Low Hanging Fruit – Sensed-Presence Effect

I have been having a rather rambling discussion over at the ‘A-Unicornist’ blog with Mike (who made one brief comment here. Sort of) about whether a person could reasonably come to the conclusion that Christianity is true by an examination of the evidence. Unfortunately, like many discussions, it has quickly gone from trying to establish a few basic points clearly to a scatter-shot of considerations that are virtually impossible to consider in brief series of postings. I always love when I am accused of not being rational by someone employing an array of red herrings, strawmen, and non-sequitors.

Nonetheless, there is coherence enough there to discern a few ideas – one idea that seems to appear frequently in Mike’s responses is the idea of the ‘Sensed-Presence Effect‘. For those of you not familiar with it (Mike seems to throw it out there irrelevant to context or the particular idea being considered) it is a vaguely documented experience whereby a person seems to sense the presence of another person or entity when no one else is physically there. It may take the form of someone watching them, particularly when going through some extreme circumstance or prolonged isolation. Mike doesn’t articulate it clearly, but it seems to be his way of dealing with the Christian belief in the Holy Spirit (oddly, he even does this when no mention is actually made of the Holy Spirit).

Since it seems to be so frequent a reference there (which he apparently adopted from claims of the atheists he reads) I thought it worthwhile topic consider apart from the flak flying there.

First I think it would be important to consider a few Scriptural references to people experiencing the Holy Spirit. The first mention of this in this amongst believers is in the books of Acts – it goes as follows:

Acts 2:1-

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now I think one could question whether this event actually happened, or was made up after the fact. Or one could think that it was a group delusion of sorts, with everyone convinced they had experienced something they hadn’t. I have reasons for thinking otherwise, but what is relevant in this case is that what it couldn’t have been is a Sensed-Presence Effect. There is no isolation, no vague sense of another person being present in the room being chronicled here – it an explosive event, with an overwhelming sense of something otherworldly, not a vague sense of someone merely watching or standing by. So explaining the Holy Spirit away utilizing this argument won’t work here. Here is another instance, with the Apostle Paul’s conversion:

Acts 9:10-19

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Now again,
one might question the historical veracity of this passage. What one couldn’t sensibly do is claim this is an instance of a Sensed-Presence Effect. There is no indeterminate sense of another presence, no notion that some entity is there to guide and help. The persons in these events have a definite sense of purpose and direction, and their experience is shared between multiple individuals. So the Effect doesn’t apply here.

What about today, with modern Christians? I don’t know what every Christian experiences, but I have talked to Christians around the world, in a wide variety of cultures, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they all seem to share certain characteristics:

  1. Clarity of purpose, renewal, and a sense of peace
  2. A sense of conviction, or discernment about choices that are contrary to God’s will and God’s moral precepts
  3. An ability to understand Scripture in a way one wasn’t able to previous to having the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life
  4. A sense of personal unity with others who share the Holy Spirit

Those are a few commonalities that seemed to be shared – there are probably more I have overlooked. Nonetheless, taken as a whole these don’t seem anything like the Sensed Presence Effect described in literature. It is no mere feeling of someone watching or guiding one in isolation or under duress, but instead a specific collection of experiences with definite parameters collectively experienced in a wide variety of circumstances across cultures and history.

In short, one might have reason to be skeptical the Holy Spirit exists, but it can’t be explained away Mike and other atheists are attempting to.


9 Responses to Low Hanging Fruit – Sensed-Presence Effect

  1. Mike D says:

    Yeah, you missed the side of the barn. I do not know, and cannot prove or disprove, whether someone’s claim of experiencing the Holy Spirit is a result of the sensed-presence effect. That’s not the point.

    The point is this: people all over the world, throughout human history, make claims about experiencing all manner of gods and spirits, and they describe their experiences the exact same way Christians describe their experiences with the Holy Spirit. If you ever study the psychology of possession, you’ll find that your “four points” are culturally ubiquitous – save for their obvious cultural quirks (namely, which gods and spirits you’re referring to).

    Presumably, you do not simply take someone’s word for it when they tell you they were visited by, oh I dunno, Krishna. Pick your spirit or deity here. The point is that you believe YOUR experience was authentic, but THEIRS was not. We can rationally explain the psychology of possession, including visitation by gods and spirits, with things like the sensed-presence effect, groupthink, and sociocultural biases. So why is it then, Jack, that you think that YOUR experience is uniquely transcendent of rational explanation? This is clearly a case of special pleading. You want to believe that other people’s experiences with gods and spirits are false, but yours was the real McCoy, somehow immune to sociocultural biases or unwitting tricks of the brain that people of every other culture ever are victim to.

    And finally, your appeal to the Bible makes a similar error – you assume that the extraordinary claims in the Bible are true and accurate. But wait! You don’t assume that all supernatural events and holy books are true, do you? Of course not! Only yours are true. It’s just more special pleading.

    Sheesh. Next time you want to accuse me of committing logical fallacies, make sure you actually know what a fallacy is because brother, you’re steeped in them.

  2. jackhudson says:

    If you are right, then you can give me one other ancient text where a religion deals with an experience the same way the two passages I cited above do.

  3. Mike D says:

    Sigh. Yup, you missed the point again. Firstly, you’re implicitly assuming the accuracy of the text. Sorry, but the quirks of the stories in Acts are not evidence that they are true. Unless you can cite a specific piece of evidence by which you accept the supernatural claims of the Bible but dismiss all others, it’s special pleading. Every holy book and oral tradition has unique stories about encounters with the supernatural, so why should I believe yours?

    Secondly, I don’t see why you think you can evade the question by creating an arbitrary standard – that the example must come from another holy book. Why couldn’t the example come from any other culture in which people claim to be possessed or visited by gods and/or spirits?

  4. jackhudson says:

    So, just to be clear, you don’t actually know of any experiences described in ancient texts, as you said,”the exact same way Christians describe their experiences with the Holy Spirit.”

    That is your standard, Mike, not mine. I take it then you have no examples? I mean if it is so common and it’s exactly the same, it shouldn’t be a problem, no?

  5. Mike D says:

    That’s not what I said. I was not (and never have been) talking about mythological stories in ancient texts such as the fluff in Acts. I’m talking about your personal experiences.

    You claim to have experienced God. Fine. I do not believe you actually experienced God. I believe that your experience was no different than that of anyone else who claims to experience a god or spirit. You experienced precisely what you wanted to experience, and it was heavily informed by sociocultural and psychological biases. If I’m supposed to take your claim as uniquely valid whilst still dismissing the supernatural claims of non-Christians on rational grounds, the burden is on you to demonstrate your experience as such.

  6. jackhudson says:

    So, let me be clear here – you want me to in lieu of any actual cited evidence, take your word that my experience with the Holy Spirit is the same as some other vague people you have heard of that believe some other vague belief you have heard of, though can’t actually cite, and because of this the burden is on me to prove that my experience is unique.

    Seriously Mike, this is what you got?

  7. Mike D says:

    Sigh. Okay Jack. It’s clear at this point that this is a battle of egos, not of ideas. So I’m going to take things back a step and tell you about my personal experience in the hope that it will illuminate my point.

    When I was a Christian, I prayed for hours on end. I had “worship tapes” that were hours of ethereal sounding music meant for “quiet time with God”. During these times, I often felt the presence of God. I frequently became overcome with emotion. I would laugh, cry, and everything in between. It seemed palpably real to me.

    The same was true at church. When the whole congregation prayed, sang and worshiped, it was as though I could feel God’s spirit pervading the room. It affected everyone, and everyone would describe the same presence, and similar evocation of powerful emotions. It seemed a powerful confirmation of God’s existence, to really feel his presence.

    After my deconversion, those experiences were a mystery to me. I’d lost my faith in the Bible, but some of those experiences still eluded rational explanations. Then, in college, I took some psychology courses and learned about the psychology of possession. It turns out that people all over the world claimed to have encounters with gods and spirits. I was shocked at how similar the descriptions were to my own; people talked about the palpable presence of spirits (whether alone or with others), being overcome with emotions, and engaging in dramatic physical behaviors. Of course, because they were from other cultures, the actual spirits and precise nature of the events would be different. But the general emotional and physical responses were identical to what I’d experienced. That was very humbling, because as a believer I’d always assumed that my Holy Spirit encounters were unlike anything even most fairweather Christians had experienced. I could not have been more wrong.

    So when a guy like you says he experienced the presence of God, I believe that you really think you did. I don’t think you’re being at all disingenuous. But I don’t think you’re looking at the bigger picture, and asking the tough questions. What makes you so sure that your experience was authentic? What do you make of others who experience other gods and spirits in similar ways as you experience the holy spirit?

    If you want to believe your experiences solely on personal faith, that’s fine. But if you want me to believe it as well, you have to give some independently verifiable evidence that demonstrates that the kinds of explanations we use for similar encounters with other gods/spirits – groupthink, sense-presence, sociocultural biases, etc. – cannot be applied to your experience.

    And with that, I’m out. Have a good one Jack.

  8. jackhudson says:

    I actually appreciate you sharing that Mike – I don’t doubt your personal experiences and what brought you to where you are today. What I don’t agree with is that because you had this experience, then everybody else has that experience or one similar. In fact, you are committing the very fallacy you accuse other Christians of; basing your beliefs about the truth of a matter on personal experience.

    The fact is Mike I did think about it before I was a Christian. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home; my father was what we called back then a ‘free-thinker’. I was steeped in books about science from a young age, part of the reason I studied biology at the university as a young adult. I debated and discussed philosophy and religion from a young age. Even so, I had little to no actual religious experience to glom onto much less have feel pressure from. I couldn’t have told you what an experience with God or the Holy Spirit was supposed to be like if you held a gun to my head. And despite the fact that I was a voracious reader who literally had been reading encyclopedias since I was a child, the Bible was complete gobbled-gook to me. The few times I bothered to crack the pages were less than useless; I didn’t understand why anyone bothered to read a book that, as far as I could tell, made no sense.

    And I was more than familiar with a life without God, which is part of the reason I knew how much people ‘faked it’ when it came to their beliefs. Often people followed a path because they were rebelling against their parents or because they felt disappointed by some life experience or because, as you point out, are engaged in groupthink. Having spent most of my youth with unbelievers, I can tell you that this isn’t unique to religious folk. Though I know atheists would like to think they are above this, and somehow have a grasp on reason that others don’t, having been there myself and known numerous others in the same boat, I am certain that isn’t true – they parrot, they follow their leaders, they congregate and reassure each other. In fact I think they imitate each other more than any other group I know of – which is part of the reason I was already familiar with your points.

    As to my own experiences, I found something Pascal said to best capture what I experienced:

    So there is open war among men, in which each must take a part and side either with dogmatism or skepticism. For he who thinks to remain neutral is above all a skeptic. This neutrality is the essence of the sect; he who is not against them is essentially for them. In this appears their advantage. They are not for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent, in suspense as to all things, even themselves being no exception.
    What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists?

    We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete skeptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.

    Shall he, then, say, on the contrary, that he certainly possesses truth– he who, when pressed ever so little, can show no title to it and is forced to let go his hold? What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
    Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the skeptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.

    Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.

    You see the problem Michael isn’t that some people are subject to “groupthink, sense-presence, sociocultural biases, etc.”, the problem is that you think you are above them now, though I can plainly see you aren’t, because I have been there. That is why when I became a Christian it was an act of humility, a concession the limits of what I knew and could know, and what I could make myself do. It is seeing ourselves for whom we really are. I didn’t need a church or a understanding of the Bible or a group of people to tell me to do this, it happened quite independently from all that. The greatest knowledge one can come to possess is this humility and understanding of the need for God.

    As a Christian I have been delighted to find out that through my travel not only was this experience real, but it is one repeated throughout the world, across cultures and languages and the socio-economic spectrum. And I though I have met people from a wide variety of religious background, I have never met anyone who had this experience outside of Christianity.

    In addition I find that my belief system is consistent with other independent means of knowing, scientific thought, philosophical thought, history, and that it actually make lives and societies better by any measure. No one can deny that humans would be better off if Jesus commands about how we treat each other were followed – I don’t think that can necessarily be said about other religions.

    Well, that’s a quick summary. There is plenty beyond that here Mike, feel free to commit elsewhere is you have the time.

  9. kenetiks says:

    In other words and in much simpler terms.

    Your experience is no less valid and certainly no more valid than a muslim’s experience with allah and cannot be taken as evidence either for or against.

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