Saturday, November 10, 2012

Unsolved Mysteries

As a philosopher, I see it as my duty to take questions seriously. I don’t shy away from considering points of view different from my own, and I happily seek to understand those views as fully and as fairly as possible. As a religious person, I hold beliefs that many would deem outrageous. As a person who is both religious and a philosopher, I find myself in the precarious position of trying to balance faith and reason in a way that is both honest and sincere. Retaining intellectual integrity is of the highest importance to me. I am not comfortable to shy away from difficult questions, as many religious people do (perhaps without even realizing it). Compared to many with my religious beliefs, I can be quite the skeptic. In my mind, this is the natural result of being inquisitive, genuine, and at least modestly well-informed. Whereas some religious folk would consider it a sin even to ask, “What if God doesn’t exist?”, I can play devil’s advocate until the cows come home. I am an ardent advocate for truth. If you don’t explore all of the possibilities, you might miss something—and in my opinion, that is a cardinal sin (God or no).

I’ve said all of the above because, as a person who strives to be intellectually honest, I can admit that my religious beliefs might be false. None of my religious experiences, taken individually or as a whole, guarantees that any of my religious beliefs are true. I believe the human mind is a powerful thing. I believe there are people with religious views radically different from my own that have just as much experiential evidence for their views as I have for mine. As a philosopher, this is troubling. At the very least, it should undermine my confidence in the particular religious beliefs I hold. Perhaps some religion out there is correct, but there’s little reason for supposing it’s my own. Now, I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain why I think I am justified in holding to my own particular religious beliefs assuming that some religion or another is true. But here’s the thing. No matter how much I’ve tried to doubt that anything religious (or at least religious-ish) is true, I cannot. Based on a handful of non-religious experiences I’ve had, I am stuck believing that there is more to existence than modern science promises to explain.

I’m not going to go into details, but there are a few distinct, non-religious experiences in my life that ultimately buttress my religious beliefs. If they had been experiences that involved only me, I am sure I would doubt them at this point. If they had been experiences that involved only myself and one or two other people who were in the same location as I, I could very easily explain away any mutual interpretation of these events as coincidental and incidental to the situation in which we jointly found ourselves. Even if I had an incredibly vivid memory of a gigantic alien spacecraft coming down out of the sky and opening up to reveal little green men to me on my 30th birthday, I could muster up some skepticism about the veracity of such a memory. But the experiences I’m thinking of cannot be explained away so easily. Putting on my skeptic hat and fighting to the death to interpret these experiences in a “rational” way, I have to come up with some pretty outlandish scenarios. The scenarios that could explain these events in an obviously scientifically-friendly way are so outrageous that alternative explanations actually seem more likely. Imagine thinking to yourself out of the blue, “I wonder what ice cream my mother likes best,” only to have your telephone immediately ring, and when you answer the phone with only the word “hello,” your mother who lives 1,000 miles away says, “Chocolate. That’s my favorite ice cream. Just answering your question.” That could be a coincidence. What I’m talking about goes far, far beyond something like that. I’m so rationally beguiled by these experiences that I recently contacted via Facebook a friend that I haven’t seen since graduating high school and asked her what she remembered about an event that happened 20 years ago. I didn’t tell her why I was asking, and she didn’t know the significance of the event anyway. Nonetheless, she confirmed key details of the event that make it a remarkable one. I assure you, I am not taking anything for granted here.

Part of my reason for bringing all of this up is that I wonder how common this is. That is, for my religious readers, how many of you have had experiences that are not overtly religious but that you feel provide evidence for the view that there is more to this world than what science currently suggests? That might not be the best way to phrase the question, but I trust my inquiry is clear enough. I’m not asking for details about any of your experiences. I’m just wondering if such experiences are common. I should clarify that, when I say the events were non-religious, what I mean is that I wasn’t in the midst of doing something religious when these events occurred. Likewise, the events did not involve anything overtly religious. I could tell you every last detail of the events without referencing anything even quasi-religious—there weren’t angels, spirits of the deceased walking about, etc. To put the question yet another way, if you pretend for a moment that all of your religious beliefs are false, do you yet have some experiences that it would be incredibly difficult to explain based on “secular” reasoning? In my opinion, even to say, “Oh, I know I saw the spirit of my dead grandma standing at the foot of the bed one night, and science cannot explain that!” is not going to cut it. Hallucinations are scientifically viable. Of course, I’ll leave the final judgment up to you. But I expect anyone who answers this question to be intellectually honest. Again, no details are necessary. Just be honest with whatever you do say.


  1. When I first read this I thought "yes! yes! of course!" But I wanted to really think about it and consider what you had to say. The more I think about it, the more I don't know. If science or coincidence can explain some of the examples you gave, then I would really have to think and look at some concrete times when I've thought I've experienced these kinds of things, especially "not religious..."
    It bothers me a lot actually that people of different religions have just as "real" experiences with their faith. I like to think that God loves all and somehow that accounts for it all, but I mean when searching for truth. How can I discount their experience but believe in my own??? We can't all be right can we? So doesn't that mean we are all wrong??? Perhaps Mohammad, Buddha, and Joseph Smith all had "real" experiences??? It's almost easier for me to believe they all did than to think no one did.

    1. I greatly appreciate you responding, JoAnna. I'm with you. Part of the appeal of the LDS religion, in my opinion and as I understand it, is that it allows for us take other religious experiences seriously. You've probably heard the quote from Spencer W. Kimball that says, "The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals." If not, now you have. I consider the LDS view very open and embracing, which is part of the reason I can accept it.

      As for your experiences, whatever they are, that's cool that you've had them. I think I was perhaps too harsh in my demands. I suppose even the experiences of my own that I alluded to COULD be called coincidental. But the coincidences would be so extensive and drawn out, it becomes absurd -- a veritable back-and-forth of highly specific coincidences occurring in rapid succession. I guess I was just trying to cut out "ghost stories" or the like, simply because I know that if such a thing happened to me, I could talk myself into believing it was a dream or simply something I made up. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  2. I feel what you are saying here but I don't feel confident in discussing it because it is so abstract, also, I think because it seems normal to me. It's how everything is and some people notice it and think about it, but most people do not. I believe I truly have *learned* things on my own, by reading or thinking a lot. Truth is in the world for us to sense or feel or discover in our own way. Sometimes I will just know things. I don't know how or even why, but it turns out what I just know, that I wasn't aware of before, is factual. Often this knowing apparantly serves no purpose and trying to discover any purpose can drive me nuts. I also have experienced rather strong deja-vu' several times.
    So I believe in sensory experience and energy sensations, and that there is a lot for us all yet to discover. It's all part of this world and very normal, religious, or not.
    This is an interesting subject. I hope you keep it going for awhile. I would be interested in followups.

  3. P S Mama had lots of these experiences in her life. They are prevelant in our family....just FYI.