Perceiving God and Realism
The following article is from Philo,
Volume 3, Number 2.
ABSTRACT FOR 'PERCEIVING GOD AND REALISM'
The paper aims to move the debate between Alston and critics of Perceiving
God forward by asking if Alston's book establishes a case for a
realist interpretation of Christian mystical perception. It is argued
that critical comments on Alston's paper in Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research by Richard Gale point, when reinterpreted,
to a crucial disparity between mystical perception and sense perception.
A realist interpretation of the former is not prima facie warranted but
a realist interpretation of the latter is. Alston confuses the question
of whether mystical perception yields true outputs with the question of
its realist status.
The aim of this paper is to show that the epistemic force of religious
experience is considerably less than Alston makes out in his book Perceiving
God. Time and again we see Alston's critics offering what seem to them
to be fundamental criticisms of his defense of the rationality of
Christian mystical practice (hereinafter CMP) only to be met with Alston's
response that the criticisms fail to interpret Perceiving God
properly. I hope to show that if we concentrate on how far the arguments
of Perceiving God establish Christian theistic realism, then we can
break out of this stalemated debate. In particular, I shall examine the
stalemated debate between Gale and Alston in Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research 1994 in the hope of showing how it may be
developed with profit to our understanding both of Alston's case and of
the epistemic force of religious experience.
First we must note some features of Alston's argument in Perceiving
God which have proved particularly problematic or important in the
debate which has ensued.
Deontological versus truth-conducive justification. Alston's
overall aim is to show that CMP provides prima facie epistemic
justification for Christian beliefs. But the justification under
discussion is not merely entitlement. The aim is not to show that
in the light of CMP members of the Christian community are within their
epistemic rights to hold beliefs about God. Rather, CMP is (in the absence
of external reasons to the contrary) a reliable epistemic practice, that
is one which 'can be relied on to produce mostly true beliefs'.1
Thus, as Kretzmann notes, Perceiving God provides, disclaimers to
the contrary notwithstanding, an argument for the truth of the claim that
there is a God.2 If the argument of Perceiving
God is sound then all manner of beliefs arising out of CMP are prima
facie warranted in a truth-conducive fashion.
Offensive versus defensive goals. The above point entails that
Alston's aims are not merely defensive. Kretzmann states that 'the
broad-minded atheist' can accept without difficulty the proposition that a
Christian mystic's putative perceptions of God gave him or her an
entitlement to believe in God.3 Such an
atheist can accept that, if someone like St Teresa comes to mystical
perceptions with the strong background beliefs of a sixteenth century
Carmelite nun, she will be entitled to regard her experiences as
containing genuine perceptions of the Christian God and to regard those
perceptions as providing further grounds for beliefs about that God.
Alston, however, states:
I don't want to assume that people really perceive God and that (some
of the) beliefs based on those perceptions are true. I want to address
people who antecedently reject those assumptions as well as those who
accept them. Thus I am conducting the discussion from a standpoint
outside any practice of forming beliefs on the basis of those alleged
So his tactics are offensive rather than defensive.
CMP and sense perception: analogy or autonomy? Alston states
that perception is 'paradigmatically exemplified by but not confined to
sense perception'.5 Mystical perception must
share some features with sense perception (SP). These include having an
apparent subject-object structure. Mystical perception should involve
something presenting itself to a subject - via experiences which
have a givenness and which are thus not generated by the subject. In
genuine perception an object presents itself to a subject in a way which
marks out the experience as different from imagining, remembering or
thinking about that object.6 On the other
hand, Perceiving God and its numerous supporting papers contain
many a warning against 'epistemic imperialism'. This vice is exemplified
by those who assume that mystical experience must be like sense experience
in all important respects. Given that the putative subject matter of CMP
is a personal, transcendent God, then we must expect that much of the
structure of SP is absent from CMP, and properly so. The analogies that
must obtain between SP and CMP have to be balanced by the proper autonomy
each epistemic practice enjoys.7 The interplay
between these two themes of analogy and autonomy in Alston's defense of
CMP goes a long way to explaining the frustrating character of the
exchanges over Perceiving God. Alston's critics endeavor to find a
crucial fact about SP which can be seen both to provide a strong ground
for its epistemic reliability but also to be absent from CMP, thus dishing
the latter's case to be considered a prima facie reliable epistemic
practice. But all such attempts meet the standard response that to press
the fact of the presence of such a feature in SP and its absence in CMP is
to indulge the vice of epistemic imperialism. Frustration for critics is
increased because Alston does admit of some disanalogies between SP and
CMP which weaken the latter's claim to be reliable. The degree of
self-support provided by the ability to predict and control the relevant
environment within CMP is less than that provided by SP. CMP is more
seriously weakened by the existence of rivals (in the form of different
and largely incompatible mystical traditions in non-Christian religions)
than is SP by rival practices (indeed, Alston concedes that the rivals to
SP may not even be possible for us).8 So the
pragmatic justification for regarding CMP as reliable cannot be of the
Taking all the points made in this section together, they lead to a
question about what Alston thinks he has proved in Perceiving God.
It could be this:
(1) The Christian believer is entitled to think that CMP yields
epistemically justified outputs (that is, is reliable).
But that conclusion is not at all strong enough, for it is perfectly
acceptable to Kretzmann's broad minded atheist and compatible with:
(2) The atheist (or: non-Christian) is entitled to believe that CMP
does not yield epistemically justified outputs.
What Alston needs to establish is something like:
(3) The atheist (or: non-Christian) is not entitled to believe that
CMP does not yield epistemically justified outputs.
(4) If the atheist regards SP as yielding epistemically justified
outputs, then s/he must regard CMP as likewise reliable.
(3) and (4) register a main contention of Alston's overall argument.
Despite differences of degree in the grounds we have for thinking that SP
and CMP produce outputs which are prima facie epistemically justified,
neither SP nor CMP are disqualified by reasons which overturn the verdict
that they yield prima facie justification for the beliefs they engender.9
In sum: since we would not regard ourselves as entitled to think that SP
is unreliable, we must in consistency refrain from regarding CMP as
That Alston needs something like (3) or (4) is indicated by p.10 of Perceiving
God where he states that his aim is to argue with those who are not
antecedently convinced that God is genuinely perceived and where he
implies that he will show them that beliefs generated by CMP are prima
facie justified. The question is whether (3) or (4) are established by his
Gale's critique of Alston in Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research is designed to show that Perceiving God contains no
good case for regarding mystical perceptions as genuine perceptions, where
a genuine perception is not merely an experience which has an internal
accusative but relates a perceiver to an object external to consciousness.
The fact that an experience comes to a subject unbidden is nowhere near a
sufficient condition of an experience being a genuine perception since
there are a range of 'involuntary presentational subjective experiences'
which no one would take to be experiences of external objects.10
Gale lists such things as dreaming, sensing an after-image 'as well as
introspective experiences'. In addition to an experience being
'involuntarily presentational', Gale proposes a metaphysical and an
epistemological requirement for something's being a genuine perception.
The metaphysical requirement states that the object of a genuine
perception be perceivable by different observers at the same time and be
perceivable by the same observer at different times (thus, in the latter
case, presupposing some means of identifying the object over time). The
epistemological requirement boils down to the possibility of
inter-subjective verification of claims about the accusative of the
experience. This requirement is met by standard cases of sense perception
in which we would expect that if observer A genuinely perceives something,
then observer B should be capable of checking A's judgements about that
thing, provided that background conditions are fulfilled for both
observers. Alston has to accept that we cannot expect that if A perceives
God in a given set of circumstances, any one similarly situated will then
be able to share that experience.11
These conditions anchor the thought that the object of experience in SP
exists and endures in a space independent of the subject, a space to which
more than one observer can have access. The existence of the object in
such a space is the mark of its constituting an external accusative.
Alston's reply to this critique boils down to the complaint that Gale
is illegitimately taking features of sense perception as normative for all
forms of perception and indulging in epistemic imperialism thereby.
Concerning the metaphysical requirement, Alston states that if there
are effective ways of distinguishing God from other putative objects of
perception, then that is sufficient for establishing that the God
encountered in mystical experience is a genuine external object of
perception. If we can perceptually identify God, we can tell whether our
perceptions are of God rather than something else (presumably: rather than
something internal to our own subjectivity). And though we have
'relatively sketchy experiential presentations' of God, with the aid of
background knowledge/beliefs we can determine those presentations to be of
God and not something else.12 Concerning the
epistemological requirement, Alston plays the 'autonomy card' directly.
Granted that a genuine perception is open to some form of inter-subjective
verification, it does not follow that it must be open to the same kind of
verification as a sense perception. The fact that God-manifestations
depend on the free choice of God means that there can be no expectation
that if I can perceive God in some given circumstances, then you will be
able to perceive God in those same circumstances. But Perceiving God
does make it plain that putative perceptions of God are subject to
checking - by the overriders provided by the doctrinal system of the
relevant religion. This response leads to the autonomy-based protest
'against any attempt to enforce a priori constraints on what we can
perceive and on what kinds of experience enable us to perceive something'.13
far the Gale-Alston exchange exhibits the usual pattern: Gale thinks he
has found a crucial disanalogy between CMP and SP; Alston admits the
disanalogy, but retorts that only epistemic imperialism makes it seem
crucial. The exchange can be taken further by exploring two points: a
minor one relating to identifying God and a one major relating to realism.
The minor point will be dealt with now and discussion of the major point
will occupy the remainder of this paper.
Alston's admission that God can be identified in mystical perceptions
only by applying background beliefs to 'relatively sketchy experiential
presentations' of God in experience may suggest that he has in effect
conceded the case made by Mark McLeod against any parity of warrant
between CMP and SP. That case depends upon stressing the extent to which
experiences of God are mediated by background beliefs.14
Standard forms of SP, while indeed involving background beliefs of some
kind, exhibit experience structured by the straightforward application of
a perceptual vocabulary. The identifying features of standard perceptual
objects can be phenomenologically given and those features are learned
along with learning the words used to describe sense-perceptual objects.
So: one is not required to acquire and apply a theory in learning how to
identify these objects. If asked 'How do you know that is a pen in
front of you?', it is sufficient to reply 'I understand English'. But, as
many authors have noted, the vocabulary used in identifying descriptions
of God is not a straightforward perceptual one.15
If asked 'How do you know that it was God who appeared to you in a vision
last night?', it is not sufficient to reply 'I understand English'. This
suggests that, even while God's presence is not inferred in
mystical experiences, mystical experiences are mediated by substantial
background beliefs and provide warrant for claims about God only to the
extent that those background beliefs are warranted. Further, McLeod notes
that CMP is a practice allegedly generating beliefs about a unique object:
the God of Christianity. Identifying unique objects in perception is a
practice even more heavily dependent on background information and even
harder to accomplish by reference to phenomenologically given properties.
So the following conclusion looks tempting: CMP is a perceptual
practice mediated by background beliefs and yielding warranted outputs of
further beliefs about God only to the extent that the background beliefs
which mediate the experience are warranted. This suggests that the case
for its parity with SP as a warrant-conferring practice has been
over-stated by Alston.
Perceiving God contains a reply in anticipation of the above
critique. Alston readily accepts that in identifying God in CMP there is a
heavy reliance on the background system of Christian belief. But he denies
that these background beliefs have to be justified in order for CMP
output beliefs to be warranted, rather they merely have to be true.
The same holds for the background beliefs used to reach judgements about
unique perceptual objects in SP.16 In both
instances, an infinite regress would be generated if background beliefs
had to be justified in order for output beliefs to be justified, and the
business of making knowledge claims would never get started.17
So, Alston would say, the McLeod argument for the disparity of SP and CMP
is based on a double standard: we do not in SP say that background beliefs
used in generating claims about unique perceptual objects have to be
justified in order for those claims to be justified. They merely have
to be true.
The skeptic about CMP can offer at least three responses to the claim
about double standards. In the first place, it can be said that Alston's
appeal is defensive rather than offensive. It contends for an entitlement
on the part of the participant in CMP and cannot coerce the judgement of
CMP's external critics. The critic might accept that the Christian
believer does not have to justify the background beliefs employed in CMP
in order to be entitled to regard CMP as prima facie reliable. Perhaps
that demand would generate an infinite regress. However, the supporter of
CMP aims to convince folk not antecedently persuaded that CMP is
truth-generating. The truth of the background Christian beliefs employed
in CMP is something such skeptics will need persuading of. In the second
place, the critic can argue that there is no parity between, on the one
hand, identifying God on the basis of 'relatively sketchy experiential
presentations' and a substantial body of theological theory, and on the
other, identifying my pen, my child's school bag and so on, by way of
background beliefs which involve little in the way of theory or
speculation. In the third place, the agnostic or atheist might question
the force of Alstonian talk of 'prima facie' reliability in these
contexts. There may be little reason to seek independent justification of
perceptual judgements about mundane unique objects whose history is
well-known to those making these claims. But the more identification
judgements in SP are based on sketchy experiential presentations, are
about objects whose presence/absence cannot be detected by the mass of
ordinary observers and involve abstruse and disputable bodies of theory to
which embraceable alternatives exist, then the more we will properly ask
for identifying, background beliefs to be justified before placing our
trust in others' (or indeed our own) perceptual claims.
Gale and others want to rebut Alston's assertion of party between CMP
and SP in conferring warrant on output beliefs. I suggest his case is
stronger if his metaphysical and epistemological requirements are read in
this way: they point to reasons why a realist interpretation of SP is
initially justified and they put the onus of proof upon an anti-realist
interpretation of SP. Correspondingly, they suggest reasons why an
anti-realist interpretation of CMP has as much initial plausibility as a
realist one. The anti-realist interpretation of CMP does not therefore
face a burden of proof.
Devitt defines realism for sense-perceptual and scientific discourse as
follows: tokens of most current common sense and scientific, physical
types objectively exist independently of the mental.18
If we take our lead from this, then we will see realism as primarily a
metaphysical thesis. A realist claim is in essence one to the effect that
objects of an appropriate kind exist as instances of the concepts of the
discourse we are concerned with. For SP, realism would claim, more
precisely, that physical objects (that is, objects existing in
three-dimensional space and enduring in time) exist as instances of most
of the concepts we read into sense-perceptual experience. ('Most' because
SP is not wholly free from illusion and delusion.) For CMP, realism would
claim that the Christian concept of God used to interpret it is
instantiated by an object which, in its essential nature, exists in
'sacred space', that is beyond the mundane, spatio-temporal world. I
assume we could give some precise sense to that 'beyond' - the essential
properties of this entity can be realized even if there were no human
beings and no physical creation at all, so its existence does not depend
on but transcends human beings and the physical world. As a metaphysical
thesis about concepts and correspondence, realism also leads to a
characteristic causal thesis. In the case of SP, realism is the thesis
that the existence of spatio-temporal objects provides a causally
necessary condition for the experiences interpreted via the concepts
associated with SP. A parallel causal claim underlies a realist
interpretation of CMP.
The argument of Perceiving God wraps together the question of
whether a realist interpretation of CMP is warranted with the question of
whether CMP gives rise to outputs which are more likely to be true than
not. The argument that CMP can be taken to give rise to true beliefs is
read as settling the question as to whether it can be assumed to be caused
by an object in sacred space. Devitt provides a strong case for not
running questions of truth together with questions of realism.20
It is evident that one could give a non-realist interpretation of SP while
allowing SP to give rise to largely true beliefs. A Berkeleyan
interpretation of SP allows most beliefs in SP to be true, though not to
be true of physical objects. They are rather true of congeries of ideas,
which in turn are manifestations of divine ideas or divine volitions.
Alston's insistence upon perceptual judgements being true of realities
which are what they are independent of human beliefs about them will not
help the case either. On a Berkeleyan interpretation of perception, it is
perfectly possible, indeed mandatory, to say that our perceptual
judgements are frequently false and contrary to the facts. My perceptual
judgements are true only if they do truly correspond to the way congeries
of perceptions (backed by divine volitions) are actually organized, which
is something independent of my beliefs about the matter.
What matters for a realist thesis about SP is whether the objects which
instantiate the concepts employed in SP exist independently of us -
not of our beliefs. A purely phenomenalist reading of SP can give
SP objects the latter kind of independence, but not the former. If we
bring in Berkeley's God as an extra layer in phenomenalism, there is still
some doubt as to whether there would be any sense-perceptual objects if
there were no perceivers. Even if we said there would be, because the
divine ideas/volitions would stand as extra-human realities awaiting to be
encountered, the Berkeleyan interpretation of sense-perceptual objects
would place them in the wrong ontological category to allow us to count
the interpretation as realist. These objects turn out not to be physical,
spatio-temporal objects at all.
So far, arguments (due to Devitt) have been given for saying that the
attribution of truth, even correspondence truth, does not suffice to
guarantee a realist interpretation of SP. It can also be shown that the
attribution of general truth to SP is not a necessary condition for a
realist interpretation of SP. Consider scientistic interpretations of SP
whereby many, if not most, sense-perceptual judgements are reckoned to be
false of physical reality. For example, such interpretations might make
much of the fact that visual judgements and perceptions in SP attribute
discrete colors to objects, as if they had one from a spectrum of colors.
Science tells us that the physical correlate of color is a continuum and
so (the argument goes) our customary color judgements are false. Sound or
not, this scientistic interpretation of SP can both see pervasive error in
SP and yet admit that physical objects do exist as instances of most SP
concepts and that SP is caused by interaction between us and such objects.
This kind of realist could, crucially, go on to affirm that SP did provide
the basis, the beginnings, of cognitive contact between human beings and a
reality whose existence and main characteristics are what they are quite
independently of whether there are human beings or not.
The above points about apply mutatis mutandis to CMP. To see
that truth is not a sufficient condition for a realist interpretation of
CMP, consider, purely for illustrative purposes, a Jungian-like
interpretation of the object, the referent of mystical perception.21
What the concepts used to interpret mystical experience in the various
religions correspond to is an archetype. An archetype is a complex of
ideas and symbols in the human psyche which occurs recurrently and in
widespread fashion in human subjects. It does so because human beings have
inherited a disposition to experience, or think, in terms of this complex.
There is a family of religious archetypes, of which the concepts of god
and the ultimate in the major world religions are members. Religious
complexes are archetypal because their component symbols are vital in
psychological integration. Religions are psycho-therapeutic systems.
Ordering important, anxiety-creating or threatening experiences by means
of these symbols assists psychic health.
The Jungian interpretation of CMP and mystical experience in general
will give a belief-independent truth to the vast majority of outputs in
mystical traditions, provided, of course that they are suitably
reinterpreted. If we can allow the statements which are the output of CMP
to retain a reference under this reinterpretation, then they will have a
truth which nonetheless allows some beliefs about gods to be mistaken.
There will be strong reasons to rule that Jim Jones' experiences of the
divine were not truly of the divine, not truly of an archetype, because
they were not, to put it mildly, psychologically integrating. In sum, the
Jungian interpretation of mystical experiences can make the majority of
mystical perceptual judgements true of a reality independent of human
beliefs while not being true of a reality in sacred space. Jung's God is
such that if there were no human beings, then it would not exist. We can
have beliefs and experiences which do not correspond to the religious
archetype's true character, yet that archetype does not exist
independently of us.
I think there might be a way of interpreting mystical experience which
was realist in thrust but also left most mystical perceptual judgements in
the world religions false. Analogous to a scientisitic interpretation of
sense-perceptual judgements, we might have a philosophical interpretation
of language about, and experience of, the ultimate which held both of the
following: (i) the concepts used in mystical perceptual judgements do
correspond to a genuine entity in sacred space and (ii) most of these
judgements are false because the way that thing is perceived in living
religion is through and through erroneous. Some accounts of a perennial
philosophy have such a consequence. It is arguable that the views of John
Hick in An Interpretation of Religion have this implication.22
If the points about the separation of realist interpretation from
truth-conducivity are accepted, then it is possible to begin the search
for a crucial disanalogy between CMP and SP from a new place. The facts
about SP pointed out by Gale make a realist interpretation of SP prima
facie plausible. They put the onus of proof fairly and squarely on those
who argue for a non-realist interpretation of SP. The facts Gale lists
under the 'metaphysical requirements' for a genuine perception are most
important in this regard. They highlight what sense perception obviously
and pervasively appears to be: a means of putting us in touch with a world
of enduring, three-dimensional objects which contains other perceivers. We
and they move through this enduring three-dimensional world. No facts
pertaining to the occurrence of error in sense perception tell against
this fact of appearance. Theories about the true character of the
temporal, three-dimensional world, such as scientistic ones, need not deny
this fact of appearance. They typically challenge commonly held beliefs
about the character, properties or make-up of the temporal,
three-dimensional things we encounter via sense perception.
We can indeed find idealist theories which deny the existence of a
spatio-temporal world and seek to explain away the appearance of things in
sense perception. Further, there are forms of radical skepticism aired in
philosophy texts which contend that there is no good ground for thinking
that we are in touch with a spatio-temporal world. Leaving aside debates
about the adequacy of a perceptual idealism or the thinkability of radical
skepticism, one point can be made: it is surely right to say that belief
in physical realism and in the fact that the senses put us in touch with
spatio-temporal things is prima facie true. The force of this conclusion
is that the onus of disproving physical, sense-perceptual realism lies
with those who suggest it is false. The argument for the conclusion is
simple. It is a pervasive and fundamental fact of appearance that sense
perception puts us in touch with a world of spatio-temporal objects. We
should accept that this appearance represents fact unless arguments are
offered to the contrary. The strength of this simple argument rests on the
extraordinary degree to which the appearance is pervasive and fundamental.
This puts the onus of proof on those who would argue against the
presumption of realism and gives us a corresponding confidence that we
will be able to defeat their arguments.
What I am suggesting is:
(5) We are entitled to regard sense-perceptual realism as true.
And I am also suggesting:
(6) The idealist or skeptic is not entitled to regard
sense perceptual realism as false.
(6) rests in part on the prima facie warrant given to it by the facts
of appearance. It could get additional support by an inductive verdict
from successful endeavors to show the weakness of skeptical arguments
against sense-perceptual realism.
Alston discusses the truth of sense-perceptual realism indirectly when
he considers the case for saying that SP is reliable because it provides
the best explanation for how things appear to us in sense-perception. He
acknowledges that what he styles as 'the standard explanation' of the
structure and content of sense-perception is miles ahead in richness and
detail23 when compared with an idealist or a skeptical interpretation of
it. But this he contends is no mark of truth: it reflects the fact that
not enough attention has been paid yet to developing theories which say
that sense perception is generated as Berkeley described, or by an evil
demon, or what have you.
We can respond by pointing to the modest argument that sense-perceptual
realism is strongly warranted by the facts of appearance and issue a
promissory note to rebut any attempts to argue for anti-realism. A
justified induction from knowledge of the philosophical literature would
certainly back that promissory note. Until a rebutting argument capable of
rebutting the certainty given to sense perceptual realism by the pervasive
facts of appearance, (6) can still be affirmed.
One of Alston's stock moves against attempts to provide non-pragmatic
arguments for the belief that SP is epistemically reliable consists in
contending that all such attempts involve epistemic circularity, the
reliance on premises which could only be known to be true if SP were
indeed reliable. Might he argue that the basic facts which Gale points to
and which are so strongly indicative of sense-perceptual realism are
subject to a similar circularity? Gale does indeed point to the 'fact'
that the objects of sense perception are perceivable by different
observers at the same time.24 Such a fact is
only a fact if sense-perceptual realism is true; if it were false, then it
would be false that there were other human beings who had different points
of view on a common world of space-occupying objects.25
The answer to this is that I use the fact of the pervasive and fundamental
character of the appearance of things to assure myself that
sense-perceptual realism is true. Then I am sure that there are other
perceivers. Then I can go on to use their ability to perceive a world of
spatio-temporal objects to reinforce the fact of appearance.26
Alston has a parity thesis: the warrant for thinking that SP is
reliable is not significantly different from the warrant for thinking CMP
is reliable. He is able to say this, in part, because of his very dim of
view of the degree of warrant we can give to the belief that SP is
reliable. I am denying parity between the certainty of sense-perceptual
realism and the certainty of mystical-perception realism. While (6) is
true, (7) is not:
(7) The secularist is not entitled to regard mystical
perceptual realism as false.
More precisely, I am arguing that pointing to the existence and
character of such things as CMP does not establish (7). Additional
considerations are required (for example: an argument that
mystical-perceptual realism provides a better explanation of CMP than
forms of non-realism).
There is a fact of appearance in the conviction of many mystics that a
divine being, an occupant of sacred space, manifests itself to them. But
this fact of appearance cannot have so great a certainty as the fact of
appearance which warrants sense-perceptual realism. The relevant
differences between the two types of experience pointed to by critics like
Gale and McLeod support this judgement. Moreover, if any of us came to
endorse skeptical arguments against sense-perceptual realism, then the
consequences for the rest of our beliefs would be major - to say the
least. By contrast, acceptance of arguments which cast doubt on
mystical-perceptual realism, of positive alternatives to it (such as the
Jungian interpretation of mysticism) does not involve throwing all else
that we believe into the melting pot. People who were believers and
thought they had perceptions of God may become convinced of the unreality
of God. They may then look back on those perceptions and see them as
illusions. They can thereby stand on reflective ground which is not called
into question by denying the fact of appearance in mystical perception.
Doubt about that fact of appearance does not even involve throwing the
belief that there is a God into the melting pot. It is possible to
maintain that there is a God existing in a trans-human, trans-mundane
space while affirming that no human perceptions have this God as a
proper accusative, since God, though real and transcendent, is not an
object of perception.27
The difficulty of maintaining that (7) has any epistemic parity with
(6) is increased once we realize that it is very hard for even the most
ardent supporter of mystical-perceptual realism to avoid positing
large-scale illusion in mystical perception. To illustrate: if a case is
made for realism in relation to CMP, it seems to follow that a non-realist
interpretation must be given of Hindu or Buddhist mystical perception. If
CMP involves an accusative genuinely in sacred space, then Hindu mystical
experience does not. There is no room in that space for both of the
relevant perceptual objects to exist. But presumably the fact of
appearance in favor of CMP realism is no different in kind from the fact
of appearance in favor of Hindu mystical realism.
This last point is not decisive in and of itself. It is possible to
develop an inclusivist type reading of CMP. Christian inclusivists could
claim that such cases of religious cognition do latch onto the Christian
(and only real) God but do so despite mistaken descriptions and skewed
perceptions. It is possible to go beyond confessional inclusivism in the
direction taken by Franks Davis and Gellman.28
They both posit a lowest common denominator of how the occupant of sacred,
transcendent space appears to folk in different traditions. That leaves to
one side the question as to which, if any, tradition of experience has the
full, accurate appearance of the divine. We are here touching upon the
endless debates in the literature as to the adequacy of the Alstonian
treatment of the epistemic significance of diversity in mystical
perception. The skeptic about mystical-perceptual realism can be allowed a
response which does not take us into that territory. Even the most
inclusivist interpretations of religious experience will have to use
anti-realist categories to describe very many forms of apparent mystical
perception. The followers of manifold forms of polytheistic worship
presumably are not in touch with real objects in sacred space during
spirit-possession and like phenomena. Likewise, many Protestant Christians
have given anti-realist interpretations of Marian experiences. So from
within CMP and parallel mystical practices the fact of appearance which
tells in favor of realism is frequently set aside.
A mystical-perceptual realist could point to the fact that not all
sense-perceptual experiences are interpreted realistically. Mirages and
other perceptual illusions illustrate that fact. So perhaps we are just
noting a difference of degree here: the mystical-perceptual realist is
likely to make proportionally greater appeal to anti-realist categories
than the sense-perceptual realist. However, the critic of Alston may argue
that sense-perceptual realism is not undermined by the marking of
perceptual illusions in which nothing in physical space is perceived. The
chief way in which such illusions are discovered is through reliance on
further sense-perception and its testimony about spatio-temporal reality.
Appeal to illusion cannot then lessen the certainty in the general fact of
appearance mandating sense-perceptual realism. In contrast, the
'discovery' that perceptions of spirits in animistic worship have no real,
external accusative and the 'discovery' that apparent perceptions of the
Virgin are likewise illusory do not confirm the claim that mystical
perception is perception of an object in sacred space. For the reason why
a Protestant gives anti-realist interpretations of Marian experiences is
due the fact that the belief system of Protestantism mandates these
interpretations. The generally realistic character of mystical experience
(or Christian mystical experience) is not confirmed in the 'discovery'.
Moreover, we can rely upon further sense experiences to uncover the
illusory character of some experiences because illusions in SP are
relatively limited and localized. By contrast, whole epochs and cultures
dominated by veneration for the Virgin will be regarded by many
Protestants as steeped in illusory experiences. Exclusivist Christians
will likewise regard entire traditions of mysticism in Eastern cultures as
illusory. This gives some ammunition to the religious skeptic. It seems
that one could move without tension or contradiction from those cases in
which the religious will use Jungian, Freudian or cultural factors to
explain away the fact of appearance in some forms of mystical
perception to their explanatory use in all cases of mystical
The argument for the disparity of status between sense-perceptual and
mystical-perceptual realist is not meant to establish (8):
(8) The believer is not entitled to regard mystical perceptual
realism as true.
Alston has defensive arguments in favor of allowing the believer in
mystical perception an entitlement to accept mystical-perceptual realism.
These would have to be rebutted before (8) could be affirmed. For example:
we should expect that, if the object of mystical perception is a personal
God with freedom, then the fact of appearance behind mystical-perceptual
realism will not have the all-pervasive, fundamental character of the fact
of appearance behind sense-perceptual realism. Similar defensive arguments
could be used to show that the apparent disparity in the treatment of
perceptual illusions in the two cases is to be expected.
There is no need to dispute these defensive maneuvers in a critique of
Alston. We have already seen that Alston operates on the offensive. He
does really need to establish the truth of (3) (or (4)) and (7). It is his
opponent who can maintain the defensive. Now consider what that defensive
stance amounts to. It is equivalent to a familiar thought in religious
epistemology: Hick's affirmation of the religious ambiguity of the
universe (as described at length in Part II of An Interpretation of
Religion) applied to religious experience. Religious experience can,
in the absence of a proof of an atheistic interpretation of it, be
regarded as encounter with a transcendent reality, but it can also be
interpreted in non-realist terms. Moreover, we find in Part III of Hick's An
Interpretation of Religion an assertion of the most fundamental
disparity between religious and sense-perceptual experience: the world,
even with accounts of mystical experience, is religiously ambiguous, but
the world is not physically ambiguous. While we are epistemically free to
see the world as having or not having a dimension of sacred space, we are
not epistemically free to see the world as having or not having spatio-temporal
objects. That dimension to it is just an undeniable offshoot of our
experience of it.
This paper has interpreted Perceiving God as seeking to
establish a claim about the epistemic parity of religious experience and
sense experience. Another way of viewing such claims for parity is to
gloss them as claims about the parity of skepticism in the respective
cases.29 Alston is implicitly telling us that
we while we may have reasons for doubting the reliability of mystical
perception, those reasons should make us skeptical as to the reliability
of sense-perception. (The differences in degree in the grounds we have for
regarding CMP and SP as reliable do not warrant skepticism re former and
acceptance re the latter.)
It should be evident that I wish to deny that doubt about mystical
perceptual realism entails a general skepticism about experience. There is
no parity between the two forms of skepticism: atheistic-agnostic, on the
one hand, and solipsistic-idealist, on the other. The reasons for the lack
of parity between these scepticisms can be summed up as follows. Mystical
perceptual experiences are heavily mediated by background beliefs in a
manner which sets them apart from ordinary perceptual experiences
(following on from the fact that the identifying features of the divine
are not perceptual ones). Their status as experiences with an external
accusative is ambiguous. Though in some respects mystical perceptual
experiences are analogous to our paradigm of experiences with an external
accusative, in other respects they are analogous to experiences which have
internal accusatives only. The fact of appearance which mystical
experience gives rise to is not as clear and as pervasive as that arising
from sense experience. There is much more room for doubt about a realist
interpretation of the former than there is over a realist interpretation
of the latter.
To claim a disparity between skepticism as to the realist
interpretation of mystical experience and skepticism as to the realist
interpretation of sense experience is not to demonstrate that mystical
experience cannot be justly interpreted as having an entity in sacred,
transcendent space as its object. It is to reaffirm the Hickean point
about ambiguity. Or, very mundanely: the believer is entitled to interpret
mystical experience realistically and the unbeliever is entitled to
interpret it non-realistically.30
1. W.P. Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell Univeristy Press, 1991), 101.
2. N. Kretzmann "Mystical perception: St Teresa,
William Alston and the broadminded atheist" in A. G. Padgett (ed) Reason
and the Christian Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 71.
3. Kretzmann "Mystical perception", 69.
4. Alston Perceiving God, 10.
5. Alston Perceiving God, 9.
6. Alston Perceiving God, 36-7.
7. C. Eberle, "The autonomy and explanation of
mystical perception" Religious Studies, 34, 3 (September
8. Alston Perceiving God, 274.
9. Alston Perceiving God, 278-9.
10. R. Gale "Why Alston's mystical doxastic
practice is subjective" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,
54, 4 (December 1994): 869-883.
11. Alston Perceiving God, 214.
12. Alston, "Reply to commentators" Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research, 54, 4 (December 1994): 891-899.
13. Alston, "Reply to commentators", 893.
14. M. McLeod, Rationality and Theistic Belief (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 157-161.
15. J. W. Forgie "Pike's Mystic Union and the
possibility of theistic experience" Religious Studies, 30, 2
(June 1994), 234; A. Kenny What is Faith? (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1992), 41-2.
16. Alston Perceiving God, 84-5.
17. Alston is convinced that level confusions of this
kind fuel skeptical doubts about the reliability of CMP. See Alston
"Response to critics", Religious Studies, 30, 2 (June
18. M. Devitt, Realism and Truth, (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1984), 22-3.
19. See, for example Alston Perceiving God, 4 and
10. In A Realist Conception of Truth (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1996) Alston seems to agree that the presence of true beliefs does
not guarantee a realist interpretation of a mode of discourse. See 77-84.
20. Devitt, Realism and Truth, ch. 4.
21. The account which follows is derived from H. Meynell Freud,
Marx and Morals (London: Macmillan, 1981), 150-56.
22. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.
23. Alston Perceiving God, 133.
24. Gale "Why Alston's mystical doxastic practice is
25. Alston Perceiving God, 136-7.
26. This is an adaptation of an argument of Kretzmann's
against Alston: Kretzmann "Mystical perception", 79-80, n. 15.
27. As B. Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of
Revised Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993), 132 ff., or Kant, Religion
within the Limits of Reason Alone, Bk. 4, Part 2, § 2.
28. C. Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) and J. Gellman, Experience of God and
the Rationality of the Theistic Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1997).
29. cf. T. Penelhum God and Skepticism (Dordrecht:
Reidel, 1983), especially ch. 7.
30. I should like to thank Mark Wynn and an anonymous
referee for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Byrne is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, King’s College London.
He edits Religious Studies. His
most recent books have been Prolegomena to Religious Pluralism (Macmillan 1995), The
Moral Interpretation of Religion (Edinburgh University Press/Eerdmans
1998), and Philosophical and Ethical Issues in Mental Handicap (Macmillan
2000). Email firstname.lastname@example.org