Ep70-Faith, Reason, & Spiritual Experience - Vol 5

Topics Discussed:
• Epistemology of Religious Experience
• The Distinctive Mormon Epistemic Practices
• Faith, Evidence and Reason

Show Notes:


​Mormons generally have not presented logical or empirical arguments to prove God’s existence.

Explain why traditional arguments don’t work for Mormons.

Cosmological, ontological, ethical, ...cant use because they presuppose creation ex nihilo

Teleological is available.

​Mormons rarely give arguments to prove that God exists and instead usually contend that the only way to faith in God is a simple invitation—“come see for yourself.” The Lectures on Faith took the position that faith in God is either based upon faith in one’s own predecessors and the history of revelation, or on one’s own direct, revelatory experiences with deity. We either accept the faith of others (or lack thereof), or we find our own faith through direct spiritual encounter. Because there are no other reliable reasons for faith, it follows that faith is not the same as mere belief based upon evidence or reasons.

​We are like the first disciples in the Gospel of John who merely say to their closest friends and family members, “come and see.” They did not offer arguments or scriptural proofs to try to prove their belief in Jesus. The words “come and see” are not merely meant to ask others to use their eyeballs, but they instead asks others to see with deeper and more spiritually insightful eyes.

no argument can prove spiritual experiences because the direct encounter with the divine will always be more basic and grounded —and frankly more compelling—than any other evidence or argument. In saying this, I am not stating that I will not give reasons and arguments; only that they are not more basic or trustworthy than the human heart in relationship with God.

A. Epistemology of Religious Experience.

Plantinga’s project is based on the question of what epistemic duties we may have and responds to arguments made by empiricists who claim that our beliefs must be based on adequate empirical evidence. If we have beliefs, but no evidence for them, then we violate the “epistemic duties” concerning what we should believe. By “evidence” the empiricist means “physical evidence” of the kind that can be observed and measured and would pass muster in the hard sciences. It seems to me that the demand for such physical evidence to ground our beliefs is mistaken. If beliefs require observable evidence, then the belief in this supposed epistemic duty would also require observable evidence for its justification. What is the physical evidence for the existence of such epistemic duties at all?

​According to Plantinga, a belief satisfies our epistemic duties if it is warranted. He argues that beliefs are warranted without physical evidence if they are: (a) grounded and (b) defended against known objections. With this understanding he maintains that religious beliefs are ‘properly basic’ in that they are grounded in and based on religious experiences. Such properly basic experiences are not justified by reference to other reasons or experiences to support them; instead, they are such that the inquiry for the reason for belief must end with reference to the experience itself.

The most effective criticism of Plantinga’s position is that it largely ignores the question of justification, which, as Richard Swinburne argues, amounts to whether the religious beliefs are probable relative to total evidence. For example, if I see snow outside my window that nobody else does, and if I have the belief that the others who do not see snow have reliably functioning senses, then I do not have a justified belief at all because of the total evidence available to me.

​What then of religious beliefs? The proposition “god exists” does not seem to be a properly basic. However, my experience of feeling a presence more personal, more certain, and more real than that of any human being, though inaccessible to the bodily senses, is properly basic. According to Plantinga and Wolterstorff, these kinds of beliefs are “warranted” provided that they can be defended against objections. These beliefs that are properly grounded in religious experience can then be relied upon as “evidence” for further religious beliefs.

​William Alston’s project is different. He is responding to the argument that it is irrational to base beliefs on religious experience. His interest is epistemic rather than prudential—how we know the truth as opposed to what we are warranted in believing. Thus, he is interested in the degree to which religious experience is successful toward the goal of whether or not the belief is in fact likely to be true on the basis of its justification.

​Are the normal types of religious experience analogously similar to our perceptual practices? Alston acknowledges that perceptual practice differs from religious epistemic practices in at least four different ways.
First, with perceptual practices there are standard ways of checking the accuracy of any particular perceptual belief.
Second, by engaging in perceptual practices we can discover regularities, make predictions, and even test hypotheses against predictions.
Third, the capacity for perceptual practices is universally shared among all.
And fourth, all normal adults use roughly the same perceptual practices in public discourse about their sense experiences.

​Alston is not without criticism though, and one problem with his approach is that it still leads to skepticism. Even if he is correct that spiritual experiences are no less reliable than sense experience as a basis for knowledge, he has given no reason to trust sense experience. Further, the fact that we all can experience very similar experiences through our senses, while we cannot determine whether our spiritual experiences are similar, seems to be a very good reason to trust sense experience more than spiritual experiences—at least to the extent we know we are not just hallucinating or creating a merely mind-dependent experience.

B. The Distinctive Mormon Epistemic Practices.

The similarities with Reformed epistemology arise from Mormon scriptures that base spiritual knowledge analogously with our senses and perceptual practices. The difference between the two is that Mormon scripture points to a sixth, spiritual sense that has been given to each person to experience and know the truth.

​The locus classicus in the Mormon tradition for discussing knowledge based on spiritual experiences is Alma 32, which compares faith leading to knowledge to a seed that God has planted in each person’s heart

​What is it like to experience the swelling of the seed as it grows in the heart? The scriptures consistently describe this experience as a response felt at the very core of the heart: “I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8).

​Alma does not end with this test, but instead follows up by asking three ultimate
epistemological questions: ​
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to
​O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good;
​and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if
the seed was good. (vv. 35-36; emphasis added)

Tasting metaphor

Circumcision metaphor

​Behind this parable of a treasure of knowledge that has been planted in our hearts is the experiential or perceptual practice of finding the truth already manifest in the way that “the heart” responds to hearing the truth. “The heart” is of course a reference to the deepest and most intimate aspect of who and what we are; it is our core that responds to the message of truth.

In Mormon epistemic practice, the experience of the spiritual knowledge often is described as including some or all of the following facets:
1. The experience cannot be reduced to a mere emotion or feeling. It involves a cognitive component essentially. Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-8 suggests that a precursor to such experiences requires studying out the questions at issue: “Behold, you have not understood; you supposed that I would give it [the answer to your questions] unto you, when you took no thought save it were to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you that you must study it out in your mind. . .” In addition, one must “ask me if it be right.” The scripture then predicts the form that the spiritual response will take: “. . . if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn with you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong” (9:8-9). The experience is both cognitive and affective; both head and heart. As Doctrine & Covenants 8:2 clarifies: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.” The burning in the bosom, or heart, or very center of the human soul, is affective and involves feelings, but it also involves a sense of pure knowledge and enlightenment. Most often the experience of sensing the truthfulness of the message comes in the midst of such a search. The answers often come in conjunction with sincere study, searching and thoughtful pondering.
2. The spiritual experience cannot be produced at will but is experienced as coming as a grace in the midst an honest search for the truth.
​3. It involves a sense of having always known – it is deeply familiar.
4. It involves more than just cognitive or discursive knowledge (sapere); it also involves interpersonal knowledge or conoscere and associated with a sense of the presence of a loving and personal being and being accepted in a relationship. This “knowing God as an interpersonal presence in one’s own life and being” is, at least theologically, the most important spiritual aspect of the experience because to “know God” in this sense is life eternal. Indeed, to know that we are accepted into relationship with God and to invite God to reside in our hearts is a moment of justification by grace through faith and the beginning of the life of sanctification in which the spirit enters into us and Christ takes up abode in us in the process of Christification, or being conformed to the image of Christ, and culminating in deification.
5. The feeling of a “burning” in the heart includes a feeling of indescribable joy, peace and sweetness.
6. The experience re-orients all other experience. Everything is seen in a new light through the lens of the experiential knowledge.

Talk about always knowing truth and D&C 93

C. Faith, Evidence and Reason

The nature of faith is essential background to discussing whether religious experience is a reliable form of knowledge. In this section I seek to demonstrate that knowledge based on spiritual experiences ultimately comes down to faith in the sense of trusting one’s experience. I will argue that there is no way to distinguish between the phenomenal nature of experiences directly caused by God and knowledge based on memory or sensory experience.

Faith differs from such publically accessible methods and is therefore “subjective” or accessible only to each existing individual, as such, in at least the following ways:

1. Faith is passionate:
the fact that I desire so passionately to fulfill my existence in eternal sociality with those that I love leaves me wary about the possibility of accepting such possibilities because I desire it to be true so much that self deception lurks. I also fear the self deception of rejecting it simply because it is too good to be true.

2. Faith is an interpretive stance that is unique and subjective:
I never have access to some objective reality that exists apart from my interpretive stance in the world. I cannot experience a world that doesn’t include me as the interpretive, meaning creator, that I am. In Kantian terms, what I experience are phenomena that have already passed through the interpretive filters that I overlay on reality prior to my experience and most often without being aware of it. I don’t experience a noumena or objective reality as it is in itself.

3. Faith is a choice:
It requires a choice to be open to possibilities and to be willing to commit even before the evidence is all in.

4. Faith is an act of interpersonal trust in relationship with another:
The knowledge that is relevant to faith is not intellectual acumen, but personal knowledge of another in the sense that one invests in a way of viewing reality by trusting the other.

5. Faith is primarily a matter of the heart:
it is the heart that includes an alignment of emotion and affect with reason and an alignment of one’s entire being with commitment and meaning. Knowing subjectively in the heart requires an integrity of both thought and feeling. In the absence of this integrity and alignment, there is no knowledge but only confusion.

6. Faith is a gift:
human relationships involve: (a) an act of will to enter the relationship; (b) voluntarily accepting the relationship offered by the other; (c) the gift of the relationship from the other; and (d) the gift of one’s self in the relationship. I cannot create faith simply by willing it any more than I can create a relationship with another person simply by willing it.


From the movie contact.

Panel member: Doctor Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all... on faith?
[pause, Ellie looks at Palmer]
Michael Kitz: Please answer the question, doctor.
Ellie Arroway: Is it possible that it didn't happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.
Michael Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.
Ellie Arroway: Yes.
Michael Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.
Ellie Arroway: Yes.
Michael Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!
Ellie Arroway: Yes!
Michael Kitz: [standing, angrily] Then why don't you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this "journey to the center of the galaxy," in fact, never took place!
Ellie Arroway: Because I can't. I... had an experience... I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision... of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how... rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish... I... could share that... I wish, that everyone, if only for one... moment, could feel... that awe, and humility, and hope. But... That continues to be my wish.


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