Today’s guest post is from long-time commenter and friend of the blog, Elisa. Elisa is an attorney married to another attorney, and the two of them have produced four (overly) critically thinking and (constantly) questioning children. Right now they’re living in the heart of Mormonland where she serves in the YW. 

“Do we care what’s true? Does it matter?”

Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I’d like to think of myself as a truth seeker. I can’t imagine many people would actually answer “no” to Sagan’s question – but we’ve been pretty reckless with the truth lately (and not-so-lately). Like anyone else, I can be blinded by bias and self-interest in my pursuit of truth, but I do care, deeply, what is true. It matters to me. 

Like many Mormons, my Mormonism-inspired commitment to the truth ultimately led me to reevaluate many LDS truth claims I long believed. More fundamentally, I’m reevaluating the process by which I came to believe those claims in the first place. What role can or should the spirit / feelings / intuition / our inner knowing / our gut / the Holy Ghost play in obtaining truth or making decisions? [1] Are there things that are knowable beyond what we can observe with our five senses? If so, what? And how can we put guardrails in place so that we don’t fall into the trap so many of us are in or seeing now – where whatever feels true is true, irrespective of the evidence?  

I’ll state at the outset my bias: I do think there are things we can intuit or perceive or possibly know that go beyond our five senses. I’m a humanities girl and pretty spiritual, and lately trying to get more in touch with the feminine divine (which is definitely not a five-senses-only concept). I think limiting our world to what we can observe now is equal parts arrogant (as if our brains and senses and present understanding are capable of perceiving all of reality) and dismissive of our humanity (we’ve “known” things in many ways that do not involve observation for thousands of years). And, while I will get to the risks below, I don’t think it’s always harmful to see a spirit-filled world if that lens inspires us with a sense of wonder for nature and love for others.

I have refused to live

locked in the orderly house of

reason and proofs.  

The world I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway,

what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or 

twice I have seen. I’ll just

tell you this:

only if there are angels in your head will you

ever, possibly, see one. 

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In

What’s more, many experiences I’ve had that I might attribute to “the spirit” might actually be based in science–whether evolutionary psychology (instincts and behaviors) or quantum and particle physics (which is only just scratching the surface of understanding the ways we are related to each other and the universe at an atomic level). I’ve had experiences – synchronicities – where I have been clearly prompted to give someone a call or drop something off and later learned there was a good reason for that. Maybe that was the spirit, or maybe that was just our particles communicating on a subatomic level. [2] Either way, it wasn’t my five senses, but it was real – and good, not harm, came of it. [3] I have felt connected to people and places in ways that my senses cannot (yet) explain.

Finally, some of my life’s most important decisions have been based, ultimately, on a gut feeling. Some things I’ve done on a whim—like I woke up with the idea in my head and knew I needed to do something, and it turned out to be life-changing. For other big decisions, I would do my research and make my pros and cons lists, but those could only get me so far because I could not predict the future or because the lists were evenly balanced (for good or for bad). Sometimes we narrow down to the best options and then simply have to take a leap. I’ve taken some very good leaps based on my gut. The possibility of making my major decisions going forward without being able to trust, at least to an extent, that gut, terrifies me. Maybe I’m just in denial, but I’d like to believe there’s a place for that kind of “knowing” as I continue to navigate a complex world (and parent complex children!) that I can’t hope to fully understand.

That said, the last several years have changed my feelings … about my feelings. First, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are things I thought I “knew” based on feelings I thought were “the spirit” that I now believe to be false at worst and unknowable at best. It’s been shocking to realize that I went for decades ignoring problems that are now quite obvious to me. [4] Likewise, there are many things other people claim to “know” that I think are either blatantly false or obviously unknowable.

Second, I’ve learned a lot about how feelings or emotions are made. Emerging research suggests that emotions do not arise spontaneously from our brains in response to external stimuli but instead are created by our brains by a combination of stimuli and our brains’ predictions about that stimuli, which in turn is heavily influenced by our culture and pre-existing beliefs. In other words, we construct our own feelings.

Add to this the huge number of cognitive biases [5] we have – which will influence our brains’ predictions / responses to stimuli (such as evidence) and, in turn, how we feel about that evidence – and the extent we conflate emotional responses with “the spirit,” and feelings don’t seem to me to be particularly reliable indicators of external truth. Rather, they reflect and are constructed from our internal beliefs and predictions based on our culture and experience. This is why it does not surprise me at all that someone like Dallin Oaks feels so strongly about something like gay marriage even though I think he is dead wrong. His brain is constructing those feelings, and his brain has every incentive to feel the way he does about gay marriage based on his cognitive biases and personal history with the topic. 

Third, I’m witnessing the fallout of the “post-truth” world we’re all living in where people decide not to get vaccinated against a preventable disease based on an answer to fasting and prayer (with no consultation with medical experts) and then die of that disease, or spread panic with QAnon nonsense that they believe because they “feel” like it is true, or storm the U.S. capital because they think the election has been “stolen” based on pure fabrication. We thought moral relativism was problematic? Alternative facts make moral relativism look like child’s play. 

Although Carl Sagan wouldn’t have believed in prophecy, he certainly seems to have foreseen today in 1996 when he wrote:  

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of the very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Carl Sagan

What are some of the results of this slide? Well, Sagan predicted we’d become a “nation of “suckers … up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.” Sound familiar? Sagan also warned of a pandemic, although here his prediction was a bit off: he feared that if science did not keep pace with diseases as they mutated, we would not be able to cure them. He did not foresee that what would actually happen is that we would refuse the cure. That was probably unthinkable to him.  

This post-truth, anti-rational nightmare has caused me to reflect on the role that religion generally and LDS teachings specifically have played in getting us here (particularly given the high numbers of evangelicals and Mormons who believe some of the falsehoods I listed above). Sagan consistently maintained that religion and science need not be antithetical, but that too often religions are laboratories for pseudoscience and irrationality. And I can’t help but think of all of the irrational things I’ve thought and believed in my life rooted in our religious epistemology–which tells us that we can “know” things through the “spirit” which comes to us as “feelings.” Not only is this a faulty epistemology (at least with respect to certain kinds of knowledge), but I’m increasingly convinced it is dangerous to both personal and societal well-being when deployed in the wrong way.

What are some examples of the “wrong” way? Well for starters, I think it is problematic that we teach that people could come to a knowledge of whether a historical event did or did not occur based on “feelings.” Consider Glenn Pace’s 2007 General Conference talk “Do You Know?” in which he relates how as an 11-year old boy he came to know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God because he felt joy as he read a pamphlet describing Joseph Smith’s experience. No mention of actually looking at historical evidence surrounding the historical claims that substantiate Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims (one wonders whether some of what was in that pamphlet has since been discredited), or even positive fruits of Joseph Smith’s teachings (which I do think can be “evidence” of something’s goodness, albeit not evidence of the occurrence of non-occurrence of a historical event). I don’t know what kind of historian would rely on feelings to substantiate historical claims, but then again that is probably why the Church generally puts lawyers instead of professional historians at the head of the Church history department. 

Worse yet is when we are told to ignore subject matter experts if their opinions contradict Church authorities. Dallin Oaks insists that “we should not consider secular prominence or authority as qualified sources of truth”, even about issues such as sexual orientation or gender identity, if they contradict the teachings of the Proclamation on the Family. Well, wouldn’t that include major medical organizations, none of which (with any credibility) agree with the Church’s claims that same-sex marriage is terrible for society or that homosexuality is an ailment to be cured in the afterlife? So then what would stop any good Mormon from deciding that bad feelings about a vaccine override the opinions of medical experts, with all their “secular prominence [and] authority,” when those feelings come from a higher, more reliable source than science? 


All that leaves me wondering what role the spirit / inner knowing / intuition / gut / Holy Ghost might play in our decision-making and truth-seeking. I’ve described some examples where I think its use is faulty and dangerous, but also instances where it may not be. Are there ways we could teach the use of the spirit in a more defensible and healthier way? 

Some thoughts & questions: 

  • What is the difference between the spirit and emotion? Could we describe the spirit in a more helpful way that would help people avoid conflating emotional responses with an inner knowing / intuition?
  • Are there certain types of knowledge that fall pretty firmly in the camp of “not knowable by the spirit” that we ought to be excluding and others that might be more justifiably included? How about historical facts – is it responsible to teach people that they can know that Joseph Smith experienced certain events by how they feel when they hear these events recited? Or that they can know that various Book of Mormon characters were real people by how they feel when they read the book? Is there a better way we should teach people about how to learn about and gain value from historical events without teaching a problematic epistemology of knowing historical facts by how we feel when we hear them recited?
  • What about medical decisions? (You’ll note I’m not saying “scientific facts” because science is not a set of facts, it’s a process.) Should I make medical decisions on how I feel about them? What if I do a lot of research, talk to a lot of doctors, and then ultimately make a decision based on the balance of the evidence and how I feel? I think the vaccine examples are one extreme, but many medical decisions are not black-and-white and people may face several potential choices and significant uncertainty.
  • How about decisions about one’s personal future – like what job to take, whether and where to move, where to go to school? What is the balance there between facts and feelings? How could both be useful (or misleading)?
  • Do you see any way out of the very serious problem we’ve gotten ourselves into as a Church when it comes to critical thinking and reliance on emotion as a reliable indicator of factual truth? Do you think the Church realizes this is an issue but doesn’t know how to unwind it, or do you think it wants people to continue relying on feelings because that’s the best way to keep people from leaving over historical issues? 


[1] For simplicity I’ll use the term “the spirit” here but please interpret that as broadly as you need to for purposes of this discussion. While this is a topic for another day, I find the concept of an external voice, the Holy Ghost, that is given to us by a Church authority and that we are entitled to access only by obeying Church rules problematic for a number of reasons. To take an idea from John Larsen on an old Mormon Expressions podcast, to me it’s an example of religion taking what we already have (inner authority, divinity, conscience) and selling us back an inferior version (external authority that Church gets to mediate and put conditions on). This is why I’m speaking broadly when discussing “The Holy Ghost” and trying to capture diverse ways people might envision or access that concept.

[2] Rob Bell discusses the relationship between physics and his theology at length in his book Everything is Spiritual: “Everything is made of atoms, and atoms are made of particles, and particles are bits of energy that move in ways we have no categories for … All divisions take place within a unity. All parts exist within wholes. All wholes form one whole. Everything that appears to have nothing to do with everything else is, in the end, connected to everything else.” Or you can go straight to the source to learn more about this concept (Bell is no physicist and neither am I), there are numerous excellent On Being with Krista Tippett interviews with physicists that address similar concepts. 

[3] Even Sagan wrote that “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. … The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

[4]  I read Mormon Engima for a college course at a non-LDS university and somehow came away still not believing that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy or did anything problematic, I think due to a combination of (a) Emma’s denial of polygamy at the end of her life, and (b) praying about the first vision when I got confused / unsettled by things and “feeling good” about it. Folks, if people aren’t ready for information, they aren’t ready.

[5] This is a large topic that deserves a post of its own so I won’t go into detail here (and I think there are in fact a bunch of posts here on cognitive biases & how they manifest in the Church). But at a high level, and taking a framework from Brian McLaren’s Learning How to See podcast (which is only one of many resources for learning about the topic), some of the cognitive biases that I think hamper our ability to objectively evaluate religious experiences and claims in particular include confirmation bias, community bias, contact bias, conspiracy bias, and cash bias.