Is spiritual truth simply different?

I’m not an expert on ontology or epistemology, I hardly even know what the words actually mean. But I’ll put on my philosophical hat and articulate what little understanding I have (from a layman’s point of view) in this brief speculation about the nature of truth, and wandering over into spiritual truth in particular.

Objective reality and science

One of the great premises by which we live our lives is the huge assumption that there exists an objective reality independent of ourselves, which we can discover information about through certain methodologies.

The scientific method is generally construed by us as an effective means to derive information about scientific truth. Repeatability is a fundamental aspect of science: If I do an experiment on this side of the world, and record it very well, then theoretically with the same equipment, resources and understanding you should be able to replicate this experiment on the other side of the world with the same or very very similar results. (Naturally, error is always an aspect of science that we have to deal with; errors of precision (instruments simply don’t have infinite resolution) human error and so forth)

The scientific method assumes this same fundamental premise: there is an objective, scientific reality “out there”, and we can discover stuff about it. This is a critical.

Dallin H Oaks and the three types of truth

In his talk “Testimony” Dallin H Oaks introduces us to three types of truth.

“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.”

In this he establishes the following:

  1. There are (at least) three different types of truth; Scientific, Spiritual, and Subjective
  2. The methodologies for acquiring information in each type are fundamentally different

Thus the claim comes that acquiring spiritual truth is done in a manner inconsistent with acquiring scientific truth, for example.

I’ve written a bit more about the overlap / non-overlap in the article NOMA: Subscribe or Unsubscribe.

Given that the methodologies of acquiring truth in each magisteria are fundamentally different, I want to extend this argument to include the fact that our intuition in each magisteria could also be fundamentally different, and in many cases even completely incompatible.

Reason, logic, rationality, sense and truth

Over the past several months I’ve spent an immense amount of time thinking about human reason. What does it actually mean when someone says “that makes sense“? What is “sense”?

I have decided that the best possible explanation for what that means is: “This observation, idea, or claim seems to be consistent with my current worldview, or could easily be incorporated into it”. I think “making sense” is a statement of consistency with prior observations, assumptions and conclusions.

I think:

  • Reason
  • Logic
  • Sense
  • Rationality
  • And Intuition (more on that in a bit)

are all eventual results of a simple human faculty: pattern recognition.

It’s very important to note that my sense is not your sense. What makes sense to me may not make sense to you. What seems rational and logical to me may not seem rational and logical to you. To you, it may seem illogical, nonsensical, even ridiculous. But this is merely because your worldview and mine are based off different prior observations, assumptions and conclusions. Perhaps if you’d had the life I’ve had, you’d see the sense in it too. Similarly if I’d had the life you’ve had, your worldview would seem to make more sense to me.

This brings further light to the statement found in Isaiah 55:8-9:

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And the statement found in 1 Corinthians 2:14:

14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Perhaps the wording “they are foolishness unto him” could be modernised to “they don’t make sense to him”. Often when something doesn’t make sense to us we condemn it by calling it foolish or ridiculous.

Indeed, Dr. House has a great quote: “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people” — an excellent illustration of this idea! Religious people are “irrational”! But irrational for who? They’re certainly not irrational for other religious people…

Regardless of whether or not there is an objective reality, there is no such thing as an objective rationality. There is no such thing as an absolute or independent sense of logic or reason. It is a highly subjective thing based on highly subjective experiences and inputs!

Oh my Father: “In the heav’ns are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason; truth Eternal Tells me I’ve a mother there.”  — this is actually an incredibly weak argument. Certainly there are thousands of Christians (and more broadly theists) out there who’d take offence to this. God has a wife?? God’s wife is our spiritual mother?? That is a completely un-biblical belief! That probably makes absolutely no sense at all to a vast majority of people who belief in God, Christ and the Bible — quite simply because their rationality, their logic, comes from a vastly different set of life observations, assumptions and conclusions.

Now let’s turn to the idea of intuition.

What is intuition?

I believe intuition is merely the extension of rationality into the realm of prediction. It’s using our powers of reason and logic to extrapolate and speculate about information that we are not currently privy to.

I think intuition is, as pointed out above, an eventual consequence of advanced pattern recognition.

When we immerse ourselves into a field, in anything from science to engineering to psychology to business to religion etc. we gradually develop a sense of intuition in that field. We observe advanced patterns in the mix and gradually develop the ability to predict them with increasing accuracy. We develop this faculty even as children and it becomes more and more advanced.

Simple example: A child comes to you crying. With this limited information, you can make certain speculative arguments in your mind:

  • They are upset about something
  • They might have hurt themselves physically
  • Someone might have said something mean to them
  • Etc.

Is this intuition magic? Of course not. It’s simply pattern recognition. How many times in your life have you seen, been, or heard of children crying? Heaps! And you’ve seen the possible causes for them again and again, and eventually you develop intuition: The ability to extrapolate and deduce from prior experience and logic what might be the case in the future.

Intuition requires prior experience in the field. If you suddenly threw me into an operating theatre of someone having a tumour removed in their brain and something drastic went wrong, and asked me what we should do, I would have no faculty of intuition in this situation due to simple lack of prior experience. It’s that simple. Intuition requires prior experience. Lack of prior experience in a niche is manifest by lack of intuition.

So now… Is spiritual truth simply different?

How much do we know about spiritual truth really? How many of the presumptions and presuppositions of our normal, everyday experience with life have we simply ported across, without even a second thought, into the realm of spiritual truth?

For example, the idea that there is an objective reality is fundamental to natural science. Have we simply ported this idea across into the realm of spiritual truth?? Who’s to know if spiritual truth even involves an objective reality? Given that in the Dallin Oaks talk above he specifically mentions Subjective truth (I love my wife) and Scientific truth (it’s cold outside) alongside with Spiritual truth, who’s to say the presupposition of objectivity even carries across?! (Don’t tell me “but it makes sense that there is an objective truth” — again, “it makes sense” is merely a subjective statement about one’s own worldview and the compatibility of new information with it)

How much do we actually know about spiritual truth??

Have we simply imported our intuition from normal life into the realm of spiritual truth? Without a second though to how inadequate it might be?

That would be like an engineer trying to apply engineering intuition into solving a psychological problem like depression. It might simply not fit at all! Humans and machines are quite different beasts!

Something that has dwelt in my mind of recent months extensively is the so-called “spiritual experiences” which people of other religious backgrounds have. It has been a topic of deep questioning to me; why would they describe spiritual experiences so similar to those described by us? Why would a young girl from The True & Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last days describe a burning witness of the truth of her church in her soul? Or a convert to Islam describe a feeling of peace in his experiences with Islam? Why would Daniel Peterson, a BYU professor of Islamic studies, say that the “Qur’an and The Book of Mormon (are) Two Books from Angels” in a lecture about it? Why would the first presidency release a statement saying:

“The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” ?

Why would Joseph Smith himself read a book entitled “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” and comment “I have prayed about those old martyrs… I have, by the aid of the Urim and Thummim [perhaps the seer stone], seen those martyrs. They were honest, devoted followers of Christ, according to the light they possessed, and they will be saved.”??

Why would God give them light but not give them the “fullness of the Gospel”? Is he stuffing around with them?

No, he is not. And perhaps we know so little about God and his communications with man and we are merely whistling in the dark when we speculate about it. “man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” (Moses 1:10) I think we assume and presuppose so much about spiritual truth which may not be justified at all. I think it would be exceedingly arrogant of us to presume that for thousands of years of “apostasy” that all human beings lived in relative spiritual darkness and confusion, it is simply unfair and presumptuous. It’s even possible that some of them were more enlightened than we are, just because an era of time has yielded no scripture in this day and age that we believe in doesn’t mean the “Gospel” (or more broadly spiritual truth) wasn’t around at that time.

I’m not saying there is no such thing as an objective spiritual reality; I simply don’t know. But what I am suggesting is that our everyday “run of the mill” logic / intuition inherited from our normal life experience could be completely inadequate and even totally fall apart, when we branch over and start to use it within the realm of spiritual truth. This is not unheard of stuff, even in science — even people who study quantum mechanics need to develop a deep sense of understanding paradox and working against their previous intuitions because the science of quantum mechanics is just so different from other areas within the scientific realm of truth. The science of relativity that Einstein revealed is also quite baffling to the layman — time doesn’t progress the same speed everywhere? Extreme gravity can slow time? The universe is composed of a fabric “space-time”?? A new intuition was required to understand and work within this realm of new knowledge.

“Salvation is an individual matter” (Russel Nelson) — if God chooses to give people spiritual impressions, I genuinely have no way of knowing if they are authentic or not, if he meant to or not, or if they are inventing it or not. But perhaps our intuition falls apart in this area, and we need a new one.

In any case, what spiritual impressions / revelations God gives to people is completely his business. It really isn’t out business to judge it.

And the nature of spiritual truth could be more grand, more profound, more interesting and (for us with our limited telestial intuition) more paradoxical than we ever imagined. Perhaps this beautiful quote is appropriate:

J. B. S. Haldane: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.

Conclusion: Two afterthoughts

“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” D&C 93:30 — what does this really mean? I’m not sure. But it could mean that truths, or categories of truth, are independent of each other (they could work differently, like implied above with the whole intuition section)

And one of my favourite, beautiful and I believe most profound and inspirational quotes:

“When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer, one must seek out a greater imagination.” (Da Vinci character in Star Trek)

Perhaps we need to seek out a new intuition, because the logic of the old one fails to satisfactorily explain our observations. Belief in God is illogical by scientific standards alone, and the world is a veritable mess of spiritual “hit and miss” impressions if all we believe in is our version of the truth.

And perhaps “Paradox” is merely conflicts perceived by inadequate intuition.

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