Friday, September 7, 2012

The Mormon Truth Heuristic

This is a work in process -- I'm posting to save it and get initial thoughts.

Mormons often state in their testimony, "I know the Church is true".  It's a remarkable claim, full of hope, passion, and certainty.  To those outside the culture, particularly from other, competing faiths, it seems to be arrogant as well.  It isn't intended to be, but rather, it intends to be a confession of faith (not knowledge) that the Church (what Mormons call their religious organization, culture, and everything else with it) is true and relevant to testifier, personally.  Those may not be their words, but that is the intent. 

Those of us trained in critical thinking and in epistemology find the statement also to be deeply problematic.  To know something is to have justified true belief in it -- proof from evidence that the thing being testified to is indeed 'true' and not in any way false.  Yet the statement of 'knowing' something to be true when there is no proof has deep precedent:

Examine Job's claim:
 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.
Job 19:25-27
This powerful witness is Job's prophetic utterance: he 'knows' by some means that an unseen being exists, will stand on the earth, and that after death, in the flesh, Job will see his redeemer.  This "I know" (hebrew "yada", and in the Septuiguint "oida") is quite certainly "knowledge".  From the point of view of evidence, of epistemological validity, Job has no basis, not justification for this belief, therefore he has no "knowledge" of it, yet he says he "knows".

Moving forward to the Gospels, both Peter and Martha are found to testify that about something that is not apparent from the evidence.  They do not use the term "know" but it is quite certain language:
Jesus saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
Matthew 16:15-17
Although Peter isn't saying he knows, he makes a propositional, definitive truth cliam, "Thou art the Christ".  How can he make this claim?  He makes it not through tangible evidence, but through exclusively a spiritual kind -- the witness of the "Father which is in heaven."  Again, the critical thinking epistemologist may not be satisfied, because such an intangible witness might as well be a personal feeling of certainty.  While valid and important to Peter, it does not provide evidence except to the Peter himself. 
In the case of Martha, she states unequivocally the following to Jesus upon the death of Lazarus:
Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
John 11:27
The critical thinking epistemologist might approve of the term 'believe' in this case.  Even moreso, the writer of John uses the verb "πιστεύω"/pisteuo, which means more of "faith" rather than belief.  This expression is quite distinct from Job's "yada"/"oida" of certain knowledge, but it is also not "belief".  Pisteuo involves a working trust in something: more like "I trust (accept, agree, hope) that thou art the Christ".  As evidence of that trust, she was finished with the conversation expressing her concerns about Lazarus' death, and went back to her business.  She acted on her faith by turning over her concerns to Jesus and moving on, trusting that he had things under control.
These three ways of expressing faith-based knowledge -- Job in saying "I know", Peter in making a certainty proposition, and Martha in expressing faith -- all are part of the way religious people confess their faith.  It should be no surprise that Mormons make similar claims about their own faith.  But how do Mormons form their truth claims?  

The Mormon Truth Heuristic -- Short Form

There are two terms in this that need to be defined: Truth, and Heuristic.  First, from Joseph Smith:
Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.
Doctrine and Covenants 93:24
A remarkable statement: simple, precise.  It is controversial in using the term 'knowledge' in it, but whatever is that truth of things as they are, were, and are to come is ineffectual unless we know about them.  Truth is simply things as they are.  Truth in history is things as they were.  Truth in the future?  if we say with certainty that X will happen, and we have justified belief that it will happen, and it happens, then for purpose of this discussion, it is true.
The second term, heuristic, literally means the means to find something out.  In modern use, especially in the field of computability, a heuristic solves problems with a short-cut, a trial-and error method, when a finite, deterministic algorithm is impractical.  By using the term "truth heuristic", I mean how LDS explore truth through a specific trial and error testing process, and the tendency to use that method to short-cut an exhaustive investigation of truth.
The first version of the truth heuristic is encountered in the very first missionary discussion, where missionaries present the Book of Mormon, and encourage investigators to ready, ponder, and pray.  Here is the "Moroni Challenge" universally accepted as the means to test the truth of the Book of Mormon:
I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, ... and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Moroni 10:3-5
So the investigator is to read, ponder 'it', and pray, and the outcome is that teh truth of 'it' will be manifest by a feeling of certainty that Mormons call, "the Holy Ghost".  I have emphasized 'it', because the term is non-specific.  'it' could refer to what is read, or the entire book.  'it' could refer to the spiritual 'truth', symbolic in nature of what is read, or that the events in the book literally happened as reflected.
Reading, pondering, and praying about something to assess whether it has spiritual value to you as a reader is certainly a valid test.  But as for whether the events in the book literally happened, or whether the book as a whole can be proposed as 'true', meaning without material flaw, accurate, god-given, etc., 'it' becomes a bit problematic.
This is where the heuristic becomes a short-cut.  When missionaries return for a second visit, they ask about the experience the investigator had about the verses they were asked to read.  These verses are spiritually powerful in the text, and many investigators, if open minded, will have a positive, comforting experience with the text.  Because many who grew up believing the Bible to be the word of God tend to relate to King James English as being 'scriptural', they may even have had a very powerful emotional and spiritual experience with the material.  At that point, the missionaries describe these feelings as the "Holy Ghost" telling them that the Book of Mormon is true.  Without being specific, they have taken spiritual value associated with specific verses and generalized that evidence to the entire book and by implication, its history and divinity. 
Now that the heuristic has determined that the Book of Mormon is true and divine, then the means whereby the Book of Mormon came about must also be true and divine.  After all, it is impossible for a thing of God to come out of anything other than a true Prophet.  In glowing terms, the story of Joseph Smith and his position of Prophet of the Restoration is laid out.  The investigator learns of the miracle of a farm-boy with very little formal education translating this divine book by the gift and power of god.  The investigator is asked, "Could any man have written this book?", and the the investigator remembers the spiritual feelings and believes that Joseph could not have been a normal man, but indeed a true Prophet.  And from there, a True Church -- the ONLY true and living church -- because that was the content of the First Vision.
So from a very basic and essential spiritual test of whether the Book of Mormon has spiritually valid content, the investigator inductively concludes that the Church as presented by the missionaries is "true".  Having had a spiritual awakening, the associated bond to the missionaries, the Book, and to the Church is complete, and the investigator becomes a member.
Conversion is an emotional/spiritual process.  Seldom does anyone become converted by virtue of logic and reason.  Yet, the disturbing part of this short-cut heuristic is that the conclusion of truth of the whole is inductively derived from a specifc test of a specific reading of the Book.  In making the inductive leap from that specific test to the truth of the whole is glossed over. 
The heuristic itself is valid, when it applies to investigating a specific issue, to working it through in one's mind, and then to seek spiritual guidance as to whether that specific issue has merit, is true, or is relevant.  The outcome of this is a type of experiential knowledge -- a justification that the belief is true.  What is invalid is the movement from specifc to the general, from a subject claim of value to an objective claim of truth.

What really happens with the short-cut heuristic

Before going in to what is happening in the mind with conversion, it is important to recognize that to LDS thinking, all spiritual reality is material as well.  Thus, the spiritual processes of conversion are coupled with physical processes in the brain.  To investigate what is happening physically with conversion does not minimize the spiritual reality thereof, but it does help us understand why it happens, and what it means to be converted.
When the missionary asks the investigator to ready, ponder, and pray, the reading creates a set of mental pictures from the narrative, as we would get from any book with a narraative story.  As we form these mental images in our short-term memory, our mental processes need to stop input and process the information in order to commit it, place it, into our long term memory.  Moroni's promise asks us to ponder, not just what is read, but also, a deeply embedded narrative in Western culture:
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
Moroni 10:3
The narrative of the mercy of God to the children of men is deeply embedded in every active Christian from early childhood.  These stories have a parallel emotional context in the child's brain -- emotions of security and how god protects them from fear.  The "emotional context" is found in another part of the brain than logic: it forms the limbic system of the brain, where primal fears and desires are located.  By bringing into the Book of Mormon context the emotional context from a Christian's childhood, the investigator is planting a seed of associations between the visual images of the Book of Mormon narrative and the emotional context of scripture stories.  Even the use of King James English re-enforces this religious/emotional context.
By pondering these things together, the investigator is triggering an event within the nonconscious part of the mind -- that which helps us implant long-term memories through dreams and other mechanisms.  After pondering, and perhaps stepping away from the Book and sleeping on it, the nonconscious mind makes neural associations between the act of reading the Book, the visual images, and the positive experiences from the investigators' youth about biblical stories.  As the investigator prays about this, particularly after some time for the non-conscious mind to extend the neural associations, the investigator feels a spiritual comfort about the Book of Mormon.  That comfort is located in the limbic mind, in the amygdala, right in the same general location as "love", "comfort", "happiness": it is a feeling of knowing that something is true -- an emotion, not a logical construct. 
It's as if the investigator has fallen in love with the Book of Mormon, and all things associated with it.  And quite similar to falling in love, the objectivity of the cerebral cortext -- the locus of conscious, rational thought, takes a secondary seat to the feeling of knowing and love for all things Mormon.  This feeling of knowing, of comfort, can be extraordinarily powerful.  It creates a strong dependency of all things mormon to and through the primary emotional chain that started with an emotional/spiritual experience after reading, pondering, and praying, to the core truth claims of the church, to the existence and relevance of the entire church structure and teachings.  By falling in love, and making a deep, personal commitment, the limbic mind creates a bond between the investigator and the church -- one that is very hard to break.
While this may sound illogical to make such a life choice based upon an emotional bond, the origin of this bond in evolution is quite critical to the survival of species.  Humans are social animals out of necessity: the survival of individuals is greatly enhanced in the extent to which humans are part of a tribe, flock, or group of people.  The emotional bonding of the investigator to the Church is by no means a bad thing -- the Church is a very suitable tribal structure, with extensive support for the survival of the individual who fully commits to it.  The need to be part of such an organization is vital to any human, as it has been for millions of years. 
So there is benefit to joining the Church, tremendous benefit.  But maintaining the same type of short-cut truth heuristic for all decisions within the Church is deeply problematic.

The problem with the Short-Cut Truth Heuristic

In a sense, the idea of converting to the church through a single experience with the spirit is a bit like falling in love with a person, and the moment

In sorting out truth of things, it is helpful to have a testable proposition.  Take the statement "The Book of Mormon is true": This is a testable proposition, provided we first define what the word "true" means.  One definition would be absolute truth: every word, statement, claim, history, origin in the book is exactly what it says it is - an accurate history of the Native American people, translated from golden plates written a language called "reformed egyptian", etc.   Every claim about the book needs to be true in order for the claim of absolute truth applies.

Proving an absolute claim is difficult, because it requires that all aspects of the book be shown to not have any flaws or falsehoods.  In a book with 500 pages, with a history that cannot be fully verified, the ability to prove it to be true in an absolute sense is impossible.  However, it is quite easy to prove it is not true.  A single fact that is not possible would bring down the claim.  For example, if it is not possible for a beheaded individual to sit up, struggle, then expire, then the book at least has some things in it that aren't strictly 'true'.

But most LDS will be satisfied with a feeling that it is true. 
truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come
D&C 93:24


1 comment:

  1. Good stuff here. I like the breakdown and the inclusion of what is happening inside the brain. I was disappointed to arrive at your trailing off point at the end.