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A Look at Mormon Epistemology

Posted by nebula0 on October 14, 2008


In a way, this is The Discussion, because almost every debate I have gotten in here and elsewhere has come down to the question of epistemology (meaning, the way we come to claim we know anything).  It’s a fascinating experience for me, because I have realized these past few days that this is precisely what I used to do as a Mormon as well.  I feel as though I am debating with my past self. 

Here’s an example of what I mean.  You can start with any opening topic, it will always end up doing the same thing:

Me: Take the nature of deity.  Does it make sense to have an infinite regress of dependent beings such as classical Mormon theology teaches?

Mormon: The idea of an infinite, immutable God is a Platonic construct, therefore I don’t need to pay attention to it.  I will pay attention only to special revelation.

Me: Platonic or not, who cares?  If it’s a valid argument it’s a valid argument.  And how do you know what special revelation that you can trust as representing reality if you haven’t thought through what the nature of deity is like in the first place?

Mormon: None of those proofs are bulletproof so they are all really just mere speculation by the minds of men.  We have to learn to listen to the Spirit if we are going to learn truth, why not learn it right from the source?

Me: But how do you know what you are hearing is really the voice of the Spirit and not you- your own beliefs being encoded into an experience?

Mormon: If you can’t trust your experiences, and you can’t trust reasoning, what can you trust?

Me: That’s precisely why reasoning is important.  Whether we like it or not, we have no unfettered direct access to reality through experience.  We have to take the chance and do the best we can at reasoning.

and so on…

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34 Responses to “A Look at Mormon Epistemology”

  1. Geoff J said

    Picking up where I left off at comment #39 in the last thread…

    Me: Take the nature of deity.

    This isn’t starting far enough back. Rather, let’s take the existence of deity instead. Why do you believe there is a God? If we can answer that we might be able to find epistemological common ground.

  2. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    It was an arbitrary starting point to demonstrate the workings of Mormon epistemology. I have spoken about why I believe in God in the first place– look up myk “Why does anything exist” post.

  3. Seth R. said

    Well… there’s an important concept that also needs to be in play here. It’s the idea of “shelving” ideas until we understand them better.

    Now, as a 12 year old Mormon boy, obviously I didn’t have the mental tools to profitably debate epistemology. Neither did I have those tools on my mission. But I did have a lifetime of experience living revealed principles, praying to the God I had been taught about, and living, listening to, and working with other people I respected who were committed.

    So I was committed too.

    Now, as I went through college, I found all sorts of new ideas and frameworks that were new to me.

    But each time, they fit with or were accommodated within my existing theological framework. Feminist literary criticism, Marxism, Social Contract, particle theory, Relativity, all of it. It all was successfully integrated as I encountered it. This tended to build confidence of course.

    However, some things I encountered did not jive, seemed to undermine and cast doubt upon things. Evolution was one of these things at first, for example.

    Well, my typical practice was to stop, take a bit of a breath, and “shelve” that item until I could really understand it fully. I wasn’t going to overhaul my entire belief system just because science was showing the earth was more than 6,000 years old (or whatever).

    As I went along learning in life, I encountered convincing Mormon frameworks as to how one need not believe in a “young earth” in order to be a believer in the Bible. This worked for me, and the problem was resolved.

    This has happened with many other things as well.

    Neo-Platonist theological lenses for the Bible have also occasionally challenged my view. However, I had learned in undergrad as a philosophy minor, that no philosopher is ever the “last word” on the subject. Each thinker is always challenged by later thinkers. And I knew that Platonism had, in fact been pretty severely challenged as well.

    Did this mean I fully understood the arguments? No. I wasn’t that great of a philosophy student. But it darn certain meant I wasn’t going to throw out my lived, experienced and revealed religion just because some ancient philosopher thought he had a pretty good argument against it.

    I shelved it.

    I would read Plato. I would take him seriously and try to understand what he was saying and what it meant. But I would compartmentalize him. Let him have validity in a mental quarantine chamber of sorts. And when I was fully ready to integrate him into the rest of my accepted and internalized belief system, I would. I do the same thing for Nietzsche.

    This does not mean I don’t learn. This does not mean I don’t take the philosophers seriously. But they are not allowed to change my accepted mental framework of the world until I am ready for them to do so.

    And, as it so happens, I have read several articles of Mormon theological writing that do severely question the neo-Platonist assumptions that underly traditional Christian thought.

    For one thing, I think the idea of a universe with a finite past is completely unsupportable. It doesn’t make any intuitive sense to me, and an analysis of the logic behind it doesn’t make any more sense.

    So in this case, my intuition anticipated my intellect. The intellect later verified what my intuition had already alerted me to.

  4. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    The question really becomes why this and why not that? And if the only answer you have is ‘my personal experiences’ why enter into public debate at all?

  5. Seth R. said

    Well, if a person is not equipped to debate complex logical proofs, he should not do so. If a person is not equipped to debate theology, she should not do so.

    That may describe me, I don’t know…

  6. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    But shouldn’t any ordinary person be interested in examing the basis of their belief system? Really the post is addressed to people who engage in debate, presumably with the intention of doing just that. THe debate far too often stalls at the get go with the protest that one’s personal experiences are the final arbiterse of the truth and therefore all else is irrelevant. From the outside it looks overly defensive and at the very least undermines the whole point of debate.

  7. Geoff J said

    Thanks for pointing me to that post nebula0. Based on it and your recent comment explaining your current agnostic position on the existence of God I can see that epistemology is a big issue right now for you.

    I certainly won’t be able to offer much much to affect your beliefs. I can say that most thoughtful Mormons I know choose to remain devout in their Mormonism because they place their intuitions/impressions/gut feelings/revelation as the foundation of their belief system. That is, they believe the revelations they have received from God. They believe the communications they receive telling them that God exists and that the scriptures are inspired by God and that God wants them to be actively engaged in Mormonism are accurate.

    Now you are right that there is a risk we theists are all wrong and that the atheists are right. I suppose that is why Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is listed as the first principle of the gospel.

  8. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    I believe that GOd exists. I really do. What I am agnostic about is where to go from here with it. The trinity is one possible route (obviously entailing Christianity more generally), or maybe Judaism, or… I’m spending a lot of time studying the Bible and thinking about matters as well as seeing what God has in store for me.

  9. Geoff J said

    Ah, well then maybe we do have a common place to start this epistemology conversation after all. So here are the key question:

    – Why do you believe God exists? Upon what do you base your belief? How convinced are you that God exists?

  10. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    That was the point of my “Why does anything exist?” thread.

  11. Geoff J said

    Really? I’ve reread that post and I am still wondering where you answer those questions.

    All I can gather from it is something like: “Stuff exists and I prefer to believe that some being poofed it into existence than to believe that all matter has no beginning.” Is that really all there is to your belief there is a God? You don’t have any experiences with God convincing you he is not just the figment of a lot of people’s imaginations? No prayer answered convincing you that there really is something to theism and that theists are not worshiping the equivalent of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  12. Seth R. said

    Personally, I’ve always felt the idea of an eternal universe much more comforting than the idea that there was ever nothing – ever. There seems to be a certain sense of nihilistic despair underlying the idea that nothingness could ever be, and that it might be again at God’s command.

    Moreover, I just find the idea of a God before things were created to be an impossible idea to stomach. Why wasn’t He doing anything then? And why did He suddenly take a shining to the idea of creating all of us?

    Even if all of us, and all of this, is just neo-Platonic emanations from the unmoved mover, how can you explain the moment that God CHANGED (and yes, He did change) from a “being who does not create” to “a being who does create?”

    I just can’t buy this stuff. It makes no sense. And I find myself wanting to exclaim right along with C.S. Lewis’ Marsh Wiggle Puddleglum:

    “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me a pretty poor one.”

    And I’m sorry, but it really does. The traditional Christian cosmos holds no wonder, no appeal to me. Just a meaningless *pop* from nothingness, thrown into a vast and horrible mortal mistake with the threat of annihilation hanging over my head perpetually, and then another form of annihilation in the afterlife, as I lose all friends, all family, all independent thought or identity to gaze vacuously at the vast, unreasonable, and incomprehensible Being who, for some, unknowable whim, preserves me from howling into the void.

    And that’s just heaven!

    I’m afraid it just holds no allure for me.

  13. Seth R. said

    Really, I don’t mean to dump tar on something that people find nice.

    But I just don’t grasp the appeal. And few Christians ever bother to try and make me see the appeal, other than to sanctimoniously sigh about how I’m toast if I don’t shape up.

    I don’t know nebula0… maybe since you are coming from a less entrenched position, with less need to “defend your turf,” you can explain to me what you find so appealing about all this.

  14. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    That’s what faith is ultimately about– trust in God, trust in his ultimate goodness, trust that he wants to do good by us. You want to comparmentalize him and tame him to make you feel better. It’s true, as completely powerful even over existence itself he is far more dangerous than the Mormon conception of deity is, it requires more faith to believe in him, but it is worth it because now I know that every twinkling star is a gift to us out of his love for us.

    Forget PLato for crying out loud. If I hear any more mentioning of platonism, I am going to vomit. God isn’t just a ‘thing’, God is a person and therefore has a will. Here’s the thing Seth, God is beyond time in a way that we can’t comprehend. Do you really want a God that you can completely imagine in every way NOW? Think about it. We are finite beings, alive for a relatively short time on earth, and we want a God so small that we demand an ability to imagine exactly how he operates? Why does that make any sense? There are a lot of things which I know to be true through science which frankly I cannot imagine. I accept that my powers of imagination are limited by my biology and acknowledge that reality transcends my ability to fully imagine what it exactly is like. It makes perfect sense that God ought to have mystery and paradox since I am a finite being trying to comprehend infinite truth. We get glimses of God’s awesomeness through his creation, through the grandeur of this created earth, through hubble deep space photographs. We get a sense of God’s concern for us through our own, fallible love for our children. You could go on and on. Seth, you are setting up a terrible strawman with this Platonic business. You assume the standard line involves some invisible non entity inviting us into invisibility. We aren’t talking about contemplating Forms for eternity. I mean for crying out loud, standard Christianity claims that God is so full of passion and care and love that he himself joined up with a flesh and blood man and suffered and died horribly… how unplatonic is that?

    No one ever says that you won’t have friends or family in the afterlife. In fact, if you accept the biblical accounts, we will be resurrected. God created us to be embodied beings, and we will continue to be embodied. I think of it this way, when I was a small child, big pictureless books held no appeal to me. I could not imagine how they held any appeal to adults. LIkewise, I could spend hours building a pretend city out in the field where I grew up. I made pretend fields and pretend roads and spent all day tending to them. Now I spend my days lusting after, reading and buying up those pictureless books. They are my toys now and going out and building up pretend cities in fields holds no appeal. I figure the notion of heaven is a similar thing. It is too great for us children to understand from our vantage point. We are asked to have faith in God, trust that he knows us better than we know him, trust him that he wants to give us the best and knows how to give us the best- just like we had to trust our parents when they bored us teaching us the alphabet that it was for a purpose we would enjoy at some point. As Paul said, we look in a mirror now, but one day, we will see face to face and understand. You are using your childish mind to try to judge what it will be like to grow up in God’s presence (none of us have anything else, it’s not just you). I have learned to trust God’s goodness because if I claim nothing else in this life, it is that he has given me good gifts with life and family, and I know that he knows how to give good gifts.

  15. Geoff J said

    I agree that Seth overstates the potential problems with the creedal Christian version of heaven. (And I agree that the Plato thing gets overplayed too)

    But since this is the epistemology thread I would still really love to know why you have chosen to believe in God at all. You pointed to that other post but I didn’t see any real answer to that question there…

  16. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    I see it as the product of a couple different things. The first is that my mind was made open through reasoning. I’ve stated again and again and again that no proof for God is bulletproof. I’ve spent too many hours of my university days arguing wtih Christians trying to get them prove to me that God exists and finding holes in their arguments to think that there is some kind of intellectual argument that will directly stimulate living faith in God. But, my experience as a Mormon has taught me that it’s not good to go the other way either, to ignore the intellect altogether. It makes for an ultimately superficial belief no matter how great isolated experiences are (I had lots of experiences ‘from the spirit’ but it failed to cause in me a stable lasting belief).

    So what happened was a combination of things. The arguments opened the whole of mind to the possibility of God (The God here) in the ‘sure, that DOES actually make sense’ kind of way. Obviously that is not living faith. The jump between ‘that makes sense’ and ‘I believe in God’ happened because God caused faith in me. I have no other explanation of it. THe faith I have in God is a stable belief that underlies my worldview day to day in a way that Mormonism never could for me because I never thought Mormonism through enough. I knew a lot about it, I thought it was fascinating and alluring, but it was never reasonable enough to my intellect to allow the whole of me to believe.

    That’s why I emphasize the intellect so much. Unless the intellect is on board to the possibility, in a deep full sense, true living and stable faith is not possible because the whole person is not involved.

    I can only demonstrate how the idea of The God makes a lot of sense in different areas. I do not have the delusion that I can initiate living faith, the kind of trust in a living Person that I believe God desires for us to have in him.

  17. Geoff J said

    The jump between ‘that makes sense’ and ‘I believe in God’ happened because God caused faith in me. I have no other explanation of it.

    That sounds about right. Though I use different language to describe the experience of God revealing himself to me I suspect the reason you believe in God is pretty much the reason I believe in God. There is some kind of mystical/spiritual interaction at the core of our experiences that leads us to believe there really is a God. So we have that in common as I suspected.

    BTW — You keep implying that Mormons don’t rely on logic and intellect enough in developing their faith. That is surely true for some Mormons but it is certainly not fair to pin such accusations on all of us.

  18. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    Most Mormons don’t. Most normative Christians don’t either. Most people who claim a religious preference do so because it’s convenient for them, usually because their friends and family are involved and that’s pretty much enough. They don’t reflect on it beyond the basics. I think this is a travesty.

    I’m not a relativist. I really do believe that we can’t both be right, and I believe that I am closer to the truth than you are. If I didn’t believe that, I would still be a Mormon. But likewise, I don’t delude myself into thinking that I am going to convert droves of people through intellectual wrangling. But I do believe that the correct answer is going to be more intellectually sound- coherent, cogent- than answers that are farther from the truth. That makes sense.

    So yes, when I put up an argument and the responses are almost immediately “well that doesn’t PROVE anything, tehrefore my experiences are just as good as anything” I will challenge that on several levels. It’s not being completely honest with oneself and leads to tepid faith, something I know from experience.

  19. Geoff J said

    I think this is a travesty.

    I clearly lean more toward universalism than you do. You seem to be of the popular opinion that making theological mistakes will lead to horrible and unfixable eternal consequences. I am of the opinion that God is not so punitive as all that.

    But then again I know plenty of Mormons who think God is as punitive as all that so don’t take my theological position as universal among Mormons. (I think it is a strength of Mormonism to allow for a rather large theological tent.)

    But I do believe that the correct answer is going to be more intellectually sound- coherent, cogent- than answers that are farther from the truth.

    I do too.

  20. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    Now you are assuming that I believe in hell because I am not a relativist? So strange! Stranger yet that you’d agree with that last statement if you are really a universalist.

    I think you are confused on what I mean by relativsim. Relativism in this sense is epistemological, that is, there is no absolute truth and every person’s ‘personal truth’ is as good as everyone elses. That is what I am taking a stance against. How do you get from that to a belief in hell?? You’re missing… several… steps.

  21. Geoff J said

    I wasn’t responding to your comments on relativism so I am not sure what you mean in your last comment. I am not a relativist either.

    Rather I was referring to the comments you made in other threads about how crucial it is to get theology right. I assumed that was because you, like many people, think there are dire consequences to getting theological ideas wrong. Please set me straight on your beliefs.

    Stranger yet that you’d agree with that last statement if you are really a universalist.

    I have no idea why me leaning toward universalism would make it strange that I agreed with that sentence I quoted. Please help me out with that too.

  22. nebula0 said

    Because you aren’t strictly a universalist. Unless you are a heterodox MOrmon, you believe that a person needs to be sealed for all eternity and live a devout MOrmon life OR accept those acts by proxy in the spirit world in order to have eternal life. True, you don’t believe in an either or sort of deal and others will have lesser degrees of glory, but the fact of it is that there is a right and wrong answer, and getting the answer right is essential to progress. Right?

    Now if you agree with me there, you’ll start to get an idea as to why I think it’s important to have a right grasp on reality.

  23. Geoff J said

    Actually, you seem to be omitting the very prevalent idea of progression between kingdoms. If we are eternal and retain free will then we never lose the opportunity to become more “at one” with God. Plus I don’t think salvation/exaltation is about getting right *answers*, rather I think it is about developing perfected relationships. So perhaps some of your assumptions about my perspective are askew here.

  24. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    Irrelevant, because to progress one would still need to acknowledge ‘the truth’. Hence, you are not universalist because not everyone is going to progress at the same rate UNLESS they accept ‘the reality’. A true universalist would accept tha tanyone can believe whatever they want and while believing whatever they want end up at the exact same place as someone believing the opposite. It’s also irrelevant whether or not you define this as developing relationships or not, the point holds.

  25. Geoff J said

    Besides — I simply agreed with this rather innocuous and generalized statement of yours to begin with: “But I do believe that the correct answer is going to be more intellectually sound- coherent, cogent- than answers that are farther from the truth.”

    That statement has nothing to do with universalism so I am baffled why we are even questioning me agreeing with it.

  26. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    Because the point really is that there is a Reality. It sounds simple enough, but believe it, people will deny it (that’s the whole premise of postmodernism). My statement was not innocuous- it assumed that there is ‘the truth’ and therefore ‘a Reality’ that can be discovered or approached by rational agents. Common sensical maybe, but hotly contested in the philosophical world.

  27. Geoff J said

    A true universalist would accept tha tanyone can believe whatever they want and while believing whatever they want end up at the exact same place as someone believing the opposite.

    Oh good grief. That is one variation on universalism but it is certainly not the “true” version of universalism. I haven’t interacted with you for long but I am a little surprised to see you make such an over-the-top statement.

  28. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    The point is that you aren’t a true relativist or Universalist. YOu’re soft on both of those points because you believe in an absolute reality. Why is that a big deal?

  29. Geoff J said

    Right, I am not a relativist. Yet I believe there is a pretty decent chance that with enough time (and perhaps enough painful lessons) all people will come around to being “at one” with the One God. So while I am open to real universalism though I am far from certain about it.

  30. Geoff J said

    Oh, I forgot to ask: What do you think the consequence of making theological mistakes here on earth will be? I have met some folks — evangelicals especially — who thinks God will send anyone who comes to the wrong theological conclusion off to be tortured literally forever.

    Clearly you believe as I do that there is truth and not-truth about God. But what becomes of people who never figure out that truth on your view?

  31. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    I can’t read the mind of God. What I would say is that someone who is disinterested in getting things right is unlikely to truly care about God in any meaningful way. Those who do care about God and desire to please him will likely do their very best to figure out what that all means- and that will depend on individual capacity.

    That is why I am disturbed when people seem to give such credence so unabashadly to their own personal preferences about how they would like things to be. THat is insanity. Since when does reality magically conform to our personal wishes anyway? — let alone what that says about that person’s real loving faith in God.

  32. Geoff J said

    Well what about when someone is deeply interested in getting things right and one of them gets it wrong? What is the punishment for the person who makes that mistake? FOr instance you and I are obviously deeply interested in getting our theology right yet we are coming to different conclusions. What sort of punishment do you think God will mete out to people who get their theology wrong? (As you said we can’t both be right. Though it is logically possible we are both wrong.)

    I think this is a deeply important theological question because it gets to the heart of how forgiving and compassionate God is or isn’t.

  33. nebula0 said

    Geoff,

    I never even mentioned punishment. God judge your heart.

  34. Geoff J said

    I know you never even mentioned it. That is why I specifically asked your opinion on this subject.

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