Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes

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.

32 comments for “Therefore not sealed, but with open eyes

  1. Ardis
    December 12, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Thank you, Jonathan — read and very much appreciated.

  2. Clark Goble
    December 12, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    The more interesting question wouldn’t be things that show up in an fMRI but some phenomena one can reproduce in many people that [i]can’t[/i] be detected by an fMRI. (Although as I said in the prior thread one should be cautious about what fMRIs tell us)

    While I’m very sympathetic to the view that what we think of as rational reasoning depends upon emotion, I’m not comfortable saying it’s all emotion. That ends up being akin to saying nothing is emotion. I think what we want to do is distinguish between what we experience in phenomena has having propositional content versus what doesn’t (except by inference). Of course behind the scenes neurological processes are at work. But I think emotion versus reason is a good distinction at the phenomenological level even if it breaks down when we look at the processes that our parts are actually engaging in.

  3. Mark S
    December 12, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    “what measures can we take to increase the reliability of our spiritual perceptions?”

    There is absolutely no way you can measure this. The thing is with sight and hearing, we can establish a norm. Even though human sight is incapable of seeing some colors, there is a well-established norm of what colors humans can see. Those who fall outside that norm we call colorblind. We can run tests on humans as to how precisely they see objects and prescribe glasses in order to make those with less precise vision see more precisely. There is a norm of what humans are able to hear, which we can clearly test. We can provide hearing aids to help those who are hard-of-hearing. What is the norm for spiritual perceptions? How do we establish that? How are we correct something that is outside that norm?

    Even fatigue, there is a norm for how fast people can run the mile. It varies, but there are limits. There is a norm for how much sleep people need in order to cognitively function. Again, it varies, but there are limits.

  4. December 12, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Clark, you’re going to have to explain what the phenomenological level is.

    Mark S, we have lots of capabilities that aren’t normed or measurable, but that are nonetheless quite useful and susceptible to training and refinement – like having a refined palette, or a sense of rhythm. As I have a spiritual sense, I don’t see why I should wait for someone to measure it or establish population averages before I try to figure out what my spiritual sense is trying to tell me.

  5. December 12, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    This reminds me of a book I read years ago titled, “On Being Certain.” I summarized it here. Basically, the author argues that certainty is a feeling that is generated unconsciously, and is not actually evidence of correctness. The author is a neurologist and uses malfunctions of the brain to illustrate its workings and challenge our working assumptions about the world. I rather enjoyed the book.

  6. Mark S
    December 12, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I’m a bit confused. In the OP, you ask what measures we can take to increase the reliability of spiritual perceptions. Here you appear to imply that there is a measure to spiritual perception (or maybe you weren’t and I misread you). However, in your follow-up comment you appear to agree with my point that there is no possible way that we could measure spiritual perception because there is no norm we can establish. Sure a refined palette is not measurable or normed, but that’s the point. Neither is spiritual perception. What you find to be tasty, someone else might find to be disgusting. Likewise, what you might find to be in-tune with the spirit another may find to be not in-tune. That said, I fully agree with your final sentence.

  7. Clark Goble
    December 12, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    Jonathon. The phenomological is our raw experience without discussion of whether it is true or related to the world out there. That is if I have an experience that something is given as true we discuss that as the experience.

    While this is important even for many types of physicalists it’s double important for those who think there is an essential non-neural component to our experiencing. If as spirits we had experiences and that component of ourselves remains in place but integrated in some unknown way with our nervous system then it’s conceivable to have an experience without a neurological correlate. Now that’s not necessarily the case since if the spirit could in theory both receive and have causal interaction with our nervous system. But if there was an experience without a correlated fMRI experience then that would strongly suggest the physical layer for that experience isn’t the brain.

    Again, I’m not saying that would happen. But if we could find such an experience it’d be very interesting. Far more interesting that the totally expected fMRI showing experiences correlated with changed blood flow in the brain.

    BTW – I’d say a sense of rhythm or a developed pallet is measurable although what is valued by either might well merely be a social norm.

  8. Clark Goble
    December 12, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    Jared (5) I really disagree with Ennis here for various reasons. I actually discuss this in my third post on epistemology. Unfortunately I’ve been so swamped the past month I’ve not had time to finish them. (Sorry – drove 4000 miles one week for chocolate shows and then have been swamped with Christmas shipments ever since) Hopefully this week.

    Certainty matters a great deal even if feeling certain is not the same as being right. Indeed even from a more secular view the reason we feel doubt or certainty is a measure of our knowledge of the environment selected for evolutionarily. That’s not to say in the least they can’t go astray. They do in mental illness. Even in more or less healthy adults our environment isn’t necessarily the environment evolution prepared us for. Nonetheless I think feelings of confidence, doubt or so forth are extremely productive in terms of how we engage with our environment.

  9. December 13, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Mark S, let me continue the chocolate theme. Let’s say you tried chocolate and liked it. You could live out your life simply eating whatever brown and sweet substance was placed in front of you, or you could undertake to learn the difference between great chocolate, good chocolate, and the stuff that comes out of advent calendars. With additional experience, you would probably find that some chocolate is much better than others, while other things (white chocolate baking chips, for example) are counterfeits with no actual chocolate content. Simply measuring the cocoa content doesn’t tell you much, as there are important distinctions in taste and texture that you can’t capture with a numeric descriptor. You might also discover that your experience of chocolate is enhanced in combination with some flavors, while it is obscured or deadened entirely with other foods. There are chocolate experts who confer together and hand out awards, and while you might not agree with every award they hand out, their recommendations are certainly to be taken seriously, and so you undertake to sample their gold medal varieties. This kind of refinement by experience is what I have in mind with steps for increasing one’s spiritual perception. While there are people who insist that chocolate tastes terrible and should be avoided, I have tasted chocolate and I am not interested in debating whether or not chocolate is good.

  10. Wally
    December 13, 2016 at 11:10 am

    Personally, I think many people confuse emotion with the presence of the Holy Ghost. I’ve had enough experience to know that quite often what we think is the “Spirit” is really just our emotional response to a situation, some fine words, or our desperate need to have an answer to a plea. This is invariably an internal event. It is a burning in the heart. But on occasion, very rarely, I have been in the presence of a power that is totally external. My sense of this power is not emotional. It’s hard to describe, but it is “spiritual,” and it does not originate inside me. The difficulty, however, is that sometimes the message given by this external source is not easy to decipher. About half the time I am wrong in my interpretation.

    This distinction makes me suspicious about the recent MRI/returned missionary experiments. My guess, based on my own experience, is that when the subjects of the study reported feeling “the Spirit,” they were, in fact, feeling an emotional response to certain stimuli, not the actual presence of the Holy Ghost, which is a very rare event. It would be interesting, though, to see what the MRI would show when a person actually feels the presence of the Holy Ghost, as opposed to merely a “spiritual feeling.”

  11. Wally
    December 13, 2016 at 11:22 am

    I should add that while spiritual feeling can be quite easily conjured into existence, the presence of the Holy Ghost is something you can’t manufacture. Like Jesus said, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” My experience is that the Spirit is very unpredictable and comes at unexpected times. It is not possible to just conjure it up in an MRI tube with a few GA quotes or religious pictures. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it.

  12. Mark S
    December 13, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    Jonathan, as mentioned before, people’s tastes are largely subjective. What someone finds to be great chocolate, another may not. It is quite possible that someone find advent calendar chocolate to be tastier than award-winning chocolate. However, I don’t quite understand the comparison between chocolate and the spirit, at least the LDS version of it. All forms of chocolate can be explained physically in a way that there is not room for difference of opinion. We can explain the ingredients, where they came from, and the process through which each piece of chocolate was made, to a T. We cannot do so for the spirit. Many cultures have a concept of a spirit, but the explanations for what it actually is and what its manifestations are supposed to be vary widely. Glossolalia, for instance, may be seen in some Pentecostal cultures to be a manifestation of the spirit. But if a person were to start speaking loudly in tongues in the middle of an LDS sacrament meeting, LDS churchgoers would likely find that person to be mad. In some cultures the concept of spirits exists, but it believed that these spirits have no influence on human thought or behavior. There are many cultures throughout the world that have no concept of spirits whatsoever.

    I don’t know if there exist any cultures on the planet today that have no concept of chocolate is or tastes like, but there most certainly used to be. Getting these cultures to acknowledge what chocolate was and tasted like required only contact with chocolate-possessing and producing individuals and inserting that product into their mouths. Such an experience would cause instant acknowledgement of chocolate’s existence and flavor without much change to a culture’s preexisting norms and values. Now the LDS-version of the spirit is a whole different matter. Getting other cultures to acknowledge the idea that this spirit exists and manifests itself in the way that LDS folks claim that it does would require quite a radical configuration of the values and norms of another individual or group.

    As for fatigue, again, all humans experience it, and all know what it is. Sure, some forms fatigue are emotional, but other forms are a basic force of nature. Vigorous exercise for extended periods of time will cause fatigue. Staying awake for long periods of time will cause fatigue. There is no way around it. Fatigue is evidenced by the fact that people sleep and rest and cannot live life without it.

    But the spirit? I reiterate, there is no possible way to establish its existence without question and no way to measure how spiritually perceptive a person is. The concept of the spirit and measures of its manifestation are culture-specific.

  13. Cameron N.
    December 14, 2016 at 1:00 am

    Well said, Mark S. Not are they just not culture-specific, they are individual specific and even event specific! Because God isn’t a beaker of goop, he’s an embodied intelligence that happens to be our father. That won’t persuade a skeptic, but it wasn’t intended to. We are literally incapable of comprehending everything the Lord can comprehend, but how many actually believe that?

    On a side note I’m kind of over these religious/non-religious scientific studies being conducted as a shallow excuse to gain leverage in the debate over belief. On both sides. Let the fruits speak for themselves. The culture as a whole is corrupt and big science/research is no different.

  14. December 14, 2016 at 1:01 am

    Mark S, of course our spiritual experiences are subjective and informed by our culture, because all of our experiences are acts of interpretation on our part, and all our interpretations are culturally informed. None of that alters the basic situation, though: I’ve had spiritual experiences, others have as well, and we need to figure out how we should act on them. Our sight and hearing are also subjective and informed by our culture, but that doesn’t stop us from looking and listening. It is true that I can’t establish the objective reality of the spirit beyond all doubt, but so what? That just makes the spirit more or less like most things I encounter. Its existence seems quite a bit more likely than not to me right now, so I might as well proceed on the assumption that it’s real. The results of that assumption have been fairly good so far, so I don’t see the point in staying at Step 1 indefinitely (wondering if the spirit is real) rather than moving on to Step 2 (acting on the spiritual perceptions I may have).

    I know you think fatigue is just a simple matter of common sense. I used to think that, too. But it turns out not to be. Sports is big business, and there are millions or billions of dollars at stake for figuring out fatigue, but it’s still controversial. Did you read the article I linked?

    Also, just to be sure, when I wrote in the original post, “what measures can we take to increase the reliability of our spiritual perceptions,” you understand that I’m using “measures” as a synonym for “steps,” right? You seem pretty hung up on the idea of measuring spiritual experiences, but I haven’t proposed anything like that at all.

  15. athena
    December 14, 2016 at 9:22 am

    The link on fatigue is a good one. As someone that suffers from muscle fatigue (I’m not an athlete) I was taken back by the view that treat fatigue as an emotion, and that my fatigue could possibly be all in my head. However I’m willing to challenge any assumptions I may have just as I am reminded and accept that strength training is a muscle memory (as in, something the brain remembers, not the muscle). I like the idea that fatigue sends triggers to the brain to slow down the body and is the body’s mechanism for homeostasis, just not sure how fatigue as an emotion relates to spirituality.

  16. Clark Goble
    December 14, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Mark S (12) I think we are at a place where “subjective” is somewhat ambiguous. It can mean of the subject or (as I suspect you may be using it) a changeable preference. When talking of cognition it gets tricky since we may be talking about what it is about a person that sets their preferences. So perhaps ambiguity is impossible to avoid.

    I suspect most of our taste is set genetically with a certain component set by context. That’s both what you tasted prior but also your environment. You could have the same food and it will taste differently in say a nice restaurant where you’ve been told it is the best. Yet in an important sense that’s still outside your control.

    There’s also a major part of your taste that’s genetic and pretty well determined by the nerves in your nose and mouth (and to a degree stomach which has a pretty complex nervous system). While in a certain sense we might call that subjective I’m loath to use that term. The reason my wife hates cilantro is because she’s part of that part of the population for whom cilantro tastes like soap. For me it tastes fresh because of my more common genetics. Is that subjective?

    In any experience there’s this unification of lets say less static elements with elements closer to what we’d call thoughts we control. While the division between the two isn’t absolute, it is helpful to keep the distinction in mind and be clear what it is we’re talking about.

    This all ties back to the spirit because I think what we’re saying is an element of our experience of the spirit is this more arbitrary or controllable element. However what I think some of us are saying is that there’s a component of the spirit that’s more fixed and shared. There may be elements that still differ between people due to genetics. Perhaps analogous to how cilantro tastes. But it’s still not open to being significantly different due to how we think about it.

  17. Mark S
    December 14, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    “Mark S, of course our spiritual experiences are subjective and informed by our culture, because all of our experiences are acts of interpretation on our part, and all our interpretations are culturally informed.”


    “Our sight and hearing are also subjective and informed by our culture”

    The senses of human vision and hearing are purely biological. I don’t see because my culture made it so. Things we notice are partly informed culturally.

    Fatigue is sort of like gravity. We know it exists, but we’re figuring it out. As I mentioned before, fatigue is partly emotional, but not entirely. You’re going way too far if you’re suggesting that it is all emotional. It is not physically possible for a human to live without sleep.

    “you understand that I’m using “measures” as a synonym for “steps,” right?”

    OK. Then the idea of steps that are needed to increase spiritual perceptiveness is purely subjective since there is no established norm for what the spirit is or what it means to be spiritually perceptive. By contrast, there are set steps that one needs to follow in order to make chocolate. Sure there are lots of different kinds of chocolate. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t particular steps that one needs to follow in order to make what would be considered by the most of the human population to be chocolate.

  18. Mark S
    December 14, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    Clark, I did say that taste is largely subjective, with emphasis on the largely. Sure there are genetic elements to human taste, and come to think of it, taste may not be a good analogy to the spirit after all, since we know for certain that humans have a sense of taste. This is evidenced by the fact that all normal humans claim to have this sense and by the fact that they find some foods better-tasting than others, even though there is great variance about what tastes good. There is zero evidence* that a spirit or spirits exist (in the way that LDS folks tend to mean), for one. So no, we can’t compare the spirit to taste, fatigue, or chocolate. Second there are thousands upon thousands of different concepts (many of them mutually exclusive) of what the spirit is among cultures that actually believe that spirits exist. There is no way to determine whether or not someone is spiritually perceptive in a way that would have widespread acceptance among cultures. What LDS folks mean when they say that x person is spiritually perceptive is that that person says things and does things that appear to be in accordance with a culturally predetermined model that that person has been either socially conditioned or persuaded to believe is the ideal of spiritual perceptiveness, and that’s pretty much it. If there is a concept of spiritual perceptiveness in Muslim cultures, and I’m not entirely sure if there is (or that they would label it as such), then it is highly doubtful that those Muslim cultures would find what LDS folks think to be a spiritually perceptive person to be spiritually perceptive.

    *Meaning, there is nothing that would widely be accepted as valid evidence across cultures. There is only culture-specific evidence.

  19. December 15, 2016 at 12:15 am

    Mark S, actually, no, spiritual experiences seem to be extremely widespread in human beings both in history and today. Nearly everywhere you look, people have religious beliefs of one kind or another. If you can cause religious feelings through neural stimulation – and you can; you read that link too, right? – then that tells us that most human brains are wired for spiritual experiences of one kind or another. That fact, and the spiritual experiences you have, are your evidence. What you make of that evidence depends on the interpretive framework you use. I’ve described what I make of that evidence above. What interpretive framework do you use to explain that evidence?

  20. Mark S
    December 15, 2016 at 2:46 am

    Yes, there are many who claim to have what they call spiritual or religious experiences. The link you provided that claims that a transcranial stimulator can create “religious experiences” only appears to show that the device can create a feeling that some, not all by any means, claim is an ethereal being communicating with them. Note how the articles says, “Religious experiences, then, appear to be simply events in the brain; they need not be experiences of anything real at all.” It then proceeds to claim that that isn’t evidence that an ethereal being isn’t communicating with people. OK, yeah, the fact that a transcranial stimulator can cause the brain to feel feelings that some associate with religious experiences isn’t necessarily what many would construe to be evidence that ethereal beings who communicate with mortal humans exist. Clearly, you think that this is evidence. However, what people think is evidence can also be culturally informed and culture-specific. To a believing LDS community, the Book of Mormon is evidence that Joseph Smith was a prophet. But this is highly unlikely to be regarded as valid evidence in other non-LDS cultures. You would have to morph them to LDS culture, and consequently cause them to abandon many previous culture elements, in order for them to recognize that as valid evidence. Plus, the fact that there are myriad interpretations of what the spirit is and how it manifests itself make the concept of spirit even harder to nail down. Contrast that with fatigue, the understanding of which is fairly uniform across cultures. Of course, there are scientists trying to figure out what is causing fatigue (the brain vs. the nervous system, etc.), but there doesn’t appear to be much variance across cultures of what the concept of fatigue is and how it manifests itself.

  21. December 15, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Mark S, what interpretive framework do you use to explain why people have religious experiences, and how do you interpret your own religious experiences?

  22. Clark Goble
    December 15, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Mark S (17) how we see and hear are biological but the biology develops in response to the social. For instance there are significant biological differences in the brain between literate people and illiterate people. And of course famously children never exposed to language at a certain point can’t learn language. The brain is somewhat elastic but more important it develops over the first 18 years in response to environmental cues which are themselves highly shaped by social structures. This is a huge issue evolutionary biology where evolution and cultural evolution meet. Scientists like Joseph Henrich have done some fascinating work in this regard. (He has a popular treatment of some of his research in The Secret of Our Success and was recently interviewed by Tyler Cowan. (Well worth listening to)

    Beyond these cultural aspects of biological development of the nervous system there are other issues. For instance what we perceive biologically is shaped by our culture. (Admittedly you did mention this when you said “things we notice are partly informed culturally” but I think it goes beyond that) The debate ends up being tied to the metaphor of a software/hardware divide. What is culture doing to the software and what to the hardware. I’m not sure that’s a good metaphor for various reasons. (Not the least of which being that computer hardware always had a software aspect) The SEP has a pretty good entry on the more philosophical aspects of all this. I’ll be the first to admit there’s not a ton of consensus in cognitive science here. But I do think the divide you’re making is perhaps problematic even if some come close to sharing your view.

    This may seem like we’re getting astray, but I think these issues can have significant impact in the discussion of the spirit in a Mormon context from a more scientifically informed perspective. Even from more evolutionary psychology perspectives on religion (where they would be highly skeptical of Mormon truth claims) the cognitive structures postulated behind religious experience are complex. (Say for example as in Atran’s In Gods We Trust) One common evolutionary psychology argument is that religion evolved as part of the evolution of the state. When the state reaches a certain complexity and provide sufficient services then the need for religion is less. Effectively the state is the religion. This explains why states with strong social welfare are the least religious and also why the United States is an outlier in religiosity. I’m not sure I buy that thesis, but it ends up making an interesting play between biology and culture in terms of evolution.

  23. Clark Goble
    December 15, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Mark S (17) speaking as a chocolate maker and thus a bit of an expert I can say nearly every step of the chocolate making can be rejected but people still call it chocolate. Indeed we have white chocolate which many people consider chocolate but which has no chocolate solids in it typically. (The better ones have trace amounts due to the process of pressing the cocoa butter out of the bean nibs but most commercial white chocolate uses denature steam purified cocoa butter) So you can buy chocolate where the beans are never roasted (although I wouldn’t recommend it given the microbiological risks). You can buy chocolate where the chaff (shell) isn’t removed. You can buy chocolate hand ground and thus very rough. You can buy untempered chocolate. Although most chocolate is ground fine with sugar with roasted beans with the chaff removed. Originally chocolate was consumed by just eating the beans. The Europeans originally just mixed it with water like coffee or used a rolling pin to make a paste. “Modern” chocolate didn’t get invented until the late 19th century when stone melangeurs came on the market. Much remained dark chocolate although milk chocolate soon followed. When modern refiners were invented we got the modern smooth chocolate although that was well into the 20th century. In the recent decade nearly every possible variation has been done and sold as chocolate. White chocolate, cocoa powder, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate all are considered chocolate despite being made in pretty different ways.

    Mark S (18) I don’t want to get too afar but I’d dispute the claim “there is zero evidence* that a spirit or spirits exist.” To make that claim demands one carefully qualify what counts as evidence. Plenty of people claim to see spirits and so you have to be able to dismiss as evidence such accounts. In a scientific context there are good reasons to do so. But let’s be honest about what we’re doing then. We’re not saying there is no evidence. We’re saying there is no scientific evidence.

    However religious experience is so widespread throughout so many human cultures we can’t dismiss it. That’s why evolutionary psychologists come up with the hypotheses they do. Unfortunate as is common with evolutionary psychology establishing empirically such hypotheses is difficult.

  24. Mark S
    December 15, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Jonathan, I am not seeing that we differ much in our interpretive framework of religious experiences. They are informed partly by culture. They are also informed by environment and personal bias. Where I think we disagree is over the universality of interpretation of what the spirit is or a spiritual experience is. I would certainly place in the same category of spiritual/religious experience the supposed self-transcendent experience that some claims to have by using a Ouija board to try to communicate with dead ancestors AND the claimed warm and fuzzy feeling that LDS believers claim to have when kneeling, closing their eyes, and clasping their hands in a prayer asking a deity about whether the Book of Mormon is true. However, that doesn’t mean that I view the Ouija board practitioners and LDS believers as seeing the concept of spirit and spiritual experience as the same. I am quite certain that LDS believers would not regard the feelings of self-transcendence from using a Ouija board as a valid spiritual experience. At best, they would probably call this delusion. At worst, they might call this inspiration from the devil.

    On another yet related point, I have found what appears to be a strange pattern among many LDS believers which is that they appear strangely ecumenical and accepting of the idea of interfaith equality in secularism vs. religion conversational contexts. However, my experience with LDS believing members and leaders is that when discussing the validity of one religion over another (as missionaries commonly experience in Latin America with Catholicism and evangelical churches being huge competition) they reject the claimed spiritual/religious experiences of the practitioners of these religions (especially ones that the practitioner claims reinforce belief in a particular non-LDS religious institution) if not gratuitously denigrate these altogether. Bear in mind that Joseph Smith <a href=""said in an article in Times and Seasons, 1842 (I thank Clark for referring me to this in an earlier discussion) that “The Turks, the Hindoos, the Jews, the Christians, the Indian; in fact all nations have been deceived, imposed upon and injured through the mischievous effects of false spirits.” He also criticized many of his followers for being deceived by false spirits. So I don’t quite understand how LDS believers should regard spiritual/religious experiences by those who claim to be such to be equally valid evidence of the spirit, at least as the LDS church explains it.

  25. Mark S
    December 15, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    “We’re saying there is no scientific evidence.”

    Clark, note the asterisk below. I account for the fact that what cultures regard to be valid evidence varies over a number of issues. However, on issues such as what is an airplane and how does it function, there is uniformity on what the evidence is for that across cultures. At some point you have to ask yourself if processes such as voodoo rituals actually allow people to speak with dead ancestors, or at more extreme levels if Nat Turner experienced a vision of god telling him to slaughter white people in rebellion against slavery. Did Christopher Nemelka experience a vision from God telling him that he was the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith and did the LDS version of the Holy Ghost enable him to translate the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon? What I’m saying is that you have to acknowledge the diversity in concepts of what the spirit is and what its manifestations are. Are you willing to accept these as evidence of the spirit? Might at some point you want to claim that these so-called manifestations are nothing but delusions (or perhaps false spirits negatively influencing thought, as Joseph Smith maintained)?

    On chocolate, I realize that you are an expert chocolate maker, and know more about that than me. But it should go without saying someone can’t make an omelet out of eggs, onion, and red pepper and then call it chocolate. Even the white chocolate that you mention, there is a set process for how that is made. There may be some debate among connoisseurs about whether some product constitutes chocolate or not, but that doesn’t change the fact that what chocolate is or isn’t reaches a point at which it is not just in the eye of the beholder and that someone calling an omelet chocolate is either seriously uninformed or just plain crazy. There is little to no variance across cultures of what chocolate is or isn’t. However, the concept of what the spirit is really does appear to be largely in the eye of the beholder. There are no uniformly accepted definitions of what the spirit is or what a valid religious/spiritual experience is across cultures. Plus there are hundreds of millions of people (even close to billion people by some measures) on this planet who reject the idea that the spirit or spirits exist. Atheist, agnostic, and non-spiritual cultures can’t be disregarded as somehow not counting or not being important.

    On sight and hearing, these came about mostly because of different life forms’ interactions with inanimate environmental factors. Social interaction may have had some effect as well, but not entirely.

  26. Clark Goble
    December 16, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Mark S, as with most folk theories (folk physics, folk psychology, etc.) one can reject the details and yet think there is something to be explained and not dismiss out of hand all aspects of the folk theories. Evolutionary psychology offers several explanations for these. The idea that there is some reality being erroneously explained by folk theories and practices seems a perfectly reasonable theory.

    To your later point one need not have an accepted definition for there to be a phenomena that people are attempting to explain. Again you’re making the mistake of saying there is only truth/explanation when there is universal consensus which of course is self-refuting.

  27. December 16, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Marks S, just a few notes, because this is starting to get repetitive.

    Your objections so far – about norms and objective definitions and universal experience – are all similar in that they strike me as mostly irrelevant to my particular concerns. I don’t have to explain the spiritual feelings of everyone who has ever lived before trying to figure out the meaning of my own experiences; it’s an impossible task that wouldn’t help me with my own situation, but instead prevent me from ever addressing it. In much the same way, I am grateful for my blessings without being able to explain why there is suffering in the world, and I plead for my daily bread in full knowledge that some people who need it more than I do won’t receive it.

    It is of course not a new observation that some people are frauds and others are delusional; the New Testament makes that clear (while the NT also sees those categories as overlapping with those who are demonically inspired, a category I am not interested in defending or rejecting right now). I can’t easily investigate the thoughts of other people, but I can try to interrogate myself while trying to reject as little evidence as possible. It turns out to be pretty easy from an LDS perspective to dismiss a few people as con men and loons while still acknowledging the spiritual experiences of the vast majority of people as valid confirmations of the truth they have found and the righteous acts they contemplate.

    I think our interpretive frameworks may actually be rather dissimilar. I’m trying to figure out what you are arguing for, and the best that I can come up with is that you’re a proponent of New Atheism. That’s fine, you don’t have to be a Mormon to participate at T&S. We only ask that you are respectful of Mormon belief and not use the space here as a soapbox for evangelizing people to your cause.

  28. Clark Goble
    December 16, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Jonathan, I actually think Mark’s argument is important to grapple with. I don’t particularly see it as a New Atheist move although it does make use of positivist elements that perfuse the New Atheism movement.

    Fundamentally the question is whether one can know without there being consensus. Of course one can (and indeed must if consensus is going to change). So moves that appeal only to consensus of various sorts (especially scientific) are problematic from the beginning.

    That said if we remove those elements of Mark’s argument the core element is just that we have to explain all these other experiences we don’t see as valid. I think we can do that of course, just as scientists have no problem dismissing the majority of interpretation of scientific phenomena that is wrong. People reason poorly. The fact people reason poorly doesn’t mean the less interpretive elements of their experiences can be dismissed. They do need explained though.

  29. Mark S
    December 16, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    “Again you’re making the mistake of saying there is only truth/explanation when there is universal consensus which of course is self-refuting.”

    Clark, I’m not trying to make a case for truth. I clearly acknowledge the problem of truth being informed by consensus. Geocentrism used to be widely accepted (in fact it still is, It doesn’t mean that it is true. Like Jonathan acknowledged in the OP, anything we perceive as truth could very well be an illusion. What I’m saying is that some concepts such as chocolate and fatigue are less culturally informed and have more similar meaning across cultures than others. Hence, fatigue and spirit are false comparisons.

    But I will say that I fully agree with Jonathan in that we shouldn’t have to wait around to hear what others say to make a case for the truthfulness of some concepts amid ambiguity and uncertainty. However, it appears that some leaps of faith are much more culturally informed than others and are much larger bounds than others, particularly if it is faith in a set of concepts that conforms to one’s preexisting culture.

  30. Mark S
    December 16, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Jonathan, I haven’t ever taken any issue with you saying that you feel what you call the spirit and that it is revealing truths to you as clear as day. That’s fine with me. In fact I’ve agreed with you on a range of issues. But I’ve taken issue with three things: 1) the suggestion that spiritual perceptiveness can be achieved through set measures and steps that would have widespread acceptance as such (on which I actually sense some agreement from you). 2) The comparison between concepts such as fatigue, chocolate, and the spirit (where we differ). 3) The apparent assumption that the concept of the spirit is similar across cultures (on which you appear to agree with me somewhat). That’s pretty much it. The seeming repetitiveness appears to have resulted from our agreement on many central issues, oddly enough. The only reason I have kept making posts is because you and Clark keep responding, not because I’m on some soapbox. I don’t have some hidden New Atheist agenda. Plus, I take issue with the idea that we have to size people up and figure out which camp they belong to and then address the flaws of that perceived camp. Let’s take each other’s words at face value and address those.

  31. Clark Goble
    December 16, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    OK, I misunderstood you somewhat. Although it honestly sounds like you’ve backed off a bit from your earlier pronouncements to a position of “less culturally informed.” At that point I have far less to disagree with. It then gets into the debate about how much our notion of spirit and holy ghost actually is culturally informed versus something more independent of our intellectual scaffolding. I’ll fully confess for a variety of reasons I see a significant part of the church notion of holy ghost as being more than cultural but a real mind-independent phenomena. But I can also understand why many might disagree – perhaps because the more emotional aspects are what they’re most familiar with. (And which I tried to admit up front are more problematic for a variety of reasons — so we’re probably in agreement on that aspect)

    To me the strongest argument is the one from surprise. Take people where there’s a spiritual experience going on and see if they can discern the spiritual element before they encounter things like music, speech and so forth. i.e. put them into the situation blind and deaf and see what they think is going on. Fortunately a variety of times that actually did happen on my mission which was why I first became very convinced of the holy ghost as an actual ‘physical’ phenomena rather than either just communication to each individual or an experience tied to their beliefs and reaction to the trappings of the experience we agree upon. i.e. how people react emotionally to music – the music is an objective phenomena and the emotions are a reaction from a conscious/unconscious interpretation of the music.

    But of course by its very nature that’s difficult to encounter and certainly not the sort of thing one can do on demand. So it’s less than persuasive to others.

  32. Steve S
    December 17, 2016 at 9:56 am

    This is really good! Bookmarked it for future reference.

    In the comments I get the sense that somehow you guys are talking past each other, although I can’t quite see why.

    I’ll take a stab at it. I think one thing that would be helpful is acknowledging the large list of phenomena Mark S has listed are all spiritual experiences most likely. That is to say I’d imagine in an MRI setting most of these could be detected and they would be dealing with the same or similar parts of the brain in those experiences.

    It might be like asking which of a large list of items are food? To me they appear almost all to be food. A separate question might be which of these food items taste good? (could be pretty subjective). Another might be which of these foods items if any are good for the body? (in the absence of specific studies, opinions might still vary quite a bit, but to Jonathan’s points – one could gauge their bodily reactions to eating specific items and take measures to adjust and eat that which produces positive results).

    We already know there are many spirits. That is why we are to try the spirits, yes? Experiment upon the seed and all that. The restoration from a macro perspectively largely seems to be about finding these spirits, parsing them, and gathering the food which is found to be good food into one great feast.

    (Side note: taking it one step further, my guess is that while various regions around the world might produce different crops, if we were to take a closer look I think you’ll find that the same macro nutrients (protein, carbs, fats) are the mutually sustaining ingredients. And while final food presentations can and do vary quite a bit, and you can definitely find extremes, I think you’ll find that the central staples for most people are quite similar in composition.)

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