How do you know?

How do you know the beliefs you hold are true? What are the methods that are utilized to come to the conclusion that a belief is true? Epistemology comes from the Greek words epistasthai – know, know how to – and episteme – knowledge. It is defined as the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Epistemology helps me understand where my potential belief blind spots are.

Epistemology is mainly centered around the Socratic Method of debate made popular by the famous philosopher Socrates. It is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. It is practiced using a discussion in which the defense of a point of view is questioned critically. Using thoughtful questions, you are able to look for contradictions of belief and ultimately sort out the underlying logic for holding a belief or opinion.

Let’s start with an easy example I once heard. There was a family gathered around the table on Thanksgiving day. One of the cousins, while eyeing the juicy ham said, “How come you cut both ends of the ham off before you cook it?” To which the aunt that made it said, “That’s how grandma makes it, it makes it taste better.” The cousin turned to said grandma and asked, “why do you cut the ends of the ham off before you cook it?” She replied, “because it would not fit in my oven at home unless I cut the ends off.” We often take an explanation at face value and move on. Unfortunately many people, when it comes to answers to life’s big questions, take that initial explanation and either do not question in the first place or they do not ask grandma.

When I was in the middle of my faith journey and was presented with information that would be damaging to the truth claims of the Mormon church I initially rejected them because I knew that the church was true. It was not a question in my mind. I now find this to be a paradox, why would my parents ever teach me that their world view is anything but absolutely true? Then one day the thought came to my mind, “is it possible the church is not the only true church?” The next question followed naturally, “How would I know if it was not true?” Asking yourself these types of questions are the first steps into attempting to understand from where your deeply held personal beliefs were formed. In my case, I was questioning the foundation of the first 30 years of my life. Not fun.

I looked to the Mormon church doctrine to find if I could understand the how of the church’s epistemology. Mormons, somewhat uniquely, would use the word testimony as a describer for conviction of, or a sure knowledge about, the doctrine or the belief system. Here is a summary of some steps I found on obtaining a testimony from lds.org:

  • We must first have a desire to know
  • Ask God in sincere prayer
  • Spiritual witness is gained according to God’s will and timing
  • Gaining and strengthening a testimony is a matter of bearing it
    • 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. (Oaks 2008)
  • A testimony is not emotion; we gain a testimony by being obedient and having faith
  • A testimony grows from reading and pondering the scriptures
  • Partake of the sacrament each week
  • Provide service to others and that act will “remove the scales from our spiritual eyes, and open the windows of heaven” (Uchtdorf 2011)
  • If you feel like your testimony is weak just press onward with obedience and faith

This is a rather extensive list, however, these came from about 10 minutes of research on lds.org. These are considered ‘the basics’ of obtaining a testimony which is a witness from God (Holy Ghost or spirit) that the Mormon church is the true church. Now, I honestly feel a bit overwhelmed at the list. It could be summarized this way: we must have a desire, have faith, partake of sacrament, be obedient, be patient for God’s timing, read scriptures, provide service, and bear your testimony to others. Doing these things will help you gain a testimony. But do not worry! If you do not receive a spiritual witness, have faith that you will someday receive one, continue to be obedient, and be patient it will come. Oh, and did I mention, maybe go bear your testimony that you know the church is true and then the result will be you will actually know it’s true.

Let’s get more into that. The tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure is called the illusory effect. In a 2015 study, researchers discovered that familiarity can overpower rationality and that repetitively hearing that a certain fact is wrong can affect the hearer’s beliefs. Researchers attributed the illusory truth effect’s impact on participants who knew the correct answer to begin with, but were persuaded to believe otherwise through the repetition of a falsehood, to processing fluency. In the case of Mormons that are born in the church, they hear and are encouraged to repeat the steps outlined above throughout their entire childhood and adolescent lives. They are conditioned with this processing fluency from birth.

Processing fluency describes a method the brain uses to store and recall information. Repeating information, also known as priming, increases fluency or familiarity with stored information or memories. The illusory effect works because when people assess truth, they rely on whether the information agrees with their understanding and whether it feels familiar (some people give greater weight to one or the other). The more familiar the more likely it is believed. Researchers have discovered that familiarity can overpower rationality.

If you are teaching young minds (and perpetuating the learning into adulthood) that in order to know that the church and its doctrine is really true you need to repeatedly tell yourself that it is true, Mormonism may have a problem with the illusory effect. In fact, it gets worse. This quote comes from an apostle of the church, a man known to the members as a witness of Jesus Christ, and thus very trusted:

Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek. – Neil A. Anderson

Please re-read that again. What are your thoughts? To me, this teaching from a proclaimed apostle is abhorrent. The hubris expressed is antithetical to the integrity of ones own conscious experience. But to the lay Mormon member, the church is as true as “the certainty that you have in your hearts that tonight will be followed by dawn tomorrow morning” (David O McKay). How do you break through to someone who holds a religious view as tightly as that? Especially when the method to know with such surety is faith based.

Curiosity prodded me to investigate the method other religions might utilize to come know their God is the true one. Is it practical to believe other religions would say the same thing about how to gain a testimony for their religion? Does it make sense that any information that could cause harm to the image of the questioned religion would be rejected, its leaders denouncing, criticizing, minimizing, and practicing fear rhetoric in order to placate the minds of its adherents? That is beside the point. The point to epistemology to understand the how someone comes to have certain beliefs.


Islam

I first looked on the website islamreligion.com and found an article called How to Convert to Islam and Become a Muslim.

Steps to develop faith in Allah (source & source)

  • Faith in Arabic is a derivative from the word safety; Belief or faith in Allah is the first step in securing the hope which makes you feel safe in an unpredictable world
    • That same derivative of the root word for faith is ‘amana’, which means honesty and trustworthiness
  • Repent frequently for your mistakes
  • Perform Salah (prayer) 5 times a day at the prescribed times
  • Read the Quran daily
  • Remember Allah daily
  • Voluntary fasting
  • Carrying out good deeds
  • Have complete trust in Allah and thank him for everything
  • Forgive those that do you wrong

Here are some of the testimonies of faith:

  • “Our prayers are answered and we feel ecstasy while reading the Holy Quran.”
  • “The moment I started reciting, I felt tears well up, not from sadness but from a sense of relief, as if he was filling my heart with light and joy. Although the moments of sadness came back when I sometimes forget to pray, the second I start reciting, I feel that he (Allah) is reaching out to me, as not only my God but as my friend.”
  • “One day while reading the Qur’an, I began to cry and fell to my knees and thanked Allah for guiding me to the truth.”

Jehovah’s Witness

Steps to develop a strong faith (testimony) in Jehovah (source)

  • Have faith that there is a God
  • Have faith in the Bible and its teachings
  • Meditate on the historical evidence for the Bible and your faith will be strengthened by the Bible’s promises
  • Go to Kingdom Hall and see for yourself the transformed lives
  • Witness those that follow the bible teachings and how they are honest and morally upright
  • Pray for the holy spirit
  • Associate with fellow worshippers
  • Share in the ‘field ministry’
  • Have faith that Jehovah and his Son will “help us at the right time.” (Heb. 4:16)
  • Never doubt that if you follow God’s direction, it will be for your good

I could summarize by saying, “have faith, pray, come be taught by our teachers, observe the subjective experience of members, minister to others, wait on Jehovah to give you a testimony, and never doubt.”


Here is a testimony of a young woman:

I’ve been searching for a witness of this work and of this church and just tonight I got my witness and it’s burning within my soul how important this work is and how true it is. I know it is. And it’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was in high school and now I am in a plural marriage and struggling. But I know without a shadow of a doubt, that this is the lord’s work. That I’ve finally found it. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ amen.

– Member of the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days


The core of the epistemological dialogue is not changing beliefs, but changing the way people form beliefs. It can be assumed that the testimony of the girl in the example above used the same methods found in mainstream Mormonism and came to “know without a shadow of a doubt” that her religion is the true one. Is faith a reliable method to determine, or form truth? Why does faith and the feelings one experience when exercising faith lead people into completely different paths? Even contradictory paths, with meaningful doctrinal differences?

Some people say faith is very personal, and that the internal experiences one receives while utilizing faith can lead people to their own truth, or partial truth. The Mormon answer to this question usually is to point out that the light of Christ is accessible to all people. That there are truths to be found in all religions, so it makes sense that people get spiritual witnesses for those truths. I think that people stop at that thought and think, “yeah that sounds nice, that sounds equitable” and don’t continue down the thought process and go asking grandma.

The Mormon prophet Spencer Kimball said:

“The great religious leaders of the world such as Muhammad, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. . . . Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters.

It must be acknowledged that there are profound, irreconcilable doctrinal differences between Islam and the restored gospel. The fundamental claims of the two religions cannot both be true.

Although Muhammad received light from God to teach moral truths to his followers and bring them to a higher understanding, we believe that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). …Faithful Muslims, like faithful Latter-day Saints, believe in “standing for something.” In the spiritually starved world in which we live, it is good to know that in many lands the call goes out publicly five times a day from thousands of minarets, announcing the truth for all to hear: “Allahhu akbar! Allahu akbar!” (“God is great! God is great!”) Latter-day Saints can be thankful that this message is being proclaimed.”

In essence he is saying, “God inspired these leaders with timeless moral truths, but their doctrines that were derived from those God given truths are false. Only we (Mormons) have the real truth, or the fullness of all truth.” In my view this is a balancing act of having cake and eating it too. Why did God give truths to some that lead to false religions and truths to to others that led to one true religion? How do we know which is the true religion? How does one reconcile the belief that the Mormon God influenced the spread of a religion that teaches it’s adherence to kill apostates, imprison or execute homosexuals, suppress women, stone women for adultery, and to spread the religion with the sword with their current beliefs?

I grappled with the idea on one hand that there was truth or ‘the light of Christ’ in all religions and creeds but not the fullness of truth that Mormonism had, and that other people’s spiritual experiences were valid and real. But on the other hand, Mormonism had not only the most truth but all of the truth and that our spiritual experiences exceeded those of other faiths, because otherwise what would be the difference? This idea led me to feel deeply arrogant and prideful. Who am I to think that my God is the true one and every other God people are worshiping is an illusion or is only slightly true? The hubris of my spiritual experience trumps yours is unfair in my eyes.

Epistemology uses the outsider test (popularized by author John W Loftus) to help people see that their reasons for believing are no different from the reasons used by those from other religions, and thus not a reliable method to judge which religion is true. An example would be, “If the Hindu and the Christian both use faith to become confident about different gods being real, how can faith help me to determine which is real?” This method has helped me to be more empathetic to those with opposing world views. I can now understand how they came to hold those beliefs.

My personal experience has been one of receiving personal spiritual witnesses throughout my lifetime. Some during my teenage years, many during my time as a missionary in Dallas Texas, and others into my adulthood. Some of these experiences were profound. I have had many dreams that are spiritual in nature. Dreams that I would put in the sublime, non-ordinary dream category. I have prayed to know certain truth claims and have felt what one would describe as the Holy Ghost in response. I say all of this to also point out that the average Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist. Buddhist, Taoist, have also recorded similar experiences in relation to their religious beliefs. Epistemology helped me realize that although those experiences are real in the truest sense of the word real, they do not necessarily provide evidence that my God belief system is the true system or proof that I’m following the true God.

Is it possible to believe in something that brings you happiness that is not necessarily true? I’m sure of it. Does it matter if something is really true? I’m not sure. But being honest about the reliability of the method of finding truth is important. How one comes to know something, not really why or what, but how, is now a more profound part of my world view. In the end, all I know is that I know nothing.

to know

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