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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.

Alston, William P. (1991).
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

ISBN: 0-8014-2597-2

Description: Hardcover, xiv + 320 pages.

Contents: Introduction, 8 chapters, bibliography, index.

Note: As bizarre as it seems, someone can write a book on this topic in 1991 and not cite Pahnke, Leary, Huxley, Wasson, Huston Smith, Stace or other scholars on entheogens. What was Cornell University Press thinking? Or were they?

Excerpt(s): The first thing to consider is whether mystical experience can be given an adequate explanation in terms of purely natural causes. If we consider the actual attempts to do this (and this is not a popular research field for social and behavioral scientists), we must judge them to be highly speculative and, at best, sketchily supported by the evidence. Mystical experience poses severe problems for empirical research. In addition to the difficulties in determining when we have a case thereof, it is something that cannot be induced at the will of the researcher and so is not amenable to experiment. Attempts to get around this by substituting drug-induced analogues are of little value, since it is an open question whether findings concerning these analogs can be extrapolated to spontaneous cases. Since the states are usually short-lived, the researcher must rely on autobiographical reports; we can't expect a researcher to hang around a person on the off chance that he might happen to have a mystical experience. Hence the data are subject to all the well-known problems that attach to such reports. Moreover, the most prominent theories in the field invoke casual mechanisms that themselves pose thus far insoluble problems of identification and measurement: unconscious psychological processes like repression, identification, regression, and mechanisms of defense; social influences on ideology and on belief and attitude formation. It is not surprising that theories like those of Freud, Marx, and Durkheim rest on a slender thread of evidential support and generalize irresponsibly from such evidence as they can muster. Nor do the prospects seem rosy for significant improvement.

In considering this matter we must avoid a tempting fallacy. Let's say that experiences phenomenologically indistinguishable from genuine mystical experience are induced by drugs or psychosis, and thus are adequately explainable naturalistically. The fallacy consists in inferring from this that all experiences with this phenomenology are a result of natural causes, or, more boldly still, of natural causes of just these sorts. But this doesn't follow, any more than the fact that hallucinatory sensory experiences can be phenomenologically indistinguishable from the real thing implies that no sensory experiences are veridical. The fact that hallucinatory experiences can exactly mimic the real thing certainly complicates the philosophy and psychology of perception, but it does not imply a general skepticism about perception. (pages 230-231).

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