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The Latter-day Saint Response to W.K. Clifford on Epistemic ResponsibilitySummary: This article gives an overview of English mathematician and philosopher W.K. Chesterton's contribution of epistemic responsibility within the philosophy of religion, ethics, and epistemology as well as the Latter-day Saint response to it.
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Question: What might be the Latter-day Saint response to criticism from epistemic responsibility?
Introduction to Criticism
English mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford is famous for a particular contribution to the philosophy of religion, epistemology, and ethics having to do with what he argued was the inherent danger to human life in believing in something without sufficient evidence to support it. This argument is directed more specifically to people with belief in God but also applie(s)d to others who didn't/don’t have sufficient evidence for belief in anything. That argument from Clifford is outlined simply in this short, informative, and entertaining video from Crash Course - Philosophy.
Some ask what the Latter-day Saint response to the question of epistemic responsibility might be. This article will outline a few ways to approach such a response. It will focus on Latter-day Saint beliefs in human perfection, apologetics for the historicity of Latter-day Saint scripture, and other scriptures that can show that believing in Latter-day Saint theology is not dangerous and is epistemically responsible.
Response to Criticism
Threshold of Evidence
The first major objection that one could raise to the argument is "[w]hat threshold of evidence would be necessary to cross in order to be 'sufficient' for belief?" Clifford never really tells us. Different propositions would necessarily require different thresholds of evidence in order to rationally hold a belief. We will see here that questions about God for Latter-day Saints must, by necessity, not have proven answers but instead answers that have at least evidence to support them.
God at a Necessary Cognitive Distance
It should be noted that for Latter-day Saints, proving God’s existence and/or the truthfulness of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ isn’t exactly in everyone’s best interest. Latter-day Saint philosopher and theologian Blake T. Ostler outlined why God may need to remain at a cognitive distance from us and why we might not want to prove his existence:
To have a genuine relationship, it was necessary for [the pre-existent spirits of all people] to leave God's presence and enter into a situation where His existence, glory, and power were not obvious to make room for both moral and religious faith--a situation where persons could freely enter into a genuine relationship without being coerced to do so by the obviousness of His overwhelming power and glory. Thus, God has set us at a cognitive distance from Him out of respect for our freedom. Because such distance is necessary to permit faith, God's existence must be ambiguous. The world must be capable of appearing as if there were no God precisely to make room for us to come to a genuine relationship with him.
Consequently, Latter-day Saints focus on providing evidence for their belief instead of proof. That may not be enough to resolve this criticism; but it gives us a starting point from which we can proceed and elucidate the rest of the response.
Latter-day Saint belief in human perfection
Latter-day Saints are committed to belief in human perfection including deification. This life, for Latter-day Saints, is the proving ground where we will show how well we can keep God’s commandments and thus prove ourselves worthy to return to his presence and receive all that he has. Thus, for Latter-day Saints, humans are ends in and of themselves. Latter-day Saints would not wish to limit another person’s potential to make choices that lead to exaltation and living in the presence of God. Any injury or murder of another person is thus virtually unconscionable to them. Latter-day Saints are committed to extoling charity as the highest form of virtue that one can aspire to. They seek to live the Law of Love as outlined by the Savior in Matthew 22:34-40.
Latter-day Saint Apologetics
Latter-day Saints believe that part of discipleship of Jesus Christ is to give a reason for the hope that is within us, call upon our enemies in both private and public to confound them, sustain and defend the Church which is considered kingdom of God on the earth, and seeking knowledge and wisdom by study and faith in order to build up others’ convictions of the truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For many years, scholars and apologists have been exploring and documenting evidences for belief in the scriptures as well as answering criticism of the doctrine, history, and practice of the Church so as to make sure that no one’s belief is impeded in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ in any way. Readers are encouraged to get familiar with this scholarship.
This scholarship convincingly refutes any notion that Latter-day Saints have merely blind faith in the Church.
What About the Killing of Laban?
In the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon, the main protagonist Nephi is commanded by God to kill a Jewish ruler by the name of Laban. Laban had stolen and hoarded the property of the family after the family had offered it to him in exchange for brass plates in which the genealogy of Nephi’s family as well as many other important instructions and revelations from God were recorded.
Some critics might ask, “If God can command Nephi to kill someone, why can’t he do the same today?” A few things should be mentioned:
- Nephi had his spiritual impression during a time when such was legal under the law of Moses. Murder was not legal. However, when God delivered a person into your hands to be killed and you did not consciously and deliberately plan that person’s murder beforehand, killing that person was legal.
- Modern revelation has stipulated that Latter-day Saints “shalt not... kill, nor do anything like unto it.”
- Modern revelation also tells Latter-day Saints to be subject to the laws of the land in which they live. Laws regarding murder are certainly a part of that.
- This commandment to Nephi was given at a time that was crucial for the salvation and exaltation for millions of people. Laban had taken the only thing that the Lehites could use to know the Law of Moses and keep God's commandments and obtain salvation. It was thus "better that one man perish than a whole nation dwindle in unbelief." Such a commandment is extremely unlikely to be given for anyone today seeing as how the Book of Mormon has already been published and the Church remains today one of the strongest and fastest-growing religious movements in the world. It has all the necessary resources to effectuate its purpose. No such killing is necessary until done by the Savior at the Second Coming when, as Malachi and the Doctrine and Covenants tell us, "all the wicked will be destroyed by burning." By that time we’ll all have the proof necessary to believe in His Gospel.
- If such a commandment is ever given (which it likely never will), it will likely not come to regular members of the Church. Only the President of the Church would be authorized to do that.
Latter-day Saint Views of War
As part of a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded in Doctrine and Covenants…the Latter-day Saint view of how one should conduct war and battle is given.
- 33 And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them.
- 34 And if any nation, tongue, or people should proclaim war against them, they should first lift a standard of peace unto that people, nation, or tongue;
- 35 And if that people did not accept the offering of peace, neither the second nor the third time, they should bring these testimonies before the Lord;
- 36 Then I, the Lord, would give unto them a commandment, and justify them in going out to battle against that nation, tongue, or people.
- 37 And I, the Lord, would fight their battles, and their children’s battles, and their children’s children’s, until they had avenged themselves on all their enemies, to the third and fourth generation.
- 38 Behold, this is an ensample unto all people, saith the Lord your God, for justification before me.
It is easy to see that Latter-day Saints do not want to become part of violent, senseless killing but be like Christ in turning the other cheek as much as possible and seeking to establish peace. Latter-day Saints assume that all are the same. Only if others decide to take violence to the Saints could such a command by God to go to war ever be given.
Solving the Persuasion Problem Without God
The Persuasion Problem in the philosophy of morality arises when we ask the question "[w]hat will motivate people to be good?". Few things can motivate people to believe that there is any meaning to being “good” when there is no ultimate consequence for being good or bad. Believing in God is most often viewed by philosophers as the only way to solve such a problem since he/she/they are the only one(s) that provide a stable metaethical worldview that might be able to provide such a consequence to people’s actions. Without God’s existence, who can really say what is “irresponsible” and “immoral”? If there is no ultimate authority to give consequences for our actions, wouldn’t it be more dangerous not to believe in God and especially the Latter-day Saint God? Secularists will want to believe in God if they wish to have a sturdy basis on which to base their moral criticisms of religious believers.
To be clear, the author is not arguing that, given a clear, unmistakable commandment by God to kill someone with solid reasoning for such, that Latter-day Saints wouldn’t follow through with such a commandment. What the author is arguing is that it is negligibly possible for such a commandment to be given when taking into account the sum total of Latter-day Saint scripture and doctrine on the subject, having a grasp of Latter-day Saint apologetics, and observing the condition of the Church today and the resources available to it. Thus, no one has virtually anything to be concerned about. This highlights the need of all people to read scripture both contextually and holistically.
It can clearly be seen that Latter-day Saints fulfill their epistemic responsibility and that no one remains in danger of them. Many secularist critics of the Church may wish to use this as some sort of slam dunk against the Church and religion in general. For Latter-day Saints, however, it is anything but a slam dunk.
- Blake T. Ostler, Fire on the Horizon: A Meditation on the Endowment and Love of Atonement (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 17.
- Doctrine and Covenants 76:53, 58; 88:107; 132:20; Abraham 3:25-26.
- Moroni 7:45-47.
- Matthew 22:34-40.
- 1 Peter 3:15.
- Doctrine and Covenants 71:7.
- Doctrine and Covenants 88:118.
- On the Book of Mormon, see Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013); John Welch et al., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds (ed.), Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). This scholarship is summarized in the KnoWhys found at bookofmormoncentral.org. For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. Some of this scholarship is summarized in Insights done by Pearl of Great Price Central. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014). Much of the scholarship here is summarized in Insights done by Pearl of Great Price Central. FairMormon is focused on answering the negative case against the Church and not documenting the positive case for it. For answers to criticism, see our table of contents. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, be sure to message FairMormon volunteers about any questions you might have.
- 1 Nephi 4.
- Exodus 21:12-14.
- Doctrine and Covenants 59:6.
- Articles of Faith 1:12.
- 1 Nephi 4:13.
- Donald W. Parry and Jay A. Parry, Understanding the Signs of the Times (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1999), 465. Malachi 4:1; D&C 29:9; 64:23-24; 133:63-64.
- Doctrine and Covenants 28:2; 107:99.
- Doctrine and Covenants 98:33-38.