A weak spot in skeptical theism
December 27, 2011 — 19:45

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 14

Too often, discussion about skeptical theism focuses on whether there are likely to be unknown goods which could outweigh the evils we know of (Officially, I have problems with the notion of “knowing of” an evil, but I’ll set that aside). That can create the impression that an affirmative answer is reached, skeptical theism wins. But that would be a misunderstanding.


Some skeptical theists are quite clear about the need for skepticism about the *entailment relations* between possible goods and possible evils (Bergmann is, Howard-Snyder is not). But even then, I find that most of the discussion is focused on God’s ability to see *goods* that are beyond our ken.
The reason this is problematic, is that that’s too easy to come to the affirmative on. *Of course* there are possible goods we can’t think of and I’m inclined to think that *of course* some of them would be so good as to counter-balance all the bads that are likely to have occurred (this is a much better way to talk that about “bads we know of”). For one thing, it is likely (nearly certain to me) that there have only been a finite number of bad states of affairs which have obtained.
The hard sell in skeptical theism, though, are those entailment relations and the role they play in moral permissibility. So take one of these possible goods we don’t know of but which would surely outweigh all the bads there have ever been and call it Supergood (homage to Superbad). It is not as though it would be permissible to allow all the bads just because you could trump them with Supergood.
Suppose I’m a super-rich 1%er–like a movie star, a pro athlete, or a senator. Now think what price you’d put on a broken nose. Let it be $n. I can’t just walk up and punch you in the face and throw $2n at you and walk away. Nor can I just stand by and watch it happen when I know I could prevent it and then pay you $2n for the “enteratainment.” This issue is under-treated in the literature.
But the real focus of this post is the fact that it is *not* obvious that we don’t know that there are no entailment relations between the bads there are likely to be (timeless) and any possible good. Rowe makes this point (2001: 301) pretty eloquently I think, and I don’t think Bergmann’s reply is adequate. It can seem utterly implausible–even after considerable reflection–that the greatest goods–of which I also think we are aware: perfect fellowship with God–that this greatest of goods *entails* the existence of as much bad as there is likely to be (timeless), especially in a way that it would be permissible for God to use as a justification. This, too, I think, is under-treated in the literature.

Comments:
  • > Suppose I’m a super-rich 1%er–like a movie star, a pro athlete, or a senator. Now think what price you’d put on a broken nose. Let it be $n. I can’t just walk up and punch you in the face and throw $2n at you and walk away. Nor can I just stand by and watch it happen when I know I could prevent it and then pay you $2n for the “enteratainment.” This issue is under-treated in the literature.
    Why not? By definition, I’d very pleased for you to punch me and hand me $2n.

    December 27, 2011 — 20:37
  • Anonymous

    If we think about this in terms of particular evils and offsetting goods in the lives of individuals, I for one am not usually confident about the causal explanation of particular goods in my own life. Someone might look back on their life and be able to see lots of ways in which their character and the overall trajectory of their life could have gone much worse, have some sense that harmful and painful experiences (evils) and subsequent lessons learned are part of the reason why it didn’t go much worse, but not be able to say with any confidence what particular evils (if any) explain particular goods. But it doesn’t seem particularly implausible to me (even after considerable reflection) that at least some of the goods I experience entail some of the evils in my life (in the right way). I do, however, agree that it is implausible to think that a single towering/swamping global good entails the existence of all evil in the right way.

    December 27, 2011 — 22:19
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Trent,
    “It is not as though it would be permissible to allow all the bads just because you could trump them with Supergood.”
    No, but it would be permissible to allow all the bads if they are needed to get to the Supergood.
    “I can’t just walk up and punch you in the face and throw $2n at you and walk away.”
    But you can punch me in the face if this is the only way to produce the $2n for me.
    The deeper question is: Can you punch me in the face if this is the only way to produce the $2n for somebody else? It seems to me clear that the answer is yes. Indeed I think that this is precisely what a loving parent of two children should do: punch the one on the face if that’s the only way to save the life of the other.
    The natural follow-up question would be this: Isn’t it always possible for God to save the life of the second child without punching the first one on the face? The skeptical theist I take it answers that this may not be possible even though she can’t right now see why not. A more aggressive skeptical theist might go further and claim that she understands why she can’t right now see why not. Or, in other words, claim that given the complexity of creation theism entails the respective limitation in our cognitive capacity. And given that we can understand this we should trust in God’s reasons to permit evils – especially given the vast preponderance of the goods there are.
    My own view is that both the non-theist and the skeptical theist err in believing that God must necessarily have a justification for each single evil. The belief that God must have a justification for each single evil is defeated by the hypothesis that God may have a justification for creating a world in which some individually unjustified (and perhaps random) evils obtain. In my judgment the creation by God of a precisely and minutely choreographed world is less great than the creation of a world where evil is intrinsic and real, and which we are nonetheless called to overcome. It is true that we should have faith in God, but it is equally true that God has faith in us.

    December 28, 2011 — 4:31
  • Dani Rabinowitz

    Hey Trent,
    Thanks for this. You raise some interesting points. Apologies for digressing somewhat, but I couldn’t help wondering whether anyone discusses the epistemic sense of “possible” (epistemic possibility) that seems to be in play in the skeptical theism debate in light of recent work on epistemic possibility e.g. the stuff in the conceivability and possibility literature in the Gendler and Hawthorne collection and on epistemic modals in the Egan and Weatherson collection? I ask this because the easy “yes” answer to your opening question might no longer be as easy as it appears.
    Thanks
    Dani

    December 28, 2011 — 6:03
  • In my judgment the creation by God of a precisely and minutely choreographed world is less great than the creation of a world where evil is intrinsic and real, and which we are nonetheless called to overcome.
    @Dianelos Georgoudis: I sense a false dichotomy in your alternatives. Must every deterministic world be “choreographed”? Is there no limit to how “intrinsic and real” evil can become before the world that contains it is worse than some creatable alternative world? Surely heaven is a realm created by God; is evil intrinsic to heaven, or is heaven an inferior realm because evil isn’t intrinsic to it?

    December 28, 2011 — 9:06
  • Mike Almeida

    The reason this is problematic, is that that’s too easy to come to the affirmative on. *Of course* there are possible goods we can’t think of and I’m inclined to think that *of course* some of them would be so good as to counter-balance all the bads that are likely to have occurred…
    There are at least two points here. I’m inclined to agree that it’s true that God is aware of great possible goods that we are not aware of. The first point is that, no matter what relations hold between such goods and actual evils, the existence of possible goods is not enough to justify actual evils. The goods have to be actual, and not merely possible. It might be true, for instance, that were we much, much wiser, we would enjoy the great good of knowing how to best contribute to the redemption of suffering. That’s a good God knows about, let’s say, but so what? It is not an actual good, since (let me stipulate in good conscience) we are incapable of such wisdom. So we need goods that are not merely possible, but actual (or at least actualizable).
    The second point concerns the entailment relation between goods and evils. Surely the standard way to justify evils, despite its constant use, is wrong. For something longer on this http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2010/04/excused-and-jus.html. The point in that post is that any evil is justified in the standard way, since entailment validates strengthening antecedents (in this case, strengthening goods!). Briefly,

    P1. If S permits evil E, and N(G ⊃ E), and V(E & G) ≻ 0, then E is a justified (non-gratuitous) evil.
    P1 is more or less standard in discussions of gratuitous evil, but surely it’s wrong. Take any very minor good G such that N(G ⊃ E). Add S to G, where S is the great good of salvation of the human race. It follows that N(S & G ⊃ E),and no doubt V(E & G & S) ≻ 0. Now, it is easy to prove that every evil E is non-gratuitous. For every evil E, it is true that N(E ⊃ E). And it follows that N((S & E) ⊃ E), and certainly V(E & S) ≻ 0. So, P1 is wrong.

    December 28, 2011 — 11:49
  • I’m not sure why, but I’m sure that it is.

    December 28, 2011 — 12:47
  • Trent Dougherty

    Thanks for the link, Mike, and the summary. Good stuff.

    December 28, 2011 — 12:50
  • Trent Dougherty

    I think I agree with everything you say here.

    December 28, 2011 — 12:53
  • In my judgment the creation by God of a precisely and minutely choreographed world is less great than the creation of a world where evil is intrinsic and real, and which we are nonetheless called to overcome.
    @Dianelos Georgoudis: Isn’t that a false dichotomy? Causal determination isn’t the same as manipulation: why must any deterministic world be “choreographed”? And let’s not forget heaven, another realm created by God. Is evil “intrinsic and real” in heaven, and if it isn’t, is heaven worse than our world?

    December 29, 2011 — 9:20
  • Trent:
    Actually, the problem is a bit more complicated and harder. Mere entailment relations between the good G and the evil E aren’t enough when there is some similar good that doesn’t require nearly as much evil. So minimally the kind of entailment relation one would need is that the occurrence of something axiologically roughly like G, or better, entails the occurrence of something axiologically roughly like E, or worse. (For van Inwagen reasons, I think we may be stuck with the “axiologically roughly like”. Suppose permitting an evil of any magnitude greater than 7 disutils is logically necessary for some great good G. Then we don’t want to say that God does anything wrong if he permits an evil of 7.001 disutils to achieve G. But intuitively we’d find it problematic if God permitted an evil of 700 disutils to achieve G, even if G would still greatly outweigh the evil.)
    That makes the task of the sceptical theist harder, I think. One intuition that we can have here is that there are probably lots of types of great goods we’re unaware of. That seems to be an intuition friendly to the sceptical theist. But now push on this plenitude. Let E be some evil we can’t find a justifying good for. It’s now not so implausible that there be an unknown great good G such that something like E is logically necessary for G. But plenitude also makes it plausible that there be an alternative unknown great good G’ of magnitude similar to or greater than that of G that doesn’t require anything like E or worse.
    One way to help the sceptical theist is to insist on a ton of incommensurability in the realm of value. The more incommensurability there is, the easier it is for my entailment condition to be satisfied, because the harder it will be for a good G’ other than G to count as axiologically similar to or greater than G.

    December 29, 2011 — 11:09
  • Trent Dougherty

    Alex, I was glossing over vagueness and similarity for simplicity.
    I still tend to find it mighty implausible that *most* (but all I need is “some” in the sense of “at least one”) horrendous evils obtain goods which have the property you mention.
    “Tend” I say. And I’d like to have a really good story for those who share this tendency and lack some of the features in me that fight against it.

    December 29, 2011 — 12:48
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Steve Maitzen:
    “Causal determination isn’t the same as manipulation: why must any deterministic world be “choreographed”?”
    I am not referring specifically to a deterministic world. Rather I am assuming the more appropriate theistic view that all persons possess (libertarian) free will. Many theists believe that God (perhaps using middle knowledge) has planed creation in such a way that all evil, and in particular all natural evils, are individually justified. In other words that every evil which obtains is such that its absence would hinder the realization of some greater good. I think it is fair to call such a world a “minutely choreographed” one. I think the view of a choreographed creation is wrong:
    1. The reason people typically have for believing in that view strikes me as mistaken. That reason goes like this: God, being all good, would want to bring about the most valuable world, and God, being all powerful, will therefore choreograph the world in such a way that the greatest possible amount of good obtains. The error I believe in that reasoning is that it entails an overly quantitative understanding of goodness, but goodness is about quality rather than quantity. Indeed the value of the world does not equal the sum of the individual values of its elements.
    2. It is obvious that if the creation of this world is justified then God is justified for creating it even if it is the case that not every single evil in it is individually justified. Thus it is wrong to assume that on theism each single evil must have an individual justification.
    3. In my judgment a choreographed world is less great than an open one. A choreographed world makes a mockery of human free will and makes God resemble a control freak. To want to have ultimate control over a state of affairs where free agents partake, even when meaning well, is not a sign of greatness, nor of love.
    4. If theism is true then necessarily there is a solution to the problem of evil, and it would be good if we were made with the cognitive capacity to understand that solution. But a choreographed world is the solution to a maximization problem the complexity of which lies far beyond our capacity to deal with. In other words a choreographed world cements the problem from God’s hiddenness, and is therefore improbable on theism. (In general I think that skepticism or the defense from ignorance are less viable on theism than on naturalism.)
    5. An open world fits better with the soul-making theodicy, which in my judgment is the by far more powerful one. Since the greatest possible being is the person of God, the most valuable kind of goodness an imperfect person may realize is to become similar to God. And towards that and the imperfect person must overcome the present evil. In a choreographed world our overcoming of evils would be the automatic or planned for result of God’s choreography, which would therefore rest merit and value from human repentance and sanctification. Here’s an illustration: Suppose the child of a loving parent is killed (by some natural evil or by a murderer). If the parent knows or suspects that the killing of her child is guaranteed to bring about some greater good then the parent’s overcoming of that evil becomes easier. But suppose the parent knows or suspects that the killing of her child is *not* guaranteed to bring about a greater good. Now it is more difficult but also a greater accomplishment to overcome that evil.
    Thus I conclude that God’s perfection ultimately implies that possibly there are unjustified evils in creation.
    “And let’s not forget heaven, another realm created by God. Is evil ‘intrinsic and real’ in heaven, and if it isn’t, is heaven worse than our world?”
    No, heaven is of course better, but the value of heaven resides in that one reaches it by going through the world and its evils. It’s not only about the destination but also about the journey.
    Your question I take it reduces to the following: Why hasn’t God instantiated us in a state of personal perfection in heaven right away, instead of creating us imperfect in a world full of evils and in which a human must painfully and half-blindly reach for personal perfection? I think the answer is quite clear: Value does not exclusively reside in one’s state of personal perfection but mainly on how that state was reached. A simple analogy: Suppose two people have reached the summit of a mountain, but the first reached it after actually climbing the mountain while the second one was flown there by helicopter. Clearly the first has more personal merit than the second. Further, some attributes of personal perfection are such that they must be earned. An important example here is the virtue of courage: One can only possess that virtue if one has in the past faced evils and overcome them without any help from beyond.
    If it is true that one who has become good by overcoming evils is greater than one who is simply and by nature good, then one may wonder about the case of God’s perfection. For example, is it coherent to say that God possesses the virtue of courage if God has never faced and overcome evils? In this context it is interesting to note how Christian theism can respond to that question.

    December 31, 2011 — 3:23
  • Eric Rasmusen

    “Suppose I’m a super-rich 1%er–like a movie star, a pro athlete, or a senator. Now think what price you’d put on a broken nose. Let it be $n. I can’t just walk up and punch you in the face and throw $2n at you and walk away. Nor can I just stand by and watch it happen when I know I could prevent it and then pay you $2n for the “enteratainment.” This issue is under-treated in the literature.”
    I agree with the commenters who wonder why this action is immoral. I’ll add that this comes up in the law of quasi-contract. If my neighbor’s house is burning and he isn’t home, I’m allowed to sue for compenstation from him if I put it out at a cost to myself. The same goes for a doctor who treats an unconscious stranger in the street— which even goes to physically touching the stranger without permission.

    January 13, 2012 — 13:36