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Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies: The McBrayer/Swenson response to Wielenberg
1. Skeptical Theism
Evidential arguments from evil often[i] take something like the following form:
If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
Gratuitous evil exists.
Therefore, God does not exist
Gratuitous evil is evil for which there is no God-justifying reason. Why suppose gratuitous evil exists? Well, we observe great evils for which we can identify no God-justifying reason. Thus, it is suggested, it’s reasonable to believe gratuitous evil exists.
The skeptical theist challenges the reasoning offered in support of the second premise. True, we are sometimes justified in inferring that there are no Fs on the basis that there do not appear to be any Fs. I am justified in believing there are no elephants in my garage if there do not appear to be any elephants. But such Noseeum Inferences (REF), as they are known, aren’t always sound. I am not justified in supposing there are no insects in my garage just because there do not appear to me to be any. Given my perceptual limitations, there could, for all I know, still be insects present. But then, given my cognitive limitations, there could, for all I know, be God-justifying reasons for the evils I observe despite the fact that I cannot identify any. I am not in a position to claim with any confidence either that such reasons exist, or that they do not. According to the skeptical theist, the probability that such reasons exist is inscrutable to me. But then I must withhold judgement on whether the second premise is true.
Skeptical theists sometimes draw a chess analogy. We are, it is suggested, like chess novices trying to comprehend why a Chess Grand Master has made the move she has. Given our cognitive limitations relative to the Chess Grand Master, the fact that the novices cannot think of a good reason for Grand Master’s move does not make it reasonable for them to believe there is no reason. Similarly, given our cognitive limitations relative to God, the fact that we cannot think of a God-justifying reason for the evils we observe does not make it reasonable for us to believe there is no reason.
As McBrayer and Swenson, two exponents of skeptical theism, point out, the skeptical theist’s applies not just to evils, but to any feature of the universe we might observe. Our inability to think of a God justifying reason for X, where X is some observed feature of the universe, is no reason to think that there is no such reason. Thus, according to McBrayer and Swenson, “we are not in a position to make all-things-considered judgements about what the world would be like if there were a God.” (REF) According to McBrayer and Swenson,
“What a sceptical theist is committed to… is a general scepticism about our knowledge of what God would do in any particular situation. We don’t think that atheists or theists can say with any serious degree of confidence why God does what he does or why he would or wouldn't do a certain thing.” (REF)
2. Skeptical theism and knowledge of God’s goodness
As McBrayer and Swenson acknowledge, skeptical theism threatens many popular arguments for the existence of the God of traditional monotheism. How are we to know that, not only is there an omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe, but that this creator is good? Not, according to these authors, by observing the universe and drawing conclusions about the moral character of God on that basis. Skeptical theism has the consequence that what we observe of the universe and what goes on in it gives us no clue as to the moral character of our creator, if any.
Michael Bergmann, another skeptical theist, concurs that arguments for God’s goodness based on identifying something as an all-considered good are undermined by skeptical theism. According to Bergmann, anyone who considers the order we see in the natural world or the joy we witness in people’s lives give us reason to think that there is a good being who is the cause of such things is failing to take into account the lessons of skeptical theism. (2009 p.617)
However, all these authors are quick to point out that the fact that this particular route to justified belief in God’s goodness is blocked by skeptical theism does rule out our possessing justified belief in God’s goodness by some other route. Alternative ways by which we might come to hold such a reasonable belief presumably include divine revelation and perhaps also some other form of inference not vulnerable to skeptical theism. As Bergmann says: “We needn’t conclude … that the skeptical theist’s skepticism is inconsistent with every way of arguing for the existence of a good God.” 2009, pREF
3. Wielenberg on Divine Lies
In his paper “Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies” (2009), Erik Wielenberg points out what appears to be an interesting and, for many theists, deeply worrying consequence of skeptical theism. If the fact that we cannot think of a justification for a given evil fails to justify the belief that no such justification exists, then the fact that we cannot think of a justification for God lying to us fails to justify the belief that no such justification exists. If skeptical theism is true, then the probability that God is lying to us is also inscrutable to us. But then, according to Wielenberg, skeptical theism has the consequence that, for all we know know, God’s word constitutes not divine revelation but rather a justified, divine lie.
And this in turn implies that skeptical theism is at odds with any religious tradition according to which there are certain claims that we can know to be true solely in virtue of the fact that God has told us they are true. (2009 p509)
Such claims appear to include, for example, the Christian claim that all who believe in Christ will have eternal life. A Christian who, in response to the problem of evil, expresses skepticism about our ability to discern what reasons God might have to allow evil, but, in response to God’s utterances, fails to be similarly skeptical about our ability to discern what reasons might have to lie to us, is would appear to be employing their skepticism in an inconsistent and partisan way.
4. McBrayer and Swenson’s response to Wielenberg
In response to Weilenberg’s argument, McBrayer and Swenson maintain that, for the mainstream religious folk who employ skeptical theism to deal with the problem of evil, Wielenberg’s argument, “is not as scary as it first appears”. The skeptical theist should grant the possibility of divine lies. However,
(o)ther things being equal, God would, of course, tell us only what was true. This isn’t an all-things-considered judgement but a ceteris paribus one. Only the former is off limits according to sceptical theism. But since we’re in no position to determine whether or not the ceteris paribus clause is met, we should allow that it is possible that God is lying to us.
McBrayer and Swenson’s thought here seems to be that, given that we know that, ceteris paribus, God would tell us the truth, it’s reasonable for us to believe what he tells us. True, given skeptical theism, we cannot know, all things considered, whether or not that ceteris paribus clause is met. But this is to acknowledge only the possibility of God lying to us. If we know that, other things being equal, God would tell the truth, we can remain justifiably confident about the truth of his pronouncements, just as we can justifiably remain confident about the pronouncements of other people even while acknowledging the possibility that they are lying, as McBrayer and Swenson go on to explain:
People have deceived us in the past. And in many cases, we simply can’t tell whether they are being deceitful in any given instance. And yet we think it’s perfectly rational to accept the testimony of such people. Thus it is appropriate to accept testimony in general even though we know that it is possible the testimony is misleading. Given this epistemic fact, it is also appropriate to accept the testimony of God even though we know that it is possible that God is deceiving us.” (McBrayer and Swenson, p148, see also McBrayer ST 2010 617
5. Why McBrayer and Swenson’s response to Wielenberg fails
Consider McBrayer and Swenson’s claim that
(G) Ceteris paribus: God would tell us only what is true
How should this claim to be understood? Ceteris paribus claims often take the form of generalizations that license predictions. Consider:
(T) Ceteris paribus: cats live more then six years
The suggestion here is that as a general rule (more often than not, setting aside just a few exceptions) cats live more then six years. Thus understood, (T) licenses predictions. It allows me justifiably to conclude that my cat Tiddles will, or will probably, live more than six years (assuming, of course, that I have reason to believe or suspect that the ceteris paribus condition is not met).
However, ceteris paribus claims don’t always license predictions. Consider:
(J) Ceteris paribus, John would be naked at home
Note the subjunctive mood of what follows the ceteris paribus clause. (J) would not usually be understood to license the prediction that, as John is home, he is, or is probably, naked. It might well be the case that, though, other things being equal, John would be naked at home, other things rarely are equal. Perhaps, though being naked is John’s strong preference, John does not live alone and so, out of courtesy to his easily offended cohabitees, he usually remains clothed.
Let’s now return to McBrayer and Swenson’s (G) and ask: how should (G) to be understood?
Given the subjunctive mood of what follows the ceteris paribus clause, it appears (G) does not allow us to conclude that God usually, for the most part, tells the truth. Even granted (G), God’s telling the truth may be the exception rather than the rule.
But then, thus understood, it is hard to see how (G) provides McBrayer and Swenson with the basis for an effective response to Wielenberg. Suppose we know God is good. Then perhaps we can know that, when other things are equal, God tells us only the truth. However, Wielenberg’s point is that if skeptical theism is true then, for all we know, things rarely are equal. But then, (G) fails to provide us with any grounds for trusting what God says. It’s not merely possible God lies regularly. For all any of us know, God does lie regularly. (G) no more justifies our believing that, as God asserts that P, P is, or is probably, true than (J) justifies our believing that, as John’s home, John is, or is probably, naked.
But perhaps, despite employing the subjunctive mood, McBrayer and Swenson do nevertheless intend (G) to be understood as asserting or supporting a generalization about what God will do: as a general rule, for the most part, setting aside a few exceptions, if God asserts that P then P is true. But if that is how (G) should be understood, then it’s hard to see how McBrayer and Swenson can know (G) is true. Wielenberg’s point is that if skeptical theism is true, then none of us are in a position to know what God would do. But then none of us are in a position to know that God usually tells the truth.
True, it’s usually reasonable to trust other people. The possibility that they are lying to us should not lead us to distrust what they say. But Weilenberg’s point is not that, if skeptical theism is true, then it is possible that God is lying to us. It is that of skeptical theism is true then for all we know God is lying to us. So skeptical theism has the consequence that we should distrust what God says. Skeptical theism does not justify a similar scepticism about what other people say because it does not have the consequence that, for all we know, other people are lying to us. As McBrayer and Swenson point out (p 145), I have no reason to suppose other human beings have access to a potential range of action-justifying reasons that I, given my own human cognitive limitations, cannot access. Moreover, I have good inductive evidence that other humans do generally tell the truth. Thus, given skeptical theism, it remains reasonable for me to believe what other people tell me, but not what God tells me.
[i] Not all arguments from evil have this form. For an important exception, see Paul Draper’s version of the argument presented in his 1989 paper “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists.” Nous 23: 331-50. Reprinted in Howard-Snyder, Daniel (ed.) 1996 The Evidential Argument From Evil Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 12-29.