Note: This essay was written for BYU’s Philosophy of Religion course (PHIL 215) in August of 2019. If you should ever have the opportunity to take a class from Brother Roger Cook, I can’t recommend him highly enough. This is probably the densest writing you’ll find here on LibertySaints, but if you can muscle through it, you might find the topic of philosophy of mind as fascinating as I do.
In 1831, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received a revelation, recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, concerning the religious experiences and beliefs concerning the Shakers. The Shakers and certain members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who believed some of their teachings believed, among other things, that Jesus Christ had returned in the form of a woman, Ann Lee. The Shakers had been “deceived” by what they believed as revelation.1
Revelation, miracles, the confirmation of the Holy Ghost, and even mystical and visionary experiences are the “rock” on which the Church is built.2 Doctrine and Covenants Section 42 says “If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things…”3 But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is not the only sect that believes in and attempts to derive doctrine from revelation. This begs the question: is revelation inconsistent? Why would revelation from God mean different things to different people? And if it is inconsistent, does it remain valid as a source of knowledge? Or even as a real phenomenon?
Late philosopher of religion Louis Pojman argues that “religious experience is amorphous and too varied to yield a conclusion with regard to the existence of God.”4 He compares the religious experiences of western Christians to that of a polytheist in East Africa who receives a vision of the hippopotamus-god to show that religious experience is varied across people and varies with cultural beliefs.
Those who have observed mysticism and revelation from a physiological perspective acknowledge that religious experience is a real mental and neurological phenomenon in some sense and that it may be epistemologically convincing to the person who experiences it for a limited period of time. But the ability of revelation to give us knowledge by which we live our lives remains in doubt for those who make such studies. As William James says in his classic study on The Varieties of Religious Experience:
There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience. . . that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases, some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence the sad discordance of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings…5
If revelation seems disconnected from the physical world as measured scientifically or empirically, its value as knowledge is in question. Furthermore, the perspective of the physicalist challenges the very possibility of religious experience having any value outside the neural processes of the brain. The brain in the physicalist model is mechanically reductive, in that it can be completely understood as a complex system of interacting pieces of biological matter, like an electronic calculator or computer on a larger scale. Mathematician Bertrand Russell denies the possibility of any mental existence beyond the matter that can be scientifically observed and analyzed:
The continuity of the human body is a matter of appearance and behavior, not of substance. The same thing applies to the mind. We think and feel and act, but there is not, in addition to thoughts and feelings and actions, a bare entity, the mind or the soul, which does or suffers these occurrences.6
A different conception of the mind is necessary to explain both religious experience and the relationship between the mind, religious experience, and the world. This is where transcendent experience has a place, as it represents the relationship between the divine and the conscious mind. Transcendent experience can be usefully defined here as all mental phenomena that access the transcendent reality, or the reality beyond the scientifically measurable physical world.
The concept of mental phenomena, or “phenomenology,” is necessary to understand the mind in its connection with the transcendent. To explain the processes of the mind or consciousness we do not refer primarily to the anatomy or physiology of the brain, we instead speak of what the consciousness experiences, or “mental phenomena.” Mental phenomena include not only the raw sensations of the senses, but also certain more complex mental events, such as love, learning, or appreciation of art.
Consider the classic question on this subject: what does the color red look like? And does it look the same for all people? This is not referring to the physical nature of visible electromagnetic radiation that can be measured at a wavelength of approximately 625-740 nanometers at a frequency of 405-480 terahertz. Visible radiation (“light”) is what causes the mental phenomenon of the color red, but it is not the color red itself. It is only when radiation of this type reaches the retina, is processed by the brain, and reaches the conscious mind that the mental phenomenon of seeing the color red actually occurs.
Imagine a man completely blind from birth, who through intensive study managed to become a leading expert on the properties of light and of the neurology of the cerebral cortex where much of the brain’s visual processing occurs. Would this intensive study give him access to the experience of seeing red or any other color? Would one be able to describe the color red to him based on their own experience, calling it “warm” or “like a sunset”?
Tommy Edison, a YouTuber who was born blind, said about this problem, “I don’t have any concept of what [color] is… It doesn’t mean anything to me. Over the years people have tried and tried and tried to explain color to me, and I just don’t understand it…People will try to explain a sense with another sense: ‘It’s like the way this smells, maybe, this is what a particular color is like.’ What?”7 Not just specific colors, but the entire concept of color as a category of sensory phenomenon is beyond comprehension to those who have never experienced it. While it might be possible to teach someone like Tommy Edison how certain objects reflect certain wavelengths of radiation into the eye, the mental phenomenon remains beyond scientific understanding.
Phenomena not precisely explainable by scientific reduction of their parts are aspects of mind that should not exist in a physicalist/reductionist system like that which was proposed by Bertrand Russell. The existence of some aspect of mind that cannot be scientifically explained as a series of interactions between particles and waves, and the fact that this aspect of mind can interact with the observable physical world, is a threat to the reductionist program. The reductionists can hold to the hope of an eventual hypothesis to scientifically explain the process of mental phenomena and keep consciousness out of the equation, but such an explanation seems unlikely. David Chalmers uses the color example to address the possibility, or lack thereof, of scientific experimentation on mental phenomena through neurology, saying:
“…imagine that two of the axes of our three-dimensional color space are switched— the red-green axis is mapped onto the yellow-blue axis, and vice versa. To achieve such an inversion in the actual world, presumably we would need to rewire neural processes in an appropriate way, but as a logical possibility, it seems entirely coherent that experiences could be inverted while physical structure is duplicated exactly. Nothing in the neurophysiology dictates that one sort of processing should be accompanied by red experiences.”8
Colors are just one basic unit of larger mental phenomena in the real sensory world. More complex phenomena, like the cinema or music, combine thousands of mental phenomena to create a new mental phenomenon, making the reducibility of consciousness even more difficult. These phenomena are also tinted by our memories and the peculiarities of our minds. We can see this in the diversity of tastes in mental phenomena, in which stimuli that can be scientifically measured as identical to two people are perceived as completely different as mental phenomena by those people. The exact same stimulus can result in the mental phenomenon of a favorite song to one person and an annoying racket to another.
Beyond these references to phenomena of the senses, there are further indicators of the existence of a non-reducible consciousness. One example is Chalmers’s hypothetical “zombie twin,” a being physically, neurologically, and psychologically identical to Chalmers, but lacking the ability to receive these mental phenomena.9 This “philosophy zombie” would behave identically to a human, though it may be confused if asked questions related to its consciousness and phenomenology. It would not have a consciousness the way other humans do, though that lack would not be immediately apparent based on observation of the zombie, which would walk around and eat and use sight to avoid obstacles and respond to pain. But even in being mechanically identical to a human, there is still a fundamental difference between it and those humans. The difference is that of consciousness, or the feelings of being itself and of experiencing phenomenology.
Thomas Nagel, in his classic paper “What it is Like to Be a Bat?”, pointed out that the phenomenological experience of echolocation, which comes naturally to the mind of a bat, is beyond the understanding of human minds, even those biologists who have studied the process extensively.10 Human-built submarines, which “see” through echolocation in the form of sonar, must translate the mechanical process into something visible on a screen for it to be seen by sailors.
Nagel argues elsewhere that consciousness in a basic sense does not follow from evolution as we understand it. He says in Mind and Cosmos:
“We recognize that evolution has given rise to multiple organisms that have a good, so that things can go well or badly for them, and that in some of those organisms there has appeared the additional capacity to aim consciously at their own good, and ultimately at what is good in itself. From a realist perspective this cannot be merely an accidental side effect of natural selection, and a teleological explanation satisfies this condition. On a teleological account, the existence of value is not an accident, because that is part of the explanation of why there is such a thing as life, with all its possibilities of development and variation. In brief, value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value. This is a revision of the Darwinian picture rather than an outright denial of it.”11
Nagel is claiming the universe is teleological (created intentionally), but he is not arguing the traditional conception of the universe being created by a deity, rather that consciousness has some part in creating or organizing matter and exists in some kind of symbiotic relationship with it. This consciousness, the mind that experiences the ineffable, non-reducible mental phenomenon, is sometimes referred to as the mind or the soul but is known in Latter-Day Saint thought as “intelligence.” This was revealed to Joseph Smith and recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 93: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.”12
The most non-reducible phenomena are in the forms of religious experience; revelation, mysticism, miracles, the feeling of the Holy Ghost, the spiritual use of dowsing and seeing stones, visions, etc. Catholic writer Evelyn Underhill says in her response to William James, “True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.”13
But even without religious experience as typically defined, there is a connection to the divine in human phenomenology. In the Book of Mormon, Alma argues against Korihor, an anti-Christ critic, that “…all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”14 This is typically interpreted as a teleological argument, but with a Latter-Day Saint understanding of the intelligences, the statement that the elements of creation “witness that there is a Supreme Creator” can be taken literally. If so, this witness is based on a transcendent separate from the traditional understanding of religious experience.
This conception of consciousness avoids the problem of “the ghost in the machine,” or an immaterial consciousness or spirit that somehow controls the matter which composes the brain and body. Consciousness, or the intelligence that constitutes it, is composed of what Joseph Smith called “finer matter.” Doctrine and Covenants 131 says, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”15 Finer matter cannot be directly studied by human instrumentation, nor can the human mind understand it reductively. The part of the mind that receives non-reducible mental phenomena, including transcendence, is composed of this finer matter.
Transcendence in this sense is much broader and includes every sort of mental experience that can “denote there is a God.” These are events that in certain mental conditions can create a feeling of connection with God, despite having no claims of visionary or supernatural phenomena accompanying them; seeing a religious work of art or music is a common source of such experience, as is a walk alone in nature.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell formulates a model of this sort of experience based on a Freudian theory of the subconscious, in which certain phenomenological experiences, particularly the hearing of a story about a “hero’s journey,” are affirmed by the subconscious to the conscious, creating a feeling of transcendence. “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed.”16
More modern examples of his theory can be seen in certain films that evoke something like a transcendent experience without overtly addressing a religious topic, such as Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), or The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). These are movies that depict the archetypical “hero’s journey” Campbell studies. Leading film writer Roger Ebert compares Star Wars to “an out-of-the-body experience at a movie… The movie relies on the strength of pure narrative, in the most basic storytelling form known to man, the Journey.”17 George Lucas, writer/director of Star Wars, credited Campbell’s influence in achieving this effect that resonated with popular audiences to make Star Wars the most successful film to that point.
Campbell’s theory of transcendence is based on a Freudian/Jungian understanding of the subconscious mind, and he asserts that evolutionary psychology has created this system by which humans subconsciously crave storytelling to provide meaning. This understanding is adequate to understand the feelings of transcendence associated with a select few types of phenomena, like the receiving of a “hero’s journey” story, but inadequate to explain those things that are not evolutionary beneficial. Joan of Arc’s transcendent experience led her not to “evolutionary success,” but martyrdom.
Catholic philosopher Stephen Fields attempts to explain transcendent experience through the grace of Jesus Christ. In his model, Christ is the standard to which all aesthetics strives, and his grace acts through us when we experience art that imitates Christ in some way:
“If the intrinsic structure of reality is radiated forth in the incarnation, then all deeds and words of the particular Jewish man Jesus must reveal, apriori, the divine standard of beauty. In other words, if God is beautiful by definition, and if Christ is God, then the acts of Christ must set the first principles of authentic aesthetics. It follows that Christ’s beauty must accordingly judge, or cast into a shadow, the beauty of all other created forms.”18
The wider scope of transcendent experience; heroic tales, other religious art, secular art, or the beauty of nature, are understood in this model as falling short of the artistic standard of depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ, and only have artistic value in so far as they share in his grace. This model, however, fails to adequately explain the richness contained in the wider scope of transcendent experience, or why those without a Christian understanding are unmoved by the images of him that represent the perfect artistic ideal.
The understanding of transcendent experience as a special class of mental phenomenon is essential to understanding its value to human knowledge and to explain why transcendent experiences disagree. The diversity of religious views and understandings demonstrates this problem, as does the inability of transcendent experience to address fine details of theology and metaphysics.
When revelation like that received by followers of Ann Lee as mentioned appears to be contradicted by that of revelation received by the prophet Joseph Smith, it is not, in fact, a contradiction of revelation. It is rather a difference in perception and interpretation, similar to the differences in perception of ordinary sensory phenomena. In our perceptions of the transcendent, “The fault… is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”19
Transcendence is not felt or understood uniformly because it is a phenomenological experience, similar to the mental experiences of seeing a color or hearing music. There is no transcendent experience outside human phenomenology. Transcendent experience is a feature of the conscious mind, not of scientifically reducible brain matter. But it reflects the physical reality of “higher matter” just as ordinary sensory experience reflects the reality of matter as we ordinarily understand it.
Though we as humans do not perceive everything identically, our subjective phenomenological sensory experiences can still collectively show underlying truths. For example, we know that even if two people disagree on whether a certain piece of music is good or bad, they do agree on the underlying fact that there is some kind of sound being made. The subjective phenomenological experience of hearing music is evidence of the concrete fact that sound waves are traveling nearby.
We disagree even on the nature of our consciousness itself, the thing which we are phenomenologically closest to. Physical reductivists like Russell observe their own consciousness and see nothing beyond the mechanical, or at least nothing great enough to overcome their worldview that denies the transcendent self. But when the spiritually attuned observe their consciousnesses they perceive God through transcendence. As Truman Madsen, late BYU emeritus professor of religion and philosophy, says:
“One begins mortality with the veil drawn, but slowly he is moved to penetrate the veil within himself. He is, in time, led to seek the “holy of holies” within the temple of his own being… There is inspired introspection. As we move through life, half-defined recollections and faint but sometimes vivid outlines combine to bring a familiar tone or ring to our experience. One feels at times at home in a universe which, for all that is grotesque and bitter, yet has meaning.”20
Everything witnesses there is a God when questioned by the intelligence of mankind because everything material has underlying intelligence of its own, composed of the finer matter. This is transcendence in its fullest sense, and it is how we understand God and our nature. Religious experience in all its forms is phenomenological, giving it commonality with our everyday sensory perception, but it is also transcendent, giving us access to the “finer matter” beyond the world of our ordinary understanding.
1. Doctrine and Covenants 49:23 (1981 Edition).
2. “Revelation” in Guide to the Scriptures (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2013), https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/gs/introduction?lang=eng. See also Matthew 16:18 (KJV).
3. Doctrine and Covenants 42:61 (1981 Edition).
4. Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2001), 57.
5. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), 12, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/james/varieties.pdf.
6. Bertrand Russell, “The Finality of Death” in Philosophy of Religion, An Anthology, ed. Louis P. Pojman and Michael Rea (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008), 337.
7. The Tommy Edison Experience, “Describing Colors As A Blind Person,” YouTube Video, 2:39, December 4, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59YN8_lg6-U.
8. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 100.
9. See Robert Kirk, “Zombies”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/zombies/.
10. Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, no. 4 (October 1974): 435–50.
11. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 122-123.
12. Doctrine and Covenants 93:29-30 (1981 Edition).
13. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (1911; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), 78, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/underhill/mysticism.pdf?membership_type=b10f8d8331236b8b61aa39bc6f86075c12d7e005.
14. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Alma 30:44 (1981 Edition).
15. Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8 (1981 Edition).
16. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949; repr., Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 21.
17. Roger Ebert, “Star Wars” (Chicago Sun-Times, 1977), https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/star-wars-1977.
18. Stephen Fields, Analogies of Transcendence (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2016), 156.
19. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar I.II.147-148.
20. Truman G. Madsen, Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966), 20.
Top image: A Group of Shakers, from an 1875 woodcut.