Many claim to have experienced the presence of God, often describing the encounter 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, as we shall call them, are neither rare nor found only in the lives of world-changing saints. Ordinary religious believers often rely upon a sense of the presence of God to sustain their faith. Philosophers of religion have argued that a sense of God’s presence can constitute genuine perceptual contact with God. But are any experiences of presence really perceptual in nature? Addressing this deep question calls for a kind of collaboration among scientists and philosophers that has not happened previously.
The project will bring together some of the leading minds from these different fields to carry out research they could not accomplish independently. An anthropologist and historian with expertise in the study of religious experience will discover more about experiences commonly understood as divine presence—what they feel like, the circumstances in which they occur, and the psychological traits that make them more likely. Their investigations will help to identify the target phenomena. Perception scientists will work to devise new experiments to test for connections between forms of perceptual processing and experiences of presence. The philosophers—experts in the philosophy of cognitive science, epistemology, and philosophy of religion—will sharpen questions about the value and meaning of these experiences in light of the scientific research.
We are confident that this unusual collaboration of various field leaders will make progress on which subset of experiences may be characterized as experiencing the divine, which of these are genuinely perceptual, and what implications these identifications might hold. Nearly 20 publications will result, appearing in top philosophy, psychology, and interdisciplinary journals.