Reliability of Sense Perception (Alston)

This work is a continuation of Alston’s earlier project in Perceiving God.  Earlier he claimed that critics of religious epistemology could not give a non-circular account of basic doxastic practices like trusting in sense perception.  This work expands upon those claims.

Alston makes important contributions to epistemology, but the work itself, which will be reviewed below, suffers from several drawbacks.  It’s not always clear what Alston’s larger point is. And the structure of the book isn’t always clear, either. He does spend several LONG chapters rebutting different defenses of sense perception (which seems to vitiate his larger point), only to propose a non-circular defense of sense perception at the end.  And some chapters just seemed to end abruptly.  

Alston presupposes some form of reliabilist epistemology: 

to know that p is to have a reliably generated belief that p is” (Alston 3). 

In line with later epistemologies of proper function, we form beliefs when our given psyches at a given time have a relatively fixed number of dispositions to go from a certain belief input to a certain belief output.  

Along the way he rebuts Wittgensteinian and Kantian defenses of belief and sense perception. Some of these are quite interesting but can be passed over for the moment.

Several points are worth noting if Alston’s thesis holds

  1. a) The reliability of sense perceptual practices (SP) is not the same as an argument for the existence of the external world.  
  2. b) Wittgenstein’s “Language Games” are similar to Thomas Reid’s “doxastic practices” (to borrow a later phrase that Reid wouldn’t have used).  

Alston’s specific argument (99ff):

We should adopt a specific world-scheme that trades on an ability to anticipate reliable SP. This is not circular reasoning, however, since we use SP involving the world-scheme, rather than SP working from within a specific doxastic practice.   So what does this mean? As I understand it, a circular account of SP says “SP is warranted because our doxastic practice justifies SP” (understanding, of course, pace Hume and Russell, that we need SP to begin the doxastic practice). Alston argues, by contrast, that our world-scheme/human constitution (Reid) allows for the existence of SP.  I agree with him. I’m just not sure how different his proposal is.


The book makes a number of important contributions, if densely and indirectly.  His final proposal, that we should rely on Thomas Reid and his modern followers, is one I agree with wholeheartedly: doxastic practices are innocent until proven guilty. That sounded familiar when I read it. The reason it was familiar is because several pages seemed to be lifted straight from Perceiving God (an admittedly fine work, but see:  PG, p. 151 = RSP, p. 126-127). I don’t fault him for repeating Reid.  That is something we all should do. But to be honest: it seemed tacked-on to the whole work.  


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