Dr Jesse James is a research psychologist and assistant professor at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. He shares his expertise in explaining spiritual experiences from a scientific point of view. We’ll get into artificial intelligence, free will, if the spirit can be manipulated, Fowler’s stages of faith, and why denominations split. Check out our conversation…

Can Chimps Speak Sign Language?

Jesse  09:47  Right. It’s, so fascinating. So, the chimpanzees, prior to this group had been raised, cross-fostered by humans. They had been taught English and chimpanzees do not have the same vocal structure that we have. So, they can’t learn the same kinds of words. They can’t construct the same sounds that we can make. So, one chimpanzee, for instance, learned only to say four words: mama, papa, cup and up. There are only phonemes that they could construct. They could understand more words than that. They just couldn’t produce more words than that. So, that was kind of a failed experiment. Then they decided, well, chimpanzees probably can learn to sign, even if they can’t speak English. They have the same hands we do, similar hands. Their thumbs are much further down on their wrist than ours, but they essentially have hands enough to be able to sign with.

Jesse  10:39  So, they decided to raise them as deaf human infants. The principle here is you don’t teach them sign language as a party trick. You raise them naturally speaking sign language in naturalistic conversation, like you would raise a human infant. You don’t tutor and train an infant on natural language. You just speak with them, and they pick it up naturally. Right. So that was the principle at these chimpanzees. You would raise them and try to just interact with them and see if they picked it up. Several of these chimpanzees ended up learning sign language reasonably well, like, a couple hundred signs. Telegraphic speech was just like the kind of speech you hear from a toddler, where a toddler might put together a couple of words. They might say, like, “Want more or…” exactly. So, you drop a lot of articles and things like that. But you put together, like a telegraph would, that’s why it’s called telegraphic speech, because a telegraph would cut out all the unnecessary language, then you just piece together the necessary words.

GT  11:45  Infamous, that means more than famous.[1]

Jesse  11:47  Yeah. So, these chimpanzees ended up going through this cross-fostering study in the 1970s. Then the study was kind of concluded. We concluded that they would be able to master approximately toddler language skills, but no more than that, no matter how old they got. So, after that was done, then, you know, chimpanzees live for, 40, 50, 60 years, depending.  Then, what you do with them? So, these chimpanzees were essentially retired to a research institution, Washington State, where they lived out the rest of their lives, and participated voluntarily, when we could convince them to, in other language studies. So, we would interact with them in sign language. We cared for them, of course. We had video cameras filming all the interactions with each other. So, we would code videotapes and stuff for humorous interactions, or the way that they would use vocabulary words. One chimpanzee would always sign the word black, to indicate something was cool, right? It was like, it was just, she just liked the color black. So, whenever something else was cool, she would sign all that as black. So, those kinds of linguistic nuances and the interchanges that they would have, that’s the kind of stuff that we studied at that institution. So, that’s why I chose to study in Washington state at that university. I only ended up staying there for a little while, like, about a year and a half or so before I ended up bowing out because of some political things going on with the director there at the Institute. So, I didn’t end up doing my master’s thesis there, like I anticipated.


[1] That is a line from a comedy called “The Three Amigos.” A Mexican telegraph operator used the word “infamous” to substitute for “murderous, thieving, lying.” However, it was misinterpreted as “more than famous” by the Three Amigos who thought they were dealing with actors, not a criminal gang.


Do we have Free Will?

GT  14:55  See now that’s fascinating to me, because I think there’s a field of study that says freewill does not exist.

Jesse  15:34  Yeah.  Neuroscientists are…

GT  15:36  Very non-Mormon.

Jesse  15:37  Yeah, so neuroscientists are not philosophers, and, therefore, not really equipped to say one way or the other. Right? Neuroscientists have collected some evidence that suggests maybe freewill is an illusion. It seems we make decisions in our brain before we’re consciously aware of them. And that suggests, maybe if we’ve already made the decision, and then we kind of post hoc rationalize the decision in a conscious way, and that’s all we’re actually doing is justifying the decision that was already made by our brain, then maybe we’re not actually free, after all. Maybe our brain is kind of automatically responding to the environment. And maybe we are just giving ourselves the illusion because we have metacognition, where we can reflect back on our own thinking processes. Maybe that allows us the illusion of free will that maybe perhaps other animals don’t have. But that’s a question that, despite the scientific evidence, really requires integration with philosophy in order to answer. Because most neuroscientists are not sufficiently trained in philosophy, it’s not a question they can answer.

Jesse  16:50  So as an example, it doesn’t matter to me how many studies–I mean, I’m pretty hardcore scientist. But it doesn’t matter how many studies come out to suggest that freewill is an illusion, I will never not believe in freewill. As a philosopher, as a theologian, I am convinced that freewill exists, independent of the empirical evidence. So, I think…

GT  17:16  Doesn’t that show your bias?

Jesse  17:18  It could show my bias, but it also, to me, shows the limitations of science.  Science is a pretty impressive tool. But, being a scientist, I can also look at it and I can say, people who are too radical of scientists are as theocratic about their sciences.


WIll AI rule the world?

Jesse  22:09  If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a bot today, like the best bots that exist, they pale. I mean, you can vet a bot in moments. You can automatically know this is not a person, right? Because they’re not flexible enough to communicate. The computing power of the human brain is so–okay, here’s a couple of anecdotes to anchor us in how complex the human brain is. Google recently got from–there was a woman who had some brain surgery. They took out a segment of her brain that was causing seizures. In order to get to that region of the brain, they had to take out a healthy part of the brain, as well. So, they took this healthy part of the brain. It was like one cubic centimeter, a tiny little portion of the brain, cubic centimeter. They put it in some resin to harden it, and then they sliced it in thousands of slices, and then they computerized it. Then they created a computer program to kind of create a three-dimensional technological model of that segment of her brain. The amount of time that it took to produce that–I can’t remember the exact numbers. Somebody’s going to fact check me here, and it’s going to be wrong, but it was something like a decade to produce this computer model of a centimeter of brain. It took terabytes of information. I mean, it took an unbelievable amount of information. And that was just to just to represent the physical structure of that segment of brain, not even the functioning, not even the neurotransmitters or the glial cells that support and interact with neurons, not the firing of individual nerves. None of that was represented in these terabytes of information. It was just the structure of the brain. If you wanted to represent the entire human brain, it would take something like 700,000 average computers to represent one human brain, just the structure, not even the functioning. So, it feels to me like the best AI in the world right now can’t even come close to what the human brain is capable of, in terms of not just even function, but just structure. We’re not even close. It’s just so far off.

Jesse  24:37  So, is it possible that 1000 years from now we might be able to create artificial intelligence? And 1000 years from now we might realize the answer to the question of do we have freewill? And maybe we create AI that has freewill. Maybe, but I don’t think we’re even, I think we’re nowhere close.

Reviewing Jana Riess’s Survey-TeleChurch

GT  31:38  So you’ve got a good background in statistics. I know Jana Riess and Benjamin Knoll did the book The Next Mormons. It was a great book and great interview. You guys should watch it if you haven’t.

Jesse  31:49  Definitely.

GT  31:50  What did you what did you think of Jana and Ben? Did you learn anything there?

Jesse  31:54  Yeah. So, Jana’s work is fascinating, and I think, really important. I think it’s important, in no small part, because she has answered questions that the public has not had access to for a long time. So, before coming to Graceland University, I worked at Church headquarters in the correlation research division. There we did all kinds of studies with members of the Church. We answered, already, most of the questions that Jana answered. But the information is considered proprietary, and people who work there aren’t really allowed to talk a lot about what they’re doing, or the findings that they’re coming up with. They share it with the brethren and some project managers at the headquarters, but most of the information is just kept within headquarters, behind closed doors. So, Jana answered a lot of questions that I already knew the answer to, because I was privileged to have the information, because I worked there. But most people didn’t have the answer to those kinds of questions. The one thing that really surprised me of what she found was related to the Word of Wisdom. So, oftentimes we don’t investigate questions at Church headquarters. We don’t often dig into like the worthiness issues of people’s lives, because it’s maybe too sensitive or because we leave that up to individual members and the Lord and individual members and their ecclesiastical leaders.

Jesse  33:27  So, we’re not collecting, oftentimes, data about whether people are keeping the law of chastity or the word of wisdom. Sometimes we ask, “Do you hold a temple recommend,” which is a proxy for a lot of worthiness questions, but also belief questions. So, you can’t know from just seeing somebody’s temple recommend or not–if they have it, you know a lot about them. But, if they don’t, it doesn’t mean that they’re unworthy. It could mean something about their belief. It could mean something about one question not… So, it doesn’t feel so sensitive to ask about do you have a temple recommend or not? But we don’t ask, for instance, usually, we wouldn’t ask, “Do you pay a full tithing?” and things like that. So, when Jana found that many people are consuming, like many self-proclaimed Mormons are consuming coffee on a regular basis, that was really surprising to me. I hadn’t realized that.

Jesse  34:19  When you were interviewing Jana, you asked her, who does this survey represent? She seemed to struggle to answer that question. Having read, not her whole book, but I’ve read parts of her book, and having heard her speak, and having asked her similar questions, I was surprised that it was a little bit of a struggle for her to answer that. Because, to me, the answer is incredibly clear. The people that she surveyed were self-proclaimed Mormons. Okay, they could be active or not. She said, “Eighty-five percent of our sample self-described themselves as active.” But many in our sample said they were active and didn’t attend church regularly.

GT  34:54  Right.

Jesse  34:54  So, this is another thing that really surprised me. Most of the time people, like at headquarters when I’m working as a researcher for the Church, I define active as participating weekly, or most weeks. So, usually, if we’re trying to figure out what do active members of the Church look like, we’ll survey a bunch of members who are in–sometimes we send out paper/pencil surveys that get distributed, like in second hour or something like that. So, it captures everybody who happens to be there on a particular Sunday, whether they attend every week, or just every once in a while. But, if you want to know what active members look like, we kind of screen out those people who say, “I only attend every once in a while.” We just look at those people who attend like two to four times a month, and we say this is probably what active members of the Church look like today.


“Spiritual but Not Religious”/Placebo Prayers

GT  1:08:27 It’s funny you bring that up. Do you listen to Freakonomics?

Jesse  1:08:31  Sometimes, yeah.

GT  1:08:32  Because they have a wonderful set of podcasts on the placebo effect. Sometimes it can be useful. Just use it, if it works.

Jesse  1:08:40  Well, I know this is a tangent, but, there’s some research that suggests even if you know that a drug is a placebo, it will still have beneficial side effects. So, for instance, you can design your own placebo drug. Like, you meet with a therapist, and they’ll say, “If you could take a pill to solve this, what would it look like? How big would it be? How many would you take? What color would it be?” And then you send the prescription off to a pharmacy, you have them fill it, they charge you money for a placebo drug that looks to your specifications. You know it’s placebo, you take it and feel better. Like, that kind of thing shouldn’t exist. It should not be, but human brains are just bizarre, just so inexplicable.

GT  1:09:21  Well, and I even heard, and this might offend some people, but they’ve done some studies, where you’re sick. I tell you that I’m praying for you. Then, another person in another room is sick with the same disease. I pray for them, but I don’t tell them. But, because I told you, [the sick person,] the placebo effect is actually what heals you.

Jesse  1:09:49  These are called intercessory prayer studies. Yeah. So, you’re trying to intercede on somebody’s behalf. Some individual studies have found that even if you pray for somebody, and they don’t know that you’re praying for them, that they still get better, compared to people who aren’t being prayed for. But if you do a meta-analysis of a bunch of these kinds of studies, those effects generally wash out. So, mostly, it doesn’t appear that there’s any propitious benefit of praying for a stranger, for instance, if they don’t know that they’re being prayed for. But, if they know they’re being prayed for, then they actually get a lot better than if they don’t know that somebody’s praying for them.

Jesse  1:10:30  So how much of that is coming from the placebo effect? How much is coming from just like the community support and knowledge that somebody cares for me and loves me? We don’t know. But we do know, for instance, in another study, researchers paid a panel of people like $800 to sniff a vial of cold virus. They tracked whether they got sick or not and tracked it back to whether they had a strong social support network or didn’t. People who had a strong social support network and lower levels of stress in their life, didn’t get sick from sniffing in the cold virus. Their immune system was stronger and was able to fight it off before it caught hold. Whereas people who don’t have that same social support network and the same friend connections, they got sick. So, we don’t know how much of it is the placebo effect from being prayed for and how much is like a social effect of just knowing that somebody cares about me.

Fowler Stages of Faith

Jesse  08:46  Yes, these kinds of things. We know that teenagers of every denomination, but especially, within the Latter-day Saint movement, are trying to get their own testimony and trying to figure out, “What do I believe?” So, they’re reflecting on all the things that they learned before, and they’re figuring out their own political ideology at the same time and sussing out their whole worldview. They’re trying to fit religion within this worldview. During this stage three faith, this is called synthetic conventional, because basically, most people will come out of this stage of faith. They pull together. They synthesize all the beliefs of people around them in the denomination, into their own belief. So, what do I believe? What everybody else believes. Synthetic conventional: what do I believe? Again, [I believe] what’s conventional. So, I’m synthesizing the conventions of those around me into a conglomerate that I’m going to adopt. Within Mormondom, Sheri Dew just wrote this book a few years ago, that was called Worth the Wrestle. You remember that one? I was really excited about this. I was a little disappointed when I actually read it.

Jesse  09:56  She wrote this book, and she was saying in this book–I thought it was going to be about really wrestling over the hard questions and figuring out answers, like you and I try to do. We really dig deep and think hard about all the complexities of Mormondom. I thought that she was going to be talking about how it was worth this wrestle to challenge the hard issues, confront them and figure them out. It was really all about, it’s worth the wrestle to find out the answer to the gospel question, “Is it true? Yes or no? That’s it.” Once you have the yes or no answer, then you’re done, right? Like, if you get the answer, yes, it’s worth the wrestle to get that answer, yes. And then push forward in faith. You’ve got the only revelation you really need. That’s the answer to the one question. So, I was a little disappointed, but that is a book that you would expect to be written by somebody of a synthetic conventional faith, who has adopted this mentality that is like, “We believe what everybody in our faith believes.” The reason I bring it here…

GT  10:55  This is stage three, right?

Jesse  10:56  Stage three, yes. The reason why I bring it up now, when we’re talking about this church sect theory, is because it is to the benefit of denominations and churches to keep most of their adherents at stage three. Because if you are at stage three, you’re a compliant, easygoing, average, typical, expected member. It’s easy to lead an expected member who doesn’t dig too much, doesn’t question too much, doesn’t kick against the pricks, doesn’t ask the hard questions, just sits and quietly nods and politely sings the hymns. That’s a really easy kind of member to lead.

GT  11:37  In any religion.

Jesse  11:38  In any religion. Every religion is, in fact, I should say, most people of most religions end up getting stuck at stage three synthetic conventional faith. Most people just are there. They just believe what people believe around them in the church, whatever church they’re part of. It’s to the benefit of churches to keep them there. If you’re a church leader, you don’t really want to push people much beyond that. If people seek out on their own, some reconciliation between science and faith, ask the hard questions, leave it to them. But don’t guide them through that process. Because you don’t want them going down that road. Too many of them will end up abandoning their faith or too many of them will end up deciding that this church isn’t the only true church or something. So, it’s to your benefit to keep them at this conventional place. They’re just nodding and accepting. But many people go off to college, especially in a developed, post-industrial society, they go off to college, and they learn the scientific theories. And they’re learning pluralistic perspectives. They’re starting, for the first time, to enter what he calls stage four faith: individuated or reflective faith. People are starting to individually decide, “What do I believe, independent, not of my parents, but independent of my church, independent of everything I’ve been taught? What do I actually believe?” It’s reflecting on themselves. So, individuative-reflective faith, where they’re trying to figure out, “How do I reconcile this science and faith? And how do I make sense of the disconnects?”

GT  13:06  Is evolution compatible with creationism?”

Jesse  13:08  Yes, so, that kind of thing, yes.

GT  13:10  And some people will say yes, and some people will say no.

Jesse  13:12  Exactly, yeah. So, some people will study evolutionary biology and they’ll say, “Okay, in order to make these compatible, I have to either compartmentalize or I have to interpret the Bible more figuratively,” and then, “Oh, I can see how the history of evolution kind of matches the history of the six days of creation in the order in which it occurred. So, I can make sense how this figuratively matches my scientific understanding. So, if I take a less literal interpretation of my religion, then I can make them fit.” And that’s okay. Or, as is the case in some people, very few, but some people, you might become very educated and get a Ph.D. and still reject most of what you’re learning. You still might adhere very strongly to your synthetic conventional faith. You might come out and say, “I think my church is right, independent of the science. I think the science is wrong. My church is right, even though I’ve learned all this fascinating new stuff, and it’s very compelling. I just think, probably there’s holes that we haven’t seen in the science yet.” So, those are basically, the only ways of reconciling. You can compartmentalize, or you can soften one or soften the other. But they are, at times, in conflict, your religion or your science.

GT  14:22  Or you throw the whole thing out.

Jesse  14:25  Yeah, if you’re going to reconcile them, those are the only ways, but some people just adopt only science or only religion. Most people who adopt only religion, have not actually had much training in science. Once you’re confronted with science, it’s really compelling and very difficult to say, “Oh, I don’t believe that.”

GT  14:41  Or you come up with your own science theories.

Jesse  14:43  Yeah.

GT  14:44  And you build a big ark in Kentucky.


Manipulating the Spirit?

Jesse  1:18:03 There’s other facets of our church experience that tap into these emotions. For a long time, the Catholic Church has known that if you build grand, huge cathedrals, with tall ceilings and really interesting architecture and shapes and stuff, that it’s awe-inspiring. And the feeling of awe is a very reverential feeling. It makes you feel. The Catholic Church isn’t trying, necessarily, to manipulate people into having spiritual experiences, but they are trying to evoke the concept of God being grander and greater than you can possibly imagine. So, you build this cathedral that’s like a symbol of God. This cathedral is greater and grander than you could possibly imagine. So is God. So, this feeling of awe you have for the cathedral, is really the same feeling you should have towards God.

Jesse  1:18:44 Well, you have the same kinds of feelings in the temple when you go. It’s this pristine, silent, white environment. It gives you a visceral experience in your auditory nerves, silence. Especially, if you are traditional Mormon with a lot of kids at home, and it’s loud and crazy, a lot of time. Then, you go to the temple, and it’s very quiet, and you go, and you get dressed in these very clean, pristine clothes. And everything around you are luxurious, crystals and, just clean and soft fabrics. Everything just seems so grand and nice. So, it’s tapping into these senses, these emotions. These physical senses that cause you to feel certain emotions, and how much of a spiritual experience you have, seems, perhaps, in part, to be dependent on tapping into those emotions. People often have spiritual experiences in the temple. But how much of it is because God’s there and how much of it because there’s no kids there? I can’t tell. I don’t think anybody can tell. Is it wrong to tap into those emotions? I don’t know. I don’t think so. If that actually does allow you to have a greater connection with God, then maybe it’s fine to co-op that natural mechanism, and trick your body into having a spiritual experience.

GT  1:20:08 It reminds me of the mega churches where they’re using the music, too. Because I know a Mormon, if we go to a mega church, we’re going to be like, “They’re just manipulating you.” So, it’s easy to see it in the other guy, but it’s hard to see it in yourself, right?

Jesse  1:20:24 Yes, and we see that, actually, the power of these kinds of mechanisms, when we sing hymns, in the hymnbook, every single one of them has a word at the top. You should sing this prayerfully, gently, reverently, fervently. Every single song has a particular attitude it’s trying to evoke in you. It’s trying to manipulate your emotions, literally. Again, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But it’s trying to tap in, to give you a differential spiritual experience from one song to the next.

GT  1:20:52 Reverentially.

Jesse  1:20:53 Yes, it helps you feel something more than you would without the music. But the more often we tap into these same senses, outside of church contexts, the less power they have in church contexts. So, back in the 1600s, who had grand edifices but the Catholics? Not one person. Nowhere else were there grand edifices–the king, the palace, that’s it. But, today, Traverse Mall, the Traverse Outlets Mall…

GT  1:21:21 In Lehi.

Jesse  1:21:22 In Lehi, right there in Thanksgiving Point, I went in the bathrooms when they first opened. Those bathrooms were the grandest room I’d been in, in years. [There was] marble everywhere [and] grand, glorious, pristine fixtures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bathroom so beautiful in my life, not in the temples, certainly. Nowhere. It doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never top those bathrooms.

GT  1:21:49 Grand America Hotel. (Chuckling)

Jesse  1:21:50 Okay. So, the fact of the matter is, the more–so you go on cruise ship, you see the same thing. Everything’s done pristine. If you use the same tactics to manipulate, a lot of people today, the architecture of the typical American household is just more grand and more beautiful, more done up, more clean than it’s ever been. People are wealthier today than they have been in the past. So, you go to the Albertsons– I remember, I was 17 years old, when I first went into a remodeled Albertsons, and the floor in the produce section was done with [what looked like] hardwood. I looked up at the signs and everything was artisan and beautiful. It feels like being in this glorious place. It’s a freaking Albertsons. But the more you tap into these emotions, everywhere you go, and every business is trying to make you feel that same sense of awe and inspiration and wealth, like “Spend all you can here, because this is a wealthy place, and you’re wealthy too. Right?”

Jesse  1:22:45. If you try to tap in those emotions outside of a religious context, then you’re diluting the effect within a religious context. So, you go to the temple today, and, yeah, it’s beautiful and grand. But is it more grand than the mall? Is it more grand than the funeral home down the street with also a water fountain and marble? The more wealthy we become, the less those things have an effect. The more we sing, the more we listen to music that makes us feel various emotions all the time, the less power hymns have in church. So, all these kinds of things get watered down over time. You can see people become less susceptible. So, when people cry, like it’s cultural in the Mormon Church to cry in testimony meeting, for instance, often, when you’re bearing testimony. Even after the end of the talk, or something. People often cry. The scientific research has suggested that the reason why we cry is because we have a range of emotions that our body likes to experience. And if it gets too much outside of that on the positive end, or on the negative end, it tries to evoke some response that’s going to bring you back down towards the middle. Because your body can’t handle too much of good or too much of bad. So, if you’re in a very awkward situation, incredibly painful, so awkward, you laugh. Right? Laughing is the opposite of what you would expect to happen in that situation. But laughter brings you up towards the middle, something out of that negative state, more towards something more positive. Crying is not what you would expect to happen. Crying is a sad emotion. You would not expect it to happen in a happy moment. But if you experience something that’s so powerful, so beautiful, that it is outside of your body’s capability of handling, you cry to bring you back down to something more reasonable. So, Mormons cry because when they’re crying–first of all, they cry because it’s expected. But, also, they cry, because when they’re experiencing that cry, it’s because what they’re feeling inside is so much more powerful and transcendent beyond what their body is capable of handling and beyond what their current framework of understanding can wrap their minds around. Their body has to cope with it and they cope by crying. There’s empirical research that evaluated this to demonstrate that that is not just the theory. That really happens.

What are your thoughts? Can religious experiences be explained scientifically?