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What Is True and Good?

Lincoln Cannon

19 March 2024

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"The Moment After Prayer" by Lincoln Cannon

Consequent to discussion about epistemology at a meetup of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, a friend asked me to remind her of my definitions of “truth” and “good.” This article will serve that purpose. It will also provide a brief account of esthetics. I use the concepts associated with these words, in relation to each other, as part of a holistic ontological matrix.


Let’s begin with “true.” As we discussed at the meetup, “true” has many meanings. My preferred definition is something like “shared knowledge,” or even “communal knowledge of experience of existence” – perhaps reminiscent of Joseph’s definition of “truth.” Truth is that which is to people-in-general as knowledge is to a single person, as experience is to a body, and as existence is to a world.

This account of truth is objective. But it’s not objective in the subject-negating sense. Rather, it’s objective in the inter-subjective sense. It may be understood as consensus, although in the most holistic sense conceivable – abstracting across the possibility space of all individuals, experiences, and environments, without insisting on (or rejecting) any rigid monistic coherence among them.

Being inter-subjective, truth is also ultimately a feeling or esthetic, as are all concepts. I’ll elaborate on esthetics a bit more later. But for now, I’ll just point out that truth, in the only way you or I could ever experience or know it, is something like a shared confidence. And truth, like knowledge, can prove over time to have been misplaced confidence.

The confidence of truth transcends the individual, while still necessarily accounting for the confidence of individuals. I can have knowledge of (or confidence in) that which is not true in the most holistic sense. But it’s yet true in the most holistic sense that I know as I know, that some incoherence between knowledge and truth is part of truth. Something analogous is also the case within a single person and her body, as knowledge and experience aren’t ever entirely coherent.

Finally, I’ll emphasize that truth is not merely discovered, and not merely the result of reconciling passive observation. Truth is as much created as it is discovered. We can change each other’s knowledge, each other’s experience, and even the bodies and worlds in which we exist. And truth, to remain true, must account for all changes, suggesting the mechanism by which prophetic provocation may interact with truth.


Now, let’s look at “good.” Like “true,” “good” has many meanings. My preferred definition of good is something like “shared joy,” or even “communal joy of pleasure of order,” to parallel the structure of my definition of “truth.” Good is that which is to people-in-general as joy is to a single person, as pleasure is to a body, and as order is to a world.

Good is inseparably connected to our shared rules, individual wills, anatomical desires, and environmental laws. Good is reconciliation (or atonement) of wills, within a context of desires and laws. But, as with truth, this reconciliation shouldn’t be understood as anything less that the most holistic conceivable. It’s not mere tolerance of pervasive egotistical hedonism.

Reconciliation, as the scriptures put it, must be “infinite and eternal.” Anything less is not good, but rather evil to some extent. Analogously, to the extent that wills and desires and laws are not reconciled, there is misery and pain and chaos. This doesn’t necessarily prescribe eventual annihilation of evil (which would simultaneously be annihilation of good), but only recognition of conceptual relationships and aspiration to a perpetual process.


“True” and “good” are both deeply related to esthetics. Truth reconciles knowledge, which reconciles experience, which, in the most raw sense, is essentially esthetics. As I mentioned previously, knowledge is ultimately confidence, no matter what else we might suppose it to be. After much effort at epistemic justifications, it’s often misrecognized as something like infallibility.

Likewise, goodness reconciles joy, which reconciles pleasure. And of course pleasure is essentially esthetics. In all our effort at ethical justifications, we are always and ultimately still appealing to feelings, at least implicitly, even if we suppose ourselves to be doing otherwise.

There is a special case of esthetics, an exceptional feeling (or even an exceptional composite of feelings), which I call the “sublime esthetic” – beauty at practical experiential limits. It’s not necessarily the same as that which is true or good in the most holistic senses of these concepts. Something can feel sublime and yet be associated with propositions that are broadly considered false. And something can feel sublime while being broadly considered evil.

The sublime esthetic is a functional name for that what the scriptures call the “Holy Ghost” or “Spirit of God.” Intentionally, it doesn’t entail anything metaphysical, nor does it connote common interpretations of “spirit” or “ghost,” so as to avoid baggage with which tradition often burdens the traditional terms. But it does have practical qualifications, notably holistic edification. With this as context, I can offer an example of how these concepts work together to illuminate the meaning of words in a practical way.

Moroni’s Challenge

For Mormons, a particularly notable reference to both “true” and “good” occurs in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon. There, Moroni challenges the reader to ponder and pray about “these things,” which is usually understood as a reference to the Book of Mormon as a whole. He claims that, if we do so “in the name of Christ, … with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ,” God will “manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” And he further claims that, “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

Moroni’s use of “truth” in this passage, as judged by context, cannot reasonably be considered a reference to merely past and present truths, the kinds of truth that one can only discover. There are some complex textual reasons for this. But the most obvious comes in the very next verse. Moroni asserts that “whatsoever thing is good is just and true.”

At first, this may sound like nonsense. Is he saying that goodness and truth are the same thing? Aren’t many evils true, in the sense that we all experience and know evil? And, if so, wouldn’t that imply that good and evil are the same thing, which would be a fundamental incoherence in the application of these concepts?

We could choose to stop here. Some people do. Some are inclined to satisfy a desire to dismiss the whole Book of Mormon as nonsense. But for those of us who are inclined to satisfy a desire to take the Book of Mormon as seriously as we can, to read it in good faith as Moroni urges, there’s a reasonable path forward.

First, we can interpret Moroni to mean that there’s something of a unidirectional relation of identity between truth and goodness, rather than a bidirectional relation of identity. In other words, all goodness can be true without all truth being good. Truth can circumscribe both good and evil, while good is only one kind of truth. This solves the conceptual incoherence problem.

But it presents another problem. We can easily imagine good that isn’t true, at least in the present and past. For example, humanity is pervasively aging and dying, yet the scriptures encourage us to look forward to a day when death will be vanquished. We may feel that it’s a good idea, but it’s not yet true in the fullest sense that we may trust it will be some day.

The solution to this problem is to remember that truth is not merely something to discover. It’s also something to create, and even to destroy. Evil truths may be among those to destroy. Good truths may be among those to create.

To avoid confusion between good truths in the present and good truths in the future, we would usually refer to the former as “true” and the latter as something like “trustworthy.” That which would be good, if we could create it, is worthy of our trust. Future good is trustworthy. This in turn presents some additional, more subtle, conceptual challenges that we could explore fruitfully, but with substantial cost in time.

For sake of brevity, I’ll suggest that the best interpretation of Moroni’s challenge is that he’s claiming that you can know that the Book of Mormon is true in the sense that it’s worthy of your trust. By pondering and praying about its message in faith, which ultimately means acting on its message as an experiment to experience the results, you can gain confidence that its worthy of your trust. You can gain confidence that living in accordance with its message will generate a desirable result.

As characterized by the scriptures, the desirable result is ultimately transformation into Christ, as exemplified and invited by Jesus. Along the way, reflecting my own experience, the result is dependable cultivation of the sublime esthetic. For me, it’s a growing sense of illumination and connectivity and purpose, reinforcing itself in a virtuous cycle. It’s often subtle and mostly psychological, but it’s sometimes powerful and physically moving.


“True” and “good” are interconnected with esthetics in an ontological matrix that transcends traditional notions of objectivity or simple notions of imperative. Truth is both discovered and created, a communal confidence in a shared account of experience, actual and potential. Goodness is shared joy and pleasure, stemming from the reconciliation of wills and desires, or that which the scriptures call “atonement.” The sublime esthetic is a functional description of the Holy Spirit, provoking us to create good truths.

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