Perceiving God

During the Philosophy Lecture Series, Ryan Christensen discussed the justification for a belief in God from experiences we gain from perception.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 19, 2017)—Can a belief in God be justified? If so, how? Professor of philosophy Ryan Christensen tackled the philosophically thorny topic of God. But rather than focusing on whether or not God existed, his lecture was concerned with how such a belief might be justified. He argued that it can be, based on a posteriori knowledge, or knowledge by experience, rather than a priori knowledge, which comes from reasoning.

Christensen began with a spectrum of ways knowledge is gained. At one end, he put a priori knowledge, or knowledge gained from theoretical deduction, like the knowledge that two plus two equals four. At the other was knowledge gained a posteriori, or from experience. In between were ways of gaining knowledge that Christensen asserted were neither completely a priori nor a posteriori, but a combination of observation and logical reasoning.

Christensen continued by explaining that justification, which he defined as reasoning or evidence, was what leads us to feel comfortable with our belief in something. He asserted that justification can come in degrees; not every belief requires the same amount of justification. He asked the audience if they did an internet search to find a movie time and it told them seven, were they justified in believing the movie starts at seven? He said, “In most cases, just looking it up online—that’s going to be enough.”

“But maybe the stakes are higher,” he proposed. “What if millions of dollars and three people’s lives were at stake?” He described a scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which a row of people are all working on the same math calculation to make sure it’s correct. The higher the stakes, the more justification needed to believe something. For many, belief in God is a matter of eternal salvation, or damnation if we choose wrong. Thus, the ability to justify a belief in God has been haunting great minds for centuries.

One such mind was Bertrand Russell. In his famous teapot analogy in 1952, Russell compared the belief in God to a belief in a china teapot so tiny no telescope could detect it orbiting the sun—both are plausible, he concluded, but neither can be proven nor disproven, thus eliminating the possibility of justification. Christensen asked, “Is there a possible response to that kind of criticism?” 

He continued, “I want to try to argue . . . that God can be justified because we perceive God; God is an object of our perception.” Referencing D&C 76, which reads, in part, “After the many testimonies that have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, that we give of him—that he lives! For we saw Him,” Christensen reminded the audience that there are prophets who justify their belief in God because they have seen Him, but that “God doesn’t seem to be perceivable in the same way as, say, [a] table is. It’s not perception in the natural sense . . . [but] I want to claim that for most of us a belief in God can be justified by . . . a posteriori perception.” In other words, even though we might not perceive God with our five senses, belief in God is possible, allowing faith and philosophy to be compatible in this sense.

In order to distinguish the perception of God from the perception through the five senses, Christensen asserts that the definition of perception must be broadened. “We use metaphors that are our senses [to explain perceiving God]—we hear God, we feel God, it seems like God is speaking. These are perceptual metaphors because . . . it’s possible to have a perception that’s not one of those five [senses].” It’s this more nebulous but faith-building perception that Christensen asserts can be our justification for saying we have experienced God.

Christensen acknowledged the counterargument that religious experiences are simply deceptions caused by chemical secretions in the brain. However, he said the same could be argued for almost all perception and in that case we couldn’t be justified in believing any of our perceptions. He did caution the audience that “if [you] have some good reason to doubt [your perceptions], that puts in doubt the experience [you’re] having.” Generally though, logic and self-awareness are the only things needed to distinguish between valid and skewed perception.

Christensen concluded, “If I don’t have [a] good reason to doubt it, then I think that I can say I’m in the same boat I’m in with any justification: I perceive something, therefore I’m justified in believing that it is, barring any evidence to the contrary.” Treating spiritual perceptions with the same common sense we afford sensory ones admits their imperfections but validates them as real. Christensen admitted, “That’s where we are with all of our perceptions, and I think we can be in that same place with God.”


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the philosophy department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.