I didn’t really touch on it in depth in my theology post last week but my view of theology entails being able to give reasons for why one asserts what one asserts. The emphasis then was in how we read. Underneath it all really was Eco’s view of the ideal reader who pays close attention to the process of interpretation. That reader is an ideal reader because they can explain why they read the way they do.
It was with some interest then that I read the inaugural post at Patheos’ new blog, Mormonism Inside and Out with Patrick Mason and John Dehlin. They started out with the whole topic of epistemology or how we know. It turns out one of the several half finished posts I have planned engaged deeply on these issues. Rather than going through my thoughts on epistemology I thought I’d respond to a few of the issues they brought up in their discussion.
The discussion really starts with a common critiques of religious experience from John Dehlin.
From a non-believing perspective — and I will admit up-front that this is a very fraught over-simplification — believers seem to base their positions on “spiritual experiences,” which non-believers would likely describe as emotional experiences, while non-believers often view themselves as basing their positions more on facts/evidence, maybe with a little bit of emotion thrown in.
First there’s the whole issue of what constitutes a spiritual or religious experience. The term is exceedingly vague and seems to include pretty diverse experiences and claims. After all someone encountering an angel might be a spiritual experience but so too might be a particular burning and feeling of confidence when a topic is thought about. And a simple emotional experience when singing a hymn might be termed a spiritual experience as well. Yet I’m not sure any of these really are similar epistemologically. Put an other way, I’ve long thought that talking about religious experience is unhelpful unless we’re more specific about what we mean. But of course that’s difficult when talking about other people’s spiritual experiences. They rarely will go into detail over them with others. Further many people just aren’t used to the careful self-reflexive analysis that would let us figure out what they’re really doing. At best we can discuss what a smaller class of ‘intellectuals’ might defend as experiences.
This problem of the overly broad category of “religious experience” is why critics can raise the problem of how we can appeal to religious experiences if people come to different conclusions. The problem can be seen if we just remove the religious modifier. How can we appeal to experience if people come to different conclusions from experience? Yet while we’d never say that any experience can ground anything we’d also not discount experience as providing a ground for knowledge. In the same way while not any old religious experience necessarily grounds knowledge neither does it mean no religious experience can ground knowledge.
Critics are apt to dismiss such experiences as “mere emotion.” While I think that’s problematic for emotional responses in general it’s really problematic I think for many people’s religious experiences where the important content seems to non-emotional. John notes that the emotion move is an oversimplification but I think it’s important to note that “emotion” really does avoid many aspects of the central experience.
Their discussion then took an interesting turn, given recent discussions of Taylor’s A Secular Age by Rachel here at T&S. John asks, “to what extent do you embrace secularism as a foundation of your Mormon epistemology?” He doesn’t think many would accept secularism at all. Again I’m not sure this establishes much. First because it’s not clear what is meant by secularism. (A point John seems to recognize when he later mentions how it’s typically used in a pejorative sense in most LDS conversations) I think in the broader, more careful sense of secular (as opposed to the loose sense of “with religion removed”) things get a bit more complicated. Although I must confess that even after reading Taylor and participating in the discussions here at T&S I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the question. I’m not sure I’m really able to answer it ultimately. Perhaps that’s because I think through my religion in a thoroughly secular fashion relative to medieval conceptions. Put an other way nothing about religion that I can think of really are in massive tension with my more secular commitments to science and general inquiry. This isn’t a secularism in opposition to religion but just a general way of engaging with the world that I think is as open to religion as it is science.
John raises the question of whether upon encountering a new religion akin to Joseph Smith and the controversial aspects of Mormon history in Nauvoo that I “would not take this person seriously for a second.” But of course that’s a bit of an odd question because it avoids the starting place I begin my inquiry. Anything I say to that seems false because I can at best provide paper doubt. After all I really do think Joseph was a prophet. To be able to engage in the thought experiment John offers requires me to somehow not already believe what I believe. I can at best say, is it conceivable that God would give me justifiable reasons to believe? I think it’s possible even for things that at present I don’t believe. The problem with approaching the problem in this fashion is that it involves paper doubt rather than things I’d really doubt or believe. As a believer I’d have to say it’s quite plausible that I’d encounter such a person and believe. The key thing seems to be I wouldn’t believe just based upon what John says about the man and his religion. Something has been left out. That something seems pretty important.
Patrick starts off a rejoinder to John talking about how secular thinking is in the air we breath and fully part of how we think. I really liked that part and think it true. However he loses me when he says,
Now, do I have to use a different part of my brain when I open myself up to non-rational, non-verifiable religious claims and experiences? Yes. But as I said earlier, I think that’s part of what makes us human — authentically encountering a world of wonders, from love to poetry to religious mystery, that requires us to approach reality in a different way.
My complaint is that I just don’t see that my religious thinking in fundamentally different from how I think about everything else.
From what I can tell Mormons think the light of Christ is given to everyone, so I think it a defensible position that what underlies religious experiences is part and parcel of all thinking. Is the scientist with the flash of insight that makes them yell “Eureka!” really doing something fundamentally different from the religious believer who has a similar experience on a religious topic? It seems a common LDS belief that God is inspiring people ranging from the founders preparing the Constitution to discovering the printing press to a lot of scientific inquiry. It’s perhaps unsurprising that at least some secular scientists have similar views. The noted physicist Paul Davies wrote about how “some scientists and mathematicians claim to have had sudden revelatory insights akin to…mystical experiences. Roger Penrose describes mathematical inspirations as a sudden ‘breaking through’ into a Platonic realm. Rucker reports that Kurt Gödel also spoke of the ‘other relation to reality,’ by which he could directly perceive mathematical objects…” (Davies, 228)
I don’t want to say Davies or his examples necessarily establish much beyond perhaps showing the lines between the revelatory and secular are more blurry than they first appear. Even if we think Davies, Penrose or Gödel wrong, clearly they demonstrate that there’s a wider range of views than some portray.
From a Mormon perspective a person can easily be inspired without knowing at the time they were inspired. I certainly have had experiences where when looking back it seems like I was being guided in ways I wasn’t aware at the time. Put an other way, the interesting part of the LDS conception of revelation is that we don’t need know what is or isn’t revelatory in a clear way. (Although of course we may in certain cases be aware of what is revelation – although even then I think one can always second guess oneself) So just as perhaps reason and emotion are quite as separable as sometimes thought, I think revelation and empirical reasoning also aren’t necessarily as separable. That is, we have to distinguish between how we justify to others an idea and how we come to believe. How Gödel thinks he experiences mathematics simply isn’t the same as the proofs he presents in his papers. Again he may well be wrong but I think that distinction between why we believe and how we defend a belief must be kept always in mind.
I also think one can be fairly empirical or pragmatic as one conducts ones religious inquiry. To the degree revelation is a real phenomena then it’s effects must make a difference to be a difference. And that difference as a difference must be at least reasonably empirical. It might not be public, which is an other matter entirely. But I think I stick with my view that separating religious experience as a difference in kind from regular experience is just wrong.
All of this is to argue against Patrick that I don’t think one really is doing anything necessarily different in religious experiences. Part of this again is the blurriness in our categories though. If we can’t make clear what distinctions are important then I’m not sure we can say much. I just remain far from convinced that the topic of religion is a significant difference.
I’m actually quite sympathetic to John’s final rejoinder to Patrick. He says, “a huge part of my personal downfall with regards to the LDS church was in never being able to personally replicate any of the wonderful storie or miracles that I heard about at church. If God was willing to appear to Joseph Smith, why couldn’t he appear to me?” (emphasis in the original)
In a certain sense it is replication that matters the most. Where I differ with John is over what has to be replicated. I don’t think I need see the angel Moroni to know that Moroni visited Joseph. In the same way, I don’t have to experience mathematics the way Gödel did to know a mathematical theorem is true. Rather there are things I can replicate and build conclusions out of certain experiences (whether they be symbolic, mathematical or religious).
Ultimately I think one can come to know God without losing ones critical stance. That is, it seems to me the real question for Patrick and John isn’t how the typical person comes to believe in God but how people like they are can come to believe in God. The most interesting question of epistemology is less about the Church in general but how those reading this (whom I assume are all critical thinkers) can justify their beliefs.
Davies, Paul Mind of God. Simon & Schuster 1992.
 I’m assuming most readers are familiar with John Dehlin who is a bit of a controversial figure. I had actually thought this joint effort was going to be a podcast, not a blog. I think a blog is actually better since they have a time to think through questions and look up answers. Apparently Patheos first approached Dan Peterson as the second figure to John Dehlin. Given the tensions between them that would really have been quite interesting. Given the past it’s probably not surprising Dan Peterson turned it down. While I’m sure many were a bit surprised Patrick Mason took up the role I am quite curious to see how he responds to Dehlin.
 Cognitively it’s fair to say that emotions are frequently a shortcut kind of judgment and response the brain uses. Strong emotions are often tied to important situations such as trauma or love. To dismiss emotions epistemologically thus seems deeply problematic given modern psychology and cognitive science. Emotions came to be disparaged in epistemology primarily due to certain trends in philosophy in early modernism. Emotion and reason were often opposed such that reason was seen as being “dispassionate.” (A trend that arguably goes back at least to the Stoics) Without descending into the deep hole of the philosophy and cognitive science of emotions I’d just say things are more complex than they appear at first glance.
 The term “paper doubt” comes from the philosopher C. S. Peirce who used it for people still using the Cartesian method of doubt to find out what was true. Descartes felt like there were basic beliefs we couldn’t doubt out of which all justified beliefs could be built – so his process was to doubt everything one could. The problem is that the things we say we doubt and the things we actually doubt typically aren’t the same. I might think up a thought experiment where I’m actually a brain in a vat hooked into the Matrix but really I just can’t make myself believe that.