Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 7) - Theological and Evidential Skepticism

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 entries in this series, this discussion of Rowe's evidential problem of evil is the primary reference point.

Piper's goal is to present a cumulative-case argument against skeptical theism. In the previous entry, we saw how Piper supported his claim that ST leads to unwelcome skepticism about the nature of goodness and God's relation to it. In this entry, we will consider Piper's case for the following two claims:
  • (P2) ST threatens a good deal of theological knowledge;
  • (P3) ST undermines any inference from supposedly good events or states of affairs to the existence of a good God.

1. Theological Skepticism
What skeptical theists want, more than anything in the world, is to create a distinction between the claims we make about the mundane world in which we live and the super-mundane realm in which God operates. Only by creating such a distinction can they undermine the key inference in Rowe's argument from evil.

But to create this distinction is, as we have been exploring, to create a sword with several theologically unwelcome edges. In particular, it seems to undermine any claims we would like to make about the nature of God. This would force many theists to reconsider their theological commitments.

If we are told that God is the kind of being who would send his son to atone for our sins, we can surely respond in a manner that echoes William Alston's brand of ST. So for example, we can say that we don't have access to all the relevant data about divine intentions; that God's ultimate plan of salvation possesses more complexity than we can handle; and that we simply do not know what schemes of atonement are metaphysically possible or necessary.

It would also, perhaps fittingly, affect Alston's ability to support his own argument from religious experience.

Alston tries to fend off this general theological skepticism by claiming that his skeptical principles only apply to negative existential claims about the super-mundane (theistic) realm. This is because Rowe's argument relies on a negative existential claim, i.e. that there is (probably) no greater good justifying observed evils.

But if you look back over Alston's list of skeptical principles, it is clear that they apply equally well to positive existential claims such as those made about the resurrection. Indeed, Piper notes that Alston never makes the argument for the limitation of skepticism to negative existential claims, he merely asserts it.

2. Evidential Skepticism
The final link in Piper's chain of argumentation is to point out the unwelcome implications of ST for typical evidential arguments for God's existence. We encountered this problem when looking at Bergmann's form of skeptical theism.

As noted by Bergmann himself, when ST is fully imbibed, we lose the ability make inferences from apparently good events or states of affairs to the existence of a good God. Piper notes that this is particularly troubling for those who take the existence of Satan seriously. After all, if we cannot know that an apparently evil state of affairs is not a necessary precursor to some ultimate good, then it is equally true that we cannot know that an apparently good state of affairs is not a necessary precursor to some ultimate evil.

The same problem applies to the historical claims of the major religions. As mentioned above, one of the central pillars of Christian belief is the belief that God became incarnate in Yeshua of Nazareth and was sacrificed for our sins. This self-sacrifice is thought to be the kind of thing we would expect from a good God. But how can we know that, if we are not allowed to make claims about what is ultimately good or bad?

That concludes Piper's initial case against ST. He goes on to consider how proponents of ST might respond to his critique. That will be covered in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. The third message from heaven...

    If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.