On the Evidentiary Value of “Spiritual” Experiences
by Christian Y. Cardall
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.…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.”
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…
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.