This morning I was in a state of some emotional distress for I could not figure out what to blog about. So I put on my best white suit, plastered my hair down with Brylcreem, laid hands on the computer, and prayed in my best televangelist voice “Oh Lawrd! Send your servant a topic!”
And at that moment, as angelic choirs burst into song, there came this comment from “The Atheist Missionary”:
“Randal, why is it that your god chooses to reveal himself in ways that are indistinguishable from his not revealing himself at all?”
Perfect! Just what I was looking for. What is more, it fits nicely into my “How to confound Christians with bad arguments” series.
But wait, this isn’t an argument, is it?
I don’t claim to be able to read minds, including TAM’s. So I won’t speculate on all he might mean, or not mean, by asking this question. But I can say that I’ve heard this question many times before in contexts where it is of that sub-species known as “argument masquerading as a perplexed question”. It is a question that is attempting to raise a problem, the “indistinguishable problem”. Assuming that the person being asked that question cannot answer it adequately, the argument springs out of the question like a leg hold trap snapping out of a bed of dried autumn leaves.
A stronger form of argument would aim to establish that it is likely that God doesn’t exist. It would proceed like this:
(1) If God revealed himself it would be in distinguishable ways.
(2) God has not revealed himself in distinguishable ways.
(3) Therefore God has not revealed himself.
A weaker form of the argument would simply show it is not reasonable to think God exists:
(1) It is only reasonable to believe God exists if we have evidence of him revealing himself in distingiushable ways.
(2) We do not have evidence of God revealing himself in distinguishable ways.
(3) Therefore it is not reasonable to believe God exists.
However we understand the argument (if there is one), the question as TAM presents it clearly assumes what I’ll call “the indistinguishability claim”:
“reality is indistinguishable from what it would be if the Christian God did not exist.”
Is this true? Unfortunately I won’t be able to get to that question here because I need to address a prior question first. Assuming this is true, what would be the problem? There are many reasonable claims in which the data available to us is also compatible with the negation of that claim. Consider my favorite example:
External world claim: The data of experience is consistent with the existence of a world external to consciousness.
True enough. But the problem is that the data of experience is also consistent with all experiences being generated by our minds. In layperson’s terms, it is consistent with us being in the matrix, or being brains in vats, or …. But we don’t lose sleep over this fact.
Clearly this indistinguishability claim is no defeater to our belief that there is an external world. So why think indistinguishability where theism is concerned would be? Where precisely are the disanalogous points that create a problem for the theist? I ask that question without conceding the “indistinguishable” claim to begin with. But before we can even assess whether the claim is true, we must ask why, if it is true, it would be a problem.
Without an answer to that question I am left to wonder: if there is a really good argument here, why is it indistinguishable from a really bad one?