This is the fourteenth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Michael Rea, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. Most of his work to date has been in metaphysics and philosophy of religion. The project that is currently occupying most of his time is a book, and a corresponding set of lectures, on the hiddenness of God.
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
When people ask me about my religious upbringing, I usually say that I grew up in a liberal PC-USA church with a renegade conservative Calvinist youth minister. That characterization is misleading in certain respects, but there is more truth than falsehood in it. Probably the best way to illustrate the divide is with a story. The church was (and still is) located in Redondo Beach, California—just a couple of blocks from the ocean, and just 26 miles by boat from Catalina Island, where we held our summer youth camps every year. Our camp was popular; every year some 100+ high school students attended; many would commit or recommit their lives to Christ around the campfire at the end of the week, and the ranks of our youth group were accordingly swollen for months afterward. Some of the students at camp thought that it would be extremely cool to be baptized in the ocean right there at camp; and so one year, our youth minister—not yet ordained, and not yet even a seminary graduate—obliged them. (“See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?”) Predictably, the youth minister was brought before the elders of the church. His defense appealed to scripture: Philip did not wait to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church before baptizing his Ethiopian convert; so why should he? The response from one of the elders was, “Don’t bring the Bible into this.”
There is an old Soviet joke. A visitor arrives in the Soviet Union and by the airport he sees two workers with shovels. The first digs a hole. Then the second covers up the hole. He asks the workers what they are doing. They say: “The worker who puts the trees in the holes didn’t show up.”
The joke illustrates this fallacy of practical reasoning:
- I have good (very good, excellent, etc.) reason to make p hold.
- A necessary condition for p is q.
- Thus, I have good (very good, excellent, etc.) reason to make q hold.
There is good reason to plant a tree. Digging a hole and filling in a hole are necessary conditions for planting a tree. But that only gives one reason to dig the hole when one expects a tree to be put in, and it only gives one reason to fill in the hole when the tree has been inserted.
One’s reason to make p hold transfers to a similar weight reason to make the necessary condition q hold only when it is sufficiently likely that the other conditions needed for p will come to be in place.
We can call inferences like (3) instances of the Necessary Condition Fallacy.
Now consider this familiar line of thought.
- If God exists, then for each sufficiently epistemically rational person x, God has an overriding reason to bring it about that x enters into a love relationship with him.
- A necessary condition for a sufficiently epistemically rational x‘s entering into a love relationship with God is that x will believe that God exists.
- A necesasry condition for a sufficiently epistemically rational x‘s coming to believe that God exists is x‘s having evidence of God’s existence.
- So, a necessary condition for a sufficiently epistemically rational x‘s entering into a love relationship with God is that x have evidence of God’s existence. (5 and 6)
- So, if God exists, for any sufficiently epistemically rational human x, God has an overriding reason to bring it about that x has evidence of God’s existence. (4 and 7)
- But what God has an overriding reason to do always happens.
- So, if God exists, every sufficiently epistemically rational person has evidence of God’s existence.
- But not every sufficiently epistemically rational person has evidence of God’s existence.
- So God doesn’t exist.
But the derivation of (8) is a clear instance of the Necessary Condition Fallacy.
So the question now is whether there is a way of deriving (8) without making use of this fallacy. If it were the case that
- every sufficiently epistemically rational creature would be very likely to enter into a love relationship with God upon receiving evidence that God exists,
then (8) would have some plausibility. (I say “some”, because I am not sure the overridingness transfers from (4) to (8) given merely a high probability of success in producing a love relationship.) But (13) is not particularly plausible, especialy given that it seems likely that there are people who rationally believe in God but don’t love him. (One thinks here of the line from the Letter of James about demons who know that God exists and tremble—but surely don’t love.)
Objection: Even if God sees that a person is unlikely to enter a relationship with him, why wouldn’t he at least try, by providing the person with evidence of his existence? What does God have to lose here? (This objection is basically due to Heath White.)
(i) It’s generally intrinsically worse when someone who knows about God’s existence doesn’t love God than if someone ignorant of God’s existence doesn’t love God. Moreover, it can be instrumentally worse: when someone who knows about God’s existence doesn’t love God, that bad example can make it harder for others to have a good relationship with God (hypocrisy is harmful). So there is something to be lost by giving someone knowledge that God exists when the person is unlikely to love God.
(ii) It’s likely that there are some cases where the probability of ultimately loving God is higher if instead of revealing himself at t1, God waits until t2 for the person to mature morally and/or psychologically before revealing his existence. For instance, living longer without believing in God might lead the person ultimately to become more firmly convinced that there is no happiness apart from God. And ultimately loving God can be much more important–infinitely more important, if people live forever–than the benefits of the extra love of God between t1 and t2 should God reveal himself earlier. Given eternal life, God has reason to optimize the time at which belief in God starts so as to optimize the chance of ultimately coming to love God.
Granted, one might wonder how widespread cases like (i) and (ii) are. I suspect they’re not very rare. But in any case the argument from hiddenness is supposed to hold that if God existed, then no epistemically virtuous agent could ever lack evidence for God’s existence. And to cut down that claim, all that’s needed is for (i) or (ii) to be logically possible.
Final remark: It could also be that some people if they come to believe and have a relationship of love with God at t1 are more likely to lose that relationship than they would be if they matured more prior to believing and entering into the relationship. One thinks here of Jesus’ parable of the house built on sand.