Home » Library » Modern Library » The Sounds of Silence Stilled: A Reply to Jordan on Hiddenness

The Sounds of Silence Stilled: A Reply to Jordan on Hiddenness


John Schellenberg

          1. Love is Not Love that without Love of Unity Unites

          2. Ought-Nots and Will-Nots

          3. Why a Pragmatic Solution Won’t Work

Jeffrey Jordan’s response to my hiddenness argument is essentially an extension and application of his pragmatic stance on matters religious. The result is an interesting and original solution to the problem of divine hiddenness. But I’m afraid it cannot be called convincing. Here I explain why. Before doing so, however, let me briefly identify and root out certain other mistaken views that appear along the path Jordan follows to his main argument, lest the reader be tripped up by them or lose his way in a thicket of error.

1. Love is Not Love that without Love of Unity Unites

Jordan starts off with the claim that “a key idea” of the hiddenness argument is that “a perfectly loving being would desire the best for its beloved”; “another key idea,” he says, “is that a deep relationship or friendship with God would constitute a very great good for creatures.” He then goes on to suggest that the conjunction of these two ideas is the sole basis for my claim that a loving God would seek relationship with creatures. But I have repeatedly argued that a perfectly loving being would value relationship for its own sake and not just on account of the benefits that might thereby be conferred on the beloved. The mother or sibling or friend whose love we admire does not value relationship with us just because it is good for us! (Later in his paper Jordan does mention my appeal to human parents, but he ignores this fundamental point about the nature of the best love that I am making by reference to them, and he ignores that it is not just parents but admirable lovers of every kind–parents, siblings, friends, and so on–that I have mentioned in support of it.) Accordingly, we could know that a God whose love for creatures was a perfect love would value relationship with creatures even if we knew nothing about what such relationship might involve. Now of course we aren’t bereft of information about what an explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God would consist in, contrary to what Jordan suggests. (It would mean an ever-deepening acquaintance and interaction–through such things as trust and responsiveness to the variable content of religious experience–with the greatest possible personal being, unspeakably beautiful and rich in every conceivable aspect.) But the point here is that by ignoring how a perfectly loving divine being would seek such relationship with us not just for instrumental reasons but also and centrally for its own sake, Jordan prejudices his case from the very start.

2. Ought-Nots and Will-Nots

In the first main section of his paper, Jordan outlines four assumptions which he attributes to the hiddenness arguer. The first of these, his A1, is on the right track–though it could be clearer that it is the evidence available to nonresistant nonbelievers (which might be something nonpublic like religious experience) that we are talking about here.[1] But while A1 can be countenanced, Jordan’s next suggestion, that the hiddenness argument rests on the assumption of absolute evidentialism (AE) and its claim that one ought not to believe when evidence is lacking, is false. It is not hard to see why he was led to make this suggestion: if the reason to believe I am saying God would provide is construed by me as purely evidential in nature, mustn’t I be opposed (and thinking that God would be opposed) to nonevidential, pragmatic reasons? Otherwise, why exclude the latter from the category of relevant reasons to believe? But something important has been missed here. This is that if God wants to ensure that everyone is, barring resistance, always in a position to participate in explicit relationship with God–which is to say (as I say in my original case but as Jordan omits to say) if God wants everyone to always be able to do so just by trying to–then even if God is not opposed in principle to belief on pragmatic grounds, God will provide more than pragmatic reasons to believe, for the latter–as Jordan himself admits–take time to implement. If God wants to ensure that belief is held in such circumstances by means of reasons to believe, then the constant availability of evidence causally sufficient for belief is the only way to go.

Now there is a principle in the neighborhood of AE that I do accept and that does enter into my thinking about the hiddenness argument–though it must be stressed that it is a psychological-cum-logical claim rather than a moral one (the bits I have emphasized are those that deviate from Jordan’s AE):

For all persons S and propositions p and times t, S will believe that p at t if what she takes as evidence seems to her to render p more likely than not at t; and S will not believe that p at t if what she takes as evidence does not seem to her to render p more likely than not at t.

My acceptance of this principle influences my view, indicated just above, as to what we might expect God to provide in the way of reasons and why, but as we will see in a few moments, the principle also allows us to expose an important difficulty in Jordan’s pragmatic recommendation–a difficulty that does have a moral dimension.

Just before coming to that, though, let me comment on the last two assumptions Jordan attributes to me. The third (which opposes what Jordan calls doxastic voluntarism), like the first, is unproblematic. But the fourth, like the second, reflects misunderstanding or neglect. According to this fourth assumption which I am alleged to have made, God loves universally and equally in a manner that is at odds with any emphasis on love tempered by justice. God is the cosmic Pure Utilitarian who distributes the divine grace equally among creatures without concern for whether the responsibility of creatures might not call for more variable treatment. But while Jordan here says that I have blithely ignored a large tract of theological thinking representing a different view of divine love, it is rather he who has blithely ignored the fact that, according to the hiddenness argument, it is only nonresistant nonbelievers who may expect to always find evidence sufficient for theistic belief available to them. God’s treatment of creatures, on my view, would vary with the nature of their disposition toward God. Though I have interpreted this variability of treatment as itself a manifestation of love (God’s openness to being freely rejected by creatures and unwillingness to coerce belief where it is resisted), it is not hard to see how any plausible and relevant requirement of justice must implicitly be recognized by it. For if justice prevents God from being revealed to some creatures, if some deserve to be left in ignorance, will it not be because in some way, at some level, they have culpably resisted God? Will they not be the ones who reject the divine overtures, who will not have anything to do with God? If instead a creature were open to God, not culpably resistant at all, how could justice prevent God from being revealed to that creature?

3. Why a Pragmatic Solution Won’t Work

And now, without further ado, let me address Jordan’s pragmatic solution directly. His three objections to the hiddenness argument all represent different facets of that solution: considerations from the first and second are subsumed in the third, which develops the pragmatic response in its fullest form and is clearly given pride of place by Jordan. The implicit progression is as follows. Belief isn’t necessary for a relationship with God; acceptance will do (Objection 1). And there is pragmatic reason to inculcate the belief that God exists through acceptance (Objection 2). Finally, it is possible that God would want a relationship to be formed on the basis of acceptance in response to pragmatic grounds instead of evidence, for it is possible that God is motivated by a desire to preserve a free choice to align oneself with God (Objection 3).

Jordan himself wants us to consider the three objections separately. But it is a good thing for him that he has more than the first two objections, separately construed, to rely on. For on their own, without being integrated into the third, they are completely implausible. Only by integrating central considerations from the first two objections into the third can certain obvious problems for the first two objections, taken separately, be circumvented. Unfortunately, the third objection faces insurmountable difficulties of its own, which leaves the pragmatic solution useless in the end.

Let us see how this assessment can be defended. Notice first why Objections 1 and 2 are unsuccessful on their own. By itself, Objection 1 must be taken as claiming that acceptance can substitute for belief in an explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God. But it is evident that explicit and positively meaningful relationship in every loving context with which we are familiar is explicit in a sense requiring mutual recognition, and that ‘mutual recognition’ must be taken in a sense entailing each party’s belief in the existence of the other. To suggest otherwise–at least without independent reasoning to support the notion that God would rest content with the seriously diminished ‘relationship’ compatible with acceptance (no clear hearing of God’s voice; no conscious experience of divine forgiveness and support; no assurance of God’s loving presence)–is nothing more than sophistry.[2] As for Jordan’s Objection 2: if this is to function as a stand-alone objection, it must–as he sees–involve the claim that pragmatic reasons to inculcate traditional theistic belief are overwhelmingly forceful and will be seen as such by any careful investigator who is humble and nonresistant (thus removing the possibility of nonresistant nonbelievers on which the hiddenness argument relies). This claim is overwhelmingly strong, and while it may not evince arrogance, it does suggest remarkable overconfidence and a remarkable myopia in the face of the many forms of religious belief and devotion which clearly must procure the pragmatic results Jordan wants to associate strictly with his familiar traditional theism. It also ignores how someone who accepts theism as a means of inculcating belief of theism after investigation has generated the view that the evidence is ambiguous is willingly giving herself over to self-deception. (This is where the principle enunciated above–my variation on Jordan’s AE–becomes relevant; such a one cannot arrive at theistic belief without getting herself to see the relevant evidence as more strongly in favor of theism than her best investigation has suggested it is–in other words, without fooling herself about what the evidence shows.) Surely some who are humble and nonresistant might find such self-deception to be a nonoverridden obstacle to belief (even if they are willing to go along with acceptance alone). But since I have expressed myself fully on related points in response to Jordan’s opening case, I will say no more about Objection 2 here.

Objection 3 gets around the worries I have identified. Its way of doing so has two parts: (i) taking the idea of an acceptance-based relationship and supporting the notion that God might possibly rest content with this on the way to belief and a fuller relationship and because of certain benefits obtainable thereby (and only thereby); and (ii) taking the idea of an attempt to self-induce belief through acceptance and arguing–at least implicitly–that the negative feature of such an effort (opening oneself to self-deception) is overridden by the possibility of obtaining the just-mentioned benefits. So what are the benefits at issue here? According to Jordan, they have to do with freedom: the freedom to “align oneself with God,” which one couldn’t have given “automatic belief.” God would value the “initial choice to freely accept” and “the free inculcation of belief,” and so would provide only pragmatic reasons for belief (which are sufficient to motivate acceptance) and avoid strong evidence (which only produces ‘automatic belief’).

Many difficulties bristle here. Clearly if–as I argued in “Jordan’s Jamesian Wager“–pragmatic considerations support no more than acceptance or faith that some religious claim is true, then the pragmatic support for specifically theistic belief that Jordan’s argument requires simply does not exist. More fundamentally, however, the point about ‘freedom to align oneself with God’ ignores the distinction between being in a relationship with God and being in a position to enter (or remain in) such a relationship through one’s free choice to do so. Even if one believes in God, one is not necessarily in the first of these states; only the second. (Many who believe in God have resisted aligning themselves with God.) And the second state is (by definition) compatible with just the sort of choice Jordan values. If one believes in God and is in a position to enter into relationship with God, one has a choice to make–will one do so or not? If one does so, one is aligning oneself with God; if one refuses to do so, one is not. So it is hard to see how the freedom Jordan wants is absent from the situation the hiddenness argument describes a loving God as necessarily realizing.[3] Indeed, there is a way of bringing the first two difficulties I have mentioned together to show that only in some such situation is the freedom Jordan wants really available to us. For if without strong evidence to positively distinguish theism from other religious possibilities, pragmatic considerations are impotent to move us in a theistic direction instead of others, why should one align oneself with theism as against other possibilities? For there to be a clear rational choice in favor of alignment with theism that the nonbeliever can freely make or refuse to make in the morally consequential sense that Jordan evidently has in mind, there must be good, nonpragmatic reason to prefer theism.

I conclude that, while many things can be learned from Jordan’s response to the hiddenness argument, that a pragmatic solution to the hiddenness problem works is not one of them.[4]

Continue the Debate


[1] Also, Jordan falls into a curious tautology in discussing this alleged assumption. He says that if A1 were false my argument would fail, and then in fleshing this out gives us a proposition that reduces to ‘If A1 were false, A1 would be false’: “If it were possible that the probability that God exists, given the available supporting evidence, were equal to, or nearly so, one-half, then it would not be a necessary truth that that probability had to be significantly higher than one-half [assuming the existence of God].” We can certainly agree with this conditional, but we are still left waiting for something to show that the claim embedded in its consequent–A1–really is essential to the success of my argument!

[2] Jordan tries to avoid such a charge by watering down the idea of relationship with God, again suggesting that we know little about it, and in particular, that to speak of it as I do is to “anthropomorphize”–which he defines as “understanding the relationship with God as in all relevant respects being the same as human relationships.” Now this definition might be all right (and any illustration of it a problem) were the word ‘relevant’ to be removed. But if we only say that the two sorts of relationship are similar in relevant respects, surely we do not anthropomorphize. (Any two sorts of relationship are going to be alike in some respects.) And Jordan knows that the relevant respect I will emphasize is conscious reciprocity (no more than a filling out of the meaning of ‘explicit and positively meaningful’ there) and that I have allowed that in many other respects the divine-creature relationship might be as different from creature-creature relationships as night from day.

[3] For much more on this, see Chapter 5 of my Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

[4] Jordan has a trio of additional points to which the reader may expect a response: (i) acceptance is perhaps preferable to belief because it is not subject to the waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing, properties of involuntary belief (no talk of ‘automatic belief’ here!); or (ii) perhaps it is preferable because there is a need to avoid the ‘celebrity effect,’ whereby persons align themselves with God but for the wrong reasons; and moreover (iii) all that is required to defeat my claims is that the story he tells be logically possible, which it clearly is. However (i) simply ignores how easily God could see to it, in any possible world in which God exists, that our evidence was adjusted according to the vicissitudes of life and kept always causally sufficient for theistic belief. Perhaps Jordan is influenced by the ebbing and flowing to which theistic belief appears to be subject in the actual world. But then he is in danger of question-beggingly assuming that religious effects in the actual world are indicative of what the effects of God’s behavior in self-revelation would really be. Why suppose that the actual world reflects all that God could produce in the way of stable belief unless you are assuming that its instances of theistic belief are produced by God–and thus assuming that God actually exists? As for (ii): how does the accepter avoid the problem represented by the celebrity effect, if a problem it is? To do so, she would need to be unaware of just Whose existence she is accepting, and surely she is not. Finally, in response to (iii), since Jordan’s story includes the suggestion that an acceptance-based relationship is necessary for certain freedom-related goods to obtain, he is committed to the view that it is possibly necessary that this is so, which–according to standard modal logic–nothing can be without being necessary in all possible worlds, including the actual. And so the distinction between actual and possible to which he appeals is in fact unavailable to him.

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

all rights reserved