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

Christianity and Van Tillianism – Mathison

I regularly get questioned and criticised for my disagreement with presuppositional apologetics. The school of thought is quite popular among Reformed theologians, however, in my opinion, it is both novel (a red flag when it comes to theology) and insubstantial.

A recent thorough criticism comes from Keith A. Mathison on Tabletalk. I think many of these are good points, and I will briefly summarise here. This is largely a criticism of presuppositionalism as Van Til originally developed it, and therefore centres on problems with Van Til’s theology itself. But I will echo Mathison in pointing out that this is not at all an attack on Van Til’s character, nor a denial of all the brilliant work that he did do. We are all mature enough here to criticise an aspect of someone’s thought without throwing that person out of the Kingdom, or levelling accusations at their character.

First, Mathison points out that Van Til’s works are often light on exegesis, and so for a man who strongly emphasized the authority of scripture in apologetics (an emphasis we would all do well to heed!) this indicates a weakness in thought.

Second, Mathison claims that Van Til’s work is often hard to understand. This is partially due to him adopting and then modifying some technical terms from the secular philosophy of his day (terms like “limiting concept” and “concrete universal” from the popular Idealism that existed at the time), and partially due to his inconsistency. You can see this inconsistency on the question of whether unbelievers can know anything; at some points, he affirms that they can and at other times he denies that they can.

Third, Van Til at some points seems to espouse a heterodox view of the Trinity: “one person in three persons”. However Nicean Trinitarianism is “one being, three persons”, and Van Til is at best equivocating on “person” and at worst logically inconsistent. This is not surprising since Van Til rejects the epistemology of those who came to the Nicean creed.

Fourth, Van Til often misunderstands historical philosophers and theologians. Mathison gives examples of where Van Til interprets Augustine and Aquinas as saying the opposite of what they actually mean to say. Mathison claims he even gets Calvin wrong.

Fifth, Mathison levels the accusation that Van Til has a syncretic Christianity, with elements of the above-mentioned Idealism. Given that Van Til accuses mainstream Christian apologetics and much theology of being a syncretism of Christianity and Greek philosophy, this accusation is quite damning. If Aquinas is the bastard child of Christ and Aristotle, then Van Til is the descendant of Christ and Kant., or perhaps Christ and Hegel.

Sixth, Mathison claims that Van Til’s arguments surrounding the need to presuppose God and scripture are actually inconsistent, and his complaints of people presupposing reasons do not actually land.

Seventh and finally, Mathison criticises Van Til’s rejection of Reformed natural theology. Calvin certainly accepted the use of natural theology (see his commentary on Acts 17), and natural theology has been part of mainstream Reformed thought for as long as Reformed thought has existed.

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.

Saturday Links 15/12/2018

Honeymoon Reading

I have just returned from my honeymoon, and so of course the first question anyone has for me is: what did you read while you were away?

So here is a list:

 

I am sure my wife had a great time.

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.

Common Objections to the LCA

In our previous three posts here, here, and here, we have gone through a brief summary of Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument. And of course, many objections are likely to arise, mostly from misunderstandings of the argument. Here I would like to briefly respond to some of those common objections.

What if the universe had no beginning?

You’ve got this argument confused with another argument. My argument says nothing about the universe as a whole, and only needs one contingent object to succeed. My argument also says nothing about anything “beginning”. This argument would work just fine if the universe had no beginning.

What explains God?

The way we have used the word “God” is by meaning “The non-contingent object”. But given our definition for contingent, this means “The object that does explain itself”. So if you ask “What explains God?”, you are asking “What explains the thing that explains itself?”. The answer is obvious: God does.

How do you know there are contingent things?

Consider a simple fact: things fall down. The first scientists asked: why do things fall down? They needed an explanation. The fact that things fell down wasn’t self-explanatory. And they found an answer, coming up with a theory of gravity. But then again: why do things have mass? The fact that things have mass requires and demands an explanation. It is contingent. And we built the Large Hadron Collider looking for that explanation.

You’re just defining God into existence!

What I am doing is inferring the existence of something by looking at the effects it has. For example, I might look at a clock and infer the existence of a motor behind the arms, because it is making those arms move. Am I defining the motor into existence by doing this? No I am not.

This only proves a deist God, not the Christian God!
True, this is not a sufficient argument for Christianity. It gets us to theism, but we need further arguments to get to Christianity. But it’s a step in the right direction, ruling out atheism.

This is a God of the gaps argument!

What I am doing is inferring the existence of something by looking at the effects it has. A God of the gaps argument goes something like “We can’t explain this thing, therefore God did it”. I am not doing that at all. Instead, what I’m doing is arguing that God is the only possible explanation for something. Suppose I have a car that works. Am I right in inferring the existence of a motor inside the car? Is that a motor of the gaps argument? No.

Believing the PSR commits us to denying libertarian free will/accepting necessitarianism

This doesn’t bother me much, since I am a Calvinist and therefore a compatibilist, and I am a modal necessitarian. However I do need to maintain that God is totally free, so I have to engage with it to some degree. A good argument can be found here, it is reasonably well explained and I will not reproduce it.

We should only believe things we can test, how did you test this?
I reject the claim that we must test every claim. I only think we should test scientific claims. If you can test this, go ahead, but I think it is fundamentally impossible. Just like it’s fundamentally impossible to test whether the square root of two is irrational. But that doesn’t mean the proofs that the square root of two is irrational fail, nor does it mean that Leibniz’ cosmological argument fails. The simple fact is that logic works, and we can use deductive logic to work out truths from true premises. If you think my premises are false, or my arguments for why they are true fail, then feel free to tell me why. But if you think my premises are true, then you must accept the conclusion, it’s the result of simple and easy to follow logic.

The necessary thing is the universe/big bang/laws of physics

That’s a reasonable suspicion when we get up to (4), but falls flat after (5). We not only prove that there is a necessary object, but we prove that it has all the properties we normally think of God as having. And none of the suggestions above for the necessary object have these properties.  We cannot merely attach the description “necessary” to whatever we please, we must discuss what properties the necessary thing must have.

The PSR is almost true, there’s only one brute fact: The BCCF

This is a common objection. We can get all the benefits of the PSR, without being forced into accepting God. But it has some unfortunate implications. Consider a weakened PSR: every fact possibly has an explanation. It turns out that this is sufficient to prove God. Suppose the BCCF is possibly explained. If it is explained, it’s explained by a necessary God (as we have already shown). So possibly a necessary God exists. But by S5 modal logic, this means God exists. So the objection is no good. Instead, the objector has to say that necessarily the BCCF has no explanation. Now first, it seems to me that if a fact necessarily has a property, that fact is necessarily true. But further, it is a hard burden to take onto yourself to say that the BCCF is necessarily unexplained. The one who claims that it is necessarily unexplained must give a coherent and non-arbitrary reason why it is necessarily unexplained. No such reason has yet appeared.

LCA Point 5: The Necessary Object is God

This is our third post in a series on Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument. You can find the first post here and the second here. The full argument is:

(1)               Every contingent fact has an explanation.

(2)               There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.

(3)               Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.

(4)               This explanation must involve a necessary object.

(5)               This necessary object is God.

Today we will be examining…

(5)               This necessary object is God.

This is much like the first point, in that it’s not obvious and requires some argumentation. First, let’s talk about what it means to be a necessary object. A necessary object is an object that explains its own existence. It does not “depend” on any other object to exist. Using the possible world terminology we introduced last post, a necessary object is an object that exists in every possible world. 

So what properties can we deduce about the necessary object? Well it’s clearly not material, as material objects depend on matter to exist and are contingent. In fact, it’s not composite at all, since composite objects depend on their components to exist. So the necessary object must be entirely simple.

Whatever necessarily exists must always exist, since the fact that it necessarily exists is true no matter what time period you are in. So the necessary object is everlasting.

The necessary object must be unchangeable. Suppose that the necessary object were to change. That change must either be caused by the necessary object itself, or something else. It cannot be caused by something else, because that would make the state of the necessary object contingent on that thing that caused it. So if it changes, it must cause that change itself. If something changes itself, either part of it changes another part, or the whole changes the whole. Since the object in question has no parts, the whole necessary object must change the whole necessary object. But if this were the case, it would have already been the thing it was going to change into. So it cannot change.

The necessary object must also be omnipresent. The necessary object is free from any contingent properties, or any arbitrary properties, in virtue of necessity and simplicity. However existing at a particular physical location is a contingent property, since the existence of that physical location is contingent. Therefore the necessary object has does not exist at any particular physical location. This is omnipresence: present in equal measure at all places and at all times.

Now Leibniz presents an argument that the necessary object has understanding, a will, and power. He argues that it has understanding, as it can survey all possible worlds it can create. It has a will, as it selected one possible world. And it has power, as it actually created that world.

Is this argument reasonable? Consider first the understanding argument. Can the necessary object survey all possible worlds? A possible world is a world that could exist. If such a world contains any contingent objects, then the necessary object must exist. And if it doesn’t contain any contingent objects, and only the necessary object, then the necessary object must still exist.

Our necessary object explains all contingent objects. That means it must in some way contain information about those objects. And it contains information not only about contingent objects that exist, but also all possible contingent objects, since it would also explain them. And clearly it contains information of itself, since everything does. This kind of containing information is understanding.

Does it have a will? Of all the possible worlds, it chose one. Is simply choosing one possibility out of many having a will? Probably not, since my computer also does this and does not have a will. Instead, it seems more reasonable to say that having a will, or maybe a free will, is choosing an option apart from any outside compulsion. My computer chooses what it was programmed to choose, and so doesn’t have a will in this sense. But the necessary object is not compelled by anything external to it, and its choice comes entirely from within. So it seems it has a will.

And power? This one is more clear: it did in some sense create the world. It chose this possible world, and actualised it over other possible worlds. That is power.


Since the understanding, will, and power are directed towards all possibilities, they are infinite. The necessary being understands all possibilities, can will to create any of them, and has the power to carry out that will, whatever it may be.

And since choosing is to judge that the thing you choose is the best thing among the alternatives, and since the necessary object has full knowledge (knowledge of all possible worlds), it judges which is actually the best among infinitely many alternatives. This means that it is in a sense infinitely good.

Another argument can be made for a more general agency of the necessary object. As far as we understand explanations, there are three types: scientific, conceptual, and agential. The necessary object is clearly not a scientific explanation, since it cannot be material, due to simplicity. Further, science only explains things in terms of contingent things, or at least it has in every case we know of.

Nor is it a conceptual explanation. Among the contingent things we find substances, the stuff that other things are made from. Dualists will argue that the soul is a different kind of substance to matter, for example. Matter/energy is the substance that physical objects are made of. But the activity of a substance cannot be conceptually explained by the activity of something other than that substance. A conceptual explanation can tell us why things behave the way they do, in terms of what they are. But a conceptual explanation cannot give an account of why they are in the first place. So a conceptual explanation is insufficient for the big contingent fact.

So the only option remains is an agential explanation: an explanation in terms of some agent. So the necessary thing must be an agent in some sense.

We can also demonstrate uniqueness: every property the necessary object has must be a property it necessarily has, by a similar argument to the simplicity argument above. So if there are two necessary objects, they have the same properties. But two objects with identical properties are actually just one object. So there is only one necessary object.

At this point, we have proven that there exists a necessary object, which has infinite knowledge, infinite power, is infinitely good, is simple, eternal, unique, immutable etc. I know no name we could give this object other than “God”. And of course we have not yet arrived at Christianity. But I claim that after proving that this God exists, we may go looking for it in the world.

We find this: there exists a religious tradition spanning thousands of years who claim to worship something with all of these properties. They record centuries of interactions with this thing, who behaves exactly as we’d expect God to behave, including giving and fulfilling prophecy. And in the end we see the man Jesus who comes claiming to be God come in the flesh, who behaves as we’d expect God to behave, with a supremely good moral character, who fulfills prophecy given over the last few thousand years. I believe Him.

My Thoughts on Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson has recently become an influential figure in modern culture, especially among young men, especially those young men who have previously found themselves at odds with feminism, progressive culture, etc. I think much of this admiration is misplaced, and that there are good criticisms to make of Peterson. However I think it’s also important to understand what it is that’s drawing people to him.

I find myself in two communities here. First I am part of the community of conservative young men. Men who have strong criticism of modern culture, who feel that the direction of progress is wrong, who feel like people have become soft, weak, shallow and thoughtless. A group of people who have grown up in a world lacking direction, purpose, or meaning. A world which is hostile to the nature of young men.

Second, on the outskirts of the academic philosophy community, engaging with it as an amateur and autodidact. Here, Peterson is widely considered to be a moron, who thinks he has engaged with important issues but has thoroughly missed the point.

I think these second people are right. Peterson is a psychologist, who was unknown until he started a controversy about the use of transgender pronouns. This was picked up by the alt-right, who used Peterson as a figurehead for their own opposition to transgenderism. He also fuels their rage against “post-modernism”, which I think both they and Peterson misunderstand, and “cultural Marxism”, which isn’t a real thing at all. In fact, Marx would be thoroughly modernist, not post-modern. But I don’t want to get into those things here, instead, I’ll just encourage anyone reading this to research modernism, post-modernism, and Marxism yourself. I am indeed thoroughly opposed to post-modern thought and to Marxism, but I doubt most of Peterson’s fans understand these topics. I do not think Peterson does either. This is why academics do not like Peterson in general.

But most of the people who like Peterson do so for reasons unrelated to his philosophical positions. Young men have grown up in a world of coddling, victim-mentality, and weakness. As a young man, I’ve felt this too. We are encouraged to have a weak will, to blame others when we fail, we’ve been told: “believe in yourself and you can do anything, because you’re unique like a snowflake”. We live in a culture that glorifies narcissism, fragility, and an external locus of control. A culture that raises what C.S. Lewis calls “Men without chests”. 

Peterson has been adopted as the intellectual of the right-wing movement because he speaks against this. He tells young men to grow up and take responsibility. To grow a backbone, to do hard things because you know they’re right, to act with honour and integrity. To not worry about your rights being violated (since rights exist to protect weak and vulnerable) and instead worry about your own competence (since the competent never need to refer to their rights). Some people are weak and vulnerable and should be protected, but you should do whatever you can to take yourself out of that category. Virtue requires a strong will.

Peterson is right about these things. Young men especially should grow a backbone, accept responsibility, and forge themselves into strong, honourable, skilled men. This is what appeals to young men. They fundamentally know this is right.

But this isn’t a good reason to revere Peterson. Many have said this before, many have said it better, and many have said it without bringing in misunderstandings of philosophical and literary narratives, or without Peterson’s rather strange metaphysical background.

Further reading: