Are spiritual witnesses reliable?

One of the most fundamental premises of Mormonism is that we can acquire truth from God, who is the only perfect source of knowledge in the universe accessible to us. He knows everything, and is willing to impart knowledge to us relevant to our salvation freely.

James 1:5 “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” is likely one of the most quoted biblical scriptures in LDS circles, even perhaps above the most famous John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Our doctrine specifies that the “Holy Ghost”, the third member of the Godhead, is capable of communicating directly with our souls via impressions to our mind and heart.

Moroni 10:5 “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” These impressions of the Holy Ghost are highly multi-faceted; they can warn, exhort, comfort, testify, and direct as necessary.

The impressions of the Holy Ghost are described variously in scriptures and personal accounts. Let’s start with that.

Descriptions of the Holy Ghost

The impressions / feelings / thoughts of the Holy Ghost are fundamental to our faith and as such have been variously described. Before jumping into descriptions however, let’s start with the argument of why it can’t be satisfactorily described:

Boyd K. Packer shared this anecdote in relation to describing the feeling of the Holy Ghost to an atheist on the plane:

Such an idea came into my mind and I said to the atheist, “Let me ask if you know what salt tastes like.”


“Of course I do,” was his reply.


“When did you taste salt last?”


“I just had dinner on the plane.”


“You just think you know what salt tastes like,” I said.


He insisted, “I know what salt tastes like as well as I know anything.”


“If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar and let you taste them both, could you tell the salt from the sugar?”


“Now you are getting juvenile,” was his reply. “Of course I could tell the difference. I know what salt tastes like. It is an everyday experience—I know it as well as I know anything.”


“Then,” I said, “assuming that I have never tasted salt, explain to me just what it tastes like.”


After some thought, he ventured, “Well-I-uh, it is not sweet and it is not sour.”


“You’ve told me what it isn’t, not what it is.”


After several attempts, of course, he could not do it. He could not convey, in words alone, so ordinary an experience as tasting salt. I bore testimony to him once again and said, “I know there is a God. You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know, I would be able to tell you exactly how I know. My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like. But I say to you again, there is a God! He does live! And just because you don’t know, don’t try to tell me that I don’t know, for I do!”

At this point I would like to point out that it’s only the arguments we “win” that we hear about in general conference. In this argument, President Packer won — he had an excellent point and a great line of reasoning, and he caught the atheist out. Nevertheless if he “lost” an argument at some point, it’s unlikely we’d hear about it in general conference!

Furthermore, his selecting “salt” itself as an example is not unique or special of itself, it is quite arbitrary. It could have been anything for the argument to succeed; soap, cigarette smoke, pineapple flavoured jelly, or bertie botts every flavor beans. Language is intrinsically referential — we describe things in reference to other pre-established things that we already know. Similarly we’d find it difficult to explain to a child who’s never heard of the concept what it actually means to “own” something — how do you describe that? How does it feel to “own” something?

Nevertheless many descriptions have been attempted for the feelings of the Holy Ghost (many of them scriptural), here are several:

  • Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,”
  • D&C 9:8 “and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (it also gives the contrast / opposite feeling “But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong”)
  • Alma 32: “behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts… enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me… swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand… because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good”
  • 3 Nephi 11: “they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven… and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.
  • Joseph Smith: “When you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.”

Astoundingly, notwithstanding the immense difficulty of describing the Holy Ghost, we are not left destitute of impressively articulate descriptions. Language has not done TOO badly after all, in my opinion. For those of us who have felt the Holy Ghost in our lives we all know exactly what we are talking about, and the descriptions are quite clear. Arguably the descriptions of the Holy Ghost on a language level were far more impressive and clear than our fumbling descriptions of “the taste of salt”.

So we’ve established what the Holy Ghost feels like (within the limitations of our language, but even without descriptions we could refer to a common experience. Just like you and I can, without restriction or hesitation, casually talk about the taste of salt) — and we’ve established that we’ve all experienced these feelings.

— Yes, I have felt what we describe as the Holy Ghost multiple times in my life. I am not denying this feeling, and as far as I can tell it is the same as others have had (but philosophically we could argue that it’s impossible to know our feelings are the same for sure just like I can’t tell if your perception of green looks the same as my green).

That leads me to the next section:

What would it take for me to disbelieve?

I was once invited to lunch by a very intelligent individual and had a great time. We discussed a whole variety of topics. Within our lunch we touched on religion, I explained to him that I am a believing and active Mormon.

His reaction to my statement was along the lines of: “Well I totally understand if you like staying in your religion for comfort and social reasons. You know your family is there, your friends, you have common goals, common beliefs, common practices and so forth”

“No” I interjected. “I go because I believe it’s true, I believe in God and believe this is His church on the earth, I don’t go for social or comfort reasons”

He was surprised by my statement. He pondered for a minute and responded:

“Would you leave your beliefs if you somehow found out that they were not true? Do you know exactly what it would take for you to disprove or doubt your faith?”

I was taken back by his question. I recalled reading about science, reading that scientists are on a hunt for the truth and incredibly loyal to whatever it may be. I also remember a statement by a scientist saying that they knew exactly what would cause them to change their current suppositions, theories and beliefs (strong enough evidence to the contrary).

In my heart I knew that I was like that, like a scientist. I knew that there must be some probability of my being wrong, even though I had immense confidence that I was right. I had to acknowledge the possibility of my being wrong. 

After thinking about it for a few seconds, I responded:

“Yes, I know exactly what it would take for me to disbelieve”

Though I didn’t tell him what that thing was, and he seemed to slightly sceptically accept my answer, he had helped me to join the dots in my mind. There is one thing that could cause me to disbelieve:

Somehow discovering that the witness of the Spirit is unreliable.

In fact, if there is even a possibility that spiritual witnesses are unreliable, this causes HUGE issues for my faith, because my faith is built on pillars of Spiritual witnesses throughout my life.

So … Are spiritual witnesses reliable?

Now we approach the million dollar question. Actually, it’s more than a million dollars, since apparently in heaven we have mansions of infinite worth waiting for us. Many have expressed their belief that the truth of the Gospel is the most valuable thing that we have… The “infinite dollar” question perhaps?

What could prove to us, what evidence is there that could convince us, that spiritual witnesses are unreliable?

For me the most convincing is: Horrible Inconsistency,

** big premise, that truth is consistent. So far we all agree on that but a student of epistemology might want a quick chat, who knows maybe spiritual truth is NOT consistent… (which would be horribly counter-intuitive) … but I think we’re all agreed that it should be consistent. (“The only true and living church on the face of the earth”)

I will divide these into “Macro” and “Micro” inconsistencies.

Micro inconsistencies

I’ll go ahead and admit something: Yes, I have received revelations that turned out to be wildly wrong and inconsistent. Now we could establish a bunch of mental “workarounds” to fix those and avoid cognitive dissonance, (I am currently writing another article on that very subject), but for the moment let’s call them what they are: inconsistent.

Micro inconsistencies in revelation have caused many an issue for members of the church. I could go and chase up one but instead I will just briefly share one of my own here:

Who I was going to marry

I once had a very strong belief, even deep confidence that I was going to marry a certain girl. I had multiple flavours of impressions, both personal emotions (I loved her) spiritual impressions, multiple spiritual dreams, conversations with various people with impressions, and more. I had a very high confidence that I would marry her.

But it just didn’t end that way. She moved away and married another guy, in the temple. And that was the end of it. I got married to my dear sweetheart Annie.

I cannot begin to describe the immensity of cognitive dissonance that I experienced. In my mind I poured over hundreds of possible explanations (workarounds) for this problem. Maybe I’d not received revelation after all. Maybe I had not acted in accordance with the promptings. Maybe she had not listened to the Spirit. SOMETHING had to explain the immensity of spiritual impressions followed by such a blatant contradiction.

To this day I don’t actually have a satisfactory answer, I just couldn’t come up with one. The impressions and confidence were too strong. No matter how many ways I looked at it, it was and is a contradiction.

I know for a fact these are not unique to me. I have discussed such “micro contradictions” with other friends who’ve expressed similar sentiments.

And so I list “micro contradictions” as evidence #1 for the unreliability of spiritual witness. I think any member of the church being completely honest with themselves has got to admit they’ve at least had some of these throughout their lives.

Differentiating emotions from the Spirit

I have asked and heard this question asked multiple times in my life. I am yet to hear a straight answer to such an immensely simple question:

“How do we differentiate our own emotions or thoughts from the feelings of the Spirit?”

Recently David Bednar did a face to face fireside with the youth. One of the youth asked “How do I tell the difference between promptings from the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts?”

His answer:

“I think we over complicate this. I think we over-analyse it. Moroni teaches that all good emanates from Christ. So if you have a thought to do something good, it’s prompted by the Holy Ghost. So for example if a student goes to early morning seminary class, and your mother, every day, says ‘be sure to say your prayers’. And one day you forget to say your prayers and in your mind you hear your mothers voice saying: ‘be sure to say your prayers’. Is that the Holy Ghost or is that you? What difference does it make? Is Moroni gonna come to deliver that message? Or would the Holy Ghost use the memory of your angel mother to deliver the same message? So if it invites and entices to do good, it comes from Christ, and we ought to do it.

He then continues speaking for about 3 minutes on the subject of not as important decisions (like which school to go to) and explains how we can be warned or comforted after we make a choice and begin to act. (If you want to see it go here and skip ahead to 47:30, it’s very long to write out here).

OK, so, firstly a five minute answer to such a simple question sounds like something complicated and well-analysed to me, but let’s not be too harsh on the answer he gave. It may not be a straight answer but given the context of this question I believe it is actually a satisfactory one. So fair enough.


What about something that is not just “doing good” and is not of marginal importance? What of who to marry? (John Bytheway said he kinda just “proceeded”) and, given the context of this blog, what about the witness of the Spirit that the church is true? How then do I tell the difference between the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts / feelings?

I am yet to receive a straight, simple answer to that. By the way David Bednar’s answer is relatively good. I’ve heard this asked in other contexts and the answers were downright “dancing around the bush”.

So much for micro inconsistencies. Let’s turn to the big brother of micro inconsistencies, macro inconsistencies.

Macro inconsistencies

Let’s lay aside micro (internal, single-person) inconsistencies for a moment, or even pretend they don’t exist at all for the sake of argument, and speak about something far more troubling; macro inconsistencies.

That is the fact that the impressions various people of various faiths receive are wildly inconsistent. (Again, we have a number of workarounds for this fact, let’s chat about the conspicuous nature of our vast array of mental workarounds later).

In his book “Standing for Something More”, Lyndon Lamborn wrote:

The supposition that the truth test is unique to Mormonism is untrue. In reality, all religions throughout the entire world employ an identical recipe for cementing religious convictions. There is a man living in Mesa, Arizona, a personal friend of mine, who has traveled the world and made it something of a hobby of his to inquire as to how the rest of the religious world determines truth, how ministers feel they have been ‘called’ to the work, why people become devout and give their lives to their faith, and so forth.


The formula is the same for other Christian religions and world religions alike: read, study, live according to the precepts, meditate, and pray and a unique feeling will eventually come over you and a curious feeling of certainty ensues. The conversion and life-changing event has occurred. Religious affiliates describe the event in many ways; the grace of Jesus has been felt, the soul has been cleansed, the prayer answered, forgiveness and comfort felt, the nagging psychosis healed, the evil spirit evicted, etc. It is absolutely and positively universal.
Epistemology is a fascinating subject. While there are many variables and extensive theories, the experts generally agree that the portion of the brain that registers the ‘spiritual’ response triggers an overpowering sense of certainty at thesame time. This could be an evolutionary hard wiring of the human psyche…


Those who have a mystical experience have the quality of a profound knowing and a curious sense of authority. The person equates the mystical experience to a state of knowledge which brings about a feeling of having touched something far deeper and far more real that what is normally experienced by the five senses in our ordinary lives. This conviction itself becomes a source of validation of the objective reality of what they have seen: what they see in their minds, they assume, must exist outside their minds. Invariably, the experience is taken as confirmation that the beliefs of a particular system are correct, even though there is little evidence to support them. Even though the feelings are real and undeniable, the truth of any associated religious doctrine is not assured.

Before I summarise I have to note I disagree with how unqualified his writing is. “In reality, all religions throughout the entire world employ an identical recipe for cementing religious convictions.” — really? “All religions throughout the entire world”?? (Every single one?? Even the one I could start tomorrow with a few friends?) “identical recipe”? (Exactly identical?) Laying that aside…

In my much simpler words: we’re not the only folks who pray and receive answers that our religion is true. Not by a long shot.

My research

I have spent an extensive amount of time following up on this hypothesis. I have been reviewing the testimonies of people from various faiths and their descriptions of how they know they are true.

Before I dive in, a quick important premise. In this article written by me I explained the concept of “my light versus your light”. In short, it’s impossible to know for sure that the feelings other people in other faiths describe are the same feelings as the Holy Ghost that we feel. (Just like the “is my perception of green the same as yours?”) However, the same principle comes back to bite us in the buttocks; how do you know the spiritual feelings of the Holy Ghost of fellow Mormons are the same as yours? Again, no way to know for sure, but just like we’re pretty sure we all perceive green the same, I’m going to assume when someone says they feel immense peace, that this is similar to my perception of immense peace (as an example).

My research is ongoing, I haven’t had time to review all of the videos in my queue, however I have found plenty of evidence that it is the case that other religious folks pray for and receive spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of their religions.

The best compilation I’ve found so far is the video just below:

And this similar one:

When I first watched this I was immensely shocked. Silly me, I watched it shortly before going to bed and couldn’t sleep as a result. I laid awake thinking about it for hours. It was that night that I decided to write to my closest family and friends to notify them that I’ve decided to re-evaluate my belief system.

I’ve included some other testimony videos on this blog article here, but I will refer to one last one before closing:

I recently watched this entire video of 1 hour 20 minutes from an Islamic convert. I gleaned much from the experience. Though I could write an entire separate blog article just about this video (and parallels between it and the way we go about things) I will refer to just one section (click play on this video to go directly to it), and add a few notes:

  1. He requested a book as evidence of Islam, no pamphlets, no preaching, just a book (sound familiar?).
  2. He started reading it on a Friday night.
  3. It clarified and answered many of his previous questions in a profound way.
  4. He read through the entire Quran in three days.
  5. The Quran challenged the reader directly to “put it to the test” — query whether it is true, live the principles within it. He felt impressed by this direct challenge (sound familiar?).
  6. He gave his heart to Islam in his living room.
  7. He cried and cried that he had been looking for the truth and finally found it.

… Wow.

If indeed his feelings were from God, I’d sincerely ask a few questions:

  • Why did God tell him the Quran and Islam are true? Why the “moments of clarity”? Why the overpoweringly positive feelings?
  • Why not just direct him to the missionaries or let them cross his path? He was looking for the truth for crying out loud! Now he’s stuck in Islam which we believe is false!
  • If it is Satan deceiving him, then…
    • Why such immense joy?
    • Or how can we know it’s not us being deceived and they are on the right track?

It seems pretty clear that Macro inconsistencies are a reality. If human beings have spirits and are intrinsically subject to and able to receive revelation from the real Holy Ghost, then why is the result SO immensely divided and inconsistent?

Conclusion, and a bit about choices

At the end of the day belief is a choice and believing in the reliability of spiritual witnesses is a choice. Believing that previous witnesses we’ve received are authentic and from God is also a choice. Continuing to believe them is a choice.

I’m not here to make anyone question their faith or attack anyone else’s faith, I’m here to critically and honestly analyse mine. I am also here to explain myself to my family and friends — who deserve sincere, thorough and reasonable explanations for my changes in faith.

But with this article and all the content within it as a premise, I have made a choice:

I reject the hypothesis that MY spiritual witnesses are reliable sources of truth.

Shawn 09-07-2015 @ 11:08 PM


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  2. Mandy

    I have an ontological problem with the arguments levied –
    Religion posits a phenomenological viewpoint and should be questioned from within that framework
    Science posits an epistemological viewpoint and should be questioned from within that framework
    There are phenomenological questions being viewed epistemologically, that is fundamentally an unsound practise …

  3. Mandy

    errata / correction (long week)
    I have an ontological challenge with your proposition
    Religion posits a phenomenological viewpoint and should be questioned from within this framework;
    Science posits an empirical viewpoint and should be questioned from within this framework
    It is an unsound practice to attempt to answer phenomenological questions empirically …

    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hi mom,

      phenomenological: “A philosophical doctrine proposed by Edmund Husserl based on the study of human experience in which considerations of objective reality are not taken into account”

      So no objective reality necessarily. Right.

      So then why are we praying to know which church is true if there is no objective reality?? There is no true church then!

      See my article that actually expands on your viewpoint: Is spiritual truth simply different?

      If our framework is phenomenological, then there is no objective reality. That means in your universe there can be a god, and in mine there’s not. So I can be atheist and right, and you can be theist and right. In that case I’d rather be atheist because it would save me a lot of issues, and you have no grounds to argue with that choice because “there is no objective reality”.

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