Mark Bukowski got degrees in philosophy and psychology at UCLA, studying with the noted scholar of German idealism Robert Solomon and Angela Davis, a student of Marcuse. While an undergraduate he became a bit of a student radical, marxist and atheist. In graduate school he studied William James and John Dewey under Jon McDermott and became convinced personal religious experience could justify statements about religion. He also became convinced by Wittgenstein that philosophical problems were often just semantic misunderstandings with language inadequate to express experience. Those insights proved to be life changing. He left academic philosophy although he’s remained an armchair student. He sought out a church based on personal revelation and other principles he thought true. He found the Church and has served in callings ever since.
We’re really excited to have someone of Mark’s experience to offer a different perspective on things that I think many Mormons take for granted.
We as Mormons believe that testimony is the foundation of belief — that our personal experiences of communication with God are what justifies our beliefs as “true”. Such personal revelations we term a “testimony”.
This principle is implied in various stories both Biblically and in the Book of Mormon, and taught explicitly in a few scriptures. We have Moroni 10:4-5 which tells us to “ask God” about the truth of the Book of Mormon, and of “all things”. We have James 1:5 which teaches us to “ask God” if we lack wisdom, and we will receive it “liberally”. We also have 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 which teaches us to “quench not” the spirit of prophecy, and to “prove all things; hold fast to that which is good”. These are principles we all affirm, and belief in these principles has changed my life immeasurably for the better.
We Mormons say we have a “testimony” of Joseph Smith’s vision and the doctrinal beliefs implied by it, but are visions reliable sources for religious truth? Are we essentially trying to justify someone’s report of a hallucination to justify belief in our faith?
Contemporary philosophers who call themselves “Pragmatists” or “Neo Pragmatists” teach principles which might help us understand this issue better, along with findings from neuroscientists.
Let’s look first at a philosopher, Richard Rorty, who himself happens to be an atheist. Ordinarily we might consider that a “bad thing” in our attempt to justify religion — but if an atheist is himself sympathetic to religious views, what better ally could we have?
In his book “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” Rorty says this:
To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences, there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.
What is he saying here? He is speaking about our experience of consciousness as we look out at the world around us. Surely this world is “real” but the way we see it, is being filtered through our senses, our perceptions and our brain. Clearly the world “out there” beyond our senses, is not our creation. There are chairs and tables and rocks, walls which limit our passing through them and real cliffs to fall off of. These are the “effects of causes which do not include human mental states”. Chairs and tables are not human mental states. But truth is about sentences and not about things — truth is a property of sentences and not of things. We may speak of a “true wheel” when it is properly aligned, but mostly we are concerned with what theories or beliefs, or linguistic statements are “true”. And I do not know how we could dispute that language itself is not a human creation. We may say that God created it, and I accept that myself. But in Mormon parlance, God Himself is an exalted Human, so if God created language, it is still a “Human” creation. We might say, using the same logic, that God created “truth” as well, so there is still no conflict there between our faith and this notion.
But how do these “causes which do not include mental states” actually cause mental states? This is a thorny issue for philosophy which for this post, we will skip. There is an entire discipline in philosophy dealing with the “mind-body problem” which is beyond the scope of this discussion but I believe there is a philosophical solution which we will not discuss here. We will also skip the full epistemology
Instead, let’s turn from philosophy to Neuroscience to consider the basics of how this might be said to operate. There is a fascinating talk by a neuroscientist named Anil Seth on the TED website which discusses this.
What are the properties of consciousness? What should a science of consciousness try to explain? Well, for today I’d just like to think of consciousness in two different ways. There are experiences of the world around us, full of sights, sounds and smells, there’s multisensory, panoramic, 3D, fully immersive inner movie. And then there’s conscious self. The specific experience of being you or being me. The lead character in this inner movie, and probably the aspect of consciousness we all cling to most tightly. Let’s start with experiences of the world around us, and with the important idea of the brain as a prediction engine.
Imagine being a brain. You’re locked inside a bony skull, trying to figure what’s out there in the world. There’s no lights inside the skull. There’s no sound either. All you’ve got to go on is streams of electrical impulses which are only indirectly related to things in the world, whatever they may be. So perception — figuring out what’s there — has to be a process of informed guesswork in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is to form its best guess of what caused those signals. The brain doesn’t hear sound or see light. What we perceive is its best guess of what’s out there in the world.
So it appears that both Rorty the philosopher and Seth the neuroscientist would agree that though the world is clearly “out there” what we can know about it is fully found in mental states. And Rorty would also include that all we can say about those mental states is found in language. That would appear to be tautological and therefore prima facie true — certainly it is true that “all we can say” must be said in a language of some kind, including of course gestures etc.
Let me make clear the importance of what is being said here. All we can know about the outside world – all of science, all of religion, all of art, poetry, the Game of Bridge, Impressionist Painting, Basketball and Kung Fu fighting are found in human mental states. When I say things like this people sometimes take me to be a solipsist or what in philosophy is called an “Idealist” but I am in neither of those camps.
The world as it is out there but the world as it is, is only known “through a glass darkly” as we look through our human frailties including cultural prejudices and biases.
So now in turning to visions, are there brain chemicals involved in visions? Yes of course, but there are brain chemicals involved in every perception of the outside world and eveything we know as well.
— So to say simply that “brain chemicals cause visions” is trivial because brain chemicals could be said to cause everything else we know as well.
Using the argument that “brain chemicals” cause visions becomes irrelevant, it is a distinction without a difference. Do visions “represent the outside world”? I suppose it depends on what you mean by the terms “represent” and “outside world” when all that we know are mental states. Does a brain chemical “represent” the color nuances of a sunset? Do grooves on a vinyl record or digitized signals on a disk “represent” Beethoven’s Fifth? Do 26 possible squiggles on a page “represent” accurately the fullness of the experience of loving someone or every bit of knowledge and emotion known to humankind?
Now surely when one takes a psychedelic substance, one hallucinates and has erroneous perceptions precisely because the “brain chemicals” are out of balance. Mental illness seems to be caused by similar changes. I am certainly not suggesting or recommending such a path to truth — obviously if one is intentionally receiving erroneous perceptions about our surroundings, such a step is highly dangerous and foolish. To think as Rorty might have, one is intentionally altering the relationship between the “causes which do not include mental states” and the mental states they cause. It is like intentionally becoming mentally ill for recreational purposes — not a wise move!
But now let’s get back to Rorty’s view. We cannot speak or know anything about what is NOT a mental state, but there are “causes” of such mental states.
What causes could they be? We can only know those causes as our minds will allow – as the filters of human perception will allow. We perceive a “cliff” as something we do not want to jump off of and know instantly that It is dangerous, but even if wepurposes – not foolishly jump anyway, all the way down we will still be having human perceptions of what it is like to fall off a cliff. And at the bottom — if we survived – we would use human words to describe the experience as humanly perceived and would probably not use the human word “pleasant” in the description. So the cliff certainly is “real” but we experience the cliff through our limited perceptions. We cannot walk through walls, but thankfully we experience what we call “walls” and do not even try to walk through them in the first place. But still what we experience is our own mental states of these things in the world.
Scientists are no exception when it comes to examining “the outside world”. Scientists still have human perceptions of what their gizmo-meter says is happening in the world, which is telling them that their humanly invented theory of what is “out there” is “true”, and then they repeat the process called in human language an “experiment” which enables them to predict that if they do the same process over and over they will get the same human perception from the same human process with their humanly invented gizmo-meter every time. And then they put the ideas into math, which are the rules by which humans think, and natural languages which is how humans communicate, and “publish” them in a “journal” so that all other humans interested in their humanly perceived ideas can predict their human experience to “confirm” their human theory which is often more about how humans perceive the world than anything. That’s fine, and useful! It gets us to our perceptions of a place we call “Mars” or wherever we want to go!
And in human language, we call these scientifically observed human perceptions which predict other human perceptions “facts about the world”.
And all the while the brain chemicals locked in our skulls are spinning up visions of what is outside.
But are they really describing what is “out there” or what humans think is out there?
What’s the difference? Does it matter? It certainly matters in science, especially and most directly in medicine. Certainly to call these ideas “theories of men” is not to disparage for one moment their importance to human life. Everything important to human life is clearly included in the thoughts and experiences of mankind, simply in evaluating a truth or a thing to be “important” in the first place! But the importance of theories has nothing to do with their nature. They still are based on human perceptions, no matter how important or unimportant they are.
Can simple thoughts, beliefs and ideas “cause” real changes in the world? On one level this is an almost trivial point. One has an idea to build a skyscraper or write a book. One makes plans, thereby exercising faith to do so, and takes all the necessary steps to accomplish the goal. Over time and through action, the goal is accomplished. The idea or thought has “caused” a real change in the world. Another way we might say this is that faith has “moved mountains” or at least several thousand tons of steel!
But can belief itself – a mental state – cause a change in the world by mere belief it can happen, alone without the believer taking action?
Science has verified, and even routinely accounts for the fact that this happens! The “placebo effect” is an unexplained but well known phenomenon which routinely causes statistical models for medical testing of new medications and other medical procedures to adjust for its effects. In certain cases, the mind reacts to a “fake” medication as it would to the “real” medication, and the condition improves.
So in conclusion, it seems to me that we have established pretty well the notion that what we know as “reality” is not necessarily what is “really out there” but it might be. In principle we cannot prove what is “really out there” because all we can access is what our minds and brains allow us.
As has even been said by a famous physicist, the final access to reality may always remain beyond our understanding.
So if it is true that we see now “through a glass darkly” even from a scientific perspective, in both physics and neuroscience, how does that affect religion? If one of the most important atheist philosophers of our time can only speak in terms of “effects of causes which do not include human mental states”, it is only common sense to conclude that since human knowledge requires a human mental state, those causes are unknowable to humans as we are, through sensory perception.
I think clearly the question for non believers who rationally and honestly try to deconstruct the question of what the “cause” of a mental state of one receiving a vision is, must be highly complex, and ultimately inconclusive. Was that mental state pathological or did it result in a positive life-change, perhaps not unlike psychosomatic healing or the “placebo effect”? Looking at truth pragmatically, if such an event has led to beliefs which improved the lives of millions immeasurably, could the beliefs in such an event be considered even by the most skeptical atheist postmodern philosopher, as for example Rorty, be considered “true” within the “sphere” or “language game” of the believers community? The answer is most assuredly “yes”.
Perhaps Mormon students of religion would do well to consider postmodernism and pragmatism as a philosophical friend of religion at least for teaching those of a secular bent about the gospel. I have personally had some success with this approach. Though some have condemned these views, my experience has shown that they can be invaluable tools for communicating for those seeking a context in which to understand Mormonism. Like Paul on Mars Hill, we must preach the “unknown god” to those in the marketplace in their own language.
For believers on the other hand, there really is only one question, and that becomes “Was the vision from God?”
The answer to that one is easy. All one has to do is ask God himself and he, as the ultimate “cause of effects which are not mental states” will give you your answer which will be in fact a “mental state” itself which we call a “testimony”.
1. Richard Rorty, “Contingency Irony and Solidarity”, p. 5
2. I believe a clear statement and possible solution of this problem can be found in the philosophy of Thomas Nagel, and others but we won’t get into it here due to space considerations.
3. At this point I am skipping a discussion of what D&C 93 calls “spheres” of knowledge and jumping from the philosophical “sphere” to the scientific “sphere” and doing so quite consciously. In a general way I would justify this step along the lines of what Wittgenstein would call changing “language games” for purposes of communication to a general audience. But in this case I do not think there is any conflict because I am not trying to justify philosophical propositions with scientific propositions- I think I am separating them and using science only to illustrate the meaning of the philosophy which to some can be quite opaque in discussing anti-realism.
5. Here again a discussion of Wittgensteinian language games and the private language problem might be very productive but is beyond the scope of this post at this time.
6. Yet another important consideration which would include a discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Copenhagen Interpretation for a fuller explanation of the argument. But here, I think Susskind summarizes the problems well.
7. Yet another important consideration which would include a discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Copenhagen Interpretation for a fuller explanation of the argument. But here, I think Leonard Susskind summarizes the problems well.