Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.

32 comments for “Can Private Experience Ground Knowledge?

  1. Mike
    February 13, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    Some of my private experiences I am still grappling with, trying to understand them. And while I do, I do not discuss them with others. One of them I have held back from every person I know, including my wife. Someday I hope the setting is right so I can share it with her, but I anticipate we’re not even close yet.

  2. Rob
    February 14, 2017 at 12:38 am

    This is the paramount key to understanding everything that God knows- it requires faith in anothers knowledge, without evidence to get there.

    Of interest to your topic, I actually did have a close up experience with a UFO. Not only me but my wife also. We saw it so close to us, right over head a hundred feet, in daylight. Then it slowly started to move and then as if by seemingly the speed of light it rushed off and dissapeared at an extremely fast acceleration. It was so far outside of my knowledge register at that tine I was dumfounded. Immediately I asked my wife to explain what she saw and she detailed exactly what I too saw.

    Now, of course I now have a perfect knowledge that UFO’s do exist and that they can travel faster than anything fathomable, but my perfect knowledge means diddley squat to most everyone else, they usually disbelieve me and they gain no knowledge. But, there have been a few, who take it on faith and have that knowledge too. I picture the mysteries of godliness being unfolded much the same. Thus, to really know real truth, one must exercise faith in anothers firsthand knowledge.

  3. Rob
    February 14, 2017 at 12:42 am

    BTW,
    Dont we do that with the Book of Mormon? We believe Joseph Smith actually translated an actual ancient record? He of course handled them. In order for us to ulitimately know though, we must first exercise faith in his firsthand knowledge.

  4. Mike
    February 14, 2017 at 12:52 am

    Of course you saw a UFO.

  5. AM
    February 14, 2017 at 10:51 am

    I don’t think it is controversial to say that private knowledge exists. To what extent do you think it is allowed to claim private knowledge as a basis for establishing law and public policy? That question might be a topic for an entire post. If you have written on it before, please point me to what you have said.

  6. Clark Goble
    February 14, 2017 at 11:07 am

    AM (5), I don’t think I’ve written on that. I’d simply say that in a democracy people can vote based upon whatever criteria they want. Indeed I think a significant number of people vote for pretty horrible reasons often being the deciding vote (since those based upon careful deliberation typically make up the core base for each party).

  7. Clark Goble
    February 14, 2017 at 11:31 am

    As a funny aside one of my physics profs as a student used to go to a well known place in California where there were purportedly UFOs. They’d then try and fake UFOs to freak out the groups looking for them there.

    Of course UFO just means it’s unidentified not necessarily a spaceship. Most of them are either natural events that confuse people or else are military vehicles being tested. (Especially in the western deserts)

    I designed the thought experiment to be clear enough that one really couldn’t dismiss it as not a spaceship rationally. Certainly though there will be a middle ground where people experiencing the same phenomena will come to different interpretations. That’s less interesting to me in terms of the question of private knowledge though. Some critics might argue that spiritual experiences are actually vague enough that people do interpret them wrongly. I’m here though just concentrating on the broader argument against private evidence.

  8. February 14, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    I love the fact that you are talking about this in terms of private experience being part of a legitimate epistemology. I have had experiences that are undeniable yet profoundly person and unshareable, but are just as “real.” I haven’t run across any proof or physical evidence that the Book of Mormon is factual; yet it is true. I am not even sure of the historicity of the BoM. But I believe it is full of divine essence, and that is good enough for me, whether or not Jaredites used stones lit by the finger of the Lord. I would be open to such revelation, but for me it’s not a deal-breaker. Nor would it be if they found Zarahemla with “Welcome to Zarahemla” written on the gate. I simply don’t use that information. It’s actually less verifiable than personal experiences, in my opinion. I remember the spiritual gymnastics that some of the members in my ward went through when Mark Hoffman’s documents surfaced, particularly about the JS III ordination. Then they had to go through it all again six months later when they were discovered to be forged.

  9. Rob Osborn
    February 14, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Clark,
    I am in that special unique group where I actually saw a real ufo spaceship. It definitely wasnt a natural phenomenon or a government test of some new aircraft. It makes me feel kind of special.

  10. Mike
    February 14, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    At this point I believe that Rob is pulling someone’s leg here, trying to get a rise out of people.

  11. Rob Osborn
    February 14, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks Mike for proving the point.

  12. Jen
    February 14, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    This brings to mind the very excellent story written by Carl Sagan about a dragon living in someone’s garage. For actual facts, personal experience generally cannot be extrapolated. Equality is not a feeling – and all that.

  13. Rob Osborn
    February 14, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    So, we are at that point where nothing is true unless science and the masses documents it? “I know UFO’s, unexplained by science or natural phenomenon, are real” but is that statement a lie or is it the truth, and why?

  14. Michael H
    February 14, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Clark, why so much emphasis on knowledge?

    I often ask a related question on fast and testimony meeting: Why did that child choose to say “I know the Church is true” at the pulpit, and nothing more?

    Is there a net positive to this fixation on knowlege as it relates to Mormon exceptionalism?

  15. Clark Goble
    February 14, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    I think the point of the original post Rob is to construct a situation where there is an asymmetry. The person outside the experience to be rational would disbelieve while the person with the experience believes. It’s impossible for me to critique your interpretation of the experience since of course I wasn’t there. I can but say I don’t believe you. Which should be fair – I certainly don’t think people who disbelieve Mormonism due to lack of evidence are being irrational. Far from it. I can but say I have private evidence that it is true. This puts the responsibility and risk on the individual knower.

  16. Clark Goble
    February 14, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    Michael (14), I think knowledge is important in that it suggests it’s not merely about belief but about justification. That justification aspect is quite important. I don’t think we ultimately have direct control over what we believe. Belief is something that happens given our experiences. All we can do is inquire and do so in a sincere and perhaps somewhat skeptical fashion.

    There seems to be a fundamental difference between a person who believes for bad reasons versus a person who believes for good reasons. The result might be the same but we recognize that the process is different such that we want to designate the final state differently based upon that process.

    Now I’d certainly assume that many people who say they know something actually don’t. They merely believe. But I think a quest for knowledge is important and I also think many people who say they know actually do know.

  17. Michael H
    February 14, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Clark, what would be an example of someone following Christ’s example as set out in the NT for bad reasons? Isn’t doing so for a reward in heaven one of those bad reasons? Then why spend so much time focusing on knowing that there is such a reward in heaven?

    Re: “It’s not merely a out beleif but about justification.”: Does the act of emulating Christ’s teachings not justify itself?

  18. Clark Goble
    February 14, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Following Christ’s examples can be done without believing he is the Christ, can’t it? I guess I’m confused about what you’re focused on. Behavior might be the manifestation of belief – if I truly think the stove is hot I’m apt to not touch it – but surely we can distinguish why I believe.

    As to whether following justifies, it can in part. Alma 32 makes that point. But then the question becomes what is justified?

    But perhaps I’m just missing your point. Could you perhaps clarify a bit?

  19. Michael H
    February 14, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Clark, I’m not trying to be cheeky when I say that the things you claim knowledge of may permanently keep you from seeing my point. But I’ll try and boil it down to this: How does knowing the Church’s leadership and initiated members have exclusive (available to all of they join) access to the divine make your life more fulfilling than your, say, Episcopalian neighbor who strives with equal effort to implement Christ’s teachings in his/her life?

  20. Clark Goble
    February 14, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    Well still not quite sure what you’re asking. Can I be fulfilled independent of knowledge? Certainly. Often knowledge deals with future events and not merely present events. I’m not quite sure how to characterize fulfillment though so it’s hard for me to answer. How do I compare my fulfillment with an others? This obviously is trying to pin down a very vague and loose characterization but I think it’s an important point. I’m not sure how to draw the comparison.

    My sense is that you want to talk about belief in terms of how it makes one feel. Or perhaps to argue belief doesn’t matter that much. Which is fine. I’m not sure that’s a good way to characterize belief though. Take scientific knowledge. Does that make for a more fulfilled life? Probably not but it sure comes in handy indirectly.

  21. Steve S
    February 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    @Michael H

    I know your question was directed at Clark, but I think I understand what you’re getting at, so I’ll take a stab at it.

    “How does knowing the Church’s leadership and initiated members have exclusive (available to all of they join) access to the divine make your life more fulfilling than…”

    First, a quick qualification, I don’t believe the church teaches exclusive access to the divine, but rather that God grants a portion of His spirit / light and knowledge, to all his children in varying degrees as quickly as they are seeking for and able to handle it. But I do think the church teaches exclusive access to certain portions of the divine – such as the higher authority of God’s government set up on earth that provides sacred rights that are at some point necessary for progression in the highest realms of salvation in the life hereafter. This authorized government also provides a way and means that God’s community/Kingdom can be organized for macro-progression of the whole, which can benefit each individual part of that whole if they take advantage of that progression in light and knowledge.

    Given these points of exclusivity, your point still stands. What is the benefit of knowing that?

    I would say knowledge of these facts would impact the individual as they would tend to then participate in this community, take more seriously those things presented as truth that they might experiment upon them, learn of the truths for themselves and integrate them into their lives, enabling them to live more truths and a higher plane of love and joy than they might otherwise. The same could be said of believe in Christ generally. Knowledge of Christ’s divinity is not necessary to believe in and do good in the world. Yet a knowledge of Christ’s divinity would likely bring a more serious consideration of the teachings and truths taught by Christ such that it is more likely those principles of truth are integrated into the individual’s life, and they will enjoy the fruits of abiding in greater truth and love. So it is with a knowledge of those things exclusive to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the knower will more likely seek and access the truths being openly taught, particularly in a community that is also progressing line upon line under the direction and watch of Christ, and will if prophesies are correct culminate in gathering all truth in one in Christ and the establishment of Zion. Many blessings of truth, knowledge, and joy associated with being part of that great work. And personal knowledge of these facts will certainly tend to greater participation in that labor of love – the work of love being the source of joy.

  22. Clark Goble
    February 15, 2017 at 11:51 am

    An other way of putting it (although I’m still not entirely sure what Michael is asking) is to ask whether knowledge gives happiness. From a Mormon perspective the devil knows the church is true, knows Jesus is the Christ, knows tons of religious things, yet still rebels against God and presumably is quite miserable. So knowledge does not intrinsically make one happy or fulfilled.

    However one might say that often knowledge is a necessary step towards fulfillment either in the here and now or in the future. So if I lived a few hundred years ago before vaccines I might have had a fulfilled life until my child caught whooping cough and died in a tragic and painful way. The knowledge required to produce a vaccine might not have improved my feeling of fulfillment at the time I felt fulfilled, but certainly contributed towards my ability to stay fulfilled later.

    To the degree that Christ is teaching us objective truths of course we can learn many of those independent of any particular narrow religion. So, for instance, we know that killing others is typically wrong regardless of whether you grow up Mormon or in an atheistic home. To the degree that many of those truths lead us to behaviors that help our flourishing then we can flourish independent of Mormonism. I certainly don’t want to say that only Mormons have truth. Far from it.

  23. Michael H
    February 15, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks, Steve. I fundamentally disagree with your assertion that the non-knowers (both LDS and not) enjoy a lesser portion of His spirit/light. If that’s not what you meant, you may need to rephrase your comment. But if it is what you meant, what do we do when you *know* that you enjoy a greater portion of His spirit/light for having a belief system within LDS orthodoxy and I *know* (after significant periods both in and outside of full LDS faith/fellowship) that the spirit/light meted out to me is unaffected by that? It gets tricky, you see.

    Still, I’m glad enough that you haven’t chosen to totally delegitimize non-knowers like me with your use of “more likely.” I believe, however, that if you spent more time with non-knowers, your “more likely” would turn into a “like others.” But perhaps you have, and still sense something missing in our lives, even despite our frequent assertions to the contrary.

  24. Ondi
    February 15, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Clark,
    I would reply that there’s more than one kind of knowing. Understanding through experience can only come with mortality. That’s kind of the point isn’t it? We all could have watched another creation and said, “ya I know this”. But you actually don’t know it deep inside your soul until you experience it.

    It doesn’t mean you have to experience every sin and every joy in life to be able to have mortality quicken your understanding so to speak. But I would definitely push back that Satan has anywhere close to the same understanding of God that you or I can have as a result of experiencing mortality.

  25. Clark Goble
    February 15, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    There’s definitely something we learn from morality that we couldn’t before. What that is, isn’t quite clear. A common theory is that we’re learning something about ourselves we could comprehend when knowledge of everything else was around us.

  26. Steve S
    February 15, 2017 at 11:05 pm

    @Michael,

    I do think I see what you’re saying. I do believe that the truth surrounding the path of love and salvation is most clearly laid out in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I do believe it is the Kingdom of God set up to be a blessing to all who live, will live, or ever have lived on this earth, and that it will be the vehicle and means by which one day all truth will be gathered in one and Zion will be established on earth. At the same time, as it still continues to progress, and it is far from its perfected state, on and individual by individual case it would not be surprising to me that according to someone’s particular needs, they might find it easier to learn and progress in principles of light and truth in other places. I don’t think the wide variety of religious beliefs and practices we find in the world are by accident, in my mind it is by divine design and serves a greater overall purpose in God’s plan for His children.

    My belief is that spiritual knowledge and love are one and the same (beyond knowledge in the brain, to Clark/Ondi’s discussion above). And when we practice that love, it is like playing strings on an instrument, which music is the cause of joy. If somebody grows in light and love by learning truth in any place it can be found, they will surely find joy in it and I am happy for that person.

  27. BigSky
    February 16, 2017 at 4:08 am

    (Fixed author name – it’s put a few of my comments as anonymous too)

    Thought provoking post, Clark, as always. Thank you for sharing.

    Somewhat related to AM’s comments about using private knowledge as the basis to establishing law and policy, it seems to me there is a related question that applies to the way private knowledge should or shouldn’t be a legitimate form of knowledge when applied to a bishop’s or stake president’s judgment and decision-making process. To what extent is a bishop’s or a stake president’s private knowledge defensible when applied to judgments they make that affect church members within their stewardship?

    A handful of times I have witness a bishop make a judgment “because it just feels right” (once, even, because it was in a dream) that had a significant social and material consequence on the member in question. The decisions were not rooted in church policy and there was no evidence the judgement was the product of a thought process based on recognized and shared church spiritual knowledge, at least not in any way that could constitute “argument.”

    How can the member impacted by the decision know if the bishop’s “private knowledge” constitutes legitimate spiritual knowledge and instead not the product of his personal biases or capriciousness. While I understand private knowledge is a legitimate form of knowing on a personal level and can come in many forms, even such that it cannot be verbally articulated, I am uncomfortable placing faith in private knowledge expressed in judgments which affect a third party, which cannot be articulated and which does not appeal to shared and recognized spiritual knowledge. Perhaps I am being too critical and not acknowledging the legitimacy of private knowledge within the context of called judges in Israel and its potential role in their decisions. However, the impact of the judgments I witnessed were so significant to the member, it made me question the morality of the private knowledge upon which the decision-making process was based.

    I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this.

  28. Clark Goble
    February 16, 2017 at 11:46 am

    BigSky, we probably have to distinguish between bad reasoning and private evidence. In general we want Bishops to act on inspiration but in practice not all can/do consistently leading to bad reasoning. This in turn leads to more explicit policies with less freedom. And even then a Bishop can always ignore Church policy. While in theory one could appeal to the Stake President in practice at that point the damage is already done.

    It seems your point is thus less about private evidence than it is about leadership autonomy. My own view is that despite the bad failures, I think as a Church we’d be better off with more not less autonomy. However given concerns with failures the Church most likely will never do that and if anything will constrain Bishops more.

  29. February 19, 2017 at 12:01 am

    Days late to this, but I have still have a question for you, Clark. (Scanning the comments I don’t think this has come up, although BigSky’s question about private knowledge establishing policy brushes close.)
    One characteristic of public knowledge or experience is that it leads to a common understanding and the legitimacy of saying to another “you’re wrong” (or “you’re right”). Skepticism about FTL travel is an example.
    It seems that some people extend that commonality or judgment-ability to private knowledge/experience. They say “my private experience not only tells me that there’s a spaceship here, but also tells me that anyone else who says they can’t see it is lying or deceived.” The application to religious belief should be obvious.
    My own experience with private experience does not include any such meta-knowledge. Nothing that would suggest to me that my experience should be or must be common or shared or available to anyone else. But I find that other people do claim such meta-knowledge arising from their private experience.
    Would you argue that the “everybody must see the spaceship too” kind of ‘knowledge’ is an impermissible category, a null set? Or that it happens and is legitimate? Or stand agnostic on the question?

  30. Michael H
    February 19, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Very important point, Christian. Thank you for sharing.

  31. Clark Goble
    February 20, 2017 at 12:52 am

    Christian in debate or the like private evidence really isn’t worth much unless you in a group with people of similar experiences. We can say we don’t believe something and maybe even say it’s for private reasons. But I don’t think we can argue someone is wrong in a reasonable way without common ground. Of course typically in pluralistic societies we don’t require people defend their beliefs, merely vote on them. So the grounds of belief don’t usually matter.

    There are people who of course base arguments in a judgmental dogmatic way on private experiences. My experience is that in most cases this is counterproductive.

    I should note that here I’m making a distinction though between testimony – saying “I believe X” or “I know X” – and persuasion. That might appear a subtle difference but I’m not sure it is.

  32. Brent
    February 20, 2017 at 1:03 am

    Clark, great post.

    “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.”

    This led me to think of an example that came to me whilst a missionary. Nearly every member of the Church has access to the same scriptures, the same general conference talks, the same Church magazines and other publications. In other words, nearly every member of the Church has access to the same information regarding what we like to refer to as “The Gospel of Jesus Christ”. Many aspects of that Gospel are universally accepted and recognized by the vast majority of Church membership. Yet there are anomalies. Personal experiences, both those we are subjected to and those we subject ourselves to, coupled with the unique individuality of every person, prevents each member of the Church from having an exactly symmetrical view/understanding of “The Gospel” with any other member. When my personal experiences with scripture and the words of the prophets and other Church leaders reveal a conclusion wholly unlike that of my peers within and without Mormonism, I am forced to accept the conclusion that my personal experiences are anomalous in the midst of humanity despite our shared heritage, and have led me down trails of thought either uncommon or entirely unheard of.

    For those others in the Church who experience life anomalously, particularly for those who, like myself, have studied extensively inside and outside official Church publications, we have long since come to realize that there is no completely symmetrical Gospel once one takes into account all the various viewpoints, anecdotes and even “doctrines” which have been shared in “official” and “unofficial” Church settings by Church leaders since the Church was founded. One cannot judge the epistemology of such characters as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or for that matter any other members of the human race, to be fact or fiction for the exact reason that their words reflect their personal experiences. Certainly there are similarities, enough so that, with a little (or a lot) of redaction here and there, we can pretend Mormonism to be a completely cohesive system with meaningless variations (anomalies) sprinkled throughout its history, but in the end, the anomalies are just as important for those wishing to understand the implications as well as the explications of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

    I try not to use my personal experiences as a fence within which the experiences of others are bound, but I admit I use them to attempt understanding the personal (and public) experiences of others. Joseph Smith seems to have been unable to understand the remainder of his life outside the context of the psychological and spiritual consequences of the vision he wrote of in various accounts. Whether or not his personal experiences with the supernatural were “true”, “real”, or “[insert your own epistemological evaluative here]”, they were for him and have been for thousands and even millions of others the source of innumerable “personal experiences” which are uniquely individual (even when unorthodox) and yet shared (mostly) within the confines of a somewhat pliable theological framework.

    Summarily, I think we have been plagued by the idea that the empirical method of science is also applicable to personal experiences. You love and are loved exactly as I love and am loved. We spend so much time telling our children they are unique and special while simultaneously expecting that their lives will conform to that of others (even *gasp* our own, occasionally), whatever their personal experiences. Unfortunately for my parents, it is precisely the nature of my personal experiences which have assured that my life will, except for similar vital statistics, in no way conform to theirs. I am the totality of my personal and public experiences. This means that regardless of the nearness in proximity of any other person to me (even I had had siblings), my life as I’ve lived it has never and will never be duplicated either in part or whole. No one has experienced life exactly as I have and so, regardless of their ability to see through the eyes of others, I will die with personal experiences never shared in actuality, though I may have attempted to summarize them in some form of media.

    Did Joseph Smith have the personal experiences he said he did? I don’t know. But what I do know is that at this point in my life, I believe God has told me, through myriad thoughts, feelings and yes, personal experiences, that he did, or at least that it is safe for me to believe he did and follow the implications of such in my life. Let the public judge as they will, for they always will, speaking as they unavoidably must from the point of view generated from their own personal experiences.

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