Holy Ghost/ Latter-day Saint Epistemology

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Latter-day Saint Epistemology

Summary: This series of articles defines epistemology broadly and how to approach and define Latter-day Saint Epistemology

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Question: What is epistemology?

Epistemology is defined as:

the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity[1]

For thousands of years, knowledge was defined as epistemologists as a justified, true belief. Knowledge is only knowledge if and only if P (a proposition) is true, S (a subject) believes that P, and P is justified. Justification simply refers the evidence that we give to verify a true belief. For instance, I can be inside a room with no windows and a single, opaque door to the outside. I can receive a call from a friend inviting me to go for a walk in the park and I can think to myself "With my luck, it will be raining right now." Now, it could be raining outside, therefore the proposition may be true. But I don't know that the proposition is true because I can't justifiy it. The JTB model came under question in 1963 when philosopher Edward Gettier proposed the "Gettier Problem" that showed that we can have justified, true belief and not have knowledge. The nature of justification came under significant question. Many theories were proposed in order refine the JTB model because of Gettier's paper. These either added a fourth condition to JTB or sought to redefine knowledge acquisition entirely. These included models such as infalliblism, indefeasibility, causalism, reliablism, tracking theories, and so on. Each of these theories had certain "Gettier Cases" proposed for them. It led certain philosophers to abandon any endeavor of seeking to define what constitutes knowledge and to see epistemology simply as a study of normative study instead of a descriptive one. This is now called "virtue epistemology".

The author of the articles in this series asserts generally justified true belief being knowledge since the proposed Gettier cases for each model can be implausible. It is the way that most humans work. It's one of the reasons that we developed terms such as "explanatory power" since certain explanations define phenomenon better than others and we rely on the explanation that is evidenced by past experience or other evidence being evaluated at any given time.

This video explains JTB in an easy way and the Gettier Problem. Readers should see the whole series on YouTube for more easy-to-learn information on Epistemology.

Question: What is the best way to define Latter-day Saint epistemology?

Latter-day Saints take no uniform approach to epistemology. Belief is found at a confluence of reason and revelation

There are several schools of epistemology—each defining the best and most important sources of knowledge. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no uniform position on defining epistemology—only to understand that it is the result of reason and revelation. Latter-day Saints highly value the proposition of a good education and the primacy of reason. But they also seek to understand things by faith. Several scriptures in the Latter-day Saint canon affirm the primacy of reason and of learning through the Spirit--used interchangeably with "faith"--because there are times where one needs to strengthen the other:

10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.

11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.

3 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.

4 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.

5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

Noted is how this short passage begins by emphasizing a moment of pondering and reflection before seeking revelation.

2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
40 For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own; judgment goeth before the face of him who sitteth upon the throne and governeth and executeth all things.

77 And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.

78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;

79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

Noted in this passage is its instruction to seek learning from all disciplines so that we can be better instructed in how to think about and live out our faith. Thus, we gain revelation from a prophet, but understanding how God communicated to that prophet, understanding what the intention is behind certain scriptures, and finding the blessings from following commandments comes largely from our own independent research and reason. We attempt to approach the scriptures contextually and holistically to understand their full significance and our role in God's plan.

118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.

Noted here is that secular learning and devotional learning are commanded for increasing the faith of those who struggle

36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth

18 Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.

19 And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.

Our form of epistemology does stress the importance of the Spirit more frequently than we do reason and that is because of a general perception of the fleetingness of reason, scholarship, and science in a certain regard. Obtaining and listening to the spirit is central to conversion to the Church since we are given the opportunity to seek answers from God himself. An assurance from the Spirit is used as a means of coping with uncertainties that we might have at various times of our development in the Church and our convictions. This assurance gives us the belief that, like the apostle Paul stated, that the Lord will "bring to light the hidden things of darkness" so that one day every one may have a praise of God (1 Cor 4:5).This should not, however, be understood to mean that Latter-day Saint testimonies rely solely on feelings. Spiritual understanding for Latter-day Saints is arrived at the confluence of reason and revelation, with a stress on revelation.

Reason is obviously only an intellectual exercise (primarily of the mind), while revelation is an effort that requires all of our faculties

We can obtain knowledge and truth through many sources. But one reason we stress the importance of revelation is that it appeals to our whole body for verification. It involves “our faculties” (Alma 32: 27). Latter-day Saint doctrine also affirms that the body and spirit make the soul (D&C 88:15).[2] Thus, spiritual experiences and coming to spiritual understanding for Latter-day Saints involve much more than simply good feelings as some have criticized us for, but for seeking to “study [something] out in our mind” and then asking for confirmation of it (D&C 9:7-9). We also teach that when the Spirit does touch our souls, that it is an experience that should feed both mind and heart (D&C 8:2). There are times when we have to rely solely upon revelation given to us in our hearts (1 Nephi 4:6), there are other times when we need both revelation and reason (D&C 8:2), and there are other times when we simply need to do something based only upon reason and what we know is good (D&C 58:26-29).

Encyclopedia of Mormonism (K. Carter Codell): "Epistemology"

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature and scope of knowledge. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no uniform position on the classical issues of epistemology, such as the relationship of the sources of knowledge, theories of truth, and modes of verification, but the superiority of knowing by revelation from God is commonly cited from the scriptures.

The word "knowledge" is used in different ways and has different meanings in different cultures. Different kinds of knowledge may be independent of each other.

The Western philosophical tradition, like Western thought generally, emphasizes knowledge in the sense of knowing facts. But this emphasis may not be appropriate, especially from a gospel perspective. Some scriptures teach that other kinds of knowledge may be more important. Thus, Jesus prays, "This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). This is knowledge by acquaintance more than "knowledge about" (cf. JST Matt. 7:32-33). There are also indications that factual knowledge alone is not sufficient for salvation: "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22). At the request of President Spencer W. Kimball, a prophet, the words in a LDS children's hymn were changed from "Teach me all that I must know" to "Teach me all that I must do," because it is not enough just to know; one must do the will of the Lord.

A related gospel theme is that knowing comes from doing. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself" (John 7:17). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, "We cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received" (TPJS, p. 256).

In formal philosophy, "knowing," in the sense of knowing facts, is often defined to mean true belief together with good reasons. In other words, a person knows some statement X if and only if that person believes X, and if X is true, and if the person has good reasons for believing X. The European-American philosophical tradition recognizes two kinds of reasons that support the claim to know: rational argument and empirical evidence. Within the Church these are tacitly accepted as sources of knowledge, sometimes even of religious knowledge. For example, after reviewing the traditional arguments for the existence of God, James E. Talmage observed that some were "at least strongly corroborative" of God's existence (AF, p. 29).

However, there is a continuing tradition, based on the scriptures and reinforced by modern Church leaders, that specifically religious knowledge requires a different and distinctively spiritual source. "We believe that no man can know that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Holy Ghost. We believe in [the gift of the Holy Ghost] in all its fulness, and power, and greatness, and glory" (TPJS, p. 243; D&C 76:114-116). It is widely accepted by Latter-day Saints that gospel knowledge must ultimately be obtained by spiritual rather than exclusively rational or empirical means (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:3). Thus, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is no clear counterpart to the Roman Catholic tradition of natural theology.

One of the most suggestive and frequently cited scriptures in LDS teaching makes the point: "And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things" (Moro. 10:4-5). This scripture is usually taken to apply to all knowledge. This suggests that both rational argument and empirical evidence, the two traditional approaches to knowledge, can be either supplanted by or encompassed within spiritual knowledge. Of course, the scripture does not say that knowledge comes only by the Holy Ghost. Yet, within the Church, it is often held that what might be thought of as secular learning, for example, modern scientific knowledge, is directly associated with the restoration of the gospel and is rooted in divine inspiration throughout the world.[3]

Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Ralph C. Hancock): "Reason and Revelation"

LDS teaching affirms the supreme authority of divine revelation. However, revelation is not understood as an impediment to rational inquiry but as the framework within which the natural human desire to know can most vigorously and fruitfully be exercised. In traditional Judaism and Islam, revelation is mainly seen as law, and the orthodox life of pious obedience is incompatible with the questioning spirit of philosophic life (see World Religions (Non-Christian) and Mormonism] and Mormonism, Mormons). The Christian view of religion as belief or faith and of revelation as teachings or doctrine has encouraged a perennial interest in reconciling the authority of revealed religion with that of reason. Thus, among revealed religions, Christianity has been the most open-and the most vulnerable-to the claims of reason.

The theological tradition of medieval Christianity viewed the Gospels as a supernatural fulfillment of the brilliant but partial insights of natural reason as represented by Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. The Christian philosophers Augustine and Aquinas agreed with their pagan predecessors that reason is the noblest natural human faculty, but argued that it cannot reach God, its true end, without the aid of revelation. Thus, revelation was held to be superior, but even this superiority was to some extent defined by a view of the good inherited from pre-Christian philosophy.

The founders of the Protestant tradition attacked this alliance between classical philosophy and the gospel, and tended to limit reason to an instrumental status. So limited, however, the Protestants viewed the exercise of reason as redounding to the glory of God. In this way, the Reformation laid the foundation for the later alliance between faith and technological science.

The LDS understanding of this issue rests upon foundations equally distinct from Protestant and Catholic traditions. LDS doctrine emphasizes the continuity between the natural and the divine realms, a continuity founded in part on the eternal importance of human understanding. But Latter-day Saints do not see the dignity of the mind as the sole basis of this continuity. Rather, they look to the exaltation of the whole person-not only as a knower of truth but also as a servant of the Lord and a source of blessings to one's fellow beings and one's posterity. In contrast to other Christian and Jewish traditions, moreover, LDS teaching emphasizes the necessity of present and future revelation, both to the individual and to the Church, in the pursuit of all these ends.

Warnings against the arrogance of human reason are common and founded in scripture. Thus, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob decries "the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God" (2 Ne. 9:28-29). He thus announces a theme-the goodness of learning-that is almost as prominent in LDS teaching as the necessity of revelation, especially in the Doctrine and Covenants, where the Saints are enjoined to pursue learning of all kinds by "study" as well as by "faith" (D&C 88:78-79, 118).

Though one purpose of rational inquiry is to enhance missionary work (D&C 88:80), the goodness of learning transcends any practical applications. Indeed, this intellectual goodness is linked directly and intrinsically with the exaltation of the individual, whose nature must conform to the "conditions" or "law" of the kingdom he or she attains: "For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light" (D&C 88:38-40). Such perfections also pertain to natural human faculties, directed and aided by general and personal revelation, for ultimately the light that "enlighteneth your eyes" and "quickeneth your understandings" is the "Light of Christ," the "light of truth…which is in all things" (D&C 88:6, 7, 11, 13; cf. Moro. 7:16-25).

Revealed light and natural light are not completely distinct categories. Revelation engages natural reason and indeed may build upon it. It is sometimes described in LDS teaching as "a still voice of perfect mildness" able to "pierce unto the very soul" (Hel. 5:21-31) or as a spirit that resonates with the mind to produce a feeling of "pure intelligence" or "sudden strokes of ideas" (TPJS, p. 151). It is thus appropriate to seek and prepare for revelation by the effort of reason: "You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right" (D&C 9:8).

LDS teaching encourages a distinct openness to the intrinsic as well as instrumental goodness of the life of the mind, an openness founded on the continuity between the human and divine realms. The full exercise of human reason under the direction of revelation holds a high place among the virtuous and praiseworthy ends to be sought by the Saints (A of F 13), for the scripture promises that "whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection," and the more "knowledge and intelligence" one gains through "diligence and obedience," the greater "the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:18-19). This emphasis on intellectual development in human progress toward godhood accords with the fundamental doctrine that is the official motto of Brigham Young University-namely, that "the glory of God is intelligence" (D&C 93:36).

Equated with "light and truth," such intelligence by nature "forsake[s] that evil one" (D&C 93:37). It cannot be simply identified with conventional measures of "intelligence" or with the Greek philosophic idea of a pure, immaterial, and self-directed intelligence, a concept that was very influential in medieval theology. For Latter-day Saints, the attainment of intelligence must be integrated with the labor of shaping the material world and binding together families and generations, for "the elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy" (D&C 93:33). To the doctrine that "the glory of God is intelligence," one must add God's statement to Moses that "this is my work and my glory-to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39).[4]

Question: Is Latter-day Saint epistemology a valid form of epistemology?

The verification of certain propositions in religious epistemology can come through both rational and empirical means. This is absolutely valid and Latter-day Saint scholars and lay members seek to validate these types of propositions every day

Gratefully for many religions, epistemology isn't simply a matter of subjectivism alone. Many propositions in the Latter-day Saint tradition require that one study them out in their own mind. This is manifested a lot in the scriptures. For instance, the Savior apparently used empiricism to prove himself to the apostles (Acts 1:3). Latter-day Saints also cherish the intellectual study of the scriptures and other disciplines in order to defend them and validate their truthfulness (D&C 88:77-79). Latter-day Saint scripture also shows that God values the mind and rational decision making. See for instance D&C 9:7-9; D&C 50:12; and D&C 58:26-28. Jesus taught his followers to keep the commandments he gave them to know if they were from God (John 7:17). Thus, there is no truly official approach to epistemology in this regard from Latter-day Saints. We simply cherish all the education we can get on any facet of life and the Gospel before we believe we will be resurrected (D&C 130:18).

The witness of the Holy Ghost is more closely scrutinized and to validate this part of our epistemology, we have to make more inquiries into the nature of justification and answer criticisms against it.

Near the end of the Book of Mormon the prophet Moroni, the last to write in the book, gives a promise that those who ask God about the truthfulness of the book with real intent, having faith in Christ, and a sincere heart may have the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon revealed to them by the power of the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:3-5). This proposition includes all Moroni's promise encompasses all other propositions compiled and abridged by Mormon as is the best interpretation of “these records” in Moroni 10:2 and “these things” in 10:3. This would then include God being over the earth (1 Nephi 11:6), God creating the earth (2 Nephi 2:13), God having a body of flesh and bone (3 Nephi 28:10; D&C 93:33-35), the prophecy of Joseph Smith being the one mighty and strong to bring forth the Book of Mormon implying his prophethood (2 Nephi 3:14), and the existence of the priesthood and its necessity in knowing how to find salvation in Christ through ordinances (Alma 13) —among the foundational claims of the Church. When Moroni says “these things”, he is referring to the words that he is speaking to the future Lamanites that receive them per verse 1. He is also referring to the record.

As Brant Gardner, preeminent Latter-day Saint scholar of the Book of Mormon has observed about Moroni 10:2-3:

"In “seal[ing] up these records,” Moroni is not referring to any physical process that will bind the plates together, but rather to a spiritual sealing—an anointing to their divinely ordained purpose. This is the context for Moroni’s title page:

“Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed.”

The sealing is so that “they might not be destroyed.” It is a protective sealing not a preventative sealing such as was plated on the vision of the brother of Jared. (See commentary accompanying Ether 5:1)

[Gardner here quotes of Moroni 10:3]

Moroni speaks directly to his future reader. While he wrote to future Lamanites, he certainly understood that the Book of Mormon would come to the Gentiles as well [1 Nephi 10:11]. It is appropriate for us to consider ourselves included in this direct address. [5]

Thus, Latter-day Saints believe that the reception of the Holy Ghost following Moroni's promise is a valid way of knowing the truth of the Restored Gospel and the Church that espouses it since the proposition includes knowing the truth of all other propositions contained in the Book of Mormon. This does not mean that we believe that the propositions are then loaded to our memories. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to explore the scriptures, learn their principles, and search them out. The Holy Ghost may witness to us that the Book of Mormon is true, but it will generally not force us to treasure up its propositions in our minds nor live them (Alma 32: 33-37).

At the center of the Latter-day Saint noetic structure lies this central hinge of the witness of the Holy Ghost. It is this witness that Latter-day Saints use to justify their testimony as something from God that can demonstrate the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and thus the Church.

But is this a valid form of epistemology? For Latter-day Saint philosophers and theologians the answer would be both "yes" and "no". Can we prove through external empiricism that our spiritual experience comes from God? No. But we can, at the very least, provide evidence that spiritual epistemology is a valid way of gaining knowledge and answer criticisms against it. Thus we let the door open for people to believe in the Spirit's influence, act on the promises of the Book of Mormon and other scripture, and then choose for themselves to follow those spiritual promptings as the dying Lehi told his sons (2 Nephi 2: 27-28). Some people may believe that that is a weakness of Latter-day Saint epistemology or religious epistemology in general. However, this is not a bug but a feature--especially when agency is such a fundamental part of Latter-day Saint doctrine pertaining to the Plan of Salvation (Moses 4:1-3). If we were able to prove that these experiences came from God, then would we truly be able to have agency? Wouldn't he be compelling us to believe in him? But then what is a spiritual experience meant to provide? It is meant to provide that sliver of God's power that he wants all of us to experience as we continuously seek him. God is found as we apply all of our faculties and seek him through various forms of epistemology. We can seek him through rationalism/philosophy. We can seek him empirically through ancient history that provides evidence for the Book of Mormon. We can seek him experientially by the Spirit and witnessing miracles. Those categories aren't mutually exclusive but they are used to demonstrate a point--that God is reaching to us through various forms of epistemology. However, he leaves just enough space for us to choose for ourselves to believe in him. As Hebrews expresses, faith is the substance of things hoped for.

Now, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ we still need to answer criticisms against the Spirit. Both believers and non-believers have asked questions regarding the justification of this belief in the validity of a spiritual experience. They can be roughly divided into three categories: the arguments/questions from diversity, the arguments/questions from provenance, and the arguments/questions from reliability. Below are our responses to different critical arguments against justification:

Argument from Diversity

Arguments/Questions from Provenance

Arguments/Questions from Reliability

Latter-day Saints testify to remarkable aspects of epistemology with sacred experiences

Two of the most extraordinary aspects of Latter-day Saint epistemology are these:

  1. The ability to receive a "no" to a question that the questioner wanted to receive a "yes" to in prayer.
  2. The ability to receive miraculous knowledge through miraculous experience including everything mentioned as gifts of the Spirit, warnings about eminent danger, revelation about specific people given during priesthood blessings, and other phenomena.

These events can properly be described as "top-down" revelation in Latter-day Saint epistemology as this is God correcting the mental framework of the person occupying it and giving us specific knowledge. This is distinguished from "bottom up" revelation where the subject has to correct their own state of mind before seeking revelation. Requirements for this include that Latter-day Saints and other individuals interested in receiving revelation become worthy of the Spirit's influence including trusting in God enough so that they believe that he will answer (Mosiah 2:37; Alma 7:21; D&C 97:17; D&C 6:36; Mormon 9:27; Matthew 14:21), that they study something out in their mind (Moroni 10:3; D&C 9:7-9), and that they then ask God for inspiration.

Latter-day Saints and other individuals struggling with questions of epistemology should remember/seek out these two extraordinary aspects of it and the times that they have/will personally experience(d) it in their life/investigation process.

Further Video/Listening Content

The following discuss themes of epistemology and objections to the use of spiritual experience in Latter-day Saint epistemology in more depth:


  1. Webster's Dictionary, "Epistemology" <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epistemology> (accessed 3 January 2019)
  2. This is essentially the view that biblical scholars recognize as being advocated in the Bible. Donald R. Potts, "Body" in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible ed., David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) 194; Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., "Soul" Ibid., 1245; Alice Ogden Bellisb, "Spirit" Ibid., 1248.
  3. K. Carter Codell "Epistemology" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (ed.) Daniel Ludlow (Macmilllan Publishing Company: New York City, New York 1992, 2007) off-site
  4. Hancock, Ralph C. "Reason and Revelation" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (ed.) Daniel H. Ludlow (Macmillan Publishing: New York City, New York 1992, 2007) off-site
  5. Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon; Vol. 6 4 Nephi – Moroni (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007) 6:407.