Category Archives: Epistemology

What Does Truth Do in Mormonism?

I’ve been meaning to get back to my whole epistemology investigation I started in the spring. Then I asked what truth does. A lot of the recent posts I’ve done have actually been me thinking about that issue. Certainly the post “Hebrew Conceptions of Truth” is important as is the post from the summer “Pierce vs. James on Truth.” But of course “truth” is just a term we pick up from our language and culture. Just because the Hebrews thought of truth primarily as about objects (roughly akin to an Aristotilean essence, but in terms of reliability towards a purpose) doesn’t mean we have to. There’s no reason we can’t talk about all this from our own language.1 Within our own broad framework it seems there are two main issues we are concerned with. The first is whether we ought believe what we believe. The second in the nature of our beliefs. (I’d add that a third one is inquiry although that tends to be caught up with the question of ought) 

This is important to get clear. It may be after all we’re justified in believing something but can’t tell if we’re justified. This is a common theme among the movement called reliabilism in epistemology. We may have some process that justifies our belief but with regards to some particular belief we can’t give an account of that justification. While I think reliabilism is an important consideration I think it misses something key in that with regards to knowledge it seems we want to know if we know. That is we want to be able to adjudicate, if only to ourselves, between beliefs. A reliabilism in which the ground of our knowledge might be cut off from us seems problematic. Yet, from a Mormon perspective, we might consider ourselves guided by the spirit but only recognize that we’re guided looking back at our life.

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  1. I’m a firm believer that the Sapir-Worf hypothesis is wrong. I accept that language may bias us and certain frameworks may be thus be a more useful way to think. However I’m extremely skeptical it stops us from conceptualizing most things.

Hebrew Conceptions of Truth

I quoted a bit earlier this week from Hazony’s excellent The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything he writes, from my limited perspective he does seem to get a lot of the epistemological issues right. At least it lines up with what I’ve read elsewhere. Since my interests are much more philosophical than historical I don’t get wrapped up too much in the details of the history. From a philosophical perspective and also hermeneutical perspective Hazony helps illuminate many issues in theology and LDS scripture. Consider for instance the issue of truth. Now people like Jim Faulconer have written on this in various papers but Hazony is a great resource that goes through it in a sustained fashion.

Hazony’s argument is that it is things not words or propositions that are true for the Hebrews. While our culture retains some elements of this such as a true friend or to true a wheel by and large we’ve adopted the Greek notions where true or false are properties of language or the meaning behind language. Something is true when it lines up with reality in some way. Further truth is conceived statically rather than as a process. To talk about truth is to talk in some way about something like correspondence now between proposition and reality. Later theories like coherence theory or the like still tie truth to language following this basic stance of Greek thought. In contrast to the Hebrews a thing is true when it shows over time that it is the thing is purports to be. 

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Jeremiah and Epistemology

I’ve mentioned Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture a few times. Whether one agrees with him in all the particulars it’s an interesting consideration of traditional Hebrew thought as having philosophical import. It’s also great for considering certain issues in the Old Testament for those of us more of a philosophical bent. One of the more interesting parts is chapter 6 where he considers Jeremiah as epistemology. It’s especially interesting as he deals with individual knowing and the role of a prophet.

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Fallibilism, Belief and Inquiry

Jeff and I have been going back and forth on various epistemology and ethical issues related to religion. He agrees that his own position is not a position many hold, although he thinks it a correct religious one. More or less he thinks that religious authority acts as a trump on any belief. I think it can at best act to create a demand of burden of proof. My own position is a fallibilist one. I fully admit this fallibilism arises out of my study of the pragmatists like C. S. Peirce. I think, however, that Peirce’s fallibilism has gone from a minor position to the dominant position among philosophers. My latest discussion with Jeff at BCC started getting tangental there so I’ve brought it here.

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I mentioned earlier in the discussion on James and Peirce the pragmatic maxim which is a type of verification principle. I mentioned Cheyrl Misak’s book Verificationism: Its History and Prospects as a good book that discusses the distinction between the pragmatic maxim and later verification theories such as the infamous ones of the positivists. Here’s a brief overview, largely told via quotes.

From the introduction.

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Pierce vs. James on Truth

Central to pragmatism is a concern with the meaning and nature of truth. Now as regular readers know I’m extremely influenced by the work of C. S. Peirce, much of which really has only come to be investigated and appreciated in recent decades. Peirce’s focus was on logic but logic for Peirce was much broader than most usually conceive of it as. Typically what Peirce called logic we’d today call semiotics. His logic thus expanded into many questions of philosophy of language, epistemology and to a degree even metaphysics. With his logic he sought to describe the way humans in practice reason and the standards we follow. He then tried to understand which of these were rational and how good reasoning would lead us to truth. It’s easy to see from this fragmentary overview that logic for Peirce ended up being quite subtle and complex.

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Adjudicating Disagreements

I wanted to get back to my religion & epistemology posts again. Back in March I asked the question of what truth does. Especially in academics and policy truth is hugely important. It’s worth thinking through why that is. I tied our concern with truth as an issue with our practices of asserting, the virtue of honesty, the ethics of belief, and related issues. That is I think each of us wants to believe true things and disbelieve false things. I think we have a duty of develop these virtues.

Now philosophers have notoriously disagreed over what truth means. Last time I mentioned Descartes but I don’t want to get too sidetracked into theories of truth. Rather I want to stay focused on what’s behind our concern with truth. A large concern I didn’t mention last time was our social interactions. That is how do we adjudicate disagreements? I think truth (or something like it) ends up being quite important in our making judgments and resolving disagreements. Even those philosophical movements that reject more traditional senses of truth tend to still hold to the value of adjudicating disagreements. So for example Richard Rorty who rejects most senses of truth still substitutes for it an intersubjective agreement among the members of a community. While he rejects any notion of absolute truth, that function of intersubjective adjudication remains.

This is why I’m not sure theories of truth matter that much ultimately. What really counts is how a community resolves disagreements.

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A Bit More on Emerson

A few days ago I mentioned a paper comparing Orson Pratt’s view of ontological individuality with Emerson and James. I found an other excellent paper on a related topic: Ben Park’s “Emerson and Joseph Smith” in the Winter 2010 Journal of Mormon History. He’s very good at being careful in his parallels – something so often missing in discussions of early Mormonism. He doesn’t focus as much on ontology as epistemology. There he notes a similar sense of individual revelation in early Mormonism and Emerson. However he notes that Joseph never goes as far as Emerson. Instead he keeps a strong place for reason.

While Smith may have shared intuitive leanings with Romantics like Emerson, his opposing pull toward rationalism tempered it noticeably. Both thinkers desired a more intimate and personal connection with God, yet Smith never abandoned the need to have it tethered to some form of reasonable discourse. Most importantly, Smith believed that an external voice revealed truth, while Emerson’s epistemology relied on inner guidance. Thus, Smith captures and holds the tension between the intellectual shift from Enlightenment thought to Romanticism, while it is Emerson, not Joseph, who “was a romantic to his innermost fiber.”

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