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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Faith Unto Knowledge PT 1: Epistemology, Collective Witness, and How You "Know"

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

As someone who believes in a personal God, that the Jesus Christ of the New Testament was the manifestation of that God in the world, and that Jesus Christ's church was restored by Joseph Smith, I have a lot for which to answer. I don't know, and perhaps don't even believe that I could ever persuade someone to my point of view through language alone. But I do think language is one of the tools I have to at least start the process of justifying my worldview. So I have constructed a dialogue. A dialogue that actually has gone on (and continues to go on) inside of myself. People may think I am mistaken, but I hope they never think I am insincere. I take the deep questions of life serious and attempt to explore them in a serious way. I hope you enjoy this series.


Thomas: Gordon, I have to admit. I am kind of baffled by you. You seem like a very intelligent guy but you also are a Mormon. I am not trying to be offensive, I just find Mormonism to be absurd

Gordon: haha, you are not the first person to tell me that. I spend a lot of time self reflecting to make sure I am not crazy. I totally get where you’re coming from. If I were an atheist like you, Mormonism would just seem unfathomable. But I didn’t jump to Mormonism from nothing.

Thomas: What do you mean?

Framing the worldview

Gordon: Mormonism is a specific narrative about Christianity. And Christianity is a specific narrative about God. And God is a specific narrative about the nature of reality.

Thomas: So because I’m an atheist, our difference is far more fundamental than the specifics of the Mormon narrative.

Gordon: Exactly! There is not much point in us having a debate over calculus if we don’t even agree on the fundamentals of arithmetic. Mormonism can only be properly evaluated as plausible if you grant certain Christian premises like the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the fundamental reliability of the New Testament narrative.

Thomas: Which are all premises I reject haha

Gordon: Yep! We could have an interesting conversation about Mormonism if you granted those premises, even if just for the sake of argument. For instance if you accept that the New Testament narrative is reliable, miracles happen, angels exists and appear to mankind etc., the Joseph Smith story becomes far more plausible. Thomas: Yeah I guess that's true. If the whole Jesus story is legit, it's a much smaller leap to get to Joseph Smith's story. Gordon: Don't get me wrong, believing Christians still have issues with Joseph Smith's story but I think we should probably focus the discussion on where OUR fundamental disagreements actually are. Because you are an atheist/agnostic, our differences really stem from those more fundamental differences. In fact, most differences in worldview we see these days seem to come from this most fundamental level.

Thomas: What is the “most fundamental level”?

Gordon: Our different epistemologies.

Thomas: Our what?

Epistemology 101

Gordon: Epistemology. It’s a persons theory of knowledge. Most people don’t think much about it. They just inherit a lens given to them by their socialization and people today are being socialized into very limited lenses with disastrous consequences.

Thomas: Well I will admit that something feels very confused about modern society. We can't even agree on what bathroom people should use, haha. It's like facts and truth don't matter.

Gordon: Yep. I think one of the reasons Jordan Peterson and people like him are gaining such a following today is because he, and those like him, are reconnecting people with a more traditional epistemology. A broad comprehensive epistemology rather than a reductive epistemology. A persons epistemology is the implicit axioms that govern when they feel justified in saying something about reality is true. It’s essentially the lens you use to decide what is real. Most people don’t ever really seriously ask themselves the question “how do I know what I know?” or “how am I sure that my perception of reality is in accordance with what is actually real (The Truth)?” or "Am I accounting for the full scope of reality or just limited aspects of it?". The most fundamental conversation is not even about if God exists, it's about how we can even know what's real. Most people just inherit the answers to these questions from their socialization but when you look at those questions seriously, you find very different answers to those questions and the answers are by no means obvious.

Thomas: This sounds more like philosophy than religion.

Gordon: Yes, because religious claims are always based on philosophical presuppositions. It is exactly in these philosophical presuppositions that our fundamental differences actually happen. The core of our differences are not really religious, they are philosophical. Have you ever seen this picture?

Thomas: Yes, it’s the photo where depending on how you look at it you see something different, either an old woman looking down or a young woman looking to her right.

Gordon: Yes! And the reality is only fully understood when you see both images and understand the whole picture. A person can be totally sure they are right from their perspective but they are not seeing the whole picture. Another example would be a person with one eye closed. Sure they see what they see and I would not dispute what they see but unless they open the other eye they won’t see the full picture. Here is a great talk on this subject BTW. Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth

Thomas: And I would say you are claiming to see things that are not there. Lol.

Gordon: Yep and I would say that you have one or more eyes closed and so you can’t see what I am seeing.

Thomas: Well I reject the legitimacy of claiming you know things just because you got some warm and fuzzy feelings. Just because you got warm and fuzzy feelings does not mean God exists or that the Book of Mormon is true.

Gordon: Well, when you put it that way I agree.

Thomas: Is there some other way of putting it?

Gordon: Yes. What tools do you think we have to help us know what is real in the world?

Thomas: Hmmm that’s a good question….Well … off the top of my head we have our sensory experiences and we have our ability to reason.

The Epistemological Toolkit

Gordon: That's a good start. I recently asked myself that same question and pondered it for a while and came up with the following. I would love to see what you think about it.

  1. Intuition (aka "The Self Evident")

  2. Sensory experience

  3. Reason

  4. Moral Outcomes

  5. Authority

Thomas: Ok so two and three look good, number five is a maybe, but I am not sure about one and four. Especially one.

Gordon: Ok so there is a lot to unpack here. First, I would say that none of these tools provide us with complete certainty. I don’t believe complete certainty about anything is possible except for our own existence (see Rene Descartes). I actually will argue that is the foundation of all knowledge. It is the fundamental undeniable Truth. From "the self" we can discover these additional tools which also witness to "what's out there in reality". The more witnesses we have of something, the higher our level of confidence that it is real. Eventually, when we feel confident enough we begin saying we know.

Thomas: But what do you mean by one, four, and five?

Gordon: Ok, let me lay this out. I actually have ordered one through five in the way I believe they emerge. It’s kind of like one tool leads you to find another. Like how having a shovel might lead you to dig up a rope, which allows you to climb a mountain, where you find a telescope that lets you see what is on the moon. Each tool allows you to see more and more of reality. Here is my hypothesis.

The Foundation: The "Self" and the "Self Evident" principle.

Fundamentally we exist. That is the starting point that I think all can agree on. It's the one thing we can be sure of. It's not just that sensory data exists it's that the senses are pushing those data to "us" to "a self" to "you". "You" are seeing something. "You" are hearing something. Intuition is what we call things that are just "self evident". And while we do intuit the reality of physical phenomena, that is not all that we intuit. It's a notion that is hard to put into words but we all intuit, not just with physical reality, but the entire realm of conscious experience.

Some think that sensory data is determining all of this. However, I think the best evidence that sensory data is not the most fundamental is the fact that we CHOOSE what data we take in and process according to a value structure within the self. In other words sensory data does not seem to be the most fundamental, we are. Go look at the gorilla suit illusion study and the concept of "Focus/Attention" if you don't believe me.

Now please note I am not saying that our intuitions are some perfect guide to truth, in fact, I would say intuition is likely the most blunt tool we have for understanding truth, especially when it stands alone. However, I think it’s clear that empirical data is not itself the most fundamental. It’s like the raw data that does not have any meaning until it’s run through a data processor.

Thomas: Why can't reason be the most fundamental?

The Emergence of Reason.

Gordon: Because reason is the analysis of sensory data. Reason arises in human beings as a consequence of human sensory experience. If no one ever had sensory experience what would there be to reason about. Reason is based on us intuiting patterns in our sensory experiences. We come to see that reality is not chaotic and arbitrary but seemingly ordered and predictable (which is fascinating in and of itself).

Using reason, we can describe the patterns in language or symbols like mathematics. Reason in its various forms (inductive, deductive and abductive etc.) also allows us to explore notions that go beyond the empirical by testing conceptual or hypothetical notions for consistency and plausibility. This opens up an entirely new realm, the realm of the metaphysical (which is the realm of things that reason indicates we may be confident are true despite a lack of direct sensory experience).

Thomas: Ok so we have talked about intuition. That seems a bit like woo woo but let’s grant that for a moment. I guess I just find intuition too vague and unreliable. I prefer reason and sensory data. They seem to be what actually works in the real world.

Gordon: I actually agree. When I say intuition is the most fundamental that does not mean I believe it’s the most reliable by itself. All alone it is extremely unreliable. However, it is ultimately the most fundamental. For instance, if I ask you, "what is 5 x 11?", you probably can just say "55" without engaging in active reasoning. Even the concept of 5 and 11 are intuitive notions. You did not have to look at your hand to know what 5 is. However, if I asked you, "what is 5 divided by 11" you would have to engage in active reasoning. You would write out the problem in small steps to get the answer.

Thomas: yes and…

Gordon: Just think about it. When you showed your work on the paper, we saw that you went through solving the problem via reasoning. You did this by going down to intuitions. Small intuitive individual numbers and steps. In other words reason is acting on the substrate of intuition. Reason is founded upon certain intuitions about things like, individuation, consistency, symmetry and causation which we all intuit from sensory experience. The most fundamental things just “make sense” (intuition) like one is not two or the notion that effects have causes. We say some things are just “self evident” meaning that they don’t require further explanation. Notions like our own existence don’t require us to give a rational proof. They just are “common sense” or “make sense” or are “brute facts”. In other words they are just intuitively true.

You will also notice that people get really annoyed with philosophers when they begin to question intuitive truths. It’s like asking, how can you know you are not living in the matrix. Rationalists hate that question because reason does not supply the answer. We simply intuit that we are living in a real world as self evident and go from there. The more I have delved into this the more I realize intuitions act as the bedrock of epistemology more than reason or sensory experience.

Thomas: Intuition seems to have a poor track record when it comes to actually giving us truth.

Gordon: I agree, again for the third time. Just because it's the most fundamental does not mean it’s the most precise tool we have. We can have mistaken intuitions. Using intuition alone would be like only having one eye open. Perhaps in some cases intuition is all you have but I generally don’t think that intuition alone is sufficient to make truth claims.

Thomas: So you don’t think you can know things just by feelings?

Gordon: Essentially no. But reducing intuition to mere feelings seems a little reductive. For instance, if someone asks me how I know raping a five year old girl is wrong, I would say “I just know it is”. Is that mere feelings? If I ask you how you know you are not living in the matrix you can’t point to anything except your intuition. Is that just a feeling?

Thomas: I guess so.

Gordon: Well then it looks like you make truth claims based on feelings alone. In fact, I would argue that our most fundamental things we "know" are based in this kind of intuitive knowledge because reason and empirical data are not the most fundamental. If you want to hear a great lecture that I believe leans into this notion I suggest the following presentation by the philosopher and theologian Blake Ostler. The idea that at the root of knowledge is an intuitive spirit is a surprisingly profound epistemological idea.

Thomas: But I don’t rely on feelings if reason and sensory data contradict my feelings.

Gordon: Good. That’s the same paradigm I have. Though we might quibble over what reason, sensory data, or intuition are telling us and how much weight we give to each of those “witnesses” of truth.

Moral outcomes?

Gordon: Now you said something else that I think leads us to number four (moral outcomes). You said that reason “works”.

Thomas: Yes reason gets us the outcomes we want. It’s reliable.

Gordon: Exactly! It produces outcomes we seek. I wrote previously on the basis for moral language and our notions of moral truth.

Thomas: Yeah I remember that you said that what we call morally true is that which leads us away from suffering.

Gordon: Exactly. Our intuition, sensory experience, and reason allow us to analyze being itself and the reality of suffering is a consequence of that fact. From this comes notions of morality and value judgements based on our understanding of the causes of suffering and it’s opposite (which I call "well being").

In other words reality itself, when fully understood, includes within it, moral truth. After all, what could be more real than suffering? I can more easily doubt the existence of Istanbul than the existence of my own pain/anguish. Moral truth is the truth as it relates to the nature of being and suffering. This gives us the ability to make true or false claims about the morality of a given behavior. It also acts as another epistemological tool for evaluating truth (the way things really are) because being, suffering and therefore morality are part of reality itself. Thus we can use the demonstrable moral outcomes of behavior to make judgements about if certain moral claims are true or not.

Reason in this context takes on a moral dimension when reasoning about moral outcomes. Truth itself is a moral notion if we assume that knowing truth is good (in the sense that it leads away from suffering).

Thomas: Is that why people say that bad behavior is “unreasonable”?

Gordon: Yes! When you understand that there is moral truth you also come to realize there is such a thing as moral reasoning and poor moral reasoning is called unreasonable because it leads to bad outcomes.

Thomas: But what does this have to do with me saying that reason works? I mean like it works in building space shuttles or in curing cancer.

Gordon: When you say something “works” you are saying it gives you what you want and getting what you want (like a space shuttle) is what you believe is a moral good. Otherwise you would not say that it worked because it did not produce the moral good.

Thomas: But didn't they use reason to create nuclear weapons and gas chambers etc.? Those were not moral goods.

Gordon: True, from your perspective. But for them perhaps killing all the Jews is a moral good and thus reason helps them achieve that end.

Thomas: So it's kind of like they have one eye open. They can see the truths of science (reason and empiricism) clearly enough to make terrible weapons but they don't see moral reality clearly.

Gordon: Bingo! That is why having a limited or warped view of truth can be so dangerous. On one hand you have crazy people ignoring science and refusing blood transfusions and on the other we have Nazi's using the power of science to commit horrors. Reality is bigger than mere matter in motion even if matter in motion is clearly part of that reality. That is why I am saying that we must engage all of our faculties to understand the depth and breadth of reality. That is my religion! Reject reductionism. You can't make sense of reality or know reality fully unless you are willing to examine the whole of it.


Thomas: Ok so what about number five, authority.

Gordon: This comes from recognizing that you are not the only being experiencing reality. It's like being blind in a big room with five blind people. Sure, we could all feel out every nook and cranny for ourselves to understand the room, or we could all feel around ourselves and then describe to each other what we are finding. When multiple people say the same thing it becomes more likely that the thing they are saying is true. In addition, the character, experience, and history of another person may give you more or less reasonable ground to trust them. When you think about it we do this all the time with everyone from doctors to auto mechanics. So much of what we know is stuff we believe because we were told so by an authority we trust.

Thomas: I get that but experts are often mistaken.

Gordon: Correct. But again, I think you are missing the point.

Thomas: Oh ok, I think I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that none of these tools is sufficient by itself, but rather they act together to give us more and more solid grounds to say something is true.

Gordon: Now you are getting it! You will notice that I am not claiming any of these five sources are infallible. And I don’t believe you can ever be 100% certain.

The Collective Witness Model.

Thomas: Ok I think I see what you are getting at. You are saying that all five of these tools act like witnesses. If you have five witnesses to a crime that all say the same thing you become more confident that what they are saying is true.

Gordon: That's it! This is what I call a “collective witness model” of epistemology. These five tools work together to give us more confidence about the truth of a given proposition. For example, sensory experience and intuition tell me my hand is actually in front of my face. It’s reasonable to think it exists as it causes things in the world to happen. My hand can produce moral outcomes and is actually pretty essential. It works. And I have it on good authority from everyone I ask that they see it too and many come up and shake hands with me. So with all these witnesses I am 99.999999999% certain my hand really exists and is not a mirage produced by the matrix.

Thomas: But are you really saying you can’t ever know anything? Are you saying that you can only approach 100% confidence but never get to 100%

Gordon: Yes. It may sound strange but technically many philosophers have pointed out that 100% rational certainty is not possible.

Thomas: But doesn't scripture say you can have perfect knowledge.

Gordon: Yes and I do believe that perfect spiritual knowledge is possible. I distinguish spiritual knowledge from rational knowledge. I define spiritual knowledge as God witnessing something to us. It is God acting on our intuition. It's a knowledge that transcends reason, like how we know that we are not living in a matrix. People can be mistaken in thinking God is telling them something, but whenever God speaks, it's true, it's real. This is spiritual knowledge. I think this inherent inability to ever have 100% rational certainty is why we are told that we are always to walk by faith. However we are getting ahead of ourselves by delving into claims made by religious authority. Right now I am just establishing a basic foundation that we can agree on when it comes to epistemology.

Thomas: So essentially we are establishing the tools that we will bring to bear in seeking truth and on what grounds we are to evaluate a truth claim.

Gordon: Yes and any difference at this fundamental level will lead us down very different paths even if we are both rational because the what we accept as data for our rationality to analyze will be very different.

I tend to think about my seeking of truth as a wholistic endeavor engaging all of these tools in order to understand all I can about the depths of reality. Sure, I could be a mere animal acting on animal intuition. I could just be a meat computer that takes in information and processes it without recognizing my own agency and ability to choose. I could be an entity of madness and chaos by rejecting reason. I could ignore the nature of being and thus abandon the reality of moral truth. I could simply ignore what other people say. In short, I could rob myself of the very endowments that make me fully human with a capacity for the divine.

In Hebrew there is a notion of "the heart of man" as the center place. I like to think of this as the intersection where these five inputs meet and are processed by you. It's the place where truth and you meet and from there, your humanity emerges. CS Lewis' famous and brilliant work "The Abolition of Man" talks about how modern ideologies which rob man of broader conceptions of objective truth (especially in moral matters) creates people who ultimately are less than fully human. It creates "men without chests", a humanity robbed of the full capacity of the human soul.

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” —C.S. Lewis

I believe the limitations placed on our epistemological lenses are leading to much of the chaos we see in the world today as we slide into postmodernism and/or hard naturalistic materialism. Neither of these world views give a full picture of reality. I think your (and many modern peoples') bias toward reason and empirical knowledge is understandable because those are the most often used in every day life. But that does not mean there is no more to know. It’s like how in physics velocity = mass x acceleration makes intuitive sense to us but E=MC squared does not even though both are true. I think it’s wrong to limit reality to just things close to our common daily experience.

In the end, much of the disagreements I have with others is rooted in their denial in one or more of these tools as legitimate in understanding the ultimate nature of reality. These are the fundamental disagreements because they are disagreements about the very lens through which the world is viewed. Still, it is fully my belief that you can’t fully see reality unless you have all your eyes open. It seems we have five “eyes”.

Thomas: Fair enough, but where does the idea of faith come into all this?

Gordon: Right now I have to run but let’s have some additional conversations later. Right now I can think of three good future convos.

- Intuition and The Parable of the Green Light Prophet.

- What Faith is and how it fits into epistemology.

- How this epistemology has lead me to my current belief system.


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Dustin McNab
Dustin McNab
Jan 29, 2023

It's hard to evaluate this without the second part covering spiritual knowledge. This model of epistemology makes sense if we're talking about secular truth, like science. But you start the 'conversation' by implying this model is part of why you believe Mormonism is true. I think scripture is very clear we need to be careful about what philosophy we apply to our spiritual epistemology.

We need to be careful about being 'taken captive by philosophy according to human tradition' (Col 2:8). "The wisdom of this world is folly with God" (1 Cor 3:19). Paul warned "the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a…

F.O.G. Defense
F.O.G. Defense
Mar 09
Replying to

Context, internal consistency, logical rationality, Evidential proof of Experience through repeated trial and error.

Just as there is not one metric for "proof of evidence" but a combination of them to be used together, I don't believe there's just one-way to be grounded in Gods Truth.

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