Skeptical Theism and Virtue Theory: Bergmann’s Dilemma
December 24, 2010 — 16:49

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Problem of Evil Religious Belief  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 17

Continuing the recent theme of skeptical theism. It only recently occurred to me to puzzle over the fact that skeptical theism–at least for leading proponent Mike Bergmann–has nothing to do with theism. Of course, there’s the axiom ST —> T, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
What I mean is that skeptical theism’s skeptical thesis are just about the nature of the good. That seems a *bit* odd to me: there’s nothing theological motivating skeptical theism as Bergmann expresses it. It has nothing obvious to do with “God’s ways being greater than ours.” It’s just that we don’t understand goodness well enough.
And here’s another thing I noticed recently that bothered me–then I’ll put the criticism below the fold: It’s almost all deontolgical stuff. But I’m a virtue and value guy. As such, I think I have some insight into the *nature* of the good, which tells me something about *all* goods. This gives one more purchase than may be compatible with Bergmann’s versions of the “S” in “ST.”

So the last thought calls to mind a debate in moral theory: whether the good precedes the right or vice versa (spoiler: good comes first). Moral theory debates have varying degrees of generality and specificity. There are various positions on the nature of the good. Grasping the nature of the good gives one more knowledge of the good than seems compatible with skeptical theism. There are also various theories about the nature of roles like citizan, farmer, wife, son, president, and father.
Bergmann’s skeptical theses are quite radical. Here’s the first one:
(ST1) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible goods we know of
are representative of the possible goods there are. (From his Oxford Handbook article, p. 376)
But this entails that no one has a good reason for thinking that they hold the correct moral theory! Not a single good reason! That’s pretty darned skeptical. And why would there be anything special about moral theory? Unless Bergmann wants affirm that moral theory is somehow special among branches of philosophy in being extra hard, then what’s to stop this seeping into all the other branches. Think of what this would do to epistemology:
(ST1-E) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible reasons to believe we know of
are representative of the possible reasons to believe there are.
But I digress. I think it is surely true that
(CSM) Most moral theorists have some reason to think they hold the correct moral theory. [If you want to talk epistemic significance of disagreement, I’ll do that all day long, but I think that’s tangential.]
So far, it seems to me that (ST1) and (CSM) are in tension. Unfortunately, this is a basic intuition, so I have no way of arguing for it until I achieve some kind of conceptual breakthrough at a deeper level. Research project.
On the page after the one quoted above (and in some emails), Mike indicates that by “representativeness” he means something very literal along the lines of statistical representation: that the fact that all examined F’s have been G’s doesn’t even raise the probability that most F’s are G’s because of X.
A. I’m not sure what X is supposed to be, and there must be some X because normally most observed F’s being G’s is a reason to think most F’s are G’s (though Nicod’s criterion is strictly speaking false).
B. This would only block the inference from
P Most possible goods considered do not suffice for featuring in a God-justifiying reason for permitting the inscrutible evils we observe.
Q No possible good is sufficient to feature in, etc.
But that would be a pretty flat-footed argument from evil.
As I read Rowe and others (though Rowe has a veritable stable of versions of the argument), and certainly as I think about it, we think we see something about the *nature* of good and evil which make it looks as if we were all alone. It’s not some piece of grand ennumerative induction.
This then is Bergmann’s dilemma:
Either “representative” is read loosely like “sufficiently relevantly resembles” in which case he faces a kind of moral skepticism quite different from the kind I’ve seen levied against him (one very theoretical rather than practical); or “representative” is read strictly, and it seems to beat a straw man.
As a virtue guy, I think all goods have this property: they are desirable to the virtuous person. And I think there are some virtuous people who claim to see that a God would provide us some insight into why there is so much suffering of such depth on such a grand scale. This tells against either the truth or the relevance of (ST1).
The theodicist attempts to fill the gap. If we cannot fill the gap, then evil remains a strong reason to think there is no God.

  • Mike Almeida

    (ST1-E) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible reasons to believe we know of
    are representative of the possible reasons to believe there are.

    There are (at least) two ways to read Mike on this. One way is to read it as one might expect: if God exists then (st-e). That is, I’d expect some moral skepticism on the assumption that God has deeper plans that I should not expect to know about. The other is the unconditional reading of (st-e). It is the latter that is bizarre, and not consistent with typical arguments from st’s (bizarre since, if God does not exist, morality finds its origin in something much more familiar, something like a social contract). In any case, he makes his claim as a theist, and does not make a point of discussing whether it holds whatever one’s credence for theism. I find it a particularly opaque point in the paper.

    December 24, 2010 — 19:32
  • Mike Almeida

    It is the latter that is bizarre, and not consistent with typical arguments from st’s (bizarre since, if God does not exist, morality finds its origin in something much more familiar, something like a social contract).
    It is especially bizarre, I should have noted, if you are a theist. Theists generally believe that the source of morality is in God. If God does not exist (taking this an apriori possibility) it would be exceedingly strange to think that there is some other objective source of morality. If you don’t already believe that morality has a God-independent source (as for the typical theist, and I assume for Bergmann), then you should conclude that (if there are moral constraints) they have some source in their utility. No basis for skepticism there.

    December 24, 2010 — 20:25
  • anon

    In your short F&P paper titled something like “Skeptical Theism and Common Sense Epistemology”, you say that you think there is something importantly right about Skeptical Theism. Do you still believe that. Or are you now more conclusively rejecting Skeptical Theism.

    December 24, 2010 — 21:49
  • Luke Gelinas

    Just curious whether people think that skeptical theism need to be a claim about our lack of insight into the nature of the good. What if you think that we have a decent grasp of the good, but aren’t very good at tracking the causal connections between particular evils and particular justifying goods? Could that count as a version of skeptical theism?

    December 25, 2010 — 0:07
  • Ted Poston

    Mike does talk like at times that there’s a general value skepticism in the background: “Each of these three skeptical theses has an initial ring of plausibility that is due to an awareness of our cognitive limitations and the vastness and complex- ity of reality ~cf. Alston 1991, 109!. It just doesn’t seem unlikely that our un- derstanding of the realm of value falls miserably short of capturing all that is true about that realm.7 One can recognize this even if one is not a theist. For an acceptance of the skeptical theist’s skepticism can easily be divorced from an acceptance of her theism.” (2001, p 279)
    But the Alston citation is an explicit theological consideration. I think it’s the chess analogy. In connection with my previous post, I think considerations of epistemic disparity between a perfect being and us motivate the weak (16) [in my post]. One might wonder why that is true and then Bergmann’s ST1-ST3 provide a good reason for (16).
    Here’s another reason to support ST1. (PT1) We have no good reason for thinking that the types of phenomenal experience we are acquainted with are representative of the types of phenomenal experience there are. Cf. Nagel’s “What it’s like to be a Bat?” Arguably (PT1) provides some reason for (ST1). And note that one can still have a theory of phenomenal experience even if (PT1) is true. E.g., Chalmer’s view which is consistent with (PT1).

    December 25, 2010 — 9:17
  • Sahil, I still think there is something to it. I think there are at least two somethings to it. First, a recognition of our cognitive limits should cause us to be tentative about conclusions drawn. So I think the force of the problem of evil ought to be discounted 5-10% at least. So if it seems to you that it lowers the probability of theism by 20 points, you should only take off 18-19 points at the most (something like that).
    Also, as I mentioned in Ted’s post just below, I think the insight that Pr(E/G) =approx Pr(E) is an important one. It’s just that it doesn’t really come from skepticism, it comes from understanding God’s purposes and the role evil plays.

    December 25, 2010 — 18:13
  • Luke, possibly, but too much ignorance of the particulars is evidence of ignorance of the generalities, so I don’t think this could be pushed too far.
    And I think the key intuition in the problem of evil, anyway, is that an all-powerful, all-knowing *couldn’t* have had to settle for this.

    December 25, 2010 — 18:31
  • David Warwick

    What are the scientific units of good and evil? Is good and evil a zero sum game, with only a limited stock of good in the universe?
    I ask, because a statement like “What if you think that we have a decent grasp of the good, but aren’t very good at tracking the causal connections between particular evils and particular justifying goods?” (and many like it) seem to assume a game theory version of good and evil, where it would be possible to perfectly *quantify* good and evil. God does this because, when a full audit is done billions of years hence, it generates 4 units of Evil, but generates 6 units of Good.
    It’s a picture of a morally austere universe, one where ‘Good’ is a finite commodity that has to be acquired from existing stocls. One man’s good fortune is another man’s bad luck.
    And a lot of the answers game theory generates, particularly in zero sum games, are counterintuitive. But one of the characteristics, to generalize wildly, is that they reward deception and self interest.
    Personally, I find the idea of a God coldly and efficiently gaming the universe to maximize good strategies regardless of short term consequences far less appealing than that of individual humans bumbling along and doing what they think and hope is best.

    December 26, 2010 — 9:46
  • Luke Gelinas

    Just a couple thoughts off the cuff.
    I’m not sure I see why lack of insight into causal relations between evils and justifying goods need indicate a more general ignorance of the good.
    There are at least two things we could be talking about when we talk about ignorance of the good. We could (at least according to Moore) be talking about (1) ignorance of the nature of goodness, or (2) ignorance of which things are good. ST1 seems to be about (2). But it seems to me that even if we do have knowledge of what types of things are good, even if our substantive axiology is correct, we might not be able to see the way that certain evils are causally related to greater justifying goods.
    Ignorance of the nature of goodness, i.e., that the good is desirable to the virtuous, or a simple non-natural property, or to be promoted or respected, seem to fall beneath (1). I’m not sure how relevant this sort of knowledge is to the debate. It seems to me that we might have a pretty good grasp on which things are good while yet lacking insight into important questions (though probably not all important questions) on the nature of goodness.

    December 26, 2010 — 15:51
  • Luke, this is a good post, but it just relocates the issue–and I did say “too much” which is key.
    I don’t think too much ignorance of which things are good is consistent with knowledge of the nature of the good. How odd it would be to know what a cat is but not know which are the cats! Furthermore, my knowledge of dogs in general–I know a lot more about dogs than cats, for cats are more mysterious–helps be to know which dogs are best (since I cant tell which are flourishing as dogs, which achieve their telos, for example).
    I couldn’t quite tell if you were making one, two, or three points in the comment (things were always contrasted in pairs, but there were three things mentioned: nature of the good, identification of the good, and causal relations among goods), but I did suggest the bridge between knowledge of the nature of the good and knowledge goods and their ordering: the testimony of virtuous people.

    December 26, 2010 — 16:47
  • David, you have it al wrong. There’s nothing “cold” about expecting of someone that their actions are sufficiently good given their abilities. I’m a teacher, I do this constantly, and I do it because I care about my students. We do it as loving parents, as home-inspectors, regulators, nurses, and on and on.
    We expect less of children than of adults and more of more talented adults than others. God has infinite power and knowledge. So at the very least, the world should be better off made, and, plausibly, each life should be worth living. If we find that some lives are not, on balance, good, we have discovered empirically that there is no God.
    Game theory needn’t come into it, but other formal models are helpful idealizations for framing questions and theories. Most who do so do so for the love of God or of humanity or both.

    December 26, 2010 — 16:53
  • Luke Gelinas

    I think maybe my lack of clarity has encouraged running distinct dialectics together. Originally I wondered whether ignorance of causal connections between goods and evils counts as a form of ST. You replied that ‘too much ignorance of the particulars is evidence of ignorance of the generalities,’ and I then riffed on that. But on reflection I don’t see that this gets at the original question, which has to do with ignorance of causal connections.
    Even someone who had complete knowledge of both the nature of the good and which types of things are good might feel unsure about our ability to track the relevant causal connections. I don’t see why that alone can’t do work for theists (whether it counts as a form of ST)
    I’m still trying to understand the virtuous move. You say that the testimony of the virtuous gives us a bridge from knowledge of the nature of the good to knowledge of which things are good. I’m not sure how strong the cognitive constraints on virtue are. If you’re saying that it belongs to the nature of virtue to grasp the nature of goodness, that seems like a bit much. Many many people who seem virtuous won’t meet that bar. I’m not even sure that the virtuous need know which types of things are good. But maybe this is tangential, as I agree that the testimony of *certain* virtuous people can help us here

    December 26, 2010 — 17:49
  • Readers seeking (free) additional materials might be interested in a preprint of Rea and Bergman’s 2005 article, “In Defense of Skeptical Theism: A Reply to Almeida and Oppy.”

    December 26, 2010 — 17:54
  • John Alexander

    When I discuss the problem of evil in my classes, I often use Camus’ The Plague. ST’s, like Paneloux from his 2nd sermon, may be correct and there may very well be goods that exist that I do not now, or may never know. If God exists there may be reasons for allowing evil to exist that we do not know or may never know. The question that I (like Rieux) have is why worry about what we do not know or may never know? Why not simply focus on what we do know. Example: there was five-month-old girl raped in Grand Rapids MI a few years back. I know this is evil, you know this is evil. This is my paradigm example of evil because there does not seem to be any greater good that resulted from this evil occurring and people find this action revolting. Everyone I have discussed this case with agrees that if they were able too they would have stopped this act from occurring. They would have violated the rapist’s free will and saved the child. Everyone agrees that if someone could have stopped this act from occurring, but did not did, did something morally reprehensible and should be held accountable for the harm this child suffered.
    Within a virtue ethics framework, failing to act would be an example of being a bad person, a bad citizen, a bad neighbor, a bad whatever. But is it also an example of being a bad person if we try to ‘excuse’ God from acting by bringing forth standard ST’s claims of ignorance? Do we, ourselves, become morally suspect if we try to find a defense for God’s apparent inaction when we cannot find any excuse for our own inaction? After all, there are lives we could save that we choose not to. Besides, after applying it to so many situations, large and small, does not the explantion of the ST loss some of its force? How many times can we use a defense before the defense losses its luster? We just need to look at all the evil that we do know about and God’s inaction regarding these evils and it then seems to me that claims of possible ignorance on our part seems more then hollow – it simply seems wrongheaded; If we are possibly ignorant, then it is possible that we are not! At what point do we say this will no longer work? This is an existential question, not one settled by reason, but an emotional reaction where, like Camus’ rebel, we simply reach a point where we say ‘No!’ God may very well be in His Heaven, but again like Rieux, why not deal with life as we find it?
    Would this not be the virtuous way to act?

    December 27, 2010 — 10:01
  • Thanks for posting that David. I assume Mike and Graham’s paper is on one of their websites too.

    December 27, 2010 — 21:06
  • John, there’s a lot there, but I’m very sympathetic to most of it (if you haven’t read the last section of Plantinga’s _Warranted Christian Belief_, the section beginning with “Non-argumentative Defeaters” you really ought to).
    It just seems, at times anyway, *incredible* that allowing such things could be justified. And I don’t think any amount of meditation on our ignorance is going to both make that go away but not lead to moral skepticism (but see the article that David just posted for some thoughts on how Mike&Mike’s reply (how odd that 3/4 of the folks in those two articles are Mikes) is actually in line with what you suggest.
    Instructive here is the chapter on Divine Goodness in Lewis’s _Problem of Pain_ and, more existentially, in the early chapters of _A Grief Observed_.
    And while I don’t think ST helps much here, I do think that there are considerations worth thinking had about concerning vagueness, and the goods of a world allowed to pretty much “run free.” I think there is a true story known to us according to which it is better to let the world run on, to let the rain fall upon the just and unjust alike than to micromanage. I think I know of goods that can be achieved no other way, goods such that we all ought to be willing to suffer anything anyone has ever suffered to have them. So I believe there’s a true theodicy. But it’s hard to get in a position to see it.

    December 27, 2010 — 21:13
  • My comment about the connection between ignorance of particulars and ignorance of generalities gets to the question of causal connections in that I think that goods are quite unlike, say, quarks (more on that in a sec), and so the relevant causal stuff will largely be provided by knowledge of natures.
    “Even someone who had complete knowledge of both the nature of the good and which types of things are good might feel unsure about our ability to track the relevant causal connections.”
    That might work with electrons. We might know how they work, be able to identify them, but there might be too many interactions of too high a complexity for us to track them. The same is true of ants. Hell, it’s probably even true of Aunts. But goodness isn’t so much like quarks, ants, and Aunts. I now see that I said “deontological” above when I meant “utilitarian.” It was a mental slip because the issues I have concern the rights of persons as persons (as potential loci of the virtues). My comment to David notwithstanding (just noticed I wrote “al” for “all” d’oh!) there are more than utilitarian issues here. The world must be sufficiently good consistent with respecting persons, but persons must be respected (because they bear the imago dei, something sacred even to Deus).
    It just seems a matter of moral commonsense, that there’s no justification for allowing these things if the justification must come from some specific goods brought about by the suffering. Both because it seems utterly implausible that any specific goods come from such things–and the mere *possibility* of unknown causal consequences doesn’t lead us to skepticism about what seem to be the consequences any more than the mere *possibility* that we are BIV’s leads to skepticism about what seem to be external physical objects)–and because even if a greater good could be had from it, it would be unjust to extract it from some innocent creature via torture.
    What we need are not appeals to ignorance here–of anything: not of goods, not of evils, not of entailments between them, not of causal consequences of them–but *understanding*. We need stories that make sense of all this, we need a narrative to guide us, and these stories need to be at least not unlikely. We may well need some paradigm shifts, we may need to be convinced that it’s OK to torture the innocent that good may come of it, but that will take a good story. We may need to be convinced that the complaint of too much evil is nonsense, but we need a good story (PvI offers some good stories here). Our cry to understand is the cry of the imago dei within us. We should be aware of our limitations, but it seems a good parent will do all they can to give us something to go on, something, however small, to help us understand. Now I think God has done this, and the Christian’s job is to tell that story, tell it often, and tell it well.

    December 27, 2010 — 21:29