April 19, 2012
Peter Hurford recently said it was “misleading” to say he’d recanted the POE without including his “new position.” I replied that I was confused because I linked directly to his new position. I also said I felt that he might be confused, implying that I don’t think he still thinks the POE works, but rather that skeptical theism (hereafter ST) undermines key theist tenets. This is even more confusing when considering that Peter used ST to defang his newly-formulated POE. Look, right here:
…it seems that Skeptical Theism is very damaging to the Bridging Premise—we simply do not have the knowledge to know whether these things are truly unjustified, or even say that the justification is unlikely. Thus we are arguing “I don’t see any reason God would allow this suffering,” and expecting that to matter, when really we aren’t in any position to draw a conclusion from our personal lack of insight, just like the person who doesn’t see germs.
Thus the Problem of Evil, as traditionally conceived, fails. However, if we take Skeptical Theism a bit further, perhaps we can break it…
There is no “bridging premise” in any traditional POE that I’m aware of. This so-called bridging premise is the fifth premise of Peter’s reformulated POE. Unless I’m missing something, he just said that his reformulation also fails. So, I guess when Peter says the POE still works, he means that it works because it commits the theist to embracing a position which undermines their meta-argument. Okay, that makes sense, but I actually think that’s a little misleading.
He then introduces three standard objections to ST, but for some reason labels that section as, “Three New Problems Of Evil.” Peter alludes to three states of affairs that he thinks logically obtain given ST, namely, that such undermines “any inference to a good God” and our “ability to know God’s intentions,” rendering us “unable to select a specific religion, because selecting a religion requires us to know about how God would choose to reveal himself.” However, objections to ST are not POE arguments. Peter still hasn’t provided a POE that succeeds. He offers a 6-premise argument demonstrating (in his opinion) that God is not omnibenevolent, but an argument purporting to prove God is not omnibenevolent is not a POE argument. He writes,
Either way, theism is caught in a dilemma that spells further doom and gloom.
…but this is either severe overconfidence or a genuine oversight. Proving that God cannot be omnibenevolent hardly disproves God. Theism is not caught in a dilemma even if Peter’s argument survives (which, as we’ll see shortly, it doesn’t). That God might not be omnibenevolent is no reason to accept atheism. You can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Moving along, Peter describes ST as the position that,
…we simply aren’t in a place to know whether this higher good exists or not, because God is so far ahead of us.
Right off the bat we should note a subtle but important difference between Peter’s characterization of ST and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to whom he links:
Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.
Did you spot the difference? Peter’s version grants the believer a license to doubt whether a higher good actually exists, whereas IEP’s only grants license to doubt the claim that inability to discern the good warrants the assumption that it doesn’t exist. Peter’s version should definitely be rejected by any Bible-believing person. After all, it is perhaps the central biblical tenet that God is good (Mark 10:18). Further, the Bible also says that Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Where is there room for doubt? Either God is good, all the time, or not. It’s Boolean. This is straightforward biblical exegesis. Those who take the Bible seriously cannot concede that we aren’t in a place to know whether a higher good actually exists, because if God is good, then a higher good must exist. To doubt thus is to seemingly deny the aforementioned Scriptures. Further, those who take the Bible seriously shouldn’t react to the POE with blasé inability to conceive of a higher good. After all, it’s all clearly spelled out in Scripture (Rev. 21:4).
What about the IEP’s version? Does any Bible-believing person have reason to reject it? I believe they do. Simply put, ST is to metaphysics what Russell’s Teapot is to science. Consider the similarities between,
For all we know, there might be a teapot orbiting Jupiter.
For all we know, God might have a reason for allowing seemingly gratuitous suffering X.
Christians, is this really the argument you want to make? If anybody believes they can make a principled distinction between those two lines of reasoning, now is the time to speak up.
I would like to clarify that although I have used skeptical theism as a rebuttal in various arguments with atheists, that’s only because it is a legitimate response to show that the POE is impotent. However, there’s an importance difference between winning arguments and demonstrating the truth. A valid argument cannot be honestly used if committing to its premises undermines arguments further up the line. This is where I remind you that ST is not necessary to defang the POE, and that I’ve already defanged it here. Here’s a modified sketch:
There’s no need to retreat and say, “Oh, I’m sure God has a higher good, I just don’t know what it is.” The Bible says God has given us everything we need for godliness, and that’s why Christians should use their swords. So, what about Peter’s argument?
P5 is easily dispensed with. ST isn’t the position that, “we can’t know about God’s motivations.” This is a strawman characterization of ST. As the IEP citation clarifies, ST is the position that, “our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is [not necessarily] indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason… (brackets mine). We *CAN* know about God’s motivations because they are plainly revealed in Scripture. God’s motivation is an eternity of free, creative creatures, without sin. God’s motivation is that we would repent and give up sin so He can welcome us to this eternity. If we refuse, we are hostile to the sinless eternity God desires, and an omnibenevolent, just God could not allow sin to persist indefinitely. As for P6, no theodicies are needed. It is sufficient to point out that an eternity of joy outweighs the temporary sufferings we currently observe. P8 is false. I’ve just given an explanation that can account for all the suffering we observe.
Therefore, ST is not necessary to rebut the POE, and Peter’s attempt to salvage the argument fails.