Tasting Salt

This is not even close to being finished.

Tasting Salt

In his classic speech "The Candle of the Lord," Boyd K. Packer1 tells the story of an encounter he once had with an atheist (a "professed" atheist, actually; like many believers, Elder Packer finds it cute to turn the tables on religious skeptics by doubting their existence). In the story, Mr. Packer bears his testimony to the atheist, saying that he "knows" God lives, and the atheist (who, naturally, is a lawyer and speaks "in a sneering, condescending way") asks him how he knows. Finding himself unable to give a good answer, he challenges the atheist to explain just what salt tastes like ("assuming I have never tasted salt"). When the atheist is of course unable to do this, Mr. Packer declares victory: "I know there is a God. You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know, I would be able to tell you exactly how I know. My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like. But I say to you again, there is a God! He does live! And just because you don’t know, don’t try to tell me that I don’t know, for I do!" The atheist, having been well and truly pwned, can only walk away, muttering bitter anti-religious cliches under his breath.

The moral of the story is clear: If you've tasted salt, you know something that those who have never tasted it cannot know, and which you can never explain to them in words. The salt-skeptic can waste his time arguing and discussing the matter with you, but what he really needs to do is just take some of those little white crystals and put them in his mouth. Until he has tasted salt himself, all explanation is futile; after he has tasted it, no explanation is necessary. The same goes for one who questions the existence of God: rather than attempting to answer the question via rational thought or argument, he should focus on trying to "feel the Spirit" for himself.

And what of someone like myself, who has undeniably "felt the Spirit" and yet denies that there is any such thing as a Spirit? Well, such a person belongs in the same category as one who has tasted salt but denies that it exists, or (to use a more popular analogy) who can look up at the sky on a bright sunny day and say there is no sun. To deny what experience has made undeniable is perverse — unforgivably perverse, as it turns out. "If ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable."2

Is that really how it works, though? Let's go back to Elder Packer's example and imagine a person who has never tasted salt and knows nothing about it. He sees me putting some tiny white stones in my mouth and asks what I'm eating.

"This is salt," I say.

"Salt? What's that?"

"Salt — you know, sodium chloride. It's a common mineral."

"Wait a minute," he says. "How can you possibly know that? Those little white stones could be anything. What makes you so sure of their chemical makeup?"

"I can taste them," I say.

He tries to get me to explain what the salt tastes like, which of course I can't do. After a lengthy and fruitless discussion, I finally convince him to taste some of the salt himself. "Interesting," he says. "It does have a very distinct flavor, quite different from anything else I've ever tasted."

"That flavor is called saltiness," I tell him. "Now you've tasted it, and you know for yourself that these stones are salt."

"I do?"

"Well, they taste salty, don't they? And salt is what makes things taste salty, obviously."

"I don't see how that's so obvious. I tasted something very distinct, but how do I know that flavor has anything to do with sodium chloride?"

"Because, as I just told you, that flavor is a salty flavor, and it's caused by salt!"

"So I just have to take your word for it?"

Our imaginary salt-skeptic has a point. You don't directly perceive salt (a mineral); you perceive saltiness (a flavor) — a distinction which would seem less pedantic if English had separate words for the two, as it does for sugar and sweet or acid and sour. Saltiness is an elementary sensation that cannot be analyzed or explained, but the hypothesis that saltiness indicates salt is not a direct perception. It can and should be backed up with evidence just like any other hypothesis. Even someone who has never tasted salt should be able to understand the chain of reasoning that leads us to conclude that the "saltiness" sensation is caused by sodium chloride, just as it is possible for a colorblind person to understand how scientists know that the sensations "red" and "green" are caused by differing wavelengths of light.

The same goes for the spiritual experiences for which tasting salt is a metaphor. Just as with salt and saltiness, English unhelpfully conflates the experience itself ("spiritual experience," "feeling the Spirit") with a hypothesis about what causes it (communication from an actual Spirit); and just as with salt and saltiness, there is no self-evident connection between the two. When I was a Mormon missionary, my training emphasized the importance of "helping others feel and recognize the Spirit." Why help them recognize it? Because you have to. Because it's not self-evident. Because otherwise many people would feel warm fuzzies without automatically concluding that such feelings constitute a revelation from God. The church-run website mormon.org, under the heading "How can I know this is true?", quotes from Galatians 5 ("The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace," etc.) and then helpfully explains, "These feelings from the Holy Ghost are personal revelation to you that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is true. You will then need to choose whether you will live in harmony with the knowledge you have received." Knowledge? That's right; if you've felt love, joy, and the other good things listed in Galatians, you know Mormonism is true. One is tempted to respond, like our salt-skeptic, "I do?"

So far, I've gone along with Elder Packer in emphasizing the similarities between tasting salt and receiving a "revelation" that a particular religion is true. However, it should be clear by now that while I accept saltiness as a pretty reliable indicator of the presence of sodium chloride, I do not accept "the Spirit" as a reliable indicator of the doctrinal truth of a religion, so it is now time to discuss the disanalogies between the two cases. Fortunately, unlike Elder Packer and his atheist friend, both of whom confuse inferences with raw sensations, I am able to explain my reasons for accepting the one conclusion and rejecting the other.

Let's start with salt. How do I justify the conclusion that if something tastes salty it probably contains sodium chloride?

  1. There is a certain kind of stone with a number of distinctive properties — clear or whitish color, cubic crystal structure, a particular density, solubility in water, etc. Everyone calls this "salt." Scientists have determined that this "salt" is sodium chloride. I have only the vaguest idea of how scientists reached that conclusion, but I know of no scientist who disputes it. The success of advanced science-based technology is strong evidence that modern scientific theories are very close approximations of the truth, and this is particularly true of chemistry. I therefore trust the scientific consensus unless I have some good reason not to.
  2. Salt consistently tastes salty.
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