Basis For Belief, Part Three: Whence the Witness
This is part three in a four-part series of posts. If you haven't already, you may want to read Part One and Part Two to get the full context.
In the last part of this series, I wrote about the fact that the claim that a supplicant could get an answer through prayer was completely non-falsifiable. But the fact that something can't be falsified doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true, and doesn't necessarily mean it can't be verified. Take, for instance, the claim that there is, somewhere in the universe, an emerald three feet in diameter. Since we can't search the entire universe for such an emerald, this is an unfalsifiable claim. But if someone digs into the Earth and finds an emerald three feet in diameter, the claim is verified immediately.
So it seems it could still be argued that, even if the assertion that you can find out the truth of something through prayer can't be falsified, it could still be true. And if it is, well, maybe it would still be worth trying. Wouldn't you want to know if God lived, and if the gospel is true? So mightn't it be worth your time to pray and find out? And then to keep praying if you don't get an immediate answer, because, hey, this is important enough to keep on about?
One problem with this argument is that, well, there's the matter of choosing which gospel to pray about. Mormon missionaries would ask you to read the Book of Mormon and pray and ask God if it's true. Well, in that case, should you do the same about the Koran? The Bhagavad Gita? Emanuel Swedenborg's Arcana Caelestia? Where do you stop? Surely you can't find the time to read and continually pray about every religious text in the world in the hopes that you'll get an answer about one of them--and even if you had the time, is it even possible to simultaneously be sincerely open to the possibility that each of these is true? So why choose the Book of Mormon, or any other religious text, in particular? If the principle is valid--if you can pray about something and get an answer from God as to its veracity--then how do you choose what to pray about? This isn't a problem only for Mormons, of course; there's no more reason to single out the Bible to pray about, for instance, than there is the Book of Mormon.
But that's not the biggest of the problems with the argument above. No, the bigger one is the question of how you know when you've gotten an answer.
When Mormon missionaries (and again, though I'm focusing on Mormons here, really the same basic principles apply to any claim that you can pray for answers from God, regardless of the religion involved) say that if you pray about the Book of Mormon, you'll get a witness that it's true, they don't mean that God is likely to come down in the flesh and personally assure you (they may believe that just that happened to Joseph Smith, but they don't expect it to be a common occurrence). They mean that you'll get the witness of the Holy Ghost. And how exactly does the Holy Ghost bear witness? Well, one common phrase used to describe the witness of the Holy Ghost is a "burning in the bosom".
But--the vagueness of that phrase aside--missionaries and church teachers will be quick to clarify that not everyone feels a literal burning in the bosom. Some people hear a voice testifying of the truth. Some people just get a conviction of it. Sometimes you just get a feeling of peace. In fact, it seems, there are so many different ways the Holy Ghost can bear witness that pretty much anything you feel can be seized on and claimed to be the witness of the Holy Ghost.
But, again, that's not the biggest problem with the whole claim. The biggest problem is the question of how you know that what you felt is the Holy Ghost, and not just some product of your own imagination. The human imagination is a truly remarkable capacity, and is capable of some surprising feats of delusion. People are very good at convincing themselves that they've sensed what they want to have sensed--this is true even with visual witnessing of events, let alone experiencing something as vague as a "feeling". So suppose you do feel a "burning in the bosom". Is that because the Holy Ghost is really testifying to you, or is it because you wanted to believe it would, and the burning sensation is supplied by your own imagination? (Or--if you'll permit me a moment of parenthetical flippancy--is it heartburn?)
Mormons might answer (as I probably would have answered myself, before my deconversion) that you just know, that it's a sensation qualitatively different from any other, or that your soul will recognize it deep down. Which, of course, is no answer at all; again, given the human brain's capacity for self-deception, it would be very easy for a person to convince himself he was feeling a sensation unlike any other, or that he seemed to recognize it at some deep level. There still has to be a way to know for sure that it's not just your imagination. And because the missionaries, or the bishop, or the prophet, or your parents, told you it was the Holy Ghost, isn't a good enough reason. They could be wrong; they could have deluded themselves the same as you're doing. (Or, of course, the more cynical might suggest that they might know perfectly well it's no such thing, but are intentionally deceiving you because it suits their own purposes. I'm inclined to think, however, that the majority of church leaders (though probably not all) are earnest, but misguided.)
But what about faith? That's one of the words most commonly bandied about in Christian writings (LDS included), and I haven't mentioned it at all yet. Can't you just have faith that the answer one is getting is from the Holy Ghost? Sure you can. But why should you?
First of all, what is faith? The most common definition for faith in LDS teachings comes from the Book of Mormon, specifically Alma 32: 21--that faith is a belief in "things which are not seen, which are true"*. (In fact, the actual wording of the scripture is that to have faith is to "hope for things which are not seen, which are true", though I've usually heard it misquoted as "belief". Still, either way, the same problems remain.) But that doesn't address the question at all of how you know what you're having faith in is true in the first place! Because the missionaries/the bishop/your parents said so? Again, that's not a good basis for belief; for one thing, you can find plenty of people who'll be just as fervent about other beliefs that are completely contradictory. Because of the witness of the Holy Ghost? But that just brings us full circle back to the question we were asking in the first place, and doesn't answer anything! Or do we believe in them just because--as the original wording in the Book of Mormon says--we have hope? Well, sure, it would be nice in some ways if at least some aspects of Mormon doctrine were true--heck, I'd like to have the chance to eventually become a god and design my own worlds--but that doesn't make it so. It would be nice if I had a million dollars, but ("The Secret" notwithstanding) wishing doesn't make it so. Hope and belief are two very different things, and the one is no valid basis for the other.
Naturally, other Christian denominations use different definitions of the word "faith", but I have yet to hear one that gives any answer to the question of how you know that the things you "have faith" in are true, and that doesn't reduce ultimately to one of the three options above: because your parents/a prophet/the Pope/whoever said so, because of the witness of God or of some other supernatural source (without addressing how you know said witness really comes from God and not from your own subconscious), because you "just know" (which isn't appreciably different in practice from the claim of a supernatural witness), or just because you think it would be nice if they were true. None of these gives any reason for concluding that faith is any sort of valid basis for belief--or any reason for regarding "faith" as any more reliable than (or even functionally any different from) any worldly kind of conviction.
(There are, of course, also those who claim to have proof of religious doctrines--who hold up accounts of miracles as evidence of God's power, for instance. But addressing that subject in depth is beyond the scope of this particular post; suffice to say that such claims never stand up under close examination, if in fact they can be examined at all (which merely anecdotal claims, for instance, cannot).)
So we're left with no way of being sure that a supposed witness from the Holy Ghost--or from God, or from any other supernatural source--is really that, and not just something you've convinced yourself you were feeling because you wanted to believe. If God exists, he's not very good at sending messages to his children. But--in light of the principle of the burden of proof, as discussed in the first post in this series--the more reasonable conclusion is that He does not...and that the Holy Ghost is not a witness of the truth, but merely a human invention.
It is an invention, however, with more than one purpose...and that will be the subject of the last post in this series.