The Consequences of Ideas

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Jeffrey Thayne

Gerald Lund explains,

Whether he recognizes it or not, every person holds to a metaphysical position, trusts in at least one system of epistemology, and holds a personal axiology or set of values and ethics. Furthermore, these three areas of our own philosophy are interrelated. Our metaphysics (our view of reality) influences our epistemology (the way we gain knowledge), and together the two determine our axiology (our values).1

What I most appreciate about Gerald Lund’s claim is that he readily acknowledges that our ontology and our epistemology have significant implications on our perspective on what it means to be good. Philosophers and scientists sometimes fool themselves into believing that their philosophical beliefs have little bearing on their moral or ethical perspective. Many assume we can separate the moral implications of an idea from the idea itself.

For every idea we encounter, we must examine at least two things:

(1) The implications of the idea. We must examine what, exactly, an idea says about human nature, agency, morality, society, etc. Be aware of claims that a particular idea says nothing about these things, because often the implications are simply unexamined or ignored. Many people have maintained philosophical positions, and also ignored the implications of those positions. A prime example of this is the recent statement by Richard Dawkins: “As a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it.”2 He vocally rejects the nihilistic implications of Darwinian thought. He effectively compartmentalizes his life such that he can operate under one set of philosophical assumptions as a scientist, and then embrace another set of philosophical assumptions in his personal life. This academic schizophrenia sometimes plagues Latter-day Saint thought, as some of us may sometimes unquestioningly adopt secular movements without fully considering their implications in our religious beliefs.

(2) The history of the idea. We must examine where the idea came from, who have been its advocates and defenders, and the historical context from which the idea arose. For example, as I have indicated in a previous post, and will explore more fully in later posts, modern materialistic science has its roots in the ideas of the Great Apostasy. Whatever the contemporary merits of the idea, if it was inspired by falsehoods perpetuated by the Apostasy, we should reconsider the idea in light of the Restoration. Also, if an idea was authored or defended by known enemies of righteousness, we should also be wary and closely examine why the idea was so valuable to those individuals.

Richard Williams makes the point:

The German psychotherapist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, once remarked that the holocaust was born in the German universities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The particulars of Frankl’s critique of German idealism, nationalism, and the conceptual path leading from these perspectives to the atrocities of the holocaust need not concern us here. What I want to take from Frankl’s remark is a sobering example of the truism that “ideas have consequences.” … Ideas congeal into that mass of cultural predilections, assumptions, and propositions which, although largely tacit and seldom explicitly articulated, form the foundation for a people’s understanding of themselves, their lives and their relationships. Our contemporary culture is by no means exempt from this process. Indeed ideas do have consequences for what we take ourselves to be, and for what our lives and acts mean to us.3


1. Gerald Lund, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy,” Ensign, Jul 1992, 1.

2. Richard Dawkins, “Lying for Jesus?

3. R. N. Williams, “The effect on children of the sexual orientation of parents: What the research doesn’t say,” Invited address to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, 2000.


  1. I liked point two. While not the only factor to consider, looking at who initially supported the idea can give tell us something about what kind of outcomes the idea will lead to. It reminds me of Mosiah 23:14— “And also trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments.” In other words, consider the source before getting too enthusiastic about an idea.

  2. I’m coming to this late, of course, and I apologize for that, but I want to say that this is great stuff!

    One addition I’d like to make is about the cognitive dissonance you talk about in point number one. One of the real problems of holding conflicting viewpoints like that is that it makes a person stressed and sad. Those internal problems are often only exacerbated by the fact that the coping mechanisms adopted to deal with the stress and grief often do even more psychological (and, sometimes, social or even physical) injury to the person suffering the cognitive dissonance.

    I think that makes a great justification for taking the time to examine your thoughts to see whether they are harmonious or discordant. Of course, we’d all like to go further and see that our ideas are right, but just achieving harmony might be more immediately important.

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