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Perceiving God

Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience

William P. Alston
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    Perceiving God
    Book Description:

    In Perceiving God, William P. Alston offers a clear and provocative account of the epistemology of religious experience. He argues that the "perception of God"-his term for direct experiential awareness of God-makes a major contribution to the grounds of religious belief. Surveying the variety of reported direct experiences of God among laypersons and famous mystics, Alston demonstrates that a person can be justified in holding certain beliefs about God on the basis of mystical experience. Through the perception that God is sustaining one in being, for example, one can justifiably believe that God is indeed sustaining one in being.

    Alston offers a detailed discussion of our grounds for taking sense perception and other sources of belief-including introspection, memory, and mystical experience-to be reliable and to confer justification. He then uses this epistemic framework to explain how our perceptual beliefs about God can be justified. Alston carefully addresses objections to his chief claims, including problems posed by non-Christian religious traditions. He also examines the way in which mystical perception fits into the larger picture of grounds for religious belief.

    Suggesting that religious experience, rather than being a purely subjective phenomenon, has real cognitive value, Perceiving God will spark intense debate and will be indispensable reading for those interested in philosophy of religion, epistemology, and philosophy of mind, as well as for theologians.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7125-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    William P. Alston
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The central thesis of this book is that experiential awareness of God, or as I shall be saying, theperceptionof God, makes an important contribution to the grounds of religious belief. More specifically, a person can become justified in holding certain kinds of beliefs about God by virtue of perceiving God as being or doing so-and-so. The kinds of beliefs that can be so justified I shall call “M-beliefs” (‘M’ formanifestation). M-beliefs are beliefs to the effect that God is doing something currently vis-a-vis the subject—comforting, strengthening, guiding, communicating a message, sustaining the subject in being—or...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Experience of God: A Perceptual Model
    (pp. 9-67)

    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. In this chapter I will set the stage for that defense by explaining how I am thinking of (putative) direct awareness of God, what its crucial features are, what territory it covers, over what important differences it ranges, and on which stretches of the territory we will be concentrating. I shall illustrate all this by a sample of reports of such experiences, drawn both from “professional” contemplative mystics, and from humble laypersons. All...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Epistemic Justification: Perceptual and Otherwise
    (pp. 68-101)

    What I take the previous chapter to have shown is that the perception of God is a real possibility. There are no principled objections to supposing that many cases in which a person takes herself to be directly aware of God constitute a genuine experiential cognition of God that has the same basic structure as sense perception of the physical environment. I did not attempt to show that this possibility is ever actually realized. Moreover, the analysis of the perception of God given in Chapter 1 is only a prolegomenon to the main aim of the book—to show that...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Reliability of Sense Perception: A Case Study
    (pp. 102-145)

    At the end of Chapter 2 I said that the basic problem of the book could be formulated as follows. “Is the standard or customary practice of forming M-beliefs a source of prima facie justification for those beliefs?” And since the concept of justification we are using is both truth-conducive and source-relevant, this involves the question “Is that practice a reliable one, one that generally will or would yield true beliefs?”¹ Rather than tackle that straight off, I will approach it indirectly. In this chapter and the next I will concentrate on the parallel question concerning our standard practice of...

  8. CHAPTER 4 A “Doxastic Practice” Approach to Epistemology
    (pp. 146-183)

    At the end of the last chapter we were confronted with what looked to be a desperate situation. The course of the argument led us to the conclusion that with respect to even those sources of belief of which we are normally the most confident we have no sufficient noncircular reason for taking them to be reliable. Concentrating on sense perception, we examined the most impressive of the many attempts to show that the belief-forming practice we labeled ‘SP’ is reliable, and we found that all those that were not otherwise disqualified were vitiated by epistemic circularity.

    How widely does...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Christian Mystical Perceptual Doxastic Practice (CMP)
    (pp. 184-225)

    After our long excursus into general epistemology, we are ready to return to the central topic of the book, the epistemic status of M-beliefs. Let’s summarize briefly the main results of the last three chapters, results we will now apply to our central problem.

    In Chapter 2 we first developed a conception of epistemic justification in terms of a belief’s being based on an (objectively) adequate ground. Applying this conception to perceptual beliefs, we saw that although some are based in part on other beliefs, the range of beliefs based purely on perceptual experience is larger than one might think....

  10. CHAPTER 6 Can the Christian Mystical Perceptual Doxastic Practice Be Shown to Be Unreliable?
    (pp. 226-254)

    In the last chapter we consider various objections to the thesis that CMP constitutes a full-fledged, socially established experiential doxastic practice and as such serves as a source of prima facie epistemic justification for its outputs—M-beliefs. We found substantial merit in none of those objections and concluded that the claim of M-beliefs to prima facie justification by virtue of their origin remains unshaken. We will now turn to the second stage of the evaluation of established doxastic practices. Are there sufficient reasons for taking CMP to beunreliableor otherwise unworthy of rational acceptance, despite its being a fully...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Problem of Religious Diversity
    (pp. 255-285)

    I have saved the most difficult problem for my position—religious diversity—for a separate chapter. I believe that I have succeeded in drawing the fangs of the various objections considered up to now by the simple expedient of looking them in the face and challenging their basic assumptions. In doing so I have identified certain recurrent fallacies that underlie many of these objections—epistemic imperialism and the double standard. The objections in question are made from a naturalistic viewpoint. They involve unfavorable epistemic comparisons between mystical perception and sense perception; it is not difficult to show that they either...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Place of Experience in the Grounds of Religious Belief
    (pp. 286-308)

    This book has been devoted to exploring and defending the credentials of one particular ground of belief about God, namely, direct experience of God, what we have been calling the “perception of God” or “mystical perception”. At more than one place I have hinted that this is not the whole story of the epistemic support of religious belief and that in a comprehensive treatment, mystical perception would be integrated into a larger picture. I cannot attempt a complete theory in this book, but in this final chapter I will provide some indications as to how mystical perception is related to...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 309-314)
  14. Index
    (pp. 315-320)