Today’s virtual colloquium paper is “Skeptical Theism and Practical Reasoning” by Timothy Perrine. Perrine is a graduate student at Indiana University, where he is finishing his dissertation “Epistemic Value and Accurate Representation.” He works primarily in epistemology and philosophy of religion while dabbing in other fields. Some of his work has appeared in journals like Synthese and Faith and Philosophy as well as several edited volumes.
Skeptical Theism and Practical Reasoning
Skeptical theism is an important and popular response to arguments from evil. Skeptical theists urge a kind of skepticism about our ability to discern the possible reasons God might have for permitting the evils we observe. They then propose general epistemic principles concerning when an interference is reasonable or it is reasonable to believe something is evidence. By combining their skepticism with such epistemic principles, skeptical theists aim to undermine arguments from evil.
But skeptical theism is not without its critics. Many critics allege that its skepticism leads to other skepticisms that are problematic. It is useful to have a taxonomy of the alleged skepticisms. Some critics allege skeptical theism leads to non-moral skepticism and others moral skepticism. Among non-moral skepticisms, critics urge that skeptical theism leads to skepticism regarding the external world or God’s commands. Among moral skepticisms, critics urge that skeptical theism leads to skepticism regarding the rightness/wrongness of action, all-things-considered value, or practical reasoning.
In this paper, I will be focusing exclusively on the objection that skeptical theism leads to skepticism regarding practical reasoning. Put crudely, that objection alleges that skeptical theists cannot reasonably conclude that they should prevent evils. For skeptical theists claim that there is a good that justifies God’s permission of an evil. But they also claim that we shouldn’t expect to see what that good is. Thus, even if a skeptical theist could easily prevent an evil for which she cannot see any outweighing good, she should not reasonably conclude that she should prevent it. For, though she cannot tell how, she thinks it would be best all-things-considered to allow both the evil and its justifying good to exist. But—the thought goes—such reasoning is problematic and so, by extension, is skeptical theism.
The aim of this paper is to respond to this objection. In section I, I briefly review skeptical theism and articulate a distinction between two kinds of God-justifying goods. Some goods justify God’s permission of an evil because the existence of the evil is necessary for the existence of the good and the good outweighs the evil. Some goods justify God’s permission of an evil because God’s permission of the evil is necessary for the existence of the good but the existence of the evil is not necessary for the existence of that good.
In section II, I develop this objection from practical reasoning skepticism at greater length, paying particular attention to an influential defense of it due to Michael Almedia and Graham Oppy. In section III, I argue that Almedia and Oppy’s defense of this objection fails because it runs afoul of the distinction between two kinds of justifying goods.
In sections IV and V, I am proactive, sketching a way that a skeptical theist might think about her skepticism. I argue that when deliberating a skeptical theist might in effect reasonably ignore her skepticism regarding access to justifying goods. For her skeptical theism by itself rarely gives her any reason for thinking it would be better or worse to permit an evil. And if she can reasonably ignore her skeptical theism when deliberating about whether to prevent an evil, she can reasonably arrive at the same conclusion that non-skeptical theists do, namely, that she should prevent the evil. In this way, skeptical theism need not lead to practical reasoning skepticism.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
Today’s Virtual Colloquium is “Global and Local Atheisms” by Jeanine Diller. Dr. Diller received her PhD from the University of Michigan and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Program on Religious Studies of the University of Toledo in Ohio. Her research focuses on the concept of God and alternative pictures of ultimate reality. She is co-editor (with Asa Kasher) of Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities.
Global and Local Atheisms
This paper identifies an ambiguity in the terms ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’: are they about one or all notions of God? I stipulate that a ‘local’ theism or atheism is about one notion; they claim that a specific kind of God exists or not (respectively). A ‘global’ atheism is about all notions; it says that no God worth the name exists. The punch line of the paper is that all atheists should be local atheists right now, given the current state of the debate.
In Part I, I draw the distinction between local and global theisms and atheisms carefully. In Part II, I notice that theisms are going to have to go local if they are to stand a chance of being internally consistent: since some notions of God contradict each other, it’s no good trying to believe them all. In contrast, assuming the ontological argument isn’t sound, atheisms in principle can go local or global, since it’s consistent to say that a specific kind of God doesn’t exist (local atheism) and also consistent to say that over and over again, for every kind of God worth the name (global atheism).
Most uses of ‘atheism’ in the philosophical literature are ambiguous between the local and global senses. Atheists who do explicitly disambiguate almost always go local (to offer an example, Mackie explicitly limits his sights to an omnipotent and all-good God). In fact, explicit global atheism is so rare that my research assistant wondered while I was writing if anyone held it. Interestingly, I recently found clear evidence that there indeed are global atheists in a survey run on this very blog by Yujin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff, as discussed in their recent volume Alternative Concepts of God (Oxford 2016). The survey’s framing was fine-tuned enough to positively identify 12.2% of its 286 respondents as global atheists: in the background of several concepts of God which the survey provides, these respondents “hold that no account of the divine is tenable” – a precise statement of global atheism (p. 8).
Parts III and IV of the paper effectively address this 12.2% of respondents and others interested in global atheism (and I’d be grateful to hear responses from any of you reading this). I argue three main claims in Part III: (1) that global atheism is difficult to understand, since denying all notions of God involves knowing at least the main ones, and (2) that global atheism is even more difficult to defend, not only because of the number of notions at play but also because every atheistic argument is against a particular kind of God. Since it’s invalid to move from one kind of God’s not existing to no kind of God existing, global atheists will have to redeploy their arguments or develop new ones against at least the main alternative theisms. Our search in the literature shows that this work has not yet been done; most atheists don’t even mention alternative theisms (regarding (1)), much less argue against them (regarding (2)). I conclude (3) that global atheism is currently unjustified, so atheists should stay local.
Part IV entertains and replies to an objection to Part III: can’t global atheists attack a really general notion of God, and in so doing attack the many species of God it covers, and thereby provide evidence for their claim? This is smart strategy but I give a couple reasons to think it is too early to tell if it can work. Lately I’ve been wondering further whether the idea of God is so flexible that there is no property or notion G that is necessary de dicto to every legitimate notion of God. If so, then an argument denying Gx will always leave some Gods standing and thus fall short of defending global atheism.
How important is the finding that atheists should stay local? On the one hand, local atheisms can be significant: for example, arguments against a OOO God if successful license denying the God of the orthodox monotheistic tradition—no small thing. Still, if global atheism is not justified—if for all that has been said against various Gods there still could be a genuine God of another kind—then the existence of God is not philosophically settled. And that is a big claim: nobody is licensed to move on from theism, not yet—and that not because of a difference of opinion over the state of the arguments (old news), but because the right kind of argumentation is not even in place yet (new news). The required work is to look at the major alternative notions of God and argue either that no such things exist or that such things should not count as God. That adds to the field’s task list for the future.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
Here’s a dilemma that might be worrisome for theists. It’s, in any case, a worry for me. Consider, first, the thesis in (1).
1. Possibly, God actualizes a morally perfect possible world or a morally very good possible world.
Most of us believe that (1) is true, indeed, many of us believe that (1) is necessarily true. But if we affirm (1), we have to deny (2).
Stephen Grover offers an interesting version of the Mere Addition Paradox (‘Mere Addition and the Best of all Possible Worlds’, Religious Studies, 1999) against Swinburne’s brief argument (The Existence of God, Oxford, 1979, 114 ff.) that there is no best world. Swinburne’s argument goes this way.
… take any world W . Presumably the goodness of such a world.will consist in part in it containing a finite or infinite number of conscious beings who will enjoy it. But if the enjoyment of the world by each is a valuable thing, surely a world with a few more conscious beings in it would be a yet more valuable world W’ . . . I conclude that it is not, for conceptual reasons, plausible to suppose that there could be a best of all possible worlds, and in consequence God could not have overriding reason to create one.
There are good reasons to deny that Swinburne’s argument shows anything like there is no best world. Still, the argument does not suffer from the Mere Addition Paradox (MAP).
There is widespread belief that compatibilism + theism cannot offer a credible solution to the logical problem of evil. Why does anyone believe that? I think they’re reasoning this way: if compatibilism is true, then, necessarily, God can actualize a morally perfect world. That’s of course true, and it entails that the free will defense fails. But then they reason, if, necessarily, God can actualize a morally perfect world, then, necessarily, God does actualize a morally perfect world. It is then observed that, obviously, there is evil. So, compatibilism + theism is incoherent; it cannot solve the logical problem.
Here is an interesting theistic argument that I call the ‘leveling argument’. The leveling argument takes as a premise the common assumption in (1). I agree that (1) is tendentious.
1. God cannot actualize a suboptimal world.
Now take any level of value v and suppose that every possible world has an intrinsic value no higher than v. If a possible world w has value v, then God could actualize w. God would have optimized in actualizing w. But if w had value v and w’ had value v+, then God could not actualize w. God would have failed to optimize in actualizing w. So, whether God can actualize a world w depends on what other worlds w’ he might actualize. It is the comparative value of worlds that determines whether God could actualize them, not their intrinsic value. Immediately, we can reach two broad conclusions.
Robert Adams famously argued that an unsurpassable being need not actualize the best possible world. Adams urges that he does not believe that there is a best world, but assumes there’s one for the sake of argument.
I think it is fairly plausible to suppose that God could have created a world that would have the following characteristics: (1) None of the individual creatures in it would exist in the best of all possible worlds. (2) None of the creatures in it has a life which is so miserable on the whole that it would be better for that creature if it had never existed. (3) Every individual creature in the world is at least as happy on the whole as it would have been in any other possible world in which it could have existed. (‘Must God Create the Best’, PR, 1972)
The multiverse solution to the problem(s) of evil (and the problem of suboptimality) is a systematic response to these problems, and one that is fairly popular. Still, lot’s of people have argued against the view (see, for instance, Monton, 2010, Almeida, 2008, 2010) and some use multiverses for other purposes (see O’Connor, 2008). For a nice overview of multiverse approaches (and bibliographic citations) see Klaas Kraay here.
The thought, according to multiverse theorists, is that God necessarily actualizes a possible world W that includes lots of cosmoi, or lots of universes, U0, U1, . . ., Un. All of the universes are actual, so the multiverse is not a pluriverse (for instance, it is not a Lewisian pluriverse). The universes “chosen” (don’t take this too literally) for actualization are the universes (of those worlds) that include an on balance positive value. It is of course a much longer story, and I would argue that it is probably not a coherent story (and, further, not the story that multiverse theorists think they are telling), but this is the basic multiverse thought.
There’s a good version of the modal problem of evil in Ted Guleserian’s (TG), ‘God and Possible Worlds: The Modal Problem of Evil’ (GPW) in Nous (1983). GPW is directly largely to Plantinga’s modal realism+theism and similar views. But I think the problem is more difficult than he suggests. TG tries to show that there is a possible world in which there is pointless and preventable evil. And so he invites a response of modal skepticism about such a world. He would have been better advised to provide a series of worlds, a G series and a B series, and then ask how the evil in the B series could be necessary to a greater good: i.e., how the evil in the B series could be justified evil.