The Unknowable

I have been taught my entire life that I could know, without a doubt, that the LDS church was true. I could know this by living the way I was taught, by reading the scriptures, praying, and then by receiving a sure witness. I received that witness, as I was taught I would, multiple times. A burning in my bosom, a light in my mind, a thought that I perceived came from outside of me. I believed I knew. And it felt wonderful to feel so sure!

Today, I read this wonderful article that my friend sent me: http://www.thetabernacles.com/1/post/2013/06/beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt-the-curse-of-confirmation-bias.html. It talks about confirmation bias. Here is my favorite section of the article:

  • Everybody I know says they know, so it must be true. So what happens when I meet lots of people who say they know it isn’t true? What happens when a good friend prays and is told that the Book of Mormon is not true? What happens when those who once said they knew it was true now say they were deceived all along? As I meet more and more of the 99.90169% of the world that does not share my faith and my worldview, the diversities of opinion, nay knowledge, reduce this premise to shambles.
  • I feel comfortable and happy when I act in conformity with what has been presented to me as truth, so it must be true. What about all those times when I was not happy? Mormons are not immune to the difficulties of life, we just have a unique ability to discount the bad and emphasize the positive. What we generally say to counter doubt during periods of unhappiness and suffering is that some of it is a result of disobedience and some of it is meant to test us to see if we will remain faithful. (How we distinguish between these two is not entirely clear.) But even with this caveat, the Protestant Ethic remains strong within our cultural DNA. Wealthy, happy, successful families within the church are evidence of our adherence to truth. So what happens when I see others who are happy, successful, content, and comfortable without my truth claims? Even more disconcerting, what happens when I am happier when I do not live in conformance with what has been presented to me as truth?
  • I feel good when I make public statements affirming that I know. What happens when I begin to feel awful and like a hypocrite when making such claims? What happens when others talk about how they felt good making public statements directly contrary to my faith? Passion for a subject can certainly invoke lots of feelings, and I trust less and less my emotions and feelings in public settings. There are simply too many cultural, emotional, and egotistical variables at hand in such a setting.
  • I have had a consistently positive upbringing within my epistemological framework, so I know it is true. But we all downplay the negative moments, we forget them, we ignore them. We forget any questions or doubts we had growing up, interpreting them as moments of weakness, anomalies when compared with faith-affirming moments. We forget and downplay moments of shame, fear, self-loathing, and unhappiness. My missionary journal reads like a hagiographical account of a remarkable saint from the middle ages, but my memories—many too potent to be forgotten—recount a very different experience at times.
  • I have witnessed a remarkable experience that cannot be explained through traditional, rational methodology and that reinforces what I was taught to be true, so I know it is true. Perhaps nowhere is confirmation bias more potent than here. I have participated in miraculous priesthood healings and in failed priesthood healings. The feelings, the words, the emotions, the experiences were nearly identical. So why do I not write down or record the failed experiences? Why does God help one family start their broken down car in the cold winter on a forgotten road but fail to assist another family in securing food so they won’t starve? I’m certain both prayed fervently and with great faith. Why do prayers sometimes work and sometimes not? Again, Mormonism has potent responses to these accusations: God’s ways are not our ways, everything works together for our good, not every prayer can be answered because we must grow by faith. And at some level, I really do accept these concepts. But surely then, if we are going to discount all the faith-diminishing stories as beyond our comprehension, then we cannot possibly use stories from the other side of the coin as a rational basis for knowledge!
  • I have had a transcendent experience with the Divine. I can never properly describe it to others, but I simply know. Here I tread carefully. Because I know I have had experiences with the Divine. I simply know…. But I don’t quite know what it is exactly that I know. I know there is a God through subjective, personal experiences that I cherish and cannot properly communicate to others. But is it a God as my culture and upbringing lead me to envision? Is God constrained by my own preconceived notions? D&C 50:12 suggests that he reasons with us so that we may understand; but my own understanding is flawed. I have had profound experiences, prophetic inspiration if you will, that have not been born out by later events. I suppose one LDS strategy is to ascribe such experiences to the Devil and his minions, but such an argument destroys what remaining confidence I have in my ability to properly distinguish the Divine at all. For indeed that is the worst of all confirmation bias loops: anything that reinforces your preconceived notions is truth and anything that presents a different worldview is false and of the devil. It is a perfectly circular argument that ingeniously prevents any new information from ever influencing perspectives and knowledge.

Confirmation bias. These two words are at the root of my current struggle. I have definitely had answers to prayers, but how many of my prayers have not been answered? I have felt the goodness in the church and felt the promised peace of living the prescribed lifestyle the church asks us to live. Does this mean the church is true? Don’t people also feel that peace while doing the very things the church tells you not to do. I know lots of people who would tell you they are, in fact, very happy and at peace as they drink a beer and watch NFL Sunday football. Does having a good feeling while reading the Book of Mormon equate to “the book of Mormon is universal truth”? I can no longer say in good conscience that I know the Mormon church is true because of the experiences I have had because that “knowledge” may very well be guided largely by confirmation bias.

I don’t know how many of you watched the video I posted in my previous post, but the last few minutes of that video were eerily powerful to me. They show footage of the Heaven’s Gate religion shortly before 39 members of the group committed suicide so they could be free of their bodies and rise to a higher level of existence. The footage that is eerie to me is the part where the leader of the group tells people they don’t need to ask their friends or their neighbors if he (the leader) was who he claimed he was, they only needed to turn to the ultimate source of truth and knowledge. He tells them they can pray and know if what he is saying is true. 39 people did just that. They got their answer and followed this man unquestioningly to their deaths.

While I watched that video I listened to what he had to say, and you know how it sounded? Familiar. The vernacular he was using was very familiar and comforting to me. He spoke with a soft, gentle voice and called me to simply ask God if his message was true. I can honestly say I could picture scenarios where I could see myself following that man.

That scares me, as it should!

How much should a person trust their subjective experiences and their spiritual feelings. Definitely less than the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. But I think the idea that much of what we believe we “know” is actually confirmation bias at work deserves serious consideration.

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One Response to The Unknowable

  1. Jennifer says:

    I agree that confirmation bias deserves attention and ya that heaven’s gate guy with his steady voice and request to go and find out for themselves did sound familiar. I think that’s why some scientists who are believers end up being deists, thinking God just sort of started it all and then basically doesn’t interact anymore, because they can see how we humans filter things based on our beliefs, seeing what we want to see. And of course understanding that does make things more ambiguous.

    On the other hand if there is a God, which I’m inclined to believe, and if he does interact with us in subtle ways and mostly through us (I guess we’ve already had the discussion on why faith might be helpful), then I’m personally inclined to think he will use whatever avenues he has, and expects us to do the same: our mind, our experiences, empirical knowledge, our emotions, our inborn sense of right and wrong of what is beautiful etc (I’m fascinated that humans seem to have this, unless damaged in some way, across cultures and religions–almost as though God expects us to find our own truth in this life gladly with his inspiration if we so ask). I know I said this earlier but when I experience what I think of as the spirit of God working in me it’s working on multiple “ways of knowing”. I’m also grateful that God uses multiple witnesses, and it looks good to me when those witnesses will stand by a tangible experience even when disenchanted with the leader such as the early witnesses of our church. Some things just seem to go against confirmation bias as being the only factor at work IMO.

    I do believe that God interacts somehow with prophets in all their imperfections with the powerful message that he plans to redeem us. I guess even though I can see the human side of the prophets from Moses on down, I still see this genuine good desire, and love of the people that in my opinion is the greatest qualifier to being a prophet (and Jesus Christ seems like the epitome of this to me), since that is the message of God to me as we humans sort through our life’s experiences.

    But confirmation bias IMO is a very human thing and important to understand. thanks for helping me think about it.

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