Truth, Knowledge and Confidence

A few months back we were at Seven Peaks in Provo and my son was staring down the long drop of one of the slides. He knew that it was safe yet ultimately that knowledge wasn’t what was in question. He thought it too big a risk. He didn’t have confidence in the safety of the slide despite having intellectual knowledge that it was safe.

I raise this to illustrate a principle. Often when people talk about religion and religious knowledge the issue really isn’t knowledge despite all appearances. What people really are after is confidence.

Keeping clear that these two questions really are different is important. (“Do we know X” vs. “Is X worth the risk”) Often critics of those who are religious talk about big claims needing big evidence. Typically what’s going on is conflating questions of confidence or risk with questions of knowledge. Usually these come out after a while.

Now of course in one sense the questions are related. If I am changing a light fixture and ask myself, “is the power switch off,” I may well know. However I’m likely quite a bit more concerned than I am if I’m merely flipping the light on. More is at risk so I demand more confidence in my knowledge.

All of this may sound important but it’s really just semantics ultimately. The justification we require for knowledge simply is different from the justification we require to do something else.

Mormonism of course is a costly religion. We have callings, pay tithing, have long sometimes boring meetings all because we know it is true. Yet ultimately it’s not that costly. 10% is not that much different from differences in cost of living and taxes for different places we may choose to live. Callings can take up time but honestly the time I spend preparing and teaching hyperactive 9 year olds isn’t that big a deal. Yes I give up coffee and alcohol but again that’s a pretty small sacrifice. Perhaps it seems a bit more when we’re younger and teens or young adults. Yet in the big picture I honestly think the risk is small. Certainly it’s far smaller than many other things we risk (jobs, marriage, where we live, and so forth).

If people wish to change the topic from whether we’re justified to say we know the Church is true that’s fine. Yet if we shift to the risks of religion, I think we have to say that the risks are far less than the risk that the power in on when changing a light fixture. We can take that risk whether we know or merely believe and are acting on faith. Indeed, perhaps because of the role of risk even those who know must act in faith as well.

9 comments for “Truth, Knowledge and Confidence

  1. I understand the Pascal’s wager argument with respect to God. I’m not convinced, but I don’t bother myself with arguing for or against because it has little to do with my approach to or understanding of God. But I think it’s harmless, at worst.
    However, with respect to choice of religion or religious practice, there is a danger or risk. It seems to me that the argument left to it’s own logical consequences tends toward the most extreme and restrictive religious practice–becomes an argument for monasticism. While “acting on faith” may be necessary, it is not sufficient. We also need some way to select the object of that faith, one that is independent of a cost-benefit calculation.

  2. When ever I think about the “costs” of our faith in terms of money, effort, time etc.., I find it helpful to consider price paid by a mother who died getting her children to Zion and the hardship they endured.

    From Pres.Hinckley quoting the 13yr old daughter’s journal.

    There were great lumps of ice floating down the river. It was bitter cold. … We went back to the camp and went to prayers, [and] … sang ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints No Toil Nor Labor Fear.’ I wondered what made my mother cry [that night]. … The next morning my little sister was born. It was the 23rd of September. We named her Edith. She lived six weeks and died. … [She] was buried at the last crossing of [the] Sweetwater.

    “[We ran into heavy snow. I became lost in the snow.] My feet and legs were frozen. [The men] rubbed me with snow. They put my feet in a bucket of water. The pain was terrible. …

    “When we arrived at Devils Gate it was bitter cold. We left lots of our things there. … My brother James … was as well as he ever was when he went to bed [that night]. In the morning he was dead. …

    “My feet were frozen[;] also my brother Edwin and my sister Caroline had their feet frozen. It was nothing but snow [snow everywhere and the bitter Wyoming wind]. We could not drive the pegs in our tents. … We did not know what would become of us. [Then] one night a man came to our camp and told us … Brigham Young had sent men and teams to help us. … We sang songs, some danced and some cried. …

    “My mother had never got well. … She died between the little and big mountains. … She was 43 years old. …

    “We arrived in Salt Lake City nine o’clock at night the 11th of December 1856. Three out of four that were living were frozen. My mother was dead in the wagon. …

    “Early next morning … Brigham Young … came. … When he saw our condition, our feet frozen and our mother dead, tears rolled down his cheeks. …

    “The doctor amputated my toes … [while] the sisters were dressing my mother for her grave. … When my feet were fixed they [carried] … us in to see our mother for the last time. Oh how did we stand it. That afternoon she was buried. …

    “[I have thought often of my mother’s words before we left England.] ‘Polly, I want to go to Zion while my children are small, so they can be raised in the Gospel of Christ for I know this is the true church.’”

    I conclude with this question: Should we be surprised if we are called upon to endure a little criticism, to make some small sacrifice for our faith when our forebears paid so great a price for theirs?

  3. After reading your post and doing a bit of introspection, I believe I agree with what I understand you’ve said. I post quite infrequently on websites like these not because I don’t know a lot about the subjects discussed, but because I have very little confidence in myself. My knowledge is not at stake, but my confidence is. It’s not that I can’t argue a point or present a proper rebuttal, it’s that to do so takes so much willpower (probably because my natural inclination is to be a silent observer) that I’m utterly exhausted and, should any criticism come my way, instead of welcoming it as I am wont to do when I have all my wits about me, I am hurt by it because I have exhausted my store of confidence in myself.

    I find myself over-obsessed with making “bullet-proof” points where I attempt to both establish my own point(s) of view and simultaneously include enough information/arguments that I ward off any who would disagree. The idea of having to confront someone who disagrees with what I’ve expressed in writing is, to me, even more exhausting than writing in the first place because it means they’ve found a “weakness” in my writing or points and I must either explain how I’ve already anticipated (and therefore can dismiss out of hand) such an objection or, what happens most often, stress myself to the brink by an exhaustive argument of their objection so as to craft a response that allows no return-fire.

    I suppose if my confidence were in myself instead of my knowledge, I would post more often because I wouldn’t be so disinclined to expose my thoughts and feelings to others. Had I vast stores of self-confidence, I would be both excited and ever-willing to express myself, whatever the cost.

    Then again, I’m naturally disinclined to equate myself with my knowledge, despite the fact that ultimately, I believe them to be synonymous and inseparable. I do not believe myself to be much more than the summation of what I know. Without knowledge, I would have no confidence to do anything. But it is this confidence in what I know (not necessarily what I do) that has driven me to even bother writing this. Sometimes it takes a lot of confidence to post a comment, even if there’s a surety that it will either never be read or, if read, not responded to or responded to in an antagonistic fashion. So here’s my post, a stream of consciousness after reading your post. Thanks.

  4. “Yet ultimately it’s not that costly.”

    The savings from not paying tithing are substantial. Plus, people who can barely pay bills are pressured to pay tithing. I know folks who felt pressure to actually go into debt to pay tithing.

  5. Dan, while there are definitely savings, again I think that differences in tax and cost of living are much higher. But ultimately that’s not my point. (Especially since I know of people who simply don’t pay their tithing when times are tight just as I know of people who turn down callings) Rather the point is that as risks go it’s pretty low.

    The main point of the post though is a (hopefully) uncontroversial semantic point. We should distinguish questions of justification for saying a belief is knowledge from questions of confidence for action or economic tradeoffs. (Using economics broadly and not just for finance)

  6. This argument also seems relevant to one of the current “crises” plaguing the Church today – LGBT issues. If you’ve got a teenager who identifies as part of that group, but the external social/religious pressure to conform to Church standards is so great that they lose their sense of self worth and become suicidal, then the “risk” that you mention becomes much higher. We’re not just talking monetary costs or time costs, but about a life. Then the need to “know” and to have confidence in that “knowledge” becomes all the more important.

  7. That’s a fair point Jared, although I’m not sure how one would calculate the risk there. But the very real costs to LGBT members of their testimony are something I think the brethren need to address with revelation clarifying things. The doctrine is fairly clear but the implication of the doctrine lead naturally to the situation you mention.

  8. Clark,

    I was just having very similar thoughts… although I’m sure you won’t follow me as far as I would like. :)

    As you know, I think deductive logic is a moral game that we play at the inter-subjective level. The only reason this isn’t obvious to us is that we tend to conflate an inductive inference in which we have a lot of confidence with a socially regulated rule in which we do not allow anybody to legitimately infer otherwise (deduction).

    The main point is that there is no necessary/universal connection between the confidence I have in some inference or claim and the legitimacy that I attach to it. In the liberal ideology of modernity that we are taught at schools and in general, these two (confident inferences and legitimate inferences) have become strongly connected through the bridge of individualism….. but they don’t have to be.

Comments are closed.