Thursday, February 02, 2017

Willam P. Alston – Religious Experience as Perception of God

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Today I've been looking over some old notes on religious experience, mysticism, and properly basic beliefs. Theistic philosopher William P. Alston is a central figure in this discussion. Here are my notes/thoughts on Alston re. religious experience as perception of God.

1 - The thesis Alston defends is: If God exists, then mystical experience is quite properly thought of as mystical perception. [If God exists, then we should expect mystical experience.]
Alston is not here arguing for the existence of God. Alston is showing that it is rational to be a theist, and rational to experience God immediately (as distinguished from mediately).

2 - Alston restricts this discussion to “direct awareness of God.” Which means: Unmediated, not mediated, religious experience. [Alston is interested in direct, not indirect, experience of God.]
Alston: “My reason for concentrating on direct experience of God, where there is no other object of experience in or through which God is experienced, is that these experiences are the ones that are most plausibly regarded as presentations of God to the individual, in somewhat the way in which physical objects are presented to sense perception, as I will shortly make explicit.” (
Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 52)
Alston is not talking here about, e.g., becoming aware of God through nature, or through the Bible, or through a sermon. Or through a logical argument. He means something like: “I hear the voice of God speaking to me.”

3 -
Alston advocates a “perceptual model of mystical experience.” (53) [Alston claims mystical experience is like sense experience.]
Alston’s view of perception is called the “Theory of Appearing.” Which means: “perceiving X simply consists in X’s appearing to a subject S, for example, or being presented to one, as so-and-so. That’s all there is to it, as far as what perception is, in contrast to its causes and effects. Where X is an external physical object like a book, to perceive the book is just for the book to appear to one in a certain way.” (53)
A direct awareness does not essentially involve conceptualization and judgment (such as reasoning from premises to a conclusion). Perception consists of something presenting itself to me in a certain way, apart from my conceptualizing it or making judgments about it. E.g…, Now I see the keyboard, directly.

4 - Alston concentrates on nonsensory experiences. Why? Because God is understood as a purely spiritual being.
Because God is purely spiritual, “a nonsensory experience has a greater chance of presenting Him as He is than any sensory experience.” (52)
Alston says: “I shall refer to nonsensory experience as “mystical experience.” (52)
“Mystical perception” is the kind of perception that experiences God.
“Mystical experience” refers to “supposed nonsensory experience (perception) of God.” (52)

5 - Alston admits that many people will find this idea incredible, unintelligible, and incoherent. What idea? The idea that there could be something that counts as a presentation like a sense perception but is without any sensory content.
But Alston doesn't think experiences should be limited to sensory experiences. He asks: “Why should we suppose that the possibilities of experiential givenness, for human beings or otherwise, are exhausted by the powers of our five senses.” (52)
This is obviously contrary to logical empiricism; viz., the idea that experiences are real only if they are seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or felt.
Alston is arguing:
i. Mystical experience is the right sort of experience to constitute a genuine perception of God if the other requirements are met.
ii. There is no bar in principle to these other requirements being satisfied if God does exist.

6 – You can’t argue for the validity of such experiences without assuming such experiences. That’s the nature of doxastic practices. [Doxastic practices are properly basic beliefs. You can't argue for them.]
They are “properly basic.”
We can’t argue for the reliability of our sense perceptions without using sense perception. What does Alston mean by this? Elsewhere he
writes: "The supposition that there is a physical world (that there are physical things spread out in space, exhibiting various perceivable qualities) is constitutive of the practice of forming particular beliefs about particular physical things on the basis of sense experience in the way we usually do. (Call this "perceptual practice".) ... [I]n learning to form physical-object beliefs on the basis of sense experience we are, at least implicitly and in practice, accepting the proposition that the physical world exists (and that we are aware of it in sense experience). Thus the question of the rationality of this belief is the question of the rationality of perceptual practice."
Or, to cite another example of doxastic practice: We can’t argue for the reliability of logic without using logic.
So, our arguments for the reliability of these basic doxastic practices exhibit epistemic circularity.
Should we then be skeptical and not trust in our sense perceptions or in logic? Alston argues that it is reasonable to continue to engage in those doxastic practices which are well established socially, and which would be psychologically difficult to avoid. Therefore, we should continue to regard our sense perception, memory, introspection and faculties of rational inference as generally reliable.

7 – We describe mystical experiences by using comparative language. This is, in essence, no different than using comparative language to describe sense experiences. [Mystical experiences are described like sense experiences; viz., by using comparative language.]

8 - Alston concludes: "If my arguments have been sound, we are justified in thinking of the experience of God as a mode of perception in the same generic sense of the term as sense perception. And if God exists, there is no reason to suppose that this perception is not sometimes veridical [true; representative of] rather than delusory." (57) [Alston thinks religious experience is justifiable and rational.]

“Mysticism,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Q1 - “Is a person warranted in thinking that his or her experiences are veridical, or have evidential value?”

This is the question Alston is answering “yes” to.

The Doxastic Practice Approach

“William Alston has defended beliefs a person forms based on mystical and numinous (in the terminology of this entry) experience, specifically of a theistic kind (Alston, 1991). Alston defines a ‘doxastic practice’ as consisting of socially established ways of forming and epistemically evaluating beliefs (the “output”) from a certain kind of content from various inputs, such as cognitive and perceptual ones (Alston, 1991, 100). The practice of forming physical-object beliefs derived from sense perception is an example of a ‘doxastic practice’ and the practice of drawing deductive conclusions in a certain way from premises is another. Now, Alston argues that the justification of every doxastic practice is “epistemically circular,” that is, its reliability cannot be established in any way independent of the practice itself. (See Alston, 1993) This includes the “sense-perception practice.” However, we cannot avoid engaging in doxastic practices. Therefore, Alston contends, it is rational to engage in the doxastic practices we do engage in providing there is no good reason to think they are unreliable. Now, there are doxastic practices consisting of forming beliefs about God, God's purposes for us, and the like, grounded on religious and mystical experiences such as “God is now appearing to me.” Such, for example, is the “Christian Doxastic Practice.” It follows from Alston's argument that it is rational for a person in such a practice to take its belief outputs as true unless the practice is shown to be unreliable. Thus we have an affirmative answer to question (Q1).”

My recent book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.