This came up in a recent Facebook discussion in the Feminist Mormon Housewives group. Some people felt that using the word “know” about our belief in God was always (or nearly always) inappropriate. I posted to go on record that I do know, that my belief is at the same level as things about which we customarily say “I know,” such as I know my son’s birthday, I know Puerto Rico exists, I know the Earth is a spheroid, not flat like a pancake, etc. Several people were curious how I could know God exists, and asked me to explain. So here’s my explanation. I warn you, it’s long. Here’s your chance to get out now and quit reading.
Maybe before I launch into this, I should give a synopsis for the tl;dr people. After all, your time is also precious. So here it is. My spiritual experiences, though subjective, have been at least as repeatable, reliable and unmistakably real to me as other perceptions I’ve had in this mass hallucination we all call “waking reality.” A lifelong study of science and metaphysics leads me to have perhaps a different view of this brain-construct that we label as “waking reality” than nonscientists may have, as well as a healthy respect for the vastness of human ignorance. This is not an attempt to persuade anyone else of the existence of God. Obviously, other people will be convinced, (if they are,) by their own subjective experiences and not by mine. But I think what I’ve seen constitutes an important area of inquiry that perhaps is worth an extension of science to explore. After all, subjective experiences make up a large part of our reality. As great as science is, surely we can benefit from studying the enormous amount of personal data that we each receive, even those observations that are explicitly excluded from the excellent system of gaining knowledge that we know of as “the scientific method”.
So let’s unpack how this came about. The first thing you have to know about me to make my explanation make sense is that I’m a huge nerd. Since I was about 2 or 3 years old, I’ve been trying to figure out how everything in the universe works. I read science for laymen books from earliest childhood. I experimented with physics all the time. For example, by jumping on my parents’ bed while holding my stuffed dog Poochypoo, releasing him at the top of the jump, and watching our relative location on the way down, I learned that all things fall at the same rate regardless of their weight. That was something that shocked most of my Freshman Physics class at Engineering school. They were 18 when they learned that, and I was about 4. So picture someone truly nerdy like this.
I learned about inertia from watching how balls roll in wagons when the wagons start and stop. I learned about electricity from batteries and light bulbs and circuits with switches, and little DC motors (not to mention a good many zaps to my hands) when I was still a young kid. I had tons of science kits and experiments. I used to sit in the tub by the hour and make waves and watch the shadows on the floor of the tub to see how waves behave and interfere. I read Scientific American from cover to cover every month starting around age 16. I looked up any words I didn’t know, and puzzled over anything I didn’t understand until I could easily read the articles on any science subject. I studied Electrical Engineering, Modern Physics, Astronomy, Cosmology, Computers, and everything like that I could find out. My degree is in EE. My life’s work has been designing, programming, and implementing control systems on industrial automation. My whole life has been dedicated to a deep understanding of science and the universe.
I was raised Catholic but never believed it. From high school to about age 36 I was a philosophical materialist, a scientist, an atheist, and my worldview was entirely dictated by science. I never expected any change from that position. I read hundreds of books about science (I read for fun and I’m a readaholic.) I loved learning about stuff like quantum physics and pondering the different interpretations of quantum electrodynamics, and trying to wrap my head around them. (The Copenhagen interpretation, which most scientists today follow, leaves a lot to be desired, as you may know. The alternates all also have bizarre features which are unsatisfying. Don’t misunderstand: the theory is proven to 15 decimal places. Just nobody knows how to interpret what is actually happening on the quantum level.) So that’s something to know about science that most nonscientists don’t realize. The things we know best about reality are just bizarre on the smallest, most basic levels. They are certainly, definitely, totally real. They just are super weird and difficult to believe or wrap your head around. The things we “know” on a macro level, our own level of perception, are quite often illusions.
For instance, Newtonian physics is very intuitive. There’s fixed space in 3 dimensions and time that marches on the same all over. Though this view represents a huge revolution from what people believed before that, from Aristotle and so on, it seems to suit humans very well. We can make sense of it, and we can believe in it. Trouble is, the universe just doesn’t match up to it very well. It kind of does in the main parts, but there are observations that don’t fit. The moons of Jupiter seem to gain and lose time in their revolution around their huge planet. But the time changes don’t rely on anything happening on Jupiter itself, but rather on how close or far away the Earth is to Jupiter at the time of observation. Light has a velocity, it seems, and the really weird part of it is that regardless of our relative motion, light always is observed to go at the same speed. That just plain doesn’t fit in classical Newtonian physics. Electromagnetic waves, as Maxwell found, don’t behave in classical ways. Light acts like particles, thought Newton, but then a very simple thing like partial reflection off the surface of glass, can’t be made sense of with particles. So that’s okay, we can decide it’s waves and not particles, but then when you turn the light down very dim, a photomultiplier just sees one particle at a time, or else none. Not a steadily decreasing wave energy dimming. Whenever you look, there’s either a whole photon there or there’s not. It’s never a matter of anything waving. So we had to decide we don’t really know what to call it, just we know it acts thusly (according to the equations). Whatever is happening on the low level defies our intuition, our sense of how to make sense of the world, which comes from stuff that happens at our level and our speed, not on a micro level or near the speed of light.
And, in addition to what we know about the universe (and we honestly know it to 15 decimal places), about physics, we also *know* there is a lot we don’t know. 95% of everything there is, for instance, is dark matter and dark energy which we have no idea what they are, what they’re composed of, or how they can exist, why they exist, etc. This is from astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. We know there was a big bang about 13.77 billion years ago, but there’s a whole lot we have left to learn about why the universe is how it is. We don’t know what could have set the big bang in motion. And it’s perhaps not even a scientific question to ask how it came about, what happened before that, and could we make it happen again somehow, to make new universes, say, or for whatever reason.
String theory, which is the best candidate we have right now for a potential theory of everything, can't make predictions that can be tested, because the math is too hard for anyone to do yet. So in that sense it's not a scientific theory. When you look deeply into where new theories come from, when you ask scientists and study the history of science, there's a type of beauty or elegance that they sniff out on the various pathways that tell them they are on the right track. Follow the elegant, the simple, the pure, they say, and you will find miracles. They use those exact words. Read Roger Penrose's Road to Reality, for example.
When you ask what are the Laws of Physics like on their deepest level, Feynman answers you that they are just equations. Just pure mathematics. He gives an example of a "mechanical" theory of gravitation, positing that there are little invisible globs of stuff raining in every direction, and where they encounter masses, some of the globs are captured or stopped, causing two nearby masses to partially block the rain in each other's direction, which would tend to push them closer together. He gives that example so you understand what a mechanical theory would look like. The theory doesn't actually work, for a number of reasons. But it would explain gravity in a way that made sense to us in terms of small gears or cogs or doohickeys that generated the observed behavior. The *real* theory of gravity that we use, which is Einstein's general relativity (right now, though everyone expects some eventual quantum theory of gravity to replace it), doesn't have any such mechanical underpinnings. It's simply equations. So the book "The Character of Physical Law" is where you will learn that for reasons we don't understand, physics is just a bunch of numbers, of math functions, of equations. That's the deepest understanding we have of the universe.
The famous equation e=mc^2, which everyone knows, says that mass is energy, and energy is mass. But do we really understand the implications of that? It means that all the solid, tangible, table-thumping reality of our everyday existence is simply knots in the energy fields. Picture fields as numbers in space. Energy is quite intangible, being simply numbers assigned to various situations in many different forms that as they change through physical, chemical, nuclear, or other processes, they change to other situations in a way that the number (mass+energy) is conserved. So when you slam your fist into a wall in rage, that crunch you're feeling is a whole lot of electromagnetic fields and forces, transmitted through more electrochemical impulses up your nerves and to your brain. Solid reality is like that. It's quite abstract when you begin to look into it.
Our models of suns, of what is happening inside stars, right now don’t explain how a supernova can happen, something we regularly observe across the whole universe. There’s something going on that we don’t understand. In fact, stuff we don’t understand is absolutely everywhere you look in science. The science and technology of artificial intelligence is a great example, and has a lot to say about what it means to “know” something. Consciousness turns out to be much harder for computers to get than we expected. There’s a big philosophical discussion about “qualia” which means units of experiences, and under what circumstances they’re present. Scientific explanations of sensations, consciousness, why it’s like something to be me and not like anything to be a rock, all have this one hand-waving step where they say “poof, then consciousness appears.” I’m not sure how they’re able to convince themeselves they’re being scientific, since in no case does consciousness actually follow from the systems they describe. Nobody can yet put together the elements posited to cause consciousness in any way other than the traditional one that takes nine months using unskilled labor (i.e. in a mother's womb). We know so little, we don’t even know what it means to say we know something.
My son has psychosis, and his brain takes the exact same inputs I have and builds with them this extremely fantastical (from my point of view) worldview in which everything is about him, he’s a superhero, or Christ, or the Antichrist, or Satan, (it changes), and a world power that governments all over (including the aliens among us) must monitor and reckon with. From observing him and trying to help him live a good life, I’ve come to see that what his brain is doing is what brains do; they make up some sensible narrative to connect their observations. That narrative is somewhat different for all of us. And for those whose narrative is different enough, they count as psychotic. But human brains run a wide gamut that we still consider normal: politically conservative or liberal, racist or not racist, religious or not, scientific or artistic, INTJ or ESFP, steady-staters vs. big bang proponents, Aristotelians vs. Newtonians, young earthers and creationists vs. Darwinians, etc. If you go too far outside those normal bounds, while you’re dreaming, say, or if you have a brain infection or other brain illness, why then you’re considered psychotic. (Read Steven Peck’s paper describing how it felt to be psychotic, when he caught a brain infection during some field work once, and how it felt to come out of it again.)
Another thing to realize is that waking reality is really quite fragile. I mentioned dreams, and for some reason we all have to lie down and go into a temporary coma, with bizarre hallucinations, for several hours each day as a regular part of our circadian rhythms. But also anyone who does *not* dream for a few days running, if they’re sleep deprived, also slides into a brain state that we call psychotic. So dreaming is absolutely essential for us to maintain a normal waking state, and yet we don’t understand what’s actually going on that causes that. We have vague speculations, but not any real understanding, such that we could manipulate the process at will, or make sleep unnecessary, or point our finger at the exact mechanism on a molecular level. We don’t even know that waking reality is true reality. We don’t know what it’s like to be a dolphin or an elephant. We can only guess. We don’t truly understand scientifically what we mean when we say “I”, much less “I know”.
So the more you know about science, the more you realize the vastness of our ignorance compared to the few things we do know so far. But science is wonderful. It’s a very sure way to find out things, and be fairly sure of those things. But when you study science itself, metascience or metaphysics, you realize that science is only a method of approaching and learning about the world that we learned how to use a few hundred years ago. It’s an incredibly fruitful method, but it’s not existence itself. To do science you follow a certain process step by step.
1. Ask a question.
2. Guess the answer.
3. Make predictions based on your guess.
4. Figure out an experiment that will test those predictions.
5. Do the experiment.
6. If it turns out the predictions were not borne out by the experiment, you guessed wrong so go back to step 2 and guess something different.
7. If it turns out the predictions were right, your answer isn’t yet falsified, and if it stands up to all the future experiments thought of and carried out, can provisionally be thought of as true.
8. After a lot of people try for a long time to disprove your answer by experiment, if it still holds up we start calling it a fact. This is what we mean when we say we know things.
9. There’s always the chance, and in fact it happens all the time, that things that we once thought were true facts turn out to be slightly or rather or even completely wrong, and are replaced by things we think of as truer truths.
*Oh, also, we need to say that only shared, objective, repeatable data are accepted or considered. This gives us problems when studying things like meteorites, that can’t be produced on demand.
**We also need to say that any hypotheses that aren’t testable are outside science. If no experiment can be designed that will show something is true, then whether it’s true or not is simply not a scientific question. It could be true but science just doesn’t illuminate it. “Did time exist before the big bang” might be such a question.
It’s a really great system, but it’s not all of existence. Sometimes we are so into science, though, that we begin to ignore things that aren’t science and feel like that’s all there is, that anything outside science isn’t really real. But a few minute’s thought can make obvious how much of life there is that isn’t included in or subject to science. For instance, the method itself doesn't explain how to come up with new guesses, because that falls outside the realm of science. We can use rules of thumb like "guess the equation" or "play around with the system involved, do every weird test you can think of, and maybe some idea will pop into your mind" (which is my personal favorite when my machines aren't working right). But there is no algorithm for generating good guesses. If there were, we could just implement it on a computer somewhere and let it come up with the whole of science for us. But it doesn't work that way. There's some divine spark of genius that happens to people sometimes when they work very hard on figuring things out. Sometimes they dream of snakes swallowing their tails (in the case of the structure of the benzene ring.) Other times they take a step onto a bus, and then freeze as the whole idea floods their mind. Sometimes they walk across a bridge. However it happens, the "aha" moment occurs, and the a new idea comes into the human library of knowledge from .... elsewhere, wherever, brains or quantum fluctuations in the void or who knows where? That step is still mysterious magic.
So back to my life, at some point in my 30s I began being unsatisfied with my model of reality. It doesn’t tell one how to live (because those questions are also simply not a part of science), and I felt I was living badly. I had my same morality I have today, but I was so disappointed that I didn’t seem to be making progress toward living it more truly, authentically, and in a way that brought happiness to me or those around me. Instead I seemed to myself to be weak and ill-made. All my noble resolutions for projects of great import would fizzle out again and again in laziness or indecision. My joy had somehow dribbled through my grasp, or turned to ashes in my hands. My heroes were people like Gandhi, MLK Jr., The Dalai Lama, people who had made a great impact on the world for good. But I couldn’t even seem to help my own self to live a moderately decent life, much less positively impact the world. For all my gift of intelligence, understanding, education that I’d been given, I felt I hadn’t made good use of my time. I actually seemed to make people around me depressed and unhappy, to wear them down. Old friends seemed indifferent. I felt like this sonnet:
Alas, ‘tis true, I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offenses of affections new.
I was weary, disheartened, disillusioned. Everything good seemed to turn to ashes in my hands. I felt I brought only sadness and hurt to the people I loved most. A damning observation, that. How can you run away from yourself? Start over fresh, okay maybe, but I’m still me. I’ll still hurt the new people I’ll surely come to love, and once again make them feel terrible. I was simply ill-made, under a permanent cloud. The universe was still awesome, but the experience of being me was steadily deteriorating. I began to wish fervently to die. Misery nights, as I called them, began to happen with greater frequency, when I couldn’t sleep, was in mental anguish all night, and wished for surcease. I fought battles against that feeling. I drank from all the reasons that held me alive. I would trick myself in different ways to keep on facing one more day, one more hour, take one more breath and let it out.
So around age 36, it began to strike me that the religious people around me, whom I had always liked and even admired, knew something about how to live that I didn’t know. All my life I’d felt they just didn’t understand science as I did, that they weren’t hard-nosed, practical, and skeptical like me. I felt at home and in my element in the company of Feynman, Dawkins, Schermer, Asimov, Sagan. But I never had solved the problem of how someone as sharp as Newton, say, could believe. It must have been the times, or something. After all, I couldn’t understand how anyone could have believed Aristotelian physics either, though somehow they did. Nowadays we just know better. But what of all the other believers today who were vastly more intelligent than me? I always had argued vociferously against the existence of God. My mom pointed out once that there are people way smarter than either of us who both believe and don’t believe. So however belief for or against comes to be for each of us, it’s certainly not about intelligence. Mom was a religion major. Dad studied math and engineering. Intellectually I was more like my dad, but did love the literature that Mom favored, too: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Thornton Wilder, Faulkner, Kazantzakis, etc. We are a bunch of readaholics in my family.
This is turning out to be so long that I’m tempted to apologize, but I guess since C. S. Lewis wrote a whole book (Surprised by Joy) about how he came to be a believer, I’m okay using a mere few thousand words.
So, one key insight was toward the religious people in my life and in history who were making so much better use of their lives than I was, who seemed to know how to live. I came to see that just maybe, possibly, they knew something I didn’t. Maybe there was something to what they said, and where they said it came from. I had once believed they were just happy accidents, people who were well made and naturally kind and so on. But they all seemed to point to prayer and meditation as being big influences. I began tentatively to pray, and lots of people were praying for me too. I started being willing to suspend disbelief to just explore their reality a bit. Sort of a scientific experiment.
I got stuck on the doctrinal points, though. How could it be right for me to let someone completely good take punishment in my stead? That was a real stumbling block. I’d rather suffer for millennia than let some innocent dear soul (whom I personified in my mind as being like my kitten Drive By who had been hit by a car as a feral cat, and whom I had rescued) suffer because of me. C.S. Lewis helped me there by showing me (I read all his apologia around this time) that one doesn’t have to think of it like that. There are always alternate ways of seeing things. Maybe Christ just paid a debt out of his bounty that I couldn’t afford for myself. Maybe only some things about religious thinking are true and helpful and others not. Maybe some things help some people and other things others. Maybe I should take what helped me and seemed to open a path for me, and leave aside for now what blocked my path of progress. Maybe religious belief is different in some ways from scientific belief. But what you lose in having less agreement over, you make up in other ways. But since when have scientists been in perfect agreement either? Surely there are many different ways of knowing.
About this time I had also read a book from the Hari Krishna people called “The Science of Self Realization”, at first just for a joke but then realizing the writer (Sri Prabhupada) was intelligent, learned, and wise. Some things he said (like I am not my body) resonated and rang true, but others (like the fact that the stars don’t shine by their own light) were just wrong, as far as I could tell. I began to entertain ideas of more complexity in my understanding of knowledge.
One misery night when I was at an absolute low point, ready to just give up on life for good, seeking that oblivion that I knew death was, I happened to cry out for help from any god or God who might exist. I felt foolish and overly dramatic. I was infinitely disgusted with myself. But I needed help. I knew I could not go on living on my own behalf. I was used up. I gave up. It was about 4 am and I needed to go to work the next day, but it was simply impossible for me to stand, to shower, dress, and go on. I couldn’t do it. I’d come to an impenetrable barrier. I acknowledged that I sucked, that I didn’t know anything about how to live, and that I was done. I wanted to die. I failed at living. I cried out with all the energy of my soul for someone or something in the universe to answer, to care, to connect with, to save my life, if there was anything worth living for.
And suddenly I was overwhelmingly calm. Where I had been distraught, I was now sleepy. Where there had been me alone in the universe, I was now supported, uplifted, and held safe. I slept.
This came from outside of me, I know. I’d done every trick you could imagine for years to fool myself into going on and living. I’d been stretching my mind and heart for ages to try to figure out how to be alive. I had nothing left. And suddenly I was given this enormous bounty of sleepiness and peace. It was definitely not anything I‘d been able to do myself. But it allowed me to rest, to continue with life, to go back to work again. I gave my life to God with a bitter laugh, thinking what a miserable disgusting gift it was. They gave it back to me solemnly, as a precious gem, clothed in glory. I was not worthless after all.
So I experimented on the word. I planted the seed in my heart and I watered it. It grew. It began to taste wonderful to me. The more I prayed, received, and acted on what I received, the better life got. It’s like night and day, the difference between then and now, before and after. Now I love life, every single moment except when I forget. Now I feel the presence of God (both Father and Mother) helping me, caring about me, watching me. I see them everywhere now, how the universe is conspiring to make me happy. A little breeze touches my face, and it’s a caress. The awesome beauty of the sky is there, and it moves my heart. “For you, for you, we made all of this for you. We want for you a joy unlimited.” All this while God was waiting for me to call, hanging around the phone, missing me, aching for me, and finally, finally, I did call. Then they were right there, helping me. Then and every day since then that I don’t forget to ask, forget to think about them, remember them, and see the universe through their eyes. I’m alive because there is Someone there. I know it as well as I know anything at all. I know that as clearly as I know my hellish life has turned heavenly. I’ll never doubt again because I remember, clear as anything, what life was like before, without them.
Of course you’re going to think “that’s not applicable to me, she must just have needed it so badly that it’s all wishful thinking on her part.” And that’s how subjective experiences work. They matter, they’re real, but only to one single soul at a time. If you cry out, I hope you’ll be helped, but I’m not sure you will be. I don’t understand, really, why I never perceived God’s existence before, and now I do. I liken it to those magic eye posters. There are actually quite a few people who can’t see the pictures in them, and honestly think everyone else is just lying and pretending to see, or imagining they see. They don’t *really* see. It’s kind of like that. I had to believe it was possible before I could do the honest work of trying to learn how. But once you do really see the picture, it’s not just a theory anymore about offsets and angles of vision. You know. That’s kind of how it is with God for me.
People tell me they’ve tried for their whole lives to pray and heard nothing. Maybe it’s like that one guy who took swimming at Auburn when it was required to graduate. He took it a dozen times and never could pass. They finally made an exception for him, I heard. Maybe some people are God-blind the way there are people born eye-blind or deaf. That would be very sad and unfair. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t really truly want to know God existed before. Because they could tell I didn’t, they were kind and stayed out of my mind. They stayed away. Maybe it’s a muscle that you have to exercise, like being willing to do bench presses for weeks or months before ever starting to notice the results. Maybe it’s something you have to be lucky to catch at the right time, like riding a bike. I tried to learn to ride the unicycle for many hours in my 20s, and failed. Finally after the hundredth time I fell and hurt myself, I thought “this isn’t worth it” and gave up. Yet my neighbors learned as kids and all could do it easily. Maybe the reason it’s contingent and fragile like that is because it’s real. It maybe doesn’t act like we think it ought to because there are all kinds of considerations of the actual reality of how it is implemented that make it confusing. Maybe sometimes the best way to see what God’s saying to you is to look at a luminescent stone in a hat. Real things are weird like that. Made up things, those are the ones that act exactly as you expected. Made up aliens look just like humans except with big eyes and gray skin, right? Real aliens are going to look like something more different from us than a sea urchin (who after all, is a relative).
So there’s a lot I don’t know. But what I do know is that God is really there. My life now is heaven, despite still having daily sorrows and cares. My life before was surely hell, an infinite anguish drawn in breath by breath for what seemed like eons. I’m able to access a peace that defies reason, a love and joy, whenever I really want it. I do get out of practice sometimes, begin to slip, but then I notice and begin again regularly to feed and water the little sapling in my chest, and it continues to grow. My knowledge of God is as sure as anything else I know.
The details, whether there’s one male god or many gods of both sexes, whether this or that ritual or ordinance is necessary, I don’t bother about so much. I love the restored gospel because it reached me and taught me these precious truths, when nothing else before or since has helped me so much. The partnership with a living God is the main thing. For those who‘ve never felt that, I totally understand why you can’t believe the gospel. I wish I could transmit my sure knowledge to those who doubt, but I can’t. It doesn’t work that way.
But maybe my testimony can inspire someone else to try again, or open someone’s heart to the spirit in some mysterious way. I tell this with great humility, knowing that all these things are fragile and contingent, not knowing why I’ve been so blessed and favored to have no doubts ever again. I say this knowing that I’m exposing myself to ridicule and put-downs by saying it, but not wanting to risk not reaching someone I might possibly reach. If there’s someone whose life can be transformed as mine was, how can I deny them any chance to find that? It’s too beautiful and too important to worry about fear of being scoffed at. It is indeed the water of eternal life to me. And I invite everyone to drink of it and be nourished.