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Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience Paperback – September 29, 1993

4.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"The elegant and comprehensive argument in this book is the definitive version of a position Alston has been developing over the past decade. It is arguably the most important investigation of the epistemology of mysticism from a sophisticated analytical-pragmatic perspective since James's Varieties."―Theological Studies

"This splendid book is the fruit of decades of mature and penetrating reflection. As you would expect, it takes discussion of the topics surrounding experience of God to a new level of insight and penetration"―Alvin Plantinga, University of Notre Dame

"A first-rate and truly important piece of work, Perceiving God is both a signal contribution to the philosophy of religion and a powerful treatise in epistemology. The book is philosophically rigorous and admirably lucid. It is in my judgment the leading contemporary work on the epistemic status of religious experience."―Robert Audi, University of Notre Dame


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press (September 29, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801481554
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801481550
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #854,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
William Alston is professor emeritus in philosophy at Syracuse University in USA. In this book he combines his knowledge of general epistemology with his interest in philosophy of religion. Alston focuses on experience as a provoding a strong basis for theist belief. He tries to show that in so far general perceptive practices are reliable, and Christian mystical practices may be shown to be very similar to general or "ordinary" perception, there is no reason to be a skeptic towards religious experiences. Like general doxastic practices, mystical perceptual practices may be shown to be socially established.
Alston projects his moderate foundationalism into philosophy of religion, in his model experience may be intimately conncted to experience of God, although it is never thought to be infallible. According to Alston theist belief is based on two pillars, natural theology and religious experience, where experience is the most important part.
The book may be read as a modern analytic philosopher's attempt to identify with the Christian mystical tradition, with its empahsis on direct awareness of God.
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Format: Paperback
No one should pick up "Perceiving God" expecting a devotional manual or a rich description of mystical experience. Instead, the book is a subtle and fairly technical treatise on religious epistemology, undertaken to assess the epistemic status of claims by Christian mystics to have perceived God directly. The bottom line is that Christian mystical practice is a socially established doxastic system and, as such, should be treated as prima facie veridical unless it produces results that are internally inconsistent or clash with the results of other doxastic systems.

Philosophers will enjoy "Perceiving God" even if they don't buy the conclusion. However, ordinary believers will be left cold, if they finish the book at all. I took off one star because I was unpersuaded by the author's finessing of the question of how Christian mystical practice can be veridical even though it clashes with the mystical practices of other religions. Overall, non-philosophers interested in mysticism should start with William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience" before they tackle "Perceiving God."
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Format: Paperback
Alston gives a bold and somewhat convincing argument for religious experience as a source of belief and knowledge. In doing so, he surveys the current crisis and options in epistemology. He notes that modern epistemology cannot give noncircular defenses for the most basic accounts of knowledge and that religious experience (or Christian Mystical Perception, CP/M beliefs) are far less problematic in terms of epistemic justification.

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” (Alston 9). Ironically, discussing religious perception raises questions about sense perception (SP). Therefore, Alston gives us his 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:

*Is it possible that “God” should be appearing to S in y experience?
**Is it possible that God should figure in causation in that experience in such a way as to count as what is perceived?
***Is it possible that that experience should give rise to beliefs about God?

Alston then takes a brief detour to give an account of current epistemology. This is where the true "money" of the book is. I have some doubts as to how far his M-belief justification can be taken. But the book is worth it in terms of his Reidian epistemology.

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).
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The thesis of William Alston's book is that, with minimal caveats, people who purportedly have mystical experiences of God are rationally justified in believing whatever they have mystically perceived. Alston sets the bar so low for this rational justification that it may be claimed with equal force by those with contradictory perceptions of God. This inevitably leads to the "true for you but not for me" scenario that has become the calling card of postmodern relativism.

Alston begins by taking mystical experiences at face value. If someone claims a mystical experience of God, Alston accepts that experience as supporting a prima facie justified belief in God as possessing the quality or performing the act mystically perceived, unless it runs afoul of an "overrider system."

An overrider system is a socially accepted set of beliefs that negate (override) a particular perception when the perception is contrary to the accepted beliefs. For Christianity, "the Bible, the ecumenical councils of the undivided church, Christian experience through the ages, Christian thought, and more generally the Christian tradition are normative sources of its overrider system." (Location 4844.) Overrider systems vary by religion, and this throws Alston's theory into a morass of relativism.

Depending on the overrider system, the same mystical perception could produce a rationally justified belief within one religion while producing an identical but unjustified belief within another.
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