Hudson on Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception
April 24, 2014 — 0:29

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 31

The forthcoming Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion is full of interesting stuff! So far, I specially recommend Bishop and Perszyk on alternative conceptions of God and Dougherty and Pruss on apparently unjustified evils as ‘anomalies’ (in the philosophy of science sense). I have not yet read the last four articles. Here, I want to comment on Hud Hudson’s “The Father of Lies?”

(This post got longer than I intended, so I’ve added sub-headings. If you get bored in the middle, please skip to the end. I’ve also bolded important parts to make for easier skimming.)

Hudson’s Argument

Hudson’s central contention is that anyone who endorses skeptical theism lacks the resources to rule out divine deception. The reason for this is simple: the skeptical theist ought to admit that we do not know that deception is unjustifiable in all circumstances (in fact, most people think we have good reason to suppose just the opposite). The skeptical theist ought also to admit that we don’t know that we are not in circumstances in which it would be permissible for God to deceive us. So, even if we know that something or other (a text, an experience, etc.) is a divine revelation, we do not thereby come to know that it is true.

Hudson is quite explicit that he is targeting knowledge-level propositional revelation: the thing the religious believer might well want to secure, and the skeptical theist cannot secure, is the notion that certain propositions can be known to be true by revelation alone. My view is that John Locke’s arguments (see section 1.1) and some other related considerations provide strong reason for denying that the sort of propositional revelation traditionally accepted by Christians could yield propositional knowledge, and that this is okay (for Christianity). Hudson’s argument shows that Locke makes a concession to his opponents which he perhaps ought not to make. But, even when combined with Hudson’s observations, these arguments against propositional knowledge by revelation alone do not in principle prevent us from reasonably believing, on the basis of revelation, things that would not be reasonable for us to believe in the absence of revelation. (The ‘in principle’ qualification is important; as will become clear, if the broadly Lockean view I am advocating is correct, then identifying a text as a revelation is a tricky business.)

Locke’s Arguments

In EHU 4.18, Locke begins by conceding the principle that if any proposition p is revealed by God, then p. He argues, however, that the claim that some proposition is revealed by God never goes beyond probable belief to become knowledge.

Locke distinguishes ‘traditional revelation’ from ‘original revelation’ (EHU 4.18.3). Original revelation is direct non-verbal communication by God. Traditional revelation is communication from God by means of words. Two things needs to be noted here: first, a vision, dream, etc. in which one hears or reads words which one takes to come directly from God on this view counts as traditional revelation, even if it wasn’t passed down from other humans. Second, the division is not exhaustive. Even within Christianity, there are claims to revelation that don’t fit in either category. An example is Eastern Christian iconography, which is ‘traditional’ in the sense of being passed down from one generation to the next, and is regarded as a form of revelation, but is not primarily verbal. (Most icons are inscribed at least with the names of the saints depicted, but an icon is not a text.)

This distinction is important to Locke because he thinks that God can miraculously give people new ideas, but words (or other conventional signs) can’t be meaningful unless we already have ideas, so ‘original revelation’, as defined, can give us new ideas, but ‘traditional revelation’, as defined, cannot. Locke also seems, in 4.18, to think that traditional revelation has problems about uncertainty of interpretation and original revelation does not. However, in 4.19, which was added in the 4th edition, Locke also raises interpretive problems about original revelation. So I think we are better off with a different distinction. We will distinguish between two ways Christians have traditionally held God to attest to his revelations: public miracles and private religious experience. (Question for readers: are there other forms of attestation in the Christian tradition besides these two?)

Attestation to Revelation by Public Miracles

Public miracles are perhaps the mode of attestation to which Christians have historically most often appealed. But there are two questions here: how can we know the miracle really occurred, and how can we know what lesson we were meant to draw from the miracle? Locke argues that, in general, historical beliefs fall short of knowledge, hence our claim that a miracle occurred will never have knowledge-level justification. However, this just shows that Locke’s standards for knowledge are too demanding. Surely I know that there was once a general named ‘Julius Caesar’. Even relaxing the standards for knowledge, though, do we know that miracles have occurred? I suspect not. After all, essentially all miracle reports are contested, and in nearly every instance there are alternative explanations available which are plausible enough to prevent knowledge-level justification.

I don’t want to go too far into historical details here, but since it is now the season of Easter, I’ll illustrate by talking about the resurrection of Jesus. I think the historical evidence is sufficient for us to claim to know that there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, and that the tomb in which he was buried was mysteriously found empty, and his body was never recovered. I also think that no prima facie plausible explanation of these facts has ever been proposed. (One must admit that resurrection – even the resurrection of a holy person and great teacher who is believed to have predicted his own resurrection before his death – is not a prima facie plausible hypothesis. It would take a lot to make us take such a hypothesis seriously if we found a mysteriously empty casket today.) Now, whether some one of the possible explanations turns out to be ultima facie plausible, or at least whether there is a clear winner for least implausible explanation, is going to depend on a lot of difficult questions. So I think it’s safe to say that no one has every genuinely known, on the basis of historical research, what happened to Jesus’ body. I do think that with the right sort of background beliefs one might come to reasonably believe in one or another of the hypotheses (including the resurrection hypothesis), but the intrinsic implausibility of each hypothesis, together with the existence of the alternative hypotheses, is sufficient to prevent knowledge. The case against knowledge is, I think, even stronger for other alleged miracles.

But suppose we did know that Jesus rose from the dead. It is plausible that this would constitute a divine endorsement of Jesus’ example and teachings. But would we then know that God attested to Jesus’ example and teachings as a revelation? I think not. After all (as skeptical theists are always pointing out) God might have all kinds of reasons for doing things that we can’t even begin to fathom. Plus, we can easily construct alternative hypotheses. Perhaps the resurrection was some kind of fluke of nature. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the unjust trial which condemned Jesus. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the very practice of crucifixion, or capital punishment in general. Perhaps God was endorsing the example and teachings of Jesus, but as a merely human exemplar to which we can aspire. So, even if we knew that Jesus rose from the dead, we wouldn’t thereby come to know that God endorsed his example and teachings as a revelation.

Now suppose we knew that God did endorse the life and teachings of Jesus as a divine revelation. We’d still have to figure out what propositional content God was endorsing. That would involve both figuring out what Jesus said and did and figuring out what it all meant. Now, I do think we can know, by historical research, that Jesus said and did certain things, provided we keep our claims sufficiently vague. For instance, it’s pretty clear that he taught about loving your enemies and that he challenged and offended the Jewish religious authorities and so forth. But, again, there are apparently conflicting records, there are disputes about the date, authorship, and accuracy of those records, and some of the alternative hypotheses about these matters have significant plausibility. And then, of course, although the significance of some of these teachings and actions is quite clear, there is no end of interpretive disputes about others.

Could God have used a miracle to attest to a revelation in such a way as to give knowledge, rather than merely reasonable belief? Contrary to Locke, I suspect the answer is ‘yes’. Perhaps those who saw Jesus after his death thereby gained propositional knowledge via revelation. They would only have to get over one of the hurdles I have mentioned: the interpretation of the miracle itself. But God could have been even clearer. For instance, there could have been a voice from heaven (perhaps saying something like “this is my beloved Son; hear him!”) heard by a large number of witnesses known to be reliable, who had a wide range of different prior background beliefs, who each independently recorded their testimony, and who investigated alternative explanations of the voice (hidden ventriloquist?) as thoroughly as possible. Perhaps that would be sufficient for knowledge, and the voice could say something sufficiently easy to interpret, and the further revelation it could attest to might also be clear. I’m not familiar with any claim that this sort of thing happened. (In the case of the voices from heaven occurring in the Bible, it is sometimes said that more than one person heard it, and that does count in favor of the reasonableness of believing the account, but we don’t have strong independent evidence of the reliability of the witnesses, nor was their testimony recorded independently.) So things would have to look quite different from how they in fact look in order to yield propositional knowledge by revelation.

Attestation to Revelation by Private Religious Experience

The Christian tradition has also often appealed to private religious experience as attestation to divine revelation. Locke added a section, ‘Of Enthusiasm’ (4.19), in the 4th edition to deal with these kinds of claims. Locke’s approach, in general, is just to challenge the proponents of these kinds of religious experiences to give a clear account of exactly what is attested and exactly how it is attested. If the proposition just ‘looks true’, then how is this revelation rather than rational intuition? If the proposition doesn’t just look true but is inexplicably firmly believed anyway, why should we think this is revelation and not just irrationality? Perhaps the proposition in question is of the form God has revealed that p, and I simply find myself believing that, and infer p from it. But it is implausible that I could simply rationally intuit that God has revealed something (unless we are talking about natural revelation – i.e., things God has revealed to me by giving me the capacity to reason!), and otherwise it just looks irrational.

Now there are serious problems here for the proponent of this kind of religious experience, but perhaps they can be met. What we want to say is that there is a certain sort of unique feeling that one gets when contemplating a certain proposition or reading a certain book or something like that. It’s not just that it ‘looks true’. It’s a feeling of a different sort from the feeling one gets when one ‘just sees’ that 2=2.

This approach is better, but it has at least two problems. First, given the actual facts about such experiences, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to get what the proponents of this approach want out of them. Second, These feelings require interpretation too, and their interpretation is uncertain.

According to the Westminster Confession, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5). I think I know (experientially) what this is talking about. I sometimes have a profound, difficult to describe, religious experience when reading certain texts, and these sorts of experiences seem to have a beneficial effect on moral motivation and character. The trouble is, I haven’t had this kind of experience with every, or nearly every, book of the Bible. Indeed, I can’t remember having an experience like this with any part of the Old Testament except the beginning of Jeremiah and a couple of Psalms. (I just don’t get ancient Hebrew literature.) Furthermore, I have had experiences of this sort with extra-canonical works (e.g., Plato’s Protagoras, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Leibniz’s Theodicy). So it’s just not clear how this kind of feeling is supposed to attest to the canon, especially in light of the fact that as the Westminster divines are explicitly aware the Confession is taking a controversial position on the boundaries of the canon. It is far from clear how this controversial position is meant to be justified. (The ‘Scripture proofs’ in the footnotes are totally foreign to the purpose. Incidentally, if Luke 24:44 was relevant, it would get the wrong results, since, among the ‘writings’ (Ketuvim) it validates only the Psalms. But if this is a synecdoche, it could just as easily include the Apocrypha. I guess Romans 3:2 is supposed to show that the Old Testament should include only those books accepted within Judaism, but there was not agreement about the bounds of the canon in Judaism in the first century.)

The moral of the story is: if the tradition is talking about the same kind of experience I have (or something similar), this isn’t going to get the results that same tradition wants. The Westminster Confession also says, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture” (1.5), and it seems to assume that this precedes the ‘inward testimony of the Holy Spirit’. That helps some: it’s on account of the Church that the typical believer is only asking the question whether the Bible is a revelation and not questioning each book separately. And perhaps this is justifiable, insofar as the tradition has refined the canon by consideration of religious experience and other relevant factors. This gives a bigger role to tradition than the Westminster divines likely intended, but it’s at least a step toward a more plausible view. But of course there are a lot of contingencies in the historical determination of the canon, and there are still disputes within Christianity. Can I really claim to know the proposition either all of these books are part of a divine revelation or none of them are? I doubt it. How about either all the books undisputed within traditional Christianity are revelatory or none of them are? Again, I doubt it. (Plus, it’s hard to figure out what counts as ‘undisputed’. Is James disputed simply because, during one period of his life, Luther was inclined to reject it?)

My point here isn’t that there are no arguments to support positions on the canon. Nor is my point that religious experience has nothing to contribute. Rather, my point is that any argument that’s going to establish the entire Bible (for some particular disambiguation of the name ‘Bible’) is going to be too messy and uncertain to generate knowledge.

The second issue is, why should I interpret the feeling I have as a divine endorsement of the book I’m reading? And if I interpret it that way in some cases, why not in others? Now, perhaps it does make sense to take more seriously the proposition that a certain book is a revelation if there are other people around who believe that. We shouldn’t be overly individualistic in our epistemic practices. Similarly, if a whole bunch of people have closely examined a certain rock and determined it not to be gold, and I look at it and it looks like gold to me, it might be appropriate for me to conclude either that I’m hallucinating or that I’m not good at recognizing gold. But if that’s the case, then I (I mean me personally) should also conclude that I’m not super-reliable at recognizing divine revelations. This is perfectly compatible with thinking that humans in general are reliable enough at recognizing revelations that I should take more seriously the possibility that a book or collection is a revelation when there is a community that believes that book or collection to be a revelation. This will massively decrease the number of candidate revelations, and then I can apply other considerations, including my own religious experience, to make a guess among them. But let’s face it: there’s a certain amount of guesswork going on here.

In addition to widespread disagreement, which provides strong evidence that this sort of experience is significantly less reliable than ordinary sense experience, there is, again, the issue of credible alternative hypotheses, including various cognitive malfunction theories. I think each of us should be quite resistant, on Reidian grounds, to the claim that our faculties are malfunctioning, but this resistance needs to be defeasible. Sometimes it is reasonable to believe that one is hallucinating. Furthermore, in a case like this, where one is dealing with a feeling that admits of alternative interpretations, it is possible to endorse a story that involves non-divine origin of the feeling without claiming hallucination: one can deny that the feeling presents itself as a divine endorsement of the text. (At least, upon reflection, it seems to me that I could do that.)

Now perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps the experience I’m thinking of is not the same as the one the tradition has had in mind. If this is your view and you want to give me the level of confidence in Christianity you enjoy due to an experience you’ve had and I haven’t, you can’t argue with me, you can only pray for me. If you want to convince me that you, and others who have such experiences, have the internalistic component of knowledge-level justification (which may or may not be all there is to such justification), you’ve got to describe the experience to me in more detail than I’ve heard it described in the past, and you’ve also got to show me how it leads to justification.

I’d be remiss if I ended this section without mentioning that William Alston’s very sophisticated treatment of this subject (in Perceiving God) mitigates a lot of these concerns. If I was trying to defend the claim (which I do endorse) that such experiences can contribute to the reasonableness of one’s belief, I’d be drawing heavily on Alston. But I just don’t see that his response to the plurality problem and other related issues is strong enough to yield genuine knowledge. (Maybe I’m just not as Reidian as Alston.)

Don’t Panic!

Who ever supposed that scientifical proofs were necessary to make a Christian?
– Crito, in Berkeley’s Alciphron, sect. 6.31

If I lived in the 18th century, I would have been accused of being a closet atheist by now, and it might be time to move to Amsterdam. I hope the 21st century is as much different from the 18th century as I think it is. Let me take a couple steps back now.

We’re considering an argument with the following form:

  1. Experience or fact x is a divine attestation of object or event o as a divine revelation.
  2. If God attests to something as a revelation, then that thing is indeed a revelation.


  3. o is a revelation.
  4. It is part of the content of o that p.
  5. If some proposition is part of the content of some revelation, then that proposition is true.
  6. Therefore,

  7. p is true.

Locke’s arguments, my further elaborations on those arguments, and Hudson’s skeptical theist arguments together amount, I think, to a strong case for the claim that, if the blanks are filled in here in a way that would support Christianity, we don’t know any of the premises. As a result, such an argument will not (alone) generate knowledge of the conclusion.

So what? The blindingly obvious fact of widespread religious disagreement, including among very intelligent, well-studied individuals, ought to show us that these questions aren’t easy. Is it so surprising to find that the evidence, even when we include religious experience, doesn’t allow us to reach a firm conclusion and claim it as a genuine item of knowledge?

If we can motivate the premises, show that they are reasonable to believe, we will give rational support to the conclusion. (Of course, on a Bayesian model, the levels of uncertainty in each premise multiply to make a more uncertain conclusion, but if you think you can know something without having credence 1 then this is going to happen with known premises too.) I’ve hinted at ways we might do this for one particular assignment (x = the empty tomb; o = the life and example of Jesus; p = we ought to love our enemies). On the view of faith I have previously put forward (or, for that matter, on Lara Buchak’s much discussed account), if we can give a similar defense for some other relevant substitutions (rather stronger than my example), this ought to be a sufficient basis for rational faith.

In giving my examples, I was talking about my elaboration of Locke’s points, but it should, I hope, be clear that the same applies to Hudson’s point. We have excellent reason to believe that the conditions in which deliberate deception is morally permissible are quite restricted, and we have no reason (that I can think of) for supposing that God in such a case with respect to us. The skeptical theist thinks that since we have good reason to believe that God exists, and we have absolutely undeniable evidence that the Holocaust occurred, we have good reason to suppose that God has sufficient moral justification for choosing not to intervene to prevent the Holocaust. We can’t begin to imagine what such a justification might look like but, the skeptical theist argues, in light of some general facts about our cognitive condition, the fact that we can’t imagine the justification is not evidence against its existence. This is totally different than the case of divine deception because we do not have strong independent evidence that divine deception has occurred.

This approach does put limits on how extreme our skeptical theism can be, but if skeptical theism was going to be that extreme it was going to be in trouble anyway. Does the skeptical theist really want to say that it is unreasonable for us to deny that God has morally sufficient reason to damn the innocent?

To make an analogy: intuiting that something is impossible or finding oneself unable to conceive it (despite the fact that such a conception ought to involve only concepts of which one has a good grasp) is sufficient for reasonable belief in the impossibility of that thing. But our modal intuitions are sufficiently fragile and unreliable that if we gain evidence that the supposedly impossible thing is actual, or is permitted by the laws of physics, it doesn’t take much evidence to overwhelm the rational force of intuition. (Or so say I.)

What the skeptical theist needs is the claim that our view that there is no morally justifying reason should be easily defeasible in this way, not that we shouldn’t have such views at all. Actually, the skeptical theist has an easier route here because there are many apparently unjustified evils that might turn out to be justified if we were wrong about causal connections in the world, even if we were right about value all down the line. The skeptical theist just needs to claim that between the empirical causal claims and the a priori moral claims there is enough uncertainty to make defeat relatively (epistemically) painless. (An aside: I’ve never actually been very comfortable with skeptical theism, and I think the previously mentioned Dougherty-Pruss paper gives a more promising alternative approach.)


I want to conclude by asking a question: why do people even want to defend a genuine knowledge claim here? Some people have a fundamentalist desire to build a ‘fortress of certainty’ to protect themselves from having to rethink their views in light of new evidence. If one has absolute certainty, on the basis of divine testimony, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old, one has no need to consider scientific evidence, and if one doesn’t have to consider evidence one doesn’t have to worry about being wrong. Although evolution and the age of the earth were, of course, not the issues of the day, these are the sorts of people Galileo, Locke, and Berkeley had to deal with. But surely this isn’t what’s going on with the professional philosophers who endorse this kind of view today. (At least I hope not.)

An alternative motivation, raised by Alex Pruss in a comment on Keith DeRose’s argument against religious knowledge, is that doctrinal statements accepted by some Christians, including the Heidelberg Confession and the First Vatican Council, affirm that faith is a kind of knowledge, and this seems to have a basis in, e.g., 1 John. In my comments on DeRose’s post, I suggested that these could be taken as referring to objectual knowledge of God rather than propositional knowledge about God. I hope to work this out in more detail in the future.

Hudson’s article ends in aporia, because he himself is attracted, he says, to the idea of propositional knowledge by revelation alone. I would like to know why Hudson, and others, are attracted to this idea. To me, it seems like an unnecessary liability.

(Cross-posted at

  • Excellent article. I want to push against your answer to Hudson. It seems to me that the question of whether it is reasonable to believe things on the basis of divine revelation must be connected to the question of whether God is trustworthy. (God is trustworthy just in case he is not deceptive). Now, you make two important points in this connection:

    (1) We have good reason to believe that the conditions in which deception is permissible are very limited.
    (2) We have no reason to believe that God satisfies those conditions with respect to his communication with us.

    But it seems to me that skeptical theism undermines claim (1) and makes (2) irrelevant. With respect to (1), if there are goods that are beyond our ken, then there may be reasons that justify deception that are beyond our ken. How can we know, then, that the conditions that justify deception really are as limited as they appear to be?

    With respect to (2), if there are goods that are beyond our ken, then the conditions for permissible deception might be satisfied with respect to God’s communication with us. It is true that we have no reason to believe that the conditions are satisfied, but nor do we have reason to believe that they are not satisfied.

    In order to know that God is trustworthy we need to know that he is not deceptive (at least not normally). But on what basis (if we are skeptical theists) do we make this determination? Any of God’s statements might be deceptive. Unless we can be pretty sure that God is not being deceptive, then we cannot know, in any particular case, that what he says is true. And so even if we have no good reason to suppose that God is permitted to be deceptive in any particular case, nor do we have good reasons to suppose that he is not permitted to be deceptive in any particular case. So, we cannot reasonably form the judgment that God is trustworthy.

    April 24, 2014 — 7:51
    • Kenny Pearce

      Hi Jason,

      First, by asking “How can we know…?” you are assuming that knowledge is what we need, which is exactly the claim I was rejecting! Second, the skeptical theist does not want to deny claims like (1) if (1) is understood as making a purely moral claim (i.e., that conditions that justify deception are hard to come by), because that would undermine our ability to make moral judgments about humans and about our own situation. The skeptical theist typically holds that it is likely that there are whole categories of goods totally beyond our ken, and that for all we know some of them might justify deception. She has to admit further that for all we know such justifiers exist for God frequently or always. But that doesn’t mean she needs to regard that as likely.

      The long and short of it is: I concede that “Unless we can be pretty sure that God is not being deceptive, then we cannot know, in any particular case, that what he says is true.” I deny that we need to know. Instead, I claim that we can be confident enough for reasonable belief (which is a lower level of confidence than ‘pretty sure’), and that’s all we need.

      Here’s another way of putting it: if agents in general have a prima facie duty not to φ, then we are entitled to the defeasible presumption that God does not φ. This epistemic position, I claim, is strong enough to yield reasonable belief on the basis of revelation, but weak enough that the skeptical theist can accept it.

      April 24, 2014 — 10:38
  • I wonder if the problem doesn’t cut more deeply than just against knowledge. According to the sceptical theist, evils that have no known justification do not lower the probability of God’s existing at all. Given the sceptical theist’s way of reasoning, this requires her not only to say that we do not know what kind of evils God would have reason to allow, but also that we do not have any non-trivial probabilities for predictions about what sorts of evils God would permit. But the same kind of sceptical theist reasoning leads to the claim that we do not have any non-trivial probabilities as to whether God would deceive. But if that’s right, then we have no reason to think it less likely that God is deceiving us than that he is not. And that would be really terrible.

    (For the record, I reject both sceptical theism and the claim that lying is sometimes permissible.)

    April 25, 2014 — 10:54
    • Kenny Pearce

      Alex – I know skeptical theists often make claims that strong, but if the skeptical theist needs to make claims that strong then I think her view is sunk. What I was trying to argue is that IF skeptical theism is a viable approach in the first place, then it will undermine only knowledge, not reasonable belief, here.

      As I said in the post, I’m pretty suspicious of skeptical theism.

      In his paper, Hudson says that most people who think that lying is always wrong are thinking in the same way as people who think murder is always wrong. Murder is defined as something like ‘unjustified deliberate killing’ and lying gets defined as something like ‘unjustified deliberate deception.’ But people still generally think there are instances of justified deliberate killing (e.g. self-defense) and justified deliberate deception. That’s enough to run his argument. I myself am not fully convinced that there are cases of justified deliberate deception (even ‘murderer at the door’ cases I’m not sure about), but I certainly wouldn’t claim to know that there are none, and that’s all Hudson needs me to admit.

      April 25, 2014 — 11:30
      • Alexander Pruss

        I don’t have the statistics, but I suspect Hudson is wrong. The approach where lying is defined in a way that includes wrongness goes back to Grotius, who defined lying as something like speaking falsely in order to deceive someone with a right to the truth. But even Grotius seemed to have acknowledged that that wasn’t what the ordinary word “lie” means, though he said that for purposes of natural law that’s how he defined it. There have been people who followed Grotius’ dubious stipulative approach. The unofficial French draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and the first English translation, which preceded the official Latin version) did so. But I think only a small portion of users of language users have gone for this stipulation. For instance, the final version of the Catechism has the morally unloaded definition that lying is speaking falsely in order to deceive, but still asserts that lying is always wrong.

        Maybe just as orthodox Catholics make up the bulk of those who think marital contraception is always wrong, so too orthodox Catholics make up the bulk of those who think lying is always wrong? If so, one would expect that they would be likely to follow the official teaching in the final version of the Catechism, and hence not to make dubious Grotian stipulations.

        April 25, 2014 — 12:01
        • Kenny Pearce

          Incidentally, Hudson quotes that early version of the Catechism. He does note that the current version disagrees, but he doesn’t note that the earlier version was unofficial.

          I find it interesting, given the large number of Kantian moral philosophers, that nearly all of them feel the need to explain away Kant’s (apparently) absolute prohibition on lying. In fact, if I recall correctly, Allen Wood actually thinks that Kant is making the Grotian exception in the essay on the right to lie. (This is based on the fact that, in the murderer at the door case, Kant uses some legal language that involves the murderer demanding some kind of formal declaration, as if you were giving a deposition in court. But of course the murderer has no right to make such a demand. I don’t see, though, how Wood’s interpretation of the essay on the right to lie is consistent with the arguments of the Groundwork.)

          Although the ‘right to know’ qualification is certainly not built into the English meaning of the word ‘lie’, I do think it’s true (in plain English) that not all deliberate deception is lying. For instance, I tend to think that intentionally giving misleadingly incomplete information is usually wrong for the same reasons lying is wrong, but my linguistic intuition is that that’s not correctly described as lying, even if the speaker intends for the hearer to draw a false inference.

          April 25, 2014 — 12:46
          • It seemed to me that the whole point of Kant’s little essay on lying was precisely to rule out the Grotius view!

            Deception is certainly different from lying. Paradigmatic cases (maybe all cases–there is a literature on this question) of lying are cases of deceptive activity, but there are plenty of cases of deceptive activity that are not cases of lying. For instance, forms of deception that do not use communicative means are clearly not lying, and as you note there will be forms of deception that do use communicative means. For instance, if you think I will lie but I tell the truth in order that you might believe the negation of what I say.

            False implicature is trickier. I think implicature can be divided into communicative and non-communicative implicature. Non-communicative implicature is stuff you can infer from the fact that I am saying what I am saying, but which I am not communicating to you. For instance, from this comment you can infer that I know some English, that I have access to a computer, that I have an interest in lying, etc. Non-communicative implicature, even when deceptive, is no more a lie than other non-communicative deceptive activity. Communicative implicature? That’s trickier. I think it’s not lying, but I think a lot of ordinary folks will say it is.

            April 27, 2014 — 9:38
        • Kenny Pearce

          Actually, that last point is quite important, because, as Hudson notes, revelation need not be verbal. So to get out of the concern we need a general prohibition on deliberate deception, not just lying, I think.

          April 25, 2014 — 12:48
          • Another tricky thing in the vicinity is that while some people might want to say that all intentional deception is wrong (I am on the fence about this: I make some distinctions here that may or may not be sophistical), surely nobody will say that all deception, intentional or not, is wrong. Obviously, some deceptions that one foresees but doesn’t intend are permissible. For instance, on a Friday I might ask whether some item on a menu has any meat in it, while foreseeing but not intending that the server will think that I am a vegetarian. Basically, I apply Double Effect here. We would be forever explaining ourselves to all and sundry if non-intentional deception were wrong.

            But once we note that non-intentional deceptions can be permissible when there are sufficient goods at stake–in cases of minor deceptions, even the avoidance of social awkwardness is enough–then something like Hudson’s argument might have a chance of getting off the ground.

            April 27, 2014 — 9:50
  • if agents in general have a prima facie duty not to φ, then we are entitled to the defeasible presumption that God does not φ.

    This seems eminently reasonable. But I’m not convinced that skeptical theism doesn’t undermine this kind of inference. After all, in general agents have a prima facie duty to save any drowning child that they are in a position to save (or, to not permit genocide; or pick any instance of evil). But skeptical theism says that from this kind of general claim about prima facie duties, we are not entitled to the presumption that God does not allow children to drown (or allow genocide).

    Now, I would suggest that the prima facie duty to save drowning children is stronger than the prima facie duty to not deceive in the following sense: there are fewer instances in which the duty to save drowning children can be overridden (i.e., fewer instance in which failing to prevent the drowning is permissible) than there are instances in which the duty to not deceive can be overridden. Even more so for permitting genocide.

    Thus, if we are not permitted to infer from existence of the general duty to not Φ (where Φ is permitting some horrific evil that the agent can prevent) to the presumption that God does not Φ ; then neither should we infer from the general duty to not deceive to the defeasible presumption that God does not deceive.

    Now, I understand that the skeptical theist can reply that, in the case of permitting horrific evils, we know that God, if he exists, does permit these things and thus the presumption is defeated. That is fine. But I think the example of horrific evil shows that the existence of even very strong (in the sense I describe above) prima facie duties does not entail that God can’t permissibly violate the duty So, we must be skeptical about any inference from a general duty to the presumption that God does not permissibly violate the duty. Since there are presumably more instances in which it is permissible to deceive than instances in which it is permissible to permit genocide, doesn’t the fact (assuming it is one) that God permissibly permits genocide give us powerful reason to suspect that he also permissibly deceives? And doesn’t this show that, contrary to your apparently eminently reasonable claim, we aren’t entitle to the reasonable presumption that God does not deceive?

    April 25, 2014 — 10:56
    • Kenny Pearce

      Jason – I was thinking that the things God evidently does that look wrong to us fall into certain fairly natural categories. In fact, perhaps they fall into just one or two. First, God created laws of nature which lead to a lot of suffering and he rarely if ever suspends those laws to prevent the suffering from resulting. A second category, which may or may not be subsumable under the first (depending on whether free actions follow from the laws of nature), is that God rarely if ever intervene to prevent free creatures from behaving nastily toward one another. What I had in mind is that these two categories are similar enough that it’s somewhat plausible to suppose that there might be some unified justification for these behaviors. (Indeed, van Inwagen has argued that there might not be any need for justifications of the individual instances, since it might be vague how many miraculous interventions are compatible with the goods of regularity and creaturely freedom.) But it doesn’t seem like whatever this justification is would also justify God in deliberately deceiving us. God might, of course, foresee that we will be deceived either by the ordinary functioning of the laws of nature or by the misbehavior of our fellow free creatures, but supernaturally intervening to deceive us directly seems like it would require a totally different sort of justification, since the other cases are cases about God’s (apparently blameworthy) failure to intervene, not about a bad intervention. So my idea is that there might be a sort of general defeat of the presumption that God has a duty to intervene to prevent bad things from happening (that prima facie duty being somehow overridden), and this might not defeat the presumption that God has a duty not deceive us deliberately.

      Now, maybe I’m making more substantive claims about the moral situation than the skeptical theist can allow. If so, I think skeptical theism is likely sunk. (See my reply to Alex, above.)

      April 25, 2014 — 11:43
  • Alex – Apparently WordPress won’t let us indent the comment thread any further (running out of space). On Kant: if I recall correctly, Wood says that Kant’s essay is against a guy who was trying to use a Grotius-type view to defend certain actions taken during the French Revolution (I guess including hiding people the revolutionaries wanted to kill?) and Kant is opposing that. In any event, I don’t find Wood’s interpretation very plausible. Other Kant scholars admit that Kant thinks lying is always wrong, but deny that Kant’s theory really has this consequence. Like I was saying, I’m not sure why people think it’s so important to explain this away.

    On divine deception: anyone who thinks the Bible is a revelation is going to need to admit at least Double Effect-type cases of divine deception, since many people form false beliefs on the basis of the Bible! Further, people often use precisely this type of reasoning to deal with the fact that Biblical claims are expressed in terms of ancient Near Eastern cosmologies: God has more important things he wanted to reveal, so he didn’t bother challenging the false cosmologies, even though he knew that false inferences would be drawn from the combination of the revelation with the preexisting cosmology. We’ll get even more of these cases if ‘natural revelation’ can count as divine deception. But I’m not sure if this Double Effect-type stuff yields the kind of skeptical conclusions Hudson has in mind. After all, in these cases God would still be speaking truly, and he wouldn’t be intended to deceive us. But I guess it does open up the possibility that God might have good reason of some sort for not being clear and allowing us to draw false conclusions and, not knowing what those reasons are, we wouldn’t be able to guess at how widespread this might be.

    April 28, 2014 — 11:37
    • I guess one worry would be this: On sceptical theist grounds, for all we know, God has good reason for permitting us all to have misleading evidence about which texts are revealed. Or, even worse, has good reason for permitting us to be wrong about almost everything.

      April 28, 2014 — 18:06
  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Kenny! Nice post.
    You asked a couple of questions so first of all I would say that God attests to His revelations sometimes by being present the flesh, so to speak. Also you ask why do some people hold to the notion that propositional knowledge of God can only be had by revelation. That I think maybe  because that is what the Christian church has affirmed for over 1500 years. Thanks again, very interesting.

    April 28, 2014 — 18:49
    • Mark – Thanks for stopping by. I am a little puzzled by your response. First, I don’t know what you mean by “being present the flesh, so to speak”. If this is a reference to the Incarnation, then we have to figure out how we manage to recognize the Incarnation. Traditionally, miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus have been thought to be an important part of this story. Second, it is not true that the Christian church has affirmed for over 1500 years that propositional knowledge of God was available only through revelation. The majority position of the Christian church (and still the position of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance) has been in favor of the possibility of natural theology, or knowledge of God by rational reflection and inquiry, without supernatural revelation. This is supported, for instance, by Romans 1:18-20. On the other hand, there is a tradition of skepticism about natural theology in, for instance, the Reformed tradition, so denying this kind of knowledge is not outside the bounds of the Christian tradition, but certainly affirming such knowledge has been the majority position. It certainly is a central tenet of Christian belief that the Church has received a supernatural revelation which goes beyond what is available to unaided reason. My question was, why think that that revelation results in genuine knowledge rather than merely reasonable belief? After all, the Church has traditionally taught that such revelation must be received by faith. Some people think that faith is or involves a kind of propositional knowledge. But the thing I want to know is, why do people think this?

      April 28, 2014 — 19:01
      • Kenny:

        How about arguments like this?

        1. If you do not know–or at least have knowledge-level justification–that the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, it is not your duty to be willing to die for this doctrine.
        2. It is your duty.
        3. So, you know–or at least have knowledge-level justification.

        There are various variants on 1 that one can try. One may bring in the way that the early martyrs not only staked their lives but not infrequently the lives of family.

        The general point is that morality requires that one’s way of life be different when one has knowledge-level justification (klj) of central Christian doctrines and when one does not. In the above, I brought this out with cases of extreme sacrifice. But one can also bring this out with minor sacrifices. There are minor sacrifices where one will draw the line as to what one may and ought differently depending on whether one has klj. One will be morally required to hedge one’s bets in certain kinds of decisions, especially ones involving others, when one lacks klj. But in these cases where morality requires different actions when one has klj and when one does not, the Christian tradition will require of one the actions that fall on the klj side.

        April 29, 2014 — 10:32
        • Alex, in my view this is exactly what we need an account of faith for: to explain why it is reasonable, and perhaps in some cases even rationally and/or morally obligatory, to take such actions in the absence of knowledge-level justification. To my mind, that’s precisely what faith is about. Buchak’s account makes good sense of this, as does the one I previously suggested (both linked in the post).

          April 29, 2014 — 11:01
          • Alexander Pruss

            I don’t recall Lara talking about the morality of acting as if one knew when one does not.

            From what I remember, Lara is mainly talking about prudential rationality. And in the post which you link to, it seems to me that you at most establish that it’s sometimes prudentially rational to not hedge one’s bets. But morality requires the hedging of one’s bets in the case of some actions where one lacks klj.

            Doesn’t it seem very plausible that, apart from the bracketable case of certain speech acts and the like (obviously if you know you don’t know p, you shouldn’t say you know p), there will be cases where morality requires you to act differently when you lack klj than when you do?

            In fact, plausibly morality would in some circumstances require one to sacrifice one’s chance at salvation when one lacks klj in Christianity. For suppose that an action is required for salvation (say, not denying Christ), but is going to cause really terrible harm to others (say, their torture and death)… Pascal’s Wager is all fine and good when the potential costs are one’s own burden, but if they are another’s, it’s a quite different matter.

            April 30, 2014 — 13:34
  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Kenny, 
    Sorry, I am a little puzzled by my response as well. What I meant to say was that sometimes God attests to his revelations by being present IN the flesh so to speak. Locally present as He was in the burning bush. So that there is a gulf between receiving the story of the empty tomb by faith and receiving a revelation from God in the presence of God.

    April 29, 2014 — 5:57
  • Alex, perhaps there are some cases like that, but I tend to think that, when it comes to practical (including moral) decision-making there’s no hard-and-fast line between knowledge-level justification and something that falls short of it. It’s all just about the costs and the level of evidence. (I have no idea what knowledge is anyway.) So I don’t think there are going to be special moral principles about when actions do and don’t require knowledge-level justification to render them permissible. The question is whether the level of support that really can be secured by the evidence is sufficient to justify the actions it needs to justify. I think it is generally sufficient, even if it falls short of knowledge.

    In the kind of case you are talking about, where there are consequences for others, I tend to think that if those others didn’t believe the thing you purport to know, that would be a strong moral reason against subjecting them to the consequences of your action (since they wouldn’t consent). Of course, there may be counterbalancing reasons on the other side. (I do believe in an absolute deontological prohibition on acting on people in certain ways without their consent, but sometimes there are cases where something really is morally up to me, but what I choose will have an effect on others. These are the cases I’m talking about when I say there will be a strong moral reason, but it might be counterbalanced.)

    April 30, 2014 — 14:00
    • Kenny:

      I actually agree that klj isn’t the thing that makes the difference, but is only a correlate of the difference. I think the difference is made by level of credence. But presumably on the kind of view that takes Hudson’s criticisms on board, one’s credences in revelation are going to be fairly low, no more than say 0.8. And that’s too low for some of the decisions that the Christian tradition says Christians need to take. In fact, I think the Christian tradition has generally taken it that one should act in ways that go with a credence pretty close to 1.

      In the cases I am thinking of, the consequences are not intentionally imposed on others. Deontology is correct. Suppose that you’re asked to shoot one innocent man, and if you don’t then ten innocent consequentialists will be shot. Your refusal to shoot the innocent man has deadly consequences for the consequentialists that they do not consent to. But nonetheless is right. Likewise, suppose that monotheism of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic variety is correct, and you’re asked to worship Caesar, and if you don’t then ten innocent Romans who believe Caesar to be a god will be shot. They certainly don’t consent to being shot for the sake of your refusal to worship Caesar. But clearly you should refuse.

      May 1, 2014 — 9:06
      • Heath White

        Caesar didn’t have any guns. 🙂

        May 3, 2014 — 0:41
    • Right, but both my account of faith, and Buchak’s account as I understand it, are designed to show that, in situations like this, it can be rational to act as if one has higher credence than is actually supported by one’s evidence. In Buchak’s account this comes in because you commit to a certain course of action (hence no hedging bets) without gathering further evidence first.

      May 1, 2014 — 10:36
      • Alexander Pruss

        I don’t see how the commitment helps with the moral worry. That I’ve committed to acting in a way that costs other innocent people’s lives because of something that has a not very high credence does not seem relevant to the question whether acting in this way is morally permissible.

        May 1, 2014 — 11:16
      • No, that’s right. The mere fact that I’ve made such a commitment does not justify subjecting other people to my choice. But if it is rational to make such a commitment, that would certainly be relevant to the moral question, wouldn’t it? This will especially be so in cases where changing strategies is costly. Sometimes changing strategies may even ensure failure. Suppose you are a physician treating a patient with a mysterious illness. It might be any of ten known diseases, or a completely unknown disease. If it is any of the known diseases, then a lengthy course of treatment is necessary. It is not possible simultaneously to treat the patient for more than one of the diseases, and by the time it becomes clear whether the treatment one has chosen is working, it will be too late to start treatment for a different disease if one is wrong. In this kind of case, I submit, the doctor is morally and rationally required to take his best guess and stick with it. This is the case even if the doctor’s credence in the correctness of his best guess is very small, as long as it is higher than his credence in any of the other possibilities.

        I think choosing among religions (etc.) is a lot like this.

        May 1, 2014 — 11:49
        • Alexander Pruss

          But when following a rationally-chosen strategy is going to cost a whole bunch of innocent people their lives, and you’re not particularly confident that the strategy is the right one, that makes continuing to follow the strategy morally problematic.

          Also, it is morally problematic to adopt a strategy when one is not very confident of its rightness when one foresees–as many early Christians were in a position to do–that it will likely cost a whole bunch of people their lives.

          My own view is that my epistemically cautious Christian friends actually have higher credences (and better evidence) than they think. I suspect that there is a gift of the Holy Spirit that makes one’s credence high, but doesn’t always produce introspective evidence that it’s high.

          May 1, 2014 — 13:34
        • But doesn’t this kind of concern presuppose that there is a non-risky alternative, and doesn’t Pascalian reasoning show that not to be the case?

          May 1, 2014 — 14:10
          • Alexander Pruss

            That’s a nice point, but in some cases the risk in the alternative will be to self and not to others.

            May 2, 2014 — 10:44
          • Sure, but certainly there must be some cases in which it is permissible to impose a lesser risk on others to avoid a greater risk to oneself. Making a decision that puts you at risk of stubbing your toe in order to eliminate a threat to my life seems unobjectionable (provided there is nothing objectionable about the means whereby I rearrange the risks).

            In any event, this conversation has been quite helpful with respect to my original question, namely, what are some reasons why people might think it important to have genuine knowledge rather than merely reasonable belief? I am seeing the other side better than I did at the beginning. Thanks!

            May 2, 2014 — 11:32
  • Kenny:

    That’s a good point. Still, I wonder. Imposing a high risk of death and torture on others for the sake of a chance at eternal salvation for oneself seems selfish. And selfish acts typically don’t conduce to eternal salvation.

    A better approach might be not to think about eternal salvation but weights of duties (though I do have the feeling that the assignment of such weights is fishy). If Christianity is true, the duty to love and follow Christ has extremely high weight. The duty to prevent serious risk of death and torture to others has high weight, but maybe the duty to follow Christ has a weight that is much greater. Let’s say it’s 50-50 whether Christianity is true. Then it might be the morally right decision to follow Christ.

    May 2, 2014 — 13:27
  • Rus Bowden


    I may have missed it in your essay, but there is a further factor involved with the confirmation of religious experience as knowledge. Your own religious experiences have come through the writings of others. We also have religious experiences that occur outside of writings. Those experiences either justify in some sense what is scriptural for some religion, or go against them (or are neutral, as it were). It is certainly okay, for instance, for Plato to conjure mystical experiences, or anyone else for that matter.

    As a mystically-based Christian, my experiences fit into the framework of Christianity, thus giving credence to the teaching as a whole, and an understanding of how they may have come about. It may be that the experiences would fit and give insight somehow into a different religion’s as well, but I am not so familiar with those other teachings. It seems the frameworks of the religions, in the goodness of the genesis, are made in order for them to maintain such viability, and that mystics perform a sort of repair and maintenance of that framework. Corruption can (and will) happen, then through selfish or ignorant interpretation, either by the mystic or priests or clerics who follow in time.

    Also, there is nothing about my experience that would lead me to believe that humanity is 6,000 years old, or even that we are to attempt to surmise how old “we” are by reading the available Judeo-Christian texts. Maybe such surmising is given to other mystics, or a different set of mystics. Yet, that there is something that a dove is a striking metaphor for, that there is a personality that is like the one of Jesus in the Bible, that love is a simile for God and what is behind this ongoing dynamic creation, these and other aspects of religious experiences may never “prove”, but support further that there just may have been a Jesus walking the earth, just as the story is told.

    July 3, 2014 — 1:11
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