Critique of a Critique of the Argument from Divine Hiddenness

Hey guys! I got a little somethin for ya this fine evening. I put out another video on the religion/atheism debate! Check it out!



Edward Feser’s e-beefs with other philosophers are usually amusing at the very least, and sometimes sources of edification as well. This is the case for a relatively one-sided spat he had with an atheist philosopher by the name of Mano Singham. It seems that Dr. Singham had heard of Feser’s book, “Five Proofs for the Existence of God,” and simply dismissed it out of hand in this blog post:

He was saying “You wouldn’t need five proofs for God if any one of them were any good.” Naturally, Singham felt he had no reason to even read Feser’s book, which equally naturally prompted an indignant response from Feser.

As you can imagine, Feser lambasted Singham for insulting a book he hadn’t read. There’s a lot of stuff in Feser’s blog post, but today I’d like to concentrate on a particular point Feser mentions—“Divine Hiddenness.”

Feser quotes Singham as saying, “One of the paradoxical signs that god does not exist is how religious apologists keep trying to prove that s/he does exist. After all, no one tries to prove that the Earth exists or that the Sun exists.  Surely the existence of gods should be at least as manifest.”

In response, Feser says this “is a variation on what’s called the “divine hiddenness” objection.  And as it happens, I reply to that objection at some length in the book, at pp. 300-304 – which Singham would know if he’d bothered even to skim through the book before raising this objection against it.”

Now, Singham may not have read Five Proofs, but I have. So for this video, I’ll be explaining what, exactly, feser says on those pages of Five Proofs, and why I think Feser’s critique ultimately fails, and the argument from divine hiddenness is still a very good one.

On page 300 of Five Proofs, Feser gives the argument as such: “If God really existed, then he would not be ‘hidden’ from us, but his existence would be obvious to everyone.” So you can see why Feser attributes this argument to Singham—when Singham says “the existence of gods should be at least as manifest” as the existence of the earth or sun, he’s implying that God’s existence is not manifest, or in other words, that God’s existence is hidden from us.

So, what are Feser’s problems with this argument? According to Feser, it rests on two assumptions. “first, that if God really existed, then his existence would be obvious to most people; and second, that his existence is not in fact obvious to most people. But why should we accept either of these assumptions?”

He would have us think that both assumptions are fallacious.

The first one is wrong because there is ostensibly no reason to think that God intends a personal relationship to human beings or cares if we acknowledge his existence—as Feser writes, “Not all theists have supposed that. For example, Aristotle famously thought that the divine Unmoved Mover of the world contemplated himself eternally, but took no cognizance of us.” Even if such a God wanted to remain hidden from us, or was hidden simply because He didn’t care enough about us to reveal Himself, it would be completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not He existed at all in the first place, because “the arguments defended in [five proofs] purport to show that there is an uncaused cause of the world who is one, simple or noncomposite, purely actual, immutable, immaterial, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and so forth. Those attributes are, of course, all part of the traditional theistic package for Jews and Christians no less than for purely philosophical theists…if those claims are true, then that suffices to show that theism (of a sort) is true and atheism is false.”

So much for the first assumption buttressing the atheist’s argument from divine hiddenness. But Feser doesn’t agree with the second either. He’s a catholic who thinks that God really does want a personal relationship with us. Thus, Feser concludes that perhaps God has reasons for keeping himself hidden, forcing us to put in a bit of effort to find him, or that it really is obvious that God exists; in other words that God’s existence is not actually hidden at all.

According to Feser, since the arguments in Five Proofs show that God is perfectly good, “it follows that to the extent that he has not made his existence more obvious, there must be some greater good he is drawing out of this circumstance.” Feser quotes another theologian, John Hicks, as saying that God created us at a sort of “epistemic distance” from him so that we could freely choose to enter a relationship with him—i.e that free will is good, even if it leads to suffering or people being mistaken, and since it would be an abrogation of free will to force Himself on us, God keeps his existence less than obvious so people can come to Him freely. Additionally, Feser implies that even this epistemic distance may not be so great, and that atheists (such as Dr. Singham) willfully blind themselves to the existence of God for a variety of reasons.

They would have to be blinding themselves, because Feser’s second critique of the second assumption of divine hiddenness is that the existence of God is, in fact, very obvious—“just as manifest as the existence of the earth and sun,” as Singham might put it. Feser says “historically speaking, the vast majority of human beings have been theists of some sort, and most human beings today are theists of some sort. It is true that people have often disagreed over the details…But that there is some divine reality is something most people have not only affirmed, but affirmed with some confidence, despite their not having fancy philosophical arguments for their belief.”

Indeed, it’s not just the common people who think God’s existence is obvious. Feser also tells us that “philosophers, scientists, and theologians—have, historically, not only believed that there is a divine cause of the world, but held that this can be known via philosophical arguments,” giving us a long list of names, such as Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Anaximander, Plotinus, Augustine, Averroes, and so on, and so forth. “Evidently, if God is “hidden” from most people, most people seem to be unaware of the fact.”

Now, Feser admits that Atheists might have a response to this-that the philosophical arguments for theism advanced historically are no good, and that nowadays we know the truth to be that there is no god. But Feser says that would just be begging the question, and the “five proofs” he offers in this work are undefeated.

So that’s Feser’s position—let’s examine it bit by bit.

Feser’s first response to the argument’s first premise strikes me as inadequate, at least in relation to Singham’s initial post. Remember, Feser held that even if God—that is to say, an omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and purely actual Being–didn’t intend a personal relationship to humans, that doesn’t necessarily entail He doesn’t exist, just that He doesn’t want to make his presence obvious to us. But recall the example Singham used: “No one tries to prove that the Earth or the Sun exists.” The Earth and the Sun are just as uninterested in human affairs as Aristotle’s completely self-interested, perpetually contemplative God is. Yet their existence is plainly obvious to everyone. People might have debated what exactly they were—for instance, we now know the sun is a burning ball of gas as opposed to a chariot drawn by Apollo—but nobody felt it necessary to come up with 50 stage syllogisms proving that the sun existed. If God—even an entirely self-absorbed, uninterested God—existed, one would expect such a Being, or Pure Actuality, or whatever would be as indisputably a part of our daily experience as the ground beneath our feet or the sun above us.

Now, Feser would say that this is the case, but the very effort he makes to convince us proves Singham’s point. Not even Aristotle—Feser’s preferred philosopher—took God’s existence as obvious or self-evident. Rather, he thought the existence of change in the world around us was self-evident and obvious, and only in attempting to explain that did he find it necessary to posit the existence of a Purely Actual being, an Unchanged Changer. Now, this by itself doesn’t prove Aristotle’s (or Plotinus’s, or Anaximander’s, or whoever’s) arguments false, but it does serve to make them less necessarily true than Feser would like to imply. The philosophical arguments for God’s existence are not themselves absolutely foundational but rather instrumental—they are mere explanations for the really foundational things in our experience, namely the existence of change, contingent beings, composite beings, and so on. Since this is so, Singham’s position becomes more plausible—it may be the case that the theistic arguments for these foundational phenomena put forward by Feser and his philosopher friends don’t actually work, and change, contingency, and compositeness can be explained by something that’s not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent—that is to say, by atheistic means.

Even disregarding this, to fall back on any sort of God without an interest in human affairs is somewhat self-defeating, from Feser’s perspective. Let’s say that Aristotle was right, and that an omniscient and omnipotent Purely Actual being exists, but he doesn’t make himself obvious to us because he just doesn’t care. If that’s the case, then, why even bother arguing for His existence? By your—or at least Aristotle’s—own admission, Pure Act doesn’t care. He won’t reward you, or even acknowledge your efforts. So all the time and energy you spend trying to convince Dr. Singham and others is more or less wasted. I suppose you could argue that the truth is its own reward, and if God really does exist we should say He does even if He doesn’t care one way or another, but that’s a pretty thin justification. We can’t all be so noble.

So Feser’s attempted fall-back to the existence of an uninterested God isn’t a very solid riposte to the Argument from Divine Hiddenness. And he wouldn’t really agree with it either, being a Catholic. So let’s examine the argument that the Unchanging Changer of Pure Act really does want a personal relationship with us, and that He either has good reasons for hiding His existence from us, or that His existence isn’t actually so hidden after all.

Feser, as we recall, holds that there may be some greater good God is drawing out of the fact that all of us mortals are so confused about His existence. But what, specifically, could that good be? The presence of free will in the universe? An “epistemic distance” to make coming to God more valuable? This doesn’t strike me as especially convincing, given Singham’s example. The sheer obviousness of the fact that the sun and the earth exist doesn’t abrogate our free will in any way—people are still quite capable of denying the existence of these things, it’s just that the vast majority of us choose not to, given the mass of obvious experiential evidence for them. Why couldn’t God have made himself as unambiguously obvious to us? If he was, it would in fact make more sense to reward people for believing in Him and punishing them for failing to do so. However, since His existence is so obscure that we can only arrive at it indirectly, by trying to explain the existence of change (as described above), it becomes harder to see how a just God would punish people for failing to believe in something that is nowhere near as obvious as the foundational matters of experience we do take as self-evident used to explain His existence.

So perhaps there is some other good that God is drawing out of His hiddenness. But Feser is rather coy about what it might be, which rather vitiates the force of his critique of Singham’s brand of atheism. For instance, perhaps God hides himself from us so that we would exercise our minds by coming up with elaborate arguments for and against his existence. Intellectual debate surely seems like the sort of thing an Intellectual Being would want to ferment, right? But in that case, the atheist’s arguments for God’s non-existence are as good—in the sense of producing the intellectual debate that God wants—as Feser’s argument for His existence. I mean, I could come up with a bunch of other examples as well, but that’d take a lot of time. The point is that if you want to say that God always brings some good out of any seeming evil, but also that our limited human minds can’t tell what that good is, atheists like Dr. Singham can always say their honest atheism is itself a good thing intended by God, and that a just God would reward them for being so methodologically rigorous or intellectually independent or whatever. So this critique of the argument from divine hiddenness undermines the theist’s position at least somewhat more than Feser might like.

Well then, what of the idea that God’s existence really is obvious to most people, in the sense that a plurality (at least) of people presently and historically believed in Him, both laymen and philosophers? This isn’t really a convincing takedown of the divine hiddenness argument either, for several reasons.

First, we must take into account how people come by beliefs. Both in the present day and historically, people have generally followed the faiths of their fathers. There are exceptions, of course—conversion and apostasy are things—but that’s generally been the safe way to bet. The fact that theism has historically been widespread can just as easily be proof of the efficiency and ruthlessness of religious believers in shaping the minds of their children and the larger societies under their sway, not that any “divine reality” they purported to discover was at all obvious to their flocks. People will assent to many kinds of strange, non-evident propositions if they are under a great deal of pressure, social or otherwise. If a personal God’s existence really was obvious, and if He weren’t hidden, we would expect both philosophers and laypeople to have broadly accepted it *all throughout history.* However, in our secular age, where religious leaders (in the west, at least) no longer have as much power to enforce theism by force, we see disbelief arising rapidly among philosophers and somewhat less quickly (but still steadily) among the general populace. Thus, when Feser says “if God is “hidden” from most people, most people seem to be unaware of the fact,” it would actually be the case that more and more people are becoming aware of that fact, and the only reason they weren’t in previous eras is that their religious leaders or social context spent a great deal of treasure and effort keeping them unware of it.

Secondly, the tension between the popular conception of God and the philosopher’s conception of God highlights a severe weakness in Feser’s retort to Singham. Feser, and Thomists like him, always, *always* hate it when atheists argue against anthropomorphic imaginings of God. That is, in fact, the primary difference between classical theists and theistic personalists—personalists believe that god is *a* being, sort of like us but stronger and smarter, with a beard and all that, while Feser and his ilk thinks God is Being Itself and so on. However, the vast majority of people throughout human history have been theistic personalists—that the Gods do things like drive the sun across the sky in a chariot, or that God is an old guy in the clouds who gets angry, walks around in the Garden of Eden, and so on. The rarified sort of Classical Theism Feser espouses has generally been the province only of educated, elite philosophers like Aristotle, Augustine, Averroes, and so on—guys who were part of the upper echelons of their societies and not representative of its common, everyday beliefs.

Now, Feser would say this is just to be expected, and it just goes to show that the common people can be trusted to get sort of a general concept right (i.e that a “divine reality” exists), but it’s up to educated elites to get the specifics correct (namely, in this case, that the “divine reality” consists of Being Itself rather than personal beings like Thor or Apollo or whatever). But that opens us up to the possibility that these historical philosophers might not be entirely right. If we say that, for instance, the common man is 50% correct when he believes that the universe does have a cause, perhaps it is the case that the historical philosopher is 80% correct when he says the universe has a single, unchanging cause rather than being caused by a pantheon of squabbling spirits. In that case, maybe modern-day atheists like Singham could be 100% correct to say that there is a single, unchanging cause of the universe that isn’t capable of squabbling like polytheist gods are, but that it is also not sentient or benevolent—i.e not God, making atheism true. Or, in other words, Feser has severely vitiated his position by claiming that some vague belief in a “divine reality” has always been obvious to most people, rather than any specific conception of God. An atheist could claim that space-time or the multiverse was Pure Act, and say that he or she is closer to the truth of the reality above our own, just as the historical philosopher’s belief in an unchanging changer is closer to the truth of the higher reality than the common man’s theistic personalism or paganism. Unless Feser wants to argue that the Christian God specifically has been obvious to most people throughout history—and this would be quite a challenge, considering that it wouldn’t have been obvious to many people before 0 A.D—Singham would still be correct to say that God’s existence has been hidden to most, even if the existence of some higher explanation of everything has been obvious to all.

Of course, that just ties into the question of whether or not the universe or the multiverse can truly be “purely actual.” Feser would say they can’t be, and that’s a long discussion for another day, because that’s the whole premise of his book—that the Aristotelian, neo-platonic, Augustinian, Leibnizian, and rationalist arguments for God (the titular “five proofs”) are absolutely correct and indisputable, therefore God really does exist. But I’m already running late, and it would require a video—or a lengthy monograph—of its own to show how each of those five arguments is flawed. For now, I shall be satisfied in demonstrating that Feser’s critiques of the Argument from Divine Hiddenness are at least not decisive, and that a fellow like Mano Singham is justified in wondering why God has been so stingy with evidence of His existence.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this essay, friends. If you did, feel free to drop me a token of appreciation at my Ko-Fi:

Of course, as always, it’s entirely optional–just if you want to leave a token of appreciation if you found my work particularly enlightening or educational. If not, that’s OK–the knowledge you might have gained something from my video is reward enough for me See you around, guys!

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