Divine Hiddenness as a Resource for Natural Theology, part 2

In the previous installment, I suggested two hypotheses the theist should accept, if she aims to be maximally concessive to the the argument from divine hiddenness:

1* (henceforth 1). If there is a perfectly loving God, God intends that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.

and 8 (henceforth 2). God’s intention (re creaturely participation in relationship) is thwarted because of creaturely free will.

So where should the theist go from here? How should we elaborate the thought that God’s intention for human beings to know him has been thwarted by our free will? Well the omnipotent God presumably took some kind of action in order to bring his intention towards fulfilment, falling short of simply willing human beings into relationship by divine fiat. What sort of action might be appropriate?

Some distinctive kinds of behaviour – indeed, distinctive kinds of relationship – appear to be nearly universal among human beings. We are very strongly disposed to form kinship bonds, acquire languages, engage in mathematical reasoning, etc. The species appears to have developed in such a way that these characteristics manifest themselves given almost any environmental conditions. Given God’s power over the created order, we might suppose that God guided human development in such that human beings are similarly disposed to enter into personal relationships with him. Given our concession that belief in God is prerequisite for such relationships, this would involve a disposition towards such a belief: just as our disposition towards forming kinship bonds involves dispositions to believe in other minds and the moral significance of kinship.

Clearly, however, this putative disposition is somehow widely obstructed. According to 2, the obstruction is furnished by human freewill. But we can say something more interesting than that. Suppose the manifestation of the relevant disposition was tied to the specific features of our evolutionary environment: on the standard view, what gets us into a relationship with God would be the peculiarities of hunter-gatherer life in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, some humans freely chose to leave sub-Saharan Africa, and, thus, on this story, to enter environments unsuited to cultivating a relationship with God. We have the right dispositions, and those dispositions are obstructed by human freedom, but something seems off about this picture. If God genuinely intends us to relate personally to him, we should expect the disposition to be much more robust, to manifest in a broader range of environmental conditions. It cannot plausibly be the effects of a single free choice, such as a decision to leave the savannah, that is obstructing the dispositions, but rather the continuous free choices of human beings.

Given our concession that some non-belief is non-resistant, the relevant free choices must be subtler than an explicit rejection of the idea of God. Here is a model that might illuminate the situation. As stated, human beings have a strong disposition to engage in mathematical reasoning, and acquire mathematical knowledge. Of course, the extent of mathematical knowledge acquired is highly sensitive to environmental and other factors. But even in excellent conditions, and where the subject does not resist, but seeks out, mathematical knowledge, human freedom can obstruct the manifestation of the relevant dispositions. A child in Bertie’s class has acquired a new iPhone. All the children choose to spend their breaks excitedly discussing this phone’s wonderful features. Even the sober and studious Bertie joins in a little. Now Bertie loves maths, and usually excels at it. When maths class comes around however, Bertie finds it difficult to concentrate. Thoughts about apps keep on entering his head when he is a halfway through a problem. Of course, Bertie fights as hard as he can against these thoughts. But this requires considerable effort, and so Bertie doesn’t make nearly as much progress as he ordinarily would. His dispositions to acquire mathematical knowledge have been disrupted by the free choice of he and his classmates to discuss technology at break time – even though Bertie is determinedly trying to acquire new mathematical knowledge in class.

Here are two hypotheses to summarise the picture that I have presented so far:

3. God so arranged human evolution as strongly to dispose us towards personal relationship with him.

4. The manifestation of this disposition is obstructed by the habitual patters of free human agency.

One final point. If we’re really being maximally concessive to the hiddenness argument, we can’t suppose that God is simply going to let this situation be. If his intention for human beings to enter into relationship is being obstruction, he will presumably act to overcome the obstruction. Now, again, God is clearly not interested in overcoming the problem by fiat – presumably because of the value we have supposed that God places on human freedom. The best hypothesis, then, is that

5. God plans to persuade us freely to abandon the relevant patterns of agency

– like the headmaster trying to persuade Bertie’s class to concentrate on their studies rather than the fancy new iPhone.

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