OHPT: Thoughts on Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil (Chapter 17)

And with these, we start the last 10 essays of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. I have scheduled all the future posts (blank posts; just placeholders) so that I don’t forget them as I start my second-to-last semester in my MA program. This is going to be an intense semester, so I’m trying to get myself as organized as possible this week.

BUT you’re not here for me to stress out a bit about my schedule; you’re here for the philosophical theology! Or rather, for my reviews of philosophical theology (though I like to fancy myself as participating in it somewhat as well as reviewing it).

Chapter 17 on “Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil” was written by Michael Bergmann, professor of philosophy at Purdue University. His analytic philosophy focuses on epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion, mostly focusing on the problem of evil in the latter realm.

In this chapter, Bergmann presents skeptical theism, both defenses of and objections to it. Skeptical theism is the position saying we cannot know all the goods and evils to which God is responding in allowing the evils she does. There are a whole host of goods and evils that we cannot see, and a whole host of causal relationships between goods and evils across time and space that we cannot see, which means we cannot make a pronouncement of any evil that there is absolutely no God-justifying reason for allowing it. Like my question in a prior post, it points to the limitations of our knowledge, compares that to the perfect knowledge of the assumed perfect (and existing) God, and points to our ignorance as that which should limit what pronouncements we make on what evil is justifiable on the level of God.

There’s a lot to talk about here (I feel like I always say this, but it is always true – I’m definitely skimming the surface with these posts), but there are two things that stood out to me. First was when Bergmann, in discussion of some of Richard Swinburne’s criticisms against skeptical theism, said that we cannot grant Swinburne’s claim that for an evil X it appears that there is no God-justifying reason for permitting that evil. Bergmann says that the skeptical theist’s whole stance is that it doesn’t appear that there is no God-justifying reason, nor does it appear that there is such a reason (387). Bergmann likens this claim of appearance to someone standing on the sidewalk looking into a garage from that distance and saying it appears as though there are no bugs in the garage. Bergmann says it doesn’t appear as though there are no bugs because we aren’t close enough to make a claim to appearance.

I’m not thrilled with this counter to Swinburne’s objection. It seems to deny the reliability of our senses, of what appears to us to be reality. I think there is a difference between acknowledging the existence of possibilities we can’t see and also acknowledging that from all we can tell, certain things appear to be the case. Appearance is entirely perspective-bound and limited; why should that mean we cannot make any pronouncements about appearance? When we acknowledge our limitations around appearance and seek to lessen them (aka, get closer to the garage), why can’t we make more confident claims about appearance matching reality? If we can’t, how can we make pronouncements about anything? Especially God?

Also, what is stopping us from assuming there is more evil that is happening from a supposed good deed than we see? The assumption of unknown consequences in skeptical theism tends to assume “there could be more goods than we can see!” rather than “this good might not be outweighed by the evil it produces overall!” I suppose that’s the “theism” assumption showing up, but we want to be true to the skeptical part about goods and evils, we have to assume some further evils could be produced, as well. Our ignorance should not assume good but rather allow the possibility of either good or evil.

The other thing of which I took particular note (a topic that ends up being similar to the above, interestingly enough) had less to do with the skeptical theism and more to do with my own thoughts on ethics: several times Bergmann emphasizes that ethics is both deontological and consequentialist; aka, we have both duties to consider (hi, Kant! *waves*) and consequences to consider — at least, the consequences we can foresee (hi, Mill! *waves*). I think the point of this is that with the skeptical theism, we could be put in a position where we feel we are duty-bound to act in one way, but see that it will (or very likely could) have devastating consequences for someone in the short-term. Skeptical theism may lead someone to suggest that those harms are justifiable because we don’t know what good God is planning to do through us doing the duty she assigned. (An oft-used example of this dilemma would be a family hiding Jews in their attic, and when SS agents come to the door and ask if they are hiding Jews, having to decide between protecting those under their care from torture and likely death and breaking the commandment not to lie.)

I’ve long thought that no “pure” ethical system is satisfactory, but that they all bring something true and helpful about relating to others to the ethical threshing floor. I like Bergmann’s reiteration of this interplay, even though it’s not spelled out in great detail (he had other things to attend to).

Another thing this stance on ethics points to is the reliability of our judgments and our senses. A skeptical theist position could lead to us not putting much stock in our assessments of what is good and evil in the world, even to not trusting our senses. Perhaps this doesn’t lead us quite into Cartesian doubt, but it certainly brings into question our ability to make true statements about what actions are good and which are evil, which are to be encouraged and which are to be discouraged. If we can’t see all the goods and evils that God can or will bring about through our actions, and have no real way of knowing whether the good we bring about will outweigh the evil we bring about in some action, then how can we know how to act? How can we assess our actions and the rightness, wrongness, praiseworthiness, or blameworthiness of anything we do? If we don’t have a strong appreciation for foreseeable consequences as justifications for making decisions, our skepticism will somewhat paralyze us.

It’s becoming clear to me that my main concern with skeptical theism is the way it undermines the already-limited knowledge, perspectives, and reason we have available to us now. Bergmann does talk about how some believe skeptical theism leads to “unacceptable” forms of skepticism, for both theists and non-theists, and I think this is where I fall. If we want to assume a good God, we should assume that in her goodness she gave us rational capacities that have access to truth, even if in limited form. It would be a cruel God who gave us rational capacities but no access to truth so that we are deceived our whole lives. (How could we possibly justify the existence of evil then?) Skeptical theism is a clever way of trying to answer the problem of evil, but I do think it leads into some unfortunate other skepticisms that don’t fit with the whole of what theism is trying to defend (and skepticisms I can’t quite get on board with).

Favorite quote:

We needn’t conclude from this that the skeptical theist’s skepticism is inconsistent with every way of arguing for the existence of a good God (just as we needn’t conclude it is inconsistent with every atheistic argument). But there’s no doubt that some theistic arguments collapse under pressure from [its main claims].

Bergmann 389

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