Monday 13 October 2014

Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception

Update: I have revised my views somewhat

Skeptical theists maintain that, for whatever reason, we are in no position to conclude from the failure of theodicy that God doesn't (or probably doesn't) have morally sufficient reason to permit the many evils populating our world. But this inference would be valid, as long as our grasp of the moral reasons available to God was a representative sample. And so skeptical theists are committed saying that our grasp of the moral reasons available to God is not representative of all the reasons he actually has. And with this, they are committed to a realm of beyond our ken moral reasons; greater goods and evils that factor into God's decision to permit all this suffering and injustice and horror. Much of moral reality, then, must be hidden from our sight. So the skeptical theist is committed to a sort of moral skepticism: he must think that our ability to grasp moral truth is severely limited. But skepticism is often infectious and difficult to contain.

Justification is commonly understood to be closed on known entailment. By taking the contrapositive, we are left with a premise common to many skeptical arguments; a premise showing how skepticism (or lack of justification) is likewise closed on known entailment:
  1. If someone is not justified in believing Q but knows that P entails Q, then they are likewise not justified in believing P.
Now consider a known entailment:
  1. If God has told me that P and P is actually true, then God isn't lying to me about P.
This is simply true by definition: to tell a lie is just to say something one knows is not true. And God, being omniscient, knows everything. But with these two premises, and a soon to be explored third, skeptical theists are forced into a dilemma:
  1. Skeptical theists are not justified in believing that God isn't lying to them about P
  2. Therefore, skeptical theists are not justified in believing both that God has revealed to them P, and that P is true
God, being morally perfect, is primarily motivated by moral reasons. So any substantial skepticism of moral reasons leads to skepticism of God's motives. This is the intended result of skeptical theism; to undermine our judgements of what sorts of actions God would or wouldn't be motivated to do. But, in doing so, the skeptical theist gives up our ability to judge how God would act in all respects, including, for example, whether or not he would lie.

Just as God has pro tanto reasons to not permit evil, he has pro tanto reasons to not lie. But, according to skeptical theism, these pro tanto reasons might be defeated by beyond our ken morally sufficient reasons to permit the evil, or to lie. Some argue that there can never be a morally sufficient reason to lie, but this is incredibly difficult to defend. It seems very good, for example, for a parent to tell fictitious and fanciful stories to encourage their child's imagination. And every good parent would console their young child, saying everything will be fine when they can't actually be sure of it. A good parent would lie so his child could sleep, and not be haunted all night by worries. Likewise, sometimes doctors mislead their patients into believing the diagnosis is less grim than it really is. They do this out of concern for the patient, so that the patient doesn't lose hope and make his situation even worse. Often times the right attitude can greatly benefit ones chances of recovery, but many are unable to stay positive while fully aware of the harsh reality they face. God might be lying to us, not in spite of his love for us, but precisely because he loves us; because it is in our best interests to be lied to. Unlike the many evils that populate our world, we can easily imagine greater goods that might justify and motivate divine lies.

Even with this said, there are many linguistic acts God could perform that, whether or not they count as lying, still generate the same worries for skeptical theists. For example, in Genesis 2:17 God told Adam and Eve that they would die the very day they ate his prohibited fruit. And, as the story goes, the two lived long and full lives after they ate the fruit. Did God lie? For the sake of my argument, it doesn't really matter. God spoke to Adam and Eve knowing they would take his statement literally, and thus acquire false belief. And throughout history people have been interpreting scripture in many different (and often inconsistent) ways. Someone has to be interpreting scripture incorrectly, and yet God knew this would happen when he first gave the revelation.

Skeptical theists are then left with a severe problem. As long as they're forced into this dilemma, they cannot be justified in believing something by divine revelation. This is a problem for those skeptical theists of a religious leaning, who hold to theological views that can only be justified by appealing to the divine authority of some religious text or other revelation. This would include the bulk of religious doctrine, and as such strip their theistic belief down to its bare bones. They might still be justified in believing in the existence of God by natural theology alone, but the justification for their particular brand of theism, their religion, is wholly dependent upon accepting particular texts or traditions as being handed down directly from God.

Some might think there must be something wrong with my argument. According to the traditional externalist view of justification, all that is required to have justification is that ones belief is formed by some mechanism that tracks truth, or is reliable, or is properly functioning, or something of that sort. As a result, the individual needn't be aware of why or how his belief is justified. But it would be incredibly arbitrary for the skeptical theist to endorse externalism about justification to salvage divine revelation but, with the same breath, turn around and embrace a deep skepticism of moral reasons. After all, he has no more reason to think his religious beliefs are externally justified as he does to think his judgements about moral reasons are. Given that arbitrariness seems sufficient to frustrate justification, it's hard to see how externalist considerations could be of any use for them here.