Question: Is the Latter-day Saint way of understanding spiritual experience guilty of circular reasoning?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Is the Latter-day Saint way of understanding spiritual experience guilty of circular reasoning?

Introduction to Criticism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members believe that commitment and belief to any doctrine of the Church (primarily to commitment to and belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a divine record) may be established through spiritual experience. This is known as having an experience with the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.

Critics of the Church, particularly of a secularist persuasion, claim that to affirm that this experience gives one knowledge of any thing that is supposedly meta-truth is circular reasoning, given that one cannot prove that the experience comes from a divine source.

Members of the the Church also affirm the existence of other types of spirits and angels that perform either good or bad tasks on behalf of the divine or the devil. They also affirm the existence of a soul that is composed of the intricate and intimate union between body and spirit and the existence of God and the Devil. The assumed existence of these personages and entities informs a variety of core theological propositions relating to Latter-day Saint epistemology. For example, they inform the interpretation of the religious experience of those people belonging to different faith traditions. They are also used to counter criticism stemming from neuroscience. Finally, they inform responses to criticism of the supposed unreliability of spiritual experience to establish truth. Latter-day Saints also believe in the existence of a the divine authority of God to establish themselves as "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" known as the priesthood.[1] Since these entities cannot be proven to exist empirically, critics assert that Latter-day Saint epistemology doesn't rest on firm grounds.

The charges of circularity are usually accompanied by criticism stemming from diversity, neuroscience, and reliability to strengthen the argument that the experiences do not come from a divine source. Responses to these criticisms can be found at the internally hyper-linked sources (light blue).

The Fallacious Latter-day Saint Understanding of this Argument

Latter-day Saints have generally formed an argument in their mind that supposedly proves the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The argument usually takes the following form:

P1) The Book of Mormon presents a way to know that it is true--by receiving revelation from the Holy Ghost that it is true. The Book of Mormon and the Bible present a few ways to recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost.[2]

P2) I have prayed about the Book of Mormon and received what it and the other scriptures describe as the Holy Ghost.

C) Therefore, the Book of Mormon is true.

This argument, as framed currently, is not inherently circular since we have independent verification of a particular proposition. But this argument is fallacious once recognized that we can't empirically prove that the Spirit exists. What if the "Spirit" was just the reaction of chemicals within our bodies? Thus the claimed circularity.

Thus, we still haven't really answered the charge. How can we prove that the witness actually comes from an outside influence such as God? Latter-day Saints will hopefully recognize that the first argument is fallacious and that we need to provide a more robust response to the criticism.

This charge of circularity is what Latter-day Saint philosopher and theologian Blake T. Ostler has termed the “Veridicality Objection.”[3]

This article reviews that criticism and provides some avenues of response in discussions of the validity of the use of spiritual experiences in Latter-day Saint epistemology.

Review of Criticism

With an introduction to the criticism in place, we can now survey different elements of response. These elements can combine to give us a robust answer against the charge.

Recognition of the Charge as Valid

It is true that we cannot prove that spiritual experience comes from God. The recognition of the charge that it is impossible to prove empirically that spiritual experience comes from the divine is (almost paradoxically) an essential step to answering the charge.

The Logical Necessity of God at a Cognitive Distance

President Ezra Taft Benson, thirteenth President of the Church taught that "[every] man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand."[4].

Latter-day Saint theology teaches that agency, the ability to choose between two or more options freely, is central to the human experience. Latter-day Saint scripture teaches that in premortal realms, a counsel was convened between God and his spirit children (us). In the Book of Moses where this counsel is portrayed in the most detail, God strongly emphasizes the importance of human agency.[5] This agency gave humans the ability to choose eternal life according to the power of the Christ or captivity according to the power of the Devil.[6] If there were an empirically pristine epistemological nexus to the divine, would this not compel humans to believe in the existence of God, thus violating the agency that he supposedly granted them? This cognitive distance between us and God is actually essential to Latter-day Saint epistemology and may thus paradoxically become an evidence for its validity.

Blake T. Ostler:

To have a genuine relationship, it was necessary for persons to leave God's presence and enter into a situation where His existence, glory, and power were not obvious to make room for both moral and religious faith--a situation where persons could freely enter into a genuine relationship without being coerced to do so by the obviousness of His overwhelming power and glory. Thus, God has set us at a cognitive distance from Him out of respect for our freedom. Because such distance is necessary to permit faith, God's existence must be ambiguous. The world must be capable of appearing as if there were no God precisely to make room for us to come to a genuine relationship with him.[7]

The Logical Necessity of Subjectivity as the means of Effectuating Personal Salvation

Closely related to the preceding point is the necessity of subjectivity as a means of effectuating personal salvation. Since each individual is seeking to enter into a loving relationship with God to thereby gain salvation and exaltation, it follows that the means by which a person must be motivated to accept God with his ambiguous existence and enter into that relationship must be inextricably personal and subjective. Since we are all seeking salvation individually (as well as collectively as families), the means by which we are motivated to believe in heavenly structures, entities, laws, authorities, and so forth that give rise to the possibility of achieving salvation and knowing of its reality must be subjective and personal.

Thus it is obvious that when Latter-day Saints speak of "knowing" they don't mean it in a philosophically empirical sense, but this may be a way of "knowing" that approaches something more meaningful and align more closely with those who wrote scripture.

The Ancient Conception of "Knowledge"

The conception of "knowing" for the ancient authors of scripture was very different than the way that modern philosophers might conceptualize "knowing".

Blake T. Ostler explained:

There is a vast difference between the way the Hebrews felt we come to knowledge of truth and the way the Greeks thought of it. Whereas the Hebrews and early Christian writers of scripture constantly refer to the heart as an instrument of knowledge and choice, the philosophers rarely, if ever, do. The Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament regard the heart as the source of knowledge and authentic being. For the Greeks, the head is the place of knowing everything we know.

[. . .]

The head is a piece of complex flesh that knows only a beginning and ending. By "head" I mean that complex system that includes our brain and central nervous system, which translates sense experience and gives rise to the categories of logic, language, and thought. It knows only what can be learned through the sense of our bodies and categories of reason. The head is the source of the ego—or the categories by which we judge ourselves and create our self image.

In contrast, the heart is the home of our eternal identity. It can be opened or shut, hard or soft...The heart must be "penetrated" (D&C 1:2), "pricked" (Acts 2:37), "melted" (Josh. 2:11), or "softened" (D&C 121:4) so that truth is known, pretense is given up, and humility in God's presence can be manifested.[8]

Perhaps the Latter-day Saint understanding of knowledge should be closer to the Hebrew understanding of knowledge instead of the Greeks since they affirm the historical authenticity of their sacred texts. Since the Book of Mormon reflects this understanding of the ancient Hebrews and early Christians, it may be used as an evidence of its truthfulness and a means to provide an answer to the Greek mind which seeks to understand everything with the head.

Latter-day Saints should focus on maintaining the understanding of knowledge provided by the Hebrews and early Christians while preparing a defense for those that think like the Greeks. That seems to be the message of many scriptures[9]

The Principles of Testimony and Credulity

Christian philosophers have sought to defend the validity of religious experience as a valid means of knowing truth and especially that God exists. One in particular, Richard Swinburne, developed two principles of rationality to defend religious experience as a valid means of knowing that God exists. The first of these is known as the Principle of Credulity. The principle basically states that if a religious experience suggests to a person that a particular X is so, then so is X (Principle of Testimony). Another important part of the argument is that if we have no reason to believe that a person didn't experience something genuine, then we should accept the experience as a valid means of knowing truth. The second, known as the Principle of Credulity, stated that "those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe others who say that they do in the absence of evidence of deceit or delusion and thus, although if you have a strong reason to disbelieve in the existence of God you will discount these experiences, in other cases such evidence should count towards the existence of God."[10]

Challenges have obviously arisen to the arguments such as what is known as the Argument from Inconsistent Revelations or the "Avoiding the Wrong Hell Problem".

Latter-day Saints have a robust answer to the Argument from Inconsistent Revelations outlined in this article. With an answer to that, Swinburne's original argument gains strength and Latter-day Saint epistemology gains strength.

Exhausting Other Potential Defeaters

As previously mentioned, accompanying the charge of circularity of spiritual experience are usually arguments of diversity, from neuroscience, and from unreliability against the Spirit. If we can answer all of these charges, can we logically conclude that the experience may yet still come from a divine/outside source?

We've already linked to the article responding to the Argument from Inconsistent Revelations. Below we link to articles responding to Arguments from Neuroscience and the Question of Reliability.

Top-Down Revelation

Latter-day Saints often approach deity with questions in their hearts and minds that they wish to seek answers for and believe they will receive answers for through prayer.

Additionally, Latter-day Saints often provide priesthood blessings of counsel and comfort to those that may want or need them. Two of the most extraordinary aspects of Latter-day Saint epistemology are the ability to receive a "no" to a question that the questioner wanted to receive a "yes" to in prayer and the ability to receive miraculous knowledge through miraculous experience including everything mentioned as gifts of the Spirit, warnings about eminent danger, revelation about specific people given during priesthood blessings, and other phenomena. These events can properly be described as "top-down" revelation in Latter-day Saint epistemology as this is God correcting the mental framework of the person occupying it and giving them specific knowledge that they would not otherwise have. This is distinguished from "bottom up" revelation where the subject has to correct their own state of mind before seeking revelation.[11] Requirements for this include that Latter-day Saints and other individuals interested in receiving revelation become worthy of the Spirit's influence including trusting in God enough so that they believe that he will answer,[12] and that they then ask God for inspiration. Top-down revelation is what Latter-day Saints testify to every fast and testimony meeting. We are providing evidence for the reality of the Spirit's influence as people live worthy of it and seek its whisperings.

Empirical Evidence for Restoration Scripture as Grounding Spiritual Epistemology

Another evidence that might help ground our spiritual epistemology and pneumatology comes from the rational and empirical case made by Latter-day Saint scholars and apologists over the years for the veracity of both ancient and modern revelation. If we can demonstrate evidence of the authenticity of the revelations themselves, then this could provide evidence for the framework through which Latter-day Saints understand and interpret spiritual experience.[13]

The Prophet Moroni in the Book of Mormon seems to have responded to the argument the same way—testifying that angels had visited the prophets to give them revelation about how to come unto God. God himself declared "by his own mouth" that Christ should come.[14] Obviously a certain amount of empiricism is important to ground our epistemology. If all of it were mere subjectivism, we'd have a harder problem to solve. But luckily, such is not the case for our faith.

Blake Ostler's Kantian Argument

One last potential evidence for the validity of the epistemology came from Blake Ostler at the 2007 FairMormon Conference in Utah. Ostler, basing himself in the Kantian distinction and conceptualization of noumena and phenomena, made this argument:

Now I ask again, can humans really know anything? Does the 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.

You can turn the overhead projector off now, people are much more interested in that then they are in me. {laughter} Oh, maybe we ought to see “rabbit/duck,” just because anybody who has studied Ludwig Wittgenstein has to see this. You probably already have, actually. 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.[15]

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 he can speak to both at the same time, then the experience of the Spirit likely must be a noumenon. If the experiences are noumena, then this can be used as good evidence for the validity of seeking spiritual knowledge and believing in its validity.

Conclusion

Taken together, these can combine to provide Latter-day Saints a robust answer to the Veridicality Objection and sustain this central part of their noetic structure for further conversion and retention efforts.

Notes

  1. (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30).
  2. See Preach My Gospel Chapter 4 "How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?" under the personal and companionship activity in "Learn to Recognize the Promptings of the Spirit" <https://www.lds.org/study/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service/how-do-i-recognize-and-understand-the-spirit?lang=eng> (13 March 2019).
  3. Blake T. Ostler, "Ep 71 - Knowledge is being (Pt. 1) - Vol 5," <http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/01/topics-discussed-a.html> (28 October 2019).
  4. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon is the Word of God,” General Conference (April 1975).
  5. (Moses 4:1-3).
  6. (2 Nephi 2:27-28).
  7. Blake T. Ostler, Fire on the Horizon: A Meditation on the Endowment and Love of Atonement, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 17.
  8. Blake T. Ostler, Fire on the Horizon, 82-3, 84.
  9. (1 Peter 3:15; Jude 1:3; D&C 71:7-9; D&C 88:118).
  10. Wikipedia, "Argument from Religious Experience," <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_religious_experience> (2 December 2019).
  11. (D&C 9:7-9).
  12. (Matthew 14:21; Mosiah 2:37; Alma 7:21; Mormon 9:27; D&C 6:36D&C 97:17).
  13. See 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, (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book Company, 2013); John Welch et al., 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, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness, (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel, (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
  14. (Moroni 7:20-25).
  15. Blake T. Ostler, "Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Commitment and Belief," FAIR Conference 2007 (19 September 2019).