The Elusive God, Chapter 1, Sections 1-4
June 22, 2009 — 13:59

Author: Clayton Littlejohn  Category: Books of Interest Religious Belief  Comments: 11

[Oops, that wasn’t ready. I published a stub by accident. Here’s the finished post–CL]
I have only the first four sections of the first chapter of Moser’s, The Elusive God, so I think this will be brief as it seems that Moser is setting the stage at this point.
Moser’s religious skeptic is concerned with theistic religious commitment and that skepticism might either take the form of someone who doubts the reality of God or doubts that an affirmation of God’s reality has positive epistemic value (32). Moser thinks that the religious skeptic’s view is not nearly as compelling as some philosophers (including some of my favorites, I’m guessing) would have us believe. He reminds us (rightly) that the religious skeptic cannot be satisfied with showing that some particular individuals lack adequate evidence for believing that God exists as the skeptic wants to show that people in general lack adequate evidence.
In response to the allegation that we all lack adequate evidence for God’s existence and thus ought to doubt the reality of God, Moser does not follow the lead of the fideist in saying that we don’t need evidence for religious commitment but instead wants to say that on the right sort of understanding of “adequate evidence” the skeptic is right to suggest that this is something we need but wrong in thinking that it is not something that can be had.
How should we understand the demand for ‘sufficient’ evidence? Moser suggests that some religious skeptics demand cognitive reproducibility, that we can exert a kind of control over the evidence whereby we can reproduce the evidence again for ourselves or for someone else. This is implausible. He remarks, “Much of the inferred original evidence in cosmology, astrophysics, and geology … is neither under our control nor reproducible by us” (34). He then suggests that the lesson to be drawn from this is that we ought to reject this stricture, “if evidence of God’s reality isn’t reproducible by us, then it isn’t genuine evidence” (34). It’s hard to take issue with this. I doubt there’s anyone who thinks that all evidence must be under our control and reproducible, so unless there’s some reason to think that there’ s something special about evidence for God’s existence, I can’t imagine a religious skeptic making much of this.
Moser also notes that it is inappropriate to demand proof as there are many things believed without proof but believed with adequate evidence (35). The upshot is that even if it can be shown that we can’t prove God’s existence, this does nothing to encourage skepticism. Again, I think there’s no question that Moser is right on this point.
Evidence for God’s existence is, according to Moser, “a truth-indicator for the proposition that an authoritatively and morally perfect agent worthy or worship actually exists” (37). He takes Russell to task for saying that if he met God after his death, he would tell God that he gave us insufficient evidence. Moser’s response:

Insufficient for what? For Russell’s highly questionable expectations of God? … a humbled Russell, unlike the actual Russell, would have asked: “God, what purposes of yours led to your being subtle and elusive in the purposively available evidence of your reality?” It’s astonishing and regrettable too, that Russell … gave no indication of being aware of such a compelling and important question for a rational truth-seeker” (37).

See, I was right! One of my favorite philosophers does come in for some abuse.
Were Russell’s expectations unreasonable? Someone like Russell would say that the existence of Klansmen and fascists have always seemed to me to be precisely the sort of thing we wouldn’t expect to see if God existed. As the details are coming later, there’s not much to say on this point. It seems that Moser thinks that Russell is ignoring something important: he’s neglected the question, ‘If God exists, what parameters for the evidence would God observe?’ (I’m not sure Russell’s ignored it, but maybe he didn’t think sufficiently hard about it.) The kind of evidence we’ll get, suggests Moser, is not the kind of evidence we would prefer but the sort of evidence that God prefers us to have. To determine what sort of evidence a morally perfect being worthy of worship would give us, Moser suggests that we would have to know what such a being would think is in our best interests and what this being intends for this world. That being said, he concedes, “If … we were to face a world of nothing but unrelenting pain and suffering we would have significant evidence against God’s reality. We would then have significant evidence against the reality of a God who truly cares for all humans, and we would have no positive indication of the reality of such a God” (38). He adds, however, “The actual world … is clearly not a world of nothing but unrelenting pain and suffering” (38). Not for me, at least. There’s an interesting question about the scope of Moser’s claims. If we were to face a world including subjects whose lives were pretty much nothing but unrelenting pain and suffering, does Moser concede that this is strong evidence for the non-existence of a God that cares for this subject? Moser is right that the actual world contains its silver linings (e.g., Mother Teresa reaching out to the poor), and that means that this world is not one of unrelenting pain and suffering but it is consistent with there being individual lives that are filled with pain and suffering with little relief. Can the religious skeptic say that the evidential situations of those who live miserable lives strong evidence either for God’s non-existence or God’s lack of concern for some individuals?
Moser clarifies that his discussion will not assume that the God of traditional theism exists of the God of some specific tradition exists, but he will hope to show that we have pretty much what we’d expect to have in terms of evidence if in fact a morally perfect God exists. It is then that we can ask whether our evidence actually points in favor of God. The advantage of such a project seems to be that we can ask whether our evidential situation is the evidential situation we would expect if there were a Jewish or Christian God that comes to us with authoritative evidence, “evidence demanding that we yield our wills to the divine source of the evidence in question” (47). Arguments for religious skepticism that assume that we will receive spectator’s evidence (i.e., evidence that we can receive without bending our wills to the will of the source of the evidence) are the sorts of arguments that Moser will argue are unconvincing even if they show convincingly that there is little evidence for some sort of God that would do little to challenge us. The kind of evidence we would expect to have on the hypothesis that the Jewish or Christian God exists is not necessarily the sort of evidence that we could gather simply by investigating nature (48). Moser is skeptical that we can, by means of our own resources, come upon sufficient evidence for God’s existence. I guess I have a vague concern about this. If God doesn’t provide adequate spectator evidence but might be concerned to provide adequate authoritative evidence, those with flawed characters (Russell? Me?) will likely never receive evidence that could rationalize a commitment to the God of Judaism or Christianity. Is this a tragic situation? Is the loss suffered by those who can’t come to know God (in some sense of ‘can’t’) proportional to the failings of character that prevent them from (allegedly) coming to know God to exist? It seems that a morally perfect being would not want these sorts of tragic situations to arise (i.e., for the degree of loss to be highly disproportional when we take account of the subject’s vice or irresponsible conduct), but if that’s right, then why should we expect there to be a huge gap between authoritative evidence and spectator’s evidence since it seems on its face that relatively minor sins can leave someone in the position of a rational agnostic.
There’s not much I can say at this point. The project is really interesting, Moser’s points thus far seem perfectly correct, so I can’t wait to see how this all plays out in the chapters to come.

  • Great start. Brief, but very lucid.
    As I wrote in an earlier comment, I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while. I bought it when I was considering writing a paper for my Theory of Knowledge class and wanting to dig deeper into religious epistemology. I’ve also got “Wisdom to Doubt” as an opposing perspective.
    When I saw you were planning on digging into this book here, I pulled it down and . . . didn’t make it very far, partly because I still have some other paper-writing commitments that have to be wrapped up. But come next week, I’m all over this one . . .
    I’m be reading!

    June 22, 2009 — 17:07
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    I hadn’t intended my remarks to be quite so brief, so let’s change that to “good start”. Anyway, I’m excited to see how this develops. I read a lot of Moser’s work when I was a grad student and I’ve always thought that it has repaid my efforts.

    June 22, 2009 — 19:02
  • A thought on the rational agnostic: perhaps there is enough spectator evidence to make the existence of God ambiguous (say, a subjective probability of 1/2), warranting further investigation into the revealed religions. This investigation may shape the agnostic’s defective character, giving him access to authoritative evidence and fully warranting belief in God. An example might be the instigation of the Spirit during the study of Scripture.

    June 22, 2009 — 19:16
  • David Slakter

    I concur with what Clayton has said so far (no need to apologize for brevity, Clayton, as there’s not too much that needs to be unpacked so far).
    There are a few issues I would like to raise however, although I anticipate some of them will be addressed later on in the book. First, I think there’s a bit of elision of the difference between the possible moral universe and how it might appear to a particular individual. While it may be possible to recognize a silver lining even in an immense tragedy, surely it’s more than simply a failure of imagination which might lead those whose lives have been plagued by suffering, or those who have witnessed seemingly needless suffering on the part of others, to question the existence of a morally perfect God. This caveat still wouldn’t apply to most skeptics, but it’s one that ought to be addressed.
    I also think Moser’s points could be better made with references beyond Judaism and Christianity. On page 15, his talk about God as ‘killer’ (i.e., killing certain destructive attitudes), has resonances with Krishna’s commands to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita to kill his ignorance and selfishness, and certain conceptions of jihad in Islam. There are also resonances with jihad in Moser’s talk about striving to yield our will’s to God’s will. Moser avoids relating his account to other traditions because, when it comes to the world’s religions, ‘there’s no plausible story of full agreement or even full consistency to tell regarding their approaches to God’ (p. 39). This is a hasty conclusion, as work by John Hick, Keith Ward, and Francis Clooney proposes to offer something along these lines. At the very least, consideration of such work should lead one to wonder what makes the differences between these various traditions more significant than the differences among various Jewish and Christian sects.
    Why is this a problem? Because the agnostic, or ‘doubting skeptic’ is not faced with claims to authority simply from the God of the Jewish or Christian traditions, but claims from a variety of religious traditions. If the perfectly authoritative evidence for God’s existence is mediated through competing traditions, and the skeptic is aware of this, he may have good reason to continue in his skepticism, barring some reason for believing that one tradition offers a better interpretation of his experience than another.
    I have more to say, but I’ve already said enough for the time being.

    June 23, 2009 — 9:15
  • Matthew Mullins

    Thanks for getting the ball rolling Clayton! That Moser still has you on-board is a good sign, but it’s still early in the book.
    Moser’s all evidential right out of the gate, which is fine, but I thought the dig at fideist went by a little quickly. It isn’t clear exactly who the fideist target is supposed to be, but it’s easy to read it as various stripes of reformed epistemology when Moser says “fideism implausibly entails that theistic commitment need not rest for its cognitive status on supporting evidence”. According to Moser the problem with such belief is that it would be evidentially arbitrary and hence cognitively irrational. However, one could endorse the thesis that theistic commitment need not rest on evidence, without taking oneself to be a fideist. In fact there is something of a cottage industry in responding to the skeptic in this fashion. I like that Moser is taking on the stronger challenge of replying to the skeptic on something like her own terms, but if you’re going to bring up the low bar position only to ditch it, at least do it some justice.
    Can the religious skeptic say that the evidential situations of those who live miserable lives strong evidence either for God’s non-existence
    I think Moser is committed to the claim that, in the end there aren’t any undefeated defeaters. His attack on the hiddenness claim won’t be successful if there is still non-culpable unbelief.

    June 23, 2009 — 10:29
  • Robert Gressis

    This is tricky stuff to comment on. There are so many questions that Moser’s approach raises, but it’s so early in the book that I don’t want to be hasty in jumping the gun. Here are a few issues that I will try to be attentive to throughout the book (one of these issues has been raised already).
    (1) Moser talks about being open to the possibility that God is calling you in your conscience. But how much can you know about the nature of this being based on the call, or even that it’s a being at all, as opposed to some kind of “higher reality”? This, of course, raises the issue of religious agreement that David Slakter mentions above.
    (2) What, exactly, is Moser’s view on natural theology? It seems that he’s, at the very least, skeptical that it works; but more than that, he seems to be saying that if a worship-worthy God existed, then natural theology _wouldn’t_ work, because if it did it would interfere with humans’ acquisition of certain cognitive virtues. (This forces one to wonder just how far Moser takes this; is he simply saying that there couldn’t be any natural theological argument that captures universal assent, or something stronger?)
    (3) After the first 55 pages (in my section), Moser makes clear that one way to judge whether the being you have experience of lives up to the title of “God” is determining whether it has lived up to what it has actually promised, and one way of doing that is looking at some of its purported promises in the Bible. What sorts of considerations, though, are permitted in assessing the validity of the Bible? Should we go back to taking a spectator evidence approach to it, or must we use a “volitionalist” approach (as Moser says after page 55) to the Bible as well?
    (4) Moser keeps reminding us that we shouldn’t expect God to conform to the standards of beings like us, with our comparatively meager cognitive and moral knowledge. But he goes on to list certain criteria that any being that fits the title, “God”, would meet (e.g., that it is an enemy-lover and an enemy-forgiver). Is Moser being overly-confident in asserting that any such being would meet those criteria?

    June 23, 2009 — 15:38
  • Matthew Mullins

    Great points Rob! There is a lot going on here, but let me pick up on (2) because Moser’s remarks on natural theology surprised me. It’s perhaps useful to quote him in full:

    The alleged evidence of much traditional “natural theology,” including first-cause, design, and ontological arguments, is at best incidental, even a dispensable sideshow, in comparison [to God’s authoritative call], given it relative laxness in supplying evident divine volitional demands on recipients. We can’t, in any case, adequately live and die by such alleged evidence. So it usually ends up as just a speculative discussion topic, if not a theoretical swamp, for philosophers and theologians, among others. We need not, at any rate, be distracted by it, given our more robust cognitive goals.

    This surprises me for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think most proponents of natural theology think that people should live and die by such evidence. Most proponents of natural theology think that the arguments can move someone into a position where they are open to receive an authoritative call from God. Another reason I’m surprised is that, in as much as I can ignore or dismiss the authoritative call, perhaps because I think I have a defeater for my evidence, the arguments of natural theology can act as a defeater defeater.

    June 23, 2009 — 16:27
  • Luke Gelinas

    Moser gave a talk at Baylor this winter that was pretty harsh on what he called ‘traditional purely de dicto natural theology’. Not sure, but his handout for the talk might help clarify; it’s available here:

    June 24, 2009 — 14:51
  • Trent Dougherty

    Regarding the quote Matt displays. In his defense, he does say “in comparison with” and that may well be the case. I have a few concerns with the quote though. First, it ignores what I think is a very important middle ground of evidence for theism, the kind alluded to in the Wilson post I made a bit ago. It’s hard to express, but it amounts, I think, to a sort of tacit IBE resulting from the systematic coherence theism gives one’s experiences. I think that most of our non-perceptual beliefs are formed this way in fact. This type of evidence is neither “merely theoretical” and abstract, deductive, etc., but neither is it something as “special” as a divine call. Second, I have a problem with his “so” (many of them actually). Neither the abstruseness of the (attempt to formalize) the arguments he mentions, nor their paling in comparison (plausibly) to a divine call entail (or probabilify) the proposition that it is a speculative and theoretical swamp. Nor do having more robust cognitive goals relegate such considerations to mere distractions. As a reviewer of this MS it was a principle criticism that there were so many breezy inferential transitions. I think it’s good, in a way, that he’s breaking out of the box with this book, and this was my own top choice for the book discussion, but I wish he’d taken more care over these kinds of statements, for they are liable to negatively impact and distract a lot of readers, and that would be a shame.

    June 24, 2009 — 16:28
  • Joshua Thurow

    I have two comments. The first is in reply to Trent and the second is perhaps another question to add Robert’s list of “things to be attentive to.”
    1. Moser seems to endorse the kind of evidential middle ground that Trent briefly describes. I’m jumping ahead slightly here, but here’s a quote from p.64:
    “Acknowledgment of a perfectly authoritative and loving God with redemptive purposes may offer unmatched explanatory value regarding such matters as who we are as morally accountable persons and why we as such persons have come into existence at all. The overall cognitive reasonableness of robust theistic belief could thus be supported, at least in part, by such belief’s yielding a best available undefeated explanation on the basis of the whole range of our experience and other evidence.”
    If he’s willing to make this move (notice that it appeals to a kind of cosmological argument), one wonders if perhaps he only opposes using classic arguments of natural theology as knock-down arguments.
    2. Moser repeatedly says that a perfectly loving God wouldn’t offer spectator evidence of his existence because it wouldn’t serve his purposes of encouraging people to humbly submit to God’s authoritative will. Instead, he would offer authoritative evidence. But, Moser seems to also think that God would be under no obligation to offer this authoritative evidence to those who are not disposed to submit to God’s will. But, then, how will the non-believer who is not disposed to submit to God’s will ever receive good evidence of God’s existence? It seems like such a person will be forever stuck without evidence. But, it doesn’t seem that a perfectly loving God would leave such people forever stuck, even if they are partially responsible for not being to disposed to submit to God’s will. Wouldn’t Irenaeus’s idea in his post above provide a nice solution to this problem? I bet Moser will have something to say about it; we’ll just have to wait and see.

    June 29, 2009 — 11:20
  • Trent Dougherty

    1. Josh, thanks for displaying the quote (I was too lazy). This is EXACTLY what I had in mind.
    2. Josh, if the person doesn’t have the relevant disposition, what’s the problem? It wouldn’t do them any good anyway. I’m not responsible for someone having to wash dishes when I fail to offer to pay for their bill when I know they won’t accept. Indeed, there seems something almost tauntingly mean in making the offer which I know will be refused. There are contexts where such offers lack the whiff of taunt, but, morally, I don’t see a trace of God’s responsibility here.

    June 29, 2009 — 15:44