Wielenberg’s Divine Lies, and McBrayer and Swenson’s response – my comments for feedback

 

Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception: 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 have come to be 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 around. But then, given my cognitive limitations relative to God, there could, for all I know, be God-justifying reasons for the evils I observe despite the fact that I cannot identify any. Given my cognitive limitations, I cannot reasonably assign any probability to the thought that such reasons exist: neither high, nor low, nor middling. The probability 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 their 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 a number of 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 provides no clue 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 not 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.

 

5. 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

 

6. The failure of McBrayer and Swenson’s response to Wielenberg

 

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. The suggestion is not that, as a general rule, setting aside a few exceptions, John is naked at home. (J) allows that other things may rarely, if ever, be equal. Perhaps, though being naked is John’s strong preference, John does not live alone and, 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 its subjunctive mood, the most natural reading of (G) does not allow us to conclude that generally speaking, setting aside a few exceptions, God will tell us 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, other things being equal, God is honest. 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 lies regularly. (G) no more justifies our believing that, as God asserts that P, P is true than (J) justifies our believing that, as John is home, John is naked.

 

But perhaps, appearances to the contrary, 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, 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 that it is true. Wielenberg’s point is that if skeptical theism is correct, then none of us are in a position to know what God will do. But then none of us are in a position to know that God will usually tell 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 of course Weilenberg’s point is that, if skeptical theism is true, it is not just possible God is lying to us: for all we know God is lying to us. So skeptical theism has the consequence that we should distrust God’s assertions. Skeptical theism does not appear to 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 themselves point out (p 145), I have no reason to suspect other human beings have access to action-justifying reasons that I, given my own human limitations, cannot access: “we have a pretty good idea of the cognitive, moral, and other limitations of fellow humans.” (REF p145). Moreover, I have good inductive evidence that other humans do generally tell the truth. Thus, even given skeptical theism, it remains reasonable for me to believe what other humans tell me. However, it appears skeptical theism does have the consequence that I should suspend judgement about the truth of propositions having word of God justification only.


[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.

About Stephen Law
  • Greg G.

    The Problem of Evil is most effective against the type of god theists want to believe in. They seldom understand it. If God is omnipotent, he could achieve any goal with or without evil. That means all evil is unnecessary. Evil exists so God is either not omnipotent, not even potent enough to prevent evil, or he chooses for there to be gratuitous evil. So why call him God?

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen,

    “If skeptical theism is true, then the probability that God is lying to us is also inscrutable to us.”

    I think that’s the critical, but also weak link. The argument from evil is a defeater of theistic belief, and the skeptical thesis is a defeater-defeater. But a skeptical defeater is applicable only to what doesn’t appear to fit. So skeptical theism is applicable to instances of apparently gratuitous evils, since such instances would not fit with theism. But is not applicable to other facts that fit perfectly well with theism. Defeaters depend on one’s starting position and are not symmetric.

    The chess analogy comes handy. Suppose you are a novice and you watch a match where a grand master plays white. You observe the grand master move her white queen in a position that a black bishop can capture. You immediately form the belief that this is a bad move, but you have a skeptical defeater for that belief, namely the fact that you are only a novice judging a move by a grand master, so you wouldn’t be able to see what’s good in that unexpected move even if it in fact is good. But suppose that at some other time you see the black knight move into a position that attacks the white queen, and you observe the grand master move her queen. Now you immediately form the belief that this is a good move, and the fact that you are a novice does not provide you with a defeater for that belief. After all even a novice knows that when one’s queen is attacked with a knight one usually moves one’s queen.

    In short: When we novices tend to form the belief that the grand master is making a bad move then we do have a skeptical defeater for that belief. But when we novices tend to form the belief that the grand master is making a good move then we don’t have a skeptical defeater for that belief.

    Analogously: When we theists tend to form the belief that God is making a bad move (such as allowing what appears to be gratuitous evil to obtain) then we do have a skeptical defeater for that belief. But when we theists tend to form the belief that God is making a good move (such as not lying to us) then we don’t have a skeptical defeater for that belief.

    • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

      Wielenberg’s claim is that if it is true that, for all we know, seemingly bad things (such as childhood cancer) are actually good (since they faciliatate goods unknown to us) or at least justified for God to allow them, then, for all we know, something seemingly bad such as God lying to us, might actually be good or at least justified.

      Your chess analogy compares a seemingly bad move (which chess novices are in no position to judge) with a seemingly good move (which chess novices are in a position to judge). But Wielenberg’s argument concerns two seemingly bad moves: allowing evils, on the one hand, and lying, on the other. If we axiological novices (which is what we are, according to skeptical theism) are not in a position to judge God’s allowing evil as a bad move, nor are we allowed to judge a hypothetical case of God’s lying as a bad move.

      The upshot is that the theist cannot respond to Wielenberg by claiming that lying would be a bad move and since God is good, he wouldn’t do it. Wielenberg’s point is that is skeptical theism is true, then, for all we know, God’s lying might be a good move.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

        Jason,

        “But Wielenberg’s argument concerns two seemingly bad moves: allowing evils, on the one hand, and lying, on the other.”

        Just a sec. The second move is not given. We don’t have any evidence whatsoever that God is lying to us. On the contrary, on the religious experience we have plenty of evidence that God is *not* lying to us. Namely, the beauty of the world, the wisdom of scripture and religious tradition, the solace and moral empowering of prayer, the sheer joy and safety that comes from the religious life, the fact that for almost all people almost all of the time life is a very good and meaningful thing indeed. All that evidence reveals the goodness of God and of God’s purpose in creation. And that evidence we can readily understand since we immediately see how it fits with God’s nature.

        So we face two pieces of evidence: The evidence of what appears to be a bad move by God, one that is difficult to see how it fits with God’s nature, namely many apparently gratuitous evils in the world, including some horrendous ones. And then we have the evidence of what appears to be a good move by God, one that is easy to see how it fits with God’s nature, namely all the goodness in the world that speaks of God’s love and care for us. Skepticism about the former evidence which we don’t easily understand does not carry over to the latter evidence which we do easily understand.

        Let me try another analogy. Suppose a homicide detective believes that the butler is the murderer since the evidence fits the story of how he committed the murder, and does not fit the story of anybody else committing the murder. Now two new pieces of evidence, A and B, are discovered. Evidence A fits the story of how the butler committed the murder, so if anything it increases the probability that he is the murderer. But evidence B does not fit the story. On further thought though the detective realizes that he doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to properly evaluate evidence B. And that even if B did fit the story he would not be able to see it. Thus the detective has a skeptical defeater of B. But nothing like that is the case with evidence A which plainly does fit the story. So the skeptical defeat of B in no way affects the epistemic status of evidence A.

        • John

          “on the religious experience we have plenty of evidence that God is *not* lying to us. Namely, the beauty of the world…”

          Suppose I claim that the beauty of the world is evidence that there are an even number of footprints on the moon. What could you say to that, except to point out that those two ideas apparently have no relevant connection to each other? Now you know how some of us feel with regard what you just wrote (including the points you made next). The beauty in the world is no more and no less likely on the hypothesis that “theism is true and God has a morally sufficient reason to lie about some things” than on the hypothesis that “theism is true and God never lies about anything.”

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            “The beauty in the world is no more and no less likely on the hypothesis that “theism is true and God has a morally sufficient reason to lie about some things” than on the hypothesis that “theism is true and God never lies about anything.”

            Well, on theism the beauty of the world clearly speaks a truth, namely that God values beauty. And that God desires us to enjoy creation as much as possible. (Further, the beauty of the world is more probably on the God hypothesis than on Stephen Law’s evil creator hypothesis.)

            The evidence that God is never lying to us is based on our observation that in *all* cases where we hold that God is speaking to us what we hear is true. If you can suggest one case where on theism God is speaking to us and lying to us, I’d like to hear of it.

          • sam

            “If you can suggest one case where on theism God is speaking to us and lying to us, I’d like to hear of it.”
            Steven Carr has provided you with three cases within this thread. If you accept some kind of supernatural inspiration of the xian bible, as your comment “wisdom of the scriptures” seems to indicate, then EZ 14:9, DT 13:1-5, 1KI22:21-23, JE 4:10, JE 8:8-10, 2TH 2:11-12, 2CO 4:3-4 all constitute cases where “yhwh” confesses that it engages in deception.

          • John

            “Well, on theism the beauty of the world clearly speaks a truth, namely that God values beauty.”

            Suppose I were to say that the rape in the world clearly speaks a truth, namely that a deity exists that values rape. Is my claim true, too? If not, why prefer your claim over mine? It seems that you are saying the nice things in the world are evidence that God exists, but the nasty things in the world are not evidence he does not. To many of us, that looks like a double standard.

            “If you can suggest one case where on theism God is speaking to us and lying to us, I’d like to hear of it.”

            The Koran declares that “Allah is the best of deceivers.” In the Bible, Jesus twice, in Mark 4:12 and Matthew 13:13, says that He speaks in parables expressly so that some might misunderstand the truth and remain unsaved. In Exodus 14:8-10 God was supposedly “hardened the heart” of Pharaoh, which seems akin to some sort of deceptive mind control (see also Romans 9). In Genesis 22, God’s actions towards Abraham in making Isaac a sacrifice, can’t reasonably be described as anything other than deception. These are just a few examples I know off the top of my head from two religions – I am sure there are many more in other religions.

            I don’t deny that one could creatively “harmonise” all the texts, and take them to mean something different, in the same way that one could claim that “black” means “white”. My claim is that anyone approaching these texts without some sort of agenda or preconceived view about them would take them as evidence that at least sometimes, God deliberately deceives people.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            “Suppose I were to say that the rape in the world clearly speaks a truth, namely that a deity exists that values rape. Is my claim true, too?”

            I am not sure how you mean this. Suppose in a hypothetical world a creator deity exists who values rape, and has created a universe so that it speaks of that fact – say by making creatures value rape, find it beautiful, etc. In that world that deity would be talking the truth. I don’t see any problems there.

            I suppose then that by “in the world” you mean “in the actual world”. Well, in our world we are made with a moral compass that abhors rape. We plainly see that rape is a very ugly thing. Indeed we find it evident that rape is objectively evil, evil in itself independently of how sociobiological evolution should explain why feel this way. The facts of the actual world then fit with theism perfectly well. And in no way evidence that God, the greatest conceivable being, is lying to us.

            “It seems that you are saying the nice things in the world are evidence that God exists, but the nasty things in the world are not evidence he does not. To many of us, that looks like a double standard.”

            I dealt with that objection in a previous post. (It’s in the post that starts with “Jason and John” and in the paragraph which starts with “Now the above may strike one as being circular”.)

            “In the Bible, Jesus twice, in Mark 4:12 and Matthew 13:13, says that He speaks in parables expressly so that some might misunderstand the truth and remain unsaved.”

            As I explained above in my post to Sam I hold that a theist should *not* think that scripture is to be understood literally, or in general that it should be considered some kind of perfect source. Having said that I am always impressed when an atheist appears to know the Gospels better than I do – I did not recall these passages. Anyway, first of all it is obvious that the parables make it easier, not more difficult, to understand some truth. So I take it this is indisputable.

            As for the particular texts you point to, I don’t know how to understand them. Perhaps there is nothing there to understand. Nevertheless I notice that the first two verses of Isaiah quoted are quite suggestive of what we have been discussing in this thread. Here are the verses:

            Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
            be ever seeing, but never perceiving.

            Indeed, on theism that’s how it is, isn’t it? We hear but don’t understand, we see but not perceive. It is quite interesting to note that the very first theists thousands of years ago were already perplexed by God’s hiddenness. Surely God wants to be hidden, but why? The explanation that Isaiah gives sounds like he is saying that an angry God wants people not to see or hear lest they be “healed”. Which to me sounds entirely wrong, as I understand it does to you. Also, Isaiah’s explanation doest not comport with the explanation to the same problem given in John Hick’s soul-building theodicy, which I happen to think is on the right track.

            As a final point, my sense of the beatitudes is not that by seeing God one is healed, but rather that by being healed one sees God. Come to think of it perhaps both work together. An analogy from the light that illuminates the path and the path that leads to the light, may be helpful: Seeing the light helps us find our way, and following that way we come closer to the light and see it clearer.

        • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

          “Namely, the beauty of the world, the wisdom of scripture and religious tradition, the solace and moral empowering of prayer, the sheer joy and safety that comes from the religious life, the fact that for almost all people almost all of the time life is a very good and meaningful thing indeed. ”

          I don’t see that any of this is evidence that God is not lying. Let’s take the beauty of the world. An artist might create a beautiful masterpiece, but that does not tell us that he is honest.
          I don’t see that prayer provides solace of moral empowerment. But, even if it does. that is not evidence for God’s honesty. It is certainly not evidence that God never lies.
          The religious life makes a person no more safe than the non-religious life. Many non-religious people live joy-filled lives. More to the point, I don’t see how this connects in any way to God’s honesty.
          Life is not almost always very good for most people. Rather, life is almost always a very mixed bag with some good but a whole lot of bad.

          I just don’t think you have evidence that God is honest.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Jason and John,

            Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear. We are discussing the claim “we have plenty of evidence that God is not lying to us”. Let me trust to justify this claim more carefully.

            First of all that claim only makes sense if theism is true. Thus the “we” refers to theists. I am discussing the claim that from a theist’s point of view there is plenty of evidence that God is not lying to us. From the naturalist’s point of view that claim makes no sense in the first place, since one can only by lied to by somebody who exists.

            Now from the theist’s point of view God speaks to us in a myriad ways. The beauty of creation is definitely one of these ways. The overall goodness of the world, since life for almost all of us for almost all the time is considered to be a very valuable thing, is another way. Our moral compass, or how we value things, is another way. The experience of solace and moral empowerment while praying is another way. The wisdom one finds in scripture and in general in many writings in all the great religions is another way. The blessings of the religious life is another way. That reason kind of pushes us towards belief in God is another way. How good it feels when one chooses to do good is another. The overwhelming sense of the value of self-transcendent love is another. Our sense of empathy with loved ones but also sometimes with strangers, and even with animals, and even with stones, is another.

            Now what do all these ways by which on theism God speaks to us tell us? They all tell us truths. Namely that the world is a fundamentally good place, that our life has deep meaning, that God exists, is good, is loving, and is caring of each one of us, what it is that God values, and the unity of all creation and of all creatures. Thus, on theism, the evidence is overwhelming that God is telling us the truth and never lying.

            But then what about the negative messages in life? What about the apparent indifference of nature? What about our feelings of horror and alienation? What about the certainty of death and how, on the face of it, it seems to be final? Doesn’t God through these aspects of the human condition lie to us? Well, on theism these characterise the so-called “fallen” nature of the world – precisely in the sense that God is *not* in them.

            Now the above may strike one as being circular. It looks like I arbitrarily put everything that speaks of theistic truths in the class of phenomena by which God speaks to us, and everything else that suggests the absence of God in the class of phenomena where according to theism God is not speaking to us. But that circularity is only apparent. First of all, it does not make sense to look for what a person is telling to us in a state of affairs in which that person appears not to be there to tell us anything in the first place. So, for example, it’s absurd to look for what God is telling us in the indifference of mechanical nature. And secondly, as a matter of fact theism has always considered the former phenomena as God’s way of speaking of us, and the latter phenomena as making as realize the bitterness of the absence of God and as motivating us to search for God. That’s how theism as a matter of fact and for time immemorial views the world. In conclusion, to ask the theist why she believes that God is not lying to her pointing out cases characterized by the absence of God and/or cases where she believes it’s not God speaking to her – makes no sense. Conversely in all cases where the theist believes that God is speaking her, what God says is plainly true.

            Going back to the chess analogy, it’s like asking the novice observing the game to evaluate a bad move which she hasn’t seen the grand master making. And coming back to the detective analogy it’s like asking the detective to explain a piece of contrary evidence which isn’t there. In general one always thinks about the evidence one has. In the context of the actual world one can’t think about non-existing evidence, since that is a contradiction in terms.

            Or let me suggest a new analogy. Imagine that God is like the source of light in a dark place. Where we see the rays of light be the brightest, there indeed truthfully we are close to the light source. And where we hardly see any rays of light, there truthfully is not the light source. It makes not sense to suggest that the light source is “lying” to us because we don’t see its rays when we look in the wrong place.

          • John

            “Now what do all these ways by which on theism God speaks to us tell us? They all tell us truths. Namely that the world is a fundamentally good place, that our life has deep meaning, that God exists, is good, is loving, and is caring of each one of us, what it is that God values, and the unity of all creation and of all creatures. Thus, on theism, the evidence is overwhelming that God is telling us the truth and never lying.”

            Are you denying that someone who loves someone else could lie to them for a good reason? I see no reason to believe that. If there are Nazis at my door, and there are Jewish children hiding in my loft who will scream if they know this (and thereby give themselves away), I might well lie to the children BECAUSE I love them. Maybe you are merely claiming that all else being equal, it is reasonable to suppose it is LIKELY that someone who loves someone else would not lie to them. But there is just as much reason to say that all else being equal, it is reasonable to suppose it is LIKELY that someone who loves someone else would not stand by and watch them be tortured and murdered (as God allegedly does).

            “On theism these characterise the so-called “fallen” nature of the world”

            Is there any evidence the world is “fallen,” even if theism is true? If so, what it it? What does the claim even mean? I thought most smart people now knew the story of Adam and Eve is a myth.

            “First of all, it does not make sense to look for what a person is telling to us in a state of affairs in which that person appears not to be there to tell us anything in the first place.”

            What is the criterion for ascertaining whether God APPEARS to be talking to us in some phenomenon? I agree that theists say that the God appears to be talking to us in the beauty of nature, say, and not in natural disasters, but that strikes me as special pleading and indicative of a double standard. Why don’t theists say that God is telling us in natural disasters that he has good reasons beyond our ken to make things seem to us other than they really are?

            “as a matter of fact theism has always considered the former phenomena as God’s way of speaking of us, and the latter phenomena as making as realize the bitterness of the absence of God”

            The fact people have always believed something is not a good reason to believe it. A mother may see the goodness of her son in his kind gifts to her, and dismiss the vast sums of cash and drugs paraphernalia in his bedroom room as not at all calling into doubt his goodness, but that simply indicates her double standards. After thousands die horribly in a natural disaster, theists often say it is a “mystery” why God would allow that, but then confidently assert that the few survivors found weeks later were kept alive by divine intervention. Any outsider (including an intelligent and open-minded agnostic considering the evidence) would see all that as being totally unreasonable.

            “Going back to the chess analogy, it’s like asking the novice observing the game to evaluate a bad move which she hasn’t seen the grand master making.”

            A total novice would be in no position to tell if an apparently bad move really is bad, or whether an apparently good move really is good. So this analogy, insofar as it is relevant at all, supports the claims of Wielenberg, that skepticism here cuts both ways.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            “Are you denying that someone who loves someone else could lie to them for a good reason?”

            No, I am not. But there is a great difference between the claim that X is the case and the claim that X could be the case. We are here discussing whether there is evidence that God is lying to us, not whether there could conceivably be such evidence.

            Having said that, in the context of God I can’t imagine a situation where God would lie to us for love. Can you? If you can’t then perhaps it is not even imaginable that God could be lying to us.

            “Is there any evidence the world is “fallen,” even if theism is true?”

            I don’t think there is. I dislike the word “fallen” since it implies that there is something wrong in the world, that something in creation went astray, that it “fell” from the state it should be. That’s why I wrote “the *so-called* fallen nature of the world”. But that’s the word normally used to describe the fact that creation contains evils.

            “I thought most smart people now knew the story of Adam and Eve is a myth.”

            I’d really like to know which percentage of, let’s say, philosophically educated Christians believes that the story of Adam and Eve really happened. You know, that God first fashioned Adam out of clay, then blew into his nostrils, then took a rib out of him to fashion Eve, and so on. – Is it 1%? Hardly likely. One per thousand perhaps? I doubt it. But then why do atheists raise the issue in the first place? It’s a waste of time.

            But perhaps you don’t mean the whole story in Genesis, but only the claim that God created exactly one pair of humans from whom we all descend. I am an agnostic to this question. I understand there is some mitochondrial evidence that we all descend from one particular female human who lived some 150 thousand years ago. From the religious point of view I find the whole issue irrelevant.

            “What is the criterion for ascertaining whether God APPEARS to be talking to us in some phenomenon?”

            Right. I think there are three answers to this question, one, the top-down answer, two, the bottom-up answer, and, three, the answer from revelation in history.

            The top-down answer is to start with theism’s hypothesis, and guided by reason alone see where it leads. In my first post above (the one starting with “The skeptical thesis”) I describe the general order of creation and how this restricts God’s talking to us in some overt way that would diminish the feasibility of the greatest good. Such considerations leave open only the possibility of suggestive and subtle ways of communication, probably to be found in those parts of our condition which motivate us to realize the greatest good.

            The bottom-up answer is simply this: The criterion is where God does, as a matter of fact, *appear* to speak to us. Everybody agrees that the religious experience is real, in that theists do experience in many ways the presence of God in their lives. (Albeit naturalists hold that this is some kind of illusion, and they explain that experience by grounding it in our sociobiological evolution. Or, to be precise, confidently believe that such an explanation exists, as, incidentally, do I). So where it appears to theists that God is speaking to them, that’s where theists should reasonably assume God is in fact speaking to them.

            Finally, the third answer is to take into account the cumulative religious response to God throughout the ages as recorded in the scripture and tradition of all the great monotheistic religions.

            And happily for theism, these three answers overlap quite well.

            “Why don’t theists say that God is telling us in natural disasters that he has good reasons beyond our ken to make things seem to us other than they really are?”

            Because this does not follow from any of the three ways described above. Given that God does not appear to speak through the great natural evils, and given the fact that natural evils obtain, theists simply figure that there must be a reason for them, and some think that discovering that reason is beyond our ken. As explained above my view is that there is no reason for a particular natural evil but a reason of why the world is such that natural evils, small or great, randomly obtain.

            “The fact people have always believed something is not a good reason to believe it.”

            What is it we are discussing here? We are discussing whether from the theist’s point of view it is reasonable to claim that there is evidence that God is lying to us. To investigate this question we must take into account where it is that theists believe that God is speaking to us. Whether where they believe that God is speaking is speaking to us, God is in fact speaking to us, is irrelevant. Obviously you don’t believe that there is such a thing as God speaking to us in the first place.

            “A mother may see the goodness of her son in his kind gifts to her, and dismiss the vast sums of cash and drugs paraphernalia in his bedroom room as not at all calling into doubt his goodness, but that simply indicates her double standards.”

            This analogy refers to the problem from evil, namely in what way God’s goodness is consistent with the patent evil in the world. But that’s not analogous to the question we are discussing here, namely whether from the theist’s point of view there is any evidence for a new kind of evil, namely that God is lying to us. Thus in your analogy it’s like the mother not seeing any cash or drugs in her son’s room, and you insisting that there are.

            And, incidentally, the analogy from the mother and her son with drugs in his room is not a good one in the context of the problem of evil. The proper analogy would be that of a child who is brought by her mother to the dentist and the child wondering why her loving mother should put her into this painful state of affairs.

          • John

            “Having said that, in the context of God I can’t imagine a situation where God would lie to us for love. Can you? ”

            Presumably he would do it, if by lying it would bring about a greater good. If God can bring about a greater good through allowing a child to be raped, tortured and murdered, it should be simple to do it through telling a white lie. Why would you expect to be able to imagine such a reason in detail, even if one existed? According to the skeptical theist, when compared to God’s, our minds are supposed to be like the minds of a tiny baby relative to the mind of an adult.

            “I’d really like to know which percentage of, let’s say, philosophically educated Christians believes that the story of Adam and Eve really happened…why do atheists raise the issue in the first place?”

            Surveys consistently show that either a majority or close to a majority of Christians think the story happened in a literal way. These are the people who are influencing public policy for the worse. The tiny proportion of Christians trained in philosophy is irrelevant to that issue. In any case, you were the one who “raised the issue” of the so-called Fall, not me!

            “So where it appears to theists that God is speaking to them, that’s where theists should reasonably assume God is in fact speaking to them.”

            Even if theists say that God is speaking to them in, say, the beauty of nature, I don’t see how it follows that God does not have overriding good reasons to sometimes tell us lies for our own good. As has been noted earlier, a wonderful artist who is kind and produces beautiful work might have overriding good reasons to tell a lie. According to skeptical theism, our minds relative to God’s are supposed to be like those of a tiny child before an adult. Just as the child is in no position to know that the loving parent does not have good reasons to occasionally tell white lies to him, nor is the theist when it comes to God. I really don’t understand the “selective skeptism” idea. Either God’s mind and ways are way, way beyond our own, and for all we know God has an understanding of ultimate goods that are beyond out ken and we can never understand, or else not. You seem to think that in phenomena where God is “speaking to us,” theists can know he would never tell us a white lie for our own good. But how does any theist know that, without knowledge of ultimate goods and evils in the universe? The skeptical theist ends up hoist by his own petard.

            “the question we are discussing here, namely whether from the theist’s point of view there is any evidence for a new kind of evil, namely that God is lying to us.”

            This is not a correct understanding of the situation. If God is lying to us for our own good, then all things considered his lying would be a good thing, like giving a child an injection. If it is conceivable that God has a good reason for allowing a child to be tortured and murdered for a greater good, it seems conceivable that God has a good reason for telling a white lie for a greater good. How is it that your mind is able to fully understand all the goods and evils pertaining to the latter such that you regard it as highly unlikely or impossible, but God is so inscrutable that making any probability judgement about the former would be as outrageous as a toddler trying to understand the mind of an adult, or a dog trying to understand its owner? For all you have said, the apparent double standard remains unresolved.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Sam,

            “Why would you expect to be able to imagine such a reason in detail, even if one existed?”

            I notice that you yourself can’t imagine a situation where God would lie to us for love. I can’t either. In general we can’t imagine a situation where God would lie to us for any reason. But then the claim that theists have evidence that God is lying to us holds no water, correct? We can’t even imagine the existence of such evidence.

            “Surveys consistently show that either a majority or close to a majority of Christians think the story happened in a literal way.”

            Perhaps in the US. But that’s not what I’ve asked anyway. The question is not what the majority of Christians believe, but what the most reasonable Christians believe. The majority of the world’s population believes in astrology. The question is what the most reasonable people believe about astrology.

            “The tiny proportion of Christians trained in philosophy is irrelevant to that issue.”

            The issue here is the truth, not the mechanisms that influence public policy for the worse. And in matters pertaining to philosophical truth only the opinion of people trained in philosophy matters. Similarly, in matters pertaining to geological truth only the opinion of people trained in geology matters.

            But since all educated people care for good public policy, we should all push for better philosophical education. And here, unfortunately, the popular books by the “New Atheists” hurt rather than help.

            “According to skeptical theism [snip]”

            I disagree with skeptical theism. The question is not whether we can understand all of God – of course we can’t. The question is whether we can understand that of God which is relevant to us, that which explains to our satisfaction the human condition in a theistic reality. And here I think that we can, have already found out a lot, and are continuously making good progress.

            “I really don’t understand the “selective skeptism” idea. Either God’s mind and ways are way, way beyond our own, and for all we know God has an understanding of ultimate goods that are beyond out ken and we can never understand, or else not.”

            It’s really not difficult to understand. I happen to have a little daughter. By far she doesn’t know all I know, indeed in her current condition she can’t possibly know all I know. But she knows perfectly well my love for her, as well as many other things about me.

            In general I think it is mark of good philosophical sense not to see things only as black or white, but to consider their right measure.

            “But how does any theist know that, without knowledge of ultimate goods and evils”

            I think we can know about what the ultimate good is. I observe atheologians producing intelligent arguments about what the greatest conceivable being would or wouldn’t do. We all understand and discuss such arguments, which proves that we all (theists and atheists alike) hold ourselves capable of judging ultimate goodness.

            “If God is lying to us for our own good, then all things considered his lying would be a good thing”

            Right. Well, lying entails the wish to deceive. And in the theistic mindset deception is kind of an absolute evil. So much so that the antithesis of God, the Devil, is called “the deceiver”. Now in our case there are situations where to lie serves a greater good. But it is wrong to project our situation into God. When we lie out of love it’s because we are placed in a bad situation beyond our will. This is never the case for God. You realized yourself how difficult it is to devise an imaginary situation where God would have good reason to lie to us.

          • John

            “I notice that you yourself can’t imagine a situation where God would lie to us for love. I can’t either. In general we can’t imagine a situation where God would lie to us for any reason. But then the claim that theists have evidence that God is lying to us holds no water, correct?”

            Why would skeptical theists have to imagine such a thing to regard it as a possibility, given that they say our minds are like those of a child before an adult? Note we are discussing an article that pertains to skeptical theism. If one wants to reject skeptical theism, as you say you do, and jettison the idea that we cannot make probably true claims about what is ultimately good, one needs to deal with evidential forms of the argument from evil in some other way than skeptical theists do.

            “The question is not what the majority of Christians believe, but what the most reasonable Christians believe.”

            Your question was why atheists bring up the issue of creationism. They bring up the issue for the reason I mentioned (that many theists who defend such views are harming public policy). That issue has nothing to do with what the most reasonable Christians believe.

            “I think we can know about what the ultimate good is”

            In that case, please explain how we know that it could be ultimately good to stand idly by and watch someone be tortured and murdered, or to refrain from preventing a disease from developing, but could NOT be ultimately good to tell a white lie.

            “lying entails the wish to deceive. And in the theistic mindset deception is kind of an absolute evil.”

            There is nothing about theism that commits one to the idea that “deception is kind of an absolute evil.” That sounds like sheer invention. The Qur’an repeatedly declares that Allah is the best of deceivers. (Qur’an 3:54, 7:99, 8:30, 10:21, 13:42). Nor does theism even commit one to the existence of Satan. If one wants to defend specifically Biblical Christianity, rather than merely theism, then as has been noted, the Bible contains numerous examples of God deceiving people. The paragraph below mentions some of those examples: The fact that Satan is supposed to be an evil deceiver hardly shows God cannot ever deceive for justifying reasons.

            In the Bible, Jesus twice, in Mark 4:12 and Matthew 13:13, says that He speaks in parables expressly so that some might misunderstand the truth and remain unsaved. In Exodus 14:8-10 God supposedly “hardened the heart” of Pharaoh, which seems akin to some sort of deceptive mind control (see also Romans 9). In Genesis 22, God’s actions towards Abraham in making Isaac a sacrifice can’t reasonably be described as anything other than deception.

            Also, if one needs to respond to the argument from evil against theism by defending specifically Christianity (rather than theism simpliciter), then that is a concession, for there are many more objections to Christianity than theism simpliciter (and considering its scope it is clearly intrinsically less likely).

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            “Why would skeptical theists have to imagine such a thing to regard it as a possibility, given that they say our minds are like those of a child before an adult?”

            Skeptical theists say no such thing. They say that our minds are like those of a child before an adult when we try to understand why God would allow apparently gratuitous evils to obtain. But from this it does not follow that our minds are like those of a child when we try to understand anything which refers to God. All theists hold that there is a lot we can and do understand about God, all theists hold that there is a lot that we can’t understand about God, and skeptical theists hold that among those is the solution of the problem from evil.

            Here is an analogy outside of religion. Some philosophers, impressed by how hard the hard problem of consciousness is, suggest that we simply and fundamentally lack the intelligence to solve it (e.g. new mysterians such as Colin McGinn). But they don’t therefore believe we lack intelligence for solving any problem related to the mind and body.

            Another analogy from metaphysical naturalism. It is well known that any naturalistic interpretation of Quantum Mechanics describes a physical reality that strikes most people as absurd, if not raving mad. In response some naturalists argue that we lack the intelligence to solve that problem. Given the theory of evolution and how metaphysical knowledge produces no evolutionary advantage whatsoever, it is not at all surprising that we should lack that intelligence – they argue. In fact they advance an argument that looks analogous to skeptical theism, namely that we are nothing but evolved apes and that there is no reason why the deep structure of the cosmos should make sense to our brains. But, again, those naturalists do not hold that we lack the intelligence for understanding anything related to the cosmos.

            “Your question was why atheists bring up the issue of creationism.”

            “Creathionism” is a vague concept. Of course all Christians believe in creationism understood as the claim that God created and sustains is existence everything in the universe including ourselves. But no scientifically educated Christian believes that there must be some fundamental error in the theory of evolution because it contradicts the literal understanding of the story of Genesis in the OT, since, for example, the theory of evolution nowhere mentions Adam’s rib and how out of it the first human female was fashioned. And, as I pointed out, only in order to show how dimwitted the literalist understanding of the Bible is, less (probably far less) than 1% of the philosophically educated Christians believe that the Bible should be understood literally.

            “They bring up the issue for the reason I mentioned (that many theists who defend such views are harming public policy).”

            Again, we are here discussing the truth of theism as a metaphysical theory. Not the truth about how theistic sociobiological evolution explains theistic belief formation (or naturalistic belief formation for that matter). Nor the truth about how Biblical literalism affects public policy.

            This thread of the discussion started when I claimed:

            “The evidence that God is never lying to us is based on our observation that in *all* cases where we hold that God is speaking to us what we hear is true. If you can suggest one case where on theism God is speaking to us and lying to us, I’d like to hear of it.”

            The only cases that were suggested were quotes from the Bible. And as I pointed out only literalists are committed to taking seriously any quote from the Bible. (In this context I would like to point out that when atheologians are reduced to quoting from the Bible it kind of shows that they don’t have any better argument.) Given the evidence from our discussion I think it is clear that from the point of view of the philosophically educated theist there is no evidence that God is lying to us, and that we can’t even imagine a case where God would lie to us. But then neither does it make any sense, for philosophically educated theists whether skeptical or not, to worry that God is perhaps lying to us. In general, in the context of discussing the truth of some metaphysical theory it is a waste of time to bring in the beliefs of unqualified people, whether theists or non-theists.

            “please explain how we know that it could [snip] NOT be ultimately good to tell a white lie.”

            There are circumstances we may face where, arguably, the best choice is to tell a white lie. How does this apply to God? After all it seems we can’t even imagine circumstances where God would have a good reason to tell us a white lie. Incidentally, the circumstances where we humans have a good reason to tell a white lie seem to be always such that we are made to face a given evil (or a potential evil) that is already present.

            “There is nothing about theism that commits one to the idea that “deception is kind of an absolute evil.” That sounds like sheer invention.”

            I won’t press the point. Feel free to assume that it is false. Even then the theist (whether a skeptical one or not) has no evidence that there are actual cases where God is lying to us.

            “If one wants to defend specifically Biblical Christianity, rather than merely theism [snip]”

            “Biblical Christianity” is a vague concept. Philosophically educated Christians who are not in a any way or manner literalists may call themselves “Biblical Christians” to differentiate themselves from those “liberal Christians” that hold they have warrant for holding beliefs that seem to be nowhere grounded in the Bible.

            “if one needs to respond to the argument from evil against theism by defending specifically Christianity (rather than theism simpliciter), then that is a concession, for there are many more objections to Christianity than theism simpliciter”

            True, but I am not sure where I have responded to the argument from evil from a specific Christian point of view. Indeed, the problem of evil is normally understood in the context of theism simpliciter. Having said that I think the Christian point of view does help remove a potential evil, namely the injustice of having only creatures suffer – but not their creator.

          • John

            “from this it does not follow that our minds are like those of a child when we try to understand anything which refers to God.”

            Your analogies make the point that just because we are ignorant of some issue pertaining to some person, it does not follow that we are ignorant of a DIFFERENT issue pertaining to that person. The problem with regard skeptical theism that the issue is SAME ONE, specifically that we are supposed to be ignorant over whether we can ascertain that some event is probably ultimately evil, just by an inability to imagine how it could be anything other than ultimately evil. Skeptical theists say they CAN ascertain this in the case of God telling a lie, but NOT in the case of God refraining from intervening to prevent some examples of horrendous suffering. My question is simple: how so?

            “Again, we are here discussing the truth of theism as a metaphysical theory.”

            You asked me a question (about why atheists bring up creationism), and I answered it. If you don’t find my (correct!) answer to your question be pertinent to the discussion, I doubt your question was pertinent, either. Note that I never brought up the issue of creationism – YOU did by referring to the so-called “Fall.”

            “The evidence that God is never lying to us is based on our observation that in *all* cases where we hold that God is speaking to us what we hear is true”

            I doubt there anything close to universal agreement among theists that God speaks to all theists, or if he does what he might be telling them. Even if all theists were to agree that God speaks to theists and tells them that their lives have special meaning (as you have claimed), how do those theists know THAT? Couldn’t God have morally sufficient reasons to be telling white lies? You are simply begging the question.

            Also, if one claims that God communicates things to people, one has to deal with the fact that the nature of the communication is highly dependent on where one happens to live, and theists believe contradictory things about the content. That casts doubt on the reliability of the communication. If I hear someone clearly shout only the word “oranges,” in a typical situation my belief may well be warranted. Now suppose I were to learn that someone else believes that actually the same voice instead only shouted “apples” and someone else believes that actually the voice instead only shouted “pears,” and someone else believes that actually the voice instead only shouted “bananas.” In that case, I suggest that if there is no particular reason to think my hearing is any better than theirs, I have a defeater for my belief that the voice said only “oranges.” Something weird would be going on with our hearing or with the acoustics, and we would need to get to the bottom of it before we could trust our hearing in this instance. I think similar things are true for many theists. Even if you think God exists and is clearly speaking to you, I don’t think it is reasonable to believe it without additional evidence. It cannot be a properly basic belief, because it is subject to the defeater I mentioned above.

            “Given the evidence from our discussion I think it is clear that from the point of view of the philosophically educated theist there is no evidence that God is lying to us, and that we can’t even imagine a case where God would lie to us.”

            Religious texts have plenty of examples of God deceiving people. Presumably you can imagine what THEY say. In any case, if the fact that we can’t imagine how X could be a justifying good is evidence that X is not a justifying good, then skeptical theism collapses. I don’t understand why you think it is important if we can’t imagine a specific case where God would tell us a white lie, but you think it is of no importance at all if we can’t imagine a case where God would fail to intervene to prevent dreadful suffering. Either they are both important, or else neither is.

            “Philosophically educated Christians who are not in a any way or manner literalists may call themselves “Biblical Christians” to differentiate themselves from those “liberal Christians””

            Anyone who takes much of the Bible seriously has to deal with the fact that in both the Old and New Testaments, God is clearly portrayed as deceiving people.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            Skeptical theists say they CAN ascertain this in the case of God telling a lie, but NOT in the case of God refraining from intervening to prevent some examples of horrendous suffering. My question is simple: how so?

            I thought I had already answered. There are things that seem to be gratuitous evils and where sceptical theism is a possible response, but there are no things that seem to be divine lies. Skepticism only makes sense when one encounters a problem. If I think a chess grandmaster is playing a game and I observe her making a move that seems to me to be a bad one, then scepticism makes sense, for perhaps I am not a position to understand the grandmaster’s thought. But when I observe a move that seems to me to be a good one, a move just like I would expect the grandmaster to make, then scepticism makes no sense.

            You asked me a question (about why atheists bring up creationism), and I answered it.

            My question was meant in the context of a philosophical discussion about metaphysical truth. Please observe how often in this very thread atheists have been quoting from the Bible to make a point. For example I asked what evidence there is for God lying to us, and people brought up quotes from the OT. Do you think this makes sense? Do philosophically aware atheists believe that theists *should* be biblical literalists? Surely not. But then why quote from the Bible? It’s an obvious waste of time, and moreover an indication that one hasn’t got any better argument to offer. One should use the current state of knowledge; there are two thousand years of theological advancement beyond the Bible.

            As for my use of the biblical sounding word “fall” I was careful enough to write “the so-called fallen nature of the world” – trying to signal that “fall” is only a manner of speech.

            how do those theists know THAT?

            Well, as previously explained, theists have plenty of reason to believe that theism is true and that moreover God only tells us truths and never lies. Stephen Law’s idea about an evil god who deceives us into thinking he is a good god – mounts an interesting attack on these reasons. But, as I explained, given the non-parity of good and evil in the world (there is vastly more good than evil) it isn’t the case that there is an epistemological parity between reasons for believing in a good god and an evil god, not by far. And thus Stephen’s attack fails.

            Also, if one claims that God communicates things to people, one has to deal with the fact that the nature of the communication is highly dependent on where one happens to live, and theists believe contradictory things about the content. That casts doubt on the reliability of the communication.

            Right. Metaphysics is hard. Including on theism where you have God kind of desiring that people should know the truth and in many subtle ways signalling the truth to them. But I notice non-theists disagree among themselves far more about metaphysics than theists do. Which perhaps evidences the positive effect of what Quakers call the “still small voice”.

            Religious texts have plenty of examples of God deceiving people.

            That’s the point I was making above. Sometimes atheologians have difficulty finding something wrong with philosophical theism, and are reduced to arguing about what’s wrong with literalist theism. But in a sense that’s ok, since I too think there is plenty wrong with literalist theism.

            I now realize how misguiding it must be when the official Christian churches speak of the Bible as the “word of God”. But of course that’s meant metaphorically, since on Christianity it is Christ, the second hypostasis of the Trinity, who actually *is* the word of God.

            I don’t understand why you think it is important if we can’t imagine a specific case where God would tell us a white lie, but you think it is of no importance at all if we can’t imagine a case where God would fail to intervene to prevent dreadful suffering. Either they are both important, or else neither is.

            I personally can imagine why God would fail to intervene to prevent dreadful suffering, but I take it you refer to the typical sceptical theist. Well, the sceptical theist thinks that given the clear and present facts of the situation, namely God not intervening to prevent dreadful suffering, there must be a good reason for that. And given how complicated the whole question is and how limited her cognitive faculties are for dealing with such complexity, she figures that the fact she can’t imagine the reason is just what one should expect to be the case. That’s the second case. The first case is not at all comparable, since now there isn’t any problem for her to imagine a solution for. Apart from some bits here and there in the Bible which evidently have nothing to do with God, there is no evidence whatsoever that God lies to us, for her to try to imagine what the reason for such lying might be.

            Anyone who takes much of the Bible seriously has to deal with the fact that in both the Old and New Testaments, God is clearly portrayed as deceiving people.

            I don’t see how this follows. What’s wrong with the view I described above in the sense that the Bible is among other things a fairly good distillation of theistic thought up to and including the first century and, as is the case with any science, has served as a basis for latter advancements in theology – and thus deserves to be taken seriously? But also, as is the case with any science, is a flawed work which contains mistakes?

          • John

            “But when I observe a move that seems to me to be a good one, a move just like I would expect the grandmaster to make, then scepticism makes no sense.”

            What is analogous to a white lie here? In the absence of a good answer, your analogy seems to have no relevance to our present discussion, which would show that it is in fact the analogy which makes no sense.

            “What’s wrong with the view I described above in the sense that the Bible is among other things a fairly good distillation of theistic thought up to and including the first century”

            There is a semantic dispute between us about what constitutes “taking the Bible seriously.” Even if we agree to disagree on that matter, presumably we at least agree that Evangelical Christians who want to be skeptical theists have to find some way of dealing with the fact that God is described in the Bible as deceiving people and likewise Muslims for Allah in the Qur’an.

            “I personally can imagine why God would fail to intervene to prevent dreadful suffering”

            I concur with what seems to be emerging as a consensus among even theist philosophers on this, and that you can imagine no such thing.

            “Well, as previously explained, theists have plenty of reason to believe that theism is true and that moreover God only tells us truths and never lies.”

            I cannot see any non question-begging reasons that you have provided in your last post or any other. I wrote the following: “Even if all theists were to agree that God speaks to theists and tells them that their lives have special meaning (as you have claimed), how do those theists know THAT? Couldn’t God have morally sufficient reasons to be telling white lies? You are simply begging the question.” You responded by claiming that you had earlier provided a reason, but so far as I can see your earlier reason was the same as or similar to the one I cited- specifically that God supposedly tells theists that their lives have special meaning. So I ask you – how do theists know THAT?

            You bring up Law’s idea of an “Evil God” but I have not suggested anything very close to that. I asked how it is that theists know that God does not have GOOD reasons for telling white lies. Your responses all seem to me to presuppose rather than show that God does not have good reasons for telling white lies.

            If you tell me that theists all believe God communicates a large amount redundant information to them which they know by other means (e.g. 2+2=4 and the sky is blue), thus inductively confirming the reliability of the divine communications, then my response is twofold:

            1) I don’t believe theists genuinely think this and it lacks any plausibility. What would be the point of these redundant communications and who actually claims to have them?

            2) There is the other problem I noted last time: how could any theist have warrant for believing that God is communicating anything to him? An obvious response is that for a theist this is a non-inferential basic belief. But I called that into question last time and suggested that even theists have a defeater for any such belief, created by their knowledge of the existence of religious pluralism and apparently conflicting divine communications, such that many compelling religious experiences must be unreliable and presumably have a psychological basis. In the absence of a well supported theory about how this works and how unreliable but compelling “divine communications” can be distinguished from reliable divine communications, the only reasonable course for a theist would be to become agnostic about the reliability of what seems to him to be a divine communication.

            To say this is a “hard” problem and not solve it will not do, since you have repeatedly claimed that theists can know things by means of divine communication.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            What is analogous to a white lie here? In the absence of a good answer, your analogy seems to have no relevance to our present discussion

            The analogy consists in that in the same way the observer of the grandmaster’s chess game *only* uses skepticism when observing a move that seems to her to be a bad one for which she can’t see what good reason the grandmaster might have, so too the skeptical theist *only* uses skepticism when observing what seems to her to be a gratuitous evil for which she can’t see what good reason God might have. There is no reason for the observer to also use skepticism when she observes what seems to her to be good moves. Similarly there is no reason for the skeptical theist to also use skepticism when she observes God telling so many things that seem to her to be true.

            In general we have here instances where how reality seems conflicts with one’s theory about how reality is. Epistemologists call such conflicts “defeaters”. When facing a defeater, the rational person must either abandon the theory or else find a defeater-defeater. In the context of metaphysics there are several kinds of defeater-defeaters. The kind we discuss here is skepticism. (Or mysterianism. Another popular and valid defeater-defeater is to deny the disturbing evidence as an illusion and point out that one’s worldview explains why one suffers from that particular illusion – kind of the genetic fallacy in reverse). Now skepticism in effect says “it’s ok that I can’t find a solution to this apparent problem because according to my version of the theory I shouldn’t be able to find a solution to the problem anyway”. Please observe that not only some theists but also some naturalists use this kind of defeater-defeater in order to hold on to their respective beliefs, as when, for example, they face the problem of how to interpret quantum mechanics, or when they face the hard problem of consciousness. My point here is that it only makes sense to use a defeater-defeater when one wants to defeat a defeater and hold on to one’s beliefs. In the case of divine white lies there isn’t such a defeater to defeat.

            But let me dig a little deeper to investigate your case using the chess analogy. Consider then the following discussion between Dianelos the skeptical observer, and doubtful John:

            Dianelos: It’s true that I can’t understand the reasons for some of the grandmaster’s moves, which is not surprising given how much better at chess she is. But I can understand the reasons of most of her moves. Indeed they seem to me to be very clever and revealing of her overall strategy.

            John: Just a moment. If you are not in the position to understand the reasons for the moves that appear to you to be bad ones, then you are not in the position to judge correctly the reasons for any other move. But if you are not in a position to judge the reasons for any of her moves, shouldn’t you be doubtful about whether she is a grandmaster who always makes good moves?

            Dianelos: I have many reasons for believing that she is a grandmaster, but face the specific problem that a few of her moves strike me as bad, since for the life of me I can’t understand what good reason she may have for them. But that’s not a serious problem, because the very fact that she is a grandmaster implies that I probably wouldn’t be able to understand all of her moves. From this it doesn’t follow that I shouldn’t be able to understand any of her moves. Children have trouble understanding differential equations but not arithmetical addition.

            John: Even so, given how much better than you the grandmaster is you cannot possibly be certain you judge correctly *any* of her moves. So, perhaps you misunderstand the reason behind the moves you hold to be good, and thus also misunderstand the grandmaster’s overall strategy.

            Dianelos: Quite right. Since the grandmaster knows far better chess than me, it is possible that my understanding of her moves fail to make her justice. Perhaps the reason behind what seems to me to be a move is even more clever than the reason I see. Perhaps her strategy is even more ingenious than the one I find revealed. My skepticism leads me to the realization that perhaps I am not in a position to fathom the grandmaster’s true greatness.

            At this juncture, I’d like to abandon the chess analogy, because I think I can see why you find it a bad analogy. Your point is not about how well we are able to judge God’s actions the way an observer from the sidelines judges a grandmaster’s moves. Rather you hypothesize that perhaps God may have good reasons to actively lie to us. That we don’t have any evidence of God lying to us, and can’t even imagine what good reason God may have for lying to us, is irrelevant from the skeptical theist’s point of view. If God has a good reason to deceive us then God will certainly be able to do so successfully. You ask:

            “how is it that theists know that God does not have GOOD reasons for telling white lies?”

            I assume you mean skeptical theists, i.e. those theists who believe they are in no position to judge some of God’s actions. Further, let’s assume the skeptical theist also believes that she is not in a position to judge which of God’s actions she is in the position to judge.

            My answer is that they don’t know it. There is next to nothing we actually *know*, or rather there is next to nothing we know that we know. So let’s leave the epistemology of knowledge aside, and consider the issue of the skeptical theist’s position in relation to the question you raise. I’d like to unpack your question as follows:

            1. On skeptical theism is it possible that God has good reason to deceive us, which entails that God is sometimes deceiving us?

            I think the answer here is yes. It follows that the skeptical theist who bases her theistic beliefs on revelation (public or private) she holds comes from God, must also concede that it is possible that these theistic beliefs are wrong (albeit that there is a good reason for which God leads her to these wrong beliefs). That she doesn’t have the slightest evidence that God is actually lying to her, and that she can’t even imagine a hypothetical state of affairs where God would have good reason to lie to her, is irrelevant. So far so good.

            2. Given (1), should the skeptical theist worry that God may be lying to her? Should she doubt more those of her beliefs which are based on revelation? A possible response from the skeptical theist’s point of view could be as follows:

            “Perhaps God has good reason to put a kilometer wide perfect cube made of diamond in the center of the moon. So it is possible that God has actually put that cube there. Perhaps God has a good reason to have created the universe 6.000 years ago, complete with ancient looking dinosaur fossils. Perhaps God has good reason to have placed an unknown to me rich uncle in America from whom I will inherit a billion dollars next week. Why should I waste time thinking about such merely possible scenarios? I have more than enough reason to believe in God and to believe that God loves me and wishes me to live a good live. I don’t have time for speculations in a matter which, even if true, I wouldn’t by definition be able to ascertain. And a matter where, even if it were possible for me to ascertain, would not help me in the least bit, but would by definition hurt me.”

            The above I think is a fairly good description of the skeptical theist’s epistemic position vis-à-vis the specific question you raise. (Or rather the position of the doubly skeptical theist, as defined above.)

            I would like to close by pointing out one case where a skeptical theist can actually imagine a situation where God deceives us, albeit at the eschaton: Those who believe in hell must face the problem that the happiness of the blessed in heaven cannot be perfect when they know that some of their loved ones are eternally suffering in hell. Or indeed that anybody is eternally suffering in hell. I have heard William Lane Craig suggest that perhaps God will make the blessed forget about the existence of those souls in hell – which I take it is an example of God having good reason to deceive people. Of course for the idea to work, God must also make them forget about this very idea, i.e. make the worse philosophers. Not an attractive view of the eschaton, but there you have it.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Jason,

            (note: the website displays the last message at the top – please first read the message bellow which starts with “Jason and John”)

            “Many non-religious people live joy-filled lives.”

            Of course. Perhaps there is a common misconception here. The theistic view is that there is one world in which both religious and non-religious people live, all created in the image of God, and all having the same access and mostly enjoying the same blessings of creation. Arguments of the kind “non-religious people know what’s right and wrong”, “non-religious people live ethical lives”, “non-religious people enjoy life and find meaning in their life”, and so on – are all true. Of course they are. Non-religious people live in the same theistic reality and are equally loved by God. That non-religious people have the capacity to know ethical truths and find the strength to live ethical lives is, if anything, evidence for theism.

            Some theists believe that evil people (theists and atheists alike) have the power to kind of remove themselves from theistic reality, or perhaps will be banned by God to some region of reality where God is not there. I find that a very weird idea, but its discussion is far beyond our subject matter here.

            “I don’t see that prayer provides solace of moral empowerment. But, even if it does. that is not evidence for God’s honesty. It is certainly not evidence that God never lies.”

            If prayer provides solace and moral empowerment then clearly it speaks of the truth that God cares for each one of us, and of the truth that God values morality and wishes us to choose to good life. And, again, the evidence that God never lies consists in that in all cases where God speaks to us God is saying a truth.

            It seems you have doubts about the effectiveness of prayer. I’d like to discuss this issue which appears to trouble many, including atheists who once were believers, namely that at prayer God appears not to be there or not to give any answers. In some ways prayer is at the very center of the communion between creator and creature, so that’s an important issue. Now prayer, as all forms of communication, should not only be done with honesty and desire – but also rightly. For example, the archaeologist who finds an ancient inscription should not expect the inscription to speak back to her in plain English no matter how honestly and how strongly she desires that – that’s not how ancient written language works.

            So what is prayer, and how is prayer to be done rightly?

            I think the first thing to realize is that prayer is not like a telephone line to God. There are I suppose cases where God actually answers peoples’ questions at prayer, but by far, by far, that’s not what prayer is about. Prayer is not even a call to God to become present to one. Rather it’s the other way around: At prayer one consciously puts oneself in the presence of God. And when putting oneself in the presence of God I assure you it is completely impossible to *ask* things of God. Rather, naturally enough, one realizes the need to thank God. Prayer is the time when one’s love for God is cultivated, when forgiveness and non-attachment are fortified, when the evils of one’s life are accepted and also of course lamented. Both the good and the bad motivate one to pray, and at prayer one can both laugh and cry. And here’s the theistic claim: that in prayer rightly done, i.e. in humility and in a self-transcending state, God will normally make Him/Herself present in a gratuitous and special way. The feeling one has there is one of unexplained and joyful movement of the soul, of safety, of consolation, of moral strengthening, and even of the transparency of wisdom – and the sense that these emanate from some loving being. When realized this is a great experience. Religious tradition is full of spiritual exercises that are supposed to lead to right prayer or the right state of mind at prayer – including some hard ones such as absolute single-mindedness to the task and some funny ones like the repetition of mantras. But again there are a myriad ways to prayer. For all I know some may pray by rock climbing. I personally find that simply thinking about God most of my free time is an easy form of prayer.

    • Steven Carr

      ‘The chess analogy comes handy.’

      Yes, sometimes you have to sacrifice a few pawns don’t you?

      If a few pawns have to be killed so you can bask in the glory of winning a game, that is just too bad.

      Their loss of life at least rebounds to your glory.

      They died, knowing people would praise you for being a great player.

    • Greg G.

      Gratuitous suffering involves suffering. In the chess analogy, the pieces do not suffer. An omnipotent chess player could force a checkmate without sacrificing pieces or even capturing opponent’s pieces if the act involved suffering. If God is omnipotent, then all suffering is unnecessary and God has chosen for there to be unnecessary suffering. If God chooses for there to be unnecessary suffering or is incapable of preventing suffering, why call him God?

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

    The skeptical thesis is motivated by the wish to defeat the second premise of the evidential argument from evil. As it happens I think the first premise is unjustified, or perhaps ambiguous. The existence of God entails that there is a justification for the world to be the way it is, but not necessarily that there is justification for each fact that obtains in the world. Perhaps there is no justification for some particular instances of evil, but there is justification for the world to be such that no justification for some particular instances of evil exists.

    Thus for the evidential argument to go through the atheologian must first show that God’s existence entails that there can’t be a justification for the world to be such that particular instances of evil are unjustified. To my knowledge no atheologian has shown that. (I use “justified” as the opposite of “gratuitous”, and “unjustified” or “not justified” as synonymous to “gratuitous”.)

    What’s more, I think I can show that on theism it is probable that there is no justification for some evils. Here is my argument in a nutshell:

    1. It is plausible that in God’s judgment it is a good of the greatest value when a creature loves others self-transcendently and freely chooses to do good to others for their own sake and not for its own. A good that definitely should obtain in the world.

    2. For that great good to be possible creatures should encounter some serious natural evils. And, further, the existence of God should be hidden. For if natural evils were trivial, or if the existence of God were evident, then to choose to do good for its own sake would be kind of the obvious thing to do and therefore have no great value.

    3. If natural evils were allocated equally to all creatures then the world would look unnatural and moved by magical spirits. In such a world God’s presence would not be hidden. Therefore natural evils must be distributed unequally and appear to be random.

    4. God, who is perfectly good and loves all creatures equally, is not willing to choose how to unequally allocate individual natural evils to individual creatures. Therefore God creates the world in such a way that natural evils not only appear to be random but actually are random.

    5. Therefore, on theism it is probable that serious natural evils should exist and that they should be random, and thus unjustified.

    • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

      “For if natural evils were trivial, or if the existence of God were evident, then to choose to do good for its own sake would be kind of the obvious thing to do ”

      You offer no justification for this very odd claim. How would the triviality of natural evils make doing good for its own sake the obvious thing to do? That seems incredibly implausible. Why does the triviality or lack thereof have anything to do with the obviousness of the fact that we ought to do good for its own sake?

      Furthermore, if God’s existence were evident, then it might make doing good for its own sake less likely. After all, if we knew that God exists, many of us would be bending over backwards to impress him with our good works.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

        Jason,

        (Incidentally I happen to live where the original Jason was from.)

        “How would the triviality of natural evils make doing good for its own sake the obvious thing to do?”

        Well, suppose the greatest natural evil that could befall your neighbor was something akin to the bite of a mosquito. Or that the greatest discomfort you would risk suffering when helping your neighbor would be the bite of a mosquito. In both senses that would make it very easy to help your neighbor for her own sake, but also remove virtually all value from your freely choosing to do so. I think that for freely choosing to do good to have real value a world with serious natural evils is needed.

        “if we knew that God exists, many of us would be bending over backwards to impress him with our good works.”

        Right, which would again remove value from our choosing to do good works.

        Even though in my mind it’s not so much a matter of making an impression. Suppose we knew not only that God exists but that we all are going to heaven – so that making an impression would be irrelevant. Even then knowing our condition as children of God and inheritors of heaven would make it trivial to choose to help our neighbor, since it would be a risk-free choice and any suffering on our part would be like nothing in comparison to eternity in heaven.

        Imagine you are a poor fellow who has not enough to eat this evening. Imagine, further, that another poor chap comes visiting and asks to share you meager meal. If you have just heard that you have inherited a billion dollars which you will cash tomorrow morning, then sharing of your meal with the stranger becomes a trivial choice.

        • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

          “(Incidentally I happen to live where the original Jason was from.)”

          Wikipedia informs me that that would be Iolcos. Or somewhere in Thessaly?

          “Well, suppose the greatest natural evil that could befall your neighbor was something akin to the bite of a mosquito.”

          I don’t think the fact (even if it were one) that God wants us to experience natural evils of significantly greater magnitude than a mosquito bite justifies God’s standing idly by while children are destroyed by tsunamis and hurricanes, cancer and infection. Yours is a version of the “evil is good for us” theodicy. But even if some evil is good for us, this does not answer the harder problem of why God would allow a world that is this bad.

          “If you have just heard that you have inherited a billion dollars which you will cash tomorrow morning, then sharing of your meal with the stranger becomes a trivial choice.”

          I wish that were true, but it obviously isn’t. Millionaires and billionaires routinely refuse to part with their money for even the noblest of endeavors. And, many of them cry foul at the mere suggestion that they owe something to the society that facilitated their wealth production.

          If the choice was as trivial as you say, then there would be much less starvation in this world. Warren Buffet could end a great deal of it.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Jason,

            “Wikipedia informs me that that would be Iolcos.”

            The modern town situated where ancient Iolcos lied is called Volos.

            “But even if some evil is good for us, this does not answer the harder problem of why God would allow a world that is this bad [where children are killed by tsunamis and hurricanes, cancer and infection].”

            This is I think a valid question. Let’s assume that my argument above succeeds in showing that on theism it is probable that the world should contain a number of serious and randomly distributed natural evils. The question would still remain of why some evils should be so horrendous.

            First of all I would like to point out that failing to answer that question does not change the fact that an argument which shows that on theism we should expect the existence of serious and randomly distributed natural evils already goes a long way towards solving the problem from evil and producing a theodicy. My position is not that theism has now a full and definitive theodicy – rather my position is that theism is making significant advances towards that goal.

            Having said that, let me describe how I answer your question above, or rather how I happen to not be bothered by it. As it turns out the evidence comes from a radio play by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, called “The Mission of the Vega”. Durrenmatt is one of my favorite writers, and that particular play has made a huge impression on me. The story is about a colony of prisoners on the planet Venus who live in a world of much greater natural evils than ours, and who are moved by their condition to become much better people than we are. The story is enjoyable and tragic, but here’s the issue that impresses me most: What is wrong with that story? Nothing appears to be wrong with it. How do we know that a world with much greater natural evils than ours would not be more propitious for ethical development? Well, it turns out we don’t. But if we don’t neither does the argument that a world with less natural evils than ours would be equally or more propitious to ethical development hold any weight.

            We can see that the two extremes, i.e. a world with almost no natural evil or else a world filled to the brim with horrendous evils would both not be propitious for ethical development. Somewhere in between lies the optimal world. Our world, on the face of it, seems to be very propitious for ethical development. Life almost all the time and for almost all the people is a very good thing, but also appears to be a continuous ethical challenge. Whether our world is the optimal one is difficult to say, but given Durrenmatt’s play I see no reason why to suspect that it isn’t.

            Now perhaps we have here a question that can be put to experimental verification, at least to some degree. As it happens not all societies are alike in their distribution of natural evils. There are people who live in harsh weather, arid fields, illness infested environment, poor economies, places that where natural catastrophes are more common. So perhaps it is possible to measure the average ethical behavior (e.g. charitably giving, honesty and commitment in personal relations, etc) of such people and compare it with the ethical behavior of people who live in happier environments. If it turned out that the environment with more natural evils is more propitious for ethical behavior, then we would have some evidence that our complains about God creating a world “this bad” reflects our own desires for a comfortable life but is entirely irrelevant to the soul-building theodicy.

          • Steven Carr

            Hey, if 6 or 7 children die of smallpox to make Dianelos a better person, that is a price that Dianelos is willing to pay.

            And if babies are snatched from their mother’s arms by wild dogs, their mothers have the consolation of knowing that Dianelos can now practice and perfect his ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’ feelings, which more than makes up for their loss.

            Let us hope and pray that Dianelos does not become too ethical, virtuous and compassionate as the number of dead people needed to achieve that would be too high to contemplate.

        • John

          “”if we knew that God exists, many of us would be bending over backwards to impress him with our good works.”
          Right, which would again remove value from our choosing to do good works.”

          This defence to the argument from nonbelief (ANB) might be used by someone who has a conception of God where God doesn’t want people to believe he exists with any great confidence. That excludes most followers of the world’s main religions. Christians who think God wants missionary work “to make disciples of all nations” could not plausibly use this defence. Christians who think God uses the Holy Spirit to allow people to know he exists could not use this defence.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            “This defence to the argument from nonbelief (ANB) might be used by someone who has a conception of God where God doesn’t want people to believe he exists with any great confidence.”

            Well, what are the facts? People do tend to believe in some kind of religious reality. Many people believe in God. Most of them also suffer from doubts. Even those who believe with great confidence do not seem to live in a way with comports with theism. So, clearly, even strong belief in God is not sufficient for making people holy, not by far. This is not to say that their belief does not affect their lives, but it’s not really like they live as if theism is true. (Beliefs, as propositional attitudes, should be placed on a continuum between those beliefs that are held only in the abstract and those beliefs that are fully realized in one’s life – it’s not a matter of having great epistemic confidence in a belief but an issue of taking a belief seriously, to trust the belief in a way that becomes life transforming.) Finally, of course, philosophers whose job is to study reasonable belief disagree among themselves about whether theism or naturalism is true.

            So the facts appear to fit well with how one would expect the world to be according to my argument’s premises. It’s not like the world is such as to mislead people but neither is the world such that the presence of God is evident in the sense of forcefully making them choose the good life. The world does seem to be fine-tuned for making the choice of the good valuable, and thus not automatic.

            I remember reading John Hick’s claim that the world is religiously ambiguous and strongly disagreeing, since I found that the evidence for theism and against naturalism is so strong. But then I made the effort to understand the naturalistic mindset and discovered the intrinsic viability of naturalism. There is indeed a possible world which is naturalistic and in which all experiences of the actual world obtain, including how it is like when I ponder the arguments or when I compare theism to naturalism. So (barring perhaps mystical experiences which literally transform one’s self) it seems the actual world is indeed religiously ambiguous; the unsophisticated theist doesn’t know all the good reasons there are for theism, and the sophisticated theist knows of the viability of naturalism.

            Now it is of course true that God wishes us to believe (as Christianity and all great theistic religions have it), as God wishes everything that is good. God also wishes us to be holy and to always choose what’s good. That’s not the point. The point is that what God values in a person above all is ethical merit (as incidentally I’d say most of us do.). And thus it is ethical merit what God wishes for us above all. Towards the realization of that greatest good God must place us in a world which is religiously ambiguous, a world where the presence of God is not evident, where mere belief in God, even when with great confidence, is not sufficient for leading to holiness. Not by far. Since God is not a deceiver a world is needed where there is good reason to believe in God but where doubt cannot be removed. As for God’s secondary wish that we should believe, that will be satisfied in time. As is entailed by John Hick’s theodicy. And as is beautifully suggested in the Gospels which say that the pure in heart will see God.

            My general point I trust is clear. When we ponder the actual world not from our point of view but from God’s point of view, things suddenly appear to cohere very well. In the argument above I tell a story of why God, the greatest conceivable being, would create a world close in nature to the one we live in. I challenge atheologians (i.e. philosophically inclined atheists), who after all have as good a sense of personal greatness as I have, to suggest a different story. In other words to suggest what kind of world *significantly different* than ours the greatest conceivable being would create, according to their own judgment. I claim that only after shortly pondering the question the atheologian will realize that such a being would create a world with conscious and rational beings in it, that this would not be a world with maximal pleasure for them, that they would not be made to automatically choose the good, and so on.

            The fact that the human sense of personal greatness should be such as to fit so well with the large-scale structure of the actual world is a remarkable fact. A fact which on theism makes perfect sense, but on naturalism makes no sense, and must therefore be considered another unexplained brute fact.

            Coming back to my challenge to atheologians, let me deal with a type of potential answer which does not work, namely “the greatest conceivable being would have created a world just like ours but where tsunamis do not happen, or where tsunamis do happen but only after raising a natural alarm days in advance so that people can reach for shelter”. This answer is inadequate for several reasons. First because it does not satisfy the requirement of leading to a world which is significantly different than ours. And secondly, because it is not clear that such a world is naturalistically possible, i.e. that there is a naturalistic world which is identical to ours in all things but the tsunamis. But there is also a deeper reason. Any suggestion of the type “Obviously God would create our world without this particular evil X” leads to a regression which ultimately undermines it. So if it would make sense for God to remove evil X, then by the same measure it would make sense to remove evil Y, and then evil Z, and so on. But then ultimately we arrive at a world of perfect pleasure which we can plainly see is not the world God would create. So somewhere in the regression we made a mistake. But then perhaps we made the mistake at the very first step, i.e. in assuming that “obviously” God would create the world without evil X. Perhaps God has already removed from the world all the types of evils that should be removed. Perhaps our world is optimal according to God’s purpose for creating the world. So any suggestion must be justified with something more than that a world without type of evil X strikes us as being nicer.

          • Greg G.

            Your challenge seems too easy. A perfectly good god would bend over backwards to prevent suffering. He could easily do billions of miracles per nanosecond for each person as easily as the one every 100 million years that the intelligent designists propose. Our bodies wouldn’t require the intricate Rube Goldberg constructions of our cellular machinery. Eating and breathing would be an optional pleasure but completely unnecessary.

            Our minds would be unencumbered by brain chemistry. Such a brain could concieve of suffering without experiencing it or observing it just by extrapolating from the opportunity cost of going to Disneyland instead of Disneyworld. It would be perfectly obvious to a mind without the errors of confirmation bias that those who maintain a belief in a certain god got extra blessings for pleasing that god. They could learn what the god preferred by the immediate responses they got.

            In other words, it would be a world where believers didn’t need to imagine excuses for suffering and excuses for not being able to provide unambiguous evidence for a good god.

          • John

            “”if we knew that God exists, many of us would be bending over backwards to impress him with our good works…. even strong belief in God is not sufficient for making people holy, not by far.”

            These ideas are in conflict (the first sentence was one you agreed with and the second is your own words). Your claim was that if lots of people were to believe that God exists with great confidence, they would only behave in moral ways, in order to impress God. Then you (correctly) point out that the evidence in the world shows precisely the opposite. Plenty of believers are absolutely convinced God exists, but they don’t behave in moral ways. Even Biblical Christianity entails this idea, since Satan and his minions are supposed to know that God exists, but it does not entail that they behave well. Since your second statement is true, that shows your response to ANB does not work.

            Either God wants less nonbelief in the world, or he does not. The Christian conception of God (who wants missionary work, etc) is NOT of a deity who is worried about too many people confidently believing he exists (for some reason or other), so ANB is a serious problem for Christianity.

            As for Hick’s soul-building theodicy, I explained in the comments of a previous article why I think that is hopeless.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            John,

            “[If we knew that God exists we would be moved to do only good works – even strong belief in God is not sufficient to move us to do only good works]. These ideas are in conflict”

            I understand what troubles you, but where is it we disagree? I find both ideas are factual, and I take it you agree with both of them. Thus the conflict among them must be apparent. Actually I was referring to that apparent conflict when in a previous post I wrote “it’s not a matter of having great epistemic confidence in a belief but an issue of taking a belief seriously, to trust the belief in a way that becomes life transforming.”

            Anyway, let’s discuss in more detail this important issue. Clearly we are here presented with different personal attitudes related to beliefs, one which moves us to act on some belief and the other which doesn’t. Incidentally this has nothing to do with religion per se, but refers to a fact about the human condition.

            Take smoking for example. It’s a bad thing, we know it’s not easy to stop smoking, and we admire those who do stop. Now consider a doctor who smokes, which is not at all a rare case. This doctor holds all the right beliefs about how bad smoking is for her, and holds them with great confidence – yet she continues to smoke. But were she to actually see herself painfully dying from lung cancer (and I mean see that as clearly as she sees her desk) then she would certainly stop smoking on the spot. But then we wouldn’t admire her for her decision to stop smoking, would we?

            It’s the same way with belief in God and doing good works. Like the doctor above many believe with great confidence in God, but do not act on that belief and do not really live in a way that comports with that belief. Some few others though do act on their belief and live an admirably holy life. Suppose now God in all the beauty and glory would become apparent to us as clearly as our desk. Then we would all start leading holy lives, but there would be nothing admirable in it.

            So it’s one thing to believe in a truth, it’s another thing to have that truth made patent, have that truth kind of shoved into one’s face. And it’s one thing to merely believe, it’s another to act on one’s beliefs.

            But let’s dig a little deeper. Suppose our doctor one day stops smoking without any other visible change in her life. How are we to understand her good decision? What has changed? It’s not her belief or her confidence in her belief, since they haven’t changed since yesterday. What’s changed must be something personal, something that has to do with her attitude towards her belief. It’s something that moved her to take her belief seriously, to act on her belief, to live in a way consistent with her belief, to commit to her belief. Even though the wages of the evil of smoking have not been made present to her.

            In the theistic context, that personal attitude which moves people to commit to their beliefs is called “faith”. Or, perhaps, this is one of the various meanings of “faith”, but I think by far the most important one. It is clearly the meaning of Christ in the Gospels when he tells His disciples “O you of little faith”. What He laments there is not their lack of belief in God – since they all already believed in God – but their lack of commitment to that belief, that which keeps them from following the path and becoming as perfect as God in heaven is. Faith then is not an epistemic property, but a personal property. To become a faithful Christian refers to a movement in a person’s character and not to a movement in one’s beliefs or in one’s confidence in these beliefs.

            Now perhaps I should not use the religiously charged word “faith” for something that refers to the human condition in general, but I have no better word for it. Also thinking some more about that which moves one to great action – I see that its connection to belief is very tenuous indeed. It’s normally not so much a matter of acting on a belief but of acting on a value judgment. Take the case of the doctor who stops smoking. I think what primarily moves her has little to do with beliefs and more to do with her judgment of the value of life, her judgment about the respect she owes to herself, her consideration that living in a way which does not comport with her beliefs demeans her, or perhaps with the love for her husband and children. And even though her stopping to smoke entails a decision, what characterizes that which moved her to a great decision is not a thought but a strengthening of character – some kind of interior realization or interior growth.

            As it happens, I feel quite at a loss describing that hugely important property of the human condition. Perhaps we lack a proper philosophy of faith. The fact though remains that the world is made in such a way that taking a great decision confers great merit (and this more or less independently of one’s confidence in the respective beliefs).

            “Either God wants less nonbelief in the world, or he does not.”

            Imagine a rock climber ascending a mountain with great effort. And a rich friend landing nearby in her helicopter and inviting her saying “Jump in – I’ll give you a ride to the peak”. The rock climber will of course refuse the invitation. Imagine now the mystified friend saying “Either you want to reach the peak or you don’t. If you don’t then why are you climbing? But if you do then let me take you there at once.”

            I trust my point is clear. The rock-climber does not simply want to reach the peak, but wants to be a climber who has reached the peak on her own power. Similarly, God wants us to become ethical persons. The way to become ethical is to overcome evil and do good for its own sake and, significantly, by one’s own free will. The former entails the presence of evil to be overcome, and the latter entails God’s hiddenness. On the other hand, since God is not a deceiver, God does not deceive people about the theistic nature of reality, but hides it in such a way that it does not obstruct one’s becoming an ethical person. So, even though belief in God is there for the taking, it’s not a patent belief and there is always an element of doubt present. Thus, to overcome evil and do good is always meritorious in the sense of conferring personal value, even if one strongly believes in God.

            “As for Hick’s soul-building theodicy, I explained in the comments of a previous article why I think that is hopeless.”

            I know. I will try to answer your objections. Much of our current discussion helps. I wonder, have you actually read John Hick’s “Evil and the God of Love”?

    • sam

      You may have heard of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Apparently, separate investigations by the state of Florida as well as the USDJ have confirmed many of the allegations of abuse, beatings, rapes, tortures & murders of its boys that have taken place over its 111-year history. The school has recently been in the US news as 50 unmarked graves have been discovered by forensic anthropologists, & 100 more are expected to be found on the school grounds.

      An advocate for the evidential argument from evil/suffering might suggest that, based on the above information, we have sufficient grounds to conclude that no all-loving, perfectly benevolent school master was tenured during the school’s existence. A defense attorney for the school master might suggest:

      “While there is no justification for these particular instances of abuse, beatings, rapes, tortures & murders, perhaps there IS justification for the Dozier School for Boys to be such that these unjustified horrors exist. Indeed, the prosecutor/AfE advocate must first show that the all-loving school master’s existence/tenure entails that there can’t be a justification for the school to be such that these unjustified horrors occurred.”

      The prosecutor/AfE advocate will point out that while nothing obligated the school master to choose his position/career, once he makes the choice, morally thinking beings are obligated to hold accountable his actions in that capacity. The moment a morally thinking being builds & maintains a day care center, school, restaurant, night club or universe is the moment that the being assumes responsibility for the general well-being of the sentient inhabitants of those structures. Any being (i.e. a deistic god or an evil god) that is not obligated to engage in these most basic moral responsibilities is not the subject of the argument from evil/suffering.

    • Greg G.

      Evil is a subjective term. Suffering is an objective observation and is the hallmark of what we normally call evil. A god that allows a miniscule amount of suffering cannot be described as “perfectly” good. So it is a matter of balance to whether God is good at all.

      It is equally plausible that the god from premise 1 considers suffering to be the greatest good. Allowing pleasure enhances the overall suffering. The terror of the mother in Steven’s example only adds to the agony of the infant being torn apart by the wild dogs who consider satiated hunger to be worth the incidental suffering of others.

      How is the good god more probable than the bad god? How is the good god any better than the wild dogs? How is the good god more probable than an uncaring universe?

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

        Greg G.,

        “It is equally plausible that the god from premise 1 considers suffering to be the greatest good.”

        The theistic hypothesis is that the metaphysically ultimate – the final answer if you keep asking “why?” – is the greatest conceivable being. And thus a personal being of unlimited power and knowledge and goodness, who has created the universe and us in it for a good purpose, and so on. On the theistic hypothesis then your suggestion that God considers suffering to be the greatest good is absurd. As absurd as the suggestion that God considers 87 to be a prime number.

        Perhaps you are confused with Stephen Law’s discussion of the evil god hypothesis. Stephen’s idea is about theism’s epistemology. What he tries to argue is this: Consider any reason the theist may give for justifying part of the theistic hypothesis, namely that God is good. Then it seems there is always a parallel reason that speaks for the (non-theistic) hypothesis of an evil god who has created our universe. In other words he tries to devise an argument that shows that any theistic reasoning for the goodness of God is necessarily unsuccessful. He is not mounting an attack on theism’s truth but on theism’s epistemology.

        In my judgment Stephen’s idea is an interesting one, but ultimately fails because there is no parity between the goods and evils in the universe, and therefore it isn’t really the case that for any reason one may give for the good-god hypothesis there is also an equally powerful mirror reason one may give for the evil-god hypothesis.

        “A perfectly good god would bend over backwards to prevent suffering.”

        Only if a perfectly good god would value the absence of suffering as the greatest good.

        Philosophers have been debating for thousands of years about what is the greatest good. As usually there is no absolutely universally acceptable answer, but I think it is fair to say that virtually all agree that pleasure is not it. I think already an ancient Greek said something like “Pleasure is a proper goal for cows but not for humans”.

        I think it’s not difficult to see that pleasure (which entails the absence of suffering) is not the greatest good. Perhaps a good argument to show this is as follows: Imagine you become friends with an extraterrestrial who comes from a far more technologically advanced civilization. Now imagine that the alien would propose to you the following: “I see my friend that you have a two-year old daughter. As you know your child’s life on Earth will be precarious. She will experience some pleasure but also some suffering, she risks experiencing horrific suffering, and she risks having quite a short life. Let me take your daughter with me to my planet. There I will plug her to a machine which will simulate its environment here on Earth and which will give her the most pleasurable and long life that is biologically feasible. She will learn about all the great teachings of science, she will enjoy art, she will ponder all the important philosophical questions, she will marry a virtual person and have virtual children whom she will greatly love and feel proud about. And she will enjoy the experience much more than any experience with real persons. Lest your daughter hurt herself the computer will be making her decisions for her, but she will feel exactly as if she were freely deciding herself. What do you say? That’s what we in our planet do with all our children, since we hold that the experience pleasure and the absence of suffering is the greatest good, and this is the best way to achieve that greatest good.”

        I dare say that after a few moments of contemplation you wouldn’t accept the offer as what’s best for your daughter. Which proves that you don’t hold that pleasure and the absence of suffering is the greatest good. But if we, morally weak creatures, clearly see that pleasure is not the greatest good, so too does God.

        • Greg G.

          Sorry. Computer wasn’t responding then it posted the reply as I was getting started.

        • Greg G.

          Hi Dianelos,

          Thank you for the reply. Sorry about the first attempt. That computer has been acting up and I had to get to another one.

          The theistic hypothesis is that the metaphysically ultimate – the final answer if you keep asking “why?” – is the greatest conceivable being. And thus a personal being of unlimited power and knowledge and goodness, who has created the universe and us in it for a good purpose, and so on. On the theistic hypothesis then your suggestion that God considers suffering to be the greatest good is absurd. As absurd as the suggestion that God considers 87 to be a prime number.

          The “greatest conceivable being” with “unlimited power and knowledge” “who has created the universe” is incompatible with “and goodness” and “for a good purpose.” The “unlimited power” means it could achieve any ends by any means. The means would be part of the ends. If suffering is part of the means, it was chosen to be but it would not be necessary so all suffering is unnecessary. Any omnipotent being that chooses for there to be unnecessary suffering is sadistic, which is not good. We are not talking about mild discomfort that has been chosen to exist but the excruciating agony that exists.

          That is inconsistent with the good god hypothesis but is consistent with the indifferent god hypothesis, the evil god hypothesis, and the no god hypothesis. If you drop the omnipotent hypothesis then we would not be justified in calling it a god.

          There is no mirror argument in favor of a good god. Either God has chosen for there to be unnecessary suffering or God is not powerful enough to prevent suffering. That would imply that if there is an afterlife, it will also have suffering.

          “Pleasure is a proper goal for cows but not for humans”.

          This may be true in the universe we live in but would not be necessarily true in a universe with a good god.

          The extraterrestrial analogy is a bit contrived. I would have to see for myself just how realistic it was before I could make the decision for myself but I’m not certain I would have the right to make it for another person. My main reservation about it is the virtual vs. reality concerns. (Years ago, I heard scientists hooked a button up to stimulate the pleasure centers of rat brains. The rats would push the button until they died of hunger. They died happy though.) Suppose instead that the extraterrestrials offered a real world to humans with real relationships with real people and no suffering instead of a virtual experience. I believe I would accept it if I had reason to believe it was real. Would you? Or would you prefer it to be offered by an actual good god?

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Greg G.

            “The “unlimited power” means it could achieve any ends by any means.”

            That’s not the meaning of omnipotence. But suppose it were. Let me then suggest the means “doubling a natural number” and the end “to produce an odd number”. Do you believe that a being of “unlimited power” would achieve this particular end by these particular means?

            “I’m not certain I would have the right to make it for another person”

            Parents have the right, indeed the obligation, to make decisions for their children. But if it helps, in the story substitute yourself for the child.

            “Suppose instead that the extraterrestrials offered a real world to humans with real relationships with real people and no suffering instead of a virtual experience.”

            All experiences are real experiences.

            I suppose you are saying that pleasure produced by an artificially constructed virtual environment is less valuable than pleasure produced by the real world. Well, I agree. Which proves that pleasure by itself is not the greatest good.

            We clearly see that it is not enough to choose A over B *only* because A will produce more pleasure than B. Under certain circumstances we are justified in choosing B even though it produces less pleasure than A. But then perhaps God too is justified in creating world B which produces less pleasure than world A. To find why God did in fact choose to create world B with evils in it rather than world A without them, we must think more carefully about what the greatest good is.

          • Greg G.

            Hi Dianelos,

            I don’t mean that omnipotence would allow one to be a married bachelor. For my argument, it would be sufficient to be able to do a finite number of miracles to prevent a finite number of creatures from suffering. If God cannot do that, then answer Epicurus’ question – “Why call him God?” If God could do that, then all suffering is unnecessary and God chooses to allow unnecessary suffering. If God caused the Universe, then God caused all unnecessary suffering.

            Parents have the right, indeed the obligation, to make decisions for their children. But if it helps, in the story substitute yourself for the child.

            Agreed to a certain point but there are some decisions a parent should not make. We have children dying of treatable diseases because their parents decided prayer was the better option.

            All experiences are real experiences.

            For certain meanings of the word “real”. Having an imaginary experience is not the same as an experience with real world consequences. A wet dream is an experience but it won’t make you a parent. Having a waking dream about being abducted by aliens who insert a probe is an experience but it is not an actual real event. The same goes for waking dreams about intruders in the bedroom, angels, or God himself. They are dreams and they are experiences but there is a difference between real intruders and dreamed intruders.

            I suppose you are saying that pleasure produced by an artificially constructed virtual environment is less valuable than pleasure produced by the real world. Well, I agree. Which proves that pleasure by itself is not the greatest good.

            But pleasure is better than pain, all other things being equal. Death by suffocating in pure nitrogen is not a good thing but it is apparently a pleasant way to go and it is better than death by certain poisonous gases.

            Pleasure and pain are necessary in a world where certain behaviors lead to greater reproduction with no powerful being to manipulate things for these purposes. We must successfully avoid injury whenever possible and we get pleasure rewards for beneficial actions in a natural world like eating nutritious foods, social interactions, and reproductive activities. We learn that some actions result in pain and try to avoid it as much as possible. Neither would be necessary if there was a fairly potent, benevolent being. There could be other things to make life interesting. If not, who would want to go to heaven?

            But then perhaps God too is justified in creating world B which produces less pleasure than world A.

            So? The question is not about more or less pleasure. The question is about the existence of unnecessary suffering.

            To find why God did in fact choose to create world B with evils in it rather than world A without them, we must think more carefully about what the greatest good is.

            The greatest good would have all the good with none of the suffering. Some suffering can lead to a net benefit but it would still be unnecessary if a being with powerful magic could provide the benefit without the offset of the suffering. We tolerate it because we cannot do anything else. An omnipotent being should not be limited to those tradeoffs.

            If God can’t manage a finite world for a finite time without unnecessary suffering resulting, why imagine he could manage it in heaven for eternity?

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Greg G.

            If God cannot [eliminate all suffering], then”

            God does not eliminate all suffering, so, given omnipotence, God does not want to eliminate all suffering. The question is why. Why would a perfect being, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good not want to eliminate all suffering? There are three kinds of answer to this question:

            1. God does not want to eliminate all suffering, but it is impossible for us to understand why.

            2. God does not want to eliminate all suffering, and it is possible (albeit not easy) for us to understand why.

            3. God would want to eliminate all suffering, and the fact that suffering exists proves that there is no God.

            Skeptical theists embraces #1, the rest of theists (including myself) embrace #2. Most atheists embrace #3.

            We have children dying of treatable diseases because their parents decided prayer was the better option.

            Point well taken. It seems there are cases where parents do not have the right to make specific decisions of their children. But what about our hypothetical story? If it is the case that pleasure is the greatest good then I don’t see why the parent has not the right to make a life decision for her child that would give her the greatest possible amount of pleasure. In any case, to avoid discussing this secondary issue, in the story we may substitute the child by ourselves. (One reason why in the story I used the parent deciding for the child is because it comports better with God deciding for us in which world to put us – but it’s not a significant reason for the point I was trying to make.)

            For certain meanings of the word “real”.

            Right. Again I agree with most you say there. So we agree that it’s not only the pleasure of the experience that counts. So what is it that counts more than the pleasure alone? Perhaps in the future it will be possible to plug our brain into a machine which would produce the most pleasurable sex experience possible. What is it that makes such an experience *less* valuable than having less pleasurable sex with our partner?

            As you suggest the difference has something to do with the concept of what’s “real”. In your judgment, would a world in which God always miraculously interferes to keep us from feeling any pain, be one which we would be inclined to call “real”? In such a world I imagine people jumping off the window just to have God perform a miracle when they hit the ground. Or having fun devising innovative ways to hurt each other and see how God deals with them. Or we all instantly solving any problem we face just by facing it, and how boring such a situation would be. Or all composers writing music of exactly the same excellence, lest anybody’s feelings get hurt. Or all women being exactly as beautiful. Such a world strikes me as Mickey Mouse world, a dreamlike state. If given the choice, would you personally choose such a world over the world we currently live in? My guess is that you wouldn’t. I think there is a Chinese saying that goes “Be careful what you wish for”.

            But pleasure is better than pain, all other things being equal.

            Undoubtedly. Only a mentally ill person would dispute that. But the point is that all other things are not equal, since there is huge number of open variables. We already saw that we value reality more than dreaming, even when it has less pleasure.

            Pleasure and pain are necessary in a world where certain behaviors lead to greater reproduction with no powerful being to manipulate things for these purposes.

            Perhaps I am misunderstanding something, but no theist thinks that God is “manipulating” things in favor of greater reproduction. If that were so then God would have stopped people from inventing the condom. Or monasteries. (By “theist” I always mean the philosophically educated theist, the same when I make claims about the “naturalist”.)

            In any case I disagree with what you say here. There are plenty of naturalistic worlds where biological organisms are produced by natural evolution, where reproduction is at least as successful as in ours, and where no pleasure and pain exist. A case in point is David Chalmers’s so-called “zombie” world, in which no experiences whatsoever exist. But one can easily visualize worlds in which experiences do exist, and where to burn one’s hand produces experiences such that move one to avoid burning one’s hand in the future, but which are themselves not painful.

            The question is not about more or less pleasure.

            My point exactly. Pleasure and pain are secondary and worth considering only in cases where all other things are equal.

            The question is about the existence of unnecessary suffering.

            Right, which presupposes we answer the question of what it means for suffering to be “unnecessary”. I have been arguing that random suffering is necessary for the greatest good to obtain. Which means that in a theistic world there will be instances of suffering that have no individual reason whatsoever. And thus in a sense be unnecessary. But in another sense be necessary.

            Let me clarify this point. Suppose it is the case that for the greatest good to obtain a world where suffering exists is necessary, and indeed a world where rarely great suffering exists is necessary. An example of great suffering would be that of a particular parent whose child is stricken by a grave illness. Is that instance of great suffering necessary or not? It seems the answer is no, since (I take it we agree) no good purpose is served by this particular parent’s child been struck with this particular illness. After all another parent’s child could have been struck instead. Or perhaps the world could be such that this particular kind of great suffering does not exist. But in another sense it is necessary, since *some* kind of great suffering is necessary.

            For the argument from evil to succeed the philosopher *must* describe (not in great but in adequate detail) an alternative world which 1) is significantly different from ours, 2) is plausibly at least as valuable as ours from the point of view of the greatest conceivable being, and 3) has significantly less suffering than ours. No philosopher has even come close to describing such an alternative world. Actually I am not sure any philosopher has actually tried to describe such an alternative world. Incidentally, I find it is very instructive to try oneself (whether one happens to be a theist or a non-theist) to device such a world.

            Instead philosophers today are apt to produce arguments the strength of which appears to depend on the emotional reaction they cause. Such as: Consider this particular instance of great and provably useless suffering (for example, the slow death of a particular fawn, nobody even knows exists, caught in a forest fire). If you had the power wouldn’t you immediately stop that suffering from taking place? Of course you would. But then so would God, if God existed.

            The greatest good would have all the good with none of the suffering.

            Clearly, and here virtually all atheologians agree, that’s as impossible as asking for an odd number to be produced just by doubling a natural number. “None of the suffering” is off the table in any serious discussion about the problem from evil.

  • Steven Carr

    The Bible has no time for philosophical quibbles that the hypothetical Christian god would never use deception.

    I can only imagine the baffled look on the faces of the people who wrote Biblical books if they were ever confronted with a philosopher who claimed their god would never allow people to be deceived.

    2 Thessalonians 2
    11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

    1 Kings 22:23 Yahweh has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these your prophets.

    Ezekiel 14:9 And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the LORD have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

    Sam,

    “EZ 14:9, DT 13:1-5, 1KI22:21-23, JE 4:10, JE 8:8-10, 2TH 2:11-12, 2CO 4:3-4 all constitute cases where “yhwh” confesses that it engages in deception.”

    In order not to waste everybody’s time let me here make clear that I am not a biblical literalist. I notice that even back in the first centuries the Fathers warned people from understanding the Bible literally. And in my reading of the Gospels it seems to me that Christ Himself is shown to be kind of contemptuous of the literal reading of the Bible, and came to some trouble precisely because of that attitude (e.g. when He was accused by the religious hypocrites of His time that He was not respecting the Sabbath). Finally the official position of the Eastern Orthodox church, and of the Catholic church, and I understand of most Protestant churches is that the Bible is not to be understood literally.

    What interests me is philosophical theism or natural theology – and I am here because I hold this to be a philosophical blog. Specifically what interest is this: If one takes seriously the fundamental theistic hypothesis that the metaphysically ultimate is the greatest conceivable being, then, guided by reason alone, how well does this hypothesis fit with the facts we know (i.e. with the human condition – the whole of the human experience), how well does it explain or helps us make sense of the whole of the human experience, how well does it help us make the best of the human experience? Particularly in comparison to naturalism’s fundamental hypothesis that the metaphysically ultimate is exclusively of a mechanical, and thus of a blind and purposeless, nature?

    Now it’s almost beside the subject matter of our current discussion (which is whether on theism there is or there isn’t evidence that God is lying to us), but since many (theists and atheists alike) believe that every word in the Bible constrains theism, I’d like to state what seems to me to be the reasonable way the Christian should think about the Bible. Which is then also the way the reasonable atheist should consider is the proper theistic understanding of the Bible:

    First of all it is blindingly obvious that the text is the product of human and not of divine effort. Clearly it contains much that is primitive, ambiguous, contradictory, or outright wrong – indeed much that seems to be not inspired by the love for God but by political or other considerations. Which, on the other hand, is not to say that there isn’t plenty of divine truth expressed in the text, or that the Bible is not one of the many ways by which God speaks to us. How this works I take it is as follows: Throughout history there are people who for some reason or other appear to perceive the reality of God clearer than others. Some of them are moved to write down what they think they understand about God. Thus through a centuries long historical process, which includes much editing and re-editing by many perhaps not particularly inspired or honest hands, and includes the picking and choosing between many writings, the current state of the Bible came about. I think it’s fair to say that it contains much of the theistic insight and wisdom up to and including the first century, and thus is of great value. The NT is of special value to the Christian, since it contains the only writings of people who lived close to Christ and are thus our best source to the actual life and works of Him. But the subsequent momentous growth of Christian understanding is not to be found in the Bible, but is to be found in the writings of the great theologians and philosophers up to the current day. As well as in the collective wisdom of the tradition.

    Which understanding, incidentally, is not only theoretical but also practical, and concerns itself with the business of the good life. Much of this latter part is expressed in the practices of the Church. Clearly, not all wisdom concerns itself with theory. Perhaps the most valuable wisdom is not theoretical anyway. Actually I hold that reason leads us to see that only practical wisdom is knowable and theoretical reason works only in that it helps illuminate, or helps make sense of, practical wisdom. Thus I happen to hold that naturalism is wrong not so much because it doesn’t work well as a theory but because it does not work well in the praxis of life. But I am moving far away from the subject matter of our discussion.

    Coming back to the issue of the Bible and wishing to close this matter – I’d like to notice that Christ Himself never wrote down a single word. Which to me as a Christian clearly speaks of how little He valued the written word. As, incidentally, another great figure and inspiration of the western civilization didn’t, namely Socrates.

    • sam

      I accept at face value that you are not a literalist. Earlier you wrote: “…we have plenty of evidence that God is *not* lying to us. Namely …the wisdom of scripture…”

      Can I now reasonably conclude that the ‘wisdom’ of scripture does not _literally_ constitute evidence of the existence of a god, lying or honest? I am curious about your opinion of the non-literal nature of DT 13:1-5.
      Is your position that yhwh did not say this, did not inspire it, does not deceive prophets, does not order them to be executed? When a ‘prophet of yhwh’ like Jeremiah admits to being deceived by yhwh, in what non-literal fashion is Jeremiah being honest? Subjective aesthetic appreciation does not constitute objective evidence.

      To return to your earlier request, you said, “If you can suggest one case where on theism God is speaking to us and lying to us, I’d like to hear of it.” I’d like to know with respect to EZ 14:9, DT 13:1-5, 1KI 22:21-23, JE 4:10, JE 8:8-10, 2TH 2:11-12, 2CO 4:3-4, do these passages constitute examples where, on theism, yhwh is _not_ speaking to us, or do these constitute examples where yhwh is _not_ lying to us (in which case he admits lying to us)?

      “Specifically what interest is this: If one takes seriously the fundamental theistic hypothesis that the metaphysically ultimate is the greatest conceivable being, then, guided by reason alone, how well does this hypothesis fit with the facts we know…”

      I understand your interest, & you are welcome to it. Guided by reason alone, there is no reason to take seriously the fundamental theistic hypothesis of a greatest conceivable being.

      “…the subject matter of our current discussion (which is whether on theism there is or there isn’t evidence that God is lying to us)”

      On Scientology, the tech is flawless. That is, if you already accept that
      Scientology is true, then the Church’s spiritual technology works every time & can be used to perfect one’s Thetan. If it doesn’t always appear to, the problem is yours, not the Church’s. This is obviously a vacuous position.

      The original discussion was that a skeptical theist’s position leads us to moral skepticism about yhwh’s justification for lying as it does for yhwh’s justification for permitting horrendous suffering. If the seemingly gratuitous suffering of the world is ultimately justified, perhaps yhwh’s deception of all mankind has equal justification. The skeptical theist’s position leads one unable to address this. So, if yhwh exists, he could be deceiving you, Dianelos Georgoudis, with falsehoods in order to condemn you. What if yhwh, desiring to show his wrath & to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of his wrath (you) that are made for destruction & what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy? Paul (interpreted non-literally, of course) feels yhwh (via its absolute divine sovereignty) would be entirely justified in doing so.

      “First of all it is blindingly obvious that the text is the product of human and not of divine effort. Clearly it contains much that is primitive, ambiguous, contradictory, or outright wrong…” We are in agreement. I think this is a sensible position.

      “Which, on the other hand, is not to say that there isn’t plenty of divine truth expressed in the text…” The pages contain some historical & moral
      claims that I believe are accurate, but this statement is so amorphous &
      ultimately subjective that I don’t personally have any interest in discussing it any more than I have in discussing engrams & BT clusters with a Scientologist.

      “Actually I hold that reason leads us to see that only practical wisdom is knowable and theoretical reason works only in that it helps illuminate, or helps make sense of, practical wisdom. Thus I happen to hold that naturalism is wrong not so much because it doesn’t work well as a theory but because it does not work well in the praxis of life.”

      I can only interpret these words to be deeply antithetical to an honest investigation into what is true. What is true is not always useful, what is
      useful is not always true.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

        Sam,

        “Can I now reasonably conclude that the ‘wisdom’ of scripture does not _literally_ constitute evidence of the existence of a god, lying or honest? “

        No. As I described previously, in my view the reasonable way for a theist to think about scripture is that it brings together and records in textual form much of the insights about God made by theists through the many subtle ways that God speaks to us. In that sense I do hold that the wisdom of scripture constitutes evidence for the existence of God. For many theists the experience of reading particular passages in scripture is that of recognition, of a powerful stirring of the soul, like the opening of one’s eyes.

        “I am curious about your opinion of the non-literal nature of DT 13:1-5.”

        Well, what do you think the reasonable theistic understanding of this passage should be? I think we know that the Bible served as an important national symbol for the people of Israel, and that their religion kind of kept them together and differentiated them from other tribes. So a prophet coming along and preaching against the central premises of the Bible would be considered a threat. And since people were apt to ask their elders why God allowed such dangerous prophets to come to them, the easy answer would be that God is testing them. – I don’t see any particular difficulties here.

        Anyway, we both agree that this passage comes not from God. Perhaps you have a better idea about the historical process by which that passage found its place in the Bible.

        “When a ‘prophet of yhwh’ like Jeremiah admits to being deceived by yhwh”

        I must say I don’t know which passage you are here referring to. I have never read the OT in its entirety. Actually I have only read bits of it.

        “I’d like to know with respect to EZ 14:9” – I have no idea what that passage says and how it found its way in the Bible. Perhaps in ancient Israel the proper place of prophets was an important subject matter and much debated about.

        “1KI 22:21-23” – no idea, sorry.

        “JE 4:10” – perhaps they were trying to make sense how come some particular prophesies did not obtain?

        “JE 8:8-10” – perhaps it expresses dismay with or some kind of revolt against a hypocritical priestly class? Or perhaps it records the resolution of some kind of conflict between power groups?

        “2TH 2:11-12” – I suppose the first decades of the Christian religion were complicated and conflictive times, with an age-old system of ideas, customs, and power structures making place for a new one. Made more difficult by the fact that Christian ideas were half-baked too.

        Further let’s not forget that institutionalized national religion and the practice of religion has lots to do with the order of society. Thus politics has a place in scripture, including I suppose in the NT. Again, people asked questions, religious elders did their best to answer, and what was considered good or important stuff was put in writing. But I feel out of my depth here; as I said what interests me is philosophical theism. Maybe a historian of religion will give you better answers.

        “2CO 4:3-4” This strikes me as a different case. I think this passage reflects on a difficult matter for the religious worldview, namely that some people appear to be more spiritually favored and some appear to be outright blinded. This is a particularly difficult problem to deal with if one supposes that this life is all that counts in the context of salvation.

        “Guided by reason alone, there is no reason to take seriously the fundamental theistic hypothesis of a greatest conceivable being.”

        If guided by reason alone we find out that the greatest conceivable being would create a world basically just like the one we live in, and if in general we find that the theistic hypothesis fits better with, explains better, and helps us make better use of the whole of our experience of life – then there is much reason to take the theistic hypothesis seriously. Indeed there is much reason to think it is true. Especially if naturalism fares worse.

        “On Scientology [snip]”

        I know next to nothing of scientology, certainly not enough to understand what you are saying in this passage.

        “So, if yhwh exists, he could be deceiving you, Dianelos Georgoudis, with falsehoods in order to condemn you.”

        If an evil god exists who has created the world, then this is at least a possibility. But why should I believe in the evil-god hypothesis? I find it works even worse the naturalism’s hypothesis, by the criteria I have stated above. For example: Deception seems not to be the greatest evil – it’s clearly much better to have an evil god deceive me while giving me the many great goods I now enjoy, than to have an evil god torture me from the very beginning. And the idea that the evil god needs some justification for condemning me later on, strikes me as absurd too. – Perhaps the indifferent god hypothesis makes better sense. But not much of it, since it is not clear why the indifferent god would go into all the trouble of creation in the first place.

        I think it’s pretty clear that the version of supernaturalism that by far makes better sense is theism, i.e. the view that what’s metaphysically ultimate is the greatest conceivable being. If somebody wants to invest some serious work, describe in appropriate detail and depth a competing evil-god hypothesis, and finally argue that it works better than the theistic hypothesis – she may of course try. But to me it looks like a waste of time, I’m positive it won’t work.

        “What is true is not always useful, what is useful is not always true.”

        Clearly to believe in a truth is virtually always useful. And to believe in some falsity is virtually always harmful.

        Now there are some states of affairs where not believing in some truth is arguably more useful. But these are rare, contrived, and it seems always refer to confused states of knowledge. I.e. to cases where given that one already holds several false beliefs it is better not to hold some particular true belief.

        In any case the issue is academic. Given that it is virtually always the case that holding true beliefs is useful, what is found to be pragmatically useful (or, as they say, “to work”) is a good guide to what’s true. This, incidentally, is the principle on which the physical sciences rest.

        • sam

          “””So, if yhwh exists, he could be deceiving you, Dianelos Georgoudis, with falsehoods in order to condemn you.”

          If an evil god exists who has created the world, then this is at least a possibility. But why should I believe in the evil-god hypothesis?”

          The evidential argument from evil suggests that seemingly gratuitous (unjustified) suffering is inductive evidence against the existence of a tri-omni god. The
          skeptical theist’s position is that this seemingly unjustified suffering may well be justified (non-gratuitous/necessary) suffering. We humans lack epistemic access to draw
          conclusions.

          For example, I’ve heard an estimated 9 million children under the age of 5 die every year (from famine, disease, etc). A skeptical theist might argue that these children must suffer & die every year because, via consequentialism, it is the only logically possible means by which the tri-omni god can maximize the greatest
          possible number of saved souls in the best of all possible worlds.

          The divine lies argument points out that as skeptical theists, we are equally epistemically incompetent to ascertain why a tri-omni god might be ethically justified in deceiving others. A tri-omni god might be deluding you,
          Dianelos Georgoudis. As skeptical theists, we would be unable to conclude that this god is unjustified in doing
          so. Perhaps this god has you convinced that natural beauty in this world (or wise scripture) constitutes evidence for the existence of a non-lying god because, via consequentialism, deceiving & condemning you personally is the only logically possible means by which the tri-omni god can maximize the greatest possible number of saved souls in the best of all possible worlds. For all we know, this may be the best possible way a tri-omni god can make known his powers.

          Romans 9:18-23 What if god, desiring to show his wrath &
          to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of his wrath [you] that are made for destruction & what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy?

          As a defender of the skeptical theist’s position, you have no standing to refute the divine lies argument. Further, if you hold that yhwh’s divine sovereignty is absolute (and I’m not suggesting you do), then you need not hold
          the skeptical theist’s position, which implies that yhwh needs to have justifying reasons to make his actions/inaction moral. One who believes in yhwh’s absolute sovereignty could argue that yhwh needs no reason (chinnam) to do anything, such as (metaphorically,
          of course) murdering Job’s children & slaves (Job 2:3).

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

            Sam,

            “The evidential argument from evil suggests that seemingly gratuitous (unjustified) suffering is inductive evidence against the existence of a tri-omni god.”

            Right. Let me put it this way. On the assumption that some creator god is at the bottom of it all, given that the goods of the world far exceed the evils, the evidence makes it far more probable that this god is good rather than evil. As you point out, the presence of the evils suggests that this good god is perhaps not the perfectly good tri-omni god of the great theistic religions. But that’s irrelevant to the point I was making, namely that I don’t see the slightest reason to take seriously the evil-god hypothesis.

            “As a defender of the skeptical theist’s position, you [snip]”

            But I do not defend the skeptical theist’s position. On the contrary I have argued it’s misguided. I am the very opposite of a skeptical theist – I hold that it is possible to know the reason God has created the world with the evils it contains (i.e. that a theodicy is feasible), indeed that with John Hick’s soul-building theodicy we are on the right track.

            Please observe how my first post in this thread starts:

            “The skeptical thesis is motivated by the wish to defeat the second premise of the evidential argument from evil. As it happens I think the first premise is unjustified, or perhaps ambiguous.”

            This first premise (namely that on theism there can’t be any gratuitous evils and each single instance of evil must have a justification) is precisely why some theists embrace the skeptical position that we are not in a condition to know what the reason for many instances of evil is. But I argue that theism does not entail the first premise, and indeed propose an argument that shows that on theism it is probable that many evils do *not* have a justification.

          • sam

            “…the presence of the evils suggests that this good god is perhaps not the perfectly good tri-omni god of the great theistic religions.” “…on theism it is probable that many evils do *not* have a justification.”
            OK, that’s good enough for me, thanks.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Stephen Law wrote:

    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.

    =======================

    Comment:

    Thank you for the clear presentation of this interesting issue, and for your persuasive objection to the skeptical theist response to Wielenberg.

    Often, when a theist is backed into a corner, we hear an appeal to mystery. Frequently, a theist will quote this passage from the Bible:

    “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” ! Corinthians 1:25 (NIV)

    Another favorite passage for an appeal to mystery:

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
    declares the Lord.
    “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    Isaiah 55:8-9

    It is frustrating to try to deal with this common move made by many believers.

    So, I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the skeptical theists for taking this vague rhetorical move and clarifying it, and turning it into a clear philosophical/theological position, something substantial that we can sink our teeth into.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    First of all, let me emphasize that Stephen Law is one of the greatest godless philosophers worldwide.

    I am an Agnostic Christian and concede the possibility we might have been created by an evil being or live within a gigantic computer simulation.

    But our creator would then fall very short of perfection and could not be called “God”.

    As a supreme being, God can only be perfectly good.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com


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