When I encounter the claim that thoughts are unreliable, my response is:
- Do you think so?
- Is that thought reliable?
Descarte's famous line cogito ergo sum is part of his argument that one cannot rationally doubt one's own existence. Although not identical, the "thoughts are unreliable" argument defeats itself in a similar manner.
If I think that thoughts are unreliable, by my own reasoning, I shouldn't trust that thought.
I further explore the hazard of skeptical arguments that cannot survive when turned upon themselves in this post.
That some thoughts are more reliable than others is a perfectly respectable position to take--see the analogy in the "Language" section and the discussion under "Public Posts or Direct Messages" below.
First, it should be noted that "feeling" may be an inadequate term to fully describe the witness of the Holy Ghost.
As discussed here:
Thus, spiritual experience cannot simply be reduced to just a feeling ever. It must always take into account that there is revelation of knowledge provided by the experience.
I also review this matter in this video on my YouTube channel. Therein, I suggest comparing revelation from the Holy Spirit to "a feeling" is akin to telling a woman in labor she has "an owie". The sentiment may be directionally correct, but it entirely misses the magnitude.
That said, "feeling" is certainly part of the religious vocabulary of many Christians who claim to have received a witness from the Holy Spirit, so I will tackle the matter directly as well.
If we grant that some feelings are unreliable, it does not follow that:
- All feelings are unreliable
- It is impossible to distinguish in any manner between the two
I will demonstrate this by making an analogy to language, further building upon an argument I presented in this post.
Language is a powerful tool for learning almost anything, it is essential to the progress of science, it is exceptionally thoroughly studied, it is conveyed through the physical senses, and yet examples of its unreliability are almost endless. Apparently we can use tools that are not always reliable, combined with reason, to great epistemological effect.
Let's use the Japanese language as an example (I'm simply picking it because it is a language in which I know a few words but precious little more than that). For me, Japanese is decidedly not a reliable means of communication. I might be able to use it to get on and off a train in Tokyo, but if I had to communicate any depth of thought, I'd be hopeless. However--and this is crucial--although Japanese is not a reliable means of communication for me, it is among the most reliable means of communication for millions of other people.
How can that be??? Is Japanese reliable or unreliable? For me, it is unreliable, because I have very little practice using Japanese. I could conceivably become proficient in spoken Japanese if I were to put in the time and effort. For millions of others, it is reliable, because they have spent years of their lives using Japanese. Even for those born in Japan, Japanese was not a reliable means of communication when they were a few days old: it became reliable over time. It has become so reliable now that the Japanese language is the very medium through which their thoughts are processed.
A parallel argument can be made for written language, and here the bar is even higher: written alphabetic language is a highly unreliable means of communication at first, but with prolonged, diligent study & practice, it can become considerably more reliable.
Written code is an engaging example of this phenomenon: most of the time when a military unit communicates in code, they use the well-known spoken & written language of their country (Navajo code talkers working for the US Military being a notable exception); the things they say/write are made up of words which, on their own, are entirely comprehensible to other side's military. However, if the exercise is conducted properly, the other side's military will have no idea what the meaning of the message is, even if they understand the individual words. The coded message then becomes a reliable means of communication for one side's military, yet remains an unreliable means of communication for the other side.
One's ability to communicate in a given language comes through first-hand, non-transferrable experience (you can't learn Japanese for me). Language is initially an unreliable means of communicating information, but through time & experience can become a reliable means of communication; I contend on the basis of first-hand, non-transferrable experience that the same holds for the ministration of the Holy Ghost.
Public Posts or Direct Messages
One of the ways God communicates is through "public posts"; these could include the creation, sacred texts, moral intuition, etc. This information is generally available. However, this is not the only way God communicates.
Philosophers have long amused themselves with the question "if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?" The reason this question is humorous is that from a strictly philosophical standpoint, the answer is "no, it does not make a sound". The falling tree generates sound waves, but sound itself is a phenomenon that exists in the mind--it is a result of the brain processing the sound waves. Anyone other than a philosopher would of course answer the question "yes, it makes a sound, and philosophers are silly for quibbling about this".
I'll take the philosophers' side for a moment here. If we learn something through sight, sound, touch, etc., stimuli from the outside world are going through a set of filters before eventually reaching the conscious mind--they are avenues by which to reach the mind, not replacements for it. Each stage of filtering introduces the possibility of error or omission (just ask anyone who is hard of hearing).
Is it not reasonable to conclude, then, that the all-powerful God of the universe could skip the middleman of our eyes & ears, and communicate directly with the mind?
(an application of this idea is found in Star Trek's original pilot, The Cage, which explores the possibility and advantages of mind-to-mind communication in a sci-fi setting).
If I learn something that goes through the chain of sound waves -> my ears -> my brain -> my conscious mind, and I am inclined to believe that this process is at least sometimes reliable, I cannot reasonably conclude that any step in that chain is inherently unreliable.
The Bible demonstrates the viability of inspiration
Even Christians sometimes suggest that thoughts & feelings are not to be trusted, and that ultimate trust should be placed in the Bible alone. I will offer two critiques of this view.
- Robert Millet described his experience reading the following from a religious pamphlet:
In ascertaining the truthfulness of a religious claim, there are three things a person can never trust: (1) your thoughts; (2) your feelings; (3) your prayers.
I was all ears at this point, wondering how we could ever know anything. I didn’t have to wait long, for the writer then noted that the only thing that could be trusted was the Holy Bible itself. I shook my head and felt a deep sense of sadness for the author, for I wondered how indeed a person could even know of the truthfulness of the Bible if he or she could not think, feel, or pray. (source)
- If God cannot under any circumstances reliably communicate truth through His chosen medium of the Holy Spirit (see John 16:13), then how could scriptural texts be inspired? Those who believe that scriptural texts are inspired (see 2 Timothy 3:16) must conclude that God is capable of giving inspiration in such a manner that the recipient:
- Recognizes it for what it is
- Records it
To use the language from the previous section, any "public post" from God in the Bible began as a "direct message" to someone.
For Bible-believing Christians, the Bible itself manifests the reality that God can reliably communicate through inspiration. For my part, I do not put ultimate trust in the text alone, but in Him who gave the text.
- The thought that thoughts are unreliable is self-defeating
- While acknowledging the possibility that feelings can be unreliable, I claim that understanding inspiration from the Holy Spirit, like human language, is a learnable skill. The fact that 2 individuals may "hear" something differently does not necessarily mean that both are wrong.
- A god who can communicate only through sight & sound would be less powerful than a God who can skip the middle man and communicate directly with the mind
- The Bible itself manifests that God is able to use inspiration from the Holy Spirit to communicate in a way that the intended recipients will understand
What is the source of a given thought? Is it possible to tell the difference between one source versus another?
Those who argue for the superiority of thoughts traceable to the 5 senses over most/all other thoughts (or all thoughts except abstract reasoning) already concede the relevant point: they acknowledge it is possible to distinguish between a thought originating from one source versus another.
Christians who believe one source of thoughts is the Holy Ghost would entirely agree. From my own experience, I conclude that as in learning a language or distinguishing between voices, recognizing the promptings of the Holy Ghost is a learnable skill, and can be distinguished from other thoughts.
Learning to trust that source goes yet another step further (there are certainly people whose voices I recognize but whom I do not trust); trust comes not just through recognizing a voice, but through finding that source reliable. Both atheists & theists would agree that there is nothing irrational about trusting the most reliable voice.
My experience is that God is more reliable than any other voice that might wish to take His place (and many do wish to!). Every one of us trusts people/things based on experience. I trust what God has revealed to me about Himself for exactly the same reason.
It can be easy to oversimplify how people form trusting relationships; hearing true facts from a source is an inadequate description on its own of what it means to find someone trustworthy/reliable (I've heard plenty of true statements coming from people I do not trust, and I wouldn't rely on their information without plenty of corroboration). Promises kept, good advice given, commitment given & reciprocated, service rendered, and more, play into people forming a committed, trusting relationship.
I will have to object to the comparison that was made between recognizing the voice of God and a chat on a dating site (how do you know you can trust this source?); it is inappropriate for a number of reasons--3 of which I'll cite here:
- Christians aren't seeking that kind of relationship with God
- Dating sites are designed to enable people to quickly determine either a) I want to get to know this person better through other interactions or b) I want nothing to do with this person.
A dating site wherein people remain in a chat-only relationship for an extended period of time is failing to accomplish its purpose
- If anyone holds up a dating site chat as the epitome of a "trusting, committed relationship", then we have different understandings of the phrase "trusting, committed relationship".