Thursday, September 9, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 5) - Wykstra and Alston

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism? For an index, see here.

In this entry, I will begin my summary of the arguments contained in the following paper:
The paper presents a cumulative-case argument against skeptical theism. Specifically, Piper argues that skeptical theism gives rise to three unwelcome types of skepticism. Again, as with all entries in this series, this post on Rowe's evidential problem of evil is an essential reference point.

Three things are up for discussion today. First, I will look at Stephen Wykstra's case for skeptical theism. Second, I will look at William Alston's case for the same thing. Finally, I will sketch Piper's cumulative-case argument.

1. Wykstra's CORNEA
One of the nice things about Piper's paper (nice alliteration there) is that it complements the Hasker paper I previously covered. Whereas Hasker focused his attention on Michael Bergmann's version of skeptical theism, Piper focuses his attention on Wysktra and Alston's versions. Thus, by covering both papers we get a decent overview of the varieties of skeptical theism that are out there.

Before getting to Wykstra's position, a quick recap is in order. As you no doubt recall, Rowe's argument rests on an inference from apparent cases of gratuitous evil to actual cases of gratuitous evil. That is, it takes an instance of evil or suffering that seems, to us, not to be logically necessary for the existence of some greater good and infers that it is highly unlikely that a logically necessary greater good exists. Skeptical theism (ST) responds by saying we have no grounds for making that inference.

Wykstra was, as far as I know, the first person to run the ST-objection and he based it on something he called the COndition of Reasonable Epistemic Access (CORNEA). The idea behind CORNEA is that Rowe's inference from "X seems to be the case" to "X actually is the case" is only permissible when X has "reasonable seeability".

For example, it is reasonable for me to say that there are no dogs in my room because a dog is the kind of thing I would expect to see if it were in the room. By way of contrast, it is less reasonable for me to say that there are no bacteria on my desk just because I can't see them since bacteria are not visible to the naked eye.

Applying this to problem of evil, Wykstra employs the parent-child analogy. An infant child is unlikely to understand (to "see") the greater good that motivates his parents in allowing him to suffer a painful injection for the purpose of vaccination. And we are like infant children when compared to the creator of the universe.

This would seem to undermine the inference in Rowe's argument.

William Alston

2. Alston on Multiple Dimensions of Cognitive Limitation
William Alston's version of skeptical theism makes reference to six different dimensions of cognitive limitation. Combined, these would also undermine the inference in Rowe's argument. They are as follows (they seem slightly repetitious to me):

  • (i) Lack of Data: we know very little regarding such matters as the remote past and future, the afterlife, the ultimate structure of reality etc...
  • (ii) Complexity of subject matter: It is difficult for the human mind to hold together large complexes of fact.
  • (iii) Difficulties with Metaphysical Possibility and Necessity: It is difficult to say what is metaphysically possible given the essential nature of things (something that is also obscure) and this difficult is amplified is we deal with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.
  • (iv) Ignorance of Possibilities: We don't know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of.
  • (v) Ignorance of full range of values: We are in a very poor position to know whether there exist unknown goods that would justify God in allowing apparently gratuitous evil if we don;t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware.
  • (vi) Limits to our capacity to make well-considered value judgments: We face tremendous difficulties when making comparative evaluations of large complex wholes.

One thing worth noting about these six dimensions is that, with the exception of (v) and (vi), they do not directly concern cognition limitations with respect to moral value. I think that is significant since ST needs its skepticism to be narrowly confined and yet Alston's reasons for skepticism are broad ranging.

Anyway, Alston thinks that the many dimensions to our cognitive limitations help to undermine Rowe's argument for two main reasons. First, Rowe needs to show that there are no beyond-our-ken goods which negate his crucial inference. Second, Rowe also needs to show that every theodicy fails. Neither of these seem likely given our cognitive limitations about the nature of moral value and possible worlds.

3. Piper's Argument
Piper is willing to grant Alston and Wykstra their success in defeating Rowe's argument, but he is going to turn the tables on them by arguing that skeptical theism ultimately undermines theism. The idea is that by endorsing ST, religious believers lose their epistemic license to certain core doctrinal commitments.

Specifically, Piper thinks that ST has three unwelcome consequences:

  • (P1) ST makes confident knowledge of the correctness of our own conception of goodness, and confident knowledge of God's actual moral will, at a minimum highly questionable and at the most virtually impossible.
  • (P2) ST threatens a great deal of theological knowledge.
  • (P3) The epistemic limitations at the heart of ST can be consistently used in reverse. That is to say, they can be used to deny that apparently good events are evidence of the work of a good God.

Piper believes that his argument applies to both expanded and restricted forms of theism. The terminology might be unfamiliar but it is taken from an article by William Rowe. Rowe defines God in the standard tri-omni fashion. He then suggests that restricted forms of theism are only committed to the existence of a tri-omni being, whereas expanded forms are committed to specific doctrinal extensions, e.g. the Christian God.

In the next part we will take a look at Piper's argument in favour of P1.

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