The Implications of Naturalism and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness

The Implications of Naturalism and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness: An Interview with Dr. Michael Rea

Dr. Michael Rea, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion, and is the author of World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism (Oxford, 2002), Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge, 2008), and Metaphysics: The Basics (Routledge, 2014). He is the Co-Director for the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame and the President of the Society of Christian Philosophers. In addition to his academic accomplishments, he participated at the University of Idaho Veritas Forum and spoke about the Problem of Evil. He is currently involved in The Experience Project, a three-year initiative at the University of Notre and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which seeks to explore the nature and implications of transformative, spiritual, and religious experiences.

 

I want to start by talking about naturalism. Naturalism, in a colloquial sense, has many different meanings to many different people. Could you briefly define what naturalism is in the philosophical sense (and whether it is different from materialism and/or physicalism)? Why do you find naturalism so untenable?

In my book, World Without Design, I characterized naturalism as a disposition to treat the methods of science, and those methods alone, as basic sources of evidence. A basic source of evidence is one that you trust even in the absence of evidence in support of its reliability. It seems pretty clear that we have to treat some sources as basic—e.g., we have to trust sources like sensory observation, mathematical and logical reasoning (all of which I take to be among “the methods of science”), rational intuition, religious experience, or some other source without first having an argument for the reliability of the source; for any argument we might offer would already presuppose the reliability of some source of evidence. So naturalism casts its lot with the methods of science and those methods alone.

Unlike naturalism, materialism and physicalism are probably best understood as metaphysical views rather than as dispositions to treat certain sources of evidence as basic. Very roughly, materialism and physicalism are views about what everything is made of—matter, or physical objects. Naturalism, though, isn’t a view like that; indeed (so I say) it’s not a metaphysical view at all.

Some say that naturalism is self-defeating or otherwise irrational. Usually those objections against naturalism depend on understanding naturalism either as equivalent to some version of empiricism or as equivalent to some metaphysical thesis (e.g., the view that everything is spatiotemporal, or the view that there are no supernatural entities like God, ghosts, etc.). This isn’t my view, though. My objection to naturalism is just that if you treat the methods of science and those methods alone as basic sources of evidence, you find yourself unable to justify belief in realism about material objects, materialism about human minds, and realism about other minds.

Consider realism about material objects, for example. One tenet of this view is the claim that objects have their identity conditions independently of human minds. So, for example, suppose you have a rabbit, Bugs, who is flattened by a steamroller. Does Bugs survive? We all know that the answer is ‘No’. But how do we know this? We know by observation that where we once had a rabbit, we now have a smear of erstwhile rabbit parts. But we do not know by observation that Bugs no longer exists is true and Bugs exists as a smear of erstwhile rabbit parts is false. Neither do we know this by way of any application of scientific methods. So how do we know it? Anti-realists say that we know it because our ways of thinking about the world partly determine what there is in the world. Whether or not Bugs continues to exist as a smear depends, on this view, partly on details about our concept of Bugs (or about our concept of rabbit-hood generally, or something other concept). If this is right, then Bugs is a mind-dependent object: whether Bugs continues to exist depends partly on the activities of human minds. Naturalists can accept this account of how we know that Bugs no longer exists, because they can allow that certain kinds of reasoning about concepts—in particular, reasoning about what features are included in a concept, and reasoning about the conditions under which a concept applies—fall within the methods of science. But what if we reject anti-realism? The only alternative, it seems, is to say that we know that Bugs no longer exists by way of some means other than the methods of science, and whose reliability cannot be established by the methods of science—rational intuition, maybe, or divine revelation. So it seems that we face a choice: give up naturalism or embrace anti-realism about material objects. From here, it is a few short steps to concluding that naturalists must also give up materialism and realism about other minds. These conclusions aren’t necessarily devastating to naturalism; many philosophers accept anti-realism about material objects and reject materialism about minds for independent reasons; and some are even solipsists. But naturalists typically do not want to accept these conclusions. So my claim is that naturalism gives rise to a kind of “dissonance.” Moreover, it seems to me that realism about material objects and about other minds are very commonsensical views, so the fact that naturalism can’t accommodate those strikes me as a rather serious problem.

How would you define “common-sense” in this case? It seems that your argument is a pragmatic one – that is, given that the existence of certain entities is common sense, and that naturalism does not account for these entities, it is more reasonable to reject naturalism than to believe it. However, I can imagine a proponent of naturalism responding that it is in fact more “common-sense” to accept the methods of science alone as basic sources of evidence. To many naturalists, the methods of science are the pragmatic choice because they work. Thus, the existence of intrinsic modal properties may not be so commonsensical to the naturalist. If the methods of science work because they are testable, universal, and effective in predicting the future, how can we be sure that the entities you mentioned can fit within the realm of “common-sense”?

When I say that realism about material objects and realism about other minds are commonsensical views, I mean something like this: ordinary people are generally disposed to believe those views once they understand them; they are something like ‘default’ positions that people give up only as a result of philosophical theorizing. It seems to me that this is indeed true of realism about material objects and realism about other minds, but it does not at all seem true that naturalism is a default position for ordinary people. You pointed out that ‘the methods of science are the pragmatic choice because they work’. I’d say that they are a pragmatic choice because they work; and that ordinary people do indeed naturally trust the methods of science. But they naturally trust other sources of evidence too—intuition and (if they have it) religious experience as well.

What do you believe a successful refutation of naturalism necessarily entails about the state of reality? Is theism an ontological primacy in the absence of naturalism? Why?

I don’t think that naturalism is a thesis; so I don’t think it can be refuted. I also don’t think that abandoning naturalism entails anything in particular. What I’d say is that abandoning naturalism gives you better prospects for accommodating certain metaphysical views—realism about material objects, realism about other minds, and materialism about other minds— that many people want to accommodate. The reason is that abandoning naturalism opens up the possibility of trusting other sources of evidence—e.g., rational intuition or religious experience—that many people do trust but whose credentials cannot be established by way of the sciences.

The question whether theism is an ontological primacy in the absence of naturalism is a bit hard to answer. It depends on what you mean by ‘ontological primacy’. I take it that your question is something like this: Suppose we give up naturalism. Must we then posit God as the source of all being, and perhaps (as many theologians want to do) identify God as ‘Being itself ’? Or are there other alternatives to answering the so-called ‘question of Being’? I think that the answers to these questions are ‘no’ and ‘yes’, respectively. Many philosophers will deny that there is any such thing as Being itself, and will also deny that there is any unique ‘source’ of being. If I build a house, for example, there is a perfectly good sense in which I am the source of its being: I caused it to come to be. I think that many metaphysicians are inclined to think that the only meaningful question in the neighbourhood of “What is the source of being for x” is something like the question “What were the causes of x?” And many metaphysicians will say that the first cause, if there was any such thing at all, was something natural: the Big Bang, or an initial singularity that “preceded” the Big Bang, something like that.

One of the more recent arguments that atheists have used against Christianity is the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. That is, if God exists, any reasonable person should come to know him. Some atheists have gone further by saying that if God exists, He would ensure that everyone will know him. However, it is clear that God’s existence, in particular, the existence of the Christian God, is not clearly evident to a vast majority of the world’s population. How would you respond to this argument? Does this argument prove that God does not exist, or at the very least, prove that God is indifferent to us?

I don’t believe that this argument proves that God doesn’t exist; nor do I believe that it proves that God is indifferent to us. I agree that God will ensure that everyone knows God; I also agree that the existence of the Christian God is not clearly evident to the vast majority of the world’s population. So far as I can tell, those premises are not in tension with one another: everyone to whom the existence of God is not yet clear might still be such that, at some later time, God will ensure that they know God (or, at any rate, have an opportunity to choose a relationship with God).

Of course, one can tinker with the premises and tighten up the argument. E.g., one can say that if God loves us, God will ensure that everyone at every time is in a position to relate to God just by trying to do so. (This is, in effect, what John Schellenberg says.) But now we have to ask why we should think that this is a requirement of divine love. Schellenberg justifies this claim by appeal to analogies with parental love. Intuitively, a loving mother—a very good loving mother, anyway—would want there to be no time at which she is not in relationship with her child. She will always be open to relationship with her child; and if she were not limited in time, energy, resources, and so on, she would see to it that her child is always able to have a relationship with her just by willing to do so. Moreover, Schellenberg thinks, it is obvious that reasonably believing that a person exists is a necessary condition on having a relationship with that person. So, he thinks, if God is at least as loving as a good loving mother, God would see to it that each human being is at all times able to have a relationship with God just by willing to do so; and, accordingly, God would see to it that every human being—at least every human being who is not actively resisting relationship to God–is always in a position to believe reasonably that God exists. But, of course, it seems that there are people who reasonably fail to believe in God; and so, if the reasoning here is sound, it seems we should conclude that there is no perfectly loving God.

As should be clear, the argument here depends heavily on the idea that divine love will look very much like idealized human parental love. Admittedly, the Bible does encourage us to think along these lines— parent analogies show up in both the Old Testament and the New, and Jesus explicitly encourages us to address God as “Our Father.” But the Bible also provides a variety of other images for understanding our relationship to God and it seems very clear on the fact that, due to the vast differences between human beings and God and perhaps also due to God’s ability to appreciate and strive after goods well beyond our ken, the character and manifestation of divine love and goodness might very well violate the expectations we might form simply by reflecting on (fallen, human) love and goodness. In my opinion, reflecting on the vast differences between us and God yields two conclusions that help to defuse the problem that Schellenberg aims to raise. First, I think that we can safely conclude that a priori reflection on our human concept of love will not be a questionable guide to what expressions of divine love would have to look like. Second, I think that it is clear that we are in no position to definitively deny that divine hiddenness serves greater goods that might “justify” God in permitting people to live for significant periods of time outside of an explicit, believing relationship with God. Putting the two conclusions together, then, I think that what we ought to say is that we have no good reason to believe that, if God is perfectly loving, then God would see to it that everyone is at every time in a position to have a relationship with God just by willing it.

Could these “greater goods” be obtained by means that don’t require God to be hidden? If it is at least logically conceivable that God could have obtained these goods by other means, then it seems like a massive oversight on God’s part. Would God then be morally responsible for the damnation of those souls, even if those circumstances brought about a greater good?

I haven’t identified the greater goods in question, and I don’t claim to know them. It seems clear, however, that if divine hiddenness is justified solely by the fact that it contributes to greater goods, then those would have to be goods that God could not have obtained by other means. This isn’t quite to say that the greater goods in question require God to be hidden, though. Rather, the idea is that God allows for the possibility of divine hiddenness in order to achieve greater goods—goods which could not have been achieved had God refused to allow for the possibility of divine hiddenness. But whether divine hiddenness actually obtains or not might depend on how various contingent details work out.

It might sound a bit odd to talk about God merely ‘allowing’ for the possibility of divine hiddenness. After all, isn’t hiding something that a person does intentionally (rather than merely allowing it to happen?) But here we must keep in mind that when people talk about divine hiddenness, there are various different phenomena—some which God might merely allow, others which God might actively bring about—that they might have in mind. When Schellenberg talks about divine hiddenness, he primarily has in mind the fact that some people (by virtue of innocently, reasonably failing to believe in God) are unable to participate in a relationship with God simply by trying to do so. Others include under the label ‘divine hiddenness’ the fact that some people have important but unfulfilled desires for experiences of the love and presence of God. Both of these phenomena are things that God might bring about deliberately; but they are also things that God might merely allow to happen to people. (I do not think that divine sovereignty or divine omnipotence imply that everything that happens is brought about by God; for that would imply that God brings about even our own sinful behavior, which seem problematic).

So, again, my claim is that divine hiddenness might be something that God merely allows rather than actively brings about, and that God might merely allow it in order to achieve greater goods (even though we may not be able to discern what those goods are). If that is right, then the goods in question do not require divine hiddenness. It might help to compare what I am saying about hiddenness with what some people say about evil. Many people think that God permits evil in order to achieve greater goods—goods like human freedom, or human soul making. But nobody would say that human freedom or human soul-making requires the existence of evil; rather, it requires—on this view—only that God allow for the possibility of evil in the world. Whether there actually is evil in the world, however, depends on what human beings freely decide to do.

Ultimately, however, I don’t want to commit myself to the idea that whatever greater goods justify the permission of divine hiddenness, they are goods that God merely allows rather than actively brings about. For all I know, divine hiddenness is the result of deliberate divine action. If that is true, then presumably the goods in question can’t be obtained (at least not without the sacrifice of other goods) by means other than ones involving some amount of divine hiddenness.

One last thought here before wrapping up my response to this question. You raise here the question whether there might be conditions under which, by virtue of allowing or bringing about divine hiddenness, God becomes morally responsible for the damnation of some people’s souls. To this question I say ‘no’. Jesus told his followers, “Seek and you shall find”; and my general impression of the message of Scripture is that God always responds positively to anyone who seeks God—perhaps not right away, perhaps not even in this life, but at some point. So I take myself to have no evidence that divine hiddenness as such ever results in anyone’s damnation, and to have some evidence from Scripture that in fact it doesn’t. That’s not to say that there are no further questions to ask here. Can someone absolutely innocently fail to seek God? (I think I’d want to say ‘no’.) What counts as seeking? (I think I’d want to say something like, ‘being genuinely open to the existence of God and to having a relationship with God if God does exist’.) But defending answers to these questions—or even trying to offer answers less tentative than the ones I’ve just given—would make this response much, much longer than it already is.

A proponent of the Divine Hiddenness argument could reformulate the argument as a probabilistic claim. Thus, even if it were possible that God’s intentions were ultimately unknowable to us, or that He could have overriding reasons that justify his hiddenness, it does not follow that these possibilities were actually true. A pragmatic case could be made that the existence of a vast number of people who are not Christian prima facie provides a warrant for rejecting the plausibility of these explanations for God’s Hiddenness. How would you warrant these explanations in a way that makes them both plausible and likely?

You say that “a pragmatic case could be made that the existence of a vast number of people who are not Christian prima facie provides warrant for rejecting the plausibility of these explanations” for divine hiddenness. I do not believe that this is true. One point worth noting is that I haven’t exactly offered an explanation for divine hiddenness; rather, I have attempted to cast doubt on a certain conditional claim—namely, the claim that if God loves us, God will ensure that everyone at every time is in a position to relate to God just by trying to do so. I have said that one reason for withholding belief in this conditional is that we do not know enough about the nature of divine love to say definitively that the conditional is true. And I have said that another reason for withholding belief in this claim is that we know far less than a perfectly loving God would know about the goods that could be served by allowing some people at some times to not be in a position to relate to God just by trying to do so. These explanations do not explain divine hiddenness; rather, they explain why one can’t infer the non-existence of God from the fact that divine hiddenness occurs. Now, does the existence of a vast number of people who are not Christian provide prima facie warrant for rejecting the plausibility of these explanations? I don’t think so. Neither of my two explanatory claims seems to depend on how many people are or are not Christian. To see this, just consider whether learning that there are fewer Christians than you thought there were ought to make any difference in how plausible you find either of the following two claims: (A) we do not know enough about the nature of divine love to say definitively that if God loves us, then God will ensure that everyone is always in a position to relate to God just by trying to do so; (B) we know far less than a perfectly loving God would know about the goods that could be served by allowing some people at some times to not be in a position to relate to God just by trying to do so. It seems to me that one’s opinions about the plausibility of (A) and (B) ought to be wholly unaffected by new information about the distribution of Christian belief in the world; so it seems to me that this information casts no doubt on the plausibility of the explanations I have offered.

 

Claremont Design Team stars smallImage: Claremont Design Team – The Claremont Ekklesia, Spring 2015.

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