Spiritual Experiences, Motivated Reasoning, and Objectivity

A sometimes-perplexing issue in Latter-Day Saint epistemology is the question of how we value what we call “spiritual experiences.” We believe that God can communicate to us through powerful feelings, which critics sometimes dismiss as the elevation emotion, as if they have somehow determined that God cannot or would not use the medium of emotion to communicate with us. I have a little more in-depth discussion of what we call “spiritual experiences” here in my post on epistemology, and I also recommend Blake Ostler’s FAIR presentation on that topic. We also have a collection of witness testimony that gives a good idea of the breadth of our experiences.

But for the sake of this discussion, I want to focus on the question of our feelings. Are they valuable in helping us to know what is true? And to what extent? Are they more or less valuable than reason?

I’ve had this question on my mind lately, and I think this lecture from mindfulness teacher Tara Brach contains some useful principles for thinking through this. Pay attention to what she says here at the 16:35 mark:

And we also think our thoughts are rational. But cognitive science has shown very clearly that our thoughts are not rational, that we use thinking to confirm a very emotionally-based view of things.

What Tara is saying here is not new. Centuries ago, Francis Bacon said that “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it.” Social scientist and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses this in depth in his book The Righteous Mind:

These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume, who wrote in 1739 that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (p.29)

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.
…the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist. I urged instead a more intuitionist approach to morality and moral education, one that is more humble about the abilities of individuals, and more attuned to the contexts and social systems that enable people to think and act well. (p.107)

We all like to think that we are rational beings, applying perfectly sound logic to every question before us. But we’re not. Not even in what we call the scientific community.

This is an important truth, very relevant to all of our public debates about politics, gender, sexuality, and other issues. It helps to shed light on why people claiming rationality often develop and passionately defend studies that don’t replicate, and make what can only be characterized as religious or metaphysical claims about things like gender, identity, race, and other aspects of human experience. And no, peer review doesn’t ensure bias-free research, let alone honest research.

In saying this, I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as objective truth. There is. What I am saying is that when we are seeking truth, our reasoning is generally done in the service of emotional or other commitments. In fact, our best truth-seeking is done with full awareness and honesty about these commitments.

Which brings me back to “spiritual experiences.” Some of what we call spiritual experiences have a strong emotional component:

He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh (2 Ne 4:21)

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? (Luke 24:32)

…if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? (Alma 5:26)

Also keep in mind the epistemology of Alma 32, how Alma encourages his audience to ask questions about goodness (13 times) before making determinations about truth. Questions of goodness are answered in the heart, informed by our culture and other non-rational areas of human experience. Maybe Alma wants his audience to have experiences in the heart, with the expectation that these heart-level experiences will open the mind and properly calibrate the use of reason.

It’s also interesting to consider the basic equation that Christ employs to explain why some people follow His gospel and others don’t:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27)

…mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts (D&C 29:7)

He does not indicate that His sheep or His elect follow him by employing their powers of reason to arrive at spiritual commitment. Commitment is a response to His voice, which is a sensory experience in the heart. Other scriptures tell us that this voice is subtle and easy to miss when our hearts and minds are in turmoil. (See 1 Kings 19:11-13, or 3 Ne 11:3)

The reality that reasoning serves emotion is also important for understanding the narratives in communities of former believers. Most thoughtful observers know that it is possible to employ reason and measured rhetoric to formulate narratives of faith and sincerity as we tell the stories in scripture and church history. If we are motivated by personal feelings of betrayal or grievance, we can likewise employ reason and rhetoric to create narratives of deception toward our faith community, in the service of our hurt feelings. The spirit of accusation is designed to do this- to keep people perpetually aggrieved so that their capacity for reason will be constantly employed not in the service of truth, but in the maintenance of their sense of grievance.

It is very natural to desire for the gospel to be so rationally defensible that the choice to embrace faith becomes completely obvious and even effortless, like a simple equation. But this will never be the case. Terryl Givens offers this wonderful insight:

I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.

We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts.

All of this is to lead up to the questions at the heart of this post. Could it be that the emotional dimension of our epistemology is not problematic at all as our critics maintain, but rather divinely intended? Could it be that God gives people experiences with a strong emotional component with the expectation that our reasoning will follow, so our reason will be employed to support ongoing transformation taking place in our hearts? Recalling Hume’s statement that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” could it be that warm emotions of joy and transcendence are sometimes given to us in the context of faith so that our powers of reason will follow and be employed to help us engage with the church and the people around us in a spirit of love and generosity, because that is the only way to arrive at God’s objective truth? The world’s top researchers on the role of emotions in decision-making have established that anger is a powerful emotional bias that wrecks our ability to evaluate things; could it be that charity is a divinely-ordained bias designed to help us think clearly?

With all of that in mind, it needs to be affirmed that our feelings are not always a good guide to reality. This is why a good epistemology will allow our feelings to operate in continuous conversation with other data. And a big part of the purpose of the gospel is to help educate our hearts and transform our desires over time. Mindfulness can help to facilitate our awareness of our emotional dynamics, which is an important step in these processes. But that is another post. The argument I want to make here is that to the extent that objectivity is a myth, we can do no better than to allow our reasoning to be employed in the service of emotions that are based in charity:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth…

4 thoughts on “Spiritual Experiences, Motivated Reasoning, and Objectivity”

  1. You may be interested in some of the work philosopher John Pittard, currently of Yale Divinity School. He published a book in 2019 entitled “Disagreement, Deference, and Religious Commitment”, intending to illustrate how the problem of religious disagreement does not necessarily invalidate religious beliefs. It’s a good book. He has a section in it discussing what he calls “affective rationality”. I’ll be honest, I’m still processing it and I don’t feel confident enough in my understanding to hold forth on it, but you might find it interesting.

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