Are Objections to Hearing God Successful? Replies to Recent Comments

August 27, 2012

One of the comments to my last post, from Sam Harper, made thoughtful objections and assumptions that I tried to address earlier in this series. As I started to reply, it occurred to me that others would have similar objections. Because a reply to those would bring together the various threads of this series into one place, I decided just to make the whole thing a separate post. Before beginning, I should point out that though Sam's comment prompted this post, and though I've done my best to understand his objections, I'm not claiming that everything addressed here is his view.

If you're lost as to what I'm even talking about, start at the beginning of the Objections to Hearing God series and read through it.

To begin with, my reply to DGT has been to give examples that purport to show it makes a false assumption—namely, premise (1), which says that HG implies God can try and fail at being heard. If that claim is false, then DGT is an unsound objection. But suppose that some of those examples, which I called the "accepted examples," in Part 6, seem too fishy to serve as counterexamples to DGT's (1). Surely, it can't be right that those examples would be just as inconsistent with omnipotence if HG is, you might think. But as far as DGT is concerned, even if the accepted examples are no good, the earlier examples from Part 5 are still sufficient to show DGT unsound.

But I don't think one needs to, or should, ignore the accepted examples. This is because they exemplify the features that make them count as defeaters to DGT's premise (1).

Consider the Road to Emmaus account, in which Jesus hides his identity from his disciples. This is an instance in which divine omnipotence, divine speech, and "missing it" all obtain. This means those three are compatible, which contradicts DGT's (1). To point out, in reply, that Jesus was "missed" only due to his intent to be "missed," rather than due to some action on the part of the disciples, doesn't render these features of the story any less relevant for assessing DGT. Indeed, this and the other accepted examples demonstrate the relevant point: that divine communication need not "overwhelm" the recipient with either the sense that she's heard from God, or with clear apprehension of the content of the experience, or with certainty of the content's truth (if propositional).

Here's another fishiness-related objection. This one is to the Bible-reading/interpretation examples that try to show DGT unsound. The objection here says that no one is mistaken about every aspect of their experience during Bible reading/interpretation. For instance, you know, when reading the Bible, that someone other than you wrote those words. This makes the situation pretty different from that of the HG-type examples, in which one might be less confident about, say, the origin of some thought.

That observation, though true, is irrelevant to DGT. Sure, readers/interpreters typically believe—indeed, know—that some facet or other of their experience is veridical (e.g. that the text was written by someone other than oneself; that one read this passage just three months ago; that this passage is similar to that other one, etc.). But the Bible-reading/interpreting examples needn't imply a denial of something like that in order to serve as defeaters for DGT. Rather, the Bible reading/interpretation examples show DGT unsound as long as they show that divine communication is consistent with missing it in any way at all. And they do this.

But one might still wish to object to the relevance of the accepted examples on other grounds. For instance, one might be tempted to think that the sense in which God speaks in the accepted examples, is just too different from the sense in which he purportedly speaks in the HG-type examples—too different to stand in the same relation to omnipotence, anyway.

The problem with that objection is that there's no way to distinguish the two— such that DGT spells trouble for HG, but not for the accepted examples—without the distinction being completely ad hoc.

Thus, I think the accepted examples serve to show the HG skeptic that he likely already accepts that God can communicate with various degrees of clarity, etc., and that this is no threat to omnipotence.

What about the place of biblical examples in this discussion? One might think that a biblical example of the relevant phenomenon is necessary to make any kind of case for HG, and relatedly, for the phenomenon of missing divine communication—for instance, as Sam said, an example in which God communicates to someone, but in which the recipient is unaware that anything was communicated to him. Three replies to this: First, although a counterexample of that sort, even one from the Bible, would be sufficient to show DGT unsound, it isn't necessary to show it unsound. More generally, I argued in post 2 against the view that, for some practice to be permissible, or for some claim about God to be true, or even justified, it has to be found in the Bible; so all one needs are counterexamples, whether from the Bible or not; I think I've provided those. Third, although not the subject of this series, in addition to the accepted examples, the Bible does seem to mention HG-type examples of divine communication and missing it—see J.P. Moreland's post, "Hearing God: A Biblical Case?".

Finally, I don't share the worries of certain well-intended apologists about experience, as such (sometimes called "subjective experience."). See Part 3 or a brief take on this. It seems to me that we ought to hold to a principle of credulity whereby our experience of the world, regardless of type, is to be taken as prima facie veridical—that is, true until we have reason to think otherwise. Else, we have no principled way of denying skepticism about nearly any experience we have. The proper approach, then, is just to consider the veridicality of experiences case-by-case. But doing that requires discernment, and, as with discernment in anything, it's a skill one can grow in. How does one grow? That's an important question, but it's outside the scope of this series, and the evaluation of objections to HG does not depend on any answer to it. Having said that, see the comment I made in Part 5 in reply to Jonathan, in which I gave brief suggestions for how one could start taking steps in the right direction.

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