Saith the Prophet
© 20 Feb 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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On knowledge and belief.


In 1 Nephi 19:10–17 the phrase “‍according to the words of the prophet‍” or “‍saith the prophet‍” appears at least ten times. Perhaps this is Nephi’s way of appealing to other witnesses to support his testimony, but it struck me that it might be his way of explaining how he knew of what he spoke. And that led me to ask myself, “‍Self, of the things you know, how many do you know of yourself?‍”

The number of things I found I do not know of myself as a result of this question was somewhat surprising. I don’t know for myself, for example, that cats and dogs can’t mate, or that Mexico exists, or that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant, or that coal and diamond are the same element, or anything at all about asbestos, or…. And that’s all without delving into the epistemology of knowledge; these are all things I accept simply because others say they are true. Besides the testimony of others, I have no evidence of these things at all.

I do know personally of much of mathematics, both continuum and discrete branches, as well as much of kinematics and optics. I have personal witness of God’s existence and kindness, and of the presence (but not law) of gravity and the existence of several thousand people and several million humans. I know the Holy Ghost wants me to accept the oath of the priesthood and act on the words of his ordain servants. I know the personality of enough of my teachers to be confident they believe what they teach me. And that’s all without delving into the epistemology of knowledge and the things I accept because I cannot readily not accept them.

I find there is a certain stigma attached to accepting spiritual truth on the testimony of others, a stigma I find absent in secular matters. I suppose this stems from the fact there are respectable detractors of religion where there are many fewer respectable detractors of, say, physics. But from on a personal level I have not cared for this distinction. People will oppose anything that stands in their way, and matters of morality stand in the way of many. Quantum mechanics, for all its ludicrous appearance, doesn’t really have much downside potential, and hence not many opponents.

I am thus quite content to say there are many things I know “‍according to the words of the prophet‍” and not yet of myself. Likewise, there are many things I know “‍according to the words of the well-traveled‍” or “‍researchers‍” or whom-have-you. This trust, although occasionally ill-founded, allows me to work off a much greater store of knowledge than I could were I more distrusting.

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