Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Can't you hear me knocking?

There's an interesting thread developing at New APPS on divine hiddenness (here). The argument from divine hiddenness has always struck me as prima facie plausible, if not the strongest argument for atheism around. The argument runs something like this:

(P1) If God exists, he is perfectly loving.
(P2) If a perfectly loving God exists, he wouldn't allow non culpable unbelief (non-belief and disbelief? I think both).
(P3) However, there is nonculpable unbelief.
(P4) Therefore a perfectly loving God doesn't exist.
(C) Therefore, there is no God.

Some authors think that you can have a meaningful relationship with God even if you don't believe that God exists. Dougherty and Poston offer this example:
Suppose that Jones – an unfortunate fellow – is locked in solitary confinement in a dark prison cell. Jones hears faint taps coming from the other side of his prison wall. The taps resemble the presence of another person willing to communicate, but it is not certain that there is another person in the other cell. Yet, Jones begins to tap back. Suppose this activity continues over a long period, and Jones can – with some effort – make sense of the taps as another person attempting to communicate with him. Suppose Jones’s credence (his degree of belief, rational confidence, or what have you) on the claim ‘there is another person in the cell beside me’ is 0.5. He seems to be discerning messages, but he realizes that it could just be in his head since the signs are ambiguous. Yet, given that the two persons are tapping back and forth to each other, it seems that they are in a personal relationship, one which in time could take on great significance (again, this latter part is of great importance). The interaction could be so meaningful and hope-inducing that it keeps Jones from going insane or perhaps even keeps him from dying or killing himself. Suppose also that, in fact, the tapping is coming from Smith who, many years later, meets up with Jones and they discover what was going on. We submit that this part of their relationship will take on new-found significance in their new relationship, something to look back on and cherish, and a surprisingly good foundation for deepening their relationship now that Jones’s credence has been raised to moral certainty by actually meeting Smith.

The case isn't supposed to cover the case of non-culpable disbelief, only to show that you can have a meaningful relationship given only partial belief (and a very low degree of belief, to boot).

What to make of the case? It's clear that the tapping can be meaningful in some sense, but it's also clear that it can be meaningful without being a meaningful relationship. Consider two versions of the case. In the first, Smith and Jones meet after being released from prison. In the second, Smith dies in prison and Jones learns about Smith from Smith's widow. In the second case, it seems it would be very, very weird for Jones to say this:

Yes we had a meaningful relationship for years, but we never met and I didn't know he existed until now. I always thought it was just as likely that he was a drip or a branch hitting a window.

Yet, that seems to be how they want to describe the case. If they resist this description of the case and say that there wasn't ever a meaningful relationship between Jones and Smith, I think they face some serious trouble. Focus now on their version of the case, the one with the happier ending. To show that there's a meaningful interpersonal relationship without belief in their version of the case, they'd have to say that the relationship became meaningful because they later met. Intuitively, whether the tapping constitutes a meaningful relationship shouldn't depend upon whether they meet later. It would be odd to think that the proper description of the relations between them while in prison depended upon what happens in the future.

I think there's a simpler solution to all this. Reject 2. A life of unbelief isn't the worst thing in the world. (Surely it's better to let a handful of rational people never believe in God than allow a handful of genocides.) If you're a theist, you have to think that God is permitted to let (literally) the worst things in the world happen. Done and done.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Yes we had a meaningful relationship for years, but we never met and I didn't know he existed until now. I always thought it was just as likely that he was a drip or a branch hitting a window."

This is a perfectly accurate summary of the situation in hindsight. It is weird, but that is only because the situation it describes is weird.

Anonymous said...

"Yes we had a meaningful relationship for years, but we never met and I didn't know he existed until now. I always thought it was just as likely that he was a drip or a branch hitting a window."

This is a perfectly accurate summary of the situation in hindsight. It is weird, but that is only because the situation it describes is weird.

Clayton said...

I guess I don't see the _situation_ as all that weird. The description strikes me as completely incoherent.

Daniel said...

Hi Dr. Littlejohn,

Is a degree of belief of 0.5 any better than a degree of belief of 0.0? I take it that what you find strange about the second case is that if you asked Jones if he believed he was talking to someone, his appropriate resonse should be to flip a coin.

Monte said...

Suppose John suffers from a psychosis but has some insight into his mental illness, so he recongises that he is prone to hallucinations. He meets Smith with whom he converses, shares experiences, enjoys many cups good quality Laban etc. Having insight into his mental illness, John worries that Smith might be a figment of his imagination. His credence on the claim 'Smith is a real person' is 0.5. It seems to me that in this hypothetical case it's much more obvious that John is having a meaningful relationship with Smith, eventhough he only partially believes in Smiths existence. I would go even further: even if John believed that Smith was definitely a figment of his imagination, it still seems correct to say in hindsight that John had a meaningful relationship with Smith.

Kimberly said...

"Yes we had a meaningful relationship for years, but we never met and I didn't know he existed until now. I always thought it was just as likely that he was a drip or a branch hitting a window."

I'm inclined to agree with Monte. I'm also fairly sure that there are less extreme cases which illustrate a similar point. The plot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's _Love in the Time of Cholera_ comes to mind. Though Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza fail to communicate for many years (decades, in fact), Marquez argues (via the narrative) that they've maintained a relationship, none-the-less. (It's important to note that Daza remains incredibly stoic and uncommunicative, even a the start of the novel, which lends this example one-sided uncertainty on the pat of Ariza.) I'm sure there are less fictional and more practical examples, but I'm currently drawing a blank.