Monday, March 22, 2010

Spiritual Investigations: Wittgenstein and the Mormon Concept of Feeling the Spirit

Ever feel like you just spent forever writing your worst paper ever? Well I just did. For some reason I could never get into this paper and basically felt like I was just rambling on and on and on about nothing. I hope my SMPT paper turns out to be something better.

Anyways, here is my recent paper for my Wittgenstein class. Ugh.


Spiritual Investigations:
Wittgenstein and the Mormon Concept of Feeling the Spirit

The belief that a person can know the truthfulness of certain propositional claims lies near the center of Mormon religious life. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to gain testimonies of things such as the reality of God, the saving atonement of Jesus, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders, and the scriptural authority of the Book of Mormon. These testimonies are usually gained through the “feelings” or promptings of the Holy Spirit, or what Mormons often refer to as “the still small voice.” As a believing Latter-day Saint and a professing Wittgensteinian, I am interested in the type of clarification and elucidation of this practice that might be brought on by a Wittgensteinian exploration. Thus, the intent of this paper is to explore the grammar of this aspect of Mormon religious practice using Wittgenstein’s writings in his Philosophical Investigations.[1]
While seeking propositional knowledge by the spirit is certainly not exclusive to Mormonism, its role within the faith is perhaps more prevalent than among other Christian traditions.[2] The final verses of Mormonism’s found scriptures, the Book of Mormon, asks readers to “ask God . . . if these things [the writings in the Book of Mormon] are not true” with the promise that God “will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). Potential converts—as well as members—are encouraged to attain truths about the Book of Mormon and other Mormon claims through this process. Once a month in worship services, the pulpit is opened up for members to share the testimonies which they have gained by this. These testimonies typically close with declarations of belief such as: “I know the Book of Mormon is true;” “I know that Jesus is the Christ;” and “I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.”
Because my own understanding of this concept my vary from the larger Mormon tradition (and may be tainted by my own philosophical perspective), for the purposes of this paper, I will be utilizing and responding to a 1983 talk written by Mormon apostle Elder Boyd K. Paper, “The Candle of the Lord.”[3] While this is by no means a philosophical piece, it is perhaps the most popular commentary on the topic by a contemporary Mormon leader, and in my view best exemplifies and illustrates the Mormon language-game of spiritual knowing.
Packer begins his talk by stating: “We do not learn spiritual things in exactly the same way we learn other things that we know.” Here it already seems to be the case that talk of knowing things of a spiritual nature involves a different language-game than talk of knowing other sorts of things. While showing how words might be used differently with different language-games, Wittgenstein points out that the certainty that a “man is in pain” is different from the certainty “that 2 x 2 =4.” He concludes that the “kind of certainty is the kind of language-game” (PPF 332).  Because our various language-games use shared words that act as “clothing” for our language-games, confusion arises when we fail to recognize their differences. Thus, when a person says, (1) “I know that Jesus died for my sins;” (2) “I know that Claremont is located in southern California;” (3) “I know that 28 plus 50 is 78;” and (4) “I know that I am looking at a computer screen,” she is using the same word “know” in four different language-games. Just as Wittgenstein says that the difference in language-games between motive and cause might be seen in how they are discovered (335), the differences in the language-games of knowing can be seen in how they are known. For (2) the person might say that she knows this because she has lived there her entire life, has seen it located in the southern part of a map of California, etc. For (3) she might say that she learned arithmetic in grade school and feels confident in her abilities to make simple calculations. For (4) she might simply say that this is what she sees with her eyes and has no reason to doubt her senses. While each of these ways of knowing differ from each other and represent a different language-game of knowing, none of them seems to be ways in which she might know that Jesus died for her sins.
Recognizing that spiritual knowing is a different type of knowing from its more casual sense, Packer attempts to elucidate this by recounting an experience that he had with an atheist while traveling a plane. After listening to the atheist press his disbelief in God, Packer says that he responded by bearing his testimony: “‘You are wrong,’ I said, ‘there is a God. I know He lives!’” The atheist, in turn, responded, “You don’t know. Nobody knows that! You can’t know it! [If] you say you know. Tell me how you know.” Appealing to a difference in language-games,[4] Packer asks the atheist if he knew what salt tasted like. With the assurance from the atheist that he did, Packer then asked the atheist to describe the taste of salt.
After several attempts, of course, he could not do it. He could not convey, in words alone, so ordinary an experience as tasting salt. I bore testimony to him once again and said, “I know there is a God. You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know, I would be able to tell you exactly how I know. My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like. But I say to you again, there is a God! He does live! And just because you don’t know, don’t try to tell me that I don’t know, for I do!” . . . From that experience forward, I have never been embarrassed or ashamed that I could not explain in words alone everything I know spiritually.

Packer seems correct to argue that spiritual knowing utilizes a different language-game than that of knowing things such as math and geography. However, his analogy of salt only seems to show that the language of knowing is not limited to the types assumed by the atheist, and instead avoids the question of the atheist as to how Packer was able to know these things.
In his rebuttal to the atheist Packer seems to argue that because the atheist knew what salt tasted like but could not describe it with words, Packer was justified in saying that he likewise knew by the spirit that God was real, but similarly could not put it into words. There, however seems to be a problem with this response. Rather than being unable to communicate or describe the taste of salt, it seem that the atheist did, in fact, put into words both a description of the taste of salt and how he knew of it. After Packer initially asks if the atheist knew what salt tasted like, the atheist answered, “Of course I do.” – “When did you taste salt last?” – “I just had dinner on the plane.” – “If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar and let you taste them both, could you tell the salt from the sugar?” – “Of course I could tell the difference. I know what salt tastes like. It is an everyday experience.” In his exploration of language Wittgenstein raises a similar point:
Describe the aroma of coffee! – Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking? – But where do we get the idea that such a description must, after all, be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma and failed? (610; emphasis his)

Though Wittgenstein doesn’t make it explicit here, the point seems to be that the aroma of coffee is perfectly described by the words “aroma of coffee.” If those words are sufficient for communicating an idea from one person to another, then why should a further description be necessary or expected? If I want to describe what I am currently smelling to a friend over the phone, I would simply need to say “I smell coffee” or “I smell the aroma of coffee.” If my friend responded, “I know what it is you that you smell, but what does that smell like?” I wouldn’t know how else to respond. Her inability to understand me would not mean that those words were insufficient for describing the smell of coffee. It would instead mean that she simply had never been taught the meaning of those words. I would have to teach her the meaning by saying that it was the aroma that one finds when entering a cafĂ©, or by later handing her a mug of coffee and teaching her that this was coffee and the aroma from it was the aroma of coffee. If she did not even know the meaning of “aroma” or “smell,” the problem would then not be in the failure of words, but in her failure to understand the English language—or perhaps a failure of her olfactory senses. In a similar manner, Wittgenstein asks, “How do I recognize that this colour is red? – One answer would be: ‘I have learnt English’” (381).
That the words “what salt tastes like” was sufficient for describing the taste of salt is clear by the atheist’s response that he knew what it was and had just tasted it with his dinner. Just as one has to learn the meaning of these words to know the language-game of describing salt, one must also learn what it means to have “spiritually speaking, . . . tasted salt.”  A small confusion seems to arise when Packer states that he is “no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like.” The atheist did not need to further describe what salt tasted like because he and Packer both already understood the words “taste of salt” as shared description of the taste. If Packer had not known what those words meant, the atheist could have easily taught him by handing Packer a small packet of salt and explaining that this is what was meant by “taste of salt.” If this was still unable to convey anything to Packer, the atheist would be left to either think that Packer was not able to taste or that Packer had not yet learned the simple English word “taste.”
Furthermore, it seems that spiritual knowing involves a different language-game than knowing tastes and smells. How one comes to know the taste of salt is abundantly clear—one simply tastes it. This is all built into the life surrounding the language-game of taste. If there is a question of whether or not something tastes like salt—though I’m not sure how this would arise—it could easily be answered by comparing it to the taste of a block of salt. To the contrary, Packer argues that knowing things by the spirit involves an entirely different language game:
We do not have the words (even the scriptures do not have words) which perfectly describe the Spirit. The scriptures generally use the word voice, which does not exactly fit. These delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes, nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels, more than one hears.

Taking this even further, Packer adds that “should an angel appear and converse with you, neither you nor he would be confined to corporeal sight or sound in order to communicate.” This knowing of the spirit involves a language-game of voices that are not heard with ears, and things seen which are not seen with eyes. Rather they are usually something that is felt.
The question then concerns what is meant by a Mormon when says she has learned something by the spirit. As Wittgenstein points out, if two persons are to communicate something, they must agree in the language they use, with this agreement being in the “form of life” (241). Furthermore, “it is not only agreement in definitions, but also . . . agreement in judgments that is required for communications by means of language” (242). Like the discussion of the taste of salt, in order for one person to communicate that something tastes salty there must be both shared definitions (i.e. the definitions of “taste” and “salt”) and shared judgments (i.e. an agreed upon notion of what it means for something to taste salty, or perhaps a packet of salt which can be used as a standard). Similarly, for a language of knowing things by the spirit to have sense there must also be both an agreement of definitions and an agreement of judgment. It is clear from Packer’s description of the exchange he had with the atheist that neither of these was present when he was attempting to communicate how he knew of God’s existence.
Concerning what the feeling of the spirit is, Packer writes that it is
neither “loud” nor “harsh.” It is “not a voice of thunder, neither . . . voice of a great tumultuous noise.” But rather, “a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper,” and it can “pierce even to the very soul” and “cause [the heart] to burn.” (3 Ne. 11:3; Hel. 5:30; D&C 85:6–7.) Remember, Elijah found the voice of the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but was a “still small voice.” (1 Kgs. 19:12.) The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all. Occasionally it will press just firmly enough for us to pay heed. But most of the time, if we do not heed the gentle feeling, the Spirit will withdraw and wait until we come seeking and listening.

This paragraph perhaps sums up every way in which feeling the spirit has been described by Latter-day Saints. From their childhood, or from their investigation into Mormonism before their conversion, Mormons have been repeatedly taught that this is what the Holy Spirit feels like. A big question remaining though is how it is that a person recognizes when they are actually feeling these things. Because the meaning of these words do not seem to be immediately recognized by those outside of the faith (as exemplified by the atheist), an investigation of this language must ask how it is that these words come to be understood in the spiritual language-game, and how one becomes certain that she is understanding these words properly. This becomes even more pressing when Packer writes,
Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. . . . The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that [it] is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary.

The question that must be asked is how is it that a person is able to know that she is feeling the spirit? How is this learned? Furthermore, how does she know that what she is feeling is simply not her own thought or emotions? While Packer writes that it is possible “with words to show another how to prepare for the reception of the Spirit,” he offers little measures beyond the descriptions just listed by which a person is to know that she is feeling the spirit. Just as with his debate with the atheist, Packer leaves the discussion with his assurance that the feelings of the spirit are real and the assurance that he has felt it, but with nothing to teach the other how they might come to recognize or learn it.
As mentioned earlier, Wittgenstein points out that for communication in language to take place, there must be some agreed upon standard by which two or more persons understand a language. This standard of judgment, however, does not have to necessarily be some kind of absolutely verifiable measure, nor does the internal feeling have to be strictly verifiable. Wittgenstein notes that the sensation of pain is largely tied to pain behavior: “If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause, I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me” (PPF 324). We identify pain through a person’s pain behavior. If someone stubs their toe hard against a corner and yelps in pain, we identify them as being in pain. In the same fashion, if someone is walking normally and does not hit anything, we do not normally wonder if they are in pain. The feeling of the spirit, like pain, can certainly be an internal impression. However, there must be some type of external way of expressing that one has learned something by the spirit, otherwise there would be no way to way to discuss it, nor know of it. Wittgenstein writes:
“What would it be like if human beings did not manifest their pains (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘toothache’.” – Well, let’s assume that the child is a genius and invents a name for the sensation by himself! – But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word. – So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone?

Wittgenstein concludes by pointing out:
When one says “He gave a name to his sensation”, one forgets that much must be prepared in the language for mere naming to make sense. And if we speak of someone’s giving a name to a pain, the grammar of the word “pain” is what has been prepared here; it indicates the post where the new word is stationed.

His point, again, is that for the concept of pain to have any sense in a language, there must be certain behaviors, practices, and/or other ways of speaking about pain that give this concept life. Without these things, there would be no way for a concept of pain to exist in our language. Because we do not feel the sensations of pain of another, we learn the concept of pain through observing pain behavior associated with the words “pain,” “hurt,” “ouch,” etc. Without these things, we would have no way to communicate to another when we are experiencing the sensation of pain.
Like pain, for the concept of spiritual feeling and knowing to have a sense, there must be some public behavior, practice, and/or language associated with it. Simply saying “the spirit told me” or, as Packer put it, “spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt” does not convey the meaning of those words to someone who has not yet learned them—just as saying “I feel pain” does not communicate anything to someone who has not yet learned the concept of pain.  Mormons typically attach certain emotions and states of mind to their feeling of the spirit that do act as public and communicable expressions and provide a life for which these concepts can be learned. When asked what they mean when they say that they have felt or learned something by the spirit, Mormons often respond with such things as: “I felt extreme joy;” “My confusion went away;” “I clearly knew at that moment what to do;” or “I had an overwhelming sense of peace come over me.” These might further be accompanied by things such as changes in lifestyle, actions resulting from those feelings, or declarations of belief or knowledge. Practices and behavior such as these all establish a way of understanding and learning the concept. If a person was to say that she felt the spirit, but when prompted said that she felt nothing emotional, learned nothing, and felt no motivation to do anything, we would want to say that she was confused and misapplying the words. Similarly, if someone said that she was in pain, but also added that she was not hurt, discomforted, or feeling any unpleasant sensation, we would be at a lost as to what she meant and assume that she was confused in her use of the word “pain.”
There is, however, a key difference between the concept and language-game of pain and that of spiritual feeling. As Wittgenstein points out, there is a type of certainty involved with expressing the sensation of pain:
It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I’m in pain. What is it supposed to mean – except perhaps that I am in pain? . . . This much is true: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself. (246)

According to Wittgenstein, the concept of pain is such that the subject experiencing the pain cannot doubt it. If someone were to say “I believe I am in pain, but I might be wrong” we would want to say that they are not using the words properly, for pain is a sensation which one should be clear on whether or not they were experiencing it. However, it makes sense in Mormonism to doubt one’s own spiritual feelings. It is not uncommon for a person to say, “I believe the spirit is telling me that this is right, but I might be wrong.” They might worry, as Packer indicated, that what they believe to be the promptings of the spirit are in fact from their own emotions or desires, and not divinely originated. After praying for guidance on a personal matter and feeling that they had received an answer, they might still question whether this answer came from the spirit or if it was simply the result of their own fears or hopes.
Despite this uncertainty, there is still a level of certainty in this spiritual language-game that is akin to the certainty of a person feeling her own pain. This is in the “feeling” of an answer or prompting regardless of its source. While it could make sense to say, “I feel this is right, but I’m not sure if it is from the spirit or myself,” it would not make sense to say, “I feel this is right, but I’m not sure if I am really feeling this.” Just as with the person who doubted her own pain, we would want to tell this person that she is not using the word “feel” correctly; otherwise she would not doubt whether or not she felt something.
What this points to is that in the language-game of spiritual feeling, there is both the language of feeling something and the language of discernment of what is felt, though they may both be couched in the same language-game. Thus the statement from the believer, “the spirit told me that Jesus was physically resurrected,” can be unpacked into at least two separate claims: that she “felt” that Jesus was resurrected, and that she believes those feelings were from the spirit and not her own self. The former seems to require no more elucidation, as talk of knowing things because of one’s feelings is rather common.[5] However, it still does not seem clear how one comes to believe that the feelings were from the spirit and rather from her own self.
One might want to argue that there is no real difference between the feelings of one’s own self and that of the spirit, and that confusion arises in attempting to differentiate between the two. Because descriptions of the feelings purported to be indicative of the spirit are similar to (and perhaps indistinguishable from) feelings arising from emotions and desires it is understandable that one might think that there is no difference between them. This assessment, however, would go against the religious life and practice of believers who find much meaning in the difference between these two experiences and would deny that their most important and life-changing experiences were simply manifestations of their emotions and desires.[6]
What then are the criteria or shared judgments that provide the believer with a concept of a difference? In other words, how does a believer learn and determine that a feeling is from the spirit and not her own self? Within the Mormon tradition there may be some external measures that these feelings can be laid against. For example, Packer warns that supposed “spiritual experiences that authorizes [the recipient] to challenge the constituted . . . authority in the Church” are clearly not from the spirit. Furthermore, the “spiritual or temporal intelligence which we have already received” can be a measure to judge whether or not something is of the spirit or of herself. Because of these things, the believer might have reason to tell herself that something is surely not from the spirit as it went against the scriptures or against her own common sense.
The questions though still remain of how the believer can determine whether a feeling is from the spirit or from her emotions and desires when it comes to things (such as personal matters and choices) that are not within the scope of authoritative and common sense measures. Furthermore, the question remains of how the believer is to understand her feelings when they directly challenge these measures. It would not be uncommon to hear a believer say, “This seemed to go against all common sense, but I knew that the spirit directed me to do it.” How does she know it is one and not the other? (What does she mean when she says it is one and not the other?) It is here that Packer’s description of learning by the spirit fails to take account of an important aspect of religious language—the language of faith. From the very beginning of his talk, Packer fails to recognize (or clearly state) that his religious conception of knowledge lacks the empirical or experiential certainty of the other types of knowing (such as knowing the taste of salt) that he wanted to compare it to. While acknowledging a different conception of knowledge that involved a different source, his use of knowing seemed to imply that the product of certainty was the same. When Packer tells the atheist, “There is a God. I know he lives!” a confusion arises between the two when they both speak as if their use of knowing utilized a shared meaning of experimental or experiential certainty. They both failed to see what was evidenced by Packer’s inability to put what he wanted into words.
The typical religious use of knowing among Mormons, however, usually does not imply this certainty of knowledge.[7] Instead it employs the language-game of faith. An oft-cited passage of the Book of Mormon reads: “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21; cf. Heb. 11:1).Unlike language of knowing pain or tasting salt which ultimately appeals to a standard of certainty (or at least modest certainty), the language of spiritual knowing appeals to a standard of uncertainty, mystery, and faith. It is a statement of belief and knowing, despite the lack of certainty that we normally appeal to when stating our knowledge. The power and religious value in the testimony of knowing is not in a statement and language-game of experiential or experimental certainty, but in its declaration of belief despite its uncertainty. [8]

Through an exploration and elucidation of language using the methodology shown by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, it can be easily seen that the Mormon religious language-game of the spirit differs in many ways from other common language-games of knowing. While they employ words and concepts (such as feeling and knowing) that can be shared across language-games, the spiritual sense of knowing differs in both the method by which it seeks to gain this knowledge and the standard of judgment by which it is understood and stated. A statement of spiritual knowing is a statement a faith ground in mystery and uncertainty. A failure to recognize this key difference both fails to recognize the value it has for the religious believer and can result in confusion when attempting to communicate it.

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, rev. 4th edition, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2009). All references are to the propositional numbers in the text. Italics are original unless noted.
[2] Though this analysis focuses on the spiritual language-games of the Mormon tradition, I am sure that it could be carried over into the language-games of most religious traditions.
[3] Boyd K. Paker, “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, January 1983, 51ff. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, &locale= 0&so urceId=b4bbc5e8b4b6b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1 (accessed March 20 2010). All citations from Packer are from this online version. Italics are his unless noted.
[4] I should be clear that Packer does not use the words “language-games,” and it is more than likely that he has never read Wittgenstein. However, how he refers to different types of knowing seem to appeal to a concept akin to Wittgenstein’s language-games.
[5] See Stephen Colbert, “Truth From the Gut,” Colbert Nation, (accessed March 20, 2002).
[6] I am not saying anything about whether or not their feelings actually came from an outside divine source. Rather, this is to say that the role that spiritual feeling plays in the religious life of the believer is such that it could not be just an emotional response.
[7] A common practice among Mormons is to emphasize the word “know” when bearing their testimony. For example, see how many times “know” is italicized in Packer’s talk, even when addressing other believers do not doubt his faith. This emphasis of not just knowing—but rather knowing—both highlights the different use of the word and adds to the confusion by what is meant. Imagine somebody who emphasizes the word know each time they state a fact, especially when it is not in dispute. (I know that 1+3=4).
[8] If the monthly ‘testimony meetings’ in Mormon chapels were merely a recitation of facts known through such certainty, the meetings would have a very different meaning and religious sense. How would it differ from people getting up and reciting facts they read from an almanac?

1 comment:

  1. I ended up getting an A on the paper. Wasn't expecting that.


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