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B. Doxastic Practices

Here we need a bit of stage setting. A distinctive feature of Alston’s entire epistemology is its emphasis upon social doxastic practices—socially established ways of forming belief. (It makes a certain rough sense to think of Alston as judiciously blending Reid with Wittgenstein.134134   See Alston’s “A Doxastic Practice Approach to Epistemology,” Knowledge and Skepticism, ed. M. Clay and K. Lehrer (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988).) For example, there is sense perception (hereafter SP), the social practice of forming beliefs on the basis of perception of objects in our environment; there is also the practice of forming beliefs by way of reasoning, both deductive and nondeductive, as well as the practice of forming beliefs on the basis of memory. Together these three form what Alston calls “the standard package,” perhaps because they are shared by all properly functioning human beings. Further, there is the practice of attributing beliefs, desires, pains and pleasures, affective states, spiritual gifts, and the like to our fellow human beings. Thomas Reid calls this practice (or, rather, the faculty or power that underlies it) ‘sympathy’; we may think of sympathy as part of SP or, if we prefer, as a practice intimately linked with SP, but nonetheless separate and semiautonomous. (If we think of it the latter way, we should consider it part of the standard package.)

These are doxastic practices: they issue in the formation of beliefs. They are also social practices in that they contain a considerable component contributed by our social environment. SP, for example, involves a substantial social component in that what we learn from others by way of teaching and testimony becomes part of the practice. For example, what we learn from others is involved in the society of checks and tests whereby we determine whether a putative perception is a real perception; I had to learn from others (parents, for example) what it is that I perceive when I perceive a tree or house or star. The contributions of nature and nurture may vary over these different practices; the contribution of nurture is perhaps maximal with respect to SP and perhaps minimal with respect to our grasp of elementary arithmetic and logic.

In addition to these universally shared practices, there is also what Alston calls MP, ‘mystical practice’, the practice whereby many but not all of us form beliefs about God (or the Ultimate) on the basis of experience or perception of God (or the Ultimate). CMP is a specific variant of mystical practice, where the beliefs formed are the specifically Christian beliefs held by Christians of all stripes in many different parts of the world and at all times since the beginning of the Christian era.

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