What is the problem of divine hiddenness?
August 24, 2010 — 17:23

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 15

As a friend of mine recently put it: “*What* problem of divine hiddenness? Almost everybody believes in God!”
Well, it does seem true that most people believe in the supernatural. If you sum the Abrahamic faiths, it’s probably true that most people alive today believe in YHWH. The diachronic picture probably isn’t much different, but it’s hard to say when you should start the clock and our theological past is clouded by various issues. So it seems if there’s a God, he’s not *too* hidden. Also, more and more studies seem to show how instinctively religious we are as a species. (For a good study, see this book by my colleague C. Stephen Evans (http://amzn.to/9jCIA8).
One way to go is this:
DHE The existence of a single individual S–who’s intellectually and morally fit–such that there is some time t at which S doesn’t believe in God is incompatible with (or is overwhelming evidence against) the existence of God.
This seems to be the tree Schellenberg is barking up, and Ted and I have responded to that here. http://bit.ly/aCJ89Y
And I don’t think a more moderate approach is going to do much better.
DHM The existence of a moderate sized group M–who are intellectually and morally fit–such that there is some moderately sized set of times T during which the M’s don’t believe in God is incompatible with (or is overwhelming evidence against) the existence of God.

Probably something like PvI’s “No Minimum” thesis applies here, though I will grant this.
DHS That most people at most times don’t (timeless verb) believe in God is evidence that there is no God.
But of course DHS is useless at this time. I now anticipate some silly persons advocating an argument based on something like this.
DHD The existence of steadily declining belief in God is incompatible with the existence of God.
It may well be some very weak evidence, but I doubt there’s been a significant trend. From what I can tell belief in God is well up since Darwin’s day. (This judgment is in part based on Internet and partly based on Darwin’s autobiography.)
Maybe most philosophers have in mind a more highfalutin argument (there’s some passages in Schellenberg suggesting this).
DHA The non-existence of persuasive arguments for the the existence of God is incompatible with (or good evidence against) the existence of God.
I’ve argued against this in a prior post. http://bit.ly/bW9x1R
But here’s a problem that gets a bit of a hook in me and doesn’t assume nearly as much as most versions discussed.
The Relationship Argument
1. When you’re in a meaningful relationship with someone, you don’t have any doubts about their existence.
2. You have doubts about God’s existence.
3. So you’re not in a meaningful relationship with God.
This argument doesn’t argue against the existence of God but rather the existence of a relationship with Him. I trust this is troubling enough for Christians. The paper by Ted and I mentioned above argues against 1, but I think I have a better example than I had there–though I still fully endorse that example.
First, there’s no question you can be in an *important* relationship with entities the existence of which you doubt. If I’m lying in the hospital after an accident and due to swelling of the brain think I’m in the Matrix and that the respirator is a computer simulation, then I’m in a very important relationship with an entity I’m completely convinced does not exist.
But this can be extended as personally as we wish. Just imagine some really meaningful doctor-patient and nurse-patient relationships developing. All the while the person could think they’re cyborgs or figments or dreams or what have you. They could still derive a great deal of meaning from their interactions. I think I derive more meaning from my relationship with Frodo and Sam than from many human beings.
If the world is as magical and enchanted as Chesterton and I think, then all day long every day the atheist is in a meaningful relationship with God. They just have a bit of swelling of the brain, that’s all.
Now certainly there are *some* benefits of a more explicit relationship, but we wouldn’t want to go back to such a crude version of Schellenberg as this.
DHC The existence of an individual S–caveat–who is such that there is some good G flowing from an explicit relationship with God (let’s call it a “de dicto” relationship) and some time t such that S lacks G at t is incompatible with (powerful evidence against) the existence of God.
I don’t recall how much Ted and I stressed this in the paper, but some great goods can only be developed via the right kind of process. And it’s plausible that the process required for the best kind of good flowing from a relationship from God is to have to work for it a bit. Like Pascal said, “More knowledge might help the mind but hurt the heart.”

  • Trent:
    1. I don’t know if this is too much help with the relationship argument, because it’s only about existence-at-a-time, but it might soften one in respect of 1. I love an explorer who has not returned, and I don’t believe in an afterlife. I go to where she was exploring, trek through the wilderness in great danger of my life, searching for her for the rest of my life. Most of the time, I think that most likely she is still there, if only because it is so hard to think that she’s not. She, on the other hand, had lost her health in an encounter with a wild beast. Each day, however, she exercises, striving to get back in shape that would allow her to come back to me. What is worst for her is that she knows that I must have come searching for her, and she knows that the dangers are great, and that I am not as good at trekking in the wilderness as she was, so it is moderately likely that the wild beasts have got me. But she continues to exercise, hoping to go searching for me.
    Now, in this relationship, there is no back-and-forth interaction, so it’s not a perfect analogy. But still there is a genuine relationship of love.
    2. Sam, in the US, corresponds for two months by email with Tatyana, in Russia. Their conversations are deep, philosophical and meaningful. Sam knows, however, that there are fraudsters in Russia who try to extract money from American men in this way. The fact that Sam’s correspondent hasn’t yet asked for money proves nothing, as some of the fraudsters wait quite a while before making such a pitch. (I have a friend who fell for such a fraudster. Money was not requested at that point, though admittedly there were hints of financial difficulty. I got my friend out of it by checking that the IP addresses on the emails didn’t match the alleged location of the correspondent, and that the correspondent was using an email client specialized for sending template-based emails.) It seems very unlikely that a fraudster has authored all the emails that Sam got. They are in no way formulaic, for instance. But from time to time, Sam wonders if there isn’t a really smart pimply teenage boy in some Internet cafe who is corresponding with Sam by using excerpts from genuine emails that he intercepted somewhere.
    Now, if there were such a boy, it wouldn’t, I think, be correct to say that Sam loves him. Sam loves “the author of the emails”, and there is no unique author of the emails on the hypothesis that worries Sam: they are cobbled together from various sources. So, Sam genuinely has doubts that the person he is in love with exists. And this is compatible with a meaningful relationship.
    That said, I don’t actually know that the mature Christian has doubts. Feelings of doubt are only defeasible evidence for doubt.

    August 25, 2010 — 9:05
  • By the way, is the antecedent of DHE is true?
    According to Christian doctrine, moral unfitness is universal among those not redeemed by Christ’s grace. (And, empirically, to a greater or lesser degree it seems to be found in just about everybody who has been redeemed but who has not yet died.)

    August 26, 2010 — 10:25
  • Heath White

    Would you mind putting your views more positively? That is,
    Premise: there are individuals who appear to de dicto believe there is no God, or who appear to lack de dicto beliefs in God, who also appear to be as intellectually and morally fit as the rest of us, and who persist in this state of apparent unbelief for the majority, including the end, of their adult lives. Moreover the proportion of such individuals appears to have increased in Western civilization over the last 500 years.
    What, in your view, is going on?

    August 26, 2010 — 11:46
  • Appearances can be deceiving and pride can be subtle. It’s hard to judge by externals on this, so I try not to. For example, I appear to be extremely prideful, but in fact I’m not. 🙂 (Seriously!) So I just plead ignorant on how many people are morally fit for union with God.
    And I hasten to add I’m using “moral” quite broadly here. There are plenty of people who are “moral” in a standard sense and have no desire whatsover for union with God. They’d be “morally unfit” in this older, broader sense: Their motivational structure is not suited to it. (And obviously it wouldn’t do to be too aggressive in keeping immoral people (in the more narrow sense) out of the Church, thus there are plenty of immoral people in the Church (very difficult to make *just* the right ones feel uncomfortable!)
    I’m not at all convinced that there’s been a decline in belief among any relevant classes in the last 500 years. I expect it’s remained pretty constant. Particular places–like Western Europe–have declined pretty badly in the last 500 years, but the US doesn’t seem to have. When it’s spotty like that, usually there are particular explanations (I’ve seen some numbers on Eastern Eurpope and China and South America and Affrica, but it’s hard to keep one frame of reference in place over all of them when doing sociology of religion.)
    But to the extent that apparently basically moral people who are bright disbelieve, we also have to consider how much they’ve considered the arguments. And for the most part, the answer is not much at all. Then a persons basic dispositions are typically a result of social forces. Secularism “caught on” in Europe and for several generations it’s been in vogue. I don’t think this has primarily intellectual causes.
    This is what tends to really affect me: De-conversions are shallow with a frequency that far outweighs that of conversions. The number of literary and philosophical converts to Catholicism in the 20th century is pretty impressive. Dawkins is more typical of the defectors. Most just never really think about it that much and grow up in environments that don’t encourage doing so, and positively discourage it much of the time.

    August 26, 2010 — 15:02
  • But to the extent that apparently basically moral people who are bright disbelieve, we also have to consider how much they’ve considered the arguments. And for the most part, the answer is not much at all. Then a persons basic dispositions are typically a result of social forces. […] I don’t think this has primarily intellectual causes.
    Right, but you could substitute “believe” into the above and it would also be true, yes?

    August 26, 2010 — 16:11
  • Perhaps in that particular excerpt, but that’s an excerpt from a comment which refers to important asymmetries. Belief seems to be both A. the natural conditions of humans, and B. the disproportionate outcome of studied intellectual conversions. That’s a pretty good 1-2 punch I think. Both are more to be expected on theism than naturalism.

    August 27, 2010 — 10:08
  • Hmm. What’s your source for the claim that “a disproportionate outcome of studied intellectual conversions” are from unbelief to belief? I’ll grant that “belief is the natural condition of humans” if all you mean by that is that far more people believe in something supernatural than don’t. But the particular form that belief takes seems to be almost always the result of social forces. And I don’t see anything too shocking about it, given naturalism. People believe all sorts of things.

    August 27, 2010 — 14:06
  • My “source” is the many intellectual biographies I’ve read as well as common knowledge of outspoken converts, and–given my extroverted nature–lots of personal experience.
    I mean more than that, though that’s a big part of it. Part of the more is that it seems insupressable, like under comunism in Russia or in China, it seems to constantly crop up in environments even where social conditions are pretty bad. It’s weird the way kids raised in irreligious households seem to have spontaneous religious beliefs at a surprising rate. I’d definitely recommend the Evens book mentioned above on this. He’s spent decades following this literature.
    Didn’t claim it was “shocking” but it seems clearly more expected on theism than atheism. So it’s one item of incremental confirmation for theism.

    August 27, 2010 — 14:18
  • John Schellenberg

    Some thoughts (I beg the indulgence of regulars):
    (1) The general category of the supernatural is one thing; the specific idea of theism quite another. That supernaturalist thinking was popular during the 50,000 years or so of human religion prior to the advent of the “Abrahamic” faiths, if a fact, has no direct bearing on the degree of divine hiddenness over all that time. The God of theism can be hidden precisely in supernaturalist-ideas-other-than-theism. And then there are the 50,000 years to come, as we creep toward maturity as a hominin species. Because of the ‘50s’, it’s still an open question whether the full-blown theistic belief that so obsesses us will be more than an evolutionary blip.
    (2) A general “moral fitness” hard to certify is one thing; the specific phenomenon of nonresistant nonbelief quite another. If one wants the tree “Schellenberg is barking up” – and I know it’s not the only one in the forest! – then the latter should be referenced, not the former. And readers may want to look more closely at what I’m barking at in the tree, for the emphasis on nonresistant nonbelief isn’t freestanding but emerges from – gets its peculiar shape from – talk about Divine love.
    (3) Whether belief in God is “well up since Darwin’s day,” whether “there’s been a decline in belief among any relevant classes in the last 500 years,” whether conversions or deconversions are typically “shallow” or deep, whether theistic belief is the “disproportionate outcome of studied intellectual conversions,” whether it’s intellectual argument or social or emotional susceptibilities (or some complex and pretty human combination of all these things) that most commonly explains Christian conversions and deconversions – to figure all this out we’ll need more than “personal experience” and “intellectual biographies” and information about which converts make the most noise.
    (4) The issue about numbers is in any case a red herring, if we’re talking about de-conversion hiddenness that should trouble a theist. That deep deconversions from theism are possible at all and do occur, with whatever frequency, seems a problem for theism.
    (5) The thoughts expressed about a relationship between evil and hiddenness are interesting ones, though if like me you understand hiddenness in terms of nonresistant nonbelief, you’ll wonder why the fact (were it to be a fact) that all nonbelievers resist belief should mitigate the problem of evil much. Don’t many religious people think this a fact already, while still (rightly) feeling the force of the problem of evil?
    My own interests of late have taken me far from the hiddenness problem, but I hope you’ll forgive me both for this interruption in your discussions and for mentioning – as I now do – that I have a paper on hiddenness and evil (an old one, tweaked) in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy.

    August 28, 2010 — 8:29
  • Basically, I agree John Schellenberg’s point (3) above, but to out it in slightly different terms:
    I can’t give much creedance to your readings of intellectual biographies or your personal experience in support of a general claim like “a disproportionate outcome of studied intellectual conversions” are from unbelief to belief. That’s because I’m not confident that the subjects of intellectual biographies are a representative sample of those who converted one way or the other, or that the subset of those biographies you read (and the circle of converts with whom you’ve interacted) are representative. And, of course, in judging what counts as a “studied intellectual conversion,” potential cognitive biases like selective perception and selective retention loom.

    August 28, 2010 — 9:58
  • I see no reason for you to doubt any of this. My reading–and experience–on this are quite broad. I actually think there’s a particular fallacy you’re making here on the representativeness business. I think I blogged on this on my personal blog, I’ll try to find the link.
    The steady stream of intellectual converts to Christianity in the 20th century, especially Catholicism is not an unknown phenomenon. In those biographies are ample evidence of well thought through struggles. Most intellectuals who loose their faith in college do so because most Christians are “stupid” and the “smart people” all reject it. Read _Philosophers Who Believe_ and _God and the Philosophers_ back to back with, say, _Philosophers without Gods_ or Sam Harris’s book, and the difference is obvious (there’s some interesting stuff in PwoG, but for the most part it’s just a totally different ballgame).

    August 30, 2010 — 8:39
  • Aaron Preston

    It seems to me that a great deal of the problem of divine hiddenness has to do with the lack of what Husserl calls “intuitive fullness” in our experience of God, rather than a general lack of evidence for theism. I think of William Rowe’s deconversion, which seems to have had as much to do with his lack of much-sought religious experiences as with what he judged to be a lack of adequate objective evidence. And it seems to me that this can be as much of a problem for believers who don’t end up abandoning the faith – think of Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul, for instance. Likewise, Dallas Willard begins _In Search of Guidance_ with a story about his wife’s grandmother, who upon reflecting upon her Pastor’s claim that God had *spoken* to him about the direction their congregation should go, wondered aloud (and I imagine with a feeling of being left out) why God never spoke to her. It seems to me that, in the absence of the sorts of experiences Rowe, Mother Teresa, and Willard’s grandmother-in-law were lacking, the problem of divine hiddenness will continue to be a problem, regardless of conversion and deconversion rates or other statistical facts about the prevalence of belief over unbelief. Or am I on the wrong track here?

    September 1, 2010 — 15:15
  • Jared

    I think the discussion around premise 1 of the “Relationship Argument” above has relevance to environmental ethics. The existence of future persons is surrounded by many layers of uncertainty (see “The Non-Identity Problem” – Derek Parfit), but is it reasonable to say we don’t have a relationship with those possible persons, or care for their wellbeing as a result of that uncertainty?

    September 11, 2010 — 17:54
  • Good point.

    October 5, 2010 — 14:52
  • Good point, this is very much worth following up on.

    October 5, 2010 — 15:03