Professional children's performance poet! MA in Writing/Education and residencies at various schools. Books published by Bloomsbury. Blogging students' work, works-in-progress, and miscellanea. Blogs also about psychology and mental health. Blog posts not always child friendly.
before I became a poet I was an academic philosopher. I threw in the towel as a result of various *life events*. My Masters thesis was a thorough and (I thought) groundbreaking treatment of an important topic in the philosophy of religion. At Oxford our work was anonymously marked, and the following was granted a pass, but ONLY JUST. It did not get a good mark; I had taken two years out of my life at considerable personal expense, and was unable even to find out who had marked the damn thing, still less get any meaningful feedback. Anyway, I recently and unexpectedly found my old thesis, and am posting it here. Share, cite, criticise and ignore with abandon.
theism constitutes a popular method for disarming the evidential argument from
evil. The view holds, very roughly, that we should not expect to comprehend
whatever reasons God may have for allowing what seems to us to be utterly
pointless evil. Criticisms of skeptical theism are rife in the literature. My
purpose in this thesis is to develop what seems to me an underexplored line of
criticism, yet one which, if successful, would be highly damaging – that
skeptical theism leads to full-blown Cartesian skepticism, and, via this, to
the moral skepticism that skeptical theists have devoted much energy attempting
Now I do not claim that the contention that
skeptical theism leads to full-blown Cartesian skepticism has gone hitherto
unnoticed. For example, John Beaudoin (2000, pp298-299) and Stephen Maitzen
(2009, pp96-97) explicitly mention it, and philosophers such as Ian Wilks
(2009, pp67-68), Wes Morriston (2009, p265), Jim Stone (2003, pp263-265; 2011,
pp65-66), Theodore Drange (1998, p207), Mark Bernstein (1998, pp160-161), Bruce
Russell (1996, pp196-197) and Richard Gale (1996, p209) make related observations.
Yet most of these authors devote little more than a paragraph or two to the
contention. Nowhere, to my knowledge, has it been given the kind of extended,
detailed treatment it is my purpose in this thesis to give it. Furthermore,
although the allegation that skeptical theism leads to moral skepticism has
been much discussed, nowhere, to my knowledge, has it been suggested that it
does so via the contention that God could be deceptive, and hence deceiving us
with regard to moral matters. I thus intend this thesis to provide a novel and
valuable contribution to the numerous and growing literature on skeptical
In Chapter 1 I adumbrate an example of an
‘evidential argument from evil’, explain and motivate the skeptical theist
position, show how this view enables a response to the evidential argument, and
briefly defend the view from an initial objection.
In Chapter 2 I discuss the allegation that
skeptical theism leads to moral skepticism, and hence to a kind of ‘paralysis’
when it comes to making moral decisions. I attempt to provide the skeptical
theist with some ways of countering this allegation. These appeal both to the
scriptural considerations which, given her theism, the skeptical theist may
well be attracted to (and which helped motivate her position in the first
place), and to the view that her epistemic position in fact enables the
skeptical theist to have various justified beliefs about morality.
In Chapter 3 I argue that these lines of
response, whilst perhaps initially persuasive, are powerless against the claim
that skeptical theism leads to the view that, for all we can tell, we are being
radically deceived by God, a view from which moral skepticism in turn follows.
Chapter 4 draws some connections between
what I shall thus call ‘the maximally deceptive God hypothesis’ and another
skeptical hypothesis often discussed in the contemporary literature – the
‘brain-in-a-vat’ hypothesis. I argue that some of the most powerful and popular
methods for disarming the skepticism supposedly engendered by this latter
hypothesis are, for various reasons, not available to the skeptical theist.
Throughout Chapters 1-4 I deal with various
objections as they arise. What I take to be the most important ones, however,
are saved until Chapter 5, by which point I shall have the resources to develop
and tackle them. Thus, if I may flatter myself by appropriating the words of
the good Bishop Berkeley (2008, p67):
I make it my request
that the reader suspend his judgement, till he has once, at least, read the
whole [thesis] through with that degree of attention and thought which the
subject matter shall seem to deserve. For...there are some passages that, taken
by themselves, are very liable (nor could it be remedied) to gross
misinterpretation, and to be charged with the most absurd consequences, which,
nevertheless, upon an entire perusal will appear not to follow from them...
dealing with the relevant objections, I thus clarify and solidify my case for
the conclusion that skeptical theism leads, via considerations of deception, to
Of course, as Robert Nozick (1974, pxiii)
notes, “[t]here is room for words on subjects other than last words”. My
argument in this thesis may well therefore trail several loose ends in its
wake. I shall largely leave the discovery of and dealing with these loose ends
as possible areas for future research. However, in Chapter 6 I shall mention
three areas in which they may arise, and briefly say something as to why I
think their prospects for creating problems for my argument seem dim. This
chapter also contains my concluding remarks, in which I (tentatively) suggest
that the case put forward in this thesis may amount to a moral argument against
Now I shall often have occasion to discuss
‘theism’, or ‘the theist’. I shall understand the theist as committed to the
God exists, and is the unique,
omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creator of the universe.
I take it that someone who endorses (T) is likely to be a theist also in a broader sense, i.e. to subscribe to one
of the great religions. Thus, in talking of ‘theism’ I shall largely be
concerned with Western (i.e. Judeo-Christian) monotheism. I shall also often
have occasion to mention ‘scripture’ or ‘scriptural considerations’. By this, I
shall understand the Old and New Testaments (references to which will be from
the English Standard Version). Investigating whether the arguments put forward
in this thesis gain any support from Islam and the Koran, or indeed any other
religion or religious text, might itself be an interesting project for future
research, but is unfortunately one which limitations on time, space and
expertise prevents me from undertaking here.
Skeptical Theism and the Evidential Argument from Evil
this chapter I adumbrate an example of an evidential argument from evil,
motivate the skeptical theist position, and show how this view is commonly
invoked as a response to the evidential argument. I then go on to respond, on
behalf of the skeptical theist, to an objection levelled by Richard Swinburne
The Evidential Argument from Evil
The ‘evidential argument from evil’ has
evolved through various incarnations. The following is representative of the
general form of William Rowe’s original (1979) version of the argument, where
an instance of evil is ‘pointless’ just in case it could have been “prevented
without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or
worse” (Rowe 1979, p336):
(1) Pointless evils exist.
(2) Pointless evils would not exist if God
(3) God does not exist. (from 1 & 2)
argument is clearly valid. The aim of what I shall call the ‘evidentialist’ is
to lend rational weight to each of its premises. Both theists and atheists
typically hold that no possible world contains both God and pointless evil –
that is, they typically hold that (2) is true. Let us look, then, at how (1) is
commonly supported by the evidentialist.
Consider Rowe’s famous example of a fawn,
horribly burned in a forest fire and left to die a slow, lingering death. Rowe
(1979, p337) claims that “[s]o far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering
is pointless” – there are no greater goods we can conceive of such that the
fawn’s suffering is logically connected to these goods, and thus such that
sparing the fawn’s suffering would diminish them, and there are no other evils
(either equally bad or worse) we can conceive of such that sparing the fawn’s suffering
would necessitate their occurrence. Call an instance of evil ‘inscrutable’ just
in case we are unable, after careful consideration, to conceive of the goods or
evils by dint of which it would have a point. The fawn’s suffering seems to
many to be an example of an inscrutable evil.
In order for this to lend rational weight to
premise (1), the evidentialist seems to need some inference to the effect that
if E is an instance of inscrutable evil, then we are rationally justified in
viewing E as an instance of pointless evil. With this inference in place, we
will be rationally justified in accepting (1), and thus, given (2), in denying
God’s existence. What skeptical theism does is deny that any such inference
from inscrutable to pointless evils will work.
1:2 Motivating Skeptical Theism
The core claim of theism was expressed
by (T) in the Introduction. Let us understand by ‘skeptical theism’ (ST) the
conjunction of (T) with the following claim:
For all we can tell, there are lots
of facts about goods, evils, and the connections between goods and evils, of
which human beings are unaware.
philosophers contend that (S) is plausible independently of (T). Michael
Bergmann (2001, p279), for example, claims that “[i]t just doesn’t seem
unlikely that our understanding of the realm of value falls miserably short of
capturing all that is true about that realm”, and that “[o]ne can recognize
this even if one is not a theist”. Furthermore, William Alston’s (1996a, p120)
reference to our ignorance of “the secrets of the human heart, the detailed
structure and constitution of the universe, and the remote past and future,
including the afterlife if any”
seems to support (S), as does Daniel Howard-Snyder’s (1996, p301) observation
[k]knowledge has progressed
in a variety of fields of inquiry, especially the physical sciences. The
periodic discovery of previously unknown aspects of reality strongly suggests
that there will be further progress of a similar sort. Since future progress
implies present ignorance, it is very likely that there is a good deal of which
we are now ignorant.
the progress that it seems reasonable to think has been made in matters of
morality, Howard-Snyder thus argues, it would not be surprising if there were
aspects of axiological reality of which we are presently ignorant. Presumably,
one can appreciate Alston’s and Howard-Snyder’s points even if one is not a
Not everyone, however, agrees that (S) is so
plausible. Joel Tierno (2006, p171) argues that “no good reason can be offered
to support [it]”, whilst Richard Gale (1996, p210) goes further, offering a
reason to reject it with the claim
that “[a] hidden morality is no morality”. In response to these points, we can
note that if (T) were true then this itself would render (S) highly plausible.
Jim Stone (2003, p259) claims that (S) “has the force of a mere skeptical
unless it is motivated by a plausible theory”, and (T) may provide just such a
theory. The first thing to note is that, in
the light of God’s existence, to think that (S) is false would surely be to
evince “a human chauvinism that is certainly out of place in a world of [God’s]
super-human moral sensitivities” (Sennett 1993, p225). In other words, given
that God is one of the ‘participants’
in morality, it seems unreasonable to be so sure that none of the moral realm
should be hidden from us: “[o]n the
theistic conception, our cognitive powers, as opposed to God’s, are a bit slim
for that” (Plantinga 1996a, p73).
And whilst (S) may seem plausible even in the absence of (T), what also seems true
is that a denial of God’s existence may accommodate itself more readily than
theism to a denial of (S), i.e. to
Gale’s intuition about morality. For example, it is often argued
that only theism can accommodate objective
moral facts (or, at any rate, that theism can accommodate them more easily than can a denial of God’s
existence). An ‘objective’ moral fact would be one whose obtaining is “prior to
and logically independent of” (Mackie 1977, p30) human beliefs, attitudes and
conventions, one which is part of “the fabric of the world” (p15). One common
line of thought is that, in the absence of God’s existence, there would be
nothing to ground such objective moral facts; they would be left floating in a
‘queer’ sort of way.
Interestingly, J. L. Mackie, who famously denies
the existence of objective moral facts (in part on the grounds of queerness),
seems to endorse something like this view with the claim “that if the requisite
theological doctrine could be defended, a kind of objective ethical
prescriptivity could be thus introduced”, maintaining furthermore that “[s]ince
I think that theism cannot be defended, I do not regard this as any threat to
my argument” (p48).
Now this would lend weight to my earlier
claim that (T) supports (S), which might be questioned on the grounds that it
doesn’t follow from God’s superior epistemic power that there are any extra
moral facts that God grasps. The point is that if such facts themselves depend on God for their existence, then
skepticism concerning our awareness of such facts is licensed simply by an awareness of our cognitive deficiencies in
comparison with God’s. And were moral facts not
objective then (S) might be rendered implausible, on the grounds that there are
no human beliefs, attitudes and conventions about morality of which human
beings are unaware. Thus, inasmuch as a denial of theism would bring with it,
or at least lend weight to, the denial of objective moral facts, such a denial
“accommodates more readily [than theism] the claim that the very nature of
morality is such that morality can’t outstrip
what human beings could ever know” (Maitzen 2009, p97).
With these points in mind, we can also note scriptural reasons for
viewing (S) as a natural concomitant for many people subscribing to (T), thus
providing at least some evidence against Hugh McCann’s (2009, p177) objection
to skeptical theism on the grounds that “[t]he Western religious tradition is
not one according to which God leaves us in the dark about his purposes”. We
have, for example, God asking of Job the following question, which presumably
is to be answered in the negative: “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?”
(Job 38: 33). Likewise, Isaiah 55: 9:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your
ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”, 1 Corinthians 1: 20-21: “Has not God
made foolish the wisdom of the world?” and Romans 11: 33-34: “Oh, the depth of
the riches andwisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his
judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Even if not all of these points are
explicitlydirected specifically at
the difference in moral knowledge
between God and humans, they seem naturally applicable to it. Indeed, God’s
decree at Genesis 2: 17 that Adam may eat the fruits of any tree, except that
of the knowledge of good and evil, may well seem to imply that at least a
degree of ignorance concerning matters of good and evil is our proper
Furthermore, without (S) much of God’s
activity in scripture would not to make sense. Take, for example, God’s command
at Genesis 22: 1-2 that Abraham prepare to kill Isaac, or His command at Joshua
6: 16-21 to destroy Jericho. True, God’s “reasons for giving some of the most
shocking commands are often quite explicit” (Morriston 2009, p264), but what is
commanded still seems “obviously disproportionate to these objectives” (Murphy
2010, p156). In the absence of (S) it should therefore strike theists as
inconceivable that a morally perfect God should issue such commands. Given (S),
however, we should not be surprised to find God commanding things whose
goodness we, even after revelations
as to God’s reasons, are still unable
to fathom, which is what, in considering the relevant passages, many find to be
Now as regards God’s command to Abraham, Kant
(1979, p115) famously claimed:
Abraham should have replied to this supposedly
divine voice: ‘That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that
you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not
even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven.’ (my italics)
crucially, Abraham did not reply in
this way. I thus suggest that a tacit awareness of (S) can plausibly be seen as
at least part of what compelled the people of the Book to endeavour to obey
God’s commands, and indeed to refrain from doubting that they are God’s commands. James Rissler (2002,
p141) hence writes:
To suppose that it is
true that an abhorrent command really is good, may require faith approaching
Abraham’s (or Isaac’s) in strength, but I see no reason to think it impossible,
especially if we remind ourselves how meagre our epistemic abilities are.
These considerations show that, irrespective
of the independent plausibility of (S), for many with a prior commitment to
(T), (ST) seems a natural position to adopt.
The Skeptical Theist Response
have argued that, given (S), we are not entitled to make the inference from the
existence of inscrutable evils to (1). For given (S) it seems to follow that,
for all we can tell, there exist unknown goods such that inscrutable evils are
logically connected to these goods, and thus such that God’s preventing
inscrutable evils would diminish
them, or that there exist unknown evils, equally bad or worse, such that God’s
preventing the inscrutable evils would
necessitate them (or that there exist known goods/evils that inscrutable evils
are related to by unknown
connections). In other words, skeptical theists contend that our epistemic
position does not entitle us to infer pointless evils from inscrutable ones:
“we are in no position to rule out that there are moral reasons for God’s
allowing the world’s evils to occur” (Pereboom 2004, p161). What I want to do
now is to adumbrate a particular, famous example of a skeptical theistic
strategy for blocking this inference.
Stephen Wykstra (1984, 1996, 2009) denies that the inference from
inscrutable to pointless evils is a good one on the basis of an epistemic
principle he terms ‘CORNEA’ (‘Condition Of ReasoNable Epistemic Access’). According
to CORNEA, person P is entitled move from the claim that “I see no x” to the claim that “it is reasonable
to believe that there is no x” just in case it is reasonable for her
to believe that the presence of x
would be discernible by her (Wykstra 1996, p126). To illustrate: I am not aware
of any Buddhists living in my area. But, according to CORNEA, I would not
be entitled to conclude, on the basis of this, that it is reasonable for me to
believe that there are no Buddhists
living in my area: were there
Buddhists living in the area, it is not reasonable that I should expect things
to seem any different to how they in fact seem. Buddhists generally don’t go
out of their way to make themselves conspicuous to others, and besides, the
area in which I live is very large, and I have only met a very small percentage
of its population. Thus, my epistemic position is such that I lack access to
the data that would make the presence of Buddhists discernible.
It easy to see how the CORNEA principle, in
conjunction with (S), would block the inference from inscrutable evils to
premise (1). By CORNEA, such an inference would be reasonable only if there is
good reason to think that were the instances of inscrutable evil not pointless, they would not be
inscrutable, that were there to be some overriding justification for God’s
allowing such evils, we would be cognizant of it. But, given (S), it is
unreasonable to think that such a condition is met: given (S), for all we can
tell it is the case that were inscrutable evils not pointless, they would still be inscrutable. Our epistemic
limitations are such that we simply may not be privy to the relevant data
regarding goods, evils, and the connections between them, that would enable us
to make the inference from inscrutable evils to premise (1).
Now I do not claim that all skeptical theists will want to
accept CORNEA, but it does sound quite plausible. Furthermore, Justin McBrayer
(2010a, p61) notes that “many skeptical theists...defend similar sounding
principles”. In §4:5 I shall argue that accepting CORNEA seems to afford the
skeptical theist with an initially promising line of response to my argument in
Before proceeding, however, I want
briefly to offer, on behalf of (ST), a reply to a different line of argument.
The skeptical theist’s response to the evidential argument from evil seems
based on the view that, for all we can tell, there is some unknown good the obtaining of which justifies
God in allowing inscrutable evils, or some unknown and even worse (or equally bad) evil the prevention of which likewise
justifies Him. Thus, the skeptical theist’s response to the evidential argument
seems based on the view that we may well see the world as worse than it really is. Writing in direct response to Wysktra,
Swinburne (1998, p27) thus objects: “Why
should our inadequacies of moral belief lead us to suppose that the world is
worse rather than better than it really
is?” (my italics).
Viewing the skeptical theist’s response to the evidential argument from
evil in the light of the aforementioned scriptural grounds for (S) enables a
ready response to Swinburne. For as well as God’s commands at Genesis 22:1-2 and
Joshua 6:16-20, consider God’s prohibitions at Leviticus 19:19-20. Here, the
fact that God prohibits what to us
seems morally innocuous implies that the world can seem better to us than it really is: we ordinarily see nothing
wrong with breeding cattle with other livestock, and with people wearing garments
containing both linen and wool, but, given God’s commands here, these states of
affairs are worse than they appear.
It might further be objected that these
states of affairs are only bad
inasmuch as they constitute a disobeying of God’s commands (i.e. that
interbreeding of livestock and wearing garments containing both linen and wool
are not of independent moral
significance), and that the failure to obey God’s commands is an evil of which
we are aware. But why should God issue the commands He
does? The point is that, in the absence of (S), God’s commands at Leviticus 19:
19-20 would be arbitrary, supported by no independent reasons. Thus Maimonides
(1904, p310) wrote:
[O]ur Sages generally
do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose;
for this would lead us to assume that God's actions are purposeless. On the
contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly
intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the
deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect...[T]he giving of
these commandments is not a vain thing and without any useful object; and if it
appears so to you in any commandment, it is owing to the deficiency in your
that (S) enables the skeptical theist to view God’s prohibitions at Leviticus
19: 19-20 as based on independent moral principles, even where we can’t
ourselves think of what such principles could be, the skeptical theist is able
to meet Swinburne’s objection.
We have already seen that, for the theist,
(ST) is a natural position to adopt. When this natural position is combined
with the apparently plausible CORNEA principle, it seems that we have an
attractive response to the evidential argument, a response that, given the
scriptural considerations that motivated it, need not succumb to Swinburne’s
objection. The following chapter looks at a different objection, and marshals
some further responses on behalf of the skeptical theist.
is sometimes alleged that (ST) leads to the following implausible sort of moral
(MS) No human being is ever rationally justified
in believing any moral proposition.
theists, of course, adduce a range of considerations in favour of the view that
(ST) does not lead to (MS). In this
chapter I shall attempt to provide the skeptical theist with some persuasive
manoeuvres for blocking (MS). Before I get to this, however, it will be useful
briefly to consider the ways in which her position might seem to lead to it.
The Allegation of Moral Skepticism
Recall that the skeptical theist
attempts to block the evidentialist’s inference from inscrutable to pointless
evils. The skeptical theist claims, in effect, that the fact that a given evil seems pointless to us is no evidence for
the claim that it is pointless. But
if such an inference is successfully
blocked, then so too might seem to be any
inference from the way things (morally) seem to us to the way we are rationally
justified in believing they are; fallibility in inferring pointless evils might
thus seem to imply that “one might be wrong about the rightness or wrongness of
any particular act” (Rissler 2002,
p127). As Jeff Jordan (2006, p408) notes, (ST) “drives a wedge between the
appearances of good and evil, and what it’s reasonable to believe about good
and evil”. In other words: if, as (ST) holds, our most powerful intuitions and
arguments for the claim that certain evils are pointless are not good enough in
rendering us rationally justified in believing that they are, then it seems
that these same intuitions and arguments will not suffice to render us
rationally justified in believing any
moral proposition whatever. If our faculties may be “systematically misleading”
(Jordan 2006, p414) when it comes to inferring pointlessness, then what else
might they be systematically misleading with regard to? And if we may be
mistaken in our judgements concerning, say, the moral status of things such as
wearing both linen and wool, then we could be equally mistaken when it comes to
things such as “the apparently morally neutral state of affairs of wearing a
cap” (Jordan 2006, p412), “going for a pleasant walk” (Stone 2003, p255), or
even the “relationships of love and mutual concern between parents and
children” (Hasker 2010, p23).
The lesson to be drawn from (ST)’s treatment
of the evidential argument from evil, it thus seems to some, is that we are
cognitively limited beings, and as such are simply unreliable when it comes to making moral judgements. All our most
carefully thought-out moral theories founder on the recalcitrant data that are
the inscrutable things that a nevertheless perfectly-good God does/commands,
and thus “our moral compass is all but
useless. For all we know, up is down and down is up” (Aikin & Ribeiro,
forthcoming, p5). And if this
is true, (MS) surely follows.
Now (MS) not only seems counterintuitive but
also downright pernicious, for “our actions in any given situation are based,
at least in part, on our beliefs regarding certain aspects of that situation,
these beliefs supplying the reasons for acting the way we do” (Da Costa &
French 1988, p4). From (MS) it would follow that we are not smart enough or
well-equipped enough to rationally determine the moral status of any action or
situation, so it seems that we can have no moral basis for deciding to do one
thing rather than another in any given situation. In other words, (MS) leads to
Ought I to rescue the drowning child, if doing so would come at no obvious cost to me or to anyone else?
Given (MS), I simply cannot say – my moral faculties are unreliable, so “I
cannot use the resources that I have at hand in order to reason my way to a
choice” (Almeida & Oppy 2003, p510); I have “lost [my] grip on the
possibility of using moral judgements as a guide to action” (Fales 1992, p302).
But this, obviously, is ridiculous: in such a situation, it is manifestly clear
what, from a moral perspective, I ought to do.
Responding to the Allegation
So the skeptical theist is at the very
least presented with a challenge: she must show that her position does not lead to (MS), with its pernicious
consequence of moral paralysis. How, then, might the skeptical theist go about
doing this? One crucial thing to note is that (ST) is a conjunction of
theses. As Michaels Bergmann and Rea (2005, p244) highlight, “skeptical
theists, after all, are theists”, and
thus it may well be that the theistic element of (ST) serves to
constrain its skepticalelement.
An initial point is that once one accepts
(T), the scope of (MS) is thereby immediately attenuated. Since (T)
refers to God’s moral perfection, it might plausibly be maintained that
(T) itself is a moral proposition. So anyone with a prior commitment to
(T) will see themselves as justified in holding at least this moral
proposition to be true. But it clearly wouldn’t be good enough if this were the
only moral proposition that the skeptical theist is justified in
believing – were this the case, then the unacceptable consequence of (MS), that
we have no moral basis on which to
make decisions, would still obtain. We shall therefore have to see what elseher antecedent commitment
to theism will enable the skeptical theist to salvage.
Given the “standard theistic background
assumptions” (Bergmann & Rea 2005, p245) against which (ST) is usually
adopted (i.e. the standard assumptions of Judeo-Christian monotheism), it seems
that the contention that (ST) leads to a kind of paralysis when it comes to
making moral decisions can indeed be
undercut. Recall the discussion of Genesis 22: 1-2 and Joshua 6: 16-21 in §1:2,
as well as Leviticus 19: 19-20 in §1:4. Bergmann and Rea (2005, p244) note that
“theists very typically believe that God has commanded his creatures to behave
in certain ways; and they also very typically believe that God’s commands
provide all-things-considered reasons to act”. And commands such as Leviticus
19: 16, which states: “you shall not stand up against the life of your
neighbour”, would seem to require us
to rescue the drowning child. Thus, the proponent of (ST) can argue that her
position needn’t commit her to the kind of moral paralysis seemingly entailed
by (MS). As Ira Schnall (2007, p63) writes, “since God, in effect, told us to
save lives and relieve suffering, we can be confident that, from our religious
perspective, that is what we ought to do”.
The skeptical theist can also use her
standard theistic background assumptions in order to attack (MS) directly. Just
as it can be argued on the basis of certain scriptural passages that a degree
of ignorance concerning matters of good and evil is our proper condition, it
can also be argued on a similar basis that, contra (MS), we are not in a
state of total myopia on this issue.
After all, Adam did consume the fruit
of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3: 6), implying that
mankind thus ingested a certain amount of knowledge in such matters.
Furthermore, Romans 2: 14 holds that persons can be led “by nature” to do what
morality demands, and Genesis 1: 27 depicts mankind as being created “in the
image of God”. Again, this latter claim may not explicitly concern morality, but again it seems naturally
applicable to it: rather like the relationship between Plato’s particulars and
the Forms, we may very well ‘fall short’ of God’s infinite (moral) wisdom, but
we may also nonetheless ‘participate’ in it.
Justification Relative to Epistemic Position
In rejecting (MS), the skeptical theist
could also simply appeal to the way her skeptical thesis is formulated. Here it
For all we can tell, there are lots
of facts about goods, evils, and the connections between goods and evils, of
which human beings are unaware.
principle as stated does not seem to entail that we cannot tell of many goods
that they are goods, that we cannot tell of many evils that they are evils, and
that we cannot tell of many connections that they are connections. All it holds
is that there may be, for all we can tell, facts about goods, evils, and the
connections between goods and evils of which we are unaware, in addition to the ones of which we are.
Consider an analogy: I am standing on the shore looking at an iceberg. For all
I can tell, a large portion of this iceberg is invisible to me. This does not
imply, however, that none of the
iceberg is at all visible to me. In a similar way, it could be argued that
“even if [(S) implies] that we do not know much
about the realm of value, [it does] not at all imply that we know nothing about that realm” (Bergmann
& Rea 2005, p244).
given that scripture licenses the view that human cognitive capacities are weak
in comparison with God’s, but that they are not so weak as to imply that we
humans need be totally ignorant about everything to do with morality, and given
that the skeptical principle (S) seems consistent with this same view, the
proponent of (ST) could formulate a notion of justified belief relative to
epistemic position. In order to illustrate what I mean here, let me focus
on two scenarios. The first is discussed by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2006),
who in turn adapted it from Bertrand Russell (1948). Suppose Bethany is looking
at a clock, sees that the clock reads 8:00, and thus comes to form the belief
that the time is 8:00. Suppose also that, unbeknownst to Bethany, the clock in
fact stopped some time ago. Is Bethany justified in believing that the time is
8:00? Sinnott-Armstrong (2006, p71) writes:
She does seem justified
in one way. Bethany has strong grounds for believing that it is 8:00, and her
grounds are neither overridden nor undermined by any information that she
possesses. Bethany does base her belief in the time on a false belief about the
clock, but she lacks any information that should make her suspect that the
clock has stopped....[C]areful rational people who are limited to the same
experiences, information and access as Bethany would use the same process or
procedure to reach the same belief.
crucial point is this: given everything that Bethany has discovered about
clocks and about how to tell the time, and in the absence of any information
available to her that should lead her to believe she is going wrong in this
particular instance, she seems justified in believing that it is 8:00; relative
to her epistemic position she seems justified in believing this.
The second example draws on Howard-Snyder’s
observation regarding the progress
that has been made, and is likely still to be made, in various fields of inquiry.
When we apply this to the moralrealm,
we uncover various examples of practices that used to be accorded a certain
moral status, but are now accorded quite another. Mark Piper (2008, p138)
discusses an example: “cannibalism has been considered a good before the higher
notion of the good of respect for human persons has recast the activity as
evil”. Now Piper seems to think that this supports the allegation that the
skeptical theist has no grounds for avoiding (MS): for all we can tell, those
things we deem good/evil might be trumped by unknown higher goods/evils,
rendering our initial evaluation of them as
goods/evils mistaken. I think, however, that Piper’s example is actually helpful in enabling the skeptical theist
to avoid (MS). The crucial point is
this: given everything that our cannibalistic ancestors had discovered about
morality, i.e. given the state of their epistemic development with respect to
such matters, they do seem justified
in viewing cannibalism as morally permissible. They were not in possession of
any information or concepts that should have caused them to doubt such a thing;
relative to their epistemic position they were justified in believing it. And
it is due to this notion of justification relative to epistemic position, I
suggest, that we do not view the ancient Assyrians with the same sense of moral
revulsion as we view, say, the Nazis.
Both were capable of exceptional cruelty, but the epistemic limitations of the
former with respect to moral matters may well have rendered the beliefs on
which they acted justified.
In the light of these two examples, it could
be argued that, given everything that we as humans have discovered about
our world and about the consequences of our actions – and (S), recall, is
consistent with our having discovered various things – we can be rationally
justified (relative to our epistemic position) in believing, for example, that
the drowning of an innocent child is a pointless evil. This would just
be to say that we are rationally justified in believing that there are no
goods/evils that we as humans
are aware of such that preventing it from occurring would diminish/increase
them (and to invoke CORNEA: were
there such goods/evils, then it is likely that we, as humans, would be aware of
them). And this would seem both to obviate the allegation that (ST) leads to
(MS), and to undercut the allegation
that the skeptical theist is in a state of paralysis when it comes to making
moral decisions. For, as Bergmann and Rea (2005, 247) note, the following line
of reasoning seems plausible:
(i)There are many reasons available to us
(i.e. given our epistemic position) for rescuing the drowning child.
(ii)We have found no reasons for failing to
rescue the drowning child.
(iii)There is no reason to think (and,
indeed, good reason to doubt) that any investigation that we could possibly
conduct before having to make a decision about whether to prevent the drowning
would turn up evidence pointing to even a weak pro tanto reason to permit the
drowning of the child.
(iv)Therefore, we ought to rescue the
Crucially, (i), (ii) and (iii) are
consistent with the view that, relative to God’s
epistemic position, the drowning of the innocent child is not a pointless evil, and thus (iv) is consistent with the view
that God, unlike us, is not required (or
even able) to prevent it. Nick Trakakis and Yujin Nagasawa (2004, p35) thus
argue that there are “differences...between a perfect being and a human being
in virtue of their disparate roles”, and therefore that “the skeptical theist
need only hold that it is God’s
purposes or intentions that often elude us” (Trakakis & Nagasawa 2004, p23)
– Romans 11: 33-34 refers, after all, to the inscrutability of God’s ways, not to the inscrutability of
our ways. Keith Yandell (1993, p237)
makes a similar point with the observation that
...it does not follow that
because we ought not to allow something, God ought not to allow it, or that
because it is permissible or right for God to allow something, it is
permissible or right for us to do so,
does Howard-Snyder (2009, p48), with the following claim:
The proposition that we
should not be in doubt about whether intervention is for the best given just
those things that we have considered is in no tension whatsoever with the
proposition that we should be in doubt about whether intervention is for the
best given just those things that God has considered.
Given all this, the skeptical theist seems
able to maintain that we as humans
are justified in believing various moral propositions whilst at the same time
retaining a degree of skepticism sufficient to undermine the view that it is
reasonable to believe that certain evils are pointless relative to God’s
epistemic position. Thus, Bergmann (forthcoming, p17) claims that
...we have no good
reason to deny that our perspective,
when we contemplate [inscrutable evils], might differ significantly from a perfectly loving God’s perspective...Moreover,
we have no good reason to deny that if we were able to have God’s perspective
on the horrific suffering in question, we might wholeheartedly approve of his
permission of it.
relate this to our examples: given everything that Bethany has discovered about clocks, telling the time, etc, Bethany
seems justified in believing that the time is 8:00; but were she cognizant of all the facts about her situation,
including the fact that the clock has stopped, she would not seem justified in
believing this. And given everything that they had discovered about the moral
realm, our cannibalistic ancestors were justified in viewing cannibalism as
morally permissible, but were they in possession of moral facts that we in our
age are in possession of, they would not have been justified in believing this.
Peter van Inwagen (1996a, p162) makes the
point that “for all we know our inclinations to make value-judgements are not
veridical when they are applied to cosmic matters unrelated to the concerns
of everyday life” (my italics). Crucially, the evidentialist’s inference
from inscrutable evils to pointless evils conflates the ‘cosmic matters’ and
the ‘concerns of everyday life’. The evidentialist wants to argue, in other
words, that the inscrutability of certain evils makes it reasonable to believe
that such evils are cosmically pointless (i.e. pointless relative to
God’s epistemic position), whereas all she would in fact be entitled to is that
they are pointless with respect to the everyday concerns of human beings. She
wants to argue that God should have prevented such evils, whereas all
she would in fact be entitled to is that (in the absence perhaps of divine
commands to the contrary) she should endeavour to prevent them.
3: The New Problem: Divine
I have tried to provide
the skeptical theist with some plausible suggestions as to how (MS) can be
avoided. The dialectic could no doubt be continued: is it really good enough
that we are only justified in believing moral propositions relative to our epistemic
position? Aren’t there at least some such propositions that we take ourselves
to be justified simpliciter in
believing, for example (recalling Hasker’s quotation) that the “relationships
of love and mutual concern between parents and children” is a good thing, and
that the rape and killing of a five-year-old girl is wrong, as is
...the rape of a woman and the axing off
of her arms, psycho-physical torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration
of personality, betrayal of one’s own deepest loyalties, child abuse of the
sort described by Ivan Karamazov, child pornography, parental incest, slow
death by starvation, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas...(Adams
Now justification relative to epistemic
position seems to me the best a skeptical theist can do, given that she
endorses (S). I shall take up this issue again at various points, and in due
course. For now, however, I want to continue the dialectic in a different way.
What I argue is this: regardless of the success up until this point of the
responses adduced in §2:2, they are powerless against the allegation that (ST)
leads to a more pervasive type of skepticism. Since this extreme skepticism entails
(MS), it follows that these responses will nonetheless allow (MS) to slip in
‘through the back door’.
3:1 Divine Deception
we need to focus on is the issue of deception. Consider the kind of radical
deception discussed by Descartes in the First
Meditation. Descartes (2007, pp78-79) briefly considers the possibility
that God is deceiving him:
[F]irmly rooted in my mind is the
long-standing belief that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of
creature I am. How do I know that he has not brought it about that there is no
earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the
same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do
Of course, Descartes
goes on to conclude that his notion of God is such that “God is supremely good and the source of all
truth” (my italics), and thus that, whilst it may initially seem that he could
be being deceived in this way, such deception cannot originate from God.
But if (ST) is true, such confidence seems
unfounded. Erik Wielenberg (2010) has recently gestured in this direction,
arguing that, if (ST) is true, then we cannot justifiably believe that any divine assertion is true, since, for all
we can tell, there is some unknown reason that
justifies God in lying to us with regard to it: “for any divine
assertion that p, we lack
justification for believing that it is false or unlikely that God’s act of
intentionally asserting that p when p is false has beyond-our-ken
justification” (p513). Wielenberg himself thinks that this argument does not support the view that, for all we
can tell, God is deceptive in the way envisaged by Descartes; he argues that
(ST) leads to an unpalatable overflow of skepticism regarding divine revelations, but that “this overflow
remains within fairly definite limits” (pp515-516). The reason, according to
Wielenberg, is that our evidence for various propositions, in contrast to our
evidence for certain divine revelations, “is not limited exclusively to the
word of God; we have plenty of empirical evidence that supports [them]” (p514).
However, I would simply want to suggest that
this evidence could itself be
mistaken. My purpose in this chapter is thus to argue that Wielenberg’s
considerations can easily be extended to full-blown Cartesian skepticism. For
in response to Descartes’s contention that radical deception cannot originate
from God, one can simply ask: granted that there may be many goods, evils and
connections between them of which we are unaware, what would justify us in
believing that radical deception on the part of God is not necessary for
securing such unknown goods or preventing such unknown evils? Adopting (S)
seems to deprive us of any basis on which to make this claim; it seems to
deprive Descartes of his license to make the confident assertion that God’s
goodness precludes His being deceptive.
In the previous chapter I adumbrated some of
the responses available to the skeptical theist in safeguarding her position
from (MS). We can now ask: are such responses also helpful in defending (ST)
against the allegation that it leads to the view that we cannot justifiably
believe that we are not being radically deceived by God? I argue now that they
3:2 Scripture and Divine Deception
have seen that the skeptical element of (ST) is “not deployed in a vacuum”
(Bergmann & Rea 2005, p244). Other theistic commitments, in particular the
typical commitment to the truth of certain scriptural passages, serve to
attenuate the scope of (ST)’s skepticism so as to filter out full-blown (MS).
Now an important methodological point arises here. It might be objected that it
is an unacceptable move on the part of the skeptical theist to make doctrinal
assumptions that her opponent would reject, and thus that the appeal to
scripture is an illegitimate argumentative tool in the defence against the
allegations of §2:1.
This contention seems motivated by the claim that good arguments “are marked by
a capacity not merely to confirm the belief of an ally but change the belief of
an opponent. To do the latter requires that the argument begin on grounds
acceptable to the opponent” (Wilks 2004, p309). But then this same claim would dictate that I accept (for the sake of argument) the
scriptural assumptions which the skeptical theist is likely to want to make.
That is why I have so far been taking them seriously, and I shall continue thus
to do so.
With this in mind, what we find is that if the
skeptical theist is to appeal to scripture in defending her position,
she shall have to contend with the fact that, at various points, God is
apparently presented in scripture as a deceiver. Interestingly, some of the
passages that simultaneously lent support to (S) and obviated the allegation of
moral paralysis seem themselves to be
examples of divine deception: in Genesis 22: 1-2, God seems to have created in
Abraham what later transpires to be the false
impression that Isaac is to be killed, whilst in Genesis 2: 17 God declares
what similarly transpires to be false – that “in the day that you eat of [the
fruit] you will surely die”. And elsewhere, Jeremiah sees fit to complain: "Ah,
Lord God,surely you have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem,
saying, 'It shall be well with you,' whereas the sword has reached their very
life” (Jeremiah 4: 10), and again: “O Lord, you have deceived me and I was
deceived” (Jeremiah 20: 7).
Another apparent example of divine deception
occurs at 2 Thessalonians 2: 11, which describes God as sending certain people
a “strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false”. This ‘strong
delusion’ is described as being sent by God to those who have “refused to love
the truth”. When this is combined with the fact that scripture repeatedly
emphasises our ‘fallen’ nature as
humans, and our proneness to sin,
it seems reasonable to think that we
are just such candidates for divine deception. Indeed, our tendency in
modernity to accept what might be seen as just the sort of counterfeit signs
and wonders deserving of divine deception is beautifully encapsulated by Simon
and Garfunkel (1965) in their song ‘The Sound of Silence’:
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they'd made
And the sign flashed its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.
Now recall Bergmann and Rea’s point that
“theists very typically believe that God has commanded his creatures to behave
in certain ways; and they also very typically believe that God’s commands
provide all-things-considered reasons to act”.Whilst it is true that Leviticus
19: 11, for example, issues the general command not to “deal falsely”, and
Proverbs 12:22 states that “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord”, what
also seems true is that there are nonetheless circumstances in which God
commands that humans do engage in
deceptive activity. For example, in Exodus 3:18, God commands Moses to ask the
Pharaoh for a three day trip into the wilderness. This request is significantly
less than the complete freedom promised to Moses by God, suggesting that Moses
has been instructed deliberately to deceive the Pharaoh into believing that
Moses’ proposed trip will be for merely
three days. Similarly, in 1 Samuel 16: 2 God seems to be commanding that Samuel
claim to the people of Bethlehem that he has come there merely to offer a sacrifice to God, so as to disguise from Saul his
true purpose – to anoint a new king. Furthermore, following on from His command
that Joshua destroy Jericho, Joshua 8: 2 has God commanding: “Lay an ambush
against the city [Ai], behind it”. Joshua then lures the army of Ai out of the
city, before the ambush troops emerge and destroy it. The king of Ai, of
course, “did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city”
(Joshua 8: 14). It thus seems that God has commanded that Joshua create a false
Now, it seems plausible that God issues the
commands He does based on the goodness of that which He commands – that
there should be some goods that justify God in issuing what to us are
inscrutable commands was part of what, I argued in §1:2 and §1:4, lent support
to (S). So it follows from God’s commanding that humans deceive that deception
can sometimes be a good thing. It could be objected that this applies merely to human deception (i.e. to the deception of humans by humans), but
we can now take the observation, mentioned in §2:2:1, that humans are created
“in the image of God”, and use it this time to our advantage, arguing that the potential goodness of human
deception likewise speaks in favour of the possibility of divine deception.
Thus Lee Basham (2002, p233) writes: “I suspect that God would lie, and
probably does, for the same reasons we sometimes should”.
Given all this, if an appeal to scripture is
to be successful in shielding (ST) from (MS), then by parity of reasoning it
should also be successful in establishing that deception is the sort of thing
within God’s remit. If scripture is to be taken at face-value – and, as we have
seen, many defenders of (ST) will feel the attraction of taking it this way –
then van Inwagen (1996a, p161) seems incorrect when he claims that “it is
plausible to suppose that deception…is inconsistent with the nature of a
3:3 Our Epistemic Position on
softened the case against the possibility of divine deception, we can turn now
to the second consideration in favour of limiting (ST) so as to exclude (MS).
This was the view that we can justifiably believe various moral propositions
relative to our epistemic position as human beings. The key question now is
this: what does our epistemic position tell us about deception? Well, going
back to ‘the concerns of everyday life’, it seems clearly to be the case that
deception can be justified; echoing
Romans 2: 14-15, we are often led “by nature” to view deception as such. Basham
(2002, p234), following on from his above quotation, thus claims that
“[s]ometimes we literally owe others a lie on their behalf”, whilst Robert
Solomon (2009, p17), writing in a recent anthology on the philosophy of
deception, similarly claims that “[t]he truth hurts. Sometimes it destroys.
Lies can protect and inspire, and deception can serve noble ends”. Sissela Bok
(1989, p45), in her wide-ranging study Lying,
notes that “while Jewish texts regard lying as prohibited, certain lies, and especially
those told to preserve the peace of the household, are regarded as exceptions”.
Such exceptions surely seem plausible. Bok concurs, claiming that “there are at
least some circumstances which warrant
Consider also Nozick’s (1981, p179) case of
the grandmother deceived about the health of her grandson so as to spare her
from unnecessary anguish, or consider the famous (if hackneyed) objection to
Kant’s strictures against deception: it would surely be good to deceive a
potential murderer as regards the whereabouts of her intended victim. Indeed,
this latter example is of clear relevance to the passage from 1 Samuel 16: 2:
it seems reasonable to interpret Saul here as deserving of deception, since it has been claimed by Samuel that
“If Saul hears it [i.e. Samuel’s intending to anoint a new king] he will kill
me”. The point is that deception surely seems permissible (if not obligatory) as a means of staving off
Now I noted above that we ourselves may be
candidates for the sort of deception described at 2 Thessalonians 2: 11, since,
due to our fallen nature, we may have forsaken our right to the truth. The
relevant point now is that there do
seem to be circumstances in which deception is justified toward a person who
“has forfeited his or her right or has no legitimate claim to [the] truth”
(Kaiser 1983, p225). And as this was applicable to 1 Samuel 16: 2, so too is it
applicable to Exodus 3: 18. As regards this latter passage, Richard Patterson (1999,
p394) suggests that
...trickery in the form of deliberate
deception, whether in word or deed, appears to be justified under the normal
circumstances of wartime activities. The same would apply where a quasi-wartime
situation exists involving clear opposition to God and his people by a godless
regime or individual.
Presumably the Pharaoh
is just such an individual, so common moral sensibility dictates that deceiving
him is justified.
That deception is often justified in
circumstances of conflict is further evidenced in various other scriptural
passages. I have already mentioned Joshua 8, in which success in battle seemed
to rely essentially on creating a false impression. A further example is
Gideon’s victory over the huge Midianite army (Judges 7), which likewise relied
essentially on deceiving the
unprepared Midianites into believing that Gideon’s mere three hundred soldiers
were a formidable force. And referring to Rahab’s deceiving the king of Jericho
with regard to the whereabouts of the Israelite spies (Joshua 2: 4-7), James 2: 25 states: “was not even Rahab the
prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them
out by another way?” The point of these passages is that deception seems to
have been justified under certain circumstances. Indeed, according to at least
Paul the Apostle had precisely this in mind when he proclaimed that
conversation should be “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4: 6).
And of course, the relevant point here is
that it is not only scripture, but
also our common moral sensibility, that tells us that this is the case. Consider
a case described by Diane Komp in her book Anatomy
of a Lie. Komp (1998, pp18-20) tells the story of H. Clay Trumbull, a
soldier taken captive at the Battle of Gettysburg. Fellow soldiers suggested an
escape route, but Trumbull declined to take it, on the basis that doing so
would require impermissibly deceiving his captors. I submit that, for most
people, Trumbull’s stance will seem bizarre (especially given that Trumbull’s
aversion to any form of deception was based on his strict religious viewpoint,
a viewpoint which, as we have seen, seems in fact to sanction deception in
precisely the sorts of circumstances in which Trumbull found himself). Indeed,
Article 3 of the United States Military Code of Conduct proclaims it one’s duty
to attempt escape, by all means available,
in the event of capture. Thus, whilst God’s reasons for allowing pointless
evils (and for issuing certain commands) may be inscrutable, I submit that
God’s reasons for apparently commanding deceptive activity in the relevant
scriptural passages are scrutable.
Consider next an analogy sometimes appealed
to by skeptical theists. It is sometimes claimed that the cognitive situation
of humans in relation to God is analogous to that between a young infant and
This analogy is then used to illustrate the fact that, just as an infant can’t
be expected to comprehend the goods/evils by dint of which her parents allow
her to suffer certain pains – for example “when they bring her the Man with the
White Coat, who sticks needles into her” (Wysktra 2009, p12) – we cannot be expected to comprehend the
goods/evils by dint of which God allows us
to suffer inscrutable evils. But the analogy between God and human parents itself lends weight to the view that
deception can be justified, since “scenarios in which parents lie to their
children for the good of the children present some of the most plausible cases
of permissible lying” (Wielenberg 2010, p516). This was a point levelled
against Descartes by both Mersenne and Hobbes in the Objections to the Meditations,
the latter of whom claimed that “[i]t is the common belief that no fault is
committed...by parents who mislead their children for their own good”
(Descartes 1912, p77). And if the infant/parent analogy is pertinent in elucidating our cognitive relation to God, then the
fact that parents are sometimes justified in deceiving their children will seem
to speak in favour of the possibility of God’s sometimes being justified in
deceiving us. Thus, Origen (1998,
p217) proclaimed that “[w]e are all children of God and we need the discipline
of children. Because of this, God, since
he cares about us, deceives us”.
Given everything that our epistemic position
tells us about the moral realm – i.e. “given our cognitive faculties, and the
use we have made of them” (Wysktra 1984, p85) – we thus come to the conclusion
that deception can be justified.
3:4 Taking Stock
all this has been allowed – that both scripture and ordinary moral practice
seem frequently to show that deception can be justified – we can see that the
replies adumbrated in §2:2 on behalf of (ST) will not rule out the possibility
of divine deception; they encourage the view that divine deception is
consistent with God’s goodness. Furthermore, since “skeptical theists, after
all, are theists”, they are committed
to (T), and hence to God’s omnipotence.
Given all this, it seems strange that Wielenberg does not extend his argument
to what seems to me its natural conclusion: since God is omnipotent, and
deception is consistent with His goodness, we could be the victims (or beneficiaries?)
of massive and wholesale deception – indeed, we could be deceived about everything.
Call this ‘maximal deception’. (S) ensures that, for all we can tell, such
maximal deception is necessary for securing some greater good or preventing
some evil equally bad or worse, and hence that, for all we can tell, God is
But if this is the case, then the responses
discussed in §2:2 won’t rule out (MS) after all. For consider:
(4) God is maximally deceptive.
(5) If God is maximally deceptive, then everything
any human believes is false.
(6) Everything any human believes is false.
(from 4 & 5)
(7) Every moral proposition any human believes
is false. (from 6)
Note how this argument
mirrors the evidentialist’s argument from (1)-(3): in each case, we have a
logically valid argument, and in each case the job of the argument’s proponents
is to lend rational weight to its first premise. What I’ve in effect argued is
that the skeptical theist’s attempts to shield (ST) from (MS) lend rational
weight to (4), inasmuch as they lend weight to the view that divine deception
is consistent with God’s goodness, which in turn allows (S), coupled with the
view that God is omnipotent, to show that for all we justifiably believe (4) is
But if, for all we justifiably believe, (4)
is true, then, given (5), it follows that for all we justifiably believe all
the propositions we believe are false (including
all the moral propositions), from which it follows that (MS) is true: no human
is ever justified in believing any moral proposition since, for all we
justifiably believe, God is maximally deceptive, and the falsity of the
propositions we believe follows if God is maximally deceptive. This seems to
undermine the skeptical theist’s attempts to safeguard (ST) from (MS).
Before proceeding let me broach some initial
objections. It might be objected that the consequent of (5), and hence (6),
could not be true, because some humans believe p, and other humans believe not-p,
and these beliefs can’t both be
false. However, to press this objection is to overlook the fact that, if one is
not justified in believing not-(4), then one is not entitled to the assumption
on which the objection rests, since if (4) is true then (as far as each of us
is concerned) it is false that there are
any other humans at all: that there are other humans is something I
believe, and if (4) is true then everything
that I believe is false.
have been using, and will continue sometimes to use, the first person plural.
However, it must thus be understood that such usage is purely stylistic; it is not intended to bring with it any
It might further be objected that the
consequent of (5) could not be true if one’s set of beliefs is coherent, because, as some idealists
have held, “it is not possible for a genuinely coherent set of beliefs to
include any false beliefs” (Foley 1979, p256); coherence is the criterion of truth.
But, as above, we can note that if she is not justified in believing not-(4),
then the proponent of such a view would not be entitled to appeal to it in
objecting to my argument, since, given (4), such a view itself would be false (as would the belief that the relevant
belief-system is genuinely coherent,
i.e. that the criterion is satisfied – God would be deceiving me into thinking
it was). The same goes for a coherence theory not of truth but of justification,
which might seem to enable justified beliefs even given maximal deception – a totally false set of beliefs can still
be coherent, and hence each belief within it could be justified. Once again, if
one is not justified in believing not-(4) then the believer in the coherence
theory of justification is unable to appeal to the theory in objecting to my
On the other side of this same coin, and
related to the first objection above, it could be argued that individuals themselves may well in fact not have
coherent but instead have contradictory
beliefs. For example, one may both believe p
and (simultaneously) believe not-p,
and this would “guarantee that one has a true belief” (Foley 1979, p247), and
thus that the consequent of (5) is false. Let me briefly note a reason for
doubting that the skeptical theist will want to press this objection. My
primary concern here is with (MS). It might thus be argued that persons may
have contradictory moral beliefs,
but the existence of contradictory moral beliefs itself seems to lead to moral
paralysis. The inability justifiably to believe not-(4) means that premise (ii)
of Bergmann and Rea’s reasoning in §2:2:2 will not be satisfied (the reason for
failing to rescue the drowning child being that our epistemic position is such
that for all we justifiably believe we are mistaken in believing that we
should). But even aside from this, the belief in both p and not-p means that
(ii) will not be satisfied anyway in any situation in which one’s moral
deliberation is based on either of these beliefs, and this without even the
need for a divinely deceptive middleman.
So these initial objections do not seem
promising. I shall pick up some of the threads again, and deal with related
objections, in chapter 5 (and, in the case of the latter coherentist proposal,
in chapter 6). How, then, might the skeptical theist go about extricating
herself from the situation?
4: Divine Deception and BIV
4:1 Dealing with the Problem
motivating the skeptical theist position by an appeal to the inscrutability of
many of God’s commands in scripture, one is likely to be struck by the
lingering question of how we can tell whether or not any putative divine command really is from God.
I will come back to this problem in §5:3, but for now we can note a related
one: it follows from the inability justifiably to rule out (4) that Bergmann
and Rea’s appeal to divine commands, and Schnall’s (2007, p60) contention that
“revealed theistic religions…have a…satisfactory solution to the moral problem
for skeptical theism”, will not be sufficient in dealing with my argument,
since they leave us with no basis for justifiably believing that God is not deceiving us into thinking that He has
issued the relevant commands and revelations when in fact He hasn’t. The
skeptical theist thus cannot deal with the predicament merely by invoking “standard theistic background assumptions”.
Now John Beaudoin (2000, p299) claims, with
respect to the sort of problem with which I am concerned, that the skeptical
theist “can enlist...whatever anti-skeptical considerations are available to
anyone else”. But Beaudoin himself does not explore the options here, and I
contend in this chapter that his claim is incorrect. In arguing for this, I
shall consider the brain-in-a-vat (BIV) hypothesis. The BIV is a contemporary
variant on Descartes’s skeptical hypothesis.
The basic idea is this: given all the experiences I am having, I cannot be
rationally justified in believing that I am not a mere BIV, having its neurons
stimulated by super-scientists so as to have exactly these experiences – all my
current experiences are consistent with this possibility. But if I cannot be
rationally justified in believing this, then it seems to follow that I
cannot be rationally justified in believing many ordinary propositions, for
example that I have a hand, since the falsity of such propositions follows from
the BIV hypothesis. I argue now that some of the most common ways of responding
to this problem are unavailable to the skeptical theist.
4:2 Inference to the Best
line of response to the above argument is to reject the BIV hypothesis in
favour of the common-sense hypothesis that my experiences are veridical, on the
grounds of the explanatory inadequacy
of the former hypothesis. Jonathan Vogel (1990, 2005) advances this type of
response. In this section I outline Vogel’s argument, and show that it will not avail the skeptical theist with a
satisfactory response to the skepticism engendered by the maximally deceptive
4:2:1 Vogel’s Response
argues that skepticism based on the BIV hypothesis has its genesis in the underdetermination of theory by
evidence. My belief, say, that I have a hand can equally be explained by the hypothesis that my experience as of a
hand is veridical, and by the hypothesis that I am a BIV. Now, in cases of such
underdetermination, Vogel (1990, p658) argues that “principles of inference to
the best explanation can licence the choice of one theory over others”. Vogel
thus argues that what he calls the ‘real-world hypothesis’, which is the
common-sense view that my experiences are veridical and thus that the beliefs
that I base on them are true, is a better explanatory hypothesis than the BIV
hypothesis. This is seen, for example, when we consider that “our ordinary view
of things involves beliefs in the existence of objects with familiar spatial
characteristics” (1990, p663). Our experiences of such spatial characteristics
is easily explained by the hypothesis that there really are objects with such characteristics, but the BIV
hypothesis will have to account for the relevant phenomena in some other way.
This other way, Vogel argues, “runs the risk of taking on a more elaborate
explanatory apparatus than [the real-world hypothesis]”. Vogel (1990,
pp663-664) sums up his case thus:
[N]iceties aside, the fact that
something is spherical explains why it behaves like a sphere (in its
interaction with us and with other things). If something that is not spherical
behaves like one, this will call for a more extended explanation.
Since any such
explanation will be inferior in terms of simplicity, coming across as contrived
and indirect, Vogel thus argues that we are justified in rejecting the BIV
Is this type of response open to the
skeptical theist? Could the skeptical theist argue that she is justified in
believing not-(4), on Vogel’s grounds that the maximally deceptive God
hypothesis is a worse explanation for our common-sense experiences than is the
real world hypothesis? Now it might be argued that Vogel’s style of argument is
unsatisfactory as a response to skepticism generally,
and that for this reason it cannot be utilized by the skeptical theist. I shall
not argue this. What I shall argue is that, even if it is successful as a response to BIV skepticism, Vogel’s move
is unavailable to the skeptical theist.
One possible line of thought is that, if (4)
is true, then Vogel would be mistaken in thinking that “inferences to the best
explanation licence the choice of one theory over others”. This may be correct,
but I shall simply leave this type of response to one side.
With this in mind, consider once again the primary ground on which the
skeptical theist seemed unjustified in believing not-(4). The reason was that
the skeptical theist endorses (S), and (S) ensures that, for all we can tell,
the obtaining of some unknown good or the preventing of some unknown evil
justifies God in carrying out maximal deception. Now if the skeptical theist
wants to apply Vogel’s strategy to the maximally deceptive God hypothesis, it
seems primarily applicable to the principle on which such a hypothesis is based
– (S). In other words, Vogel’s considerations should cause the skeptical theist
to question her licence to her very skeptical thesis.
Let me explain. Recall that, for the
skeptical theist, (S) ensures that we are not entitled to infer pointless evils
from inscrutable evils. To do so would be to conflate ‘cosmic’ concerns with
the concerns of ‘everyday life’. But many people will still maintain that there are evils that seem cosmically pointless. Consider, for example, the following claim by
Rowe (1979, p338):
In the light of our
experience and knowledge of the variety and scale of human and animal suffering
in our world, the idea that none of this suffering could have been prevented by
an omnipotent being without thereby losing a greater good or permitting an evil
at least as bad seems an extraordinary absurd
idea, quite beyond our belief.” (my italics)
is claiming in effect that it seems to many of us as though there are evils
that are cosmically pointless. And this type of point seems behind the
intuition, mentioned at the very beginning of the previous chapter, that there
are some propositions which we seem justified in believing regardless of our epistemic position; to many, “one [must] recognize
certain evils as unjustifiable from any
moral point of view” (Wachterhauser 1985, p167 – my italics).
So now we have some data, i.e. the fact that
certain evils seem cosmically
pointless, and we are faced with constructing a theory to explain this data. We
have two competing hypotheses. Recall Gale’s claim that “a hidden morality is
no morality”. This was essentially the denial of (S): it is not the case that, for all we can tell,
there are facts about morality of which human beings are unaware. If this is true, then it is easy to explain
why certain evils seem cosmically pointless: humans cannot conceive of a
justification, because there is none.
But adopting (S) renders such an appearance harder to explain. Once we are made
aware of the plausibility of the view that, for all we can tell, our knowledge
of the moral realm falls short of capturing all that is true about that realm,
why should it still seem to us that
the notion that God has a justification for allowing certain evils is “an
extraordinary absurd idea, quite beyond our belief”? Reminding someone of the
truth of (S) seems very unlikely to erase the appearance of cosmic pointlessness
(Dougherty 2008, p175). The proponent of (S) therefore faces an explanatory
burden that someone like Gale, who denies (S), doesn’t face: she must explain
why such appearances remain.
Vogel’s claim that the fact of something’s being spherical best explains its appearance as spherical seems applicable
here: denying (S), which allows us to maintain that apparently cosmically
pointless evils really are cosmically
pointless, better explains their appearance as
cosmically pointless than does any theory on which (S) is adopted. Bruce
Russell (1996, p198) thus claims that
find any morally sufficient reasons for allowing certain instances, amounts, or
types of suffering, after trying hard to come up with them, [is best explained
by the view that] there are none. Barring other reasons for thinking there are,
we should believe our sample of reasons is representative and that the best
explanation of our failure to find a justifying reason is that there are none.
Vogel’s response seems unavailable to the skeptical theist in responding to the
maximally deceptive God hypothesis. If she wants to adopt this line of response
at all, then it should cause her to question her licence to the very skepticism
that constituted her primary weapon against the evidential argument from evil.
Objections and Responses
But (S) seems a very plausible thesis. Thus,
it might be objected that a denial of
(S), such as Gale’s and Russell’s, is independently highly implausible, and for
this reason does not constitute the
best explanation for the appearance of pointlessness in certain instances of
evil. Analogously: the hypothesis that there is a pink elephant floating around
in my room is independently highly implausible, so it does not constitute the
best explanation for my seeming to see such a pink elephant there.
Let me offer three responses to this
as Trent Dougherty (forthcoming, p8) notes, “[t]here is something intuitive
about[(S)]. Yet for some, this intuitive idea does not seem to have the same
weight as the overwhelming impression of the gratuity of the profusion of
inscrutable evil”. Indeed, Jerome Gellman (1992, p215) recalls that, in his
teaching experience, similar intuitions were “very widespread and deeply felt”
amongst students. Thus denying (S), for many, does not seem as implausible as the notion that
certain horrific evils have a point.
Secondly, waiving the point that the
skeptical theist is not entitled to the view that other people exist (a point
which will be waived for the rest of this section, not least because the
relevant type of inference to the best explanation may well itself support the view that other
we might note that “skeptical theists, after all, are theists”, and insofar as they are Christians, might well hold that an inference to the best
explanation would support the view
that, if enough people were to bear
witness to something highly implausible, it would be reasonable to view such a
thing as in fact the case.
The obvious connection here would be with the Resurrection. Given this, we can
undercut the ‘pink elephant’ objection by noting that if many, many people
experience an overwhelming impression of the pointlessness of certain evils,
and if the best explanation for this
involves the denial of (S), then the type of theist we are considering here
should reject (S).
Thirdly, we saw at §1:2 that (T) is in fact
part of what rendered (S) so highly plausible; in the absence of God’s existence
(S) became easier to attack. Given this, if the denial of (S) enables a less
“elaborate” explanation for why certain evils retain a strong appearance of
pointlessness for many, many people; if (as seems to be the case) Vogel’s
strategy would dictate favouring a denial of (S) for this reason, and if (T)
strongly supports (S), then Vogel’s
strategy would seem to dictate that we throw the baby out with the bathwater – that
(T) is abandoned as well as (S). Thus, Vogel’s strategy would seem to speak in
favour of what the evidentialist has wanted to claim all along – that the
appearance of pointlessness in certain instances of evil makes it reasonable to
believe that God doesn’t exist.
did theism seem to support (S)? Part of the reason was that, as some have
contended, only theism can accommodate objective
moral facts, which in turn rendered (S) plausible. Indeed, if a denial of (S)
brings with it a denial of objective moral facts, then the human inability to
conceive of a justification for certain instances of evil may well render the evils in question pointless,
which would in turn easily explain why they seem that way. But it might be
objected that the skeptical theist could simply maintain a belief in objective
moral facts the existence of which does not require
And we might also note well that a common intuition regarding morality is
surely that objective moral facts do
exist. William Lane Craig (2004, p17) glosses the kind of objectivity that he
thinks only theism can support this way:
[T]o say, for
example, that the Holocaust was [objectively] wrong is to say that it was wrong
even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right and it would
still have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in
brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them.
a denial of (S) will not readily
explain the intuitions behind Craig’s claim that the Holocaust was wrong in
this way if such a denial brings with it the denial of objective moral facts.
Indeed, Mackie (1977, p30) himself notes that “the main tradition of European moral
philosophy includes the...claim, that there are
objective [moral facts]” (my italics), a view which “has also a firm basis in
ordinary thought (p31), and explaining why this is nonetheless so in the absence of objective moral facts will
clearly be a significant burden, a burden which Mackie attempts to discharge (pp42-46).
Thus, it could be argued that Vogel’s considerations do not clearly favour a denial of (S) over (S), since both views carry heavy explanatory
Two replies, I think, are in order. Firstly,
it could be argued that a denial of objective moral facts, whether or not such
facts are supposed to obtain independently of (T), can itself be reached via an inference to the best explanation. Recall
Howard-Snyder’s claim that inference from past experience supports (S) by
rendering the existence of currently unknown moral facts likely, and recall my
subsequent discussion of cannibalism in §2:2:2. It could well be argued that
the relevant data here in fact more readily support, via an inference to the
best explanation, the denial of objective moral facts than they support (S).
Thus as well as the ‘queerness’ objection we have Mackie’s (1977, p37)
‘Argument from Relativity:
variations in the moral codes [of different individuals and groups] are more readily explained by the hypothesis
that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express
perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective
values (my italics).
course, as Sinnott-Armstrong (2006, p200) notes, “everyone does seem to agree on some claims, such as that it is morally wrong
to torture babies just for fun” (my italics), and, recalling my previous
example, that the rape and killing of a five-year-old girl is wrong. But to
attack Mackie’s point by arguing that the best explanation for the agreement
here is the objective fact that such things are
morally wrong would, by parity of reasoning, pave the way for the claim that
another objective fact best explains another moral belief upon which it seems
plausible to think that many people seem to agree: that certain evils are
pointless. Now of course, those theists who endorse premise (2) of the
evidential argument will not agree
that certain evils are pointless. I come back to this point at the end of
§4:4:1, but the relevant point here is that (assuming what to me seems
questionable – that most of these theists are not victims of a kind of ‘bad
faith’ or self-deception in
disagreeing with the pointlessness of certain instances of evil) any such
disagreement would itself be grist for Mackie’s mill. So I claim that the
skeptical theist faces a dilemma: either an inference to the best explanation supports
the denial of objective moral facts, or it supports the objective fact that
certain evils are pointless.
Secondly, suppose that, in spite of all
this, we grant the skeptical theist that Vogel’s considerations do not require her to abandon (S). For
example, it might be argued that a denial of objective moral facts is in fact
consistent with (S), because human beliefs and conventions may have implications of which human beings are
I suspect that the skeptical theist will not be attracted to this line of
argument, since “skeptical theists, after all, are theists” and as such are likely to want to maintain that many moral
facts are altogether above “the shifting sands of human preference and
convention” (Morriston 2009, p249). Be this as it may, the relevant point now
is that if (S) is allowed to stand
then the skeptical theist seems unable to respond to the maximally deceptive
God hypothesis by adopting Vogel’s strategy anyway, since (S) (along with God’s
omnipotence) was what rendered her unjustified in believing that this
hypothesis is false. The BIV-type skepticism discussed by Vogel, on the other
hand, does not appeal to anything
like (S). Vogel’s proposal that skeptical scenarios be dealt with by noting
of inference to the best explanation can licence the choice of one theory over
others” presupposes that the relevant sort of skepticism has
its genesis merely in the
“underdetermination of theory by evidence”. But the skepticism engendered by
the maximally deceptive God hypothesis is based on something extra – (S). Thus, if Vogel’s strategy
does not licence a rejection of (S),
then it will not constitute an adequate response to the skepticism engendered
by the maximally deceptive God hypothesis, a hypothesis which gains its support from (S).
So the prospect of the skeptical theist’s
appropriating Vogel’s response seems somewhat dim. Let’s look at some other
lines of response to BIV skepticism, and see if the skeptical theist can adopt
them. Two further lines of response to BIV skepticism are the following:
can be justified in believing many ordinary propositions, so it follows that I
can be justified in believing that I am not a mere BIV, since the falsity of
this hypothesis follows from the truth of the ordinary propositions.
cannot be justified in believing that I am not a mere BIV, but this does not
imply that I cannot be justified in believing many ordinary propositions, even
though the falsity of these propositions follows from the BIV hypothesis.
What I want to do now
is to argue that it will likewise be difficult for the skeptical theist to
apply these types of responses to the argument adumbrated in chapter 3.
Obviously I do not have space to discuss all the possible strategies
that may be open to the skeptical theist. What I want to do is to provide
prominent examples of (A)-type and (B)-type responses to BIV-type skepticism,
and to give a general picture as to why these responses will not help
the skeptical theist.
4:4 Strategy (A)
4:4:1 Pryor’s Response
take (A) first. An example of this type of response comes from James Pryor
(2000), building on previous work by G.E. Moore (1939). Pryor argues for Dogmatism,
which is a theory of perceptual justification according to which the mere fact
that something seems to be the case – i.e. is represented in perceptual
experience as being the case – provides (prima
facie, defeasible) justification for the belief that it is the
case. So the fact that I seem to see a hand attached to (what seems to be) my
arm provides prima facie justification
for the belief that I have a hand. Since it follows from my having a hand that
I am not a (handless) BIV, my experience as of a hand provides prima facie justification for my
belief that I am not a BIV. I do not need to have already ruled out the BIV hypothesis before I can have the original
prima facie justification for my belief that I have a hand. Perhaps the
skeptical theist could adopt this strategy, and argue that the fact that many
propositions seem to be true justifies me in believing them, and thus in
believing an implication of this: that God is not maximally deceptive.
Now it may be that Pryor’s response is
unavailable to the skeptical theist, because it fails generally as an
I do not want to argue this. Once again, I argue that, even if it is successful as a response to BIV
skepticism, the skeptical theist seems precluded from adopting it. For Pryor’s
response would seemingly license the view that the fact that certain evils seem
pointless confers prima facie justification on the belief that they are pointless, and thus that the
relevant skeptical view, (S), is false, whereas the skeptical theist’s response
to the evidential argument from evil was based on the opposing claim that the
fact that certain evils seem pointless is not
in itself enough to confer justification on the belief that they are. In order
for it to confer justification it must already be the case that (S) is denied.
So in responding to the evidential argument from evil, the skeptical theist
seems to want to contend what Pryor denies – that skeptical views must be ruled
out before appearances confer
Notice that it would not do to object that
an application of Pryor’s Dogmatism to the appearance of pointless evil needn’t
imply that we are justified in believing that (S) is false, but merely that, even if (S) is true, any axiological facts of which we are unaware do not serve to
justify these evils.
For even though this would preserve the consistency
of skeptical theism with Pryor’s brand of so-called ‘common-sense epistemology’,
it of course renders skeptical theism useless as a response to the evidential
argument from evil.
But there are further worries. It could be objected that Pryor’s Dogmatism
applies merely where “one’s justification doesn’t seem to depend on any
complicated justifying argument”. Thus “when one is asked ‘What justifies you
in believing there are hands?’ one is likely to respond, ‘I can simply see
that there are hands” (Pryor 2000, p536), whereas a belief in pointless evil seems
based, as we have seen, on an ‘inference
to the effect that if E is an instance of inscrutable evil, then we are
rationally justified in viewing E as an instance of pointless evil’. However,
this ignores what is surely undeniable – that there are instances of evil of
which people have an impression of “its sheer seeming gratuitousness” (McCann
2009, p180), without employing or
indeed considering any ‘complicated justifying argument’. In other words, there
are surely many people – Gellman’s aforementioned students, for example – for
whom a belief in pointless evil “seems immediately obvious, not by any
(conscious) inference” (Dougherty, forthcoming, p6). Indeed, this is evidenced
when we consider my discussion of Vogel’s response above, where I claimed that,
for many, the impression of pointless evil remains even after one is informed of the fact that, by dint of (S), such a
justifying argument is not forthcoming.
It might be objected instead that Pryor’s
Dogmatism applies merely to positive
seemings, whilst (S) only blocks justification based on negative seemings. To see that such an objection would be
problematic, we need merely note Wykstra’s (1984, p84) point that “the
distinction between positive and negative seemings depends so much on
formulation”. In other words, there seems to be no non-arbitrary way of drawing
such distinctions. And Wykstra’s point here gains weight in the light of a
recent objection. Drawing on Wykstra’s own examples, Trakakis (2007, pp87-88)
argues that the statements ‘there is no table in the room’ and ‘the room is
bare’ are not equivalent, since the
latter statement entails the former but not vice versa. However, it in fact
seems easy to reformulate the latter statement in a way which bypasses this
objection – consider: ‘the room is empty-of-tables’. Thus, given the ease with
which apparently negative statements can be reformulated as positive ones,
Wykstra does seem correct in not appealing to any such distinction between
positive and negative seemings in his original response to the evidential
argument, and the skeptical theist therefore should not do so in responding to
It could further
be objected that Pryor’s Dogmatism applies merely to perceptual seemings, and the seemings involved in cases of
inscrutable evil are intellectual
seemings. Thus it could be argued that the cases are relevantly different, and
that in the perceptual case, skeptical views do not need to be antecedently
ruled out before the justification based on the seeming is in place, whereas in
the intellectual case they do.
This objection is likewise problematic. Firstly,
there is the possibility that moral seemings are perceptual. This itself presents problems for the skeptical
theist, and I shall come back to the issue in §5:2:2. For now we can note that Pryor
intends his account of perceptual justification to be an example of “sensible
philosophical conservativism” (Pryor 2000, p538), and such conservativism seems
to dictate that any instance
(perceptual or otherwise) of its seeming that p confers prima facie justification on the belief that p. Thus Elijah Chudnoff (2010) extends
such conservativism to intuitions
that p, whilst Michael Huemer (2005)
extends it into the moral realm
(which he doesn’t think involves
perception); and we have Swinburne’s (2001, p142) ‘Principle of Credulity’,
which claims that
proposition that a subject believes or is inclined to believe has (in so far as
it is basic) in his noetic structure a probability corresponding to the
strength of the belief or semi-belief or inclination to believe. Understanding
‘seems’ in the epistemic sense...then put more aphoristically, the principle
says: things are probably as they seem.
The objection, then,
owes us an account as to why such ‘sensible philosophical conservativism’
should not be applicable across the board.
One such account might appeal to the fact
that there is not the same level of perceptual disagreement as there is intellectual disagreement, thus rendering
conservativism in the latter realm less appropriate than conservativism in the
former realm. I have argued that the skeptical theist is not entitled to the
view that there are others with whom
to agree or disagree, but perhaps Pryor’s response would allow for justified
belief that there are (especially since the existence of other people is surely
something about which everyone, if they exist, agrees!). So I do not want to beg
the question by arguing that the skeptical theist cannot adopt the
aforementioned account for this reason; let us therefore waive it once again.
The proposed account is still
problematic. The main reason for doubting that the skeptical theist will want
to press it is that it would not enable her to avoid moral skepticism. For morality itself is surely a primary locus of
disagreement, in which case the above proposal would disqualify the skeptical
theist from appealing to Dogmatism in order to rehabilitate moral justification. Nor would it do to
argue that there are certain moral claims about which there does seem to be widespread agreement,
and thus that convervativism would be appropriate at least here. For one thing, judgements concerning pointless evils are
surely things about which a great many people agree. As I claimed above, many
theists will disagree about such
things, but there is of course something else about which, as we have also
seen, it seems reasonable to think that theists (and everyone else) will agree: that deception can be
justified. This leads us nicely into our next section.
4:4:2 Justification Relative to
Epistemic Position (Again)
§2:2:2 I talked about the notion of justification relative to epistemic
position, and claimed that this notion may be open to the skeptical theist in
her attempt to shield (ST) from (MS). Given this, perhaps the skeptical theist
could after all argue along the lines of (A) – that, relative to her epistemic position, she is justified in believing
many propositions (and thus that (6) is false) and thus, given (5), that she is
justified (relative to her epistemic position) in believing that (4) is false.
I see three problems with this response.
Firstly, we saw that an appeal to certain
scriptural passages – for example Genesis 3: 6, Genesis 1: 27 and Romans 2:
14-15 – was part of what licensed the claim that we can justifiably believe
things relative to our epistemic position. In order for these passages to be
taken seriously, it must be the case that (4) is false. But then the notion of
justification relative to epistemic position will not enable the skeptical
theist to use the strategy suggested in (A); she won’t be able to argue that
her epistemic position licenses her in believing that (4) is false, since (4)
must already be assumed to be false
in order for her to have the scriptural grounds for invoking the notion of
justification relative to epistemic position in the first place. (Furthermore,
part of what rendered the skeptical theist unjustified in believing not-(4) was
scriptural considerations themselves.
The appeal to scripture thus undermines itself.)
Secondly, even assuming that the notion of
justified belief relative to epistemic position can be appealed to, the epistemic position of humans is part of
what lends rational weight to (4). Perhaps
the following comment by Pryor (2000, p523) will elucidate what I have in mind
Why on earth should we accept [the claim
that I am not justified in believing that I’m not a BIV]? Even if we
can’t know for sure whether or not we’re [a BIV], isn’t it at least reasonable
to assume that we’re not being so deceived, absent
any evidence to the contrary? (emphasis altered)
Recall also the
quotation from Sinnott-Armstrong concerning Bethany’s belief that the time is
She does seem justified in one way.
Bethany has strong grounds for believing that it is 8:00, and her grounds are
neither overridden nor undermined by any
information that she possesses. (my italics)
The crucial phrases
here are ‘absent any evidence to the contrary’ and ‘any information she
possesses’. The point is that we would only be justified relative to our
epistemic position in believing propositions if there is nothing in our experience to indicate that such
beliefs may be mistaken, and our epistemic position provides us, as we have
seen, with just such evidence that deception can be justified. Sure, our epistemic position also tells us that
people sometimes win the lottery, but we are
nonetheless also justified in thinking that we won’t – the chances are just too
I take it, however, that we can all agree that situations in which deception
seems justified are much more
frequent than situations in which people win the lottery. Any parent (to go
back to the relevant analogy) who has both lied to their child about Santa
Claus and lamented their own lack of ability to pay for a better Christmas
present will attest to this. It would thus seem strange to think that the same epistemic position that reveals
this could provide us with evidence that God would not be justified in
deceiving us in the manner suggested by (4). Our epistemic position with
respect to deception is in effect part of what defeats whatever justification we may have for believing not-(4)
– it provides us with reason to think that God could be deceptive. And if we
are not justified, relative to our epistemic position, in believing not-(4), it
will follow that we are not justified, relative to our epistemic position, in
believing any proposition – our epistemic position, like the appeal to
scripture, therefore undermines itself.
Suppose, however, that one were to attempt
to obviate my second point by pressing Trakakis and Nagasawa’s claim that there
are “differences...between a perfect being and a human being in virtue of their
disparate roles”. This might enable
the skeptical theist to claim that the fact that our epistemic position
sometimes speaks in favour of deception does not defeat my justification for believing that (4) is false, in the
same way in which my belief that it is good for me to discipline my child
doesn’t defeat my justification for believing that it is wrong for you to do so
– we have ‘disparate roles’. This would also mean that, contrary to my claim in
§3:2, the fact that God sometimes commands that humans engage in deceptive
activity does not speak in favour of
the possibility of God’s Himself being deceptive.
Even aside from the fact that God Himself is sometimes presented in
scripture as deceptive, we can see that this response will not help the
skeptical theist with the proposed line of argument. This is because (and
this is my third point) to infer that we can justifiably believe – relative to
our epistemic position – that (4) is false, on the grounds that, relative to
such a position, we are justified in believing many propositions, and thus that
(6) is false, would be to undertake the same type of move as the evidentialist,
who claims that relative to her epistemic position (recall Rowe: “in the
light of our experience”) she is justified in believing that (1) is
true, and hence, given (2), that she is justified in believing that God doesn’t
exist. The problem for this was that the evidentialist is conflating the
‘cosmic’ and the ‘concerns of everyday life’. If the skeptical theist wants to
claim that such a move is impermissible, then appeal to the notion of
justification relative to epistemic position cannot enable her to use the line
of response suggested in (A). The point was that the epistemic distance between
us and God, and the fact that we have ‘disparate roles’, is such that we simply
cannot appeal to our human understanding of the world in order justifiably to
believe things like (1).
By parity of reasoning, I argue, it is such that we cannot do such a thing in
order justifiably to believe not-(4).
It could be objected that it is surely
implausible to commit the skeptical theist to the view that inferences about
what God would do from premises concerning our human understanding of the world
are to be ruled out tout court, since
this would undercut, for example, the Design Argument for God’s existence,
which relies “on claims that God would be likely to create a world which
contains order or beauty or conscious beings” (Draper 1996, p188). It is here
that we can begin to see my third point as symptomatic of a more general problem for the skeptical
theist. For if God and humans really do have entirely disparate purposes, then
God’s purposes are rendered entirely inscrutable to us. Thus it does seem to be a consequence of the
skeptical theistic response to the evidential argument from evil that
inferences about what God would do are ruled out tout court; as Ian Wilks (2009, p71) writes:
Skeptical theism invokes the
inscrutability of divine purposes without suggesting limits on how inscrutable
those purposes are, or constraints on how extensively that consideration is to
Scott Sehon (2010, p79)
likewise claims that
...you can’t insulate our epistemic
humility and assume that it only applies when God fails to prevent suffering.
If God’s ways are mysterious when it comes to earthquakes or allowing 25,000
people a day to starve to death, then his ways are mysterious simpliciter, and the theist no longer
has any particular reason to expect that God would want a universe with life or
with beauty or with anything else.
Robert Lovering (2009,
p101) generalises these points with the following claim:
From the broadest case regarding what
God would do – the case of what kind of universe(s), down to the smallest
details, God would create – to the narrowest of cases – such as the case of,
say, whether God would perform a miracle in this situation or allow evil in
that situation – each will have to be compatible with God’s perfect goodness.
Now the skeptical
theist claims in effect that “we should not expect to understand how it is that
God’s governance of the universe accords with His goodness” (Pereboom 2004,
p159). Any judgement regarding what
God would do, Lovering thus claims, would seem to rely on our having complete knowledge of the correct
account of the good (i.e. an understanding of the ‘cosmic’ account of the good),
which (S) of course precludes us from having. Some skeptical theists recognise
that they are committed to extending
their epistemic humility regarding judgements about what God would do to areas
other than inferences from inscrutable to pointless evils.
My point here is that the skeptical theist seems to have no principled way of
not extending it to the inability to rule out (4).
These considerations show that the skeptical
theist will not be able to embrace a
version of (A) whereby she is justified, relative to her epistemic position, in
believing various propositions, and therefore justified, relative to such a
position, in believing not-(4).
4:5 Strategy (B)
about option (B)? To adopt (B) would be to deny the following principle:
(Closure) If I am justified in believing that p, and I am justified in believing that p entails q, then I am justified in believing that q.
According to (B), I can
be justified in believing many ordinary propositions (for example, that I have
a hand), justified in believing that these propositions entail that I am not a
(handless) BIV, and yet not be
justified in believing that I am not a BIV. One might argue that no account which relies on the falsity
of the highly intuitive Closure principle can succeed, and for this reason that
(B) is not open to the skeptical theist in responding to the argument in
chapter 3. I shall not argue this. Again, what I want to do is to argue that
adopting the course of action suggested in (B), even if plausible as a response to the skepticism supposedly engendered
by the BIV hypothesis, will not
afford the skeptical theist with an adequate response to the skepticism
engendered by the maximally deceptive God hypothesis.
How, then, might (B) work as a response to
BIV skepticism? Consider the well-known ‘sensitivity’ requirement for
knowledge, according to which P knows that x only if, were x
false, P wouldn’t believe that x.
Given this, my belief that I am not a BIV does not count as knowledge because
it is not sensitive – were I a BIV, I would still believe that I was not one
(the BIV hypothesis is deliberately designed to make its truth
indistinguishable from its falsity). Now it follows (and I can know that it
follows) from my being a BIV that I do not have a hand, but my belief that I do have a hand can nonetheless count as knowledge because this belief is
sensitive – were I not to have a hand I wouldn’t believe that I have one.
Crucial to this response is that the ‘closest possible worlds’ in which I don’t
have a hand are not worlds in which I am a BIV; they are worlds in
which, for example, I lost my hand in an accident, or was born without it
(Nozick 1981, pp199-200). Since my belief that I have a hand is sensitive
throughout the relevant, closest worlds, I can know that I have a hand, even
though I do not know an entailment of this: that I am not a BIV.
Is this type of response open to (ST)? Notice
that (B) refers to justification
rather than to knowledge. Could the
skeptical theist thus argue along the above lines that for all she justifiably
believes (4) is true, and yet that she is justified in believing many
propositions (and thus that (6) is false), even though, given (5), the falsity
of such propositions follows if (4) is true? Recall that in §1:3 I adumbrated
an example of a particular skeptical theistic strategy for blocking the
inference from inscrutable to pointless evils. This strategy involved adopting
the CORNEA principle. Now the aforementioned sensitivity requirement is closely
related to this principle, which states in effect that for P to be justified in
believing that x, it must be
reasonable for P to believe that the sensitivity requirement is met with
respect to this belief.This might plausibly be seen as a
necessary condition for justified belief, even if the sensitivity requirement
itself is not. Given this condition, perhaps the skeptical theist could argue
that, for many propositions she believes, it is reasonable for her to believe
that the sensitivity requirement is met, i.e. that the falsity of such
propositions would be discernible by her, even though it is not reasonable for her to believe that
the falsity of an entailment of such
propositions – i.e. not-(4) – would be discernible by her. In other words, it
seems that if the skeptical theist is willing to embrace CORNEA then she should
see (B) as a viable type of response to the problems adduced in chapter 3.
But despite this initial appearance, the
asymmetries between BIV skepticism and the skepticism engendered by the
maximally deceptive God hypothesis are such that CORNEA is in fact unlikely to
be of use in enabling the skeptical theist to reply along the lines of (B). For
it to be of use, it must be reasonable to believe that the closest possible
worlds in which the ordinary propositions I believe are false are not
worlds in which the skeptical scenario obtains. Now in the BIV case it seems,
as we saw above, that this condition holds: had I not had a hand, it would not
have thereby been the case that I am a BIV. A world in which BIVs exist, let alone a world in which I am a BIV, whilst logically possible, seems
a very strange one indeed, and thus irrelevant to the assessment of the
relevant counterfactuals. Bergmann (2001, p291), in comparing (ST) to
full-blown Cartesian skepticism, makes essentially this point when he claims
[t]he possibility that the goods we know
of aren’t representative of the goods there are is a live possibility, one that
we are sensible to consider and take seriously. It is not remote and far-fetched in
the way the Cartesian demon and the 100-year-old earth [and presumably the BIV]
possibilities are. (my italics)
Van Inwagen (1996b,
p235) similarly makes the point that “all ‘Cartesian’ hypotheses (hypotheses
about evil geniuses, brains in vats, and so on) are highly improbable on what
we think we know”.
However, recall that appropriating Vogel’s
response seemed problematic, in part because it is intended as a response to a
variety of skepticism that lacks the crucial feature of the skepticism with
which I am concerned, that feature being (S). A similar point seems applicable
here: it is not (or, at any rate, not merely)
our obvious lack of sensitivity that renders us unjustified in believing
not-(4); it is the fact that (S) obtains. But – and this is the crucial point –
(S) at the same time renders us unable justifiably to believe that the worlds
in which (4) is true, like worlds in which the BIV hypothesis is true, are
‘remote’. This is something neither Bergmann nor van Inwagen consider in their
quotations above. For according to Bergmann (2009, p387), (S) means that “we
just don’t know how likely it is that there is a God-justifying reason for
permitting [inscrutable] evils”,
whilst van Inwagen (1996a, p163) claims in effect that, given (S), “we do not
know what to say about the probability of [inscrutable evil] on theism”.
But if this is true, then I submit that, by parity of reasoning, (S) is such
that we simply have no idea what to say about the probability of (4), and thus
the skeptical theist has no grounds for ruling it ‘far-fetched’ or
So we have good reason to think that (B)
will be a problematic option for the skeptical theist. Going back to BIV
skepticism, consider now another point: what if our experience represented to
us a world in which brains in vats do
exist, along with scientists with the power and potentially good reasons for inducing
the requisite kinds of experiences in them? Or what if our experiences were
punctuated by occasions on which “a message starts moving across my visual
field, ‘You are a brain in a vat, part of an experiment’...” (Stone 2011, p68)?
In these cases, it seems that we
would lose our license to maintain that the BIV hypothesis is not relevant to
the assessment of the relevant counterfactuals, and thus to reasonably believe that
the sensitivity requirement is met with respect to the ordinary propositions we
believe. Indeed, Wykstra (2007, p93) himself makes comments which support this
point. It might seem, for example, that I can be justified in believing that
the animal in the cage in front of me is a zebra, and yet not be justified in
believing an entailment of this: that it is not a cleverly disguised donkey. If
this is indeed the case,
the reason why I don’t need justifiably to believe the entailment in order
justifiably to believe that the animal is a zebra seems to be that
...our background evidence gives us no
reason to think that there has ever been, in the entire history of the
universe, a painted donkey substituted for a zebra in a real zoo. If this is
so, our...visual data of seeing a striped equine in the zebra cage may be
needed to rule out the possibility that the zebra is convalescing at the animal
hospital, or out for breeding; it won’t need to rule out there being a painted
donkey in the cage.
The point, presumably,
is that if my background evidence did
give me reason to think that painted donkeys were sometimes put in zebra cages,
it would need to be the case that it
is reasonable for me to think that my belief that there is a zebra in the cage
is sensitive to there being a painted donkey there. Applying this to the BIV
hypothesis, we can likewise note that “we are not in an evidential vacuum about
the general hypothesis that there are envatters, and our actual evidence surely
tilts very strongly against this hypothesis” (Wykstra 2007, p95). The point,
again, is that if our background evidence told us that that BIVs and
super-scientist envatters do exist, we
would need reasonably to believe that
our ordinary beliefs are sensitive to this possibility in order for such
beliefs to be justified.
Now it seems that the skeptical theist is in
just this sort of position with regard to the maximally deceptive God
hypothesis, and thus we have another reason to think that (B) is inapplicable
to the argument in chapter 3. Nobody believes, or has any reason to believe, in
BIVs, but the skeptical theist does believe in a God who presumably has
the power to carry out radical and extremely convincing deception such that my
belief that I am not being deceived by God in not sensitive, and (as I argued
in the previous chapter) should believe, on both scriptural and moral
grounds, that deception is very much within God’s remit. In other words, the
skeptical theist has what Pryor above called ‘evidence to the contrary’. Thus,
it is much harder to see in the case of the maximally deceptive God hypothesis
that any of our ordinary beliefs meet the sensitivity requirement than it would
be in the case of the BIV hypothesis.
I argued above that, given the skeptical
theist’s ways of dealing with (MS) discussed in §2:2, it will follow that for
all we justifiably believe (4) is true. Since (B) is a problematic option for
the skeptical theist, it seems that the fact that we are not rationally
justified in believing that God is not maximally deceptive will imply that we are not rationally justified in believing any
proposition, since the most prominent and initially promising way of disarming
this implication – the ‘sensitivity’ version of (B) – runs into problems when
applied to (ST). Given the failure of (B), (MS) follows from the fact that, for
all we justifiably believe, (4) is true.
So it seems that some of the most prominent
ways of responding to BIV skepticism, even if
successful as responses to BIV skepticism, will not enable the skeptical theist
to avoid the skepticism generated by the maximally deceptive God hypothesis. In
the following chapter I refine and solidify my case by considering three
First Objection and Response
The first objection is as follows. Descartes, as we
observed, claimed that “God is supremely good, and the source of all truth”. It
could be argued that it is not God’s goodness
that precludes His being deceptive – (S), along with our epistemic position
according to which deception can sometimes be justified, at least seems to
render this claim unavailable.
Instead, it could be argued that what precludes God’s being deceptive is His
role as the source of all truth.
I mentioned in §3:4 the idealist
view that coherence is the criterion of truth. George Berkeley (2008, p95)
makes a similar point, albeit one which the skeptical theist seems more likely to want to endorse, claiming that “[t]he
ideas imprinted on the senses by the Author of nature are called ‘real things’”.
If this is read as claiming that God’s imprinting ideas on the senses is a
necessary and sufficient condition for those ideas constituting reality, then
this would seem to imply that divine deception
is a logical impossibility – reality is essentially defined in terms of that which is caused and sustained by God. Now
I am not claiming that Berkeley’s Idealism is necessary in order for the first objection to be pressing;
Berkeley’s Idealism is merely an example
of why divine deception may be thought impossible. But if divine deception is a logical impossibility, then my
claim in §4:4:2 that inferences about what God would do
are ruled out tout court is not
strictly true; (4) will of course be
false, and my argument can’t proceed.
This objection would require that
passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2: 11 be reinterpreted, since taking such
passages at face value entails that divine deception is a logical possibility. Thus we have what seems to me a hitherto
unnoticed tension between Berkeley’s Idealism and his religious commitment that
scripture be understood in “a plain obvious sense” (Berkeley 2008, p235).
Furthermore, since taking scripture at face value was part of what lent support
to (ST) in the first place, and part of what obviated the subsequent allegation
of moral skepticism and paralysis, this objection might not be particularly
attractive to the skeptical theist. But since scripture also seems to hold in places that divine deception is impossible, at least some
scriptural claims will inevitably need to be abandoned or reinterpreted, so I
don’t want to place too much weight on passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2: 11
in dealing with the objection.
One could perhaps respond to the
objection in the manner suggested by my response to the coherentist proposal –
that God could be deceiving us into thinking that divine deception is
impossible. But I think a much more interesting response is available: the
objection will not enable the skeptical theist to avoid my conclusion, for even
if God’s Himself being deceptive were
impossible, God could nonetheless allow
deception to occur. Thus, we can replace (4) with the following:
(8) God allows
maximal deception to occur.
This, along with the relevant alteration to (5)’s antecedent, would allow
my argument to bypass the first objection. We can now investigate whether the
same considerations that supported the claim that for all we justifiably belief
(4) is true likewise support the claim that for all we justifiably believe (8)
Now consideration of free will
might seem to dictate that it is possible that God allow something and yet for
that thing not to occur, so we shall
need to add to (8) the qualification that the relevant sort of deception goes
on to occur. And in support of this we can note the following conceptual claim, borrowed from
Lovering (2009, p91):
(C) “[i]f God exists
and X exists or is the case, then God allows X to exist or to be the case”.
In support of (C), Lovering writes:
[B]y “God” we mean a sovereign,
omnipotent, omniscient being; one who, as such, serves as the final arbiter of
what things exist or are the case, at least with respect to logically possible
things. Accordingly, if God exists and, say green cars exist, then God allows
green cars to exist.
Given (C), any instance in
which deception does occur would count in favour of the view that God sometimes
allows deception to occur. And support for the view that humans are often deceived is not hard to come
by. Furthermore, the scriptural support in favour of God’s sometimes allowing
deception to occur is of course even stronger
than that in favour of the view that God could Himself be deceptive, since,
given (C), any passage in which
humans are deceived, even if God Himself is not explicitly implicated in such
deception, would count in its favour.
Consider once again the
scriptural passages I appealed to in §3:2 to lend weight to the case that deception
is within God’s remit. In spite of what we subsequently saw – that deception
can be justified – some theists are still likely to want to resist the prima
facie appearance of deception in these passages. For example, it might be
argued that in Exodus 3: 18 God is not commanding Moses to deceive the Pharaoh, since God knows in advance that the Pharaoh
will not be deceived into releasing
the Israelites – after all, Exodus 3: 19 reads: “But I know that the King of
Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand”. Thus, it could be
argued that Exodus 3: 18 is not even an example of God’s allowing deception to occur, and for this reason is not an example
of God commanding deceptive activity (it arguably does not make sense, or is at
least uncharitable, to interpret God as commanding something He knows will not
So Exodus 3: 18, if it fails as
an example of God commanding deceptive activity, will not count as an example of God allowing deception to occur. This is
not true, however, of some of the other passages in which God apparently
commands deceptive activity. For example, regardless of whether or not God in
fact commanded that Joshua deceive the king of Ai, the success of the ambush
indicates that the king was in fact
deceived, and this, in conjunction with (C), implies that God thus allowed such a thing to occur.
Consider furthermore some of the
apparent examples of divine deception. It might be argued, for example, that
Jeremiah’s complaints of divine deception at 4: 10 and 20: 7 are simply
unjustified, and that Genesis 22: 1-2 need not be interpreted as a case of
divine deception, since deception implies
the intention to create a false
impression, and there is no evidence that God intended to create a false belief within Abraham (as opposed, say,
simply to having Abraham obey His command).
However, pressing the point about
intention seems orthogonal to my argument: the relevant feature of deception is
that a false belief be place, i.e. that the inference in (5) be valid. Given
this, and with (C) in mind, I submit that the relevant passages would have to
be interpreted, if not as instances of divine deception, then as examples of
God’s allowing deception to occur.
For were Jeremiah’s complaints unjustified, then we would have to interpret God
as allowing Jeremiah to falsely believe
that he has been deceived by God, and regardless of whether or not God intended Abraham to have the false
belief that Isaac was to be killed, God nonetheless allowed that Abraham, for a time, wound up with such a false belief
– Abraham, after all, “reached out his hand and took the knife
to slaughter his son” (Genesis 22: 10) and arguably at the point of performing
this action had no reason to believe it would not be successful.
Furthermore, 2 Thessalonians 2:
9 has God allowing people to be
deceived by “false signs and wonders”, before (arguably) engaging in deception
Himself, and we might also consider 1 Kings 22: 21-23, which explicitly shows
God allowing other spirits to deceive humans:
Then a spirit came forward and stood before
the Lord, saying, 'I will entice him.' And the Lord said to him, 'By what
means?' And he said, 'I will go out, and will bea lying spirit in
the mouth of all his prophets.' And He said, 'You are to entice him, and you
shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a
lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared
disaster for you.
The book of Job
similarly depicts God allowing Satan
to cause evils to befall the eponymous character, which shows that there are
circumstances in which God allows other spirits to interact with humanity, and
this could easily be applied to the issue of deception. Therefore, viewing divine deception as impossible will not aid the
skeptical theist’s cause, since she will nonetheless not be able to rule out on
scriptural grounds the possibility of God’s allowing deception to occur.
Consider also my discussion in §3:3. I argued there that, relative to our epistemic
position, deception sometimes seems to be justified. Suppose that my arguments
for this failed, and that H. Clay Trumbull was in fact correct in his view that
there are no circumstances which
justify deception. Such a view would not dislodge the claim that there
are nonetheless circumstances which justify allowing
deception (even with the proviso
about intention built in). Recall my claim in §4:4:2 that the fact that it is good
for me to discipline my child seems not to defeat my justification for
believing that it is wrong for you to
do so. A similar point seems applicable
here. Even if parents are never
justified in deceiving their children (about Santa Claus, say), this would not
at all imply that no one else is ever justified in allowing parents to deceive their children. To fail to allow such a
thing (i.e. to take active steps to prevent it), as with disciplining someone
else’s child, may very well constitute unwarranted interfering.
Frances Howard-Snyder (2008) makes
the general point that “[t]he claim that doing harm is no worse
than allowing harm flies in the face of powerful intuitions to the contrary”.
Even assuming what seems highly implausible – that to deceive is necessarily to cause harm – Howard-Snyder’s
point seems relevant here: it seems
that our epistemic position is such that there are circumstances which justify
allowing deception to occur, even if there
are no circumstances that justify deception. I argue therefore that the first
objection fails to dislodge my argument. Indeed, it may even strengthen it,
inasmuch as it allows us to invoke the notion of God’s allowing deception,
which enables my case to proceed even if my arguments in §3:2 and §3:3 fail. I see no reason to grant Michael Martin’s (1990, p36) claim
that “the idea that God...would allow an evil demon to [deceive us] surely
verges on the incoherent”, and we can add to this that even if all deception were to originate not with
God but with “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4: 1), (S) seems to imply that for all we can tell
there are some greater goods/evils the obtaining/preventing of which justifies
God in allowing the demons to do their dirty work.
Second Objection and Response
second objection takes umbrage with the notion of maximal deception, and is along similar lines to the first: is maximal
deception even a coherent notion? This objection picks up another thread
left at the end of §3:4, and we can note that, even granting the responses that I gave there, there dononetheless seem to be some propositions
– ‘at least one of my beliefs is false’, for example – such that it is
impossible that I be deceived into falsely believing them.
Furthermore, it is sometimes held that, with
respect to various beliefs, persons are infallible,
in the sense that “it is not possible for the person to believe a proposition
of the relevant type and yet be mistaken in one’s belief.” (Timmons 1998,
p229). In other words, merely holding the belief is sufficient for its truth. Thus,
recalling Descartes’s cogito, it is
plausibly held that it is not possible for me to believe ‘I exist’ and yet for
this belief to be mistaken. It is also plausibly held that it is not possible
for me to believe ‘I am in pain’, and yet for this belief to be mistaken, or for
me to believe ‘it seems to me that p’
and yet for this belief to be
Now it may be (as I claimed above) that God
allows what does not occur, but it seems reasonable to think that God, being
perfectly rational, would not allow what He knows to be impossible – indeed, it is hard even to think of what it could mean to speak of ‘allowing’ such a
thing. Thus, it seems that we can justifiably believe, if God exists, that God
would not allow maximal deception,
since there are some things we believe such that we cannot be deceived with regard to them (and, in the case for
example of ‘God exists’, such that God
cannot allow us to be deceived with regard to them). Given this, my claim in §4:4:2
that inferences regarding what God would do are ruled out tout court is once again not strictly true, and Wielenberg was thus
correct not to have considered the possibility of maximaldeception.
However, suppose we replace (8) with the
God allows widespread deception to
Let us understand by
‘widespread’ deception ‘the most deception that is logically possible’. I do
not think such a shift will substantially affect my argument. My ultimate
concern was with moral skepticism, and I do not think the shift to (9)
will enable the skeptical theist to avoid it. By way of substantiating this
claim, let me adumbrate six points, which I hope form a cumulative case for
first the view that we are infallible
with respect to certain beliefs. Such a view is perhaps most plausibly held
with regard to beliefs ascribing occurrent mental states. Now some
philosophers, for example Bruce Aune (1967) and D. M. Armstrong (1968), have
argued that we are not infallible
even with respect to these beliefs. If this
is the case, then it “should make us antecedently dubious about the
prospects of infallibility with respect to moral propositions” (Timmons 1998,
p229). However, let us grant that we are
infallible with respect to beliefs ascribing occurrent mental states. This
would only go any way toward showing that we are infallible with respect to moral propositions if the truth of moral
propositions somehow consisted in our
being in these mental states. But recall that in §1:2 I argued that the
plausibility of (S) seems to require precisely the opposite view; it seems to
require objective moral facts, i.e.
moral facts which obtain “prior to and logically independent of” human mental
states. In other words, if one holds, as the skeptical theist apparently must,
...the truth of a moral statement is
independent of the attitudes, beliefs, and conventions of human individuals and
groups...then these individuals cannot be in a state of infallibility with
regard to (non-trivial) moral statements; error in moral belief is always
possible. (Timmons 1998, p229)
The skeptical theist’s
response to the evidential argument seemed based on precisely the fact that
there are at least some moral beliefs
with respect to which we are not
infallible, and I see no reason for not extending this to all (substantive)
It is also interesting to note that, if it
is true that we are not infallible with respect to beliefs about our own mental
states, then we have another reason to think that (S) could hold even in the absence of objective moral facts.
Pressing this won’t help the skeptical theist however, for even if her skepticism doesn’t require objective
moral facts, her theism seems to.
Furthermore, the fact that we are not infallible even with respect to the
mental states in which moral facts consist would mean that we could be deceived
5:2:2 Perceiving Moral Facts
now the following exchange from the famous BBC radio debate between Bertrand
Russell and Frederick Copleston, which seems to echo Pryor’s claim that he can just see that he has hands:
Copleston: What’s your justification for
distinguishing between good and bad...?
Russell: I don’t have any justification any
more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my
justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different. (Russell 1996,
seems perfectly natural, and is the progenitor for increasingly popular
empirical moral epistemologies, which are often motivated by the desire to
provide a plausible epistemology to accompany objective moral facts.
But in rendering moral belief on a par with (or indeed a form of) perceptual belief,
one has cleared the path for applying Cartesian considerations of deception to
the former as well as to the latter, which involve propositions regarding which
no one thinks it is logically impossible that
we be deceived.
Now the skeptical theist may or may not be
attracted to the view that we perceive moral facts – she may be attracted to it
qua objectivist, but she obviously
will want to limit the view so as to exclude pointless evils, which (she
claims) lack “reasonable seeability” (Wykstra 1996, p126). My argument in
§4:4:1 was intended in part to show that she cannot constrain the view in this
way. Be this as it may, what surely does
seem plausible is that, even if we don’t
perceive moral facts themselves, we apprehend them in virtue of things we do perceive. For example, I believe that
giving money to charity is a good thing, and this belief is based in large part
on things which I come to believe through perception, for example that the
money is used to build new schools, or to undertake medical research. Now these beliefs, upon which our
substantive moral judgements are based, are
surely candidates for deception; it is surely possible that I am mistaken in
believing such things. As Sinnott-Armstrong (2006, p78) writes, “[a]lmost
everyone believes that it is morally wrong to torture babies just for fun, but
we might be deceived in our beliefs that babies feel pain”. F. J. Fitzpatrick
(1981, p34) makes a similar point with regard to Rowe’s fawn – we cannot rule
out that God is deceiving us with respect to its apparent suffering. And if I
were mistaken in believing that babies feel pain then it does seem that I would not be justified in believing that torturing
babies is morally wrong. Indeed, as we have seen, the skeptical theist is not
even entitled to the belief that the baby, the fawn, or anyone else that we
seem to perceive, exists. This would
obviously be problematic for morality. For one thing, it would make a mockery
of the famous injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:
it might be argued that it is impossible that we be deceived about many of our
substantive moral beliefs because these beliefs often express what seem to be logically indubitable truths, which
would be to say “that it is not possible for [someone] to believe a proposition
of the relevant type and yet have any grounds for doubting that the proposition
is true” (Timmons 1998, p230). In other words, if I believe a logically
indubitable truth, then (if I consider the matter) I must appreciate that such
a truth just has to obtain. Going
back to the point I made at the beginning of chapter 3, and again in §4:2:1, it
might thus seem that the rape and killing of a five-year old girl is so obviously wrong as to be indubitable.
Indeed, it might even be argued that such a thing is obviously wrong in a
similar way to its being obvious that a triangle has three angles – such a
thing could not but be the case.
And just as it could be argued that I could not be deceived into believing that
a triangle has three angles when in fact it doesn’t, it could also be argued
that I could not be deceived into believing certain moral propositions that seem,
in a similar way, indubitably true.
In response to this it could simply be
argued that, even if the denial of the claim that the rape and killing of a
five-year old girl is wrong bespeaks some sort of perverted outlook, it is not
actually incoherent; whatever the
faults of someone who denies this claim, logical incompetence seems not to be
among them. Mark Timmons (1998, p230) thus notes that “[i]t just does not seem
plausible to suppose that there are any logically indubitable moral beliefs”.
Be this as it may, the skeptical theist
cannot attack my argument with the claim that certain substantive moral
propositions are so obvious as to be logically indubitable. For let us consider
the candidates for such moral propositions. Among those moral propositions (if
any) which we might deem indubitable in this way are surely judgements
concerning the pointlessness of
certain evils. Thus, with reference to the evils described by Dostoyevsky
(1950, p283), Brice Wachterhauser (1985, p172) proclaims that “[i]f anything is
truly unjustifiably [i.e. pointlessly] evil, such acts are self-evidently so”.
Now of course the skeptical theist claims that it is not logically indubitable that certain evils are pointless. But
given the overwhelmingly strong
impression many people have concerning the pointlessness of certain evils, it
is hard to see what other substantive
moral propositions could count as logically indubitable, if not these ones. So
if, for all we can tell, there is some justification for God’s allowing evils
that seem to us so obviously
pointless, then for all we can tell there is some justification for God’s
allowing us to be deceived with regards to moral propositions that seem, in a
similar way, obviously true.
5:2:4 Modal Skepticism
fourth point also concerns the supposed indubitability of certain moral
propositions. Dougherty (2008, p174) claims that “what many people claim to
experience is that it seems to them that it is not the case that, possibly, there is a justification for
this evil” (my italics), but the skeptical theist might claim that such
intuitions are unreliable. Recall van Inwagen’s claim from §2:2:2 that “for all
we know our inclinations to make value-judgements are not veridical when they
are applied to cosmic matters unrelated
to the concerns of everyday life”. As well as advocating skepticism
about such value-judgement, van
Inwagen (1996b, p237) also advocates a form of modal skepticism, claiming that “[i]f the subject matter of p is remote from the concerns of
everyday life, then our ordinary powers of ‘modalization’ are not reliable
guides to the modal status of p”. Alston
(1996a, p120) likewise seems to endorse this point of view with the claim that
“[o]nce we move beyond conceptual or semantic modalities...it is notoriously
difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is...possible”.
Now this kind of modal skepticism implies in
effect that its seeming impossible
that certain evils have a justification is an unreliable guide to whether such
a thing is impossible. But then, by
parity of reasoning, it should imply that its seeming impossible that we be deceived about certain moral
propositions (i.e. that its seeming that certain moral propositions are so
obvious as to be logically indubitable) is not a reliable guide to whether such
a thing is impossible. Thus, inasmuch
as the skeptical theist finds van Inwagen’s and Alston’s modal skepticism
attractive, she should be skeptical about her own ability to maintain that
certain moral propositions are logically indubitable, and thus that God is not
allowing her to be deceived with respect to them.
The skeptical theist has a possible line of
response here. Against Gale’s (1996, p212) charge that he (van Inwagen) is a
“self-servingly selective modal skeptic”, van Inwagen (1996b, p238) argues that “[t]here is nothing at all
puzzling about knowing the modal status of a proposition without having applied
one’s powers of ‘modalization’ to it”. Thus, van Inwagen could perhaps argue
that he can know that certain moral propositions are logically indubitable, and he can know this on grounds independently of his holding the
relevant proposition before his mind and ‘modalizing’. Analogously:
I believe that it is possible for human
beings to know what the stars are made of because I know that they do know
this, and not because I have held the concept of a human being who knows what
the stars are made of before my mind and applied to it my powers of
‘modalization’. (van Inwagen 1996b, p238)
5:2:5 An Error Theory
brings us to the fifth point. In §4:2 I discussed Vogel’s response to BIV
skepticism, and noted how this line of response seems unavailable to (ST). I
argued there that someone who endorses (S) faces an explanatory burden that
someone who rejects it does not face – explaining why certain evils nonetheless
seem pointless. In a forthcoming paper, Bergmann attempts to carry this
explanatory burden. Just as Mackie provides an ‘error theory’ explaining why we
mistakenly think that there are objective moral facts, Bergmann provides an
error theory explaining “the temptation to think, of some particularly horrific
evil, that a perfectly loving God wouldn’t permit that” (p16). Whether or not such an argument succeeds was not
relevant to my argument in §4:2 – the point would remain that even if Bergmann does explain the strong appearance of
pointlessness for many people in certain instances of evil, he seems not to do
so in as simple and straightforward a
manner as does the denial of (S), which enables the claim that seemingly pointless evils really are pointless; Bergmann’s explanation
is, to use Vogel’s terminology, more “elaborate” and “extended”. (In a similar
way, even if the BIV skeptic does
somehow come up with some alternative explanation as to why things appear
spherical, it would not explain such a thing in as simple and straightforward a
way as the view that such things are
spherical – this is exactly Vogel’s point.) But Bergmann’s attempt to carry the
explanatory burden may well be relevant here. Here is what he says:
Sometimes, when we are exposed to a
vivid portrayal of some actual instance of horrific suffering E, we are tempted
to think that a perfectly loving God wouldn’t permit E. I think it is a mistake
to think that we can see that this is true or even likely. The reason we make
this mistake is, first, that we have only that evil, E, vividly before our
minds with no worse evil (seen to be avoidable only by permitting E) grasped in
any detail at all...Secondly, in grasping E vividly, we are already nearing the
limit of the amount of horror we are able to take in, which tempts us to think
that nothing could be more hateful than E is. But our inability to take in
greater horrors is not a good indication of how bad horrors can be. (pp19-20)
The relevant point now
is this: if the line of thought above does
successfully account for why certain evils that aren’t pointless
nonetheless seem pointless, then it also
undercuts any of the independent grounds van Inwagen, or anyone else, may take
himself to have for believing of certain substantive moral propositions that
they are logically indubitable. For consider some moral proposition that seems obviously true, for example:
The rape and killing of a five-year-old girl is wrong.
Bergmann’s line of
reasoning above could be paraphrased so as to account for any intuition one may
have that it is impossible that we be deceived about (P), as follows:
Sometimes, when we are exposed to some
apparently obvious moral proposition, for example (P), we are tempted to think
that we couldn’t be deceived about (P). I think it is a mistake to think that
we can see that this is true or even likely. The reason we make this mistake
is, first, that we have only that proposition, (P), vividly before our minds
with no worse evil (seen to be avoidable only by our being deceived about (P))
grasped in any detail at all. Secondly, in grasping (P) vividly, we are already
nearing the limit of the amount of horror we are able to take in, which tempts
us to think that no moral fact could be more obvious than (P) is. But our inability
to take in greater horrors is not a good indication of how bad horrors can be,
and, for all we can tell, there are horrors avoidable only by our being
deceived about (P).
argument shows, then, is that the same explanation for why certain evils seem so
obviously pointless can also explain any intuition the skeptical theist may
have to the effect that it is impossible that we be deceived about certain
5:2:6 Moral Paralysis and ‘Substantive’
Alston’s claim above regarding ‘semantic and conceptual modalities’. I have
been talking of ‘substantive’ moral propositions because there could perhaps be
some moral propositions, e.g. ‘bad things are bad’, or even ‘God is
morally perfect’, regarding which it is impossible that we be deceived.
It might even be claimed that (P), like ‘bad things are bad’, is an analytic truth – it is true simply by
virtue of the meaning of the word ‘rape’. If this is the case, then it might
indeed be impossible, despite what I have argued above, that we be deceived
The problem with pressing this (and this is
my sixth point) is that “skeptical theists, after all, are theists”, and
surely no theist would find it acceptable to hold that the only moral
propositions one is justified in believing are these types of moral
propositions. If moral propositions such as these were the only ones we are
justified in believing, then the unacceptable consequence of (MS) – that we are
in a state of paralysis when it comes to making moral decisions – would still
obtain. ‘Bad things are bad’, for example, doesn’t tell us specifically which actions are bad, and thus it
doesn’t tell us which actions to refrain from performing. ‘Rape is wrong’,
supposing such a claim is analytic,
would not tell us which actions count
as rape, and thus which actions are impermissible. ‘God is morally perfect’
might well seem action-guiding for us
inasmuch as it gives us reason to obey God’s commands, but this will only help
us if it is assumed that we are not being deceived as to what God’s commands
are, and it is this very assumption which, as I claimed in §4:1, we are not
But perhaps there are nonetheless substantive moral propositions regarding which we
could not be deceived. Let me thus outline and defuse some lingering
Consider once again my discussion of
infallibilism. Suppose p is a
substantive moral proposition. It might be argued that ‘it seems to me that p’ is thus itself a substantive moral proposition, about which we cannot be
Pressing this won’t enable the skeptical
theist to avoid moral paralysis, however. Recall my comparison in §2:2:2
between the Nazis and the ancient Assyrians. The Nazis, I suggested, in
contrast with the ancient Assyrians, weren’t justified in acting on what seemed
to them to be the case because the beliefs
based on such seemings were not justified relative to their epistemic position.
In a similar way, I claim, the inability of the skeptical theist justifiably to
believe not-(9) will always present a barrier to her justifiably believing that
p, and hence acting on its seeming to
her that p. Perhaps the following
analogy will be helpful: it seems to me that there is a book in front of me.
But my awareness that for all I can tell I am in a room full of extremely
convincing holograms means that for all I justifiably believe the thing I seem
to see is itself a hologram, and thus my decision to reach for it is not
“anything more than the equivalent of tossing a coin” (Almeida & Oppy 2003,
But now consider principle (C). I described
this as a ‘conceptual claim’ – we can recognise its truth simply by reflecting
on the concepts involved. So, qua conceptual
claim, (C) itself may well be a truth
regarding which it is impossible that we be deceived. And (C), in conjunction
with its seeming to me that p,
implies that God allows things to
seem to me this way, which might seem to imply that it is permissible for me to
act on the basis of things seeming this way.
However, given an inability justifiably to
believe not-(9) I am not entitled to this last inference (just as I am not
entitled to the inference to the conclusion (iv) in Bergmann and Rea’s argument
in §2:2:2 – for all I can tell I am being deceived with regard to its following
from the premises). Furthermore, consideration of the Nazis, and the fact that
God allowed them to believe what they
believed, shows that this line of reasoning is obviously unacceptable anyway.
With my point at the very beginning of this
section in mind, consider next the belief that ‘at least one of my substantive
moral beliefs is false’. Howard-Snyder’s ‘progress’ argument in §1:2 seems to
support such a belief, and it might be argued that it is required by the
rejection of moral infallibilism above. Given this, however, we may well have a
further substantive moral belief
regarding which we could not be deceived.
The problem with pressing this objection,
though, is once again that ‘at least one of my substantive moral beliefs is
false’ is obviously unhelpful in enabling me to decide what to do in any given
Finally, I allowed above that our own existence may be something
regarding which it is impossible that we be deceived. Combining (C) with the
fact of our own existence yields the entailment that God allows us to exist,
from which a substantive moral proposition seems in turn to follow – that our own
existence is not all-things-considered too evil for God to allow.
But the problem here is that the moral
proposition in question concerns merely what God does, not what we should
do, and we might come back once again to the fact that there are “differences...between
a perfect being and a human being in virtue of their disparate roles.” So (yet
again) the suggestion will not enable moral paralysis to be avoided.
Given all this, the inability to justifiably
believe not-(9) means that (ST) leads, if not to (MS), then to the equally
(MS*) No human being is ever rationally justified in
believing any (substantive, action guiding) moral proposition.
Given that the
conclusion that (ST) leads to a more pervasive moral skepticism than will be acceptable
to any theist can be reached either way, I do not think it behooves the
skeptical theist to press the second objection.
5:3 Third Objection and Response
we have replaced (8) with (9). One could now object that my considerations in
favour of the possibility of divine deception in §3:2 and §3:3 were nonetheless
limited to localized, isolated instances of deception. Thus it
might be argued that such considerations say nothing in support of the
possibility of widespread deception.
This objection also gains weight given the shift from God’s being deceptive to
God’s allowing deception to occur. God’s omnipotence
might seem to lend weight to the possibility of widespread deception, but in
the case of (9) it is not God who is
doing the deceiving.
One might argue in response to this latter
point that scripture in fact presents deceptive influences as extremely
powerful. For example, whether or not it originated from God, the ‘delusion’
referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2: 11 is described as “strong”. Furthermore,
Matthew 24: 24 talks of “great signs and wonders” by which people are deceived,
and Revelations 12: 9 goes so far as to talk of an evil spirit deceiving “the
One might also respond that the same sorts
of considerations that led us to the view that, from our human perspective, instances of deception can be justified
also support the view that allowing widespread
deception can be justified. Going back once again to the parent analogy: to
the extent that a parent would allow her child to undergo widespread deception
rather than having her obliterated, or suffer excruciating and unrelenting
pain; to the extent that we would see such a parent as justified in doing so,
and to the extent that the parent analogy is a pertinent one in the first
place, then our epistemic position is such that allowing widespread deception is
But it must be admitted that intuitions here
are unlikely to be clear. What I shall thus argue is that, even considering merely
localized, isolated instances of deception (and not widespread deception) we
can still reach the relevant
conclusion. In order to bypass the third objection let us thus consider the
(10) For any
proposition x such that it is
logically possible to be deceived with regard to x, no human being who believes x
is ever justified in believing that God is not allowing him to be deceived with
regard to x.
In order that (10)
doesn’t simply entail an inability justifiably to believe not-(9), one should
perhaps add the qualification ‘except where x
is the proposition that God does not allow widespread deception’.
Given this, (10) allows that each possible instance of deception be an
isolated, localized occurrence, an exception rather than the rule.
In §3:4 I mentioned, and briefly tackled,
the objection to (4) according to which some individual people may have
contradictory beliefs. The shift to (10) enables a further response to this
objection, for (10) is not true by dint of the fact that, for all I can tell, I
am being deceived with regard to everything
I believe, but by dint of the fact that, for each thing I believe (such that it is logically possible that I be
deceived with regard to it), for all I can tell I am being deceived with regard
to it. Thus, given (10), for all I justifiably believe I am being deceived with
regard to p, and for all I
justifiably believe I am being deceived with regard to not-p; it is not that, for all I justifiably believe, I am being
deceived with regard to both of these
things. Analogously: I have not looked out of the window, so for all I can tell
the car parked in the single space outside the house across the street is a
Honda. Yet again, for all I can tell, it is not a Honda. But it is not the case
that, for all I can tell, it is both a Honda and not a Honda.
Now according to (10), as with (9), it is of
course not God who is engaging in the deceptive activity. Thus, it might be
argued that were there some criteria
available by which to tell apart truth from “the Devil’s lying wonders”
– and repeated injunctions in scripture not to be ‘taken in’ by false signs and
despite their power, would seem to imply that such criteria are available – then one might
justifiably believe that (10) is false.
But recall my claim at the beginning of §4:1 regarding the difficulty of
identifying God’s commands: since “the God of scripture sometimes issues orders
that common sense would make one think could only come from a malevolent being”
(Beaudoin 2007, p121), what criteria could be available by which to tell apart God’s
work from that of deceptive demons? If that which is in fact true can, for
reasons beyond our ken, be made to appear devilish, then that which is in fact
devilish can surely, again for reasons beyond our ken, be made to appear true
(especially given the power which, as we have seen, scripture grants to
deceptive demons). Thus, what ultimately lends weight (10) is, once again, that
skeptical theists endorse (S), and (S) ensures both that, for any proposition I believe (such that it is logically
possible for me to be deceived with regard to it), for all I can tell there are
reasons for the demons to deceive me into believing it, and that for all I can tell there are outweighing goods/evils the
obtaining/preventing of which justifies God in allowing me to be deceived with
regard to it.
And this indeed applies to any such proposition. Bergmann
(forthcoming, pp2-3) makes the claim that his brand of skeptical theism is
consistent with the view that “it is clear that we know many of the most obvious things we take ourselves to
know ” and that “we also know (if we consider the question) that we are not in
some skeptical scenario in which we are radically deceived in these beliefs” (my
italics). But assuming that Bergmann is not talking here about infallible or
logically indubitable beliefs, there seems to be an uncomfortable juxtaposition
between his claim and the skeptical theist’s response to the evidential
argument from evil. Bruce Russell (1996, p197) thus writes, with respect to the
skeptical hypothesis that the universe was created 100 years ago:
[I]f it is not reasonable to believe
that God deceived us [or allowed us to be deceived], for some reason beyond our
ken, when he created the universe, it
is not reasonable to believe that there is some reason beyond our ken which, if
God exists, would justify him in allowing all the suffering we see. (my
p9) also notes, in a reply to Bergmann, that the juxtaposition of Bergmann’s
claims with skeptical theism
...is hard to take. We are to suppose
that God has an all-things-considered good reason for [allowing inscrutable
evils], but not for making it seem like we have handswhen we don’t. You’d think the latter would be trivial in
comparison with the former...We can know, if God existed, that God wouldn’t permit hand-deception, but we can’t
know, if He existed, that He wouldn’t permit the Holocaust. This is a
consequence of Bergmann’s view. It is a cost to have to say such a thing. (my
(2002, p232) notes that it seems more
plausible to interpret a perfectly-loving God as Himself deceptive than it
would be to interpret Him as sincere in His promises that certain horrific
evils will befall humanity.
At any rate, let us consider Russell’s and Dougherty’s quotations. I submit
that any proposition we believe (and
with regard to which it is logically possible that we be deceived) is such that
it could take the place of the italicized phrases, and the quotations would
retain their ring of plausibility. “But why on earth should God allow me to be
deceived specifically into believing, for example, that I have hands when I
don’t, or that llamas live in South America when they don’t, or even that the
Holocaust happened when it didn’t, that Rowe’s fawn is in pain when it isn’t,
or that the rape and killing of a five-year old girl is wrong when isn’t?” I
have no idea. But nor do I have any idea why God permits inscrutable evils. And
if my having no idea the reason why God permits inscrutable evils doesn’t
enable me justifiably to believe that there are
no reasons, then my having no idea, for any
proposition I believe (and with regard to which it is logically possible that I
be deceived), why God should allow me to be deceived with regard to it,
will not render me justified in believing that God has no such reasons, especially
given what my epistemic position tells me – that allowing instances of
deception can be justified. In other words, if (S) blocks the inference from
inscrutable evils to (1), then it renders (10) true.
(10) is true and we accept the following:
(11) If, for any proposition x such that
it is logically possible to be deceived with
regard to x, no human being who believes x is ever
justified in believing that God is not allowing him to be deceived with regard
to x, then, for any proposition x such that it is logically
possible to be deceived with regard to x, no human being is ever
justified in believing x.
then we can derive
(12)No human being
is ever justified in believing any proposition such that it is logically possible to be deceived with
regard to that proposition. (from 10 &
from which it follows,
given my argument in §5:2 above, that
(MS*) No human being is ever rationally justified in
believing any (substantive, action guiding) moral proposition. (from 12)
Now the problems
discussed in the previous chapter regarding any skeptical theistic attempt to
utilize common responses to BIV skepticism seem likewise applicable to the
argument I have constructed so as to bypass the third objection. The skeptical
theist won’t be able to object to (10) on Vogel’s grounds that an inference to
the best explanation justifies ruling out skeptical hypotheses, for reasons identical
to those adumbrated in §4:2. Likewise, the skeptical theist can’t argue, as in
(A), that (12) is false and thus, given (11), that (10) is false, for reasons
identical to those given in the §4:4 (and bolstered in §5:1 above). Nor can the
skeptical theist argue, as in (B), that (11) is false, and thus that the
inference from (10) to (12), and hence to (MS*), does not go through, and this
for the same reasons discussed in §4:5 (and again bolstered in §5:1 above).
Thus, I contend that my argument can be constructed so as to avoid the
objections discussed in this chapter, and such that my original conclusion,
that the initially promising responses discussed in §2:2 will not enable the
skeptical theist to avoid an unacceptable moral skepticism, can be reached.
Loose Ends and Concluding Remarks
I hope to have provided
a persuasive case that skeptical theism leads, via considerations of deception,
to an unacceptable moral skepticism. Of course, in the spirit of the very
humility that helped motivate the skeptical theist position in the first place,
I do not claim that my case is anything approaching decisive. In this closing
chapter I shall indicate three areas in which I think problems/issues may
arise, and say something as to why I think my argument is equipped to handle
them. Considerations of space dictate
that this undertaking remain extremely cursory. There is, however, “a place and
a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work,
containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems”
(Nozick 1974, pxii). I am therefore content in large part to leave these
problems/issues as potential areas for future research.
6:1 Loose Ends
6:1:1 Accounts of Justification:
Between Scylla and Charybdis?
I have talked throughout this thesis about justified belief, but I have left this
largely as a primitive notion. This leaves open the possibility that some
accounts of justification may escape my argument.
I doubt this will create problems, since an
account of justification must be found which both escapes my argument and
renders belief in pointless evil unjustified, and I conjecture that this cannot
be done. By way of illustrating this, consider once again the coherentist
account of justification mentioned in §3:4, which one might well think was
dismissed far too easily there. This seems to be just one example of an account
of justification which, if it rules out justified belief in pointless evil, is also ineffective against my argument.
For a belief-system to be coherent, “the components must be reasonable in the
light of one another” (Elgin 2005, p158). It might thus be argued that a belief
in (cosmically) pointless evil does not cohere well with a belief in (S), in
which case the belief in such pointless evil is not justified. However, a set
of beliefs which includes (S) will likewise
seem not to cohere well with, and thus to rule out justified belief in, the
view that we are not being deceived (with regard to any proposition such that
it is logically possible that we be deceived), especially since (allowing) deception seems, given both scripture
and our epistemic position, itself often to be justified. To deny parity here
would seem to land us with precisely the sort of uneasy juxtaposition
highlighted by Russell and Dougherty at the end of §5:3.
Consider furthermore Bergmann’s (2006, p135)
own ‘externalist’ brand of justification, according to which S’s belief that p is justified just in case:
(i)S does not take p to be defeated; and
(ii)The cognitive faculties producing p are functioning properly, truth-aimed
The problem here is
twofold. On the one hand, (i) should not be satisfied for any belief if S is a skeptical theist. On the other hand, if (ii)
enables a response to Cartesian skepticism generally, as Bergmann (2006,
pp213-241) thinks it does, then it also enables justified belief in pointless
evil: in both cases it could be true
that the relevant beliefs meet the requirements laid down therein, despite the
fact that in neither case need we, or
even can we, have ‘higher-level’ awareness that this is so. Thus we have what
seems to me a fundamental tension at the heart of Bergmann’s general
I should also note that I have not had space
to discuss the view that justification comes in degrees.
For this thought to be of use to the skeptical theist, she must argue that a
belief in pointless evil has a lower
degree of justification than do many other beliefs. Perhaps, recalling my
discussion in §4:4:1, she will say that beliefs in pointless evil have prima
facie justification only, whereas other beliefs have all-things-considered
justification. But the fact that my reasons for denying justification to these
other beliefs were based ultimately on (S), which would presumably be the same reason for imputing to beliefs in
pointless evil a low degree of justification, it is hard to see how the
skeptical theist can make this point.
Perhaps there are other accounts of
justification for which these patterns of argument are ineffective. I leave it
as a challenge to the skeptical theist to unearth them.
6:1:2 Skepticism and Contextualism
My point in §4:3, that there are various responses to BIV
skepticism that I have not had space to discuss, leaves open the possibility
that there may be a response to BIV skepticism that would also avail the
skeptical theist with a response to my argument, even though the responses I
have discussed do not. Conspicuous by its absence is perhaps the contextualist response. Contextualist
responses to BIV skepticism are usually concerned with knowledge, holding that the propositions expressed by sentences
such as ‘S knows that p’ vary according to the context in
which they are uttered. Applying this to the BIV hypothesis yields (very
roughly) the view that in skeptical contexts – contexts in which skeptical
scenarios are salient – knowledge-attributing sentences express false
propositions, otherwise they can express true ones.
I am of course concerned here instead with justification;
the contextualist response would thus hold that whether a belief is justified
(strictly: whether ‘S is justified in believing that p’ is true) varies according to context,
with a belief being justified – i.e. with (12) being false – in contexts in
which skeptical scenarios are not salient.
I do not have space to discuss this proposal
in any detail, but I think that what I have said so far provides strong grounds
for doubting that it will work as a response to my argument. The first issue
concerns delineating ‘context’. If by context we mean simply epistemic position, then the
contextualist proposal has not been absent from my discussion at all. If we
don’t mean this but something else, it is not clear what. I leave it as a
challenge to the contextualist skeptical theist, if such there be, to provide
Another question arises for any
contextualist: when do skeptical possibilities become ‘salient’? I submit that
on any plausible conception of salience the skeptical scenario articulated in
(10) will be salient to the skeptical
theist, if not qua skeptic then
at least qua theist; this was just my
point in §5:1 regarding the frequency with which God allows deception in
scripture, and the alleged power of the said deceptions. It should also be
salient to anyone ascribing justified
belief to the skeptical theist, since typically on contextualist proposals what
is salient to the subject will usually be salient to the ascriber.
Thus, when I in this thesis talk of the skeptical theist, her “standard theistic background assumptions” will be salient to me in my decision whether or not to
ascribe justified belief.
But it may be insisted that there are cases
in which the skeptical scenario articulated in (10) is clearly not salient, even where the skeptical
theist is concerned. The skeptical theist, after all, is in most respects an
ordinary human being, and when standing in line and forming the belief that the
queue is long, she may well not have God, scripture, or anything ‘moral’ before
her mind at all. Similarly, when I ascribe justified belief to her, I may view
her simply as a woman in the queue in
front of me, rather than as a skeptical
theist. Thus, contextualism may allow her to have justified beliefs in such
I have two reservations with this proposal.
Firstly, the proposal may well underestimate the extent to which her theism
permeates the life of a typical theist. For example, in a recent BBC
documentary, Ann Widdecombe (2011) spoke of “a faith that informs everything I do”. Secondly, and more
importantly, my concern here has been with moral
skepticism, and in any moral
context the skeptical theist’s theism, as well as her epistemic position with
respect to morality, is likely to be salient to her (and thus to me in
ascribing or withholding justification). This was just what I tried to show in
§2:2:1 and §2:2:2.
The contextualist response, to the extent
that it differs from the responses I have already considered, therefore does
not seem promising. Of course, there may be still other responses that are. Perhaps the shift from global to local
skepticism in §5:3 in fact masks hidden difficulties potentially exploitable by
the skeptical theist. These issues will have to await future research.
6:1:3 Skepticism and Paralysis
(2005, p51) notes that “[s]keptical theists might hold widely divergent views
about the nature of moral decision-making”. The link between moral skepticism
and moral paralysis could thus perhaps be further explored. I have taken it
that the former leads to the latter, but if this is not true then perhaps my
argument in this thesis need be of no great concern to the skeptical theist.
I’ll restrict myself to the following
Firstly, Sinnott-Armstrong (2006, p14) in
particular writes that “it is not at all clear that moral skepticism has bad
consequences overall”, and this in part because some beliefs are good for us to hold, even if they are
not justified (p196). But if (MS*) is true then of course Sinnott-Armstrong is
not entitled to this latter claim.
Secondly, even if (MS*) does not lead to
paralysis, perhaps because, as Hume (1975, p160) famously thought, “[n]ature is
always too strong for principle”, I submit that it would be problematic anyway,
since there would be nothing that “backs up and validates” (Mackie 1977, p22)
our own or anyone else’s decisions to perform certain actions. (MS*) thus
deprives us of the ability justifiably to criticise those who perform actions
with which we do not agree.
Thirdly, let me simply borrow from a
forthcoming paper by Scott Aikin and Brian Ribeiro:
[B]y accepting the skeptical theist’s
claims about the limitations on our knowledge of value...we seem to be faced
with moral paralysis in everyday life.
Nor is this connection between avowed moral ignorance and moral
paralysis new. It constituted one of the
ancient objections to both Academic and Pyrrhonian skepticism. The apraxia (or inaction) objection
held that the (Academic or Pyrrhonian) skeptic will not be able to determine
how to respond to moral choices in life. Of course, the ancient skeptics
deployed various responses to the apraxia objection, but those responses
offer no comfort at all to the skeptical theist, since the ancient skeptics
were happy to concede our inability to make any reasoned and justified
response, while only insisting that the skeptic can nonetheless act
(and hence is not actually paralyzed with apraxia). The problem is that the skeptical theist –
unlike an ancient skeptic – presumably wants to act self-consciously as a moral
agent and in a morally reasonable way. Can the skeptical theist do
so, given her axiological skepticism? (p6)
The skeptical theist is
of course free to pursue this matter. Once again, I leave it as an area for future
6:2 Concluding Remarks
So where does all this leave us? I suggest that my
arguments in this thesis have uncovered something of a puzzle:
(a) Given (T), (S) is highly plausible.
(b) (MS*) is unacceptable; yet
(c) (ST) leads to (MS*).
How should we deal with
this predicament? I want, very tentatively, to offer a suggestion: we should
abandon theism, and its scriptural accoutrements. Doing so will enable us to
avoid (S), and thus the primary basis from which (MS*) followed. But even were one
to insist that (S) is plausible in the absence
of theism, the abandonment of theism would mean that there would be no God (and
most likely none of the deceptive demons mentioned in scripture) with the power
to act on unknown moral reasons for deceiving us with regard to the moral
matters that seem to us so obviously
true. Such appearances would thus be allowed to stand. I suggest, then, that in
this thesis I have presented not only a critique of skeptical theism, but also
something like a new kind of moral
argument against theism, an argument which, given the loose ends mentioned
in this chapter, I hope to develop in the future.
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See Trakakis (2007) for a thorough discussion of Rowe’s updated versions. As
Bergmann (2001) and Wysktra (2009) note, the skeptical theist’s response is
equally applicable to the updated versions, so I focus here on the original,
See Maitzen (2007), Seigal (forthcoming) and Aikin & Ribeiro (forthcoming)
for related issues.
For a thorough discussion of skepticism in its contemporary guise, see DeRose
& Warfield (1999). Many discussions of skepticism focus on knowledge. I am of course concerned here
Andrew Graham and Stephen Maitzen argue that the sensitivity account and the
CORNEA principle fail for the same reason – both entail “intolerable violations
of closure” (Graham & Maitzen 2007, p83).
This claim forms Bergmann’s response to the objection by Swinburne discussed in
See, for example, Lewis (1999, p227 & p233). Even if the claim is incorrect,
the skeptical theist will not be able truly to self-ascribe justified belief, the implications of which are
gestured at in Aikin and Ribeiro’s quotation below.