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
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!
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.