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Exploring faith and knowledge
By Orson Scott Card September 16, 2010

It has become almost a requirement that when we bear our testimonies, we don't say, "I believe," but rather, "I know."

It is as if we had decided, collectively, that faith were not enough.

Yet it is faith, far more than knowledge, that the scriptures urge us to acquire.

Is there even a difference? At first glance, the difference might seem huge. Knowledge is certain! Doesn't that imply that anything less than knowledge contains some degree of uncertainty?

OK, Alice, it's time to go down the rabbit hole! Because this is where the craziness starts.

Let's start with the scriptural definition of "truth": "knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come" (D&C 93:24). As a young student I was bothered by the circularity of the definition -- we say we "know" something when we're sure our belief is true; how, then, can we define "truth" as knowledge?

Now I understand how Joseph Smith had to struggle with the inadequacy of language in order to explain even the simplest ideas.

We use "know" to mean so many things. "I know Ted," we say, and also "I know I'm right about this"; and then there's "I know how to do it" and "I know Portuguese" and "I know why that happened" and "I know the way" -- and in every case, the word "know" has a distinct meaning.

The word "knowledge" in the definition of "truth" means "awareness" rather than "certainty." Because certainty is such a deceptive little bunny.

We often place knowledge on a continuum: opinion, belief, faith, knowledge. If you're talking about degrees of certainty, then this is a useful continuum.

When we say, "In my opinion," we're acknowledging that we might well be incorrect -- we are not certain.

To say "I believe" or "I think" is stronger, but still we recognize that others believe or think differently.

"Knowledge" is such intense certainty that we do not admit the possibility that we might be wrong.

But these differences are in our feelings, and say nothing about our accuracy.

It's like the old joke among epistemologists: "Half the things I know are right, and half are wrong. But half the time, I don't know which half is which."

It's possible to say "In my opinion, that candidate is lying," and be absolutely correct; and just as possible to say, "I know my friend is not using drugs" and be absolutely wrong. Just because you're so certain of something that you have not the slightest doubt doesn't mean you're right.

In fact, it's a core teaching of the Church that we are not even close to having all the truth that there is to have: "The Lord is expanding the Saints' understanding," we sing, and in Primary we learn to say "we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (A of F 1:9).

If the Lord has yet to reveal "many great and important things," that means that at this moment we do not know them -- are not aware of them. Yet they are great and important.

So when we bear testimony that we "know" the gospel is true, are we saying, "I am so certain of the correctness of my current understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I no longer expect to learn anything more"? I hope not!

Maybe we're saying, "I am certain that the Church is the only way to obtain true information about the meaning and purpose of life and our relationship with God."

But too often that comes with some corollaries. "Thus I will not consider information from any other source" is a common one; so is, "Thus I will reject any information that seems to contradict my current understanding of the gospel."

The second corollary puts us on dangerous ground. As soon as we get confused and think that our current understanding of the gospel is the gospel, living prophets and new revelations are useless to us: we aren't willing to listen.

That's why the Manifesto in 1890 and the revelation of 1978 on the priesthood both led to a number of people leaving the Church. They "knew" the gospel was "true," you see -- but what they really meant was that they believed their understanding of the gospel was complete.

Here's the single truth we learn from epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge): We don't "know" anything, if by "knowing" we mean "having certainty of perfectly accurate information."

We might believe in many true things, but we also believe in many false ones. For instance, we get married in the belief that our partners will keep their wedding vows. Even if all of us have equal certainty -- after all, we're betting our future lives on those promises! -- some of us turn out to have been incorrect. And our degree of certainty might have little to do with our degree of accuracy.

There's nothing wrong with saying we "know" the gospel is true -- as long as we recognize that we're talking about our feelings. "Knowledge" is not superior to belief, and when the feeling of certainty makes it impossible for us to learn new truth that revises our old understanding, it can hurt us!

The reason the gospel stresses the vital importance of faith is simple: Faith is stronger and better than knowledge. And that's what I'll talk about next week.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

 
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