Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mystical Perception of God

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my breakfast table trying to decide which of two fantasies to read: Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone or William Alston's "Mysticism and Perceptual Awareness of God" in the Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion. Since I'd read Elric a dozen times before, I decided to try the Alston. The only problem was that the Alston's tale was so unbelievable that it took me weeks to finish it.

Alston is a good philosopher, the kind one should take seriously if possible. I've taught his "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Real World," in my Metaphysics class. So, I thought his paper on mystical experience would be worth considering. In it he argues that mystical experience provides a prima facie justification of some minimal sort, somewhat akin to perceptual experience but relying on no perceptual modality, for belief in God. On Alston's view mystical experience is roughly analagous to perceptual experience in providing a first-look justification for the existence of God even though that justification could be defeated (as the epistemologists say), that is to say, undermined or rejected if other considerations outweigh it. Unfortunately, Alston's involves so many errors and peculiarities of reasoning that it is not possible to summarize them all. Instead, I will simply start by making the case against the reliability of mystical experience, describe Alston's attempt to overcome these obvious problems, and show that his responses are flawed.

Mystical Experience: The Case Against Its Reliability

I was, indeed, surprised to find any philosopher, let alone one of Alston's standing, defending mystical experience as providing justification, even prima facie, for beliefs. The reason this is so surprising is that the case against the reliability of mystical experience is well-known and compelling.

First, mystical experience never provides the clear, unambiguous kind of experience we require of justified perceptual experiences. If I see some vague shape in the corner of the room my bedroom at night, and I take it to be a monster, then I have not really had the kind of perceptual experience that makes that belief justified (even prima facie). But mystical experiences are always of a vague sort, they cannot be clearly put into words, or they describe an experience of some vague thing, a presence, a feeling, etc. These are not the clear experiences we would require for justification in the case of perceptual experiences.

Second, mystical experience does not cohere with other experiences the person has. In fact, this is part of their point in that they are supposed to show the failure of our ordinary perceptual modes of understanding reality. Unfortunately, this lack of coherence is another point against them. If I hear a noise, but can neither see nor touch anything that might be the source of the noise and the sound is never repeated, I will, reasonably, consider myself mistaken in hearing the sound. Perceptual errors are common enough that I would just consider this a mistake if other experiences disconfirmed the experiential belief (belief based on that experience). Mystical experiences are radically disconfirmed by all other sensory experiences. Again, the point of mystical experiences is supposed to be that they preempt our ordinary perceptual means of knowing the world. But that view is misguided; if one experiential belief contradicts all one's other experiential beliefs, then the first experiential belief is rendered unjustified.

Third, mystical experiences occur under conditions that lead people to make perceptual errors. People have to act deliberately to put themselves in a receptive state, but the conditions they put themselves in are known to cause perceptual errors or hallucinations. To create these conditions people fast, deprive themselves of other sensory input through means such as meditation, or they take drugs or hallucinogenic compounds. At the very least mystics place themselves in a hyper-sensitive state in which they want so much to have such an experience that they will perceive vague or ambiguous stimuli in a way that conforms to their expectations and desires. This is the sort of state that leads people to see their team as the subject of all the referees' bad calls and to perceive ambiguous phenomena as ghosts. All these conditions lead to hallucinations or perceptual errors. Why should conditions that are known to lead to error in other contexts provide a guide to truth when the experience is mystical? The mystic's state of mind is more prone to commissions of perceptual error than discovery of truth.

Fourth, there is no known or even reasonably hypothesized causal connection between mystical experience and its supposed subject. Even before people comprehended visual perception and had any inkling of how the brain processed light rays, they at least knew that there was a causal connection between objects, their eyes and their perceptual beliefs. As our knowledge of the brain has grown, we have no greater understanding of how the brain could process mystical information from an external source. We now have some idea of the parts of the brain that might give rise to (or be identical to) those mystical experiences, the sense of profound meaning in everything, or the sense of a presence. We even know of people who suffer seizures that lead to such feelings, and we know of some who are tortured by a constant state of mystical profundity. But none of this has helped understand how these experiences could be triggered by some external, mystical force or ultimate reality. If astrology cannot provide any plausible causal mechanism for the truth of its claims that the position of the planets and stars exert a profound, even determining, influence over one's personality and the course of one's life, then we have reason to doubt the reliability of astrology's claims. When we have no idea how some theory is possible, especially after we have tested and grasped much of how the phenomenon works, we have reason to doubt the reliability of that theory. Mystical experience is mysterious in such a way that we cannot take it to be reliable or even prima facie justified.

Fifth, different individuals and groups have different experiences or form different beliefs on the basis of similar mystical experiences. To overgeneralize, Christian mystics have experiences they believe indicate a Christian God; Hindu mystics have experiences they interpret as coming from different gods or from Brahman, a single supreme spirit; vodou practitioners interpret their experiences as being experiences of Loa or spirits; Buddhists believe they experience a single reality without a god of any sort. Moreover, different sects of Christianity involve different experientially-based beliefs about God's character, intentions, purposes, etc. This lack of any agreement among experiencers all with apparently equally good (or poor) access to this ultimate reality tends to undermine any claim to prima facie justification. If a group of people with equally good vision, in equally good light, with unobstructed views of our living room, claimed respectively to see a dog, a cat, an aardvark, a wombat, animals of a dozen other species, and nothing at all, that would tend to undermine our confidence that Fluffy is sitting on the couch. Mystics appear to interpret vague or ambiguous experience in light of their existing belief system and take these experiences to confirm the very system of belief that led to that interpretation or structured that experience.

Alston's Argument

Since Alston must be aware of these rather obvious and significant difficulties with his position, he must have some compelling responses to them, mustn't he? Well, he has responses, but they are not compelling.

The only positive case Alston provides is a claim that beliefs based on experiences should be taken to be justified unless there is some reason not to. And the only real support for this is the analogy to perceptual experience. The problem is that, as I detailed above, mystical experience, if it parallels sensory experience at all, does it under conditions that render it unreliable. So, Alston's argument really is an attempt to deal with these objections to the analogy to perceptual experience. How does Alston deal with these problems?

Epistemic Circularity

First, Alston denies that coherence of perceptual experience is relevant to its reliability. In particular, Alston talks about the predictive accuracy of a system of beliefs that takes perceptual beliefs to be accurate, but his reasoning applies to coherence among perceptual modalities as well as within them (say by visual confirmation of a prediction made on the basis of visually based beliefs). Alston's is an argument only a philosopher could make. His reason is that for one perceptual belief to confirm another is only to assume the reliability of perceptual belief in the first place. Thus, the coherence requirement begs the question. Suppose we have visual perceptual belief A that confirms auditory perceptual belief B. Now, for A to confirm B, we would have to be justified in believing A; and for B to confirm A, we would have to be justified in believing B. Thus, for either to confirm the other, it must first be justified. He calls this the problem of 'epistemic circularity'; we can only take these beliefs to be justified if we assume that they are justified.

There are two flaws in Alston's reasoning here. First, even if beliefs' coherence is insufficient to render them justified, their incoherence might render them unjustified. If Stephen Colbert trusts his gut because his gut tells him to, he has not provided a justification for beliefs based on his gut instinct. But if Stephen Colbert trusts his gut because his gut tells him not to, then he has engaged in fundamentally flawed reasoning. Thus, the contradictory nature of the various people's mystical experience and the incoherence with sensory modalities, undermines the claim of justification even if coherence could not support it.

Second, more controversially, coherence can provide justification by means of an inference to the best explanation. This is a fairly well-known type of explanation in the sciences and it relies on finding a common causal explanation for disparate phenomena. Thus, coherence over time and among different modalities provides the phenomena that are best explained by the fact that there are external objects that have certain qualities. Perhaps there are difficulties with this view of justification of perceptual experience, but it's not obviously circular in the way Alston contends it is. And this shows that we do not, as Alston believes we must, have to accept all experiences as prima facie justified in order to escape skepticism.

Lack of Intersubjective Verification

Alston devotes more time specifically to the lack of intersubjective verification of mystical experience. First, he restricts the beliefs in question to those that agree only on the existence of God and an unspecified core of traditional Christian beliefs. He writes, "What strikes me as a natural choice is a restriction to experientially based beliefs concerning the existence and basic nature of God" (p. 206). It's only a natural choice if you want to overlook as much disagreement as possible while trying to make your mystical perception support your Christian commitments. He notes that this provides, "a cleaner and more defensible version of the position" (p. 206), but this greater defensibility is bought by simply (at this point) ignoring the contradictory data. This reminds of me of the oft-quoted passage from Bertrand Russell that about the advantages of theft over honest toil.

Alston notes this contradictory data, the disagreement among religions -- saying that all we really could say might count as a claim mystics agree on is that they perceive an ultimate reality that differs from our ordinary experience -- and sects within Christianity. But instead of taking this as a reason to doubt the claims of the particular traditions, he takes it as reason to restrict his inquiry to the justification for the claim about the "existence and basic nature of God" (ibid.). This move would be of tremendous use for prosecutors in court. Suppose that a dozen witnesses observed a crime and only two of them identified the defendant as the criminal. The easy solution for the prosecutors is to toss out the ten who didn't claim that they saw the defendant, or who claimed to see something inconsistent with the defendant committing the crime, and ask whether the remaining two might be reliable. The defense would, with good reason and contrary to Alston's assumption, think that those ten other people's testimony matters to whether the first two were reliable.

After attempting to set up this restricted claim as justified, Alston does return to the issue of disagreement among mystical experiences. He eventually deals with the problem by: (1) Claiming that the disagreement is not as great as it sometimes appears and (2) that sensory perception is not as reliable as it is sometimes assumed in these debates. I'm not sure how the disagreement can be less great if the only thing mystics of various groups agree on, as Alston notes, is that they experience an "ultimate reality" (p. 199). Perhaps some of the subjective experience is similar, but if the experience is supposed to be evidence of any ultimate reality, it should be that there is more agreement than just that there is some ultimate reality that differs from our ordinary experience. If they don't agree that there is a single supreme being, then they cannot be considered to agree about the relevant issue, and it certainly could not preferentially support Christianity over any other religion.

Alston's second response, appealing to the unreliability of ordinary perceptual experience, seems a poor way to establish the reliability of mystical experience, but that is nonetheless Alston's strategy. It only becomes clear why he adopts this strategy when suggests it establishes that only certain types of experiential claims about God are reliable. He distinguishes primary and secondary qualities in perceptual experience and suggests that only beliefs about primary qualities are veridical. For perception, the distinction is between primary qualities, such as mass, velocity, and secondary qualities such as color or odor. Perceptions of mass or velocity reflect real characteristics of matter, so the theory goes, but perceptions of color or odor are only our imperfect perceptual means of representing some complex set of primary qualities. Then Alston claims that mystical experience involve quasi-primary qualities of God (purportedly the characteristics of God traditionally accepted by Christianity) contrasted with quasi-secondary qualities that do not reflect God's reality but only our imperfect perception of qualities that correlate with God's real qualities. Thus, Alston turns the problem of unreliability of perceptual experience into the claim that mystical experience is reliable when it involves perceptions consonant with traditional Christian belief but not when those experiences are not part of traditional Christianity.

However, Alston's analogy between primary and secondary qualities of perception and quasi-primary and quasi-secondary qualities of mystical experience is faulty. Primary qualities of perceptible objects are only considered more real (to the extent that they are) than secondary qualities because we have the apparatus of contemporary science that relies on intersubjectively verifiable measurements of mathematically describable entities and relations. The fact that a tradition attributes some set of properties to God is not enough to establish that experiences of those attributes are reliable and others not. Science only provides justification for beliefs in primary qualities because it involves precisely the kind of intersubjective measurements that have never been provided for mystical experience.

Alston recognizes that mystical experience cannot meet our ordinary criteria of reliable perceptual experience and so could not be considered as justified as perceptual beliefs. However, instead of rejecting the idea of justification from mystical experience, he thinks to save this justification by narrowing the scope of claims based on mystical experience in a preferred direction. Nonetheless, Alston's move is misguided; the lack of any independent means of perceiving the ultimate reality undermines the possibility of prima facie justification whether the range of beliefs is broad or narrow. Moreover, introducing this distinction between quasi-primary and quasi-secondary qualities certainly cannot be used to render the quasi-primary subset of the claims justified given that his categorization of qualities as falling within one set or the other is based only on his prejudgment, based on no evidence or independent argument, that some beliefs accurately represent God and others may not. Alston's distinction and the conclusions he draws from it are completely without foundation.

Checks on Mystical Experience

Alston does consider the idea that there might be independent means of verifying the claims based on mystical experience although his attempt actually raises further difficulties for justification for mystical experience. He notes that, in the Christian tradition, there are institutions intended to regiment such experiences. Here are the three criteria he gives for such regimentation as independent verification: "(a) conformity with what would be expected by basic [Christian] doctrines concerning the nature of God, (b) such "fruits" of the experience and their absence as a stable inner peace and growth in spirituality, (c) a content of the experience that the person would not have developed on his or her own" (p 216). And he notes that people have to put themselves in an appropriately receptive mode to have these mystical experiences.

All three of these are obviously irrelevant to the accuracy of a belief. We have no independent reasons to think that basic Christian doctrines are true, so criterion (a) would only beg the question. Inner peace or other benefits of mystical experience have, obviously, nothing to do with the truth of any beliefs one forms based on that experience. People with mutually inconsistent experiential beliefs all manage to achieve inner peace and all the rest. So, criterion (b) is clearly not relevant.

Criterion (c) might provide justification, on the grounds that beliefs that one would not have otherwise must have an external source. However, I can see no way of determining whether mystical experiences must have an external source and no way of showing that such an external source must be divine rather than purely natural. Why couldn't mystical experiences have the same sort of mundane sources as hallucinations or dreams? There is no way that I can see of establishing that they cannot or do not have such mundane sources.

The last point, that the person must be in the properly receptive frame of mind, is not given as one of the criteria for checking beliefs (as Alston calls it), but it simply points out the problems with mystical experiences and Alston's argument. The facts that Alston takes to provide a kind of justification for beliefs based on mystical experiences are the very facts that render such beliefs unreliable. People putting themselves into the properly receptive states of mind, states "conducive" and "receptive" and "spiritually attuned" (p. 217), to experience God, renders those beliefs suspect. For perceptual beliefs to be reliable, they must not be formed under these conditions. That's why we have requirements that scientific experiments be conducted "blind" so that the expectations, beliefs and desires of the experimenters do not lead them to perceive things in a way that fits their preconceptions. Alston here mistakes the very thing that undermines objectivity, that leads to subjective bias, for a kind of check on subjectivity.

Alston is clearly aware of the problems with mystical experience, yet he contends at the end that mystical experience can provide some prima facie justification even if it is not as reliable as perceptual experience. But this is wrong-headed. If a potentially reliable method of belief formation is misused, the reliability of that method when it is applied correctly confers no justification when it is applied incorrectly. Inference rules in symbolic logic can provide justification for a claim, based on the truth of other claims, but they provide no justification when the rules are applied incorrectly. The same is true here. Beliefs based on mystical experience have no justification since they are, at best, misuses of a potentially justified method.

Divine Causation of Mystical Experience

Another objection that Alston attempts to deal with is the idea that God cannot cause our experience and so we cannot consider mystical experience to be a kind of perception. I've already made the case that this lack of comprehensible causal mechanism undermines the claim to justification for mystical experience.

Alston takes on the claim that, because we can induce mystical experiences and find the brain areas responsible for those brain experiences, it is impossible for God to cause that experience. Alston notes that God could be a cause of such experiences under normal circumstances even if that experience in abnormal circumstances. Alston is correct here; the fact that these experiences can be induced without (evidently) the presence of God, does not indicate that those experiences cannot be veridical in normal circumstances. (Although if God really is omnipresent, it's not clear how one can explain why people fail to perceive him.) This argument against mystical experience is one of the weaker ones you will sometimes see in the popular press. However, the lack of a comprehensible and verifiable causal explanation of mystical experience tends to undermine claims of its justification.

Here's where Alston outdoes himself. Cleverly, but not justifiably, Alston imagines that the critic of mystical experience would argue that God cannot be the cause of mystical experience, so one cannot reasonably understand mystical experience as justified. He argues that one cannot criticize the believer in mystical experience on these grounds since no one has any idea how God could possibly cause mystical experience. Critics, in particular, cannot conclude that it is impossible for God to do so since no one understands how it is possible. Hence, it is possible, as far as the argument goes, for God to cause mystical experience.

This is a clever, if bizarre, move on Alston's part since it is the proponent of the perceptual analogy who bears the burden of showing that this causation is possible. Do God-rays beam directly into a person's brain? If so, why aren't they measurable in some other way? Alston's argument is like the astrology buff who, admitting that he/she has no idea how the stars might have an influence on a person's destiny based on their location at the person's birth, says that this is no objection to her theory since since no one even knows how it could be possible. This influence cannot be proved to be impossible since no one even knows how it could be possible in the first place. It is reasonable to doubt a causal explanation of an experience if there is no way of understanding how that experience could be caused in that way. It is simply unreasonable to demand that someone provide a disproof when the possibility of such a causal story cannot even be understood. Such a mode of argument encourages obscurantism; it encourages people to make incomprehensible causal claims on the grounds that an incomprehensible one could not be disproved.


Nothing Alston has said undermines the basic case against mystical experience. Mystical experience lacks a comprehensible, measurable causal mechanism; it lacks confirming perceptual experience and indeed contradicts other perceptual experience; it lacks intersubjective verification; it only 'works' in conditions that are most likely to give rise to misperceptions. All of these points make a compelling case against the reliability of mystical experience. Alston's attempts to overcome these problems are erroneous and involve special pleading for the Christian mystical experiences over others with equal claims to reliability. In the end, I'm not sure what possessed me to write so much on this essay. Perhaps it was divine inspiration? Or perhaps it was my desire to see how a respectable theist's arguments would withstand critical scrutiny. I'm afraid, in the end, Alston's arguments did not fare well.

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