Council for Secular Humanism

Get Active!

Sign up to receive CSH emails and Action Alerts

Donate online
to support CSH

Free Inquiry

Subscribe for the
Internet price of
only $19.97

Renew your

back issues

Visit our
online library

Shop Online

What's New?


Introduction to
Secular Humanism

Council for
Secular Humanism

CSH Organizations

The Center for Inquiry

Paul Kurtz

Speaker's Bureau

Humanist Hall of Fame

Web Columns
and Feedback

Find a Secular Humanist
Group Near You

Field Notes:
Council Activities
Around the Nation

Worldwide Index of
Humanist Groups

Humanism on TV

Freethought Alliance


for Humanism

International Academy
of Humanism

Secular Organizations
for Sobriety



Contact Info

Site Map




Perceiving God and Realism

Peter Byrne

The following article is from Philo, Volume 3, Number 2.


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 perceptions.4 

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 same order.

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 unreliable.

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 case.



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  So 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 perception. 



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 1998): 299-316.
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 1994):171-180.
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 subjective", 871.
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 Religion,
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 Experience
(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.

Peter 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 peter.byrne@kcl.ac.uk 


news.gif (359 bytes) Subscribe to Philo

back.gif (1144 bytes) Philo Home Page

back.gif (1144 bytes) Secular Humanism Online Library

house.gif (1274 bytes) Council for Secular Humanism Web Site



This page was last updated 02/13/2004

Copyright notice:  The copyright for the contents of this web site rests with the Council for Secular Humanism.  
You may download and read the documents.  Without permission, you may not alter this information, repost it, or sell it. 
If you use a document, you are encouraged to make a donation to the Council for Secular Humanism.