Friday, April 20, 2012

Is the Spirit Evidence of God?

The Witness of the Holy Ghost is often cited as evidence of the Gospel, and even as evidence of the existence of God. I know from personal experience that religious experiences can be very powerful. But I now think there are good reasons to question whether they are really evidence of the divine:

  1. Religious experiences tend to be culturally specific and socially influenced. Most people’s religious experiences tend to lead them to believe in either the religion they were raised in, or the religion of their friends. Our feelings in general tend to be strongly influenced by our peers, and religious feelings seem to be the same.
  2. Religious experiences often contradict each other. If you think one religion is right, you have to admit that most people’s religious experiences lead them to the wrong conclusion. Even people who have been exposed to the “right” religion have experiences that lead them to other religions. LDS church leaders seeking the spirit often disagree on what God wants [1].
  3. Memories change over time. Powerful religious experiences are often not recorded clearly and specifically until long after they've occurred. Especially when a story is retold several times, its main points tend to be increasingly emphasized and then exaggerated over time. The memory itself will change accordingly [2]. A good example is the story of Brigham Young’s “transfiguration,” which grew from a story about Brigham Young’s leadership presence into a story of him transforming in appearance and speech into Joseph Smith [3].
  4. Confirmation Bias causes us to remember the experiences that confirm our beliefs. We tend to forget all the times we prayed or “had impressions” and nothing remarkable happened. We also go through so many experiences, that what seem like amazing coincidences are actually very likely to occur occasionally. If those seemingly amazing coincidences confirm our beliefs in some way, you can bet that story will be remembered and shared.
  5. Even very spiritual people are often wrong. Even blessings from Apostles sometimes do not come to pass. One good example is this story:
  6. “When he was eleven year old, James Talmage accidentally blinded his younger brother Albert with a pitchfork. At age thirty-one, while writing the first draft of “The Articles of Faith,” James asked members of the First Presidency and the Twelve to administer to his brother. They inquired if he had the faith to be healed after twenty years of blindness, and Albert said “Yes.” In the Priesthood ordinance of healing, they promised him a complete restoration of his sight. James recorded his equally unconditional expectation for the fulfillment of this apostolic blessing. Days passed, then weeks, then months, and Albert remained blind. Years passed, and Albert received equally emphatic promises of restored sight from other apostles and prophets. He remained blind the rest of his life. Did either brother experience religions doubts as a consequence? The diaries of James E. Talmage do not say so specifically, but they do indicate his own bewilderment and ultimate resignation about the non-fulfillment of Priesthood blessings given and received in absolute faith.” [4]

All of this is to say that spiritual experiences are not surprising. In order for evidence to provide strong confirmation of a theory, the evidence must be different than what we would otherwise expect. Given what we know about human psychology, most spiritual experiences do not meet this standard, and hence do not provide strong confirmation of either the Gospel of the existence of God. I conclude that religious experiences, although powerful, are not reliable guides to truth. I am all for seeking after and having spiritual experiences in our lives, and I try to nurture myself spiritually (meaning mentally and emotionally) as well. But when determining the nature of physical reality, I think that reliable, repeatable, and verifiable evidence should definitely have precedence.

[1] The Mormon Hierarchy series by D. Michael Quinn illustrates the many disagreements church leaders have had on many subjects.
[4] D. Michael Quinn, “To Whom Shall We Go?”, Sunstone #137, May 2005.


gavinomics said...

To be honest, I have not actually given time to a systematic study of this topic. But I will have to eventually.
Here are some initial thoughts. I will try to answer the question, "Do these points actually give me reason to doubt spiritual experience?" The numbers correspond to your points.

1. I agree that peers influence, and that cultures influence. But not all spiritual experiences are the same. Your arguments seem to lump them all together as if they were the same. It is my impression that many spiritual experiences confirm that which all religions believe. Things like love, peace, connection with a higher power etc. So this point doesn't seem to give me any reason to question spiritual experience in general.

2. Interpretation plays a powerful role in spiritual experience. I think it is reasonable to assume (given that one accepts spiritual experiences) that many spiritual promptings may be misinterpretted. Indeed many emotional experiences can be confused with spiritual experiences. Also, spiritual experiences may not actually be contradictory but only seem so over time. For instance, one spiritual experience toward a specific direction may be valid in one time, but a different direction may be valid at a different time given certain social contexts.

Saying that the existence of contradictions gives reason to doubt spiritual experience implies that the existence of contradictions in other fields would produce reasons to doubt those other fields as well. Scientists using the same scientific methods also come to contradictory conclusions. Does that give reason to doubt science? I don't think so. It just shows that humans are fallible.

3. Sure, memories can be faulty. I agree that bad memories are a reasonable reason to doubt individual experiences. Bad memories give reason to doubt everyday non-spiritual experiences too. So again bad memories do not discount spiritual experience as a whole, just as it doesn't discount everyday experience as a whole.

4. Yes, Confirmation bias is a problem. It is a problem in science too. I essentially have the same response here as in 2 and 3.

5. Yup. I agree here too. I give the same response as above. This is more of a reason not to consider authority as the standard of truth. They may be a source of truth in a religious context, but they still need to be validated by the standard of truth which is reality.

In conclusion, I agree with you that verifiable and repeatable evidence has precedence.

But I don't see how any of the 5 points you mentioned support the conclusion that spiritual experience as a whole is not a reliable guide to truth. Actually if all of the points did lead to doubting spiritual experience, then it would logically lead the conclusion that we have to doubt science as well since the same issues seem to apply there too.

Bennion said...

Gavin, thanks for commenting!

I don't think the same critiques apply to science. For example, science isn't subject to memory fallibility because measurements are recorded immediately. Pre-planning an experiment and determining interpretations of the data before collecting it help eliminate confirmation bias. And scientific conclusions don't tend to be culturally specific: physicists from virtually all cultural backgrounds agree on almost all scientific principles.

It appears that you're trying to get away from my critiques by acknowledging that individual spiritual experiences (or their interpretations) are unreliable, but postulating that spiritual experience "as a whole" can be a guide to truth. I would say that if you try to find the commonality of the messages of all spiritual experiences, then if there is even anything then left that is not contradictory then it is so general, abstract, and vague as to be totally meaningless.

Maybe it would help if you clarify a bit on what you mean by "spiritual experience as a whole." Thanks again for posting.

gavinomics said...

I accept your rebuttal that science does overcome the memory problem if recorded correctly. In that case, it seems that recording spiritual experiences correctly should also overcome the memory problem.

Now I was a bit ambiguous in how I was using the word "science". In one sense you could say that science if done correctly does overcome confirmation bias. I am just saying that in the scientific community, many scientists themselves seem to make errors based on confirmation bias. For example, I remember reading papers about econometricians who systematically misinterpreted data due to the confirmation bias problem. Those errors discount individual "scientific" studies (maybe an argument can be made that they really weren't scientific studies in which case we just have a semantics problem). But discounting a few scientific studies does not discount science as a whole.

I didn't intend to argue that science had the cultural problem.

By talking about "spiritual experience as a whole" I did not mean to suggest some sort of collective thing. I don't think you really have an argument against spiritual experiences in general. You have arguments that point out the weaknesses of human cognition. And if we don't take these weaknesses into account, then I agree that is reasonable to doubt and question individual spiritual experiences.

But, showing that some spiritual experiences must be questionable does not imply that all spiritual experiences are questionable. That is how I read your argument, and frankly it seems to me that it commits the fallacy of composition.

Bennion said...

Indeed, recording spiritual experiences immediately after they occur does avoid the memory problem. I agree that science is sometimes subject to problems such as confirmation bias, but these biases can be eliminated in some studies. So I think we're on the same page there.

I don't think I'm committing the fallacy of composition because I'm not saying I can prove that spiritual experiences are definitely not a guide to truth, I'm just suggesting there are good reasons to be skeptical. Or put another way, I don't see a convincing argument or empirical evidence that spiritual experiences can be a guide to truth. If the spiritual experiences are explained equally well by psychological theories and religious theories, then how can they be considered evidence in favor of the religious theory?

drumbetter said...

For many religious people, "spiritual experiences" are simply the satisfaction they get from living their religion. Fortunately, I think fewer and fewer people are convinced that their own religion's metaphysical claims are superior to those of all other religions. Surely, if more people truly believed that their religious path was the only way to true happiness (or the only way to avoid eternal punishment), we would see much more vigorous proselytizing than we actually do. In reality, the divisive elements of religion are becoming less and less relevant in modern society, and increasingly more people prefer to focus on "peace, love, and connection to a higher power."

Bennion said...

Drumbetter, I agree those are all great trends. I happen to come from a fairly intense Mormon background where people take their religion pretty seriously, and my blog is oriented towards my friends and family who are still Mormon. I hope to sway a few of them towards the trends you're talking about :)

bryce said...

Sup benny boop.

I understand how spiritual impressions can't be seen as concrete evidence, it really wouldn't make sense if anything Godly was verifiable by short men in white lab coats. The essence of religion isn't found in logical tests, it's not found in controversial blog posts, it's actually found in the very name of religion, it's faith.

Do I take a heartfelt experience while reading the BOM as proof that all the church is right and I should spend time scratching off pro-gay bumper-stickers from parked cars? Nah, but as the experience is repetitive (and sometimes unexpected) I can't write it off as nothing. Could you?

Bennion said...

Lol Bryce, you're a funny kid. I think seeking spiritual experiences is an important part of life, I just think they can be found outside the church and church-related activities. Thank you for reading my post :)

Ben Ekstrom said...

I'm not really one to comment on these things much. I'm sorry to hear you lost your faith. It could be a perfectly rational decision from one perspective, but therein lies the problem.

I wouldn't measure time with a thermometer any more than I would try to prove or disprove religion by scientific means or to answer scientific questions with prayer (and as you know, I say that as a very religious person and a very scientific person). There is a methodological and factual divide between the spiritual and the consensus scientific empiric and I imagine there always will be. Trying to bridge the two (such as speculating on a "God particle" or trying too hard to reckon our understanding of evolutionary science with revelation about the creation) usually leads one away from both realms of truth into the foibles of human reason, which is the only thing proven over time to be unreliable.

The path to spiritual knowledge begins with a desire to believe in God. This is the first stumbling block for many, who put no value in things that are not obvious. Faith then starts with a choice, which is essentially one of analytic methodology. We first choose whether to plant a seed of belief, accepting an introspective evaluation, or to rely upon our own intelligence to determine the truth based on external evidence. If we choose to believe in God a little, His existence is continuously verified to us until we know Him with a perfect knowledge, one that can only come from God. This knowledge is pure truth which becomes intrinsic to us (more intrinsic than anything we can externally observe or science can deliver: think Descartes), not verifiable by external means, not related to our individual circumstance (culture, upbringing, socioeconomic status, etc), and does not vary with time. In other words, it is the exact opposite of what you wrote above (I think you are mixing two different issues, the confirmation of the Holy Ghost regarding gospel truths and the path of seeking divine revelation on things which God has not yet revealed which can be quite difficult). On the other hand, if we choose to approach faith from a purely cerebral perspective looking for "signs", we will miss out on the Spirit's confirmation and typically reject the gospel.

So, a "rational" approach to spiritual truths will usually lead one to disbelief. But a strictly "rational" approach is the wrong approach to understanding spiritual revelations. Spiritual truths can only be understood by spiritual means, otherwise they wouldn't be "spiritual".

That being said, there is a wealth of evidence both in each of our lives and in history which could "prove" the truths of the gospel, such as the existence of God. And that being said, there is a wealth of arguments out there which people believe "disprove" the LDS faith. While these anecdotes and inferences may strengthen the belief of some and reassure others of their "superior" reasoning capabilities, they do not convey actual knowledge of spiritual things because they are the wrong measurement device. No logic or science can disprove spiritual truths. Period. There are always two sides to every story and always a multitude of explanations to any given argument for or against one's spiritual beliefs.

There was a time in my life when I was as you are, unable to believe in God because I could not accept spiritual confirmation as a means of obtaining knowledge. But I planted that seed of faith and over time it has grown into a tree of knowledge. I know God lives, not because I have seen him or because I used any line of reasoning to prove his existence, but because of the Holy Spirit's witness. I know you would have that witness back if you were to desire to believe and choose (key word here) to test the method I have described. I hope you will at least consider reading Alma 32 and trying to pray again. You can look on it as testing my hypothesis if you wish.

Ben Ekstrom said...

P.S. Don't forget this:

Alma 30:
40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?

42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.

gavinomics said...

Elder Ekstrom

Good to hear from you. While I disagree with some of your finer points, I found your comment quite moving.

"Religion to be effective must appeal to the understanding as well as the emotions."
—B.H. Roberts

Bennion said...

Ben, it's great to hear from you! I'm glad you commented. I also found your comment moving in that it's very heartfelt and sincere, and written out of your concern for me. I really do appreciate that.

But, I think your comments have some logical problems. First, "the foibles of human reason." If we abandon reason altogether, we no longer have any reason to believe our beliefs are true. It's basically giving up on the pursuit of truth. That's both pessimistic and unreasonable (haha, get it?). I think that it's self-evident to each of us that we have the ability to observe the world around us, and use reason to make progress in understanding the world.

You've laid out a method that, according to you, leads to "spiritual knowledge." That method involves desiring to believe in God (my desires will always be for truth first), choosing to "plant a seed of belief," etc. My question is: even if this method reliably leads to belief in God, how can I be sure that the method is leading to truth? How do I know that the feelings that seem to come from God are really coming from God, and aren't a result of the power of suggestion or other psychological factors?

You say that "there is a wealth of evidence . . . which could `prove' the truths of the gospel." By all means, if evidence is available, let's build our beliefs on that. We can discuss other evidence in personal emails if you want. But the question I'm addressing here is whether spiritual "impressions" themselves count as evidence. If you rely on the impressions themselves as evidence that they're from God, then that's just circular logic and invalid. Does God just expect us to accept that "that's the way He wants it?" That seems unfair of him. Someone could have just made up this whole process because they didn't have any real evidence to begin with. Is there no way that we can know that we're not just being gullible?

No, I refuse to abandon a "rational" approach to belief. As soon as I do that, I have no reason to think my beliefs are connected to reality at all. I'm well aware that sincere prayer can lead to powerful spiritual experiences, but I have no way to know that those spiritual experiences are leading me to truth, so why should I pursue them? Shooting up on LSD also leads to amazing spiritual experiences, but I don't trust it as a guide to truth either.

On the verses:

v. 40 What evidence do you have that God exists? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only. I do, however, have much evidence for a scientific worldview.

v. 41 All things once seemed to be a testimony of God, until they were explained pretty darn well by science, and now they seemeth not to be a testimony of God so much anymore.

v. 42 I'm not lying, and I hope as my friend that you'll take me at my word.

v. 43 I'm unwilling to believe without evidence, otherwise I might just be credulous. There's nothing wrong with asking for evidence.

I look forward to your response.

-blessed holy socks, the non-perishable-zealot said...

Yes, it is - God's a TRI-nity with no One outsourcing the other, however, they have Their place: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The latter shall go and dwell in a person who believes, setting-up the seed of faith that grows-up to be a 100+ foot, magnificent Sycamore. Join me, please, in Heaven. God bless you with discernment.

Ben Ekstrom said...

Gavin, thanks for the clarification. Yes, the Spirit gives truth to the mind and heart so the gospel does make sense. But it is a higher kind of reasoning than human thought.

The amazing thing about the witness of the Spirit is that when we have it we both know that the gospel is truth and that the witness itself is true, i.e. we know our source is good and we don't require external verification.

But because I am not a very good writer, let me share a quote from the recent general conference:

"The Book of Mormon is of seminal importance. There will, of course, always be those who underestimate the significance of or even disparage this sacred book. Some have used humor. Before I served a mission, a university professor quoted Mark Twain’s statement that if you took “And it came to pass” out of the Book of Mormon, it “would have been only a pamphlet.”
A few months later, while I was serving a mission in London, England, a distinguished Oxford-educated teacher at London University, an Egyptian expert in Semitic languages, read the Book of Mormon, corresponded with President David O. McKay, and met with missionaries. He informed them he was convinced the Book of Mormon was indeed a translation of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians for the periods described in the Book of Mormon. One example among many he used was the conjunctive phrase “And it came to pass,” which he said mirrored how he would translate phraseology used in ancient Semitic writings. The professor was informed that while his intellectual approach based on his profession had helped him, it was still essential to have a spiritual testimony. Through study and prayer he gained a spiritual witness and was baptized. So what one famous humorist saw as an object of ridicule, a scholar recognized as profound evidence of the truth of the Book of Mormon, which was confirmed to him by the Spirit.
The essential doctrine of agency requires that a testimony of the restored gospel be based on faith rather than just external or scientific proof. Obsessive focus on things not yet fully revealed, such as how the virgin birth or the Resurrection of the Savior could have occurred or exactly how Joseph Smith translated our scriptures, will not be efficacious or yield spiritual progress. These are matters of faith. Ultimately, Moroni’s counsel to read and ponder and then ask God in all sincerity of heart, with real intent, to confirm scriptural truths by the witness of the Spirit is the answer. In addition, when we inculcate into our lives scriptural imperatives and live the gospel, we are blessed with the Spirit and taste of His goodness with feelings of joy, happiness, and especially peace." 2012 April General Conference, In Tune with the Music of Faith, Sat. Afternoon Session - Quentin L. Cook

I hope this clarifies what I was trying to get across about the Spirit being the primary evidence of God, with our own reason an adjunct to that. I think this example also illustrates what I was saying about there being two sides to every story and many interpretations.

In any event, Bennion, I am glad you are open to conversation and I will try to follow your blog, though as I said I am one quite loath to comment.

Bennion said...

Ben, I'm glad I got you to comment this time, and I hope you do comment in the future too.

I think the doctrine is very clear about the Spirit being the primary evidence of God. But I'm not confused about Mormon Doctrine; I'm asking how we know that our feelings qualify as evidence of God's existence. I think when it really comes down to it, all the church can do is say that they do, which isn't really an answer to my question. You can say that the feelings tell you that they are evidence of God, but how can I know that that's not the power of suggestion? You may say that we have faith that our feelings are evidence of God, but if you cite feelings as evidence for that faith, then all you have is circular logic. We have faith the feelings are evidence, and the evidence that justifies the faith are the feelings. There is no ultimate foundation to build on.

What I'm really getting to is that I don't think there's any way to be sure that those feelings come from God. I hope that clarifies my position somewhat. Even if the feelings do come from God, if there's no way that we can know that they come from God, then how could they be considered evidence? Gavin is right that I haven't proven that the feelings don't come from God, but I hope I've shown why they can't be considered strong confirmation of the theory that God exists.

Sorry if I seem adversarial, I'm just trying to explain how I see things clearly. I certainly do recognize the powerful feelings that Mormonism creates. I've personally felt them many times as well. I just interpret those feelings differently now.

Matt Rager said...

Bennion, I had similar thoughts when I began "testing" gospel truths. (Just a little background on me - I grew up in a part member family and was at a tug-of-war of sorts as to where my focus should be about religious views.) I knew that I felt good by leaving the turmoil of city life and escaping into the mountains for backpacking, hiking, fishing, etc. I spent many if not most of my Sundays as a youth in the outdoors. Then a unique thing happened. I made a conscious decision to go to church instead of the outdoors. While I felt good in church as well as the outdoors, my spiritual confirmation for doing good things was overwhelmingly more powerful in church than in the outdoors. I repeated this "test" of the strength of that spiritual confirmation again and again to verify it's validity. It worked. With scientific accuracy and detail, I tested the feelings of the spirit against two contradictory things (one secular but good, the other religious and good, both concrete and testable). It was a simple example, but it was also a start on a path to testing more complex ideas and theories. To this day, I always weigh the information at hand against those "spiritual confirmations" to determine how much truth, if any is present in that information. It is a test anyone can take with repeatable, verifiable results (acknowledging that they feel spiritual confirmations).

Bennion said...


I've had experiences very similar to what you're describing. I must admit that my spiritual experiences that were related to the church were quite repeatable and verifiable, and I had many that were very powerful as well. I'm now convinced that we interpret those feelings as being evidence of God because we've been taught to interpret them in that way. But are they really evidence of God? They're only strong evidence of God if a natural, psychological explanation is inadequate or unavailable. If those feelings can be explained by psychology, without requiring God to exist, then that can't really be strong evidence of God. I now think that those feelings are likely the result of the natural human response to the often-emotional church atmosphere.

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