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Dr. Dean Zimmerman is the director of the Center for the Philosophy of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. Zimmerman is a rock star in the philosophy of religion / metaphysics / philosophy of mind worlds. Dean is also a literal rock star and he totally looks the part (see here, here, here, and here). He has been a long-time supporter of analytic theology (this was a seminal publication in the beginning stages of AT) and it was a delight to host him at Fuller.
One of the recurring questions that occupies philosophers of religion has to do with the perception of God. The question might be put like this: if God is immaterial, infinite, beyond all being, and utterly unlike anything we ever experience, how could we human beings who are so not like God, be able to perceive this God? It is to this question that Zimmermann turns in the title to his talk, “Perceiving God? It’s easy!”
Here is Zimmerman’s basic claim: If God exists and is causing everything, it’s not hard for us to be in a state of perceiving God. The first step in the analysis is to deploy a particular notion of perception. Zimmerman says he likes the “early modern stereotype account of perception,” which goes something like this:
Furthermore, Zimmerman explains, each of the modes of perception are keyed up with different families of mental states. So, you taste and that experience is keyed up with taste mental states (not tasty mental states, although I’m sure they would be delicious). Or you smell and that experience is keyed up with scent mental states. Moreover, this view holds that there is a causal relation obtaining between stuff outside of our minds and the mental states we are having that bring about the beliefs we form about this external stuff.
But here is something interesting about how this happens: sometimes the causal contributors to the perceptual experience are not the object of perception. So, Zimmerman’s example with my embellishment: Suppose on some warm March afternoon I am sitting by the pool in the backyard of my Southern California house where there is no snow in sight anywhere, and I gaze over in the direction of my orange tree. I see a lovely, juicy California orange and, in the having of this experience, I perceive orange (the color…but also the fruit). In this instance, the sight mental state family is being engaged in me and I form a belief about what I’m seeing (something like that there is an orange thing over there). But, there is a causal contributor to this experience that I am not paying attention to, namely, the sun. In addition to warming (and tanning) my skin, the sun provides the light that is needed for the appropriate light waves to bounce off the orange and hit my eyes, thus triggering the appropriate mental states. So the sun, here, is an important causal contributor to one’s perceptual experience, and one can attend to this component rather easily.
Now, how might this apply to perceiving God? Well, suppose there is a sensus divinitatis, some component of the human being whose job is to entertain mental states having to do with God, just as there might be a component of the human being whose job is to entertain mental states having to do with smell or sight. Suppose also, then, that when one has some transcendent experience and in light of this, one comes to have a belief about God, like that God exists or I am perceiving God. How might this move be warranted? Try this on:
This could be triggered by…
This could come from…
which could come in the form of…
God can just do what God always does
As Zimmerman relates, people report experiences based on 1 and 3 all the time, lots of people report transcendent experiences and they report forming beliefs about God on the basis of them. So, says Zimmerman, 1 and 3 are relatively unproblematic. The key is 2, does/could God cause one to have a perceptual experience of God. Zimmermann’s answer is yes, and he focuses on 2b to show how simple it is to think this. The notion of divine concurrence is a fairly standard one in the history of Christian reflection. The idea here is that God holds everything in existence and nothing exists without some divine action maintaining it in existence. So, what does God have to do to contribute causally to one’s perceptual experience of God? God just has to do what God is always doing, causally holding all things in existence. So, if a human has a transcendent experience, triggering the appropriate family of mental states, and then forms a belief about God on the basis of it, and God is doing what God always does, then, ta-da!, one has perceived God. In the words of an eminent church historian I once heard conclude a particularly erudite lecture, “Easy peasy lemon squeezy!”
James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.