SEOP 2: Argument from indistinguishability

“To pass now to religious phenomena, take the melancholy which, as we shall see, constitutes an essential moment in every complete religious evolution. Take the happiness which achieved religious belief confers. Take the trancelike states of insight into truth which all religious mystics report. These are each and all of them special cases of kinds of human experience of much wider scope. Religious melancholy, whatever peculiarities it may have qua religious, is at any rate melancholy. Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance. And the moment we renounce the absurd notion that a thing is exploded away as soon as it is classed with others, or its origin is shown; the moment we agree to stand by experimental results and inner quality, in judging of values—who does not see that we are likely to ascertain the distinctive significance of religious melancholy and happiness, or of religious trances, far better by comparing them as conscientiously as we can with other varieties of melancholy, happiness, and trance, than by refusing to consider their place in any more general series, and treating them as if they were outside of nature’s order altogether?” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

The Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project seeks to create secular based models and explanations of spiritual experiences that preclude the idea of divine revelation.

In the previous article, I discuss how these explanations, while attempting to describe the nature of spiritual experiences psychologically and physiologically, do not and should not take away from the personal significance or personal transformation that they can offer (aside from making specific objective truth claims, which is also discussed previously).

Now we turn to a second, fundamental, foundational argument which forms the base of the project.

The argument from indistinguishability

In the context of the argument of intelligent design, Richard Dawkins gives the following bleak quote:

“… The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins

This is a good example of what we’ll call the “argument from indistinguishability”. In essence, what Dawkins is saying is that the universe we exist in looks indistinguishable from one wherein there is no God present. Naturally, this does not “disprove” the potential existence of God — it only argues that this is exactly how we’d expect the universe to look without one.

In a previous article, I discuss how when one looks at the world, at reality and the high level trends of what’s going on, one realises that if God does work on this earth to “do stuff” (take action in people’s lives, make Columbus go to America, etc.), then the work he does is indistinguishable from the ordinary randomness of reality and the ordinary choices of human beings (that they could make without the existence of God). This article, entitled “If God works, he does so through coincidence” is essentially a copy of the argument from indistinguishability and shares much similarity with the Dawkins quote.

As the knowledge of mankind progresses, and we grow in our understanding of the natural world, much of what God explained for us in the past, he no longer explains (this notion is popularly known as “the God of the gaps” — as God was often used to explain natural phenomenon of which we had no scientific understanding in the past).

Now, we turn to the area of spiritual experiences, to discuss the importance of the argument from indistinguishability in the SEOP framework that’s being built.

“Spiritual”: “Feelings”, “Thoughts”, “Impressions”

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance” Galations 5:22-23

In my opinion, one of the greatest, most profound, and most profoundly simple questions that is routinely asked in LDS settings around the world is this:

“How can I distinguish between the feelings of the Holy Ghost and my own personal feelings?”

So routinely in fact, that David Bednar said:

“In fact during the entire time we have been holding family home evenings with students, I cannot remember a single time when some version of this question was not asked” (BYU-Idaho Devotional).

I believe that all LDS people should pursue this question with great integrity and honest fervour for what is true. It is a very important question with massive implications.

Let’s turn to one of the formal answers given to this question:

David Bednar, Face to Face with the youth:

Question: “How do I tell the difference between promptings from the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts?”

Bednar: “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.

Now, I’m sure these folks who asked the question “well, OK, but what if I’m making a decision about ‘should I go to this school?’ or ‘should I go to that school?’ how do I begin to know the difference?” You study it out in your own mind, you don’t just sit and wait for heaven to deliver the answer, you have to learn about the two options. You do your best to understand and compare them. And then ultimately you make a choice, and you take that option that you’ve selected in prayer to our Heavenly Father and you ask in the name of Christ “is this the right one?” — you and I have the responsibility to study that out. If it’s right, then over time we’ll come to know by the simple reassurance of the Holy Ghost, that ‘yeah, this is the thing to do’. Sometimes you have two good options and you never feel really strong about one or the other. There are even some times where Heavenly Father will say “you make a judgement here”. If it’s wrong, you’ll be warned, as you begin to try to apply the decision that you’ve made. No member of this church who’s trying to be a good boy or a good girl will fail to be warned by the Holy Ghost if they’re heading in a direction that’s not right. But you won’t always know that, necessarily, before you begin pressing forward.

So, we have to study it out, we have to act, and most answers from the Holy Ghost come a little bit at a time, not all at once, they come in small packages and not great big bundles.

So we can pray one time and think “well I didn’t get an answer” — well you probably got a part of the answer. But you have to keep pressing forward to get the other parts of the answer that help you know which path you need to pursue.”

This is what I’ll call a “checks and balances” type of answer. (Introducing a framework of checks and balances to explain what is from the spirit and what is from our own feelings) To illustrate this, here is a well-articulated critical quote on the subject:

“Nowhere is the caution related to interpreting spiritual feelings more evident than in the Preach My Gospel Manual. In the section “How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?”, a “goodness” test is outlined which is meant to enable Church members to check the veracity of spiritual promptings. An external test seems unnecessary if we could easily and always rely on spiritual feelings to lead us to truth.” (source)

My answer to this distinction question: They are indistinguishable, because they are the same thing (now that’s not “over analysing” and “over complicating” the question 🙂 ).

This is the argument from indistinguishability. At best, within the LDS framework, it seems obvious that the question of distinguishing these feelings is a difficult and frequent one, and thus has a host of answers that are all in the area of “checks and balances”. And within my current worldview, I argue that the feelings “from the Holy Ghost” are actually just natural feelings that human beings can experience without a God.

I assert that all of the so-called spiritually inspired “thoughts”, “feelings”, “impressions”, “burning in the bosom”, and other descriptions are indistinguishable from what the human psyche is capable of creating under natural circumstances without a God.

Now, does that prove that there’s no theist God? No, nothing can, but I think it’s a strong argument against the theist God revealing things to people, because as we continue to explain and thresh out that all of God’s potential “works” (whether they be interventions or spiritual feelings) are indistinguishable from what nature is capable of producing in any case, then we continue to make the theist God retreat and retreat, until it becomes a Deist God (which naturally has a lot of implications) — and we get closer to the Dawkins quote. Beyond a Deist God, argument becomes a lot more difficult.

The reason why the argument from indistinguishability works well is quite simple. If we are capable of having the exact same spiritual feelings without God being involved, then who’s to say God is actually involved? And furthermore, who’s to say it’s not Thor or Zeus or Hathor making us have those feelings? If the net effect is the same, then there’s no particular reason to believe that these feelings originate from any particular model God.


The best way to illustrate this assertion is to give examples that, within the fundamental LDS framework, “should not be possible” if they are really the Holy Ghost — and they illustrate the indistinguishability. I’ll give one good example:

Example: Paul H. Dunn’s dynamic talks

Paul H. Dunn (1924 – 1998) was an emeritus general authority. He is frequently cited by critics of the church in this area of spiritual feeling. He was a very popular speaker who told incredible faith-promoting war and baseball stories. Many times Dunn shared these stories in the presence of the prophet, apostles, and seventies; stories like how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear, and helmet without ever touching his skin and how he was preserved by the Lord. Members of the Church shared how they really felt the Spirit as they listened to Dunn’s testimony and stories.

Unfortunately, Dunn was later caught lying about all his war and baseball stories and was forced to apologise to the members. He became the first General Authority to gain “emeritus” status and was removed from public Church life.

People said they felt the spirit when he was talking, but he was telling untruthful stories and later admitted to that. In FairMormon’s apologetic response to this, they state:

Simply receiving a warm feeling about a speech or article is not enough to call it revelation or a confirmation of the spirit. One would need to properly study the issue, get an idea of what is correct, then ask for confirmation. The witness has to be consistent with other revelation and can be compared with others witness of similar events. In the case of Elder Dunn’s stories, we felt good when we heard them. Boyd Packer pointed out that feelings and “spiritual” events can come from three sources: 1) your own feelings, 2) Satan, or 3) the Holy Ghost. You must use methods to properly confirm which is occurring in a particular event.”

The Boyd Packer quote is interesting because it illustrates how reason is ultimately used to compensate for this messiness of the matter of spiritual feeling. It’s ironic, because spiritual impressions are often used as a scapegoat to avoid reason altogether. “I just feel the Book of Mormon is true, so I won’t listen to the rational arguments against it” — but when spiritual feelings fail to deliver clarity, rationality comes to the rescue anyway.

I maintain the indistinguishability argument. Potentially thousands of members of the church could acknowledge they feel the spirit when hearing Paul Dunn’s stories, and I assume many of them were seasoned members of the church, yet these stories were not truthful, and so Fair Mormon suggests that those feelings were not the spirit, because the stories were untruthful — indistinguishable.


In summary, in terms of the SEOP project, “Argument from indistinguishability” is now our second building block; there is no clear distinction between our own feelings and the alleged feelings of the Holy Ghost, and so in future articles I will approach spiritual feelings one by one and attempt to explain them from psychological or other perspectives.


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