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Many Christians believe that the witness of the Holy Spirit can come through thoughts & feelings (example). A common objection is that thoughts & feelings are unreliable:

  • Some Christians claim that thoughts & feelings are generally unreliable, some offer a more nuanced view. For a specifically Christian presentation of a relevant argument, see here
  • Some atheists claim thoughts & feelings are generally unreliable, some offer a more nuanced view.

How do Christians who believe in a witness of the Holy Spirit, communicated through thoughts & feelings, respond to the claim that thoughts & feelings are generally unreliable?


Closely related

Do any Christian groups or denominations teach reliable methods for scientifically minded individuals to seek and find God?

How do Latter-day Saints rebut GM Skeptic's objection against the epistemic value of personal spiritual experiences?

How do Christians discern genuine spiritual experiences from hallucinations or other mundane psychological phenomena?

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4 Answers 4

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Thoughts

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.

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Feelings

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.

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Language

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.

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.

His response:

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)

  1. 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.

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Conclusion

  • 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

Post Script

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.

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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".
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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 24 at 11:56
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How do Christians who believe in a witness of the Holy Spirit, communicated through thoughts & feelings, respond to the claim that thoughts & feelings are unreliable?

Thoughts and feelings impressed upon the mind by the Holy Spirit would be, technically speaking, examples of spiritual experiences. On the other hand, thoughts and feelings produced by natural causes would merely be examples of mundane experiences. So the challenge is how to distinguish between the two. How can I know whether my thoughts and feelings are naturally or supernaturally caused?

This is essentially a question I already asked on this site in the past: How do Christians discern genuine spiritual experiences from hallucinations or "mere emotions"?. It contains multiple answers with valuable insights. Here I will simply limit myself to reiterating my own previous answer:

I think a case other answers haven't addressed yet is that of spiritual experiences which are overtly miraculous, i.e., that the experience cannot reasonably be attributed to a psychological phenomenon or random chance.

For example, a word of knowledge is a spontaneous 'download' of previously unknown information the person receives through an audible voice, a voice in their head, a vision, a sudden 'inner knowing', etc., which can be empirically tested against reality. If a word of knowledge is genuine, the revealed knowledge will prove to be accurate.

A very illustrative example of this extraordinary experience can be found in Ken Gaub's book God's Got Your Number (amazon link). I'm specifically talking about this story, excerpts of which are quoted below:

I was driving on I-75 near Dayton, Ohio, with my wife and children. [...]
Suddenly the impatient ringing of a telephone nearby jarred me out of my doldrums. It was coming from a phone booth at a service station on the corner. Was no one going to answer this phone? Traffic noise from the busy intersection must have drowned out the sound, because the service station attendant continued looking after his customers, oblivious to the incessant ringing.
[...]
The operator said, “Long distance call for Ken Gaub.” I almost choked on a piece of ice. My eyes must have widened considerably. Swallowing hard, I said, “You’re crazy!” Then, realizing I shouldn’t be speaking to the operator like that, I said, “This can’t be! I was walking down the road, not bothering anybody, the phone was ringing . . .”
[...]
I listened dumbfounded as the strange voice introduced herself. “I’m Millie, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You don’t k now me, Mr. Gaub, but I’m desperate. Please help me.” “What can I do for you?” I asked. She began weeping. Finally she regained control and continued. “I was about to commit suicide. I had just finished writing a note, and I began to pray and tell God I really didn’t want to do this. Then I suddenly remembered seeing you on television and thought if I could just talk to you, you could help me. I knew that was impossible because I didn’t know how to reach you. I didn’t even know anyone who could help me find you. Then some numbers came to my mind and I scribbled them down.”
[...]
Knowing this encounter could have been arranged only by God, I began to talk to her and counsel her. As she told me of her despair and frustration, the presence of the Holy Spirit flooded the phone booth and gave me words of wisdom beyond my own ability. In a matter of moments she prayed the sinner’s prayer and met the One who would lead her out of her situation and into a new life. I walked away from that telephone booth with an electrifying sense of our Heavenly Father’s concern and love for each of His children. What were the astronomical odds of this happening without God? With all the millions of phones and innumerable combinations of numbers, only an all-knowing God could have caused Millie in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to call that number in that phone booth in that particular moment of time. [...]

Other examples of extraordinary spiritual experiences can be found in the following questions:

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As a Christian, I believe the test of thoughts and feelings provided to us through God's Spirit is how He helps us to understand Scripture. No man or woman has the ability to teach Scripture with the understanding of God - only His Spirit can do this. We can share what we understand, as we should, but His Spirit is the ultimate authority as His Spirit teaches us what we need to understand our God and live.

When a person shares what God's Spirit has given them and they are mocked or rejected by the one whom he/she shared it with, then the person who performs the rejection has placed themselves on the same level as God. The recipient should attempt to understand how the revelation is, or could be, applicable to Scripture. Just because it isn't understood right away doesn't make it false. Not everything taught by man is right. When the Spirit talks with someone, it's personal.

The New Testament is filled with descriptions of God's Spirit. In Acts alone 46 verses provide descriptions of God's Spirit:

1:16 speaks to us through others 2:2 comes upon us with power 2:3 is a source of energy 2:33 is a promise of God 2:38 is a gift 4:25 is spoken through others 4:31 fills us and causes us to speak the word of God boldly 5:3 can be lied to 5:9 can be tested 5:32 is a witness: is given by God to those who obey him. 6:10 is a force man cannot stand against 7:51 is a force that men try to resist 7:55 allows us to see beyond our understanding 7:59 is a life-force 8:16 comes to us separate from baptism 8:17 sometimes comes to us by the laying on of hands 8:19 is sometimes not understood 8:29 talks to us and gives us directions 8:39 moves us to other places 9:17 sends others to us 9:31 encourages us 10:19 tells us of future events and gives us understanding 10:38 is an anointment of God, and is powerful 10:44 comes upon us as we listen to the word of God 10:45 is a gift and can be poured out on those that we do not understand as worthy. 10:47 can be received 11:12 tells us things that we can trust 11:15 comes upon others as we speak the word of God 11:16 Is likened to water, and we can be baptized with the Holy Spirit 11:28 allows us to prophesy 13:2 gives us instructions 13:4 gives us directions 13:9 empowers us to do the work of God 13:52 is synonymous with and exists alongside joy. 15:8 is a gift of acceptance by God 15:28 is able to determine what is good and what is not good 16:6 keeps us from certain things 16:7 keeps us from doing certain things 19:2 is given to us after we believe, not before 19:6 enables us to do what we cannot normally do on our own 20:22 compels us to do things we do not know 20:23 warns us and makes us aware of conditions beyond our realm of understanding 20:28 gives us responsibilities 21:4 speaks to us through others 21:11 communicates to others through our actions 28:25 spoke through the prophets

There are many, many other NT verses that provides other descriptions of God's Spirit. Thoughts and feelings are ways He communicates with us.

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Thoughts are of the mind and feelings are emotions. Those two with the will make up the soul of a man. The three collectively are referred to as "the heart" at times.

None of these communicate directly with God. Instead, mankind was given a spirit capable of direct relationship with God, who is Spirit,

"The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God", Rom 8:16

Mankind is tripartite,

"may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.", 1 Thess 5:23

Our body is obviously our physical "container", read through 1 Cor 15 concerning that.

But, it is with our spirit we are capable of relating to the Holy Spirit. The soul (mind, will and emotions) are projections of this. We each have our own personality in these three.

The soul is also the hindrance to the spirit. We see this throughout scripture such as "stiff-necked" Israel aka their will would not conform to the Holy Spirit's will. We also see emotional problems block or skew/taint the Holy Spirit. And, then the mind is intellectual capacity which is not capable of spiritual relationship, e.g.

"For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe", 1 Cor 1:21

One good read with a very successful track record regarding this topic is Dr. Neil T Anderson's breakdown in Discipleship Counseling.

A purely practical theology breakdown, Nee's The Spiritual Man.

There are many more. But, those two are good foundation books in psychology (the former) and practical theology (the latter).

Man's soul is never a direct relationship organ to God - who is Spirit. God put a spirit in mankind for that purpose. However, fallen nature corrupts the soul resulting in varying degrees of accuracy/inaccuracy, objectivity/subjectivity related to the spiritual connection with the Holy Spirit (or absence thereof) due to its dysfunction/brokenness.

This is why thoughts and feelings are unreliable. They both become more reliable in maturity, which is transformation of one's nature into the the Divine nature,

"through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.", 2 Pt 1:4

By transforming our nature, which is our will, emotions and mind - we escape the corruption in this fallen world.

Practically, this occurs through yielding to the Holy Spirit as it encounters those things within our nature contrary to Divine Nature. If our response is anything but yielding to God's Will, the Holy Spirit will not overrule our will. As a result, transformation will not take place regarding that matter.

Few Christians mature to the point 100% of their old nature is in perfect harmony with the Holy Spirit. Thus, our thoughts and feelings cannot be trusted. However, the Holy Spirit provides the power to overrule our soul - by yielding to the Holy Spirit's will. This is, literally, the death of self. A living sacrifice. A burnt offering. We die daily.

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