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

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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 (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. These propositions would include God being sovereign over the whole 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 from the Book of Mormon of Joseph Smith being the one to bring it forth implying his prophethood and calling from God (2 Nephi 3:14-15),[1]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 a whole.

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. [2]

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 four categories: the question of diversity, the question of neuroscience, the question of reliability, and the question of circularity. Below are our responses to different critical arguments against justification. Before readers proceed to those articles, it is wise to understand how Latter-day Saints understand the conception of the Holy Ghost and the obtainment of testimony. As additional reading, one might read the material that we have written on the conception of prophetic revelation.

Question of Diversity

Question of Neuroscience

Question of Reliability

Question of Circularity

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 (Matthew 14:21; Mosiah 2:37; Alma 7:21; Mormon 9:27; D&C 6:36D&C 97:17), 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:


Notes

  1. Brant Gardner has brought up some valid issues about the specificity of this prophecy (especially the inclusion of the name of the prophet being the same as Joseph of Egypt) in translation of the plate text at this point of the Book of Mormon—attributing it to Joseph Smith. The verses surrounding v. 15 are enough however to establish that Lehi is looking towards the future and that he has a specific person in mind. There does not seem to be any other viable fulfillment of this prophecy than the translation of the Book of Mormon through the Prophet Joseph Smith. This gives us the proposition ready to be verified by revelation that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. See Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon Vol 2. Second Nephi-Jacob (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:55-9.
  2. 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.