Perceiving God (Alston)

M-beliefs:  beliefs to the effect that god is doing something currently vis-a-vis the subject, or that God has some perceivable property (Alston 1).

Alston’s “perceptual beliefs” are analogous to Plantinga’s “properly basic beliefs” (3).  These beliefs will often (always?) be direct and non-sensory.  

CMP: Christian mystical practice

Thesis:  “The chief aim of this book is to defend the view that putative direct awareness of God can provide justification for certain kinds of beliefs about God” (9). 

Alston notes that many perceptual accounts of God are a) experiential, b) direct, and c) reported to be of God (14).  A note about sense perception: seeing my house, for example, differs from my thinking about my house…it is the difference between presence (to consciousness) and absence” (14-15).  

Direct and Indirect Awareness of God

perception: the object is directly presented or immediately present to the subject.

absolute immediacy: One is aware of X but not through anything else, even a state of consciousness.

Mediated immediacy: One is aware of X through a state of consciousness distinct from X.

perceptual consciousness:  something presents itself to the subject’s awareness as so-and-so

  • direct awareness: from the side of the subject
  • presentation/givenness/appearance: from the side of the object

External Conditions of Perception

Theory of appearing:  the notion of X’s appearing to S as so-and so is fundamental and unanalyzable (55). For S to perceive X is simply for X to appear to S as so-and-so.  Applied to religious experience, this means:

  1. Is it possible that “God” should be appearing to S in y experience?
  2. Is it possible that God should figure in causation in that experience in such a way as to count as what is perceived?
    1. Per Catholic simplicity:  Can God be experienced in a partial manner (pace Garrigou)?
  3. Is it possible that that experience should give rise to beliefs about God?

Epistemic Justification: Perceptual and Otherwise

argument:  mystical perception is a source of justification for M-beliefs (69).  

question to be asked: does the concept of justification exhibit truth conducivity–does my believing P entail that it is likely P is true? (69).

General Epistemological Background

concerned with the state or condition of being justified in holding a certain belief, rather than the activity of justification.

If one conflates the condition of being justified in a belief with the activity of justifying a belief, then one will think that all justifications are mediate.  

  1. justification is an evaluative status
  2. justification is a matter of degree

Perceptual belief: a belief about a perceived object, about an object that presents itself to the subject (77).  It is based on perceptual experience directly, instead of on other beliefs.

Are M-beliefs self-authenticating?  

The problem with saying perceptual beliefs, especially M-beliefs, are immediate, is that most perceptual beliefs are formed on the basis of other beliefs, which means they won’t be immediate.  Alston says this problem isn’t that big a deal.

The Reliability of Sense Perception

Many of the problems that face justifying one’s M-beliefs also face sense-perception.  None of our most basic “doxastic” (belief-forming) practices can escape circularity (103).

SP: sense perceptual practice

MP: mystical perceptual practice, that which creates M beliefs.


A doxastic practice is reliable if it yields mostly true beliefs in a sufficiently large and varied run of employments in situations of the sorts we typically encounter (105). 

“Reliability is a matter of degree.”  It can be a source of belief (105).

We cannot give a non-circular defense of SP.  

The solution: the scheme we use (realism about external world) to bring off these predictions fits the reality we perceive, and the procedure we use to form perceptual beliefs is a reliable source of belief (136).

Doxastic practices: 

The problem of criterion and regress will face every scheme (146-147).  However, we seek the justification of beliefs on adequate grounds. These ground are certain doxastic practices (belief-forming practices).  Enter Thomas Reid,

“For belief is of such a nature that, if you leave any root, it will  spread; and you may more easily put it up altogether, than say, “Hitherto shalt thou go and no further: the existence of impressions and ideas I give up to thee; but see thou pretend to nothing more.  A thorough and consistent skeptic will never yield to this point. To such a skeptic I have nothing to say; but of the semi-skeptic, I should beg to know, why they believe the existence of their impressions and ideas.  The true reason I take to be, because they cannot help it; and the same reason will lead them to believe many other things. (An Enquiry in the Human Mind, VI, 20, p. 207).

I am very impressed with Alston on this section. I had feared that his previous argument: SP-beliefs are warranted because they take place within doxastic practices” would lead to a kind of coherentism.  Alston is aware of this problem, but counters it by saying we have a “negative coherentism with regard to doxastic practices, but not with regard to our beliefs” (152-154).

The Nature of Doxastic Practices

practice: a system or constellation of dispositions, habits, or “mechanisms” which yields a belief as “output” (153). 

generational (belief-independent) practices fit to form beliefs to a certain sphere of reality.

irreducible plurality of practices: 

What Alston calls Doxastic practices, Thomas Reid called “the evidence of Sense, evidence of Memory, evidence of Consciousness, the evidence of Testimony, the evidence of Axioms, the evidence of Reasoning” (164).   We give the name “evidence” to whatever is a ground of belief.

We utilize these principles in practice long before we form theories about them.  

Individuation of Doxastic Practices

summary of argument so far: Since a doxastic practice is essentially the exercise of a family of belief-forming mechanisms, the unity of a doxastic practice is most centrally a function of important similarities in the constituent mechanisms.  And since a belief-forming mechanism is simply the realization of an input-output function, the unity of a doxastic practice most basically consists in important similarities in input, in output, and in the function connecting the two (165).

Overriders and Defeaters

  • internal consistency (if two perceptual beliefs contradict each other, one of them is false).

One thought on “Perceiving God (Alston)

  1. Pingback: Reliability of Sense Perception (Alston) | Factory of the Soul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s