An IDer answers one (or two) of my questions—or tries to

February 21, 2020 • 1:45 pm

Imagine my shock to see this page at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News site (click on screenshot; I’ve archived it so the DI doesn’t get clicks).  The author is Granville Sewell, an intelligent-design creationist and a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at El Paso.

A good question? (I swear that they keep banging on about me because I’ll bring them clicks!). What is it?

Actually, it’s a bit confusing because they deal with two questions I asked.


2.) Here’s another one in the post:

Still, when we argue with atheists like Jerry Coyne, we may become frustrated and wonder why God didn’t just create all species simultaneously 10,000 years ago as some creationists believe, and make doubt impossible.

These are not the same question, though they both bear on whether we see evidence of God’s presence or of his handiwork.  I think Sewell is dealing mostly with the first one in his post, but does answer the second one—sort of:

Actually, the history of life on Earth is very similar to the history of human technology: we also design things step-by-step, through testing and improvements. In fact, as I show in the second part of my new video, the similarities between the history of life and the history of human technology actually extend far beyond this. So if the history of life looks like the way humans, the only other known intelligent beings in the universe, design things, why is this widely considered as evidence against design? Because God “wouldn’t” do things like we do, of course!

But even if you believe that God has to create through testing and improvements for the same reasons we do, and that just because something is designed doesn’t mean it can never go wrong (which addresses the main question in my Epilogue, why do bad things happen to good people), we still have to think that God has intentionally passed up a lot of opportunities to end the debate about his existence and silence all doubters.

In other words, all the species on the planet that have gone extinct simply represented God trying things out and then winnowing out the bad designs (nearly all of them during the end-Permian extinction)! Why did the passenger pigeon fail?

But then where do the new and very different species come from?  If they were created de novo, or tweaked by God somehow using evolution as his method, then we are back to creationism, de novo or gradual. But seriously, even though both God and humans are intelligent, there’s no reason given why God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, had to “test” the animals and plants and then, if they didn’t pass muster, extirpate them!

That’s a pretty lame answer, but it’s theology, Jake. But on to the Big Question: why is God hiding from us? (Whenever I think of this question, I think of philosopher Delos McKown’s answer: “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”)

To see his answer, Sewell refers us to a previous article of his at Evolution News, “The biggest theological objection to design“, which is far more about theodicy—why does God allow natural and moral evil?—than about why God is hidden.

The issue of theodicy, which Sewell resolves by saying that evil is a necessary byproduct of good, is difficult to read, for Sewell recounts the slow and painful death of his wife (they had two young kids) from nose and sinus cancer. One could ask “well, couldn’t God just eliminate cancer?”, but Sewell uses a Mother Teresa gambit: suffering has its benefits. My response—and I’m not trying to be churlish here—is “Does the benefit of your wife’s suffering outweigh the tragedy of her loss and the fact that your children are motherless? Wouldn’t you rather have your wife back than have her dead but having learned lessons?” I will leave that answer to Sewell.

Does Sewell answer the question of why God doesn’t show himself? He does say that he believes in some miracles, even though he touts the hegemony of natural law (which doesn’t jibe with his approbation of intelligent design and repeated creations):

 I do believe that God has intervened in human and natural history at times in the past, and I would like to believe he still intervenes in human affairs, and even answers prayers, on occasions, but the rules at least appear to us to be inflexible.

But all it would take is ONE BIG MIRACLE, of the type I describe in Faith Versus Fact (p. 119)—a miracle that was taped and documented worldwide—to make me believe in a divine being—provisionally, of course, as it might be due to space aliens or some trick.  Why can’t we at least have that?

Well, here’s the reason Sewell gives why God is hidden:

Why does God remain backstage, hidden from view, working behind the scenes while we act out our parts in the human drama? This question has lurked just below the surface throughout much of this book, and now perhaps we finally have an answer. If he were to walk out onto the stage, and take on a more direct and visible role, I suppose he could clean up our act, and rid the world of pain and evil — and doubt. But our human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings: the regularity of natural law which makes our achievements meaningful; the free will which makes us more interesting than robots; the love which we can receive from and give to others; and even the opportunity to grow and develop through suffering. I must confess that I still often wonder if the blessings are worth the terrible price, but God has chosen to create a world where both good and evil can flourish, rather than one where neither can exist. He has chosen to create a world of greatness and infamy, of love and hatred, and of joy and pain, rather than one of mindless robots or unfeeling puppets.

The big flaw here is that god could walk out onstage, show us that he exists, and then not take on a “more direct and visible role.” He could just convince us he exists, and then go back to Heaven, put his feet up on a cloud, and quaff a bottle of 1961 Lafitte. This would NOT turn life int a divine puppet show: things would go on pretty much as they did before, but with more religious people and maybe a bit more good behavior. After a while, things would get pretty much back to normal, and science, which depends on “natural law”, would go on as before. Sewell’s point about us being “puppets” is irrelevant here: we could see God and still believe that we have free will and so on.  God could make a cameo appearance, let most of us believe in him (if we’re convinced; Muslims and Hindus wouldn’t be, perhaps), and then bugger off. Presumably that would go a long way to meeting what Christians want to see.

So while Sewell’s second essay explains—though not to my satisfaction—why there is evil in the world, it doesn’t even come close to saying why God remains hidden.


65 thoughts on “An IDer answers one (or two) of my questions—or tries to

  1. “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”
    And God’s plan and random events seem rather indistinguishable as well.

  2. even if you believe that God has to create through testing and improvements for the same reasons we do…

    Imperfect knowledge and lack of power?

    If he were to walk out onto the stage, and take on a more direct and visible role…our human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings: the regularity of natural law which makes our achievements meaningful; the free will which makes us more interesting than robots; the love which we can receive from and give to others; and even the opportunity to grow and develop through suffering.

    This implies that most of the Old Testament was merely a divine puppet show, because God kept showing up to the Israelites.

    It implies Jesus’ actions on Earth turned everything around him into a divine puppet show.

    It implies that the disciples had no free will, were basically robots, didn’t truly love Jesus, and that his presence prevented them from growing and developing.

    Lastly, it implies there is no free will, love, growth, or development in heaven.


    The bottom line being, Christianity posits human have and will exist in God’s presence, and that this is a wonderful thing. But faced with God’s absence on earth, they posit God’s presence would be a horrible thing. And they ignore the inconsistency.

  3. “… there’s no reason given why God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, had to “test” the animals …”

    To amplify this, ask any theologian whether God is “outside time” and so has a “bird’s eye” view of the timeline, being able to see everything that happens at all times. They have to answer “yes”, otherwise God is not omniscient, and indeed is not omnipotent, being constrained by time, rather than him having created time.

    But, if God knows the outcome of the test before he even starts, then “testing” makes no sense at all.

    “… but Sewell uses a Mother Teresa gambit: suffering has its benefits.”

    So is there suffering in heaven? Do children die of cancer in heaven? Because if they don’t, then ipso facto, suffering is not a “necessary” component of God’s plan.

    “If he were to walk out onto the stage our […] human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings”

    So, just wondering. Is God centre-stage and visible to those in heaven? And if so, is heaven merely a “puppet show” where sad denizens lack their “greatest blessings”?

    Obviously I’m not a very good theologian am I, having to ponder these questions? Either that or the IDiots are not good theologians.

    1. So is there suffering in heaven? Do children die of cancer in heaven?

      Exactly what I came to say. Whenever some evil aspect of the world is said to be a necessary byproduct of something good that God wants for us (e.g. “sin is a necessary byproduct of God giving us free will”), then I ask about heaven. If free will entails sin, then either we’ll be sinning in heaven or God will take away our free will and make us into robots or slaves, which seems to undermine the claim about free will being so good and important in the first place…

      (Not that we necessarily have free will, but you know, for the sake of argument. :-P)

    2. ask any theologian whether God is “outside time” and so has a “bird’s eye” view of the timeline, being able to see everything that happens at all times.

      If their answer is yes, can their god alter the timeline to alter its own actions that were or will be faulty? If also yes, can it also see the outcome of its altered actions upfront, and alter those in advance, too, and …

      Within my science fiction geek’s inner eye, I see a spacetime snowflake with infinite layers of discarded branches that never were to have been.

  4. “The non-existent and the invisible look very much alike.” Indeed.
    Believers are able to muster post hoc rationalizations for why god remains hidden, or does/doesn’t act to make himself known. But they’re rarely convincing. I remember listening to a Brother Jesuit (and scientist), Guy Consolmagno, at one point when I was trying to salvage my faith. He tackles this issue of divine hiddenness by saying god “wants a relationship” and basically won’t force us to follow him. But that doesn’t help resolve the problem. How can I enter into a relationship with someone/something when I don’t even know if he/it exists in the first place?!

    1. God sounds like a rather passive-aggressive sort of deity. I suppose his precious gift of cancer is a way of reminding us of our relationship.

      Now is a good time to quote the end of Randy Newman’s “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”:

      “I burn down your cities—how blind you must be
      I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
      You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
      That’s why I love mankind
      You really need me
      That’s why I love mankind”

  5. “Does the benefit of your wife’s suffering outweigh the tragedy of her loss and the fact that your children are motherless?”

    This is a very poignant example of how religion poisons everything (Hitch), and how it takes religion to make a good person into an evil one (Weinberg). What kind of a warped mentality thinks dying of cancer is OK since, God?

  6. To explain the existence of evil and the hiddenness of God, theologians have created a Rube Goldberg machine many times more complex than the most extreme of Rube’s productions.

  7. Because our “faith” has some mysterious intrinsic value to God. It is very important to him that we believe in him without evidence – one of those tests that he deliberately subjects us to.

    I’ve asked a few Christians why God would care whether I believe in him or not, and this was more or less the most coherent answer I got.

  8. The problem with god ‘walking out on stage’ is that it then just becomes another mundane ‘thing’ in the physical world. And an evil, narcissistic thing at that. Or maybe just another “stranger on the bus” (=sans omnipotence/omniscient).


  9. I think it is simply easier to say belief in all kinds of religion is the nature of people. The human mind is simply a sucker for a story or a symbol to follow. We see it everywhere and all the time. Belief in a group of goop from a celebrity. Belief in a con man sitting in the white house lying to you every day and all day. People are willing suckers and it is the human condition.

  10. No believer wants to god to show himself. If god showed up and converted everyone, they wouldn’t feel special and better than everyone else.

    1. It is worse than that. The believer must hold that there is literally nothing in the world that even a *6* year old wouldn’t stop if he knew about it. See Michael Scriven’s _Primary Philosophy_.

  11. I agree completely – if God were real, He’d step up and demonstrate He’s God, and we’d all take up Christianity.

    God isn’t mysterious, He’s illogical.

    1. Maybe.. thats assuming god exists and its the christian god. It reminds me of a cartoon i saw a few months ago. A muslim imam, catholic priest and jewish rabbi are all standing outside the pearly gates, very distraught that its actually Odin deciding who enters
      Gets to the heart of pascals wager

  12. The Problem of Divine Hiddenness (otherwise known as the Argument from Nonbelief)is an atheological argument which gets less attention than many others, but I think it’s much tighter and simpler than many others. That so many Christians seem to misunderstand it — or mix it up with the Problem of Evil — may indicate its strength.

    There is nothing God wants more than for all people to choose to love Him, and this isn’t possible if people don’t know He exists. They can’t make a choice if the necessary precondition isn’t there. Your own children can’t choose to obey you or rebel from you if you dropped them off with another family at birth and only revealed your existence by dropping clues and hints which can plausibly be ascribed to other sources, with other reasons.

    The most popular counter to the Problem of Divine Hiddenness isn’t that knowing God exists would force you to obey Him (which isn’t true, as Jerry easily points out.)It’s that we all know God exists but some pretend they don’t out of a desire to sin.

    This isn’t an argument meant to persuade the nonbeliever, of course. No Christian would agree they became Christian as a way to avoid and insult Allah. The more perceptive apologists know not to trot it out in a fair debate.

    1. If people would read the histories of the civilizations of antiquity they would see that Christianity offered absolutely nothing new. It adopted what it needed to grow and subsume other religions with basically the same views.
      For example the crucifixion is nothing more than animal sacrifice practiced for thousands of years.

      1. Polytheism had gods for every occasion. Along comes monotheism with one god who does everything the other gods did. What to do when you’re down to one god? From there we get Christianity where my new god is the son of your god with new rules. This establishes a pattern of new prophets each with new rules, Islam, Mormon…

        Religion makes perfect sense when you look at it as a means of control.

        This is my theory, which is mine.

  13. Silly atheists, the answer is quite obvious. Intervention on Mon Wed Fri, free will on Tue Thu Sat, bowling on Sundays.

  14. I’ll take the bait. Fools rush in.

    God is the principle of identity, that which makes every particular thing discrete and particular.

    To be seen, God would have to be particular and discrete, and then there would have to be a principle of identity beyond God.

    God is distinct from all that exists in that God is the only principle that is indistinct from all that exists (everything else is distinct from what it is not, A does not equal ~A). So God is indistinctly distinct and distinctly indistinct.

    If that sounds like a contradiction, well the law of noncontradiction, that A is not ~A is the principle of identity, and is true of both A and ~A at the same time (it is common to both).

    Obviously, in humans, what generally creates group identity and community is religion, so what you see in religion is a particular manifestation, call it a revelation, of the principle of identity.

      1. No, this would track your Sein/Dasein and the Ontic/Ontological distinction in Heidegger’s philosophy, and parallels the Show/Say distinction as developed in Wittgenstein, but its very ancient, you see this sort of thing in Plato’s Republic in the metaphor of the cave and his discussion of the Form of the Good.

        Part of the above is an unattributed quote from Eckhart, but this sort of thing falls out of fashion in the West by the end of the 14th Century after Eckhart gets prosecuted for heresy, only to re-emerge in the context of a secular German idealism, and generally you find at least of residue of it in any 20th Century philosopher who was influenced by Goethe. [Paul Tillich’s theology, based in Heideggerian existentialism is a version of this as well.]

        Of course, it is non-theistic, as it denies that God is a Being. The Anglos never liked it because they were too fixated on logical positivism, and most of the Continental philosophy ditched existentialism for Foucault and Derrida, but like Bell Bottoms it might go back into fashion.

      1. I don’t understand your remark:

        The fallacy of Special Pleading occurs when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon an irrelevant characteristic that does not qualify as an exception.

        The principle of noncontradiction (or the principle of identity): “A ~= ~A” is the quality shared by A and ~A (they are equal in that respect).

        Everything is what it is, with the exception of principle of identity itself which follows from the nature of identity.

        What gives rise to identity cannot itself have a discrete identity, because then it would be itself a discrete particular (and you would need another principle of identity that makes the principle of identity have identity in this sense, and you get an infinity regress).

        It comes down to something like Being versus a being. Being itself is a special case from a being. [I say identity rather than Being because it is identity that makes something “a being” that is discrete and distinct from other beings. That which makes everything a being cannot be itself a being.]

        You might as well argue for the non-existence of the “zero” because it is the only natural number without a quantity as “special pleading fallacy”. No, its just the definition of what it means to be zero.

        I could understand an objection to reifying a principle of logic, but that comes from an assumption that being is intelligibility (what exists is intelligible and knowable) and so intelligibles themselves (forms/ideas) exist and are knowable. That is a general objection to Platonism in any form. Although, it should be pointed out that if being is not intelligible, that kind of things slides into post-modernism pretty fast.

        1. To clarify; any apologetics that starts out with some general principle as a premise, then proceeds to claim that some god is an exception to that general principle is a case of special pleading. Such special pleading is often recognizable by the use of the words “God is the only…”, as you did.

          1. No my friend, it is not “special pleading” to say that the Law of Gravity is not itself subject to the Law of Gravity, nor is it special pleading to say that the principle of identity (A is A/ A is not ~A) is not itself subject to the principle of identity.

            Follow it out logically. If the principle of identity was applicable to some things but separable from some other “things” (how?), then identity would be particular and discrete (limited to the set of things with identity). Say there was a world in which some things had identity (A) and other “things” didn’t (~A)-something like “prime matter” I suppose. Then ~A can be A, because “things” (~A) without identity are not subject to the law of noncontradiction (but A still cannot be ~A, so “~A is A” is true, but “A is ~A” is false, and the cupola loses its transitivity).

            No, I can see the objection to ontologizing abstract entities, but assuming that is kosher, there does seem to be a distinction between say the principle of identity and particular discrete beings that have identity. [I would note that it would also apply to abstract entities such as numbers, which are conceptually distinct, one is not two.]

            Or another way to say it is maybe the Platonic Academy went on 600 years because its followers weren’t dummies, and it disappeared because Christians used political power to crush it, not because they were too stupid to understand the “special pleading” fallacy.

  15. What’s always bothered me about the question of “why doesn’t he prove himself” is when the believer answers that it’s because of “faith” and “blah blah shouldn’t have to prove himself, blah blah.” Because that’s a hypocritical answer. When I ask them why THEY believe, they say that the bible, or some other thing, is proof to them. Oh, so God was happy to provide proof that met YOUR threshold for acceptance but won’t do it for me. Great. Thanks God. God plays favorites with whom he’ll prove his existence too, then condemns everyone else to hell. Nice guy.

    1. Also they talk to the god voices in their heads who tells them they are right, and where their car keys are, which they might be reluctant to admit to unbelievers.

    2. Or worse they say that the god you’re thinking of isn’t the god they are thinking of. It’s not the old man from the bible, they say. It’s a different kind of god.

  16. The question is excellent and the explanation shows how a psychological disaster area is the prime victim of faith.

  17. IIRC a few decades ago at least, there was a Major League baseball team – probably the Pittsburgh Pirates but I’m not 100% sure, that was doing particularly poorly, and it developed that a lot of the team had bought into the idea that all was predetermined. That whatever they did, they were just going thru the motions and the end result of the game was going to be whatever God had already decided. So with that in their heads they started to really just go thru the motions and the result was predictable. I think there was then some effort to scrub that out of their heads, but whether it occurred to any of them that they had tested the hypothesis and found it lacking is unclear.

  18. The only Natural Theological theodicy that makes any sense to me is one based on the idea of ‘trade-offs’. For instance, you can’t have the awe-inspiring landscapes and creatures of the world without accepting geological and evolutionary processes that inevitably involve suffering and death.

    It is up to us individually to decide whether all of this suffering and death are a price worth paying for the beauty we experience in the world. Many of us would rather be alive than dead, even in a world which involves enormous suffering. If you choose to live, you have to accept the suffering that goes along with it.

    1. Agreed. I used to think that the argument against God from suffering was completely unanswerable.

      However, the argument does assume there is a correct level of suffering – zero or otherwise – but what would that be? Any answer will be subjective and have implications for human behaviour.

      I am reluctant to criticise theists defending suffering when I can’t specify and defend the correct alternative level of (non)-suffering.

      1. Why did it require human activity to eliminate smallpox?

        Humans have already proved ourselves superior to The Deity on the theodicy front.

        One doesn’t need to define a “proper” level of suffering to know that there’s no excuse for this level.

        1. It’s a trade off. You can’t have a ‘Wonderful World’ without also the possibility of pain, suffering, and death. Smallpox, cancer, etc. are unfortunate consequences (for us) of an evolutionary process that has also generated a world of unimaginable beauty and things that make life worth living. At least this is how I would explain the existence of apparently gratuitous suffering from a ‘theistic evolution’ perspective.

              1. Anything uttered by anyone in response to the problem “can be”. That doesn’t make it reasonable or convincing.

      2. The best religious answer to theodicy is that God could be defined as a malevolent being. This leaves him untouched by arguments based on the presence of evil in the world. Of course, most people who think of themselves as Christians tend to want God to be benevolent, but that’s just their preference, not a requirement of theology in the abstract.

  19. Keeping in mind that for a large number of believers god has indeed revealed himself convincingly. I don’t think you can reconcile the existence of that subset of believers with any argument that god must remain hidden because revealing himself would destroy free will or whatever the argument from consequences of his unequivocal revelation may be.

  20. “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”

    This is true. Which is why it’s very important to distinguish between the two.

    Have a great trip!

  21. Yeesh.

    I listened to a podcast last week where two modern theologians gave their theodicy for the Problem Of Evil/Suffering.

    Theologian 1:

    At one point, God’s Good Name was slandered by the devil and other fallen angels. Therefore, heaven had to set up essentially a heavenly court case, in which God would prove his Goodness to the satisfaction of…whoever was the judge (wasn’t clear on that). There were some sort of “rules to play by” which somehow meant God had to allow the evil forces to do their thing in the world…evil, disease et al, while God does His. Somehow, God coming down and sacrificing Himself to Himself a Jesus was the Big Reveal in the court case, settling the case in God’s favor.

    (Yet, strangely, the injustice and suffering in the world continued on as it ever was, after Jesus left us…)


    Theologian 2:

    God is a truly FREELY LOVING Being. PERFECTLY FREELY LOVING. That means God gives maximum freedom to the things He loves.
    And God loves EVERYTHING He has created.

    So…applied to the problem of suffering, an example of “why doesn’t God heal a child with cancer?” The Theologian told us that, remember, God loves everything. That includes every cell in our body. And God grants loving freedom to everything. That means granting freedom to the cells to become cancerous. Hence, God values the freedom of cancer cells to ravage a child’s body, and thus can not stop the cancer without contradicting his Perfectly Freely Loving Nature.

    I would add some critique, but I think these theodicies are so nakedly desperate that all one need do is repeat them and stair in slack-jawed amazement at just what Christians can get themselves to accept in order to keep believing.

    (Though it was funny to see each of them were able to see right through the problems with the other guy’s theodicy, raising many of the critiques likely going through our minds when we hear them, but could not see the problem with their own version).

  22. … like plastics, we should lay off our dependence, like plastics religions can be molded to suit any purpose and takes a long time to break down. Unlike plastics, some plastics are still useful.

  23. Why does God not reveal himself? Simple, if he would, we would loçk him up, deservedly so, and He knowsw it. The old bugger is in hiding.
    Lock him up!

  24. Why does God not reveal himself? Simple, if he would, we would loçk him up, deservedly so, and He knowsw it. The old bugger is in hiding.
    Lock him up!

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