Question: Is the Latter-day Saint conception of testimony from the Holy Ghost threatened by neuroscience or psychology?

Question: Is the Latter-day Saint conception of testimony from the Holy Ghost threatened by neuroscience or psychology?

Review of the Criticism

As a part of their epistemology, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that commitment and/or belief may be established by spiritual experience. This experience is known as having an experience with the “Holy Ghost” aka the "Holy Spirit."[1] As part of the experience of feeling the Spirit, members will frequently report (among other sensations and phenomena) feelings such as swelling motions in their chest, warmth in the chest, clarity of mind, and revelation of knowledge.

Secularist critics of the Church charge that these experiences may be the result of something else and raise a number of naturalistic counter explanations, stemming from neurological and/or psychological study, that supposedly eliminate the possibility of the experiences being caused by a spiritual being or force that is external to humans. The phenomena cited include the Backfire Effect (Compare "Belief Perserverance"),[2] Cognitive Dissonance,[3] Confirmation Bias,[4] the Elevation Emotion,[5] and the Illusory Truth Effect.[6] Comparisons are also drawn between the feelings associated with the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Spirit and the effects of the God Helmet.[7]

Honest and faithful Latter-day Saints frequently ask themselves: "What if the Spirit is just coming from me?"

This article will review each of the proposed counter explanations for spiritual experiences and seek to reconcile such claims within the epistemic framework provided by the official scriptures of the Church. To begin, the relevant portions of the Latter-day Saint theological conception of spiritual experience will be introduced and then a discussion of the proposed counter explanations will follow.

The Latter-day Saint Conception of the Soul

Latter-day Saints believe that what one might call the “body” and “spirit” are connected as one in a form of substance monism.[8] In contrast to creedal Christianity that sees the soul as an immaterial essence separate from a material body, Latter-day Saints see the matter that makes up body and spirit as a unified entity of substance. This union between body and spirit is denominated the soul.[9] A spirit can exist independently of the body in a perhaps pseudo-isomorphic form;[10] yet when the spirit and body are connected, they are intimately and intricately intertwined in a continuum from more flesh to more spiritual.[11] Thus, whenever we do something with our bodies, it may or may not affect our spirits. Whenever something occurs in our spirit, it may or may not affect our bodies. It may potentially be said that, at times (perhaps when the Spirit moves upon us), the body and spirit can act upon and react to each other.

All spiritual entities/personages are believed to be material instead of immaterial.[12] Thus, we can feel the affect of spiritual personages and forces in/on material objects such as our bodies and/or the spirit matter that is connected to them.

The Latter-day Saint Conception of God, the Devil, the Holy Ghost, False Spirits, Good Angels, Bad Angels, and Light

Latter-day Saint theology teaches that there is a spectrum of light, understood to be synonymous with "truth" by faithful adherents,[13] that one can receive in this life that comes from God. This light is known in Latter-day Saint vernacular as “The Light of Christ.” All people are given the Light of Christ as their spirits connect with their bodies--presumably sometime after conception and before birth.[14] When one receives more of God’s truth, one thus receives more Light.[15] When one rejects Light, is persuaded towards rejecting the truth and Light that one has already received, or one deliberately chooses to remain without the Light that God has revealed, one stays away or moves away from Light.[16] This is seen as sinful.

The Holy Ghost and many righteous angels are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the Light.[17] The Holy Ghost works through the Light of Christ.[18] The Light of Christ is understood to give a spiritual energy and life to all things.[19] Since it gives this life to all things, it follows that the Holy Ghost, working through this Light, can work on our spirit and/or our body in order to produce sensations in the heart and bring revelation to the mind.[20] The Holy Ghost works in unity with God's purposes.

Satan, false angels, and many false spirits are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the darkness.[21]

Latter-day Saints claim to have the fullness of Light that one can receive in this life, thus being on the (say) far right of the spectrum.[22] The darkest part of the spectrum is perhaps the intentional disobedience of all of God’s commandments and worshiping Satan.

As one receives more Light, one is more receptive to receiving additional Light and is seen as being able to recognize the Holy Ghost and the truth that God has revealed through prophets easier. As one moves away from the Light, they are less and less able to perceive Light. If a person has gained Light but subsequently lost it through sin or being persuaded by a false spirit to accept darkness, it is seen as difficult to regain it. It can become progressively more difficult to regain the Light depending on how much Light one receives and how much they give up when moving into the darkness.[23] The amount of Light one has and the ability to perceive it can ultimately be diminished entirely.[24] As Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has taught:

As we yield to that influence, to do good and become good, then the Light of Christ increases within us. As we disobey, Light is decreased and can ultimately be diminished within us.[25]

Thus these spirits are acting on both our body and our spirit, connected together intimately (called the “soul” in Latter-day Saint theology), to persuade us to accept, reject, or stay indifferent to Light and truth. When these spirits act on us, they produce physically felt sensations accompanied most often by revelation to the mind. Latter-day Saints believe that all human beings have the ability to perceive that which is of God from that which is of the devil through the same power given by the Light of Christ.[26] It is generally believed that what God has revealed to prophets is good and will inspire one to love God and serve him.[27]

Spiritual Knowledge as Being

It is of paramount importance to understand in the discussion that spirtual revelation for Latter-day Saints is not just a feeling or stimuli. It is a matter that involves both heart and mind. Those who would reduce spiritual revelation to only interpreted experience are failing to understand the Latter-day Saint agent's concept of receiving personal revelation when trying to explain it away through a third-person account. Latter-day Saint philosopher and theologian Blake T. Ostler, basing his argument in the Kantian distinction and conceptualization of noumena and phenomena, made these statements as an elucidation of the concept of personal spiritual revelation in Latter-day Saint theology as part of a presentation given at the 2007 FAIR Conference:

Now I ask again, can humans really know anything? Does the [spiritual] experience come from God, or do we merely interpret it to be experienced as coming from God? I’m going to deal with the strongest arguments that I know.

The first argument is “The Argument from Interpretive Framework Inherent in all Human Experience,” and these are the premises. The first premise: all human experience involves interpretation, and I guarantee you that it does; that’s true. Two, the interpretation of the experience of burning in the bosom as coming from God is something we do as humans. And three, the interpretation is therefore a human contribution to the experience and all that we really know is that we have had an experience, that we experienced it as coming from God in the experiencing of it, and we cannot know more than that.

Well, is that a good argument? It is in a sense, but the argument proves too much. Maybe at this point it makes some sense to talk about and show the kind of interpretations to human experience we have – maybe we ought to see the “dots.” I want you to stare at the black cross in the middle and watch what happens. {pause} Has it disappeared yet? If you still see the purple dots on the outside, raise your hand. Have they disappeared for anybody? Keep looking. Has the ball turned red for anybody? Green. It should turn green actually, yeah. Well, for a person who is color blind like me, it’s red; all right.

Our minds add the experience of seeing a green ball and they take away the dots because they become irrelevant to our experience. You see, there’s really more there than we’re experiencing. We filter out of our experience literally 90% to 98% of all of the sense data that come into us. We don’t even bring it to consciousness. And so, what I am showing you is that our experience is in fact interpreted, at least when it comes through our senses. So is it the case that all we are really doing when we have a spiritual experience is interpreting it as coming from God, and it’s simply up for grabs as to whether the interpretation is true or not?

I suggest that there would be no possibility of new experiences that break out of the framework of existing paradigms and world-views or our prior interpretations if all experience were necessarily limited to our pre-interpretive framework of interpretation. Yet that is precisely what a conversion experience is–it reorients one’s entire view of the world and changes and alters the interpretive framework. Thus, it must be in some sense logically and experientially prior to interpretive experience.

[. . .]

In a large way, the way that we see the world is up to us. What do you see? Do you see a duck? How many see a duck? How many see a rabbit? Okay, who is right? In fact, you can change at will, once you have learned how to see it, you can change at will the way you see this figure. And in a large way, the way that we can choose to see our experience is precisely like this. We can choose to organize our experience to see it in different ways. I suggest that in the experiencing of religious experience, this is often what is happening; we’re choosing to see different things and experience different things because of our pre-interpretive framework.

But I’m suggesting that that’s not all there is to experience, there’s more to experience than mere interpretation, and this argument isn’t any good unless all of our experience is simply interpretation. As I said, the spiritual experience must in some sense be logically and experientially prior to our interpretive experience because it reorients our experience. It gives us a new way of seeing. Moreover, if the experience rearranges and replaces the framework so that it is the framework or categories, then it is not interpreted experience, but interpretive, and the bases for all further experience as such.

Now this argument also assumes that the entirety of what is experienced is interpretive. But there is more than interpretation that gives content to our experience, and the experience of the burning in the heart and the inspiration as coming from God is, in fact, good reason to believe that it does in fact, come from God; because that’s how we experience it.

If all we ever did were to regurgitate our prior categories of thought or fixed framework of beliefs, then there could never be anything novel or creatively new things. No new scientific theories could emerge, new inventions would be impossible and new revelations could never happen because all we would do is regurgitate what we already know. But that’s not the way human life is, so I suggest that the argument isn’t valid.[28]

Ostler's argument makes a lot of sense in light of scriptures such as Doctrine and Covenants 8:2 in which God is said to speak to both our mind and our heart. If the Spirit can speak to both at the same time, then the experience of the Spirit likely must be a noumenon. If it is a noumenon, then being able to reproduce a phenomenon does nothing to hurt the Latter-day Saint conception of the Holy Ghost given that (obviously) the respective natures of the experiences are fundamentally different.

A Review of The Different Neurological Phenomena

With these important parts of the Latter-day Saint conception of spiritual experience and its purpose laid as a groundwork, a more responsible and comprehensible discussion of the criticism is now possible. The different neurological/psychological phenomena can be viewed from within this framework. It is believed by the author that the study of these phenomena does not diminish the Latter-day Saint conception of the Spirit or testimony (conviction of truth) in anyway; but rather that it informs, enlightens, and even strengthens it.[29]

The general premise of this examination is to demonstrate that—since Latter-day Saints commit themselves to their form of substance monism, their form of materialism, and a corporeal (meaning "with body"), anthropomorphic God—that no scientific study will be able to demonstrate nor falsify the validity of the use of spiritual experiences in Latter-day Saint epistemology. It may be said that each of the supposed psychological/neurological phenomena may occur through a causal chain of events begun by spiritual force provided by God (who would know how the human body could react to spiritual stimuli being a man according to Latter-day Saint theology) and/or the Holy Spirit or Satan and/or false spirits whether they desire or don't desire, through whatever power of self-determination they possess, to act on humans. This could be neither demonstrated nor falsified since spirit matter, according to Latter-day Saint doctrine, can’t be seen unless one has refined spiritual sight.[30] Alternatively, the body or spirit may experience something without outside spiritual impetus.[31]

What follows is an introduction to each of the claims and a very brief exploration of them through the lens of this epistemic framework provided by Latter-day Saint scripture.

The Backfire Effect (Compare "Belief Perseverance")

The Backfire Effect “describe[s] how some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”[32] This is used to explain why Latter-day Saints frequently report feeling a stronger conviction of the truth claims of the Church even after reviewing critical literature.

The Backfire Effect hasn’t had a stable understanding of its physiological profile established and experiments have failed to replicate the same findings that the researchers who first introduced the idea of the Backfire Effect first produced.[33]

The Backfire Effect is contrasted with "Belief Perserverance" which is merely the ability to maintain a belief (without that belief being strengthened necessarily) even in the face of solid disconfirming evidence. Belief Perseverance is a well-established psychological phenomenon and is manifested in all people no matter what the belief being contradicted. For Latter-day Saints, this might be something that involves the simple and natural function of our brains with no additional spiritual impetus behind it. But there may be additional ways to view this.

When concerning information arises for Latter-day Saints, there are generally three reactions to it: 1) The information is rejected as invalid and thus disregarded in consideration of conviction and testimony, 2) The information is regarded as valid but the framework through which they gathered data is reformulated to accommodate the new data, or 3) The information is regarded as valid and the framework is not adjusted thus causing diminished or sometimes even lost faith.

Sometimes the first approach is used and may even be valid. The Apostle Paul wrote to “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.”[34] This conviction may come from the Spirit which tells them to remain patient for the time being while more data comes to light. Adherents with this conviction will simply need to make sure that they have received revelation on the matter and that that revelation is consistent with their scriptures and the teachings of the prophets and apostles of the tradition. Latter-day Saints believe in continuing revelation and that more is yet to be revealed by God to the world through revelation and science.[35]

However there may be times when new information is unlikely to come forth and Latter-day Saints will need to form a more stable set of epistemological axioms that will accommodate the new information. In other words, they will need to reform their expectations for the data in a more informed way so that their testimony can return to normal or become stronger.

Thus, there's no one universal approach to this and Latter-day Saints should simply seek to accomplish what they discern is best for the circumstances that obtain.

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It should be mentioned that when Latter-day Saints report a stronger conviction of the truth after reviewing critical literature, it is, more often than not, the result of enduring study and prayer which they have used to search for answers to the questions of critics. It is not simply the result of wishful thinking or willful ignorance. To suggest otherwise seems ironically ignorant. Surely this may be the case with some; but the vast majority of Latter-day Saints take their scripture and history seriously since (in contrast to creedal Christianity and other religions) their theology is tied to their history. Diligent efforts have been and are made by the Church to provide helpful resources to members so they can learn their history including controversial topics within a framework suited to their learning, emotional, cultural, and practical needs. FairMormon and other Latter-day Saint academic organizations such as the Interpreter Foundation, Book of Mormon Central, Pearl of Great Price Central, The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the BYU Religious Studies Center, and BYU Studies exist as entities in part to try to push back rationally on those who might believe that solid disconfirming evidence is available for the beliefs of Latter-day Saints.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is commonly understood as the discomfort that one feels when one encounters new information that contradicts a currently-held belief.

Cognitive Dissonance occurs in all people whenever they encounter information that contradicts their currently-held belief. Though critics take this argument a little further when speaking about Latter-day Saints. Critics aver that when Latter-day Saints witness another person doing something that goes against what they believe God has commanded, that what they may describe as the Spirit telling them that such thing is wrong may instead be simply Cognitive Dissonance. Similarly, it is also used to explain how a Latter-day Saint might feel uncomfortable in the presence of critics when the critics share information that is supposedly damaging to the faith of the member they’re interacting with. Thus when Latter-day Saints report that the Spirit does not want them to be in a particular situation (such as being publicly confronted by critics and/or critical information), critics assert that adherents are simply under the influence of this effect.

Cognitive Dissonance is certainly something that occurs within the brain, which is obviously part of our bodies. However, given the Latter-day Saint conception of the soul, this doesn't negate the possibility of dissonance being caused by a spiritual source. Latter-day Saints will generally report additional discomfort that is manifested on a deep, spiritual level when they encounter situations such as this. Latter-day Saint doctrine holds that the Spirit can press thoughts on our minds,[36] that it can recognize and correct sin,[37] and that it can constrain someone to do something or restrain them from doing it.[38] The Holy Spirit may provide the idea that one adheres to and the individual can experience dissonance as a result of not wanting to let go of a proposition believed to have been revealed by God. Alternatively, the Spirit may simply cause the dissonance partially or fully without any knowledge content revealed before such an encounter. Finally, it may be possible that there is no influence from the Holy Spirit and instead, Latter-day Saints may simply be experiencing intense stress manifested in both body and spirit. Or perhaps some other combination of the preceding. Latter-day Saints will simply have to experience such dissonance for themselves, pay very close attention to their experience, and then take proactive steps to resolve the dissonance in a way consistent with their beliefs by study and/or faith.[39]

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is understood as the tendency that all people have to seek for, learn, and recall information in a way that confirms their already-held beliefs.

There are several ways that critics apply criticism based on this information.

  • The most common way that critics use this information is by arguing that when Latter-day Saints pray, they are only seeking to confirm their already held beliefs about how their prayers should be answered. Thus spiritual experience is argued to be deterministic i.e. if you pray hard enough about something hoping for one answer, you’ll get it.

This criticism has a few weaknesses:

  • Spiritual experience often doesn’t confirm what Latter-day Saints want. Many Latter-day Saints report that, as part of their individual religious experience, that they're given a distinct “no” to the prayers that they wish to receive a “yes” for or where they're simply given a contrary answer to a particular piece of inspiration they wish to receive from the Spirit.
  • The criticism assumes that all knowledge for Latter-day Saints comes from their immediately sensed experience i.e. what they pray about is first observed with their natural senses such as sight and sense of hearing and then brought to deity in prayer. While that is at the very least partially true,[40] there are other times where Latter-day Saints claim to receive knowledge that they wouldn’t otherwise have. This often comes during priesthood blessings but can also come as warnings of immediate danger, sudden impressions to go help someone, etc.
  • Spiritual experience has often been seen to not be able to be produced at will. This is the reason that many Latter-day Saints have gone through faith crisis because, for whatever reason, they have felt like God stopped answering their prayers. Consider the experience of famous Latter-day Saint musician Michael McClean and how he resolved such a predicament.

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Some critics assert that Latter-day Saints are too quick to interpret new events in a way that confirms their already-held beliefs about God and his supposed involvement in miracles. For instance consider what one website (run for former Latter-day Saints by former Latter-day Saints) created as a meme in part to mock Latter-day Saint tendencies to interpret a situation as miraculous:

Confirmation bias screenshot.png

The implied argument is that it is circular reasoning under philosophically empirical standards to assert that God miraculously caused that the temple in Houston not be flooded. This same argument is applied to Latter-day Saints and other religious persons anytime they assert that God has had some miraculous influence in their lives at "x" point in time i.e. "Well, can you prove that it was God who did that? Then why should I believe it?"

It is true that it is circular reasoning to assert that a higher power is behind anything and/or everything that may be claimed and/or perceived to be a miracle. But Latter-day Saints and other religious people might apply the Argument from Fallacy and counter by saying, "Well, how can you prove that it wasn't God?" It might also be pointed out that every belief system has some inherent circularity in it.[41] Latter-day Saints are not surprised to find circularity in their beliefs and don't expect an empirically pristine epistemological nexus to the divine. Agency, or the power of self-determination, is central to Latter-day Saint theology.[42] If God were to prove himself as the one behind a proposed miracle, wouldn't this diminish the need for one to choose to have faith in God and the need for such agency?[43] This is not to assert that there cannot therefore be any rational basis for Latter-day Saint and other religious belief. Scholars and apologists have been making a well-reasoned case for the veracity of Latter-day Saint scripture for quite some time.[44] This is only to say that not everything must be empirically provable in Latter-day Saint epistemology. As observed elsewhere on this website, knowing in Latter-day Saint epistemology is found at some confluence of reason, revelation, and faith (with a stress on revelation). The author of the book of Hebrews in the Holy Bible taught that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."[45]

In short and at the very least, it must be said that the vast majority of claims that base their criticism in knowledge of Confirmation Bias do not begin to take into full account the intricate ways in which Latter-day Saints would understand their own experience. Thus this creates a strawman.

The Elevation Emotion

The Elevation Emotion is a sensation that researchers have been investigating since (it seems) the year 2000. Jonathan Haidt—American social psychologist, author, and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business— seems to be the first to work on this with his interest in human transcendence.[46] It is defined as the “emotion elicited by witnessing virtuous acts of remarkable moral goodness.”[47] The nature of the emotion is described as “a distinct feeling of warmth and expansion that is accompanied by appreciation and affection for the individual whose exceptional conduct is being observed.“[48]

Critics claim that since this is so close to the “burning in the bosom” that Latter-day Saints describe when reportedly feeling the Spirit, that this is a plausible naturalistic explanation for what Latter-day Saints and other religious persons might be feeling, with their bodies producing this emotion whenever something good and virtuous is witnessed.

However, Elevation hasn’t had a stable physiological profile established for it. Researchers have yet to understand exactly what the body does that supposedly will produce the warmth and expansion. That said, video clips shown to test subjects during experimentation may suggest that situations that induce Elevation decrease vagal parasympathetic impact on the heart.[49] Thus perhaps it may be said that the Spirit simply acts on these areas of the body and/or the spirit matter that makes up the rest of the soul that are connected to these parts of the body to produce the sensation.

Alternatively, those that have felt Elevation have reported that they sense a "warm tingling sensation in their chest.” The sensation produced by Elevation may simply be the Holy Spirit’s physical effect manifested on/in the chest and/or the spirit matter that makes up the rest of the soul that are connected to the chest to produce the sensation.

Elevation is said to be made manifest upon someone’s witnessing of “acts of remarkable moral goodness.” In the Book of Mormon we learn that when one is in the service of their fellowmen, that one is in the service of God.[50] Could this sensation be considered as God confirming the truth of this and motivating an individual to continue to seek out opportunities for altruism? The Book of Mormon expects that as many people as possible will have spiritual experiences that soften their heart and bring them closer to God.[51] Could Elevation simply be the Spirit reaching out to people for that purpose? All that said, the experiences shouldn't be reduced to just a feeling. These experiences are meant to provide revelation as well as a feeling that can be recognized as the Spirit.[52]

The God Helmet

In 1990, researchers Lesley Ruttan, Michael Persinger and Stanley Koren produced a helmet to study creativity, effects of mild, electrical stimulation to the temporal lobes of the brain, and religious experience.[53] This helmet, when worn, reportedly produced the sensation of a "presence" with experimental participants. This gained widespread public attention and was nicknamed The God Helmet. Some have asked the natural question, "If the feelings associated with the Spirit by Latter-day Saints can be reported from people who wear a helmet that can produce the sensation through electrical stimulation, what does this say about the supposed reality of a spiritual entity that causes them?"

First noted is that the experimental results from Persinger and Koren have failed to replicate in a reliable way.[54] Some scholars have used the same helmet and generated no feelings in participants.[55] Others have used the same helmet and not turned it on and yet achieved the same report of "presence."[56] Some scholars have used fake helmets instead of the original “God helmet" that have produced the same feelings in test subjects.[57] Today it is generally felt by researchers that personality differences in participants ultimately determined if one felt this "presence" or not. The experiments showed that religious people were generally those that reported a "presence" while atheists and skeptics generally did not report such a feeling.

A few more notes regarding spiritual experience in relation to this:

  • Some may be tempted to claim that since the religious people were the ones that were most open to feeling something and perhaps wanted to experience a presence, that this may be evidence of a deterministic nature of spiritual experience i.e. if you want a spiritual experience, you can will it to pass. This is contradicted by the lived experience of Latter-day Saints as has already been pointed out. Latter-day Saints often make distinction between the way they experience the Holy Ghost when seeking revelation and the way they experience the Holy Ghost when simply in the presence of something good. Another article on this site labels the two sides of the distinction as the dynamic and passive influence of the Holy Ghost. For Latter-day Saints, they may respond that a person may be able to determine whether they are willing or not to experience the Holy Spirit in a passive way (such as feeling at peace while taking the Sacrament). They may also be able to resist feeling the Holy Ghost in a dynamic, personally revelatory way. However, in Latter-day Saint thought, they won't be able to force the Holy Spirit to interact with them in that dynamic way. Conversely, they may be able to will false spirits to interact with them if invited.[58]
  • The Latter-day Saint understanding of the soul should yet again be remembered. It would likely not be surprising for Latter-day Saints to see that some manipulation of the brain or body could produce experiences that could be described as "religious." This particular experiment doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to claim that, but it is at least possible that something like this device that is perhaps more efficacious could be produced in the future. Latter-day Saints should not be afraid of such study because, again, the theology welcomes scientific disciplines to help them be better instructed in it.[59]

The ability even to reproduce the sensations reported by Latter-day Saints through electrical or other mechanical manipulation would yield effectively no reason to abandon the possibility of a spiritual entity being able to produce those same sensations. It would simply mean that there are both spiritual and mechanical means by which a reaction might be able to be produced. Again, spiritual matter cannot be verified as real except by those—according to Latter-day Saint scripture—that have refined spiritual sight (see above). The fact that a naturalistic means of producing "spiritual" sensations exists does not negate the possibility of a spiritual impetus beginning the same chain of causal events that provide the same sensation. It is unlikely, in the author's view, that such will be produced in the future given the uniqueness of the experience. The experience is by its nature indescribable except to those that have actually experienced it and the thought of the experience being reproduced by such means indeed appears outlandish to faithful adherents of the tradition. What's more, Latter-day Saints would be quick to point out, as mentioned above, that spiritual impressions are not simply feelings or sensations. They are phenomena that are linked to sensations in the heart and knowledge revealed to the mind.[60]

In sum, the God Helmet wasn't what it claimed to be, it's very unlikely that something will be produced like it in the future, and even if something could potentially be produced, it wouldn't come close to capturing the experiences of Latter-day Saints when encountering the Spirit. Thus a responsible treatment of the relation between the God Helmet and the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Spirit would do well to acknowledge that these claims need, at the very least, a more complex and more nuanced expression that many aren't interested in identifying or, ideally, to be discarded entirely. Without such, claims made by critics will continue to be a gross misrepresentation of the sacral epistemic praxis of the tradition.

Illusory Truth Effect

The Illusory Truth Effect is understood as the effect that a certain data set can have on a person’s ability to think rationally as they are exposed to that same data set over and over. It has been observed since 1977 that if a person is repeatedly exposed to the same information over and over, that they will begin to believe that information no matter how irrational.[61] As one is exposed to the information repeatedly, they increase in something called processing fluency which is known as “the relative ease with which one processes information.” Criticism is applied to Latter-day Saints, based in this knowledge, in a couple of ways:

  • Some critics claim that Latter-day Saints only believe what they believe because they have grown up with it and the information they have learned has simply become “second nature” as it were.
  • Some critics point to certain statements from General Authorities from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and criticize them for the manner in which they suggest a testimony might be obtained.
For instance, the now late Elder Boyd K. Packer, another apostle of the Church, once wrote:
It is not unusual to have a missionary say, “How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?” Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man,” is as the scripture says, indeed “is the candle of the Lord.” (Prov. 20:27) [62]
Another apostle, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, has expressed similar sentiments about the obtainment of a testimony before.[63] Elder Gary E. Stevenson, another apostle, has reiterated those sentiments in print.[64]
Critics have also taken issue with a statement by Elder Neil L. Andersen, another apostle, who has counseled those seeking conviction of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith's claims to "[c]onsider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.[65]"
In the critics' point of view, these General Authorities are encouraging people to simply think and pray about the Church being true until they finally believe that it is.
  • Finally, Latter-day Saints are known to encourage those within their circle of influence including family and other loved ones to seek a testimony of the Gospel by the Spirit. Since the Spirit is so central to conversion in Latter-day Saint theology, it makes sense that faithful Latter-day Saints will try their best to explicate how one can obtain a testimony and invite people frequently and sincerely to try the same process out for themselves to gain that testimony. The problem is that many people have sought a testimony for many years through spiritual experience and have not received a witness. Thus, with every time that Latter-day Saints invite someone to convert, the criticism supposedly becomes more and more valid as duped individuals seek repeatedly from that invitation to accept and convert to the Church.

The criticism has a few weaknesses.

  • The first is the double standard applied by critics. This criticism assumes that critics are not under the same effect and/or that the only direction that one should or can travel in their understanding after having been made aware of supposedly more truthful information is away from the faith.
  • The second weakness is that it doesn’t adequately account for the many Latter-day Saints who used rational processes as a supplementary means to arrive at their conversion. It neglects those that converted to the Gospel even when they were critics to it before. It neglects the many Latter-day Saints who remained serious students of the faith for a long time before having received their converting experience from the Holy Ghost. It mistakenly portrays convert Latter-day Saints as mindless automatons that simply followed peer-pressure or cultural moors to gain their testimony. It does not capture the lived experience of millions of members.
  • The third weakness of the argument is that it is often used in overly reductionist ways and doesn’t account for the deeply personal, spiritual, and intimate experiences that Latter-day Saints have as they build/have built their testimonies. It reduces the experiences' sacredness to mere biological processes when it is almost never described as such by Latter-day Saints and indeed never can be under the Latter-day Saint understanding of the soul as described above. Indeed, Latter-day Saints are generally apt to say when something is the result of simply wishful thinking or a more special impression. Latter-day Saints understand that some need to be invited to pray about the Gospel more than once and follow the instructions in Moroni 10:3-5 closely. Namely, to first ponder the mercies of God, pray with real intent (meaning that one intends on acting on the answer), with faith in Christ, believing that God can reveal the truth of the Book of Mormon to any and all of God’s children. But Latter-day Saints also know that a testimony of the Gospel sometimes needs to be built over time—that the Light can grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day as people continue in it.[66] The Spirit could be a converter to a person's heart and mind over time and with enduring effort. Thus instead of proving or disproving the reality of this Spirit, it could be that we're just speaking about the same thing from the lenses of two or more different metaphysical worldviews—Latter-day Saints from their own brand of religious materialism and critics from a naturalistic lens or at least an exclusivist religious lens that denies religious experience as a valid means of knowing truth and/or would seek to diminish the significance of the experiences and the credibility of those Latter-day Saints that claimed them.
That said, Latter-day Saints may need to be reminded that not all people will receive a testimony of the Gospel through the Holy Ghost. Some people can have the spiritual gift to believe on other people’s words who claim to have received the Spirit so that they can inherit eternal life.[67] Others don’t have faith and will simply need to continue to seek learning by study and faith.[68] It is even possible for Latter-day Saints to believe that some won’t need to convert to the faith in this life.[69] They may be converted to the faith in the next. Elder Orson F. Whitney, another apostle of the Church active at the beginning of the 20th century, stated the following:
Perhaps the Lord needs such men on the outside of His Church to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. … Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the truth; while others remain unconverted...the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in His own due time. God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people...We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense.[70]
  • For Latter-day Saints, the quotes from the General Authorities above do not represent an attempt to simply lull them into submission to the claims of the Church, but an invitation to act on faith by asking God, through petitionary prayer, to help them gain a spiritual conviction of what is claimed to be true. Latter-day Saints can testify that such a "step into the darkness" has helped many of them to gain that spiritual conviction they've been invited to seek. They theologize about how God might reward them if they do make a leap of faith in seeking a testimony. Many hold the conviction that such invitations were instrumental for their conversion and/or deepened conversion to the claims of the Church and invite others to act on those same invitations that were extended to them.

If anything, it may be said that this criticism is valid for teaching Latter-day Saints that they should indeed prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.[71] However, this criticism doesn’t seem to have any sort of deep impact on Latter-day Saint ideas of finding Light, obtaining testimony, or feeling the Spirit.


We see that the Latter-day Saint conception of testimony and/or spiritual experience does not have to be affected by knowledge of these things. We have used official teachings from Church leaders and the official scriptures to dispel the misunderstandings of the use of spiritual experiences in Latter-day Saint epistemology and demonstrated that there are meaningful ways to view this information without discounting the sacred experiences that Latter-day Saints have sought after and hold at the center of their noetic structure.

Some may have objections to the way that the author decided to view the interaction of the above-mentioned propositions from Latter-day Saint pneumatology in relation to these matters. Readers are encouraged to study the issue out for themselves with the Latter-day Saint conceptions of the soul, Holy Spirit, Light of Christ, angels (both good and bad), false spirits, the Devil, and God in mind and develop their own thinking relative to this subject. Others may find more neuroscientific explanations for feelings associated with the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Spirit. These will be added to this article as the editors become aware of the criticism.

This will certainly become a topic of intense theological discussion for Latter-day Saint theologians and philosophers as the Church moves into its third century of existence and it will be important to have many perspectives to count on for elucidation of these important matters.[72] This is meant to act as perhaps a base for that discussion moving forward. The larger point to be made is that the claims made by critics of the Church in regard to the conception of the Holy Spirit do not affect Latter-day Saint epistemology in any negative way given the unique base of doctrinal propositions Latter-day Saints espouse with regard to the nature of the soul, the various and distinct spiritual entities that are claimed to exist, and the functions that those entities play in bringing us further from or closer to God.


  1. Moroni 10:3-5
  2. Bill Reel, "Cognitive Dissidents: 004: The Backfire Effect," <> (21 July 2019).
  3. Bob McCue, “Van Hale’s ‘Mormon Miscellaneous’ Radio Talk Show,” Version 3. September 20, 2004.
  4. Bill Reel, “Cognitive Dissidents: 002: Confirmation Bias,” <>. (9 October 2019).
  5. James K. Rogers, "How Can We Find Truth? Part 4," <> (21 July 2019).
  6. Stuff You Missed in Sunday School, "Illusory Truth Effect," <> (21 July 2019).
  7. Samantha Shelley, "Let's Talk about ‘The Spirit’," <> (21 July 2019).
  8. Wikipedia, "Monism - Latter-day Saint view (Mormonism)," <> (22 November 2019).
  9. Doctrine and Covenants 88:15
  10. Ether 3:16
  11. This makes it so that the Latter-day Saint concept of the soul is much more consonant with the view scholars recognize as being advocated in the Bible. Donald R. Potts, "Body,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000),194; Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., "Soul," Ibid., 1245; Alice Ogden Bellisb, "Spirit," Ibid., 1248. This is also the same understanding advocated in the Book of Mormon. Dennis A. Wright, “Soul,” Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), 734; Noel B. Reynolds, "The Language of the Spirit in the Book of Mormon," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 193. The Doctrine and Covenants accords with this understanding. See Larry Evans Dahl, “Soul,” Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2012), 619. There is nothing in the Pearl of Great Price that contradicts this understanding. See Andrew C. Skinner, "Spirit(s)," Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2017), 280–1; Dennis L. Largey, “Soul,” Ibid., 279–80.This understanding makes it so that the Kantian distinction between noumenon/phenomenon distinction disappears in Latter-day Saint theology. See Blake T. Ostler, "Ep71-Knowledge is Being (Pt 1) - Vol 5," <> (16 October 2019). Additionally, it makes it so that Latter-day Saints can have a variety of unique and effective potential solutions to the "mind-body problem" in philosophy.
  12. Doctrine and Covenants 131:7
  13. Doctrine and Covenants 84:45
  14. Moroni 7:16. Here the term used is “Spirit of Christ." It is understood that this is synonymous with “Light of Christ.” See Alan L. Wilkins, “The Light of Christ,” Book of Mormon Reference Companion, 521. See also Doctrine and Covenants 84:46
  15. Doctrine and Covenants 50:24
  16. See “Darkness, Spiritual in the Scripture Index on
  17. 2 Nephi 32: 2-3; Doctrine and Covenants 84:47
  18. Moroni 7:16; Doctrine and Covenants 84:45-46
  19. Doctrine and Covenants 88: 11-13
  20. Doctrine and Covenants 8:2
  21. Moroni 7:17; Doctrine and Covenants 50:2-3
  22. Doctrine and Covenants 123:11-17
  23. Alma 24:30; Alma 47:36
  24. 1 Nephi 17:45; Jacob 6:8
  25. David A. Bednar, “Patterns of Light: The Light of Christ,” <> (5 October 2019).
  26. Moroni 7:14
  27. Moroni 7:20-25; Joseph Smith – Matthew 1:37
  28. Blake T. Ostler, "Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Commitment and Belief," FAIR Conference 2007 (19 September 2019).
  29. Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-79
  30. Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8
  31. As a potential example of the latter, consider the work done by scientists at the University of Utah that showed that the reward centers of the brain lit up when Latter-day Saints reported feeling the Spirit: Michael A. Ferguson, Jared A. Nielsen, Jace B. King, Li Dai, Danielle M. Giangrasso, Rachel Holman, Julie R. Korenberg & Jeffrey S. Anderson "Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons," Social Neuroscience 13, no. 1 (2018): 104–116. Other research appears to have built upon these conclusions to provide more solid neural correlates for spiritual experiences. Lisa Miller, Iris M Balodis, Clayton H McClintock, Jiansong Xu, Cheryl M Lacadie, Rajita Sinha, Marc N Potenza, "Neural Correlates of Personalized Spiritual Experiences," Cerebral Cortex 29, no. 6 (2019): 2331– 2338; Brick Johnstone and Daniel Cohen, "Universal Neuropsychological Model of Spiritual Transcendence," Neuroscience, Selflessness, and Spiritual Experience (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2019), 131–143.
  32. Robert Todd Caroll, “Backfire Effect,” <> (7 October 2019).
  33. Eileen Dombrowski, “Facts matter after all: rejecting the ‘backfire effect’,” <> (7 October 2019).
  34. 1 Corinthians 4:5
  35. Articles of Faith 1:9; Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-79; Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-33
  36. Doctrine and Covenants 128:1
  37. John 16:8
  38. 1 Nephi 7:15; 2 Nephi 28:1; 32:7; Alma 14:11; Mormon 3:16; Ether 12:2
  39. Doctrine and Covenants 88:118
  40. Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9
  41. Wikipedia, "Turtles All the Way Down," <> (3 January 2020).
  42. Moses 4:1-4; Abraham 3:21-25
  43. 2 Nephi 2:27-28
  44. Representative scholarship can be found in Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo and Salt Lake City: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book Company, 2013); John Welch et al., eds., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo: FARMS, 1997). For evidence of the Book of Abraham, see here. For scholarship on the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David J. Larsen, In God's Image and Likeness Vol 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Eborn Books and The Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
  45. Hebrews 11:1
  46. Jonathan Haidt, "The Positive Emotion of Elevation," Prevention & Treatment 3, no. 1 (March 2000).
  47. Karl Aquino, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, "Moral identity and the experience of moral elevation in response to acts of uncommon goodness," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100, no. 4 (April 2011): 703–718.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Jennifer Silvers and Jonathan Haidt, "Moral Elevation Can Induce Nursing," Emotion 8, no. 2 (2008): 291–295.
  50. Mosiah 2:17
  51. Alma 16:16-17
  52. Doctrine and Covenants 8:2. This should be recognized whether the experience is "top down" or "bottom up" revelation.
  53. Lesley Ruttan, Michael Persinger, and Stanley Koren, "Enhancement of Temporal Lobe-Related Experiences During Brief Exposures to MilliGauss Intensity Extremely Low Frequency Magnetic Fields," Journal of Bioelectricity 9, no. 1 (1990): 33–54.
  54. Roxanne Khamsi, "Electrical brainstorms busted as source of ghosts," Nature (December 2004).
  55. C.C. French et al., "The 'Haunt' project: An attempt to build a 'haunted' room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound," Cortex 45, no. 5 (2009): 619–629.
  56. M. Van Elk, "An EEG study on the effects of induced spiritual experiences on somatosensory processing and sensory suppression," Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion 2, no. 2 (2014): 121–57.
  57. Christine Simmonds-Moore et al., “Exceptional Experiences Following Exposure to a Sham 'God Helmet': Evidence for Placebo, Individual Difference, and Time of Day Influences,” Sage Journals 39, no. 1 (2019): 44–87.
  58. 2 Nephi 33:1-2. This has been the argument in response to another argument against the Spirit which can be found here.
  59. Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-79
  60. See again Doctrine and Covenants 8:2.
  61. Lynn Hasher, David Goldstien, and Thomas Toppino, "Frequency and the conference of referential validity," Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 16, no. 1 (1977): 107–112.
  62. Boyd K. Packer, "The Candle of the Lord," Ensign 13 (January 1983); Boyd K. Packer, "The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge," New Era 36 (January 2007). The latter source cited is a reprinting of a talk given at a seminar for new mission presidents on June 25, 1982. This was quoted in Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts (Las Vegas: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 78. <>.
  63. Dallin H. Oaks, “Testimony,” General Conference (April 2008): “We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.”
  64. Gary E. Stevenson, "Testimony: Sharing in Word and Deed," New Era 48 (March 2019).
  65. Neil L. Andersen, "Joseph Smith," General Conference (October 2014). Quoted in Runnells, CES Letter, 78.
  66. Alma 32: 27-43; Doctrine and Covenants 50:24
  67. Doctrine and Covenants 46:13-14
  68. Doctrine and Covenants 88:118
  69. Matthew 7:14; Luke 9:49-50; 1 Nephi 8:20 (19-24); 3 Nephi 27:33; Doctrine and Covenants 22:4; (1-4); 43:7; 137:7-8.
  70. Orson F. Whitney, "Outside and Inside Auxiliaries," and "Israel and the Gentiles," Conference Report (April 1928): 59. This was cited in Ezra Taft Benson, "Civic Standards for Faithful Saints," General Conference (April 1972). He offered Thomas L. Kane and Alexander Doniphan as examples to support this same point.
  71. 1 Thessalonians 5:21
  72. Nathan B. Oman, “Welding Another Link in Wonder’s Chain: The Task of Latter-day Saint Intellectuals in the Church’s Third Century,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 32 (2019): 141–60.