Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Nontraditional testimonies

I don't like everything about publications like Sunstone, but one thing I definitely do love is when they publish an article or story that supports a traditional gospel principle or Mormon faith claim.

Why do I find "nontraditional testimonies" (for lack of a better term) particularly potent? I can think of a few possible reasons, but they each seem to have problematic undertones. Maybe I feel like nontraditional Mormons don't have the same incentives to want parts of the church to be true so their testimony is less biased. But does that mean I am discounting to some degree the testimonies of people who believe everything about the church as (at least potentially and/or partly) colored by self-delusion? That seems kind of silly. I mean, if I'm going to believe the church's truth claims myself (which I do), why would I weight the testimonies of people who agree with me less than the testimonies of people who only partly agree with me? That seems awfully problematic. It makes it sound like I should only believe some of the church's truth claims to avoid the bias I might be detecting in others. (I don't know if this part makes much sense.)

Or maybe it's not that I think nontraditional testimonies are less biased, but simply that if they agree on principle X, and I and other true believers also believe in X, then there's just more consensus that X is true! The more overlap among people of many different belief systems about a certain proposition's truthfulness, the more likely it is to be true, no? But that has the problematic flavor to it of being kind of theology-by-popular-vote, which undermines the idea of organized religion with any claims to absolute truth.

I could delve into some twists and intricacies in the above arguments, but I think they're generally legit. So should I stop prioritizing nontraditional testimonies over more traditional ones? Maybe. Not that it's so easy as to say I'm going to start reacting in certain ways to certain types of testimonies. We'll see. I still just kind of like 'em.

[Blah, I feel like this post really needed a good dose of more work, but NaBloPoMo means you get the first draft. Take it with a few tablespoons of salt.]


  1. So I liked this post a lot. I don't think it's as problematic as you make it out to be. Forgive me for taking this math-y places but essentially you have in your head some probability that the truth claims are accurate like .8. If belief were binary you’d be completely sure or completely sure they aren’t. However, I personally don’t think such belief/faith is possible. Even the most convinced has a “shadow of a doubt” if they’re being honest—maybe I’m wrong about that.

    You have some pool of evidence that leads you to believe in the truth claims etc, presumably much of this is spiritual in nature. When someone else adds evidence that is similar to yours it doesn't move your belief about the truth claims because you have already accounted for that in your calculation in the probability of the truth claims be correct. However, when new forms of evidence arrive that is dissimilar to yours, your model of the probability of truth claims should move more.

    I feel the same way you do about nontraditional evidences with convert testimonies. However, I don’t think this is inconsistent because they are presenting evidence I haven’t personally experienced so they tend to move my probability.

    Also I don’t know exactly what you mean by nontraditional testimonies. For instance, if a Mormon and a non Mormon presented the same evidence about _____ (some “secular” topic eg linguistic patterns in the BoM) would you weight those differently? I think if you did, you’re fine there again. You know the non Mormon has no agenda to “prove” the church right where there is some chance that a Mormon might. However, there are several Mormons who I know personally or have an established reputation for objectivity that I would weight equally to non Mormons. Because I know there are Mormons who are prone to engage in shoddy science to “prove” the church is true, I should use this information in evaluating work of Mormons who I don’t know or have no reputation and discount them relative to non Mormons.

    My response is pretty rambly and may have misinterpreted what you mean in some cases but like I said, I really liked your post.

  2. I think what I like about nontraditional testimonies is that they often give a different perspective on the same truth I believe in. Something may be objectively true, but looking at it from a different angle gives you a new appreciation for its truth or helps you understand it in a different context. Does that even make sense or relate? Hope so!

  3. What Jeff is saying is, it's good to update your priors appropriately.

  4. Jeff, I like it. (Especially since it helps ease any concerns I have with the way I intuitively view the world :) )

    Also, you never have to apologize for making things mathy with me--I adore math. Definitely agree that belief is never entirely on/off even if sometimes it's culturally described that way (knowing with every fiber of one's being, beyond a shadow of a doubt, etc). I also don't think you misinterpreted anything I said, though as you point out it's not very clear what I mean(t) by nontraditional testimony (something I thought about defining yesterday in the original post but then decided to go to bed instead). A good example is my friend's testimony last fast Sunday; I have had some long discussions with him about the church and he doesn't believe in a lot of pretty fundamental things about the church, for example priesthood as an actual thing at all. But when he bore his testimony of Christ from the pulpit, even though his words could have been the verbatim ones on that subject that any other member might have shared, I feel like I gave his testimony more weight than I would have given the EQP, if that makes sense.

    I think I'm just a bit troubled, personally, by the idea of discounting totally orthodox Mormon testimonies a bit because they're more likely to be out to prove their worldview correct, even if that is the rational way to go about it. I don't like "distrusting" orthodox Mormons even if I'm not distrusting them because I think they're dishonest but just because I'm factoring in inherent human biases that everyone has, ya know? (I'm not sure if this is misinterpreting your comment now--sorry if this devolves into one of those online conversations that could be cleared up with about two minutes of actual face-to-face discussion...)

    Diana, that's a good way of putting it. I was thinking of adding another paragraph along similar lines, but again, the sleep thing decided otherwise for me.

    RD, I've said it before and I'll say it again: someone needs to start a blog with that idea incorporated into the title! :) But seriously, that is a good model for coming closer to truth in all kinds of contexts, one that I need to remember to utilize a bit more in spiritual spheres.

  5. I don't know that I have much more to add to this but I really like your comment.

    The testimony of your friend is a good case study. It is hard to know if you value his testimony more because of his heterodoxy or because of your friendship. I certainly value testimonies of close friends (even orthodox ones) more than of strangers (orthodox or otherwise).

    Anyway, I like this question in general and will probably be thinking about it for a while to come.

  6. Jeff, that's a good call, I hadn't considered close friendship as a confounding variable, but that makes sense.