‘Subjective’ Spiritual Experiences as a Basis for Belief

Critics of the Church often claim that our spiritual experiences with God cannot serve as a rational basis for accepting abstract Mormon doctrines like, for example, the pre-existence. Because spiritual experiences cannot be tested using the scientific method many critics claim that it is an unreliable source of truth. They believe that ‘subjective’ experiences, which cannot be examined and tested by others, should be discarded as untrustworthy.

I posted a series of messages at MADB attempting to address this issue and I think it went ok. My explanation may still need some refining, because the issue is quite vast. But I record it here for discussion and for future reference. There is much more that needs to be said on this subject beyond what is here. Much has been written on this, and I am excited to post more about this in the future. Below this paragraph is an amalgamation of a few posts found here.

Elder Oaks said the following:

What do we mean when we testify and say that we know the gospel is true? Contrast that kind of knowledge with “I know it is cold outside” or “I know I love my wife.” These are three different kinds of knowledge, each learned in a different way. Knowledge of outside temperature can be verified by scientific proof. Knowledge that we love our spouse is personal and subjective. While not capable of scientific proof, it is still important. The idea that all important knowledge is based on scientific evidence is simply untrue.

While there are some “evidences” for gospel truths (for example, see Psalm 19:1; Helaman 8:24), scientific methods will not yield spiritual knowledge.

While Oaks (and others I have read) have used as an anology a man’s love for his wife when describing the subjectiveness of spiritual experiences, I find that this analogy falls short. Love is applicable to the individual, and not to anyone else. The implications of spiritual knowledge however are a concern for all people. Nonetheless, I agree with Oaks main point providing a clarification of terms.

A man receiving spiritual knowledge is indeed a subjective experience in that it cannot be observed by anyone else. It is not ‘scientific’ in the sense that the modern “scientific method” can be administered, which calls for the ability to duplicate the experience so that others can objectively observe and experience it as well.

Nonetheless, it is scientific in that the experience can be evaluated objectively by that individual. The experiment can be done over and over and over, with the same single witness to the event each and every time. The fact that an experience is held by a particular individual that cannot be duplicated for observation by others is not to be so casually dismissed as untrue. In a court of law, a witness is entitled to testify of that which they have seen, heard, or experienced. Sometimes the event which was witnessed cannot be duplicated or proven. All we have is the word of the witness. The testimony ought to be considered, but is not to be held as “proof” or even strong evidence for anyone else except for the witness.

I’ll take a stab at trying to explain my meaning. This could get sticky:

Scientist A observes phenomena P, a phenomena that he cannot create or cause to happen of his own will. Scientist A does not understand the mechanism that created phenomena P. The only way for scientist A to observe phenomena P is for phenomena P to come to him. Scientist A can go back to the same place in which he first observed P, can duplicate his actions immediately prior to his observance of P, but doing those things does not guarantee that P will occur. They are however necessary for P to occur. Necessary, but not a guarantee. One of the necessary (but not guaranteed) requirements for the occurance of phenomena P to occur is that A, or any potential observer, must be completely alone. Noone else must observe it alongside him.

Scientist B learns about phenomena P from scientist A. Scientist B wants to experience phenomena P but, like A, has no way of doing that until P comes to him. Scientist B carries out those requirements for P to occur, including being absolutely alone, but nothing happens. The requirements never guarantee that P will occur.

Does this mean that P is only in the mind of A? Does this mean that P never actually occurred, and does not exist? In other words, if a tree falls in the forest and only I hear it, did it actually happen?

For A, the experience was real. He can summon all of his faculties and evaluate his experience of P as objectively as he can, and conclude that yes, P did in fact occur.

For B, the experience of P may or may not be real. He doesn’t know, he’s never observed it. He has no obligation to take A at his word, but he has no absolute reason to reject P as non-existent. He is still waiting. Scientist B may grow tired of waiting and give up, concluding that P is not real. However, scientist B’s conclusion should not influence scientist A’s conclusion.

I am reminded of Joseph Smith’s testimony in which he testified that he knew it, God knew it, and God knew that he knew it. He couldn’t deny it.

A critic may say, “It is reasonable that a truth that is universal in scope can be experienced by others.” It is reasonable to ask, but unfortunately it is not possible. Even if phenomena P was a universal truth with implications for B, that doesn’t change the fact that A & B cannot observe P any time they wish.

This concludes my posts over at MADB on this issue.

I should add a few links to some important resources on this topic:

Clark Goble discusses the issues of LDS epistemology

Jeff Lindsay discusses “feeling” the Holy Spirit

Jeff Lindsay discusses many aspects of this topic

Some of my thoughts about “rational” choices

Relevant Bible passages



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