Direct continuation of: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 3: Evil
This series is about looking at a series of YouTube videos by user TheraminTrees called “There are no gods”, that set out to explain what TheraminTrees used to believe about gods, and why he is an atheist now — including which gods he rejects, why, and with how much certainty. I’m still analyzing his second video, which is about the gods he can reject with near absolute certainty, because they involve logically incompatible properties and thus are logically impossible.
Initially, I looked at arguments about that God’s omnibenevolence is incompatible with Hell, omnipotence incompatible with immortality and/or moral perfection, omniscience incompatible with determinism, omniscience with God’s surprise.
I also argued that God requires a kind of free will that is logically impossible, thus making God logically impossible. I then took a detour from many smaller arguments to jump into a lengthy analysis of one big argument, The Problem of Evil — an alleged incompatibility between God’s omnibenevolence and the observed suffering in the world.
Earlier, I concluded that these arguments don’t work, because of Skeptical Theism, which is the position that we cannot know whether or not God has a good reason to allow suffering because he has a large amount of knowledge that we don’t, by virtue of being omniscient. But what are we to make of this appeal to Skeptical Theism, and what does it do for the greater scheme of things?
Three Unfavorable Implications of Skeptical Theism
However, if we’re able to appeal to Skeptical Theism, we must face some pretty annoying implications. The problem-in-summary is that our lack of knowledge about God’s higher goods cuts both ways, and thus digs deep into theism as well. Here, I will identify three ways that theism is undermined by this lack of knowledge. Thus the current Problem of Evil is too narrow, but when we look at Skeptical Theism, we see that belief in an all-good God still doesn’t work.
#1: No Good God
The first way Skeptical Theism cuts both ways is that in undermining any inference to an evil God, we also undermine any inference to a good God. How do we demonstrate that God is actually good, especially if we can’t draw any conclusions about what reasons God may or may not have to allow suffering? With no way to justify the existence of a good god, the belief in a good god becomes unjustified.
Instead, God could just as easily be thoroughly evil. Perhaps we debunk the existence of an evil god by pointing to all the good things in the world, but this is just as bad as debunking the existence of a good god by pointing to all the evil things in the world — perhaps god is using these good things to obtain higher evils in a way we can’t see.
One might say that it just seems obvious that the world could be far more evil than it currently is. But likewise, it just is obvious that the world could be far more good than it currently is, and what is obvious to us has no bearing on what is true. We simply don’t have knowledge about what any omniscient entity would do, and that includes an evil one.
One might also say that being good is just in God’s nature — God is maximally great, and this includes moral perfection by definition. But if you’re doing that, you’re only advancing a circular argument — how can you prove that God is maximally great, or that moral perfection is included in maximal greatness?
#2: The Other Direction of Incredulity
The second way Skeptical Theism cuts both ways is that we get to make use of the same accusations of incredulity in the opposite direction. While the atheist argues “I don’t see any good reason for God to allow birth defects, therefore an all-good God can’t exist”, the theist is arguing “I don’t see any reason a world without birth defects would be better, therefore an all-good God can still exist”. If we don’t know anything about God’s intentions, how can we know that birth defects are actually worth permitting, without making the same bad claim?
How do we know birth defects and an all-good God are incompatible? Well, how do we know that they are compatible? It seems like we’re at a standstill, and thus whoever ends up getting stuck with the Burden of Proof ends up instantly being the loser.
#3: We Can No Longer Pick a Religion
Third, with Skeptical Theism, we become unable to select a specific religion, because selecting a religion requires us to know about how God would choose to reveal himself. But with Skeptical Theism, we will no longer know how God would choose to reveal himself, because we won’t be able to draw inferences about what reasons God may or may not have to reveal himself in particular ways. In fact, we wouldn’t even understand enough to know there was a single god, or that god had masculine pronouns! Thus Skeptical Theism leaves us not knowing anything more than a god exists of indeterminate moral character and other characteristics, being minimal deism at best.
Skeptical Theism, Teapots, and Unfair Arguments
After reading Cl’s commentary in “Why I Said Skeptical Theism Is For The Birds”, I’ve become persuaded by an argument that Cl himself argued for:
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.
For those who don’t know, the teapot orbiting Jupiter is an allusion to Russel’s Teapot, which suggests that there are things we can’t even begin to disprove, yet have no reason to accept. I’m not sure to what degree Skeptical Theism fits in this category, since, at least for theists, there does seem to be some positive reason for them to accept that God has such a reason, even if they can’t know it.
But likewise, we could move this further by asking whether creationists can undermine the theory of evolution by natural selection by suggesting that it might be possible that there are rabbits in a yet-to-be-discovered Precambrian layer somewhere in Africa. All told, I’m currently leaning toward the idea that Skeptical Theism might be an unfair argument, but I’m not positive. Drop me a comment with your thoughts, and we could have a conversation that leads me to later revise this section. (Also, thanks Cl for the starting thought, and for causing a lot of updating in my beliefs about the Problem of Evil over time.)
The Almost Problem of Evil
So what’s left for the Problem of Evil? Not much. Skeptical Theism seems to be true, as we do not seem to be in any sort of a position to make a positive case that it is likely God has malevolent motivations. So the Bridging Premise should remain in tatters, and the Problem of Evil should never be heard of again.
On the other hand, it appears that Skeptical Theism was an entirely Pyrrhic victory. Not only do we systematically fail to infer malevolent intentions from the evil around us, but we similarly will systematically fail to ever infer omnibenvolent intentions. So therefore all claims that God is omnibenevolent are unproven and thus unjustified. We could have an evil god, or a middle god, or a bizarre trickster god, or anything in between. Until a positive case can be made specifically for God’s omnibenvolence without falling into the same Skeptical Theism trap, the belief in an omnibenevolent god is in big trouble.
Thus, I’d advance this argument:
P1: The only sufficient reasons for an entity to allow suffering are either (1) that entity was not capable of preventing the suffering and/or (2) preventing that suffering would cause the same amount or greater suffering to result (a higher good).
P2: We cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent unless we know that he has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
P3: God is capable of doing everything that is logically possible.
P4: For every instance of suffering, it’s prevention is logically possible (even though that prevention might just cause more suffering).
C5: Therefore from P1-5, the only sufficient reason for God to allow suffering is that the prevention of that suffering would cause the same amount or greater suffering to result.
P6: Either (a) we do not have enough information to know what God’s reasons are, (b) the existence of suffering is enough evidence to infer God has no reasons, or (c) a theodicy exists which can allow us to infer God does have sufficient reasons.
P7: If we do not have enough information to know what God’s reasons are (skeptical theism), we cannot know whether or not God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
P8: No such theodicy exists that would allow us to infer that God has sufficient reasons to allow suffering.
C9: Therefore from C5 and P6-8, we cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent.
P10: If we cannot know whether God is omnibenevolent, all knowably omnibenevolent gods do not exist.
C11: Therefore from C9 and P10, all knowably omnibenevolent gods do not exist.
As you can see, Skeptical Theism is just a small barrier, and once we eliminate all theodicies, no matter which way we go around it (denying it or affirming it), we end up only demonstrating the failure of some God concepts. So now, assuming you buy all of this (if not, please drop a comment saying why!), we will have swept away the possibility of knowably omnibenevolent gods as incompatible with existing suffering. (Though my conclusion is not sound until I respond to more theodicies as they rise — Cl has challenged P4 head-on with a new theodicy in the essay I linked to previously.)
So for clarification’s sake, I will describe my position as such: The Problem of Evil does not work. However, and this is an important however, this is no large concession whatsoever, because a rather similar problem exists — while we can’t say God is not omnibenevolent, we can say God is not knowably omnibenvolent. And I think that’s not much difference at all.
…In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the remainder of the second video, analyzing incompatibility arguments dealing with perfection and revelation.
Continued in: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 5: Imperfection
Followed up in: Heaven, Coddling Gods, and Other Theodicies
Author’s Note #1: On May 16, 2012, the previous essay was revised in light of reader’s commentary to include a more substantial discussion, and thus split into two essays for length. This is that extra essay, much of which is either new content or revised old content. This essay won’t make much sense chronologically, but it should fit into the old series just fine. The next part of this series has been renumbered from 4 to 5 to account for this insertion.
Author’s Note #2: On July 1, 2012, I developed the Almost Problem of Evil into a more thorough version.
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