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!
The third essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Panentheism: Reflections on Jonathan Edwards’s Account of the God-World Relation” by Jordan Wessling. The essay is avowedly not interpretive, but rather aims at an evaluation of a certain view in philosophical theology, dubbed ‘idealistic panentheism,’ which has been attributed to Edwards. This view takes the whole created world—including human minds—to be ideas in the mind of God. It is idealistic insofar as it takes reality to be fundamentally mental. It is panentheistic in a literal and straightforward sense: the created world exists in God’s mind. However, it is not pantheistic since those ideas that make up the created world are not all there is to God. This makes creation, as Wessling puts it in one place, “a proper part of God” (57).
Wessling says this view recommends itself as highly parsimonious and as providing compelling accounts of some of the divine attributes, especially omnipresence. He the considers three objections: (1) that the view runs counter to tradition; (2) that the view implies theological determinism and so undermines responses to the problem of evil; and (3) that the view literally locates evil in God, making God morally imperfect. I will only discuss the first of these here.
Wessling essentially dismisses this worry with the remark that panentheism is an avowedly revisionary conception of God, and yet has many adherents today. In light of the fact that his essay is not intended to be historical or interpretive, this seems to me a legitimate response: although some philosophers and theologians may be inclined to reject the view because it is revisionary, the view will still be of interest to many, since panentheism is already taken seriously in theology.
Nevertheless, this response left me with questions (perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of contemporary theology, or perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of Edwards). How exactly is this Edwardsian idealistic panentheism different from Spinoza? Presumably Edwards wanted it to be, and in fact I’d be surprised if he didn’t address this explicitly. Spinoza likewise takes our minds to be God’s ideas. Further, Wessling interprets Edwards as holding that “Human persons, for example, are what we might call ‘attenuated substances.’ … We might say that, for Edwards, humans (as well as other created minds) are only proximate bearers of properties, but God alone is the ultimate bearer of these properties” (56-57). Again, this sounds very similar to Spinoza. In addition to the fact that the historical Edwards presumably wouldn’t have liked this, it raises the question of whether this sort of panentheism can ultimately be distinguished from pantheism. The fact that there is more to God than these ideas is supposed to do the work of distinguishing it from pantheism. But this is not spelled out. If God somehow had a choice as to which of God’s ideas were ‘real’ created objects, and other ideas were mere possibilia, this would help. But exactly how this works, exactly what makes for that difference, is not explored here.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
Please see the project website for details.
The Pantheism and Panentheism Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, welcomes applications for summer stipends from scholars and writers who wish to spend the summer writing a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal, a reputable magazine (if they wish to write for a popular audience), or an edited collection to be published by a leading academic publisher. We offer £1000 each to 10 applicants in the summer of 2017 and 9 awards of £1000 in the summer of 2018. Co-authors are welcome to apply together but they will be awarded only one joint stipend of £1000. This is a non-residential grant that allows grant recipients to work on their project anywhere they wish.
Applicants are required to submit the following items electronically:
- A curriculum vitae
- An project abstract of no more than 200 words
- A project proposal of 750-1500 words
Please email all of the above as a single PDF document by 15 April 2017 to email@example.com
The Pantheism and Panentheism Project focuses on the following three main problems. Applicants are required to address at least one of these problems directly or indirectly from a philosophical, historical, theological or scientific perspective. It is not required that applicants defend pantheism or panentheism. Applications from critics of these views are also welcome.
- The problem of personality: Pantheism and panentheism say that the cosmos is identical with, is constituted by, or is part of God. This appears to suggest that, contrary to the classical theistic view, God is not a person or a personal being. Critics claim that this is problematic because a concept of God that is non-personal does not seem to be adequate for theological discourse. Can pantheists and panentheists respond to this problem by developing a plausible account of personhood that makes the pantheistic or panentheistic God qualify as a person or a personal being?
- The problem of unity: Classical theists maintain the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, according to which God created the cosmos out of nothing. This doctrine entails that God is ontologically distinct from the cosmos. Classical theists face the following intractable question: How could God, who is understood by classical theists as an incorporeal, timeless, changeless being, create the cosmos, which consists of matter, time and space, out of nothing? Pantheists and panentheists avoid such a question by maintaining that the cosmos is not ontologically distinct from God. Yet it is not very clear how the cosmos, which includes an extremely large number of entities, can be considered a single, unified entity that can be described as divine. Can pantheists and panentheists coherently maintain that the cosmos is a unified whole?
- The problem of evil: Classical theists face the problem of evil because they maintain that the cosmos, which includes apparently pointless pain and suffering, was created by an all-powerful and all-good God. One of the main virtues of pantheism and panentheism is that they do not face this problem. Since they do not postulate the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God the problem of evil for classical theists cannot be directed at them. However, pantheism and panentheism do face a variation on the same problem: How could the cosmos be identical with or be part of God if it contains apparently gratuitous pain and suffering?
The selection criteria are (i) the quality of the abstract, (ii) relevance to the project topics and (iii) the applicant’s publication track record.
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.
Paul Draper shares the following:
It is with great sadness that I inform you that my friend, William Rowe, died this morning (August 22nd, 2015). As most of you know, he was a philosopher of religion and metaphysician, best known for his work on the cosmological argument, the problem of evil, and Thomas Reid’s theory of agent causation. What follows is a brief summary of some of his accomplishments.
Rowe earned his Ph.D. in 1962 at the University of Michigan under William P. Alston and wrote a dissertation—the basis for his first book (1968)—on Paul Tillich’s philosophical theology. He taught at Purdue University from 1962 to 2005 and, in 1986-7, was President of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division.
Rowe wrote a second book (1975) focusing mainly on Samuel Clarke’s version of the cosmological argument for the existence of a necessary being. Hume had attacked this sort of argument by claiming that if each member of an infinite series of dependent beings is explained by another member of that series, then the entire series is explained. Rowe rejects Hume’s claim on the grounds that explaining each dependent being in terms of another leaves unexplained why the collection of all dependent beings has any members at all. He nevertheless finds Clarke’s argument unpersuasive because it depends on a dubious principle of sufficient reason.
Beginning in 1979 with his famous paper “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” Rowe published numerous papers defending an argument from evil against theism. Rowe denies that a logical incompatibility between God’s existence and known facts about evil can be established. He maintains instead that theists face an evidential problem of evil. In Rowe’s distinctive argument, however, the crucial evidence is not that our world contains horrendous evils, but that we cannot even conceive of any goods that justify God’s allowing those evils.
Rowe’s most recent book (2004) challenges the view that God is both free and perfectly good. For either there is a best of all possible worlds or there isn’t. If there is, then a perfectly good God must create it and so is not free. If there is not, then no matter which world God freely chooses to create, it is possible to create a better one, which, Rowe argues, implies that God is not perfectly good.
Bill Rowe was much more than a great thinker. He was a warm and extraordinarily gracious man, a mature and beautiful soul who had a gift for making others feel welcome and at ease. He will be sorely missed both by those who had the great fortune of knowing him personally and by those who know him only through his brilliant philosophical work.
Here’s a modal quandary. Both modal arguments seem correct. Both arguments seem valid.
1. Necessarily, God actualizes the best world.
2. There is no best possible world.
3. :. God does not exist.
1. There is no best possible world.
2. It is impossible that God actualizes the best possible world.
3. :. It is not necessary that God actualizes the best world.
The problem arises because we are (implicitly) reasoning counterfactually (strictly, counterpossibly), and there’s room for different ways to resolve the vagueness involved.
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).
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.
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.