Archive for April, 2010

Religious Epistemology and Religious Diversity by Ryan Cowden

April 19, 2010

Ryan Cowden


William Alston’s Religious Epistemology and the Problem of Religious Diversity

Current attempts to ground knowledge in religious experience face serious opposition from the problem of religious diversity.  The problem plainly put is that religious truth-claims are called into question by the inability of any one religion to establish itself superior to the others, or in other words, to establish which is more likely to be true.  If there us no way to determine which system is more likely to be true, the critique states that the responsible duty is to withhold judgment on claims made in such cases.

To address this problem, I will construe the problem of religious diversity in non-religious terms as the problem of competing epistemic practices where there is no practice that is established as superior to any other.  The question is whether or not it is rational to engage in a particular practice in this situation.  I will use the debate over William Alston’s religious epistemology to provide an established setting in which to engage this topic.  After a brief exploration of his position and the problem, I will examine different ways of establishing epistemic justification.  I will conclude that in the study of epistemology there is never a burden to show that one practice is better than any others, only whether it can demonstrate that it is justified to engage in.  I will therefore conclude that to apply the problem of diversity, construed as I have here, to the epistemology of religion is highly problematic.  Since regular doxastic practices are not held to such a high standard, it does not follow that religious practices should be.  Also, since it is rational to pursue knowledge through a system that is established on its own terms, it is therefore rational to engage in a particular religion in the pursuit of truth.

Alston’s Religious Epistemology

William Alston was a leading 20th and 21st century thinker in both fields of epistemology and philosophy of religion.  William Alston’s magnum opus, Perceiving God[1], supported by many smaller articles, employs his knowledge of epistemology to establish religious experience as a means of gaining religious truth.

The unique feature of Alston’s religious epistemology is his distinct construal of some religious experiences as perceptual. The mere definition of some religious experiences as perceptual needs defense and explanation.  Much of this depends on his definition of perception.  All that is needed for perception to occur, according to Alston, is for an object to present itself to the awareness of a subject. This is called the “Theory of Appearing.” [2] This is explained by generalizing from sense perception (SP).  In sense perceptions, a physical object presents itself to a person’s awareness.  Similarly, in mystical perceptions (MP), God presents himself to a person’s awareness.  The similarity between SP and MP is in experiential self-presentation by the object.  The difference between SP and MP is in the phenomena they perceive.  While sense perceptions account for perceptions of physical objects, Alston focuses exclusively on non-sensory perceptions of God because of his belief that these will tell us more about what God is like in-himself than a sensory experience.

The importance of using this theory of perception, in which the object presents itself to a passive subject, is that if it is successful, it defuses the critique that religious experiences are projected by the subject.[3] The theory of perception also implies a version of realism that differs from Kantian and other anti-realist objections.  Alston certainly differs from Kant in claiming that there are no a priori objections to the possibility of God presenting himself to a subject. [4] Alston’s realism is tempered by an acceptance that concepts do affect our perceptions, but deals with this by saying that our concepts cannot affect the revelation of the object to our senses.[5]

By defining religious experiences as perceptual, Alston claims that equal justification must be granted to MP as to SP by nature of their both being perceptual.  In the same way that a subject forms justified beliefs based on her sense perception (SP) of a physical object, a subject can form justified beliefs based on her mystical perception (MP) of a supernatural object. In SP, a sense experience creates an immediate, justified belief about that experience.  For instance, I am justified in the belief that I am sitting in front of my computer by the fact that I can see my computer before me.[6] The beliefs formed directly from these sense experiences are called P-beliefs (P for perception).[7] Religious empiricism, as Alston calls it, happens the same way.  An experience with God immediately justifies a person in holding beliefs about God.  These beliefs are called M-beliefs (M for manifestation).[8]

Alston works off of a reliability constraint, in which beliefs are justified if they are formed in a reliable manner.  But according to Alston, establishing the reliability of our perceptual faculties inevitably results in circularity, meaning a practice must be assumed to be true in order to prove it is true.[9] Alston believes this forces us to opt for a weak justification for our sense faculties, in which we can use them since they are not proven to be unreliable.[10] Since we have no external standard from which to adjudicate our sense perceptions, we must assume that they tell us about the world in order to use them.  Alston applies this theory to MP.  MP also cannot be proven without assuming that it to be true in order to be proven correct.  This is no special detriment for MP since it is the same condition SP is in.[11] Showing how belief-forming practices are socially established and self-supporting also helps add to their reliability.  Both SP and MP can show that they have this, so Alston concludes that they are both prima facie justified.[12] They are prima facie justified which means that they are reliable until they are proven unreliable.

The Problem: Plurality of Practices

There is one issue in particular that threatens to override MP’s status as prima facie justified and prove it to be an unreliable practice: the issue of religious diversity (sometimes religious pluralism).  Alston and his critics agree that this is the toughest challenge his system faces.  To construe the problem in non-religious terms, it is the problem of competing epistemic practices where there is none that is clearly superior.

Alston describes the problem as a plurality of incompatible religious belief-forming practices.  They all claim to perceive God/the Ultimate and have incompatible results.  There is also no sufficient overarching system (e.g. SP) to settle these disputes, so this is a matter of external and not internal disagreement.[13] A special difficulty for Alston’s theory, according to Alston, is the fact that if he can only show Christian mystical perception (CMP) reliable because it is socially established, this is highly problematic because all religious systems are socially established and it would then appear that the most rational explanation for this would be that they are established to enforce cultural values, not experience God.[14]

Alston’s response to this problem is that CMP cannot be shown superior to its rivals but that it is still rational to engage in a practice in this situation.  First, he cites the fact that there are different paradigms even for SP, which include Aristotelian or Whiteheadian paradigms.  In spite of this fact, it is still rational to use SP as a basic source of information.[15] Second, he argues that his CMP is not solely supported by its status as a socially established practice.  It is also justified by self-support, which is the support that comes from using the practice in question.  In CMP, this support would come from God fulfilling promises in people’s lives through their experiences with him.[16] It must be remembered that SP is only established through self-support, so this is no special problem for MP.

Alston’s critics argue that this scenario is more problematic for religious epistemology than he concedes.  William Wainwright argues epistemic practices need to be established as epistemically superior to their alternatives for one to regard it as reliable and rational to engage in. Specific to Alston, Wainwright then argues that Alston must show CMP to be the superior practice before one can be considered rational to engage in it. [17] Julian Willard offers a similar response.  She argues that Alston’s response of self-support does not sufficiently rebut the problem of pluralism and make it rational for one to engage in CMP.[18] She suggests an additional requirement is at least necessary for this problem.  The requirement is that the believer cannot be aware of any practice that fundamentally conflicts with her own, unless she has good reason for thinking that her practice can be shown to be more reliable than its rivals.[19]

Epistemology and Justification

Now we will shift our attention to the issue of epistemic justification.  As I want us to explore the topic of religious diversity in epistemic terms as the condition of competing epistemic practices, it is appropriate to examine how epistemic practices attain justification.

Reliabilism is the theory that a belief is justified if it is formed in a reliable way.  A belief-forming mechanism is reliable if it is likely to produce true beliefs.[20] Reliabilist theories hold that there is some law-like connection between the world and ourselves that, when used properly under normal situations, naturally produces beliefs that are likely to be true.  Implicit in this theory is a direct causal connection between the world and ourselves, such that our beliefs are caused by it.[21] Perception is a classic example of such a reliable mechanism.  Perceiving that a cup is on a table under normal conditions justifies the person in thinking that there is a cup on the table.[22] The nature of perception is that it accurately conveys the world to the person, and a person needs no reasons, only accurate perception, in order to hold a justified belief about it.[23]

Reliability theories hold to an externalist theory of justification, which focuses on establishing that the belief is likely to be true, not on whether the agent has or needs good reasons for thinking it likely to be true.  To achieve this, reliabilists appeal to their theory of a law-like connection to the world that it naturally produces beliefs that are likely to be true.  The agent’s reasons do not make the belief more or less likely to be true, so the emphasis is clearly on the mechanism.[24]

One version of reliabilism, put forth by Alvin Goldman, states that a system is only reliable if there is not another process the agent could and should have used.[25] This obviously contradicts Alston’s work and my point that systems do not lose any justification from the existence of competing systems.  However, I find two ways to re-assert my claim in the face of this objection.  First, Goldman insists that there cannot be another process the agent could and should have used.  In the debate of religious experience, there is no clear other system that we should use, although there are other systems we could use.  This is also true in the field of epistemology.  Even in the face of rival versions of reliability, there is no clear way to determine which system one should use, although there are others one could use.  And second, Goldman’s reliabilism is considered no less justified because of competing claims from other reliabilists, such as D.M. Armstrong.  Nor does Goldman spend his time refuting Armstrong; he writes defending his own theory.  It is clear that even in Goldman’s case, the mere existence of competing practices does not impede efforts to establish justification.

One critique of reliabilism is called the generality problem.  The generality problem holds that there is not a clear way to distinguish justified beliefs from unjustified ones. It has been suggested that this is an empirical question for cognitive psychologists.[26] Another objection of clairvoyancy, posited by Laurence BonJour, is that since reliabilism is justified apart from any need of rational reasons by the subject, the subject can justifiably hold irrational beliefs.[27]

The defense of reliabilist theories is on whether or not they are truth-conducive.  Most critiques of reliability theories focus on whether or not these processes provide enough evidence to completely justify their beliefs.  In this discussion, reliable mechanisms are self-supporting and are not dependent on the external restraint of establishing themselves to be superior to other systems.  Even Goldman’s version of reliabilism should be read as part of Goldman’s internal efforts to support his system, as.  As I have already stated that Alston is working off of a reliability constraint, it is easy to see how he would claim that competing religious practices do not prove that CMP is unreliable.

Foundationalist and coherentist theories deal with how systems of belief and individual beliefs are justified.  In a foundationalist approach, beliefs are justified by their eventual relation to basic beliefs that are self-justified.  In a coherentist approach, beliefs are all justified by a supporting web of beliefs, where all the beliefs simultaneously justify and receive justification. Foundationalism and coherentism, both agreeing that further evidence is needed to justify beliefs, disagree on how this regress is ended.

Foundationalism asserts the claim that these beliefs we are seeking to justify are only justified if we can in fact end the regress.[28] For the regress to be terminated in a way that justifies the beliefs in the process, it needs to terminate in beliefs that are justified in themselves with no supporting reasons.  If it were to end in beliefs that were not justified in themselves, this would not end the regress and would not establish a meaningful connection to the world.[29]

One of the critiques of foundationalism is that there are no basic beliefs that are justified in themselves.  Basic beliefs are said to be justified in themselves so there must be some feature of the belief that makes it justified.  This means that there is an assumed belief in a basic belief that it is justified by some property, which means that basic beliefs are not ultimately basic or self-justifying.[30] There is also some debate as to whether there really is such thing as a basic belief, for even basic perceptual beliefs are contingent on a host of other implicit beliefs gained in past experiences.[31] One final question worth mentioning is over the epistemic status of basic experiences.  The question is whether basic experiences are justified by the virtue of the fact that they happened or by the reasons the subject has for their connection to the world.[32]

The coherence theory of justification also holds to a regress in justification but asserts that the regress ends not in individual beliefs that are justified in themselves but in a basic core of beliefs that mutually support and justify each other.[33] Coherentists assert that we need to have reasons for every belief we hold, and thus do not have basic beliefs.  Instead, each belief must be supported by a reason to accept that particular belief.  Particular beliefs are justified if they relate to the system of beliefs in the right way.  This system also places more importance on the agent being rationally justified in her beliefs than foundationalism does.[34]

The main problem for coherence theory is known as the isolation objection.  This view claims that coherence theory cuts justification off from the world.  Since beliefs are only justified by their relation to other beliefs, this can happen without any connection to the world, making these beliefs satisfactory from the coherence standpoint but unsatisfactory from a truth-conducive standpoint.[35] Foundationalism sacrificed the self-knowledge of the agent for this connection to the real world, saying an experience could be basic if the subject didn’t provide additional reasons for it.  Coherentism goes the other way, preserving the responsibility of the agent at the cost of this connection.

This discussion on foundationalism and coherentism has similar results to our discussion of reliabilism.  Foundationalism was evaluated in ways that were internal to the system, such as whether or not its beliefs were actually self-justified.  Coherentism was evaluated on whether or not it allowed a system to connect to the world.  But nowhere in this discussion is a claim made that a plurality of foundational or coherent systems would prove any one system to be unreliable.  There are even multiple ways to construct foundational and coherent systems.  It should also be pointed out that there is no consensus as to whether one should be a foundationalist or a coherentist, or whether one should be a reliabilist or an anti-realist.  Efforts to find justification or critique these systems do not address this fact that there is a plurality of practices.  It is therefore safe to say that in the field of epistemology, where there is a plurality of competing practices, without any knowledge of which is superior, it is still rational and justified to engage in one of these particular practices in the pursuit of knowledge.

Two things are apparent after this brief study of epistemic justification.  First, that William Alston has constructed a religious epistemology according to some already established structures in epistemology.  By doing so, Alston is laying claim to the justification attributed to these systems.  Barring the question of God’s existence, if religious beliefs are formed by a reliable belief-forming mechanism (perception), and are grounded properly (in self-justified beliefs or a web of beliefs), then such a religious belief is justified.  (We can bar the question of God’s existence because the discussion is over whether the belief is justified, not over whether it is in fact true).  And second, Alston is laying claim to the same treatment given other epistemic systems.  William Alston has grounded an epistemology in efforts to prove that it is self-justified without addressing the plurality of practices. Just as other epistemic practices are evaluated by their own attempts at justification, so should Alston’s CMP be evaluated.  The problem of religious diversity, which is no more than the problem of competing epistemic practices, would not be leveled in the field of epistemology, therefore it should not be leveled in the field of philosophy of religion.


Epistemic systems are evaluated by their efforts to establish and then meet standards of rationality, not on any external measure of superiority over their competitors.  William Alston has established a version of CMP along epistemic lines, namely knowledge through perception, where perception is a reliable belief-forming mechanism.  One of the most popular criticisms of Alston’s CMP is that CMP is not rational to engage in because it cannot establish itself as the superior religious practice.  Given the current debate in epistemology and Alston’s adherence to the standards of that debate, this critique is out of place and void.  CMP is rational to engage in because of its self-support despite its inability to provide evidence for its superiority.  This also justifies an individual in engaging in CMP without being able to provide evidence, to herself or others, of its superiority.

[1] William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[2] William P. Alston, “Religious Experience as Perception of God,” Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion Ed. Stephen M. Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 442-443.

[3] This critique is perhaps most prominently put forth by Wayne Proudfoot, who claims that religious experiences are not religious in nature, only by categories the subject attributes to the experience.  It is also put forth in a different way by Ludwig Feuerbach.

[4] William P. Alston, Religious Experience as Perception of God, 444.

[5] Ibid., 443.

[6] William P. Alston, “Religious Experience as a Ground of Religious Belief,” in Religious Experience and Religious Belief: Essays in the Epistemology of Religion Ed. Joseph Runzo and Craig K. Ihara (Lanham: University Press of America, 1986), 31.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] William P. Alston, Perceiving God, 6.

[10] William P. Alston, “Religious Experience as a Ground of Religious Belief,” 43.

[11] William P. Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), xi.

[12] William P. Alston, Perceiving God, 6-7.

[13] Ibid., 255-256.

[14] Ibid., 275-276.

[15] Ibid., 274.

[16] Ibid., 276.

[17] William Wainwright, “Religious Language, Religious Experience, and Religious Pluralism,” in The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith Ed. Thomas D. Senor (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1995), 187-188.

[18] Julian Willard, “Alston’s epistemology of religious belief and the problem of religious diversity,” Religious Studies 37 (2001), 68.

[19] Ibid., 69.

[20] Jack S. Crumley II, An Introduction to Epistemology, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 72.

[21] Ibid., 75.

[22] Ibid., 67.

[23] Ibid., 70.

[24] Ibid., 73.

[25] Ibid., 78.

[26] Ibid., 76.

[27] Ibid., 80.

[28] Ibid., 94.

[29] Ibid., 95.

[30] Ibid., 110-111.

[31] Ibid., 113.

[32] Ibid., 117.

[33] Ibid., 121.

[34] Ibid., 123.

[35] Ibid., 149.

The Tipping Point

April 5, 2010

We have just celebrated Easter.  Easter is the pivot point for all of human history.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important event for human beings.  Without Easter, the world as we know it would be completely different.  I doubt that we can even imagine what this world would look like, if Christ’s resurrection had not happened.  Easter was a life-changing event for those early followers of Christ.  They saw him crucified on the cross on Good Friday.  They spent Saturday in loss and mourning and grief as their hopes for a new reality lay dashed in pieces on the ground.  But, everything changed on Easter Sunday morning, and the world has never been the same since.

Easter was a tipping point.  Easter is a moment in time when the earth shifted on its axis (figuratively) and a whole new reality was ushered in.  In 2000, Malcom Gladwell wrote a best-selling book called The Tipping Point.  He describes it this way, “The possibility of sudden change is at the center of the idea of the Tipping Point and might well be the hardest of all to accept.  The expression first came into popular use in the 1970s to describe the flight to the suburbs of whites living in the older cities of the American Northeast.  When the number of incoming African Americans in a particular neighborhood reached a certain point – 20 percent say – sociologists observed that the community would “tip”: most of the remaining whites would leave almost immediately.  The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point…  We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly.”

Gladwell goes on to say, “There is a Tipping Point for the introduction of any new technology.  Sharp introduced the first low-priced fax machine in 1984, and sold about 80,000 of those machines in the United States in that first year.  For the next three years, businesses slowly and steadily bought more and more faxes, until, in 1987, enough people had faxes that it made sense for everyone to get a fax.  1987 was the fax machine Tipping Point.  1,000,000 machines were sold that year, and by 1989, 2,000,000 machines had gone into operation.  Cell phones have followed the same trajectory.  Cell phones slowly grew through the 1990s, until the technology hit a Tipping Point in1998, and suddenly everyone had a cell phone.  We are all, at heart, gradualists, our expectations set by the steady passage of time.  But, the world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility.  It is – contrary to all our expectations – a certainty.”

I believe the Tipping Point is a helpful way to describe the world we are living in today.  New ideas, technologies, policies, and products get introduced.  They grow slowly for a few years, and then all of a sudden they reach a critical mass and society tips into a new reality.  More and more, we are dealing with discontinuous change.  The unexpected is becoming the expected.  The unthinkable is becoming the thinkable.  And it is tipping us into a strange new world that doesn’t always feel comfortable and familiar.

But, God is alive and well in the midst of all of this.  Part of the Easter story is that God takes the terrible things of the world (the crucifixion) and surprises us by working in them to tip us into a wonderful new reality, that we have not yet imagined (the resurrection).  This is part of the missional change process that congregations go through.  Churches that enter into an intentional journey of missional life, will find that it often takes three years (sometimes longer) of slow conversations before the congregation reaches its Tipping Point, and becomes a different kind of faith community.  God is doing the same thing in denominations that God is doing in congregations.  In the same way, if a denomination enters into an intentional journey of missional life, it will often take years of slow conversations before it reaches its tipping point, and becomes a different kind of denomination.

What’s hard for us is that we have been raised in a fast food culture that wants to see results now.  That’s not going to happen.  We celebrate people and groups who are “overnight successes”, while ignoring the years of hard work that took place underground and behind the scenes before they hit their Tipping Point.  What’s hard for us is that there is no grand vision leading up to the Tipping Point.  What’s hard for us is that there is no strategic plan to lead us through the build-up period.  What’s hard for us is the only way to get to the Tipping Point in our churches and ministries is to walk by faith, not by sight.  It requires a more intentional discerning of what God is up to in our neighborhoods.  It requires a more conscientious listening to the people around us, to pick up clues about what Jesus Christ is doing in their lives.  It requires the fruit of the Spirit –love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

Some people think the church is going to tip into something bad.  I disagree.  I believe the story of Easter is that God surprises us.  When we think all is lost, and we’ve been defeated, and there’s nothing left to live for, God surprises us.  The world that we thought would tip into something bad has tipped into something good.  The unexpected becomes the expected.  The critical mass that we thought we would never reach, suddenly emerges as if “out of the blue”.

We are on a journey with Jesus.  He is walking beside us every day, holding our hand, and giving us courage and confidence.  Easter is a story that surprises us.  Easter is a new reality that nobody of that time saw coming.  Easter was a tipping point, that was three years in the making, but seemed to emerge as if overnight.  We live in the same kind of world, with the same faithful Savior, walking by our side.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be scared.  And don’t go it alone.  God has given us the church – a community of Christ’s followers – to tip our world into a new reality.  It has already begun.  It is already happening.  It is emerging and rising up.  It’s the story of Easter – The Tipping Point that was, and continues to repeat itself, time and time again.  To God be the glory.