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_borderLink: Darwin’s Argument from Evil by Paul Draper

Draper’s chapter was published in Yujin Nagasawa (ed.), Scientific Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion. Palgrave Macmillan. 49 (2012). It’s available online for free courtesy of Google Books.

bookmark_borderDid God Create Nuclear Weapons?

Christians and other believers in God often say, ‘God created everything.’  If we take this literally, as a young child would do, we might start thinking of some objections or possible counterexamples: ‘Did God create nuclear weapons?’ ‘Did God create the ebola virus?’ etc.  The doctrine of divine creation leads quickly to the problem of evil. Naive View
A common response to such an idea would be to say that ‘God created humans, and it was humans who created nuclear weapons–not God.’  So, God is one-step removed from the creation of nuclear weapons, and this supposedly relieves God of the moral responsibility for the creation of nuclear weapons. God created humans.   Richard Swinburne has done some thinking about the meaning of the view of theists that ‘God is the creator of all things.’  Here is his analysis of this basic aspect of theism:
God is the creator of all things in that for all logically contingent things that exist (apart from himself) he himself brings about, or makes or permits other beings to bring about, their existence.  He is, that is, the source of the being and power of all other substances.  (The Existence of God, 2nd ed., p.94)
Swinburne has a more sophisticated view of creation than fundamentalists and many evangelicals.  Swinburne accepts the theory of evolution as the correct explanation for the origin of the human species (although he also believes that human mental lives are best explained as the result of non-physical minds or ‘souls’ that have complicated causal connections with human brains).  Swinburne’s view is that God created the universe, and that the initial conditions and natural laws of the universe made the evolution of human beings (or at least human bodies) possible and even probable.  In a sense, the universe “created” or produced humans; the physical universe is viewed as an intermediary step between God and the origin of human beings.  His view is illustrated by the diagram below: God created the universe However, just as Swinburne’s analysis of the belief that God is the creator allows for God to bring about humans indirectly via the natural processes of the physical universe, so his analysis also allows for God to bring about the existence of the universe indirectly, by creating a powerful supernatural being, such as an angel, and allowing the angel to design and create a universe: God created an angel.
Once this possibility is admitted, then further intermediaries can also be postulated.  For example, God could have created a finite god (a powerful supernatural being that is less than omnipotent and omniscient), and the finite god could have had the power to create an angel, and the angel could have then created a physical universe: God created a finite god
Furthermore, if God can create one finite god, then God can create many finite gods: God created many gods.
There appears to be no contradiction in the idea of God being able to create many finite gods, in the way that there does appear to be a contradiction in the idea of there being more than one infinite God (there appears to be a contradiction in the idea of there being two omnipotent persons– If one wills an event E to happen, and the other wills for event E to NOT happen,. then one of them must fail to obtain what was willed to happen).  God is by definition omnipotent, so God has the power to create finite gods, as many finite gods as he wishes to make.   So, although we often think of polytheism as an alternative to theism, it is clear that polytheism is logically compatible with traditional theism; an infinite God can create many finite gods.
Swinburne’s view, however, is that human beings are an important part of God’s motivation for creating the physical universe, perhaps the most important reason why God created the physical universe.  But it is important to keep in mind that his concept of God as creator allows for intermediaries between God and humans, and while this allows Swinburne to avoid a fundamentalist anti-scientific view of the origin of human beings, it also opens the door to God being, potentially, quite remote from human beings.  His conception of God as creator leaves open the possibility of a Hindu-like view where there are hundreds  or thousands or millions of layers of deities and supernatural beings that exist between human beings and God: Finite gods created many gods.

bookmark_borderOne Problem with Swinburne’s Case for God

In The Existence of God (2nd edition, hereafter: EOG), Richard Swinburne lays out a systematic cumulative case for the claim that it is more likely than not that God exists.
I have a specific objection to the third argument in this case, but I believe this objection throws a monkey wrench into the works, and creates a serious problem for the case as a whole.
To understand my objection, it is important to understand the general logical structure of Swinburne’s case for the existence of God. It is always natural and tempting to immediately focus in on the question of the truth of the premises of an argument for God, so in order to get a clear grasp on the logical structure of Swinburne’s case, it may be best to FIRST consider that structure apart from the specific content of the premises of the arguments in his case. The content of the premises will be important to make my objection, so we will get to the specific content at a later point.
One key idea in Swinburne’s logic is that we begin from a state of ignorance in which we are to imagine that we know ZERO empirical claims (both facts and theories). Swinburne thus controls the flow of empirical data, introducing one fact at a time, and arguing that in each case (with the exception of the problem of evil)  that the added fact increases the probability of the hypothesis that God exists.
The basic strategy is to (1) put forward an empirical fact, (2) show that the empirical fact is more likely to be the case if God were to exist than if there were no God, (3) conclude that the fact increases the probability of the hypothesis that God exists above the a priori probability that God exists (i.e. the probability based on ZERO empirical facts), then (4) introduce a second fact, (5) show that the second fact is more likely to be the case if God exists (and the first fact is the case) than if God does not exist (and the first fact is the case), (6) conclude that the second fact in conjunction with the first fact increases the probability that God exists above the probability based on the first fact by itself, (7) put forward a third fact, (8) show that the third fact is more likely to be the case if God exists (and the first two facts are the case) than if God does not exist (and the first two facts are the case), (9) conclude that the third fact in conjunction with the previous two facts increases the probability of the hypothesis that God exists above the probability based on just the previous two facts, and so on…slowly increasing the probability of God’s existence with each new fact.
Swinburne changes the strategy a bit when he gets to the argument from religious experience (in Chapter 13 of EOG), but the above pattern of reasoning is supposed to hold up until that point, and the above pattern of reasoning, filled in with the empirical facts that Swinburne has selected, is supposed to get us to the point where the probability of the existence of God is about .5 (meaning there is about a 50/50 chance that God exists).
Swinburne uses Bayes’ theorem to justify key inferences in his reasoning, so I will reformulate the above description of the logical structure of Swinburne’s case in terms of conditional probability statements.  Let’s use the letter e for evidence, plus a number to indicate which empirical claim we are talking about in the sequence of empirical claims introduced by Swinburne.  Thus, e1 represents the first empirical  claim in Swinburne’s case, and e2 the second empirical claim, and so on.
g: God exists.
k: [tautological background knowledge – analytic truths, truths of logic, math, and conceptual truths]
The probability of e1 being the case given that God exists is written this way:
P(e1|g & k) 
Here is how we represent the idea that the first factual claim is more likely to be the case if God exists (and we have only tautological truths as background knowledge) than if God does not exist (and we have only tautological truths as background knowledge):
P(e1|g & k) > P(e1|~g & k)
From this Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ theorem and infers that e1 provides evidence that increases the probability that God exists, over the a priori probability that God exists (the probability based on ZERO empirical facts):
P(g| e1 & k) > P(g| k)
Then Swinburne introduces a second factual claim e2. Again Swinburne argues that this factual claim is more likely to be the case if God exists than if God does not exist (now assuming e1 as part of our background knowledge, for after consideration of the first argument we are no longer completely ignorant of all empirical facts):
P(e2|g & e1 & k) > P(e2|~g & e1 & k)
From this Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ theorem and infers that the addition of this second empirical fact to the first empirical fact has again increased the probability of the existence of God, over what it was based on just the first fact by itself:
P(g| e2 & e1 & k) > P(g| e1 & k)
Then Swinburne introduces a third factual claim: e3. Again Swinburne argues that this factual claim is more likely to be the case if God exists than if God does not exist (now assuming both e1 and e2 as part of our background knowledge):
P(e3|g & e2 & e1 & k) > P(e3|~g & e2 & e1 & k)
From this Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ theorem and infers that the addition of this third empirical fact to the first empirical fact has yet again increased the probability of the existence of God, over what it was based on just the first two facts:
P(g| e3 & e2 & e1 & k) > P(g| e2 & e1 & k)
There are problems and objections that can be raised against each of the particular arguments that Swinburne uses to get up to the point where the probability of the existence of God supposedly reaches the halfway mark, but this post will focus on the third argument in the systematic cumulative case that Swinburne presents: The Teleological Argument from Spatial Order (hereafter: TASO).
TASO can be stated fairly briefly:
(e3) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws and the values of the constants of the laws and of the variables of the universe’s initial conditions make it probable that human bodies will evolve in that universe.
(g) God exists.
Remember, this is NOT a deductive proof for the existence of God.  (e3) is put forward NOT as a conclusive reason for (g), but merely as evidence for (g); (e3) is an empirical claim that is supposed to increase the probability of (g) relative to the probability of (g) based on just the two previous empirical claims:
(e1) There is a complex physical universe.
(e2) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws.
One problem is that it is not clear to me that (e3) is in fact true.  The fact that human bodies evolved once in this universe does NOT imply (by itself) that it was probable that human bodies would evolve in this universe.  I think a good deal of argumentation and evidence would be required to establish the truth of (e3).
Another more important problem with (e3) is one that Swinburne himself mentions and briefly discusses: “What reason would God have for taking an evolutionary route?” (EOG, p.188).  Swinburne goes on to talk about the beauty of the long cosmological “evolution” of the universe, and the beauty of plants and animals that resulted from the long history of biological evolution.  But this is all beside the point. God, being omnipotent and omniscient, could have brought about all of the beautiful plants and animals on earth including human beings in the blink of an eye.
God had no need to use the natural biological process of evolution, and no need to build such a process into the fabric of the universe.  The story in Genesis makes much more sense than evolution as the way that God would create animals and humans.  If there really was an omnipotent and omniscient person, then that person could have brought about all life on earth in an instant.  Most importantly, doing so would have bypassed hundreds of millions of years of animals suffering and dying from disease and parasites and predation and injury.  A huge amount of animal suffering was involved in the natural process of evolution, so a perfectly morally good person clearly would NOT have used evolution to produce human bodies when there was a much better solution ready at hand: create plants, animals, and humans instantly, as in the book of Genesis. So, it seems clear to me that contrary to Swinburne’s view, (e3) does not provide evidence in support of the existence of God, even assuming (e3) to be true.
But there is a deeper problem here than just the inductive inference from (e3) to (g).  What do we need to know in order to determine that (e3) is true?  I think we have to know, or have good reasons to believe, that the theory of evolution is true, and I think we have to know, or have good reasons to believe that the Big Bang theory of the universe is true.  What do we need to know in order to determine that the theory of evolution is true and that the Big Bang theory is true?  I think we need to know at least a little about: chemistry, biology, physics, paleontology, geology, cosmology, and astronomy.  We might not need to be experts in any of these scientific fields, but we need to have some grasp of some key facts, concepts, and theories in these areas of knowledge.
Furthermore, since the theory of evolution has been generally opposed by many Christian and Muslim religious believers, we need to have given some consideration to the problem of the apparent conflict between science and religion.  For example, if the Pope were to declare that evolution is a false theory, would that be a sufficient reason to reject this theory, even given all of the scientific evidence we have supports the theory?  What if the Bible clearly teaches that God created the world 6,000 years ago, is that sufficient reason to reject the theories and findings of geology and astronomy that indicate the age of the earth to be billions of years?  Unless one has done some thinking about science vs. religion, I don’t see how one can be fully justified in believing the theory of evolution. In sum, to have a justified belief in the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory, one must have a bit of knowledge about the history and philosophy of science, in addition to knowing a good deal of scientific facts, concepts, and theories from several scientific disciplines.
OK.  Here is the big problem.  In order to know that (e3) is true, one must have a good deal of knowledge about science and about a number of important scientific disciplines, including a good deal of basic facts, concepts, and theories from a variety of scientific disciplines.  This means that the background knowledge that is in play in evaluating this third argument has grown exponentially.  A large portion of human knowledge has been pulled back into the picture, and Swinbure has completely lost control of the flow of data.  Because of the significant amount of empirical facts, concepts, and theories that are required to determine whether (e3) is true,  it is difficult to distinguish between such a sizable collection of information and knowledge and our normal everyday background knowledge.
One very important implication of this is that the problem of evil has itself been pulled back into the picture.  Knowing that the theory of evolution is true involves knowing that there has been hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering from disease, injury, parasites, and predation.  Swinburne’s strategy was to put off the problem of evil until after several empirical facts that favor the existence of God had been put forward one at a time, and the probability of the existence of God had been bumped upward several times.  But since the problem of evil has come rushing back in with just the third argument, it is no longer clear whether his logical strategy can work.  At any rate, the problem of evil cannot be dealt with after three or four more factual claims have been put forward in support of God’s existence.  The problem of evil must be faced as part of the consideration of the significance of (e3).