Conviction by Invitation

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Jeffrey Thayne

In a previous post, I presented Oakeshott’s view of rationality as the capacity to form interpretations of and responses to experience. In another post, I described ways in which the movie Contact provides an excellent example of this. In this post, I will explore a little deeper how Ellie’s experience in the movie illustrates Oakeshott’s point. I would recommend that those who haven’t read either of these two posts do so here: Rationality Redefined; Jodi Foster’s Empiricism in Contact.

Interpreting Experience

Ellie Arroway, a character in the movie Contact, had a life-changing experience, but she could convince few others that the experience was anything more than a multi-billion dollar prank.

There were several ways to interpret Ellie’s reported experience. The committee chairman interpreted the entire experience as a delusion: Ellie, a young woman starved for contact with her long deceased father, created the experience in her mind to ease her loneliness and sorrow; the entire project was a hoax developed by an eccentric personality who had for a long time been influencing Ellie’s life and research.

Ellie, although she admitted that the chairman’s interpretation seemed more likely than her own, chose to interpret the experience as an interaction with an alien intelligence that wished to learn about the human race. She chose to interpret the experience this way because this interpretation brought hope and meaning to her life. It justified her changed heart and renewed humility.

If Michael Oakeshott’s point of view is correct, it implies that no interpretation is a priori known to be true. How any given experience is to be interpreted is “up for grabs,” so to speak. However, this does not mean that all interpretations are equal; they all have implications and consequences that we should consider. Let’s look at another example that may help illustrate this.

Scrooge and Gravy

Each Christmas time, I try to take the time to reread Charles Dicken’s classic novel, A Christmas Carol. One particular passage in the book caught my attention this year. Ebenezer Scrooge is conversing with the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley:

Ebenezer Scrooge could have chalked up his experience with the ghosts to an upset stomach, but chose not to.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t.” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Indeed, Scrooge is right. Every experience may be interpreted any number of ways. Is it possible that a biochemical reaction in Scrooge’s brain induced him to hallucinate his entire experience? Of course it is possible. Scrooge, however, abandoned that possibility, and was convinced that the ghost did, in reality, exist.

What caused him to believe in the ghost’s existence? He didn’t arrive at the conclusion through logical deduction. Reason, as we have seen, can lead us interpret our experiences in any number of ways. As I discussed in Rationality Redefined, reason is our capacity to make sense of our experience, and there is no single way to do it. Shirley Robin Letwin describes this point of view aptly: “A man may have to deal with physiological processes within his body and physical processes outside it … , but as long as he retains his reason, he chooses how to understand and deal with his experience.”

The Basis of Conviction

At the conclusion of Scrooge’s experience, you would be hardpressed to get him to chalk up the whole experience to an “undigested bit of beef.” Certainly, the possibility still existed. However, Scrooge would never accept that possibility because he was changed, in a penetrating way, because of his experience. There is something about revelatory experiences that invites us to interpret them as such. When we accept that invitation, we abandon alternative interpretations and open ourselves to be changed forever.

For example, when I prayed and asked God if the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were true, I received many revelatory experiences convincing me that I had received an answer from God.

A well-trained psychologist will remind me about confirmation bias, a process where individuals will notice information that confirms their belief (or what they want to believe) and ignore contradictory information.

A well-trained physiologist will remind me that certain hormonal changes at the right times may have led me to believe that I was having a feel-good experience in answer to prayer, when it was really just coincidence.

I confess that each of these alternatives have a certain amount of plausibility, in the sense that each of them are rational interpretations of my experiences. However, there was something about the experiences that invited me to believe that they were communications from God. I accepted that invitation, committed myself to that interpretation, changed as a person because of it, and have never regretted it.

I write this post because I think it’s important that we understand this central fact: there is no logical certainty in our religious beliefs. There isn’t meant to be. Our beliefs are rooted in lived experience, not reason. Also, there is no certain way to interpret those experiences. However, we have committed, through an act of free will and an act of faith (and in response to an invitation that we believe comes from God), to interpret certain lived experiences as revelatory experiences.

In other words, we believe because we choose to believe. Some would say that this is precisely why we should abandon our beliefs in favor of “more likely” interpretations. However, this analysis applies to any and all interpretations, and therefore applies equally to the atheist or the materialist who look for “scientific” interpretations of lived experience. Thus, Oakeshott’s view of rationality “levels the playing field” in an important way. A biological, evolutionary, or reductionist account of religious experience is not better by virtue of the fact that it relies solely on scientific principles, because any commitment to those principles is simply that: a commitment.

The act of choice that leads to our conviction may not necessarily involve pre-deliberation; in fact, it rarely does. The choice resides in the fact that we are constantly and actively interpreting our experiences and responding to invitations from the Spirit. There is nothing wrong with this–it is partly what makes us human. And it is what allows us to commit to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to construe the world through the lens of revealed truth.


  1. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for the paragraph below (I don’t know the html for the quotation thingies):

    “I write this post because I think it’s important that we understand this central fact: there is no logical certainty in our religious beliefs. There isn’t meant to be. Our beliefs are rooted in lived experience, not reason. Also, there is no certain way to interpret those experiences. However, we have committed, through an act of free will and an act of faith (and in response to an invitation that we believe comes from God), to interpret certain lived experiences as revelatory experiences.”

    This is true and it’s powerful. And I needed it. Just now.


  2. Recently Jeff and Nathan addressed their Favorite Posts from 2008. Jeff picked this one [Astronauts without Planets] as one of his favorites, and said, “. . . I was impressed with the distinction made between the innate capacity to choose, and having choices to choose from.”

    I am grateful for the plan of salvation and the atonement which makes the ultimate choice, eternal life, possible. Without the atonement, this mortal life would be a dead end (literally).

    One of the things I have gained from the Book of Mormon is that the ultimate choice we have is the choice between eternal life and everlasting death (2 Nephi 10:23), a choice that is only possible because of the atonement of Christ (2 Nephi 2:26-27). To me, the idea of “acting for oneself” (as expressed in the Book of Mormon) is a more correct definition of agency than the more common definition of “freedom to choose,” although the ideas are certainly related since choice is a necessary part of agency as Nathan has shown early on in this post.

    In the three main Book of Mormon passages which talk about acting for oneself, the idea of choosing is always represented as a choice between life and death (see 2 Nephi 2:26-29, 2 Nephi 10:23, and Helaman 14:30-31). The Book of Mormon does not specifically equate agency (acting for oneself) with everyday choices, instead, it testifies that through the use of our agency in doing good or evil (Helaman 14:30-31), men ultimately choose their eternal reward of either liberty and eternal life or captivity and death (2 Nephi 2:27).

    This is possibly another way in which agency was “given” to us, because without the plan of salvation and the atonement which makes it all possible, we could not effectively choose between eternal life and death.

    Reference Scriptures:
    2 Nephi 2:26-29
    2 Nephi 10:23
    Helaman 14:30-31

  3. if this is not published on this site, please forward this to “Aaron”. for i was directed to respond to him. please allow him to read this and DO NOT REJECT THIS FOR AND IN BEHALF OF HIM. thank you for your time and the possibility of posting this on your site.

    just would like to comment on the following paragraph:

    “I write this post because I think it’s important that we understand this central fact: there is no logical certainty in our religious beliefs. There isn’t meant to be. Our beliefs are rooted in lived experience, not reason. Also, there is no certain way to interpret those experiences. However, we have committed, through an act of free will and an act of faith (and in response to an invitation that we believe comes from God), to interpret certain lived experiences as revelatory experiences.”

    i am a latter day saint but this is the most ironic and oxy moronic statement coming from those who claim to be latter day saints; those who believe in “the most correct book” of which i too believe in whole heartedly. it would be very appreciative if the author and believers in this “fact” could actually substantiate this belief with ANY revealed “word of God.”

    if you will oblige me kindly, i would like to rewrite that paragraph from one who has no faith, but knowledge of real truth, even as the brother of Jared who had faith no longer, for he knew, doubting nothing:

    “i know that it is vitally important to our salvation that we understand and accept this undeniable fact: that there is logical certainty in REAL TRUTH, and it is absolutely meant to be, for it is impossible for real truth to not make perfect sense to the uncluttered mind that is no longer filled with philosophies of men mingled with scripture. Also, there is a sure way to interpret all experiences in life, even the very key in which joseph smith and jesus Christ gave us to interpret all experiences. However, because many have committed, through an act of free will and an act of Faith,( which faith is an absence of real truth and knowledge as things as they were, are, and will be)–through this free will and faith (lack of truth) many have committed to interpret certain “lived experiences” as “revelatory experiences”…hence everlearning but never coming to the knowledge of truth.”

    here is a final rendition of what really the original author was saying and what is meant by his words:

    “i write this post because i have yet to come to an understanding of real truth; having been tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine and because of my lack of true revelation in my life of things as they were, are, and will be— i will let the accumulation of said experiences and non-experiences be the foundation of what i will now claim to be a central fact: there is NO LOGICAL CERTAINTY in MY RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, which stem from the traditions that have been handed down to me. because of these traditions that i have adopted, believe, and live by, i fully admit that i have not been able to make sense of what i have feasted upon and i will never be able to, therefore i guess it’s not for me to know with a logical certainty any truth if i continue in these same religious beliefs; not through any of my experiences of life have i come to know how to interpret or decipher any truth or reason therefrom, but only interpret it according to the faulty formula that i have been taught by those who claim authority over me. because i continue to act on these traditions taught to me, i still think that i have free will and thus i will continue to follow these traditions that i BELIEVE come from God, and i will continue to convince myself that i have learned SOMETHING from my “lived experiences” (philosophical term for LIFE)and will call it revelatory, EVEN THOUGH THERE HAS BEEN ZERO REVELATION that has resulted in my obtaining of real truth. for if i knew the real truth, i could not write what i just did but would be able to declare unto you things as they were, are, and ever will be and would be able to declare with a perfect knowledge that they are true and those things which i would declare would be perfectly logical to ANY HUMAN MIND NO MATTER WHAT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS THEY ADHERE TO.”

    notice how the human mind yearns to make sense of what it has experienced; it yearns to know the truth and how it fits into the universe. and because it has such yearning, it will actually create it’s own truth and claim that it’s own experiences in life are “REVELATORY EXPERIENCES”…how weak are the attempts of the human mind to make sense out of non sense–to claim that they have revelatory experiences when no revelation was part of it! no true prophet of God would ever declare or make such statements such as the paragraph i’m commenting on—why? because they know the truth and the truth makes them free; and it only sets them free because it makes perfect sense to the human mind. and real prophets echo the words of Christ in saying that “when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief than the greater things shall be made manifest unto you.” unfortunately, the Truth of God does not make sense to the philosophers who look to themselves as teachers, and deny the true Holy Ghost, which comprehendeth ALL THINGS. these philosophers praise one another even when none of them can dispense any truth given to them by the real Holy Ghost, because no real truth has ever been given to them by the real Holy Ghost, hence the reason why they love to call themselves philosophers. these philosophers have not been true and faithful to the “token and sign” given to them in the garden of eden, but have “revealed them and sold them for money.” however, i don’t expect any of them to know what that even means—because after all, according to “[their] religious beliefs,” they aren’t meant to know.

    Paul, too, engaged many philosophers that were IN THE SYNAGOGUE. “For all the [philosphers] which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing”. these philosophers said about paul : “He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection…(said paul) Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious… For as I passed by (was searching the internet), and beheld your devotions (found your website), I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD (read your words claiming that there isn’t meant to be any logical certainty in your beliefs in God), Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship (think that God cannot reveal all things to you), him declare I unto you (tell you that I know he giveth to all those who asketh, a perfect knowledge of ALL THINGS, yea, even while living in this mortal body. and that perfect knowledge has absolute logical certainty and it speaketh of things as they were, are, and will be)

    consider 2 nephi 28:

    “Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts…Yea, they have all gone out of the away; they have become corrupted. Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms (selling the token and sign they received in the garden of eden for money), THEY HAVE ALL GONE ASTRAY, save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.O the awise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their chearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell! Wo unto them that turn aside the just for a thing of naught and revile against that which is good, and say that it is of no worth! For the day shall come that the Lord God will speedily visit the inhabitants of the earth; and in that day that they are fully ripe in iniquity they shall perish.”

    To the AARON, that needed this powerful “truth” that you so desperately came across thursday night… —how oft would i have gathered thee, yet ye would not. how i wish that you knew of the real love your Heavenly Father truly has for you. can you not tell the difference between the tinkling symbols and sounding brass of men which ye continually put in front of your face because of your itching ears from the TRUMPET OF GOD which i am trumpeting behind you. is ignorance truly bliss? is the praise of man truly worth the sacrifice of the real love and truth of your Heavenly Parents, even your God. you did as was prophesied, you continued to trust in man and you prayed “to the God of this world” and found that confirmation to continue in your carnal security….and why is it that i was “directed” to this website that i have never visited before or had previously known about…”behold, if ye were holy i would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that i teach you the consequence of sin.”

    2 nephi 9:

    “O that cunning plan of the evil one!  O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God (to feast upon the Word), for they set it aside supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, THEIR WISDOM IS FOOLISHNESS AND IT PROFITETH THEM NOT (has no logical certainty and provide no answers) and they shall perish (in unbelief). but to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsel of God (actually believe in the Words of Christ and believe that he actually means what He says and will do what he said he will)

    “oh my beloved brethren, remember the awfulness in transgressing against that Holy God, and also the awfulness of yielding to the enticings of that cunning one. remember, to be CARNALLY minded is death, and to be spiritually minded is life eternal. O, my beloved brethren, give ear to my words. remember the greatness of the Holy One of Israel. Do not say that I have spoken hard things against you; for if ye do, ye will revile against the truth; for i have spoken the words of your Maker. I know that the words of truth ARE HARD AGAINST ALL UNCLEANESS (religion and precepts of “Lucifer”); but the righteous fear them not, for they love the truth and are NOT SHAKEN.”

    “and whose knocketh (actually wants to know the truth and doesn’t wait for “prophets” every six months to spoon feed the same regurgitated talks) to him will He open ( have him be taught by the true Holy Ghost); and the wise (those who think they already know the truth without the Holy Ghost) and the learned (those who believe in the precepts of man mingled with scripture) and they that are rich , who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches(pointless knowledge which they consider treasure)—yea, they are they whom he DESPISETH; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them (have the ability to be taught/guided by the true Holy Ghost). but the things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever—yea, that happiness which is prepared for the saints.”

    jacob 4:

    “and now, beloved, MARVEL NOT, that i tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and ATTAIN TO A PERFECT KNOWLEDGE OF HIM, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come? Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesieth TO THE UNDERSTANDING OF MEN; FOR THE SPIRIT SPEAKETH TRUTH AND LIETH NOT. wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us PLAINLY, FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR SOULS. but behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto PROPHETS OF OLD.

    “but behold, the latter day saints (jews) are a stiff necked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets (claim to believe in their words but do not), and sought for things that they could not understand (percantage wise, zero lds comprehend or understand the “Endowment”) wherefore, because of their blindness, (believing that there is no logical certainty…)
    which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, BECAUSE THEY DESIRED IT. and because they desire it God hath done it, that they may stumble.”

    do we truly not understand the Lord when he says: “The FIRST shall be AS THE LAST, and the LAST SHALL BE AS THE FIRST.” Who is the first—JEWS. who is the last—Latter Day Saints aka: gentiles.

    here is a “central fact” that i do know: real truth makes perfect sense to those who do not continue to deny the spirit. it is perfectly logical to those who consider themselves fools before God and allow themselves to be taught by one who already knows, even a true prophet of God…until then, the happiness that is prepared for the saints, ye shall never know, but ye shall continue to declare that your religious beliefs have no logical certainty—TO WHICH I FULLY AGREE.

    i am fellow brother whose tears wet his pillow at night for the unbelieving generation in which he lives, which generation claims to be disciples of Christ but are not willing to forsake ALL to follow Him; which His hand will always be extended and He will continue to turn His other cheek until this generation considers themselves fools before God and come down in the depths of humility and actually, for the FIRST TIME, believe in what the Book of Mormon truly prophesies of and teaches about. Do not say that i have spoken in anger against you, but that which ye call anger is the sharpness of the word of God which speaketh plainly unto you of your unbelief. i speak for the sake of your eternal welfare, giving glory to our Father, that ye too, may do the same. when you come to know the true identity of the Holy Ghost, then you will be able to learn all the mysteries of the Kindom of God, THAT SAME KINGDOM THAT IS WITHIN YOU. which mysteries are truly given to those mortals who have faith like unto the brother of Jared. until then, you will continue to have no “CONTACT” with any real truth.

    the paragraph of discussion in which i am responding to provides carnal security and temporary comfort to all those who are tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, have placed their trust in the arm of flesh, and have become totally shaken in mind, body, and spirit when confronted with the pure doctrine of Christ. but those who love truth, will smash that tinkling sybmol that you’ve rung in their ear and recognize it for what it is, and wait for further light and truth that will be delivered to them by “peter, james, and john.” of course, the interpratation of this letter and the words contained herein is up for grabs for all those philosophers out there; but only those who have eyes that see and ears that hear will not “interpret” this, but rather, will accept the simplicity and veracity of the promises contained in Christ. the love of Christ that he expects us to have is much different than what we define as love.if a person has the truth, THEY WILL NEVER EVER BE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH ANY CHALLENGE TO THEIR WAY OF THINKING NOR FEEL THREATENED BY IT. the only things that i can say in conclusion is that i truly know that Christ does not lie nor is there any variableness in Him and he is no respector of persons and all are equal unto Him.  i can truly say that i have knocked and He opened, i have asked and He has given, and I have sought and i have found the Kindgom of God and know of ALL the mysteries within it–and it brings a perfectly logical certainty to “my religios belief”.   all this came about because i ‘SOLD ALL THAT I HAD” and paid the proper price for that pearl and placed faith upon his promises. it is our Heavenly Parents desire that all their children receive that same pearl…

    but because so many look beyond the mark because of the easiness of the way, i will conclude with something more of a philophers liking, which could be used to begin a blog on this site if you’d like:

    I quote Leon Festinger, known for his theory of Congnitive Dissonance, which theory states that inconsistency among beleifs or behaviors will cause an uncomfortable pyschological tension:

    “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

    We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

    But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. ”
    ~ Leon Festinger

    if this is not published on this site, please forward this to “Aaron”. for i was directed to respond to him. please allow him to reject this message. DO NOT DO IT FOR HIM. thank you for your time.

    sincerely, from a brother that is very uneducated and unlearned in the things of man.


  4. Jared,

    We appreciate your comment. Feedback from readers can help us to see how we can improve. It’s clear that we didn’t present our point perfectly clearly, because it seems that you may have misunderstood the central message of the post. Our message isn’t that we can never know anything, but that knowledge is rooted in experience rather than reason. This is one reason why a Restoration was necessary: because orthodox Christianity has relied on reason and rational theology, rather than on lived experience, such as revelation. Also, no matter how much evidence someone is presented, they can still choose to believe otherwise or interpret it differently, because belief is a choice. No experience can compel us, against our will, to believe something. If it were possible, would that not destroy agency? The quote you presented from Leon Festinger confirms this point: people can choose to disbelieve in spite of evidence. If disbelief is a choice, then so is belief.

    Also, you seem to be under the impression that faith is the same as the “lack of knowledge.” Thus, if I were to say, “I am acting under faith,” it means that I have no knowledge of what the consequences of my act will be. However, does this not imply that God, being all-knowing, therefore has no faith? Were not the heavens created through the power of faith? It seems to me that the scriptures teach us that faith is a way of knowing, not the lack of knowledge. We see faith as trust in the Divine, trust rooted in experience and in our relationship with God.

    Also, please know that we have strong testimonies of the Savior Jesus Christ and the Restored Gospel (see The Anointed One). I don’t believe that my conviction is qualitatively different from that of my fellow Latter-day Saints.

    Anyways, we appreciate your comment, and we hope this clarifies our position and resolves any misunderstanding. It is our policy not to debate or argue with our readers, so we hope that you do not perceive this response as combative in any way.

  5. The obvious difficulty with what you are saying is how do you respond to the Jew or the Muslim who prayed to God to be enlightened as to his truth and came to the conclusion that Judaism or Islam was the true religion. I would grant you that your argument has some validity as long as we limit it to some general sense of religious confirmation, that God hints to us that he exists and that he wants us to come to know him. It would then be reasonable to engage in a spiritual quest to come to know God and even to use an established religion to structure one’s quest. If one is going to use an established religion, then the religion that one grew up with would make a lot of sense unless there is another one out there that holds a particular appeal to you.

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