Personal Truth, Scientific Truth and Latter-Day Misinformation
Personal truths are gained through personal revelation. Scientific truths are discovered through the Scientific Method. Latter-Day Saints who use the process of personal revelation to verify scientific truths instead of the scientific method risk being mistaken and may mislead others.
The traditional worship experience for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints includes a monthly testimony ritual. Any member in good standing may speak at the microphone and profess their beliefs and the truths of their heart as witnessed to them by the Holy Ghost. These Testimony meetings are a way for members to share their faith and to strengthen the faith of others.
As children, youth, or investigators in the church, we learned from the testimonies of others as we developed a testimony of our own. We heard our parents, missionaries, youth leaders, even the prophet repeat the dearest doctrines of our faith recounted with personal experience and their own witness. We leaned on their feelings about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ as we experimented on the word to gain our belief. We were encouraged to seek out our own answers through prayer, and gain our own witness by the power of the Holy Ghost. We learned from the Doctrine and Covenants that the Holy Ghost could reveal things to our minds and to our hearts. We learned gospel truths by thinking and feeling. It was the birth of our faith!
These feelings of inspiration came to shape our personal truths, our relationship to doctrine, scripture, authority of church leaders, and commandments. Without evidence or proof of many aspects of church doctrine, we assume these beliefs on faith – not a perfect knowledge, but a hope for things which are not seen, which are true. Over time and after living with beliefs and faith for so long, many members adopt the language of certainty for their expressions of faith. “I Believe…” can morph into “I Know…” and faith is expressed as true knowledge, after having received personal witnesses to confirm their beliefs.
By hearing the personal truths of others, our personal truths become more defined. We are taught to trust things spoken of by the mouth of two or three witnesses, and we feel aligned with truth when we believe as our leaders also believe. Our faith is confirmed by testimony of others in addition to our own revelation and insight from God.
The acquisition of personal religious truth has a very clearly defined process in Mormonism. It is outlined in the scriptures, taught in lessons, spoken of from the pulpit, and built into the curriculum for all ages. Investigators, children, youth and adults are brought through the same process, beginning with basic gospel principles and beyond. There is belongingness and community in shared beliefs, and faith in a common truth we all hold dear. Shared faith and testimony are key features to Mormon community acceptance and belonging.
Our personal testimonies, experiences and perspectives of religious truth are personal. No two people will have the same testimony. In that way, shared beliefs and shared testimony are subjective and unique to each person. Personal witness and testimony is highly honored and respected in Mormon doctrine and culture, especially when it aligns with the witness and testimony of trusted leaders. Mormon doctrine holds space for individual personal revelation, as well as the expectation that the Spirit will confirm the words and actions of prophets as true. One way we are taught to verify our feelings as truth and “of God” is the warm confirmation of the Spirit. We have been taught to discern a “stupor of thought” as an indicator that something is not right.
In Mormonism, obtaining spiritual knowledge and confirmation of one’s belief is encouraged and reinforced each week. Disputing or arguing with the personal truths and testimony of another person is seen as highly offensive and unrighteous.
In addition to personal truths that are subjective and unique to each individual, we also live in a world where there is objective, scientific truth. Like all who are on the path of discovering personal truths, scientific truth undergoes a process of growth, definition and clarity. Many new scientific truths are being researched and shared every day!
Just as there is a process for discovering truth and receiving personal revelation in Mormonism, there is also a clearly delineated process for discovering and affirming objective scientific truths in the natural world.
Unlike personal truths that are built on the beliefs of the individual, the process for discovering and affirming objective scientific truths is not about the witness or opinion of the person professing it, but in the evidence or proof of its accuracy.
From our earliest school lessons, we learn about the Scientific Method – the process by which truths of the world are learned and accepted. We learn to observe, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction, test the prediction, form a conclusion, and communicate and share what we discover. Truth that is proved with the scientific method can be certified by other scientists who repeat our experiment and achieve the same result. It can be verified or disproved by observation or experiment.
When presented with scientific truth, we can ask: “where is the evidence of this truth? What is the source? How is it proved?” And perhaps most importantly, “can it be disproved?”
Scientific truth relies on scrutiny! When something is so true that it cannot be disproved and can withstand scrutiny, we can feel more assured and confident of its veracity. We receive confirmation by seeking to disconfirm!
Between personal truth, scientific truth, historical or political truth, Latter-Day Saints must know which truth-seeking mechanism to employ for the given circumstance.
The process of confirming personal truths like “I believe that Jesus is my Savior,” is not the same as proving scientific truths like “Humans need oxygen to live.” One is a personal truth known only to you, the other is a scientific truth that is true whether you believe it or not. As a history and government educator often says, “Facts don’t care about your opinion!”
In this time of rampant misinformation, we might mistakenly use the process for confirming personal truths as a way to ratify scientific, empirical and political truth.
This is like using a saw to hammer in a nail – it’s a mis-match of the tool and process. It will confound the truth, not make it more clear.
By the time I was a young adult, I had years of weekly practice of seeking and verifying my personal religious truths. My religious upbringing encouraged me to accept gospel truths on faith, without needing evidence or proof, or by experimenting to find the confirmations and interpretations on my own. I did not have nearly as much practice or reinforcement of the Scientific method for confirming scientific or absolute truth. The Scientific Method relies on a community of curious people asking questions, gathering evidence and proof through repeated experiment and discovery, and esteems personal witness as less-reliable. Only as an adult have I learned how to base my claims and beliefs on the evidence and proof offered by verified sources who use the most careful Scientific Methods in their areas of expertise. As a musician, I know very little about aspects of science, despite extensive knowledge in my own field. I’ve learned to trust the expertise of other curious minds in the peer-reviewed fields of science and respect the decades of work and research they do to prove their hypotheses and theories, especially since I cannot know everything about every subject.
Statements of personal truth and testimony are embraced with high honor and credibility regarding religious beliefs in a religious context. But using statements of personal witness and belief in conversation surrounding scientific truths, if absent of scientific methodology, evidence, or proof, in a non-religious context will amplify confusion and miscommunication.
We can become even more confused when we hear our chosen leaders (elected, political, or social influencers) repeating their personal truths as testimony of a scientific truth without proof or evidence of its validity. When personal truths and scientific claims are mingled together without evidentiary sources, it can be challenging to parse out what is opinion versus what is verifiable fact. When unverified claims get repeated without evidence or proof, we risk creating a chain of personal truth based on the beliefs of one individual instead of sound research strategies. We should avoid holding elected, political or social influences to the status of a prophet whose personal claims can be accepted as uncontested truth.
Sometimes if we have internalized erroneous scientific or political claims as personal truths, questions from others about the validity of those beliefs can feel like a disputation of our testimony, an affront to our deeply held personal truths. If we mingle personal truth with scientific truth, the process of using scrutiny to refine scientific ideals is thwarted. Since proof and evidence are not required for personal religious truth, it’s tempting to believe that neither proof nor evidence must be necessary in order to hold any number of political or scientific truths.
When faced with scientific or political truth that may make us uncomfortable, we might feel what seems like a “stupor of thought” – confusion or ignorance. Rather than a sign that the spirit is warning us to stay away, this may be an indicator that we need to do more research. For many of us, our initial reactions to learning about history, racism, prejudice and personal bias may result in a “not good” feeling. We might worry that this means there is something wrong or bad about us or our ancestors. In these cases we may feel tempted to shy away from discomfort by avoiding such conversations, or deny that the thing itself exists. Instead we could ask ourselves, “What additional research could I do about this? How might I prove or disprove my initial reaction? How can I consult credible and own-voices sources about this?” Rather than believe ourselves to be automatically right, we can search for ways in which we might be wrong. Holding our own ideas up to scrutiny, attempting to prove or disprove our opinions is a healthy self-assessing way of learning and growing.
When we use scientific methodology to adopt our scientific and political beliefs, we can equip our reasoning with evidence, proof, and repeated experimentation. As scientists refine their knowledge with added experiments, the truth distills and becomes clear. In this way, our personal truth as informed by scientific truth is in accord and we can communicate with confidence.
One of our mind’s biggest challenges may come when we encounter scientific evidence or proof which contradicts our existing knowledge or point of view. In the days of Galileo, these contradictions came when he discovered movement in the heavens to support his hypothesis that the earth was not the center of the universe. His views were met with opposition and he was labeled a heretic. Over time, other scientists confirmed the findings of Galileo and added to them. We now accept the scientific truth that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around. Curiosity, questioning, and a flexibility of mind when it comes to new evidence that might affect our views can be a healthy way to adapt to ever-progressing scientific truth.
How can we communicate both our personal truths and our understanding of the scientific world to others? Here are some suggestions:
- When speaking of beliefs and personal truths, use the language of belief, conviction and opinion. “I believe Jesus is my Savior and that I can be forgiven for my sins.”
- When speaking of scientific or political claims, consider the sources of evidence you’re using to inform your belief, and be prepared to share those sources with others. “I believe that masks are an effective way to prevent disease transmission, and here is the peer-reviewed evidence, research studies and information I’m using to make that claim and form that opinion.” OR “I do not believe that masks are an effective way to prevent disease transmission, and here is the peer-reviewed evidence, research studies and information I’m using to make that claim and form that opinion.” OR “I believe that masks are an effective way to prevent disease transmission, but I do not value preventing disease transmission in this way for these reasons _____.”
- Consider a wide variety of sources when seeking to verify your scientific claims, including peer-reviewed studies or research. Information that cannot be verified by repeating the experiment and achieving the same result is less reliable. Information that is not shared by multiple sources is generally seen as less reliable. Information shared by a less researched or experienced source is generally seen as less-credible.
- Clarify with others if they are sharing personal truth or making scientific claims, “Is that your personal belief? What evidence is informing your position and where did you get that information?”
- Treat personal beliefs and feelings with respect, treat scientific claims with scrutiny. Be able to discern the difference when someone is mistreating our personal truths versus holding our scientific or political claims up to justifiable scrutiny.
- Acknowledge and admit when we do not have enough information to make an informed claim. If you do not have enough evidence to make an informed opinion, it’s okay to say so. “I am worried about the integrity of our election, but I do not yet have enough information or evidence to conclude that rampant fraud occurred. I will withhold my opinion until I have been able to prove or disprove my concerns.”
As we search out knowledge and belief, both personal and absolute, we can use the appropriate means to discover truth. We may feel insight and confirmation of personal truths in our quest to discern scientific truths. Approaching our personal and absolute truths with intention will develop the tenderness of our hearts and the intelligence of our minds.