How wonderful the human mind! It has given us mastery over the animal world and over physical forces stupendous in their might. It promises even to make us masters of ourselves and of our future development. But the possession of this wonderful capacity entails also unfortunate consequences. It leads primitive man into forms of behavior grotesquely absurd and at times not only useless but also harmful — habits of which no animal could ever be guilty. Did any animal ever attempt to kill otherwise than in what seems to be a rational manner?
That cannot be said of the natives of the islands of Melanesia. They seek to destroy their enemies with ghostshooters made of a bit of bamboo stuffed with leaves, a dead man’s bone, and other magical ingredients. The magician holds it in his hand, with the open end of the bamboo covered with his thumb, till he sees his enemy; then he lets out the magic influence and shoots his man.
Among the Papuans, when a house is to be built, the preparation begins long before the actual work. A variety of things, which do not seem to us to have any possible connection with building, have to be assembled: a few leaves from the thatch of a house, some ashes from a fireplace, certain things connected with the person of an enemy,—a little of his spittle, remains of food showing his teeth marks, trophies such as pieces of the skull of a slain enemy, — certain parts of a wild pig, a snake, the teeth of a dog known to have been very fierce. Only when all these things have been gathered is it wise to begin to cut down the trees for the building. When the poles have been prepared and the holes dug for them, another chapter of queer performances begins: the end of the main post is smeared with ashes mixed with water, and the remainder of the mixture is kept for daubing the men when they go out to fight; the snake is twisted round the lower end of the post; in the hole made for it are put the eyebrows, finger nails, and parts of the tongues of slain enemies.
I shall not weary you with further directions for the erection of a solid house, proof against accidents, in which a family may live happily ever after. I shall add only that every part of the life of the uncivilized — birth, marriage, hunting, the preparation of the game, sowing, reaping, death, burial — is regulated by magical and by religious customs regarded by us as altogether ineffectual.
It may seem a matter for wonder that among the first fruits of the great intellectual gifts separating man from the animal should be useless and absurd beliefs and practices, making men look ridiculous by the side of the apparently sensible and reasonable animals! But it requires imagination and powers of invention to create magic. The animal is preserved from errors of imaginative thinking by the absence of that superior form of thought.
We are not to suppose that, because magic and inferior forms of worship have disappeared from our highest civilizations, the mind has ceased to mislead us into striking and far-reaching errors. I intend to consider in this paper two related forms of illusion. The first is the conviction of the presence with us of a person, although the ordinary indicators of a presence — such as sight, sound, touch — are absent. Let us call that experience the Sense of Presence. The second is a failure to become aware of the reality of a person actually perceived by the senses; it is, therefore, the reverse of the Sense of Presence. We may call it the Unreality of the Real. The first experience is almost commonplace, in no way indicative of abnormality, and plays an important rôle in civilized humanity, particularly in religion. It is otherwise with the second; it does not come to healthy persons, and it is socially insignificant.
I shall illustrate these two kinds of related experiences by a sufficient number of instances, and then attempt an explanation of them. The same psychological principles will be sufficient to explain them both.
Before proceeding, however, I should like to comment briefly upon the attitude assumed by many persons — even by certain philosophers — toward any attempted explanation of things which, for some reason or other, have come to be regarded as mysterious and sacred. No less a personage than William James will provide us with the horrible example of romanticism and misplaced awe which I desire to bring to your attention.
In that famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there is a chapter entitled ‘The Reality of the Unseen,’in which, among other things, invisible presences are taken up. The phenomenon is abundantly illustrated, but no effort is made to explain it. The author’s purpose is not to analyze and to understand, but to set forth the wonder and to declare the inadequacy of reason to cope with it. Instead of attempting to do the work that might be expected of the psychologist, he launches into a tirade against rationalism: ‘We have to confess,’ he writes, ‘that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. . . . Something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.’
I will take the liberty of saying that this last sentence might have come from the mouth of those who, in long-past centuries, wanted the Giordano Brunos and Galileos to recant their sacrilegious propositions and to stop their impious search after knowledge. We may imagine the cold, unflinching voice of the inquisitor saying, ‘Our God-given eyes assure us that the sun turns round the earth. That assurance must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever.’
I must not forget to add that the passage I have quoted does not represent William James completely. It expresses only one, or perhaps two, of the several moods or attitudes of this great and many-sided writer: the mood of the scientist acutely conscious of defeat and limitation, and partly discouraged; and the mood of the romantic soul, lover of adventure and mystery. I think we may proceed and seek to explain even the Sense of Invisible Presence without fear of making discoveries reserved for themselves by jealous gods.
I begin with the Unreality of the Real — that is, the failure to believe in the reality of someone whose presence is testified to by vision or some other sense. Confronted with his daughter, an unfortunate neurasthenic father would say, ‘It seems to me that she is not my daughter, for if she were my daughter I should experience a great joy.’ Another patient, in the presence of her mother, whom she recognizes very well, would nevertheless deny that she was her mother and even affirm that the person before her had no real existence.
This curious impression of unreality, or rather this curious absence of the impression of reality, varies in its extension. At times it bears mainly on one person or on one class of things, or yet upon a period of one’s life. In other cases it affects everything, even the sense of one’s own existence. Claudine, a patient of Janet, complains that things have become strange, that they have lost their reality. In Lætitia the disturbance spreads to her own self. Reversing Descartes’s axiom, she had the audacity to say, ‘Of course I think, but I do not exist.’ And to Janet, her physician, she would say, ‘Why do you want me to speak to you? You do not exist; neither do I. Good-bye.’
This absence of the impression of reality affects not only things actually perceived by the senses but also memories of past experiences. The past is not forgotten, memory remains; but the things recalled, like the things perceived, have lost their reality.
Janet reports very striking instances of this abnormality. A lady who had suffered throughout her life from neuropathic disturbances married at thirty-eight and enjoyed a few years of happiness. When the husband died fairly suddenly, the unfortunate widow returned to her earlier neuropathic condition. The disturbance took on a particular form. She accused herself of lack of the proper feeling for her husband. ‘It seems to me,’ she would say, ‘that one must feel a peculiar sorrow for the death of a child, of a friend, of a husband. Well, I do not feel any particular sorrow for my husband, that excellent man—his personality escapes me. To have no appropriate sorrow— that is revolting and unjust. It is humiliating to live thus heartlessly. And the friendly visits of condolence; friends who come weeping and saying, “ I understand your grief, I sympathize with your great sorrow” — they are more than I can stand. With whom do they sympathize? I feel no sorrow. It is painful not to be unhappy, and I should be happy if I could be unhappy.’
She searches her memory for past incidents which will bring back to her the affection and the love she knows she had for her husband. The memories come, but there is no life in them; she remains indifferent; they do not have the kind of reality which normally would belong to them. She says, ‘I was proud to be his wife. Well, when I think of an outing with him, arm in arm, or of a visit, I do not get even a trace of pride or satisfaction. I try to imagine that he is going to come in — I remain indifferent. I think that he will never again come into this room — again I remain indifferent. It is as if my memories were not about him, as if they were not about myself.’
There is no need of adding other instances; the main features of these curious experiences have appeared clearly enough. We understand now that to perceive a person with the external senses is not equivalent to having a normal consciousness of the reality of that person; and, similarly, we see that a remembered experience— however clear and detailed it may be — may affect us as if it were not really a memory of that experience. Something must be added to what the senses give us, and to the recalled sensory impressions, in order to produce the conviction of reality. What that something is, is partly indicated in the instances I have described to you. The sight of the daughter leaves the father cold; he does not feel the joy he knows he would feel were that young woman really his daughter. And the idea of the beloved dead husband leaves the wife entirely indifferent. Let us remember these facts when, later on, we shall pass to the explanation of both the sense of the Unreality of the Real and the sense of the Reality of Invisible Presences.
We normal people may perhaps get a glimpse of the disheartening experiences of these poor neuropaths by seeking to realize what would happen within us if, when about to greet with joy an old friend, we found ourselves facing, not the friend, but some stranger who happened to be a perfect image of the friend. Our attitude, feelings, and thoughts would instantly be radically changed, and with that change would come the sense of the absence of the friend.
The obvious psychological lesson taught by these mental disorders is that the conviction of the reality of people and things does not depend merely on the impressions they make upon the external senses, but on the awakening within us, by these sensory impressions, of complex reactions among which the emotional reactions play a conspicuous rôle.
We may now pass on to the counterpart of these abnormal experiences — that is, the conviction of the presence of someone in the absence of any perception by the external senses. If the former variety of experience is of little social significance, the latter has been and is, as you will see, of very great importance in the history of individuals and of societies.
The writings of the classical Christian mystics contain numerous instances of the Sense of Invisible Presence. Here is one of the many reported by the great Spanish mystic, Saint Theresa. ‘On the day of Saint Peter, as I was in prayer, I saw near me, or rather I felt — for I did not perceive anything either with the eyes of the body or with the eyes of the soul — I felt the Christ near me and I knew it was He who was speaking to me. ... It seemed to me that He kept walking at my side; and, as it was not a vision of the imagination, I did not know under what form He was present . . . but He was always on my right side; I felt Him very clearly.’ Observe how, in this description, Saint Theresa is puzzled by the assurance she has of the presence of Christ in the absence of any external sensation or even of ‘vision of the imagination.’
A woman whom we shall call Mlle. V—, Protestant in religion, had suffered impatiently throughout her life from the lack of an intimate companion. One night, before falling asleep, she became suddenly aware of a friendly Presence. She calls it the Friend. His approach was not made known to her through the senses. She felt him somewhere in space and yet within herself. She talked to him more than he to her. The Presence was soothing, purifying. But although this Friend affected her like a really present person, Mlle. V—did not long let herself be deceived. She knew too much and was too keen an observer to mistake the creation of her heart’s desire for an objective reality. She said, ‘I wish I was not so sure that he is merely a split in my personality, so that I might take it more seriously; but I see the ropes too clearly.’
A few months later, the character of the Presence changed. It was no longer a human Friend, but a divine Presence. It reappeared thirty-one times at irregular intervals in the course of sixteen months, and then the manifestation ceased. I wish there were room to add some details, to tell you in particular how Mlle. V—convinced herself
gradually that the whole affair was a creation of her ‘subconscious self,’ — that is her own expression, — and how, when she had made that discovery, the experience came to an end.
With these two instances before us, it is probably unnecessary for me to say that the Sense of Presence is something else, something more, than the mere thought of someone’s presence. On hearing a door open or the steps of a person, I may infer that someone is there in my neighborhood. That inference of a presence is not at all the Sense of Presence, although it may well be its starting point. Usually, however, it remains a mere thought, a mere inference of the presence of someone. What difference there is between these two experiences we shall see more fully as we proceed.
It would be an error to suppose that this conviction of an impressive Presence, more concretely real than what the eyes see and the hands touch, occurs only in the religious life. Many are the persons who have experienced it outside of all religious connections. From a collection gathered from contemporaries I transcribe two instances that are little more than commonplace. 1. A young woman was sitting in the drawing room of her parents at half after eleven at night, waiting for her father’s return. Her mother lay on a couch near her, dozing. She herself was completely absorbed in the reading of a book. No one else in the house was awake. As she read, she was slightly disturbed by the feeling that someone was in the room in the corner opposite her mother’s couch. She looked up, expecting to see her father, but saw no one and began reading again. The same sensation came over her three or four times; but since, each time she looked up, she saw no one, she continued to read, being very deeply absorbed in her book. Suddenly she felt someone come from the corner and cross between herself and her mother. She felt it so vividly that she even thought she saw something, but could not say what the something looked like. She was perfectly certain, however, that someone had crossed the room. Startled, she cried to her mother, ‘What was that?’ Her mother had seen and felt nothing, but the girl insisted that someone had passed, and persuaded her mother to search the house with her. They searched the house in vain.
2. ‘We had an early dinner, as we we were all going to a wedding. I was dressing in my room on the third floor, and the rest of the family were on the second floor. I could hear them talking, and I sometimes joined in the conversation, calling down the stairs. Altogether, we were having a most hilarious time. Suddenly, for no reason that I know of, a sort of terror came over me. The electric lights had not yet been turned on, and my bedroom, although not dark, was lighted only by the gas light from my study and from the hallway. I seemed to feel a Presence, and it was in the air, moving quite rapidly, about six feet from the floor. I did not look in that direction, but tried to quiet myself by thinking that such a thing could not physically hurt me, and that, if it were anything spiritual, I should be glad to learn what it had to say. Then I turned — of course to find nothing. I was still nervous, and went downstairs as soon as I was dressed.’ The writer of this letter adds that under ordinary circumstances she is never afraid in the house.
In this last instance the Presence was indefinite in character; whether it was a person or something else was not revealed. Such cases are not rare. The two following instances are more or less of that description.
Under date September 20, 1842, James Russell Lowell wrote to a friend: ‘ I had a revelation last Friday evening. I was at Mary’s, and happening to say something of the presence of spirits (of whom, I said, I was often dimly aware), Mr. Putnam entered into an argument with me on spiritual matters. As I was speaking the whole system rose up before me like a vague Destiny looming from the abyss. I never before so clearly felt the spirit of God in me and around me. The whole room seemed to me full of God. The air seemed to waver to and fro with the presence of something. I knew not what. I spoke with the calmness and clearness of a prophet.’ Note in this account that ‘something’ — Lowell did not know exactly what — filled the room with its vague presence. Nevertheless, he ventured the descriptive term ‘God.’
My last illustration bears a deeper significance than the preceding; it comes from a university teacher of science, a woman very similar to Mlle. V— in her profound loneliness and yearning for an adequate intimate companion. Throughout her early maturity, and until the events we are about to relate, her life had been a pathetic, almost tragic, experience of frustration. Satisfying human companionship having failed her altogether, she came to believe that the only hope of a tolerable and honorable existence was in a divine Companion who would understand her, sympathize with her, and love her. This period of her life culminated in a soul-stirring, mystical adventure which I relate in her own words: —
‘Then one night, after a week of this sort of thing, the sense of God’s presence came upon me with overpowering fullness. I cannot express the sense of personal intimacy, understanding, and sympathy that it gave to me. I felt the thing — whatever it was — so close to me, so a part of me, that words and even thoughts were unnecessary, that my part was only to sink back into His personality — if such it were — and drop all worries and temptations, all the straining and striving that had been so prominent in my life for years and years. Then, as I felt consolation and strength pouring in upon me, there came a great upwelling of love and gratitude toward their source, even though I was all the time conscious that that source might not be either personal or objective. It felt personal, I said to myself, and no harm would be done by acting as if it were so. This experience lasted for two days in nearly its original strength. Every time attention relaxed from my tasks, the Presence was there, and it was the last at night and the first in the morning in my consciousness. Gradually it became less vivid, but at times it still recurs with its original force.’
This substantial, intimate, and dynamic realization of the presence of persons, either human or divine, is fairly frequent. It should not be regarded as an expression of abnormality in the experiencer — not even though it should have to be regarded as an illusion. The normal mind is subject to deceptions of many kinds, in particular to those mentioned at the beginning of this paper: the universal, stupendous, and yet normal illusions of magic and of primitive religion, illusions which controlled for ages the life of poor humanity.
The Sense of Presence is the expression of a mental activity so natural and ordinary that it can be reproduced in probably anyone willing to submit to simple experimental conditions. I have myself produced it in a number of persons. The subject of the experiment was seated in a dimly lighted room with his back to the assistants, who sat silent some twenty-five feet away. His eyes were carefully covered to exclude all light. He was told that at any time someone might come forward and stand behind his chair, and that he was then to indicate awareness of the Presence by raising his hand. The floor between the attendants and the subject was covered with heavy rugs in order to eliminate, so far as possible, all sound of footsteps. Under these circumstances I expected that the subject would have two different experiences, and would spontaneously separate them: the ordinary thought of and belief in the presence of someone behind him, and that other impression we have called the Sense of Presence. This anticipation was verified. Of the seven subjects who took part in the experiment, three experienced the Sense of Presence. Had we persevered, all of them might have. The following notes are extracted from the observations of the successful subjects.
1.‘Very suddenly there came a feeling that someone was near me; there was no visualization except to the point of knowing that the person was large. I was very sure it was a person, and that he or she was behind my chair, a little to the left, about one and one half metres away. [No one was in the room, nor had there been anyone there for about three minutes.] I had a slightly uncanny feeling. Almost immediately there appeared an intense desire to stand up and turn around toward the person, so as to be facing him during a conversation I felt sure would ensue. I had no idea what the topic of conversation would be, or why it would take place. But the idea of carrying on a conversation and the necessity of standing (more to have better control of my mental faculties than anything else — it was not out of respect to another person) were very clear and insistent.’
2. ‘After an interval, there came a Sense of Presence not very clear. Then It became very clearly present. “Bearing down upon me” was the phrase that flitted through my mind. There was a growing feeling of terror tinged with awe. By this time there was a noticeable muscular tension all over, accompanied by an increased rate of breathing. Shortly after this I began to shiver, and later I had a feeling of cold not connected with the temperature of the room. The shivering ended in jerking all over. When the shivering began, I had the feeling of cowering in my chair. After a short time I could stand it no longer and I impulsively removed the bandage from my eyes, though I knew we had agreed that the experiment should last ten minutes.’
It is by the third subject that the distinction between the thought of a person present and the Sense of Presence is most clearly made.
3. ‘The sounds made by people approaching and retreating, the tick of the clock, and so forth, had no effect upon me, for I was attending to my own psychic processes. The atmosphere seemed thicker than usual and felt charged with what might be called “latent personality.” Out of this more or less vitalized atmosphere I tried to form definite presences, determining their position with reference to my own — left front, right front, and so forth. I succeeded to some extent; but the fact that I was consciously imagining these figures detracted from their reality.’ So far there is nothing unusual. She hears, as she thinks, steps approaching her chair from behind, and she thinks someone is there behind her. But after a while something more happens. ‘Finally, without any effort or force, I felt a Presence standing at the table to my right, and a little behind my chair. It existed only in reference to me. It did not look at me [remember that her eyes were so covered that she could not see anything], but as it turned toward me, and put out its arms as if it were about to touch me, I was so overcome with terror that I lost the sense of its nearness and became aware only of my own tendency to shrink away — almost run — and of my quickened pulse.’
Attention should be called to an interesting feature of this experiment: several of the subjects made an effort to produce the Presence. They thought hard of a person and attempted to visualize him and to determine his position with reference to their own. These efforts remained invariably fruitless. If the Presence appeared at all, it came unexpectedly, after they had ceased the effort of visualization. This is exactly what the Christian mystics have recorded. They also desired and sought a Presence, — in their case it was generally Jesus,—but, do what they might, it appeared, if at all, when it pleased, unexpectedly, either when no effort had been made or when the effort had ceased.
This feature of the experience lends itself, as you understand, to a belief in the intervention of a personality other than the subject. The latter feels as if the Presence had not appeared in answer to his own bidding, but at the will of the Presence itself.
In order not to misunderstand the meaning of this impression of passivity and of intervention by another will, we must observe that it is characteristic not only of the Sense of Presence but of much of our ordinary mental life. Consider, for instance, what happens when you try to solve a problem, or merely to write a letter—writing a letter is often a considerable problem. You begin with some stereotyped remark and come to a stop. You do not know how to proceed. What happens then? You think for a moment and nothing satisfactory appears. For an instant you let go of the problem, or the problem lets go of you. You look out of the window, you light your pipe. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the idea you need has popped into your head. It seems to have come from outside. I insist upon this commonplace instance, for it represents the ordinary way of the mind in the process of thinking. Ideas pop into our minds unexpectedly, when we have ceased to make any effort to find them, — that is, while we seem passive, —just as the Presence jumps to our side, not as an immediate sequence to our efforts, but, as it seems, of its own volition. In neither case is the sense of passivity of the subject a sufficient proof of the activity of a person other than the subject.
Let me make two final remarks concerning these experiments. The subjects found no difficulty in separating the Sense of Presence from the conviction that one of the attendants was standing behind the chair. And the Sense of Presence never coincided with the actual presence of one of us behind the subject. I do not mean to imply that this coincidence was impossible; simply it did not take place.1
And now for the final part of this discussion. What can be said in explanation of this curious Sense of Presence? If we understood how the ordinary and veridical conviction of reality comes into existence, our problem would be near its solution. With that purpose in mind let us observe what takes place in the growing infant.
It is evident that the impression made by a person upon a newborn infant is something quite different from and far simpler than the corresponding experience of the adult, and yet the babe sees perfectly well. What is it that must be added to the bare original sight impressions of the infant in order to produce the full sense of the presence of a particular person?
The infant sees the mother not only in one but in a thousand different attitudes. She stands erect, walks, bends, sits. More than that, sensations from the other senses are added in countless numbers to the visual sensations. Her steps and other movements make noises, she speaks and utters pretty sounds while smiling at the child. She touches and fondles it in an indescribable variety of ways. All these sensations contribute in some measure to the formation of the sense of the reality of the mother. Her presence means not merely the bare sight of her; it means a great complex of sensations connected with her.
But we have so far left out a most important class of impressions produced by the mother. The child is not a passive receiver of sight, sound, and touch; he responds to these impressions. At first little is elicited from the child by the mother’s presence — merely some uncoördinated movements of various parts of the body. The movements multiply and acquire significance. The child stretches out its arms toward the mother, moves its lips, and so forth. More important still than the movements of the external limbs is what takes place within the babe, beyond direct observation. One may say, speaking generally, that every part of the internal body of the child comes to be affected in definite ways by the presence of the mother. When it is hungry, the main though not at all the only effect produced by the approach of the mother is an increase of salivation and of the several other secretions connected with digestion. The smile with which the babe greets the mother is an expression of a complex physiological activity. It involves changes of circulation, of respiration, and of other mechanisms productive of pleasure. In short, the sight of the mother comes to call forth in the babe, not only readily observable external movements, but also an extremely complex system of internal reactions, including, more or less, the whole organism: respiration and circulation, the digestive organs, the glands of inner secretions, and so forth.
When the infant has reached maturity, the complexity of his reactions to persons he knows, and even to those he does not know, beggars description. Where is the novelist who could represent adequately the infinite variety of address, intonation, attitude, gesture, by means of which the accomplished society woman indicates to each person his or her relative position in her social world? These infinite nuances of behavior correspond to an infinite variety of impressions made upon her by different persons — impressions among which, we now realize, mere sight counts for little. Knowing a person does not mean chiefly familiarity with his features. That alone is almost nothing. Knowing him means being able to anticipate his thoughts, feelings, and actions; and that involves the production within us, by his presence, of certain feelings, emotions, thoughts, and volitions. It is the production of these effects which gives to the sight of a person the vivid, intimate meaning characteristic of a real presence. As a result of this complex inner activity we speak and act in a way appropriate to the particular person before us.
This is enough, I trust, to prove that the more essential element in the realization of a Presence is not sight, or any other sensation coming in through the external senses, — such as sound or touch, — but the complex pattern of inner responses made to these perceptions. Whenever these are absent, the sight of a person seems utterly unconvincing. It is a person with the personality left out, a mere shell of the reality. Under these circumstances, Masselon’s patient could not believe, despite the testimony of his eyes, that he had before him his daughter. You remember his saying, ‘If she were my daughter I should experience a great joy.’ You remember, also, the complaints of Janet’s patients. The woman who had lost her husband repeats that she has not the feelings which a wife should have for the memory of her husband. Her remembrance of him leaves her cold, and she cannot realize that it is she, herself, who has lived happily with him. On the contrary, whenever these inner responses exist, the impression of a real presence is produced, even in the absence of any sensation from the external world.
Who the invisible person is supposed to be depends upon a number of factors. Chief among them is what we may call the dominant preoccupation or concern of the subject. The Christian who desires the presence of Christ realizes that presence. When there is no predisposition, no anticipation, the Presence is usually, at first, quite indeterminate, and then may acquire definiteness under the influence of the subject’s guesses about it. But an adequate elucidation of this point would take us into channels too technical for a magazine.
Too technical also would be the answer to this question: When the occasion of the calling forth of the inner reactions constituting the essential part of the Sense of Presence is not an actual presence, what is it? I shall say merely that this problem does not appear with reference to the Sense of Presence only; it appears also with reference to hallucinations and to abnormal fears, the fears for which there is no appropriate cause. The subject is fully aware that there is no cause for fear, yet all the inner and outer bodily manifestations take place and the mind is filled with dread, just as if a cause were perceived. A complete answer to this problem would include reference to the function of the mysterious subconscious.
Some of my readers are probably wondering how the preceding explanation of the Sense of Invisible Presence affects the problem of the existence of God. The answer to that query cannot be, it seems to me, a matter for hesitation. Those who accept the explanation I have given will have to hold that the sense of a divine or other Presence is not at all, in itself, a proof of a real presence. The mystic is mistaken when he gives the sense of warm, personal intimacy he has experienced as proof of the reality of the Presence. We know that that experience, absolutely convincing as it feels to him, may be an illusion. On the other hand, the explanation given is not in itself a disproof of God. God might never manifest Himself in that particular way and yet exist.
Moreover, although the Sense of Presence is, let us say, usually an illusion, a God might conceivably, at times, manifest Himself in that way. There would be then both illusory and genuine instances of the Sense of Invisible Presence; and they would be indistinguishable from each other. That last point is not to be overlooked by the would-be believer in the occasional personal manifestation of a God.
The situation is here as in the physical world. Science shows that rain is produced by natural causes — temperature, moisture, wind. But that demonstrated fact would not prevent the occasional production of rain at the good pleasure of a God possessing the necessary power. In order to believe in this occasional action of a God, in the face of the satisfactory scientific explanation of rain and of the Sense of Presence, a rational being would, of course, demand adequate reasons. Should they be unobtainable, there would remain, as already said, the possibility of a God who does not maintain with man or with physical nature relations of a personal character — such a God would not be satisfactory to the mystically inclined; for the main attribute of the God of the mystic is that He enters into personal communion with man.
But in raising the problem of God we have passed beyond the intended scope of this paper. We began with the remark that mind, great and powerful though it is, deceives us grievously, that it has led the uncivilized into the nonsense and waste of magic and of crude forms of religion. We may close on the comforting thought that, even though the civilized are not free from similar deceptions, the informed mind can be turned upon itself in order to bring into the light its own deceptions. That is what we have tried to do in the case of the conviction of Invisible Presence and of the Unreality of the Real.
- A fuller study of this and other aspects of religious mysticism may be found in the author’s Psychology of Religious Mysticism.↩