Monday, May 4, 2009

Divine Hiddenness: The Other Fine-Tuning Argument

“... God our Savior ... desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – I Timothy 2:3-4

Why is God hidden? While theists disagree with both me and each other on the level of clarity in the evidence, surely they would agree that if God did something like performing miracles on national TV, he would be obvious in a way that his is not right now. Why must apologetics consist of ancient history, philosophical arguments, and subjective feelings? But before I rebut apologists' explanations for why we even need apologists, I wish to further explain a few of the many ways that God hides himself.

The Bible could have had very specific prophecies about Jesus that he very specifically fulfilled. Pesher may be an acceptable excuse for why the prophetic evidence for Jesus cited in the Bible is nonexistent, but it is no excuse for God choosing to reveal Jesus in a culture that would lead to “fulfillments” like this. Micah could have said “One day, the Messiah will be born of a virgin in the town of Bethlehem, and yet still manage to come out of both Egypt and Nazareth.” Jonah could have said “just like me, the Messiah will be in the belly of the earth. Unlike me, it will be for one and a half days and two nights.” Isaiah could have told us plainly that the suffering servant of chapter 53 was the Messiah. He could have told us plainly that the Messiah would be literally “pierced” for our transgressions, but not literally “crushed” for our iniquities. He could have told us that “not opening his mouth” would be limited to the trial before Herod and the walk to the cross; this would not exclude a quite lengthy prayer the night before, this would not exclude dialogue with Pilate, and this would not exclude dialogue and a yell while on the cross. He could have told us that “like a lamb that is led to slaughter” is fairly close to the literal truth, while “like a sheep that is silent before its shearers” is not even close to the literal truth. But instead, God fined-tuned the prophecies in the Bible to make it look precisely like God played no role in inspiring the Bible.

The Bible could have had scientific information that was useful immediately. Starting whenever God decided to start inspiring books, we could have known:

“Diseases are caused by tiny things that you can't see. They live inside of you and pretty much everywhere else too, but they stop growing where it's really cold and they die where it's really hot. Cook meat well to kill them – when you don't, these tiny things go inside you and make you sick. With some of them, you can protect yourself by teaching your body how to fight them in advance. It's kind of complicated, but how it works is you need to grow a lot of these tiny things. Then heat up those tiny things to kill them. The shells of their bodies will be left behind – you won't be able to see them, but they're there. Inject these shells into your body and your body will automatically learn how to kill them. Now, if you come in contact with those tiny things in the future, your body will be prepared ahead of time. You might have to experiment a bit to get this to work, but knowing the general idea of what's going on should make it quite a bit easier than it would be if I uncaringly left you to figure all of it out yourself.”

The efficiency with which I have communicated should be contrasted with the wisdom of not eating pork or shellfish. I'd bet with more work and more knowledge of medicine, I could write something shorter, clearer, and more helpful, and that an omniscient deity could do better still. With this is mind, I have difficulty understanding why Jesus wasted his time with trifles like healing blind men one at a time or feeding people thousands at a time. He could have saved so many more people so much more easily, and in a way that authenticated his message for both his audience and for scientists who one day discovered just why his suggestions worked so well. It didn't have to be the case that science and the Bible were set on a collision course. Just think of how much stuff God could have packed into the Bible or Jesus could have shared. Thousands of paragraphs like the one above could have all been packed into a book of the Bible's size. But the ancient Jews were not given any of this information. He fine-tuned the scientific data in the Bible so we couldn't see that he had anything at all to do with it.

While I understand the position that God just worked through the historical process in writing the Bible, I'm not willing to just take it for granted that this is the only option he had. Making the Bible be a book that God literally dictated was one of God's options. There are all sorts of ways in which God could have inspired the Bible. And yet he chose an inspiration technique that is indistinguishable from doing nothing at all.

Not only was modern scientific information left out, but even after receiving the law, the Israelites didn't even have enough contemporary scientific knowledge to beat their rivals. Judges 1:19 “The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.” Science, it seems, has been Yahweh's Kryptonite for a long time.

This also leads to God's hiddenness in war. God could favor the strongest army to end the war quickly and minimize deaths, he could favor the underdog, or he could favor whoever is more moral. But instead, God favors big armies, iron chariots, and technologically advanced weapons. Atheism forces people to this conclusion ahead of time. Theism says that pretty much anything could be the result, but for some reason, God chose the one result that would be consistent with atheism. He fine-tunes his control of battles to make it look like he doesn't do anything.

Similarly with birth defects. If God exists, it could go in many ways. Maybe God gives all the defects to the children of people who aren't Christians. Maybe they are simply more likely to go to non-Christians. Or maybe it's the other way around, and God gives more birth defects to Christians than everyone else. In fact, any outcome is perfectly consistent with the possibility that God set it up that way. But with atheism, one is forced to make a very specific prediction. Faith will not matter, except to the extent that faith is correlated with circumstantial differences, as with missionaries who bring medicine. This very specific prediction is what we actually see in the real world. While any outcome could in principle be explicable in the context of theism, this is a surprising outcome. God fine-tunes the distribution of birth defects to make it look like he doesn't do anything at all.

Christianity has a number of answers to this. The weaknesses of these answers help illustrate the unanswerability of the problem of an invisible God when he's omnipresent, omnipotent, and wants to be known.
God isn't hidden.”

In my opinion, this is the only chance. But a desire to give this answer is where the most easily disproven Christian positions come from. This gives us faith healers, extremes of Pentecostalism, and creationism (not merely that evolution is false, but also that the evidence overwhelmingly supports creation.) Except for maybe faith healers who think they can raise people from the dead, all of these, even if true, seem quite pathetic compared to the options available to an omnipotent deity.

“God's ways are not our ways.”

Translation: “Yes, I admit it makes absolutely no sense.” That's exactly what I'm saying. God's plans contradict human concepts of reason, which are in fact, the only concepts of reason that humans have. “Human reasoning” is not a term that describes a particular kind of thinking, it is a term that describes whether or not you are thinking. To realize something doesn't make sense and to continue to believe it is like looking at one's face in a mirror, observing it is unwashed, and then doing nothing about it. And yet Christians continue to disparage reason and then whine whenever insultingly described as opposing reason.

“It's so we can have faith.”

There are quite a few problems with this. First off, there are options other than all aspects of Christianity being proven and the dismal evidence apologists think we have. God could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's powerful and intervenes in the world while making us believe purely by faith that he's good. God could prove that he's powerful while providing only a little bit of evidence that he's good. He could prove that he's powerful and good while making us believe by faith that salvation actually works. So even if God wants us to have faith, that is no excuse for his absence.

The next problem is that it supposes that something is good about having faith. Without this assumption, to say God is hidden so we can have faith is not an explanation, but merely a description of the particular sort of irrationality behind the plan. There is no basis for claiming that belief in God must necessarily involve faith – it's only necessary because God set it up this way, and he didn't have to set it up this way. While faith can have other meanings, in this context, faith is nothing more than an excuse for being illogical and an emotional shield that makes pointing out the obviousness of this cruel and offensive. But for some reason, God likes it when we don't try to be rational. One of the few systems that I can imagine where justice would be more arbitrary than this would be if God just chose some people and didn't choose others.

In fact, I have proof that the God of the Bible didn't have to set up the system to require faith because he doesn't always set it up that way. In the garden of Eden, Adam was provided with absolute proof that God exists, is powerful, and cares. And this didn't seem to interfere with his ability to have free will or a relationship with God. Furthermore, in heaven, the perfect existence will again not require people to have faith.

The final and most severe problem with this explanation is that even Christians don't believe it. If they did, Christians would doubt the crossing of the Red Sea because that would be too clear of evidence for God's existence and would take away the Israelites' ability to have faith. Christians would doubt that Jesus walked on water because that would take away the disciples' ability to have faith. Christians would conclude that a personal relationship with God couldn't be a valid reason for belief, because that would destroy the ability to have faith. But that's not how Christians think about miracles or proofs of his existence. When God gives proof, well did you see that? That was proof. When God doesn't give proof, it's because it would be against his nature to give us proof.

I only take the “it's so we can have faith” line seriously when it's coming from someone who consistently applies this reasoning. For the other 100%, it's a excuse that allows people to just make stuff up and pretend it's a worldview worthy of respect.

Imagine what it would be like if atheists thought this way. We'd have motivational speakers telling us things like:

“I know sometimes you might see crazy things like someone healed right in front of you, but just try not to see God in it. Sometimes, you might find yourself in a place where it’s just obvious God has done something. It just doesn’t make sense any other way. But don’t believe it! It doesn’t have to make sense. If you need one, find a support group to help you not believe even after you’ve seen a miracle. You aren’t the only one this has happened to! Lots of atheists in the past have seen miracles and still found a way to have faith in God's non-existence! You can do it too!”

Of course, if atheists talked like this, theists would be all over us saying that our words show that we don’t really disbelieve. Yes, I did just make a not-very-subtle remark about whether or not theists are atheists in rebellion against a reality that they don't like. (My apologies for sinking to the level of functional theism.)

“It wouldn't work anyway.”

Gideon disagreed. He didn't believe, so God allowed him to perform a fleece experiment to test his power. Gideon was so impressed by the efficacy of evidence in convincing people that you could have confused him with an atheist. [Or, to be fair, with a Christian evidentialist.]

Thomas disagreed. He didn't believe before Jesus showed him his wounds, and he believed afterward.

Even Jesus disagreed. “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” – Matthew 11:23

The question Jesus didn't answer is why he didn't perform those miracles in Sodom, because he sure seems to think it would have worked. I'd bet millions and billions of people are alive today who are even more open to the evidence of miracles than the Bible's epitome of evil. And yet God doesn't show them miracles. By contrast, I actually want people to stop damaging their lives with faith, and so I try to provide actual arguments against it. I show you my beliefs by my works. God claims that he wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. I wish God would have shown us that he really wanted Sodom to be saved by his actions. The Sodomites aren't in hell because they refused to be with God and so God told them “thy will be done” and sent them off to the one place apart from himself. Sodom could have been saved. Unfortunately for them, God was in one of his smiting moods.

And again, Christians are unwilling to consistently think according to this rationalization. If they have a dramatic answer to prayer or observe a miracle, you'd better believe that they are going to tell people. It could be the case that they still don't believe this will have an effect on people who don't believe. But that's not the point. The point is that they realize it makes sense to try. But God doesn't try. He has instead fine-tuned war, scientific laws, birth defects, tragedies, and the Bible to make it look like he doesn't do anything at all.

The Kicker

All of these rebuttals completely and utterly fail to provide a coherent explanation for why God hides himself. There is no excuse for God not making himself known. But it's even worse than that. Suppose for the sake of argument that Christianity provides a completely plausible explanation for God's behavior, one is completely content with the possibility that we cannot have any idea why God doesn't do what he doesn't do, or I'm wrong on every single point when I talk about things God “should” want to do. Then the argument from hiddenness is still a powerful argument. If any or all of these are the case, this would merely explains how hiddenness was one of God's options.

Atheism forces people to make very specific predictions about how things will work, namely that no actions will be performed by God that are distinguishable from no action at all. But Christianity cannot predict in advance that God will fine-tune the outcome to look like he did nothing at all.

Suppose one person predicts that the sun will rise at 5:54 am tomorrow morning, while the second person says it could rise at any time between 4 am and 10 am and there is no way of knowing precisely what the sun will do in advance. And then the sun rises at 5:54 am. Technically, the second person hasn't been shown to be wrong. But this is powerful evidence that the first person knows something that the second person doesn't know.

Every single time that God could preform a miracle, could reveal himself, or could reveal useful knowledge to us but doesn't is a case where theists merely observe this to be one of many possible outcomes. But atheists knew the sun would rise at 5:54 am. How do atheists get these things right so often and so precisely? Personally, I do not find this question to be particularly difficult to answer.


  1. Super post. I have been thinking along similar lines, but never would be able to muster together the details you gathered either in my head or in writing.

    My basic tenet is that all of the alleged evidences for God are indistinguishable from what we would expect to see if God did not exist, from the details included in the bible to the way the bible itself was written. Not exactly encouraging for holding onto a conservative Christian faith...

  2. Great post, great blog; I really enjoy reading it.

    There's a video on Youtube satirizing god's decision to not do anything that would be useful, or provide evidence of his existence.

  3. I love NonStampCollector. My favorite of his is What Would Yahweh Do? where Jesus gives the Old Testament God a WWJD bracelet.

    (2:35) Ahh! My bowels have fallen out! (WoHaHa!) Oh my God, my bowels! (WoHaHa!) You made my bowels fall out! (WoHaHa!)

  4. Exodus 20:21  And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.

    Is Your name Moses? :-)

  5. I didn't read the whole post, so maybe it's not fair of me to comment, but I think if there were passages in the bible about modern science, then we would think that that had been known at the time or that it's just always been obvious, and so we wouldn't consider it modern science.

  6. It's true that we might think that. That's also the case with many of the others: would it really convince me God was real?

    But for comparison, the Greeks gave us writings that are ahead of their contemporaries - while that doesn't make the Greeks divine, at least they stand out from their fellow mortals. If the Bible were a step above Greek writings, that still wouldn't convince me it was inspired. But that would prevent me from making a fine-tuning argument.

    But God didn't even provide enough scientific knowledge to block my argument against the Bible. This utter lack of evidence, more than merely the lack of proof of God, is the fine-tuning problem.

  7. Jeffrey,

    If the evidence we do have for the truth of Christianity is insufficient to justify serious belief, then there would be no need for this post. If, on the other hand, it is sufficient, then there is no argumentative bite here.

    In other fields of inquiry, it is not acceptable to set aside adequate evidence on the ground that we can dream up other sorts of evidence that we do not have and then complain that we do not have them. It should not be acceptable in religion either.

    So this line of argument ultimately takes us nowhere. Everything depends on the more fundamental question of the adequacy of the evidence we do possess.

  8. One question I'm implicitly asking is "if the Bible is true, how much evidence should be expected?" I conclude that it would reasonable to expect as much evidence as, say, the evidence that the Civil War happened, or maybe something even more in our face.

    How much evidence should be expected if a claim happens to be true is directly relevant to the question of how much evidence would be sufficient.

    I don't just look at the historical evidence for the Resurrection just as I would be any other claim, or even any other historical claim about a religion-less supernatural occurrence. The entity connected to Jesus wants to be known. This is a distinctly bolder claim than a mere claim about the supernatural, and consequently it makes sense to require more evidence.

  9. Jeffrey,

    One question I'm implicitly asking is "if the Bible is true, how much evidence should be expected?" I conclude that it would reasonable to expect as much evidence as, say, the evidence that the Civil War happened, or maybe something even more in our face.

    What I'm challenging is the reasonableness of this conclusion. It seems to me to be based on a very dubious bit of theology and will therefore work only against a form of Christianity that endorses that bit of theology. While I would not presume to place limits on the theological folly of some Christians, I do not think that this bit has ever been endorsed by any thoughtful ones.

    I don't just look at the historical evidence for the Resurrection just as I would be any other claim, or even any other historical claim about a religion-less supernatural occurrence.

    You will perhaps understand why, to someone in my position, this admission seems like a very damaging concession that you are applying a double standard in your evaluation of Christianity. There are, of course, Christians who apply a double standard in the other direction. My contention is that both approaches are in error.

    "The entity connected to Jesus wants to be known."

    Quite true. But if we can learn anything from the history of God's interactions with man, it it that He wants to be known on His own terms. It does not follow from anything in Scripture that He wants so desperately to be known that He is committed to doing absolutely anything to bang man over the head with evidence of His existence. That image of God is a straw man. It makes a convenient target for unbelievers to whack at, particularly if they can befuddle some Christians into thinking that they have to defend it. But that game has nothing to do with the serious consideration of the evidence for the truth of Christianity.

  10. >You will perhaps understand why, to someone in my position, this admission seems like a very damaging concession that you are applying a double standard in your evaluation of Christianity.

    I don't see it as a double standard because there is a clear reason for the difference.

    If Jesus rose from the dead, that proves God exists and that dramatic demonstrations of his power are plausible. Is it plausible to conclude they must necessarily result? This depends on how one resolves some internal conflicts in the Bible. But is it plausible that miracles would, in fact, happen in our presence? Biblical miracles clearly say yes.

    If he didn't rise, the existence of God is in question and dramatic demonstrations of God's power are therefore less likely. Thus, the lack of these dramatic demonstrations are evidence against the resurrection.

    This argument repeats with numerous other topics from the lack of power of prayer, to the lack of good prophetic arguments. These arguments repeatedly do not work as evidence against other supernatural claims, except to the extent that these other supernatural claims are paired with similar claims about the here and now.

    And these aren't just arbitrarily chosen topics where evidence could occur and doesn't. They are places that I would expect evidence to occur given the Bible if I were given no other information about the world.

    The here and now looks vastly different from the world I would expect to find given only the Bible. These ways in which the world of the Bible differs from the world I find are relevant to the Resurrection.