Friday, October 12, 2012

Divine hiddenness and revelation

To: Daniel P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Divine hiddenness and revelation
Date: 18th August 2008 12:00

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your email of 4 August, with your second essay towards the Associate Award, 'Hiddenness and Revelation' on the topic of Divine hiddenness.

This is a very well written essay, coherent and well argued. However, I have to say from the start that I find this a very curious debate. Two issues -- or assumptions -- stand out for me as needing further scrutiny. (I'm not saying that you have to do this if you feel that you have worked on this topic enough.)

The first assumption concerns the nature of free will: a person only exercises free will when it seems to them that they have a realistic or meaningful choice between A and B. Is that true?

The second assumption is that God is, logically, capable of 'revealing' himself, in some form, that is to say, capable of providing sufficient empirical or rational grounds (both have to be considered) for belief in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being.

I will start with the first assumption. The 19th century British metaphysician F.H. Bradley in 'Ethical Studies' gives an argument which I find compelling: suppose you found a high value banknote in the street, and handed it in to the Police Station. A friend remarks, 'I'm surprised you didn't keep the money, no-one would have known!' and you reply angrily, 'You should have known me better than that!' The man in question does not consider that he had a choice. There is only one thing to do. And that is how we sometimes feel when we do right. But surely his action is the paradigm of a free action, that is to say, an action performed by an individual of their own volition, not under any coercion, in full possession of their faculties etc. etc.

You give the interesting scenario of a person who has 'known' God since early childhood. The individual in question must surely know, not only that God wants him to do A rather than B, but also that it is right to do A rather than B, that A is good and B is evil (let's keep it simple). How can one fail to choose A in such circumstances?

Of course, one can still suffer 'weakness of will' in the face of overwhelming temptation. You might think that all God has to to is provide sufficient temptation in order for there to be a real choice, or real experience of choosing. But this confuses free with with strength of will. How can you be more free if you successfully overcome temptation, than if you were never tempted in the first place? In Aristotle's view, indeed, the merely 'continent' man, who resists the temptation to do evil, is less morally praiseworthy than the man whose good actions flow naturally from his character. (One doesn't have to agree with this, but it is a defensible view.)

Freedom of will is a good, indeed one of the most important human attributes. What characterizes such freedom, is the power of rational choice. A God who gives human beings the power of rational choice is *powerless* to prevent the evil which necessarily follows, in the same sense as he is powerless to create a stone which is too heavy for him to lift. This is the basis of the theist's 'free-will defense' to the problem of evil.

But this brings us to the second question, which is indeed crucial for your essay: why can't God, in addition to giving human beings free will, provide them with sufficient grounds to motivate them to always choose good, i.e. by 'revealing' himself?

We can quickly discount any empirical 'revelation'. Anything which God can do in this world (e.g. appearing as a man) is consistent with 'God' being a very powerful finite alien being. 'If Christ appeared to me I would do my very best to kill him,' is a perfectly reasonable attitude. I am not going to surrender my autonomy to any superior worldly power (this echoes something you say in your essay). God has to be infinite to be God, that is to say, to be a being worthy of worship rather than Russell's Moloch before whom we prostrate ourselves (see Russell's essay, 'A Free Man's Worship').

There is no logical necessity (at least, none that we are aware of at the present time) that, if God exists, then there exists a rational argument for God's existence. Yet discounting the empirical, nothing else will do. In mathematics, there are very difficult proofs, and maybe the proof of God's existence, if it exists, is very difficult. Which, for the theist, would explain why we have not yet found it, and, hence, why at the present time atheism is a reasonable position. That doesn't make theism unreasonable, but rather consigns the question of God's existence (as Kant believed it must be consigned) to the realm of faith.

So now the issue would have to be formulated as follows: *suppose* that there exists (although we have not yet found it) a rationally compelling argument for the existence of God. It is within God's power to reveal this argument to man, without compromising man's free will. Nor would the consequences (as I have argued) compromise man's free will. (You wake up one morning and the proof is there, as indeed many proofs have been discovered.) So why hasn't he done so? What possible benefit can accrue from allowing the human race to remain in darkness and uncertainty?

From this point on, the argument is familiar. You can just as well ask what possible benefit are earthquakes. The best possible world is one in which the best qualities of human character are displayed, and it is this, rather than free will as such, which the theist will argue is inconsistent with God's revealing an incontrovertible proof of His existence.

All the best,