bookmark_borderLINK: My Guest Post at Randal Rauser’s Blog

UPDATED: Part 2 is now available.
Randal Rauser was kind enough to allow me to write a guest post for his blog. The post is about the consequences of skeptical theism and is going to be published in two parts. The first part is available now, the second will be available in a couple of days.
Here is Part 1
And Part 2
I know that he is frequently the recipient of this kind of praise, but it bears repeating: Randal is to be admired for seeking out and interacting with people who hold positions very different from his own. To be honest, though, he and I agree about a great deal. I told him once that I think that we agree about just about everything except the existence of God. We definitely agree about the value of carefully considering the arguments of those with whom we disagree and the need for civil and reason-based dialogue.

bookmark_borderIn Defense of an Evidential Argument from Evil: A Reply to William Lane Craig

Abstract: In a popular article about general arguments from evil against the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God, William Lane Craig raises objections to such arguments that are consistent with those he earlier raised against Paul Draper’s evidential pain-and-pleasure argument from evil in an oral debate with Draper in 1998. In this article Jeffery Jay Lowder considers whether Craig’s points have any force in rebutting Draper’s writings on his pain-and-pleasure argument, ultimately concluding that they leave Draper’s argument unscathed.

bookmark_borderOur Knowledge of Gratuitous Evil

How do we know that some instance of evil is gratuitous? I think that there is much to say in favor of the idea that we simply see that the evil is gratuitous. That is, in observing some bad event, I observe directly that this event is neither necessary for the occurrence of some compensating good nor for the prevention of some worse evil. I see, for example, a child fall while trying to climb a tree and then start crying because of a sliver stuck in the palm of her hand. I don’t think, “Well, maybe the pain she is experiencing is good for her. Or maybe it will bring about unknown further goods.” No, I know that the pain is bad, that it isn’t doing her (or anybody else) any good, and so I get out the tweezers and remove the sliver. And I do this automatically without consciously pondering over the circumstances or evening making any kind of explicit inference. So it seems to me perfectly reasonable to say that, in at least many instances, we know directly that instances of evil are gratuitous. Now, of course, as with all cases of perception, the fact that I am apparently seeing a case of gratuitous evil is not a perfect guarantee that I actually am seeing a case of gratuitous evil. There are undoubtedly instances of illusory experiences of gratuitous evil; instances in which what appears to be gratuitous is not actually gratuitous. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is reasonable to treat an experience in which I seem to witness an instance of gratuitous evil as a defeasible veridical perception. We can be wrong in our assessments of whether some evil is gratuitous, but in the absence of compelling evidence, we ought to trust our initial judgements concerning whether some evil is gratuitous.
If all of this is right, then the suggestion that there are unknown (and perhaps unknowable) compensating goods whose promotion would justify a divine being’s failure to intervene to prevent some instance of evil entails that we are systematically deceived about the existence of gratuitous evil. There are two points that I want to make about such a claim. First, we should recognize the way in which such a suggestion parallels arguments for external world skepticism. These arguments claim that the judgements that we arrive at concerning the existence of objects external to our minds are undermined by the possibility that there are unknown phenomena (evil demons, for example) that ensure that our experiences of the external world are illusory (i.e., that ensure that when I seem to see a computer in front of me, I am deceived; there is no computer). And since we are not in a position to know whether such unknown phenomena exist, we are not in a position to say that our experiences of external objects are veridical. If this parallel is indicative of an underlying analogy, then the suggestion that there are unknown goods that justify God’s allowing the occurrence of evils is epistemically on a par with the claim that I am being deceived by an evil demon. This would be a devastating result since the kind of skepticism at work here threatens to undermine all claims to knowledge, including any claim about the nature and existence of God. The argumentative tactic (known as skeptical theism), taken to its logical conclusion, might end up defeating the argument from evil at the expense of losing all grounds for theism.
So, I would suggest that we are better off concluding that the natural and mostly automatic judgements we make about gratuitous evil are generally reliable; that we should trust them unless we are provided, in specific circumstances, with a compelling reason for thinking that their deliverances are wrong. This is especially compelling in the light of the importance that recognizing gratuitous evil plays in our moral assessments and in moral decision making (a point that Stephen Maitzen has effectively employed in an argument against skeptical theism). But, and this is the second point, even if we are not convinced that we know directly whether most instances of evil are gratuitous, we can nonetheless make very reasonable inferences to this effect. Those who suggest that because of our cognitive limitations we are not in a position to know whether any particular instance of evil is gratuitous are underestimating the power of such inferences.
The inference that I will describe is more narrowly focused than what I’ve talked about above. I will be examining the inference from the occurrence of apparent horrors to the existence of gratuitous evil. Focusing on horrors is useful because it is much more clear both that most horrors appear gratuitous and that we have good reason to think that they are gratuitous. I will be using ‘horror’ in the following, fairly common sense: instances of evil of an extreme duration, magnitude or intensity; the kind of evil that, as Marilyn McCord Adams has said, provides the sufferer with a reason to think that life is not worth living. Let’s start with some important observations:
Horrors are significant for us because they raise special problems concerning how, if at all, they can be compensated. Dostoevsky famously illustrated the problems in an important section of The Karamazov Brothers. In discussing whether God might have reasons for permitting suffering, Ivan Karamazov asks his brother Alyosha,

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

The problem that Ivan is raising is that for some evils it does not seem appropriate to consider compensation (in the normal sense) when considering what would permit us to justifiably allow the evil to occur. In normal cases of evil, it is appropriate to think in terms of compensating goods. In other words, for many instance of run-of-the-mill evil, all that is required by way of justifying compensation is some good that outweighs the evil, such that the evil is required in order for the good to be realized. In cases of horrors, this notion breaks down.
There are different ways of thinking about what is required in order that some evil be compensated. Having healthy teeth and gums is more valuable than not experiencing the pain of a root canal, and so, given that we cannot achieve the good without the evil, we rightly choose to undergo the pain of surgery knowing that this evil is well compensated. This is an easy example, but it is not obvious what general conclusion we can draw about compensation for evils. I don’t think we actually need any kind of robust account of compensation however; we can make do with some general observations. To begin, let’s start with a fairly minimal conception:
An instance of evil, e, is compensated just in case there is some good state of affairs, g, that is at least as good as the state of affairs consisting of the absence of e.
This is a fairly weak notion of compensation (we could call it “weak compensation”), but it will suffice as a starting point. Note that the fact that some instance of evil is weakly compensated is not sufficient to justify allowing it to occur. If I steal your car today, then feel bad about it and so return it to you unharmed tomorrow, my stealing your car does not thereby become justified. In order for me to be justified for knowingly bringing about or causing some evil, I must, at least, be aware of good reasons to believe that this evil is required for the occurrence of some compensating good.
The point of Ivan Karamazov’s speech (well, one of the points, anyway) is that there are some evils that are of such magnitude that it does not seem to make sense to speak of compensation (at least in the sense of compensation described above). When we consider the horrors of the holocaust or of children suffering and dying from starvation or horrendous diseases, it seems rather inappropriate to consider the possibility of any old compensating good whose realization might justify permitting these horrors to occur. It is certainly not enough, in these cases, to point to states of affairs that are at least as good as the absence of the horror and are such that they cannot occur in the absence of the horror. More carefully, for at least some horror, h, even if there is some state of affairs, s, that is at least as good as the absence of h, and s cannot occur in the absence of h, s still does not compensate for h.
Ivan’s claim is very strong; he says that even the good that consists of all of humanity being happy and achieving peace and rest would not compensate for the evil of torturing one child to death. The good that Ivan imagines has incalculable value. Billions of people happy and at peace has more positive value than a single child being tortured to death has negative value. Nonetheless, Ivan’s brother Alyosha does not hesitate when he responds to Ivan’s question by indicating that he would not consent to have the one child tortured if it was necessary to bring about this incalculable good. And I think that many of us (most of us?) would agree with Alyosha.
So my observation is this: when it comes to horrors, it is not sufficient for them to be compensated with goods that merely have equal value to the absence of the horror. Either something more is required or else some horrors cannot be compensated. If they can be compensated, then I think we should admit that we we don’t know what the something more is that would constitute compensation. But this is not particularly relevant for my argument. What matters is that we understand that compensation in the sense exemplified by the tooth example is not enough.
Now we can describe scenarios in which, for example, because of the whims of a powerful madman, in order to prevent the torture and death of five children it was necessary to torture to death one single child. In this case the good consisting of the absence of the suffering and deaths of five would outweigh the torture of the one child. Before we consider whether this would be an example of a compensated horror, we should recognize that in order for such imagined scenarios to be at all relevant to the problem of evil, the example must be such that the good cannot be realized in the absence of the evil. And the relevant problem in the current example is that, while we can easily describe such scenarios, it is very difficult to imagine actual circumstances in which we could not prevent the torturing-to-death of five children except by torturing another child to death. This problem is magnified in in the case of an omnipotent being. In this case the relevant modality is logical necessity; God is only justified in permitting the torturing of the one because of the five others who face torture and death if it is logically impossible to prevent the torture and death of the five without permitting it. And this strains credulity. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which torturing a child to death would in any way serve to prevent five other children not being tortured to death, let alone one in which torturing a child to death is logically necessary for saving five. In any scenario in which five people are in danger of being tortured to death, even we weak humans could presumably just endeavor to stop that torture; there is no reason to think we would need to involve any other child. Again, God’s omnipotence just amplifies the problem; surely God, being omnipotent, could just prevent the torture without needing to involve anyone else. There is nothing logically impossible about that.
But there is another problem here that is more relevant to the question of how, if at all, horrors can be compensated. It is this: even though saving the five outweighs the torture of the one, it is not clear that the torture of the one really is compensated since the tortured child herself is not the beneficiary of the compensation. For some evils, it is arguably sufficient that they be compensated in a general sense; there is no requirement that the individuals who suffer the evil be compensated. Suppose we could, by raising taxes on 100 billionaires by .5%, raise enough money to purchase and distribute enough rotavirus vaccine to children who would otherwise not get it to save 5000 children from death due to diarrhea. It is fair to say that the evil consisting of the loss of income for the billionaires would be more than compensated. And it does not matter that the billionaires are not the beneficiaries of the compensation. In the case of horrors, however, this it is less clear that such overall compensation will suffice. It is not unreasonable to think that if we are going to speak of compensation for horrors, then the sufferer of the horror should be benefited by the compensation.
The upshot of this discussion is that speaking thoughtfully about compensation for horrors, and thus speaking thoughtfully about circumstances in which an omnipotent being can justly permit the occurrence of horrors, is far more difficult a thing than it is for lesser evils. I am not trying to give any kind of general account of what would be required, even at a minimum, for horrors to be compensated (I don’t think such an account is possible). I am only drawing our attention to the very great difficulty involved in supposing that horrors can be compensated. With all of these observations in the background, I will now offer the following argument that demonstrates that the inference from the occurrence of apparent horrors to the existence of gratuitous evils is perfectly reasonable.
(1) There are instances of evil that appear to be horrors.
(2) By definition, an omnipotent being can do whatever it is logically possible to do.
(3) Thus, in order for some good, g, to provide a justification for God’s failure to prevent some horror, h, g must not only compensate for h (however that might be achieved), g must also be such that it is logically impossible that it occur without the occurrence of h.
 (4) All of the goods that are known to exist and are (a) such that their value is sufficiently high that pursuing them could justify a person, who is in a position to prevent an instance of evil (horror or otherwise), to fail to prevent that evil are also such that (b) it is logically possible that they be realized without the occurrence of horrors.

Note that this is an empirical claim that is defeasible. I have never encountered any good that could conceivably satisfy (a) but not (b). Nor have I ever come across a purported imaginary example of such a good. But any good that I can imagine that satisfies (a) also satisfies (b).

(5) Thus, there are no known goods that would justify an omnipotent being’s failure to prevent any instance of horror.
(6) No human has ever been able to describe any possible good that would satisfy (a) but not (b).

 (6) does not just claim that we have been unable to discover such goods but that we cannot even describe what they would be like. The problem is that when we imagine goods of significant value such that they might outweigh some instance of horror, it immediately becomes obvious that the realization of such a good does not logically depend on the relevant horror (or any horror, for that matter). So, we have no idea what such a horror-compensating good would be like.

(7) The best explanation for (6) is that no such goods exist.

 (7) does not rule out the possibility of other explanations for (6), but claims only that the best explanation for (6) is that there are no unknown horror-compensating goods. It is possible that our cognitive limitations prevent us from imagining such goods or consistently describing what they might be like. But the problem with this alternative is that we don’t have any reason to believe that our cognitive capacities would be so limited. Hence,

(8) There is no compelling reason to suppose that there are goods that are beyond our ken and satisfy (a) but not (b).

What I mean here is that there is nothing about human beings and our cognitive capacities which would lead us to believe that there are goods (satisfying (a) but not (b)) that are impossible for us to comprehend, experience, or imagine. Further, nothing about the existence of a perfect being suggests that this should be so. The only reason people suppose that there are goods that are beyond our ken at all is that it is a way of responding to the problem of evil. But there is nothing intrinsic to human beings or in the nature of God that suggests that there are such goods. So, in the absence of any good reason to think that our limited cognitive capacities accounts for (6), the best remaining explanation is that no such goods exist. Hence (7) is true, and so,

(9) It is reasonable to extrapolate (4) to all goods; that is, it is most likely that there are no goods (known or unknown) that satisfy (a) but not (b)
Therefore, (10) At least some of the evil that appears gratuitous really is gratuitous.
This argument is clearly inductive, and I want to emphasize a consequence of this that may be unappreciated. If we had compelling reasons to think that God exists, this would give us compelling reason to think that there are no gratuitous evils. And so if a person thinks that she has compelling reason to believe that God exists, this argument will not convince her. But that the argument does not convince a committed theist is not very significant. It is no more significant than is the fact that further investigation could conceivably show that one or more of my premises (5, say) is false. My point has been to show that at least some inferences from the fact that some evil appears to be gratuitous to the conclusion that the evil is gratuitous is not at all problematic. Any reasonably probabilistic inference can be rendered unreasonable in the light of new information. So, that the inferences and claims in my argument are defeasible is hardly interesting. What is important is that, in the absence of further evidence, they render the relevant inference, from the appearance of gratuitousness to the reality, reasonable.

bookmark_borderSkeptical 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?

bookmark_borderQuote of the Day by Paul Draper

“Suppose Wykstra is right that, if there is a God, then we shouldn’t expect to know what God’s reasons for producing or allowing certain evils are. Then it follows that our ignorance of those reasons (i.e. the failure of the project of theodicy) is not strong evidence against theism. It does not follow, however, that the evils themselves (or other things we know about them) are not strong evidence against theism, nor does it follow that the Humean is mistaken in claiming that the observed distribution of benefits and harms to sentient beings is much more to be expected given some serious atheistic hypothesis like naturalism than it is given theism.”
Paul Draper, “Meet the New Skeptical Theism, Same as the Old Same Skeptical Theism,” in Skeptical Theism: New Essays (ed. Trent Dougherty and Justin McBrayer, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 164.