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Mormon Scholars Testify: Mark A. Riddle - "Science, Zen and Mormonism: Social Ways of Knowing"

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Mark A. Riddle - "Science, Zen and Mormonism: Social Ways of Knowing"
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsRiddle, Mark A.
Access Date2 April 2018
Last Update DateJune 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsBuddhism; Knowledge; Missionary Work; Scripture Study; Testimony; Trust; Vision; Zen

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Mark A. Riddle

Science, Zen and Mormonism: Social Ways of Knowing
A Personal Reminiscence by Mark A. Riddle

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that science, Zen and Mormonism are three valid ways of knowing; each promises that a specified program of training will enable one to become a knower of a particular kind of knowledge.

LDS Knowledge Claims

Latter-day Saints make extraordinary knowledge claims based on religious experience. Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857) described his first encounter, in 1830, with The Book of Mormon this way:

I opened it with eagerness and read its title page. I then read the testimony of several witnesses in relation to the manner of its being found and translated. After this I commenced its contents by course. I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.

As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Proctor edition, 2000, pp.31-2).

Pratt’s claim to knowledge echoes Descartes’s rationalist knowledge criteria, clear and distinct. Pratt subsequently became an influential early advocate for Mormonism. His autobiography is still read among the LDS today.

Another historically significant, early knowledge claim was that of Lorenzo Snow (1814-1901), who in 1898 became the Church’s fifth president. He wrote that, a short time after his baptism in 1836,

I began to reflect upon the fact that I had not obtained a knowledge [emphasis in the original] of the truth of the work…, and I began to feel very uneasy.

Retiring to his usual place for prayer in a grove near his home, after nearly being dissuaded from praying by a “gloomy, disconsolate spirit,” he experienced an ineffable spiritual ecstasy:

I had no sooner opened my lips in an effort to pray, than I heard a sound, just above my head, like the rustling of silken robes, and immediately the Spirit of God descended on me, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, and O, the joy and happiness I felt! No language can describe the almost instantaneous transition from a dense cloud of mental and spiritual darkness into a refulgence of light and knowledge, as it was at that time imparted to my understanding. I then received a perfect knowledge [emphasis added] that God lives, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and of the restoration of the holy Priesthood and the fullness of the Gospel…” (Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, 1884, pp.7-9)

Note that Snow’s experience included both ecstatic and informational aspects. My own understanding of, and willingness to attribute credibility to, the experiences of Pratt and Snow and countless other such knowledge claims I have heard made by LDS over the course of six decades is based on a religious experience of my own—in 1954. The site was the old (then relatively new) ward house of the Provo 8th Ward at 500 E and 200 N in Provo, Utah. Our ward was abuzz with the news that Jamie Beecroft (the only name by which I remember him) had returned from his mission. It was my first Sunday to meet with “the big kids” of the Sunday School after my baptism, I having met until then with “the little kids” (I was a child eight years old). The class met on the stage of the recreation hall, facing north, and I was seated on the right side of the group, close to the front. Elder Beecroft spoke to our group of 15-20 youngsters and expressed his testimony that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of Jesus Christ. As he spoke those words I felt in my heart something I had never felt before and have never felt in quite the same way since. It was simultaneously a warm feeling in my bosom, a spiritual infusion of what I will here denominate “tangible light,” and an intelligible message, which was that what Elder Beecroft was telling me was true. At the same time, I knew that the witness communicating to me was the Holy Spirit because the message included that assertion.

In the intervening 50+ years I have felt the Spirit in my heart many times, but never with precisely that same message—one such experience was my quota. I’ve since had similar feelings about principles of truth as I read the scriptures or listened to the inspired word of God. I’ve received impressions ranging from hunches to specific verbal instructions, but never again that same message with that degree of clarity. On the basis of what I learned that day in 1954, I have testified to thousands in many congregations in Japan and several states of the U.S. that “I know that…” the LDS Church is the church of Jesus Christ.

In my own mind, this knowledge claim is justified by the experience with the Spirit I had as an eight-year-old boy; and in retrospect I think this knowledge of mine has been rather robust, as knowledge goes. It has survived a sullen adolescence, a disposition to waywardness, divorce and sundry other personal disasters, a lifetime of stubborn non-conformity; it has endured five decades of voracious and open-minded reading, including exposure to all kinds of religions and philosophies; it has stood the test of time. The purpose of this essay is to explore both the personal and social dimensions of this knowledge claim of mine, and to compare LDS knowledge claims to those of science and Zen.

Personal Knowledge

Let’s examine some of the characteristics of my knowledge claim. The knowledge I claim above is an example of personal knowledge. There are separable issues here—whether or not the content of what I claim is true, and whether or not I really know what I claim to know. No one else would be justified in asserting as true, on the basis of my experience, what I claim to know. A separate religious experience could verify the content of my claim, for another person, and in principle even the veridicality of my particular experience could be established by another in this way. We will see later that this is a key to the LDS social experience.

My experience itself, however, is in principle not accessible to others, and my belief that another person has gained from personal experience of her own the same knowledge that I gained from my experience is based on the similarity of our verbal descriptions (a rational criterion), or observation of the behavioral consequences (a pragmatic criterion), or on a separate spiritual experience confirming her experience (empirical evidence of a spiritual kind).

My knowledge claim is falsifiable, on the other hand, by knowledge contradicting either the truth of the proposition expressed (that the LDS Church is the church of Jesus Christ), or the reality of my experience, or the validity of the method of learning truth from religious experience. Because truth claims based on unexaminable personal experiences are necessarily private, those wishing to share knowledge gained in this way can only bear witness to what they have learned and hope that their hearers either believe the witness or have a credible experience of some kind confirming the message.

Such claims are easily dismissed in many ways, for example by finding contradictions in the message, by making knowledge claims contradicting the message (both rational criteria), by observing that I am not a credible witness (a pragmatic claim) or that the method of gaining knowledge by personal religious experience is not reliable (another pragmatic claim). Unfortunately, some persons reject witness based on personal religious experience because of a worldview which denies, a priori, apart from the merits of any particular witness, that such experiences can be real or convey meaningful content.

The Latter-day Saint is, on the other hand, constantly encouraged to develop personal knowledge by learning directly from the Holy Spirit, and is often taught how to do so.

Social Knowledge

Personal knowledge claims have a social dimension as well. The languages in which they are expressed, and their ethical implications and practical consequences—these are all social artifacts. An important consequence of our beliefs and knowledge claims is that they are always either reinforced by social approval or we are alienated from our communities by disapproval or by being ignored.

On one occasion in 1975 I rode from Washington D.C. to a weekend political retreat in New Jersey with a D.C.-area sociologist who told me, upon learning I was a LDS, of an experience he’d had some years previous. He’d awakened from a nap one day to find his deceased mother standing at the foot of his bed. She told him not to worry, that there was a purpose to life, and then she vanished. He told me he did not know what to make of the experience. Because the epistemological community with which he self-identified (the community of social scientists) has naturalistic premises, he had no choice but to view the experience as anomalous. But at the same time it seemed real; he was conflicted because he recognized the experience was a challenge to his worldview. He told me about it because he was aware that someone with a different metaphysical and epistemological frame of reference, someone like me, could find the experience credible and meaningful. Still, it seemed that despite the discomfort it caused him, the weight of just one experience was not sufficient to cause him to shift his epistemological allegiance away from the community in which he had his training and livelihood.

Personal knowledge has a social dimension—what we can know is a function of our worldviews. For example, I believe there is a world of spirits of departed human beings because I have a mother and a son who have encountered the ghosts of the dead. I have never seen a ghost, but if I did, because of my own metaphysical predilections I would not be perplexed by the experience, wondering what to make of it; it would “fit” for me and I could comfortably claim to “know” that there is a realm of departed spirits near our own.

The British New Testament Scholar J.B. Phillips (1906-1982) reported (in The Ring of Truth [NY, 1967]) that C.S. Lewis (1888-1963) appeared to him and helped him translate a difficult passage of the Bible. Students of folklore know well that, besides seduction and betrayal, nothing is more well-attested in the record of human experience than ghostly apparitions, and yet it seems to be easy to dismiss such claims as nonsensical if you are in possession of a naturalistic worldview.

Consider, for example, the claim of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), arguably the founder of both modern science and modern philosophy, that on the night of November 10, 1619, the Angel of Truth appeared to him thrice in a dream and taught him the foundations of the contributions to knowledge for which he later became famous. Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), French Thomist philosopher, a convert to Catholicism, analyzed Descartes’ account at length in The Dream of Descartes (NY: Philosophical Library, 1944), but many histories of science and philosophy pass over Descartes’ claim in evidently embarrassed silence, a humanistic or naturalistic worldview having predisposed them to reject it out of hand. Maritain’s Catholic worldview likely predisposed him to take seriously the idea that a young Descartes could have learned something from an angel, whereas a humanistic or naturalistic worldview would predispose one to reject it out of hand. These worldviews, the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions on which our knowledge is based, are social artifacts, determined not by any individual but by the historical processes of a culture, a society. We shall see below that our worldviews determine our observations of the world, not vice versa.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers to the sincere learner a social context which both reinforces and disciplines the personal search for knowledge obtainable by experience with the Holy Spirit. Discipline is provided for the seeker by Church leaders who provide guidance and correction to the novice, channeling the search for personal knowledge into paths known to be useful to the larger community of believers, avoiding the tendency to schism which can otherwise result from seeking personal knowledge.


Social confirmation of knowledge claims is the sine qua non of Zen (Chinese ‘Chan;’ Korean ‘Seon’). In the Zen sect of Buddhism, one cannot properly claim to have achieved satori, true insight, the goal of every practitioner of Zen, without having been examined by, and having received the confirmation of, a Zen master. Practically speaking, this means that one cannot make the claim to have attained liberation from illusion without completing an apprenticeship to a Zen master. Even serious students of Zen are prone to become prematurely, erroneously convinced that they have achieved enlightenment. An important function of the teacher is to distinguish these delusions from the real thing. Zen claims many unbroken lineages of such master-to-disciple approval going back many centuries to Bodhidharma, said to have come to China from India in the sixth century.

What the content of the Zen satori insight is, then, cannot be authentically known for sure outside of the tradition. Whether the disciple’s understanding is really the same as the master’s, and whether that understanding has really remained uniform over the centuries may not be knowable at all, but my own decades of experience as a Zen enthusiast have led me to believe that there is a core insight which has likely long continued in the tradition, and that this insight expresses important truths about the mind.

My first Zen experience occurred in the outskirts of Nagoya, Japan, at sundown on a fall day in 1967. At sunset I was riding my missionary bicycle back to home base after a day spent “tracting” in a semi-rural area; the sunset was a spectacular shade of red and I was completely caught up in its grandeur. Wanting to share my rapture, I noticed an older woman coming toward me, no doubt returning home, as I was, from a day of hard work in the fields; she was dressed in the drab costume Japanese farmers had worn for centuries and carried a grubbing hoe over her shoulder. Pointing to the west I said “Kirei desu ne!” (Pretty, isn’t it!) Without turning backwards to see the view I was enjoying, her quiet reply was “Akakute ne” (Sure, it’s red, isn’t it?). But whereas my tone was full of youthful, American optimism, her tone spoke an aching weariness from the labor she and her peasant ancestors had endured since time immemorial. Her words produced in my brain a physically palpable reaction, which I have since come to associate with the “turning of the mind inside out” spoken of by Zen masters. Somehow my mind gained access not only to her perspective, but to a sense of her generations, as well. Now, I understand one of the often-cited slogans of Japanese Zen, “Ware tada taru o shiru” (I know only sufficiency) as reflecting what I learned in Nagoya that day in 1967—that every sunset, red, gray or whatever, come what may, is sufficient for me. My sense of the inadequacy of this description of what I learned is, for me, an example of the much-mooted “ineffability” of Zen insights.

My next Zen experience occurred just a few weeks later while sitting on a bench on the grounds of a Zen temple in the eastern part of the city of Kyoto. I was looking at the gravel under my feet; I noticed particularly the bright, shiny, colorful stones—shades of reddish, greenish, bluish hues. Suddenly my field of perception was inverted, and my valorization of the pebbles reversed: now it was the drab colors which caught my eye and my preference. Then I realized that by exercising my will, I could change the focus of my field of perception back and forth between the two kinds of gravel, the two states of awareness, feeling an emotional reversal as well, as I switched back and forth. I then stood up and it occurred to me that the whole world was a bed of gravel writ large—I was as capable of positively valorizing (investing with value) the plain, simple and ordinary as I was of noticing and being enticed by the gaudy, the flashy, and the ornate. My life since that day has been a search for the unadorned.

For me, the “non-duality of subject and object” spoken of by the Zen philosophers refers to what I learned in Kyoto—that I can change my world by changing my mind, or change my mind by changing my world. An ideal of mine has long been the Zen priest I once saw in simple garb, unpretentiously and leisurely raking up the fallen leaves on the grounds of his ancient temple home, and the relaxed resilience which seemed clearly evident to me in his every move. In contrast with the simplicity of Japanese Zen, much of my own American culture has come to seem excruciatingly garish.

It was in the Zen garden on the grounds of the Huntington Library in San Marino in 1991 that I realized in another flash of insight how the Zen garden is an expression of the Zen philosophy of mind: the rock garden carefully raked into artificial patterns of perfect and very unnatural symmetry leaves undisturbed, and even highlights, the most prominent natural features of the landscape, several large boulders.

From my study of Zen I have convinced myself that these experiences and insights have given me at least a partial understanding of satori, but whether any of these experiences really qualify me to be any kind of a knower in the Zen tradition, I cannot be sure. For although I have read and thought Zen for decades, I have never had occasion to submit my insights to a Zen master to request his imprimatur, and therefore I have no warrant to claim that I have any idea what Zen really is, and the claims I have just made to understand something of the Zen experience, though sincere, may not be legitimate from the orthodox Zen point of view.

Zen and Mormonism

What Zen and Mormonism have in common is they both foster a personal knowledge based on religious experience. At first glance the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would seem to be more open than Zen to all those wishing to make public their knowledge claims, since our public meetings are open to anyone wishing to participate, and, monthly, each congregation’s podium and microphone are made available to all comers to bear witness of what they know. And Mormons are required to judge for themselves the authenticity and validity of their own knowledge. In Mormonism, there is no formal designation of approval granted, as there is in Zen, whereby one becomes acknowledged as a knower of the truth.

But actually, Mormonism is more like Zen than it might seem to the casual observer. Consider the following: before being baptized, those wishing to join the community are required to witness to its members that they have truly repented of all their sins (see D&C 20:37). Those who subsequently sin can be banned from speaking in the Church’s meetings. (This implies a recognition that sin has a potentially corrupting influence on the content of one’s knowledge, and limits what one can publicly claim to know.)

Furthermore, those who are called to teach the community are persons judged by its leaders to be genuine witnesses of the truth. This highlights something mentioned above, something which Zen and Mormonism have in common—each requires that the veridicality of knowledge claims based on inherently unexaminable, internal, personal religious experiences be interpersonally verifiable. For Zen, the verification is accomplished by means of the interrogation of a novice by a master, whose own insight prepares him to recognize enlightenment in others. The ones successfully certified by examination in this way obtain a lifetime license to teach others.

Among the LDS, on the other hand, the validation of the authenticity of religious experience and approval of knowledge claims is an on-going process: assignments to teach are limited in scope to a specific domain and period of time. Church leaders are required to make judgments about which persons are appropriate for which teaching assignments, and they are encouraged to pray and seek personal experience concerning the qualifications of others. As I listen to LDS knowledge claims, I can experience the presence of the Spirit confirming or denying the truth of what I hear. The Holy Spirit knows, and can inform me if I am receptive to it, of the validity of others’ claims to know. It is this method of interpersonal recognition and validation of private religious experience which constitutes the lifeblood of the true church of Christ.


Whereas both Zen and Mormonism foster personal knowledge, with varying methods of social confirmation required for authoritative knowledge claims, it is asserted of science that it fosters public knowledge, and that the knowledge claims of those who do science are claims which anyone can verify; on close examination, this assertion turns out to be false. While it’s true that one can authoritatively claim to know the truth of scientific matters without having to repent or sit in meditation for years under the tutelage of a master, it turns out that there are in science limits on knowing analogous to the requirements made of knowers in both Mormonism and Zen.

Not just anyone can know that the propositions of science are true. In science, as in Mormonism or Zen, only specially qualified persons can be knowers. In my high school chemistry class I often failed to get “the right result” in simple demonstrations of chemical principles. Were I asked today to walk into a chemist’s lab and “verify” his findings, I would be completely out of my element, not because I cannot physically see what the chemist sees—the fluids in tubes, the computer printouts of results, or whatever, but rather because I cannot understand what is going on and therefore my observations cannot confirm those of the chemist. Just as a trained musician hears different things than I do when she listens to a symphony, so does the chemist observe a great deal more than I can in his laboratory. While we all sense the same way, we understand and verbalize our knowledge in the different ways we have been taught by our experience in various communities. So, not having been initiated into the mysteries of chemistry, I cannot repeat the chemist’s experiments; I cannot interpret the results of his experiments; I cannot confirm his knowledge claims.

This is not to deny that scientific evidence is empirical, observed with the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It is, and my five senses work as well as the chemist’s, and I could be taught to know what he knows in the way that he knows it. But for now, any claim I could make to know even the most fundamental propositions of chemistry would be based upon my trust in the authority of science, an authoritarian rather than an empirical epistemology.

Now, trust in authority is not a bad thing; on the contrary, it is necessary to the development of knowledge communities. No young person would labor to learn science, or sit for meditation in zazen, unless that person was able to trust that the result would be an increase of valuable knowledge. To trust in the word of God, to perform the experiment on it advocated by Alma and Amulek (Alma 32:27, 33, 36 and 34:4) is a necessary preliminary to knowing of their surety and truth. Jesus promised:

My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself (KJV, John 7:16-17; emphasis added)

We shall see that the trust required of those who would put this promise to the test is analogous in every way to the trust required of neophytes by both science and Zen.

Now, all of this is common sense—even empiricist philosophers who insist on the criterion of publicity for knowledge, that the grounds for asserting something to be true or false be available for testing by others, “all who are normally qualified,” admit that to be so qualified can involve specialized knowledge (of, for example, advanced mathematics) or expensive training necessarily limited to a privileged few (learning to “read” an X-ray, for example). But in thus limiting and qualifying the specification of who can know to those adept at science, empiricists seem to have ceded the ground, epistemologically, to advocates for both Mormonism and Zen.

Even the demand of positivistic philosophers such as Sterling M. McMurrin [1914-1996] that, for a knowledge claim to be testable—that is, in order for it to be expressible as a proposition that can be verified or falsified—it must be possible to “describe the method by which the proposition would be verified if it were technologically possible to have the experiences relevant to verification” actually leaves the door wide open to the knowledge claims of both Zen and LDS philosophers who are able to “describe the method” by which their claims may be verified by anyone willing to submit to their respective conditions for knowledge (McMurrin, Mormonism and Logical Positivism[1990], available in his collected papers at the Marriott Library, University of Utah, p.17; emphasis added).

McMurrin denies the validity of knowledge claims based on methods available only to “a few persons who presume to have access to esoteric methods that cannot be generally shared” (op.cit.), but if the word “esoteric” does not apply to the work done by cosmologists such as Steven Hawking, then the word has no meaning. It turns out that the methods for knowing for both Zen and Mormonism are ways which can be described and can be shared—with any who are able and willing to pay the price.

Science and Mormonism

To qualify for membership in the scientific community one must first subscribe to the community’s ethos, or value system, which emphasizes such things as curiosity, close observation, careful measurement, experimentation, disinterested objectivity and patience in the face of uncertainty, veracity in reporting results, and willingness to publicize findings. These are not universal human values, and the scientific community is thus a distinct subset of humankind.

Similarly, admission into the community of Latter-day Saints requires that one be willing to give up one’s sins and make the commitment of baptism to bear others’ burdens and to stand as a witness of God at all times and in all things, and in all places, even until death (Mosiah 18:8-9). Mormons make the startling claim that to anyone willing to conform to these requirements will come the companionship of a tutor able to teach “the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). That these conditions rather severely limit the number of persons knowing in the Mormon way is freely granted; likewise, there aren’t many Zen masters. But cosmologists able to judge Steven Hawking’s claims are also few in number; in principle, on this ground the three ways of knowing are not unequal. In terms of the number of years, degree of effort and expense required, the three ways are comparable: Mormon knowledge is probably linguistically and culturally more easily accessed than that of Zen. The tithing requirement makes it as expensive as science, but assuming one is willingto attempt to qualify, it is easier to become a Mormon knower than to get admitted with a fellowship to graduate school in a field of science, since openings for the latter are restricted in number and there are fewer opportunities than competitors for them.

The objection can be made that, whereas the knowledge claims of science are verifiable by “all who are normally qualified” (the phrase is from McMurrin) through use of the five human senses, both Zen and Mormonism impose the requirement that additional, allegedly “non-empirical” ways of knowing be developed. We can grant that Zen and LDS ways of knowing require the development of senses beyond the basic five and still maintain the privileged status of empirical ways of knowing, an important cultural value for many, by arguing for the reality of human sensibility beyond the basic five senses, and the legitimacy of knowledge gained by their use (hence the interest in paranormal psychology, “extra-sensory perception,” among some New Age Zen enthusiasts).

It is possible to make a case that for LDS, the Spirit communicates via the five senses, especially the sense of feeling, but in my view the recognition of a separate spiritual sense would be more helpful (hence my long-standing interest in the Moral Sense school of philosophy). Personally, I have no problem admitting into my own bag of mental tools a moral sense (the phenomenon of conscience, sensible to anyone willing to admit it, and even discomfortingly sensible sometimes to those who aren’t) distinct from the sense of feeling. As a Latter-day Saint, I associate this special sensibility with the Light of Christ.

I also admit a spiritual sense, the sensitivity of a spirit to another spirit when they touch, resulting in communication analogous to a “download” of digital information between computers. For LDS, “spirit” is also material. Joseph Smith, Jr., declared:

All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned [seen] by purer eyes; we cannot see it [now, in our impurity]; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter (see D&C 131:7-8; my interpolations added).

Combined in this passage are both metaphysical and epistemological positions: the epistemological claim is that what we can know is a function of the kind of bodies we possess; this can also be seen to be an empirical claim of sorts (after all, both infra-red and ultra-violet light are invisible to the human eye; we can understand Joseph Smith’s claim by analogy to that fact).

No doubt, as a practical matter, some sort of intellectual openness to the idea of the legitimacy of moral or spiritual sensibility provides an opening for the propagation of LDS knowledge claims. Because of this, empiricist epistemology, especially in its positivistic form, combined with naturalistic metaphysics (mechanistic materialism) has been a cultural obstacle for Mormons. Where this worldview is dominant, the Church has made little headway. Here is the crux of the matter, and at this point we must wax just a bit esoteric, philosophically.

It was American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000), as much as anyone, who knocked the legs out from under positivism. Quine made contributions to philosophy by critiquing the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions which was critical to logical positivism (which had dominated philosophy for most of the first half of the twentieth century), and advocating semantic holism, the idea that words, sentences, and propositions are meaningful only in the context of an entire linguistic system. He elucidated the principle of the indeterminacy of translation (no unique meaning can be assigned to words and sentences) as an example of a broader principle, the underdetermination of data to theory (any phenomenon can be explained by a multiplicity of hypotheses; for definitions of these terms see the Wikipedia entry under ‘Quine’).

According to Quine, a single knowledge claim cannot be tested in isolation—he advocates epistemological holism, according to which a test of one knowledge claim always depends on other theories and hypotheses. Quine saw the interpretation of perceptions as being “theory laden,” or dependent on theory: any observation can be made compatible with any theory. According to his principle of “the underdetermination of a theory by evidence,” evidence and logic alone are insufficient to determine which theory is correct: any theory can be made compatible with any observation, and it is in principle impossible to determine if a theory is false by reference to evidence. This opens the door to using other criteria for judgment, including the principles of parsimony, elegance, and utility.

Quine went as far as to say that the Greeks’ worldview of Homeric gods is comparable to, and is as credible epistemologically as, the physicists’ worldview of (unobservable) electromagnetic waves. Of course, anyone doing science will stick to the latter world-view and avoid using the former in explaining phenomena, but this is an example of the dependence of observation on theory. Quine closed his 1951 work Two Dogmas of Empiricism (one of the most celebrated papers in the history of twentieth century analytic philosophy) with an expression of ontological relativism. Quite stated that while as a lay scientist he “believed” in “physical entities” and not in Greek gods, as a philosopher he recognized that both “enter our conceptions only as cultural posits,” (that is, as postulates—assumptions used as premises in a theoretical system).


All kinds of learning begin with trust, but modern science has been especially successful in winning the confidence of its novices. “Science as taught to undergraduates,” says Ziman, “tends to be logical, precise, impersonal, and authoritative [emphasis added].”

The job of the science teacher [at this level] is to make all plain and plausible, to encourage the student to entrust [herself ] freely to the basic theory. To express doubts, to utter warnings at this stage will inhibit the confident use of the new technique, the new language. The expertise of the professional scientist is his ability to… transform every problem into the concepts and formulae of his discipline. Years of reading, lectures, laboratory classes and examinations are required [to learn to think as a physicist or chemist] (J.M. Ziman, “Education for Science” in Public Knowledge: The Social Dimension of Science, 1968, pp.71-2; emphasis and interpolations added).

The scientific community consists of those persons who have learned to speak its language. Only after enduring years of apprenticeship can the newcomer to the community be allowed to see the controversy and uncertainty, “the confusions and the errors that are always with us in the process of discovery” (Ziman, op.cit.). In the meantime, the learner must have confidence in, must trust, the authority of the community’s leaders as he or she acquires the “cultural posits” (Quine’s term; see above) of science.

It is so with Zen, also. The Zen disciple must trust that the master has real insight of great value, or he would never be willing to submit to the discipline of the master, to endure the necessary years of apprenticeship. Just so it is with membership in the Church of Christ—one begins with submission to God and parents and those having the authority “to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.” It takes some time to learn to speak the language of faith, to learn and gain confidence in the way things are done, to really trust in the promises made, to repent and become pure in heart as God is pure (see 1 John 3:1-3). In science, Zen, and Mormonism, initial trust, confidence, and belief makes possible the transition to knowledge.

Three Ways

It has long seemed to me that the epistemological skepticism of Quine and his successors, still standing after a half-century of scrutiny, has long since closed the door on the claims of positivists and logical empiricists that Zen and Mormonism cannot be legitimate ways of knowing, that only scientific knowledge gained by the methods of science and based on naturalistic premises is valid. What we have in science, Zen, and Mormonism are three valid ways of knowing; each promises that a certain program of training will enable one to become a knower of a particular kind of knowledge. As philosophers we can recognize with Quine the dependence of any and all “knowledge” on unproven postulates while still recognizing its utility. Science, Zen, and Mormonism all require an initial trust in the efficacy of its promise and a willingness to submit to the discipline of its leading practitioners. Science promises to produce insight into the laws which govern the natural universe; Zen offers insight into the workings of the mind; at its best, Mormonism is a community of followers of Jesus Christ who have accepted the invitation of their Lord to become through obedience to him, knowers of the knowledge he offers:

If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (KVJ John 8:31-2).

As a Latter-day Saint, I have always been free to learn whatever I could from the practitioners of both science and Zen and from any other source of truth I could find. As a member of the LDS community, I have had many opportunities to learn from scholars devoted not only to their fields of study, but also to learning from their discipleship to Jesus Christ. Science, Zen, and Mormonism—my experience has been that all three ways of knowing deliver on their promises to produce coherent, useful knowledge.


Mark A. Riddle retired in May 2007 as an instructor of Japanese and of English as a second language (ESL) at Wasatch Academy, in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, where he chaired the ESL Department. Between 1982 and 2003, he had taught Japanese at Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley State College, Brigham Young University (BYU), and the University of Utah, and, from 1996-1997, was an adjunct instructor of educational psychology at BYU. He also taught ESL in Japan, and owned and operated a business providing opportunities for Japanese students to study in the United States and for American students to study in Japan, as well as a company providing consultant/interpreter services.

He earned B.A. and M.P.A. degrees from BYU, and pursued graduate studies in economics at the University of Utah and in instructional psychology and technology at the University of Utah. In 1989, he was formally accredited as a Japanese-to-English translator by the American Translators Association. His translations have appeared in such academic journals as Japanese Economic Studies, and he has delivered scholarly papers before such groups as the Association for Asian Studies.

He is currently a volunteer on-line instructor of Japanese for BYU-Idaho and a volunteer on-line Japanese-to-English translator for the Tokyo, Japan, Public Affairs office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mark Riddle and his wife, Laurel Backman Riddle—an attorney practicing in both Utah and Washington and specializing in estate planning (wills, trusts, probate) and asset protection—live in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

Posted June 2010