December 1993By Celia Wolf-Devine
Celia Wolf-Devine is a professor of philosophy at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. By William. P. Alston. Cornell University Press. 320 pages. $36.95.
William Alston is one of the leading philosophers of religion in the analytic tradition, and his Perceiving God is the fruit of many years of work and reflection. It is carefully argued and takes into account the large body of scholarly literature devoted to the epistemology of religious belief. Its somewhat technical style, however, may discourage all but the most determined nonspecialist. It would be unfortunate, however, if the book were read only by professional philosophers, since its central argument is important and should be of interest to all Christians. Alston does not attempt to prove the existence of God. His concern is, rather, to show that the experiential awareness of God (understood as a kind of perception -- "mystical perception") makes an important contribution to the grounds of religious belief. People do, he argues, perceive God and thereby acquire justified beliefs about Him, and this is true not just of famous mystics but also of ordinary people (he cites a survey showing that 75 percent of Christians have at some time been aware of the presence of God).
His argument ought to interest nonbelievers, particularly those who inhabit academia. Nonbelievers are frequently puzzled by the fact that colleagues whose intelligence they respect are believers even though they do not claim to possess conclusive arguments for their belief. A proper understanding of the legitimate role of the experience of God in providing grounds for religious belief fills an important gap here. It is a mistake to think of religious belief as derived from indubitable foundations by deductive reasoning, as Descartes did. Rather, it rests on a complex variety of sources that mutually support and reinforce each other. One of these sources is the believer's experience of God, and the nonbeliever will not be able to understand the believer if this is overlooked.
The value of the book for the believer is that it clarifies and defends the value of mystical perception. Alston is not in the least intimidated by those who attempt to discredit mystical perception, and is particularly astute in unmasking some of their rhetorical tricks. They, for example, condemn mystical perception for failing to pass certain tests that cannot be met by sense perception either (double standard), or take certain features of sense perceptual belief formation to be normative for all perceptual belief formation practices (epistemic imperialism). One of Alston's strengths is his understanding of the importance of where we place the burden of proof in philosophical argument, and his ability to shift it to his opponents -- thereby putting them on the defensive.
Alston's epistemology is an intriguing blend of Thomas Reid's commonsense foundationalism and of a "doxastic practices" (belief-forming practice) approach which he derives from Wittgenstein.
Reid, an 18th-century Scottish commonsense realist and opponent of Hume, Berkeley, and Descartes, held that there are certain sorts of evidence that produce belief, for example, sense perception, introspection, memory, testimony, and rational intuition. None of these can be justified without circularity -- i.e., without relying on what we are trying to prove -- and none of them can be reduced to any of the others. We cannot prevent ourselves from believing things on these sorts of evidence, and, to pretend to doubt sense perception until it is vindicated by reasoning (as Descartes did) is incoherent, for if we cannot trust our sense faculties (which we have from nature), why should we trust our reasoning (which we have from the same source)? Our cognitive situation is such that we have no alternative but to place our trust in these basic belief-forming mechanisms; we cannot put ourselves outside them in order to evaluate them.
From Wittgenstein, Alston takes the insight that our belief-forming practices are not just a matter of the way we, as human individuals, are put together; we are also social creatures who use language, and hence these doxastic practices have an irreducibly social dimension.
Putting all this together, then, Alston proposes to take all our socially established doxastic practices to be acceptable as such -- as innocent until proven guilty. He then argues that Christian mystical practice qualifies as a functioning, socially established, perceptual doxastic practice with a distinctive conceptual scheme and a rich, internally justified "overrides system" (a system of checks or tests to which putative perceptions of God are subjected and which function to rule out delusory perceptions) and therefore that we are entitled to regard it as prima facie reliable. He then knocks down arguments that purport to show that Christian mystical practice is unreliable.
Perhaps the weakest section of the book is the one that deals with conflicts among rival religious traditions. Alston's treatment of the problem has a very tentative feel to it. He draws some valuable initial distinctions, and nibbles at the problem from a variety of different angles, but these don't add up to the sort of clear and coherent position he develops in other sections. He concludes that the fact of religious diversity reduces the rationality of engaging in Christian mystical practice below what it would be otherwise, but not so much as to render it irrational. Practitioners of other internally validated forms of mystical practice (e.g., in non-Christian religions) are also (prima facie at least) rational to continue in their own religious doxastic practices. This conclusion seems weak, but perhaps that is the best that can be done at the level of abstract epistemological considerations. Alston has shown what he set out to show, namely, that believers are prima facie justified in forming beliefs about God on the basis of Christian mystical practice. In order to resolve the problem of religious diversity adequately without lapsing into relativism, one would have to know enormous amounts about the mystical practices and background beliefs of others religions, and bring in all sort of other considerations (e.g., evaluation of the historical claims of Christianity), as Alston realizes.
All in all, this is a very valuable book that does a good job of knocking down a large variety of objections to the cognitive claims of Christian mystical practice. Alston's arguments against the sorts of objections the American believer is likely to encounter from his colleagues and friends are for the most part trenchant and compelling. His style is dialogical and he tries very hard not to belittle objections to his view but to meet them head on. His honesty about the difficulties with his view, and the care he takes in clarifying just what each argument does and does not prove, are virtues all too rare in the academic world these days, and make this a rewarding book for those willing to fight their way through his arguments. A more popular presentation of his central ideas would be valuable for the general reader, and, quite possibly, for Alston himself.