A More Specific Problem of Evil

In our previous post on the problem of evil we discussed a very generic form of the atheist’s argument and presented skeptical theism as a response. However there is a more specific argument from evil that has been designed to get around skeptical theism. Here it is:

  1. Some horror (where horror as such is merely a descriptive term) H obtains (premise)
  2. Our moral judgements are prima facie warranted in ordinary cases (e.g. a drowning child) (premise)
  3. I have moral judgements like “H ought not to have occurred” and “were one able to prevent H, one should do so” that are alike to or stronger than similar such judgements in ordinary cases (premise, introspection)
  4. Therefore, these judgements are prima facie warranted (by 2,3)
  5. These judgements being true is incompatible with H being non-gratuitous (premise)
  6. Therefore, my judgement that H is gratuitous is prima facie warranted (by 4,5)
  7. There exist no (or, weakly, I am aware of no) undefeated defeaters for this judgement of the gratuity of H (premise)
  8. Therefore, I know that H is gratuitous (by 6,7)
  9. If God exists, there is no gratuitous evil (and I know this) (premise)
  10. If God exists, gratuitous horrors are gratuitous evils (and I know this) (premise)
  11. Therefore, I know that God does not exist. (by 8,9,10

I do not know where this particular argument originated, I heard it from an atheist friend. It’s possible he is the source of it. It’s hard to deny the force of it, and it’s not obvious which premise the theist can deny.

The first route of attack here is premise 3. Consider the claim here, that we can make accurate moral judgements like “H ought not have occurred” and “One ought to prevent H”. I think the atheist here reaches too far. Suppose we have some Horror in mind, suppose it is a man drowning. Can I actually responsibly say “This man ought not have drowned”? Call this statement A. To say that is to say that “on the whole, all things considered, the world will be a better world if this man does not drown”. Call this statement B. If we are justified in statement A, we are also justified in statement B, since B is equivalent to A.

Is there any reason for us to think we can’t make judgements like B? I think there is. Recall this idea from our last post:

This argument begins by recalling that the data from which the strongest arguments from evil start are the profusion or seeming excess of evil in the world which, indeed, seems to be integrated into the fabric of nature and society. But for that very reason (their complexity and intricacy), any complex good whole of which these evils are a part would have to be exceedingly complex. Thus, he infers that it would not be surprising if it were beyond our ability to fathom.


The point here is obvious: it seems like we are not in a position to judge goods relating to whole worlds. Whole worlds are big, complex things, and goods and evils that relate to them must also be very complex. With a man drowning, we have no idea what kind of man he was. Or what kind of people his children will be. Of it he, by the process of tripping into the lake, steps on a butterfly which contained a newly mutated virus which otherwise would have wiped out the world. Or if the man himself was a believer in God and was ready to come home to Him, no longer experiencing the suffering of the world.

I don’t intend to present these as theodicies. I do not think that here I’ve uncovered the reasons why God might allow a horror to occur. All I want to do is point out our insufficient data, so that our judgement about the comparative goodness of two worlds are unjustified.

In fact, philosopher William Alston has come up with a list of cognitive limitations that humans are subject to, and calls this The Inventory. Here is The Inventory:

1. Lack of relevant data.

2. Complexity greater than we can handle.

3. Difficulty of determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary.

4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities.

5. Ignorance of the full range of values.

6. Limits to our capacity to make well-considered value judgments.


Subject to these constraints, it seems quite reasonable to be sceptical of our ability to evaluate the moral value of total, all things considered, worlds.

At this point, the atheist might object “you’re not actually attacking premise 3. Premise 3 is merely about the existence of judgements, but you’re not arguing that those judgements don’t exist, you’re arguing that they’re unjustified”. So let me make the path a bit clearer.

I don’t think we really do make judgements like “world A is a better world than world B”. I don’t think we’re making all things considered comparative judgements about total worlds. I think if we introspect, we will realise that our normal, everyday moral judgements are not about total worlds. They’re about limited situations.

I don’t think I’m judging “the total moral value of the world would be higher, all things considered, if I save this man from drowning, so I should”. I think I judge things like “it would be better for this man if he were not to drown” or “a good human would save him and I want to be a good human”. And those latter kinds of judgements are perfectly compatible with the existence of God, and provide no similar basis for an argument against God.

I challenge anyone who does think they’re making judgements about total worlds to explain to me how they’re even fitting a whole world in their mind! How can you know enough about a whole world in order to morally evaluate it? I don’t think people are capable of this. So I do deny premise 3: I don’t think we actually are making that kind of moral judgement. So the argument fails there.

Now suppose that someone says to me that they really are making judgements about whole worlds, and even after I question this and poke at it a bit, they maintain that belief. Then I think we do move back to 2, and we do start questioning the value of those moral judgements.

The reason we start with 3 instead of 2 is that if we end up invalidating all human moral judgements, well, that would be a pretty bad outcome. If I have to end up saying “humans can’t ever know good from evil” in order to refute the problem of evil, I’ve admitted something pretty bad.

So I don’t want to undermine all human judgements of good and evil. But I will happily undermine judgements about total whole worlds. If the atheist admits their judgements are not about whole worlds, then premise 3 fails. I think that’s most likely. But if the atheist says their judgements are about whole worlds, then I think premise 2 fails for reasons we’ve already outlined.

Suppose that we do accept that our judgements are both justified and limited in scope, so they’re not about total, all things considered worlds. Then the theist can comfortably reject 5: if our judgements don’t inform us about what kinds of world God would or would not make, then those judgements clearly can’t be used as a piece of evidence against God.

So to summarise: in this argument, if our judgements are about total all things considered worlds, they are not justified. If they are justified, they are not about all things considered worlds. And if they are justified and not about all things considered world, then they are not incompatible with God.

Skeptical Theism: A Powerful Response to the Problem of Evil

Context and Background

Long ago there was once an argument called the logical problem of evil, and it was defeated. It has a quite simple form:

  1. If God exists, then there does not exist any evil
  2. There exists some evil
  3. God does not exist

These days, even the most ardent sceptical philosophers do not defend the logical problem of evil. To poorly summarize centuries of fairly technical dialectic, the theist rejects 1 by saying that God is justified in permitting evil if God uses that evil to bring about some greater good that depends on the existence of the evil. This seems pretty plausible, and so most atheists do not try to put forward 1 any longer.

But this doesn’t bother many of them, because they attempt to put forward an evidential formulation of the argument. Here is what modern evidential problem of evil arguments looks like:

  1. If God exists, then there are no evils which do not bring about some greater good
  2. There exist some evils for which we cannot see any corresponding greater goods
  3. For some of these evils, if such a corresponding good did exist, we would see it
  4. Therefore there exist evils which do not bring about some greater good
  5. Therefore God does not exist

This argument is valid, and the first premise is pretty plausible. So the theist must proceed by attacking or undermining premises 2 or 3. In general, an attack on premise 2 is a theodicy, and an attack on premise 3 is called skeptical theism.

I think theodicies are too heavy a burden for us to bear, at least given an evidential argument like the one above. In this case, the Christian has to give a sufficient reason for the existence of every evil that exists. We have to explain specifically how a child with a painful terminal cancer produces some higher-order good. I do not think that we can do that, and I think attempts to do so often end up being grotesque.

I think the wiser route, and the more biblical route, is to question premise 3. That is, argue that we are not in a position to see such reasons if they do exist, so the inference from “we do not see them” to “they do not exist” is not justified. As Josh Rasmussen helpfully puts it, we can make two observations here. We can either 1) fail to see a reason why God would allow it, or 2) see that God would have no reason to allow it. And are we in a position to differentiate between 1 and 2? The atheist has to put forward an argument that we are in situation 2. But instead of just sitting and waiting to hear that argument, I think we can do better.

What I aim to do here is to put forward some reasons that the theist has for thinking that we are in case 1 rather than case 2. If we have such reasons, this will undermine the atheist’s claim that we are in case 2.

Let’s introduce some terminology that will make our life a bit easier. We will call an evil Gratuitous (G) if it is an evil for which there is no resulting greater good that justifies the existence of that evil. We will call an evil a Horror (H) if we cannot find such a justifying reason. A G evil is the kind of evil that would be incompatible with the existence of God, and the evidential argument for evil is essentially a move from H to G, and from G to the nonexistence of God.

Epistemology and Skeptical Theism

We can develop some reasons to put forward the skeptical theist position from a consideration of some very plausible principles in epistemology. The main example of such a principle is something called CORNEA, put forward by Wykstra and Perrine.

On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim ‘It appears that p’ only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.


CORNEA is a powerful principle which, if true, would undermine many conceptions of the problem of evil. Even “commonsense” problems of evil such as this one. I think it is more intuitively phrased in Bayesian terms, and is better understood as simply a restatement of what Bayesian evidence is. That is:

Observation E is evidence of some proposition H if P(E|H) > P(E| ¬H)


To get a better intuitive handle on this, let’s consider a real-world example. Suppose I get home and notice that my grass is wet, and I form two competing hypotheses as to why:

  1. My wife watered the grass
  2. It rained

Now suppose that I know that if it rained, the grass is always wet, but that if my wife waters it, she does a bad job, so it only gets wet 50% of the time. Knowing these things, my conclusion should be that the grass being wet is evidence of rain. Because the rain hypothesis does a better job at explaining the observation, the observation is evidence of the rain hypothesis.

If Bayesian reasoning is new to you, I suggest spending some time learning about it. It’s very useful. The point here is that if some observation is equally likely given two competing hypotheses (or we are unable to calculate either of those likelihoods), then that observation can’t be evidence one way or the other.

The point of this kind of idea is this: if both theism and atheism predict H with a similar degree of confidence, then H simply can’t be evidence either way. Being generous to the atheist and granting that atheism does predict H, the atheist now has to argue that theism does not predict H. And while we could wait for the atheist to make such arguments and then respond to them, I think it is also worthwhile putting forward some positive arguments for the claim that theism predicts H with some high degree of certainty.

One such argument, given by Howard-Snyder, is the Progress Argument. I will rephrase it here:

  1. Many moral truths which we now take to be obvious were not considered true in the past
  2. Therefore there are many moral truths of which we are now ignorant
  3. Some of these may include justifications for the H evils that God ordained in the world
  4. Therefore we are not justified in inferring that there do not exist any goods which can justify the H evils in the world

This is an inductive argument, and it is hard to deny the force of it. Surely there are some people who will say that we have plateaued, and have discovered a very large portion of the moral truths that exist, and so our inference is justified. But I think these people are probably wrong: society continues to “discover” new moral truths with increasing rapidity. Even if I do not agree with all of these changes, most people who put forward this argument are probably people who will believe that recent changes in the moral zeitgeist concerning homosexuality and transgenderism are improvements. But those improvements have come about in the last 20 years or so. I think it’s exceedingly foolish to say that no further “improvements” or “discoveries” will come, or at least none significant enough to make us a bit more humble about our own moral knowledge.

To improve the strength of this argument, Howard-Snyder puts forward a supporting argument. Quoting directly from the SEP:

This argument begins by recalling that the data from which the strongest arguments from evil start are the profusion or seeming excess of evil in the world which, indeed, seems to be integrated into the fabric of nature and society. But for that very reason (their complexity and intricacy), any complex good whole of which these evils are a part would have to be exceedingly complex. Thus, he infers that it would not be surprising if it were beyond our ability to fathom.

These are some good starting points to consider a positive case for skeptical theism purely from secular epistemology and plain reason. However, the theist has more tools in their box than just this, and by considering some facts about the nature of God (and the particular nature of the Christian God), we can put forward an even stronger case.

Human Experience and Skeptical Theism

An interesting argument that I do not see discussed often is the argument from the theism of suffering people. It seems like the only people who really endorse the problem of evil, who really make the inference “there is no justification for this suffering”, are the people in the world who suffer the least. That is, the educated westerners. We live like kings, having all of our basic needs easily met and having the leisure time to pursue whatever we choose, including getting into arguments with strangers on the internet. We have the easiest lives anyone has ever had. And yet we are the only ones who really have any atheists among us.

On the other hand, the global poor, the suffering, the hurting, etc. are far more religious. They do not think that they can responsibly make the inference from suffering to the nonexistence of God. Presumably, at least some of them have considered the option and rejected it. Presumably, some of them are intelligent and clear-headed enough to be epistemically responsible in rejecting it.

Why this difference? I speculate that it is because us educated westerners have become so accustomed to the very mild suffering that most of us go through that any worse suffering has become unimaginable, and therefore we say that God would not allow it. But the people going through the suffering often don’t think that way. Maybe the educated westerner has underestimated man’s capacity to handle suffering due to our pampered position.

Some of the people who have experienced the worst horrors have remained theists, and indeed Christians, and have often said afterwards that they can see now what God was doing in them through the suffering and evil. The kinds of evil and suffering that they have experienced are not vastly qualitatively different from the kinds of evil the atheist is calling horrors and using to motivate their argument. But the people experiencing that evil are in a better place than the atheist is to talk about whether it’s unjustified, and many of them say that it’s justified. Plausibly then, all such evil is justified.

Does this argument work in reverse? Are those who don’t say it’s justified a problem for me? I don’t think so, I don’t think the observation is symmetrical. I think “I do see reasons, therefore reasons exist” is a lot stronger than “I don’t see reasons, therefore they don’t exist”. Seeing reasons is a very good reason for thinking that there are reasons, just like me seeing a chess tactic is a pretty good reason for thinking it exists: I’m wrong sometimes, but rarely. But when I don’t see a tactic, that is not a good reason to think that there is no tactic: I often miss tactics, much more often than I incorrectly see tactics. It is also my experience that the “I see reasons” often comes late in life, after a lot of reflection, and that puts it in a better epistemic position than “I do not see reasons”, which is often immediate and often supplanted by seeing reasons decades later. So by the fact that for any class of evil, some thoughtful, reflective people who have experienced that evil will eventually see reasons for it (or at least, will say that their lack of seeing reasons doesn’t justify an inference that there are no reasons), I think we can plausibly say that there possibly exist reasons for any evil in that class. This undermines the atheist’s judgement that there are no reasons for some particular horror.

Bare Theism and Skeptical Theism

If all we grant is that there exists the classical theist God, then I think we have some very good reasons to put forward a skeptical theism.

One such reason is the Parent Analogy, put forward famously by Wykstra. The analogy is quite simple: God under most conceptions of theism has a relationship to us similar to a parent’s relationship with their children. It’s no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a child to the dentist that sometimes, parents have to subject their children to suffering for reasons that the children don’t understand, but are nonetheless good reasons. Every child, if they were articulate enough, would be able to find some mysterious suffering that they are subjected to by their parents and say “I cannot see any sufficient justification for this suffering, it appears gratuitous to me”. Does the fact that the child experiences this suffering as mysterious, and can’t see any reason for it, mean they are justified in believing that there is no reason for it? We must say “no”. Sometimes children simply can’t understand the reasons that parents have, and they’re in no position to judge. If the relationship between man and God is relevantly similar, then this undermines the atheist’s judgement that the suffering that we see and experiences has no sufficient justification.

I think we can also, given theism, predict skeptical theism due to some goods that seem to arise from skeptical theism itself. The chief contenders here are trust and compassion. It seems to me that these attributes are impossible to develop in the absence of some mysterious and sufficiently great suffering.

Let’s think first about trust, specifically trust in God. It seems plausible that God wants us to develop trust in Him, at least under Christianity this is a central part of our relationship with God. So if God wants us to have this faith, how can He cause it to happen? It doesn’t seem like trust can exist if no H exists.

To see this, consider an example. If my wife says to me “I’d like our relationship to be one in which you can trust me”, can I safely respond “of course I trust you, I’ve got a camera and microphone hidden in your handbag!”? I don’t think I can, and not just because of the invasion of privacy, but also because such surveillance leaves no room for trust! I don’t have to trust, because I can surveil. Similarly, if I am able to see a corresponding good for each evil that exists, I never have to trust God to know what He’s doing. So in short: if God wants us to trust Him, horrors will exist. Plausibly God wants this, so plausibly God will allow horrors to exist. So the observation of the existence of horrors can’t be evidence against God.

Compassion is another attribute that God plausibly wants us to develop: people are simply better people when they’re compassionate. That’s part of what makes someone a good person. And compassion is developed by suffering. I think many of us know this intuitively too, having experienced this ourselves or seen it in others.

As John DePue says in his paper on skeptical theism and divine deception:

Another second-order justification for the appearance of gratuitous evil is that it produces some of the greatest acts of love and compassion. When we respond to seemingly pointless and unjust pain and suffering throughout the world, the exceptional character of the generosity and kindness that motivates these actions is fueled by the fact that the circumstances appear to be purposeless. Arguably, many of the highest degrees of human love would remain unrealized without the appearance of gratuitous evil that spurs us to extend these extraordinary acts of charity to others. Of course, positive skeptical theists are not claiming that these evil events themselves are justified on this basis, which would effectively disqualify their view as a version of skeptical theism. As skeptical theists, they insist that the justification for these evils remains beyond our understanding. What positive skeptical theists are claiming, however, is that if there is a God, we should expect the world to contain the appearance of gratuitous evils. This is the second-order justification for why God allows us to experience the world as appearing to have gratuitous evil.

The Bible and Skeptical Theism

The Christian has some further reasons to think that skeptical theism is plausible, following from some scriptural passages and various other facts that we know about God.

Consider first Job. The book of Job is probably the oldest book in the bible, and so constitutes the earliest Jewish (and therefore Christian) source. But the book of Job is all about mysterious suffering: Satan challenges God that job only serves Him because of God’s blessings on His life, so God removes these blessings and proves Job faithful. So right from the start, in the earliest source we have for our religion, we are told that deep mysterious suffering is not only possible but expected. So the Christian has a good reason to affirm skeptical theism, and the atheist has a lot of trouble motivating premise 3 of their evidential argument. In Bayesian terms, if Christianity predicts H, the observation of H can’t be evidence against Christianity.

The story is similar to that of Joseph. Sold into slavery, falsly accused and thrown into prison, he experienced great evil and suffering for which he could not see any justification. It was not at all apparent what greater good was coming from his suffering, if there even was one. If we are now justified in saying “there can be no reason for the evil I see”, so can Joseph. Joseph could have said that, if such an observation can be made at all. But if Joseph had said that, he would have been wrong. His suffering was used to preserve Israel, and later in his life, he would remark What you intended for evil, God intended for good”. Joseph would later see the good coming from it, and would praise God for bringing it about. Joseph thinks that the horror was not gratuitous. And that’s part of the story here: in another very early Christian text, the first book of the scriptures, we are told in no uncertain terms that great and mysterious suffering will befall us, but at the end we may see why. Christianity predicts H.

And Joseph serves as a type of Christ. In the Christian perspective, the death of Christ was the greatest evil to ever occur. The only perfect man, the only innocent man, the one who is Himself God and the rightful King and Ruler of the world, is betrayed by His friends, falsely accused, tortured, and publicly executed. For the Christian, there is nothing more evil than this. The Apostles, who did not understand, would see this as the clearest example of a horror to ever occur. But Christ rises and God is vindicated, as the greatest possible evil results in an incredible good, the salvation of God’s people from the power of sin. And that good was not possible without the blood of the Son. What I want to emphasize here is this: if God is able to use such a tremendous horror to bring about such a great good, then it stands to reason that there are great goods that can result from the evils we see around us. We do not know what they are, the Apostles didn’t know yet why Christ died, but if God can turn the cross into a good, God can turn anything into a good. So again, the Christian has grounds to reject the atheist’s move from “I see no reason for this evil” to “There is no reason for this evil”.

Another point to make here is the theology of transcendence. God is above and beyond us. All throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear things like His ways are not our ways, He is in heaven and does all He pleases, how unsearchable His judgements and unfathomable His paths. We are reminded again and again that He is God and we are not. This is what He says in Job too, somewhat sarcastically. We should not at all be surprised by mysterious events, God’s purposes are often mysterious. In fact, we would be surprised if we did see such reasons all the time. This point is regularly made by preachers and pastors, even outside the context of formal discussions on the problem of evil.

If one of God’s purposes in the world is the glory of the incarnate Son sacrificed to save the unworthy, then we again expect a world full of rampant sin and evil for which we can’t see any purpose. We expect a world that is entirely unworthy in every way. Because such a world magnifies the glory of Christ, as He steps into the world and dies for it. And this is not a justification for any individual evil like a theodicy would be, but is instead a principled prediction from the core truths of Christianity that the world will contain severe evil for which we can see no justification. The worse the world is, the more unrestrained evil in the world is, the greater the glory of the Son who stepped into it and died for it.

Objections to Skeptical Theism, and Responses

With any topic as important as this, philosophers have gone back and forth many times on various problems caused by accepting skeptical theism, and various ways of solving those problems. Here are some of the main ideas.

Ad Hoc

One important objection is that skeptical theism is ad hoc. To understand the force of this objection, consider the geocentric model of the solar system. As we all know, this model doesn’t quite fit the observations. So the proponents of the model added epicycles. These are ad hoc modifications of the model to make it fit the data, and if you add enough epicycles you can fit it to any data. You can always continue to modify a model in an ad hoc way to make it fit the evidence. So the evidence that should have refuted the geocentric model ended up being incorporated as epicycles, and now the model “predicts” that evidence.

If skeptical theism were an ad hoc modification do theism, then that would undermine our Bayesian argument. Yes, Christianity would predict H, but only because Christianity was modified in an ad hoc way to predict H. Therefore Christianity is made implausible. The good news is that we don’t seem to have this problem.

To avoid the charge of being ad hoc, what we need to do is demonstrate that the expectation of H under Christianity is entailed by the core of Christianity, rather than just being an extra bit that was tacked on to avoid the argument from evil. And I think we can pretty easily show that to be true. We talked about Job, and from Job we know that the expectation of H has been part of Christianity right from the start, as early as we can go. And Job is incredibly early, possibly as old as the patriarchs. There can’t be any ad hoc modification if there was never any modification in the first place, and Job significantly narrows the window during which such modification could have happened.

We can refute the accusation in another way: not only by showing that our faith was never modified in this aspect, but also by showing that it proceeds from a central part of the belief. And it does, central to Christianity is God’s transcendence. We have argued this above: that because of how vast the gap between God and humanity is, it is entirely expected that some (most!) of God’s purposes will remain mysterious to us. Alexander Pruss makes a similar argument on his blog: it would be surprising for the Christian if they were in a world where:

of this evil was such that its point (a) could be understood by us and (b) it would be on balance good for us to understand its point. In regard to (a), we can cite our cognitive limitations. In regard to (b), we can cite the fact that it is likely that some of the justifications for permissions of evil would involve soul-building, whereas it is very plausible that some soul-building would require techniques that are hidden from its beneficiaries.

If skeptical theism were ad hoc, then we wouldn’t have been able to give a bunch of reasons from epistemology, theism, and Christianity that motivate skeptical theism. But those reasons are all pretty plausible, so it does not seem like sceptical theism is ad hoc.

Normative Skepticism

Another objection to skeptical theism is that skeptical theism entails normative skepticism. The intuition here is easy to see: if we can’t make moral judgements like “this H should have been prevented”, then maybe we can’t make any moral judgements at all. Why be skeptical about some of our moral judgements, but not others? Any perhaps more dangerously, any reason we have for undermining the moral judgements we use in the problem of evil argument will end up undermining our normal, every-day moral judgements.

This is the argument of the philosopher Sharon Street, which we have talked about before. I still believe that the strongest solution here is an agent-relative ethics: it may be right for humans to try and do what they think is right, and it may also be right for God to frustrate them and counteract them. It seems quite plausible that God’s moral duties towards the world are different from a human’s moral duties towards the world, because of the vastly different kinds of things that humans and God are. This is what is argued in a recent paper by Philip Pegan:

In particular, moral common sense dictates that it would be seriously bad for a human being who knew she could easily prevent such an accident to fail to do so. Moral common sense obviously dictates nothing of the sort about God. So long as it is reasonable for the theist to believe that if God were to exist his relationship to the world would—or even just might—be relevantly different from that of any human being’s relationship to the world, reflection on this case need not give the theist any reason to doubt that it would be seriously bad for a human being who knew she could easily prevent this accident to fail to do so.


I think this is very plausible under Christianity. Most classical Christian accounts of ethics are something similar to virtue ethics, and in such a view the kind of thing that an object is determines what is right for that object to be or do. If God and humans are different kinds of things, it’s very easy for the Christian to say that they have different kinds of duties towards the world.

The atheist here may still respond “When I make ethical judgements, I am judging about what makes the world better or worse qua world, and acting based on that judgement. If skeptical theism were true, it would still undermine this judgement”. This is forceful because we are now looking at the value of a world qua world, whether or not a world will be better or worse based on the outcome of our actions. But I think this approach will fail as well, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s not clear to me that moral judgements are about the world qua world. When I choose to save a drowning child, it’s not because I think that doing so will end up making the world better on average. I have no idea what kind of person that child will grow up to be, and even if I did know that they would grow up to be evil, I would probably still save them. I am not making a judgement about the moral value of the world under my decision, I am making a judgement about what kind of action that I qua human ought to take.

The uncertainty posed here is my second point: if we are attempting to judge which of our individual actions make a world better or worse, we are in a hopeless position. We have nowhere near enough information to make informed judgements of that kind. We have no idea what kinds of complex moral goods or evils might vindicate or condemn a particular world-choice. We have no idea what the long term consequences of our actions will be. If we have learned anything from the study of the discipline of economics, it is that well-intentioned and reasonable-sounding policies can have disastrous second-order effects.

So I think the normative skepticism objection does us no harm. We can appeal to a strong tradition of virtue ethics within Christianity to avoid Street’s argument, and avoid the arguments from the atheist that we need this kind of judgement to decide between good and bad worlds in our own actions.

Divine Deception

I will not spend too long on this point, since we are getting quite long as it is. Some atheists have argued that if skeptical theism is true, God is deceptive. The argument is obvious: if God makes a world under which it seems like X, but really not X, then God is deceptive.

I think that this paper from John DePoe presents a very strong counter-argument: God does not intend to cause people to believe false propositions and God does not provide sufficient evidence for someone to justifiably believe a false proposition. Since these conditions are not met, God is not deceptive. I do not think I can phrase it better than he did, so I will encourage you to read the paper instead.

Objections to CORNEA

Because of CORNEA’s strong restriction on what counts as evidence, some philosophers have suggested that if we endorse CORNEA, we have no ammunition to respond to the problem of global skepticism. That is, we have no ammunition to respond to the problem that we may all be brains in a vat, or deceived by an evil demon into thinking we exist in the physical universe, or something similar. The arguments here are quite technical and a bit beyond our scope for today, so I will simply refer you to this paper for a discussion on the problem and some suggestions on how to resolve it. I think that the principles required to solve the problem are quite plausible and can be endorsed by the theist without any danger.

There are also concerns that CORNEA is incompatible with another plausible and widely accepted epistemic principle: commonsense epistemology. Dougherty lays out the argument here. Similarly to the above, the arguments here are dense and technical and beyond the scope for today. Matheson responds here and here, and those responses satisfy me.

Conclusion

When faced with an evidential argument from evil, the Christian has very good reasons to reject the inference from “we cannot see a justification for some H” to “There is no justification from H”. These reasons are motivated by plausible principles in epistemology, from experience, from the content of theism, and from the specific content of Christianity. Therefore at the very least, the evidential problem of evil fails when deployed against Christianity.

Further Reading

Some Preliminary Notes on the Problem of Evil

I am putting together a large post on the problem of evil, where I intend to clearly and fully lay out my reasons for thinking that it is unsound. Before that, I want to outline some of the important ideas I will be drawing on. Since the main post is probably going to take a while.

I intend to put forward a positive skeptical theism, rather than a negative skeptical theism. Maybe a higher burden for me, but it is also compatible with some what I am thinking of as second order theodicies: reasons why God might want us to be skeptical theists.

Consider this principle: “An observation E is evidence of hypothesis H over the negation of H if H predicts E at a higher probability than the negation of H predicts E”

This is a straightforwardly Bayesian definition of evidence, but under this definition, it seems like the problem of evil fails. Since clearly, Christianity predicts the existence of horrors at some high probability, the existence of horrors can’t be evidence against Christianity.

The atheist here has a way to continue: Christianity doesn’t predict horrors a priori from some core principle, but instead slaps that prediction on to the world view in an ad hoc manner so that it won’t be defeated by evidence. Just like adding epicycles to geocentrism. Add enough epicycles and you can overcome and contrary evidence.

When it comes to predicting horrors a priori, I think we need to flesh that out more: neither you nor I can be said to really be making predictions here a priori at all. Both of us are embedded in long intellectual traditions which have evolved and developed in many ways because of the horrors that exist. Job might be the earliest Christian writing that exists, and you’re not willing to call it a priori. Maybe we treat this similarly to scientific advancement. I have an older theory which you claim has some ad hoc modifications to make my predictions true, while you have a newer theory which has no ad hoc modifications. I claim I have no ad hoc modifications, and that these predictions are really motivated by the belief. What we need to work out is whether my “ad hoc modifications” are epicycles or if they’re dark matter. I think that this doesn’t come down to “a priori” because that’s a mythical place neither of us can get to. I think it comes down to whether Christianity’s prediction of horrors (which you’ll definitely find in the scriptures) is consistent with the Christian worldview, or whether it’s an inconsistent or unmotivated concession to reality, to avoid rejecting Christianity entirely. And I think it’s easy enough to argue for that consistency.

Even if we take a very minimal Christianity to be the central motivating principle for our predictions, we have the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of all Christian theology. And the Gospel is that Christ came into a dark and evil world and rescued helpless, unworthy, and wretched sinners. So right there we have a motivated prediction of the existence of evil. We even possibly have a prediction for the greatest evil, the crucifixion of Christ. And not only the crucifixion, but the evil it takes to make the world dark enough, so that Christ is more glorious in incarnating. And the evil it takes to demonstrate us to be unworthy, or to make us unworthy. If we’ve predicted great evil, have we also predicted horrors? I think so. The only way we don’t predict horrors is if we also predict that we will have access to all of God’s reasons for each individual evil. But how would we have that access? Either God grants it to us via revelation, or we are able to plainly see it. But why should we expect either of those, given our wretched state and the transcendence of God? It’s very plausible that I can’t understand what an individual horror is doing any more than my cats can understand why I abandon them for hours every day. And it’s also plausible that God deliberately keeps such things hidden from us to remind us of our lowly state compared to Him, and to help build in us such qualities as trust and compassion. I don’t think it’s possible to truly develop compassion without being subjected to mysterious suffering, and I don’t think there’s any real trust if I always know precisely what God is doing.

If my wife says “trust me”, and I tell her “of course I trust you, I’ve got a hidden camera and microphone on your handbag”, maybe I don’t actually trust her. But if God wants us to trust Him (which He does under Christianity), then there must be some times of darkness where we cannot see what God is doing.

And there is one final strong argument here: some of the people who have experienced the worst horrors have remained theists, and indeed Christians, and have often said afterwards that they can see now what God was doing in them through the suffering and evil. The kinds of evil and suffering that they have experienced are not vastly qualitatively different to the kinds of evil you’re calling horrors and using to motivate your argument. But the people experiencing that evil are in a better place than you are to talk about whether it’s unjustified, and many of them say that it’s justified. Plausibly then, all such evil is justified. Does this argument work in reverse? Are those who don’t say it’s justified a problem for me? I don’t think so, I don’t think the observation is symmetrical. I think “I do see reasons, therefore reasons exist” is a lot stronger than “I don’t see reasons, therefore they don’t exist”. Seeing reasons is a very good reason for thinking that there are reasons, just like me seeing a chess tactic is a pretty good reason for thinking it exists: I’m wrong sometimes, but rarely. But when I don’t see a tactic, that is not a good reason to think that there is no tactic: I often miss tactics, much more often than I incorrectly see tactics. And I think also that the “I see reasons” often comes late in life, after a lot of reflection, and that puts it in a better epistemic position than “I do not see reasons”, which is often immediate and often supplanted by seeing reasons decades later. So by the fact that for any class of evil, some thoughtful, reflective people who have experienced that evil will eventually see reasons for it, I think we can plausibly say that there possibly exist reasons for any evil in that class. This undermines the atheist’s judgement that there are no reasons for some particular horror.

Saturday Links 2/11/19

Miracle arguments: Should we always prefer naturalistic explanations?

A common objection to arguments from miracles, such as the argument for the resurrection of Jesus, is that we should always prefer natural explanations (however improbable) to supernatural explanations. The conversation might go something like this:

Theist: “There is simply a ridiculous amount of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. We have the empty tomb, the testimony of the appearances to disciples who believed they would die for their testimony, the conversion of Paul, and the early objections to Christianity grant these evidences. The best explantion for all these facts is the resurrection”

Atheist: “I can agree with all of those facts, however the resurrection is a supernatural explanation, not a natural explanation, and so it must always be rejected. Therefore a better explanation for these facts is that Jesus was an alien hologram who merely appeared to live and die and rise again, and appear to many people. When Jesus interacted with objects, that was just the aliens using advanced technology to make it seem like there was a man. But really, it was all aliens who were messing with people for fun. This is extremely unlikely, it is very implausible, but it is still a better explanation than any supernatural explanation”.

So then we have a principle to investigate: natural explanations are always preferable to supernatural explanations. How could we justify, or alternatively defeat, this principle?

Here is one such way:

  1. We know (independently) that natural objects exist
  2. We do not know (independently) that non-natural objects exist
  3. We should always prefer explanations that use objects of a class we know independently to exist
  4. We should never use explanations that involve non-natural objects

But this doesn’t seem to be very good. It would restrict scientists from ever positing new kinds of objects, and so we’d never come to believe in things like quarks. What explains our observations about protons and neutrons? Maybe quarks, or maybe it’s a mistake in our observations. We know mistakes exist, we don’t know quarks exist, so we can’t ever use quarks, and we must just be wrong. But that’s a bad conclusion

So maybe it’s just something special about supernatural explanations. And maybe no justification at all is given from the atheist. If no justification is given, then we can dismiss it without any argument. But let’s be generous and go further, to not only point out that it’s unjustified, but to demonstrate it false.

How can we do that? Here’s a simple thought experiment: suppose we live in the world of the book series *Mistborn*, where supernatural magic is reasonably common, and most people will know someone or knows someone who knows someone with some supernatural ability.

In this world, the atheist’s principle is clearly false. In this world, supernatural explanations are clearly justified, and are commonplace and accepted.

So the truth or falsehood of the atheist’s principle depends on what possible world we are in. The important difference between our world and the world of Mistborn seems to be the existence of the supernatural. So the atheist’s principle becomes something like “In worlds where the supernatural does not exist, we should not appeal to supernatural explanations”. But now the atheist begs the question: we are presenting evidence that the supernatural does exist in our world, and they can’t presuppose that the world doesn’t contain the supernatural in order to refute that evidence. That would be a circular argument.

So it doesn’t seem like we can justify the principle “we should always prefer natural explanations”.

Are Apologists Fighting the Wrong Battle?

John McCray thinks so.

Earlier I said how intellectual atheism is not a significant threat to Christianity. The biggest threat atheism has posed in America has not been reasoned argumentation. Rather, bitter diatribes and emotional criticisms (usually following religiously infused catastrophes like 9/11) have been responsible for much of their success. Their books and speakers weren’t made famous due to carefully-crafted, logically sound arguments. Instead, their highly emotive statements resonated with the frustrations of those who already had issues with religion.

In my estimation, well over 80% of what the New Atheist authors and speakers say about Christianity are demonstrably false or misleading. But this raises the question: If their claims are false, why is it that Christians weren’t able to correct these falsities, shutting them up right away? Part of it is simply because of the brute force of their rhetoric. Another part is because Christians are largely illiterate about what it is that they claim to believe. Statistically speaking, most who claim to be Christian are either unable to articulate or flat out do not understand the basics of what they claim to believe. This has led Christians to be unequipped and unable to respond to such attacks.

I think that number is probably 100%, not 80%. But I also think that it matters that we engage with academic, intellectual atheism, not just the childish and illiterate new atheists. Because the new atheists can only be allowed to get away with their foolish rhetoric if the academy is already either complacent or atheist.

LCA: Responding to 3 important challenges

I intend to discuss three problems here:

1. In what sense does God have a will, since God necessarily chooses the best possible world.

2. In what sense are there possible worlds, since God necessarily creates only the best possible world.

3. In what sense is God omnipotent, since God in some sense can only bring about the best possible world, and no others.

These problems are serious ones, and do need to be responded to. This is especially important given the large corpus of literature claiming that these problems spell the end of contingency arguments, or for any conception of theism.

First, let’s run a little thought experiment. Suppose we have a deterministic chess AI, name it A: given the same position, and the same outside factors like underlying hardware and time remaining, it will always make the same move. There is no randomness inside the AI. Suppose that A’s opponent is a fairly weak engine, and A has been able to perfectly predict all of their opponent’s moves. There is a sense in which A “knows” about all these possible outcomes and futures, despite the fact that none of them can come about.

Now I don’t think that at this point it’s too controversial to extend the thought experiment. Suppose that A is not just deterministic, but is actually necessary. That is: not only can it not do otherwise given the nature of its programming and its situation, but those programs and situations could not be different. Does this fundamentally change A’s knowledge? I don’t see how it does. The internal state of A is identical, it’s just a fact about the external world that has changed. But not, in a sense, A’s world. Since A’s world consists only of the board, the rules, and the opponent.

Even though A is necessary, there is a sense in which it “knows” about “possible” future outcomes. How can this be? I claim this: A’s “knowledge”, though it appears to be based on counterfactuals, does not depend on possible worlds at all. This knowledge that A has is not based on any kind of access to “possible worlds” since A and its opponent are necessary.

An agent, when considering the impacts of their actions, can simulate possible outcomes of all the actions that agent could take. Even if the agent is necessary, it can simulate these outcomes, since that agent itself is the thing that determines them. Now perhaps you and I do not, because our knowledge is imperfect. But our chess AI has in a sense a perfect knowledge of its world, and God has a perfect knowledge as well. So God can perfectly internally simulate the outcomes of the actions that He could take. And note that this is true regardless of whether God necessarily takes a particular action. Each of these simulations is technically metaphysically impossible: God, being perfectly good, won’t choose to create them. But that’s the only impossibility present in them: they contain no other contradictions. God’s will, God’s choice, is the only thing restricting these worlds from being possible. And so God can perfectly simulate them.

Now we have reconstructed a possible world: not as a meaningfully real metaphysical possibility, but as a specific kind of thought in God’s mind. And using these possible worlds, we can engage in all our normal counterfactual reasoning, which we have come to love Lewisian worlds for. But now, possible worlds aren’t primitive, God’s knowledge and God’s power are ontologically prior.

Where did that notion of power come from? Again, worlds are simulations of the consequences of God’s actions. And so the totality of all those actions in each of those worlds is the totality of God’s power. Normally we want to frame omnipotence as “the ability to bring about any possible world”, but now we’ve gone the other way: omnipotence is primitive, and a possible world is a simulation of the consequences of an action of which God is capable. So now: what is omnipotence? What makes God omnipotent rather than just very potent?

It is the density of possible worlds. The denser they are, the more powerful God is. If there are only, say, 3 possible worlds, God is not very powerful. But if they are more unrestricted perhaps every logically possible world, or every world that would be metaphysically possible apart from God’s will, then God is more powerful. What we have now is: God’s power is as unrestricted as His knowledge, and God’s knowledge is as unrestricted as His power. So now an argument for omniscience also suffices for omnipotence. Arguments for God’s omniscience have been given elsewhere, and perhaps they will be elaborated on further later. But for now, we will move on.

God’s will is mixed in here too: God must will because God has a reason for one world becoming the actual world, and God acts on that reason. That reason being that that world is the best possible world. Seems like having a reason and a goal, simulating outcomes, and choosing an action is having a will. God chooses among alternatives based on His beliefs (or in this case, knowledge) and desires. The content of those desires is moral goodness, and God is necessarily good, so God necessarily creates the best possible world. But despite (and in my argument, because of) this, God chooses, and God has a will.

Why believe this? So far all I’ve done is tell you a story about the attributes. I hope I’ve convinced you that they are possible, compatible, and reinforce and illuminate one another. But so far, I’ve given you no reason to think God has them.

Here’s one: We need counterfactuals to ground our everyday reasoning. But given the PSR, as Van Inwagen argues, there is modal collapse. Only one truly possible world, therefore necessitarianism. So there are no other possible worlds to ground our counterfactuals. Are we dead?


No: possible worlds do exist, but only in the mind of God. And that’s the only place they could exist: no other being can simulate these “almost possible” worlds, since no other being is the means by which they are possible or impossible. It is solely because of God that they are possible or impossible, so only God can have proper simulations of them. But under that, the only way we can ground our counterfactual reasoning (if we rely on possible worlds) is via God. So God is a necessary part of our everyday reasoning. Combined with the rest of the LCA, we ought to believe in God.


Van Til on the Problem of Induction

The third argument from Van Til that we will examine is the argument from induction. Van Til argues (rightly) that we must be able to use induction in order to be able to reason about the world. That is, we have to be able to reason from our past experiences as individuals and as a society and infer the future. But to reason this way, we must assume that reality has a kind of uniformity or intelligibility. And according to Van Til, the only way we can know this is through theism.

 

Does Christianity offer a solution to induction?

The first step in evaluating Van TIl’s argument is discussing whether Christianity can actually justify induction as we use it. I am not currently aware of any serious arguments that induction is impossible under Christianity, and I think it’s reasonably clear that under Christianity we can perform induction. How do we know that reality is regular or predictable in the right kind of way? Because the God of order and knowledge created not only a world that is ordered and knowable, but also our minds. And since He created our minds intending that they would know the world, we can know the world through induction.

It’s true that some argue that under sceptical theism, we cannot do induction. We may discuss this more when we discuss solutions to the evidential problem of evil, but it doesn’t apply to theism in general.

 

Secular justifications of induction

In order for Van Til’s argument to succeed, it must not only be the case that theism allows for induction, but that there is no coherent secular response to the problem as well. Many attempts have been made at secular answers to this problem, we will have a brief look at some of them here.

 

Popper: Falsification, Not Induction

Karl Popper has famously argued that inductive reasoning ought not to be performed in the manner that is normally considered here. Instead of looking for observations to confirm or verify our hypothesis, we should instead look for observations that falsify the hypothesis. And if we don’t find any, we don’t consider the hypothesis true, we just consider it to be not yet falsified.

This approach is perhaps the dominant approach in philosophy of science and indeed in the practice of science. However, I think it is somewhat difficult to swallow. We end up not really believing that things are “true”, instead we believe they are “not yet proven false”. But that’s simply not how we reason about the world, we do think it is true that our various inductive hypotheses are correct. We do think it is true that the sun will rise tomorrow because we have observed it doing so in the past. So while here we do have a coherent way of reasoning, it doesn’t save our normal, everyday reasoning using induction. Therefore this is not a good enough response to the problem of induction

 

Law of Large Numbers

This is another, less popular (though I think stronger) response to the problem of induction. Helpfully explained by this Reddit comment (the whole /r/askphilosophy subreddit is pretty great by the way), we can justify induction essentially a priori using some mathematics. However, it is not without its issues as well. I will quote the SEP:

The more problematic step in the argument is the final step, which takes us from the claim that samples match their populations with high probability to the claim that having seen a particular sample frequency, the population from which the sample is drawn has frequency close to the sample frequency with high probability. The problem here is a subtle shift in what is meant by “high probability”, which has formed the basis of a common misreading of Bernouilli’s theorem. Hacking (1975: 156–59) puts the point in the following terms. Bernouilli’s theorem licenses the claim that much more often than not, a small interval around the sample frequency will include the true population frequency. In other words, it is highly probable in the sense of “usually right” to say that the sample matches its population. But this does not imply that the proposition that a small interval around the sample will contain the true population frequency is highly probable in the sense of “credible on each occasion of use”. This would mean that for any given sample, it is highly credible that the sample matches its population. It is quite compatible with the claim that it is “usually right” that the sample matches its population to say that there are some samples which do not match their populations at all. Thus one cannot conclude from Bernouilli’s theorem that for any given sample frequency, we should assign high probability to the proposition that a small interval around the sample frequency will contain the true population frequency. But this is exactly the slide that Williams makes in the final step of his argument. Maher (1996) argues in a similar fashion that the last step of the Williams-Stove argument is fallacious. In fact, if one wants to draw conclusions about the probability of the population frequency given the sample frequency, the proper way to do so is by using the Bayesian method described in the previous section. But, as we there saw, this requires the assignment of prior probabilities, and this explains why many people have thought that the combinatorial solution somehow illicitly presupposed an assumption like the principle of indifference. The Williams-Stove argument does not in fact give us an alternative way of inverting the probabilities which somehow bypasses all the issues that Bayesians have faced.

In simpler terms, it has been objected that this response to the problem of induction incorrectly assumes that the sample distribution matches the population distribution. That is, it incorrectly assumes that what we have observed is representative of some sort of universal law. Which is in fact precisely the thing that we are trying to prove. Presumably, the proponents of this solution would argue that in general, we assume that a sample is drawn randomly unless we have any reason to suspect otherwise unless we can demonstrate a bias. But that’s not necessarily true, often sampling measures come under scrutiny and must demonstrate their random methodology.

I think this solution is stronger than the previous one, however.

Perhaps in the future, we will consider more solutions to the problem of induction, but here I have presented the most common one and one that I think is quite interesting.

Van Til on the Unity of Knowledge

In James Anderson’s 2005 paper, we are given an example of an argument that Van Til makes for the existence of God. Specifically, this is an argument that God is a necessary precondition for human beings to have any knowledge about anything. Van Til is hailed in Reformed circles as an excellent apologist, and his brand of presuppositionalist apologetics is very popular and is practised often at the exclusion of other schools of thought. However, I have noticed that very rarely does anyone ever actually present any of Van Til’s arguments. Perhaps today we shall see why. It seems to me that no-one actually reads Van Til, or at least tries to pull any arguments out of him.

Here are two relevant quotes from Van Til that Anderson gives us, which give us the argument we will examine now:

This modern view is based on the assumption that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication. When, therefore, man cannot know everything, it follows that nothing can be known. All things being related, all things must be exhaustively known or nothing can be known. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 163)

Here too every non-Christian epistemology may be distinguished from Christian epistemology in that it is only Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere but this comprehensive knowledge need  not and cannot be in us; it must be in God (The Defense of the Faith, 41)

We, modern analytical thinkers, prefer to have arguments in a formal premise-conclusion style, so Anderson helpfully creates one:

  1. If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe.
  2. Only God could have comprehensive knowledge of the universe.
  3. We have some knowledge of the universe.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is valid, and I think for the moment the atheist can grant premise 2. Any being which has comprehensive knowledge of the universe is probably worth being called God. The difficulty is of course with premise 1.

Van Til seems to have a justification like this in mind: we cannot know if there exists out there some fact which would demonstrate all of our previously held beliefs false. But knowing that, we cannot be justified in holding any of our beliefs. If we aren’t justified in holding our beliefs, we have no knowledge. So there must be some way of us being justified in believing that there is no such problematic unknown fact. And the only way for that to be the case is if God designed us with mental faculties which aim at truth in the right way, and intends for us to believe truth. Without God “holding our hand”, we can’t have any knowledge.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is any good. The mere possibility that we might be wrong is not sufficient to remove justification. We “know” many things about which it is conceivably possible, however unlikely, that we might be wrong. Knowledge is not certain or proven true belief, but only a warranted true belief, and warrant doesn’t need to be certain.

One might attempt to justify the premise further, by using a kind of pessimistic meta-induction. For almost everything that almost all humans have ever believed, it turned out there was some fact out there which proved it wrong. So chances are, there is also some fact out there that proves us wrong. So it’s not only possible that we are wrong about everything we believe, it is now quite likely. And if that is the case, we probably don’t have knowledge.

But this goes too far. Because if that is the case, if theists attempt to make that rhetorical move, then it seems like God isn’t there holding our hand. In this case, God has not designed our mental faculties in the right way, because we are so often wrong. By attempting to prove that knowledge is impossible without God, we’ve also proven that it’s impossible with God.

Van Til has some more arguments that we will examine, but this was the simplest one. Have I missed something? Is the argument stronger than I make it out to be?