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Philosophy professors collaborate on ‘The Experience Project’

| Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Philosophy professors Michael Rea and Samuel Newlands of Notre Dame and Laurie Ann Paul of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were named co-directors of “The Experience Project” this summer, leading an initiative designed to encourage interdisciplinary exploration of the nature of experience.

Newlands, an associate professor of philosophy, said the three-year-long, $4.8 million project funded by the John Templeton Foundation is an interdisciplinary effort to explore different types of religious and transformative experiences and how they overlap.

“I think it’s really kind of a cutting edge, exciting project — partly because it tries to pull these two groups together that don’t always talk. Namely, social scientists [and] what you might think of as sort of the more conceptual disciplines,” Newlands said. “There’s been this exciting move to kind of bring the two in dialogue together, and I think this project is an instance of that.”

According to the project’s website, the project will fund “stimulating innovative research on transformative experience” in philosophy, psychology and sociology. Rea said the project will also fund researchers in theology and religious studies who aim to explore specifically the power of religious experience.

“We are fundamentally interested in doing philosophical research informed by the social sciences,” Rea said.  “It’s the philosophical, theological questions that are driving the agenda rather than the psychological or sociological ones.”

A University press release explained that the project will award funding to up to 30 research teams and offer residential fellowships at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion and UNC. It will also invite scholars to participate in collaborative workshops.

Rea said the majority of research on the Notre Dame end will focus on religious experiences in three forms.

“There are the sort of ‘knock-your-socks-off’ religious experiences like, you know, visions of Jesus,” Rea said. “Then there are sort of what you might call moderate-level religious experiences.

“And then there are what you might call low-grade religious experiences that are, I’d say, pretty common among believers. … You’re really stressed out, you pray to God for peace and then you feel peace and you’re like, ‘Wow, God answered that prayer.’ It’s totally low-grade. All kinds of people have experiences like this. They’re easily subject to interpretation.”

Paul said she will concentrate primarily on transformative experiences and how they affect a person’s beliefs and understanding of the world.

“There’s a way in which if you experience a kind of thing that you’ve never experienced before that you’ll be epistemically transformed,” Paul said. “Namely, you learn something new about yourself or about the way the world is, something that you couldn’t have learned until you had that experience.”

Other researchers — including professors Fiery Cushman of Harvard University and Stephen Vaisey of Duke University — are researching the psychological and sociological nature of transformative experiences, Rea said. He said the different researchers will come together at some point in the future to share their findings.

“It’s really exciting to see Notre Dame partnering with other research universities in this kind of thing,” Newlands said. “The project itself is run with a kind of broad team of people from different research institutions, different backgrounds [and] different sets of interests coming together on a common topic. That’s really rare.”

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