Friday, October 1, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 8) - A Safer 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 Mark Piper's article "Why Theists cannot Accept Skeptical Theism?". As with all entries in this series, this post on Rowe's evidential problem of evil is an essential reference.

1. The Story so Far
In the previous post, we closed-out the discussion of Piper's cumulative case argument against skeptical theism (ST). As we saw, Piper argues that the skeptical principles employed by proponents of ST dissolve several areas of knowledge that theists need to sustain. In particular, Piper argued that:
  • (P1) ST makes confident knowledge of moral goodness and God's relation to goodness impossible.
  • (P2) ST threatens a good deal of theological knowledge.
  • (P3) ST undermines any arguments from the existence of a good state of affairs to the existence of a good God.
In the light of this, it is difficult to see how a theist can accept ST and remain a theist.

Piper's next task is to see whether there is anyway to moderate ST so that one can rebut the evidential problem evil without damaging one's overall commitment to theism. To make this discussion more perspicuous (from my perspective, if not from yours) I am going to introduce a new visualisation tool.

The image below depicts a web of belief. The web consists of five nodes of belief (with a sixth empty node) supporting one central belief. In this case, the five beliefs all relate to God's nature, his interventions in history, the ultimate path to salvation and our own cognitive limitations. Collectively, they support a central commitment to Christian Theism.

Christian Web of Belief

Some of the beliefs support one another, as is illustrated by the arrows connecting them. For present purposes, I am going to assume that this web of belief is representative of the average Christian. I have no doubt that in reality the web of belief for a given believer would be far more complex, consisting of religious and non-religious beliefs, and with far more interdependencies between the nodes. I think it would be useful to draw out a more complex web, but I don't think it is necessary for understanding the next stage in Piper's article.

The following image represents the state of the Christian's web of belief after they have been confronted with the problem of evil. As you can see, the problem of evil knocks out one of the original nodes (red arrow) and will thereby destabilise the overall commitment to Christianity. If I were being more bullish, I might suggest that the problem of evil knocks out more than this one node. However, I won't push that point right now.

Web of Belief after Problem of Evil

The next image depicts the skeptical theist response to the problem of evil. As you can see, the goal of the skeptical response is to prevent the belief in prima facie gratuitous evil from knocking out the belief in God's goodness. This essentially restores the Christian to their original position.

Web of Belief - Skeptical Theism to the Rescue

The following image represents the situation after the full import of skeptical theism has been considered (as in Piper's argument). The idea is that the skeptical theses propounded by the likes of Wykstra, Alston and Bergmann actually end up knocking out every important node in the Christian's web of belief. This is clearly unsustainable.

Web of Belief - The Spread of Skepticism

So what is the theist's response? How can they stop the spread of ST to other nodes in their web of belief? The answer is that they must introduce some addtional belief or commitment (a new "node" in the web) that stops the skepticism spreading and reinforces the commitment to the other beliefs. As in the image below.

Web of Belief - Stopping the Spread of Skepticism

Piper considers three possible additions to the web of belief: (i) faith-based considerations; (ii) independent philosophical arguments; and (iii) a more careful, limited formulation of ST.

2. Faith-Based Considerations
It could be that certain faith-based considerations help to support a limited version of skeptical theism and reinforce commitments to other aspects of Christian belief. However, these faith-based considerations must have some source, what is it?

Piper thinks that certain aspects of the bible could provide the appropriate source for such faith-based considerations. Specifically, he cites portions of Paul's letters to Romans and Corinthians, as well as God's confrontation with Job. These passages suggest that God may have beyond our ken reasons for justifying prima facie evil. Further passages could then be cited in support of God's goodness, core doctrines of faith and so on. Collectively, these would undermine Piper's argument against ST.

There are two problems with this response as it has been developed to this point. First, it technically amounts to an abandonment of ST. After all, it is now the pic-and-mix of biblical passages that is undermining the problem of evil, not considerations of CORNEA or cognitive limitations.

Furthermore, the response only works if we have some reason for believing that biblical revelations are true. It is not clear that we can have such reasons, at least not without renewing our licence to the epistemic strategies that gave rise to the evidential problem of evil in the first place.

At this stage, the committed believer may wish to claim that faith is beyond philosophical analysis and defence. If they wish to do so, that's fine, but in doing so they concede that no philosophical defence of a moderate ST is possible.

3. Outweighing Philosophical Argument
It may be that independent philosophical arguments lend some support to Christian theism such that concerns arising from spreading skepticism are overridden or outweighed.

Again, it is not clear how this could be done without reopening the evidential problem of evil. After all, independent arguments working from historical evidence, miracles, personal experience or design to the existence of a good God all depend on the principle of warranted induction (using what appears to be good to infer what is actually or ultimately good). Such warranted induction was what ST was designed to prevent. Even the ontological argument relies on our ability to imagine maximal goodness, something that ST-ists think we cannot imagine.

For example, Wykstra's CORNEA principle is supposed to show that "just because we cannot perceive X does not mean X does not exist". But surely the principle can also be used in reverse to argue that "just because we perceive X, does not mean that X exists"? Indeed, there are many everyday examples of hallucinations and mirages where what appeared to be the case was not actually the case. On CORNEA, why do we have any reason to think that we can properly interpret signs of God's existence?

Finally, other arguments, such as the cosmological argument, tend not to carry indications of God's goodness (or otherwise). Thus, it would seem like this attempt to moderate ST will fail.

4. Internal Limits of ST
It may be that we are misunderstanding the nature of ST. Perhaps ST, when properly understood, has internal limits that prevents the spread of skepticism outlined earlier. This proper understanding might look something like this:
The ST position is that our experience and knowledge is not representative of the kind of moral considerations that would figure in a God-justifying reason for permitting evils. Our experience and knowledge may be perfectly representative in relation to other matters.
The first problem with this kind of response is that skepticism of even God-justifying reasons for permitting evils may still be damaging for ordinary epistemic practices. Hasker raised this point when discussing Bergmann's form of ST. He argued that since the concern in the PoE is with evils affecting human beings, it would be disturbing if we lacked representative knowledge.

The second problem is that the response seems unjustifiably ad-hoc. The skeptical principles advanced by the likes of Alston, Wykstra and Bergmann do not seem to have the internal limits that they wish them to have. Concerns about metaphysical possibility, low seeability and unrepresentative sampling seem to apply equally well to other domains of knowledge.

5. Conclusion
Piper has argued that the basic tenets of ST have unwelcome implications: they force theists to give up their epistemic licence to make claims about certain core aspects of theistic belief. Furthermore, attempts to moderate ST so that the unwelcome implications do not arise seem doomed to failure. Consequently, theists cannot endorse ST.

That ends our discussion of Piper's article. In the final portion of this series I will consider the relationship between ST and Alvin Plantinga's religious epistemology.

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