Skeptical Theism and the ‘Beforehand-Switch’
January 20, 2011 — 0:19

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 15

I return now from my hiatus to blog through the last three chapters of Sobel’s Logic and Theism. There are two chapters on arguments against the existence of God, mostly focused on arguments from evil, and one on Pascalian wagers.
In chapter 11, section 4, Sobel presents what he takes to be Hume’s evidential argument from evil, and discusses skeptical theist responses to it. Now, in general, the dialectic between the evidential arguer from evil and the skeptical theist goes something like this: the evidential arguer from evil says, a perfect being would probably create a world with very little (or no) evil, but this world has lots of evil, so it was probably not created by a perfect being. The skeptical theist responds, how should I (who am imperfect) know what a perfect being would do?
Now, according to Sobel, Hume’s version of the evidential argument from evil includes an important maneuver which he calls the ‘beforehand-switch.’ The idea is that a hypothesis is best evaluated by considering what we would predict, using the hypothesis, if we didn’t already know the outcome. So, for instance, we evaluate Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation by pretending we don’t already know the orbits of the planets and using the law to predict them. Suppose, says Sobel’s Hume, that we do the same for the hypothesis that the world was created by a perfect being. We pretend we don’t know anything about what the world is like, and try to predict what world the perfect being will create. Everyone, it seems, should agree that we would predict that the world would have a lot less pain and suffering in it, and it is surely unreasonable of the skeptical theist to deny that this would be our prediction and that we would be justified in making this prediction.


In general I’m a little hesitant about skeptical theism. I worry that the skepticism will spread. However, it seems to me that the skeptical theist is actually in a very strong position here. The skeptical theist should say that, while we would indeed predict that the world would have much less pain and suffering in it, we would have very strong reasons for being extremely hesitant about our predictions. If we want to keep up the comparison to physics I introduced earlier, we can say that it is as though we have a physical theory which involves intractable mathematical problems, and have made liberal use of approximations and simplifying assumptions of questionable validity in order to come up with what can only be called a guess. The fact that the guess we make is the only reasonable one to make given our capacities and the information that we have does not make it any more than a guess. As a result, it should have little effect on our overall evaluation of theism.
To see why this is so, let’s think about what we would actually do if we were trying to put ourselves in the ‘beforehand’ position and say what kind of world we think would be created. It seems to me that we would simply come up with the best sort of world we could think of. However, it ought to be obvious that the best sort of world that could be created by a perfect being would be radically different from the best sort of world I can think of! Here are just a few reasons, which are commonly cited in the skeptical theism literature:

  1. I’m not logically omniscient. There are a priori necessities that I can’t see, so I don’t know what is necessarily involved in the things I’m putting into the world I’m imagining. The world I’m imagining might not actually be possible, or my explicit description might imply some really bad things that I haven’t thought of.
  2. A posteriori necessities. In addition to a priori necessities, it is now widely held that there are a posteriori necessities, such as the proposition that water is H2O. If there are any of these at all, then there are lots of them that I don’t know, so, again, my world may not really be possible, or might implicitly include evils I don’t know about.
  3. I don’t know all the actual kinds of goods and evils. There are lots of things in the universe that I don’t know about, which probably includes various goods and evils. Since I don’t know about them, I don’t know how good or evil they are, in comparison to the goods and evils I do know about, so I can’t rank them. As a result, there may be evils of great magnitude implicitly included in my world, or goods of great magnitude left out of it.
  4. I don’t know all the merely possible kinds of goods and evils. If I were really going to make an informed judgment about what kind of world would be created, I would need to know not just all the actual kinds of goods and evils, but all the possible kinds. I don’t.

So sure, I could sit down and think about what I would expect, a priori, that God would do, but I shouldn’t have much confidence in the result, and so shouldn’t be too bothered by the world’s failure to conform.
The reason Sobel’s reconstruction of Hume’s argument falls to these skeptical considerations is that it asks us to consider the world as a whole, something that we are not well equipped to do. Here is a strategy for an evidential argument from evil that wouldn’t have this problem: Evil is a widespread and undeniable phenomenon. It is very difficult to come up with an explanation for this phenomenon in terms of the theistic hypothesis. As a result, any competing hypothesis which easily and satisfactorily explains evil is, ceteris paribus, to be preferred to theism. This kind of argument comes to a more modest conclusion, but is, I think, more difficult to diffuse by raising skeptical worries. It is because of this sort of consideration that I think evil should be regarded as a genuine problem for, but not a decisive refutation of, theism.
(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Comments:
  • Skeptical Theism and the ‘Beforehand-Switch’

    I return now from my hiatus to blog through the last three chapters of Sobel’s Logic and Theism. There are two chapters on arguments against the existence of God, mostly focused on arguments from evil, and one on Pascalian wagers. In chapter 11, sectio…

    January 20, 2011 — 0:26
  • It is because of this sort of consideration that I think evil should be regarded as a genuine problem for, but not a decisive refutation of, theism.
    I agree in the abstract, but I think it’s important to remember that very few people are simply “theists.” Evil can be a decisive refutation of many particular versions of theism which make a lot of specific claims about the nature of their deity and/or the nature of good and evil.

    January 20, 2011 — 14:29
  • Will any hypothesis that is invoked to explain evil not encounter the same difficulties as when applying the beforehand-switch? My point is, that a hypothesis to explain evil will necessarily have to be set forth by a perfect being, in order for all aspects to be considered.
    Otherwise we are at the same starting point and will see ourselves defining incomplete evil, based on assumptions and guesses, i.e. merely approximating the definition of evil. This leads to the same argument, that only an incomplete definition, implicitly leaves out details and adds the uncertainty to the hypothesis.
    – Ulysses

    January 25, 2011 — 13:27
  • David Warwick

    “The reason Sobel’s reconstruction of Hume’s argument falls to these skeptical considerations is that it asks us to consider the world as a whole, something that we are not well equipped to do.”
    Boiled down, the hypothesis is ‘we would expect God to keep suffering to its absolute necessary minimum value’.
    We *can* be ultra-local about that. Someone dies an agonizing death. Their agony lasts a week – call it 604800 seconds. The sort of theism we’re talking about demands that God has contrived things so that it couldn’t *possibly* be 604799 seconds. That there is some cosmic balance that necessitates exactly 604800 … in which case, that God is so constrained, why call it God?
    This ‘cosmic balance’ … if that exists, it’s surely a far more interesting phenomenon than the God that merely enacts it? What’s the mechanism? Is it like karma – that one second of suffering allows one second of joy somewhere else in the universe?
    Say three identical triplets suffered a terrible accident, that they all all mortally wounded. They all take a week to die – but when we say that, obviously we’re rounding up. They don’t all die simultaneously. Why not?
    “I worry that the skepticism will spread.”
    The first duty, surely, is to the truth, wherever that does, or doesn’t, lead you?

    January 29, 2011 — 9:56
  • David Warwick

    “So, for instance, we evaluate Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation by pretending we don’t already know the orbits of the planets and using the law to predict them”
    I think the problem is simply that ‘is there evidence for God?’ is not one questions, it’s two. The theist, by definition, is actually asking ‘given God, is there evidence for God?’. An atheist is asking the more face value question: ‘where is the evidence for God?’. These questions can’t be answered in the same way.
    Viotorian atheism played theology at its own game, to generalize – was Jesus really a good person? Were Eve and Judas necessary agents of the divine plan? And so on. Modern atheism has a much more simple tactic, which is just to ask ‘you say that, but where’s your evidence?’.
    And it quickly becomes a tiresome question, but only for the same reason the ‘question of evil’ is – it’s a good question with lots of bad answers.
    ‘If X is true, we should observe Y’ – if Y doesn’t happen, in no other field of endeavor would we doggedly seek to redefine Y until Y is something we do observe.
    If something should happen if God exists, and that something never happens, there’s an inevitable conclusion to be drawn and no one should be scared of it.

    January 29, 2011 — 13:24
  • Kenny:
    These are all good points. Let me raise a different problem. The Humean argument is something like: “a perfect being would probably create a world with very little (or no) evil, but this world has lots of evil, so it was probably not created by a perfect being.”
    As far as it stands, this is a bad form of argument. Let n be the exact total number of hairs that all humans taken together have on their heads. Compare this. “A perfect being would probably create a world where the total present number of human hairs is different from n.” After all, the total number of hairs that all humans taken together have on their heads is some fourteen digit number (say), and so the probability that God would make them so that that number is exactly n is very small.
    We need not only the beforehand-switch on the theism hypothesis, but we also need a beforehand-switch on the best alternative hypotheses. We need to ask how likely it is that given naturalism the total present number of human hairs would be n. And that probability is also very tiny.
    I suppose we also aren’t going to be very confident about what kind of world would likely exist if naturalism were true. My initial thought is: Most likely, no world at all. 🙂
    A related question is what knowledge we’re allowed to carry through to the beforehand-switched scenarios.

    January 31, 2011 — 11:41
  • David Warwick

    “We need not only the beforehand-switch on the theism hypothesis, but we also need a beforehand-switch on the best alternative hypotheses.”
    No we don’t.
    If we prove someone is not alive, we don’t independently also have to prove that person is dead.
    If we were somehow to disprove theism, we would prove atheism (and vice versa).

    January 31, 2011 — 12:36
  • David Warwick

    “Compare this. “A perfect being would probably create a world where the total present number of human hairs is different from n.” After all, the total number of hairs that all humans taken together have on their heads is some fourteen digit number (say), and so the probability that God would make them so that that number is exactly n is very small.”
    Not to split hairs (sorry), but isn’t the problem that we have a God who’s meant to be totally bald and who dislikes hairiness of any kind, so the presence of any hair is a problem? The problem of evil isn’t that we’re quibbling about an exact number, it’s that the number should either be zero or that at the very least it could be lower than it is.

    January 31, 2011 — 14:55
  • Kenny Pearce

    David: You are confusing the evidential argument from evil with the logical problem of evil. Neither Sobel (in this part of his book) nor Hume is claiming that the existence of evil conclusively disproves the existence of God. It is now widely held that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to make the logical problem of evil stick. (I have discussed the reason for this here.) This is why Alex’s point is precisely correct: the evidential argument from evil is claiming that theism is a poor hypothesis, because it has a hard time accounting for a really obvious and widespread feature of the world: evil. But as long as theism doesn’t predict that there will certainly not be any evil at all (or more evil than some particular determinate quantity; but how does one quantify evil?) this can at best give us reason to prefer some alternative hypothesis which explains the world better.
    Incidentally, Sobel’s main conclusion from the chapter (after dealing with several versions of the evidential argument which are due to Rowe, and responses from Alston, Plantinga, Wykstra and others) is that those who are trying to evaluate the plausibility of theism would be better advised to include all of the known evils in an overall comparison of available hypotheses, rather than focus on the claim that a few particular evils tend to disconfirm theism.

    January 31, 2011 — 17:23
  • Kenny Pearce

    Also, I should have mentioned earlier (sorry for not responding): when I say, “I worry that the skepticism will spread,” I mean that I am concerned that skeptical theism, in at least some of its forms, may be implicitly committed to some false claims about epistemology.

    January 31, 2011 — 17:30
  • Mr Warwick:
    Sure, the argument I gave isn’t parallel to a good formulation problem of evil. But it is parallel to the formulation under discussion (which, hence, isn’t a good formulation).

    January 31, 2011 — 19:07
  • David Warwick

    ‘how does one quantify evil?’
    This, I think, is the key question. Theism – meaning Christian-style theism – seems to be premised on the existence of at least one being who can quantify good and evil. That it’s possible to measure ‘good’ and ‘evil’ like we can measure, say, temperature. It’s this argument that allows us to imagine a benevolent God allowing lesser evils to prevent greater ones / enable great goods.
    If this ‘moral metric’ was proven false, I’m not sure how much of Christian-style theism survives. It would rule out, say, the redemptive power of the Crucifixion, it would make judgments about an individual in the afterlife impossible. It ultimately makes God capricious.
    If it’s true, then God is a slave to it. His role is simply to enact strategies that maximize the yield of good – and his other properties inevitably lock him into the ‘best’ course of action. Again, I think this system then becomes far more interesting and fruitful to consider than God.
    “prefer some alternative hypothesis which explains the world better”
    Atheism doesn’t have, or seek to have, any explanatory power or alternative models. All it seeks to prove is an absence of gods. This is, of course, not easy, but we can break these things down: ‘the gods brought this plague on us and it will only be lifted if you make appropriate sacrifices’, say, can be assessed as a claim without having to come up with an actual cure for the plague.

    January 31, 2011 — 19:53
  • Kenny Pearce

    (1) Acting morally doesn’t make one a ‘slave’.
    (2) Atheism, being merely a denial, is really not even a hypothesis, per se. Naturalism is, but it doesn’t really have any predictive power, as such. Of course, a specific version of naturalism might. Similarly, the hypothesis that the universe is a product of design does not, as such, have any real predictive power, since possible designers could have any combination of attributes and aims. It is only when one attributes specific features to a designer that one gets predictive power. The kind of argument from evil under consideration would be an argument that classical theism (i.e. the view that the universe was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being) does a poor job of explaining certain phenomena (evils). This will give us (ceteris paribus) good reason to prefer some other hypothesis which better explains these phenomena. Assuming that classical theism explains something or other, and does not out-and-out entail that there is no evil, this type of argument will not be a reason for us to simply reject classical theism even in the absence of a better theory.

    January 31, 2011 — 20:04
  • David Warwick

    “(1) Acting morally doesn’t make one a ‘slave’.”
    No, but a combination of omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and the ability to assess objective good and evil would.
    God would lack free will, in the sense that he would necessarily, in all circumstances, however happily, only enact the best strategy to maximize the yield of good. Were he not to, a specific ‘more good’ universe would be possible. The only exceptions would be situations where different actions yield exactly the same value of good, without affecting future yields.
    This isn’t a new argument, obviously – the Greeks worked out that either the gods did good or they did what they liked and called it good – if they did good, they served it, if they defined good they were merely capricious.
    I think a modern twist on this – if we could objectively measure good and evil (again, like temperature), we wouldn’t need the universe to have gods in it, we just need devices that can measure and model the goodness of various scenarios.
    And its corollary: if it’s possible to be fitted with such a device … what reason could God have for not fitting us with one? If the argument is ‘free will’ … well, then God, who we know is fitted with such an ability, has no free will. Certainly less free will than we would have – given free will and food labeling, many of us choose ‘unhealthy’ options. And there would be many options open to us that wouldn’t be open to God – short termism, for example: doing what is good for us locally without worrying about the consequences a thousand years from now.
    Personally, I think this only serves to indicate how foolish and unnatural the idea of absolute and objective goods and evils are.
    “(2) Atheism, being merely a denial, is really not even a hypothesis, per se.”
    ‘You are wrong to think that Big Ben is in Paris’ is a hypothesis. Just not one that tells you, per se, where Big Ben is or what the actual Parisian landmarks are. It is possible, and maybe even valuable, for me to think you have the wrong answer without me thinking I have the right one.
    “It is only when one attributes specific features to a designer that one gets predictive power.”
    Yes. And the issue becomes how fixed those features are. If the Christian God created man, say, he did so in a way that’s so unlike the Biblical creation it can fairly be called ‘the exact opposite’ of the Biblical account. If we can discard that property of God, might we not just discard others?
    “The kind of argument from evil under consideration would be an argument that classical theism (i.e. the view that the universe was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being) does a poor job of explaining certain phenomena (evils).”
    I think it’s possible to go one stage further, and question whether we can call those phenomena ‘evils’ in the first place.
    The theist is arguing that, deep down, they’re not evils because God enacts/allows them to foster greater good – pain in return for gain.
    I’d personally argue that the whole idea of objective goods and evils is flawed. I think we can usefully talk about lives lost, pain, cost and so on. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone or anything to objectively or separately measure ‘evil’ like it’s a form of energy or type of currency. I may be wrong. If I’m right, I don’t think Christian-style theism is possible. It seems like an easier proposition to test, deductively and empirically, than ‘God exists’, say.

    February 1, 2011 — 6:22
  • Eric Silverman

    (1) Acting morally doesn’t make one a ‘slave’.
    No, but a combination of omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and the ability to assess objective good and evil would.
    —-
    Actually, I see no reason to believe that David Warwick’s inference is correct.
    First of all, there may be no one set of actions that constitute the ‘best’ in the sense that Warwick’s statement presumes (perhaps, he is subtly stipulating a kind of consequentialism that traditional theists reject… there’s a reason that virtue theory has been generally prefereed over consequentialism by traditional theism)
    Perhaps, possible world ‘A’ is ‘better’ in regards to ‘pleasure obtained by sentient beings’, possible world ‘B’ is ‘better in regards to ‘desires-fulfilled by sentient beings’, possible world ‘C’ is better in regards to ‘knowledge gained by sentient beings’, and possible world ‘D’ is better in regards to ‘possessing beings with the broadest range of free will necessary for genuine moral development,’ etc.. To the degree that these goods are both incommensurable and genuinely good, I see no reason to believe that God would be obliged to create one rather than the others.
    Furthermore, even if ‘goodness’ is reducible to a single measure (‘being’ or ‘glory for God’ would seem the most likely candidates, IMO), it might be the case that for any possible world that instantiates an extraordinarily high amount of that good, another is possible where ‘that amount of good +1 unit’ could exist. Therefore, there would be no such thing as the ‘best possible world’ and a morally perfect being could not be required to create it. Such an argument is suggested by Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder’s “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World”

    February 2, 2011 — 15:21