Perceiving Divine Presences: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Advances

Many claim to have experienced the presence of God, gods, or other invisible presences deemed to be of great religious significance. Such encounters are sometimes described in perceptual or sensory terms — a vision, a voice heard when alone, a sense of another being when none can be seen, and so on. These experiences of presence are neither rare nor found only in the lives of saints. New religious movements frequently begin with purported supernatural encounters, and an episodic awareness of God’s presence proves to be vital to the faith of many ordinary believers around the world. Many people have some kind of experience of an invisible other, which they often take to be evidence of spirit.

Despite the obvious importance of these experiences in human history and in individual experience, we still understand little about them. This project brings together three kinds of scholars to explore them: anthropologists (Tanya Luhrmann and Eleanor Schille-Hudson, Postdoc) and historians (Ann Taves and Elliott Ihm, Postdoc) who have spent their scholarly years documenting the nature of these events; psychologists of perception, two of whom focus on vision (Brian Scholl and Joan Ongchoco, postdoc) and two on hallucinations (Phil Corlett and Santiago Castiello de Obeso, postdoc); and philosophers who work on epistemology, cognitive science, perception, and philosophy of religion (Dean Zimmerman, Louise Antony, Brian McLaughlin, Mark Baker, Timothy Perrine, and Wes Skolits).

Our goal is to make progress in answering three interrelated questions:

  1. What are experiences of presence like?
  2. Are at least some experiences of presence genuinely similar to perceptual experiences?
  3. In light of the answers to (i) and (ii), what role should experiences of presence be given in the pursuit of spiritual information?

The first two questions will primarily be addressed by our scientists, while the third largely falls to the philosophers. But each team member’s expertise will be relevant at many stages of our inquiry.

The project can be thought of as having three major interrelated subprojects, corresponding to these three questions. First, emphasizing the work of Luhrmann and Taves, the team will attempt to better describe the core phenomena by situating it within what Taves calls “non-ordinary experiences of presence”, and relating it to what Luhrmann calls “perceiving spirit”. Working through the relations among these concepts (and determining whether they are taxonomic versus dimensional) will be no trivial task. It will require examination of this phenomenal space in different cultural settings with different measurement instruments. We shall have to consider how such experiences vary in form and in content within social worlds and across cultural domains, whether there are distinct kinds of spiritual experiences of presence, and how to understand factors associated with them (such as absorption — an immersive orientation — and porosity — a dimension of a model of mind).

Such an analysis will reciprocally inform a second major activity: determining the degree to which experiencing presence involves “perception”, as perception scientists understand the word. Cognitive scientists studying auditory and visual hallucinations often use quasi-technical terms like “percept” and “perceptual representation” to describe experiences that are the result of perceptual processing — whether or not they correspond to anything in the real world. The second question can then be expressed as: Do some experiences of presence involve percepts, as understood by scientists of perception; are they perceptual representations? The philosophers and perception scientists on our team will tease apart the various things one might mean by “percept”, and “perceptual representation”, to identify several more precise candidate meanings. Brian Scholl and Philip Corlett, who will conduct the experiments, will work closely with Taves and Luhrmann and their colleagues to determine the best ways to probe for and measure experiences of presence. They will then examine whether the cognitive mechanisms at play in experiencing presence are shared with other cases of visual and auditory perception and/or hallucination. They will ask whether factors which facilitate experiences of presence also facilitate ordinary perceptual events.

The third major activity, led by the philosophers on this team, will assess the implications of the first two bodies of work for existential questions. The most natural question that will be asked by someone who actually has an experience of presence is very simple: Has this experience in fact put me in touch with a supernatural reality? Two of the most important philosophers of religion of the last 100 years — John Hick (1957) and William Alston (1991) — construct epistemologies that require experiences of presence to qualify as a kind of perception. They represent a long tradition of philosophers (and theologians) who give perception-like experiences of presence, interpreted religiously, a kind of epistemic privilege. The philosophers will assess the plausibility of the Hick-Alston valorization of presence, given what is now known, and what will be discovered in the course of the project, about the conditions and context of such experiences. The status of presence events as perceptions has implications for a number of problems in epistemology which we are now exploring.