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Is knowing better than not knowing?

July 11, 2009

I begin with a video from Jesusophile or rather, I would, if the particular video hadn’t been taken down. But in the video I’m thinking of, Jesusophile relates a parable, that I’ll paraphrase:

So, what if you take two children and give them encyclopedias, and ask them, “What is the capital of America?” And one of them says, “I don’t know; I do not see it,” And the other says, “Here, I’ve found it! It is New York City!” Obviously, the one who *finds* an answer is smarter than the one who doesn’t find anything because he has found an answer, so atheists are less intelligent than Christians because they find nothing and the Christian finds *something*.

Now before you come at me, realize that I didn’t make this up. I’m not genius enough to make this up. I wish you could see the video (check out others from Jesusophile to get a sense of him), because seriously, it’s a subtle kind of genius there.

But it gets me to my point…is knowing better than not knowing?

Obviously, in an occasion where we can know for sure if we are right or wrong, knowing wrongly is not good. So, if you haven’t figured out, Jesusophile is teaching us through a meta-parable. Yes, to know is better than not to know. But to be hasty, confident, and knowledgeable about something false indeed is more hilarious and imprudent than any other possibility.

Unfortunately, when we don’t know, we are often shockingly ignorant. Ignorant to the point that we don’t know the extent of what we don’t know (warning: that’s a PDF), and we can’t recognize competence or incompetence (this isn’t a pdf). It is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So we have a conundrum where we may or may not know (we don’t even get the luxury of knowing we don’t know!), but we still have to live every day. So we come up with various answers and ways of getting answers. We might say intuition is a solid way to gain knowledge…or…reason is a good way to gain knowledge…or…revelation (which can be validated through x, y, and z ways) leads to truth.

Naturally, the religions have come up with their prescribed ways of getting knowledge, and so their adherents will more or less swear by those reasons. In discussions with believing Mormons, for example, one must expect an appeal to personal revelation, to spiritual confirmation, or to institutional prophecy. To dismiss these claims so simply as “emotional” or “irrational” not only hardens both hearts, but it also falls into the Dunning-Kruger effect (how can we know that’s simply emotionalism or irrationality?)

So things become even more subjective than normal, and we have to be humble enough to recognize that things that work for us subjectively may not hold objectively. What may be a personal truth may not be objectively true. This goes for both sides — so when we speak and act, we must not confuse subjective claims — such as a belief or lack of belief — with objective claims — such as claims of existence or claims of nonexistence.

As I was listening to the 3rd episode of the Mormon expressions podcast (oops, I’m not done yet), which focuses about 3 things each caster likes about the Mormon church, the first reason hit on this theme as it relates to Mormonism — the first thing he found that he likes about the church is that it has a lot of answers. In many other denominations, it’s easy to find unresolved issues and find scholars or researchers pondering about what the solution could be. But the LDS church is different — with latter day revelation, another testament of Jesus Christ the Book of Mormon, and several doctrines and covenants, Saints have more answers…I liked how it was put: “many Christians wear WWJD — What would Jesus Do? But Mormons can answer with the CTR rings — Choose the Right.”

Unfortunately, from here, and from a tradition and culture of knowledge — I know, vs. I believe or I hope — come testimonies that, if or when shaken, shake hard. A shake of “I hope” is one thing, but a shake of “I know” is another.

And so, again I wonder…is knowing better than not knowing? When I have thought of humility in recent times, it has often focused on knowledge. To me, out of humility, I do not believe and do not claim to know. This does not mean I take a staunch position that something is impossible, but I must admit I do not know and as a result, I do not believe. It seems to me that when one believes — either for or against — pride and confidence come so easily. But does a person become proud in not believing?

And while others may deride — saying they must be better or more respectible for claiming to know something, it’s a good moment to reflect and remember humility.

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  1. Excellent post, Andrew –

    I am surprised from time to time by occasional, long-time Mormon friends (sometimes pillars of their communities) who tell me quietly that, in essence, they are hedging their bets: on the chance that Mormonism is true, they don’t want to take the risk of not following it. To me, that route only makes sense if Mormonism fits the person’s inclinations and preferences in the first place. In that case, it’s not a very expensive insurance policy.

  2. Rick,

    that’s an interesting point…because I wonder what they would be saying if they had been raised in some other religion…would they be hedging their bets elsewhere then? I wonder if converts ever have such sentiments about the church.

  3. I don’t know how I can add to what you are suggesting. Only, that the older I get and the further I go down the philosophical path I am on, the more I realize I don’t know.

    It is a very good question you ask, I am sure I will be thinking about it for a while. Thank You

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