Monday, December 25, 2006


Continuing from my previous post, chocolate and vanilla, regarding my interesting, enlightening, but sometimes frustrating, conversations with a fellow ex-Mormon...

I asked him to explain to me different philosophical conceptions of "truth." And upon reading his explanation, I understood another reason we were talking past each other. We were operating on different ideas of "truth," and I had even been hopping back and forth within different conceptions of truth without realizing that they all been distinguished from each other and given different names by various philosophers. I'll try to summarize, relying heavily on his explanation.

Among the different theories on "truth," my friend, who comments here as Zarathustra, named four: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism, and perspectivism.

Correspondence presupposes that in order for some proposition to be true it must correspond to the way things are in the world. For example, there either is or isn't a Christmas tree in my living room; it's being there or not is verifiable with evidence. Most people, myself included, think about truth primarily within this paradigm. Mormons (and others, I'm sure) use correspondence the think about religion: There is or is not a God, and evidence for His existence can be found, such as in scripture, the existence of the universe, answered prayers, etc. But philosophers and many others would not place theology in this category of "verifiable" or "empirical."

Zarathustra wrote, The trouble with correspondence is that it quickly breaks down in cases where no correspondence can be determined....We can't easily test [if] fact correspond to the way things are in the world....Truth itself is not necessarily a matter of empiricism; it can be, but it need not be.Theology and moral philosophy do not lend themselves to empirical observation."

This way of thinking about truth is so familiar that we take it for granted; we often think that this is the only way to think about truth. But no so...

There is also the coherence theory of truth. "Coherence theorists do not look to anchor their claims to the truth in the way the world happens to be. Instead, their hope is to construct a view of the world that (a) has the greatest degree of explanatory power, and (b) is able to cohere with itself." They seek to "describe the world's phenomena in an efficient and comprehensive manner" while avoiding "internal contradiction and inconsistency." Think scientific disciplines.

Then there's pragmatism, which "tries to evaluate our claims to truth by their ability to promote some recognized good." Truth becomes a "matter of utility." If it promotes good, it is "true" in a pragmatic way. I know some Mormons that keep up relations with Mormonism in this way; it works for them, it helps them be happy. The actual "truth" of, say, the Book of Mormon story about Lamanites being descended from Hebrews and DNA evidence that shows Native Americans are descended from Asians, isn't important. Whether or not the church is "true" is a matter of it being "good" for them.

Finally, there is perspectivism, argued by Nietzsche, which says that truth depends on your point of view, which in turn can depend on heredity, race, nationality, taste, trends, etc., etc. (but Nietzsche would resist such a list, wouldn't he?).

Upon reading Zarathustra's explanation, I realized one reason why our conversations sometimes go the way they do. There's Zarathustra arguing about chocolate and vanilla (pragmatism and perspectivism), and there's me, making definitive statements like "When I realized the church isn't true..." from within a correspondence paradigm. I feel I weighed the evidence of Joseph's claims and found the evidence against his claims stronger than the ones for them; in this way, I say, "The church isn't true." Zarathustra generally discusses the church from outside the correspondence paradigm, as a matter of goodness or of taste, and thinks that debating the (correspondence) evidence for it is beside the point, and perhaps, useless.

He wrote, "If we insist on correspondence, then Mormons and anti-Mormons are in for a very long fight.(I'm using anti-Mormon in a very loose sense.)But, if we adopt some other conceptualization of truth, Mormonism--as a humanly important truth--may turn out to be true and false, or rather, as I'd like to say, delicious and disgusting, all at once. It will depend on perspective."

Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on this...


Zarathustra said...

Let me say, as a matter of clarification, that we could hardly do without correspondence. My view is only that correspondence can be limited, especially when dealing with claims that are unresponsive to its methodologies.

Let Joseph and Mormonism be judged by what can be determined; but, let's not overstate our position, controversial evidence will always generate diverging perspectives. This is why I claim that interpreting evidence is sometimes a matter of taste, i.e., on some occasions, our interpretations will ultimately be grounded in nothing more substantial than personal preference.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I like reading both your thoughts here. It's highly interesting.

from the ashes said...

thanks for the clarification, Z. I agree that there are many people who look at some of the same evidence I do, and don't see it as devastating to JS's claims. The first vision stories is one example.