CPBD 036: Scott Sehon – The Problem with “God is Mysterious”

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 21, 2010 in Podcast

cpbd036

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Scott Sehon about the “God is mysterious” response to the Problem of Evil. (This is called ‘Skeptical Theism.’)

scott sehonDownload CPBD episode 036 with Scott Sehon. Total time is 36:15.

Scott Sehon links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Pulliam April 21, 2010 at 8:42 am

Luke,

this is excellent. Scott’s paper perfectly demonstrates the point that I was attempting to make relative to the claim of some that God’s justice in the PST is beyond our understanding, i.e., a mystery.

In “The Problem of Evil: Skeptical Theism Leads to Moral Paralysis,” Sehon writes:

But if God is a genuine moral agent, then we need to ask why his actions are outside the scope of common sense morality. It cannot simply be that different moral standards apply to God, for to say that would be to equivocate on our use of moral terms. If the goodness of God is to be judged by different, and unknown, standards, then the word “good” no longer has its ordinary meaning when applied to God, and theists should stop using it.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 21, 2010 at 8:47 am

How timely. :)

  (Quote)

Ken Pulliam April 21, 2010 at 8:50 am

Luke,

If this were not an atheist site, I would say it was “providential” :)

  (Quote)

Rob April 21, 2010 at 9:10 am

Thanks Luke, another good one.

  (Quote)

Ken Pulliam April 21, 2010 at 9:19 am

I also liked what he said about the status of the current debate over the existence of god(s). I think he is right in his criticisms of both sides.

  (Quote)

Lee A.P. April 21, 2010 at 10:21 am

I haven’t listened yet and I am far from a professional “philosophizer” but I always felt that if morality was simply based on Gods whims then we have no reason to trust him at all. He could simply decide to change his mind and give atheists heavenly rewards and to torture Christians.

It seems that, according to the Bible there are different standards of morality for God. Since he is all powerful, why couldn’t he accomplish his goals without breaking moral rules that he set for his creation? At the very least this would set the best example.

The “mysterious” excuse is the same as “magic”. God is always magically correct even if it seems he is not because of reasons we can’t possible understand. This is an all encompassing excuse that could be used for any action God takes. Maybe Satan is the true God, but since he is so mysterious, we could never understand how just his actions really are.

If we saw God himself never breaking any of his imposed rules in the Bible, would that not be much more impressive than a God who does break his own rules? Instead, what we have is a God that says “thou shalt not kill, except when I tell you to. Now go kill that tribe over there and keep their virgins as spoils.”

  (Quote)

othertom April 21, 2010 at 11:41 am

(Speaking of timeliness) This is off-topic, but since the other thread is no longer on the first page, I’ll post here.

There’s a new Bloggingheads discussion on the topic of whether practicing celibacy is causally relevant to pedophilia:
http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/27573

I won’t have time to watch until this evening, so I don’t know yet if they deal directly with the material alluded to in the other thread (specifically, the issue of empirical data). At a first glance, both participants seem reasonable and worth hearing, and to be favorably disposed to abstinence and opposed to the notion that it causes pedophilia.

(Going by othertom now; since I posted a few days ago I’ve noticed a different poster using Tom, as well as a Thomas.)

  (Quote)

Chris K April 21, 2010 at 11:58 am

As a theist, I am sympathetic to the motivations for skeptical theism as it stands in the larger tradition of negative theology. However, the large problem from a theological point of view is that it tends to deny revelation, specifically the revelation given in Jesus Christ, any ability to give us true knowledge of God.

Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy is often used to appeal to the idea that when we predicate words like goodness to God, they are analogically related to the way we use them of humans. There is here a debate as to how loose or tight Aquinas held this analogical relation to be – but the point is that he claims there is an overlap between our predications of God and humanity, not an identity. So his analogy is something like A is to B as C is to D.

For those who still think this leads us to inconclusive meanings of God-predication, John Duns Scotus proposed his theory of univocity in which terms such as goodness are literally applied to both God and people, while retaining a the distinction of finite bearers and an infinite bearer. So his analogy is something like A is to B as B is to C.

Either of these two versions of analogy enable the theist to be skeptical about having full knowledge of God while also thinking that we do have good reasons to act morally.

  (Quote)

Mark April 21, 2010 at 9:48 pm

No faith journey stories lately?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 22, 2010 at 12:15 am

I don’t know why, but sometimes I feel it will be interesting and other times I dive right into the topic with a guest.

  (Quote)

Roman April 22, 2010 at 9:44 am

There’s something about the sceptical theist approach that I don’t understand.

How can they go from saying:

1) If God had a reason for allowing the kinds of evil that exist, we wouldn’t know that reason.

To concluding

2) Therefore, God has a reason for allowing the kinds of evil that exist.

Surely it instead follows that:

3) Therefore, we don’t know whether God has or doesn’t have a reason for allowing the kinds of evil that exist.

In summary, I don’t understand how after saying ‘God is mysterious’ you can say ‘He has a reason that I don’t know about’.

Instead I think you should say, ‘Oh man, if God is mysterious, then I have no way of knowing whether or not he has a reason for allowing evil! Maybe he does, but then again, maybe he doesn’t, I have no way of telling!’

  (Quote)

Roman April 22, 2010 at 9:46 am

Oh yeah, by the way thanks Luke and Scott Sehon, a very interesting podcast!

  (Quote)

Chris K April 22, 2010 at 10:08 am

Roman,

The skeptical theist would probably reply that she has independent reasons for thinking that God is good, namely, that a perfect being is necessarily good. Perhaps there are other reasons. Therefore, something like (2) does seem to follow, given the definition of God necessarily including goodness.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 22, 2010 at 10:14 am

Chris,

But do we have reasons to think God is necessarily good or a perfect being? I can’t just define God’s properties into reality.

  (Quote)

Roman April 22, 2010 at 10:35 am

Hi Chris K,

Thank you for your response.

I think you are right that if God is necessarily good and he exists, then he has reasons for allowing the kinds of evil that we see.

However, a more interesting question is, does a necessarily good being exist?

One reason to think that perhaps a necessarily good being doesn’t exist is the evidential problem of evil.

One response to the problem of evil is that of sceptical theism.

But here’s what seems to be a problem with sceptical theism. It can only conclude that maybe there is a reason for a necessarily good being to allow the kinds of evil that exist or that maybe there isn’t a reason for a necessarily good being to allow the kinds of evil that exist. We don’t know.

In other words, maybe the evil in the world is evidence against God, or maybe it isn’t, we just don’t know.

What the sceptical theist cannot say is that God has a reason because he is good. That begs the question of whether God exists (if God is defined as being good).

I hope that makes sense, I find this to be a very confusing topic and I may well be wrong!

  (Quote)

Chris K April 22, 2010 at 10:50 am

Right, so we have the problem of the ontological argument, which I honestly don’t think quite works for us. So this is where it seems like an appeal to revelation would be needed. I don’t know how skeptical theists handle revelation, but it seems like if they’re just flatly saying, “God is mysterious,” they don’t give it a strong ability to enable us to have true knowledge of God. So this is why I would reject ST, for theological reasons. Then again, I might be misrepresenting them.

I would go the route of saying that revelation does give us reason to think that God is good in general, but it still leaves room for us to say that we don’t have the ability to sort out all the reasons for why God seems to allow suffering. Maybe something like Nick Trakakis’ questioning God’s relation to the world could be helpful here.

  (Quote)

Chris K April 22, 2010 at 10:59 am

Roman,

Other arguments, such as the ones from design, religious experience, cosmology, and consciousness can give a person reason to believe in God. The problem is that they don’t necessarily get us to a good God. I think revelation is needed for that. Again there is the argument from moral experience that could maybe get us a good God, if we buy into that sort of thing.

  (Quote)

Roman April 22, 2010 at 11:38 am

Hi Chris K,

Thanks for your answer!

I have to think about all this a lot more. Like it was mentioned in the podcast, it’s not clear whether there can be a principled way of saying that 1) we know that God intended us to know that he is good through revelation and through moral experience but 2) we don’t know what God intended in allowing various kinds of evil.

Why can we know 1) but not 2)? I don’t know, maybe there is an answer.

  (Quote)

ayer April 22, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Chris,But do we have reasons to think God is necessarily good or a perfect being? I can’t just define God’s properties into reality.  

That would be the point of the moral argument and the ontological argument.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 22, 2010 at 2:43 pm

ayer,

Is that it? So all those Christian philosophers who don’t see any merit to the ontological argument and the moral argument have no reasons to think God is good?

  (Quote)

ayer April 22, 2010 at 5:07 pm

ayer,Is that it? So all those Christian philosophers who don’t see any merit to the ontological argument and the moral argument have no reasons to think God is good?  

Not necessarily; perhaps they have some other argument, or base their knowledge on a Plantingan/Craig internal witness model. Those are just two reasons that came to my mind.

  (Quote)

Stig April 22, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I don’t understand the idea that a question like “What would God do?” should influence our choices in moral dilemmas. A necessarily good God commands people (through scripture or moral intuitions, maybe) on which actions are good and evil, but it doesn’t follow that we should copy or even try to evaluate God’s own actions. Many of Gods actions in the Bible would obviously be evil if attempted by a human, even if when performed by God they are ultimately for some mysterious greater good.

However, “What would Jesus do” is a subtly different question. Jesus as God incarnate and fully human is supposed to have been a moral teacher and an example for his disciples. So Jesus’ teachings and actions (save the supernatural ones) CAN reasonably be taken as moral guidelines. And at least according to Luke and Paul, grace through Jesus’ atonemnt and resurrection replaces the jewish Law, so the most obviously immoral commands in the old testament can be happily ignored.

As an atheist I would be happy for this argument against skeptical theism to work. It just appears too easy for christians in particular to dismiss. Now, what am I missing?

  (Quote)

Chris K April 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Roman,

These are good questions, and ones I’m grappling with as well. One way to say that we know (1) and not (2) is to point out where Jesus says that no one is good except God alone in Luke 18:19, and also point out the narrative of Job, where Job isn’t given the reason for his suffering.

  (Quote)

Chris K April 23, 2010 at 5:22 am

By the way, I do think some forms of the moral argument are probably right, but I’m not sure that they’re presently decisive, as there doesn’t seem to be a good way to adjudicate between competing moral theories.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Thanks Luke for another great interview. However, for me, this was another ‘maddening’ interview – not because it challenged me, but because it seemed so obvious the things that were being overlooked, and the logical fallacies being used.

[rant ON]
If this is the best that atheists can do to undermine theism, I am resting at ease. Either I am brilliant and need to enter the field of Philosophy, or not every PhD from Princeton is brilliant. OK, enough with the ad hominems.
[rant OFF]

1. Bifurcating and Misrepresenting Skeptical Theism

It seems that your guest (and you) make two errors in representing the options, and the approach that theists and skeptical theists take.

First, you seem to want to bifurcate this issue – either we should affirm that we can know ALL that God intends and commands, or we should affirm that we can know NOTHING.

Further, you both repeat that you can think of no proper justification for taking a hyrbrid view – that is, no logical reason why or how we could decide which things to understand and which to not.

So here’s my seemingly obvious solution.

a. Man is finite, therefore his abilities are finite, that is, he can NOT be omniscient, even in the accumulation of knowedge.

b. Therefore, there WILL be some things outside of his understanding with respect to an infinite God.

Your ALL or NOTHING caricature does not necessarily follow from the two claims above. What follows is that we can understand SOME but not all.

That leads to the very good quesion, “what quality of things might be beyond our grasp due to our finiteness?”

2. The bible only appeals to the ‘mystery of God’ under two types of conditions

I would argue that the Bible only makes the appeal to our finiteness and God’s mystery for two subjects, while on all other subjects, it expects that we *can* use our reason and other faculties to understand (even if our reason needs guidance with revealed truth).

Certain ‘truths’ may not be reached empirically (like what happens after we die), and others may be missed based on our fallenness, but God expects that we can understand if we are told, and recognize the truth using our reason AND intuition.

The two subject to which the Bible ‘retreats’ (from our limited intellect) to the appeal to mystery are:

a. The problem of suffering and God’s justness
b. Predestination and free will (Sovereignty)

I’m not sure why these two might be singled out, but I think it’s reasonable that it is ‘limited’ to these two subjects.

Limiting this appeal to these subjects, while leaving the vast range of other things to our understanding, seems perfectly reasonable to me as one model of knowing MUCH but not ALL (based on our finite/infinite model of man/God).

3. Overstating skeptical theism

I don’t think that skeptical theists, or at least my flavor, appeal to mystery as to God’s motives in all things, just in the two mentioned above.

This bad assumption of yours leads to your conclusion that ST’s must now have moral paralysis. But since I have undermined your assumption that it is all or nothing, moral paralysis is no longer a conclusion of skeptical theism.

4. Confusing why and what

Another reason why your guest is mistaken about thinking that skeptical theism leads to moral paralysis is because, although we don’t always know WHY God does what he does, we DO know, through scriptural principle and direct command, WHAT he wants us to do.

He clearly states ‘love thy neighbor’ and ‘thou shall not kill’ and ‘rescue the orphan and widow.’ Your assumption that we should ‘emulate God’ in his ‘inaction’ is based on your bad assumption that somehow we are supposed to look at God’s interaction in creation and mimic it.

Not only is that guess not sriptural, and does not follow from Scripture, it flies in the face of WHAT God has commanded through scripture.

So I think your contentions about the problems with skeptical theism are straw men based on these two bad assumptions.

5. It all works out for good justifying rape

This is again another profound misunderstanding of the ‘greater good’ argument, and how that applies to defining morality.

It is not that God not intervening in a rape means that the rape must be good or intended (as your guest says that an ST must affirm), but rather, it misunderstands God’s role in guiding events (sovereignty), and it also continues with the mistaken idea that we are to determine our morals from observing God’s actions or inactions in the current world.

With regard to God not intervening, I would say:

a. God does not override the will of man

b. God expects US to manage ourselves resonsibly rather than be told exactly what to do and being forced to do it.

c. While he is able to work all things for our good (IF we believe and are fitting into his plans Romans 8:28), this means that he leverages the EVIL done into something good. The original act is not GOOD, it is considered EVIL.

d. An anti-theist might interpret the combination of God’s ‘inaction’ and the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as contradictory, but logically, I don’t think that they are, and I think Plantinga’s argument against the problem of evil fits well here. It does not necessarily follow that these are in contradiction.

And again, God’s sovereignty (which I would link with predestination above) and suffering are the ONLY two items which the bible appeals to mystery on, and I see no reason to call that unreasonable per se.

6. Theodicy v. skeptial theism

False dichotomy.

7. Eliminating all suffering

Here is another case where your guest has oversimplified with a superlative rather than applying scriptural principle. Common wisdom knows the difference between
- temporary suffering that consequentially leads to a superior outcome
- suffering that leads to only negative or unknown outcomes

While the latter can lead to good ends through faith, hope, and perseverance, it is still a case of good being forged out of evil. Since this ‘good out of evil’ outcome is not always true (since not all have faith), we ought to intervene.

The apostle Paul plays out this ‘devil’s advocate’ position in Romans 3:7-8:

For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? 8 And why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come”? as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just.

8. Moral intution and ST

I’ll move past the ongoing false dichotomy of the all or nothing view of ST and the now moot problems that would create, and say this.

a. The atheist understanding of what the Bible teaches about intution and conscience is severly underdeveloped.

I see this every time atheists try to address these more subjective means of knowing. I am still working on my article on the Biblical view of the spirit, a.k.a. the functions of intuition, conscience, and communion, but it is long and I want to do a good job.

But to summarize in answer to your guest’s assertions:

i. The baseline conscience we are given is not meant as an infallible guide, but in fact, must be properly educated in order to reflect what is objectively good/bad.

ii. The reason we have scripture is in order to educate the conscience, and develop our moral awareness, character, and conscience properly.

iii. The reason scripture mentions our baseline conscience is to explain that we are without excuse when it comes to sensing the larger rights and wrongs, as well as the existence of God (Romans 1).

iv. Biblically speaking, intuition is not the same as conscience. Intution is more for non-moral choices (whom should I marry), but it could be seen as working in concert with the other two faculties of the spirit (communion and conscience) to determine if certain moral or spiritual claims are TRUE.

b. The ST can affirm both our lack of ability to know ALL things and our ability and responsibililty to use our intellects and intuition to make moral choices.

It is only when you take the false dichotomy straw man your guest presented that such a reasonable position becomes illogical.

9. An infinte God leads to ultimate mysticism

I don’t think that this conclusion necessarily follows. The bible balances the paradox here by saying:

- In all your getting, get wisdom and understanding
- Lean NOT on your understanding

A simplistic reading of these would see them as incompatible. But great wisdom is hidden under such paradoxes. The one hidden here may be stated this way:

“Take responsibility and use your faculties of intellect and reason, but don’t rely on them solely or as the ground of your being because they are limited – instead, in faith, lean on God for the times when your limited wisdom and understanding are not enough to meet the day’s troubles.”

It’s about a hierarchy of trust. That seems masterful and simple to me.

10. Misunderstanding the Design argument

Your guest thinks that ID is using a deductive argument, saying that ‘we understand that beauty and order are desired by God, and therefore, since we see these things, God is real.”

In point of fact, it is just the contrary. It is an INDUCTIVE argument from what we observe. That is, science shows us that INFORMATION and DESIGN (or ‘specified complexity’) only arise from mind, and that in general, things left to themselves without the input of mind lead AWAY from order (ENTROPY). (And please, let’s not have the ‘entropy is about energy, not order’ discussion – please understand what I mean rater than focusing myopically on definitions to show how uneducated I must be).

Therefore, since we see DNA as specified information, we conclude that there must be a mind involved here also.

Another misconception about ID is that it is ‘God in the gaps’ argumentation, arguing that if we don’t understand some natural mechanism for a phenomenon, God must have done it. But the history of science shows that theists have not taken this approach, except with the thorny problem of ORIGINS.

This is because, as stated above, we see evidence of INFORMATION which comes from mind. Not just ORDER like you’d see in a crystal, but information and constants so complex that it is statistically impossible, and ludicrous, to think that such things happened by natural processes.

Again, your guest sees all kinds of conflicts for the ST with regard to ID, but it’s based on his all/nothing misunderstanding of ST. He has wasted tons of time on this straw man. I mean, if there are academic ST’s out there who also take this all/nothing view, I’d say that they are as bad as the ‘we can know everything about God’ folks. Most theologians and Christians operate in the middle, and I gave a logical reason for it. It seems perfectly sensisible.

11. Lack of effort in undestanding one another

Theists don’t think about the problem of evil? Is the only theodicy that your guest thinks Christians have considered is “there is a greater good”??? Has he read nothing? Go pick up a book by CS Lewis on suffering and see what he says, just for starters.

Perhaps among the average Christian, people have not examined these issues deeply, but there are good reasons:

a. Christianity is often intially and primarily an EXPERIENCE of God, not an intellectual decision based on deep and esoteric musings

b. Because atheists often operate ONLY in the intellectual realm and mistrust the subjective experiential realm, it seems strange TO THEM that Christians don’t act as they do.

c. Because most churches don’t operate on the “you can know all or nothing about God” model that your guest assumes, they are comfortable with the reasonable idea that we can understand much, but not all about God, esp. when it comes to suffering and sovereignty.

d. The fact that teachings on these two subjects DO abound in Christianity means that people ARE exposed to theodicies regularly, and may find them satisfactory, even if anti-theists don’t.

This does not mean that they are unthinking, but rather, are relying on a COMBINATION of experience and intellect rather just upon intellectual surety alone, which anti-theists seem to demand, since they limit themselves to such.

12. What do Christians not understand about atheists?

I think the view that atheists are all moral miscreants is no longer the main idea in Christendom, any more than the idea that all homosexuals are pedophiles.

My understanding is that they rely primarily on intellect for decisions about God (but perhaps not in everday life), mistrust the subjective faculties almost entirely, and have logical reasons for doubting God, just like I have logical reasons for believing.

After hearing your present guest, I long for the return of Graham Oppy.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I don’t understand the idea that a question like “What would God do?” should influence our choices in moral dilemmas. A necessarily good God commands people (through scripture or moral intuitions, maybe) on which actions are good and evil, but it doesn’t follow that we should copy or even try to evaluate God’s own actions. Many of Gods actions in the Bible would obviously be evil if attempted by a human, even if when performed by God they are ultimately for some mysterious greater good.
However, “What would Jesus do” is a subtly different question. Jesus as God incarnate and fully human is supposed to have been a moral teacher and an example for his disciples. So Jesus’ teachings and actions (save the supernatural ones) CAN reasonably be taken as moral guidelines. And at least according to Luke and Paul, grace through Jesus’ atonemnt and resurrection replaces the jewish Law, so the most obviously immoral commands in the old testament can be happily ignored.

I think, as a theist, I would agree with that reasoning. God’s seemingly immoral actions or commands are based in omniscience, which means that he would know of future good that would result from it. We lack such knowledge. In light of our finitude, we ought to OBEY him. And due to the subjective and incomplete nature of our understanding of God, we ought to be cautious if we ‘hear’ Him telling us to do things that contradict explicit commands of doing good and refraining from evil.

A violent action like killing Hitler might seem immoral if we feel God is telling us that (like Dietrich Bonheoffer did, and attempted), but it is not out of the question of divine command that might violate the general principle. Maybe the guy who killed Tiller was justified in violating the more general commands.

We ought to imitate Christ, who came as an explicit example to follow as a person limited to human flesh (i.e. he was not OMNI* while here, but dependent on the Father)

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Luke, can you lengthen the time we have for editing our comments by a few minutes? I would like that in order to correct my comments. I mean, I COULD read them BEFORE I post, but… hard to change habits ;)

  (Quote)

Roman April 23, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Hi dgsinclair and Chris K,

You both write interesting comments.

Both of you appealed to the Bible when trying to justify the view that we can know some things about God’s reasons but not all.

There is a challenge to this view. The challenge is explained in the paper ‘Sceptical Theism and Divine Lies’ by Wielenberg :

http://fs6.depauw.edu:50080/~ewielenberg/Skeptical%20Theism.doc

The thought of the paper is summarised by Stephen Maitzen on Prosblogion as follows:

“One may reply that God’s justification might sometimes be scrutable to us, as when God spells out his justification in the Bible. But that reply assumes that God has no morally sufficient justification for lying in a particular biblical passage, something that skeptical theism denies us the right to assert.”

So this seems like a problem for the sceptical theist. In order to say that we can know some things about God’s reasons one could appeal to Scripture as you two have. But to be able to trust Scripture we would already have to know some things about God’s reasons, namely, that he wouldn’t lie to us. And so scripture cannot be used to demonstrate that we can know about God’s reasons because to trust scripture as a source of information we already have to presuppose that we know about God’s reasons.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 23, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Both of you appealed to the Bible when trying to justify the view that we can know some things about God’s reasons but not all.

I did not mean to do that, and I’m not sure which subject you are addressing. My reasoning is merely this: assuming that god is, by definition, infinite, and we are finite, it makes sense that we can not understand all of infinite. However, this does not mean that we can therefore know nothing, as the guest supposed was the skeptical theist position.

I think the whole discussion of skeptical theism, including Maitzen’s comments above, are really straw man arguments. The type of suppositions that these authors ascribe to skeptical theism are either misunderstandings, and if not, then people who believe such ARE being illogical.

But it is NOT illogical, in my view, to hold that in SOME matters, our finite minds might not comprehend some attributes of God or his ‘inaction’ with regard to morality, but that does not mean that we must therefore reject all knowledge of such things. This seems to me to be a false dichotomy which those pillorying ST seem to want to maintain as the ST view.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 23, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Daniel,

I don’t understand what you mean by ‘straw man’ arguments. Skeptical theism is a response to the problem evil, elaborated by Wykstra and others. Maitzen and Sehon respond directly and precisely to Wykstra’s article, at length. What do you mean by ‘straw man’? Are you trying to claim that Wykstra did not in fact put forward skeptical theism as a response to the problem of evil?

  (Quote)

Roman April 23, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Hi dgsinclair,

Sorry maybe I was careless and you didn’t appeal to the Bible.

With regard to the straw manning, let me quote Maitzen from Prosblogion:
“”Why can’t we have a weaker form of sceptical theism?” One implication of my post is that we can’t stop the advance of skepticism once we start down the skeptical path. It’s a popular way to criticize skeptical positions in general, including skeptical theism.”

The argument is not claiming that sceptical theists SAY that they think we can know nothing about God’s desires etc. Of course they’re not saying that. The argument put forward by Maitzen and by Wielenberg is that a kind of broader scepticism follows from the narrow scepticism that sceptical theists propose.

  (Quote)

Stig April 24, 2010 at 11:01 am

Hi dgsinclair,Sorry maybe I was careless and you didn’t appeal to the Bible.

Probably I’m at fault for bringing up the bible.

On some level the skeptical theist has to maintain that you can nevertheless know some things about God, and those moral imperatives that are clearly stated in scripture are good candidates. I think that ultimately has to be a matter of faith, so skeptical theism merely makes the existence of seemingly pointless evil possible under theism, not very probable. I will look into those arguments by Maitzen and Wielenberg though.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 26, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I admit that I have not read Maitzen, Sehon, or Wykstra’s articles. So I made some assumptions when using my straw man argument (pun intended). There are two possible straw men here.

The first one which I guessed at is that ‘standard’ skeptical theism is not an ALL or NOTHING argument, but rather, was being characterized as such by Sehon. If I am right in saying that Sehon says that standard skeptical theism teaches such, I guessed that he was misrepresenting it.

If he was saying that the assumptions behind the ST argument force us into an ALL or NOTHING position with respect to knowledge, then I differ with him, not on his using a straw man, but on his using a slippery slope argument. When he complains that he can’t see any solution, I tried to provide one, since slippery slope arguments are usually untrue, and result from a failure of either party to define criteria for limiting the affects of their assumptions. This is true, for instance, in the abortion argument.

However, the second ‘straw man’ I was implicitly referring to was his accusation (which I may have been reading in, but I don’t think so) that ANYONE who holds that there are certain situations in which we appeal to the mystery of God believes or teaches, or is bound by the logic of it, to believe that we can have no knowledge of the divine or divine will.

This persistent assertion throughout his interview was maddening, and why I tried to provide a non-biblical explanation to why someone might believe that our knowledge of the infinite is of necessity finite, but not non-existent. Again:

1. Assuming that a standard definition of God and God’s person is that he/she/it is ‘infinite’ AND
2. Asuming that mankind is finite in his understanding and knowledge
3. There will be some things beyond our intellectual grasp.

This seems like a perfectly logical support for a skeptical theist position that is less stringent, and I find it hard to believe that ANYONE is of the type of skeptical theist that Sehon is waging his impressive arguments against.

  (Quote)

Bram van Dijk April 29, 2010 at 6:34 am

dgsinclair,
Your argument is that a skeptical theist does not have to be skeptical about everything:

1. Assuming that a standard definition of God and God’s person is that he/she/it is ‘infinite’ AND
2. Asuming that mankind is finite in his understanding and knowledge
3. There will be some things beyond our intellectual grasp.

The problem with this that others have already raised is this question: “Once you admit that there are some things that you cannot know, how do you decide about which things you can and cannot know?”

If you are skeptical about gods reasons for permitting evil, how can you be so sure about:
-moral things;
-gods reasons for creating the world;
-the bible is true.

The point is: there is no way to decide which things you can and cannot know. You cannot assert that you know everything about god, except why he permits evil.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 29, 2010 at 8:52 am

Bram,

First, I have to ask, do you agree with my syllogism? That our understanding of the infinite is finite and must by definition always be incomplete?

It does NOT follow that we can therefore know nothing, which is what I think you are suggesting when you say “there is no way to decide which things you can and can not know.”

This strikes me as a slippery slope argument, which in my experience, is almost always a bad argument. What the appearance of the this argument means to me is that either side of the argument are unwilling to do the difficult work of defining the parameters that limit our descent down the slope.

In this case, if you accept my syllogism, then there MUST be some principles or parameters that allow us to define what we can or can not know. I can think of some off the top of my head.

1. We can know what we can measure empirically.
2. We can know, with lesser but still some certainty, what we can assess through historical inquiries such as archeology and manuscript evidence.
3. We can know some things by the use of reason.

When it comes to morals, I agree, the wicket gets sticky, but I am unwilling to allow the vagaries of the moral or metaphysical arenas to cow me into a helpless ‘we can’t know’ stance.

But again, my argument is that the skeptical theist is perfectly logical, and in line with reality, when claiming that there are SOME things we may not be able to fathom about God.

Again, I suggest that we look at the two areas that the bible appeals to mystery in this way, and try to deduce some reasonable principles or parameters that would explain why these two areas may be different, special, or exceedingly difficult to understand.

Let me add that the Bible gives partial explanations for these before appealing to mystery, so it does not entirely deny us intellectual answers, it just admits that such answers are incomplete.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair April 29, 2010 at 8:58 am

You cannot assert that you know everything about god, except why he permits evil. 

Why not? By what principle to you cling to an all or nothing view? I’ve given a reason why such a condition must exist.

And btw, the bible adds to the problem of suffering his Sovereign oversight of history, including individual salvation (predestination) – so the ST might say that these TWO items are not *completely* understandable, though we do have theodicy’s that address the former, and theological explanations for the second.

All we need is to define the principles that might make these subjects unique and not fully comprehensible.

BTW, check out this really good debate between Bart Ehrman and Michael Brown on the Problem of Suffering
http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2010/04/michael-brown-vs-bart-ehrman-debate.html?

One of Brown’s retorts to Ehrman is that he is offended by Ehrman’s demand that everything that God does must be comprehensible to the finite mind of man, otherwise God is guilty of injustice.

  (Quote)

Bram van Dijk April 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Hi dgsinclair,

I’m not stating that it is an all or nothing thingy. That’s something you keep falling back to. So yes, say that there are some thing we can know and some things we cannot know. I’m just saying that if there are some things that cannot be known, we need some basic rule to decide what we can and cannot know.

The point is that:”I don’t understand why god permits evil, therefore it cannot be known” is not a good reason.

It becomes especially weak when on other moral things a ST does pretend to know what is evil and not.

You say that we can know some things because of:

1. We can know what we can measure empirically.
2. We can know, with lesser but still some certainty, what we can assess through historical inquiries such as archeology and manuscript evidence.
3. We can know some things by the use of reason.

I completely agree, but all most religious things seem to fall outside of these criteria. That is why you resort to the bible:

the Bible gives partial explanations for these before appealing to mystery, so it does not entirely deny us intellectual answers, it just admits that such answers are incomplete.

The difference is that I just can’t see the bible as divinely inspired or containing some revealed information.

Finally, your syllogism:

1. Assuming that a standard definition of God and God’s person is that he/she/it is ‘infinite’ AND
2. Asuming that mankind is finite in his understanding and knowledge
3. There will be some things beyond our intellectual grasp.

No, I don’t accept it. These definitions of god are always tricky, see some of the literature on the ontological argument.

But I think that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premisses. Because mathematically is possible for a finite something to contain an infinite number of parts. Think of Zeno’s paradoxes:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno%27s_paradoxes

They point to these paradoxes is that the sum of an infinite amount of distances can still be finite.

  (Quote)

prairienymph December 19, 2011 at 5:40 pm

It seems to me that the “God is mysterious” argument always backs up the premise that “God is good.” What if a person was using that argument who did not believe that God was good, or that good and bad even existed except as a social construct? That person would see god’s inaction not as cruel but as neutral. Then, not understanding does not create the angst to rationalize seemingly cruet actions or inactions.

I’ve also heard it rationalized that God does not act because we are supposed to be learning to act on our own. God won’t stop the rape but can use the negative (understatement) experience to create some positive and end up with a neutral. However, we do not have that power, so our only way to be moral is to stop it if at all possible. This leaves us with clear moral responsibilities while getting God off the hook.

  (Quote)

dgsinclair December 19, 2011 at 8:37 pm

PN – the reason that ‘god is mysterious’ and ‘god is good’ often appear together is because, as far as I can tell, there are two subjects (and really only two) that the bible incompletely answers, then resorts to the appeal to mystery – predestination, and the problem of evil.

I don’t think that this is unreasonable – what I mean is that, I take as a given that humans, being finite, can NOT understand all things, but we can understand some. I don’t find it unreasonable that a mere two subjects are admittedly beyond us. The bible and theologians do give answers for these problems, but in the end, many admit that such things truly are a mystery.

In fact, many of the great moral and spiritual truths appear as paradoxes – predestination and free will (even in materialist philosophy, the argument over whether or not we have free will or are ‘victims’ of biological determinism is debated without answers), and the problem of suffering and evil – as I like to say, if you think the Bible’s answer is incomplete, try looking at answers from other world views and you may find that an appeal to mystery is made much sooner!

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment