Virtual Colloquium: Luis Oliveira, “Skeptical Theism and the Paradox of Evil”
December 2, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 7

Today’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “Skeptical Theism and the Paradox of Evil” by Luis Oliveira. Dr. Oliveira recently received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is now a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His papers have appeared in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.

Skeptical Theism and the Paradox of Evil

Luis Oliveira

Let me begin by thanking Kenny Pearce for hosting this Virtual Colloquium and for inviting me to contribute a paper to it. I have enjoyed reading and discussing each of the papers presented so far. I hope my paper will continue the trend of substantive and constructive exchanges in the comments section. Here is a preview, from my introductory section:

According to the evidential problem of evil, our seeing no justifying-reason for many instances of suffering is sufficient evidence for the belief that the traditional (maximally great) God does not exist. According to skeptical theism, however, it is not at all likely that we would see a justifying-reason for instances of suffering, were such a God and such reasons to really exist. Given plausible assumptions about the nature of evidence and undercutting defeat, it has seemed to many that the force of the evidential problem of evil therefore depends on skeptical theism being false. If we cannot expect to see God’s justifying-reasons, were Him and them to truly be there, then our not seeing them can hardly count as evidence against His existence.

In this paper, I argue that there is a way of understanding the evidential problem of evil where it is compatible with skeptical theism. I show that skeptical theism blocks the evidential problem of evil only given certain natural assumptions about how the evidence from evil accrues, I show that these assumptions are not essential to the problem, and I show which alternative assumptions can take its place. I do not, however, go as far as endorsing the evidential problem of evil on the basis of these alternative assumptions. Nonetheless, if I am right about all this, the result is that the stalemate between the many who defend skeptical theism and the many who criticize it can be altogether sidestepped.

Here is how I proceed. I begin, in section 1, by clarifying two essential features of William Rowe’s justly famous original formulation of the evidential problem of evil. Next, in section 2, I articulate what I call its inductive justification, which I argue is widely presupposed by Rowe commentators, according to which Rowe’s argument depends on the accumulation of little bits of evidential support from particular instances of apparently pointless suffering. Then, in section 3, I argue that skeptical theism, properly formulated, resists Rowe’s argument by denying that these particular instances provide even a modicum of support against God. With this dialectic clarified in the background, in section 4, I suggest an alternative justification for Rowe’s original argument. On what I call its collective justification, Rowe’s argument turns on the evidential support provided by the collection of instances of apparently pointless suffering in a way that is compatible with each particular instance failing to provide any support at all. Drawing on the evidential dimension of the preface paradox, I call this result the paradox of evil. I conclude, in section 5, by arguing that skeptical theism, based as it is on a claim about our cognitive limitations, is compatible with the collective justification of Rowe’s argument. Whether Rowe’s argument is sound remains open for debate, though a debate that does not center around skeptical theism anymore.

The full paper is here. Comments welcome below!

Virtual Colloquium: Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne, and Yoaav Isaacs, “Evil and Evidence”
November 18, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 26

It’s Friday again, and time for the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! A brief administrative note: there will be no colloquium next week (November 25) due to the American Thanksgiving holiday. We will return on December 2.

For today’s colloquium, Matthew Benton presents “Evil and Evidence,” a paper he co-authored with John Hawthorne (USC) and Yoaav Isaacs (UNC). Dr. Benton received his PhD from Rutgers in 2012 and subsequently held positions at Oxford and Notre Dame. Currently, he is assistant professor of philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. His papers on epistemology and other topics have appeared in such journals as Analysis, Philosophical Studies, Synthese, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Additionally, he is co-editor (with John Hawthorne and Dani Rabinowitz) of Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Perspectives in Religious Epistemology, soon to be published by Oxford University Press.

Evil and Evidence

Introductory Comments by Matthew Benton

The problem of evil presents the most prominent argument against the existence of God. Recent probabilistic or evidential versions of the argument, due especially to William Rowe (esp. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” 1979; cf. also 1984 and 1996), suggest that the existence of evil (or its distribution and magnitude) are evidence against the existence of God. As such, these arguments claim that at least in the abstract, evil makes less likely the existence of God; and perhaps even given all of the other available evidence, it is strong enough evidence to make belief in God problematic.

Skeptical theists contend that these are not good arguments, and many go so far to deny that evil is evidence against the existence of God. To cite just a few prominent examples: Peter van Inwagen (“The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence,” 1996, 169-71) says that “While the patterns of suffering we find in the actual world constitute a difficulty for theism…, they do not—owing to the availability of the defense I have outlined—attain the status of evidence”. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Michael Bergmann (“Evil Does Not Make Atheism More Reasonable than Theism,” 2004, 14) argue for the conclusion that “grounds for belief in God aside, evil does not make belief in atheism more reasonable for us than belief in theism”; and Richard Otte argues that “theists should not believe [that] evil, or our ignorance of a good reason for God to permit evil, is evidence against religious belief or the existence of God, at all” (“Comparative Confirmation and the Problem of Evil,” 2012, 127), and that “at best, the theist should refrain from judgement about whether evil is evidence against the existence of God” (2012, 131).

Skeptical theists have various reasons for arguing as they do, involving such notions as ‘CORNEA’ (the ‘Condition Of ReasoNable Epistemic Access’; Wykstra “The Humean Obstacle to Epistemic Arguments from Suffering,” 1984), epistemic appearances, ‘gratuitous’ evils, ‘levering’ evidence, the representativeness of goods, and radical skepticism about the probabilities of evil on the hypothesis of theism, or of no good we know of justifying the kinds of evil in the world. In this essay, we consider each of these notions and aim to dispel some confusions about them, and along the way attempt to clarify the roles of such notions within a probabilistic epistemology. In addition, we examine the role that distinct accounts of evidence play in the discussion, and we develop new responses to the problem of evil from both the phenomenal conception of evidence and the knowledge-first view of evidence.

The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below.

A Theistic Dilemma
March 17, 2015 — 14:02

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Concept of God Existence of God Free Will Problem of Evil Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 2

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).


Which Worlds are Possible?
February 18, 2015 — 9:58

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Problem of Evil Uncategorized  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 5

Are there possible worlds that include unimaginable suffering? On behalf of the Anselmian theist, Tom Morris denies that there are such worlds.

Such an [Anselmian] God is a delimiter of possibilities. If there is a being who exists necessarily, and is necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, and good, then many states of affairs which otherwise would represent genuine possibilities, and which by all non-theistic tests of logic and semantics do represent genuine possibilities, are strictly impossible in the strongest sense. In particular, worlds containing certain sorts or amounts of disvalue or evil are metaphysically ruled out by the nature of God, divinely precluded from the realm of real possibility. (‘The Necessity of God’s Goodness’ in his Anselmian Explorations 48 ff.)

But I think there’s an interesting argument that there are such worlds. I call it the Property Argument.


The mystical security guard
February 17, 2015 — 10:58

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 8

One objection to some solutions to the problem of evil, particularly to sceptical theism, is that if there are such great goods that flow from evils, then we shouldn’t prevent evils. But consider the following parable.

I am an air traffic controller and I see two airplanes that will collide unless they are warned. I also see our odd security guard, Jane, standing around and looking at my instruments. Jane is super-smart and very knowledgeable, to the point that I’ve concluded long ago that she is in fact all-knowing. A number of interactions have driven me to concede that she is morally perfect. Finally, she is armed and muscular so she can take over the air traffic control station on a moment’s notice.

Now suppose that I reason as follows:

  • If I don’t do anything, then either Jane will step in, take over the controls and prevent the crash, or she won’t. If she does, all is well. If she doesn’t, that’ll be because in her wisdom she sees that the crash works out for the better in the long run. So, either way, I don’t have good reason to prevent the crash.

This is fallacious as it assumes that Jane is thinking of only one factor, the crash and its consequences. But the mystical security guard, being morally perfect, is also thinking of me. Here are three relevant factors:

  • C: the value of the crash
  • J: the value of my doing my job
  • p: the probability that I will warn the pilots if Jane doesn’t step in.

Here, J>0. If Jane foresees that the crash will lead to on balance goods in the long run, then C>0; if common sense is right, then C<0. Based on these three factors, Jane may be calculating as follows:

  • Expected value of non-intervention: pJ+(1−p)C
  • Expected value of intervention: 0 (no crash and I don’t do my job).

Let’s suppose that common sense is right and C<0. Will Jane intervene? Not necessarily. If p is sufficiently close to 1, then pJ+(1−p)C>0 even if C is a very large negative number. So I cannot infer that if C<0, or even if C<<0, then Jane will intervene. She might just have a lot of confidence in me.

Suppose now that I don’t warn the pilots, and Jane doesn’t either, and so there is a crash. Can I conclude that I did the right thing? After all, Jane did the right thing—she is morally perfect—and I did the same thing as Jane, so surely I did the right thing. Not so. For Jane’s decision not to intervene may be based on the fact that her intervention would prevent me from doing my job, while my own intervention would do no such thing.

Can I conclude that I was mistaken in thinking Jane to be as smart, as powerful or as good as I thought she was? Not necessarily. We live in a chaotic world. If a butterfly’s wings can lead to an earthquake a thousand years down the road, think what an airplane crash could do! And Jane would take that sort of thing into account. One possibility was that Jane saw that it was on balance better for the crash to happen, i.e., C>0. But another possibility is that she saw that C<0, but that it wasn’t so negative as to make pJ+(1−p)C come out negative.

Objection: If Jane really is all-knowing, her decision whether to intervene will be based not on probabilities but on certainties. She will know for sure whether I will warn the pilots or not.

Response: This is complicated, but what would be required to circumvent the need for probabilistic reasoning would be not mere knowledge of the future, but knowledge of conditionals of free will that say what I would freely do if she did not intervene. And even an all-knowing being wouldn’t know those, because there aren’t any true non-trivial such conditionals.

Evil and Compatibilism
February 8, 2015 — 11:33

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Concept of God Existence of God Free Will General Problem of Evil Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 17

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.


On Terrible Libertarian Worlds
January 30, 2015 — 20:08

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Divine Providence Free Will Problem of Evil Uncategorized  Tags: , ,   Comments: 8

Consider a morally perfect world, w, that includes only libertarian free agents. Everyone in w is acting morally, no one is acting immorally. Let S be the set of all agents in w, where S = {a0, a1, a2, a3, a4, . . .,an}. And let A be the set of actions of agents in w, where A ={M0, M1, M2, M3, M4, . . ., Mn}, where ‘Mn’ indicates that agent n performed a moral action. But we know that the actions of agents in w are libertarian free, so we know that the actions are fully independent: no one’s action is causally dependent (or logically dependent, or otherwise dependent) on anyone else’s action. Otherwise, these actions are not free. So, we know that there is a possible world w’ where the set of actions are A’ = {Im0, M1, M2, M3, M4, . . ., Mn}, where ‘Imn’ indicates that agent n performed an immoral action. In w’, one of the agents chooses to act immorally. But then, on the same assumptions, we know that there is a possible world w” where the set of actions is A” = {Im0, Im1, Im2, M3, M4, . . ., Mn}. In w”, three of the agents choose to act immorally, the rest act morally. We know that they are free to do so. But then we know that there is also a possible world wn where An = {Im0, Im1, Im2, Im3, Im4, . . ., Imn}. In wn all agents decide to act immorally. This is possible too, given libertarianism. But we know something much, much worse.


A Multiverse Solution?
January 9, 2015 — 11:15

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , ,   Comments: 51

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.


The Modal Problem Improved
January 6, 2015 — 22:45

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Problem of Evil Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 13

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.


The Fundamental Problem of Evil
January 3, 2015 — 10:28

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: ,   Comments: 40

Here’s a nice challenge: What is the fundamental problem of evil? If there is a fundamental problem of evil P, then there is some organization among the many proposed problems of evil. That would be good news. Let a fundamental problem of evil P be such that (i) a solution to P would solve all other problems of evil and (ii) a solution to other problems of evil would not (necessarily) solve P. Let’s say that a problem of evil P is more fundamental than a problem P’ just in case (i) a solution to P would solve P and (ii) a solution to P’ would not (necessarily) solve P.

The challenge in the logical problem of evil is to show that it is metaphysically possible that God co-exists with evil, E. There are various ways to take the challenge; one natural way is to take it as asserting that it is impossible that God cannot eliminate E without a cost of a greater good G. All possible evil is gratuitous.