Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
018: Nathaniel Givens on Epistemic Humility

018: Nathaniel Givens on Epistemic Humility

3a2408320398ffb2228b2bb34b6e7428I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview one of my new favorite LDS bloggers Nathaniel Givens. A friend of mine introduced me to Nathaniel’s series on the concept of Epistemic Humility that he wrote for Times and Seasons. Embracing epistemic humility allows us to be more open to new ideas, and better equipped to search for additional knowledge and truth. I felt Nathaniel’s ideas here are especially applicable and useful in our LDS community, which is often a culture that shies away from uncertainty and doubt, and loves to frame discourse in the terms of “I know . . .”

We apologize in advance for the audio quality from this interview. We had some Internet connection difficulties, which resulted in conducting the interview via telephone.

Since recording this interview, Nathaniel has become a perma-blogger for Times and Seasons. He also maintains his own blog, Difficult Run. Please be sure to check out Nathaniel’s writings and provide feedback and responses below. Many thanks to Nathaniel Givens for his contributions to A Thoughtful Faith.



Series on Epistemic Humility at Times and Seasons
Nathaniel’s Blog Difficult Run


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  2. Michael Taylor


    Thank you very much for taking the time to share your ideas. I find the implications of epistemic humility both satisfying (in that it sheds light on the nature certainty, knowledge, doubt, etc), but also unsettling. I suppose that I have yet to become truly comfortable with the idea that ideas and values I hold dear my some day be superseded, even though my short life’s story indicates that this has already happened on several occasions.

    I also enjoyed that you tried to tie this into Zion. The covenant of consecration that we make to build Zion and the Kingdom weighs on me constantly. However, I can never seem to get a clear vision of how God wants me to make that happen. And when I do get a bit of direction, then I am burdened by the need to separate my own views from what is officially sanctioned.

    To give a concrete example: I’m persuaded towards pacifism (though not a purist), and am persuaded (so far) that this is an essential part of what will lead to Zion. However, pacifism isn’t current church teaching (Pres. Hinckley’s most recent remarks on the matter in 2003 put the church somewhere between a fully neutral stance and just war theory). Now, if I really believe that pacifism is good, and it is not church teaching, then where and how is the right venue for promoting it? (BTW, this is just an example please feel free to replace pacifism with whatever social/political cause you wish).

    In short, what do you see as the appropriate venues for the hashing out of ideas/uncertainties/beliefs in the effort of creating Zion in the 21st-century?

  3. Jason F

    Another brilliant podcast (though Nathaniel’s audio was a bit hard to hear/understand at times).

    This podcast discussion has come at the perfect time in my faith journey. It directly addresses some of the issues that I am motivated to address at this time, namely how to get along with others in the church who cling to ideas that I feel have been clearly shown to be inaccurate or at least incomplete.

    One thing that I have long been trying to be comfortable with is an uncertainty of my certainties. I don’t want to have nothing I feel certain in, but I want to leave logical room for my position to adapt if and when new information or experience is gained. However, in making that effort personally it has the tendency to give me a very short fuse when interacting with others who are not only completely certain in their point of view but cannot even fathom that there is any possibility that their opinion or point of view could be anything less than the result of perfect knowledge.

    It puts a pretty fine point on it, but this flowchart is something I wish I could wear around me neck when engaged in these types of interactions:

    I am especially prone to flying off the handle (so to speak) when I don’t expect my conversation partner to have such a contrary and immovable position, that is when I didn’t anticipate that they held a position in such diametric opposition to my own AND are very absolute and final about it. How I handle these situations is something that I am working on being more constructive with, which is why I really appreciated the discussion in this episode so much. Also, if I had heard this even 6 months ago I would’ve brushed it all off as excusing others bad behavior and much less important than identifying the real truth of the matter being discussed.

    So, having said all of that, I like the scenario that Michael has raised above in his example about pacifism and I hope we can discuss this type of situation and suggest practical ways of approaching something like this.

  4. Michael-

    You ask an excellent question:

    >>In short, what do you see as the appropriate venues for the hashing out of ideas/uncertainties/beliefs in the effort of creating Zion in the 21st-century?<<

    I'd describe this as a question about *applied* epistemic humility, and so I want to preface my response by saying that I'm experimenting right now to figure it out.

    The basic principles I have in mind are that one ought never attempt to advance an agenda (even a righteous one) through the mechanism of formal institutional power. The standard operating procedure is to concentrate coercion on power centers (e.g. promote your allies to positions of power, or intimidate those already in positions of power), but I think this approach–while not inherently bad with most worldly institutions–is an invalid approach when it comes to the Church.

    So the goal is persuasion and patience. That leaves plenty of venues open, however. This (A Thoughtful Faith) is one, and the internet is full of more. The most effective venue, however, is your family and your ward.

    There the challenge becomes making sure that advocacy never outpaces unity. The more trust and love there exists in relationships, the more differences they can sustain. I think anyone trying to influence the Church–and doing so through patient persuasion–by definition has to focus on doing their home/visiting teaching and other acts of "mundane" service. The two are inextricably linked.

    The last thing I'd say is that the goal probably shouldn't be to convince other people of your specific perspective. That's probably impossible. The goal is probably to shift the consensus in your direction, but with an awareness that–when everyone is authentically engaged–it may very well be that the aggregate opinion is better than the opinion of any individual. I think of persuasion not so much as trying to promulgate your plan, but participating in something that is greater than any one individual.

    I hope these comments were not too abstract to be interesting!

    1. Michael Taylor


      A big thank you for your response. What you’ve said makes a lot of sense. Your aversion to the use of coercive means for change in God’s Kingdom especially resonated with me and your emphasis on grassroots change: home, ward, kin & kith.

      I do have one other question if you don’t mind. I may have misunderstood, but I think what you’re saying is that although TRUTH (inasmuch as we can be certain what the TRUTH is) is a worthy objective, but that it cannot be pursued without a desire for creating unity and consensus among your fellows? Is that right (sorry if it is not)? That generally sits well with me, but I have wondered, while pondering on the often-quoted Moses 7:18 if it is not unity per se that we are after, but unity in righteousness (as opposed to unity in an evil cause; i.e. Babylon, The Third Reich, etc):

      “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”

      Well, although I suppose such a self-centered search for truth & righteousness leads us back to epistemic-pride and a conscious ignoring our own epistemic limits. Hmmm… Maybe this ties back to Mormon tensions between individual and corporate salvation…

      OK, now I’m just rambling. Your thoughts though on the matter of unity as a goal would be appreciated.

      Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

      1. Michael-

        No problem on the response. I enjoy getting my ideas out there and then getting feedback because it’s always an eye-opening experience for me. It makes me realize, for example, what unspoken assumptions are packed into my own statements that either ought not be there, or require some kind of more direct explication.

        In this case, I have a very, very specific concept of “unity” in mind that is rooted in a particular Mormon cosmology that makes “unity in an evil cause” impossible. But I didn’t give any inkling of that in my post ’cause it’s just something I’ve been preoccupied with so much I had it kind of built-in without actually thinking about it.

        In any case, I’m working on a short piece right now about the matter of unity as a goal, and I’ll post it (probably on Times and Seasons) in the next week or two.

        Without going into details (simply because it’s long, not because I’m being a tease), I’m going to be relying on Orson Scott Card’s fiction (especially Ender’s Game) in the construction of this theory.

        1. Michael Taylor


          OK, I’m with you! I see what you’re saying now. I really look forward to your post on T&S.

          What you’re saying about “unity in evil” really being some sort of counterfeit unity, that really isn’t unity at all, makes a lot of sense. I’ve had similar thoughts about the nature of physical pleasure (food, rest, comforts, sex, etc.) while pondering negative LDS discourse about pleasure and the fallen man and how that squared with our emphasis on the goodness of the body and physical world. And it finally came to me that pleasures and passions when taken outside the Lord’s guidelines/bounds/commandments, become counterfeit pleasures, or anti-pleasures, not real pleasure at all. I guess it is all semantics, but I wonder how many other words/concepts in the church have been taken over by their fake-counterpart? “Mysteries” is another that comes to mind…

          Thanks again for some good discussion!

  5. Jason-

    I’d never seen that chart before and I really like it! The one exception is down at the very bottom right under “You cheated!” It doesn’t actually follow, logically, that a person who cheats has “conceded all opposing arguments up to this point”. The only way I can interpret that is as a threat, which shifts the dynamic away from cooperative disagreement to zero-sum game.

    I also have to say that I chuckled when I read this:

    >>Also, if I had heard this even 6 months ago I would’ve brushed it all off as excusing others bad behavior and much less important than identifying the real truth of the matter being discussed.<<

    The person who I think would be most derisive of what I'm saying now about epistemic humility is *myself* from 5 or 10 years ago. I would have had absolutely zero patience for all this talk about "feelings" and "unity" when an issue like TRUTH is up for discussion. I remember someone telling me that Brigham Young had once been described as "a lion for the Lord", and I feel like I'm abdicating any potential to be that kind of person. I read a good polemicist like G. K. Chesterton and I wonder if I'm failing to adequately cling to objective truth. As things stand, however, I just don't feel called to bombast and satire, as much as I've relished them in the past. And that–the relish with which I have wielded words like weapons in the past–might be precisely why I'm individually not in a good position to do so anymore.

    Sorry for that digression!

    As far as the "prone to flying off the handle" thing goes, what is it that you think really triggers your anger? I know that I used to see red in debates all the time, and I'm not actually sure what caused it in myself. I think my trigger was probably perceived inauthenticity. When I thought someone wasn't being sincere–e.g. said something that struck me as so poorly thought-out that I surmised (unfairly, I think) that they weren't even really trying–I would sort of lose control. I don't know that I ever really stopped feeling the trigger to anger, but at a certain point I just grew really sick of being angry all the time. I guess I improved by simple aversion therapy. 🙁 I hope you can find a better route.

  6. JT

    Thank you Micah and Nathaniel and for this excellent discussion.

    A few thoughts.

    It was interesting to me to hear how scientific epistemology – which has pinned down our cognitive biases – undermines religious epistemology as it is most commonly deployed by institutions and employed by individuals. Clearly, the fact of numerous divergent supernatural beliefs attest to this more directly.

    Adopting epistemological humility is a virtue on a personal level, but adopting an epistemological code of ethics at the societal level is as important. In this we can again compare science and religion. To participate “in good faith” in a scientific society a person must abide the ethic of full disclosure of accurate evidence in support of her knowledge claims as well as her methods. She must also submit to the critical analysis and evaluation of peer review – who are often motivated by competing claims. One needs only consider how such an ethical framework has expanded human knowledge beyond the imaginations of every generation for the last three hundred years to see how more powerful it is than religious epistemological ethical structures that tend to either conserve wrong ideas by appeal to authority or disintegrate into contending sects.

    Finally, Nathaniel referred to the eclecticism of Mormonism – that it’s core beliefs encourage open mindedness and free inquiry (e.g. “study the best books” etc). He added that the “rigorous hierarchy of the Church as an institution exists to support private eclecticism.” Well, while I have no reason to doubt that Nathaniel experiences Mormonism this way, I think a strong argument can be made that this is not why hierarchies exist generally – nor does it describe how institutional Mormonism behaves, nor most people experience the culture. This points right back to the issue of epistemological ethics which I believe the LDS Church stands in need of critical self-assessment.

  7. JT

    This recent quotation by the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss seems to be in harmony with epistemic humility.

    “Knowledge is not to be gained for comforting our souls, but for enhancing the awareness of being alive.”

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