Conviction by Invitation

[This is a "reprint" of part 3 of a series I posted on my home blog, www.ldsphilosopher.com]

In a previous post, I presented Oakeshott’s view of rationality as the capacity to form interpretations of and responses to experience. In another post, I described ways in which the movie Contact provides an excellent example of this. In this post, I will explore a little deeper how Ellie’s experience in the movie illustrates Oakeshott’s point. I would recommend that those who haven’t read either of these two posts do so here: Rationality Redefined; Jodi Foster’s Empiricism in Contact.

Interpreting Experience

There were several ways to interpret Ellie’s reported experience. The committee chairman interpreted the entire experience as a delusion: Ellie, a young woman starved for contact with her long deceased father, created the experience in her mind to ease her loneliness and sorrow; the entire project was a hoax developed by an eccentric personality who had for a long time been influencing Ellie’s life and research.

Ellie, although she admitted that the chairman’s interpretation seemed more likely than her own, chose to interpret the experience as an interaction with an alien intelligence that wished to learn about the human race. She chose to interpret the experience this way because this interpretation brought hope and meaning to her life. It justified her changed heart and renewed humility.

If Michael Oakeshott’s point of view is correct, it implies that no interpretation is a priori known to be true. How any given experience is to be interpreted is “up for grabs,” so to speak. However, this does not mean that all interpretations are equal; they all have implications and consequences that we should consider. Let’s look at another example that may help illustrate this.

Scrooge and Gravy

Each Christmas time, I try to take the time to reread Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Christmas Carol. One particular passage in the book caught my attention this year. Ebenezer Scrooge is conversing with the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley:

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t.” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Indeed, Scrooge is right. Every experience may be interpreted any number of ways. Is it possible that a biochemical reaction in Scrooge’s brain induced him to hallucinate his entire experience? Of course it is possible. Scrooge, however, abandoned that possibility, and was convinced that the ghost did, in reality, exist.

What caused him to believe in the ghost’s existence? He didn’t arrive at the conclusion through logical deduction. Reason, as we have seen, can lead us interpret our experiences in any number of ways. As I discussed in Rationality Redefined, reason is our capacity to make sense of our experience, and there is no single way to do it. Shirley Robin Letwin describes this point of view aptly: “A man may have to deal with physiological processes within his body and physical processes outside it … , but as long as he retains his reason, he chooses how to understand and deal with his experience.”

The Basis of Conviction

At the conclusion of Scrooge’s experience, you would be hardpressed to get him to chalk up the whole experience to an “undigested bit of beef.” Certainly, the possibility still existed. However, Scrooge would never accept that possibility because he was changed, in a penetrating way, because of his experience. There is something about revelatory experiences that invites us to interpret them as such. When we accept that invitation, we abandon alternative interpretations and open ourselves to be changed forever.

For example, when I prayed and asked God if the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were true, I received many revelatory experiences convincing me that I had received an answer from God.

A well-trained psychologist will remind me about confirmation bias, a process where individuals will notice information that confirms their belief (or what they want to believe) and ignore contradictory information.

A well-trained physiologist will remind me that certain hormonal changes at the right times may have led me to believe that I was having a feel-good experience in answer to prayer, when it was really just coincidence.

I confess that each of these alternatives have a certain amount of plausibility, in the sense that each of them are rational interpretations of my experiences. However, there was something about the experiences that invited me to believe that they were communications from God. I accepted that invitation, committed myself to that interpretation, changed as a person because of it, and have never regretted it.

I write this post because I think it’s important that we understand this central fact: there is no logical certainty in our religious beliefs. There isn’t meant to be. Our beliefs are rooted in lived experience, not reason. Also, there is no certain way to interpret those experiences. However, we have committed, through an act of free will and an act of faith (and in response to an invitation that we believe comes from God), to interpret certain lived experiences as revelatory experiences.

In other words, we believe because we choose to believe. Some would say that this is precisely why we should abandon our beliefs in favor of “more likely” interpretations. However, this analysis applies to any and all interpretations, and therefore applies equally to the atheist or the materialist who look for “scientific” interpretations of lived experience. Thus, Oakeshott’s view of rationality “levels the playing field” in an important way. A biological, evolutionary, or reductionist account of religious experience is not better by virtue of the fact that it relies solely on scientific principles, because any commitment to those principles is simply that: a commitment.

The act of choice that leads to our conviction may not necessarily involve pre-deliberation; in fact, it rarely does. The choice resides in the fact that we are constantly and actively interpreting our experiences and responding to invitations from the Spirit. There is nothing wrong with this–it is partly what makes us human. And it is what allows us to commit to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to construe the world through the lens of revealed truth.

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10 Responses

  1. I admit that I haven’t read any of the linked background material, so I hope that this post can stand on its own so my comments don’t seem too ignorant.

    But I have to disagree with your conclusion that we *choose* to believe. No, really, I agree with what you had written before:

    At the conclusion of Scrooge’s experience, you would be hardpressed to get him to chalk up the whole experience to an “undigested bit of beef.” Certainly, the possibility still existed. However, Scrooge would never accept that possibility because he was changed, in a penetrating way, because of his experience. There is something about revelatory experiences that invites us to interpret them as such. When we accept that invitation, we abandon alternative interpretations and open ourselves to be changed forever.

    In other words, because you recognize later on that our beliefs are rooted in lived experience, then like Scrooge, isn’t our “choice” illusory? Because really, our choice is heavily biased by our penetrating experiences…So, what INVITES us to interpret revelatory experience as such is that that explanation is the most personally persuasive to us. Whether right, wrong, or indifferent. We can’t “choose” another way for if we TRY, what will happen is that we will be going up against all of our INCLINATIONS, all of our PENETRATING, PERSONALLY PERSUASIVE EXPERIENCES. And this is a miserable process toward those who try to engage in such an act.

    I agree that there is no logical certainty in our beliefs. But I STRONGLY disagree that you commit out of pure free will to the beliefs that you have. No, I think that faith is the INCLINATION that some have to believe. Faith is that thing that makes believing x event was revelatory or divine is the most personally persuasive understanding of x event to us.

    So, the idea is not that we change our beliefs based on explanations more likely (to everyone). No, we change our beliefs based on explanations that are more likely — or more PERSONALLY PERSUASIVE AND PENETRATING — to *us*.

    I have to harp on this point, because I think it does a great disservice to people to suggest that they just “try harder” to believe. That they “try harder” to have faith. As if faith and belief are freely chosen. Rather, actions are chosen. Attitudes, beliefs, understandings, frameworks, and inclinations are limited to penetrating personal experiences.

  2. Now, if you are saying that the psychologist’s non-divine explanations of religious experience are *personally* more persuasive to you than explanations that source them to God, so you WILLINGLY go against what your inclination is to believe, then I guess: congratulations…you are choosing not your belief, but choosing to ACT against your belief. This should not be healthy to you, because if this is the case, you are essentially going against the grain of your very being, your very interpretations, persuasions, intuitions, and so on.

  3. I am not sure Andrew deserved that, or at least I can’t tell what he is saying if he did.

  4. My mistake, I thought the second comment was a response to the first.

    As far as the dilemma of epistemology is concerned, I don’t see how anyone has any choice but to trust the vast majority of their sense data.

    As far as the general question of the purpose of rationality is concerned, I agree that interpretation ranks very highly. But I don’t think it is the ultimate answer. The primary purpose of rationality is to inform our actions, to ensure our very survival, and to make it possible to lead a life worth living. Rationality as reflection is largely just a means to that end.

  5. I agree with your insights about choosing based on one’s own perceptions. Everyone should be doing this. However, I don’t think its as straightforward. I think bias leading into the question may force an answer that the seeker prefers. I don’t think anyone can seek without bias.
    Hope may play a big role. If one hope’s something is good and true, it is very likely that this is the response the seeker will get.
    Generally, then truth can not be confirmed this way, because of the variables you have stated about perceptions. So claiming something is true based on personal feelings and revealation is very unstable in itself. Something more has to be added like concrete evidence. . . otherwise it’s just a hypothesis.
    So what evidence is there that shows that any church can claim its the true church. And this is even harder when the evidence is stacking against a church that casts it in a controversial light.
    When will a believer abandon his or her original conclusion. . . or does he or she just hold on to it, claiming truth, hoping that one day something will surface proving this?

    Just thinking aloud ;P

  6. Andrew,

    So, the idea is not that we change our beliefs based on explanations more likely (to everyone). No, we change our beliefs based on explanations that are more likely — or more PERSONALLY PERSUASIVE AND PENETRATING — to *us*.

    I agree with this. We base our beliefs, and change them, based upon interpretations we find to be personally persuasive to us.

    Rather, actions are chosen. Attitudes, beliefs, understandings, frameworks, and inclinations are limited to penetrating personal experiences.

    I can agree with this, except that you seem to be implying that we can’t choose what constitutes as “penetrating personal experiences.” Are you saying that we can’t choose what is most persuasive to us?

    If so, I disagree, and I have a hard time believing that you believe it. How is a deeply rooted faith in God commendable, if we couldn’t choose to believe otherwise? How can we be rewarded for our faith, if our faith is merely an inner “inclination” that we didn’t choose?

    It seems as though you are saying that we all come with a set of inner convictions and inclinations that we can’t change, and this defines who we are. If we choose to believe something that contradicts these inner inclinations and convictions, we are denying who we really are. We are “violating our deepest beliefs.”

    In essence, it seems that from your point of view (correct me if I’m wrong), we can’t choose our deepest beliefs. Rather, they limit and choose everything else about how we interpret the world.

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood?

  7. Amy,

    I don’t think anyone can seek without bias.

    Agreed.

    Generally, then truth can not be confirmed this way, because of the variables you have stated about perceptions. So claiming something is true based on personal feelings and revealation is very unstable in itself. Something more has to be added like concrete evidence. . . otherwise it’s just a hypothesis.

    Hmm…. perhaps you’ve misunderstood this post? The fact that we choose our deepest beliefs does not make revelation unstable at all. This isn’t an post that shows that revelation is less reliable than science… rather, this post is intended to show how ALL of our beliefs are chosen… even those we claim to be scientific. Evidence is only admissible evidence from certain interpretations and worldviews, interpretations and worldviews we have freely chosen to believe.

    In essence, I believe revelatory experiences are the most reliable experiences. Why? Because I’m not sure other experiences come with the same built in invitation to believe. Scientific evidence just sits there, and we have to commit ourselves to one interpretation or another. When God communicates, he throws in the mix an invitation to believe it was from Him––a divine signature embedded in the experience itself, so to speak.

  8. It isn’t the first time today I’ve been on the “misunderstanding the post” end of things. ;P

    I love the book Travels by Michael Crichton. I found his views on “direct experience” to be thought-provoking.
    Basically he explains that the initial perceptions someone experiences are correct, it is the conclusions drawn from those perceptions that are in error. So the ideal is to experience without forming conclusions. It is about living in the moment.

    So maybe the personal experience of a spiritual revealation is as real as the seeker is compelled to believe. Only the conclusions as to why and what it means is so variable that to assign one answer to it as absolute is an error.

    For example, I’ll use the “Mormon challenge” as an example. The seeker reads the scriptures and is asked to pray about the truth of the scriptures. This person recieves an undeniable revelation that compells him/her to believe that he/she just experienced something extraordinary. Couldn’t it be possible that there may be other probable conclusions than that of the immediate one that the church is true?

    Someone has a right to form his/her own conclusions from his/her personal experience, but regarding it as absolute when one knows that he/she chose which conclusion to apply is an error.

  9. re Jeffrey @ 12:05:

    YES, I am saying/implying that we don’t (and cannot) consciously choose what constitutes a penetrating personal experience. I would think this is noncontroversial, and this is what makes our religious tradition *special*. Because we acknowledge that IT penetrates us where the others did not. (On the other hand, if we say that we can choose what constitutes a penetrating personal experience…then there is no PERSONAL uniqueness of one religion over another. If we wanted, we could have the same experiences in any other religion; Mormonism offers nothing unique to us.)

    When we see something that strikes us as beautiful, it is not because we *chose* to see it as beautiful. No, it struck us. Rather, something within us responded unconsciously and subconsciously. So, we did not choose what we felt, what we inclined, what we perceived as beautiful.

    Same thing with a lot of things. It’s a gut inclination, a gut reaction…something that’s subconsicous or unconscious. This isn’t chosen.

    Instead, what is chosen is our actions. We either go with our inclinations or against. I don’t believe that either rooted faith in God or a lack of rooted faith in God is commendable, on its own. Rather, what I believe is commendable is seeking to understand deepest inclinations and pursuing actions in harmony with them (and trust me, even THIS involves plenty of growth…so don’t think I’m advocating that people just do whatever they *want*). So, I commend people who have a true and deep faith in God and who PURSUE what they feel takes them closer to God. The commendable part of faith isn’t choice, in my opinion (because I believe it is not a choice, or it is a false choice). Rather, I think the commendable part of faith is how people with faith can believe even without incontrovertible proof for God. They have bits and pieces of evidence here and there, but REALLY, the clincher is faith — it is assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things unseen. Choice isn’t necessarily inherent in that. But the *assurance*, the *inclination*, the *personally persuasive experience*, all of these things are.

    On the other hand, I lament and regret that people who *don’t* have a true and deep faith in God (or who have a deep and true faith in some other construct of God) try to bludgeon themselves pursuing someone else’s path, perhaps because they’ve learned to “endure to the end” and “desire to believe,” if that’s all they can do. If someone does *not* have a personally penetrating experience and does not have an inclination to believe, then I lament that they put themselves through so much strife trying to believe in something they don’t. This strife makes them feel inadequate for being unable to resonate with the belief system, when really…they should not feel inadequate. They should recognize this size simply doesn’t fit them.

    Relating to your second-to-last paragraph and last full paragraph, I think you’ve got my point nearly exactly…I would only change ONE part…I would change “change” to “consciously change.” So, obviously, people can move from one inclination to another — some people with the inclination of faith lose it and some people with no inclination of faith gain it. HOWEVER, these people don’t CONSCIOUSLY choose to gain or lose. Rather, they gain or lose as a result of personally penetrating experiences that is not consciously chosen (which is why I liked that part of your post). So, when looking at things we *can* choose, we shouldn’t be hoping to change our deepest inclinations and frameworks…we should be hoping to UNDERSTAND our frameworks and improve within them.

    I don’t think this concept threatens your framework…I think you should actually agree with this. Because I am willing to believe — even if you don’t recognize it — that this applies to you. Why are you Mormon instead of any of a thousand religions and philosophies? I think it’s because something speaks out to you from Mormonism…and even if it didn’t always speak out to you, at some point there was a penetrating experience — that you did not consciously choose — that made it speak out to you. That made you inclined to follow it. And so you do. And that is admirable.

    What I do not think is admirable is the idea that you just choose. Because if that were the case, you could just CHOOSE to be Muslim or choose to be Catholic or choose to be anything else and there would be nothing special about Mormonism. (And indeed, you CAN choose to go to a mosque or to a cathedral…you can choose actions…but would you really BELIEVE?) If I asked you WHY you didn’t choose, you might say, “Islam doesn’t mesh with me…” or “Catholicism doesn’t elevate me” or “Secular humanism doesn’t seem to give me a sense of communion with the divine as Mormonism can and does.”

    And this is my point. These things…these reactions…these feelings…relate to things you can’t consciously choose. Striving, working harder, reading more and studying more won’t suddently have Islam mesh with you, or Catholicism elevate you, or secular humanism click with you. None of these consciously chosen actions necessarily yield a penetrating, personally persuasive event in your life. So, you can’t CHOOSE faith. You can’t CHOOSE what seems true or likely or inspiring or elevating. You can only *recognize* and *discover* what seems true to you, and then choose what you will do in light of that.

    Does this make sense?

  10. ughh…another comment that’s too long! Sorry!

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