William P. Alston's Epistemology of Religious Experience: The Problem of Subjectivism

Dissertation, Drew University (2004)

William McKenith
William Paterson University of New Jersey
William P. Alston's book, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience , challenges the contemporary view that religious experience is purely subjective. He theorizes that a direct experiential awareness of God can produce immediately justified beliefs about God. Accordingly, this dissertation critically assesses the problem of subjectivism thought to taint Alston's epistemology of religious experience. ;Upon disclosing the prevalence of subjectivity, and identifying the potential for objectivity in religious experience, this treatise produces a viable resolve for objectivity in mystical perception. It accomplishes this task through several considerations. ;Through an historical analysis of evidentialism's influence in empiricism and analytic philosophy of religion, we can determine the extent to which Alston's epistemology succumbs to this influence. Although finding evidentialism to be prevalent, Alston's theory of "reliabilism," namely the reliability of sensory perception, attempts to overcome evidentialism's predilection toward subjectivism. Nevertheless, it will be demonstrated that the object of consciousness in the perceptual act is still a mental entity. Thus subjectivism persists. Having identified that Alston's phenomenology of perception in particular, does very little to overturn the verdict of subjectivism, this study proceeds to identify an alternative phenomenology. ;Merleau-Ponty's "primacy of perception" seems a likely candidate for providing a richer phenomenological description of perception than Alston's. Once issues of relevancy have been satisfactorily addressed, it will be proposed that Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, i.e. "reversibility thesis," accentuates a "genuine" objective moment in perception. One in which we are able to appropriate to Alston's concept of mystical perception. This phenomenological revision to Alston's epistemology of religious experience does much to counter the charge of subjectivism. ;The above proffering is rendered in six chapters. Chapter I provides a close reading of Perceiving God. Chapter II succinctly puts forth what exactly Alston's epistemology responds to in classical British empiricism and analytic philosophy of religion. Chapter III places Alston in the contemporary discussion in analytic epistemology. Chapter IV points to where Alston's epistemology of religious experience is vulnerable to the charge of subjectivism. Chapters V and VI provide an alternative phenomenology based on Merleau-Pontian insights, which are applied to Alston's epistemology of religious experience
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