Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “Your Spiritual Nose,” I suggested that people too often dismiss the spiritual senses as being less reliable than our physical senses. Some object that spiritual senses are often misperceived or misinterpreted, to which I responded that the physical senses can be misinterpreted, too, such as when a stick appears to bend when placed halfway in a pool of water. A thoughtful reader, one Paul Maurice Martin, brought up an interesting point:

The main difference between physical senses and any spiritual senses that may exist in the sense that you refer to is that the former are verifiable both by other physical senses and by others. You know the stick isn’t bent because you can feel that it’s not with the sense of touch. You’re not sure if you saw something and you ask someone nearby if they saw it too. Scientists replicate each others’ experiments. (Comment)

This comment assumes two things. First, that verifiability is a good criterion to use for gauging a source of knowledge. That seems reasonable, so let’s assume that for the moment.

Second, this comment seems to assume there is only one spiritual sense; perhaps there are several. The physical senses have at least six modalities: smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight, and balance (the vestibular system). I wonder if our spirits don’t also perceive reality through several different means. Maybe that’s why the scriptures describe spiritual experiences in a variety of ways, like being “filled with light,” “tasting joy,” “swelling motions” in the heart, or “enlargening your soul.” The Lord might be implying this idea when he says, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart” (D&C 8:2; c.f. Heb. 10:16). Likewise, the Spirit will often impel us to do something by putting a thought in our minds, giving us a good, peaceful feeling about it, and simultaneously giving us a sense of urgency (“constrained”). Refining our ability to understand and interpret spiritual experiences often involves cross-referencing our various spiritual feelings with each other, just as we’d cross-reference our physical modalities by feeling a stick that appeared to bend.

Spiritual experiences are also replicated and verified by other people, too. There are many times when various people have prayed about the same thing (the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon being a common example) and gotten similar answers (although not always in the way they expect). And if people get varying results, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the experience; perhaps some were misinterpreting their senses, or perhaps there were variations in the respective conditions that produced different outcomes: confounding variables.

I’ll grant Paul this, though: it does seem easier to control for variables with the physical senses. I’m suggesting, though, that this fact does not necessarily mean we can’t do so with spiritual senses. It could mean, for example, that we just have less experience and skill doing so.

For example, answers to prayer often depend on our obedience, our humility, and our willingness to submit and change, as well as the Lord’s individual timing for each person. If multiple people get different outcomes or answers to similar prayers, maybe it’s because some have not subjected themselves completely to those conditions. And maybe if the whole group did fulfill all the conditions, the answers to their prayers would be remarkably consistent. In fact, that sounds a lot like some of the righteous societies described in the scriptures, such as in Mosiah 5.

How can we expect to achieve the same levels of joy that such societies achieve without first learning to trust and refine our spiritual senses at least as well as we do our physical senses?