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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Political and Cultural Rorschach Test

I found my reactions to this photo to be surprisingly complex, to the point that I'm not even going to try to articulate them.

What are your reactions?

Well, I guess I'll state my initial and final reactions, and elide intermediate thoughts. Initial reaction: Laughter at the joke, and mockery. Clinton---how appropriate he's a Democrat. What an ass. Final reaction: Curiosity. Why did the political parties pick such ridiculous animals as their symbols? Glancing at Wikipedia articles on Republicans and Democrats, I see that perhaps they weren't so much chosen as thrust upon them, in political cartoons by Thomas Nast in the 1870s in Harper's Weekly.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Looking for a Father's Day Gift?

If so, you're in luck---I've found the perfect gift! Check this out:

I quote from the original ad:
Surprise him with a 10K gold nugget-style ring made just for him. Round diamond accents add a touch of class. Imported.
Just think, you could wow him with the twin virtues of "surprise" (Can't you hardly wait to see the look on his face?) and exotic "class" (Sporting this "imported" jewel, he'll be a cut above the others in his High Priest group!).

The only thing I can imagine that would improve on this would be a matching nugget-style CTR ring. Anyone know if such an item exists to satisfy what must be an overwhelming clamor?

Dad, I know you're worried that by making the world aware of this opportunity there's a danger they'll sell out before you get your hands on yours. Don't worry, yours is safely ordered. Sorry I ruined the surprise, but I simply could not contain my excitement!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Blogrolls, the Origin of Ethics, and Latin Rhymes

You may have noticed that my sidebar lacked a standard feature: the blogroll. I intended to do something about this shortly after launching this blog, but I was initially stymied by two problems. One difficulty was universal: How do I decide who to include? The other was more personal, and considerably more distressing: How can I fit a blogroll into the pattern of using the Latin suffix -alia, exemplified in the terms Marginalia, Practicalia, and Technicalia? In truth it didn't take too long to hit upon solutions to these dilemmas, but I have procrastinated their implementation---until now.

I have seen several bloggers juggle competing exigencies as they wrestle with their blogrolls. On one hand, the proliferation of blogs makes it difficult to maintain a complete and up-to-date list of all blogs devoted to Mormon subjects. Some have made heroic efforts to do just this, but it seems wasteful and unnecessary for this admirable feat to be universally (or even widely) duplicated. On the other hand, leaving people off of blogrolls can lead to disappointment; perceiving themselves as neglected, disregarded, or even slighted, bloggers may occasionally find themselves indulging in hurt feelings. (Such should grow up, and also grow thicker skins; it's not like they're being left out of the Lamb's Book of Life!)

Fortunately, there is an obvious principle that cuts through these difficulties with ease: reciprocity, a principle sufficiently simple and powerful that it constitutes a plausible naturalistic origin underlying all morality and ethics. Its wide applicability shines forth in manifestions banal and sublime, from the incipient "culture" of our lower primate distant cousins (you scratch my back I'll scratch yours) to the Byzantine machinations of sophisticated politicos (who live and die by the quid pro quo). (You, dear reader, must judge which of these examples is sublime, and which banal; if you have difficulty deciding, perhaps a learned friend can aid your exegesis by rendering a judgment on whether the previous sentence constitutes a normal or inverted parallelism. Let me know if you come up with an answer, because I haven't decided myself.) Reciprocity---expressed in the golden rule---is the universally intuited dictum of philosophers and seers ranging from Confucius to Jesus. Truly, upon it hang all the law and the prophets; and verily, those antiquated laws, customs, obligations, expectations, and prohibitions rendered obsolete by the disappearance of the underlying reciprocal basis for their initial invention are inexorably destined for the dustbin of history.

While reciprocity is sufficiently automatic and simple for unthinking implementation by chimpanzees---and therefore also suitable for exploitation by a lazy dumbarse like myself---I feel a need to add a smidgeon of discriminating taste to my blogroll implementation of reciprocity. The thing is, according to strict reciprocity you should return the favor of linking any random blog that happens to link you, for better or worse. But one interpretation of a blogroll is that it says something about you, through its indications of what you think is most worthwhile, who you would like to seem associated with, etc.

Enter the Latin suffix business. I will blogroll any blog that blogrolls me, and only blogs that blogroll me; but I will distinguish blogs that I know from experience to be head-and-shoulders above the rest in the section Inter Alia ("among others"), and put others I don't know so well or have not gotten as much out of in the section Et Alia ("and others"). Now we're getting into hurt feelings again; what can I say, life isn't fair. And it may well be the case that for random historical reasons I may simply have not been able to take the time to get to know your blog well enough yet.

To close, three miscellaneous thoughts. (1) Clark Goble recently put up a section at the bottom of his sidebar entitled "Reciprocity," where he dumps anyone who blogrolls him, but whom he doesn't see fit to put on his main blogroll. I know this looks suspiciously similar to what I've come up with here. But I swear I had come up with my thoughts independently, and felt disappointed to see he'd beat me to it. (I felt like I had to wait until someone actually blogrolled me, you see.) (2) If I've accidentally left anyone off who has me on their blogroll, or if you blogroll me at some point in the future, please let me know. (3) I may well probably contact others about a potential reciprocal blogroll relationship, but my enthusiasm for this has been dampened by Steve Evans' public rejection of me, just hours after instantly gratifying Geoff Johnston's request for a spot on the BCC blogroll. So Steve, if you're reading, kiss my arse; and when you finally do blogroll me, I will reciprocate. On the blogroll, I mean.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Procreation or Design: Pick your Poison

In an earlier post I argued that God as Literal Father and God as Engineer are mutually exclusive ways of understanding God's role in the creation of the human physical body. (Both are anathema to the hard-core evolutionist; hence the title of this post.)

I've created a new poll, available on the sidebar, where you can declare your best guess. The options are not binary: there are several variations of God's possible "design" involvement; an option that includes both design and procreation; and, just so no one feels left out, an option for skeptics/unbelievers as well.

Previous polls (which still accept votes) can be found here.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]