The Truth about Truth

A member of our church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) once objected to what he perceived to be the impossible level of certainty expressed by others:

“I don’t like it when people stand in testimony meetings and say, ‘I know.’ You can’t know stuff like that. You can believe or have faith, but you can’t know!”

But in John 8:32 we read that Jesus said
“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”.

And again in John 17:3 Jesus asserts:
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”

These statements by Jesus made it clear that:
it is possible to know things
to know God is eternal life, so its pretty important that we do know things

But doesn’t the member I quoted make a valid point? We can’t really know anything for sure, right?

Consider how we come to know the things we say we know. The everyday things. We might say that we know that the sun is in the sky. Why? Because we can look up and see it. It’s right there. But what’s really happening?

Deep inside the sun physical processes create a tiny package of information called a photon that makes its way to the surface and then flies to earth at the speed of light where, eight minutes after it leaves the sun, it pierces your cornea and slams into your retina at the back of your eye. That excites your optic nerve which sends an electrical signal all the way to the back of your brain where your brain cells interpret the signal as a flash of light.

But one photon isn’t enough to register with our conscious mind. It takes many of these photons slamming into our retina before our brain discerns a familiar pattern, a circle, a circle of light. That pattern, coupled with the pattern of impulses that our brain recognizes as meaning that our head is raised and we are looking up into the sky, is interpreted as meaning we are looking up at the sun.

But notice that we don’t experience the sun directly. We only experience the photons, the little packages of information, directly. It’s our repeated experience of interacting with similar photons in similar ways that our brains interpret as seeing the sun. Repeatedly experiencing patterns like this is how we come to know things.

But are the things we experience in this way really there? Do we know these things with a perfect knowledge just because we say we see them?

In 2015 The Dress became an Internet phenomena. It was a picture of a dress which some people saw as being white with gold trim and other people saw as being blue with black trim. People saw different things, even though they were looking at the very same picture.

In 2018 two brief audio clips became famous for similar reasons. Listening to one clip some people heard the name “Yanni” while other people heard the name “Laurel”. Their experience was different even though the sound itself was the same.

Another clip sounded like “brainstorm” to some and “green needle” to others. There was no trickery at play in any of these examples. So was the dress white and gold or blue and black? Neither. Different people perceived these phenomena differently because of subtle differences in the way their brains interpreted the input they were receiving.

The other day my wife mentioned that we had pecan pie and gestured to the pumpkin pie that was sitting on the kitchen counter. “What kind is it? I asked. “Pecan,” she replied. I raised an eyebrow. “Pumpkin pie was on sale so I bought one,” she explained. “But you said it was pecan,” I said. “No, I said it was pumpkin,” she responded.

Now the thing is, pecan pie is my favourite and I dislike pumpkin to the point that I won’t even eat it so the distinction was very important in my mind so I’m sure I was right. But we both were “sure” we were right, even though we couldn’t both be right.

My point is that sure, perfect or absolute knowledge is not a characteristic of human experience, regardless of how many times you may hear people lay claim to it. Neither the everyday things we say we know nor the more abstract truths discovered by careful study and thoughtful reflection can achieve the level of absolute certainty. There is always room for self-delusion or to be deluded by others. For our minds to play tricks on us

But that doesn’t mean that those of us who testify of eternal truths are mistaken when we say, ” I know that the gospel is true.” Repeatedly experiencing patterns of cause and effect can justify increasingly confident assertions. And that’s what these claims to knowledge really are – ways of expressing our high confidence that our declarations of truth are accurate.

Alma can help us understand what we mean when we claim to “know” the truth. Alma famously speaks of conducting an experiment. “Experiment upon my words,” he exhorts us in 32:27.

He says the experiment is like planting a seed and watching to see if it grows. It it grows, it is a good seed. If it doesn’t grow, it is a bad seed. All you need to have to begin the experiment is two things:

  1. A seed
  2. A desire to know if the seed is good – an inquiring mind open to accepting the truth

Now if you just don’t care about whether the seed is good or bad, you won’t even bother conducting this experiment. You’ll find something else to do. But if you do want to find out, you will plant the seed and watch and if it grows, then you will have as close to a perfect knowledge as its possible to have that this was indeed a good seed.

Now I’m not sure whether Alma was a farmer but I do know he was a missionary and that this experiment he spoke about wasn’t really about seeds. His invitation was to “experiment upon my words” as he taught gospel truths.

This experiment is not just for non-members who want to know whether the gospel as taught by our missionaries is true. It applies to all of us, regardless of how few or how many years we’ve been members of the Church. It applies to any bit of new information we want to know the truth about whether we hear it from someone, or read it somewhere, or it just pops into our mind.

So remember the two things we need to begin the experiment? The seed can represent any information. Our desire to know the truth is the other thing we need because without that desire, we will never find the time or energy to plant the seed.

What does it mean to plant the seed? How do we plant information? What soil do we plant it in? We plant it in the soil of our lives. We begin to live as if we already knew that the information was true and we see how it affects us.

Alma says that if the information is true, it will begin to:

  • “Enlarge your soul”
  • “Enlighten your understanding”
  • “Be delicious to you”

What can these things mean? What do they mean to you? To me they mean that truth leads to more truth. Truth helps me understand other truths more clearly, more deeply. Each Truth helps me see how all Truths fit together as pieces of a great puzzle – a puzzle I yearn to complete and help others complete.

Discovering truth is delicious. It makes me feel great, happy, that the little things that go wrong in life don’t matter because I know the truth and, as Jesus said, the truth sets me free from those little unimportant things.

I remember when I was little my father built a sandbox for us in our backyard. I would play in the sandbox with my friends, making roads and buildings. and pretending that what we were doing was important. Because that’s what kids do when they play. They practice being adults by pretending to do important adult things. They might seem silly to us but to kids play is serious business.

Once in a while I would catch a glimpse of my mother peeking at us from the window, just unobtrusively watching over us, but ready to intervene should we get carried away with our play and take it too seriously. Imagine, getting upset because someone ran his toy car into your little sand house. At that age it could start a fight but now it seems hilarious that we’d attach such importance to sand.

I often think of how my old sandbox story is analogous to our adult lives. We might think of ourselves as vastly more sophisticated than our children but to Heavenly Father we are all still children. Whenever I catch myself getting worried or upset about things I remember that, in truth, Heavenly Father is watching over us, ready to intervene if needed and that in reality we are still just little kids playing in the sandbox he built for us, pretending that what we do is important, when it is really only just practice for the important work of eternity. This truth sets me free.

We worship truth. We sometimes capitalize the word Truth because it is one of the names for Our Saviour who said, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. (John 14:6)

Oh say, what is truth? ‘Tis the fairest gem. Priceless in value. The brightest prize. An aim for the noblest desire. The pillar of truth will endure to the last for ’tis the last and the first and tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst, Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst, eternal, unchanged, evermore.”

All these words from that great hymn describe Truth and He who exemplifies Truth. We are by nature attracted to truth. DC 93:29 tells us that our essential nature consists of light and truth. So when we hear the truth, read the truth, plant the truth in our hearts or, in other words, live our lives in a manner consistent with the truth, we will feel it and know it to be truth. It will enlarge our souls, enlighten our understanding, and be delicious to us. The Savior taught that: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17).

Notice that Alma says the truth will “begin” to feel this way to us. We needn’t think we will experience a sudden overwhelming awareness of truth. That may happen, but it is more likely that our appreciation for the truth will grow gradually – like a tree that emerges from a seed grows.

In vs 37-39 Alma tells us that as the tree begins to grow, or in other words, as we begin to feel the positive effects of living the truth, we need to carefully nourish the tree so it takes root and produces fruit. Because, if we don’t, it will not take root and the sun will wither it away. If that happens it won’t be because the seed was bad, but because we failed to nurture it.

And how do we nurture the truth in our lives? President Gordon B. Hinckley said that every member needs “a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God.'” Full participation in the Church will provide all of those things and be the means by which we constantly nourish our little tree of faith and ensure that it grows and bears much good fruit.

Brad Wilcox described the way we can obtain a knowledge of the truth in this way:

“We gain a testimony through experience as we participate in the Church and interact with other members. We attend classes and activities. We go to sacrament meeting, where we partake of the sacrament. We worship the Savior and learn of Him. We sing hymns, prepare and give talks, and participate in interviews. We know what it is like to live as Latter-day Saints because we have experienced it firsthand. And though we may not always recognize it, the Spirit is there, which helps us receive knowledge.”

It is often said that when we pray, we speak to God and when we read scripture, God speaks to us. But I say it is not by simply reading scripture that revelation comes. We need to nourish the seed of truth that we find in the scriptures by acting upon those truths. Doctrine & Covenants 121:45 promises that the doctrine of the priesthood will distill upon our souls as the dews from heaven as we live charitably and virtuously. We must learn, and then we must do, and only then will we know.

To seek and expect an absolute knowledge is to look beyond the mark. But we don’t need a philosopher’s standard of knowledge, we need a carpenter’s, or a farmer’s. We don’t need certainty. All we need is to experience the yield of good fruit from gospel living to experience the Spirit’s gift of overwhelming joy that accompanies and confirms the truth when we declare, “I know the Saviour lives.”