Monday, September 27, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 6) - Goodness and a Good God

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

I am currently working my way through an article by Mark Piper entitled "Why Theists Cannot Accept Skeptical Theism". As with all posts in this series, this discussion of William Rowe's evidential problem of evil provides some essential background.

In the previous entry, I briefly sketched Piper's cumulative-case argument against skeptical theism. His basic idea is that those theists who accept ST lose their epistemic licence to certain key components of the religious worldview. Three specific examples are given:

  • (P1) ST makes confident knowledge of our own conception of moral goodness, and confident knowledge of God's actual moral will, highly questionable and perhaps even impossible;
  • (P2) ST threatens a great deal of theological knowledge;
  • (P3) The epistemic limitation principles contained in ST can be consistently used in reverse, i.e. to rule off limits any attribution of good events to the will of a good God.

In this entry will consider Piper's case for P1.

1. The Problem with Goodness
In their attempt to refute the evidential problem of evil, skeptical theists argue that our cognitive limitations are such that we do not know whether there is some greater good that necessitates the existence of putative gratuitous evil. To put this more pithily, albeit esoterically, we can say that ST mandates skepticism about the possible orders and modalities of goodness and their relations to evil.

But in practice what does this skeptical thesis actually entail? Piper identifies three possibilities.

  • (a) No Access to Higher Goods: It may be that there are two levels in which goodness exists: one, the mundane level, in which we live out our everyday lives; and another, the transcendental level, in which God plots, plans and acts. And it may be that we know nothing about goods in the transcendental level but know plenty about goods in the mundane level.
  • (b) Misunderstanding of Hierarchical Relationships: It may be that we do not understand the proper hierarchical relationships between the different goods. Indeed, human history supplies examples of how we occasionally need to revise the hierarchical relationships that we think we have. Christians, for instance, often believe that although the law of the Old Testament has some importance, it was superseded by the values espoused by Jesus in the New Testament.
  • (c) Misidentification of Goods: It may be that some things that we think to be good are not actually good in relation to some unknown goods. A potential example of this comes from our experience with racism. For a long time, it was thought that racial purity was morally commendable. This is no longer thought to be the case as it is eroded by respect for human dignity. 

Skeptical theists would prefer if (a) were the only thing entailed by ST, but clearly (b) and (c) are also entailed by the central claims of ST. After all, they are both concerned with the orders and modalities of goodness.

It is equally clear that a theist cannot endorse (b) and (c) and remain a theist. Why? Because theists must be able to claim that certain hierarchical relations exist between goods, e.g. that piety is a greater good than pleasure. Likewise, they must be able to claim that certain goods definitely exist and will not be wiped out by unknown goods, e.g. that charity and the alleviation of suffering are goods.

2. The Problem with God
There is a further difficulty associated with skepticism about the orders and modalities of goodness, namely: we cannot be certain about God's relation to goodness. Indeed, on the central claims of ST, the following are possible:
  • (i) God's relation to goodness, for reasons beyond our ken, necessitates his active enjoyment of our suffering.
  • (ii) God's relation to goodness, for reasons beyond our ken, necessitates his complete indifference to our welfare.
A theist will no doubt balk at these suggestions. For example, a central component of a Christian worldview is a belief that God does care for us and that he will help us to achieve salvation. But if the theist endorses ST, they cannot rule out the possibilities in (i) and (ii).

That concludes Piper's case in favour of P1. In the next entry, we will look at his case in favour of P2 and P3.

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