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The Hidden Divine and Question Begging

May 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Theological question begging is one of the most frustrating aspects of the religious debate. In a way it puts the two sides of the argument on unequal footing making it impossible for the two sides to understand what the other is talking about. That is, of course, provided that neither side has any experience with the other. If the secular side is going to stick to the rational logical argument then they have to be prepared to hit the wall of fallacy. This should be patently obvious, especially when arguing against the typical Bible literalist who is just going to deny the evidence or just hide behind unprovable assumptions.

However, if you end up arguing with someone who is schooled in apologetics, who knows more responses than just the “it says in my book…” you may run into a rather subtle, and if I dare say, nuanced duo that until recently I just realized is a form of question begging.

Before we begin, the fallacy of question begging is not what most people think it is. I teach this in my Skepticism course as one of the most misused phrases in argumentation. Most people use the phrase “that begs the question” as synonymous with “that raises the question” however this is not a fallacy. Merely needing to ask a question doesn’t mean a person has committed a mistake. Begging the question is when premise A proves the conclusion, however Premise A is not itself proven. The example I always use is when an airport says it needs your ID because your ID is important without explaining why it is important (I have a photo of this sign that I took at the Baltimore airport many years ago). The phrase comes from the Greek, as Aristotle wrote about it in his Posterior Analytics (64b) which he describes it as “asking for the initial thing” in other words the arguer is asking their opponent to agree with the initial premise in order to support the conclusion…rhetorically. It’s similar to a special pleading argument where you have to accept an improbable premise in order to assent to the conclusion (such as I should buy a lottery ticket because someone has to win).

The two pronged question begging comes in with the use of the “faith as a test” and the “divine hiddenness.” Divine hiddenness is our thing. That’s where we ask, like Thomas Paine, where is this god that used to talk to people? God directly addresses Moses, Abraham, and Job after he’s done torturing him of course; but now we have to rely on millenia old reports. However, the concept of Divine hiddenness has been adopted by the apologetics crowd as a test of faith. The way this works is similar to a journal article I wrote a couple entries about entitled, “Praying to stop being an Atheist” in which the author, T.J. Mawson (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion June 2010) argues that a non-believer should pray in order to check to see if there is a god. In order to do this he runs an analogy about a lightless room.

Briefly, imagine that every day you pass a door. If you open the door, it is completely dark–like utterly dark, a kind unlight that you might find in Torech Ungol (yeah I know only about three of you got that reference), so you find the room to be empty. Shouting in gives no response and you assume the room to be empty. Yet, most people you know believe that inside the room is a person of great wisdom. These people ask questions into the room. They, and this is key, never receive an answer. No one who ventures into the room has ever heard or touched the person that is alleged to live in there. The only evidence is that a long time ago someone claims that they knew a person who saw the man in the room. Do you accept the existence of the man?

It’s an obvious analogy. Now let’s say that you get into a debate with someone who believes that there is a person who lives in the room (we’ll call them “roomies”) and you start by saying that there is no evidence the room is inhabited. You clarify and say that since no one knows a person with direct evidence of the person who allegedly lives in the room you refuse to assent to the proposition.

They counter by explaining that the person chooses to remain hidden. When you ask why, they respond that the person only responds to people who truly believe that in the man inside the room. The reason that no one has direct knowledge is because no one believes enough that he is in there. Then that person ridicules you for not believing at all, and says that your refusal to believe impinges on their belief.

The Roomie has used both excuses in tandem and to separate the one only shifts the goal posts toward the other. When you ask why is faith necessary they reply that it’s because the person in the room wants to remain shrouded in the darkness and will not give the direct evidence. When you ask why they wish to remain hidden the only reason they can give is to explain that it’s so that the belief without evidence can be shown to be real. However in each answer they are refusing to give any new information. In each case they can only repeat their previous answer.

Dispensing with the analogy it’s blatantly obvious that both features of the argument are created out of air. There is no reason, going back to the primary source material, to believe that a divine being wants to remain hidden–in fact quite the opposite. We only have the information that belief is necessary, but not for revelation, just for the eventual unprovable salvation. My problem with this is the extra step they seem to think that they have to take. The theists could just rest on the faith argument: I would be much happier with that, but in adopting the divine hiddenness argument they are clearly just making it up as they go along. Setting aside the fact that it would be a cruel game of the divine being to choose to remain hidden and then require everyone to believe: the very nature of the meaning of the divine hiddenness means that we cannot know any features of the divine to begin with. This is a complete assumption on their part.

The best way to argue against it is to point out that hidden part is made up and only hurts their position. It seems like you’d be ceding ground but you’re not, any time you can get a person to truly question part of their argument is one step closer to their realization that the only reason they believe is because they were told to and now it is a mere habit.

No Update

May 10, 2016 Leave a comment

No update this week, it’s that time of year again…grading time. Not that I wouldn’t like to expound about the deficiencies in logical argumentation for the existence of god (I have students doing that which I’m going to have to grade), nor the fact that there are countries in the world turning a blind eye to the murder of heretics. How about claiming that offending god ought to be illegal in the US? I could talk about that, or I could get metaphysical on the whole thing. No, instead I have to concentrate on grading skepticism papers which should be more fun than it is, but since it’s work and some of my students simply aren’t getting it this semester I have to grind down the nib of my red pen on their papers. Next week definitely.

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