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Divine hiddenness and belief de re



In this paper I argue that Poston and Dougherty's attempt to undermine the problem of divine hiddenness by using the notion of belief de re is problematic at best. They hold that individuals who appear to be unbelievers (because they are de dicto unbelievers) may actually be de re believers. I construct a set of conditions on ascribing belief de re to show that it is prima facie implausible to claim that seemingly inculpable and apparent unbelievers are really de re believers. Thus, while it is indeed possible that a de dicto unbeliever is a de re believer, it is unlikely that this has sufficiently general application to actual individuals to alleviate the problem of divine hiddenness.



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1. Poston, Ted and Dougherty, TrentDivine hiddenness and the nature of belief’, Religious Studies, 43 (2007), 183198.

2. In communication, Poston and Dougherty have indicated that they intend to show only that such belief is possible.

3. The word ‘should’ here is normative not predictive.

4. Richard Swinburne The Existence of God, 2nd edn (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 267–272.

5. See J. L. Schellenberg Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), ‘The hiddenness argument revisited (I)’, Religious Studies, 41 (2005), 201–215, and ‘The hiddenness argument revisited (II)’, Religious Studies, 41 (2005), 287–303.

6. I take it that this is their interpretation of Schellenberg because, by way of responding, they stress the temporality and implicitness of belief.

7. Even so, the terms ‘low-level’ and ‘partial’ are ambiguous: one can commit significantly to something one is extremely uncertain of and one can have an insignificant commitment to something one is certain of. Commitment is an action idea whereas certainty is a psychological one.

8. Karl Rahner ‘Anonymous Christians’, Theological Investigations, 6 (Baltimore MD: Helicon Press, 1969), 390–398, and ‘Atheism and implicit Christianity’ Theological Investigations, 9 (New York NY: The Seabury Press, 1976), 145–165.

9. They explicitly hold that Schellenberg's understanding of ‘If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur’ takes too strong of a notion of belief because, among other things, it relies on belief de dicto. The implication is that Schellenberg's conditional would be true if, among other things, belief de re were intended; Poston and Dougherty ‘Divine hiddenness’, 184.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Quine, W. V. O.Quantifiers and propositional attitudes’, The Journal of Philosophy, 53 (1956), 177187.

13. Burge, TylerBelief de re’, The Journal of Philosophy, 74 (1977), 338362.

14. In this I'm following Brandom who writes, ‘The distinction between de dicto and de re should not be understood to distinguish two kinds of belief or even belief-contents, but two kinds of ascription’ (emphasis original); Robert Brandom Making it Explicit (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 503.

15. My view is that it is often better to think of belief ascriptions as more or less accurate rather than as simply true or false. The ascriber is depicting something about the mental life, speech, and/or behaviour of the believer. Hence, the ascriber should try to be true to these things – but, even so, there are more and less accurate ways to depict these things.

16. I say ‘part of’ because in the case of phlogiston theorists, what they actually say serves as a defeater to ascribing belief in oxygen to them. This is discussed later.

17. One must be careful here though – a person need not really believe everything her beliefs entail. It would be wholly inappropriate to say that people who understand what colours and maps are also believe the four-colour theorem.

18. Cases of self-deception and inconsistency are quite interesting here. Making de re ascriptions in such cases involve being true to one aspect of a person's mental life while explaining away other aspects of her thought, behaviour, or speech.

19. These conditions are rooted in something somewhat analogous to what Evans calls Russell's Principle: ‘[A] subject cannot make a judgement about something unless he knows which object his judgement is about’; Gareth Evans The Varieties of Reference (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 89.

20. Since we can ascribe to people beliefs about things that do not exist, the reverse does not hold as a general principle – while we can go from de re to de dicto ascriptions we cannot necessarily go from de dicto to de re ascriptions. Any de re ascription involves an existential commitment on behalf of the ascriber whereas de dicto ascriptions do not. For example, I can truly say, ‘Johnny believes that Santa Claus wears a red suit’ but I cannot (except speaking loosely) truly say, ‘Johnny believes of Santa Claus that he wears a red suit.’

21. Poston and Dougherty ‘Divine hiddenness’, 193.

22. Donald Davidson ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’, in idem Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1984), 189.

23. My thanks to the Editor and two anonymous reviewers for the journal for providing valuable feedback.


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