I’ve neglected my posts on epistemology the past couple of months due to being busy. While I want to get back to them let me first take a bit of a side trip. Fundamentally more than anything else the big divide within the question of religious knowing is to what degree private experiences can ground knowledge.
Typically when critics engage with Mormons they want the playing field to only be public evidence. Now it’s not that Mormons aren’t willing to play that game. By and large apologetics (at least the good kinds) are willing to discuss plausibility in terms of public evidence. But when it comes to knowledge, the critics want to make an appeal to belief in the strongest argument. That is we should believe what has the most weight of public evidence, even if perhaps the arguments are themselves circumstantial or somewhat weak. Most importantly they often want to only admit entities that have already been established scientifically. Thus no angels, miracles or the like.
The problem of appealing to only scientifically established entities is a bit self-refuting since of course science couldn’t progress unless entities were first believed by scientists prior to their becoming widely accepted. While it may seem a safe strategy for those outside of science, it quickly falls apart upon closer scrutiny. We’ll thus not concentrate on the argument that anything not accepted by science is illegitimate as objects of knowledge. It’s scientism of the worst sort.
Let’s instead focus on private experience for grounding knowledge. Let me be clear here I’m not necessarily talking about indescribable experiences. Far from it. The easiest approach is to just ask how you knew you loved your significant other. Almost certainly most of the experiences you use to make the decision aren’t public. People around you may know you are in love, but that’s different from you knowing why you are in love. Once you admit that kind of private experience then the argument is mostly done.
This thought experiment is why critics of religious experience want to make the “no new entities” claim. After all by their standards the evidences for falling in love, even if private, are of a type that is public. So the real issue isn’t privacy but having a private type of experience. I’d just say that while I’m not opposed to private types of experience I don’t think they’re really necessary to ground religious knowing. Indeed I’m skeptical most of our religious experiences are fundamentally different from our regular experiences. Some may be, but usually those pointing to these different experiences are after a kind of ecstatic experience. However Joseph Smith seemed to think that what mattered most wasn’t that ‘feel’ of the experience but what intelligence was communicated. That is religious experience of the sort we are interested in has a discernible content.
We’re likely never going to agree discussing religious experience directly. Believers, unbelievers, critics and skeptics all bring too much to the discussion. It’s therefore worth a change of topic that has the same structure in terms of knowing but without all the baggage the religious conversation has. I’ll even pick an example that I completely disbelieve in.
Let us say you are walking in the forest one day and bump into a cloaked spaceship. You know something is there because you can feel it with your hand. You walk around it not knowing anything about the technology enabling it. You know you are in good health with no mental problems. Do you know it’s a spaceship? Well I’d say what you might be nearly justified in your leap, it’s probably going a tad too far. Maybe it’s some high tech device from Los Alamos that partially broke down. You just know there’s something there beyond our technology. You may believe it’s a spaceship but thinking through it you’re probably getting ahead of yourself in your interpretation.
You decide to come back with some friends. It’s gone. Neither you nor they see it or feel it. Are you still justified in thinking there was the hidden object? Again I’d say yes. But recognize that this is completely a private experience. You are unable to share the experience even though you can describe it.
The next day you come back. It’s back and this time a door opens up and an obviously non-human humanoid steps out. It talks to you and says his ship broke down and he’s under the Prime Directive not to interfere but that he’s determined some food he’s able to digest and could you get him some. He continues that you aren’t to tell anyone about it. You give him (although you’re not sure it’s a “he”) some food and he eats it. He tells you his warp drive broke down and he should have it fixed soon. You say that’s impossible because as a physicist you know faster than light travel is impossible. Further that if you did it you’d have a working time machine. The alien replies, “fat lot you know and if I were trained as a physicist instead of an underpaid pilot servicing deep space probes I’d prove it to you.” You reply that’s nonsense and the fact he can’t prove it just demonstrates it’s false. He turns to you, rolls his eyes, and says, “then how did I get here?” He then enters the spaceship and flies off, never to be seen again. No one else saw the spaceship since of course it was cloaked.
Now as a physicist who believes in General Relativity I’ll admit I don’t think it’s possible for aliens to visit let alone go faster than the speed of light. Further I don’t believe anyone who claims to have seen an alien. But even so I’d say that for a person who had this experience that they were justified in believing in aliens, spaceships and possibly even faster than light travel. Now since I’ve never had that experience and don’t think it would happen I’m not so justified. Indeed if someone came up to me making those claims I’d not believe them at all without some very good reasons.
Hopefully you see the parallel to religion. Those who claim to have experiences grounding knowledge, even knowledge that might contradict scientific knowledge, aren’t necessarily wrong. You might be completely right to disbelieve them. The problem is the oddity that we want knowledge to be symmetrical. That is if you know I must be able to know. That just doesn’t follow.
To anticipate some critiques of this thought experiment let me say that I don’t think the person should assume they are delusional especially if the experience is repeated (as it was) and there’s no evidence for failure of healthy mental processing. About the only point I might concede would be we aren’t justified in believing in faster than light travel since perhaps the alien was merely lying about that (although I think there’s good circumstantial evidence).
1. Assuming you have one. But the thought experiment should work even if true love hasn’t yet struck in time for Valentines.
2. I don’t think this actually works as well as they often do. I didn’t fall in love until rather late in life – in my 30’s. Saying that anyone could fall in love was fairly meaningless if I couldn’t on demand check it. All I had to go on were the words of people who claimed to have fallen in love. Which, you must admit, does have a certain symmetry to people claiming to have successfully followed Moroni 10:4. Admittedly the number of people claiming success with Moroni’s promise is much smaller than the number of people claiming to have fallen in love. However if our basis for public types of experience is being able to confirm upon demand I think the analogy holds.
3. “One great evil is, that men are ignorant of the nature of spirits; their power, laws, government, intelligence, &c., and imagine that when there is anything like power, revelation, or vision manifested, that it must be of God. Hence the Methodists, Presbyterians, and others frequently possess a spirit that will cause them to lie down, and during its operation, animation is frequently entirely suspended; they consider it to be the power of God, and a glorious manifestation from God–a manifestation of what? Is there any intelligence communicated? Are the curtains of heaven withdrawn, or the purposes of God developed? Have they seen and conversed with an angel–or have the glories of futurity burst upon their view? No!” (“Try the Spirits”, Times and Seasons 1 April 1842 — the article is unsigned and thus possibly not written by Joseph but if not then likely ghost written at his direction)
4. All apologies to Star Trek IV.