The feelings we associate with spiritual experiences are detectable by brain scans, and spiritual feelings can be generated by stimulating particular parts of our brains. That is not surprising. Without something happening in our brain, we would have no feelings and no experiences of any kind, spiritual or mundane. It’s not just that spiritual experiences are associated with particular emotions, but that everything we think and feel is a neurological event of some kind.
Take fatigue, for example. We’re used to thinking of fatigue as something like a fuel gauge, a biological response to chemical processes in our bodies that tells us how much energy we have left. But there’s no actual agreement on what fatigue is, what causes it, or how to measure it. Recent influential studies treat fatigue as an emotion.
The feeling of fatigue may be unwanted in athletic competition, but it clearly has adaptive value, as organisms that exhaust their energy supply will stop functioning. Our sense of fatigue is imprecise and liable to misperception, however. Every September, new cross country runners start their first races at a pace they think they can maintain for five kilometers. They’re usually wrong. When they finally stagger across the finish line, their brains are screaming at them, You must stop running right now or you will die. But their sense of fatigue is even more wrong at the end of the race than it was at the beginning. The runners aren’t anywhere near death, and eventually their bodies grudgingly agree to release more of their energy stores during a race. Their race times improve from week to week partly due to improved fitness and partly due to having more experience so they can more accurately interpret their emotions of fatigue.
We like to distinguish emotion from logic, but I suspect that at the neurological level, it’s all emotion. The sense that a logical proposition is sound or that the solution to an equation is correct is just an emotional response of a particular kind, and also susceptible to mistake. Our senses can be deceived. Even our eyes have limits. There are colors we can’t see, objects too small for us to resolve, and optical illusions that trick us. The human sense of sight is poorly suited for seeing moving objects in low light, and so humans are poor night drivers.
And yet we don’t hesitate to act based on our senses. When we think we see an oncoming truck, we avoid its path even if we can’t be sure the headlights don’t actually belong to two motorcycles driving side by side. We can’t even be sure the truck is real, rather than merely an evolutionary adaptive response to an external stimulus. At some point we have to start acting on the evidence our eyes provide us, even as we are aware of the possibility of error.
So it is with all the actions of our brains. Our senses can be trained through experience, but there is no guarantee that the states of our brain reflect reality rather than being merely useful, even in cases where we aren’t being deceived by illusion. At some point we have to make decisions based on imperfect senses.
And so it is too with our spiritual sense. There’s no guarantee that our sense of the Holy Ghost reflects reality rather than being only a neurological phenomenon that increased the likelihood of reproduction in past generations. But when has that ever stopped us from following any other of our senses? We treat sight and hearing as generally reliable guides to reality; why should spiritual promptings be the only sense that we ignore? Our spiritual sense is imprecise and subject to mistakes, and so we try to train it, to make it more accurate based on experience, and to combine it with our other faculties to increase its reliability.
Are we really feeling the spirit, or is it just emotion? That’s the wrong question: everything is emotion, including our spiritual feelings. The question to pursue is rather: what measures can we take to increase the reliability of our spiritual perceptions? Until we come to a perfect knowledge, we will have to make decisions based on emotion: emotions like a sense for beauty or justice or moderation, reactions tied to visual or auditory stimuli, and the emotion-based experience we refer to as feeling the spirit.
My problem – if that’s what you want to call it – is not a lack of evidence. Rather, there is an awkward surplus of unsubtle experiences that have guided me to believe the things Mormons believe and to live a life that reflects Mormon values. I believe the evidence of my spiritual experiences in the same way that I believe the sun will rise tomorrow: that is the only way I can sensibly interpret the evidence I have gathered within the theoretical framework that has proved best able to explain that evidence. Maybe what I perceive as spiritual experiences are only a long string of hallucination and coincidence fed by confirmation bias and an overactive sense of pattern recognition. And it might be so! – but that seems so unlikely to me that the possibility doesn’t bear worrying about. The far more likely (although intellectually disreputable) explanation is that God has been at work in some rather pointed and direct ways in my life, even bothering with mundane things like food and drink, shelter, physical safety, professional occupation, and my fleeting enthusiasms. Although my senses and capability for reason are imperfect, I can’t hesitate forever before choosing to act on them, and so I choose to believe my eyes and my ears, my sense of logic and intuition, and my sense for when the Spirit is guiding me.