Who knew the spirit is so smart?

General Conference Holy Ghost Reason Science The Spirit

I caught this Daily Herald summary of General Conference and one point stood out to me: Apparently Richard G. Scott is of the opinion that the “spirit” can reveal “absolute truths.” Here’s the quote from the news report:

Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles discussed methods for discovering truth, including the scientific method and personal prayer. It is folly, he said, to arrive at a decision based on whether it is socially acceptable or politically correct. While the scientific method has proven remarkable at uncovering many of earth’s mysteries, Scott said the only sure way for a person to arrive at an absolute truth is through the power of the prayer and witness of the Holy Ghost. “Knowledge of truth is of little value unless we apply it in making a correct decision,” he said.

I have two comments on this claim. First, I want to reiterate my challenge to anyone in the world to tell me exactly what I have in my pockets right now. I carry the same stuff, every single day – eight total items (and I’m excluding my pda/cellphone, as I don’t always carry that in my pocket). If anyone can find out via the spirit exactly what I have in my pockets, not only will I convert to whatever religion you want me to, but I’ll give you $100, just because I’m nice.

Of course, the first response will be, “But that isn’t what Richard G. Scott meant.” Oh, right. He meant absolute truths like, “Be a nice person” or “God exists.” And those are “absolute” truths how? To be absolute it has to be true all the time, everywhere, with no qualifications, and for every person. In short, it has to be true irrespective of the circumstances. I’d like someone to offer just one absolute truth – something that is true irrespective of the circumstances – that can only be “known” via the “whisperings of the spirit.” Then I’d like that person to make that “truth” “known” to me. Again, I’ll give you $100 if you can do that.

As per my second comment… Richard G. Scott was, amazingly, a nuclear engineer prior to selling his (imaginary) “soul” to the MORG. He studied at George Washington University. Maybe the folks at GWU should consider revoking his degree as he has, officially, brought shame to his scientific training by claiming “spiritual knowledge” can in anyway trump scientific knowledge. Why? Show me/Teach me one piece of spiritual “knowledge.” It’s an oxymoron. It’s a paradox. It doesn’t exist. And then to claim it is a better avenue at arriving at truth… Wow! I guess an advanced degree in a science doesn’t mean much after all…

11 thoughts on “Who knew the spirit is so smart?

  1. I think that this post warrants a removal of the “ex” from your moniker. It doesn’t seem defensible at all to believe that “knowledge” and “truth” are only empirically verifiable.

  2. TT — I know he’s kind of asking for it with that handle, but let’s try to keep the criticism constructive. Please feel free to explain more about your position — are you talking about spiritual witness?

  3. $100 and your soul? Pfft, small potatoes. The James Randi foundation will give a million dollars to someone who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria (see here).

    Of course, once something can be reproduced under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria, it is by definition no longer supernatural — it is part of the natural world as it can be studied scientifically. It’s a little like the difference between conventional medicine and “alternative medicine” as discussed by Greta Christina here.

  4. I agree with TT in the sense that there are levels of awareness below the threshold of knowledge that are useful. For example, one might act on a hunch. Ascertaining facts might be too expensive. If I have to conduct an experiment to figure out what’s going on then I might as well attempt to reap the benefits that are implied by the hypothesis.

    There is a place for feelings on a pragmatic level. In the most dangerous situations of life, human beings are reduced to reliance on feelings. For example, if a woman encounters a stalker in the staircase, there just is not enough time to confirm every fact. She has to act on her feelings to survive and minimize damage.

    On the other hand, just because feelings and hunches are useful, we should not confuse them for knowledge. Knowledge claims legitimize to power claims. If someone demands our obedience and invokes feelings to justify his claim, we do have a lot of time to check the relevant facts.

    Submitting to someone else because of feelings would be dangerous. The dangers are real. Would you allow a stranger to enquire into the sex life of your children in a locked room?

    Yet that is what we Mormons do as a matter, of course. Many of us discount the possibilities of abuse out of hand. When we check the facts, however, we will find that sex abuse in the LDS Church is just as possible as among Catholic priests. You can check the website of the Mormon Alliance or the Oregon media for documentation.

    This is just one example where parents are needlessly exposing their children to danger because the adults are relying on their feelings instead of systematically considering what we know about sex, predators, and sex abuse in the LDS Church.

    I need not remind you of Joseph Smith’s emotional manipulation of his followers to obtain sexual access to their wives and daughters. Just read D&C 132 where he threatens his wife Emma with death and destruction.

    Believers act on such demands and allow themselves to be exploited. Emma was too jealous to be emotionally manipulated by her husband. Most importantly, if people had rationally investigated the implications of Smith’s words then they would have refused to comply with his abusive demands. Faith and feelings can set us up for abuse.

    Feelings might be the best that we can do in the face of imminent danger. However, they are a poor guide when it comes to organizing power and making long term commitments.

    In light of the Mormon experience that is a demonstrable fact. Richard Scott’s claim about the reliability of the Holy Ghost is false and we need to remember that his self-interest is tightly intertwined with his fallacious claims. I am afraid, however, that his followers are less likely to benefit from his fallacy.

  5. TT, What is knowledge? What does it mean to “know” something? (and not in the archaic, Biblical sense) I think you are confusing “knowledge” and “belief”. It’s one thing to believe something is true, like believing god exists. You can believe that, but you cannot, by definition, know that. Why? Because knowledge requires more than just belief – it requires some method of arriving at the information you hold. What’s more, in order for it to actually be knowledge, it has to be shareable (i.e., replicable) – others have to be able to share your “knowledge” in that thing.

    Belief is an entirely different ball of wax… You can believe whatever you want without any evidence. And beliefs do not have to be shareable (replicable) – no one else has to believe what you do in order for you to consider it a belief. I could believe that you’re actually a purple, four-headed alien from Mars, and as long as I consider it a “belief,” you can’t really refute it (other than to say that you’re not). Since I have no “knowledge” of who you are, I can continue believing whatever I want.

    Think about this from within the framework of Mormonism (though, admittedly, there is a great deal of confusion on this issue in Mormonism): Mormons claim that faith is important. Faith is…? What exactly? It’s belief in things that are hoped for but not seen. In short, it’s NOT knowledge. It’s belief. In fact, if you have “knowledge” of something, you no longer need faith. Right? I mean, that is what Mormonism teaches, so let’s assume that is true. In fact, we can assume that is true using the example I gave above. If I were to meet you in person or even just see a picture of you, I should be disabused of my belief that you are purple, four-headed alien from Mars. I say “should be” because we all know people who see evidence refuting their beliefs who are unwilling to accept the “knowledge” they are facing. Even so, empirical verification can turn a belief into knowledge.

    Returning, then, to my argument. By definition, you cannot KNOW anything via spiritual means. You can’t. You can believe things – all sorts of things. There are some pretty crazy religious beliefs out there. But they are just that, beliefs. They aren’t knowledge. Knowledge is derived empirically – through our senses. And knowledge requires replication and shareability – if we cannot share something we have come to see as knowledge, it isn’t actually knowledge. Thus, my criticism of Richard G. Scott is that he is claiming spiritual “knowledge”: (1) exists, and (2) trumps empirical knowledge. Scott is wrong on both counts.

    As for my moniker… Well, illustrate to me “knowledge” or “truth” I hold that is not empirically verifiable and I will no longer accept it as knowledge. Or, better yet, illustrate to me something that is “knowledge” or “truth” that is not empirically verifiable. Just one thing, anything. I’ll still give you the $100.

    But, as CHanson accurately noted, that is just a first step. The Randi foundation has a standing reward of $1 million for someone who can demonstrate “supernatural” powers. The way I view it, if you can win my $100, then that is just a down payment on the $1 million that Randi is offering. CHanson is also right in noting that if a power previously believed to be “supernatural” turns out to exist, then it will, in all likelihood, be deemed “natural,” as we will finally be able to measure it, and ultimately derive knowledge from it. But until such powers are shown, including deriving answers from some unknown and unknowable spiritual entity known variously as “The Spirit” and “The Holy Ghost” actually reveals something to someone they cannot otherwise know, I will continue to insist that anything allegedly derived from that entity is nothing more than a belief.

  6. Sorry for the drive-by comment. I am going to drive-by again without fully getting into this well-worn debate because I am supposed to be in bed.

    I am not really going to defend Scott’s statement here since I don’t really think that I believe in the “absolute” truth that he is talking about. At the same time, I don’t think that he is susceptible to the accusation in theis post, namely, that he is saying that truth is about empirically verifiable things like finding out what is in your pocket. Rather, the truth and knowledge that he is discussing is explicitly practical knowledge, how to act correctly. He is making a distinction between knowing facts (science) and knowing how to act, not equating them with the same epistemological processes as you accuse him of doing. These are two entirely different ways of knowing. For instance, I know how to pray. That knowledge has nothing to do with belief. Of course, there are all sorts of beliefs that are related to that practice, but knowing how to do it is very different. Now, knowing what is in your pocket also relies on a set of beliefs about how the world works, what constitutes an object (for instance, I assume on the basis of a belief that you are excluding air, lint, germs, etc from your catalogue). All “knowledge” is interpreted, there is not access to some immediate reality.

  7. That’s an interesting reading, TT, but I do not think that it accurately reflects Scott’s text. His talk is about the superiority of testimonies, which means the claim that the LDS Church is the one true Church restored by the prophet Joseph Smith.

    While most of Christianity is plagued by the absence of evidence of Christ as a historical figure, the Joseph Smith story is subject to a considerable body of falsifying evidence.

    Scott is trying to assure the members that historical research is ultimately irrelevant and that their testimony compels them to continue to follow the prophet. According to Scott, feelings are superior to evidence and if there is a conflict, we ought to follow our testimonies.

    It seems to me that Scott’s position is not only self-serving but arrogant. Who am I to put my feelings above logic and evidence?

    More importantly, Scott’s advice exposes members to the danger of making poorly reasoned decisions, some of which could have been avoided if members had not discounted the available evidence to satisfy their feelings.

  8. Hellmut,
    I don’t doubt that what you have presented is a very common Mormon epistemplogy. I even agree with some of your criticisms. I don’t think, however, that your reading applies to Scott’s talk. Now, I didn’t see it, and we are only going off of this newspaper summary. Yet, the one quote we do have is this: “Knowledge of truth is of little value unless we apply it in making a correct decision,” he said. I think that knowledge is defined here as making correct decisions, as I explained in my comment.

  9. I took the excruciatingly painful step of actually listening to his talk (not very carefully – I can’t stand GC talks), and here’s what I got from it. Direct quote, “There are two ways to find truth.” He then described the scientific method and says it has “two limitations”: (1) we can never be sure we’ve identified absolute truth, and (2) we can get wrong answers. Okay, that’s legitimate. Then he described method 2, direct quote, “The best way of finding truth is to go the origin of all truth.” Of course, he means god here (I would say nature). He then goes on to claim that we have actually learned things through god, another direct quote, “What have we learned of truth through revelation?” He talks about ancient prophets learning about the universe in the past (quotes from the Bible). He does, then, go on to say that this should be applied to govern our actions (what I interpret as wisdom).

    As I interpret this, Scott is, flat out, saying that “spiritual” means are better at teaching “absolute truths” than are empirical means. He even claims that prophets learned about the “heavens” via spiritual means thousands of years ago. So, TT, if Scott was just saying that “spiritual means” provide practical advice for living your life, we might be able to engage in a different argument about whether “spiritual means” can provide guidance (still not knowledge). But that isn’t the claim he made that I was refuting. He claimed spiritual means could lead to actual “knowledge.” On that account, he is absolutely wrong. I repeat my recommendation – strip him of his scientific credentials. He clearly doesn’t understand empiricism.

  10. I actually agree with Elder Scott about the limited value of knowledge unless we make the correct decisions, TT. The nobel price winner Friedrich Dürenmatt wrote a famous play called The Physicists about the dilemma of scientists who see their discoveries applied towards the destruction of mankind.

    However, that is not relevant to the discovery of knowledge. Rather, it is a matter of the application of knowledge.

    I would be willing to agree with the statement that knowledge requires an ethical context, may be even an ethical commitment, to determine its correct application. However, that is not the same as determining reality.

    I am also willing to concede to believers that there are limits to logic and evidence that provide opportunities for faith. For example, it is probably not possible to formulate the narratives that are necessary to render evidence intelligible, solely with logic and evidence. Between proven facts there is a role for imagination.

    Supposedly, Albert Einstein considered imagination as more important than knowledge.

    (That does not mean that we need to abandon reason when problems are not determinate, by the way. In those situations, rhetoric substitutes for logic as the vehicle of reason (see Aristotle’s Rhetoric or Stephen Toulmin’s Return to Reason)).

    In the process, myths emerge that inform the rational exploration of the human environment. Joseph Smith wrote one myth (probably more than one), Carl Sagan another. Regardless of Smith’s errors, it is clear to me that the rationalist or empiricist project will continue to have to rely on myth making.

    As far as I can project the future, I see no reason why that should ever change. Therefore, there will probably always be an opportunity for faith.

    However, that does not mean that one needs to feel good to discover the truth. On the contrary, often discovery requires doubt and confusion.

    The same is true with respect to making ethical decisions, which is what Scott must mean when he refers to making the right choices. Feeling good is not always helpful. Feeling bad is often essential to gather the determination to doing the right thing. Christ in Gethsemane comes to mind, for example, or Oscar Schindler in Krakow.

    Finally, faith becomes irrelevant in the face of knowledge. Whatever the benefits of faith may be at the edges of knowledge, I think it would be arrogant if we did not submit our opinions to logic and evidence.

    The hierarchy of knowledge that Scott is invoking does not exist. It’s bad theology and bad epistemology. When there is a conflict between feelings, on one hand, and logic and evidence, on the other, the Saints will be safer if we adjust our believes.

    Ideas do have consequences. When our children commit suicide, for example, over an irrational conception of sexuality that’s entirely unnecessary. If we only embrace what we know about puberty or homosexuality, instead of mistaking our prejudices for inspiration then no Mormon child needs to die anymore.

    Scott’s talk closes that door. That’s why it is important to point out that he is wrong. I am sure that he is well meaning but the proverb is right: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    The best way to deal with that problem is to question ourselves, to emphasize uncertainty and humility. When we rely on our feelings as the superior source of knowledge then we cannot do any of that. Instead we rely on the arm of flesh for feelings are a product of our bodies. Logic and evidence, on the other hand, exist independent of us.

    Although logic and evidence cannot answer every question, they do keep us humble and accountable and that is ultimately the reason why the scientific method is superior to feelings.

    With respect to the proper application of knowledge, the only requirement in social relations, for example, seems to be a commitment to the golden rule. Last week, the New York Times reviewed a considerable body of evidence that indicates that the golden rule is actually hard wired into our brains.

    Be that as it may, the proper application of the golden rule does not require a testimony either but rather the careful consideration of our neighbors’ needs and desires. It seems to me that logic, observation, and rhetoric are superior tools in that endeavor as well but that is a different question.

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