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blternational Journalfor Philosophy of Religion 40: 19-46, (August 1996)

9 1996 KluwerAcademic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

Mystical experience as evidence


EVAN FALES
Department of Philosophy, The University of lowa
Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to
face, as a m a n speaks to his f r i e n d . . .
'But', He said, 'you cannot see m y face; for
m a n shall not see me and live'. Ex. 33:11 & 20

Religious apologetics is perennially attracted to the idea that religious


beliefs are arrived at in ways that are fundamentally on all fours with the
procedures by means of which more mundane beliefs are generated and
justified. If that is so, not only could the same conceptual tools be applied to
the epistemic evaluation of both religious and mundane beliefs, but atheists
and agnostics could be confronted (given certain sorts of evidence) with an
unpleasant dilemma: either to treat mundane beliefs with the same skepticism, or to admit that the epistemic credentials of religious beliefs are - or
at least could be - in good order. Perhaps the most natural application of
this thought is to religious beliefs which are more or less directly the result
of perceptual experiences - perceptual experiences whose putative objects
are divine or supernatural. A class of such experiences lies ready to hand:
mystical experiences, as they are often called. The philosophical challenge
is to show, in terms of our best current understanding of epistemic
justification generally, that such experiences do confer upon religious
beliefs based on them the same sort of prima facie justification that sensory
experience supplies for ordinary perceptual beliefs.
William Alston's book Perceiving God gives this theme the most sophisticated treatment it has yet received. 1 Taking our reasoning from sense
experience as a paradigm of empirical knowledge, Alston's strategy is to
see how judgments based upon mystical experiences stack up against this
standard. He proceeds by analyzing the major features of our ordinary cognitive practices with respect to sensory input, and then examines the extent
to which analogous features can be found in the practices of mystics; that is,
in the epistemic use they make of their spiritual experiences. Alston's conclusion is that the analogies are quite close, on the whole, and that, with
some reservations, it can therefore be said that beliefs derived from mystical
experience are on roughly the same footing as ordinary empirical beliefs.

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But here we must be careful: Alston disavows the view that his argument is
ultimately analogical, since he claims that each cognitive practice must be
judged on its own merits and evaluated in terms of the standards which may
be uniquely appropriate to it. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Alston's
argument trades on pushing certain analogies between the sensory domain
and the spiritual one. The best way to understand this is to see Alston as
insisting on similarities with respect to certain generic features that must
characterize any acceptable cognitive practice whatsoever. 2
My plan is to examine two of the supposed parallels between the mystical
and the sensory arenas which are central to Alston's project of establishing
their similarity. I shall try to show that in the one case the parallel is very
poor, and that in the other, it is, by Alston's own admission, very problematic
whether the phenomenological facts required to establish the parallel are
ones to which we, or even the mystics themselves, have sufficient access.
These two difficulties alone, I will argue, suffice to put seriously in doubt
Alston's claim of rough parity between sensory and mystical beliefs. 3
Alston goes to some pains to establish, in the first place, that mystical
experiences are, at least often, perceptual experiences, and are therefore in a
fundamental way on a par with sensory experience. Whether that is correct
is the first issue. The second concerns the cognitive practices by means of
which beliefs derived from perceptual experience are evaluated. Alston
finds it useful to distinguish a variety of cognitive practices, largely in terms
of the sort of input they utilize and the content of the beliefs which they
generate as output. While acknowledging that any such classification is
bound to involve some arbitrariness, Alston finds it useful to distinguish,
amongst other major divisions, the cognitive practices associated with sense
perception, memory, and a priori reasoning. To that list will be added the
practices which take mystical experience as input and yield religious claims
as output; mystical practice is usefully further subdivided into the practices
associated with distinct religious traditions. Adopting Alston's terminology,
let us speak of sensory practices (SP), mystical practices (MP), and, more
specifically, of Christian mystical practices (CMP).
Here another terminological matter must be cleared up. Alston calls the
spiritual experiences he wishes to discuss mystical experiences. The experiences he has in mind are ones that are arguably perceptual in character, and
that are, more specifically, experiences that seem to their recipients to be experiences of the god of traditional theism - that is, a god of the sort worshipped
by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But this still leaves a great deal unspecified. For example, such an experience might have a purely "inward" character,
or it might be an experience with visual, auditory, or other sensory components, such as Paul is said to have had on the road to Damascus; or it might be
a case of sensing the presence of God in a flower or a mountain landscape.

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Alston's focus is upon spiritual experiences of the inward sort. 'It seems
clear', he says, 'that a non-sensory appearance of a purely spiritual deity
has a greater chance of presenting Him as He is than any sensory presentation'. 4 But there is another, unstated, reason for this focus: it makes it possible to distinguish MP more clearly from SE and to minimize the intrusion
of the procedures we use to evaluate sense experience into ME Let's go
along with this, though it raises questions no complete discussion of MP
ought to omit. There is a further way in which description of these experiences and practices as mystical is misleading, however. As Alston recognizes, not all such experiences have as their putative object the theistic god
or indeed any god or supernatural being at all. In view of this, while I shall
retain Alston's acronyms 'MP' and 'CMP' for the cognitive practices in
question, I shall describe the experiences under discussion as theophanies.
And finally, it is to be understood, unless otherwise indicated, that when I
use the term 'theophany' to refer to a putative perceptual experience of a
theistic god, I am implying no commitment as to whether the experience is
veridical or not - and hence no commitment as to whether there is such a
being. This will permit me to avoid having always to speak of putative or
apparent theophanies, and accords with Alston's own intentions.
I have not yet said which features of SP provide the basis for the second
- and main - quarrel I have with Alston. There are two such features, but
they are closely related. One is what Alston calls the overrider system. A
claim about the physical world, whether based directly upon perceptual
experience or the result of an inference, has, Alston thinks, prima facie
credibility. But there may be grounds for doubt. A belief can be challenged
- and, if challenged, defended in various ways.
For example, my claim to see a hackberry tree just outside the window can
be defeated by presenting evidence which shows that I've misidentified the
tree, or that what I took to be a tree isn't a tree at all, or that I'm hallucinating.
Or, my claim can be defeated by showing that, even if there is a hackberry
tree, my circumstances are such that I am in no position to ascertain this. 5 The
overrider system for SP consists of those empirical and conceptual resources
which enable such defeats to be generated, and which can be drawn upon to
rebut defeaters, to defeat rebuttals, and so on. 6 Clearly, the importance, within
SP, of these resources for appraisals of the reliability of particular empirical
beliefs and of the practice as a whole, can scarcely be overestimated. Within
the domain of scientific theory, the procedures to which Alston is alluding are
central to issues of confirmation; they arise especially in connection with
Duhem's Thesis. I shall have more to say about this presently.
The second feature of SP is its ability to provide self-support. That is, the
use of SP leads to empirical findings which generate support for the conclusion that our cognitive apparatus, at least when operating in discoverably

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favorable conditions, functions in such a way as to yield reliably true beliefs.
Such support is supplied, for example, by investigations of the causal mechanisms which mediate sense perception, by evolutionary arguments for the
reliability of our cognitive mechanisms, and by other evidence which enables
us to understand the strengths and limitations of those faculties. It could
have turned out otherwise: using these faculties, we might have been led to
the unfortunate conclusion that they are radically unreliable. But luckily, we
are led to the opposite conclusion; 7 hence SP is self-supporting.
As Alston sees it, it is crucial for him to show that MP - and in particular
CMP - also has the resources to generate an overrider system, and also can
provide self-support. Nevertheless, Alston insists that it would be wrongheaded to evaluate these aspects of CMP in terms of the features which are
central to an evaluation of their analogues in SP. I shall argue that he is mistaken about this; that these requirements are necessarily intrinsic to any perceptual practice whose aim is to put us in touch with extramental reality.
Because CMP cannot - or at any rate does not - adequately meet these
requirements, it is seriously defective as a cognitive practice. We face, then,
two questions. Do mystical experiences have perceptual content? And does
MP have adequate resources for heading off doubts concerning the veridicality of mystical experiences?

1. The phenomenal content of mystical experiences


I turn now first to the question whether the theophanies (or at any rate some
theophanies) can be considered to be putative non-sensory, direct apprehensions of God. Two preliminary questions need to be addressed. First, in
virtue of what is it that theophanies can properly be said to be direct perceptual experiences, as opposed to being, e.g., memories or purely intellectual
episodes? And, second, what are the intrinsic qualitative or phenomenal
characteristics which are distinctive of those experiences?
Alston acknowledges a distinction between direct or immediate perceptual
awareness of an object, and indirect perceiving. Thus, in the case of sense
perception, there is a difference between actually seeing an airplane, and
seeing it on television or in a mirror. The former is a case of direct perception, the latter of indirect perception, of seeing something (the plane) by
virtue of seeing something else (the TV screen or mirror). 8
What is distinctive of perceptual experience, says Alston, is that perception
involves a presentation, something being given to one. But there are grades
of immediacy. Our own states of consciousness are absolutely immediate
for us. But direct perceptual awareness of an extramental object is immediate in a different sense. In direct perception of an extramental object, one is

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aware, through a state of consciousness, of an object that is distinguishable
from it. Thus, to say that someone has direct perceptual awareness of God is
to say that he or she has an experience in which God is present in person
and not in virtue of an awareness of any other object of perception; and that
God is distinguishable from the experience itself. 9
Alston goes on - quite correctly - to insist that perceptual experience does
involve something presented or given, which can be distinguished from
(though its character may be influenced by) whatever conceptual means we
employ in grasping and forming judgments about it. But this means that
there must be something the given is intrinsically like. When an object is
directly experienced, there must be some set of qualities which that object is
presented as having.
So Alston has two tasks. First, he needs to show that at least some theophanies involve apparent presentations or confrontations with God; and
second, he needs to show that there is something it is phenomenally like to
experience such a confrontation. The two tasks are connected by the fact
that there must be something that it is like to have an apparent theophany, if
that theophany is to count as a perceptual experience.
A prima facie case for the presentational character of some non-sensory
theophanies can be made by appeal to the fact that these experiences often
seem to have that character, or at least, are so described. But then, what are
these theophanies like? What qualifies is God presented as having? A
natural suggestion would be that there is no way for someone who has not
had such an experience to know this, anymore than a blind person could
know what the visual experience of color is like. But surprisingly, Alston
does not make this point; ~~ he focuses rather upon two difficulties which
would arise, I take it, even for mystics. The first problem is that
... we are quite incapable of enumerating the basic phenomenal qualities
of which 'divine phenomena' are configurations... We know quite a bit
about the ways in which sensory experience depends in a regular way on
its physical, physiological, and psychological conditions. We have discovered quite a bit about the stimulus conditions of various sensory qualities, and we have been able to subject the experience of those qualifies to
a considerable degree of stimulus control... But nothing like this has
happened with respect to the perception of God, nor is it at all likely to.
We know nothing of the mechanisms of such 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... Thus we lack the most
elementary prerequisites for analyzing divine appearances into the phenomenal elements, cataloging them, associating them intersubjectively
with names, dimensionalizing them, and so on. (PG, p. 49).

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I have quoted Alston rather fully because what he says here is important not
only to the present question, but to the power and precision any overrider
system MP can hope to have. Alston's point is that even experienced mystics
will have, apparently, little basis on which to compare the qualitative
content of their theophanies. Color perceivers can learn to ascribe the color
white to an object in a whole host of circumstances, both ones in which the
object looks white and ones in which it does not, because whiteness is a
publicly observable characteristic of publicly observable physical objects to
which we can make common reference under relatively well-understood
circumstances. The same does not apply, supposedly, to theophanies. 11
Yet in spite of having said this, Alston goes on to enumerate a number of
qualities of theophanies. Drawing upon Catholic mystical traditions, he lists
sensations that are described as being spiritual analogues to the bodily sensations of warmth and touch, fragrance, sight, and audition. So perhaps it is
by way of analogies to intersubjectively verifiable sensory experience that
mystics can communicate to other mystics - and to the wodd at large - the
character of their theophanies. That would mark some progress; but it would
make the communication of claims resulting from MP parasitic upon SP in
a significant way. Nevertheless, the analogies are purely phenomenal; they
do not imply similarity in the stimulus conditions.
What about the suspicion that there really are no such sense-analogous
qualities presented by God to someone who experiences a theophany, that
all of the qualities that characterize that state are affective ones: fear, or the
feeling of being loved, or the like? This possibility worries Alston less that I
think it should. Of course fear, or the feeling of being loved, won't do at all
as qualities of the sort Alston requires. These are emotional states of the
subject, not qualities of a presented object, however closely they may be
associated with the presentation of an object. Not only do they characterize
the subject, as, on some accounts, secondary sensory qualities also do, b u t unlike the secondary qualities - they are presented as characterizing the subject. I recognize the fear as my fear, even though it may be caused by God.
Indeed, a fear may be associated with no presented object whatsoever.
There are nameless fears. And, there are fears prompted by belief but in the
absence of the feared item. I may fear the dragon I believe to be waiting for
me in the bushes on a dark night. But there are no dragons, and my dragonfear does not constitute a presentation of one; it is not even a presentation of
an intentional dragon. Or a real dragon could be the cause of my fear:
perhaps others have seen it, and rumor of its proximity reaches me. Indeed,
the dragon could even be as prominent a cause of my fear as it could be of
any sense experience: perhaps surgeons have implanted a transponder in my
brain's fear center; radio signals emitted by the dragon trigger the transponder though the dragon is nowhere in view. Perhaps I even know that my fear

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is being caused in this way by the dragon. That still does not constitute my
experiencing a presentation of the dragon.
And so it is with the fear - or love - that God causes or prompts me to
direct toward Him. Such feelings may be inspired by a theophany or in
some other way; but in no case are they themselves constituents of the qualitative character of a presentation.
That leaves the possibility that God is presented as loving or fearsome.
But I know of no way in which an object could be presented to one as
having such affective qualities, except by way of being presented also as
having some non-affective qualities; and Alston has not explained how this
could occur. In view of that, I judge it best to hold that the phenomenal
qualities which characterize theophanies include some non-affective ones.
Let it then be granted that theophanies do present such qualities, however
difficult it may be to identify and convey to others what they are.

2. Can mystical experiences be cross-checked?


But if our descriptive grasp of the content of theophanies is as tenuous as
Alston suggests, it becomes an especially critical matter that there be robust
means for checking the accuracy of beliefs founded upon them. I shall call
such evaluation procedures cross-checking. We must consider how it is possible to cross-check both particular reports of theophany, and the correctness of the inferences drawn from them. 'Cross-checking' is an umbrella
term: it embraces both the utilization of an overrider system and of more
indirect ways to establish credibility; for example, appeal to systemic features such as self-support. Here we must embark, then, upon an investigation of the second issue which I raised at the outset.
Since SP is to serve as our test case, I shall have to characterize, at least
partially, the cross-checking procedures which can be deployed to evaluate
both ordinary perceptual claims and scientific hypotheses. I shall then try to
identify and characterize a Christian mystical practice, for the purpose of
seeing how its confirmation procedures work. Of course, every cognitive
practice must have procedures adapted to the peculiarities of its domain and
to the nature of our accesss to that domain. Making allowance for this as best
we can, the appropriate question to ask is whether the evaluation resources
of CMP display a power, richness, and subtlety at least roughly comparable
to those available to SE It will emerge that there is a quite general difference between the domains of SP and CMP which hamstrings cross-checking in CMP and precludes any parity with SP.
Before I proceed, a word must be said about a certain dialectical feature
of the issue before us. One defensive strategy which exercises a perennial

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attraction for theists is that of tearing down the epistemic credentials of the
'competition' - in this case, science and ordinary sense perception. But in
this context, that strategy (with which Alston himself flirts) is bound to
backfire. At least, it's bound to backfire unless it can be shown that religious
experience enjoys some special and privileged position, vis-i~-vis theological conclusions, not enjoyed by sense perception vis-&-vis science. And that
much Alston isn't prepared to claim on behalf of religious experience.
The defensive strategy in question typically arms itself with the weapons
of a general skepticism, and it backfires because the question of the epistemic status of theological claims cannot be interestingly posed in that contexc 12 The interesting question - the question theists should want to answer
in the affirmative, I take it - is not whether we can know anything about our
world, but, granting that we can know the usual sorts of things that we commonsensically take ourselves to know, whether we can go on to establish
the epistemic credentials of some religious creed. After all, if general skepticism is the issue, why focus on our knowledge of religious truths? If the
task is to refute general skepticism, then, epistemically speaking, establishing the credentials of religious beliefs is, if not the least of our worries, also
certainly not the most pressing.
Thus the proper way to pose the question - and the way Alston does, in
effect, pose it - is to ask whether the epistemic credentials of given religious beliefs are at least any weaker than those of, say, well-accepted scientific theories. The task of apologetics here is to address the rather common
and powerful feeling that religious claims are indeed significantly worse off
than that.
If we grant this dialectical fetaure of the situation, then we must proceed
by granting, in this context, the epistemic legitimacy of all those justificatory tools standardly employed in scientific reasoning to legitimate scientific
conclusions. To call those into question would be to forfeit the game. On the
positive side, the theist can of course help him- or herself to these very
same reasoning procedures, so long as they can be applied to the justification of religious claims. For starters, this means that religious perceptual
experiences must be accorded some prima facie evidential weight. How
much weight remains to be seen; that will depend upon epistemically relevant similarities to and differences from ordinary sense perception.
Even if we understood them better, it would be impossible to set out in
short order the character and variety of the confirmation procedures available
to SE Nevertheless, at the level of generality suitable here, it is possible to
identify some important components of SP and to identify the ontological
presuppositions which allow us to make sense of their epistemic role. When
doubts arise about a scientific hypothesis or sense-perceptual claim, recourse
can be had to (at least) the following sorts of strategies: observations can be

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checked by other observers and can be repeated; a claim can often be tested
by other means; competing claims can be tested and disconfirmed. Where
non-deductive inference must be used, enumerative induction and abduction
are standard strategies. When a claim coheres with other beliefs, it is indirectly confirmed by the evidence for those beliefs. 13
And finally, there are strategies to cope with the implications of Duhem's
Thesis. These deserve to be singled out for special mention, since they are
central to the operation of the SP overrider system. They include the strategies already mentioned: specifically, repetition of an observation, independent
tests of a claim, and elimination of competitors. But here there is a further
epicycle. When a hypothesis H l is challenged because in a crucial experiment
it generated an incorrect prediction, that challenge can be deflected by pinning
the blame on one or more of the auxiliary hypotheses (call these Al) used in
conjunction with H~ to generate the experimental prediction. But that, of
course, is not the end of the matter: A l is now a candidate for testing, and
defenders of Hj must propose an alternative to A~, call it A*, which when
conjoined to H 1, yields the correct observations. A*, can in turn be tested
against A v by means of some independent test. That test will of course
require invoking further auxiliary assumptions - call them B l - and A* can
be defended against disconfinning evidence by blaming the auxiliary auxilliaries BI.
It might seem as if this game can be repeated ad nauseam, without producing any significant confirmation or diconfirmation of H v That is indeed
a methodological concern, but to raise it is to raise in one of its forms the
fundamental problem of induction; ~4 and we have foresworn skepticism.
This permits us to say the following, which surely reflects actual scientific
practice. Let H~ and H 2 be two competing hypotheses, which are subjected
to various sorts of crucial tests in which they make distinctive predictions.
Each can be defended against disconfirming evidence by making ad hoc
adjustments in auxiliary assumptions, but under the following constraints:
(1) the new auxiliaries must be made to cohere t5 with the rest of the belief
system, and (2) they must in turn be independently tested against the auxiliaries they are to replace. This can lead to tests of auxiliary auxiliaries, and
so on. As an investigation proceeds, we should judge that, other things
being equal, getting things right ahead of time counts in favor of a hypothesis, whereas ad hoc adjustment is a demerit. Thus, H v its auxiliaries, auxiliaries to auxiliaries, etc., acquire a 'track record' which can be compared to
that of H 2 and its auxiliaries, etc. The better the track record, the more likely
the hypothesis (and the system of beliefs in which it functions).
What I have just done is to characterize the overrider system for SP, but a
brief illustration will serve to fix ideas. Suppose ! claim to observe an
unusual chromosome structure under the microscope. One way of checking

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this is to have others look through the microscope; another is to look at the
preparation under different sorts of microscopes or scanning devices, or to
investigate the material using different sorts of tests altogether, e.g. the
chemical procedures for gene sequencing. These are all alternative tests of
the leading claim. Alternatively, one might double-check the staining technique I used or the operation of the microscope. That would be, in effect, to
subject some of my auxiliary hypotheses to testing.
Now there is, I want to suggest, a single, fundamental presupposition that
guides, explains, and justifies all these strategies. It is a presupposition about
the causal structure of the world, and about our place as perceivers within
that structure. We may state this presupposition as a conjunction of three
theses. (1) Events - at least events which are of significance to science and
sense perception - are not causally isolated; they have multiple causes
and/or effects. (2) Just as matter is composed of parts which can combine in
myriad ways, so causal interactions have a compositional structure: forces
can combine in myriad ways (though not in just any way) to produce events.
(3) Any case in which we observe, detect, or measure some item distinct
from ourselves necessarily involves the creation of a causal link between
features of that item and our sense experience, which has at least the characteristic that the content of the experience is sensitive to changes in the character of that item. ~6
Duhem's Thesis is simply a reflection of theses (2) and (3). The entities
and causal processes which scientific theory postulates do not operate in
isolation; and any measurement procedure will involve a causal chain whose
events are linked through the operation (or absence) of various forces governed by various laws: hence the relevance of auxiliary assumptions. They
provide the theory of the measurement process (as well as supplying initial
conditions).
I am not saying that a necessary condition of our observing something a cow or a star - is that we have complete or theoretically sophisticated
knowledge of the causal processes which mediate our perception of these
items. But I do say that our ability to defend empirical claims, to check
them, is a direct function of the degree to which we implicitly or explicitly
understand, and are able to control, the causal chains which mediate observation. If we are unable to exert control, we need at least to be able to recognize circumstances under which an item can be reliably observed, and to
distinguish those from circumstances which are deceptive. Without s o m e
practical conception of the ways in which an item can causally influence us,
we have no grounds for justifying the claim that one set of circumstances
produces veridical perception, whereas another leads to e r r o r . 17
This conception of perception as involving causal interaction with our environment is thus central to our understanding of the epistemic practices of

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SP, of how they put us in touch with the world. It also explains the point of
the self-support provided by investigations of our sensory and cognitive
mechanisms. What those investigations do is just to flesh in our understanding of the details of the causal processes which link us to our surroundings;
hence they not only can underwrite the alleged reliability of the senses, but
they give us a coherent picture of what can go wrong, and why, and how
this may be recognized and prevented. In short, they fill in major portions of
the SP overrider system.
Now, how do matters stand with respect to cross-checking theophanies?
Before we can approach this question, we need to have before us some reasonably well-specified example of a mystical practice. And here we confront
an initial problem. Recognizing that mystical practices vary from tradition
to tradition, Alston narrows his focus to Cht%tian mystical practice.
But to suggest that there is any such thing as the Christian mystical practice
is to engage in a fantasy. It is important to remind ourselves that within
Christianity there is nothing remotely like a uniform set of attitudes toward,
practices connected to, and standards for evaluating, theophanies. Some Christian communities - this varies with both denomination and, significantly, the
socioeconomic background of the members of a congregation - are decidedly
hostile to, or suspicious of, such experiences. For other groups, such as the
Quakers, Shakers, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and some anabaptist sects,
some form of possession is the very stuff of worship and religious authority. TM
Alston is well aware of the difficulty, 19 and recognizes that he needs to
minimize its import. It is important to see why. At issue are Alston's criteria
for the rationality of a doxastic practice. 'It is rational', Alston says, 'to
engage in any such practice that is socially established, that yields outputs
that are free from massive internal and external contradiction, and that
demonstrates a significant degree of self-support'. 2~ But ME unfortunately,
does yield massively contradictory outputs. One way to soften the implications of this is to show that CMP can be isolated from other, conflicting
MP's. This at least reduces internal contradiction, though at the expense of
increasing external contradiction. Even more important, perhaps, is the consideration that, because of the wild divergence of background beliefs within
MP as a whole, there will be no way of generating significant self-support; a
suitably restricted CMP stands a better chance in this regard.
On the other hand, rescuing the internal consistency of a practice by excising from it all conflicting elements is to trivialize the claim of consistency.21
Alston's compromise is to admit certain 'mainstream' denominations, but
refuse to declare himself on where the boundaries lie. That is, I think, a
hopeless approach to the issue. We can hardly be asked seriously to evaluate a doxastic practice when we have no real idea what is included within it
and what is not, or why.

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By quite defensible standards, the mystical practices of snake-handling
Pentecostals more closely approach loa possession in Haitian Voodoo than
they do the leadings of the Inner Light experienced by a sedate Philadelphia
Quaker. Alston may protest that the output beliefs and overrider systems of
the Quaker more closely match those of the Pentecostal than do those of the
Voodooist. But this will be pretty thin gruel on which to nourish the thesis
of Christian solidarity. The Quaker may reject the doctrines of original sin
and the Trinity; she may deny the divine sonship of Jesus; she may have no
use for the millennafianism of Pentecostals, scoff at their Biblical literalism,
and be horrified by their cruel treatment of snakes. 22 And she will unquestionably deplore their moral standards. Are then the mystical practices of
Quakers and Pentecostals to be excluded from the purview of CMP? On
what grounds? Certainly theophanies of YHWH are far more consistently
sought and achieved by Quakers and Pentecostals than by most of those
belonging to the Christian denominations Alston mentions; beyond that, their
experiences are subjected with much greater regularity to communal evaluation, and have a more significant influence upon the life of the congregation. If anything, Pentecostals and Quakers should be ranked among the
experts at CMP.
Faced with this difficulty of diversity, I shall adopt a fairly radical strategy,
one which places as much advantage as possible on Alston's side: I shall
examine the doxastic evaluation practices of just one important Christian
mystic, fleshing that out with Alston's own list of criteria. For the purpose at
hand, there is perhaps no more suitable choice than Teresa of Avila, not only
because she is a great mystic who lived in one of the great periods of Catholic
mysticism, but because she wrestled so ardently and persistently with the question of veridicality, and has left us a detailed and powerful record of her struggles and conclusions. We can safely assume, moreover, that Teresa's criteria
for the genuineness of a theophany became institutionalized at least within the
Discalced Carmelite order which she founded. And in any case, Teresa is a
favorite among contemporary philosophers who discuss Christian mysticism.
Teresa distinguishes three sources of what she sometimes calls 'locutions':
God, the imagination, and Satan. Her problem is to find criteria which permit recognition of these sources. Here is a list of criteria which can be
gleaned from the Life (L) and Interior Castle (IC) 23 (I make no claim to
completeness):
1. Genuine locutions (i.e., where God is the source) produce an inner certainty which is immediate and enduring; the others do not (IC, V: 1 w
but see V: 3 w11).
2. In genuine locutions there is a great clarity of words (IC V: 3 w
the
devil can also achieve this, but not the imagination); and the words are
remembered for a long time (IC VI: 3 w

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3. Genuine locutions are too swift, non-discursive, and involuntary to be
inventions of the mind (IC VI: 3 w167 16).
4. Teresa gives elaborate accounts of the affective states which accompany
various species of contact with the divine. These often include physical
powerlessness (L 18, w
and sometimes detachment (L 20, w167
5. Genuine locutions have the 'power of authority' - they effect what they
say during the experience (IC VI: 3 w and they are corrorobated by a
confessor (IC VI: 3 w
and by Scripture (IC VI: 3 w
6. They have certain 'fruits': feelings of peace (IC VI: 3 w
renewed
energy, and renewed devotion to God (IC VII: 2 w L 20, w167
The
devil's machinations, by contrast, leave disquiet, little humility, involve
less preparation of the soul for produced effects, and leave no light to the
understanding nor strength to the will (IC VI: 3 w167
16, 17; and 5 w10).
7. Genuine locutions are sometimes confirmed by miracles - e.g. levitation
(L 20, w167 and fulfilled prophecy (IC VI: 3 w167and 9).
To this, we may append Alston's own list of criteria for true vs. false theophanies: 24

True

False
Intellect

1. Not concerned with useless affairs


2. Discretion
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

Will
Interior peace
Trust in God
Patience in pains
Simplicity,sincerity.
Charity that is meek, kindly, self-forgetful

Futile, useless, vain preoccupations


Exaggeration, excesses
Perturbation, disquiet
Presumption or despair
Impatience with trials
Duplicity, dissimulation
False, bitter, pharisaical zeal

Some preliminary comments are in order. First, I do not believe I have


stacked the deck by omitting criteria that will better withstand scrutiny than
these. Second, Teresa does not explicitly put forward her levitations as evidence for the veridicality of her mystical experiences, though they occur
during a certain kind of rapture. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt, I
think, that they are intended to function in that way for her audience, especially in view of her allusion to II Cot. 12 (IC VI: 5 w167 Not even such
a stout believer as Alston will, I imagine, be willing to credit Teresa's levitation claims: in any case, we have, so far as I know, no adequate corroboration of it. The same holds true of theophany-inspired prophecies. Poulain cites
a number of these prophecies by Catholic saints which f a i l e d y but none
which were fulfilled. Yet, miracles and prophecies are - if we can exclude
the machinations of Satan even here 26 - the only evidence that would have

32
real power; for they are the only effects for which theism provides the only
plausible explanation.
Teresa, however, thinks otherwise. She thinks the effects listed in (1) (6) (singly or in combination) could only be produced by a divine cause.
Satan, for example, can't read our inner minds well enough to produce the
certainty described in (1). And the devil would surely not grant the good
fruits mentioned in (6). But how can we be so sure of that? What access do
we (or Teresa) have to the devil's power? And why wouldn't Satan - master
deceiver that he is - see fit on occasion to further his ends through good
works? 27
Alston's argument for the confirmatory force of the moral fruits of theophany is equally ineffective. His argument is that these effects are just what
one might expect if a theophany has divine origin; hence; their occurrence
confirms that origin. This is an inverse probability argument, and it fails for
two reasons.
First, we must ask whether a theist has the right to help himself to the
presumption that God would be likely to grant the observed gifts to His
mystics. Even setting aside the uncertainties produced by God's freedom to
do as He wills, the answer is that the theist does not. The evils we observe
in this world force him to remain deeply agnostic with respect to our understanding of what God's purposes require. 28 So this probability is unknown:
theists can't claim such knowledge here, but disavow it when faced with the
problem of evil.
But suppose the probability in question to be high; does that help? It does
not. Consider an analogous case. The Transcendental Meditation movement
claims to have demonstrated, by scientific methods, that mediation has a
whole range of beneficial effects, including improved performance in school
and at work, greater orderliness in one's life, and so on. Grant the validity
of the correlational studies; why shouldn't we jump to the causal conclusion? After all, the Maharishi has a theory that predicts these connections.
The trouble is that there is at least one competing explanation for those correlations, which the TM studies do nothing to eliminate. People who are
attracted to the TM movement are often people whose lives are at loose
ends; and induction into the movement is often accompanied by entry into a
tightly knit community of peers in which certain expectations, and behaviors satisfying them, are strongly reinforced. We have a great deal of evidence for the power of such reinforcement, and no reason to discount this
explanation of the "results" of meditating. But there is an entirely similar
explanation of the "results" of theophany, as any investigation of the social
context of mysticism would reveal. 29 In short, where theism and an alternative hypothesis equally explain (make probable) the observed fruits, the
existence of those fruits cannot change the relative probabilities of those

33
hypotheses. 3~ What is demanded is the sorts of cross-checking investigations which would reveal whether the causal links go back to social causes
(say) alone, or ultimately to God. But the possibility of doing that, I shall
now show, is just what CMP does not offer.
Alston accuses the critics of CMP of two sins: the sin of using a double
standard, and the sin of epistemic imperialism. We commit the first sin when
we apply a stronger standard of proof to CMP than we require of some
favored doxastic practice, such as SP. We commit the second sin when we
insist on holding CMP to a standard which has its home in some favored
practice - e.g. SP - but which is inappropriate to CMP. It seems we critics
just can't get it right.
Let's see whether that's so with respect to one supposed commission of
the sin of the double standard. Critics of CMP worry that theophanies especially of the more dramatic sorts - are experienced by only a small
number of people, whereas sense experience is available universally. So
CMP is a highly restricted practice, not nearly as deeply entrenched as SP:
doesn't that weaken its epistemic credentials? Why shouldn't anybody be
able to engage in CMP and check the conclusions of the mystics?
Alston has a ready answer. First, CMP itself has an explanation for this:
God is unlikely to reveal Himself to those who do not seek Him in the right
way. 31 But second, we will see that the critic is applying a double standard
here, as soon as we realize that she will not similarly impugn such highly
restricted doxastic practices as those engaged in by mathematicians, theoretical physicists, or wine-tasters.
But Alston is wrong. Although few of us can become expert wine-tasters
or mathematicians, almost all of us can deploy a battery of tests which lie
outside those practices, and which can be used to determine the powers of
their practitioners. I am not much good at algebraic topology: how do I
know that those who do it are? Well, in the first place, they are much faster
than I at solving mathematical problems that I can solve. Second, there are
an enormous number of mathematical puzzles, the solutions to which are
extremely difficult to obtain, but whose correctness is very easy to check
once they are given. Some checks are mathematical, others are empirical. 32
As for wine-tasters, we can confirm their claims by sophisticated chemical
analyses, by double-blind tests, and so on. Not only can't we do the same
for the mystics' claims; the mystics themselves can't do it, as I shall show.
There is no double standard here, only good sense. 33
We come now to the central issue: what sorts of cross-checking can properly be required in CMP, why can't it be performed, and what are the consequences of that? I am by no means the first to have insisted upon this
difficulty: Alston himself discusses four versions of it, those of Martin,
Rowe, O'Hear, and Gale. 34 They are guilty, one and all, Alston tells us, of

34
epistemic imperialism - the sin of using SP standards improperly to judge
CMP by.
Of these authors, Gale is the one who sees most clearly the underlying
source of the difficulty, and is quite explicit in pointing to it as the decisive
consideration - namely, that proper cross-checking requires a causal picture
linking God with theophanies "in the right way," a picture that CMP doesn't
supplyY Surprisingly, in his response to Gale, Alston misses this point,
perhaps because Gale makes heavy weather over the analogical character
of Alston's argument, and Alston thinks the difficulty can be deflected by
renouncing the dependence upon an analogy to SP. I shall press Gale's point
by showing that the need for such a causal picture can be demonstrated
quite independently of whether the arguments for CMP are mounted by way
of analogies to SP; that indeed this requirement is a necessary feature of an)'
doxastic practice that claims to give us information about extra-mental realities. Moreover, although Gale thinks the difficulty for CMP is rooted in the
non-spatial character of God, I shall show that it can be raised without locating the difficulty so precisely. 36 Futhermore, the lack of a causal picture not
only undermines CMP's ability to provide real cross-checks, but also its
claims to significant self-support.
What, concretely, does the no-adequate-cross-checks charge against CMP
come to? As we've already seen, the criteria to which Teresa's CMP does
appeal have little or no epistemic bite. What force they do have derives
from inverse-probability arguments which are shaky and can in any case be
matched by ones for competing hypotheses. More direct and independent
cross-checks aren't available. When St. Teresa is receiving an inner locution,
we can't call on St. John of the Cross to contemplate and independently
confirm the message Teresa says God is sending. St. John of the Crosscheck he's not. Nor is there any other known independent means of 'getting
at' the object of Teresa's theophany. Furthermore, there is no recognized
way to get ahold of the medium of tranmission of the divine message, to
test whether the phone line is properly connected, so to speak.
Alston locates the problem in the fact that God freely chooses when, how,
and to whom to communicate, so that we lack the controls and reproducibility relevant to performing these sorts of tests. And he goes on to charge
critics with epistemic imperialism, or chauvinism, for insisting upon standards which, while suited to SP, have no proper application within CMR
But there's no chauvinism in demanding such tests. If God is elusive in the
ways alleged, then genuine tests may be hard to come by; but the consequence
is just - unsurprisingly - that CMP can't tell us much, that we can rely on,
a b o u t G o d . 37

Defenders of ESP have an even more artful version of Alston's move.


Faced with the regular disappearance of paranormal phenomena in well-

35
controlled settings and - even more dramatically - in the presence of experienced magicians - ESP devotees argue that the 'vibrations' are very
context-sensitive: laboratory environments and magicians kill them off. It
may be so; but we have no fight to conclude from this that tests performed
in a psychic's favored uncontrolled environment have the proper epistemic
credentials. Alston's explanation for the inapplicability of SP-style crosschecking techniques to CMP is less ad hoc than the psychic's. But so what?
Why should that help the credibility of CMP?
It is now time to let a well-concealed cat out of the bag. All the parties to
this debate - both theists and critics - pretend that we have no idea what the
stimulus conditions for theophanies are; that they are sporadic, uncontrollable, and follow no predictable pattern of occurrence or content. But with
respect to many religious traditions, including many Christian ones, this is a
fairly wild exaggeration.
In many cultures, theophanies - or their religious analogues - are highly
stereotyped in both content and occasions of occurrence. When a young
Amerindian embarks upon a vision quest, we can, knowing his tribal and
clan membership, come to fairly definite conclusions about the species of
the spirit-animal he will encounter, and perhaps also when he will encounter
it. Similar claims can be made across a wide range of contexts. 38 Closer to
home, Sargant 39 reports that "excitement' at a snake-handling Pentecostal
service (and, presumably the trance-induction which marks possession by
the Holy Spirit) was controlled by the preacher's hand-clapping rate. Student
observers were able to manipulate the phenomenon by 'taking over' the
hand-clapping. 4~ The fact is that we know a fair bit - relative to our understanding of human psychological states generally - about the mundane circumstances which favor possession states.
No: The trouble lies elsewhere. However much the mundane parts of the
theist's causal story may be accessible to inspection and manipulation, the
supra-mundane part of it - the part that is crucial in linking a theophany to
God - seems not to be. Unless there is such a link, a theophany is no perception of God; and unless there are ways of independently confirming, in
principle, that such a link exists, we have no way of distinguishing genuine
theophanies from counterfeits. That means the theist must have some grasp
of what would be involved in detecting links in a causal chain terminating
in God; but we have no such grasp. Worse still, the supra-mundane part of
the story has hardly even been told in any detail, beyond such suggestions
as that God 'infuses' certain feelings into the mystic, or simply that He
causes certain sensory and non-sensory perceptual states. The fact that this
story hasn't been told is one obvious reason why cross-checks are not in the
offing; but it will be useful to consider why telling (and confirming) any
such story is so hard.

36
Alston suggests that the problem lies largely in the fact that God, a free
agent whose mind we can ill comprehend, does not conform to any predictable pattern in the granting of His favors; and that certainly, we can't
subject Him to experimental control. But even if that were so - and I've
suggested that predictability and control vary - it would hardly be decisive,
though undoubtedly it would make empirical investigation more difficult.
After all, we have learned a great deal about supernovae, even though these
explosions are rare, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and (in their initial stages)
fleeting.
But all this largely misses the boat. However difficult it may be for us to
penetrate God's decision-making process (if one can even speak of such a
thing), we must think of God as initiating the causal chain that produces a
veridical theophany by means of some divine act. If the causal chain can't
be traced back even to such an act, then there is no basis for confidence in
MP. It is this - the need to establish suitable causal connections between
object and subject - that is, necessarily, a sine qua non of any doxastic practice that claims to yield justified perceptual beliefs about extramental entities.
This requirement is not one that is artificially imposed by SP chauvinists or
imperialists; it is simply a corollary of the causal condition on perception. 4~
A beautiful illustration of this point is contained in Jean Perrin's seminal
monograph, Brownian M o v e m e n t and Molecular Reality, 42 which was decisive in convincing the physics community of the atomic structure of matter.
Perrin approached the problem of determining Avagadro's number through
an elegant series of investigations of Brownian motion. But Perrin summarizes
no fewer than 15 independent methods - 12 not involving Brownian motion at
all - which yield (more or less precise) values for Avogadro's number, all in
striking agreement with one another. In this striking convergence, which can
hardly be a matter of chance, Nature provides eloquent testimony that all these
measurements are putting us in touch with one and the same underlying
reality. Moreover, within each of his own methods, where doubts arise as to
the accuracy of a given intermediate result, Perrin has recourse to independent
determinations; 43 and, where questions arise over how a result should be interpreted, to independent procedures for analyzing the measurement process
itseff. All these strategies are possible because events - in the physical world
at least - have both multiple possible causes and multiple possible effects.
Multiple effects permit multiple independent lines of measurement; multiple
causes permit (often) multiple means of production and control.
The trouble with theophanies seems to be, briefly, that we have no such
multiple lines of detection by means to which to 'triangulate' the alleged
divine cause; or at least none that don't converge (as in the case of mass visitations of the Holy Spirit upon Pentecostals) on some mundane segment of
the causal story. 44

37
How might one hope to capture the causal connections between divine
acts and human experience? It might help to consider the simplest possible
case. Suppose that a divine willing just directly makes it the case that Teresa
experiences a theophany. The act is the proximate cause of the experience,
or, if you prefer, of the neurological substrate of the experience, without
further mediation. We might call this the 'fiat lux' theory of divine action.
In order to establish a causal connection, we would at least have to establish
some regularity between the one type of event and the other. But how do
we observe events of the former type? Relying on Teresa is no help here.
Obviously, we must appeal to some independent experience that co-varies
with Teresa's, and which is such that the best explanation for that covariance
is that it is produced by a causal fork at whose apex is a divine act, not some
mundane event. I see no reason in principle why things couldn't have
turned out that way, but they have notY
Perhaps God is an elusive quarry because He wishes to be; many liberal
theologians even take great comfort in that supposition. Perhaps God achieves
this, in part, by insuring that His acts have singular, not multiple proximate
effects. 46 Perhaps so, but then so much the worse for CMP. Its overrider
system is thereby undermined. 47
It may be helpful to summarize the argument of this section by setting it
out more formally. It goes as follows:
(1) A perceptual experience E is a veridical experience of object O only
if O plays the right solt of causal role in the production of E.
(2) If x is a necessary condition for y, and x may, for all one knows, be
false, then one doesn't know that y.
(3) Therefore, the claim that E is a veridical experience of O can only be
established (or defended) by showing that O played the right sort of
causal role in the production of E.
(4) The only way (if there is any) to confirm that O played that sort of
role is to obtain independent evidence for a causal chain (of the right
sort) linking O to E.
(5) The only way independently to confirm the existence of such a causal
chain is to rely upon the fact that causes have (or can be so manipulated
as to have) multiple effects; it is only via these effects that independent
observations of the events in a causal chain can be obtained.
(6) A perceptual experience E is a veridical perception of God only if
God causes E in the right way.
(7) So the claim that E is a veridical experience of God can only be confirmed by means of independent observations of the causal chain linking
God to E, and hence must rely upon multiple effects of the divine action. 4s
I take (1) to be a necessary truth. I do not think it is an analytic truth, but I
do take it to be (at least) metaphysically necessary. For present purposes, it

38
will not be necessary to concern ourselves with criteria for settling what the
right sort of causal connection between O and E must be, since our question
is whether any sort of reasonably direct causal connection between God and
mystical experiences can be established.
Alston agrees that (1) is at least true. (2) is also a necessary truth. By
'independent evidence' in (4) and (5), I mean the sort of evidence which
Perrin amassed by different procedures for Avagadro's number. (4) and (5) I
take to be (nearly) self-evident. If there is doubt about the causal role of O
in the production of E, it would be merely circular to appeal to E as demonstrating the presence of O. Where O is distinct from E itself, there is no
question of obtaining a priori evidence for the presence of O. The remaining
alternative is to "triangulate" by looking for independent effects of O, and
of intermediate events in the causal chain linking it to E, and arguing that
the presence of O best explains the concilience of those effects with E and
with each other.
This argument is quite general. It applies, as I see it, to any cognitive practice whatever which relies upon 'input' from perceptual experience, and which
generates inferences to beliefs concerning matters external to ourselves.

3. Is mystical practice self-supporting?


The last requirement that Alston places upon a doxastic practice is that it
must generate significant self-support. In the case of SP, this is supposed to
come in the form of empirical investigations which show that our senses are
reliable. But coming to CMP, though he concentrates upon a particular case
of alleged self-support, Alston immediately broadens the notion of selfsupport to include coherence of any kind among the beliefs generated by a
practice. This should come as no surprise, given that an immediate corollary
of CMP's failure to supply a testable causal account of theophanies is that it
flunks the first test.
How well does CMP do on a general coherence account of self-support?
In particular, how well do the perceptual beliefs generated within CMP contribute to over-all coherence of the 'the' Christian belief-system? Certainly,
if we make allowances for denominational differences, Alston can point to a
broad range of agreement, and conformity to central Christian doctrines,
among CMP perceptual beliefs. But this coherence is bought too cheaply.
A fair amount of consistency should not be too surprising, whether God
has a hand in theophany or not, as the case of Transcendental Meditators
shows. On the other hand, divergent experiences and beliefs can always be
discounted because they do not conform to accepted doctrines (see Teresan
criterion number 5).

39
But wait a minute: isn't this the sin of using a double standard? After all,
SP admits a certain amount of inconsistency, and often discounts perceptual
beliefs which conflict with well-entrenched doctrine. Indeed; but in most
cases, SP can depend on its overfider system to supply independently testable justifications for rejecting anomalies. CMP also appeals to its overrider
system: but unfortunately that system can't carry the epistemic burden
required of it. So there's no double standard here.
Alston would like to focus attention upon an aspect of the self-support of
CMP that invokes its predicative p o w e r - specifically, upon fulfillment of
the divine promise that, through faith and sincere struggle, a Christian will
undergo sanctification, that is, achieve an eternal loving communion with
God. Favorable evaluation of the predictive success of CMP in this regard
is supposed to contribute to the self-support of CMP because it is only from
within Christian practice that progress on the road to sanctification can be
assessed.
With all due respect, I would suggest that this last claim requires an argument. Sincerity, purity of heart, moral uprightness and the like - these are
universal human possibilities; the ability to judge them in ourselves and others
is something we imbibe with our mother's milk. And the supra-mundane
portion of the promise - once again - no one has access to.
Alston loads the dice even futher by suggesting the writings of recognized saints as the source of our best evidence for the sanctifying power of
proper Christian worship and mystical experience. That's a biased sample if
there ever was one: to evaluate the divine promise, we need to examine not
only the success stories, but the failures: devout Christians who did not
achieve the hoped-for fruits of their faith.
Perhaps an underlying worry of Alston's is the dismaying recognition that
Christians, on the whole, cannot point to greater moral or spiritual accomplishments than can members of the other religious traditions. That fact
throws into relief the weakness of this line of self-support. To evaluate predictive success, we first need to know the content of the promise that is to
be fulfilled. What ate the conditions that must be met for sanctification to
occur? Or even: are they easy - such that most sincere Christians can and
do meet them - or very hard? Unfortunately, Scripture does not speak with
one voice on this question. 49 Having somehow settled it, we must then
balance fulfilled promises against unfulfilled ones. 5~
I have been arguing that, with respect both to the CMP underminer system
that supports the reliability of Christian theophanies and to the strength of
CMP's self-support, the critical question is whether CMP can supply a testable causal account of how God influences human experience. Unlike Gale,
I am not inferring from God's non-spatiality that such an account could not
be given, 51 but I am insisting that an account must be given before CMP can

40
be taken seriously. To s o m e extent, o f course, a similar b u r d e n falls o n the
shoulders o f those w h o d e n y supernatural causes. T h e strength o f inverse
probability a r g u m e n t s f o r t h e i s m as the best explanation o f theophanies is
m o s t p e r s u a s i v e l y u n d e r c u t b y s h o w i n g that there are equally good, or
better, explanations that m a k e no supernatural appeal. B e c a u s e t h e o p h a n i e s
do not o c c u r in entirely r a n d o m w a y s , there is prima facie reason to think
that testable naturalistic explanations s h o u l d be as o p e n to d i s c o v e r y and
investigation as are explanations o f h u m a n p h e n o m e n a generally. Indeed,
there are such explanations, and elsewhere I shall s h o w that they h a v e considerably greater p o w e r than a n y supernaturalistic explanation. 52

Notes
1. Roughly similar, but simpler, arguments can be found in C.D. Broad, 'Arguments for the
Existence of God, II,' The Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1939): 157-167; Richard
Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), Chapter 13;
John Hick, 'Mystical experiences as cognition,' in Harold Coward and Terence Penelhum
(eds.), Mystics and Scholars: The Calgary CoJ~erence on Mysticism, 1976 (Waterloo,
Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977); Gary Gutting, Religious Belief and
Religious Skepticism (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1982); and
William Wainwright, Mysticism (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981).
The similarities of Alston's strategies to those of Wainwright are especially strong, and
much of what I shall have to say applies to his arguments as well. In 'The evidential
value of religious experience', International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16
(1984): 189-202, Ralph W. Clark allows that religious experiences provide no prima
facie justification for perceptual religious beliefs based on them, but maintains that they
do provide such justification so long as no naturalistic explanation of their occurrence
can compete with a religious one. Here I shall be supporting Clark's first claim; in Evan
Fales, 'Scientific explanations of mystical experience, Parts 1 and II', Religious Studies
(forthcoming in Sept. and Dec. 1996), I will show that Clark, Alston, and others are mistaken with respect to the second claim.
2. What these are will be made explicit in due course. See Alston, Perceiving God: The
Epistemology of Religious Experience (hereafter abbreviated as PG) (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1991), pp. 223-4.
3. There are other troubles as well, but I shall discuss them elsewhere: see Fales, Ibid.
4. Alston, PG, p. 20.
5. Alston calls the first class of defeaters rebutters, and the second class underminers.
6. See Alston, PG, p. 209.
7. It would be circular, as Alston recognizes, to consider this conclusion a demonstration of
that reliability.
8. Alston further distinguishes indirect perception from indirect perceptual recognition
(where one recognizes the presence of something by recognizing some effect of it), as
when I recognize that a plane is flying overhead by seeing only its contrail.
9. This rules out those mystical experiences which, if correctly so described, are said to
involve a mystical union with God (or with everything) so intimate that all distinctions
whatever are obliterated.

41
10. Possibly he does not make this point because, although he speaks ot' the qualities in
question as phenomenal characteristics and even refers to them as qualia, he evidently
means them to be the qualities the presented object is presented as having, without prejudice to whether this makes those qualities purely subjective qualities of purely subjective objects, i.e. of sense data, or objective qualities of extramental objects.
11. Alston overstates the point. In some Christian communities, and in many non-Christian
ones, theophanies are induced in highly regularized, predictable, and communally shared
ways, and there is a high degree of consensus as to content. But I shall follow Alston's
lead for the moment.
12. That isn't quite how Alston sizes up the situation. His strategy is first to deploy the
weapons of skepticism to argue that our ordinary sense-perceptual practices (SP) can't
be non-circularly justified (in a purely epistemic sense); to then construct a quasi-pragmatic justification for SE and finally to argue that, using the same standards which vindicate SP, we can put MP on a roughly equal footing. Thus, Alston claims to have
rebutted the charge that SP, unlike ME can noncircularly be given a clean epistemic bill
of health. I do not think that Alston's quasi-pragmatic approach to vindicating SP and MP
can possibly succeed, but that's not my topic here: see Norman Kretzmann, 'St. Teresa,
William Alston, and the Broadminded Atheist', Journal of Philosophical Research 20
(1995): 4 5 - 6 6 for a penetrating discussion of how Alston fails, and Alston, 'Reply to
Critics', Journal of Philosophical Research 20 (1995): 67-81 for a reply. Like Kretzmann,
I do not think that Alston's level-distinction between knowing and knowing that one
knows cuts the ice required of it. I am not pursuing that theme here; tbr present purposes, what matters is simply this: however SP is ultimately to be vindicated, the issue
for Alston effectively becomes one of granting that SP is on a secure footing, and then
undertaking to establish a rough parity, in the sanle general terms, for ME
13. My own view is that these strategies are best understood within a Bayesian framework.
14. In effect, this is the problem of radical underdetermination of theory by data.
15. Coherence is (at least) a matter of logical consistency and probabilistic coherence - that
is, of each of the propositions of the revised belief system having a sufficiently high
probability relative to the conjunction of the remaining propositions.
16. 1 do not regard (3) to be analytically true. The modality here is that of either causal or
metaphysical necessity.
17. Even an understanding which is rudimentary and implicit can play a significant role
here. In the case of ordinary perceptual judgments, our knowledge of suitable conditions
for observation, and of how to compensate for non-optimal conditions, is acquired
through the myriad daily opportunities to compare our judgments with those of others, to
compare the verdicts of different sensory modalities, and to compare judgments under
varying circumstances. In this way we gain mastery over at least a larger number of
patterns of covariation which signal causal dependencies. The same applies to more
sophisticated measurements. When Galileo, whose understanding of optics was rudimentary, wanted to check the reliability of his telescopes, he trained them upon terrestrial objects which could also be observed near at hand. But then he was vulnerable to
the charge - which was made - that the observation of celestinal bodies was a very different matter from observation of terrestrial ones, so that reliability in the one domain
could not be taken to underwrite reliability in the other. The complexity and precision
of the overrider system for SP is nicely displayed in Ian Hacking, 'Do we see through
a microscope?', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 62 (1981): 305-322 and Jean Perrin,
Brownian Movement and Molecular Reali~. (London: Taylor and Francis, trans.
E Soddy, 1910).

42
18. It is by no means easy to bring order to all this variety; since there are divergences of
belief and practice even within sects, and significant transformations over time, it would
in many cases be highly misleading to pretend that there is a stable MP that can be associated even with a single sect over significant stretches of time.
19. See Alston PG, pp. 192-4.
20. Alston PG, p. 184; also Chapter 4.
21. Initially in PG, Alston makes it appear to be a matter of indifference whether contradictions within MP are of an interpractice or intrapratice sort - hence not crucial how we
split MP into more specific practices. It turns out, however, that where the boundaries
between practices are drawn matters a great deal after all (see pp. 271-2). Interpractise
conflicts are claimed to cut less ice because distinct practices do not share an overrider
system. By segregating CMP from other MP's, Alston hopes to isolate it, to some extent,
from conflicts with other rivals. Without this isolation from rival MP's, Alston's argument for the rationality of engaging in CMP would founder. For a criticism of this strategy, see J. L. Schellenbe~, 'Religious experience and religious diversity: A reply to
Alston', Religious Studies 30 (1994): 151-159.
Alston thinks that the failure of two doxastic practices to share the same overrider
system (because they do not share the same system of background beliefs) somehow
relieves their participants of the responsibility to resolve contradictions, without making
continued acceptance of a practice irrational. But why can't conflicts between background beliefs also be put on the table for evaluation? Alston seems here to be flirting
with epistemic relativism. Once it is recognized that the central issue is the tracing of
causal chains, the weakness of Alston's argument becomes apparent. The background
beliefs of different doxastic practices may incorporate radically different views as to
what causes what; but so long as they share some general conception of what it is for
one event to cause another, there is no reason here to suppose that differing systems are
incommensurable or incomparable.
22. Thomas Burton gives an excellent introduction to the practices of the PentecostalHoliness churches in his Serpent-Handling Believers (Knoxville, TN: University of
Tennessee Press, 1993). For a vivid and sometimes poignant evocation of the lives of the
snake-handlers, see Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling
and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (New York: Addison Wesley, 1995).
23. My source is The Book of Her Life and The Interior Castle, both in The Collected Works
of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. Kieran Kavanangh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC:
ICS Publications, 1976).
24. Alston PG, p. 203.
25. Poulain, writing with the Papal imprimatur, clearly displays the traditional ambivalence
of the Catholic Church towards its mystics. See Anton Poulain, The Graces of Interior
Prayer (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, trans. Leonora Yorke Smith and Jean Vincent
Bainvel, 1950 [1910]). Poulain recognizes (Chapter XX) that failed prophecy presents a
theological problem: the mystics in question are, after all, canonized. On the other hand,
Poulain is eager to demonstrate that ecstasy is not an infallible source of information.
Yet, he does take the levitations to be genuine. Teresa herself exhibits an awareness that
the question of prophetic infallibility must be carefully negotiated (IC VI: 3 w
26. Poulain Ibid., p. 340 does report that some unspecified prophecies of Magdalen of the
Cross were fulfilled. But these were Satan-inspired and designed to convince others of
her sanctity. Magdalen's alleged levitations are also claimed to have been the work of
Satan. (Poulain 'knows' this because Magdalen, at the near approach of death, confessed
it. But she recovered and regretted having clone so. Fuller accounts can be found in

43

27.

28.

29.
30.
31.
32.
33.

34.

Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition in Spain (New York: MacMillan, 1992
[1907]), volume iv, pp. 82-3; Lea, Chapters from the Religious Histol3, of Spain (New
York: Burt Franklin, 1967 [1890]), pp. 330-36, and Stephen Clissold, Saint Teresa of
Avila (London: Sheldon Press, 1979), pp. 4 6 - 7 and 130. According to Lea, Magdalen
fell seriously ill, and, upon being told by her physician that death was immanent, she
confessed and requested exorcism. She was subsequently handed over to the Inquisition,
which treated her leniently by confining her to a prison call for the rest of her life. I am
not equipped to form any independent judgment of the accuracy of these accounts of the
circumstances of Magdalen's confession; in view of her immense popularity and the
willingness of the Inquisition to resort to deception and torture (for which see Lea, A
History of the Inquisition of Spain, iii), it might reasonably be wondered whether Magdalen
confessed before or after falling into the hands of the Inquisition. Prior to her downfall,
Magdalen was a very influential woman, both in secular and in ecclesiastical circles; moreover, Teresa adopted the Rule of the Poor Clares for her own foundation of St. Joseph's
in Avila. Teresa, who was 28 years younger than Magdalen and began her career as a
mystic some eight years after the latter's conderm~ation, was constantly reminded of
Magdalen's fate and occasionally explicitly compared to her.)
As God evidently furthers His by sometimes permitting evil. Jesus is said to offer
the same strange argument against the accusation that he is performing the work of
the devil - see Mt. 12: 22-32; parallels at Mk. 3: 22-30, Lk. 11: 14-23. See also endnote 25.
That is so even on the there-is-no-best-possible-world solution to the problem of evil;
for on that solution, what right have we to assign a high probability to God's creating a
world in which all and only genuine theophanies produce these fruits'? Alston seems to
share this agnosticism elsewhere: see PG, p. 219.
I shall show this in some detail in Fales, Ibid.
This is a formal consequence of Bayes' Theorem.
This claim has no better credentials than the one about the likely effects of genuine theophany.
We can compare the performance of an airplane designed by a good mathematician/
physicist with one designed by a hospital orderly.
Suppose you had no such external ways of checking the reputed abilities of mathematicians or winetasters; suppose each group insisted upon being accountable only to criteria
internal to their practice and accessible only to the 'experts'. By what means then could
you judge the plausibility of their knowledge claims? Simply relying upon their testimony would not distinguish knowledge from delusion. But it is a fantasy to suppose that
our cognitive practices are ever to that extent isolated from one another. Still, it might be
objected that we don't demand such external checks on SE But there is a reason for this.
SP is not a narrow practice, but the broadest empirical practice we have. To make the
demand here is to raise the specter of skepticism; but obviously, if there were independent standards against which we could check SE we'd be foolish not to do so. The
present point has to do, however, with relatively narrow practices founded upon
(alleged) special perceptual skills or faculties. It would, e.g., be simply mad to take at
her word the self-proclaimed clairvoyant who purported to be able to 'see' events in the
distant past for which there was no independent historical evidence, save the testimony
of other clairvoyants who were in communication with the first.
See C. B. Martin, Religious Beliefs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959);
William L. Rowe, "Religious experience and the principle of credulity'; hzternational
JoutTzalfor the Philosophy of Religion 13 (1982): 85-92; Anthony O'Hear, Experience,

44

35.
36.

37.
38.

39.
40.

Explanation, and Faith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), and Richard Gale, On
the Nature and Existence of God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
O'Hear Ibid. also frames the issue this way - see pp. 32-33.
In his most recent discussion of Alston's book, Gale himself reverts to this issue, this
time generalizing by allowing the theist to individuate God along any "dimensions' the
theist might care to specify. (See Richard Gale, "Why Alston's mystical doxastic practice
is subjective', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (1994): 869-875.) Alston,
changing the issue to identification, replies that there's no reason to think that one can't,
with the help of background beliefs, perceptually identify God. (Alston, on the other
hand, has done nothing to show how one can produce such a perceptual identification.)
Furthermore, Gale has supposedly not shown why the general tests he takes to be essential to any perceptual cognition (the cross-checking repertoire) are required of the mystic.
In all this, I am arguing that the fimdamental issue is whether there is a suitable causal
connection between God and putative theophanies, and whether anyone can provide evidence of that fact. Without such a connection, the theophany is not a verdical one.
In his recent paper, 'Truth-warranted manifestation beliefs', Faith and Philosophy 11
(1995): 436-2451, John Zeis has taken a different tack, reopening the issue whether
some mystical experiences are self-authenticating, for the mystic at least. Relying upon
the claims of John of the Cross and Teresa that a certain type of intellectual vision can't
be produced by the devil, Zeis argues they couldn't be, in that case, delusions of any
sort. Supposedly, the mystic can recognize the fact that these experiences can only be
produced by God, and not by the devil, in something like the way Descartes is able to
recognize that an evil demon can't deceive him about his own existence. But this strategy - besides being unduly naive about the nature of our information about such visions
(Zeis claims, e.g., to have knowledge of the mental states of Abraham) - is hopeless. In
order to tighten the analogy to the Cartesian cog#o, Zeis speculates that because the
Holy Ghost 'dwells within' the mystic, the object of the mystic's vision is not external to
the mystic; yet he admits that the vision must be caused by God. Further, he admits that
subjectively indistinguishable visions may be either veridical or not; they are warranted
only when true. That sounds like externalism - a far cry from the Cartesian project.
Warrant in that sense is not evidence, as I am using the term.
Gale calls Alston's claim to the contrary 'Alston's fallacy'.
A similar myth invests miracles with uniqueness, irreproducibility, and unpredictability.
In fact, in many cultures, certain miracles are the regular - and predictable - stock in
trade of particular religious ceremonies. In Phoenicia, just a few miles north of Cana
during the first century, water was regularly changed into wine by the priests presiding
over the annual Bacchus mysteries.
See Williams Sargant, The Mind Possessed: A Physiology of Possession, Mysticism, and
Faith Healing (New York: J. B. Lipincott, 1974), pp. 183-4.
Possibly Alston would disqualify these supposed Holy Spirit possessions on just those
grounds. But then why shouldn't Teresa's theophanies (or a Quaker's) be disqualified on
the grounds that she used techniques of contemplation and prayer? In neither instance is
theophany guaranteed; but in both cases, the probability of occurrence is significantly
enhanced. It must be added that Teresa is actually quite skeptical about the efficacy of
meditative techniques in this connection, and tends to emphasize the unexpected - even
unwanted - 'breaking in' of the divine. But others - e.g. Osuna and St. John of the Cross
are clearly more technique-minded.
I am not committing myself here to a causal theory of perception, understood as an
analysis of what it means to say that S perceives X. I am committing myself to the view
-

41.

45

42.
43.

44.

45.

46.
47.

that a causal connection is a necessary component of any state of affairs in which S perceives an extra-mental object X, a commitment backed by the strong intuitive appeal of
certain counterfactuals. Alston, it appears, would agree - see PG, e.g.p. 230.
Jean Perrin, Ibid.
Thus, Perrin employs two methods to measure the density of the gamboge spheres he
used to observe Brownian motion, and three methods of determining precisely their
diameters.
The force of this does not, once again, rely on the disanalogy between CMP and SE
Examples t'rom SP merely illustrate, in an area where we know well how to operate, the
richness and the interwoven texture of the resources built into a genuine underminer system.
Gale thinks that spatial localizability is a requirement on events that can be identified as
members of a causal sequence. I am not entirely convinced of that. Alston, on the other
hand, thinks the problem of independently identifying causes can't be solved in this
case: 'Since we are in no position to say what kind of causal contribution is required for
objecthood until we have some genuine cases of object perception to work from, one
can't even embark on the project of specifying the necessary causal contribution until
one recognizes that there arc authentic cases of object perception. And by then game is
lost.' (PG, p. 33). Alston is concerned here with the more complex question of what kind
of causal connection is required for something to be a perceptual object; but I take it the
point applies equally to the problem of establishing simply what kinds of causal connections there ate. If so, Alston is mistaken here. Of course, it can be argued that the triangulation methods I ' m proposing ultimately involve circular reasoning (as they would in
SP also); but that is the completely general skeptical objection we've agreed to bracket.
That Alston is committed to the view that genuine theophany requires divine causation
is quite clear (PG, pp. 228-33). A strict externalist could insist that, so long as theophanies generate reliably true beliefs, they yield knowledge, even if we know nothing about
the mechanisms involved. But Christians do not take theophanies to be reliable in
general, or even within CMP; hence the need for an overrider system. One way around
the central difficulty would be to hold that perception of the divine does not require God
to play any (or any special) causal role in the production of the perceptual experience.
That's not Alston's view; and anyone who holds it owes us an account of perception
which makes this alternative intelligible.
The experience of Pentecostals and many others apparently to the contrary.
Alston might reply that establishing the existence of the "right" causal antecedents to a
theophany - i.e., establishing the legitimacy and successful operation of CMP's overrider system - is a second-order enterprise. It's here that circularity threatens, here that a
quasi-pragmatic defense must be mounted. For Alston, it would amount to a level-confusion to suppose that theophany-based theistic beliefs for which no doubts arise, or which
the overrider system, such as it is, vindicates, are on that account not rationally held. But
this reply would be ineffective. Unless the overrider system can be shown to be suited to
the job required of it, the second-order defense of a doxastic practice can't succeed, even
if it is only of Alston's quasi-pragmatic sort. What I've shown is that CMP doesn't have
a serious overrider system, ff CMP 'works' in the Christian community, the most plausible explanation is that its success doesn't depend on whether or not the beliefs on which
it is based are true.
Alternatively-. Alston might read me as demanding that CMP supply an external
justification for claims that particular theophanies are divinely caused. And then he will
reply - see PG, pp. 2 2 6 - 7 - that this demand isn't one that SP can (non-circularly) meet
either. Since I have a ~ e e d to set aside the question of radical skepticism with respect to

46

48.
49.

50.

51.

52.

SP, fairness demands according CMP the same courtesy. But this would be to misread
the objection. The demand for a testable account of the divine causal role in theophanies
is not an external demand, but one being made - quite properly - as an internal requirement for adequacy. Just as - once skeptical problems about inductive reasoning are set
aside - such accounts can be given and checked within SP, we are asking whether again granting CMP all the inference patterns we grant SP - there is a basis for crosschecking, prediction and the like. The trouble is that, by and large, CMP just hasn't got
causal explanations for abductive reasoning to reason to, or (by Alston's lights) sufficient regularities upon which to base predictions.
As it stands, this argument is not formulated quite so as to satisfy the criteria for formal
validity; I have tried rather to capture the essential steps of the argument.
Jesus' yoke is easy - Mt. 1 1 : 2 8 - 3 8 - but also very hard; see Mt. 5: 27-28, 6: 25-34, 7:
13-14, 19: 16-23, and cognate passages in Mk. and Lk. for some examples. ! suspect
that Mt. 11:30 is a slap at the policies of Reheboam (see 1 Ki. 12) which destroyed the
unified monarchy; but this merely reinforces the problem of deciding what the terms are
of the promise made to Christians.
Particularly difficult for Christians, I should think, are the divine promises given at
Is. 6 2 : 8 - 9 and Mt. 16: 27-28. These do not concern mystical experience, but they do
have profound significance for the total Christian story.
The question arises whether we could, through ordinao' sense perception, see an embodied God (cf. Jn. 14: 7-9). This would require, I think, an account of the embodiment
relation which could explain how, through empirical investigation, it would be possible
to determine the presence or absence of this relation between God and a given individual. It would further require an account of what would make an action of the embodying
individual an action of the embodied God. I do not believe that Christians have adequate
answers to these questions either.
See Fales, Ibid. I thank Alston for valuable comments on a draft of the present paper.

Address for correspondence: Professor Evan Fales, Department of Philosophy, The


University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA
Phone: (319) 335 0023; Fax: (319) 353 2322; E-mail: blajan@blue.weeg.viowa.edu