Introduction to Section Four: Faith and Uncertainty (2008)

Paul Draper

 

In the first three sections of this book, naturalists have debated theists about the evidence for and against naturalism and theism. Some philosophers (like me) think that the evidence, taken as a whole, is not conclusive--that while it may justify leaning in one direction, it does not justify certainty. But even if I am mistaken about what the evidence does or does not show, no one will deny that subjective uncertainty about God's existence is very common. The purpose of the fourth and final section of this book is to examine the implications of such uncertainty. Does it provide a good reason to reject theism, since a loving God would not leave us in the dark about her existence? J. L. Schellenberg thinks so. Or, in the face of uncertainty, should we (seek to) believe in God for pragmatic reasons--i.e., because it is in our best interests to do so? This is the position defended by Jeff Jordan.

The topic of Schellenberg's opening case is the so-called "problem of divine hiddenness." This problem arises because God, as traditionally conceived, is a personal being--a being that has knowledge, power, and purposes and that uses that knowledge and power to perform actions designed to accomplish those purposes. Further, those purposes are not completely mysterious to us, since this God is thought to be loving and, more than that, perfectly good. From this it appears to follow that God would want a loving personal relationship with us both to benefit us and perhaps also to benefit God. Personal relationships, however, are impoverished at best when one of the persons involved in the relationship doesn't even believe the other exists. Thus, God would want us to believe in him. But then one can't help but wonder. If such a God exists, then why is he "hiding" from people who are open to having a relationship with him? Why doesn't God make his existence known to everyone who could benefit from that knowledge? This is the problem of divine hiddenness. Schellenberg believes that the problem can't be solved and accordingly turns the problem into the following argument for atheism. If God exists, then the only people who do not believe in her are people who aren't ready for a relationship with her. In other words, if God exists, then nonresistant nonbelief does not exist. But there are nonresistant nonbelievers in the world. So God does not exist.

While some say that, appearances notwithstanding, no nonbelievers are genuinely open to a relationship with God, such a position isn't credible. Were it not for the doctrine of a Hell for nonbelievers and the need to reconcile that doctrine with God's justice, I doubt anyone would make such an outrageous claim. In short, Schellenberg's second premise appears to be rock solid: nonresistant nonbelief exists. Therefore, since his conclusion that God does not exist follows necessarily from his two premises, the only real issue is whether his first premise is true. Is it really true that a loving God would limit nonbelief to those who resist belief? Schellenberg makes a powerful case for the truth of this premise, but Jordan challenges that case by suggesting that God might very well want us to freely seek him prior to actually believing that he exists.

Jordan's opening case has its roots in the thought of the famous 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. Pascal's response to the religious skepticism of some of his fellow Frenchmen was to argue that their nonbelief (or at least their failure to seek belief) was unreasonable in the practical sense even if God's existence is improbable. An analogy to gambling is helpful here. As any good gambler knows, it is often unreasonable not to bet on an improbable proposition. For example, it would be unreasonable not to bet that the next random draw from a standard deck of cards will be a club if one's opponent is willing to give you $1,000 if a club is drawn and accept only $100 if a spade, diamond, or heart is drawn. Similarly, Pascal reasoned as follows. Since there is no conclusive proof that God does not exist, the probability that she exists is greater than zero. Further, if God does exist, then belief in God is required to maximize one's chances of obtaining everlasting happiness, which has infinite value. If God doesn't exist, then the price, if there is any, of false belief in God is finite (e.g., wasted time attending Mass), while the benefits, if any, of nonbelief are also finite. Therefore, analyzing the situation like a good gambler, Pascal concluded that the most reasonable course of action (the one with the "highest expected utility" to use terminology from decision theory) is to (seek to) believe in God. This is so even if the probability of God's existence is extremely low, so long as it is not zero; for the positive chance, no matter how small, of an infinite payoff will always outweigh the risk of finite loss, no matter how great. In short, the "smart money" is on God. For obvious reasons, this argument is known as "Pascal's Wager."

Unfortunately, some of the assumptions upon which Pascal's Wager depends are questionable. For example, the argument seems to assume that a God would withhold everlasting happiness from a person just because that person doesn't believe that God exists. Since the sort of God we are talking about here is by definition just, and since nonbelief in God is not, at least in many cases, the result of any wrongdoing on the part of the nonbeliever, this assumption appears to be false. Another questionable assumption made by Pascal is that, in deciding what to do, one should only consider two possible states of affairs--the existence of the sort of God in which Pascal believed and the existence of no deities of any kind. The problem with this assumption is that there are other possible deities besides Pascal's God, including gods who have a nonzero chance of existing and who would reward nonbelief in Pascal's God with everlasting happiness or punish belief in Pascal's God with everlasting torment. Once these other possible outcomes are factored in, Pascal's premises no longer justify his conclusion. This is called the "many-gods objection" to Pascal's Wager.

In an effort to avoid the problems faced by Pascal's argument, Jordan constructs a new pragmatic argument for believing in (a traditional theistic) God. He calls it the "Jamesian Wager" because, like the famous American philosopher William James, Jordan emphasizes the benefits of believing in God that believers receive prior to death. According to Jordan, social scientific research suggests that, on average, believers in God live a longer and happier life than nonbelievers. The key to Jordan's argument is that increasing the chances of a longer or happier life is a benefit of believing in God that doesn't depend on God's actually existing. The social scientific research supports the claim that believers will receive this benefit, even if it turns out that God does not exist--that is, even if no deities of any kind exist and even if some deity other than God exists. This means that the believer in God (at worst) risks no more in terms of the afterlife than anyone else, but can expect to benefit more in this life no matter who turns out to be right. Like Pascal, Jordan concludes that, in the face of inconclusive evidence, seeking to believe in God is the most reasonable course of action.

Schellenberg raises a number of objections to Jordan's Wager. For example, Schellenberg maintains that seeking to believe in God when the evidence doesn't make God's existence probable will inevitably involve self-deception, and rationality does not require one to deceive oneself in the pursuit of the sort of benefits to which Jordan's argument appeals. It is worth noting here that neither Jordan nor Schellenberg holds that belief in God is voluntary. One can't simply decide to believe in God and then as a result of that decision form that belief. Generally speaking, we have direct control over what we do, but not what we believe. We can, however, affect our beliefs indirectly. For example, acting as if one believes that God exists might eventually result in one's coming to believe that God exists. Jordan and Schellenberg disagree, however, on whether or not pursuing this course of action as a means of acquiring belief involves self-deception.

So could the path to Heaven cross the River Jordan and take a detour through Caesar's palace? Or is a God who plays hide and seek no more real than countless other extraordinary entities (e.g., fairies, ghosts, and alien visitors from outer space) who reveal their existence only obscurely or to a select few? For fascinating responses to these intriguing questions, proceed to the debate between Jeff Jordan and John Schellenberg.

Proceed to the Debate


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Copyright ©2008 Paul Draper. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Paul Draper. All rights reserved.

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