Tuesday, June 21, 2005

On the Evidentiary Value of “Spiritual” Experiences

A recent electrifying post of Rosalynde’s describes an experience of the kind many would describe as “revelatory.” Unfortunately, the information content of this experience was contrary to her convictions and commitments; hence she quickly rejected its revelatory status, ascribing it instead to a naturalistic cognitive phenomenon. (She also briefly discussed the possibility of Satanic revelation, but this was not—correctly, in my judgment—her preferred explanation.) Here I address two of her lessons learned: first, the idea that other manifestations of the Spirit are primary (and presumably more reliable), an assertion that elicits skepticism on my part; and second, the sobering realization that “personal religious experiences are not self-authenticating, irreducible, or epistemologically independent”—a notion I subscribe to with strong conviction, and one whose implications I think have been inadequately considered. In particular, the necessary social context of the prerequisites of desire and worthiness to spiritual experiences severely weakens their independent evidentiary value.

Rosalynde’s experience involved a sudden punctuation of meandering thoughts:
My mind drifted in and around this dim cul de sac until, in an acute flare of clarity, I thought, “Joseph built the church on a foundation of revelation, but that foundation is of sand, and it will collapse.” The thought, its rushing intrusion and its plainness, literally opened my eyes, and I lay in bed, fully awake, wondering what had happened.…

I’ve been accustomed to understanding that sort of experience—the lucid minute, the intruding insight, the stereoscopic layering of different angles of information to yield an added dimension of meaning—as one of the languages of the Spirit. I don’t think I’m alone in this…
Far from being alone in so interpreting such moments, Rosalynde is in the best of company: her description is remarkably similar to Joseph Smith’s famous characterization of “the spirit of revelation” as “pure intelligence flowing into you,” giving you “sudden strokes of ideas” (TPJS, p. 151). Given this consonance with Joseph’s teachings, it’s not surprising that in the past she has shelved “a dozen other such flashes…with ‘spiritual experiences’ in [her] mental library.”

However, in light of this recent experience, “cognate in nearly every way” with the others, she understandably concludes that “it does require [her] to reconsider [her] readings of similar moments in the past,” giving primacy instead to other kinds of experiences, enumerated in a subsequent comment:
Well, there’s the emotional response (goosebumps, or burning, or tears, or pounding heart, or whatever it is for you) to something I’m reading or witnessing. There’s the sustained sense of under-the-surface peace. There’s a more sustained and rather more gradual enlightening of the mind (as opposed to the ah ha! instant). And then there are voices and other forms of direct, dialogic communication.
I am uncomfortable with regarding these as more reliable. For with each of these other types, it seems that with a little reflection most of us could write a post like Rosalynde’s (albeit with considerably less lucidity and eloquence), demonstrating an experience we’ve had which we would not read as having been due to the Spirit. In fact, for the first above-listed alternative—emotional response—Rosalynde herself has described an experience of her own that demonstrates the dubious paternity of this particularly common mode of putative spiritual communication.

At the very least, we must concede that others whose beliefs differ from ours claim similar experiences with doctrinal implications that contradict ours, and that we cannot get inside their heads to know if our experiences are somehow different from and more “genuine” than theirs—which brings us to the second, larger lesson, the inescapable social context of our spiritual encounters. From first acquaintance with things spiritual, our perceptions are far from private: gently, subtly, almost imperceptibly—but nevertheless persistently, even relentlessly, like wind and water that flatten mountains and carve canyons—our categories are formed, our expectations are honed, the patterns against which future streams of experience will be matched are laid down in our interactions with those with who, by choice or necessity, have influence over us.

It is not as simple as truth cutting its own way, as B. H. Roberts would have it. For the convert, there is the necessary relationship of trust, the opening of the heart, followed by instruction in feeling and recognizing the Spirit. For the child and youth, there is the all-important training up in the way one should go, and cautions about the friendships one keeps. For all, there are warnings against exposure to (let alone production of) alternate voices—movies, music, worldly learning and philosophies of men and false religion in multiplying forms of media—whose allegedly deceptive influence might blur, corrupt, or even supplant orthodox frames of reference, and redirect heartfelt desires in directions that might weaken trust in and attachment to those frames of reference. If spiritual truth truly cut its own way, it would not be so delicate and brittle as to require hedging about with such strenuous efforts at quarantined isolation and protection.

To choose a community of belief is to submit to that community’s authority; and because that authority delineates and modulates the permissible content of spiritual experience, it is not just our expressions, and not only our interpretations, but even our very perceptions that are filtered accordingly. Thus we cannot say our spiritual witnesses are independent; instead, their (often subconscious, even automatic) identification and interpretation involve a hidden reliance upon authoritative guidelines of approved form and content. Such reliance is made possible by our desires for promised blessings and place in community, which motivate us to trustingly invest in stories of some prophet’s empirical, sensory experience that, somewhere back along the line, anchors the authority’s legitimacy.

Desire and worthiness are often identified as two grand keys to testimony, but justifications of why this should be so are rare; perhaps the above considerations fill in this explanatory lacuna.

Human psychology seems to be such that in the face of ambiguous (or less) evidence, wanting to believe something takes one most of the way there. Desire enables us to entertain claims whose supporting evidence is insufficient to persuade indifferent observers (let alone antagonistic ones). Desire guides our cherry-picking among satisfying cognitive and emotional experiences that are the common birthright of humanity upon exposure to ideas, art, and people with which we resonate, and motivates their attribution to the Holy Ghost. Desire mediates our selection of correlated (co-incident) events, separating the wheat from the chaff: correlations that fit expected patterns are treasured up as evidence of the Lord's hand, while those that do not are subconsciously jettisoned, rejected by the automatic filter of belief as white noise (or worse, spam from Satan). If I accidently stumble upon a remarkably fitting quote by Gould (see below) to buttress my skeptical argument just as I'm about to finish this post, it is a coincidence. But if a favorite hymn happens to be played in a moment of spiritual need, it is a tender mercy.

Perhaps counterintuitively, desire also looms large in the the second great pillar of testimony: worthiness, which boils down to attitudinal and behavioral conformity. One who achieves such enjoys the underlying peace and comfort of one who does not rock the boat—and hence avoids the risk of overturning the boat or, more relevant in the present context, being thrown overboard. Avoiding the terrors of solitary drowning in the raging sea is an overarching concern, born of our species’ particular niche as intensely social creatures. Our dependence upon others in infancy and childhood is obvious, but a sense of integration into a protective and supportive community persists into adulthood as a powerful psychological need—one whose evolutionary and historical origins, and ongoing necessity, seem fairly obvious (or at least eminently plausible). For the “unworthy,” life-supporting ties to family, friends, and fellow congregants (not to mention hopes for eternal salvation) hang in the balance. Our community holds the words of mortal and eternal life; to whom shall we go? Hence when we waver or wonder or wander, the efficacy of our prayers is not so much in what we tell ourselves it is—access to independent evidence, that we may be more willing to obey—as to reconcile ourselves to alignment with our larger, deeper desires for what we perceive to be our best bet for long-term safety, at the expense of more fleeting attractions that authority and community insist we abandon. The peace of achieved alignment should not be misread as unalloyed external evidence of the truth of the community’s propositions or standards; for conformity with community yields a powerful intrinsic reward, one that creates a profound conflict of interest that clouds evidentiary judgments.

And thus we see that the heavy—even determinative—dependence of testimony on desire and worthiness casts serious doubt upon the value of “spiritual” experience as a gauge of cosmic truth. Desire to know what the truth is would be a reasonable prerequisite; requiring desire that particular propositions be true—as prescribed in Mormon tutorials of truth-getting—is highly suspicious (not to mention utterly impractical, as such could not possibly be applied to the worldwide panoply of religious notions, as a “fair trial” would require). That God would not trust power or authority to those who might abuse it is a reasonable expectation; that he would not even communicate with those of a different mind and action—as implied in the notion that the Holy Ghost, the alleged medium of divine communication, does not dwell in unholy temples—contradicts the experience of loving parents towards disobedient children, as well as the behavior of the Savior towards publicans and harlots. Seen in this light, the principles of Alma 32—desire to believe, and nourishing the word with good works—are not so much the path to evidentiary enlightenment as a how-to manual for talking and behaving oneself into alignment with a community whose existence depends upon unverifiable assertions. These principles are to a large extent untethered to ontological reality, and might be equally effective in maintaining both well-meaning and craven communities.

Interestingly, the evidentiary weakness of desire and conformity with social expectations has been emphasized, with a warning we should consider heeding, by Stephen J. Gould in a completely different context. He wrote of a concept—now discredited—that was widely accepted in scientific circles for a century or so, not because of empirical support, but because it
…validated the oldest social traditions and deepest psychological hopes of Western cultures—the strongest possible reason for turning our brightest beacon of skepticism upon so congenial a conclusion defended by so little beyond emotional satisfaction.
Desire and “worthiness,” then, are just about the weakest and most manipulable bases of “evidence” one might come up with; treasuring their fruits, rather than “turning our brightest beacon of skepticism” upon them, opens one wide to being misled by ourselves and others. The mantra that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a worthy one, but I would cast it in a more aesthetic form. The claims of the restored gospel, if true, are the greatest claims in eternity; they ought to be worthy of far firmer, deeper, and open epistemological underpinnings.

26 Comments:

Such as? 

Comment by John C. | 6/21/2005 07:01:00 PM  

Such as apostles testifying on a regular basis that they have handled the resurrected Savior. At least from time to time, and renewed for every generation.

Having left the plates around would have been nice.

Of course, what I would really like would be for God to be completely open with humanity. For the God of traditional Christianity it's somewhat understandable that he's not; an anthropomorphic god seems to have fewer excuses. If he doesn't have time, he could send angels more frequently and openly. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 6/21/2005 07:35:00 PM  

I think you incorrectly represent LDS doctrine. You have especially short-shrifted the concept that faith is a hope of things not seen, which are true .

For example, you say "requiring desire that particular propositions be true—as prescribed in Mormon tutorials of truth-getting—is highly suspicious (not to mention utterly impractical, as such could not possibly be applied to the worldwide panoply of religious notions, as a 'fair trial' would require)."

If the item one was being asked to desire to believe is (ontologically independently speaking) true, what is problematic with asking that the person to whom the item is being shared be asked to want it to be true? Perhaps the truth claims of all religions should be viewed as equally valid. But this can only make sense if you assume ex ante that divine reality (if it exists) is inaccessible to human understanding. Of course this is not what Mormonism espouses at all. To the contrary the spread of the Mormon gospel to all nations is the LDS version of a "fair trial." It's only impractical if it doesn't work. And you can only it doesn't work if you don't believe it did or does. You are free to disagree with Alma (or Joseph's imagination if that's what you think it is), but you might mention you are doing so in a more straightforward fashion.

You then say "that [God] would not even communicate with those of a different mind and action—as implied in the notion that the Holy Ghost, the alleged medium of divine communication, does not dwell in unholy temples—contradicts the experience of loving parents towards disobedient children, as well as the behavior of the Savior towards publicans and harlots."

Whoa, I am a straw man and this wind is really picking up. This looks like your concept of the "worthiness prerequisite" you are criticizing, not the LDS one. For one thing, I think the LDS draw a pretty clear distinction between the Holy Ghost "dwelling" and the HG influencing. For another, a strict reading of "unholy temples" would have the HG dwelling in no one, because all are impure--surely that's not LDS doctrine. I also don't think LDS doctrine requires that the harlots who chilled with Jesus be seen as unholy temples. After all, they were accepting of the Lord and his teachings as they were given. And for all we know they fully repented, ceased to act as harlots, and became his strongest and most worthy followers. I just don't see the contradiction you are trying to highlight in the doctrine itself.

Finally you say, "[s]een in this light, the principles of Alma 32—desire to believe, and nourishing the word with good works—are not so much the path to evidentiary enlightenment as a how-to manual for talking and behaving oneself into alignment with a community whose existence depends upon unverifiable assertions. These principles are to a large extent untethered to ontological reality, and might be equally effective in maintaining both well-meaning and craven communities."

I think Alma talks about the seed being a "good" seed. I don't think the LDS would view "good" as encompassing "craven" or even "well meaning" seeds. Again, don't you have to take Alma at his word, and then disagree rather than misrepresenting what he says in order to question "his" methodology? The notion that "these principles are to a large extent untethered to ontological reality" or that the community's assertions are "unverifiable" are more ex ante assumptions that that seem to prevent meaningful engagement with the actual LDS doctrine. But maybe that's not your goal.  

Comment by Pete | 6/22/2005 03:04:00 AM  

Pete, thanks for the thoughtful response. Unfortunately we’re heading out to a family reunion in the southern Utah wilderness this morning, and I don’t have time to respond this or any other comment that may happen to come up in the next few days. I should be able to do so by Sunday or Monday. (Don't let that stop others from discussing among themselves! ;-> )

I know the argument I made was very one-sided. By “throwing darts“ in this way I hope to elicit thoughtful responses like yours that “push back” and help me think carefully. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 6/22/2005 09:52:00 AM  

I agree with Christian. People use Moroni 10 as the final word on how a testimony is given no recognizing that skeptics can easily point to the phrase which probably generates more feeling than any other source: "with real intent." When there is a desperate desire to believe something, and then we "feel" that we should believe this, can anybody call this a very sure path to light and knowledge? Nothing made we feel better as a child than believing in Santa, this was because of my "real intent." How is the common interpretation of Moroni 1`0 any different? 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 6/22/2005 12:05:00 PM  

Well, I finally added my two bits over there. 

Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) | 6/22/2005 02:37:00 PM  

In clinical pharmacologic trials, a prerequisite for the placebo effect to take place is the belief in the expected efficacy of the tested drug. 30 plus percent of the depressed patients in the initial Prozac trial who took the placebo "believed" that they had received a new and powerful antidepressant and were clinically improved. Did this prove that the actual drug worked? Not at all. The family of the recovered child lost in the Uinta's stated in the Deseret News today, "Many feel that the Heavens are closed but we are here to unequivocally declare that the Heavens are open and lost children are returned." Finding their child "proved" the existence of God and the efficacy of prayer. Unforturnately, the LDS father of the son who was lost in the same location a year ago, and despite much prayer to the same God, never found had to endure the news conference espousing this type of "proof." I agree with Christian that it is probably impossible to remain unbiased about the outcome of religious queries and as such, the results of such biased inquiry has to remain equivocal to the objective viewer.  

Comment by Robert O | 6/23/2005 02:02:00 AM  

The question of "real intent" may have less to do with wanting a specific answer and more to do with the prerequisite that preceeds it: "a sincere heart." I think that real intent is an intention to follow what answer comes.

However, I must agree with Christian that by chosing our sources of information, we chose our information. Therefore there is a need to explore many different avenues of investigation and learning. If we rely entirely on one source for the information it will inherantly be biased.

That said, I have profoundly felt what I believe to be the power of the Spirit as it directly answered specific questions of truthfulness. Admittedly, I have wanted to have my held beliefs "confirmed" (don't we all want to be validated?). And there is a danger of self-convincing. However, something that I believe is different between personal revelatory claims of church members and those of other religions is the idea that we are commanded to ask God specifically regarding these things. Other religions may pay lip service to knowing the truthfulness of what they believe, but instead of going to the source of truth: God (even if the process has inherant bias by wanting to have beliefs confirmed) they appeal to the Bible or to their local leader. This process is even more suspect.

So what is the answer? We have available to us many books, many writings, many opinions, and prayer. I just try to make do with what I have. But in the end I am likely going to continue to believe what I want to believe and what brings me peace (even if it just seems a social peace to others).  

Comment by Mike Wilson | 6/23/2005 01:42:00 PM  

Pete,  before addressing your comment—which responds to paragraph 10—let me say that I don't consider this paragraph to be central to this post’s argument. I consider the arguments with potential explanatory power to be paragraphs 8 (“Human psychology…”) and 9 (“Perhaps counterintuitively…”). Paragraph 10 is sort of icing on the cake, making points which are more æsthetic than explanatory: “If there is a god this is not how I would like him to be!” (Here picture a child pouting and stamping its foot. ;-> )

If the item one was being asked to desire to believe is (ontologically independently speaking) true, what is problematic with asking that the person to whom the item is being shared be asked to want it to be true?… It's only impractical if it doesn't work. And you can only it doesn't work if you don't believe it did or does. 

My concern is that I don't know if there are good reasons for the requirement of desire to believe, other than that it seems to be a psychologically effective means of talking oneself into something. Why would God impose this requirement, one so susceptible to contamination by personal bias? (Actually it’s worse than that. There is not only susceptibility to personal bias; there seems to be a requirement for a willingness to engage in biased inquiry. I would have hoped God and his truths to be great and secure enough to be discernible by unbiased inquiry.) To answer in effect “I don’t know, but it works” is not enough (for me) to overcome this concern, because it may be “working” for the wrong reason (i.e. self-deception, or, to put it more mildly, placebo effect): conversely to your statement above, it only works if you believe it does.

On the “fair trial” issue, I sympathize with the argument of not needing to look elsewhere once the truth has been found. Having the periodic table, we don't seriously consider the notion that all substances are composed of earth, air, water, and fire. Similarly, it might be argued, one with a testimony of the Restored Gospel need not seriously consider, say, Islam as The Truth (complete with the benefit of desiring that Islam be true!).

I suppose my response is that I don't see the Restored Gospel as being as securely established in comparison with other religions as the insight of Mendeleev is in comparison to that of Aristotle. To my knowledge no one is apostatizing from allegiance to the periodic table. Losing a testimony is much more common; the usual culprit, of course, is the other requirement on the table—worthiness. As I discussed in the 9th paragraph, I am concerned that there are plausible reasons that explain the necessity of this requirement.

Interestingly, speaking of the periodic table, the forerunner of chemistry—alchemy—required worthiness of its adepts in a way that sounds very familiar to Latter-day Saint ears, but all their centuries of worthiness did not get them to the periodic table, let alone the Philosopher’s Stone or Solomonic Gold. The latter don't exist as far as we know—too bad!—but as a consolation, modern chemistry was within reach once the believing and self-purifying scholasticism of the magus were exchanged for the skeptical and falsifying habits of the scientist.

Re worthiness: I just don't see the contradiction you are trying to highlight in the doctrine itself. You're right that one can allow for degrees of influence of the Holy Ghost, but the basic idea is that the clarity and persistence with which God will talk to me corresponds to the extent that I'm behaving, or at least expressing a willingness to try and do so. In using the word “contradicts” I was not claiming a logical contradiction within the doctrine; I was only making the æsthetic point that God holding a willingness to communicate contingent upon behavior seems different from the attitude of patient and loving earthly parents towards disobedient children. My main point about worthiness (paragraph 9) is that as in the case of “desire,” because “worthiness” brings other factors into play that purposefully contaminate objectivity, I am suspicious of its value or necessity in gaining truth.

I think Alma talks about the seed being a "good" seed.

Yes, but I wonder if desire and “worthiness” enable people to devote themselves to any group requiring a high degree of loyalty and sacrifice. Have disciples of, say, David Koresh and Osama Bin Laden experienced similar emotional “swelling motions” and a sense of “enlightening of the mind” as they buy into the claims of these leaders and align themselves with their “high” purpose and mission? As I mention in the post, there’s no way to get inside their head to know.

The notion that "these principles are to a large extent untethered to ontological reality" or that the community's assertions are "unverifiable" are more ex ante assumptions that that seem to prevent meaningful engagement with the actual LDS doctrine.

In my case it is ex post questioning after 35 years of complete immersion in LDS doctrine.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 6/27/2005 10:38:00 AM  

Jeffrey  and Robert, thanks for your additional insights and examples.

Mike, I too have read the phrase “real intent” as related to the “worthiness” requirement.

You make an interesting point about the possibility that Mormons are the only ones with the cojones to back up their claims with an invitation to ask God, but I don't know that it’s a decisive one. I don't know enough about all other denominations and religions to know if that’s the case. It may be that some other Christians, at least, get this idea from James 1:5 (it was, after all, a Methodist preacher that recommended asking God—as well as this particular verse—to Joseph Smith).

And it may be that all religious devotion is made possible by desire and worthiness, insights that are also derivable from the Bible (for desire, I can imagine some preacher giving a sermon like Alma 32 based on the parable of the sower; for worthiness, there's e.g. John 7:17 I think, as well as the traditions of the hermetic/alchemy/magic worldview.) That our tradition combines these with “asking God” may be a result of Joseph’s particular family background against organized religion and experience with James 1:5. “Asking God” may be an unusual way we have of getting people to the universals of desire and worthiness, but that doesn't necessarily mean it’s actually working as advertised.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 6/27/2005 06:42:00 PM  

Christian:

Thanks for the response. I hope you enjoyed Southern Utah.

Say what you will, but it seems to me that paragraph 10 has to be the center of your argument—a sort of grand “and thus we see” conclusion (is that BOM language you’re borrowing?). The rest of the post is pretty obvious and uncontroversial (ie psychology influencing belief and conformity generally being comfortable—no surprises there).

In making your "aesthetic" critique (is that all it is?), again, I think you’ve failed to account for basic LDS “theology” that says belief is only "faith" if based on a belief in something objectively true. As a practical matter, then, when true principles are involved, the “desire to believe” would look much more like a desire to find out whether or not the principle being taught is, indeed, true rather than a desire to wishfully think that something false (e.g. Santa Clause) is somehow true. This is unbiased inquiry, and, in the case of the true concept being shared, asking the inquirer to “desire to believe” may prevent *biased* inquiry. (I really am curious as to what kind of unbiased inquiry you have in mind that is not susceptible to personal bias? Are you talking about scientific conclusions regarding observable data? Surely they don't completely or conclusively explain all phenomena.)

As far as your “aesthetic point that God holding a willingness to communicate contingent upon behavior seems different from the attitude of patient and loving earthly parents towards disobedient children.” I can understand the impulse behind this, but it assumes, incorrectly, I think, that God is unwilling to communicate to “disobedient children.” To be sure, being worthy brings better access to God’s communication, but it does not follow that one cannot receive divine communication when “unworthy” (see Alma, Saul, etc.). To use your analogy, it’s simply the difference between the kid running around shouting vs. the kid who is sitting still and listening--both have access to the parent in the room talking to them. Is that aesthetically troublesome?

While there is no way to get into the heads of Koresh or Bin Laden’s followers (or anyone else), doesn't that suggest there is no reason to assume that those followers feel the identical “swelling motions” to a person who is truly nourishing an objectively “good” seed--perhaps even a latter-day saint?
 

Comment by Pete | 6/30/2005 06:12:00 PM  

I understand that by Alma's definition one can only have "faith" in something that's true, and that Alma would call belief in something that's not true something else (say, "credulity"). My worry is that this distinction is not useful operationally to someone who does not know the truth ahead of time. I think that because the desire to believe at times (often?) leads to acceptance of false propositions, it is hard to know in practice that any  epistemology that requires desire to believe is leading to "faith" instead of "credulity."

Yes, I am drawing a contrast with scientific methodology, which does not require a desire to believe, but only a willingness to formulate and test empirically falsifiable propositions. I agree that there are limits to the knowledge obtainable in this way; but it might be that this is the most we can have, and that without it it is not possible to distinguish between faith and credulity.

Alma and Saul are notable exceptions to the worthiness and desire requirements; we might also include Thomas, and the antichrists. Why were these "unworthies" given concrete manisfestations, that are usually thought of as being reserved for the most worthy?

Your example of quiet vs. shouting children is interesting. You suggest it is not divinity withdrawing from the unworthy or unbelieving, but unworthiness or unbelief causing an inability to detect a universal divine presence of constant strength. For me personally, in the absence of an understanding of a mechanism by which unworthiness causes this failure of reception, it cannot be known if the analogy is valid.

I quibble with the claim of the seed being objectively "good"—that is what is supposed to be tested by the presence or absence of "swelling motions." I agree I can't know the LDS believer's experience is not different, and that I can't prove it's not of divine origin. But because the described experience seems not so far different from other human experiences in unrelated situations, I find a double parsimony to be potentially compelling: these experiences are common to all humanity, and arise from a single cognitive emotional mechanism (or handful of them). If a plausible "natural" explanation is available, why invent a whole other set of spiritual entities to explain these experiences? 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 6/30/2005 09:21:00 PM  

Christian:

Re "For me personally, in the absence of an understanding of a mechanism by which unworthiness causes this failure of reception, it cannot be known if the analogy is valid."

What about God not dwelling in unholy temples--pretty basic stuff. The Judeo-Christian/Mormon scriptures are full of references to this phenomenon. The Lord saying, for example, that his hand is stretched out still, etc. 

Comment by Pete | 7/01/2005 02:20:00 AM  

Christian:

I suppose I have to agree that "it is hard to know in practice that any epistemology that requires desire to believe is leading to 'faith' instead of 'credulity.'" But need this make us uncomfortable?

We could make similar conclusions about epistemology as it relates to any objective reality or "truth" in the universe (including existence itself). How do I know the earth is "round" when I've never personally observed its roundness (all I've seen are encyclopedic-type references and pictures that purportedly come from space, when we all know the US government faked the moon landing)

I keep thinking about Pascal's suggestion that it is better to bet on the existence of God and divine truth than to bet against it because the payout is so much higher for the bet on God than the alternative.(Interestingly, LDS theology provides that in the afterlife religious believers of all faiths will generally get the good they think they will be getting, although reincarnationists and atheists will be surprised.) On the other hand, I admittedly can't square this concept of wagering with modern LDS scripture that seems to talk about coming to a sure knowledge (even Alma suggests you can "know" one thing at a time). Perhaps this surer knowledge is simply another part of the payout that some of us are able to experience in this life when we follow Alma to the tee, while others have to wait.

But what I don't get is if you really, truly can't know that the LDS believer's experience is not distinct and not of divine origin, why bet the farm on the notion that it "seems" to be no different than "other human experiences in unrelated situations."?

If the encounters with the divine reported by Moses, Joseph Smith, and all the modern LDS apostles, or even those spoken of by run of the mill LDS are "experiences that are common to all humanity, and arise from a single cognitive emotional mechanism (or handful of them)" then Nietzsche is generally right, and there really is no good reason to circumscribe one's self to a moral system or otherwise be anything other than amoral. Why would anyone want to believe that? 

Comment by Pete | 7/01/2005 03:20:00 AM  

I agree it's worthwhile to consider the basis of the authority by which we accept anything, including the roundness of the earth. For someone like me with big questions about spiritual confirmation of cosmic truths, examination of the empirical basis underlying Mormon authority is of great interest.

Pascal's wager is an interesting idea, but I don't know how many people actually accept a mortal life they find truly unpleasant in hopes of a better one life after this. The Mormon life has always been conceptualized as a good life even in mortality, and I think this is the reason many people choose it. It works for many.

I haven't read Nietzsche, but I disagree with the idea that in the absence of the divine one may as well be amoral. One might arrive at an evolving morality different from that of traditional Christian right-wingers (or Islamic fundamentalists), but our nature as social creatures and the effectiveness of reciprocity will ensure that some  sort of morality holds sway. Even the Gadianton robbers had laws. ;-> 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 7/02/2005 12:13:00 AM  

Regarding the value of feelings telling us that something is true:

One question that I have pondered in response to the argument that feelings lead us to biased perceptions of the truth is, how do you know someone loves you? And the corollary: how do you know you love someone? You could argue that their actions provide a visible, palpable evidence of that love. However, one's motives can never truly be known in an empiric way, so how can one's love be known in an empiric fashion. Hence there must be some trust in the feelings that one has. Do they exist specifically for biological purposes, or does what we describe as love involve a deeper spiritual reality that can only be experience by trusting in feelings? Does a feeling like love fall into the category of Truth that we can only Know through the scientific method or must we trust something beyond those senses that we trust to Prove things. 

Comment by Mike Wilson | 7/02/2005 05:54:00 PM  

Pete  and Mike, I've wanted to respond further to some of your points, and in fact started to; but they became so long I thought I'd make them new posts, and I haven't finished pulling them together yet. A busy travel/work/vacation schedule the last couple weeks (and coming three weeks) have led (and may yet lead) to my intermittent neglect of this blog. Sorry about that! 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 7/09/2005 04:20:00 PM  

This is a fun little thread. I don't have a great deal to add, but I would like to throw out one idea.

It seems to me that Christian is right with respect to the deficiencies of spiritual experience as an epistemic equivalent of scientific knowledge. I think, however, he makes the mistake of assuming that the primary purpose of spiritual experiences is epistemic. Obviously, Mormons make claims about the epistemic value of revelation, but it seems to me that the scriptures in particular almost never conceptualize the revelatory process purely in epistemic terms, even when a Revelation has an epistemic component. Hence, it seems to me that we are never going to have religious propositions that we know in the same way that we know scientific propositions. They will be open to doubt in a Cartesian sense. However, we needn't suppose that this means that spiritual experiences fail to accomplish their appointed goals. It seems to me that they are best viewed as experiences that have a variety of different goals, of which the epistemic component needn't be viewed as primary. Hence, we have requirements of desire and worthiness not because they insure epistemic validity (they may give us reason to doubt, as Christian points out) but because those elements are a necessary component of other, more transformative purposes.

A second point (I lied about having only one point) is that I think that Christian is being a bit too sanguine about the ultimately reliability of other epistemic methods. As Descartes demonstrates it is very difficult to find propositions whose truth is not open to some kind of logical doubt. I don't think that this implies skepticism or solipcism. I don't think that it implies an inability to make any comparative judgements about different claims to knowledge. It does mean, however, that that ability to logically doubt the truth of this or that proposition doesn't tell us a great deal. 

Comment by Nate Oman | 7/09/2005 08:11:00 PM  

I’m glad Nate is having fun. It gratifies me beyond words that someone besides myself is entertained.

I think Nate is right about there being more to revelation than what he calls the “epistemic component.” He doesn't say much about what the ‘more’ is, other than to label it “transformative.” I’m not exactly sure what Nate has in mind here, but it might be related, at least in part, to a post I've been meaning to write for some time: ‘The Rehabilitation of Ad Hominem. ’ Unlike science, with the gospel it is about the person (and the Zion community she is to inhabit).

Manifestly, the clusters of phenomena we label personal and prophetic revelation change lives and create a cohesive community; it “works” in some practical sense. But such systems (e.g. that of the Amish) may “work” whether these processes are of divine or human origin; knowing the difference requires engagement with the epistemic component. Another question: Is there a persuasive argument that strengthening the epistemic value would hinder the “transformative purposes”? If not, appeal to the existence of transformative purposes does not excuse the poverty of the epistemological underpinnings.

I also agree with Nate that in the end it is possible to logically doubt everything, but as he notes, this does not disable or excuse us from making comparative judgments. It is possible to have logical doubts about the objective reality of both (1) a stone I kick across the ground, and (2) a spaceship following comet Hale-Bopp waiting to take suicidal ‘graduates’ of the group Heaven’s Gate to the ‘next level’ (see e.g. here  and here); but I think it’s possible to make meaningful arguments about the relative strength of these doubts. Are the arguments I make in this post no stronger than the sorts of logical loopholes through which one doubts the reality of a stone one kicks across the ground?

(Incidentally, a Nightline broadcast of videotaped farewells by members of Heaven’s Gate was probably one of the earliest seeds of my concern about these issues. Their demeanor of peaceful assurance and purpose, and expressions of love and gratitude toward their leaders and fellow members, were so eerily similar in look and feel to Mormon testimonies that I was pretty shaken. Without question, these people were “transformed,” big time.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 7/12/2005 10:53:00 AM  

It seems to me that revelation and faith change and alter a souls in particular ways. They make us more humble and force us to draw closer to God and rely more on him. This, it seems to me, is a process that could not be equally well accomplished by turning the gold plates into a travelling road show to reassure tortured skeptics. The torture is good for your soul.

It seems to me that the doubts that one has about kickng a stone and the dobuts that one has about Heavens Gate are much less tied to epistemic concerns that you assume. I seems to me that the main reason that we have doubts about Heavens Gate is because such beliefs lead to dangerous outcome (mass suicide) and place us in an uncomfortable position vis-a-vis society (cult members are wierd). Belief in kicking stones has none of these consequences. Simply put, whole sale doubt of sense perception and ordinary experience is dysfunctional.

Of course, one could argue that Mormonism is just like Heaven's Gate. After all there is MMM and all the rest. In some sense, this is true, but it is worth pointing out that in some sense this is probably true of most belief systems. A certian kind of scientism, for example, gave rise to eugenics and the forced sterilization and execution of the mentally retraded. The question to ask is not whether or not there is a logical or potential risk of being misled, but rather -- emperically -- whether or not one's beliefs are leading to actual dysfunctionality.

Of course, one can point out that Amish beliefs "work" in a similar way. To a certain extent this is true, on the other hand, I have never tried being Amish (so maybe it wouldn't work for me), and I suspect that most Amish have not tried being Mormon. This, however, is less an epistemic problem than an existential one. One is faced with the necessity of having beliefs of some kind or another. This will always entail the rejection of other beliefs. The Amish, in a sense, are just as much of a challenge to astrophysics as to alternative theologies. Diversity of belief is a challenge to any belief that claims unity, and ultimatelly all beliefs do.

Life is a dangerous place. You are never going to escape the possiblity that your might be wrong. All you can do is continue to make do with the beliefs that you have and modify them to the extent necessary to make one's way in the cosmos. This is not an argument for or against Mormonism per se. It does, however, mean that the Archimedean position that you seem to be looking for is an illusion. 

Comment by Nate Oman | 7/12/2005 11:54:00 AM  

Is any knowledge worth having gained without wanting that knowledge? Whether it is scientific or spiritual in nature, only by seeking truth diligently can we truly gain it for ourselves. If the knowledge comes passively, often it is easily forgotten or never penetrates deeply enough to make changes in our way of thinking or behaving.

By positing that knowledge gained because we want it is biased leaves us with the other side of the coin that the only knowledge which is true and real (or unbiased) is that which is completely obvious to everyone and which does not require in-depth investigation. I realize that this is a simplified look, but also may be an important point to consider before we throw the knowledge out with the perceived weakness of the method.

 

Comment by Mike Wilson | 8/16/2005 01:39:00 PM  

Mike, I don’t have any quarrel with a requirement that one must actively seek and work in order to obtain knowledge. What concerns me is that the requirement seems to be not to desire to know what  is true, but a desire that particular things be true. Perhaps a subtle difference, but a very significant one. It is problematic because when it comes to propositions for which there is not strong evidence either way (and not infrequently even in the face of opposing evidence), a strong desire that something be true can easily carry the day. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 8/16/2005 10:14:00 PM  

"If I accidently stumble upon a remarkably fitting quote by Gould (see below) to buttress my skeptical argument just as I'm about to finish this post, it is a coincidence. But if a favorite hymn happens to be played in a moment of spiritual need, it is a tender mercy."

I have to say, completely apart from your argument, I felt like your attitude towards Elder Bednar's confidential anecdote struck me as flippant and great-and-spacious-ish. I think it was a low blow. He wasn't forcing anybody to accept the divinity of his interpretation, just sharing a personal feeling. Don't be so eager to tear it to shreds. 

Comment by Carl Youngblood | 8/19/2005 01:13:00 PM  

Carl, in most cases I don't think I would typically critique anyone's specific, personal, confidential anecdote that they held sacred. But I don't think Elder Bednar's experience can be considered confidential when he uses it as the basis of a conference talk wherein he teaches a way to discern the influence of God in one's life. To me, this brings it into a realm in which it is fair game for discussion. As I discussed in that paragraph, I have questions about the validity of the ideas he discusses. Understanding is always enhanced by application to specific examples; I felt that referring to his and my experiences served as useful concrete illustrations of my point. I am sorry if that offended you. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 8/19/2005 09:10:00 PM  

Even though he did use this and other similar examples in his conference talk, I felt like the whole talk was an olive leaf, a mere piece of wise counsel for those who might find it beneficial. To put it another way, it was like a nickel's worth of free advice that you would hear from one of the town elders--sort of like saying, "In case it's of any benefit to you, here is something that I've tried to live by that has worked well for me."

So it seems to me like your analysis is being unfaithful to his intended meaning. You seem too eager to find fault. 

Comment by Carl Youngblood | 8/22/2005 01:59:00 AM  

Carl,

I think one issue here is that when an apostle gives "a mere piece of wise counsel," it is suddenly taken as doctrinal truth, as the way it should happen to all of us. Christian's argument, although I may not agree with his conclusions, is that these occurances in life should be taken for what they are: happenings. Their source can be and have been debated for centuries. Each individual must decide for herself, and no one is obligated to buy another's explanation.

Knowing Christian very well, I know there is no attempt to find fault. He is just exploring, something we all should do a little more of. 

Comment by Mike W. | 8/23/2005 06:17:00 PM  

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