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This is what I thought at first (by "objectively important," we mean this in the sense of naive moral realism, at least):

  1. If there were an ultimately powerful, knowledgeable, and good being, it would be objectively important for us to know this.
  2. We can't know that.
  3. If it were objectively important that we know something, we could know it.
  4. Therefore, there's no ultimately powerful, knowledgeable, and good being.

Which means that if we can't know whether a certain thing exists, then we do know that it doesn't exist! I suppose we could say "if we can't directly know then we indirectly do know," but it's still a partially counterintuitive conclusion.

But none of the alternatives implicitly given seem much, if at all, better:

  1. (Deny (1)) There's a divine being, but it's not important to us that there is.
  2. (Deny (2)) We can know whether there's such a being.
  3. (Deny (3)) Something could be both objectively important and unknowable.

Or the meta-alternative:

  1. If a divine being exists, and is morally important, then moral importance is not (much/at all) objective.

(8) would not, I expect, appeal to every theist, despite being otherwise as close to the theocentric ethos as possible, here. (7) is either incoherent (violating the definition of "objective importance") or pointless (what does the concept of objective importance matter if there are indiscernible/undetectable cases?). (6) would mean that there is some direct way to know if a divine being exists, which is difficult to imagine (how can we differentiate concretely between a divine being existing and not existing?). (5) seems to have been Kant's conclusion insofar as he thought (in the Metaphysics of Morals) that we have no duties to God, so maybe (5) has a decent historical pedigree among the intelligentsia, but it still runs counter to my intuitions about a perfectly good being (or I would at least hope that I would be able to know about a being that was supposed to be perfectly good!).

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  • 2
    You need to justify (3). I can think of lots of thing that it is objectively important to know but that are unknowable, like whether if I get in my car and drive I'm going to get hit by a truck. Sep 8, 2023 at 17:41
  • "Unimportant"? In this way you are implicitly assuming that the concept of "divinity" depends on humans... that means that God is a human creation. Sep 8, 2023 at 17:43
  • @DavidGudeman per the indication of moral realism, we're taking objective importance to be moral importance. Assuming the action-guidance thesis (which is fairly standard, although not without qualifications/exceptions), we then say that an unknowable moral condition would not be important to our moral decision-making. More exotically, if it was morally important to know about a not-yet-real car crash, there would be some way to anticipate the crash; otherwise, worrying about it would be neurotic. Sep 8, 2023 at 17:46
  • 1
    The question is not whether it is "objectively important" from our point of view, but whether the ultimately powerful, knowledgeable, and good being would want us to know it the way we know facts. That is the ultimate objectivity. And it has been suggested, in the Christian tradition at least, that God would not because it would subvert the free will. He even tolerates much evil for the sake, so making the belief in him a free choice unforced by facts seems plausible. Therefore, 1 is false, and the correct inference from fixed 1 and 2 is that we should not know.
    – Conifold
    Sep 8, 2023 at 20:18
  • Clearly a good question, but two personalities, separated by roughly 1.5ky had different answers. In addition, depending on what kinda headwear you wear, you might give very different answers. Sic vita est.
    – Hudjefa
    Sep 9, 2023 at 10:45

7 Answers 7

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Your argument, in particular premise 3, has some parallels in the literature, in particular those from hiddeness and skeptical theism. This is expected, since both have a heavy focus on epistemological considerations. The rest of my answer will focus mainly on these considerations.

"If X is relevant to our moral decision making, we can know it". Given that moral decision making has to do with knowledge of moral goods and lack thereof, Bergman 2009 should offer considerations against. See Tooley's Cambridge excerpt for the orthodox reply.

More generally, skeptical theists will invoke some skeptical premise about the limitations of human (moral) knowledge. CORNEA (Wkystra) is probably the most famous here, again see the relevant SEP. The difficulty here is to endorse a skepticism with respect to moral knowledge that does not infect the rest of inductive knowledge (since most plausible arguments from evil at present day are inductive). See Snyder 2009 for further considerations in the same vein. Van Inwagen also offers such considerations, but at the cost of modal skepticism, which is hard for most present day philosophers to accept.

For an excellent treatment of hiddeness, and in particular why a particular human's knowledge may be limited wrt God, see Moser. He argues from a Christian perspective, but much of his work easily generalizes to any Abrahamic, and probably personal theism (although I haven't worked out the details).

FWIW, one of my colleagues is currently working on challenging Kant's ought implies can (which I assume is what you refer to by action-guidance thesis, given that knowledge is necessary for acting in the proper sense). The challenge rests on historical and legal assumptions. Clearly the legal parallel fails, and (apparently?) not all historical societies shared this assumption. But perhaps someone more knowledgable will expound.

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    The references you bring up are going to be the best sources for reformulating the thought processes I went over in the OP, so this is the best answer (Conifold has an illuminating comment on the OP itself, too). I feel like I wasn't sure where my question really was going, to be honest, so maybe it would have been better to delete it for being weakly posed, but your answer touches upon enough information that I might be able to figure out what my deeper confusion is on this basis. Sep 9, 2023 at 15:35
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One argument is that you’ll objectively know after physical death, and it will be quite important whether you figured it out prior to physical death. If the complete forgiveness offered by the Christian God is available, we should want it.

The whole question presumes physical death is the end of the soul and the end of objective evidence.

Secondly, anyone who genuinely seeks whatever God there is has a much greater chance of objectively finding Him (and hence, obviously of finding evidence of Him) than anyone who does not seek.

You might enjoy a series by “inspiring philosophy” on youtube called “irreducible mind”.

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  • Upvoted. Though I don't necessarily agree with the claims: ie they may be true but not necessarily so. Our submission to the (Christian) God may not be authentic enough to merit forgiveness (b) Or maybe we've not sinned (c) Most pertinently, seeking God may not bring us closer to finding Him (her,it). This is the testimony of a slew of mystics across climes & times: viz. that God tests more ruthlessly those dearest to Him. Even in the Judeo christian tradition, leaving Jesus out, consider Job. The one inarguable point: we presume death=end of soul: The reasonable option: We dont know
    – Rushi
    Sep 9, 2023 at 7:06
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    That all made sense. Except saying forgiveness is based on sufficient “submission” to God in Christianity. None can submit sufficiently. It’s based on believing God about his Son, only - according to the Bible. Perhaps a secondary point to the rest of our discussion. Judeo-Christian is an oxymoron imo. The differences are stark. But I totally get the main points of your reply
    – Al Brown
    Sep 9, 2023 at 7:59
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    And Im glad you were sufficiently insightful to see the ideas I expressed as germane despite differing with the opinions
    – Al Brown
    Sep 9, 2023 at 8:05
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    The difficulty we non Christians have with ChristianITY is this: Jesus is a healer, a guru, a master, a saint, an avatar/world figure — no issue so far. But Christians insist the a should be the-one-and-only. This trades lawful analyticity for ad hoc contingency. Too high a price [for me of course]. See my answer — most of those I cite are very Christian, all are loosely Judeo-Christian. [You could call me a perennialist]. All are finding their way from a contingent God to a necessary God
    – Rushi
    Sep 9, 2023 at 8:37
  • "anyone who genuinely seeks whatever God there is has a much greater chance of objectively finding Him" - perhaps, but (a) Why would we seek something we don't believe exists? This wouldn't be a reasonable expectation. An all-loving all-powerful being would sufficiently demonstrate their existence to each individual proactively. (b) Plenty of people have sought God and haven't found him, or thought they found him, but later realised they were mistaken. (c) Anyone who wants to find something is more likely to convince themselves that they found it, regardless of whether they did.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 9, 2023 at 9:11
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What you're talking about is essentially "Deism," the idea that God exists, but has no impact on the world. There have been any attacks on Deism over the years, both from religious and non-religious standpoints, most of which boil down to the question of whether it even makes sense to talk about an entity that has no impact on the world.

However, most religious people don't believe in a Deist god, but in one that does have an impact on the world, and is potentially knowable. So deny "2" (the unknowability of God) would be the stance of most religious people. Given the relative unpopularity of Deism, the original dilemma seems effective against only a very small subset of people.

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  • I don't have an exact line of argument, though. I have a set of intuitive premises with a counterintuitive conclusion, and a set of counterintuitive premises with both intuitive and counterintuitive conclusions, so I'm not really fixated on any specific interpretation as yet (for example, it could be that the objective/subjective distinction is compromised or undermined modulo God and so the issue of objectively important knowledge has to be reimagined). Sep 8, 2023 at 18:52
  • @KristianBerry I have edited to address Sep 8, 2023 at 19:01
  • The comparison to deism is understandable, although I am considering a possibly more harrowing thought experiment: what if God is currently active in the world, but nothing can reveal the specifics of this to us, nor even the general principle (of God's existence, here)? While many religious people might be ignorant of that problem, many philosophers (e.g. Kant) have recognized the unknowability issue, and then applied it (Kant again; perhaps James Rachels sort of applied it, but in a very, very "sort of" manner; or c.f. Russell's "not enough evidence" lament). Sep 8, 2023 at 19:11
  • Indeed, it is extremely difficult to understand how a partless, spaceless, timeless, etc.-less thing could ever cause a physical event in such a way that identified that specific event as caused by God in contrast to other events; and then how the event could be tailored to represent a uniquely identifiable command is even more obscure. (One imagines that a real deity could issue only one command as expressive of its united will, but religious ethics are replete with seemingly spurious lists of instructions from on high.) Sep 8, 2023 at 19:14
  • @KristianBerry It's an interesting thought experiment, but is there anyone who actually holds that constellation of beliefs? Sep 8, 2023 at 20:02
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Given your response to my question, you are equivocating with the term "objectively important". In premise 1 you are using the term to mean that we cannot successfully make correct moral judgements if we do not know something. In premise 3, given your answer to my question, you mean: we should try to take it into account in our moral decision making.

Rewriting your argument with the clarified premises, it can be seen to be invalid:

  1. If there were an ultimately powerful, knowledgeable, and good being, we would need to know this in order to make correct moral judgments.
  2. We can't know that.
  3. If we ought to take something into account in our moral decision making, we can know it.

Clarified like this, premises 1 and 3 seem reasonably sound, but they do not, with 2, lead to the conclusion:

  1. Therefore, there's no ultimately powerful, knowledgeable, and good being.
2
  • I guess you're just not familiar with what I'm talking about, since the topic I'm addressing doesn't yield divergent meanings for "objectively important" between premises (1) and (3). (My answer in the comments wasn't particularly important since the explanation of (3) was already in relation to (7) in the main body of the OP.) Sep 8, 2023 at 19:26
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    Going by the usual meaning of "objectively important", your 3 is obviously false and your 7 is obviously true. As to my familiarity with what you are talking about, I am certainly familiar with moral realism as I am a moral realist. If there is some other subtlety that I am missing, I suggest you clarify it in the question. Sep 8, 2023 at 19:50
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Imagine we're fish. Or strenghthen it to deep sea fish who reach the surface with peril to their dark low down high pressure default existence.

Now imagine we — fish — are having a discussion: Does water exist?

Con: We've never seen water
Pro: We could not exist without water
Con: You make unfounded claims without evidence
Sage: These are academic arguments, ie they cannot be resolved. And are pragmatically unimportant

The argument is animate and heated! And seemingly unending...

Now imagine global warming happens — not the mild one which most scientists expect is in progress but the extreme ones that likely turned Venus to toast (and froze Mars).


Note this is not an argument for the Christian God, but more like the Spinozan God.
Or Anselm's God.
Or Jordan Peterson's God

The most piquant case is Nietzsche's God: When people brought up to believe that God necessarily implies (something like) the Christian theistic entity, come face to face with a God-idea like Nietzsche's, they end up calling him an atheist!

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I think you have some flaws in your argument, which you mostly pointed out already.

I'd suggest a modified version:

  • If there were some just divine being, it would not punish or reward us without us knowing what it wants and what the consequences for our actions would be.
  • We can't know that it exists or what it wants.
  • Therefore, a just divine being does not exist or would not have us face consequences for our actions.
  • Therefore, the existence of a just divine being is unimportant to us.

One could perhaps say it's unjust to reward someone just for doing things to get a reward, as opposed to because they wanted to be a "good" person (e.g. being kind and considerate to others). For that, I might suggest yet another version:

  • If there were some just divine being, it would punish or reward us based on the virtue of our actions.
  • If we knew of the existence of a divine being, our actions may no longer be based on virtue.
  • Therefore, we can't know that a just divine being exists.
  • Therefore, if a just divine being exists, trying to live a virtuous life would provide the maximum utility.
  • Therefore, if we try to live a virtuous life, the existence of a just divine being is unimportant to us.

If you don't try to live a virtuous life, this argument may not work for you.

In any case, I prefer the problem of evil / suffering as an argument.


* Regarding the existence of an unjust divine being, they could arbitrarily punish or reward us regardless of what we do, based on which you can make a reasonable case that their existence just isn't worth worrying about.

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I think that your problem is here:

  1. We can't know that.
  2. If it were objectively important that we know something, we could know it.

These depend on what you mean by "know", and I think that in any case of "know" where they are both true, it would need to be a straw man. There are lots of things, for instance, that we don't know now that are important later. "Is that really a bomb beside me?" is a very important thing to know even if you can't know whether or not it is right now. You will know it later, and most every divine being people believe exists are beings they believe that you will know with certainty of their existence at some point.

In the case that there existed some divine being which never revealed itself to us nor would ever interact with us and no evidence ever had or will exist of its presence, then in that case it would be unimportant. I think those are mostly except as a thought experiment, or perhaps Deism.

Another problem is that you refer to something you've termed "objective importance" and then attempt to define it without an appeal to a divine arbiter. If you presume Materialism, you run into the Is–ought problem. It seems as though you have an internal concept that there should be some objectively important things, but instead of seeking out the full implications of how that could be, you are just supposing that it exists. However, this ends up begging the question. If you just assumed that it existed without an explanation, then of course the explanation would seem superfluous.

  1. If a divine being exists, and is morally important, then moral importance is not (much/at all) objective.

I suppose that depends about what you mean here by "objective". There is one sense in which you could say that "it's subject to the mind of that being", but in practice, that's just semantics. Most definitions of "moral" are circular, but if there is a divine being, it is conceivable that all of the non-circular definitions are satisfied singularly by that one being such that it could be said that morality is objective. Regardless, if that divine being should give out rewards and punishments based upon that moral system, then I think that most people would agree that it would be very important to consider that moral code, even if you had some definition or intuition which didn't fit. But you are right that this is different for some Theists. For instance, the Greek gods mentioned in the Euthyphro dilemma would suffer from this problem. I'm not sure whether people believe in those in modern day other than allegorically.

(6) would mean that there is some direct way to know if a divine being exists, which is difficult to imagine (how can we differentiate concretely between a divine being existing and not existing?)

If your definition of "know" allows for "we will know" as in "we will be judged", then this is easy to know. We just don't "know" yet. It seems like your unstated question here is something more like "Which belief about the existence of a God should we believe now?" That is a much different question, and one which can't be so easily dismissed.

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  • The is/ought problem is not as profound or powerful as many people make it out to be, as I have discussed in several other posts on the SE. At any rate, what is lacking in my definition of objective importance is a reconciliation of the not-recognition-transcendent parameter, which smacks of subjectivism, with the possibly-recognition-transcendent parameter typical of objectivity. But then this is why I also thought that the issue would perhaps help dissolve the objective/subjective distinction, at least for (some/many) ethical propositions. Sep 25, 2023 at 19:54
  • More importantly, I know that we will not be judged, at least if by "judgment" we mean "a great and terrible day," for the Form of the Good will not fall prey to the perverse ideal of divine retribution and so It will, on the true "last day," not subject us to murderous judgment. In fact, that Form might not even have there be a "last day" anyway... Sep 25, 2023 at 19:55
  • @KristianBerry In this sense, you only "know" that a specific god of your specifically chosen attributes, which you did not include in your post, would not act in a certain way. If you wish to narrow your definition, please do so in your post so that you don't receive answers about divine beings in general. A being which will not act towards us based upon predictable methods which our beliefs or actions may dictate may be one that is unimportant.
    – DKing
    Sep 25, 2023 at 20:08
  • Well, I take myself to almost fully know the truth of the matter, not know-according-to-a-parochial-definition-of-knowledge. Someone else already provided a satisfactory rejoinder to my question, however, so I suppose debating it is moot at this point. Sep 25, 2023 at 20:16

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