Friday, December 4, 2015

When Epistemology and Doublethink Collide

Let me define epistemology and doublethink to start out so that we are sure to be on the same page with these words.

Epistemology is just the study of how we gain knowledge. It answers questions like, what are good methods of learning and how sure can we be that we are right?

'Doublethink' is a term coined by George Orwell in his book 1984 and simply refers to believing two contradictory things at the same time. It is something we find a lot in high-commitment ideologies (like in the fictional world in that book) but we find it elsewhere as well.

Now the reason I am writing this article today is that I grew up Mormon and lately I have been thinking of how my views on the subject of epistemology have changed since I left that church. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that doublethink lay at the foundation of my methods of determining truth in that earlier phase of my life.

Anyone who has spent very much time in or around the LDS church knows that Epistemology in the LDS faith is centered on the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is described as mostly speaking to us through our feelings (it is acknowledged that the Holy Ghost can speak directly to a person with audible words or even appear before them but stories of this actually happening are very rare). The Holy Ghost is stated to be the best method to gain knowledge. Here are a couple of quotes to back this up:

In addition, the gift of the Holy Ghost is available as a sure guide, as the voice of conscience, and as a moral compass. This guiding compass is personal to each of us. It is unerring. It is unfailing. (James E. Faust, The Gift of the Holy Ghost - A Sure Compass, April 1989)
[The Holy Ghost's] communication to our spirit carries far more certainty than any communication we can receive through our natural senses. ( Gospel Topics, The Holy Ghost)

Mormons are told to pray to know if the Book of Mormon is true (implying that the events recounted in it actually, literally occurred). The response of the Holy Ghost to this question is supposed to imply that the entire belief system is correct and any factual assertions that the leaders make are also correct. All of this is proven correct by feelings given to you by the Holy Ghost. So it is easy to see that the reliability of this method is of the utmost importance.

And this is why it was always so concerning to me when I heard church leaders address the issue that crops up when someone has an experience where they feel that the Holy Ghost tells them something that contradicts what the church teaches. It is usually handled by explaining that the experience didn't come from the Holy Ghost, but from some counterfeit:
Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels. (See Moro. 7:17.) Be careful lest you be deceived, for the devil may come disguised as an angel of light. 
The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary. (Boyd K. Packer, The Candle of the Lord, 25 June 1982)
This opens a huge can of worms for me. Here is where the doublethink lies. You cannot claim that a method for learning truth can easily give convincing false results (whether by Satan or by self-delusion) and also claim this is a high-reliability method for determining truth. Those two claims are mutually exclusive.

And besides this, the same feeling can be subject to dramatically different interpretations depending on the person who interprets it. I have seen people claim, upon learning some of the stranger details of the origins of LDS polygamy, that the bad feelings that they felt were proof that the things they were learning were not true. I have also seen people claim to believe that similar bad feelings were sent by the Holy Ghost to tell them that the things that early church leaders did were wrong. Now, my personal opinion at this point in time is that I felt bad learning those things simply because it doesn't feel good to learn unflattering things about people you hold in high regard. It didn't feel good to me to learn about Bill Cosby, either, but I hope you get my point that a simple feeling is easy to interpret many different ways.

What got me thinking about all of this was looking into the methods that other religions (which make factual truth claims that contradict each other) use to determine if their beliefs are true, a point that is well-illustrated in the video below.

Notice anything? They are all suspiciously similar. The "testimony meeting" format of the young polygamist girl's profession of knowledge of her beliefs will seem especially familiar to others who are or were LDS. It seems that the Holy Ghost told her things that contradict what it has told to people in the LDS church, and many other churches. Or maybe she just didn't interpret the feeling correctly. Or maybe she was tricked by Satan or her own feelings. Or possibly something else that I can't think of. It's not perfectly clear and straightforward by any means, if this is indeed the way God intended to tell us the most important things in life.

Since leaving the LDS belief system, I have had people ask me questions like, "What about your spiritual experiences? How can you cast them aside?" I have also had people tell me that, "Deep down I know the LDS church is true."

First, I would say that I could never, even as a full believer, state my beliefs with as much surety as the Muslims or the Heaven's Gate followers in the video above. I'm just not the type of person that has had strong experiences of this nature and this doesn't worry me. I have strong experiences of awe and wonder, but I just don't think that this is telling me anything about objective truth.

Second, to those who tell me that I know the LDS church is true, I would just say no. No I don't. In the bottom of my heart I really, really don't.

While I don't expect this to convince anyone to change their mind about they way they view the world with this article, I hope people are able to see why it is hard for me to accept the Holy Ghost or feelings as a reliable way to determine objective, factual truth and why I am bothered by the doublethink that I think is involved.

Thanks for reading. As always, your comments and thoughts are appreciated even if you don't agree with me.


  1. I picked up on this article from NOM. It is great. The article is brief, which is helpful if I want to refer a friend to it. Keep writing. Deacon Blues

  2. PS check the second paragraph of the Packer quote-- should "that is possible" be changed to "that it is possible"? Thank again for the article. Deacon

    1. The grammar appears to be incorrect. However, this is a direct copy-paste from I agree that what you wrote is probably what he was trying to say and this is probably just a typo on

    2. I stumbled upon your blog while surfing NOM. I'm newly out (after 60 years) and your thoughts here are very helpful. Thanks.