Home » Library » Modern Library » Richard Gale Alston

Richard Gale Alston


Why Alston’s Mystical Doxastic Practice Is Subjective (1994)

Richard Gale

The following article was originally published in PHILOSOPHY AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH, Vol. LIV, No. 4, December 1994.


Within each of the great religions there is a well established doxastic practice (DP) of taking experiential inputs consisting of apparent direct perceptions of God (M-experiences) as giving prima facie justification, subject to defeat by overriders supplied by that religion, for belief outputs that God exists and is as he presents himself. (This DP is abbreviated as “MP.”) William Alston’s primary aim in his excellent book, Perceiving God, is to establish that we have epistemic justification for believing that MPs are reliable in that for the most part their belief outputs are true and moreover true of an objective or experience-independent reality, unlike the belief outputs of the DPs based on sensations and feelings, along with the introspective DP whose intentional accusatives, although existing independently of being introspected, fail to be objective because they are themselves conscious states.

In order for MPs to qualify as objective, not just reliable, it is necessary that their M-experience inputs really be perceptual as advertised. This requires that they admit of the veridical-unveridical distinction and take objective rather than just cognate or internal accusatives when veridical, unlike the experiential inputs for the reliable but merely subjective DPs based on sensations and introspection, in which an objective accusative is one that exists independently of experience. It will be argued that these M-experiences are non-perceptual subjective experiences that take only a cognate or internal accusative, thereby showing that MP is a subjective DP.

The battle is won or lost in the opening chapter of the book where Alston contends that M-experiences are non-sensory perceptions which are a species of the same genus as are ordinary sense perceptions. For once this is established, he can apply to M-experiences his quite plausible generalization about objective DPs that have proven successful over time in helping their participants to realize their special purpose-that it is reasonable to believe that their propositional belief outputs are true of objective reality-for these MPs have long succeeded in aiding their participants in realizing the special purpose of MP, namely to help its participants find sanctity.1

According to Alston’s analysis of a perceptual experience, “…it is both necessary and sufficient for a state of consciousness to be a state of perceptual consciousness that it (seem to the subject to) involve something’s presenting itself to the subject, S, as so-and-so…” (38) Alston switches back and forth between speaking of the something presenting itself and its being presented. (38, 43, 54, and 56) These notions seem to function as primitives for Alston, judging by the fact that he says nothing further about them except that their occurrence is involuntary.

Unfortunately for Alston’s larger purpose, this phenomenologically-based analysis is too broad, since it encompasses in addition to perceptual experiences certain involuntary presentational subjective experiences, such as dreaming, sensing an after-image, feeling a pain, as well as introspective experiences.

Because his analysis is too broad, the Alston express gets derailed before it leaves the station; we cannot now assume that MPs are subject to the above generalization about our having epistemic warrant to believe that the output beliefs of successful objective DPs are for the most part true of objective reality. But Alston seems unaware that there is trouble in River City judging by his unintended humorous remark at the end of his account of M-experiences as perceptual, “So far so good,” and his overlooking this problem in all of his many later efforts to neutralize challenges to MPs being a reliable objective DP. (48) While I enjoy a good train derailment just as much as the next person, I want to push the discussion further to determine whether it might be possible to find some way to show that M-experiences are perceptual, or at least have an objective accusative, and, if not, why not.

I believe that Alston’s major reason for accepting M-experiences as perceptual is that many mystics describe them as such. If Alston means to take their word for it, then he is, in effect, adding a further condition to his above analysis so that it is also necessary that S takes the state of consciousness to be perceptual.

The problem with this way of salvaging Alston’s argument is that, in addition to being viciously regressive, it takes him further in the direction of an extreme language-game fideism than his avowed realist intuitions permit. It allows the participants in virtually any DP to determine its nature without fear of outside challenge. It would preclude us, for example, from challenging the existentialist’s feeling DP which take moods of boredom to be “perceptions” of a Nothingness that transcends their own states of consciousness or the Reichian DP which take orgasms to have cosmic significance. The whole point of Alston’s realism is to make room for external challenges to DPs, which, it is important to note, he issues against the repeated claims of mystics that their experiences are ineffable. (31-32) If they are not infallible about their experiences being ineffable, why should they be about their experiences being perceptual.

It is a difficult conceptual question, not to be settled simply on linguistic grounds, when a verb takes a cognate accusative. The grammatical accusative of some but not all cognate accusative verbs has a corresponding verb (or adverb) in our language. What is called for is an analysis of some of the key necessary conditions for an experiential verb to have an objective accusative. It can then be determined whether M-experience verbs satisfy these conditions.

The analysis will be of perception, a paradigm of what Alston calls an experience that “has an act-object structure,” that is, which takes an objective accusative in my terminology. (56) It is crucial that my account of these conditions be generic so that it applies to all species of perception, including non-sensory ones, if there be such. If it were it to be tailored to the case of sense perception, I rightly could be charged with illegitimately taking features of one species of perception as normative for all its other species.

My strategy for unearthing these generic conditions for an experience being perceptual is first to show how they are satisfied by sense perception. Abstraction then will be made from sensory qualities or anything that entails have sensory qualities, thereby rendering the account fully generic. If it is found that M-experiences fail to satisfy one or more of these generic conditions, that will justify denying them perceptual status.

The Metaphysical Requirement2

The conceptual requirement that the object of a veridical sense perception be perceivable by different perceivers at the same time and the same perceiver at different times is satisfied because these perceivers have positions within the same space-time dimensions as does the object and are hooked up with it by different causal chains which explain why they have the perspectivally matched perceptions they do. The tests for the veridicality of a sense perception, viz. having the right sort of causal hookup (which involves, among other things, a normal perceiver in standard circumstances, etc.), agreement among perceivers, and predicative success, presuppose this world-view of a common space-time receptacle in which the objective accusatives of veridical sense perceptions are the common causes of the for the most part nomic-type coherence among the contents of the sense perceptions of the differently positioned perceivers. That there are such tests is not a contingent fact about sense perception but a conceptual fallout from the concept of a sense perception as having an objective accusative.

These objective accusatives are ultimately individuated by their position in the space-time dimensions of the receptacle, it being a necessary truth that two material objects of the same kind cannot spatiotemporally coincide. In order to perform this individuating function for empirical entities, these dimensions must not themselves be empirically determined. This receptacle creates the possibility of there being counter-examples to the principle of the identity of indiscernibles when restricted to fully general properties. Any such property admits of the possibility of multiple instantiations at different regions in this receptacle. And as a consequence we are able to distinguish between perceptions that are of numerically one and the same particular and those of particulars that are only qualitatively similar. In the latter case there are noncoincident particulars that are hooked up with different perceptions via different causal chains.

With this all too brief sketch in hand of the conceptual requirements for sense perception having an objective accusative, the generic requirements for any perceptual experience having an objective accusative can be derived by abstracting from the features of these requirements that involve or entail having sensory qualities. It cannot be demanded that the objective accusative occupy the spatial dimension, since being spatial entails having sensory qualities. This requirement, when made properly generic, is that the accusative of a veridical perception of any species occupy some non-empirical dimension(s), though not necessarily those of space and time, by which it is individuated and within which it is causally hooked up with different perceivers, thereby explaining how it is possible both for it to be the common accusative of different perceptions and the distinction to be drawn between perceptions of one and the same object and those of only qualitatively similar objects.

It is obvious, and readily acknowledged by different things Alston says, that none of these requirements, even when divested of all sensory elements, as has just been done, are satisfied by M-experiences. To begin with, God is a spiritual being whose individuation is not dimensionally-based, not even on that of time, were he to inhabit this dimension. As a consequence of this, M-experiences are not dimensionally hooked up with God. Thus, there is no way of indexically identifying God. God’s individuation is based instead on his satisfying certain definite descriptions, such as being the sole creator of the world. But there is no way in which we can experientially identify someone as satisfying such a description.3 Because God can be identified neither indexically nor descriptively, there is no way to determine on the basis of M-experiences whether different M-experiences have accusatives that are of numerically one and the same or only qualitatively similar.

It is clear that M-experiences satisfy none of the generic metaphysical requirements for being perceptual. On this ground alone they fail to qualify as perceptual and thereby are not subject to Alston’s generalization about successful perceptual type DPs having outputs that are true for the most part of an objective reality.

The Epistemological Requirement

A sense experience has a cognitive status in that it bestows a prima facie justification upon the objective belief based on it. But for there to be prima facie justification there must be a system of background overriders that make it possible for a belief to be shown to be epistemically unwarranted or even false. Furthermore, the very idea of a DP, since it is a practice, involves normativity-the possibility of its participants “correcting” each other. This in turn requires the overrider system. In regard to sense perception, these overriders consist roughly in the above tests. Since these tests are already generic in form, it can be asked whether M-experiences are subject to them, or even to any tests at all.

Judging by what Alston himself says, they are not. Since God becomes the object of an M-experience only by his freely bestowing grace upon the perceiver, there is no way to predict who will have such an experience and under what conditions. And, since he is supernatural, the caused-in-the-right way test will have no application. “We know nothing of the mechanisms of such [M-] perception, if indeed it is proper to talk of mechanisms here; nor can we grasp any useful regularities in the conditions under which God will appear in one or another qualitatively distinctive way to one’s experience.” (49) And for this reason the agreement among perceivers test, with its dependency upon the notion of a normal perceiver in standard conditions, has no application to M-experiences. “There are no clear-cut conditions such that we are prepared to admit that God exists and is perceived by me if and only if a person who satisfies those conditions perceives God whenever God is present to him…” (214)

In spite of the failure of M-experiences to be subject to the same sort of generic tests as are sense perceptions, Alston claims that there are tests of a son for determining their veridicality based on their “conformity with the (religious) tradition (of that MP), concordance with what God could be expected to be, do, or say, and fruits in the way of spiritual development.” (204)

The problem is whether such a system of overriders is up to the task of rendering M-experiences cognitive; for whereas a belief output of SP is verifiable, at least in principle, by employment of the agreement, prediction and caused-in-the-right way tests, the belief outputs of an MP are not since these tests do not apply. Alston frankly admits that this disanalogy “shows that CMP (the Christian MP) is epistemically inferior to SP,” but not so much as to show that the belief outputs of an MP are not prima facie justified. (220) The issue is left hinging on the degree to which MPs epistemic creditability is tarnished, without there being any kind of decision procedure for determining how much is too much. (238) The major reason for thinking that an MP’s overrider system is too weak for M-experiences to count as cognitive, as bestowing prima facie justification on the belief outputs, is the fact that the various extant MPs, at least those within the great religions of the world, are epistemically on all fours yet mutually incompatible because their respective system of overriders give incompatible specifications of what counts as growing spiritually or becoming more sanctified. Alston’s attempt to neutralize this problem, in my opinion, is a total failure.

Even if Alston’s effort at damage control were to have considerably more success than it in fact has, it would still be highly dubious that M-experiences are cognitive, that they give sufficient epistemic warrant or justification to the beliefs based on them, the reason being, and lets not be mealy-mouthed about this, that, unlike the belief outputs of SP, they are not verifiable. No sooner is the “v” word used than Alston responds by charging its user with being an “epistemic imperialist” for upholding SP’s verificationist requirement for its belief outputs as normative for all DPs.

The issue is not whether every meaningful sentence must express an in principle verifiable or confirmable proposition-neither Alston (155) nor I believe this-but whether the belief outputs of a DP must be so verifiable for the experiential inputs to count as cognitive, something which I firmly believe. It is over this issue that Alston falls into a serious equivocation between verificationism as a necessary condition for a sentence’s meaningfulness, which I will call “meaningfulness-verificationism,” and as a necessary condition for a type of experience qualifying as cognitive in virtue of the beliefs based on them being verifiable, which I will call “cognitivity-verificationism.” At several places he runs them together so that his refutation of the former is made to appear as a refutation of the latter as well. For example, in his response to critics, such as myself, who he alleges to suppose “that the availability of SP-type checks and tests is a necessary condition for being a source of epistemic justification for objective beliefs” he writes:

I find no merit in any such (verifiability) criterion. It seems clear to me that I can form beliefs that make claims about objective reality, and thus possess a truth value, without having any idea of how they could be tested by sense perception…. (224)

Herein he is attacking the strawman meaningfulness-verificationism rather than, as he is supposed to be, cognitivity-verificationism. Of course, he might also challenge cognitivity-verificationism but herein he has no easy task since many of us have strong intuitions in favor of it.

For the above reasons it is at least dubious whether M-experiences pass the epistemological requirement. And since it is certain that they completely fail to meet the metaphysical requirement, it can be decisively concluded that they are not perceptual in nature.

If Alston should respond, as he typically does when confronted with a potentially harmful disanalogy between MP and SP (49, 198, 221, 237), that there is an explanation why the latter but not the former satisfy the generic metaphysical and epistemological requirements based on differences in the categoreal natures of the accusative of M- and sense experiences that renders the disanalogy harmless, it can be countered that explaining why M-experiences flunk a requirement does nothing toward helping them to satisfy it.

Alston, on the other hand, might challenge the key premise in my argument for M-experiences being non-perceptual-that every species of perception should satisfy the same conceptually-based generic requirements as do sense experiences. He might charge that these requirements are too closely tailored on sense perception and that therefore no or little harm results from M-experiences not meeting them, to which the proper reply is that this seriously undermines his claim that “there is a basic commonality across the divide” between sensory and non-sensory species of perception. (36) It looks as if this “commonality” involves nothing more than that both type of “perceptions” involve a presentation; and this has been shown not to work as a criterion for dividing perceptual from nonperceptual experiences. Challenging my above argument for M-experiences not being perceptual by rejecting out of hand its key premise not only does nothing to compensate for the failure of his book to supply an adequate account of what perception is and why M-experiences should count as perceptual, it renders his views on these issues even more obscure than they are.



  2. I extracted this generalization from these two claims. “It is a reasonable supposition that a practice would not have persisted over large segments of the population unless it was putting people into effective touch with some aspect(s) of reality and proving itself by its fruits.” (170)

    “It is…not irrelevant to our basic aim at believing the true and abstaining from believing the false, that SP (the DP of forming objective beliefs about our physical environment from our sensory experiences) and other established DPs, constitute the most reasonable procedures to use, so far as we can judge, when trying to realize that aim.” (180) All page references are included in parentheses.


  3. For an elaborate account of this requirement, as well as the following epistemological one, see Chapter 8 of my book, On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge, 1991).
  4. Alston makes a valiant attempt to show how the apparent object of an M-experience can be experientially identified as God. “For me to recognize what I am aware of (X) as God, all that is necessary is that X present to me features that are in fact a reliable indication of their possessor’s being God, at least in situations of the sort in which I typically find myself.” (97. My italics.) Typicality has no application to an M-experience, since the concept of a normal, standard, or typical situation is inapplicable to M-experiences.
all rights reserved