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I would like to start by quoting this answer's summary of the divine hiddenness argument:

This is the crux of the atheistic Argument from Divine Hiddenness:

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, then God perfectly loves such finite persons as there may be.
(2) Necessarily, if God perfectly loves such finite persons as there may be, then, for any capable finite person S and time t, God is at t open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with S at t.
(3) Necessarily, if for any capable finite person S and time t, God is at t open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with S at t, then, for any capable finite person S and time t, it is not the case that S is at t nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.
(4) There is at least one capable finite person S and time t such that S is or was at t nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.


(5) So, it is not the case that God exists. (from 1 through 4)

(Source: Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Adam Green, "Hiddenness of God", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/divine-hiddenness/.)

I find the phrase "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship" interesting, but at the same time quite vague and ambiguous. What exactly would count as God stepping out of his hiddenness in order to meet the implicit expectations of this phrase? Are there any specific manifestations or interventions a God would have to perform for a "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship" to exist? Would it be okay if this "relationship" only takes place in private settings? Or is there an implicit requirement that this "relationship" produce publicly accessible scientific evidence that could be externally validated/corroborated?

In short, what are the specific requirements that any "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship" between a human being and a God must satisfy to be regarded as real?

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    Are you wanting an analysis of that (really sketchy) argument, or just an understanding of that one phrase? The later seems trivial: I mean, if your spouse were to go an a long trip to a foreign country, would you cease to have a 'positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship'? The criteria for maintaining a long-distance relationship are vanishingly small, and often merely a matter of willing it to be so. Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 15:48
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    During my time as a pacifist, but in many other ways extremist, believer, my interpretation of my consciousness of a relationship with God was cashed out in Trinitarian terms as an engagement primarily with the Holy Spirit. I thought that the Spirit was both directly and indirectly revealing things to me about the process of creation, the purpose of history, etc. and then my role in the outcome of moral problems in our time. It was a dizzying experience, and daunting, one that seemed to end with a sense of failure and loss however, and now replaced by an unstable reluctance to believe more. Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 16:22
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    @Mark I thought that the Spirit was helping me do the right thing up to a point, and then I wondered why that help would run out. And I saw that other believers I knew seemed almost hopelessly lost when it came to their actual responsibilities, and I didn't get it: if they were being enlightened by God, why weren't they actually enlightened almost at all, even when it came to everyday matters? Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 18:10
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    @Mark I was nondenominational, otherwise it was a mix of Catholics, Orthodox, LDS, Reformed, Moonies, Iglesia ni Cristo, Calvary Chapel, others who were nondenoms, etc. Some online, some in person, some for longer periods of time, some for shorter. In the end I couldn't handle the multifaceted nature of it, at least not when the anti-ecumenicism was often so hostile, when there were so many versions, translations, and interpretations of the core book and my understanding of that book was of no avail. Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 18:24
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    @KristianBerry My Guru would call it "Spiritual Indigestion", though it sounds like it was for you fairly unsettling.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 22:39

4 Answers 4

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I can't speak for the intent of the author, but one might compare this to human relationships.

Let's say someone claims to have a meaningful loving reciprocal relationship with Jeff Bezos. How they describe this is that they've never actually had Bezos directly say anything to them. Rather, they have some phone number where they can leave a message for Bezos, to ask or tell him something, and occasionally the thing they asked for will happen (although it could also just have happened by itself). And sometimes they'll get the perfect recommendation on Amazon Prime, that was exactly what they needed emotionally, and they say that was specifically put there by Bezos.

We'd say this person's judgement is completely off in thinking that Bezos even knows that they exist, never mind loving them (but they can certainly love their image of Bezos). Yet most anecdotes of relationships with God are comparable to this (but we also definitely know that Bezos is a person that exists).

So one might say that such relationships do not meet the requirements, and that, for a meaningful relationship, God should: (at least)

  • Directly speak to someone, using clear verbal words and full sentences (not just thoughts that people attribute to God).

    Theists might say that God's voice is deafening, but sound is physical, and so is hearing, so if God can affect material reality, he should trivially be able to communicate with a voice that sounds like anything, at any volume, to individuals or to groups. Never mind that text is also an option.

  • Intervene in reality in clear and unmistakable ways to help that person.

    If you have a loving relationship with Jeff Bezos, and he has over a hundred billion dollars, while you struggle with problems that would be solved with just a negligible fraction of that, that wouldn't really add up.

    If a powerful, loving god existed, we would expect to see their direct intervention in reality.

    Some of the stories in the Bible might qualify, if those were true.

    This also relates to the problem of evil, in that plenty of people are suffering, and God isn't intervening to prevent that (but there are apologetics to try to explain that).

But note that divine hiddenness is not just a problem on an individual level, but on a universal level. Divine hiddenness says that the claimed properties of God (loving and powerful) are inconsistent with anyone not knowing that he exists (and being judged based on that). One may find someone who frequently has full conversations with God, and who's possibly seen what they think are miracles, but this doesn't solve the problem of divine hiddenness, and one might suspect that such a person merely experienced hallucinations.

If I were such a person, I'd be skeptical given that it can merely be a hallucination. There would be a point where I could be convinced of the existence of some being, but divine hiddenness, the problem of evil, the existence of hell, among other things, may still need to be resolved to my satisfaction prior to me accepting that this being has the set of traits commonly attributed to them by [modern] Christians. But even if I could be convinced, that doesn't make it justified for anyone else to be convinced based merely on me claiming to have had an experience.

Also note that the argument concludes that God doesn't exist. It does not automatically follow that if one of the premises were false, then the inverse of the conclusion is true (i.e. God exists), because that's not how logic works. As alluded to above, there are other relevant factors and arguments, but God having a meaningful relationship with every person would get us pretty far towards rational acceptance of God's existence.

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  • "Directly speak to someone, using clear verbal words and full sentences (not just thoughts that people attribute to God)" - Does this rule out telepathy as a valid means of communication, and if so, why?
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 23:22
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    @Mark The difficulty is differentiating normal mundane thinking from the words of a supernatural being. If you just hear it as a thought, that's much more difficult. But God should still be able to make you think you're hearing an audible voice, even if there's no sound. So that doesn't rule out telepathy. (Side note: I have a hypothesis that people who very rarely have an "internal monologue" might call that some extraordinary experience of God speaking to them, although as a former theist with an internal monologue, I know how easily and selectively theists attribute their thoughts to God)
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 23:48
  • Got it. Makes sense. By the way, I think this discussion could be interesting to you.
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 23:57
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    @Mark It's very generous to give credit to Jesus for the placebo effect when he merely mentioned the possibility of false prophets. That just makes it sound like the answerer doesn't understand what the placebo effect is. You can become convinced that someone is a true prophet if they merely induce some positive health effect (i.e. a placebo), sure, but you can also become convinced through reason or though miracles (like what's said by the very verse in question...). Also, the idea of lying existed long before Jesus came around, so we can hardly call that some noteworthy thing God revealed.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 1:01
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    @Mark "using cases of the placebo effect in spirituality to argue against all reports of spiritual experiences is but a case of the fallacy of defective induction" - I was inclined to call that a strawman, but since that's pretty much what you asked... *shrug*. In reality, most counter-apologists wouldn't say placebo is responsible for "all" spiritual experiences, but they would say it's responsible for much of many. And many reports of spiritual experience have been analysed, which would make it well in line with a rational inductive generalisation (not all induction is fallacious).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 1:10
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  1. The link from SEP denotes the term

    positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship

    as a quote from John L. Schellenberg, made in one of his books and in a book-contribution. Therefore your question should be answered by these sources. Do you have access to them?

    Otherwise your question cannot be answered, because it is not clear why Schellenberg says “positively meaningful” and not just “meaningful”, and what he means by a relationship which is “conscious”.

  2. One could ask whether Schellenberg considers the relationship between Jewish prophets like Jeremia and their god Jahwe a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship: The prophet claims to hear and report the word of his god and he sometimes even addresses an answer.

    In the context of literature there is a novel by Franz Werfel “Hearken Unto the Voice” about the relationship between Jeremia and Jahwe. It gives an impression how it could have looked like from Jeremias' point of view.

  3. Similarly from our time there is the publication by Mother Teresa Come by My Light . She reports the two phases of her life: The first when communicating with Jesus, the second when lacking any answer from him. But I am not sure whether the book is autobiographic as it claims to be.

  4. Added: The basic requirement for a meaningful and reciprocal
    relationship between a human person and God is not different from the requirement for such a relationship between two persons. Because Jahwe is a considered a personal god according to the Jewish bible.

    The Jewish bible is full of reports about such relations, at least from the viewpoint of the human partner. Hence we have a lot of data to analyze. The most prominent examples are the reports from the prophets about their long-term relation.

    But all reports suffer from the severe handicap that we know only about one of the two partners, he speaks for both like in an imaginary exchange of letters. Hence the basic requirement that such a relationship can “be regarded as real” is the proof that both partners exist. Concerning the human partner I am not in doubt, but the existence of the other one is
    totally open.

    One does not need to discuss any desirable attributes of a relationship as long as it is unclear that a second partner exists at all. And it is always difficult to prove the existence of an absent person.

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  • We eventually have to grow beyond relying on others, even God, apparently.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 22:59
  • Jo, while this is a typically thoughtful answer from you, I have to disagree. The words are clear in meaning, even when applied to a deity. Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 19:14
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    @ChrisSunami No problem. - I see from your recent answer that we do not agree about the exegesis of Schellenberg’s words. But I will stop at this point to avoid any hairsplitting :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 20:06
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This is a rare case in philosophy where the phrase can be understood just by looking at the meaning of the constituent words:

  • "positively" - as opposed to negative. The relationship with God has a positive valence, it's a good thing.

  • "meaningful" - significant. This isn't just incidental or unimportant.

  • "reciprocal" - on both sides. So God is in relationship with the person, the person is also in relationship with God.

  • "conscious" - Both the person and God are aware of their relationship with each other. This isn't something automatic, or with a non-conscious, abstract force.

  • "relationship" - a connection between two personified beings.

So, this is talking about a relationship between two personified beings, that both are conscious of, that goes in both directions, and that is both significant and good.

An example from the perspective of a believer would be a moment of prayer in which God, as a personified being, hears the prayer and answers. If you follow the structure of the argument, Schellenberg is assuming the position of the believer at this point, in order to derive a contradiction (a common logical strategy). This would not be an unusual thing for a Christian, for example, to believe, so it's a legitimate characterization of a believer's position (although it wouldn't necessarily hold for all believers of all faiths).

The larger argument is an attempt to formalize the intuition that if God really exists, there shouldn't be any atheists--or at least no passive atheists (people who are open to the possibility of God, but have received no sign of God's existence). It's an argument that does have some force against some conceptions of God--it's essentially a version of the Problem of Evil (how can a good and powerful God tolerate evil) where the test case for the "evil" situation is existing in a state of non-willed non-belief.

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    For what it's worth, most skeptics would require a much higher standard of evidence than merely "having the sense" that God hears and answers (unless one interprets that very narrowly, to exclude merely "feeling" like God is there).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 19:15
  • @NotThatGuy That's true, and I considered it when writing the example, but in the context of the argument, it is assumed. I'll edit to clarify Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 19:21
  • @NotThatGuy - I reviewed your answer, and I think this is an unusual occasion where we're largely in agreement. I upvoted--I think you're more on-target than the accepted answer. Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 19:33
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There are a lot of predictive test cases one can construct around God hypotheses, based on the principle of intent. These test cases share the assumption that a hypothesized God is an agent, with identifiable goals, and one can reasonably infer God as an agent would act to achieve its goals. If we examine the world, and those goals are not met by it, then any God can be inferred not to have the desire or power to achieve them.

The Problem of Evil is the best known of these test cases. The Fine Tuning of the Universe for Life is probably the second best known. The Problem of Divine Hiddenness is possibly the third best known.

All of these test cases provide refutations of an Omni-God. There are no valid answers to the Problem of Evil.

The Fine Tuning for Life is a problem for physicalism, as our universe IS tuned to an astonishing degree. But also a problem for theism, as our universe is STILL mostly inhospitable to life, and an Omni-God could have done a very different approach to physics and cosmology that would have allowed life to be everywhere in the universe, and both far more diverse and not close to marginal on survival at all.

The Problem of Divine Silence is based on the principle of both relationship and communication being beneficial to entities, so any caring God would share both communication and relationship with us. The details of the definition of "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship" are less important than the point that many/most humans do NOT have either relationship or communication with God, even when they want to.

One can identify other such test cases, on say Beauty, or Variance/Diversity in our universe. Or on accuracy of claimed divine authorship of texts, perfection of design of life, etc. These also are generally failed test cases.

Apologetics is a theological field whose purpose is to distract the faithful from embarrassing or refuting evidences -- and one can find all sorts of apologetics efforts around each of these test cases.

Avoiding the apologetics, these are NOT actually refuting test cases for all God hypotheses. They are mostly just refutations of the Omni-God monotheist hypotheses.

There are several classes of God hypotheses that are not refuted by these test cases. The most obvious is an amoral God, whose motives cannot be characterized. This is the Cthulhu approach -- a God that is powerful, but apparently arbitrary and whose motives are intrinsically opaque.

The second category is di-theism -- where a loving God (omnibenevolent) is opposed and effectively countered by an opposing malevolent God. Di-theism can apply to near-omnipotence, but one can also dial back Godly power levels and postulate a weak di-theist set of Gods, or even a weaker Polytheist muddle of many Gods.

Neither Cthulhu, nor a di-theist God is refuted by these failed test cases.

As a spiritual dualist, and di-theist, who believes in applying methodological naturalism to worldviews, I have tested the inferred principle that one could possibly be able to develop a "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with God". The methodology I used was that described by a gnostic mystic, Ben Swett, in this paper: http://bswett.com/1990-03TwoWayPrayer.html Using the two way prayer methodology, I have had direct experience of God, plus communication from Godly agents -- which I think qualifies under "positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with God".

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