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Monday, July 3, 2017

Epistemology: How We Know What We Know -- the Spiritual Versus the Scientific Method

The Truth of All Things, “And by the power of the Holy Ghost 

ye may know the truth of all things.”—Moroni 10:5
Accessed July 3, 2017 from the LDS Media Library
Epistemology? What is It?

I want to introduce what may be a new word and a new concept to you. It’s called epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. It’s easier to understand than it sounds.

The current epistemology in our modern world is based on our five senses. This is how we know what we know. In order to know something we must see it, smell it, hear it, taste it or touch it. This is the foundation on which all our knowledge is based. We don’t accept anything else.

For example, if we want to know how service oriented people who live in Marion are, we might count the number of hours people spend volunteering or the amount of money they contribute to charities or non-profits.

We can only know something by observing or measuring something that exists in our physical world. Only then can we say, we know. What we want to know is always broken down into something we can physically measure or observe.

This modern way of knowing has some names. It goes by terms like empiricism. However, the term that makes the most sense to people is probably the “scientific method.” We know things by studying them via the scientific method. We don’t accept anything, unless it was discovered using the scientific method.

Scientists, researchers and experts the world over study and present their findings to the world. They generally write an article and say this is what we studied, this is why we studied it, this is how we studied it, this is what we found and this is what we think it means.

Other scientists, researchers and experts then examine it, argue about it, do the study again to see if they get the same results and then present it to the world as something we know. We learn of these findings through the news, magazines, classes, textbooks and teachers.

In today’s world, if you declare you know something, people are likely to ask, “How do you know?” You must answer that question in a suitable way to be believed.

The scientific method is straightforward. It is clear.

In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Truth Exists!

The problem is that the scientific method, our current epistemology, cannot produce truth. It can only discover facts. Experts acknowledge that the scientific method cannot reveal truth. Our modern world does not even accept that truth is out there and waiting to be discovered. Right now, the world will only acknowledge that, if truth does exist, it can’t be known through the scientific method. Some experts concede that truth may be available through religion.

So, we are stuck with facts. Facts are much flimsier than truth. We expect to modify or change facts as we learn more. New facts can refute old facts. Facts are simply tentative, until we discover more facts. We expect facts to change and evolve over time, be modified, or even be discarded entirely.

In fact, in our present world, things that are considered religious or spiritual sometimes get labeled as paranormal or metaphysical. This means that these things are outside of what we consider normal or that they exist beyond the physical world in ways we do not understand.

We learn physical things through physical means. I hope you can tell where I’m going with this. We learn spiritual things through spiritual means. The scientific method is well-suited to physical things. It is very poorly suited to spiritual things.

That doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. For example, a short time back we were hearing about a study, done in Utah on Mormons. They conducted MRI’s on people’s brains and measured where brain activity was located when the people reported they were feeling spiritual. Sure enough, unusual activity was located in a particular part of the brain.

Critics gleefully pointed out that the unusual brain activity being measured was in the same location when people were engaged in gambling, among other things.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, truth exists, not just facts. What’s more, we can know truth. However, we can’t use the scientific method to discover it. We have to have a different way of knowing, a different epistemology. In other words, we need a spiritual method, a spiritual way of knowing.

And we have it. This way of knowing produces truth and it is much more substantial than the world’s way of knowing.

Truth is Revealed and Confirmed by the Holy Ghost

Truth is revealed and confirmed to us through the Holy Ghost. It’s one of his most important jobs.

Consider that missionaries, or really anyone teaching the gospel, have a difficult task:

First, they must teach people that truth does exist
Second, they must teach them how to find truth themselves
Third, they must teach actual truth, and
Fourth, they must teach a different way of knowing truth, a spiritual method, a spiritual epistemology.

These are all things that are difficult for ordinary people to accept.

In my own efforts to share truth with others, they often retort, “You don’t know. You just think you know.”

A school friend once asked me about Joe Smith’s golden bible. He wanted to know what happened to the golden bible after the Book of Mormon was translated. I told him the physical record was returned to an angel and it was in his keeping. He said, why didn’t Smith just keep it, then we would know for sure… We know this wouldn’t really solve anything.

People do want to understand how we know these spiritual things; but they struggle with our way of knowing, because it is so foreign to them.

The Spiritual Procedure for Knowing

So, what is this procedure for this way of knowing? Well, we don’t really have explicit guidelines and they aren’t all located in the same place. I’ll try to gather some of them together for you though.

To know truth, you must seek truth through the Holy Ghost, using your agency. You must have faith that you can know it and you must act on the truth you already have in order to get more. You must pray often and be obedient to all the commandments to the best of your ability. You have to do your part to enable finding truth.

Scripture does give us instruction and even hints: In D&C 9:8, it says, “I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you.”

This advice gets shared a lot. However, I’m not convinced that it is that helpful. Can you imagine how someone in the medical field would react to that?

Right, let’s take your temperature, measure your heart rate, check your pulse, schedule an EKG. Maybe you just need an antacid.

The next part of this verse is probably more helpful. It states, “you shall feel that it is right.” Well, that is a little easier to wrap our brains around; but it is still pretty ‘loosey goosey’. Most of us are still befuddled. It just isn’t possible to write down a how-to list. So, we can get frustrated.

You need to pray to know truth and prepare yourself to receive that truth.

However, when you pray, you might get an answer quickly or you may not. It might come immediately or it may not. You might have to wait years for a definitive answer. You might not even recognize the answer if it does come, or you may. You might be left to your own discretion for a time or you may not. The answer may come through other people, like in a church lesson or a Sacrament talk, or it may not.

So, How Do I Incorporate This Into My Life?

Is it any wonder that potential members, and even members, feel confused and adrift. There doesn’t seem to be anything that can be viewed as definitive. This process and procedure can be difficult to understand and especially to master.

Early members of the church struggled with this as well. We know now that Satan is also a revelator and something can come from him, instead of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith had to clarify this and we now have some explicit guidelines on how to unmask demonic influence and even distinguish between angels and demons.

And, there is something else that makes this spiritual method, this spiritual epistemology, or way of knowing, difficult for us to accept and to rely on.

Our modern world trains us to ignore things, unless it is proven through the scientific method. Unless we have that proof, we don’t act. We wait for proof; then we act. If there is no proof, we ignore it and don’t act.

People in our modern world have a plausible reason for not doing anything, because it hasn’t been proven to them yet. Missionary efforts can have a hard time getting beyond this notion.

To Receive Spiritual Truth You Must Act

It is exactly opposite with spiritual things. For spiritual things, we must act first in order to receive proof. In order to spiritually know something is true, we must act on it and demonstrate our faith. We exercise our faith; then proof can, and will, come.

In our modern world, you don’t act until you have proof. In spiritual things, you must act before you have proof.

You almost have to admire Satan for his demonic cleverness.

So, do we just give up? How do we know things for ourselves? How can we prove things to others, especially outside the Church. The problem seems insurmountable and we feel inept.

However, it’s not our problem, really. The Holy Ghost knows how to teach us truth and to convince us of the truth. We just have to exert enough faith on our part to enable him to do his job.

The Holy Ghost can reveal truth to you; but you are not going to convince anyone else; unless the Holy Ghost also reveals, or confirms, the truth to them. This is one reason that we are told to share our testimonies with others and to bear them regularly. When we do, the Holy Ghost confirms to our listeners that they are hearing truth.

Without truth, we will just flounder. And the world is floundering. Recent events, for example, have upended many things we thought we knew. A lot of people and professions have had to face up to the fact that maybe we don’t really know all the things we thought we knew.

The world will continue to flounder; but we don’t have to, if we know how to find and know truth.

You don’t have to know exactly how it is done in order to be on the receiving end of truth. How it is done isn’t really your concern.

Certainty Only Comes Through the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost reveals truth to you via the spirit. This is spirit to spirit communication. There is no room for doubt. It is absolute certainty.

If your certainty about something comes from your five senses, there is room for doubt, because every sense you have can deceive you. Your eyes can deceive you. Your ears, nose, mouth, sense of touch can all deceive you.

But, when you receive truth from the Holy Ghost, there is no doubt. The first time you receive truth in this manner, it will be different, and memorable.

It is hard to describe. It’s been described as being like a high speed spiritual digital download to your mind and heart. A convert nicknamed Arthur ‘KILLER’ Kane, a punk rocker during the 1970’s, described his conversion experience as an ‘LSD Trip from the Lord’.

How You Can Be on the Receiving End of Truth

So, how can you facilitate this high speed, spiritual downloading or this LSD trip from the Lord?


  • When you read and study the scriptures, the Holy Ghost can confirm the truths you discover.
  • When you listen to and study the inspired teachings of modern prophets, like General Conference addresses, the Holy Ghost can confirm these truths to you.
  • When you attend church and focus on spiritual things, the Holy Ghost can confirm truths to you.
  • When you discipline your mind and body to focus on spiritual things, the Holy Ghost can teach and confirm truth to you. This is why fasting helps. You shift away from physical nourishment and seek spiritual nourishment instead.
  • When you pray and seek truth, you are focusing on spiritual things and developing your spiritual skills.


The more you do these things, the better you will get at it.

You Have a Responsibility to Teach Truth

Once you become a member of the Church, you will probably receive a calling that requires you to teach at some point in time. You need to know how to use this way of knowing, this epistemology, to prepare your lessons and teach other learners.

The new system for teaching in the Church is called "Teaching in the Savior’s Way." The Church has gathered all these materials and guidelines into one place online. You can find all of them by using what’s called a vanity url. All you have to do is type in teaching [dot] lds [dot]org.

Old teaching guidelines in the Church focused largely on teaching techniques. Many of these techniques exist in our secular world. They aren’t unique to spiritual learning.

However, Teaching in the Savior’s Way makes use of a spiritual epistemology, a spiritual method or way of knowing, that distinguishes how the Savior taught.

The Church is incorporating this into all its new teaching materials worldwide.

Teaching in the Savior’s Way was introduced first to Seminary, Institute and Religion Instructors. Now, it is church wide. These new guidelines help you teach with the spirit and help you assist others to learn by the spirit:

Sometimes teachers may be tempted to think that it is their knowledge or methods or personality that inspires those they teach. This attitude prevents them from inviting the Holy Ghost to teach class members and change their hearts. Your purpose as a teacher is not to make an impressive presentation, but rather to help others receive the influence of the Holy Ghost, who is the true teacher.

The new teaching and study materials the Church has provided actually help teachers teach by the spirit and help learners learn by the spirit. Teachers should be encouraging learners to pay close attention to what the Holy Ghost is telling them and what he is prompting them to do, by exercising their agency.


One of the most important things you can do as a teacher is to help those you teach recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost. This is especially true when teaching children, youth, and new members—you are preparing them to receive personal revelation, avoid deception, and develop spiritual self-reliance. As prompted by the Holy Ghost, ask learners what they are feeling and what they feel prompted to do. Help them associate their spiritual feelings with the influence of the Holy Ghost.

Elder Craig C. Christensen's Story of His Son, Ben

One of the most poignant examples of this is a story Elder Craig C. Christensen of the Seventy shared in Conference about touring a new temple at the open house with his family. He says:

As we reverently walked through the temple, I found myself admiring the magnificent architecture, the elegant finishes, the light shining through towering windows, and many of the inspiring paintings. Every aspect of this sacred building was truly exquisite.

Stepping into the celestial room, I suddenly realized that our youngest son, six-year-old Ben, was clinging to my leg. He appeared anxious—perhaps even a little troubled.

“What’s wrong, Son?” I whispered.

“Daddy,” he replied, “what’s happening here? I’ve never felt this way before.”

Recognizing that this was likely the first time our young son had felt the influence of the Holy Ghost in such a powerful way, I knelt down on the floor next to him. While other visitors stepped around us, Ben and I spent several minutes, side by side, learning about the Holy Ghost together. I was amazed at the ease with which we were able to discuss his sacred feelings. As we talked, it became clear that what was most inspiring to Ben was not what he saw but what he felt—not the physical beauty around us but the still, small voice of the Spirit of God within his heart. I shared with him what I had learned from my own experiences, even as his childlike wonder reawakened in me a deep sense of gratitude for this unspeakable gift from God—the gift of the Holy Ghost.

While in high school, a friend of mine of Japanese extraction attended some sort of church event. I think it may have been a temple open house. Apparently, she experienced something profound and strong. She didn’t and couldn’t understand what she was feeling at that time. I asked her about it later and she confirmed what had taken place. She said, “Somebody told me to pray about it. So, I did.” She said, “I went home, knelt in front of our Buddhist shrine and I prayed about it.”

I think my friend needed a little more instruction for her to be able to fully comprehend the experience she had.

The Holy Ghost and My Husband's Glaucoma

I want to relate two quick stories from my life that illustrate how the Holy Ghost reveals truth to us. When my husband Greg was diagnosed with glaucoma, it was already advanced. The first line treatments for glaucoma are prescription eye drops. The second is laser eye surgery and the third is more invasive surgery. These treatments reduce pressure on the optic nerve and prevent further damage to eyesight.

Vision lost to glaucoma can never be recovered. Glaucoma can only be stalled or stopped. After being on eye drops for a while, the doctor recommended laser eye surgery. After researching it, Greg refused it. Laser eye surgery can be problematic with light eye color like he has. Greg didn’t feel comfortable going ahead with the surgery.

At his next visit, a doctor recommended the laser eye surgery again. She answered Greg’s concerns satisfactorily, so he scheduled the surgery.

Almost immediately, he started feeling uncomfortable about it. We prayed about it and he asked me to pray and think about it some more, which I did. As the date for the surgery moved closer, Greg told me that he didn’t know what to do, that he felt a foreboding about proceeding with the surgery. Some of the emotions he was experiencing were confusion, anxiety, uncertainty and so forth. I was experiencing these emotions too.

I finally told him that I felt these sorts of feelings really were our answer. We were being told to scuttle the surgery, which he did. We both immediately felt better.

After a few months, Greg said he was feeling prompted to reconsider and schedule the surgery. We discussed it and prayed about it some more. He felt he needed to schedule the surgery. I felt good about the decision too and he called and rescheduled the surgery. We were both at peace with this decision.

The laser eye surgery is a relatively simple office procedure and doesn’t require much prep time or surgery time. Recovery is also simple.

Before proceeding with the surgery, Greg’s vision was checked once more and that’s when the doctor dropped the bombshell on us. He said Greg did not need surgery. The additional passage of time and extra eye exams had convinced him that Greg’s glaucoma was indeed stopped with just the drops. This could not have been known earlier.

Remember, with glaucoma, you must act quickly to preserve what vision you have. It’s not a malady where you can simply watch and see how things develop. The Holy Ghost told us to delay, even though the scientific method said otherwise. The spiritual method worked. It worked for us and it can work for you.

My Prompting at the Pulpit

One other quick example. The last time I delivered a talk over this pulpit, I had to read my talk verbatim. My autoimmune illnesses are affecting my central nervous system and my brain. I cannot speak extemporaneously any more. For example, I used to be able to speak and teach from a simple outline or a few notes. That is not possible for me anymore.

During the delivery of my last talk, I received a strong prompting to add a sentence to one of my paragraphs, so I did. It was the only extemporaneous sentence I uttered. Everything else was read verbatim. I’m confident that one of you or some of you apparently needed to hear that sentence. I do not have any idea who or why. I can’t even remember now what it was I said.

This is how the Holy Ghost works. This is how we know what we know.

Joseph Smith Wanted to Know How He Could Know

In fact, this was Joseph Smith’s dilemma before the First Vision and he recognized it as such. In the first chapter of the Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price, he describes this dilemma in verse10:

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

Joseph Smith received an answer to all these questions and so can we. Through the power of the Holy Ghost, we can know the truth of all things.



* For more on these themes:

Countering Korihor’s Philosophy, By Gerald N. Lund, Ensign, July, 1992.

The Spirit of Revelation, by David A. Bednar, General Conference, April, 2011.

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