What is True?
Who is the word? Who is light? Who is truth? Jesus.
And furthermore, we read in the Doctrine and Covenants:
Certainty and Confidence
Because we live in the world, let’s take a moment and talk about how the world knows something is true. This is the domain of the branch of philosophy called epistemology. Epistemologists have debated this issue for centuries. For example, in the view of René Descartes, you can’t know the truth of anything with 100% rational certainty, except for this: “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” In other words, it is impossible to doubt the existence of your own thoughts because in the act of doubting, you are obviously thinking.
For funsies, let’s suppose that Brother Descartes was correct, and we can’t be 100% certain of the truthfulness of anything. How does that fit in with religion? When we testify that we believe in this thing or that thing, or that we know this is true, are we simply saying that we have some degree of confidence that something is true, or at least more true than false? By the way, another word for confidence may be faith, in the sense that we have faith or confidence that something will come to pass.
How do we gain confidence? According to the apostle Matthew, Jesus said:
We also find that same sentiment scattered throughout other ancient and modern scriptures. I like this one:
Let’s talk about witnesses, and more specifically, we’ll begin with mortal witnesses. You and I often base our logical arguments (and fallacies) on appeals to different witnesses. There’s the appeal to reason, the appeal to sensory data, the appeal to authority, the appeal to emotion, the appeal to intuition, the appeal to outcomes, the appeal to law, and on and on.
Some witnesses are more reliable or trustworthy than others. For example, if you needed legal advice, you would likely seek out a licensed lawyer, not a celebrity who played the role of a liar lawyer. If you’ve ever been fooled by an optical illusion or a magic trick, you’ve learned that you can’t always trust your eyes. If you’re hearing impaired, you know you can’t necessarily trust your ears. (Ethyl, did he just say, “trust your rears?”)
In today’s world of instant information, artificial intelligence, and deep fakes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to rely on our senses, or reason, or intuition. You’re going up against massive databases containing the entirety of human knowledge. Much of it is wrong, incomplete, or misleading. When too many people believe bad data, it informs search algorithms to serve up even more wrong information. Will we be able to have confidence in the truthfulness of anything the world tells us, especially in the last days when good will be redefined as evil, and evil as good?
I’m a professional personalitologist which means I believe our personality affects how much credibility we assign to each of these witnesses. You might instinctively trust reason more than emotion or put more focus on practical results rather than idealistic possibilities. That’s fine. In fact, that’s by divine design. Because we all have different preferences and perspectives, we give more or less weight to different sources based on our biases.
The trick to discerning truth is to not rely on only one witness. We need two or three, and sometimes more. Judges make decisions based on the preponderance of evidence. Therefore, if we want to increase our confidence or faith, we need to find multiple disparate sources—different types of witnesses-that all testify to the truthfulness of something.
For example, when we say this ancient prophet said this and this modern prophet said that—these are both appeals to authority. That’s a good place to start, especially if you trust those authorities. But what we need next is a different type of witness, one that isn’t another appeal to authority. Perhaps this witness comes from our own physical experimentation, like when we plant a tomato seed, nurture the plant, and then eat the fruit that it bears. If it tastes good and doesn’t kill us, that’s a good second witness. Now how about a third? Perhaps this witness comes through rational argumentation, like evaluating the evidence that indicates Joseph Smith couldn’t have produced the Book of Mormon without divine intervention. Now how about a fourth or a fifth or a sixth? If something is true, you will find multiple witnesses to its truthfulness. If something is false, you will also find multiple witnesses to its falsity.
There’s another type of witness that is extra special. It exceeds these physical witnesses. In fact, it is foundational and core to the phenomenology of every person on our planet, whether we recognize it or not. I’ll call it a spiritual witness. This witness shifts our paradigm and deepens our commitment to truth. It is very difficult to explain rationally, especially for those who don’t recognize spirituality as a valid source because it can’t be reproduced on demand (because it comes from an outside source) and can’t be scientifically proven.
But it can’t be disproved either. If you’ve had a spiritual experience, you can’t deny that you had one. This means you can testify with 100% certainty that it happened to you, and no one can tell you otherwise. When Joseph Smith was questioned about his experience in the Sacred Grove, he testified:
Now when we think about spiritual experiences, it is probably good to remember that not everyone has the same experiences, like the “burning in the bosom” or the revelatory flow from a “still, small voice.” The Spirit affects us all differently.
This sounds to me like some of us have enough faith that the witness of the Holy Ghost via a “burning in the bosom” or some other pentecostal manifestation just isn’t necessary to establish the truth of some things. As long as those with faith remain faithful, they will inherit eternal life.
Furthermore, when evaluating spiritual experiences, it is important to consider whether or not it was an inspired spiritual experience—one that came from God and not those dark forces who oppose Him. This is up to you, and you alone, to discern. If the experience fills your soul with understanding, light, joy, peace, and love, and invites you to do good and virtuous things, it is a good source. These spiritual witnesses come directly to our spirits via the Holy Ghost, as well as the voice of our conscience that comes to us through the Light of Christ. Acting on the truths we learn through our spirits deepens our conversion.
Don’t feel bad if a spiritual witness is insufficient for you right now. You are, after all, a being composed of spiritual and physical matter. While in this probationary, mortal state, our physical nature always clouds the clarity of spiritual truths, like a cataract on the lens of an old eye. The Apostle Paul described this state like this, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Again, that’s okay. It is by divine design. Using both physical and spiritual witnesses will help you find the truth of all things. In fact, possessing both is a great advantage to us and helps us learn truth faster than someone who only has one of them. That’s why we came to earth, after all. And that’s why the Gift of the Holy Ghost is such a wonderful blessing. As Moroni said as he bore his final testimony:
As a side note, if you want to dive a bit deeper into our theology, you can now see why our first sure or certain witness is given to us by the personal visitation of Holy Ghost, who is sent to minister to those of us in a telestial state (D&C 76:86, 88). And the second sure or second witness, or second comforter, is a personal ministration from the resurrected Christ, which will come to those of us who consistently live in a higher terrestrial or celestial state. When a mortal knows something by way of these two witnesses, and then denies that it happened, well, let’s just say their future isn’t so bright. Perditionites won’t need sunglasses.
However, for those of us living in a telestial world—and that’s all of us—the easiest way to find the absolute truthfulness of all things is to repent and become worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost. If you still need another witness, a mortal witness, then choose one that will give you more confidence. Maybe it is an appeal to authority, like that which comes from inspired leaders. Or maybe it is an appeal to outcomes, as described by the Savior when He said:
Does living by the doctrine and principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually make your life better? Test it out for yourself and see if it bears good fruit—fruit that somehow tastes familiar, fruit that passes the spiritual taste test described by Joseph Smith in his last general conference address. The Prophet said:
That quotation comes from the two-hour King Follett discourse, which is extra significant to me because King Follett, one of the police constables living in Nauvoo, and a friend and bodyguard to the Prophet, was my third great-grandfather. His great-granddaughter married the grandson of Ebenezer Bryce, of Bryce Canyon fame, and they begat my father, who begat me.
I believe that testing out the truth of something for yourself is vital to your spiritual progression. In fact, Jesus invited you to “come and see” (John 1:39) for yourself. Let’s do it!
As we use mortal witnesses to evaluate things for their truthfulness, please be mindful that all mortals are monumentally flawed, with the singular exception of Christ. Therefore, all of us are quite adept at making mistakes, including prophets. A genuine prophet will never proclaim infallibility. And last I checked, no one has.
Finding flaws in speeches and scriptures isn’t hard to do. However, an error doesn’t negate the other truths that person has spoken. It just means they were wrong on that particular issue at that particular time. Maybe they later corrected it. Maybe it was recorded wrong. Maybe we don’t understand the context. Maybe the meaning of the words changed. Maybe we should give them a little slack. Despite their mistakes, they may still be a highly trustworthy, credible, and reliable source. In my experience, the sooner you get used to mistakes and errors from other people, the happier you’ll be. After all, you make them all the time too—just ask your loved ones.
Again, only divine revelation can be trusted with perfect certainty, which is why we’re invited to receive personal confirmation on anything our leaders tell us. If we are worthy of divine revelation, we will receive it. If we are not worthy of it, we leave ourselves wide open to deception.
Satan has millions of miserable minions at his disposal who are itching at the chance to deceive us. They are armed to the teeth with weapons designed to inflict maximum spiritual damage—including confusion, apathy, pride, and apostasy. Only the armor of righteousness can protect us from their fiery darts.
But even without the influence of evil spirits, we are extremely prone to self-deception. We tend to think our way is the right way and that we have figured out the truth of all things. The truth becomes our truths, which might differ from your truths. If we do this, in essence we have stopped worshiping God and have started worshipping ourselves. That’s kind-of a dumb thing to do because most of us horribly fail the tests of omniscience and omnipotence.
Another deceptive source comes at us from our fellow human beings. I can sign into social media on any given day and find a plethora of people who are confident they know the absolute truth. Shakespeare accurately described our day when he said that:
Can you tell with certainty when a content creator is telling the truth or merely acting a part? Do you know when they are lying to you or are not quite telling the entire truth? Are they saying what they’re saying because they want to obtain gain, fame, or acclaim? Unless you are remarkably gifted at detecting deception, or possess the spiritual gift of discernment, you may have a difficult time separating truth from error. Fortunately, God will help us out here if we ask Him. As the brother of Jesus famously said:
In summary, if we exercise our faith through faithfulness, and place our confidence in the Lord, and “in the voice of His servants, which is the same” (D&C 1:38), we can know the truth of all things by the power of the Holy Ghost. That gives us two highly reliable witnesses right there. If you want another witness, perform an experiment by doing what they say, then honestly examine the outcomes. If you need proof from even more witnesses, then seek and ye shall find them. As these additional witnesses align with our inspired spiritual witnesses, our confidence will wax stronger and stronger. Easy peasy.
Heavenly Father isn’t trying to hide truth from any of us. He wants all of His children on every continent, in every land, in every period of time, to have as much truth as they desire. You will find truth scattered throughout history in every culture and religion, including the secular religions of academia, agnosticism, and atheism. All you need to do is open your heart and mind and embrace as much of it as possible, whenever and wherever you find it. Just make sure it can be established by multiple types of credible and trustworthy witnesses and actually entices you to do good, to be good, and to become more like Christ.
Let me end with these glorious words of Christ as recorded in section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants: