Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 11) - Summing Up

(Series Index)

I had originally planned to complete my series The End of Skeptical Theism? during September. It ended up taking me a lot longer than expected -- mainly because of the intervention of "real" life. Fortunately, it has now been completed. My previous post on skeptical theism (PT) and its implications for Plantinga's externalist epistemology was the last substantive entry in the series.

In the interests of wrapping things up appropriately, I thought I might summarise some of the main take-home points. There are three that spring readily to mind.

1. Rowe's Evidential Argument is Stronger Than You Might Think
As mentioned throughout this series, ST was originally conceived as a response to William Rowe's evidential problem of evil. As a result, understanding Rowe's argument is a necessary first step towards understanding ST. When I wrote the first entry on Rowe's argument, one thing that struck me was how strong Rowe's challenge to theism actually is.

Rowe argues that God, being omnipotent and omnibenevolent, could not allow for the existence of evil unless it was logically necessary in order to achieve some overriding good. Thus, the existence of evils (E1...En) for which we cannot locate a logically necessary good (call these "gratuitous evils") provides some evidential disconfirmation of God's existence.

The "logically necessary"-condition is what makes this a strong challenge to theists. Because of it, they cannot simply point to the existence of some causally connected greater good and claim that that permits the existence of evil. After all, that good could (possibly) have been brought about without the need for some intervening evil. Furthermore, the "logically necessary"- condition is justified by appeal to God's omnipotence and so seems legitimate.

Although Rowe's challenge is a strong one, it is important to make sure, when presenting it, that you are not limited to one or two examples of gratuitous evils. As noted in an earlier entry, it is the abundance of such evils that makes certain ST-responses implausible.

2. Skeptical Theism has Three Basic Forms
As a response to Rowe's argument, ST maintains that we are not warranted or justified in assuming that just because an evil seems to be gratuitous to us means that it is, as a matter of fact, gratuitous. "Seeming so" does not imply "actually so". Rowe's inference is impermissible.

Throughout the series we have looked at three basic forms of ST, each one associated with a different theorist:

  • (1) Representativeness of the Sample: According to this form of ST, Rowe cannot make the necessary inference because there is no good reason to think that the sample of goods and evils which is available to him is representative of the totality of good and evil. This form is associated with Michael Bergmann.
  • (2) Low-Seeability: According to this form of ST, there are certain kinds of things that we simply cannot expect to see (or otherwise perceive) due to (a) their nature and (b) the epistemic context in which we find ourselves. The prime example being, of course, God's reasons for action: they are derived from his unlimited knowledge, and we are like mere children relative to him. This form is associated with Stephen Wykstra.
  • (3) Multiple Cognitive Limitations: According to this form of ST, human cognition faces a number of serious limitations which undercut our ability to make inferences of the sort demanded by Rowe. These limitations arise from our poor understanding of what is logically and metaphysically possible, as well as our inability to combine and analyse large amounts of data. This form is associated with William Alston.

3. Skeptical Theism has Several Unwelcome Implications
The problem with the three forms of ST outlined above is that the principles they invoke to justify their skepticism -- i.e. representativeness of sample, low-seeability and cognitive limitation -- seem to apply to domains beyond those invoked by Rowe's argument. As a result, ST undercuts a large swathe of human knowledge, including knowledge that a theist would like to retain.

The following examples of this were pinpointed in this series:

  • ST damages moral reasoning by endorsing partial or complete skepticism about the states of affairs that we usually think to be morally commendable.
  • Just as ST undermines inferences made from supposedly bad states of affairs to the non-existence of God, so too does it undermine inferences made from supposedly good states of affairs to the existence of God. As a result, arguments from design or arguments from miracles are no longer justifiable.
  • ST undermines arguments based on Biblical revelation or personal experience because these arguments rely on the assumption that we are able to reliably identify direct and true communications from a perfectly good being. We can't due to {insert preferred form of ST here}.
  • ST undermines Alvin Plantinga's externalist religious epistemology because it provides at least one reason for thinking that God may wish to conceal certain forms of knowledge from us.

As a result of these unwelcome implications, I think ST cannot be consistently embraced by the committed theist. To rescue ST from the Room 101 of philosophy, its proponents need to show how the principles to which they appeal only apply to the specific claims made by Rowe and not to these other domains. At present, it is difficult to see how this could be done.


  1. Man this series was great. ST does more damage to theism than the evidential argument from evil. There is however something I didn't understand about ST. I can see why it's proponents need to make the claim that the probability of knowing God's intentions is inscrutable. This way Rowe's argument doesn't succeed, but what I don't understand is how can the claim be substantiated. Take for instance the Resurrection argument. One of the things it must account for is that God had the intention to raise Jesus from the dead. Doesn't this make it a 50-50 chance? Either God raised Jesus from the dead or God didn't. Can't we say this even if God is "holly other"? Why is the probability inscrutable as implied by ST?

    On a side note. I don't have access to Naquin's paper "Theism's Pyrrhic Victory". Do you perhaps know a different link to this paper or some other place where I can get hold of it?
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks Bogdan.

    Re: Naquin's paper: I have no other links for it. If you want a copy you can email me. My email is available through my profile page (lower right, click on "view my complete profile").

    As for the 50-50 probability of the resurrection, this cannot be determined simply by saying that either God did it or not. This is not how probabilities are established. I can't go into all the details here but, simplifying a lot, I can say that in order to determine the probability of something we need to know (i) how many options or possibilities there actually are and (ii) the prior or intrinsic probability that attaches to each of those possibilities.

    Imagine you are flipping a coin. How many possible outcomes are there? The obvious answer is two (Heads or Tails). That answer might be right if we were only considering physical possibility. It becomes more complicated if we consider metaphysical or logical possibilities. Could the coin land on its side? Could it disappear? Could it hover in the air and continue to oscillate back and forth between heads and tails? These things might be possible and they would have to be factored in. This is particularly problematic for theists because, when considering to the actions of God, these kinds of possibility need to be borne in mind.

    But let's suppose there are only two options. Would it then be correct to say that there is a 50-50 probability of heads or tails? Not necessarily. It could be that the coin is biased and, even though there are only two possible outcomes, one of them is more probable than the other.

    Looking back to the resurrection, as far as I can tell there is no clear consensus on the theological purpose behind that (alleged) event, but for the sake of argument let's suppose its purpose was to communicate a message of salvation (resurrection being distinct from the atonement).

    To determine the probability that God's existence would bestow on that event, we first need to know what options were available to God when it came to choosing the means of communicating salvation. Was it resurrection or nothing? Could he have simply directly communicated it to everybody? Could he have chosen someone other than Yeshua (Jesus)?

    Once we have determined the options available to God (assuming that is even possible) we would then need to know what probability could be attached to each of them. If the choice was resurrection or nothing, then it would seem like the probability rises to 1; if not, then all manner of different probabilities could arise.

    The particular problem for ST is that it completely rules out this kind of speculation about the options available to God and the probabilities attaching to those options. That is why the probability of the resurrection becomes inscrutable.

  3. Hi, just a slight clarification on Michael Bergmann's version of Skeptical Theism. As far as I know does not say that our sample of goods and evils is not representative of the totality of good and evil.

    What he does say is the following:
    (ST1) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible goods we know of are representative of the possible goods there are.
    (ST2) We have no good reason for thinking that the possible evils we know of are representative of the possible evils there are.
    (ST3) We have no good reason for thinking that the entailment relations we know of between possible goods and the permission of possible evils are representative of the entailment relations there are between possible goods and the permission of possible evils.

    I hope it's clear that the two are different and what he says is more plausible.

  4. With regard to:
    "Rowe argues that God, being omnipotent and omnibenevolent, could not allow for the existence of evil unless it was logically necessary in order to achieve some overriding good."

    This does initially seem like a plausible moral principle. However Peter Van Inwagen has a powerful reply to this in his book on the problem of evil, from around page 100 onwards. Sorry, I don't know if you've written about this already, but I just thought I'd mention it.

  5. If you're handy with modal logic, you might enjoy this argument:


  6. Hi Roman,

    Thanks for the comments. Of course, I've covered Bergmann's more detailed skeptical theses in earlier entries (and elsewhere on this blog). The above is just a summary which I think captures the basic principle (based on William Hasker's argument against Bergmann).

    Haven't read van Inwagen's book but thanks for the reference.


    Thanks for the link

  7. Hi John,

    Thanks for the response. I want try to clarify my point a bit:

    "Rowe cannot make the necessary inference because his sample of goods and evils is not representative of the totality of good and evil."

    I don't think that this is something that Bergmann would say. I think he would instead say that Rowe cannot make the necessary inference because he doesn't have good reasons to think that his sample of goods and evils and the connections between them is representative.

    This is perfectly compatible with saying that Rowe does in fact have a representative sample of goods, evils and the connections between them. Even if this were the case, he would still not be warranted in making the inference unless he had good reason to think that his sample is in fact representative.

    So to summarise, Bergmann would not say that the reason why Rowe's inference is a bad one is because Rowe doesn't have a representative sample. That is irrelevant to whether the inference is a good one, what matters is whether Rowe has good reason to think his sample is representative.

    Or so it seems to me...

  8. Roman,

    I see you're point and you're right. I'll change the wording.