In Whose Wisdom Do You Trust?

Would you trust this guy? (Source)

My mother went to the doctor with a stomachache. It was an admittedly vague symptom, and for months she received similarly vague diagnoses and remedies—could be ulcers, maybe gastric reflux; take some antacids and lose some weight. Finally, a visiting specialist ran a test and discovered that she had a cancer that had progressed to stage four. Thanks to this diagnosis and the care my mother subsequently received, she beat the odds for over a decade, each day a blessing. 

The author of an article in this month’s issue of the Ensign entitled The Book of Abraham, Revelation and You had a similar experience. At around the same time my mother’s body was being overtaken by cancer unbeknownst to the medical profession, he too was struggling with a medical mystery:

 

something in my knee started to cause me horrible pain. Deep within that knee I could feel a small particle grinding against other tissues. The doctors […] could not feel the lump themselves, so they took various kinds of X-rays and MRIs. Nothing showed up. As a result, none of the doctors believed there was anything inside my knee; they thought it must be some other problem, such as nerve damage. Some even tried to treat me for these other imagined problems.

Because I kept insisting that there really was something inside my knee, I was finally referred to the head of orthopedic medicine. He was willing to make an incision in my knee and see if he could find anything. Through this incision, he found a piece of cartilage that had been chipped off and had started to gouge the surrounding tissues. Its removal completely cured me.

In both cases, doctors were initially content to ration the use of diagnostic tools at their disposal. I suppose this is understandable. Experience probably shows that most overweight senior citizens complaining of stomach pain are not having their organs ravaged by cancer. Likewise, most able-bodied graduate students probably don’t have major problems with their joints that non-invasive diagnostic techniques cannot reveal. Nevertheless, the sensations of pain were real and both patients were right to continue to insist that the doctors keep looking. Moreover, the information available to both the patients and medical professionals was ultimately derived from physical processes that are well understood. Finally, in each case a doctor eventually made the correct diagnosis based on that information. 

Where the accounts differ is in the conclusions the patients drew from their experiences. My mother was simply grateful that someone finally looked beyond her BMI reading and took her pain seriously. The author of the Ensign article, on the other hand, believes his experience has wider significance: 

 

According to the best practices and technology available, there was nothing in my knee. Because most of the doctors would trust only what they themselves could feel or see or what technology told them, they did not believe there was an actual, physical object causing me pain. Yet, using senses available only to me, I could feel there was indeed something inside my knee. It was both real and powerful. In the end, my senses (which were not available to their empirical processes) were right.

Thus it is with revelation. I know from revelation that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God who translated the book of Abraham by inspiration. 

In my view, his conclusion is a bridge too far.

Not least, the author is wrong to assert that “According to the best practices and technology available, there was nothing in my knee.” In fact,  a very straightforward medical procedure—an incision—revealed what was wrong with the knee. Doctors who said there was nothing wrong with the joint without actually using all available technology were jumping to conclusions, but this doesn’t mean that non-empirical approaches necessarily trump, say, neural pathways or arthroscopy as a superior source of knowledge. 

Which brings me to my second point: The author speaks of “senses available only to me” as a counterpoint to the “empirical processes” of the medical professionals, a way of knowing that is likened unto revelation. By the author’s own account, however, the source of the pain sensation was “an actual, physical object.” It is difficult to imagine prophecy and inspiration having a physical antecedent analogous to a broken piece of cartilage. If this medical case is to have any bearing on revelation, inspiration and the book of Abraham, what would be the actual physical source of Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission and inspired translation? No one knows that Joseph Smith was a prophet the same way that you know your knee hurts, even if those sensations are equally unavailable to others. It doesn’t make sense to speak of prophecy and revelation as being like pain just because the former are as inscrutable to an outsider as the latter. 

It goes without saying that another person cannot actually experience your pain, so one lesson from these experiences could be that sometimes we are too quick to dismiss that which we cannot feel for ourselves. But in the end, doctors didn’t totally write off the “real and powerful” sensations experienced by my mother and this author and discovered, if belatedly, the underlying problems. To characterize the empirical professions as the domain of automatons who simply consult their scopes and discount anything that does not appear on their screens is to do them a disservice. Some doctors may be lazy, incompetent, overworked or suffer from tunnel vision, but the inability to quickly make correct diagnoses is hardly a function of empirical methods per se; rather, it seems to me that individual characteristics such as skill and imagination or access to resources like time and equipment played the only important roles in each case. 

With that said, you will not be surprised to learn that I do not share the author’s view that his experience reveals anything meaningful about Joseph Smith or the book of Abraham. Nor do I follow from this example the author’s conclusion that “we must learn that revelation is the most trustworthy and valid source of knowledge” that he “recommend[s] as a model in everything we do” (emphasis mine).

It may be the case that revelation is superior to empirical processes in everything we do, but I cannot see where the author’s medical diagnosis depended on revelation at any step of the way. Maybe he is arguing that any idea or prompting, such as to run a blood test or make an incision, is revelation. I can live with that, though such a broad definition creates a daunting challenge of how to separate the revelatory wheat from the chaff of the fevered excursions of the mind. 

What the experiences of both my mother and this author definitely show is that individuals can do worse than to question the ill-informed views of even recognized authorities—whatever the source of that authority and no matter the gulf between their respective areas of expertise—when the source of the individual’s knowledge is sure yet unavailable to outsiders. This isn’t to suggest that recognized authorities should be assumed to be ill-informed as a matter of course or that feelings should always trump expertise and experience. But when it becomes apparent that an authority is operating on the basis of incorrect or incomplete information, well, heed them at your own peril! 

This is easier said than done, of course. For a host of reasons we are conditioned to defer to authority, not least in matters of life and death. What experiences have you had in trusting in your own wisdom?

Comments

  1. I have a medical condition, fibromyalgia, that has no empirical medical test that can prove this is what I have. The only thing the doctors have to go on is my own expression of pain, which is all over my body, all the time, rating 3-4 on the 1-10 scale. To use the metaphor of the article, the doctors have nothing to go on but my own revelation.

    Moreover, I am transgender. There are a few medical tests that may confirm or allude to this, but even if there are no indicators at all in my body that my spirit is female, I still believe it to be true (and thankfully have had it confirmed through prayer).

    I think the author of the article simply didn’t have the experience necessary to make the point. We each have personal revelation available to us to determine the truth of things. This must be balanced against other inputs of knowledge, to make up the gap of where that knowledge is insufficient. That’s the entirety of faith, in God, in the Church, in the world around us.

  2. We each have personal revelation available to us to determine the truth of things.

    Thank you, Frank, I agree. One of the points I wanted to make was that being true to what you know can be an uphill struggle, and of course not limited to physical matters.

  3. Why do you use the article to make your point? It has bearing.
    Why are we as members of the church or of the human race so quick to tear down rather than add to?
    I get saddened when people feel the need to dissect others to make their point. We are probably all guilty of doing so ( as I am now doing) but isn’t it a curious thing that we take a heartfelt article and dismantle it to prove another “truth” Are we then deeper thinkers, more articulate, more spiritual or wise?
    Isn’t the point of personal revelation a knowledge that you, and possibly only you know the truth of something?
    Whether it be your undiagnosed pain, the words of a prophet, the stumbling point in an Ensign article or anything else you have had the spirit whisper to your heart ?
    I’m rambling a bit here but this article doesn’t quite feel worthy of you.

  4. isn’t it a curious thing that we take a heartfelt article and dismantle it to prove another “truth” Are we then deeper thinkers, more articulate, more spiritual or wise?

    A little perspective, please. An article appears in the flagship publication of TCoJCoLDS that calls into question the validity and trustworthiness of empirical knowledge and a nobody on the internet responds by saying, “Not really. But it does show something else.” Moreover, I didn’t make any assumptions about the author’s motivations or the state of his soul.

    (as I am now doing)

    I do appreciate your willingness to engage in introspection.

  5. So do you read every Ensign cover to cover? How did you come to read this?

  6. I went and read the entire article just to be fair to the author and to be honest, I have no idea what he was getting at. More than anything it seems like he was saying, “Hey, I’m an Egyptologist and I don’t have doubts about the BofA so you shouldn’t either.” He didn’t really engage any of the actual arguments against the BofA beyond human sacrifice, and then it wasn’t revelation that helped his understanding, but more modern research…?

    On second thought, I wonder if this isn’t an editors-gone-wild problem as the article really didn’t flow right for me.

    Either way, I’ve reached a place (and it comes from fake news and a love of history), where I am careful who I trust and try to doubt as much as possible, trying to understand biases.

  7. I think revelation is undoubtedly superior to any other source of knowledge. The challenge is recognizing revelation when we receive it and distinguishing it from personal feelings. In that sense, I think the Ensign article demonstrates the value of revelation, even if it is in a way that was not entirely intended by the author. Something knowable only to the author revealed the truth of the situation, and prompted a course of action. Subsequent investigation confirmed the truth. Tying that to the Book of Abraham, revelation tells me that it is scripture and contains truths that can help guide my life. That revelation is confirmed when I act on it by aligning my life with the truths in the Book of Abraham, and such action yields positive results. For many of the truths in that book, I suspect that confirmation may be long-delayed, but I have confidence that it will ultimately be confirmed.

    The point is, sometimes we receive revelation and receive confirmation from observable results. Sometimes we observe knowledge with our physical senses and confirm it by revelation. Most often, it’s a cycle going through both at various stages. The example here is a useful way to frame this.

  8. So do you read every Ensign cover to cover? How did you come to read this?

    Umm…are you really taking me to task for responding to an article in the church’s flagship publication? I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about the plans for an interstellar express route hidden in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

    I went and read the entire article just to be fair to the author

    I hope that my analysis is fair to what was printed as well.

    The challenge is recognizing revelation when we receive it and distinguishing it from personal feelings.

    Indeed. And reconciling personal revelation with authority, from time to time.

  9. My comment wasn’t intended to be a criticism of the OP in any way and was more about my own POV than a reflection on whether or not the analysis here was fair. If it came across otherwise, I apologize.

  10. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thanks for this, Peter. I was raised to privilege revelation over other forms of knowing and that led me into some pitfalls when making key decisions in my life and career. I spent a few years trying to figure out what I did wrong. Ultimately, I’ve concluded that while the Holy Ghost may help me choose a course of action consistent with my morals and convictions, it does not grant me knowledge beyond what I can discern with my own senses and reasoning. YMMV.

  11. Mormonism presumes that personal revelation constitutes evidence of objective realities outside of ourselves: “I felt a warm feeling after reading the Book of Mormon, therefore, Mormon was a historical figure. Historians can’t find evidence for Mormon, but I can ‘feel’ that he existed.” What escapes us is that personal revelation is personal. It is not revelation about science or history, it is revelation about ourselves. You feel a warm feeling about Mormon, and this is evidence that your soul is happily reconciled the faith of your community, as well as reconciled to the spiritual truths that apply to you within the book.

    The correct analogy for the author would be: I can feel loose cartilage in my knee: therefore, I know that everyone has loose cartilage in their knee. That’s what we do when we say: “I know the book of Mormon is history for everyone.” We take personal revelation and we project it onto the material universe. But look inside and you will find, as Emily Dickinson said: “your brain is wider than the sky.”

  12. The article in the Ensign was terrible. The worst sort of apologetics. I’ve been expecting some heavy-handed online criticism for days after I read it. Instead, this blog post makes one discrete — and very fair — point. Complainers and tsk-tsk’ers above, get a grip.

  13. I second Hunter’s opinion. Robert Ritner’s “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” trounces Muhlestein’s arguments, and he doesn’t seem to take answering honest criticism honestly very seriously. There are problems with Chaldea. There are problems with identifying a “manner of the Egyptians”. There are problems calling the capital punishment “sacrifice”. There are problems of the context of the translation. Etc, etc. For crying out loud, Brian Hauglid’s excellent JSPP volume just came out, and his text with Terryl Givens is in the works! Why are we still being treated to such low quality, sugary-dessert-style apologetics?

  14. I haven’t read the article yet, but it’s not surprising that a short article would treat a complicated subject (competing epistemological sources) in a simplistic way. In theory, I agree that divine revelation trumps human knowledge; in practice, I think this is far more complicated balance to seek, and the BoA, as it is itself a complicated topic, doesn’t exactly cut the Gordian knot here.

  15. ” Robert Ritner’s “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” trounces Muhlestein’s arguments, and he doesn’t seem to take answering honest criticism honestly very seriously.”

    Is there really an expectation that an Ensign article would provide the space and be an appropriate venue for this kind of argumentation?

  16. Not taking you to task. Just wondering if I see through what’s going on. Do you get out the Ensign and read it regularly from cover to cover? Take that shift in answer as a – no. So someone else suggested you make a take down of it? Where IS YOUR source of revelation coming from on writing this article?

    Revelation says hold your tongue in the area you find disagreement and seek ways to find some unity with your publication. Not declare it as misguided or give others the impression of a dangerous view of revelation. But what is misguided and could be spiritually dangerous is the behind the scenes motivation to a piece like this. I hope your future actions prove me wrong.

    It sounds to me that the author is giving a mixed parable of sorts. Charity to your fellow man, but not to the household of faith? I’m sure every single one of Jesus’ parables can be picked apart in like manner. I’m imagining the type of personal motivation who feels the need to publish their disagreement.

    Maybe it’s just getting clicks. Maybe it’s just the habit of cycnicism. But who are you writing for an what is your desired result? Clearly the professor or whoever felt he was writing for the Lord and desired to increase faith using what even he would likely agree is an imperfect metaphor.

  17. Inherent in some people’s discussion of “revelation” or “witness of the spirit” is the idea that spiritual learning is some kind of seventh sense (historically a “sixth sense” but I include proprioception as a true sixth sense), a third eye, an additional way of knowing. It is not uncommon to ascribe certainty or impossibility to mistake to that spiritual sense.

    I don’t believe any of it. I believe that *everything* we ever know is through our six senses, mediated by neuro-chemical processes–neurons, glial cells, hormones. And *everything* we ever know or think we know is subject to the frailties of those processes, subject to mistake, misdirection, and illusion. In this life we “see through a glass darkly.” No exceptions.

    If we are not agreed on this epistemological point, the rest of the discussion about “whose wisdom do you trust?” will go badly. If we are agreed my way, I submit that it’s going to be a short discussion. If we were to agree that there is in each of us a reliable spiritual sense, and we posit that your “revelation” reads different than mine, then things get interesting. But I’m stuck at the premise.

  18. Chris, your comment here raises a question as to what you meant in another thread by your stated belief that Joseph Smith was “a prophet, in the sense of receiving the word of God and a charge to speak it.” What does this mean in the context of your epistemology?

  19. JR: Not surprisingly—received through senses, subject to the frailties of mortality. For receipt, for understanding, and for transmission. That’s one reason I think of prophets as inherently unreliable.

  20. If it came across otherwise, I apologize.

    No need, I was just thinking that in light of the tenor of some of the responses that it was worth reiterating this post was not intended as a hatchet job.

    I was raised to privilege revelation over other forms of knowing and that led me into some pitfalls when making key decisions in my life and career.

    The principle that revelation should guide us in everything we do sounds straightforward enough in the abstract but in practice can be a minefield, as I am sure many can confirm.

    You feel a warm feeling about Mormon, and this is evidence that your soul is happily reconciled the faith of your community, as well as reconciled to the spiritual truths that apply to you within the book.

    Yes, this seems like a good description of the phenomenon.

    it’s not surprising that a short article would treat a complicated subject (competing epistemological sources) in a simplistic way.

    My concern is not that the article is a short and simplistic explication of a complicated subject—about which I am certainly not offering myself as an expert—but that it offers broad and sweeping advice about how to live one’s life without a pertinent example of how that works in practice.

    Do you get out the Ensign and read it regularly from cover to cover? Take that shift in answer as a – no.

    The last time I read an Ensign—actually, half a dozen Ensigns—from cover to cover was last summer. I was waiting for an interview with the stake president and he forgot about me. Sure, making a virtue out of a necessity doesn’t make me a virtuous person, but since it’s short and only appears once a month I probably read more of the Ensign as a percentage of its content than I do the other newspapers and periodicals I pay good money to subscribe to.

    So someone else suggested you make a take down of it? […] Maybe it’s just getting clicks. Maybe it’s just the habit of cynicism. But who are you writing for an what is your desired result?

    Ed, I saw this coming from a mile away. I didn’t engage your first question directly because I knew it wasn’t what you were really getting at. For the record: BCC is not monetized. Authors are not paid for their work. Some even dig into their pockets to pay the hosting fees. There are no shadowy figures behind the scenes dictating topics or laying out the editorial line. Authors post on their own volition.

    But what is misguided and could be spiritually dangerous is the behind the scenes motivation to a piece like this. I hope your future actions prove me wrong.

    I’m not saying that my take on revelation is or ought to be the last word, and I’m open to the argument that the Ensign is, first and foremost, a devotional publication and that gentlemen simply don’t criticize devotional work. But unlike you, I focused on the substance of the message and did not question the messenger’s motivations or character. For someone who is convinced that I am motivated primarily by self interest to complain about “the habit of cynicism” is rich indeed.

    To reiterate my appeal above—a little perspective, please. I am not presenting a universal model for how to live your life in the flagship publication of a global organization.

    In this life we “see through a glass darkly.” No exceptions.

    Yes, which I believe the Ensign article amply illustrated. At least the notion that one can easily know metaphysical truths like Joseph Smith was a prophet of God who translated the book of Abraham by inspiration seems to be contradicted by the difficulty that even well-resourced and skilled professionals have in diagnosing the source of physical pain.

  21. The Ensign article is simplified version of the authors 2013 devotional. While the devotional is much longer I would consider it equally simplistic. Muhlestein ignores the strongest arguments against the church’s BoA claims in favor of deconstructing the weaker arguments. I doubt anyone has left the church over the presence of Egyptian sacrifice in the BoA. There are much more significant issues at play. What Joseph said about the translation, the BoA manuscripts with Egyptian characters in the margins, the nonsensical Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, the attempted translation of the facsimiles, etc. make it pretty clear that when Joseph claimed to ‘translate’ the BoA from his papyri he meant what his followers understood. To not mention these things in a devotional or article about the nature of the BoA is disingenuous at best.

    The right way to go about discovering truth is to evaluate all of the information available and seek to develop a model that accounts for as much of that information as possible. That is what Muhlestein’s doctors did. His pain sensation was just one of many data points that they took into account when evaluating him. This is as it should be. Muhlestein seems to be advocating that when it comes to religious beliefs that one should willingly discard any data that contradicts what one feels is true (so long as that feeling is confirmation of the church’s current claims).

    This is the prevailing view I see at church. It is unfortunate, ironic, and has real consequences. The entire religion exists because Joseph was always updating his religious model as he encountered new information. Let’s not forget that a strict historical and literal interpretation of the BoA was used as the theological foundation for not allowing black people in the temple.

  22. Chris, wouldn’t this make any and all knowledge inherently unreliable, a general, Cartesian-like epistemological doubt? Even personal revelation would be subject to our human frailties. But God still speaks to us (and to prophets)… Thus, how can we know truth? Or is truth unknowable in this mortal sphere? And what of divine-to-human communication, then? Unreliable, impossible, unknowable… That does not seem a good epistemological path to follow.

  23. I second Nate’s comment:

    “What escapes us is that personal revelation is personal. It is not revelation about science or history, it is revelation about ourselves.”

    I had never thought about revelation this way but it strikes me as true. When one feels fear they are not discovering objective information about their surroundings, they are discovering what scares them.

  24. Andrea, I’d say that our ability to discern truth is pretty unreliable. The information that gets elevated up to conscious thought has been heavily filtered and manipulated by subconscious processes that don’t necessarily priorities truth. I’m okay with that. I happen to think that life is less about discovering ‘truth’ and more about learning to do good.

  25. The entire religion exists because Joseph was always updating his religious model as he encountered new information.

    Yes, I think it is crucial to understand the restoration as a work in progress, not as a turn-key, unchanging edifice.

    Thus, how can we know truth?

    That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I’m not suggesting, for instance, that what is “right” or “true” can (only) be measured using empirical methods or that empirical processes provide all the information we ever need to lead a happy and fulfilled life. As a practical matter, I do not believe that dogmatism offers a way out, but I also acknowledge that the largely uninterrogated rules of thumb we deploy to make (difficult) decisions while going about the day-to-day business of living life generally do serve us pretty well.

  26. “How can we know truth?”
    In the sense of being awakened by a bolt of lightning . . . we don’t.
    In the sense of testing, triangulating, falsifying hypotheses, narrowing options, questioning, debating, approaching asymptotically . . . we’re doing it all the time.

    But then the interesting discussion (what I get out of the OP) is whether we should dismiss one source of information, or privilege one source of information? Sight over sound. Or feelings over analysis. Or fast brain over slow brain. Or neurons over hormones. (Intentionally mixed vocabulary.) Or perhaps the better way to say it—everybody does it, but do I have to accept it? Can I do better?

    When somebody plays their feelings as a trump card (as happens sometimes in a church or religious context—that’s the content of “personal revelation” especially when I’m an outsider to that experience), that isn’t the end of the discussion for me. I’m still going to ask “is this good work?” “/how does it compare?” “Is this in addition to other good evidence? Or in place of? Or in the face of?”

  27. Analogies are imperfect and it seems harsh sometimes to squeeze out those imperfections.

    Candidly if the principle of the analogy is that if internally we are at disagreement w/ the experts, and we continue to question ourselves and the experts until we come to an understanding that resonates with us – I’m all in on that analogy.

  28. As always, context is important. If this were a sacrament meeting talk I would have left well enough alone.

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