FAIR is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Question: Is the Latter-day Saint conception of testimony from the Holy Ghost threatened by neuroscience or psychology?
- 1 Question: Is the Latter-day Saint conception of testimony from the Holy Ghost threatened by neuroscience or psychology?
- 1.1 Review of the Criticism
- 1.2 The Latter-day Saint Conception of the Soul
- 1.3 Spiritual Experiences Bring Not Just Feelings But Knowledge
- 1.4 The Latter-day Saint Conception of God, the Devil, the Holy Ghost, False Spirits, Good Angels, Bad Angels, and Light
- 1.5 Short Answer to Criticism
- 1.5.1 Material Objects Interacting with Each Other Will Produce Physical Reactions
- 1.5.2 No Mere Chemical Reaction Can Give You Knowledge You Wouldn't Otherwise Have Had
- 1.5.3 The Feeling of Foreign Influence On You is Good Reason to Believe it Actually is a Foreign Influence
- 1.5.4 The Linguistic Hyper-Detachment of Spiritual Experiences
- 1.5.5 The Principles of Credulity and Testimony
- 1.5.6 The Experiences of People in Other Religions Do Not Necessarily Give Evidence that Spiritual Experiences Are Reducible to Brain Chemistry
- 1.5.7 Certain Things Can Only be Known By Us
- 1.6 A Review of The Different Counterexplanations for Spiritual Experience
- 1.7 Conclusion
- 2 Notes
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." 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. Potential counterexplanations cited include the Backfire Effect (cf. "Belief Perserverance"), Cognitive Dissonance, Confirmation Bias, the Elevation Emotion, Frisson, and the Illusory Truth Effect. Comparisons are also drawn between the feelings associated with the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Spirit and the effects of the God Helmet.
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. This combination of body and spirit is called the soul. 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 material substance. A spirit can exist independently of the body in a perhaps pseudo-isomorphic form; yet when the spirit and body are connected, they are intimately and intricately intertwined in a continuum from more flesh to more spiritual. 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. 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.
Spiritual Experiences Bring Not Just Feelings But Knowledge
It is of paramount importance to understand in this discussion that spiritual revelation for Latter-day Saints is not just a feeling or stimuli. It is a matter that involves both heart and mind. Spiritual experiences don't just produce feelings but also knowledge. In the Church's official scriptures we read this about spiritual experience:
- 2 Yea, behold, 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.
Thus, spiritual experience cannot simply be reduced to just a feeling ever. It must always take into account that there is revelation of knowledge provided by the experience. Sometimes this is knowledge that we wouldn't otherwise have. There are experiences of members of the Church who report the revelation that helped them to save a person's life (or otherwise help them) in the hour of need or who report that they received knowledge about a person during a priesthood blessing that they couldn't have known about the person because the person didn't tell the blessing giver of such things.
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, 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. When one receives more of God’s truth, one thus receives more Light. 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. 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. The Holy Ghost works through the Light of Christ. The Light of Christ is understood to give a spiritual energy and life to all things. 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. 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.
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. 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. The amount of Light one has and the ability to perceive it can ultimately be diminished entirely. 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.
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. It is generally believed that what God has revealed to prophets is good and will inspire one to love God and serve him.
Short Answer to Criticism
Material Objects Interacting with Each Other Will Produce Physical Reactions
Perhaps there are some that here might want to get a short answer to this criticism instead of reading the rest of this article. With this Latter-day Saint framework of souls being material bodies and spirits combined and the Holy Spirit being material, we can give such a short answer. Material spiritual beings interacting with each other can create material reactions. God can use our bodies and brains to produce spiritual experiences in such a way that they give us knowledge. Simple.
We can imagine a bowler at a bowling alley. What critics are looking at are the material interactions of the ball (representing something happening in the brain) with the pins (representing some effect that it has on our body). What they are failing to see is that the ball was still thrown by the person bowling (which might represent God).
No Mere Chemical Reaction Can Give You Knowledge You Wouldn't Otherwise Have Had
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members often claim to receive knowledge that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For instance, Blake Ostler relates how when he was a sophomore in high school, he was given a spiritual impression to tell a girl he knew to stop thinking about killing herself. Experiences similar to these are reported all the time in the Church. This is what the author will call the Knowledge You Wouldn’t Otherwise Have Argument. No mere chemical reaction can give you knowledge you wouldn't otherwise have had.
The Feeling of Foreign Influence On You is Good Reason to Believe it Actually is a Foreign Influence
When you feel something touch you that is foreign to you, you can recognize that that thing is foreign to you. Place your hand on your chest. Don’t look at your chest while you place your hand on there. You know that there is something on your chest that isn’t your chest. It’s something additional to it. You don’t see it, but you feel its influence and know that it is foreign to your chest. In a similar way, the Holy Ghost and other material spiritual beings can affect us. It is unlikely that our brain could just randomly produce this type of sensation. This is what the author will call The Feeling of Foreign Influence Argument. Some may argue, based in knowledge of the human Agent Detection Bias, that these experiences might just be humans assuming that a spiritual agent has caused these experiences when there really was no agent. These critics would argue that "we think we feel 'presences' all the time." But it seems that whether or not an agent has actually contacted you is best evaluated by you. Subjective experience is one of our most reliable ways of forming beliefs about reality. Indeed, there are even things that can only be known subjectively. The taste of salt, seeing the color green and knowing what it is, and the feeling of a warm towel as it comes out of a dryer are things that can only be known by subjective experience. Objectors will still come up with other ways to make us doubt our senses. They'll bring up things like the possibility of being deceived by Descartes' Demon, being in The Matrix, being a brain in a vat, or being in The Truman Show. These are all possible, but they're merely assertions. They have no evidence. We don't need to believe in these propositions until we have any evidence that they are true and no solid evidence has been forthcoming.
The Linguistic Hyper-Detachment of Spiritual Experiences
Another wrench that can be thrown in this argument is to note what the author will call the linguistic hyper-detachment of spiritual experiences.
Imagine that you're at a party or other event and someone wants to get your attention. In order to do that, they approach you from behind and tap you on the shoulder. When we feel something like a light tap on the shoulder, we infer from that experience that someone in a non-threatening way would like to get our attention to speak to us.
In the same scenario, someone approaches you from behind and squeezes your upper arm abruptly and sharply. From this experience, we can infer that someone is either angry with us or is under significant duress and urgently needs our attention.
What this tells us is that there is indeed cognitive or linguistic content that can be imparted to us merely from the things that we feel.
What's interesting about spiritual experiences is that the messages we get from them and the level of tangible presence we feel are often very detached from one another. The Spirit can in a way place its hand on your chest very gently and lovingly and the message you can get the moment that you feel the presence of the Spirit can be something like "Go to Denver" or "The Book of Mormon is True". In the other examples, the messages that the experiences impart to us are very well correlated with the respective experience of getting either a light tap on the shoulder or an abrupt squeeze of the arm. With experiences of the Spirit, it's much more detached.
The Principles of Credulity and Testimony
Theist philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne has argued that, as a basic principle of rationality, we should assume that things as they appear are things as they really are until we have compelling evidence to disbelieve in the existence of God. This is what he calls the Principle of Credulity. Latter-day Saints have simple yet effective solutions to all arguments from atheists.
He has also argued for what he calls a principle of testimony. That is, as a basic principle of rationality, we should believe people when they report that they have experienced something as they report it until we have good evidence otherwise.
These can easily be used by Latter-day Saints in response to critics that want to reduce spiritual experience to brain chemistry.
The Experiences of People in Other Religions Do Not Necessarily Give Evidence that Spiritual Experiences Are Reducible to Brain Chemistry
Some critics claim that the spiritual experiences of people in other religions give evidence that spiritual experiences are reducible to brain chemistry. However, that argument is contradicted by the above data. On top of that, it's simply a non-sequitir to assert that since other people in other religions feel spiritual experiences, that those experiences are merely coming from our brain chemistry. Spiritual experiences motivating people to become part of different religious faiths are the function of either brain chemistry, a bevy of material spiritual beings corresponding to Latter-day Saint theology that are fighting for control over human hearts, a bevy of material spiritual beings that do not correspond to Latter-day Saint theology, an immaterial, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god like the one worshipped by mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims, or an evil god just trying to cause confusion.
Certain Things Can Only be Known By Us
Being able to discern exactly what is occurring in our bodies and what revelation we might be feeling is something that can only be verified by each individual person. Noone knows exactly what we're feeling besides us. As we pay attention to our hearts, we will easily recognize when we are feeling something that does not come from us.
Returning to the hand and chest analogy above, we can know, in a similar way, when the Spirit is working on you and when it might just be the regular chemical operations of your body or cognitive operations of your own mind. In each case in which a critic is asserting that X mental phenomenon is Y claimed spiritual feeling, you can reject the claim with your own experience of yourself experiencing the normal chemical operations of your body and cognitive operations of your mind and something that clearly feels like it goes beyond that.
For the longer answer, read on.
A Review of The Different Counterexplanations for Spiritual Experience
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.
The general premise of this examination is to demonstrate that—since Latter-day Saints commit themselves to slightly more materialist conception of the universe, 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 cannot be conclusively demonstrated nor conclusively falsified since spirit matter, according to Latter-day Saint doctrine, can’t be seen unless one has refined spiritual sight. Alternatively, the body or spirit may experience something without outside spiritual impetus.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
However there may be times when new information is unlikely to come forth and Latter-day Saints will need to refashion frameworks 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 they find themselves in.
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. FAIR 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 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 claim 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, that it can recognize and correct sin, and that it can constrain someone to do something or restrain them from doing it. 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.
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 or anyone else prays, they are only seeking to confirm their already held beliefs about how their prayers should be answered. People will get "answers," the critics argue, that confirm whatever they want to believe.
This criticism has a few devastating 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. This point alone is sufficient to refute the notion that spiritual experiences are merely the product of confirmation bias.
- We are the masters of our own experiences. We are in the best position to know whether or not an unseen force is touching us or whether it's just the normal chemical operations of our own bodies. We may sometimes impute our own interpretation onto certain experiences, but that does not mean that all experiences are merely the result of confirmation bias.
- 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, 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 a crisis of faith 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 this type of predicament.
Or consider the experience of Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who did not immediately get a confirmatory spiritual experience that witnessed the truthfulness of the Restoration when he prayed even with great sincerity and for a long time. He didn't get the sort of spiritual witness he was looking for until 6 weeks after he prayed.
If spiritual experiences were able to be willed at random, then it's quite likely that religious people would not just "make up" periods of time in which they experience divine silence.
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. It is defined as the “emotion elicited by witnessing virtuous acts of remarkable moral goodness.” 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.“
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. 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. 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. 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.
Frisson is a "psychophysiological response to rewarding auditory and/or visual stimuli that often induces a pleasurable or otherwise positively-valenced affective state and transient paresthesia (skin tingling or chills), sometimes along with piloerection (goose bumps) and mydriasis (pupil dilation)."
The Spirit is not typically associated with this feeling for Latter-day Saints and therefore little commentary needs to be offered. Perhaps what can be said is that this experience may still be accompanied by revelation of knowledge. If accompanied by revelation, then the experience cannot be reduced to a mere chemical reaction. The author would invite those who make this association to listen more closely to how Latter-day Saints would describe their own experiences. Such may reveal more about what is happening when they claim the Spirit has touched them.
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. 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. Some scholars have used the same helmet and generated no feelings in participants. Others have used the same helmet and not turned it on and yet achieved the same report of "presence." Some scholars have used fake helmets instead of the original “God helmet" that have produced the same feelings in test subjects. 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.
- 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.
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.
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. 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)
- Another apostle, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, has expressed similar sentiments about the obtainment of a testimony before. Elder Gary E. Stevenson, another apostle, quoted Elder Oaks’ sentiments favorably in a magazine article he authored.
- 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."
- 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 criticisms have 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. 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. Others don’t have faith and will simply need to continue to seek learning by study and faith. It is even possible for Latter-day Saints to believe that some won’t need to convert to the faith in this life. 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.
- 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. 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 spiritual experience does not have to be affected by knowledge of neuroscience and psychology. 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 dear to their hearts.
Readers are encouraged to study this 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 potential neuroscientific counter-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 an interesting and important topic of discussion for Latter-day Saint believers, leaders, 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. 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 beings that are claimed to exist, and the roles that those beings play in bringing us further from or closer to God.
- Moroni 10:3–5
- Bill Reel, "Cognitive Dissidents: 004: The Backfire Effect," Mormon Discussions, accessed July 21, 2019, https://mormondiscussionpodcast.org/2017/09/premium-cognitive-dissidents-004-backfire-effect/.
- Bob McCue, “Van Hale’s ‘Mormon Miscellaneous’ Radio Talk Show,” Version 3. September 20, 2004.
- Bill Reel, “Cognitive Dissidents: 002: Confirmation Bias,” Mormon Discussions, accessed October 9, 2019, https://mormondiscussionpodcast.org/2017/08/premium-cognitive-dissidents-002-confirmation-bias/.
- James K. Rogers, "How Can We Find Truth? Part 4," The Amateur Thinker, accessed July 21, 2019, http://www.theamateurthinker.com/2011/02/how-can-we-find-truth-part-4/.
- Michael Brown, "Testimony/Feeling the Spirit," Mormon Stories, accessed April 4, 2021, https://www.mormonstories.org/truth-claims/mormon-culture/testimony-feeling-the-spirit/.
- "Illusory Truth Effect," Stuff You Missed in Sunday School, accessed July 21, 2019, https://www.missedinsunday.com/memes/other/illusory-truth-effect/.
- Samantha Shelley, "Let's Talk about ‘The Spirit’," Zelph on the Shelf, accessed July 21, 2019, https://zelphontheshelf.com/lets-talk-about-the-spirit/.
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:15
- Ether 3:16
- 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,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (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,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (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 & Covenants accords with this understanding. See Larry Evans Dahl, “Soul,” in Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion, eds. Dennis L. Largey and Larry E. Dahl (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)," in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2017), 280–81; Dennis L. Largey, “Soul,” Ibid., 279–80. 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.
- Doctrine & Covenants 131:7
- Doctrine & Covenants 8:2
- Doctrine & Covenants 84:45
- 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 & Covenants 84:46
- Doctrine & Covenants 50:24
- See “Darkness, Spiritual in the Scripture Index on churchofjesuschrist.org
- 2 Nephi 32: 2–3; Doctrine & Covenants 84:47
- Moroni 7:16; Doctrine & Covenants 84:45–46
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:11–13
- Doctrine & Covenants 8:2
- Moroni 7:17; Doctrine & Covenants 50:2–3
- Doctrine & Covenants 123:11–17
- Alma 24:30; Alma 47:36
- 1 Nephi 17:45; Jacob 6:8
- David A. Bednar, “Patterns of Light: The Light of Christ,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed October 5, 2019, video, 1:45, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/inspiration/latter-day-saints-channel/watch/series/mormon-messages/patterns-of-light-the-light-of-christ-1?lang=eng.
- Moroni 7:14
- Moroni 7:20–25; Joseph Smith – Matthew 1:37
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:77–79
- Doctrine & Covenants 131:7–8
- 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.
- Robert Todd Caroll, “Backfire Effect,” Skepdic, accessed October 7, 2019, http://www.skepdic.com/backfireeffect.html.
- Eileen Dombrowski, “Facts matter after all: rejecting the ‘backfire effect’,” Oxford Education Blog, accessed October 7, 2019, https://educationblog.oup.com/theory-of-knowledge/facts-matter-after-all-rejecting-the-backfire-effect.
- 1 Corinthians 4:5
- Articles of Faith 1:9; Doctrine & Covenants 88:77–79; 101:32–33
- Doctrine & Covenants 128:1
- John 16:8
- 1 Nephi 7:15; 2 Nephi 28:1; 32:7; Alma 14:11; Mormon 3:16; Ether 12:2
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:118
- Doctrine & Covenants 9:7–9
- This relates to what philosophers of religion call the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. See Daniel Howard-Snyder and Adam Green, "Hiddenness of God," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed January 4, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/divine-hiddenness/.
- Jonathan Haidt, "The Positive Emotion of Elevation," Prevention & Treatment 3, no. 1 (March 2000).
- 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): 703–18.
- Jennifer Silvers and Jonathan Haidt, "Moral Elevation Can Induce Nursing," Emotion 8, no. 2 (2008): 291–95.
- Mosiah 2:17
- Alma 16:16–17
- Doctrine & Covenants 8:2. This should be recognized whether the experience is "top down" or "bottom up" revelation.
- "Frisson," Wikipedia, accessed May 3, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frisson.
- 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.
- Roxanne Khamsi, "Electrical brainstorms busted as source of ghosts," Nature (December 2004).
- 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): 619–29.
- 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.
- 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.
- 2 Nephi 33:1–2. This has been the argument in response to another argument against the Spirit which can be found here.
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:77–79
- See again Doctrine & Covenants 8:2.
- 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): 107–12.
- Boyd K. Packer, "The Candle of the Lord," Ensign 13, no. 1 (January 1983): 54; Boyd K. Packer, "The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge," New Era 36, no. 1 (January 2007): 6. Both sources cited are reprintings of a talk given at a seminar for new mission presidents on June 25, 1982. This talk was quoted in Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts (n.p.: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 78. <https://cesletter.org/CES-Letter.pdf>
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Testimony,” Ensign 38, no. 5 (May 2008): 27. “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.”
- Gary E. Stevenson, "Testimony: Sharing in Word and Deed," New Era 49, no. 3 (March 2019): 4.
- Neil L. Andersen, "Joseph Smith," Ensign 44, no. 11 (November 2014): 30. Quoted in Runnells, CES Letter, 78.
- Alma 32: 27–43; Doctrine & Covenants 50:24
- Doctrine & Covenants 46:13–14
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:118
- Matthew 7:14; Luke 9:49–50; 1 Nephi 8:20 (19–24); 3 Nephi 27:33; Doctrine & Covenants 22:4; (1–4); 43:7; 137:7–8.
- 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.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:21
- 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.