Methods of Discerning Evidence for An Intentional Agent

I have recently purchased and began reading Paul Moser’s Evidence For God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined [1]. It is an interesting assessment (or reassessment) of looking at the evidence for God’s existence. Paul writes in the introduction that “the evidence in question… has a distinctive character: this evidence becomes salient to inquirers as they, themselves, responsively and willingly become evidence of God’s reality, in willingly receiving and reflecting God’s powerful moral character” [2]. The nature of this evidence he calls the “personifying evidence of God“, because “it requires the evidence to be personified in an intentional agent, such as a purposive human, and thereby to be evidence inherently of an intentional agent” [3].

An excellent overview of the book can be found on the very first page, where Moser writes:

Upon asking aright the question of whether God exists, the book contends, we find a morally robust version of theism that is cognitively resilient. We also then find that evidence for God is not speculative, abstract, or causal, after all, but is, instead, morally and existentially challenging to us humans. This argument thus extends beyond the argumentative domain of philosophers and theologians, and engages people from all walks of life at the levels of who they are and who they should be. [4]

The imperative aspect of approaching the question of God’s existence in this way (according to Moser) is that “personifying human evidence of God, although widely neglected, would fit well with the reality of a God who aims not simply to inform humans but primarily draw them noncoercively into taking on, or personifying God’s perfect moral character, in fellowship with God” [5]. This is an interesting thesis to examine, and I would recommend that any Christian add this to their reading list should they have interest in this subject. With that stated, I wish to examine Moser’s interesting exposition of how we should treat the evidence about the existence of an “intentional agent”.

A Parable

In demonstrating the function of this argument, Moser offers a “Wilderness Parable” in order to exemplify the cases of method and evidence that some might take in respect to finding an intentional agent. In short, Moser asks you to imagine that you are lost and far from any kind of assistance at the bottom of a river gorge called Hells Canyon (between western Idaho and northeastern Oregon). You don’t have a cell phone, the walk seems almost endless, temperatures rise, you have no satellite navigation system, there are dangerous animals, and other difficulties seem to keep emerging. Then, all of a sudden, you happen to stumble upon an old and abandoned shack from the 1860’s. In examining the cabin for some help, you look around only to notice some pots, pans, and an old ham radio that barely works.

Moser then says, “as a result, our predicament in Hells Canyon seems bleak indeed, but perhaps is not without some hope. How, then, might we survive?” [6] Moser then writes:

Obviously, we need a way out of Hells Canyon, sooner rather than later. In particular, we need instructions and even an instructor to help us get out, given that we lack the resources, including a trustworthy plan, to make our way out on our own. We need a personal agent who is an intentional instructor, beyond mere instructions, because we need someone who (a) will intentionally and reliably identify our particular location now relative to a path that leads to our rescue, and (b) will supply further resources we will need along the path to our safety, including corrections, reminders, and perhaps even encouraging words to sustain us. As a result, we should not assume that our problem is simply cognitive” [7].

This section of Moser’s analysis becomes particularly interesting. Later on just after the above explanation, Moser goes on to address the prepared and willing attitude a person must have in order to be guided to safety by an intentional agent; which, would concern our attention of another preliminary but very important question: “Is there life beyond Hells Canyon? Particularly, is there life accessible by us beyond Hells Canyon?” [8].

In order for us to find an answer to this question, Moser exposits four positions in respect to answering the question about life beyond Hells Canyon:

  1. Atheists
  2. Agnostics
  3. Fideists
  4. Discernment of Evidence

In light of these four positions, they each represent an answer a person might give in respect to trying to find accessible life (or safety) beyond the Canyon. (1) Can otherwise be stated (in respect to our parable) as despairing – or, “yielding to hopelessness and its resulting destruction of us all” [9]. (2) Can also be stated as passively waiting –  or, sit back in doubt for any possible rescuer to come and safe us. (3) Can be stated as simply leaping – or, throwing our caution out into to the wilderness and “leap onto a foot path, even in the absence of evidence in favor of success… in taking that path” [10]. Four is our interest for this post and requires an explanation of its own.

Purpose-Neutral and Telic Discernment

Position (4) seeks alternatives to (1) despairing, (2) passively waiting, (3) leaping, and takes a different form in respect to the evidence. The first matter of an alternative solution is what’s known as Purpose-Neutral Discernment of the Evidence. This simply means looking at the evidence available without trying to inspect for any purposeful, intentional, or meaningful significance to the evidence at hand. In fact, it is simply just that: examining the evidence at hand “around us and within us” [11]. It would be akin to finding a map in the shack that had many various points of origin and destination and supposing that they were intended for some particular purpose for us. “Purpose-neutral discerning or characterizing of the apparent map would be free identifying any purposes, or intentions, involving the map” [12].

On the other hand, we have what is known as Telic Discerning of the Evidence, or, discerning the “available evidence in terms of relevant purposes indicated in the evidence” [13]. Such examination of the evidence is “telic” (from the Greek word, telos, for “purpose”) because it involves intention or purpose in “virtue of seeking a goal or… a ‘final cause’ in the relevant evidence” [14].

The interesting distinction here is that there are two methods relevant at hand before us in examining available evidence. Firstly, it is to assess the data available around us in a “purpose-neutral” fashion, or, to examine the evidence before us at face value. The telic method of discernment would be to examine the different and relevant purposes of each line of evidence. To use Moser’s explanation:

It may be difficult for us sometimes to confirm the reality of a purpose indicated by evidence, but in telic discerning we would be attentive to this prospect, and we would be willing to explore any evidence for the purpose in question. In doing so, we would move beyond the immediate concerns of the natural sciences, but this would not necessarily be a cognitive deficiency at all. In fact, our available evidence could call for our attending to purposive considerations for the sake of accurate comprehensive treatment of our evidence. [15]



  • [1] Paul K. Moser, Evidence For God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (Cambridge University Press: 2010)
  • [2] Ibid. 2 (emphasis his)
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid. 1
  • [5] Ibid. 2
  • [6] Ibid. 3
  • [7] Ibid. 3-4
  • [8] Ibid. 4
  • [9] Ibid. 5
  • [10] Ibid. 6
  • [11] Ibid. 7 (emphasis mine)
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid. 8

2 responses to “Methods of Discerning Evidence for An Intentional Agent

  1. Pingback: Books For Your Consideration | Hellenistic Christendom·

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