Epistemic Deism

This is a chapter draft that I have been working on for the past little while.  It will ultimately end up being the second or third chapter of my dissertation, but for now I have decided to take a break from it and move onto something else.  I will revisit this piece in 4-5 months.

A Deistic Discussion of Murphy and Tracy’s Accounts of God’s Limited Activity in the Natural World



The traditional account of deism is one in which God does not intervene in natural events, thus precluding any sort of miracles or divine intervention in the natural world.  This view generally argues that the universe along with everything material and immaterial within it were created by God in the beginning, but that God then went on a “permanent vacation[1]”, leaving the universe to operate without His intervention.  Of course, the details regarding God’s specific role in creation, free will, and the like are debated within deistic circles, but for the purposes of this paper this very broad and general definition of deism is sufficient.  Nancey Murphy and Thomas Tracy however, develop similar yet distinct accounts of what I call epistemic deism, deistic accounts that allow for God to intervene in the natural world while still arguing for some level of causal closure.  These accounts put forth by Murphy and Tracy argue that it is possible, and in some cases necessary, for a deistic God to intervene in the natural world through subatomic processes, but that He does so without breaking any natural laws and having His actions confined to the micro-world, thus maintaining some aspects of the integrity of the deistic model.

One of the main distinctions that ought to be addressed by any deistic account would be whether or not God causally interacts with the universe, and if so, in what capacity.  This distinction comes in terms of differentiating between, what I call, Metaphysical Deism and Epistemic Deism.  Metaphysical Deism is a form of deism that, above all, demands the causal closure of the natural world (aside from creating it).  While God is responsible for creating the universe and everything in it (the details regarding “creation” and whether God could create a universe without being causally connected to it, at some point, are up for debate) He has never and will never play any sort of interventionist role within it following its creation.  Some of the things that this brand of deism would preclude are miracles, prayer response, and any sort of direct divine intervention.  Of course, the question of why God does not have any sort of active role within the natural world is one that is open for discussion within this view, with some of the possibilities including God having an inability to act in the natural world by way of limitations on His creative power, that He created a world in which His intervention is not needed for any reason, that He is so disconnected from our world that He does not even know or care what happens, just to name a few.  The key element of this brand of deism is that God has absolutely no causal influence in the natural order of the world.  In contrast, Epistemic Deism does not demand the causal closure of the natural world.  It allows for God to act on processes in the universe, so long as His actions are not revealed to us and that there is no possibility of them ever being revealed to us.  That is to say, the ability to see God’s actions within the natural world are, and always will be, beyond our epistemic grasp (for any multitude of reasons).  On this account, like metaphysical deism, prayer response, miracles and any kind of direct personal interaction with God are precluded, but it is open in the sense that God is able to act, for example, at the micro-level of the natural world, beyond the limits of our knowledge, and influence micro-processes in such a way as to determine the outcome of particular macro-level events.  That is to say that on this account, God is only able to, or chooses only to weakly actualize any states of affairs within the natural world by means that are not revealed to us.  Of course, the degree to which God acts (or does not act) within the world can be seen as being on a continuum, with a strong Metaphysical Deism being the extreme on one side and with a very liberal version of Epistemic Deism being the other extreme.  Any deistic account would have to fall somewhere within these two endpoints with regard to God’s activity and causation within the universe.

Murphy and Tracy both seem to ascribe to differing views of epistemic deism.  In discussing the general viewpoint of Murphy, Robert Larmer writes “[t]he indeterminacy that characterizes quantum processes has seemed to some thinkers to suggest a way whereby God can be conceived as acting in creation without abandoning belief in the causal closure of the physical” (Larmer, 550).  That is to say, because of the seemingly unpredictable nature of subatomic particles and quantum processes, Murphy thinks that it is possible, or perhaps even necessary, that God is intervening in order to facilitate these processes, but that since there are no deterministic laws of nature that govern the processes at the subatomic level, God’s intervention cannot be said to be defying these laws of nature, meaning that the processes facilitated by His intervention cannot be considered to be miraculous, thus maintaining the causal closure of the physical and preserving the deistic viewpoint.

Tracy, on the other hand, argues that because of the indeterministic nature of quantum processes, there are multiple equally possible outcomes that can result from any particular quantum starting point.  Because of this, God is able to act at the quantum level in order to realize whichever of these possible outcomes He desires without His actions being deemed as miraculous or tampering with the causal structure of nature because each outcome was equally realizable.  Through this, God’s doing is simply ensuring that one particular possible outcome (that may have arisen anyway) is realized over a variety of other equally possible outcomes.

In this paper I will discuss Murphy’s account of God’s interventions at subatomic levels, and provide several reasons why I find her view to be inadequate and ultimately unsuccessful, barring extensive revision and substantial explanation supplemented by an advancement in scientific knowledge of the causal relations between subatomic processes and processes that we see at the macro-level.  I will then go on to discuss Tracy’s account of God acting on the subatomic level, and show how it falls prey to many of the same faults as Murphy’s view.  Finally, I will go on to discuss how both of these views fail to address many of the basic distinctions required to create an adequate deistic account of God, and highlight some of the problems that any account of epistemic deism will face.

Murphy’s Views

Nancey Murphy’s paper aims to “provide an alternative account of causation and divine action that is both theologically adequate (consistent with Christian doctrine and adequate Christian experience), and consistent with contemporary science” (Murphy, 326).  The position that she ultimately puts forth is that

In addition to creation and sustenance, God has two modes of action within the created order: one at the quantum level (or whatever turns out to be the most basic level of reality) and the other through human intelligence and action.  The apparently random events at the quantum level all involve (but are not exhausted by) specific, intentional act of God.  God’s action at this level is limited by two factors.  First, God respects the integrity of the entities with which he cooperates – there are some things that God  can do with an electron, for instance, and many other things that he cannot (e.g., make it have the rest-mass of a proton, or a positive charge).  Second, within the wider range of effects allowed by God’s action in and through sub-atomic entities, God restricts his action on order to produce a world that for all we can tell is orderly and law-like in its operation (Murphy, 339).

That is to say, Murphy puts forth a bottom-up account of causation, divine action, and determinism, arguing that God acts in events at the subatomic level which in turn affects the events at the macro level.  Because of the apparent randomness of most subatomic events, argues Murphy, we are left with two options to explain them.  Either they are completely random, or they are determined by God.  Because of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, we ought to reject the idea that the processes and events are random, thus leaving only the option that they are determined by God (Murphy, 341).  In this sense, since there are no natural laws in operation at the subatomic level, God is able to act at that level, which ultimately influences or determines events at the macro level without the events being deemed miraculous, thus maintaining the deistic ideal of causal closure as well as the scientific perspectives of causation and natural laws at higher levels.

Tracy’s Views

Tracy, much like Murphy, focuses in on subatomic processes, and the explanatory gaps that surround them, as a likely place where God may choose to act.  What Tracy means by “explanatory gaps” are cases in which we must admit that we do not have viable and adequate explanations to questions raised by scientific inquiry, or when particular theories entail that we will not in principle be able to give sufficient explanations for some events that are within the scope of that theory (Tracy, 290).  Tracy is not in favor of “God of the gaps” kinds of theories, arguing that God is not to be found in what we don’t know, rather He is to be found in what we do know.  In most “God of the gaps” theories the progress of science entails a push-back on the defined role of God in the world, which Tracy feels is not an adequate account of God and His actions.  While this may be the case, Tracy believes that there are still some aspects of nature that will, in principle, never be knowable by human minds or scientific advancements, thus allowing a spot to insert God as a causal agent without the risk of having the progression of science force Him out of that position.  Of quantum processes, Tracy claims that some

are so extraordinarily sensitive to their initial conditions that arbitrarily close starting points for these processes can produce dramatically divergent outcomes.  The results will be unpredictable in principle, since it will not be epistemically possible either (a) to specify the initial conditions with full accuracy or (b) to predict their result by considering the operation of the system under similar, yet slightly difference, initial conditions (Tracy, 31)

Tracy notes that in many cases trying to provide an account of divine intervention, concessions will often have to be made either on the scientific side or on the theological side to accommodate for the other, but he goes on to argue that if it is the case that the unpredictability of indeterministic chance at the quantum level and the chaotic unpredictability in the system that conveys the quantum effect are both confirmed “then it is open to us to propose that one way in which God may act in history is by determining at least some events at the quantum level” (Tracy, 318).  That is not to say however, that God determines the outcome of each and every quantum event, or that He randomly chooses what outcome will result from each subatomic process, “[r]ather, God will realize only one of the several potentials in the quantum system, which is defined as a probability distribution” (Tracy, 318).  In other words, the initial starting point of the quantum process is one that is open to multiple equally possible and equally realizable outcomes, and the intervening role that God plays, on Tracy’s account, is that He determines which of these equally realizable outcomes is actually realized in this particular case.

The key aspects in which Tracy’s view differs from Murphy’s is that, for Tracy, only some quantum processes and events are intervened in by God whereas for Murphy, at least on the surface, it seems as if God’s action is required in order for any quantum process to be carried out.  Secondly, while it seems that, on Murphy’s account, that God has absolute power in determining what the outcomes of each quantum process will be, the same does not seem to be the case on Tracy’s view.  For Tracy, God’s ability is limited to a finite (and perhaps small) number of potentialities that He is able to realize for each respective quantum process.


While Murphy’s view has several attractive points, namely that it (a) maintains physics as it is, at both the macro and micro levels, (b) eliminates the supernatural at the macro level, (c) preserves the causal closure of the physical at the macro level, (d) excludes irregularities like miracles, and (e) still allows for the existence and intervention of God, it has received its share of criticism, specifically with regards to the scientific aspects of how quantum processes actually work, in that processes in the micro world rarely relate to events in the macro world.  If this is the case, it raises the ever-present question, in anything relating to God’s intervention in the natural order of things, of what the reasoning behind God’s alleged intervention would be.  Of course, the response that we can never truly hope to imagine God’s reasoning behind any action He commits will always be present, but it still stands to make the case that it would be peculiar to for God to choose to intervene in the natural order of the world solely to facilitate the actualization of some subatomic quantum processes that have no translation into anything in the macro world.  That is to say, to actualize some subatomic process that has no influence whatsoever on anything at all.  To do so would simply seem pointless.  It just seems as if it would be out of God’s nature to be constantly intervening in (arguably) meaningless subatomic processes that have no effect on the natural world.  In this sense, Murphy needs to do more work in demonstrating, scientifically, the causal connections between events at the micro level and events at the macro level.

Of course, the previous objection can be argued on several grounds (as noted above), but even in the case that that objection is refuted, it still remains that God’s intervention in the world, be it at a subatomic level or not, is an intervention nonetheless, which is fundamentally contrary to the view proposed by metaphysical deism.  The key component to Murphy’s argument, that allows it to ascribe to a deistic model while at the same time argue that God is active within the world, is that deism precludes miracles, miracles are violations of laws of nature (at the hand of God), there are no laws of nature in place with regard to subatomic processes, therefore God can intervene in subatomic processes without breaking any laws of nature (since none exist at the relevant time and place), thus maintaining a deistic model that is consistent with God’s intervention in the natural world.  So, in a sense, by arguing against the fact that any natural laws are being broken by the intervention of God, it is as if Murphy is arguing for a view that is not quite metaphysical deism, but also not quite epistemological deism.  She seems to be arguing for a very narrow kind of metaphysical deism in which causal closure is demanded, but in which the definition of causal closure is an odd one, where it simply means that no natural law has been broken.

Somewhat related to the objection above is Murphy’s claim that God acts on and affects macro-level events by acting on micro-level events, creating a bottom-up causal connection.  Murphy argues that there is a scientifically proven connection between micro and macro-level events, while Larmer argues that it is scientifically proven that there is no such connection.  Despite the fact that I am in no position to evaluate the truth of either of those claims based on my limited knowledge of quantum physics (especially seeing as neither author cited any scientific studies in their respective papers), we are left with two options: (1) either there are no causal connections between micro and macro-level events, or (2) there are causal connections between micro and macro-level events.  If the first case is true, and there are ultimately no meaningful causal connections between micro-level and macro-level events (which is a view that Murphy would object to), then there would be no reason to think that the principle of sufficient reason should apply to micro-level events simply because it applies to events at the macro-level (which is, itself, arguable).  If this is the case, then this would leave open the option for the chaos theory of quantum processes, meaning that the apparent randomness of quantum processes is just that, random.  This raises a secondary question of whether or not “randomness” can be considered a sufficient reason under the principle of sufficient reason, because while it seems that Murphy would say that it could not be, others may argue that it can be, and if the latter is even a possibility then this would mean that Murphy has stricken a completely viable option that is consistent with the principle of sufficient reason, a principle that she argues so heavily for.  Lastly, a disconnect between micro and macro events would also mean that any actions performed by God at this level would be utterly pointless (at least to us) since they would in no way influence anything taking place at the macro-level.  Again, this is not the view that Murphy would take, but I am simply presenting it to show what the consequences would be for Murphy’s view should it turn out that, scientifically, such a causal connection did not exist.

On the other hand, if there does exist a causal connection between micro-level events and macro-level events, as Murphy argues, since macro-level events display law-like behaviour, it seems hard to believe that such law-like behaviour would simply stop upon reaching the micro-level.  There is simply no reason provided that would lead us to believe that everything in the universe would display law-like behaviours and then suddenly cease to maintain such behaviours at a certain point, and this is something that Murphy needs to explain in order for her account to stand up as a plausible theistic account.  It would seem more likely that perhaps the behaviours that these subatomic particles are displaying are cohering to some natural laws but, for whatever reason, we are simply not able to discover or understand them.  The fact that we have not yet discovered or come to understand these potential laws does not mean that they are not in operation.  If it is the case that there are some sort of natural laws governing subatomic processes then it would mean that there is no need to invoke the presence and intervention of God to explain their causation, and Murphy’s account would fail.  Even if we set that aside however, and God does intervene in order to facilitate or actualize subatomic processes, it is not entirely clear how Murphy’s view is so different from the classical conception of God, save for the fact that He is in a sense limited to only acting at the subatomic level.  This seems like something that proponents of the classical conception of God would be opposed to since it, at least on the surface, constrains God’s ability, and something that proponents of metaphysical deism would oppose to because it prescribes God’s intervention in the natural world.  So, in both cases, whether there are causal connections between micro-level events and macro-level events, or not, we can see how Murphy’s account could be rejected in the first case, or require serious revision in the second case.

Finally, it seems to me that in this case Murphy is working with a distorted definition of what I call metaphysical deism, in which her view is only deistic at the macro-level.  While it is true that metaphysical deism would preclude miracles, it does not just preclude miracles, rather it precludes any sort of intervention whatsoever.  It demands causal closure, and whether or not there are any natural laws at play is simply irrelevant to whether or not any kind of external or divine intervention is permitted under metaphysical deism.  Whether a particular external intervention happens to find some loophole in which no natural laws are operational, thus preventing it from being declared a miracle is not of concern here.  The main concern is whether or not an external intervention defies the causal closure of the natural world that is proposed by metaphysical deism and it seems that any external intervention, miraculous or not, would defy that causal closure thus making any view that supports both divine intervention and metaphysical deism to be inconsistent.   Any such view must ultimately be dismissed.  On the same note it seems that a scientific account of the world would demand causal closure as well, which would pose a large problem for Murphy’s overall project of trying to create an alternative account of divine intervention that maintains both theological and scientific integrity.  The traditional view of the Judeo-Christian God is one in which He, while perhaps intervenes in the universe, does not reside in it.  That is to say, while He impacts it, He is not a part of it, which seems entirely contrary to the causal closure of the atheistic model generally put forth by modern science.  The two simply do not seem to be able to co-exist, at least on this account.  What Murphy has done is presented a theologically inadequate view of Christian doctrine, as well as an inadequate view of science in order to create just enough of a gap to fit in a theory that attempts to satisfy both sides of the equation.

Overall, Murphy’s view appears to be an attempt at finding a way of incorporating divine intervention into metaphysical deism.  Murphy would argue, as far as I can tell, that metaphysical deism demands a causal closure of the universe, but she proposes a view in which certain divine actions are permitted since they would not count as breaking the causal closure of the universe.  Thus allowing for a version of metaphysical deism in which God can freely intervene in the universe at the micro-level.  I think that Murphy’s attempt fails in this respect because allowing for any kind of divine intervention within a metaphysical deistic theory is simply contradictory, and therefore I have tried to look at her view as proposing a version of epistemic deism, which seems like it could be more in line with some of the claims that she makes.  If, however, this view is to be interpreted as an account of epistemic deism then, there are a variety of questions, that I mention in the introductory chapter, that must be addressed and answered before Murphy’s account can be taken as a complete account of epistemic deism.

Tracy’s view, while much like Murphy’s, is far closer to what I have described as epistemic deism and is subject to several problems as well.  The first problem that arises, which seems to be one that is almost inherent in these sorts of theories, is that the introduction of God into any explanatory account of nature means that the system on which He is acting cannot be causally closed, and that any intervention within that system would be epistemically problematic.  That is to say that

The idea of a direct act of God is unacceptable for us because such an event would involve a gap in the order of nature; it could not be sufficiently explained in terms of antecedent finite events, and so would constitute “an absolute beginning point” for a novel causal series…such an event is not epistemically problematic, it is “literally inconceivable,” for the notion of an event without “adequate finite causes is “quite as self-contradictory as the notion of a square-circle.”  We must, therefore, rigorously avoid all talk of divine action in history.  Nonetheless, it is open to us to think of history as a whole as God’s act. (Tracy, 301).

So the problem that Tracy’s theory faces is precisely one that he describes at the outset of his paper.  Of course, while it is not entirely clear whether or not this is the case, it could be that Tracy views his theory as one in which history as a whole is an act of God, in which case it would be plausible to think that his view is left untouched by the “absolute beginning point” objection.  Tracy’s view however, even if it is one that views all of history as a whole as an act of God, still maintains that God makes continuous interventions in the world through His manipulation of quantum processes.  Despite the fact that God would only be actualizing one of the several equally realizable effects of any given quantum starting point, the need for a cause that originates within the system itself still remains, otherwise the “absolute beginning point” objection stands.  There would still be a series of quantum processes and effects that cannot be adequately explained by one or more finite causes within the closed system.   So, much like Murphy, Tracy seems to argue for a worldview in which the macro-level is causally closed while the micro-level is causally open.

A second problem that Tracy’s view faces is one mentioned in the introductory chapter.  Tracy needs to figure out how to properly deal with the apparent limitations on God’s power in his conception of how and when God acts in the world. A difference between Tracy’s view and Murphy’s view is that, in Murphy’s view God seems to have complete freedom in what effects to actualize for each particular quantum starting point, whereas in Tracy’s view He does not enjoy that luxury.  For Tracy, God can only actualize one of a limited number of equally realizable potentialities that are already associated with each quantum starting point.  It is not entirely clear whether or not this is so because God is limited to these options by something other than Himself, or if He chooses only to actualize one of these options (and this is something that Tracy needs to clarify), but if it is the case that God is limited in His abilities of which outcome to actualize then this would indicate a limitation on His powers, which is something that many theists would most likely object to, since it would deny God some sort of creative power.  This being the case, Tracy needs to do some explanatory work to describe (a) his conception of what omnipotence entails, and (b) how this conception can be maintained despite the apparent limitations on God’s causal power when it comes to actualizing particular outcomes for various quantum starting points.

A final area where Tracy’s view needs further explanation is the discussion of what quantum processes God chooses, or is required, to act on.  Tracy’s theory proposes, unlike Murphy’s, that God only acts to determine the outcome of some quantum processes, not all.  It is not altogether clear why it is the case that God only intervenes in determining the outcomes of some quantum processes, and not all, or none.  Let us suppose that there is a 50/50 split between the micro-processes that God intervenes in and the micro-processes that are allowed to run their natural course according to the natural laws that are in place.  Tracy needs to explain why exactly it is the case that God does not simply intervene in the outcomes of all quantum processes, as in Murphy’s view, since it would seemingly be no extra “effort” for God to make that move and increase His activity in the determination or influence of quantum process outcomes from 50% to 100%.  On the other hand, Tracy also does not make it entirely clear why God’s intervention is required in any quantum processes at allIf we are to go back to the original 50/50 split, with 50% of all quantum processes being left untouched (directly) by God and left solely to operate under the natural laws that are in play, then there needs to be an explanation about what makes the other half of quantum process outcomes so special as require or call for God’s intervention.  Even if it is the case that God has some particular will that can only be realized through the specific outcome of a particular micro-process then it would seem that, given God’s omnipotence and omniscience, He could have foreknown each particular situation and set up the natural laws in such a way as to generate the desired outcomes of each and every quantum process so as to realize any and every desired outcome that God may have without being forced to directly intervene in the natural order of the world.  With that in mind, it seems almost arbitrary to decide which events are those that were influenced by the hand of God, and which ones were purely the results of the operational natural laws, and Tracy provides no explanation of how such a distinction is to be recognized.

Relation to Epistemic Deism as a Whole

Through the discussion of both views that have been put forth by Murphy and Tracy we have seen that they are each in line with aspects of epistemic deism, in that they both generally argue for God’s intervention in the universe, but that these interventions can and do only happen at levels and in ways that are epistemically inaccessible to us.  The discussion has also gone to show a variety of problems that are present within these types of theories, namely that there is an enormous amount of explanation that must go into each and every detail within the theory.  The reason for that is because any theory that can be reduced to a version of epistemic deism is essentially a theory that is based on justifying varying numbers and degrees of exceptions within itself.

The term deism typically connotes the causal closure of a system, but epistemic deistic theories try to posit and justify ways in which divine intervention can be permitted yet maintain aspects of that causal closure.  In the case of epistemic deism theories the claim is often that divine interaction occurs at levels that are unknowable to us, therefore leaving the world (as far as we can and will ever know) as causally closed.  This simply does not seem right since it would entail that God’s actions would be limited by and dependent on the intellect of humans, in that He only chooses to do actions that we cannot know about.  With our knowledge of science and physics constantly advancing this would seem to result in God’s active abilities becoming more and more limited as our knowledge progresses.  Of course, this is just one objection to the overall account of epistemic deism, but it does go to show that all epistemic deists face an uphill battle in trying to justify how they aim to maintain a deistic undertone in their theories that is based on the human capacities for knowledge while at the same time allowing God to act but still placing limitations on His acting abilities.  It just does not appear that the epistemic deist will ever be able to satisfactorily and completely create a substantial account of how and why certain limitations are able to be placed on God, and how or why certain actions that He does do not count against the requirement for causal closure of the universe that any theory labelled as deistic should entail.

Furthermore, the epistemic deist will need to answer the question of what exactly makes his theory deistic in any sense.  Again, since deism generally tends to entail causal closure, which is an aspect that epistemic deistic theories lack, it is not entirely clear just how these theories can be properly labelled as deistic.  To take it one step further, the epistemic deist will also need to answer the question of how his view ought to be distinguished from classical theism.  While it appears that the interventions that God makes in the world under the epistemic deism framework would generally tend to be very subtle and, by definition, unknowable to us, it is not clear that this kind of action would be inconsistent with a version of classical theism.  Some versions of classical theism could, in theory, argue that God is active only in ways that are unseen by us, so the epistemic deist would have to provide some amount of explanation to differentiate his view from such a version of classical theism.

Finally, as alluded to earlier, for any account of epistemic deism there is a need to describe what kinds of limitations are placed on God and His activity within the universe.  The common thread, as noted, that will be present is the epistemic boundary of God’s actions.  The epistemic deist will have to detail exactly what kinds of limitations, if they are to be more complex than the simple “unknowability” of them, are placed on God and his creative ability, since epistemic deism entails limitations on God’s creative ability.  The epistemic deist will also have to detail why exactly these particular limitations are relevant and necessary for his particular account, as well as detail how these limitations are able to coexist with the absolute nature of most of the divine attributes.

With all of the problems mentioned above, both specific to Murphy and Tracy’s views and those addressed to epistemic deism in general, it is almost as if each claim made within an epistemic deistic theory simply raises more questions than it answers.  Of course, each individual theory may be able to deal with some, or even most of these problems, but I am not convinced that any version of epistemic deism will be able to adequately address all of the questions raised.  Each adequate answer to one question will simply result in pushing off some contradiction, counter-intuitive thought, or highly debated claim to the end of the line, where eventually it will show itself weaken, if not destroy, the plausibility of the account.


Both Tracy and Murphy provide interesting accounts of how and where God intervenes in the natural order of the world that are alternatives to the classical theistic model.  Both views present an account in which God intervenes in the natural world only at the subatomic level, using these determined micro-events, in turn, to causally determine subsequent events on the macro-level.

Murphy’s view, which argues that God has complete freedom in determining the outcomes of quantum events, and that He acts in all quantum events, simply relies on too many unknowns regarding how exactly micro-processes work and how (and if) they are causally connected to the macro-world.  While her account may hold some plausibility it cannot be rationally accepted as a complete worldview until there is substantial advancement in the areas of quantum-processes and causation so as to provide some level of foundation on which to build her arguments.  Until then, the basis of her argument seems to rest on the presumed high level of causal connectivity between the micro and macro worlds.

Tracy’s account, while holding some similarities to Murphy’s view, maintains that there are some limitations of the creative power that God exercises in determining the outcomes of the various subatomic processes in which He chooses to intervene.  The problem facing Tracy’s account however, is much the same as the one faced by Murphy, in that there is simply a lack of explanation in certain aspects to allow for it to be accepted as an adequate account of God’s activity in the natural world.  Where Tracy needs to expand his account is to provide further explanation on why it is that some micro-processes are governed by the natural laws that have been put in place by God while others seem to require the intervention of God in order to produce the desired outcome, and how he intends to maintain God’s omnipotence in a theory that places restrictions on His powers by limiting the amount of possible outcomes that He can bring about for each micro-process.

In discussing the views of Murphy and Tracy and how they fit into the larger picture of epistemic deism we have also been able to see just how many problems, not only the views of Murphy and Tracy face, but how many problems epistemic deism as a whole must deal with.  There are a substantial amount of severe problems and questions that remain to be answered about epistemic deism, most dealing with apparent contradictions between two or more aspects within any given particular viewpoint.  Given these the views of Murphy and Tracy, it is not clear that there will be able to be an adequate epistemic deistic viewpoint put forth that will be able to provide all of the answers and explanation necessary to rid itself of any and all contradictions or other weaknesses.

Works Cited


Larmer, Robert, “Divine Action and Divine Transcendence.” Zygon 44, no. 3 (September 2009): 543-57.

Murphy, Nancey. “Divine Action in the Natural Order: Buridan’s Ass and Schrodinger’s Cat.” In Chaos

                And Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by Robert John Russell,

Nancey Murphy and Arthur R. Peacocke, 325-57.Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame

Press, 1995.

Tracy, Thomas F. “Particular Providence and the God of the Gaps.” In Chaos  And Complexity: Scientific

                Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy and Arthur R.

Peacocke, 289-325.Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.


[1] There are any number of reasons for which God could be non-active within our world, and “permanent vacation” is meant to encompass all of those possibilities, be it metaphysical or epistemic.



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Mystical Religious Experiences

This was the major research project for my MA.  This is another work in progress that I am revising to submit for publication



Evaluating the Fales/Gellman Debate on the Epistemic Status of Mystical Religious Experiences



In recent years there has been a debate between Evan Fales and Jerome Gellman regarding the epistemic status of theistic mystical experiences.  Fales argues that a sociological naturalistic account can explain the vast majority of theistic mystical experiences, in that all of the subjects seem to have, in some way or another, gained a sociological advantage by allegedly having a theistic experience.[1]  Fales thinks not only that his naturalistic account can explain mystical experiences, but that it can do a better job explaining them than any theistic account can.  Jerome Gellman responds by presenting several counter-examples of mystics who do not seem to fit into the mold set out by Fales’ naturalistic account, and argues that the burden of proof rests on Fales to demonstrate that subjects of mystical theistic experiences are also subject to the circumstances identified in his account. 

                In section 1 of this paper I will provide a brief account of the Argument from Religious Experience.  Section 2 will provide a brief account of the nature of theistic mystical experiences, while section 3 will provide an overview of each of the papers by Fales and Gellman.  Section 4 will conclude the paper by presenting why I think Fales has failed to establish that the burden of proof rests on the theist, and discuss why I think it is the case that the subject of any theistic mystical experience is justified, if not required, to accept his experience as veridical.  While Fales has presented an interesting alternative to the theistic explanation for mystical experiences, he has not presented a successful defeater.


  1. 1.       The Argument from Religious Experience

While there are different versions of the Argument from Religious Experience they all argue for the claim that religious experiences generally serve as evidence for the existence of God or some other supernatural entity.[2]  The approach generally taken to support this claim tries to liken perceptions of God to other sensory perceptions, and then make the claim that since we are normally justified in believing that the objects of our normal sensory perception exist, we are similarly normally justified in believing that the objects of our religious experiences also exist.  To take this argument and apply it directly to an example of religious experience would be to say that if subject S has a religious experience of p, then, since religious experiences are relevantly similar to sensory experiences, S can be justified in believing that p is causally responsible for S’s experience of p, and thus, justified in believing that p exists.[3]

                Notable examples of philosophers who defend various versions of the Argument from Religious Experience are William Alston, Richard Swinburne and Jerome Gellman.  Alston, in his 2005 essay “Mysticism and Perceptual Awareness of God” argues that in any religious experience, the subject can be justified in believing that she is being directly presented with some phenomenon, and that this phenomenon was, in some way, caused by a supernatural entity.[4] That is to say, as far as the subject is concerned, there is no relevant difference in the super-sensual presentation of God that he is experiencing and the sense-mediated presentation of the chair that he happens to be perceiving.  Richard Swinburne also argues that, in the absence of what he calls “special considerations”, we are justified in believing that things are as they appear to be, and this applies to cases of both normal sense-perceptions and theistic apparitions as well.[5]  Finally, Jerome Gellman argues that humans are not limited to experiencing things solely via the five senses, and that with training, it is possible that we can come to experience things without having to appeal to language, memory, expectations or conceptualizations, which would render the experience what he calls a “pure conscious event”.[6]  Things that would tend to fall into this category of “pure conscious events” could include theistic experiences, and while these kinds of experiences may not be relevantly similar in as many ways to other experiences of sensory perceptions, they are still perceptions nonetheless, and should be taken to have some evidential value.[7]


  1. 2.       Theistic Mystical Experiences

In the literature, mystical religious experiences are those which are not mediated by any sensory modality, and this is thought to give them an ineffable quality.  William Alston, a proponent of the veridicality of mystical religious experiences, describes them as involving, like sense perceptions, a presentation of some object, but the presentation is not categorizable through the senses.[8]  While some mystical experiences may have some aspect of sensory content, these are not the kind of mystical experiences that are considered by Alston in his argument, nor are they relevant to the purposes of this paper.  The mystical experiences of concern here are, as presented by Alston, direct (rather than mediated)[9], non-sensory, focal experiences where the object attracts the subject’s attention so strongly that it blots out everything else.[10]

                As noted above the proponent of the veridicality of mystical religious experiences will generally argue that mystical experiences and perceptions are, in all relevant respects, similar to normal sensory experiences and perceptions, and thus ought to be afforded the same evidential weight.  That is to say, as with our normal sensory perceptions, if doubt is going to be cast on the veridicality of the experience, then the burden of proof rests on the skeptic to demonstrate why it is the case that this perception cannot be justified as veridical, rather than on the perceiver to prove why it is the case that he is justified in holding the veridicality of his perception despite the relevant differences between the two kinds of experiences.  The caveat, however, is that since we are discussing phenomena that are either non-sensory or super-sensory, those arguing in favour of mystical religious experiences will also have to deny that the possibilities of human experience are limited by the five senses.[11]  Essentially, the claim is that just because an object appeared to us via some method that was not mediated by one of the five senses, it does not follow that it cannot serve as evidence.

                Arguments from religious experience are highly controversial.  Some authors have objected to them by saying that sensing that an entity is present or that it is causally connected to some perception does not entail that it actually exists,[12] while others have claimed that we are often not justified in accepting testimony of such experiences because the wealth of sensory experiences that we have experienced all seem to provide stronger reasons to reject the testimony than to accept it.[13]  One common move in objecting to such arguments is to defend reductionism.   In his 2001 book Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry, Jerome Gellman distinguishes two kinds of reductionists who oppose the argument from religious experience: evidence-reductionists (or E-reductionists) and truth-reductionists (or T-reductionists).[14]  E-reductionists claim that while mystical religious experiences are prima facie justificatory, “there is a set of naturalistic circumstances in which perceptions of God occur, which generate alternative explanations that give good reason for abandoning the initial evidential sufficiency of God perception”.[15]  In other words, the E-reductionist does not go so far as to claim that people do not in fact perceive God, but only that we do not have good evidence that they have had such perceptions.  The E-reductionist does not argue that any or all God perceptions are illusory, but only that they cannot reasonably be believed to be genuine.[16]  On the other hand, T-reductionists make the stronger claim that “perceptions of God occur in a set of naturalistic circumstances that generate good reasons for rejecting perceptions of God as genuine – for saying that subjects do not have veridical God-perceptions”.[17]  Gellman, however, thinks this position is too strong to be plausible, and so recommends that T-reductionists hold the less ambitious view that “…most God perceptions were illusory and those that might be authentic, for all we know, just were not numerous enough to provide the cohering evidential support required by the Argument from Perception”.[18]  That is to say, T-reductionists can recognize a limited number of God-perceptions as veridical while at the same time denying the evidential sufficiency of most theistic perceptions.[19]  Gellman claims that Fales, is a T-reductionist in this less-ambitious sense, because of his overall claim that “…the explanation of theistic mysticism is in the political power and social control it confers on the mystic, rather than in its being a veridical experience of God”.[20]


  1. 3.       Scientific Explanation of Mystical Experiences, Part 1: The Case of St Theresa

In this first part of a two-part paper written in 1996, Fales aims to show that theistic mystical experiences can be adequately explained by a specific naturalistic account and that there is absolutely no need to invoke any sort of theistic explanation in these cases.[21]  Essentially, he is arguing that we do not have grounds for granting the “prima facie veridicality of apparitions or spirits with traditions which hold the supernatural to be amenable to mystical techniques”.[22]    Rather than explore a variety of mystics from a variety of societies and time periods and try to disprove them one by one, Fales focuses his attention on what he takes to be a paradigm case of a mystic within Western religious tradition.  He chooses to focus on Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Christian mystic.  He does so because of the richness and diversity of her purported mystical religious experiences, and claims that she is at least a very good  representative of Christian mysticism.[23]  Fales thinks that if he can explain her theistic mystical experiences with a sociological naturalistic account then he can plausibly extend this account to explain a substantial amount of other allegedly theistic mystical experiences. 

                Fales notes that Teresa’s experiences seem to encompass the full range of mystical religious experiences, in that she has reported cases in which “her soul leaves her to ascend to her Lord; in others, her Lord insists upon taking her bodily up to heaven, though she resists with all her might.  On other occasions, He enters within her, after her own soul has been curiously inactivated; and in yet others, He is apprehended externally in visions or auditions”.[24]  For all the variety that Teresa’s accounts enjoy, Fales argues that there are still certain themes that underlie all of them.  The themes that Fales mentions include, but are not limited to,

[Teresa’s] insistence that her visions conform to orthodoxy, and that she is prepared to judge them demonic if they do not; her readiness to submit them to the judgment of the Church hierarchy…; her insistence upon their involuntary nature and upon the tremendous pain and trouble they cause her (as well as ineffable joy); her view that there is little or nothing one can do to merit or provoke divine visitation, beyond purity of heart, mind and action; and her repeated assertions of unworthiness.[25]

Because of these similarities between Teresa’s multiple experiences, Fales argues that there is a naturalistic explanation that can account for the entire range of Teresa’s religious experiences better than theism can.

                The main argument mounted by Fales against the veridicality of Teresa’s mystical religious experiences is put forth in section 4, a section entitled “Anthropological Insights.”  He applies a hypothesis of theistic mystical experiences put forth by anthropologist I.M Lewis in his 1989 book Ecstatic Religion.  What this hypothesis claims is that there are significant ties between the kinds of mystical experiences mystics report having and the social contexts in which they find themselves, and that all mystical religious experiences serve merely as a means to gain social or political power or control.[26]  That is to say that most, if not all, mystical experiences are reported by individuals who are, in some way or another, marginalized members of society.  Fales goes on to describes a distinction within Lewis’ theory that differentiates between two different social contexts under which mystical experiences can occur: peripheral possession cults, and central possession cults.[27]  Fales describes each of these social contexts as follows

Peripheral possession cults arise among groups of people who are socially marginalized and who are deprived by the institutional structures of their societies of the kind of power, control over their lives, or at least the care they believe – often rightly – that they deserve.  Central possession, on the other hand, occurs among people who are vying for positions of power and authority within precisely those institutions that are normative and central – but in societies in which access to power, while it may be restricted to certain groups, is fluid, competitive and dependent on individual initiative.[28]

Fales thinks that Teresa ought to be considered part of a peripheral possession cult. 

                Teresa of Avila, as Fales goes on to argue, was a member of not only one, but three marginalized groups in 16th century Spain, and is thus a prime candidate for Lewis’ theory.  First, Teresa was a woman in a society and culture in which the opportunities for advancement of women were highly controlled, both by the cultural norms and by the conventions of marriage.[29]  Secondly, as Fales put it, “Teresa failed to regularize her social status by means of that route most normally open to women, namely marriage” and chose to become a nun.[30]  And finally, Teresa was a member of a converso[31] family, which would lead her and her family to be subjected to unprovoked suspicion and exclusion from church and state.  With all of that in mind, however, Teresa still came from a wealthy family, which Fales suggests may have made her the type of woman to be driven by high ambitions despite her membership in other marginalized groups.[32]  The suggestion that Fales ultimately goes on to make is that Teresa’s high ambitions, paired with her status as a marginalized individual in the three ways discussed above, make her theistic mystical experiences ones that would fit perfectly into the framework of Lewis’ theory.  Teresa’s theistic mystical experiences were simply a vehicle for amelioration for both herself and for the marginalized groups of which she was a member, and a platform from which she was able to more freely criticize the power structures at play within 17th century Spain than she would have otherwise been able to do.  Fales goes on to discuss how Teresa’s reported theistic mystical experiences “are connected in a quite functional way with her practical projects and her need for support in them” in precisely the ways noted above.[33]  If nothing else, her alleged experiences could have given her more of a voice in helping persuade people towards Catholicism by having God give her the strength to persevere through ongoing sicknesses and ailments in order to continue to spread His word.[34]

                In all, Fales’ argument is that Lewis’ sociological theory, according to which “mystical states serve as a strategy for attacking or gaining entry to power structures and for claiming some measure of social attention”[35] can be applied to Teresa of Avila in order to provide a naturalistic explanation for her theistic mystical experiences, and that if Teresa of Avila’s experiences can be explained naturalistically (due to the sheer variety that is covered by them) then there is a good chance that most other mystical religious experiences can be explained naturalistically as well.


3.1.  Scientific Explanation of Mystical Experiences, Part 2

In this second part of the two-part article, Fales explores various other possible naturalistic explanations for mystical experiences that could also be in play in conjunction with Lewis’ view.  These are that (1) mystics are just plainly lying; (2) mystics are subject to self-deception, either in judging whether the supposed experience has occurred, or in their interpretation and description of it; (3) certain kinds of social states of affairs facilitate the ease with which people with certain personalities undergo mystical experiences; (4) that we are simply misunderstanding the content and descriptions of the mystical experiences as they are described by the mystic; and that (5) in some cases there is a social function served by a publicly maintained fiction.[36] 

                Fales next examines whether or not it would be plausible to “tack on” a theistic explanation of mystical experience to any one of the naturalistic explanations; a possibility that both William Wainwright and William Alston find attractive.[37]  This move aims to extend the Lewisian naturalistic theory out of the realm of tribal spirit possession and mysticism and into wider theism as a whole.  In other words, some, like Wainwright and Alston, attempt to absorb the naturalistic account into a wider theistic account, resulting in the naturalistic account no longer being a rival to the theistic account.  Fales aims to demonstrate that Lewis’ naturalistic theory is the most adequate explanation for a variety of allegedly theistic phenomena, all on its own, and that any further appeal to theism is an unnecessary addition to the causal explanation of these phenomena.  Fales even goes on to say that in cases in which Lewis’ theory fails to provide a complete causal explanation of certain situations, it is still the case that these explanations will have no need or use for the insertion of some theistic mechanism.[38]  The objection is then raised against Lewis’ anthropological argument that it applies only to cases of pagan cultures, and will not apply directly to Christian religious experiences, and as such, that a theistic explanation does need to be “tacked on” to the naturalistic explanations in these cases.  Fales quickly dismisses this objection by shifting the burden of proof onto the theist by asking what specifically it is that relevantly differentiates Christian mystics from pagan mystics, and whether that differentiation is strong enough to allow for Lewis’ theory to hold for pagan cases but not for Christian cases.[39] 

                Another issue discussed by Fales with regard to “tacking on” a theistic explanation is whether or not one particular theistic explanation will suffice for all mystical theistic experiences, all theistic experiences, both, or a mixture of the two.  If there is a particular theistic experience that can be adequately explained by the Lewisian theory, but a theistic explanation is “tacked on”, Fales sees one of two problems arising.  The theist will either have to admit that all there are a variety of supernatural beings, each of which account for various theistic experiences within their respective cultures, or that there is only one (or particular set of) supernatural being(s) responsible for all theistic experiences across all cultures.[40]  For Fales, both of these options are implausible.  On the one hand, the theist would have to invoke the existence of a vast number of supernatural beings to account for theistic experiences ranging across all cultures and times, while otherwise he would be forced to claim that theistic experiences within his own belief system are veridical due to the actions of some particular supernatural being, but any theistic experiences falling outside of his belief system can really only be explained by Lewis’ theory.  This raises the question of why it is the case that theistic experiences within his own belief system would not be susceptible to the same kind of naturalistic explanation as every other theistic experience.[41]  On the other hand, the variety of the content described within various mystical theistic experiences is such that it would not lend itself to an explanation that makes use of just one supernatural being.  The similarities seen between alleged theistic mystical experiences are only found at the level of context and structure, rather than in content, making it implausible that a single supernatural force could adequately explain all such experiences.[42] 

                The article culminates with Fales scoring the case for theistic explanations versus the case for naturalistic explanations.  He finds that naturalism, and Lewis’ anthropological explanation in particular, makes a stronger case than does any theistic explanation.  Fales goes on to say that

Lewis’ theory goes much further: it illuminates connections between social conventions and Christian mystical claims, between social context and these claims, and between all of these and the behaviour of mystics.  How well does a theistic explanation fare on that score? Theists can certainly claim to provide an understanding of the connections between ecstasy and subsequent behaviour (as well as inner transformation). But theism does not, so far as I can see, have the resources to supply similarly powerful insights into the empirically discovered correlations between ecstasy and social context and convention.  If that is correct, then Lewis’ theory has an advantage in terms of fertility and power.[43]

For Fales, the best explanation for mystical religious experiences and accounts is simply not theism, but a kind of anthropological naturalism. 

                To close the paper, Fales addresses a final possible criticism which argues that on Lewis’ model, we would expect to see that most mystics are visible minorities, female, low-income, or some combination of those things, but that this is not the case.  Data collected in the United States and Britain show that most mystics are likely to be male, over the age of forty, college educated and somewhat financially stable.[44]  If this is the case, then it would seem that as white, educated, financially stable men, none of these mystics would be part of a marginalized group, and hence be counter-examples to Lewis’ theory.  Fales’ response to this criticism is that in the study where these data were collected, the subjects were merely asked whether or not they had ever had certain kinds of experiences,[45] but not when they had experienced them.  Because the question of when the subject had a theistic mystical experience was not asked in the study, Fales argues that Lewis’ theory is left unharmed due to the possibility that the subject could have been in completely different circumstances when the experience occurred.  That is to say, while it may be the case that the subject is presently educated, financially secure, and the like, this may not have been the case when he experienced the alleged theistic mystical experience.  It could very well have been the case that, at the time of the experience, his socio-economic status was in a far lower position than it is currently.[46]


3.2. On a Sociological Challenge to the Veridicality of Religious Experience

In his 1998 article “On a Sociological Challenge to the Veridicality of Religious Experience”, Jerome Gellman offers a reply to Fales’ two-part article from several years earlier.[47] Gellman is quick to point out Fales’ concession that his example of Teresa of Avila does not provide sufficient evidence to establish “his sociological reductionist thesis for theistic mystics in general”, but she can work to provide sufficient evidence for a sociological naturalistic account of many theistic mystics.[48]  With that concession in mind, Gellman’s strategy is to discuss the cases of four other theistic mystics, and to demonstrate how he believes they do not fit into Lewis’ theory, thus showing that a sociological naturalistic explanation cannot adequately account for all theistic mystical experiences. 

                While I will not go into detail here about the accounts of the particular mystics discussed by Gellman, the cases of Jacob Boehme, Abraham the son of Maimonides, Israel Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook are presented as counter-examples to Lewis’ theory.  In each of these cases, Gellman argues that the mystic did not gain substantial (or any) socio-political power in any personal sense through his mystical experiences, and as such, serve as examples of theistic mystics that do not fit within Lewis’ sociological naturalistic framework of using theistic mystical experiences solely as a means for the socio-political betterment of some marginalized group or individual.  Furthermore, Gellman goes on to argue that, even if it were the case that these theistic mystics gained greater social status or power due to their experiences, Fales would still have to show that this was the motivation for producing the mystical experiences in order for Lewis’ theory to hold:

In order to show that a given mystic fits Fales’ theory it is not sufficient to have shown there was a causal connection between her having been a mystic and her having gained fame or power.  It must also be shown that she was motivated by a quest for power.  This would be shown either by explicit evidence to that effect or via a well-founded theory concerning human psychology.  Otherwise, there may be other, equally plausible explanations, for the causal connection.[49]

So for Gellman, while Fales’ argument and Lewis’ theory may bring to light an interesting connection between social status and theistic mystical experiences, they fail to demonstrate that there is a direct causal connection leading from one to the other.  Without such an established connection, Gellman thinks that there could be any number of other explanations that could comparably explain the phenomena. One further thing that must be demonstrated by Fales, according to Gellman, is that he must provide us with “good reason for thinking [Teresa of Avila] sought power for her own self-aggrandizement or for the marginal group she identified with, and not for the greater glory of God.  Otherwise, the mystic does not fit Fales’ theory.”[50]  If it only turns out to be the case that she was trying to spread the word of God, without seeking some sort of personal gain, then it is not the case that she fits into Lewis’ theory, in that her motivation was not to achieve any socio-political benefit.

                Gellman moves on to question whether or not Lewis’ theory, while it may hold for general spirit possession in small-scale tribes, can be suitably applied to mystical theistic experiences in large societies.[51]  Firstly, Gellman argues that in some societies, specifically those in which Christian mystics have operated, do not often have avenues that would allow a person to gain any sort of greater social status by way of theistic mystical experiences.  In these kinds of societies it would simply be the case that if a person were to have a theistic mystical experience and subsequently come to enjoy some sort of greater social status, then he would have gained that greater social status by his own doing, and not as the result of any religious experiences.[52]

                Secondly, Gellman argues that it is “common knowledge that many people who do not fall into the category of ‘great’ or ‘important’ mystics have theistic mystical experiences”.[53]  Because of this, even if it is the case that Fales and his theory are correct about the prominent historical mystic figures who have managed to achieve some level of power and prestige, the theory fails to pose a real problem for the evidential value of the experiences of ‘average’ mystics who have seemingly gained nothing of that sort from their experiences.[54]  Gellman anticipates a potential response by Fales, in which he would argue that the ability to be subject to ecstatic experiences is simply a natural human capacity, so it should not be seen as surprising that we happen to see a small number of ecstatic experiences similar to those seen in theistic mystical experiences.[55]  It seems that perhaps these ecstatic experiences could be very similar to, and mistaken for, the kinds of sensations often associated with theistic mystical experiences.  Gellman’s response to this anticipated objection, however, is that we do not need some sort of scientific study to show that there are many cases of individuals having theistic mystical experiences, who are not classified as “great mystics”, for that is common knowledge.[56]  Gellman goes on to say that “…we do not have common knowledge of the extent of the phenomenon as opposed to the ‘great mystics’, but that is a problem Fales should address, not a theistic defender.”[57]

                Finally, Gellman suggests that a key difference between ‘ordinary’ mystics and ‘great’ mystics is that the latter are intent on spreading the news of their experience, and are able to make a profound difference within and amongst certain groups.  In contrast, the ‘ordinary’ mystics are simply disinterested or lack the ability to communicate their experiences in ways comparable to those of which the ‘great’ mystics have.  If this is the case, argues Gellman, then an alternative hypothesis arises: “it is not that people become theistic mystics as a means of gaining power, rather there are theistic mystics who are blessed with an abundant desire for power and fame and with the talent to make the try rational.”[58]

                Gellman thinks that Fales is mistaken in his assumption that the burden of proof falls to the mystic to prove the veridicality of his experience.  Fales has argued for the conclusion that there is no prima facie case for the veridicality of theistic mystical experiences, and as such, the onus is on the theist to provide sufficient evidence for his case.  Gellman, however, does not think that Fales’ argument is as strong as it should be, and argues that it does not provide sufficient reasons for denying the prima facie case for the veridicality of mystical theistic experiences.[59] 

Gellman goes on to dismiss two problems raised by Fales: (1) that mystical experiences are widely divergent, and (2) that there are multiple ways of cross-checking normal sense perception but the same cannot be said for cross-checking religious claims, and that without the availability of these cross-checks we cannot conclude that the theistic experience was causally connected in the right sort of way to God.[60]

                In the first case, Gellman simply states that he has addressed Fales’ worry about the divergence of various mystical experiences at length elsewhere and that he will not address it again in this article.[61]  In the second case, Gellman provides two responses to Fales’ cross-checking and causal connection worry.  Firstly, Gellman states that, according to the ‘appearance theory of perception’, it is always conceptually possible for an object to appear to a subject in some way other than the specified “right causal way.”[62]  Because of that, no matter what kind of correct causal role is defined for being adequate to justify the claim that God directly caused a theistic mystical experience, it is still possible for God to cause a mystical theistic experience in some other way.  Secondly, argues Gellman, even if we remove all talk of the “appearance theory of perception”, a subject’s perceiving of an object implies the object’s being in the right kind of causal relationship with the subject, and that any evidence that the subject really perceived the object is also evidence that the object was in the right kind of causal relationship to the subject.  Because of this, we need not search for external and independent evidence telling us just what the causal connection between the subject and object: is it is sufficient only to know that there is a causal connection.  If it is the case that Gellman’s counter-arguments hold up, he goes on to say, then we will still have “a prima facie case for the evidential value of theistic experiences, and the burden of proof falls on Fales to show otherwise.”[63]


3.3. Can Science Explain Mysticism?

In 1999 Fales responds to Gellman, with the final response paper in this debate.[64]  He uses this paper to address the counter-examples to Lewis’ theory that were discussed by Gellman, and attempt to illustrate how they are not as strong as Gellman would have hoped.

                Firstly, Fales addresses the case of Jakob Boehme – a Christian mystic cited by Gellman as having very little desire to write or speak about his mystical theistic experiences.  Fales simply says that there is not enough known about the life of Boehme to serve as a sufficient counter-example to Lewis’ theory.  He does note, however, that despite the fact that Boehme did not publish his first writings for quite some time, he displayed no reservations to print his works upon their completion.[65]  Secondly, moving on to address Baal Shem Tov, Fales points out that while Gellman disputes the claim that Tov was a peripheral mystic, this still leaves open the possibility of him being a central mystic, in which case the Lewisian theory would still apply.  Fales also notes that the fact that Tov did not found a particular theistic movement does not entail that he would not still qualify for Lewis’ theory, and that Lewis’ theory makes no mention anywhere of a common characteristic of subjects to which the theory applies.[66]  Finally, regarding Issac Kook and Abraham, Fales says that there is simply not enough of the required historical information regarding the lives of these two individuals to make an adequate judgement about whether or not they fit the Lewisian theory, so they are certainly not sufficient to constitute counter-examples to the theory.

                Fales then moves on to address Gellman’s claim that Lewis’ theory cannot account for the large numbers of “ordinary” mystics who have not gone on to publicize their experiences or gain any sort of improved social status or power.  Fales claims that recent neuro-physiological research suggests that these mystical experiences could be initiated by non-severe micro-seizures in the temporal lobes of the brain.[67]  He goes on to say that significant proportion of the general public is susceptible to these seizures, and that because of the area of the brain in which they occur, it is not surprising that these minor seizures can be interpreted and experienced in ways that are in line with the subject’s belief systems.[68]  So, for Gellman, the mystical experiences of these “ordinary” folk that do not seem to be covered by Lewis’ theory are simply the result of “a variety of stimuli, which may operate perhaps in each case by provoking micro-seizures in the temporal lobes.”[69]  That is to say, if there is a case in which the sociological explanation does not account for the perceived experience, then it seems that there is a physiological account that will, but that it will not be the case that a theistic account can be “tacked on” to either of these, which is essentially the same claim that was argued for in the earlier paper as discussed above.


  1. 4.       Critical Analysis of Fales-Gellman Debate

It does not seem to me that Fales has sufficiently established that the burden of proof rest on the mystic to prove the veridicality of his experiences.  While Fales does present Lewis’ theory as an interesting explanation that may account for some instances of mysticism, he has not provided enough evidence to support his suggestion that all, or even most, theistic mystical experiences are simply a route by which the mystic is attempting to gain greater social status.[70]  There are several flaws in Fales’ arguments, which will be discussed in the following sections.  First, Fales needs to establish that a desire to improve the status of either oneself or one’s marginalized group was the motivating factor for reporting the alleged theistic mystical experience, which he has failed to do.  Second, Fales presents a “catch-all” argument for anybody who reports having had a theistic mystical experience, yet does not fit into Lewis’ theory, which seems not to fit with the rest of his argument.  He argues that these individuals may have been subject to a series of micro-seizures in the brain, causing them to have mystical experiences.  Finally, I discuss Fales as a T-reductionist, and make the argument that people ought, generally, to be justified in accepting their perceptions as veridical. 


       4.1   Proof of Sociological Status-Gain as the Motivating Factor           

The biggest hurdle that Fales has failed to overcome is responding to the criticism presented by Gellman, that for Fales’ application of Lewis’ theory to succeed, he would have to show not only that the mystic stood to improve the status of himself, his cause, or his marginalized group, but that this is also what motivated the mystic to allegedly have one or more mystic experiences.  And if it is the case that a particular mystic had one or more theistic mystical experiences, then Fales would have to prove that the desire to gain greater social status was the motivation for, minimally, a substantial number of his mystical experiences in order for his theory to hold.[71]  Since this is clearly not something that is possible to prove, in that there is no way to go back through history and determine precisely what motivations were at work for each mystic prior to each of his mystical experiences, Fales seems only to be able to employ Lewis’ quasi-scientific theory as an inference to the best explanation.  Without being able to prove that Lewis’ theory was or is at play in a number of theistic mystical experiences, while it may be a rival to the theistic explanation, it cannot be established the best possible explanation.  Even with regard to Teresa of Avila, who is presented by Fales as his paradigm case of a key mystic who fits into the framework of Lewis’ theory, Fales has only shown that it was possible that she could have been motivated by a desire for greater social status, for either herself or the marginalized groups of which she was a part of, but Fales has not shown that it was the case that these were her motivations.  It seems to me that in cases where an individual’s testimony (let alone the testimony of a very large number of mystics ranging across history) is being questioned, we ought to accept that testimony as true in the absence of any special circumstances that would lead us to think otherwise.[72]  In cases such as this, the burden of proof is on the individual questioning the veridicality of the testimony to identify the special circumstances that would cause us to deem the testimony false, since it is generally the case that we accept that things are the way they seem to be, and for the subjects of theistic mystical experiences, it seems to them that they are having a theistic mystical experience.  Fales needs to establish why it is not the case that we can reasonably accept our perception as accurate, as we are generally justified in doing in most other cases of perception, in cases of theistic mystical experiences.  It is simply not enough to suppose that it could have been the case that one or more of these special circumstances were at play and that we ought not to accept testimony, it must be shown, if not conclusively then at least that it is likely, that these special circumstances were responsible for the misinterpreted experience and subsequent testimony of it before we can deem it invalid.[73] 

I do not think that this is a monumental request, in that it seems to be how we operate in our daily lives.  While I do fully appreciate the duty that we all generally have to at least try to seek out the truth, to place everything that is told to us under the level of scrutiny that Fales thinks we ought to place testimony regarding theistic mystical experiences, would simply be implausible, irrational, and in many cases, pointless.  I would argue that, while it may be the case that testimony regarding mystical theistic experiences should be met with a slightly higher level of skepticism than testimony regarding, say, what time the Clippers game starts (if for no other reason than because we are dealing with a super or sub-sensory experience of which the one receiving the testimony has no first person access to), we are in no position to reasonably reject the testimony purely based on the possibility that it could have been the result of some causal force other than the supernatural.  It would seem that, if we genuinely do not know the cause of someone else’s internal experience or feeling, then to invoke any sociological naturalistic explanation as superior to that of a theistic explanation is groundless in the absence of any evidence pointing towards that particular sociological naturalistic explanation.  Barring any evidence pointing towards a naturalistic explanation, it would seem that the only evidence we have regarding the experience and its cause (the testimony of the subject) is being disregarded in favor of a speculative sociological analysis which Fales seems to think is stronger evidence than the self-reporting mystic.


4.2 Micro-Seizures

In his response to Gellman’s questioning whether the Lewisian hypothesis would apply to the ordinary people who have claimed to have experienced mystical theism and have neither gone on to publicize or to gain any improvement in social status from it, Fales suggests that these people are perhaps the victims of a series of micro-seizures in the frontal lobe of the brain, which triggers the illusion of mystical experiences that are often in line with the pre-existing belief systems of the individual.  This explanation of mystical religious experiences suffers from the same problem as does Fales’ account of what causes such experiences in the “great” mystics, as opposed to the ordinary ones.  While there may be some marginal level of evidence suggesting that it is the case that individuals today suffer micro-seizures that lead them to believe that they have had mystical experiences,[74] he is not justified in either retrodicting that every mystic throughout history (save for those who fit into the Lewisian hypothesis) suffered from this malfunction, or in inferring that this is the best possible explanation for modern-day cases of theistic mystical experiences.  Even if it were the case that this micro-seizure theory were the best explanation for modern-day cases of theistic mystical experiences, it still does not preclude the realm of theistic causation, nor can it establish beyond a reasonable doubt that past cases were the result of these same micro-seizures. 

It now seems as if Fales is trying to work from present to past, taking modern-day scientific research and retrodict instances of the past, while the bulk of his argumentative strategy up to this point seemed to be the opposite: taking instances of the past that seemed to fit into Lewis’ naturalistic sociological account and demonstrate that similar future events must also be explained by such a theory.  It seems that Fales is trying to have it both ways.  The main argument put forth by Fales against Gellman’s presentation of what he believes to be counter-examples to Lewis’ hypothesis is that we simply do not have enough historical information to make justified claims about whether or not these individuals actually serve as adequate counter-examples.  This objection cuts both ways, and if Fales thinks that it cuts Gellman’s objection, then it cuts his as well.  We simply do not have the kind of information that is necessary in order to reasonably suspect that all “ordinary” mystics over time have been subject to suffering micro-seizures that cause them to have mystical-like experiences.

 This argument is simply Fales trying to shift the burden of proof onto the theist, which once again seems to be misguided, in large part because the subject of the mystical experience ought to be justified in believing his perception is veridical since they have generally turned out to provide him with veridical accounts of the external world for everything else in his life.  Surely there are cases of alleged theistic mystical experiences that turn out to be explained by some naturalistic causal mechanisms, but this should not discount the value of testimony of first-person theistic mystical experiences to a status that is significantly lower than the status of testimony regarding any other kind of sensory experience, and it cannot take the counter-examples presented by Gellman and turn them into paradigm cases for exemplifying Lewis’ theory.  With regard to this particular objection by Fales, it simply seems as if it is a last-ditch effort to throw in some other way of accounting for mystics who do not seem to fit into Lewis’ account.  So, if it is not the case that these experiences can be explained by the sociological naturalistic theory, then they can be explained by a radically different kind of theory claiming that they have suffered some sort of neural trauma.


4.3 Fales as a T-reductionist

I now turn to Gellman’s claim that Fales is a truth-reductionist.[75]  Recall that T-reductionism, on Gellman’s account, maintains that “…most God-perceptions were illusory and those that might be authentic, for all we know, just were not numerous enough to provide the cohering evidential support required by the Argument from Perception.[76]  If it is the case that Fales is a T-reductionist, as it certainly seems, then he would only be justified in claiming that we are not justified in accepting any third-person information regarding the veridicality of theistic mystical experiences.  T-reductionism does not preclude the possibility of a person who experiences, first-hand, a theistic mystical experience from taking that to be sufficient evidence for the veridicality of that particular experience.  It does not seem to be the case that, if an individual were to be the subject of what he believed to be a theistic mystical experience, he would be concerned with whether or not there are a sufficient number of other similar experiences that have also been verified in such a way as to provide the entire family of mystical theistic phenomena with justification by way of the Argument from Perception.  That is not to say that, in the event that a person has what they believe to be a theistic mystical experience, and then at some later date come across the arguments of Fales and Lewis, they cannot be justified in accepting a sociological or other naturalistic explanation of their experience.  It is only to say that they can be justified in believing that they experienced a genuine theistic mystical experience if that is the belief that they have come to hold. 

Let us imagine a case in which Jones, a young man, tastes an orange for the first time.  There is nothing particularly exciting or extraordinary about this orange, it simply tastes, feels, smells like, and in fact is, a standard orange that we would find in any supermarket.  So, the taste that Jones experiences is the exact same orange taste that you or I would experience were we to eat an orange as well.  Let us also imagine that, for unbeknownst reasons, a significant percentage of people, both in the past and presently, who have tasted oranges and have claimed to have had similar taste-experiences to that of the one Jones is currently enjoying, have turned out to be false cases of orange-taste sensation, and that the orange-taste experiences were merely the result of some neural transmitter malfunction in the brain.  The remaining number of people who have had orange-tasting experiences that have not been proved as being false orange-taste experiences, simply do not know whether their experiences reflect a neural malfunction or a true taste-experience, but they genuinely believe that they did in fact have a true taste-experience of the orange.  Let us also suppose that Jones knows nothing about these faulty, potentially faulty, or genuinely-believed orange-tasting incidents. 

Since Jones knows nothing about these previous cases, he is completely justified in taking his taste-experience to be veridical.  Of course, some would argue that Jones would have some sort of duty to seek out that kind of relevant information, which is a possibility that I will consider shortly.  The simple fact is that Jones does not know of these other instances of faulty taste-perception, and as such, has no concrete reasons that are strong enough to lead him to believe, or perhaps even consider, that his taste-experience is non-veridical.  Likewise, with regard to determining whether or not we ought to take Jones’ taste experience as veridical, it does not seem to me that we are justified in rejecting Jones’ experience as non-veridical, however, given that we are aware of the large number of faulty taste-experiences, we are justified in either withholding judgement or of meeting his testimony with some skepticism.[77]  Rejecting it completely, or deeming it to be prima facie non-veridical, would be to completely disregard the evidential value of Jones’ sensory perception (which we can also imagine has been generally accurate throughout his life).  It would simply be wrong to disregard the findings of Jones’ usually accurate sensory perceptions simply because a variety of other people have been faulty in their sense-perceptions.      

We can alter the example slightly to accommodate those who think that Jones has a duty to seek out relevant knowledge regarding similar taste-experiences, without it affecting the conclusion that Jones is still justified in accepting his experience as veridical.  In this case, we can imagine that Jones possesses all of the relevant knowledge related to each and every preceding case of orange-taste perceptions.  He knows all that there is to know about the cases in which people thought they were genuinely experiencing orange flavor but were mistaken, and he knows as much as can be known about the cases in which people genuinely believed that they were experiencing orange flavor but it is unclear whether they actually were or not.  It seems that despite that fact that Jones possesses of all of this knowledge, he can still be justified in accepting his individual experience as veridical.  Given his background knowledge of the other instances of orange-tasting, and his background knowledge of his sense-perceptions typically tending to be accurate, then he is justified in believing his sense-experience to be veridical based on the fact that he has an incredibly vast number of sense perceptions that he has already confirmed to be veridical.  The fact that other people have been mistaken in their sense perceptions, no matter how closely related these cases are to his own, should play no role (or at most a minimal role) in determining whether he deems his own sense perceptions to be veridical or not, since the weight of all of his reliable past sense perceptions far outweighs the fact that some people have been mistaken in similar situations.  That is to say, the fact that many other people have been mistaken in the past with regard to their perceptions is irrelevant to Jones and his perceptions in this particular case, and that Jones is, in the absence of disconfirming evidence, justified in believing his orange-tasting experience to be veridical. 

Of course, the example just given is regarding normal sense-experiences, which differ from the generally non-sensory theistic mystical experiences that is at issue here.  The parallel that I aim to highlight, however, is that in each case, the subject is presented with some sort of feeling, sense, awareness, or whatever you want to call it, whether it is mediated by the senses or not.  In the case of Jones, he is presented with the taste of the orange, and in the case of theistic mystic, he is presented with the experience of some deity or mystical being.  Whether or not there have been a series of other similar instances over time that have turned out to instances in which these experiences were non-veridical, the present subject is still justified, if not required, to accept his own perception and interpretation as being veridical, lacking any sort of disconfirming evidence.  To be clear, this is not to say that the experience itself was or is veridical, nor is it to say that we ought to believe that it is veridical, it is simply to say that, given the long-standing history of correct perceptual interpretations that would have to be made by any individual to successfully make it through life for any significant period of time, he ought to believe that his perceptions are again, in this case, accurate.

To the example just presented, Fales could possibly reply with an example of his own.  Suppose Jones is an avid map-enthusiast, and has always had an unusually good talent for reading maps.  Jones has, for as long as he and anyone else can remember, had such a skill, and has been correct in an overwhelming amount of occasions in which he had to make any sort of map-based decisions.  Suppose further that one day, on a hiking trip with his map in hand, Jones finds himself at the border of Land of Map-Reading Mistakes.  It is widely known to everybody, including Jones, that most or all people who travel through the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes often or always make mistakes in reading their maps and end up getting lost.  Fales would most likely argue in this case that the previous map-reading errors of others who have travelled through this area should make Jones, at the very least, wary of his map reading skills while he is in this area.  This is because things simply seem to be different in the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes, just as they are with theistic mystical experiences.  They are simply different kinds of experiences than other everyday sensory experiences, and as such, we should be wary of our perceptions and accounts of them in just the same way that Jones should be wary of accepting his map-reading skills when in the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes.  

This analogy fails for several reasons.  First, in his naturalistic sociological account of theistic mystical experiences, Fales is not simply proposing that the subjects got (or reported) their perceptions wrong, but he also provides the reason for why they got it wrong.  This is not the case in the present example, which does not aim to report why they got it wrong.  The analogy presented provides a far weaker conclusion than does Fales: that the perceiver was simply wrong, rather than the perceiver was wrong because of such and such.  Were Fales to only make the claim that theistic mystical experiences are non-veridical rather than go on to provide an explanatory account of why they are non-veridical, then it seems that the analogy presented would be able to be more easily applied to instances of theistic mystical experience, but this is simply not the case.  So on this front, either the analogy would have to make stronger claims as to why the maps were read incorrectly or the conclusion of Fales’ argument would have to be weakened by eliminating the explanatory aspect of it, to create parity between the two. 

Second, in the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes, it is clear that people have been mistaken in their interpretations of maps, but the same cannot be said for cases of theistic mystical theism.  What Fales tries to do through his naturalistic account is demonstrate that all or most theistic mystical experiences have been non-veridical, but the analogy presented takes for granted one of the very things that it should be trying to prove, that the map readers in fact did make mistakes in their perceptions or interpretations.  Because the analogy is operating on the fact that there were mistakes made rather than the reason why the mistakes were made, we cannot look closely enough at Jones and his situation to see if any of the special circumstances that rendered previous map readers’ perceptions faulty are at play in Jones’ situation. 

Thirdly, we have a series of cross-checking processes available to us to check for the veridicality of map-reading perceptions and interpretations, while the same cannot be said for mystical experiences that are, by their nature, essentially first-person.  Because of this lack of cross-checking procedures, it seems that we cannot prove that they are non-veridical conclusively, or even probably.  We are only able to rely on either our first-hand experience, or third-person testimony regarding them, and that is it.  For these three reasons, it does not seem that the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes is an apt analogy for cases of theistic mystical experiences, and that anything concluded from the analogy cannot reasonably be directly applied to theistic mystical experiences.

On another note, if it is the case that we are to accept that Jones is not justified in accepting his map perceptions and interpretations while in the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes, then it is unclear on what else he should be relying.  From a practical standpoint, if Jones is lost in this area, he cannot simply sit and do nothing:  he ought to at least attempt to find his way out and get back to some kind of land where map-reading is once again normal.  In order to do anything, however, it would seem that Jones would have no other choice than to trust his usual map-reading and interpreting faculties despite the evidence that they may not be working correctly, simply for the fact that he has no better option.  There is no simple regularized formula (let us assume) in the Land of Map-Reading Mistakes such that every time the map says Jones should go North he really should go South, or when the map says Jones should go East he really should go West, and vice-versa.  Clearly, if there were a regularized pattern of deception such as this, then Jones could, in theory, decipher it and make his way home, but this is not the case.  Since Jones would be utterly clueless as to whether or not his faculties are functioning properly, or of how they are malfunctioning if they in fact are, it seems that the only reasonable option for Jones is to trust his generally reliable map-reading skills and carry on as he normally would.


5.0 Conclusion

The debate between Gellman and Fales is fundamentally about where the burden of proof rests: on the theist to prove that his mystical experiences are veridical, or on the atheist to prove that the experiences can be explained naturalistically.  The claim that Fales has aimed to advance, that the burden of proof in on the theist to provide evidence for veridicality of his claim, has not been sufficiently established. 

                Through Fales’ discussion of Lewis’ sociological naturalistic account of mystical theistic mysticism, it seems that all he has been able to do is establish an alternative theory to theistic mysticism, but not a defeater for it.  There are, no doubt, many cases throughout history that can and have been explained by Lewis’ theory, but to say that all cases of theistic mysticism can be explained by this theory is a bit of a stretch, and a claim that Fales fails to establish.  There is simply no way to know precisely what motivations were at play for each person who claimed to have been the subject of some mystical theistic experience, so to make a claim that we ought to reject their testimony regarding such experiences does not seem reasonable.  Similarly, to argue that the subject of the experience ought to disbelieve his own senses and interpretation of an essentially first-person intimate phenomenon without having clearly established any disconfirming evidence is simply misguided as well.  It seems that in the case of theistic mystic experiences, as well as in the case of any other first-person experiences, the burden of proof rests on the individual claiming that the experience is non-veridical: he ought to clearly demonstrate that there is a sufficient level of disconfirming evidence.  To merely suggest that there could have been an alternative explanation for a particular phenomenon is not enough to claim that that alternative is the one that was at play in most or all other similar circumstance.















Works Cited

Alston, William, “Mysticism and Perceptual Awareness of God” in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy

                of Religion, edited by William Mann, 506-521. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Cohen, J.M.  The Life of Saint Teresa. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957.

Fales, Evan. “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experience, Part 1: The Case of St. Teresa.” Religious

                Studies 32, no. 2 (June 1996): 143-163.

— “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences.”  Religious Studies 32, no.2 (June 1996): 296-313.

— “Can Science Explain Mysticism?” Religious Studies 35 (1999): 213-227.

Gellman, Jerome. “On a Sociological Challenge to the Veridicality of Religious Experience.” Religious

                Studies 34, no. 3 (September 1998): 235-251.

Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry. England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2001.

— “Mysticism and Religious Experience”, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, edited by

                William Wainwright, 138-163.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

— “Mysticism.”  Last modified February 9, 2010. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/ 

Kwan, Kai-Man.  “Can Religious Experience Provide Justification for the Belief in God? The Debate in

                Contemporary Analytic Philosophy.” Philosophy Compass 1/6, (2006): 640-661.

Lewis, I.M.  Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, 2nd ed. London: Routledge,


Swinburne, Richard, “The Argument from Religious Experience”, Chapter 13 in The Existence of God,

                Second Edition, 292-327.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.




[1] I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1989).  This is a view first proposed by I.M. Lewis in Ecstatic Religion, and has been applied by Fales to cases of theistic mystical experiences.

[2] Hereafter, for explanatory simplicity, I will omit subsequent references to ‘other supernatural entities.

[3] Of course, S might fail to be justified in believing that p is causally responsible for S’s experience of p. This could happen in several ways.  S could have ingested hallucinogenic drugs, the environment may not be such that it provides optimal conditions for the proper functioning of his senses, and other similar circumstances.

[4] William Alston, “Mysticism and Perceptual Awareness of God,” in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, edited by William Mann (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 506-521.  This essay is a condensed version of his 1991 book Perceiving God.

[5] Richard Swinburne, “The Arguments from Religious Experience,” Chapter 13 in The Existence of God, Second Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), 303.

[6] Jerome Gellman, “Mysticism and Religious Experience,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, edited by William Wainwright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 149.

[7] Kai-Man Kwan, “Can Religious Experience Provide Justification for Belief in God? The Debate in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy,” Philosophy Compass 1/6 (2006): 640-661.  For more information and arguments on arguments from religious experience see Kwan 2006, or Gellman’s entry “Mysticism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[8] Alston, 501.

[9] A good example to think about the difference between “direct” and “non-direct” in this context is to think about seeing someone on television versus seeing them in person.  Seeing them on television would be seeing them non-directly, whereas seeing them in person would be seeing them directly.

[10] Alston, 503.

[11] Alston, 502.

[12] Michael Martin, “The Argument from Religious Experience”, Chapter 6 of Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 154-187.

[13] David Hume, “Of Miracles”, Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  This is an argument particularly against miracles, which Hume takes to be violations of laws of nature, but if theistic mystical experiences involve some sort of violation of laws of nature, then Hume would take himself to have a good argument against the veridicality of these experiences. 

[14] Jerome Gellman, Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2001), 56.

[15] Gellman (2001), 56.

[16] Gellman (2001), 56.

[17] Gellman (2001), 57.

[18] Gellman (2001), 57.

[19] Gellman (2001), 57.

[20] Jerome Gellman, “On a Sociological Challenge to the Veridicality of Religious Experience,” Religious Studies 34, no. 3 (1998): 235.

[21] From this it would seem that Fales is actually one of the more ambitious T-reductionists rather than a modest T-reductionist as deemed by Gellman.  It would seem that since Gellman thinks that his arguments will strike down even the modest T-reductionists, he is simply extending some charity to Fales and his view.

[22] Evan Fales, “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experience, Part 1: The case of St. Teresa,” Religious Studies 32, no. 2 (1996): 147.

[23] Fales (1996), 145.

[24] Fales (1996), 145.

[25] Fales (1996). 145.

[26] Fales, (1996). 149. Of course, the theory, as presented by Lewis, is far more detailed and complex than was presented by Fales in his paper, in that he goes on to differentiate between the various kinds of cultures that there are the kinds of mysticism that is prevalent within these kinds of cultures.  For the purposes of this essay, I think it is sufficient only to note that the core hypothesis is that mysticism is used as a means for improving, or potentially improving, one’s position in a given society.

[27] Fales, (1996), 149.

[28] Fales (1996), 149.

[29] Fales (1996), 153. Women at this time in Spain were excluded from church hierarchy and political office.

[30] Fales (1996), 153.

[31] Conversos are people of Jewish or Muslim descent, particularly in 14th and 15th century Spain and Portugal, who converted to Catholicism.  The conversions were often as a result of government pressure.

[32] Fales (1996), 154.

[33] Fales (1996), 154.  He does not go through each experience one by one, nor does he even appeal to any experiences in particular, but simply states that this is the case.

[34] J.M. Cohen, The Life of St. Teresa (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957), 67-68.

[35] Fales (1996), 158.

[36] Evan Fales, “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences,” Religious Studies 32, no. 2 (1996): 300.

[37] Fales (1996b), 304.

[38] Fales (1996b), 305.

[39] Fales (1996b), 305.

[40] Fales (1996b), 305.

[41] Fales (1996b), 305.

[42] Fales (1996b), 305.

[43] Fales (1996b), 306.

[44] Fales (1996b), 309.

[45] Presumably among these experiences is one which describes a theistic mystical experience.

[46] Fales (1996b), 310.

[47] A similar discussion is undertaken in chapter 5 of his 2001 book.

[48] Gellman (1998), 237.

[49] Gellman (1998), 244.

[50] Gellman (1998), 245.

[51] Gellman (1998), 245.

[52] Gellman (1998), 245.

[53] Gellman (1998), 246.

[54] Gellman (1998), 246.

[55] Gellman (1998), 246.

[56] Gellman (1998), 245.

[57] Gellman (1998), 246.

[58] Gellman (1998), 247.

[59] Gellman (1998), 248.

[60] Gellman (1998), 248.

[61] This discussion takes place in ch. 4 of Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry.  Gellman argues that while many instances of theistic perceptions seem to be divergent on the surface, there is still the possibility of an underlying common thread that runs through all of them.

[62] Gellman (1998), 249.

[63] Gellman (1998), 250.

[64] There is a final paper written by Fales in 2001, but it is a book review and does not introduce any new ideas to his case.

[65] Evan Fales , “Can Science Explain Mysticism?,” Religious Studies 32 (1999): 218.

[66] Fales (1999), 219.  Aside from the criteria already set out in the hypothesis, such as marginalization, the desire to advance socio-politically, etc.

[67] Fales (1999), 222.

[68] Fales (1999), 223.

[69] Fales (1999), 223.

[70] Save for the cases in which the experience is created by a micro-seizure rather than a desire to gain power.

[71] Establishing what the acceptable minimum number or ratio would be is not something that I propose be done here, but it is sufficient to say that the number of mystical theistic experiences that happen to fall into Lewis’ theory would have to be more than just one or two to undermine the entire body of mystical theistic experiences with regard to a single subject.

[72] “Special circumstances” could be said to include things such as the individual providing the testimony is a pathological liar, they were under the influence of some hallucinogens at the time in question, or something.

[73] While I have been discussing testimony, the same holds for an individual’s first-hand experiences.  That is, a person is justified in believing his first-person experiences in the absence of special circumstances that would cause his to doubt them.  An example of this could be a man seeing what he believes to be a family of snakes on the floor in front of him, but he also knows that he has just taken LSD.  Knowing that he has just taken drugs gives him a defeater for his snake-belief.

[74] A claim that Fales has not sufficiently established, and mentions only very briefly.

[75] Gellman (1998), 236.

[76] Gellman (2001), 57.

[77] I use the term “faulty” here simply to denote that the experiences in which the orange did not play a direct causal role in the taste-sensation that was felt by the subjects.

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Black Solidarity

A paper that I wrote for a graduate conference in 2012.  It was written hastily and only for presentation, but I like some of the ideas in it.  This is a paper and research topic that I hope to revisit one day in the future.


The Possibility of Black Solidarity In Today’s Society

In his book “We Who Are Dark”, Tommie Shelby discusses (among other things) the nature of black solidarity as a pressing issue for members of the black community.  Discussing various approaches to, and goals for, achieving such a racial solidarity, Shelby opts to ascribe to an ideal of black solidarity in its broadest sense.  Essentially, the type of black solidarity with which Shelby identifies is one based on the shared history of, or potential for, racial discrimination and oppression.  I believe this definition of black solidarity too broad to be plausibly considered black solidarity.  While this type of solidarity will no doubt include most, if not all, members of the black community, it will also include a large number of members of other visible minority groups.  A notion of black solidarity that is based only on the shared history of racial discrimination and oppression is one that is far too inclusive to be labelled strictly as black solidarity, and instead would have to be called something such as minority solidarity, for there is nothing inherent in Shelby’s account of black solidarity that makes it exclusively applicable to blacks. 

While it may have been true, at some point in history, that the vast majority of blacks in America could be seen as a large cohesive group (in that many were brought to America under the same circumstances and grew up under very similar conditions), the same cannot be said for the black community today.  Over the past several hundred years, blacks in America have come to expand from the once “common” ground.  Some have gone on to enjoy economic success while others have fallen (or remained) in poverty, some have endorsed a conservative political stance while others endorse liberal politics while others still abstain from politics altogether, some feel reparations and affirmative action are required and justified in today’s society while others stand up against them and see them both only as government-sanctioned handouts or charity.  None of these issues have even touched the bigger picture of whether or not black solidarity is even something that is desirable, attainable or worthwhile.  There is no doubt debate surrounding these questions.  Even for those who agree that black solidarity is desirable, attainable and worthwhile, there is potential debate about what kind of black solidarity ought to be pursued, as Tommie Shelby notes two competing views of black solidarity:

…according to classical nationalism, black solidarity and voluntary separation under conditions of equality and self-determination is a worthwhile end in itself.  On this account, blacks should unite and work together because they are a people with their own distinctive ethnoracial identity; and as a cohesive national group, blacks have interests that are best pursued by their seeking group autonomy within some relatively independent institutional framework.  However, according to pragmatic nationalism, blacks should unite and work together because they suffer a common oppression; and given the current political climate that can make progress in overcoming or ameliorating their shared condition only if they embrace black solidarity.  Here, black unity is merely a contingent strategy for creating greater freedom and equality for blacks. (Shelby 202)

This simply goes to show that even for those members of the black community who agree that there ought to be some sort of racial solidarity within the group, deciding on what specific type of solidarity ought to be endorsed, what the particular goals of that solidarity ought to be, and what the best way of going about achieving those goals is, is not as simple as one may think.  This problem is noted by Shelby in saying that…

The ideals of racial equality, antipoverty, and tolerance are open to a variety of interpretations, and reasonable people can disagree over the appropriate strategies for overcoming racism and its legacy.  Some of these disagreements may run deep, say, between radical democrats and conservatives or between liberals and cultural nationalists(Shelby 247).

            In light of some of the difficulties associated with black solidarity discussed above, Shelby opts for a brand of black solidarity not based on any particular political stance, economic categorization or clearly defined method of operation.  Shelby’s black solidarity calls on blacks to unite based on a shared history of racial oppression and subjugation, and work towards the general goal of ending anti-black racism and of working towards the amelioration of the general position of blacks in America.  Shelby summarizes his notion of black solidarity as follows:

The mutual identification among blacks – that familiar sense of “we-ness” – can be rooted, in part, in the shared experience of anti-black racism.  This experience enables blacks to empathize with one another and sometimes move them to provide mutual support in a world that is often hostile to their presence.  The common experiences of racial injustice, made possible by their common racial ascription, include such things as carrying the stigma attached to “looking” and “acting” black; having one’s life prospects diminished by institutional racism; suffering discrimination on the basis of presumed incompetence; enduring arbitrary exclusion from certain neighbourhoods, schools and social circles; being pre-emptively regarded as unsuitable for intimate social interaction; navigating the social world with the knowledge that one is often the object of unjustified hatred, contempt, suspicion, or fear; seeking to avoid “confirming” an array of degrading racial stereotypes; serving as the perennial scapegoat for social problems and economic crises; and living with the knowledge that one is vulnerable, at almost any time, to antiblack attitude, action, social practice, or institutional policy.  The common experience of racial oppression can be a valuable source of motivation that blacks should continue to harness in the interest of social justice. (Shelby, 245)


            While Shelby’s account of what black solidarity in today’s society ought to be based on accounts for the overwhelming differences within the black community with regard to political views, economic situations, and other varying ideals, in doing so, he has managed to outline a theory of black solidarity that is far too inclusive, and one that is open and applicable (on many of the criteria) to members of other racial groups.

            If we look at the root criteria on which Shelby’s account of black solidarity ought to be based, we see that the key component is the shared experience of anti-black racism.  That said, Shelby says very little about what exactly it is that entails anti-black racism as distinct from any other kind of racism, or even any other kind of discrimination for that matter.  Among the list of things that victims of anti-black racism would have faced are things such as “having one’s life prospects diminished by institutional racism”, seeking to avoid confirming stereotypes, and serving as scapegoats for various social problems, but none of these things seem inherently exclusive to members of the black community (Shelby 245).  These very same things could be said to apply to First-Nations groups, Hispanics, Asians, or almost any member of a non-dominant racial group.

            Because of the lack of specificity with regard to what exactly it is that differentiates anti-black racism from racism in a more general sense, it seems that not only can there not be a strong case that specifically anti-black racism has taken place in certain situations, but it also seems that black solidarity cannot be based upon the exposure to that anti-black racism.  Shelby goes on to say, about black solidarity that…

Group loyalty and mutual trust can be cultivated and reinforced through individual and collective efforts to end racial discrimination, racial inequality, poverty, and intolerance.  Those with whom blacks should seek solidarity, then, are not necessarily those who most exhibit a thick black identity, but those who stand firm in resistance to black oppression.  Rather than being rooted in race, ethnicity, nationality, or culture, the group’s self conception should be grounded in its antiracist politics and its commitment to racial justice(Shelby 247).

This only seems to explicitly open the door even wider for the inclusion of non-blacks within black solidarity.  There is nothing that precludes non-black individuals from standing in resistance to black oppression, nor is there anything that obligates blacks to actively resisting black oppression, so we could easily imagine a case in which non-blacks work harder, and in greater numbers, for the end of black oppression than do members of the black community, making the kind of black solidarity that Shelby argues for one which is open to the possibility of including more non-blacks than blacks.  It seems that in this case, the group solidarity would be based more so on a commitment to ending anti-black racism, and again would have to be labelled as something other than black solidarity, perhaps something such as anti-racist solidarity.

            What Shelby has tried to do is create a brand of black solidarity that is broad enough to cover the enormous variety of individuals that make up the black community in America.  In basing this brand of black solidarity on the shared history or potential of facing anti-black racism, and failing to clearly identify what differentiates anti-black racism from any other kind of racism, it seems that Shelby’s brand of black solidarity is one that is far too inclusive to be strictly labelled as black solidarity.  It simply seems counterintuitive, at least to me, that any brand of black solidarity can be wholly based upon something that can easily apply to members of another racial community.  Furthermore, Shelby’s account allows for the possibility (though perhaps not very probable) that black solidarity is best maintained by non-blacks rather than black, as can be seen through the example discussed earlier of non-blacks who fight harder for the equality of blacks than do members of the black community itself.

            In this paper I have not argued that what Tommie Shelby argues for is wrong, or that the common history of shared oppression and racial subjugation is something that ought not to be a key component of what black solidarity is based upon, rather I have tried to show that basing black solidarity solely on that shared history results in a kind of black solidarity that is too inclusive, and that if a working account of black solidarity is to be formulated, while the shared common history cannot and should not be eliminated from the theory, it should merely serve as a component of the basis for the theory, and not the entire foundation on which the theory is based.  With that said, I am unsure of whether or not an adequate present-day account of what exactly black solidarity could be based upon is even possible.  Given the difficulties related to the intragroup differences seen within the black community discussed earlier, it would be very difficult to come up with a theory on which a brand of black solidarity could be based, that will include any and all members of the black community while still maintaining a distinction from other types of minority group solidarity.


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The Aesthetic Attitude

This is a work in progress.  A paper first written for a graduate seminar class in 2011 and later revised for presentation at the 2012 Uehiro Philosophy Conference.  This is the third version, and I am currently revising it for publication in 2014.

Aesthetic Attitude: Full Attention Not Needed

            As a branch of philosophy, Jerome Stolnitz understands that any particular view within aesthetics is not necessarily going to provide us with an objectively true set of answers.  Rather, he recognizes that the discipline is a competitive exchange of ideas, each of which can serve to advance our understanding of the concepts at play[i].  In light of this, Stolnitz puts forth his own unique account of how we ought to position ourselves, with regard to background knowledge and external information, in order to truly grasp the aesthetic value of any piece of art.  This view can serve as one important voice in the discussion of what kind of information and how much of that same information ought to be taken into account when evaluating the aesthetic value of a piece of art.  That is to say, does the fact that the Mona Lisa was painted in the 16th century rather than in the 18th century have any bearing on the aesthetic value of the painting?  Or does the fact that Jay-Z was raised in New York give his music more aesthetic value than it would have if he had been raised in Miami?  If there is a difference, and if these differences are relevant, or irrelevant, then why is that the case?  Jerome Stolnitz attempts to shed some light on these kinds of questions, and differentiate what kinds of information are relevant and which kinds of information are irrelevant in making such judgements.  In his book Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism, Jerome Stolnitz aims to describe our aesthetic perception of the world by means of our aesthetic attitude towards it.  That is to say, we can only take in the aesthetic value of an object if our attitude toward it is in the appropriate state.  The version of the aesthetic attitude, as Stolnitz presents it, has not been received without its share of criticisms and comparisons.  Often tied in with other accounts of the aesthetic attitude that seem to take direction from Kant’s account of reflective judgment[ii], including Edward Bullough’s account of physical distance, and Vincent Thomas’ distinction between appearance and reality, Stolnitz’s account of the aesthetic attitude is the focus of George Dickie’s article “All Aesthetic Attitude Theories Fail: The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude.”[iii]  In this particular article, Dickie refers to the entire concept of the aesthetic attitude as a “myth…[that] is no longer useful and in fact misleads aesthetic theory.”[iv]  The aesthetic attitude, as the name suggests, is an approach to the way that we look at things when we want to do so from an aesthetic standpoint.  It differs from our general, passive, non-aesthetic observation and awareness of the world in that, as Stolnitz claims, we generally see objects of the world in terms of their potential or actual usefulness.[v]  When examining objects aesthetically, however, we must do so with an aesthetic attitude, which Stolnitz defines as “disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of the object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone.”[vi]  The aim of taking on this attitude is to be able to separate ourselves from our previous knowledge or preconceived notions regarding the object of our attention.  That is to say, we ought to focus on the object itself rather than the information regarding it.  Creating such a separation between ourselves and our background knowledge will allow us to appreciate the object not in terms of its use from a practical standpoint, but in terms of its aesthetic merit.  We must be open to receive the qualities of the object in an aesthetic manner, and not simply dwell on the emotions that it evokes within us, the memories that it conjures up, or some other characteristic that is not directly contained within the object itself, for all of these things will only serve to alter and ultimately inhibit us from enjoying the object aesthetically.  Included with Stolnitz’s account of aesthetic attention is the notion that in order to appreciate an object aesthetically, we must give it our full attention.  I will go on to discuss this portion of Stolnitz’s view in more detail throughout this essay, as I go on to explain why I do not think that it is the case that we ought necessarily to give our full attention to some object in order to appreciate it on aesthetic terms, and that there are certain cases in which it is precisely our lack of attention that allows us to recognize the aesthetic merits of particular objects.

Stolnitz begins by providing an account of how we perceive the world through our senses, discussing the importance of aesthetic value itself, as well as offering an account of why he feels that aesthetic awareness is significant and worthy of discussion and further thought.  For the purposes of this paper, none of the above will be addressed at great length.  This paper will focus on a very important aspect of Stolnitz’s account of aesthetic attitude that he refers to as aesthetic relevance.  The notion of aesthetic relevance ties in very closely with the aspect of Stolnitz’s view mentioned earlier, that the object of our attention needs to be given our full attention, in that it sets out for us exactly what it is that we can direct our attention towards if we hope to appreciate an object aesthetically, or perhaps more importantly, what we cannot direct our attention towards if we hope to appreciate an object aesthetically.  Aesthetic relevance refers to the relevance of all of the ideas, emotions and knowledge about or pertaining to the object of our aesthetic attention.  This is not to be confused with knowledge that can be gained through the object, rather, it is knowledge that is already within us before we ever come in contact with the object in question.  That is to say, this knowledge exists completely independently of and prior to the subject’s encounter with the object of aesthetic attention.  Some examples of what this kind of historical knowledge can refer to, if we are to limit our discussion to works of art, include things such as the nationality of the artist, the cost of the material used to produce the object, what influenced the production of this particular piece or work, how this piece of work has influenced other artists in the past, and so on.  Often, it is the case that our perception and overall attitude towards a particular object will be largely determined by our background knowledge and experiences of the past, and this is precisely the thing from which Stolnitz wants us to disconnect when we attempt to engage with something aesthetically.  These ideas will hinder our ability to view the object in itself, and prevent us from viewing the aesthetic value of the object, since we will be more focused on things related to the ideas that we already had within us and perhaps cause us to slip back into our natural tendency of viewing the object in terms of practical use.  If we are not able to create some distance between us and our background knowledge, then our engagement with the object will always reflect some shades of judgement based on factors that have been imported by us, which are irrelevant to the piece itself.

Stolnitz does, however, acknowledge that not all background knowledge is necessarily detrimental to the aesthetic process, and that there are cases in which our attention to this background knowledge can be valuable.  Stolnitz notes three cases in which knowledge is not necessarily aesthetically irrelevant, and may actually enhance the aesthetic value of the object of our attention.  Background knowledge can prove to be aesthetically relevant under the conditions that (1) this knowledge does not damage the aesthetic attention toward the object, if (2) it has to do with the overall meaning of the work of art, and (3) when it enhances the overall aesthetic experience of the object.[vii][viii]  Stolnitz demonstrates that external factors can enhance the aesthetic value of certain objects by citing a psychological study performed by Edward Bullough.  This study sought to investigate the ways in which people respond aesthetically when exposed to different colors that are accompanied by certain emotions or memories that are linked to the observer’s past.[ix]  Furthermore, the study sought to determine whether or not all associations could reasonably be deemed illegitimate with regard to aesthetic experience.[x]  The results of the study were able to show that while some external factors drew attention away from the object itself, resulting in the subject’s inability to aesthetically perceive the color, there were also a series of external factors that, if given the observer’s attention, complimented the aesthetic value of the object itself.  These findings make the case that, as Stolnitz argues, not all external factors to the object are necessarily disruptive of its aesthetic being.[xi]  Complimentary to that point, the study was able to show that there are (though they may be rare) cases in which external factors could be used in conjunction with a particular object in order to aid in the perception of the aesthetic value of the object being viewed.  In other words, it is possible to have a secondary object that does not completely draw the attention of the observer to the point that it detracts from another object, but acts to compliment whatever aesthetic features happen to be of concern in its counterpart.

If it is the case that our background knowledge does not fall within one of the three categories discussed by Stolnitz that would allow it to be deemed aesthetically relevant and consequently render it something to which we are able to give our attention, then it is predictably determined to be irrelevant information.   If the information is determined to be irrelevant, in that it does not contribute to the aesthetic value of the object in question, then the object of our attention must be admired independently from that background knowledge and all other things, physical and non-physical, internal and external.  In order to view the work aesthetically, we must become totally engaged with the object and disregard any external thoughts pertaining to use, explanation, potential, or any other sort of criterion by which we may be tempted to judge it.  Stolnitz goes on to point out that many, if not all, of the facts regarding the object that we possess are not embodied within the aesthetic object itself.[xii]  As such, if we are trying to view a piece aesthetically, we cannot import and apply anything, or more specifically, give attention to anything, that is not in the nature of the object already.  Importing such external characteristics that are not already within the work of art simply results in various levels focus being drawn away from the piece of art itself and onto the external, imported characteristics.  This, in turn, may result in drawing attention away from the intended aesthetic characteristics of the piece.

A central problem with Stolnitz’s accounts of aesthetic attention and aesthetic relevance is that, in most cases, it is required that we focus our attention exclusively and fully on the object in question in order to appreciate its aesthetic value.  It does not seem to me that it would be entirely implausible to view an object peripherally and still appreciate its aesthetic value, if not fully, at least partially.  Furthermore, it seems as if Stolnitz thinks that every object, or at least every work of art, holds a certain level of aesthetic value.  This raises the question of whether aesthetic value is merely something that is either possessed or lacked by an object, or if it can be perceived as on a continuum, with some objects more aesthetically valuable than others.  If the latter is true, then it would not be absurd to think that it could be possible that we would be able to appreciate the aesthetic value of a particular object without giving it our full attention.  We can imagine a situation in which a very highly respected art critic is spending the day in an art gallery with his family, enjoying the many paintings around him, when out of the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of the most amazing painting he has ever seen.   He pauses for a moment without movement, to simply take in the aesthetic value of the painting from his current position.  To him, this painting in this moment holds a very high degree of aesthetic value, and while he is not able to identify all of the minute details of the painting, such as a wide variety of the fine lines, some of the subtle changes in color, or the overall theme of what is being depicted in the painting, he is able to get a general sense of how the bold shapes and lines interact with each other, and how some of the vivid colors complement one another.  Following that moment, he turns to fully give his acute, critical attention to the painting in hopes of truly uncovering what it is about this painting that makes it so radiant and alluring, and to dissect the more subtle aspects of the painting that he had surely missed from his previous position, but finds that it is no longer as aesthetically pleasing as it was when it was merely in his peripheral vision.  Given all of his attention, recognizing the fine lines and subtle uses of color, the painting is still a wonderful piece, but it now seems to be missing something, as if something has been lost in the simple addition of attention.  For fear that he has lost the aesthetic value that was once there, the critic turns back to his previous position so that the painting is once again in his peripheral vision and presented to him in a more general sense, and once again, he is in awe of the aesthetic value of the painting as all of the aesthetic value that he had previously enjoyed from that same position came rushing back.

In the case of this critic in the art gallery, it does not appear to be the case the observer is missing something, or that a focus on irrelevant background knowledge has rendered him incapable of truly seeing that aesthetic value in the painting, rather, that it is through the deliberate act of not giving the piece his total attention that the aesthetic value of it becomes clear, or even present.  We can further imagine that it is not the case that he is focusing on some other painting or lighting that somehow compliments the painting in question, rather that it simply appears to him to hold more aesthetic value when it is not given his full attention than when it is.  To be absolutely sure that it is not the case that there happens to be complimentary factors present within the environment of the painting in question, we can further imagine that there is no surrounding environment to focus on, it is simply darkness, or whiteness, or some arbitrary color and nothing else.  Stolnitz could of course argue that whatever color happens to be in the surrounding environment still serves as complimentary to the painting in question, in that now the scope of the work of art is simply broader than was initially thought.  That is to say, the aesthetic value is not solely within the painting, but within the entire environment of the background color of the walls that the painting is sitting on, the bench slightly to the left of the painting, the other people in the gallery, and so on.  Stolnitz could argue that all of these things immediately surrounding the painting combine to comprise the object of our aesthetic attention, and that attributing the aesthetic value solely to the painting would be a mistake.  On this account, the aesthetic value would be held within the entire perceptual range of the observer rather than in one individual piece, and that what we are really finding aesthetic value in is the entirety of the area rather than limited to just one aspect of the room which we mistakenly think ought to hold the aesthetic value.

I think that we may be able to address this possible objection from Stolnitz by adding several more details to the situation in which our fictional art critic happens to find himself.  Now, not only is he in the same room in the same art gallery experiencing the aesthetic value of one particular work of art while giving it only a minute portion of his attention, just as before, but now we can also imagine that the environment in which the painting is kept is constantly changing.  Everything in the room is changing not only instantaneously, but arbitrarily as well.  The furniture, the paint color on the walls, the people coming and going, the soft music playing, the pieces of art surrounding the painting in question, all of it is constantly changing.  The only things that remain static are the art critic and the painting in question.  In this case would it still be plausible for Stolnitz to say that the aesthetic value that we perceive is really in the sum total of all of the things around us rather than in the painting, which itself only warrants a minimal degree of our attention?  I think that this proves to be a case in which the explanation that Stolnitz gives, of the aesthetic value being held within our entire perceptual field rather than contained in a single painting that happens to fall within that perceptual field, does not hold.  This is largely due to the arbitrary nature of the variations taking place within the room, for there seems to be something counterintuitive to ascribing aesthetic value to a work of art that has been composed in an arbitrary manner.

It could be plausible that some of the instantiations of the ever-changing background carry with them some level of aesthetic value, but it surely could not be said that all of them do.  It could be the case that, at certain times, the art critic is mistakenly attributing aesthetic value of the entire situation solely to the painting, but this too would provide a problem for Stolnitz and his requirement for full attention in order to appreciate aesthetic value.  If it is the case that there happens to be an instance of aesthetic value that is held within one of the randomly and arbitrarily changing environments, it would seem that Stolnitz could argue that this aesthetic value found within the perceptual field could be mistakenly attributed solely to the unchanging painting.  But again, this reply from Stolnitz would not hold because this situation would just be a case in which aesthetic value of an object would be perceived by the observer without giving that object his full attention, in that the environment (which is the object in this case) is so rapidly changing that it does not allow for one to fully focus his attention on it.  With the speed of the changes of the environment, it would simply be impossible to be able to give it our full attention so as to fully appreciate the aesthetic value, as prescribed by Stolnitz.  What the critic would be experiencing is a fleeting sense of aesthetic value, one on which he cannot really reflect upon because just as soon as it was there, it has now vanished, and if there is any aesthetic value that the critic feels he has, with regard to the room, it would be the aesthetic value of the idea of the room in his mind or the memory of a past composition, which are either largely fabricated or by or held within himself, in that there was not nearly enough time to construct a complete and accurate rendering of the room.  Having come and gone so quickly, it does not seem as if this particular instance of aesthetic value could be expanded to cover one particular static painting within that ever-changing environment.  Perhaps this could be the reason why we would not generally be able to claim that the background in various scenes of various movies carry with them any level of aesthetic value, since the focus on them is often just made in passing, not giving us enough time to adequately appreciate it.  Of course, this seems to be a question saved for another time though.  So, if Stolnitz is to claim, in this situation, that the aesthetic value of the entire situation has been wrongly attributed to the peripheral painting, then this would commit him to the idea that full attention is not necessary to perceive aesthetic value because there is no way that an adequate amount of attention could have been paid to the rapidly-changing environment so as to justify Stolnitz’s requirement for full attention.

A second way to address the amended example with regard to the possible objection from Stolnitz is to say that while it is possible that there are certain instances in which the environment as a whole serves as an object with aesthetic value, if the environment is constantly changing, then it cannot be the case that every variation of the environment holds aesthetic value.  I don’t see any reason that Stolnitz would refute this point, because it seems very plausible that there would be cases in which the environment of the painting could be viewed altogether as aesthetically valuable in itself or complimentary to the painting, but there would certainly be even a minimal number of cases in which the environment would contribute absolutely no aesthetic value.  Again, in this paper I am not concerned with what features constitute the presence or degree of aesthetic value, as I am solely concerned with whether or not it is present in these different hypothetical situations.  If Stolnitz does accept that there will be certain environments that have a high level of aesthetic value, some environments that have a low level of aesthetic value, and some environments that have absolutely no aesthetic value, then it would have to follow that our art critic’s perception of the aesthetic value within the painting would have to be in constant flux, in tune with the constant flux of the aesthetic value of each different environment.  If the aesthetic value of the environment was incorrectly attributed to the painting, then the critic would have to know or feel the difference in aesthetic value of the painting, but he does not.  The aesthetic value of the painting remains constant despite the changes of everything else around it.  Because of that, it cannot possibly be the case that the critic is confusing the aesthetic value of the room with the aesthetic value of the painting, because while the room is constantly being arbitrarily changed, the only things that remain static are the painting, the critic, and the level of aesthetic value that is being perceived by the critic.  As such, Stolnitz still does not seem to be able to account for the case described in our hypothetical situation.

On Stolnitz’s account of how we ought to recognize aesthetic value, it does not seem that we are able to take into account works of art which are intended to serve as “background art” or those that simply appear to maintain their highest degree of aesthetic value when not given full attention.  Perhaps at this point, the scope of the artwork would simply broaden to include any and everything that is taking our attention away from the piece in question, ultimately creating one large piece containing many other pieces within it, all helping to enhance the aesthetic value of one.  However, I am not sure that this is a very common goal employed by artists or that it is even plausible, especially if we import it into an example such as the one we have been discussing.  In the case with the ever-changing room, it would be possible to claim that it is not solely the painting that is the work of art, rather it is the whole environment in which the painting is found that is the work of art (we have touched on something very close to this idea in the previous paragraph).  While we could reasonably say that each variation of the room is its own individual exemplification of a work of art, it would not be reasonable to say that each variation would be equally as aesthetically valuable as the last.  As such, if we are to return to our discussion of the single painting again, the aesthetic value of that painting would too have to fluctuate just as the aesthetic value of the overall perceptual field changes, but this is not the case in the thought experiment.  And if it is the case that each variant holds the same level of aesthetic value, and the only thing common in each variant is the painting, then could we not say that it is the painting that determines the aesthetic value?  And if so, can we just essentially eliminate everything else and simply view the aesthetic value as being contained wholly within that painting?  It seems that these could be interesting questions that would also pose problems for Stolnitz, but ones that are best left for another time.

In order to maintain a portion of his account of aesthetic attention, perhaps Stolnitz needs to re-examine how he describes the need to devote our full attention to a given piece of work in order to appreciate its true aesthetic value.  As we have seen, there do seem to be cases in which an individual can appreciate the aesthetic value of a piece of art without giving it his full attention.  Furthermore, as we have seen, there may be cases in which the lack of full attention enhances the aesthetic value of a certain work of art.  As such, we have seen that there is a key flaw in Stolnitz’s requirement of full attention that is included within his overall account of aesthetic attention.

[i] Jerome Stolnitz, “Introduction,” in Aesthetics, ed. Jerome Stolnitz (New York, NY: Collier-Macmillan, 1965), 1-20.

[ii] “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified February 13, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-aesthetics/

[iii] George Dickie, “All Aesthetic Attitude Theories Fail: The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude,” in Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, ed. George Dickie, Richard Sclafani and Ronald Roblin (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 342-55.

[iv] Dickie, “All Aesthetic Attitude Theories,” 342.

[v] Jerome Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticisms: A Critical Introduction (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 33.

[vi] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 35.

[vii] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 55.

[viii] This is another aspect where the Kant’s influence of distinguishing between judgments of taste and judgements of beauty can be seen.  A distinction between an object’s aesthetic value and that same object’s instrumental value.  “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology.”

[ix] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 54.

[x] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 54.

[xi] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 54.

[xii] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 53.

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