In our stake general priesthood meeting last week, a member of our stake presidency testified that he knows the First Vision really happened. He rhetorically asked how he could say that he knows, since he wasn’t there at the time; of course his answer was that his knowledge comes from the Holy Ghost. He then followed up with another rhetorical question: “If our testimony comes by the Holy Ghost, then why don’t we say ‘I believe’ or ‘I hope’ that the First Vision occurred?”
He answered by turning to Alma 32:33–34:
And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
From an outsider’s perspective, this kind of justification for claiming knowledge may seem disconcertingly circular: we justify our claim to know based on writing that claims to be scripture based in part on the event we are claiming to have knowledge of based on the scripture… Yet within our faith community, in which the Book of Mormon is accepted as scripture, this seems a perfectly sound and natural means of justifying the use of the term “know.”
As I thought about this, a few ideas came to mind: First, the idea that knowledge is justified relative to a community. Someone who does not accept the authority of the Book of Mormon will not consider our justification based on appeal to the Book of Mormon legitimate. However, we can still communicate essentially the same thing by saying something like, “I believe such-and-such because I accept the authority of the Book of Mormon where it teaches thus-and-so.” When we make this kind of adjustment to the way we communicate, we acknowledge that knowledge is justified relative to a community. Conversely, within the LDS community, we value the claim of knowledge by personal revelation, and so within our community a claim to know that the First Vision really happened is stronger than saying that we hope the First Vision really happened.
I think the same sort of thing applies in many other communities. For example, I can envision a group of theoretical physicists discussing the finer points of superstring theory and saying, in the process, “Well, we know that principle X applies to quarks in these circumstances, therefore …” The claim of knowledge may be relative to their community, and someone who does not accept aspects of superstring theory or quantum theory may not feel that their knowledge claim is justified. If these same physicists were to present at a conference to a skeptical audience, they would likely acknowledge that their conclusions are based on certain assumptions or beliefs about quantum theory.
The second thought that came to mind is that of different kinds of knowledge. I thought of the scripture in Doctrine & Covenants 46:13–14:
To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
It seems to me that this kind of knowledge may be different than knowledge obtained by our physical senses, in the same kind of way that experiential knowledge is different from theoretical knowledge. I used to say that if you couldn’t explain a concept reasonably well to someone else who makes a reasonable effort to understand, you really didn’t know the concept. But I have since recognized that this doesn’t apply to different kinds of knowledge. For example (the classic), I can say that I know what salt tastes like, but I can’t explain this to someone else unless she has experienced it for herself. If she were skeptical, she might claim that I don’t really know what I claim to know, since I can’t explain it.
The last thought that came to mind regarding the use of the term “know” is that there are many levels of knowledge. I can honestly say that I know how a computer works — basically. But put me in a room full of microchip designers and my knowledge claim looks pretty weak. Similarly, while I claim to know spiritually that Joseph Smith really did have the experience we call the First Vision, I can’t claim to know a lot of details about it, and have unresolved questions about those details. A skeptic might question me on those details and conclude that because I don’t have knowledge of all the details, I don’t have the knowledge I claim. Relative to the small community made up of just me and him, my knowledge claim may not be justified because of lack of detail. But this doesn’t change my knowledge, only how I may choose to communicate about it to my skeptical friend.
My conclusion from all this is that it is perfectly legitimate to make knowledge claims within a given community that would not be justified relative to another community. I know the gospel is true because, as Alma 32 says, it enlarges my soul; it enlightens my understanding; it is delicious to me. And for those who are not part of the LDS community, I say that I believe and hope the gospel is true for those very same reasons.