On Poston & Doughtery’s objection to the Divine Hiddeness Argument

This is a reply to T. Poston & T. Dougherty (2007), Divine hiddenness and the nature of belief, Religious Studies 43, 1-16.

Firstly, for brevity’s sake, I’ll use “God” or sometimes “loving God” as shorthand for “a perfectly loving God”.

P&D’s restatement of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness argument:

(1) If there is a God, He is perfectly loving.
(2) If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
(3) Reasonable non-belief does occur.
(4) No perfectly loving God exists.
(5) There is no God.

P&D say:

In order for (2) to be true the reading of ‘reasonable non-belief’ would have to be so strong that we have no reason to believe the reinterpreted (3). But any kind of reasonable non-belief we have reason to think is exemplified is not incompatible with the will of a loving God, thus rendering (2) without warrant.

In other words, they argue that the existence of God only rules out the most ‘super-reasonable’ types of non-belief…there may be lesser types of “reasonable” non-belief with which the existence of God is compatible.
AND, they argue that this most completely ‘super-reasonable ‘ non-belief does not in fact occur. Lesser types of ‘reasonable’ non-belief may occur, which is consistent with the existence of a loving God.

It seems to me that this is partly an empirical claim. Nevertheless, there is more philosophical work which can be done with regard to these distinctions:

1) Why are all other, ‘lesser’ kinds of ‘reasonable’ non-belief compatible with the existence of God?
2) Why do they think that this ‘super-reasonable’ non-belief does not occur?

P&D then construct a justification for P2, “If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.”
That goes like this:

(6) If a perfectly loving God exists, He will provide access to the benefits of a relationship with Him to all who are willing.
(7) If God provides access to the benefits of a relationship with Him to all who are willing, then reasonable7 non-belief will not occur.

I’m not sure if this is the strongest possible justification for P2. One might reasonably assert,

(6′) If a perfectly loving God exists, He will ensure that all who are willing to accept the benefits of a relationship with Him do actually have them.
(7′) If God ensures all who are willing to accept the benefits of a relationship with Him do actually have them, then reasonable7 non-belief will not occur.

I’ll leave it to my theistic opponents to scrutinise the plausibility this alternate P6 and P7, but substituting P6 for P6′ and P7 for P7′ is alone enough to make Poston & Dougherty’s objection irrelevant. P6′ and P7′ seem to be completely plausible assertions, and in my view better reflect the Divine Hiddenness argument. To be blunt, I think P&D are not assessing the strongest possible version of the DH argument.

P&D continue: Disambiguating “belief”
1) distinguish between “de dicto” and “de re” belief. de dicto is “the endorsement of some proposition preceded by a that-clause” so if S believes that P, then S believes-de-dicto P ; “belief de re is belief of a thing or individual that it has some feature even if the de re believer does not recognise the subject under some specific description”. There seem to be TWO differences here – first, de re belief refers specifically to beliefs about a property the belief-object has; and second, de re belief is implicitly transitive, so we can say if S believes-de re that P has property R, and P=Q but S is not aware P=Q, then S believes-de-re that Q has property R.
2) Distinguish between categorical belief and degrees of belief. This recognises a distinction in the way that “belief” is thought of: degrees of belief are quantifiable from 0 to 100% belief; categories of belief is a binary thing, where any degree of belief less than 1 is considered =0.
3) Makes a synchronic/diachronic distinction. Though Schellenberg avows a stronger version of the argument, that God would ensure at all times reasonable-non-belief will not occur, I think DH argument will work fine with the weaker 7b God will ensure at some time will reasonable non-belief will not occur – so long as that time gives every individual who is willing an opportunity to make a decision. P&D seem to agree with me on this caveat (P&D, 2007, p7).

Don’t like Wainwrights parallel argument – (3) is false, I think. More to the point, I think that “flourish” is a vague term which cannot be understood as something a human is doing or not doing in a moment of time; “flourishing” is something which only happens, or not, over time.
I agree with P&D that complete belief is not required for a personal relationship with God. Their example of a prisoner in solitary confinement developing a relationship with a person in the next cell, through wall-tapping, without being certain that person exists, is a good one. On a personal note, I myself have experienced a personal relationship with God where I’d say my belief-de dicto that God has the property of existence is even considerably less than 0.5. (Such belief can be maintained even if confidence level is very low, perhaps a level like 0.1, IMO, which BTW answers an objection to Pascal’s Wager – P&D point this out too, p10. And of course, I don’t think the experience of a relationship with God implies God actually exists, any more than, say, our prisoner’s experience of a relationship with a fellow prisoner implies that the tapping he hears is actually a fellow prisoner, rather than, say, a broken air conditioner).

P&D go on to say It may be that God is under some obligation to provide evidence sufficient for the kind of belief necessary for a personal relationship with Him. But, given the tapping case, this may only be evidence that makes for partial belief.
Given what  I said in the previous section, I would tend to agree that “God can achieve (a person’s) access to the benefits of a relationship with Him by partial belief.“(p9).
I think that a loving God would provide more than merely this kind of evidence. I assert that a loving God would provide enough evidence not just to facilitate some kind of provisional relationship with him, divorced from any epistemic certainty, but also enough evidence that a reasonable person would believe-de-dicto that He exists. The only alternative to this is that God expects his children to unreasonably believe in Him. That has a number of problems, but if anyone would like to endorse this alternative, I could address the issue in more detail. I believe this has been discussed before in the philosophical discussion between Schellenberg and one of his opponents?
Note that doesn’t include the assertion that full belief is required for belief in God. What I’m asserting instead, could be constructed like:

P11)    A loving God would not want people to act unreasonably (against reason).
P12)    Practising a relationship with God, while having reasonable non-belief-de dicto, is acting unreasonably.
P13)    Therefore, if God “provides access” to the benefits of a relationship with Him, this includes ensuring that reasonable non-belief-de dicto does not occur.

Their argument on p11 includes the assertion “We all receive some benefits in this life, and if we are ever grateful for them it seems that we are grateful for their source, so to speak. God is in fact the benefactor of all, so whoever expresses gratitude to the benefactor in fact expresses gratitude to God and is to that extent in a relationship with Him.” They go on to say that therefore, P7d cannot be used. This is fine, if this limited conception of a relationship with God is all that a loving God would want to provide his children with. But this doesn’t fit with the conception of a relationship with God which is endorsed by many theists. In this scheme, even a noted atheists like Richard Dawkins or agnostics like Carl Sagan could be said to be in a relationship with God, when they express wonder at the amazing intricacies of the natural world.



2 Responses

  1. would be useful if you tidied up the numerous references to (numbered) premises, perhaps by spelling them out, so then we can see where you actually disagree with their counter-arguments to the Argument from DH.

    I think the synchronous/diachronous thing is fairly key, not quite sure what you were saying there but I don’t see why reasonable non-belief shouldn’t occur at certain points in time in some peoples lives, as part of the more general issue of evil in the world. The issue would seem to be the persistence of rational/reasonable non-belief across time, i.e. someone’s whole life – perhaps harder to prove.

    “I agree with P&D that complete belief is required for a personal relationship with God.” Presumably there should be a “not” in there somewhere.

    • lol. Thanks. Sorry, I shoulda done that before posting this, rather than using you as an editor 😛

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