Course Descriptions

730:684 Philosophy of History: Philosophy of Perception and Religious Experience

  • Semester: Fall 2022
  • Instructor: Antony, Louise | Zimmerman, Dean
  • Description:

    Despite the official title, this will not primarily be a seminar in the history of philosophy (though we will start with some of the early 20th Century background to contemporary discussions of perception).

    Roughly half the seminar will focus on philosophy of perception (especially vision), its transformation by advances in cognitive science, and the source of perception’s epistemological importance. Topics will include: The distinction between cognition and perception, Fodorian doctrines about the modularity of mind and the cognitive impenetrability of perception, the challenges posed by illusion and hallucination, the relationship between causation (by a perceived object) and perception (of that object), and Sellars’s objection to “the given” (construed as a challenge to naturalized epistemology). Among other things, we will read Antony’s “The Openness of Illusions”, “How Naturalists Can Give Internalists What They Really Want (or Need!)”, and “Not Rational, but Not Brutely Causal Either”. Brian Scholl and Philip Corlett, cognitive scientists from Yale who study vision (and hallucinatory visual experiences), will be guest speakers (probably over zoom). Brian McLaughlin will contribute to this part of the seminar as well (in person).

    In the second half of the seminar, we will turn to religious experience, and the extent to which some religious experiences may or may not be perceptual or at least perception-like. A main theme will be reconsideration of the ambitious project of William Alston’s book, Perceiving God, in the light of contemporary empirical work on perception and religious experience — in particular, the kinds of experiences Alston (and, before him, John Hick) assigned special epistemological significance. Alston claims that such experiences are sources of justification in the same way visual experiences are evidence of an “external world”. Mark Baker (who will be present) and Zimmerman will attempt a qualified defense of Alston’s picture, in the face of many challenges to it based on the evident differences between religious experiences and standard forms of perception. For expertise on the relevant kinds of experience, we will turn to Tanya Luhrmann, who will be a zoom visitor for at least one session during this portion of the seminar. Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor at Stanford, studying religious experience as an anthropologist and psychologist. We will read parts of her books When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012) and How God Becomes Real (Princeton U.P., 2020).

    Sarah Coakley will also visit the seminar (in person) to discuss her recent work on perception, bias, and sin — including, for example, “Spiritual Perception and the Racist Gaze”, in Frederick Aquino and Paul Gavrilyuk, eds., Perceiving Things Divine: Towards a Constructive Account of Spiritual Perception (Oxford, OUP, 2022). Coakley is the author of Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender, and many other books at the intersection of philosophy and theology. She retired in 2018 from the Norris-Hulse Professorship at Cambridge U.

  • Credits: 3
  • Syllabus Disclaimer: The information on this syllabus is subject to change. For up-to-date course information, please refer to the syllabus on your course site (e.g. Canvas) on the first day of class.