Nathan Richardson

Philosophy can be divided into several branches that address different issues, such as metaphysics (“What is real?”) or axiology (“What is good?”). One of those branches is epistemology. According to Gerald Lund, “Epistemology is the study of how we know what is real or true.”1 Part of epistemology involves categorizing various systems people use to gain knowledge. For example, pragmatism “determines whether something works. The business world is often pragmatically oriented, focusing on whether a new product or marketing strategy actually produces the desired results. If it works, it is valid; if it doesn’t, it is rejected.”1

The introduction to a physical science textbook used at Brigham Young University spends a great deal of time on the various systems of acquiring knowledge we all use in order to understand the world around us. Specifically, it identifies and defines four sources of knowledge that we all use:

Authority: An accepted source of expert information or advice.
Intuition: The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; it involves immediate cognition. [Revelation is often classed under this heading.]
Reason: The capacity for logical, rational, and analytic thought; intelligence.
Sensory data: Knowledge obtained through the senses. [This is often called empiricism, and refers to the physical senses.]2

Science and Religion

The essay makes two points that I found notable. First, “Both science and religion use the four ways of knowing.” Those comparing science with religion will often give a token nod to religion by saying it relies on intuition. Then they will compare it to science, which, they say, uses the other three, implying that it is more trustworthy. But the introduction to this science textbook counters that assertion:

The scientific method … uses all four methods of learning. Authority is very important as evidenced by library shelves filled with technical papers and books. No scientist can start researching properly without first reading what others have learned from their experiments and studies. Intuition may be used in the choice of topics or basic ideas. Thus, in deciding which studies to pursue and how to pursue them, scientists are often guided by intuition and authority. Nonetheless, the scientific method of obtaining knowledge relies mostly on the other two ways of learning: reason and sensory data.2

I might add, intuition is used in proposing hypotheses which are later tested. One of the fundamental steps in the scientific method, the hypothesis, is largely intuitive.

While the essayist does not expand on how religion uses all four ways of knowing, a little thought reveals a few examples. Principally, the Lord reveals sacred, saving truths directly to our spirits (revelation; categorized under “intuition” in this taxonomy). We also try out the commandments He gives and see the results of obedience (sensory data). In areas that we have not received personal revelation, we go to the scriptures or Church leaders to see what truth has been revealed to others (authority). And in areas where only principles have been revealed, we apply them to our lives to determine what choice we should make in a unique situation (reason). The point is that both approaches use all four systems, so people shouldn’t imply that religion is based on fewer witnesses.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Second, according to the essay, each of the four sources of knowledge has both strengths and weakness; none of them can be used alone in every situation. I questioned this assertion at first, because so many prophets have affirmed the supremacy of revelation as the strongest source of pure knowledge. For example, Joseph Fielding Smith said, “Through the Holy Ghost the truth is woven into the very fibre and sinews of the body so that it cannot be forgotten.”3 He also said,

When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase.4

The only weakness I could think of for personal revelation is that the Lord will not use it to tell us trivial things that we should figure out on our own, such as which brand of toothpaste to buy. But that is not a weakness of personal revelation, so much as a (possibly temporary) limitation the Lord had placed on its use. It left me wondering what weakness the essay referred to.

As it turns out, the weakness cited was that “intuitive events . . . may be difficult to describe to someone else. It is this privateness, this inaccessibility to public scrutiny, that is the weakness of intuitive knowledge.”2 In other words, the weakness of personal revelation is that it is personal. It is very hard to convey to someone else, since conveying knowledge usually requires words or showing or demonstrating something. Since revelation comes without any of that, it is more challenging to convey to others, whereas written articles (authority), logical proofs (reason), and photos or recordings (sensory data) are much more communicable.

I find this “weakness” to be simultaneously a wonderful strength. Revelation is not objective; it is subjective, which is the same as saying it is personal. Subjectivity is not a weakness; it is what makes spiritual experiences so wonderful and memorable. They are given “Spirit to spirit.” That they are hard to convey to others is only one more witness that they are worth receiving and following.



Notes

1. Gerald N. Lund, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy,” Ensign, Jul. 1992, p. 16.
2. Physical Science Foundations, 2nd ed., BYU College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences.
3. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151.
4. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:48.