I return now from my hiatus to blog through the last three chapters of Sobel's Logic and Theism. There are two chapters on arguments against the existence of God, mostly focused on arguments from evil, and one on Pascalian wagers.
In chapter 11, section 4, Sobel presents what he takes to be Hume's evidential argument from evil, and discusses skeptical theist responses to it. Now, in general, the dialectic between the evidential arguer from evil and the skeptical theist goes something like this: the evidential arguer from evil says, a perfect being would probably create a world with very little (or no) evil, but this world has lots of evil, so it was probably not created by a perfect being. The skeptical theist responds, how should I (who am imperfect) know what a perfect being would do?
Now, according to Sobel, Hume's version of the evidential argument from evil includes an important maneuver which he calls the 'beforehand-switch.' The idea is that a hypothesis is best evaluated by considering what we would predict, using the hypothesis, if we didn't already know the outcome. So, for instance, we evaluate Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation by pretending we don't already know the orbits of the planets and using the law to predict them. Suppose, says Sobel's Hume, that we do the same for the hypothesis that the world was created by a perfect being. We pretend we don't know anything about what the world is like, and try to predict what world the perfect being will create. Everyone, it seems, should agree that we would predict that the world would have a lot less pain and suffering in it, and it is surely unreasonable of the skeptical theist to deny that this would be our prediction and that we would be justified in making this prediction.
In general I'm a little hesitant about skeptical theism. I worry that the skepticism will spread. However, it seems to me that the skeptical theist is actually in a very strong position here. The skeptical theist should say that, while we would indeed predict that the world would have much less pain and suffering in it, we would have very strong reasons for being extremely hesitant about our predictions. If we want to keep up the comparison to physics I introduced earlier, we can say that it is as though we have a physical theory which involves intractable mathematical problems, and have made liberal use of approximations and simplifying assumptions of questionable validity in order to come up with what can only be called a guess. The fact that the guess we make is the only reasonable one to make given our capacities and the information that we have does not make it any more than a guess. As a result, it should have little effect on our overall evaluation of theism.
To see why this is so, let's think about what we would actually do if we were trying to put ourselves in the 'beforehand' position and say what kind of world we think would be created. It seems to me that we would simply come up with the best sort of world we could think of. However, it ought to be obvious that the best sort of world that could be created by a perfect being would be radically different from the best sort of world I can think of! Here are just a few reasons, which are commonly cited in the skeptical theism literature:
The reason Sobel's reconstruction of Hume's argument falls to these skeptical considerations is that it asks us to consider the world as a whole, something that we are not well equipped to do. Here is a strategy for an evidential argument from evil that wouldn't have this problem: Evil is a widespread and undeniable phenomenon. It is very difficult to come up with an explanation for this phenomenon in terms of the theistic hypothesis. As a result, any competing hypothesis which easily and satisfactorily explains evil is, ceteris paribus, to be preferred to theism. This kind of argument comes to a more modest conclusion, but is, I think, more difficult to diffuse by raising skeptical worries. It is because of this sort of consideration that I think evil should be regarded as a genuine problem for, but not a decisive refutation of, theism.
(cross-posted at The Prosblogion)Posted by Kenny at January 19, 2011 9:27 PM
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