Substance vs. Signal

When I was in Primary, I often heard stories about the warm feelings from the Holy Ghost that teach true principles and indicate right behavior. Such stories appear frequently in the Friend, an official Mormon magazine for young children. I found a couple of examples to provide as a sample:

These stories are heartwarming and adorable. They teach a powerful concept–that there is something inside each of us that testifies of goodness and truth. That small children are able to experience and recognize this is remarkable. A few quotes from these articles give us a sense of how the Holy Ghost might be described:

Gabriel felt a new feeling inside. He did not know what it was. He felt warm even though it was chilly outside. He smiled big.

After the prayer I was no longer scared. I felt a very peaceful feeling, and I went back to my classroom. On the way home that day, I told my mother what had happened. She joyfully told me that the warm, peaceful feeling I had was the Holy Ghost comforting me. She said that usually the Holy Ghost does not talk to us like other people talk to us. Instead He gives us a peaceful feeling.

The Holy Ghost gives me a special feeling when I need to bear my testimony. I sometimes feel it when people are giving talks in sacrament meeting. The Spirit fills me with love and peace, and I feel safe.

Stories like these can help children harness the power introspection and self-awareness. As they learn to pay attention to what is happening inside them, they are more likely to recognize when their actions diverge from their personal ethical framework. While they are still very young, the Holy Ghost can open their hearts to a higher plane where decision-marking is not entirely driven by self-interest.

However, there is a nuance to the way that children learn about the Holy Ghost that can become problematic. Note the following quotes, also from the Friend links above:

Gabriel wanted to share this special feeling. “I feel so happy and warm!” he said.

Then I felt that warm feeling again. I know that in order to feel the Holy Ghost more easily, we need to be reverent.

I am so grateful I have been baptized so I can feel the Spirit better.

In each of these excerpts, the feeling of the Holy Ghost are viewed as a goal or outcome. While the presence of the Holy Ghost is often experienced as some sort of positive internal state, it would be a mistake to seek it as an end in itself. I don’t fault little children for demonstrating a less-than-fully developed understanding of the Holy Ghost, but this thinking can easily continue well into adulthood, resulting in people who expect to always feel the Holy Ghost and become distressed when they inevitably do not.

In our Gospel learning, and in life, we often fail to distinguish between substance and signal. By “substance” I mean that which is intrinsically positive or good, and by “signal” that which reveals the nature of substance. Substance is (obviously) substantial, while signal is informative. When we seek the feeling of the Holy Ghost as an outcome, we misuse it. Jesus taught that “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26 KJV). As Jesus taught, the Holy Ghost should serve as a signal, directing us to the His teachings, the substance.  The Holy Ghost itself can become a distraction if it overwhelms our attention as a goal in place of the true Substance of Jesus.

To that end, these quotes from the same Friend articles help put the experience of the Holy Ghost in proper perspective:

Mama smiled and hugged Gabriel. “That feeling tells you that Jesus loves you.”

I always feel the Spirit when people share their belief in Christ.

I have found that I frequently confound signal and substance in my daily life. I have a body that gives me life. To keep my body alive, I need energy, which requires that I eat. Too often I make the pleasure of eating my reason for eating. I treat the pleasure of eating as substantial in itself rather than informative. We have biological systems that encourage us to eat–with taste buds and stomach nerves–but the tastiness and the fullness of belly can become a distraction from the actual purpose of food. When we are hungry, we would do well to think a little less “I don’t like this feeling” and a little more “What is this feeling telling me?”; less “I love food” and more “I love life.” Interestingly, among its other effects, fasting can turn out minds back to the true value of our bodies and the food that keeps them going.

I think Jesus was talking about this idea when he said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 KJV). To live an abundant life is to spend time in truly substantial things. An abundant life is a one committed to loving people rather than appearing to be loved by people, even though both can make us feel important. It is spent doing good rather than doing a lot, even though both can make us feel productive. It demands we face challenges because they are real instead of ignoring them because they are scary, even though both can make us feel safe. It is created by being authentically good, as Jesus did.

The idea of substance vs. signal has been on my mind recently because I think it partly identifies a major misunderstanding that some people have of gay people. If we could see inside each other’s heads, I sense that some interactions would look something like this:

Gay person says: I am romantically and sexually attracted to people of my own sex. That is why I seek a relationship with someone of my own sex.

Straight person hears: I like the sexual and romantic feelings I get from people of my own sex. I seek relationship with them to have those feelings.

Gay person means: My romantic and sexual feelings indicate to me that a relationship with someone of my own sex is good. By seeking such a relationship I am pursuing good.

The underlying misunderstanding is the end goal. It may seem from the outside that gay people are simply seeking pleasure by pursuing the relationships that feel natural to them. That is probably true in some cases. But in many cases, gay people are simply recognizing their sexual feelings as a signal that is pointing them to true substance. They are no more interested in pleasure for pleasure’s sake than an equivalent heterosexual person. Of course, each of us has many signals to weigh against each other, and we must each individually determine where the substance of life resides.

As an aside, the pursuit of sexual pleasure separate from the substance of true substantial relationship is, indeed, problematic. As with most appetites, sexual drive serves to direct us toward things that are truly good: relationship and life. Hetero- and homosexual people alike will miss out on good things if they allow the signal rather than the substance to drive their decision-making.


This is just giving her a perm, but it looks like it could be an Experience Machine, right?

We each have many desires, and we would do well to recognize and treat them as welcome reminders and guides toward the substantial things of life. Spiritual, emotional and physical feelings alike can be invaluable sources of insight, and they are best used when we are focused on the abundant life to which they point.

I came to understand the difference between substance and signal more fully during a discussion in an ethics class at BYU about the “Experience Machine.”  The Experience Machine is a thought experiment put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick (this description from Wikipedia):

Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. Psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person’s brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. He then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?

I hope it is clear by now that I would not.


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