Epistemology: How We Know What We Know

When you go to school for a long time you learn a lot of nifty words. One of the words I learned is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. It sounds complicated but it’s not.

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. This is how knowledge comes about or is accepted as knowledge.

How knowledge gets made

If we need to know something then, generally, scholars in research universities will study it. They do it by deciding what they want to study and then designing a study to research it- like honesty or charity. The problem is that nothing can really be studied directly. They have to choose an indicator they can measure of what they want to study, something indirect. They have to choose an indicator of honesty or charity.

For example, researchers studying how honest people are in a particular city will sometimes place wallets and purses in various locations as if they’ve been lost. These wallets and purses will contain sufficient contact information inside them to return them to the supposed owner.

Researchers will then count how many get returned and how many get returned with all the contents, and especially the money, intact. They then draw conclusions about how honest the people are in that particular city.

If it’s an international study done in many different cities worldwide, they’ll sometimes use the city as an indicator of how honest people are in that particular country.

It would be the same way if they were studying charity. For example, if they want to know how charitable people who live in Fort Wayne are, they might count the number of non-profits and charities and count the number of hours people who live here spend volunteering or the amount of money they contribute to charities or non-profits 

This indirect approach to studying something applies to the physical sciences as well as the social sciences or any other science. For example, in medicine, they often test for antibodies, not the actual item of interest.

Again, they are only measured indirectly and by using things we can measure or observe through the five physical senses. Only then can we say that we know something.

The Scientific Method

This process is called 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.

After researchers measure and observe things and finish collecting their data, they have to decide what it means. This is less exact than it sounds.

Just because you think you are studying honesty or charity doesn’t mean you are. Just because you think you’ve selected a good indicator doesn’t mean you have. Just because you think you know what your data is telling you doesn’t mean you’ve interpreted it correctly.

For example, in a study sometime back, researchers decided that their data proved that members of the Church were not avid Bible readers. That was what they concluded and what the news media put in the headlines.

They concluded this by measuring how many Utah residents accessed an online Bible on a generic Christian website. It wasn’t the King James Version. Since most Utah residents are members of the Church and very few Utah residents accessed this online Bible resource, they concluded that Latter-day Saints were not Bible readers.

I think we can all see the problems with what they thought they were studying and what they thought they discovered.

Like most studies, only the conclusions tend to make it into the news, the textbooks or the classroom, not the details of how they conducted the study or how they came to their conclusions.

Studying how charitable Latter-day Saints are is especially problematic. Researchers can’t agree on whether tithing and fast offerings are compulsory or voluntary. If it’s compulsory, then they argue it really isn’t a good indicator of charity and they won’t include it in their study.

Bias and distortion in the Scientific Method

Other things can interfere with trying to study something. Researchers discovered that people’s behavior changed when they were aware they were being studied. It was also discovered that the researcher’s behavior changed towards their test subjects if they knew how and why they were being studied.

So, in good medical studies, for example, test subjects never know if they are receiving the real medicine or a placebo. Researchers also don’t know if they are actually administering real medicine or a placebo. This is what’s called a “double blind” study. It’s one of the techniques to keep the results from becoming contaminated.

In fact, over the years, they’ve discovered a whole host of factors that can, and have, contaminated the scientific method and caused researchers, as well as the public, to trip up over the years and pursue falsehood, including an unusually kind and gentle researcher feeding bunny rabbits.

Once the results and conclusions are released, other researchers examine them, discuss them, and sometimes do the study again themselves to see if they get the same results. This is called replication or reproducibility. If they do get the same results, they can then claim that we know something.

The sad fact is that there really isn’t that much replication going on. Researchers would rather discover something new themselves than simply lend support to something discovered by someone else.

What’s more, we’re in the midst of what’s called a “Replication Crisis.” It’s a real term. You can look it up. Since about 2010, we discovered that a lot of what we thought we knew can’t be replicated. Researchers are getting different results than the original researchers.

This has thrown many fields of study into chaos because we now have to face the uncomfortable fact that we don’t know a lot of things we thought we knew.

The scientific method is straightforward. It is clear. It’s also horribly flawed. Error and bias can be injected into the method at every juncture. The scientific method is the best we’ve got but it’s inexact, tentative, unstable and notoriously unreliable.

The further you get into education, the more research you study and the more research you do yourself, you discover just how unstable the world’s so-called knowledge really is.

The Scientific Method cannot produce truth

The biggest problem though is that the scientific method, our current epistemology, our current way of knowing, cannot produce truth. It can only discover facts.

Experts acknowledge that the scientific method cannot produce 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.

If you’ve been on the planet long enough you realize that every time a moderately significant scientific discovery is made the experts will declare that it changes everything and they’re going to have to rethink everything.

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

In our present world, things that are considered religious or spiritual sometimes get labeled as supernatural, paranormal or metaphysical. These are also nifty words. 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 currently 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 wholly unsuited 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 members of the church. 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.

We have a spiritual way of knowing

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 

Despite Joseph Smith’s tender years and inexperience, he grasped this very basic problem. In the Pearl of Great Price in his history, verse 10 he voices it. You’ve heard it many times. Hear it now with a new perspective.

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?

“[H]ow shall I know it?”

We have a spiritual epistemology. There is a way to know spiritual things and Joseph Smith learned it that day in the Sacred Grove. This way of knowing produces truth and it is much more substantial than the world’s way of knowing. 

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:

They must teach people that truth does exist

They must teach them actual truth

They must teach them how to find truth themselves by teaching them a different way of knowing, a spiritual method. 

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? … I think we all know that would not have solved 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.

How we know what we know

So, what is this procedure for this way of knowing?

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 and enable the Holy Ghost to cause you to know something.

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, through our five senses. 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.

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.

Boyd K. Packer said:

Faith, to be faith, must walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness. (“What Is Faith?” in Faith [1983], 42–43).

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. He’s devilishly flipped things around.

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 can confirm to our listeners that they are hearing truth.

Sadly, Satan’s even poisoned this well. Bearing your personal testimony of something is absolutely ridiculed and reviled in our secular world. Why? Because it’s considered “anecdotal evidence.”

Listen to this description of anecdotal evidence:

… evidence collected in a casual or informal manner and relying heavily or entirely on personal testimony …. When compared to other types of evidence, anecdotal evidence is generally regarded as limited in value due to a number of potential weaknesses …. [Most] anecdotal evidence … does not qualify as scientific evidence, because its nature prevents it from being investigated by the scientific method.

Researchers who try and employ anecdotal evidence or personal testimony, risk their personal and professional reputations. They, and their studies, will likely be ridiculed, reviled, disparaged and dismissed. They won’t remain researchers for long, if at all.

The scientific method will never discover or report truth. But, without truth, we will just flounder. And the world is floundering. It will continue to flounder; but we don’t have to, if we know how to find and know truth through the Holy Ghost.

Truth comes via spirit-to-spirit communication

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.

The Holy Ghost reveals truth to you via the Spirit. This is spirit-to-spirit communication. There is no room for distortion or 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.

The ideal is to conduct yourself every minute of every day in a position where you can recognize truth, live it and have the Holy Ghost confirm it to you continuously. Then and only then can you be certain that you really know what you know.

Heavenly Father is deity. He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. That means he is all knowing, all powerful and present everywhere via his Spirit. He knows everything and He is willing and able to share his knowledge with us, even in our present imperfect state.

Fathers care about their children and they know how to communicate with them. Our Heavenly Father cares about us and is willing and able to communicate with us.


The notion that God needs to get onboard with secular science, embrace the scientific method and run his universe according to secular knowledge is just downright silly.

People who assert such notions are, in effect, admitting that they don’t believe in Heavenly Father, or believe that He is deity, or believe that this is His Church. They are asserting that they think the Church is just being run by flawed human beings like themselves when they criticize it for being out-of-sync with secular science.

Secular science has its place in our telestial, imperfect and flawed world. But in the gospel of Jesus Christ and His restored Church we have a much better source of truth. We just need to make use of it properly and continuously.

When you have a perfect communication source with a perfect being, why waste your time with such imperfect mechanisms?

President Thomas S. Monson taught:

There is no need for you or for me, in this enlightened age when the fulness of the gospel has been restored, to sail uncharted seas or to travel unmarked roads in search of truth. “Obedience Brings Blessings” By President Thomas S. Monson, April 2013, General Conference. 

President Russell M. Nelson has said:

Regardless of what others may say or do, no one can ever take away a witness borne to your heart and mind about what is true. Revelation for the Church, Revelationfor Our Lives, April 2018, General Conference.

It is my prayer that we will continuously access this perfect source of truth now and throughout our lives, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Given in Sacrament Meeting

Fort Wayne 1st Ward

November 28, 2021
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