March 04, 2012

Sceptical Theism and the Problem of Evil

I wonder if we can rely too much on "skeptical theism". To my understanding, it classically endorses these three theses:

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.

But, true or false: Skeptical theism then undermines any of our judgments about how likely it is that any state of affairs obtain, as God could have reasons to bring such a state about or prevent it.

For example, do you think it's unlikely that God would permit/cause a pink lizard to randomly materialize on top of your head tonight and then explode like a firecracker? Why do you think this is unlikely? Consider the butterfly effect and your complete inability to discern how this would change the course of history! So then, given an unmitigated skeptical theism, you should strip off any expectations you'd have about whether God will cause/permit this to happen tonight.


United States

Blake, I’ve never liked the term “sceptical theism” and don’t think I’ve ever used it to characterize my response to the problem of evil (unless, perhaps, in response to someone who used the term). I think it carries the wrong connotations. Typically, these folks have no positive natural theology to serve as a counterweight to the evidence against God posed by apparently gratuitous evil. But my robust natural theology makes my approach the antithesis of scepticism!

With respect to the apparent gratuity of evil in the world, I prefer simply to assert what seems evident on reflection, namely, that given a God endowed with middle knowledge, we’re just in no position to assert with any confidence that probably God doesn’t have a morally sufficient reason for permitting some incident of suffering which we experience.

So while you’re right that so-called sceptical theists often do affirm ST1 and ST2, these have been no part of my response to the problem of evil. In fact, I’ve named the goods that I think could justify God’s permission of moral and natural evils in the world. As for ST3, I’m not sure even sceptical theists would affirm what I take this to state; but I have never affirmed any such thing in my response to the problem of evil. I guess that means that I’m not a sceptical theist!

In any case, I don’t think your untoward consequences follow from what I’ve said or even from sceptical theism. For what one is talking about is evil or suffering in the world. The claim is that we have no basis for saying that any evil we experience is not justly permitted by God. That isn’t to say that we don’t have good non-moral grounds for thinking that certain events won’t occur. Take your pink lizard example. If someone were to object to this happening on moral grounds, then I’d agree with you. I have no reason to think that God could not be morally justified in allowing such an explosion on my head. Precisely for that reason when someone does suffer a traumatic head injury, say, on the construction site or in war, we’re not in a position to say that God lacks a morally sufficient reason for permitting it. But while we can’t exclude such a head injury on moral grounds, couldn’t we have other grounds for thinking that such an injury is unlikely to take place tonight by the magical appearance of a pink lizard on my head? It seems to me, for example, that I could have good grounds for thinking that God has created a universe which is endowed with natural laws and that miraculous interventions in it on His part are limited in nature and context. So while I wouldn’t rule it out that I might suffer from an explosion over my head, I have good reason to think that it will not be through the random materialization of a pink lizard as I lie in bed tonight.