William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lecture 3: The Reality of the Unseen

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At the start of this lecture, James announces his intention of examining the psychological peculiarities ... of belief in an object we cannot see. [p 53] His underlying theme seems to be that we all have a propensity to find unseen realities more real than those we perceive through our senses: religious belief is merely a particular expression of this propensity.

James begins by suggesting that in the normal way of things we can be more affected by mental objects than by whatever has given rise to them: the memory of an experience can generate far more emotion than the experience itself. He sees the power of religious beliefs in the same light: religion's abstract ideas seem more real to people and exert more power over them than everyday realities.

In fact, it is natural for us all to think in terms of abstractions, of ideas we cannot visualise. We cannot conceive of goodness, beauty, justice etc as such, yet without the help of abstractions like these, we are unable to think about actual concrete realities.

A perception of something there

And there is something else:

It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call something there, more deep and more general than any of the special and particular senses by which current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed. [p 58]

An undifferentiated sense of reality

James calls this additional sense an undifferentiated sense of reality [p 58] and accounts for hallucinations in terms of it. He reproduces at length the accounts of several people who have experienced a powerful presence when alone in a room.

The presence of God

James suggests that with this kind of perspective it is easy to appreciate how the abstractions of religion must seem real to some believers. He offers a series of accounts of mystical experiences in which the presence of God was overwhelmingly real to the subjects. He points out that such experiences exert a far more powerful influence over people's minds than rationalism.

(c) John C Durham, 2002

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