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?

Saturday Links 3/11/18

 

Note that I am getting married on Friday, and will be on my honeymoon for a few weeks. So don’t expect much activity from me. Also sorry about an earlier version of this post where the link to the Oppy page was broken.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

Many of you will have noticed that I reference the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor quite regularly. Outside of scripture, no other book has been more influential in shaping my thinking about the Western world. Where we are, how we got here, what it means, and where we’re going.

If for some reason you don’t feel like spending 4 months digging through this 900 page tome, then there is an alternative that I haven’t read myself, but some of my friends recommend. From James Smith, the author of You Are What you Love, it is a summary of Taylor, containing many of his most important ideas, and it seems to attempt to make them explicitly and directly relevant to the Christian apologist. I also believe that Smith is Reformed, which always wins points in my book.

If those are too hard (and I strongly encourage you to take one of those two options, even as audiobooks or something) then I have found a reasonably good series of YouTube videos, they seem to be recordings of a philosophy class at a university discussing the book. They are not an alternative, but they may be helpful.