Update: added quotes from people describing their feelings during religious experiences. Update 2: added to quotes to include an atheist.
In this fourth post of the series of posts on discovering truth, I continue my discussion of different ways we can discover truth
More often than we’d probably like to admit, we rely on emotion to shape our beliefs. We frequently use our powers of reason to justify our already-held emotion-based beliefs, rather than starting without any conclusions and reasoning our way to the best conclusion based on the available information. Oftentimes, we decide what to believe based on what “feels” right, rather than a conscious application of on any of the other five different ways for discovering truth which I have discussed above.
Research and experience indicate that emotions and unconscious flashes of insight can be important in making decisions and discoveries.1 In his 1971 essay “The Eureka Phenomenon,” Isaac Asimov explains that many scientific discoveries are made when the scientist has a flash of inspiration which leads to the solution of a problem. Such “eureka” moments do not come from a rational conscious process, but probably from subconscious processing by the brain. Even after the conscious brain has stopped thinking about a problem, it appears that other parts of the brain continue to work on it. Einstein and many other scientists describe experiencing this effect when making some of their most important discoveries. Indeed, the very term “eureka” originates from a (likely apocryphal) story about the great ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, who had a sudden flash of insight while visiting the public baths; when the insight came to him, he reportedly lept out of the bath, shouted “eureka!” (Greek for “I have found”) and ran home naked because he was so eager to test his discovery.2
There is much that we don’t understand about how our brain works and how we form opinions and make decisions. Each of us would like to think that we understand why we do what we do. We think that we are good at introspection and self-understanding. Much research shows however, that we may not understand our own decision processes as well as we think we do. Research shows that all of us create justifications to explain our decisions or beliefs, even though we do not really consciously understand the real reasons why our brains arrived at that decision or belief.3
Our feelings’ subconscious influence on our thoughts and decisions and flashes of insight are both a part of human cognitive function. They are probably an inescapable part of how we think, and can be quite useful. But our lack of awareness of how these processes work can lead to bias and a false level of certainty in decisions that are not rational. The scientific method has proven itself to be so powerful because peer review requires that other people critique a scientist’s work. Each of us have cognitive blind spots and biases that are impossible to see ourselves, but that others can help us spot.
Religion and Morality
In addition to the way that emotion affects how we think, it also influences our beliefs about religious and moral truth. Frequently, people form religious convictions about a religion’s truthfulness based on personal emotional experiences with the religion. Many Christian churches call this religious emotional experience “the spirit,” “feeling the spirit,” or “accepting Jesus in your heart.” This feeling is often described as a warm feeling in one’s chest; a pleasant sensation which makes a person want to do good; a feeling of peace; or a feeling of light and peace flowing into one’s mind and heart. In the Book of Galatians in the Christian New Testament, it says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV).4 In the Gospel of John Jesus says that “[w]hen the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.” (John 15:26 NIV).5
This spiritual feeling has been studied by psychologists. Academics call it this feeling “elevation.” Elevation, as defined by psychologists, involves a desire to act morally and is characterized by a feeling of warmth in the chest.6 Elevation appears to be a universal human emotion just like anger or love – felt by people in all religions. Other religious experiences have also been found to be cause biologically, such as religious visions caused by temporal lobe epilepsy to the “God helmet” (a helmet which projects magnetic fields into certain parts of the brain) causing people to feel God’s presence.7
The behaviors we call “ethical” or “good” are generally the behaviors that make living in human communities successful (an upcoming series of posts will discuss morality and ethics in more detail). Humans who banded together to cooperate, share resources, and provide mutual protection would likely have been more successful than humans who did not band together. Because of their greater success, such bands of cooperative humans would have had the most children and thus passed on their genes to subsequent generations. There thus would have been selective pressure to encourage the spread of genes fostering personality traits like cooperation, group cohesiveness, sharing, and empathy. Elevation likely evolved because it provided a survival advantage – people who feel a positive emotional response when they act morally are more likely to continue acting morally. And such moral behavior is essential for a group of people to be able to survive and be successful. We feel elevation because modern humans couldn’t have evolved without it.
The problem with relying solely on emotional experience when trying to find truth is that our feelings are an imperfect guide. Feeling elevation tells you when you’re doing something moral, or thinking about something moral. But it is not an absolute guide. For example, people are more likely to feel elevation when they help people in their nearby environment – people they can see. This makes evolutionary sense – there would be no reason to develop the ability to feel elevation when helping far-off unseen people, because our ancestors lived in an environment where the only people they knew about and with whom they had interactions were the people in their immediate local environment. For this reason, people in the developed world give money to things like cancer and AIDS research, because these diseases affect people they know. But their money would have a far greater effect to help the lives of other human beings if they gave it to charities that provided clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, and malaria treatments in the third world. Diarrhea and malaria are much bigger problems overall than cancer or AIDS, but they afflict people in far-off developing countries, and it doesn’t make most rich people feel as good to fight them, so they give less money to such causes.
A Systematic Approach to Spiritual Feelings
We are often wrong when we generalize from our personal experience, because our personal experience is not broad enough to make valid generalizations. Is elevation really a divinely-created emotion which leads us to truth? Maybe. If you feel elevation in a certain church does that mean that the church’s teachings are actually true? Maybe. But how can you definitively confirm this?
You would need at least three things:
1. Peer review: To overcome the problems with confirmation bias and other cognitive problems which may distort your conclusion, you would need to submit your conclusions to testing by others not of your faith, and you would need to be willing to accept their criticisms of your methods and change your conclusions and methods as a result of their criticisms.
2. Experimental controls: How can you know the meaning and import of spiritual feelings you’ve felt from one particular religion, without something to compare it to? You should test a variety of other religions and sacred texts outside of your own faith (in an unbiased way, willing to accept that those texts and religions might also be true) to determine whether they also produce spiritual feelings.
3. Good record keeping: because of confirmation bias it is likely you will remember when spiritual feelings or impressions were later confirmed true, but will tend to forget the ones that were later proven wrong. If you felt a spiritual feeling which seemingly confirmed the truth of a religion, how many times have you interacted with that religion and didn’t feel those spiritual feelings? You should keep track of all of your spiritual feelings and impressions and tabulate their success rate.
A Short Experiment – Comparing Descriptions of Spiritual Feelings from Different Religions
It is interesting to read people’s personal descriptions of religious experience. People from very different religions often use similar words to describe their spiritual experiences.
I’ve collected a sample of people’s descriptions of religious conversion or spiritual revelation. The following twenty quotes are from practicing Atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, New Agers, Protestants, and Universal Unitarians. Try to guess which quote comes from which religion (some religions are used more than once). I have standardized the language (changes indicated by brackets ), so that differences in terminology between religions will not tip you off (thus, mosque, temple and church are all become a [church]; the Bible and all other religious texts become a [text] or [sacred text]).
Try to match these 8 religions to the following 20 quotes. The answer key is below:
1. “I felt a burning in my heart, and a great burden seemed to have left me.”8
2. “But what can I say? How can I describe an experience so profound and so beautiful? Shall I say that it was the most blessed experience of my life? Shall I say that [God] touched my heart and gave me a feeling of peace I had not known before? Shall I describe the tears that flowed freely from my eyes, affirming my . . . faith, as I . . . beg[ed] [God's] blessings for myself and for those I love?”9
3. “The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.”10
4. “As I read these books in a . . . bookstore, . . . I felt a burning in my heart that I should come and investigate.”11
5. “[Even as a child], [w]ithout understanding much about the complex [doctrine] . . . he was attracted to [church]. There he often felt a strong feeling of peace flowing through his body.”12
6. “I was praying . . . when I felt a burning shaft of . . . love come through my head and into my heart.”13
7. “I truly [sic] wanted to know [the truth]. After a few weeks, I stumbled onto [texts] which . . . answered my questions in a way that I had not heard of before. I read everything . . .and I even tried the experiment of asking [God] for . . . his divine love. After about 6 weeks, I felt a burning in my chest and a sensation that was unlike anything I had ever felt. It was pure happiness and peace. I knew then that [God] had sent His love to me.”14
8. “A feeling of peace and certitude would tell me when I had found the answers and often after people would help me by pointing in the right direction.”15
9. “We gave up a lot of things. What did I get in return? I received a feeling of peace, hope and security. I no longer lay awake at night worrying. I stopped cussing. I became much more honest in all aspects of my life. [God] has changed my heart and my life. My husband’s heart is changing also. We pray all the time and really feel [God’s] presence in our marriage. My perspective has changed. My view of life has changed about what is truly important.”16
10. “Many women described a feeling of euphoria after they committed to following [God] . . . . One woman described a feeling of peace; she said: ‘It is like you are born again and you can start all over again, free from sin.’”17
11. “A feeling of peace seemed to flow into me with a sense of togetherness . . . . . I felt very peaceful from inside and also felt [warmth] . . . .”18
12. “I felt a burning sensation in my heart.”19
13. “That inner light, that we all have or had at some time in our existence, was nearly burnt out for me. But in the [church] . . . I found a feeling of peace, inner solitude and quietness that I’d also found in reading the [text] and pondering over its meaning and trying to practice what it tells us.”20
14. “For the first time I not only felt accountable for my past sins but I had to fight back tears. I knew that I had let down [God] [and] my family . . . . However, I also knew I was forgiven! [It] gave me a feeling of peace that I have never felt it in my whole life. I felt like I had a huge weight lifted off of me and that I was finally home and free . . . . I felt like a new person.”21
15. “Every time I am there [at the church building], a feeling of peace overcomes me.”22
16. “Every time I was with the [church members], I felt this warm feeling, a feeling of peace and for the first time in my life since my church-going days, I wanted to follow [God] . . . .”23
17. “About 10 years ago, when Jenny and I decided to start a family, we began looking for a spiritual community for our kids. During my first service at [the church]. . . I was hooked. I recall the feeling of peace that I felt when I was attending [services].”24
18. “The power of [God] came into me then. I had this warm and overwhelming feeling of peace and security. It’s hard to explain. I had to . . . stop myself from falling backward.”25
19. “[The religious leader] looked into my eyes deeply for a moment, and I experienced a feeling of peace and love unlike anything I had ever experienced before.”26
20. “[After praying,] [i]mmediately I was flooded with a deep feeling of peace, comfort, and hope.”27
21. “I recently spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. . . . As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. . . . The experience lasted just a few moments, but returned many times as I gazed out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles.”28
The answers are in the next paragraph. My point here is not to say that any of these people’s experiences are invalid or that they are not valuable, or that religion is bad (I am an active church-goer myself). Nor am I trying to say that this proves any certain religion to be true or false – just that spiritual experiences are a universal human emotion, and that, just like any emotional experience, they are not enough by themselves to be reliable indicators of absolute truth. This is easy to demonstrate using religious experiences, since the claims of most of these religions are contradictory. Thus, if one of the above religions were true in the absolute sense, many or most of the others would be false. Many or most of the above people’s religious experiences, therefore, could not have been reliable indicators of the truth.
Answers: 1. Protestant; 2. Islam; 3. Protestant; 4. Catholic; 5. Hindu; 6. Catholic; 7. New Age; 8. Islam; 9. Protestant; 10. Islam; 11. Hindu; 12. Protestant; 13. Islam; 14. Catholic; 15. Buddhist; 16. Mormon; 17. Universal Unitarian; 18. Catholic; 19. Hindu; 20. Protestant; 21. Atheist
Most of my conclusions in this section are tentative. I have not been able to find much peer-reviewed research to help me evaluate my reasoning. But my opinion in this section seem to be consistent with our current scientific understanding of evolution and biology. If you are aware of any good research or arguments, which refute or confirm what I’ve written – please share!
In the absence of good empirical information, I am forced to rely on my personal experience. In my personal experience I have had eureka moments where a sudden flash of insight provided a solution to a problem, but sometimes those eureka insights have been wrong. I have felt spiritual feelings of elevation from a variety of sacred texts from different religions. I think that feelings of elevation are very important and that they usually lead us to act more morally, but they have not had as good of a track record in helping me discover objective truth.
In the final part of this series, I will evaluate all the different methods for finding truth and give some final thoughts.
2 For more information about this, see the Wikipedia article about the Eureka effect: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Eureka_effect
6 Haidt, J. “Elevation and the positive psychology of morality,” in C. Keyes and J. Haidt (eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association (2003).
7 https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/God_helmet ; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104291534 ; http://www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132078267/neurotheology-where-religion-and-science-collide
8 From Clifton Johnson, et. al., “God Struck Me Dead: Vocies of Ex-Slaves,” 1969, p. 126 (from oral histories of illiterate ex-slaves in the American South)
9 Description of pilgrimage to Mecca.
10 Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) famous American preacher and theologian.
11 About a famous apparition of the Virgin Mary in the former Yugoslavia.
12 Describing a Hindu guru’s early spiritual experiences.
13 A nun describing when felt called to become a nun.
14 The author of this forum post describes learning information from spirits revealing what happens after we die.
17 Describing women’s feelings after converting to Islam
18 Descriptions of two different people about their encounter with a guru.
19 From a Muslim who converted to Christianity, describing the feelings he felt at the start of the the chain of events which would lead to his conversion.
22 Describing his feelings at the Buddhist stupa on Dhauligiri in India.
23 Describing conversion to Mormonism
24 Describing his experiences with meditation to recapture the feelings of peace he used to feel at church, but no longer does because his children make it diffiuclt to concentrate.
25 Describing getting a blessing from the priest.
26 Really neo-Hindu. Describing an encounter with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
27 An experience of a Protestant who later began the process of converting to Catholicism.
28 Famous Atheist Sam Harris talking about the feelings he gets when he meditates, regardless of the religious situation in which he encounters himself.