Skeptical Theism and Evil Genius Arguments

When I debated William Lane Craig at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas in 1998, we also had an exchange in the Dallas Morning News on the problem of evil. Here is a key quote from Craig’s statement:

“We aren’t in a good position to assess with confidence the probability (or improbability) of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting bad things. Suffering that appears utterly pointless within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted in God’s wider framework. The brutal murder of a child may have a ripple effect through history such that God’s reason for not preventing the evil may emerge only centuries later or in another country.” (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1998)

This is a clear, succinct statement of the position that has come to be known as “skeptical theism.” Skeptical theism is a reply to arguments such as the “burned fawn” argument of William Rowe. Rowe argues that there are apparently gratuitous evils that constitute evidence against the existence of God. For instance, when innocent creatures die painfully for no apparent reason, this constitutes a prima facie instance of gratuitous suffering, i.e. suffering that is pointless in that it is not redeemable by a “higher” good for which it could be a necessary condition. An all-powerful God certainly could prevent such instances of suffering, and, apparently should have done so if that being were also perfectly good. Hence, the occurrence of many such instances of apparently gratuitous evil (and there are very many) is evidence for the occurrence of actually gratuitous evil. God—by definition a perfectly good and all-powerful being—will prevent any actually gratuitous evil. Since, then, if God exists there will be no gratuitous evil, and since the abundance of apparently gratuitous evil is evidence for the existence of actually gratuitous evil, then the occurrence of apparently gratuitous evil is evidence against the existence of God.

Skeptical theism challenges the claim that the occurrence of apparently gratuitous evil is evidence for actually gratuitous evil. The argument is that evils can only be apparently gratuitous to us. That is, we will not be able to see any possible redeeming good for which the evil might be necessary. To us, the evil looks utterly pointless, absurd, and irredeemable. Yet, says the skeptical theist, we are in no position epistemologically to judge what sorts of redeeming goods may be brought about by an all-powerful being or what evils might sub specie aeternitatis turn out to have been necessary for the achievement of those goods. So far as we can know, the most seemingly pointless evil might turn out in the longest run to have been necessary for the actualization of incomprehensibly great goods. So deficient is our grasp of the sorts of goods possibly realizable by omnipotence, and of the necessary conditions for the realization of such goods, that we are not competent to say what, for God, would or would not be pointless.

The argument of skeptical theism is very similar to one of the classic arguments for global skepticism. In the first of his six Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes seeks grounds for doubting all of his previous beliefs. This is pretty easy with the deliverances of the senses, because we all are familiar with dreams or hallucinations. How can we know, at any given time, that we are not dreaming or hallucinating? But what about such simple and seemingly self-evident truths like 1 + 1 = 2 or that a triangle has three sides? How could we possibly be wrong when making such clear and simple judgments as these? Descartes imagines that, instead of God, there exists an “evil genius”—a demon of infinite power and infinite malice. This being exerts all of his unlimited power to deceive me so that however certain I seem to be when making any cognitive judgment, I am led astray and make an incorrect judgment. 1 + 1 isn’t really 2, though, thanks to the machinations of the evil genius, I am in such a state of intellectual darkness that I will always think that it obviously is. Clearly, if such an evil genius exists, then my cognitive judgments are comprehensively compromised and none can be trusted (except, it famously turns out, for my awareness that I exist and that I am a thinking thing).

The thesis of skeptical theism introduces “evil genius” sorts of doubts into all of our moral reasoning. Like Descartes’ evil genius, the skeptical theist thesis makes dubious the seemingly clearest judgments, moral judgments in this case. For instance, it seems utterly clear to me that I should not commit some evil, perhaps telling a malicious lie, say spreading the baseless rumor that a disliked coworker is cheating on his wife. It is clear because I see that the lie would cause much harm to innocent people whereas the only benefit it would have is perhaps to give me a temporary vindictive pleasure. Clearly, that benefit is not sufficient to redeem the harm. Yet, if the thesis of skeptical theism is correct, in refraining from telling the lie, I may, so far as I can know, be removing a necessary condition for God to achieve some uniquely wonderful redeeming good. The same would apply to any other seemingly pointless evil that we might contemplate. So far as we can know, any such evil might be the act that initiates that “ripple” in the fabric of reality that Craig mentions that emerges centuries later to have been necessary for some presently unforeseeable good.

However, such a level of skepticism seems to be fatal for our most ordinary sorts of moral decisions and judgments. Consider a purely hypothetical example: A president of the United States is contemplating whether to concoct a farrago of lies to lead the country into a pointless war for the sake of further enriching his already obscenely rich cronies in the oil industry. It might initially occur to some small remnant of what used to be his conscience that this would be horrendously wrong. Then he remembers a tiny fragment of a philosophy course he idled through many years ago at Yale, a discussion of the arguments of skeptical theism. It then occurs to him that, as far as anyone can tell, the contemplated war, though it will kill thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of non-Americans, might be a necessary condition for the achievement of some fabulous future good to be wrought by God. Therefore not having the war might well deprive God of an opportunity to make the universe better in the long run!

It appears, then, that skeptical theism, by denying that we can recognize genuinely pointless evil, seems to remove the moral obligation to avoid pointlessly evil acts. How can we avoid what we cannot even recognize? “Ought” implies “can.”

It seems to me that the skeptical theist could reply in three ways:

1) God, being omniscient, knows ahead of time which evils we will choose to commit and which we will refrain from committing. He therefore surely incorporates that knowledge into his plan for the world and his decisions about which future goods he will realize. Of course, he has no plans to redeem evils that he knows we won’t commit, but only the ones that he knows we will commit. Therefore, we cannot commit evils with the excuse that if we refrained we might thereby deny God the opportunity to bring about a redeeming good.

2) Descartes did not propose his evil genius scenario as true or even as probable. The bare possibility of the existence of such a being is sufficient to deprive our judgments of absolute certainty. Likewise, the skeptical theist is not saying that our judgments about the apparent pointlessness of certain evils are certainly or even probably wrong, only that they might be. That is, no matter how pointless an evil appears to us, it might be redeemable by omnipotence. If we concede this, then no number of seemingly gratuitous evils can make us sure that some evils really are gratuitous.

3) We know our moral duty, not by toting up consequences, but by doing what God tells us to do. If God commands us to do X, then we can be confident that he has arranged things so that doing X will not detract from the ultimate goodness of the universe. We therefore base our actions not on our judgments of what looks good or bad in the long run, since those judgments are highly fallible when made by fallen creatures. We do what God tells us to do, confident that long-term consequences are in his hands.

Allow me to offer apologies in advance if I am attacking a straw man in proposing these as the likely replies of skeptical theists to my argument. It may be that skeptical theists have a crushing reply to my comparison of their position to the evil genius scenario, a reply that I have failed to notice. If so, I would appreciate it if that reply were pointed out to me. If, on the other hand, the above are the likely replies, here are my responses:

1) This reply can easily be stood on its head. If we can be sure ahead of time that God has a plan to redeem any evil that we choose to commit, then it would appear that Dostoevsky’s famous quip is reversed. Instead of everything being allowed if God does not exist, everything is allowed if God does exist. Any evil of any amount could be committed in the blithe assurance that God will make it turn out better in the long run that the evil was committed. A Hitler, Stalin, or Mao cannot do any long-term harm, only long-term benefit. They can do their worst and God will make it right in the end. It is hard to imagine an idea more destructive of commonsense morality.

2) This does not reply to arguments from apparently gratuitous evil such as Rowe’s. Rowe does not argue that the existence of many instances of apparently gratuitous evil make it certain that some evils are gratuitous. He would freely concede that any particular evil, however apparently pointless, might not be gratuitous. He is offering a probability argument to the effect that the more instances of apparently pointless evil that we see, the greater the (epistemic) probability that some (one or more) of those instances is actually gratuitous. Therefore, the accumulation of instances of apparently pointless evil (and these can be adduced ad nauseam) is accumulating evidence against the existence of God.

3) The skeptical theist defense assumes the truth of a consequentialist meta-ethic, that is, that the consequences of our actions are the right-making or wrong-making features for those actions. God’s permission of a horrendous evil E is justified, made right, if and only if E serves as a necessary condition for God’s eventual realization a great good G such that the world is better with E + G than with neither E nor G. So, can we just do as God commands and leave the consequences to him? Is it advisable to stop trusting our own perceptions of good or bad consequences?

Two sorts of problems arise if we stop trusting our own judgments about consequences: (a) Sometimes God ostensibly commands things that appear to have very bad consequences and no potential for redemption, e.g. the command of genocide in I Samuel, Chapter 15. Is it safe to defy your plainest moral perceptions when confronted with what looks like a divine command? If your answer is “yes,” then what right do you have to criticize the actions of groups like Boko Haram or ISIS? (b) God’s commands are often vague or general guidelines, leaving us with little idea what to do in particular situations. True, we are told not to steal, but, for instance, is it stealing to tax the wealthy to provide food stamps for the poor? Scripture has no direct answer to this question. How do we decide it without consulting our own moral perceptions? But if such perceptions are globally unreliable, what are we to do?

The upshot is that skeptical theism would seem to make the religious apologist’s job much harder. It may provide a useful rebuttal to the aggressive arguments of pesky atheologians, but at what cost?