in the reliability of the biblical texts--which turns out to be a circular argument at best. You accept the accounts of the resurrection as historical because you accept the authority of the early church—essentially you have a beginning point where you conclude: “I’m going to believe this” but I think you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s based upon “historical arguments.” While I fully believe that the Bible accounts are reliable, that belief rests in faith rather than history.

I think Paul missed the point of my questions since he thought it was pertinent to explain that Zacharias didn’t immediately believe the vision he received. My question was “Why do you accept the account of Joseph’s vision?” Indeed, why do you accept any of the supernatural accounts of the Bible? I suggest that the reason for believing them is no more objective than my reason for believing in Joseph Smith’s visions. And, Paul’s claim that my conclusion that “since he had a vision, it must be a true vision” is merely a straw man and a simplistic dismissal of elements he couldn’t possibly know about me.

Sam, you concluded one message by noting that you were resisting giving a point by point response because you had concluded that what DagoodS wrote was irrelevant. You might want to read it again more carefully. Your next sentence was keeper for people who collect instance of illogic: “…which seems to be a pretty modest point, and I don’t see how any reasonable person could disagree with it.” People who disagree with you aren’t necessarily unreasonable people. They might disagree with you because they’re unreasonable—or because you don’t see their argument clearly.

At 10/09/2008 2:13 AM , Blogger Sam said...

Alma, if you'll go back to my original post, you'll see that I haven't mischaracterized the Mormon position as being based on "feelings alone."

The historical argument for the resurrection does not rest on the authority of the new testament, so it is not a circular argument.

At 10/09/2008 9:32 AM , Blogger Alma said...

This is interesting, Sam. What "historical argument" for the resurrection of Christ exists outside the New Testament?

At 10/09/2008 10:54 AM , Blogger Sam said...

I'm not saying it doesn't use the NT as a source. I'm saying it doesn't depend on ascribing any authority to the new testament. It doesn't assume the NT is inspired, infallible, or anything like that. All it assumes is that the NT is a product of the early church and reflects the views of the authors.


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