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.
This is the twenty-fifth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
My current work focuses on rectificatory justice and argues that the negative social and moral perceptions of Black Americans work to prevent Blacks from gaining rectificatory justice. This is because of connections between American colorblind liberalism and gaining rectificatory justice within the liberal paradigm. Liberalism is a political philosophy that espouses the mutual equality of persons, individual liberty, and that a set of moral rights flow from their mutual equality. Rectificatory justice is the branch of justice concerned with setting unjust situations right, which may require a number of different actions. Within the liberal tradition, injustice is violating someone’s rights. When one’s rights are violated, the victim has the right to have their injustices rectified in some manner. I plan to defend these positions: rights have a social dimension that is based in being recognized as one’s equal; that Blacks have not received rectificatory justice; and that racial reconciliation (which includes the dominant group changing their negative perceptions about Blacks) is a necessary step for Blacks to receive rectificatory justice.
A particular institution that has indoctrinated and educated millions about ethical behavior, respect, and following the moral law is the Christian Church. My father is a Baptist (his side of the family having faithfully attending Christ Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church for decades), and his side of the family introduced me to what Baptist church services were like. My mother’s side of the family, however, is Catholic. Something I find interesting is how quickly I identify with having an upbringing in the Catholic Church, and yet I have little memory of choosing to be Catholic rather than Baptist. My older brother and I would attend church often as children, going to Dad’s church some weeks and Mom’s church (St. Bridget’s) other weeks. I surmise it was a decision more or less made by Mom that her sons would grow up in the same kind of faith that she did. Since the difference is more in how people praise rather than who people praised, Dad acquiesced on this issue. That said, it was never unheard of for the whole family to go to both churches on holidays or important services.
I was never confirmed, but I was baptized as an infant by the priest at St. Bridget’s. When I learned that being baptized meant that I chose to take God in, it struck me as peculiar that it was a choice made for me. Not that I wasn’t happy that the choice was made – I have an unwavering belief in the existence of God, thanks in no small part to God’s existence being indoctrinated in me from birth. The conviction in the value of a church community that my parents held meant St. Bridget’s to be my first church home: where I did a confession for the first time; I sang in the choir; I learned hymns and songs to affirm the story of Christ and the glory of God; and I knew church to be where I would see many of my cousins, aunts, and uncles regularly. My family loves to get together, and church was another excuse to get together as I grew up. The building itself was supposed to be respected as a place of worship, a concept that taught me how important the worship was to any sort of faith practice that I would adopt.
In my early teens, St. Bridget’s closed. This destabilized my sense of church community and led me to seriously consider the purpose of attending church. By that time I understood certain theoretical differences between Baptists and Catholic, such as the existence of Purgatory, and had chosen Catholicism as my preferred brand of Christianity. For one, I figured that Heaven takes way too perfect a person to get in but that I wouldn’t be evil enough to deserve Hell and thought Purgatory would be a nice middle ground for eternity (at least it’s not Hell). The other thing that swayed me was how short the services were in Catholic churches; we come in, say a few prayers, sing a couple of songs, hear a good message from the priest, have communion and we’re done. In my mind, as long as we were genuinely engaging in religious rites that heaped praise and respect upon God then it shouldn’t necessarily take all day to do so. And man, Baptist church services just go on forever.
Most of my account has focused so far on my relationship with the church and how that helped me forge my religious view of the world. Losing St. Bridget’s put things in perspective for me about what the important part of going to church is – building a relationship with God. Attending church wasn’t a requirement for building a relationship with God, prayer was. So I went into my parent’s bedroom around 15 or 16 and told them I didn’t want to go to church anymore because I didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. At least as a youngster, I knew that church meant family time in a sacred place. Without a church community, it felt like I was going to church to sing songs and hear a story and none of it made sense. God exists, that made sense. Jesus story? Sure, I can roll with that. But I wasn’t very clear on the point of church any longer, and that moment of truth with my parents emboldened me to my newfound beliefs. I was nervous that they would be upset or even punish me for not wanting to go to church, but church felt like a chore that was not providing me any benefit. I distinctly remember my parents asking me if I still believed in God, which was met with a crystal clear, “Of course!” God wasn’t the issue – church was the issue.
Since that moment, I really avoided taking on any labels regarding my belief structure. If asked, I respond that I’m a Christian, and that I was raised Catholic. It doesn’t concern me if I’m considered nondenominational, Catholic, or whatever someone thinks of me. The only thing that matters is maintaining a relationship with God, which I do through prayer and appreciation. Since May 1, 2009, I try my best to say daily, “Thank you God for today, thank you for yesterday, and thank you for a chance at tomorrow.”
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.
This is the eleventh installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with David McNaughton, currently Professor of Philosophy at Florida State, having previously been Professor at Keele University. He is a member of the Church of England, and a regular attender at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, Florida.
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
I was brought up agnostic, but my parents sent me to Methodist Sunday School (for as long as I wished) so I might find out for myself. After considerable prayer and heart-searching I joined the Methodist Church around 1960 and stayed there for ten years, including being a very active member of the Methodist Society at my undergraduate university. I did my graduate work at Magdalen College Oxford and attended College Chapel, at the end of which I was received into the Church of England.
Shortly thereafter I drifted away from Christianity, eventually becoming both sceptical and slightly hostile until my mid-30s when I began slowly to re-evaluate my position. Strong influences here were C. S. Lewis and William James, as well as teaching philosophy of religion with Richard Swinburne. I remained a highly sympathetic agnostic until 2004, when I decided to recommit to the church.
Guleserian (1983) presents a version of the Problem of Evil that attacks the conjunction of theism and modal realism. Like the traditional Problem of Evil, Guleserian’s argument begins with a set of initially plausible, but mutually inconsistent, propositions, which Kraay (2011) reconstructs as follows:
1. Necessarily, there exists a being (God) who is essentially unsurpassable in power, knowledge, and goodness.
2. Every possible world is actual at itself.
3. Necessarily, if w is a possible world, then it is true in w that God permits w to be actual.
4. Necessarily, if it is true in w that God permits w to be actual, then it is morally acceptable for God to do so.
5. There is at least one on-balance-bad world, w.
6. It is not morally acceptable that, in w, God permits the overall bad world w to be actual when it is within God’s power to prevent this.
(1) and (2) state the primary ontological commitments of theism and modal realism respectively. (3), (4), and (6) state plausible consequences of the conjunction of theism and modal realism. (5) reflects a common modal intuition had by many philosophers, namely that we can conceive of at least some some possible world that is full of misery and altogether lacking in redeeming value.
One strategy for resolving the inconsistency is to reject (5). This the move endorsed by Morris (1987). Thomas argues that nature of an Anselmian God (one that is unsurpassable in greatness) would rule out the possibility any on-balance-bad worlds existing. The Anselmian God is, thus, “a delimiter of possibilities.” Another strategy, favored by Almeida (2011) is to reject (6). On Almeida’s view, the necessity of the on-balance-bad worlds exculpates God from moral responsibility for their existence. Finally Kraay (2011) also rejects (5). He argues for a Theistic Multiverse account of possibility on which (i) there is only one possible world (the actual world), (ii) it is the best possible world, and (iii) it is a multiverse.
What all of these positions have in common is a commitment to (2), the claim that all possible worlds are actual at themselves. This is a core principle of Lewisian modal realism. On Lewis’ account the term ‘actual’ works like the term ‘here’. Just because some things are real here it does not follow that other things cannot be real elsewhere. Likewise, for the denizens of other possible worlds, on Lewis’ theory, their worlds are just as concretely real for them as our world is for us.
Here’s another strategy for resolving the inconsistency. This one allows us to keep (1), (3), (4), (5), and (6) by modifying (2). On the view in mind, we accept an axiological restriction on actuality. We thus replace (2) with
(2′) All and only on-balance-good worlds are actual at themselves.
If this substitution is made, then the inconsistency in the proposition-set is resolved. Why accept such a restriction? The Anslemian theist will argue that such a restriction is merited by the nature of God. While a Lesliean axiarchist might argue that such a restriction is an abstract ethical constraint upon the space of possibilities.
Traditional modal realism holds that there is nothing special about actuality. Ersatz views take actuality to be a special property that only applies to one world, the one that obtains. The view in mind here takes a middle position. Many worlds (perhaps infinitely many) have the property of being actual at themselves. In this way the proposed view is akin to the modal realists position. But not every world, on this view is actual. Some worlds fail to obtain. But the failure is not entirely ad hoc. They either fail because they are inconsistent with the nature of an Anselmian God, or because of an abstract ethical requirement that only on-balance-good worlds exist.
(cross posted from Persons and Value)
I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.
I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.
We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.
Suppose for the sake of discussion that (1) is true. I have no idea whether there are worlds in which there are just 100 happy people, but it does simplify the discussion.
1. w includes 100 happy people existing for 10 minutes only.
The value of w, I think, is ten times the value of w’ in (2).
2. w’ includes 100 happy people existing for 1 minute only.
Now let w” be exactly like w, but add the fact that w” is an eternalist world. w” includes 100 happy people. There is no time in w” at which it is false that 100 happy people exist.
3. w” includes 100 happy people and it is true at each time t that 100 happy people exist.
Since it is true at each time in w” that a 100 happy people exist (and despite the fact that it is not true at each time that 100 happy people exist at that time), the value of w” should be much higher than the value of w. The value of a world is a function (in part) of the number of happy people existing in the world over time. It doesn’t much matter where in the world they are (spatially or, it seems to me, temporally).
Trent’s interesting post about evil and hiddenness has reminded me of the following draft that I wrote some time ago:
The problem of evil challenges theism by raising the following question: if God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why is there evil in the actual world? Theists have proposed many responses to the problem, such as the free will response, the soul-making response, the greater good response, and so on. Whether any succeeds has been debated for hundreds of years.
Suppose now, for the sake of argument, that there is a successful theistic response to the problem of evil explaining the reason, call it X, that God has to allow evil. Unfortunately, this does not end the story because the existence of X raises a new question: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil? A state of affairs in which we remain puzzled by not being told by God that X is the reason that He has to allow evil seems to undermine the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Let us call this the ‘second-order problem of evil’.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a successful theistic response to the second-order problem of evil explaining the reason, call it Y, that God cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil. Unfortunately, this does not the end the story because the existence of Y raises a new question: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that Y is the reason that He cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil? A state of affairs in which we remain puzzled by not being told by God that Y is the reason that He cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil seems to undermine the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Let us call this the ‘third-order problem of evil’.
And so on, ad infinitum.
What does this observation teach us? First, it teaches us that theists who think that they have found a successful response to the problem of evil should beware of overconfidence; such a response raises new challenges for them. Second, it encourages theists to investigate a link between evil and God’s hiddenness. The only plausible explanation, if there is any, that God does not prevent evil, does not tell us X is the reason that He has to allow evil, does not tell us Y is the reason that He cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil, and so on, appears to be that God has to remain hidden from us; that is, God has to avoid any form of interaction with us which suggests His existence. We can see this clearly by showing that the above infinite regress does not arise for the problem of divine hiddenness, despite the fact that the problem of divine hiddenness is structurally parallel to the problem of evil. Suppose that there is a successful theistic response to the problem of divine hiddenness explaining the reason, call it Z, that God has to remain hidden from us. Unlike the case of the problem of evil, the existence of Z does not raise the following second-order question: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that Z is the reason that He has to hide Himself? If there is any valid reason that God has to hide himself then He cannot tell us that that is the reason because by telling it to us God would fail to hide Himself from us. This seems to indicate that there is a link between the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness and that theists might be able to stop the infinite regress of the higher-order problems of evil by appealing to God’s hiddenness. Conversely, it might be that the higher-order problems of evil cannot be resolved without first resolving the problem of divine hiddenness.
Why is there something rather than nothing? According to John Leslie, because it is better that there be something. Leslie holds that ethical requirements themselves are ‘creatively effective’ and give rise to “an ocean of infinitely many infinite minds” which Leslie calls ‘God’ (p. 143). Leslie is a pantheist, holding that the world (including us) is in fact constituted by the thinking of these minds. His essay is devoted to arguing both that this is the best explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing, and that this view deserves to be regarded as a kind of (non-religious) theism.
I have to begin by, for just a moment, putting on my nitpicky historian’s hat. Leslie’s paper is full of both oblique references to and explicit mentions of a variety of historical and contemporary philosophers, theologians, and physicists, and it even contains a number of quotations, but what it does not contain is one single citation, except for a footnote at the very end of the article with a long list of works of Leslie and other recent thinkers holding similar views. Maybe Leslie thinks that every one of his readers will just know, off the top of her head, where (pseudo-)Dionysius said “Goodness is that whereby all things are” (and what translation that quotation came from) and where A. N. Whitehead said “Existence is the upholding of value-intensity” (p. 135), but if he thinks that he is badly mistaken. Routledge’s editors should not have let this essay appear without the correction of this violation of scholarly standards.
Ok, I’m done nitpicking and ready to discuss the actual content of the paper now.
Leslie begins by reciting some standard problems for better known atheistic and theistic solutions to the ‘puzzle of existence,’ but the discussion doesn’t go very deep. Precisely because these are standard objections, there are standard replies to them, and Leslie does not discuss these at all. Having recited some reasons for thinking that more standard views fail, Leslie begins (from p. 133) describing his own ‘Platonic’ view. A lot of this has to do with motivating the idea that there might be such a thing as agent-independent ‘ethical requiredness.’ He then (sect. 4) recites some bits of evidence that are typically taken to support theism (e.g., the orderliness of the universe, fine-tuning) and argues that these in fact support axiarchism. Finally, he argues that with respect to the problem of evil, the axiarchist is no worse off than the conventional theist.
One gets the impression (especially from the laundry list footnote at the end) that this essay is a summary of Leslie’s previous work on this topic. The essay has trouble standing alone. It lays out some basic motivations for axiarchism and gives one a general idea of how the axiarchist might go about responding to certain obvious objections, but it doesn’t go much beyond that (perhaps due to limitations of space). Furthermore, Leslie’s pantheism of infinitely many infinite minds, which is the most bizarre part of his view, is motivated only in the most cursory way.
I’m a Berkeley scholar. I’m used to working with bizarre-sounding metaphysical theories, and I’m sympathetic to views that make the mental more fundamental than the physical. But even I had the feeling that “We are got into fairly land, long ere we have reached the last steps of” Leslie’s essay (Hume, EHU 7, part 1, para 24). I think it would have been better, for a short piece like this, if Leslie had decided either to focus on the defense of axiarchism, or else to take axiarchism as an undefended assumption and defend his pantheism of infinitely many infinite minds as a consequence of it. The attempt to do both in this small space leaves readers with the feeling that Leslie wants them to accept bizarre views without adequate motivation.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)