Monday, February 10, 2020

A bad argument from hiddenness

Consider the following variant of the argument from hiddenness:

  1. If God exists, no mature human is ignorant of God’s existence through no fault of their own.

  2. Some mature humans are ignorant of God’s existence through no fault of their own.

  3. So, God doesn’t exist.

It’s occurred to me that premises like (3) are either nonsense, or trivially false, or far beyond our capacity to know to be true.

For to evaluate whether some x is ignorant of God’s existence through no fault of their own requires asking something like this:

  1. Would x still have been ignorant of God’s existence had x lived a morally perfect life?

But it does not seem likely that there is a sensible positive answer to (4). Here is a quick argument for this. Those who deny Molinism are going to say that either the proposition asked about in (4) has no truth value or that it is trivially false. And even some Molinists will say this about (4), because Molinists are committed to there being conditionals of free will only when the antecedent is maximally specified, while “x lived a morally perfect life” is too unspecified. The question is much like:

  1. Had Napoleon been born in South America, would he still have been a great military leader?

There are many ways for Napoleon to have been in South America, and they are apt to result in different answers to the question about whether he was a great military leader.

But even if (4) has a truth value, perhaps because (4) is to be interpreted in some probabilistic way or because we have an expansive version of Molinism that makes (4) make sense, it is far beyond our epistemic powers to know the answer to (4) to be true. Here is why. Our lives are full of wrongdoing. Our lives would likely be unrecognizable had they been morally perfect. To ask what we would have thought and known in the counterfactual scenario where we live a morally perfect life is to ask about a scenario further from actuality than Napoleon’s being born in South America.

Now, that said, there are times when we can evaluate counterfactuals that involve a massive change to the antecedent on the basis of certain generalities. For instance, while we have no answer to (5), we do have a negative answer to:

  1. Had Napoleon suffered a massive head injury rendering him incapable of interpersonal communication, would he still have been a great military leader?

Similarly, if an atheist had suffered a head injury removing the capacity for higher level thought, the shape of their life would have been very different, but at least we can say that they wouldn’t have been an atheist, because they wouldn’t have had the concepts necessary to form the belief that there is no God. So, indeed, sometimes counterfactuals that take us far afield can be evaluated sensibly on general grounds.

But I do not think we have good general grounds for a positive answer to (4), unless we have independent grounds to doubt the truth and rationality of theism:

  1. There are no good grounds for reasonably believing in God, and a person who lives a morally innocent life won’t believe things groundlessly, so they won’t believe in God.

  2. There are people who grow up in societies where there is no concept of God, and they would not be aware of God no matter what the shape of their lives would have been.

Obviously, (7) requires independent grounds to doubt the rationality of theism. And if God exists, then for all we know, he has a general practice of making those who are morally perfect be aware of him, so (8) is dubious if God exists.

Of course, an atheist might think (7) is true, but this is unlikely to be a helpful move in an argument against the existence of God. After all, similarly, a theist might think the following is true:

  1. God will ensure that every morally perfect mature human is aware of him.

Indeed, a typical Christian thinks that there have only ever been one or two people—Jesus and maybe Mary—who have been morally perfect, and both candidates were aware of God.


Michael Gonzalez said...

I seem to be missing something. Why does (2) depend on anything like (4)?

Does the "fault" in "no fault of their own" really mean "immorality" or "fault in their moral nature"? I thought it meant "no fault of their own" in the sense of "not due to anything they did" or "not due to anything under their control" or something like that.

Without the atypical use of "fault" in "no fault of their own", I don't see any connection at all between (2) and (4).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am thinking: not due to anything _bad_ that they did. And it seems that something isn't due to anything bad that you did just in case it wouldn't have happened had you lived a perfect life.

scott said...

Maybe one way to push Michael's point: There are lots of people who are a lot more moral than me who miss out on believing in God. While such people aren't perfect it seems like they don't deserve to miss out on God for their moral imperfections.

But in that case I think you have a nice reply: We started out with two worries for Christianity. First, there was the worry about divine hiddeness. Second, there was the worry that Christianity is too uptight about morality and makes a big deal about minor moral infractions. If you are right, it shows that there is really just one worry here. And the worry about God being hidden only gets its force from the prior worry about Christianity being too uptight about morality.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: I would be very surprised if anyone promoting Divine Hiddenness as an argument against belief in God means "If God exists, then people who don't do anything wrong/bad/immoral should always find convincing reasons for believing in Him." That would be some sort of argument from morality or something that I've never heard before. My understanding is that they are arguing "If God exists, then missing out on the convincing reasons had better not be a total accident or totally outside my power".

In other words, the argument is "if I look sincerely, I should be able to find Him"; not "if I behave myself then I should be able to find Him".

Michael Gonzalez said...

Scott: No, this dives even deeper into what I take to be a fundamental confusion about the argument. Please see my response to Pruss (above). The argument has nothing to do with being moral and everything to do with searching sincerely.

Benjamin Stowell said...

I wonder, if counterfactuals are false or at least not true, then what Christians are to make of what Paul says in 1 Cor 2:8: "None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory."

It sounds like Christians who take Paul's writings seriously are committed to the truth value of counterfactuals. Unless this subjunctive phrasing is just a semantic convenience, and what's really being expressed is simply how the acts of the "rulers of this age" were done in ignorance.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Benjamin: It's somewhere in between. God knew these people all their lives better than even the most skilled therapist would if they had followed the person every day of their lives. So, God is in a position to say of someone who has already lived, made lots of decisions, etc etc, that they "would not have" done X had they known Y. But to hold that there are counterfactual truths about us since the beginning of time is to make us complex automata. So, it is a "semantic convenience", but one that is based on full knowledge of a living person.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It could be that there are certain kinds of states of affairs searching into which requires being a good person. Ethics may be like that. It is not surprising, I think, if theology is like that, too.

Michael Gonzalez said...


Sure, but, the Divine Hiddenness arguments are definitely more about whether our failure to find good reasons for faith is "up to us" or "within our power" or "due to something didn't do", etc. The argument that God's existence is unlikely because we can be perfectly moral without believing in Him is a completely different argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose the following is true:

(*) Were Bob morally perfect in all his actions, he'd have good reasons to believe in God.

Then Bob's lack of good reasons is in some sense within his power: it is counterfactually dependent on his misdeeds.

Michael Gonzalez said...

That assumes it's possible for Bob to be perfectly moral in all his actions, which I think would be a dubious assumption. But, even if it were, it would make the immoral "no fault of his own" a subset of 1 within the much larger set of "not within his power" that I believe is meant by proponents of the DH argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good point. I think my argument still works if I restrict to talk of morally perfect* people, where a morally perfect* person does the right thing in every case where she is capable of doing so. (She may end up doing wrong things, but not culpably so.)

All I need to refute the DH argument is to show that, for all we know, every non-theist is such that it was within their power to have good reasons to believe in God. But, for all we know, (*) is true for every non-theist. And if (*) is true for every non-theist, then every non-theist is such that it was within their power to have good reasons to believe in God.

Ben Wallis said...

When we talk about "fault" there's usually some context at play. For instance, was it Giannis's fault that his team lost the all-star game last night? Nobody in his right mind would think we're talking about moral failings in that example. And nobody in his right mind would think that about the hiddenness argument either.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I expect a lot more is our fault than we think.