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Skeptical Theism and a Lying God

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I just read an intriguing paper by Erik Wielenberg entitled Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies. The entire paper is worth reading, but I’ll try to summarize his arguments and offer my thoughts. And judging by the stuff he has on his faculty web page, he seems like a pretty good guy overall:

In his paper, Wielenberg argues that people who try to get around the problem of evil by saying that just because we can’t think of a justification for a particular evil doesn’t mean that there isn’t one must also accept that just because we can’t think of a justification for God lying to us doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Although this would not disprove God, it would show that we have no good reason for thinking that God is telling us the truth. Of course a believer could instead reject skeptical theism, but that would make it very difficult to respond to the problem of evil.

Calling God’s honesty into question would cause serious problems for Christianity. Wielenberg quotes Nicholas Wolterstorff's observation that “deep in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the attribution of speech to God. To excise those attributions from those religions would be to have only shards left.” Wolterstorff also noted that the “traditional principles guiding biblical interpretation in the Christian tradition” is the principle “that God never speaks falsehood.” Wielenberg then quotes Richard Swinburne discussing how mankind needs God to reveal things like the atonement and heaven and hell. If Christians can’t rely on God to be honest, then how can Christians possibly know anything about God or the afterlife? The self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that apologist William Lane Craig loves to talk about might not be so self-authenticating after all.

But it would also be problematic to reject skeptical theism, as it seems to be the only half-decent answer to the problem of evil. Many non-believers argue that if there is an evil act that seems completely irreconcilable with an omnibenevolent God, then it probably is. At the very least, the great number of seemingly unjustifiable evils provides evidence against the existence of God. A skeptical theist would respond by saying that our knowledge is extremely limited and just because we can’t think of a justification doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have one. Given how little we actually know, this seems like a somewhat reasonable response, though in cases like the Holocaust, it seems impossible that the good could outweigh the bad without the word good losing all meaning. But at least the skeptical theist response is logically coherent.

Wielenberg explains that one problem with accepting skeptical theism is that God could have a justification for anything. A Christian might believe that they don’t have to worry about global warming or a nuclear holocaust because God will protect them. But under skeptical theism, this would be irrational. God might have some justification for killing everyone on earth in the most painful way imaginable. He could even have some justification for then sending everyone on Earth to an eternity in hell. We have no reason to take God at his word, for he could have an unknown reason for lying to us.

Wielenberg’s core argument is essentially this:
Premise 1: If skeptical theism is true, we have no reason to deny that God telling a lie has some justification we don’t know about.
Premise 2: If we have no reason to deny that God telling a lie has some justification we don’t know about, then we do not know any proposition based solely on God’s word.
Therefore: Skeptical theism implies that we do not know any proposition based solely on God’s word.

So a skeptical theist must accept that they cannot know even core tenants of Christianity like the claim that Christians can get eternal life. Of course it’s hard to imagine how God could be justified in lying to us about something like that. But as skeptical theists say, just because we can’t think of a justification doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Maybe there’s some justification for the Holocaust that we can’t even begin to understand, and maybe there’s some justification for God deluding us into thinking we will live forever when instead we will rot in the ground.

I was glad to see that Wielenberg addressed what I see as a likely response from Christians: “So what?” Why is it so horrible if God does lie occasionally? That was basically the reaction I anticipated some Christians having when I first heard about my friend Ben’s project of mapping a debate with a number of Christians on whether God is lying about hell.

A believer could still say that at the very least if God tells them something, they can know that God wants them to believe it. So divine revelation is not God revealing the truth, but God revealing what he wants us to believe. However, even this is uncertain. If we do not know God’s purpose for telling us something, we do not know how God wants us to respond. For all we know, he could want us to respond by being angry at God, for maybe this will lead to the most good in the end. So God telling us something gives us no basis for believing it or even for acting as if we believe it.

Another possible response Wielenberg addresses is that this argument does not show that God is morally imperfect, so at least everything will end up fine in the end. But since under skeptical theism there may be moral goods that God is trying to achieve which are beyond our understanding, we cannot know anything about our fate. For all we know, there is some overriding good that could be achieved by torturing all believers eternally and letting only atheists into heaven.

So while skeptical theism may enable Christians to escape the problem of evil, it ends up destroying mainstream Christianity. If Isaiah 55:9 and Ecclesiastes 8:17 really do indicate that God may have unknowable reasons for his actions, and Stephen Wykstra is right that skeptical theism “is not an additional postulate: it was implicit in theism (taken with a little realism about our cognitive powers) all along,” then Christianity itself is incoherent.

Overall, I think that Wielenberg presents a strong argument, one that all believers should carefully consider.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
October 24, 2009 at 11:37 PM  

hehe, "skeptical theism" sounds a lot like "unskeptical theism" or more like "I'm skeptical to objections to theism." So it's dubious in that sense, but on the other hand in its best form once we've gotten past that, it could be construed as a version of theism that inspires the most personal integrity. Theists would then be more concerned with how they honestly react to the divine presentation rather than how they think they are supposed to respond. They'd also have to take full responsibility for their own beliefs rather than training themselves to accomdate any official doctrine. I was actually hoping the response to my argument map would be, "So what?" so that it could segue into, "Since you are unconcerned with God always telling the truth in inconsequential ways, let's discuss social issues x, y, and z that typically revolve around 'the bible says so.'"

I think a lot of your observations are spot on here, Mike. I was going to copy and paste some of the best lines, but this comment box is f#cked. My arrow keys don't work here and none of the copy fuctions work either. Is that just a problem on my end?


Mike said...
October 25, 2009 at 1:33 AM  

Glad you liked it.

I like your point about personal integrity, but I still think that they’d end up worrying about how God wants them to act. Does God want them to react naturally, or does God expect that they will show deference to him and believe everything he says? It would just be a constant guessing game. Things become really problematic for believers when they can’t trust anything God says. In that case, Pascal’s Wager tilts in favor of atheism since why should we make any sacrifices if we have no idea what God wants anyway?

Sorry about the comment box. I really should have tested it out in a few different browsers. It should work fine now.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
October 25, 2009 at 6:43 AM  

I was under the impression that Christians already worry about how God wants them to act. Perhaps it's a matter of *how much* they might worry, but given the opportunity cost here, giving up on a definition of god who is ontologically constrained to only utter the truth has many other positive benefits. Such as, not having to be in denial of a lot of real world evidence and wanting to be in step with the progress of the modern world. That's *empowering* in merely a different way and it diversifies their epistemic portfolio, arguably making them more well-rounded and mature beings. Aren't they the ones that say God isn't there to be our wish granting genie to many atheist criticisms? Why can't we turn that back on them when it comes to epistemology? God isn't your wikipedia. QED

You see them squirm and try so hard to be as humane as they can be under the constraints of doctrine they've inherited that just plain isn't ever going to work in terms of solidarity. What good is it for instance for a Christian institution to recognize bromances? Who the hell cares? Let's recognize people sleeping with their dogs in a platonic way, next because we're so embarrassed to be anti-bestiality? I don't think the secular world has the same problem since their moral positions tend to be defensible. But it's still the Christian worldview's pathetic attempt at PR in the face of the obvious, that the prejudices of 2,000 years ago can't be dressed up as the intelligent opinions of today. And this is just one example. They feel the burn and they want to step up and be "normal" and if God is free to tell them what they need to hear given a particular time and place (as though ancient cultures needed their homophobia stoked for the sake of focusing on other legitimate spiritual ends) then it's a great opportunity for new frontiers of confidence in Christian philosophy where individuals actually have to fend for themselves. They already believe God doesn't give them all the answers, so what does it matter if some of the truths aren't quite that accurate either? Trust is trust, is trust, is trust.

In my world, if you've already hyper-extended your trust standards to an invisible being that hasn't done a press release in 2,000 years, it seems to me that one can hardly complain in some kind of "all or nothing" sense. If they are already trusting this much, then it seems to make no difference to define a particular brand of trust like you've already articulated: "So divine revelation is not God revealing the truth, but God revealing what he wants us to believe." You can still plausibly believe that God has good intentions despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that applies in the traditional form of Christianity. What in the world is the practical difference other than doctrinal stubbornness they are willing to go from here to the moon for and back? Christians already like it when they believe they subjectively "see where God is coming from" and so not only would recognizing divine white lies would continue that "interest."

Granted, you can still make evidential arguments against this position by pointing out that such simple and obvious things like "Boil drinking water," don't show up in a divinely inspired ginormous religious tradition. But before we get to the evidence, I think the idea is at least plausible in and of itself if you are going to accept any form of moral inefficiency at all in an all good god's creation.

And really, Christians have no choice. I've demonstrated that God lies with good intentions in the Bible on my argument map. So it doesn't matter how it subjectively affects their confidence. They can't bear false witness or disown the proof texts and their excuses backfire on them when they try to get out of it. :D


Mike said...
October 25, 2009 at 2:47 PM  

Good points. By the way, Wielenberg does point out one other potential out for Christians when it comes to morality. Under some versions of divine command theory, it’s not that God is informing us of what is and is not moral; it’s that by the very act of telling us that something is moral or immoral, God imposes a moral obligation on us to adhere to his command. So even if we can’t trust that anything he says is true, if merely by uttering a moral command God makes it true, then it doesn’t matter how untrustworthy he is.

But if there is no moral basis for God’s commands and goodness is just whatever God happens to command, then morality is arbitrary. While we’d still have moral obligations to follow God’s commands, this would have pretty serious consequences. Basically we’d just be doing what God arbitrarily happened to want. For all we know, God could want someone to commit genocide just so he could watch the people die. Then that act of genocide would itself be morally good regardless of whether there is some greater good that it achieves.

I guess this is one position a Christian could take, but I just couldn’t imagine accepting all of that. You’d have to believe that if God commanded genocide in the Bible, people had a moral obligation to commit it, and God may not have had any good reasons for doing it. You’d also have to believe that there’s no reason to trust God when he says that you can get eternal life. Basically you’d just be a slave to God without any reason to think that you were achieving any greater good beyond God’s arbitrary desires and without any reason to think you’d be rewarded for doing what he says. If I got to the point where I believed all of that, I’d need to seriously reevaluate my beliefs.

But if you can’t trust that God’s moral commands are always true, you don’t even have reason to think that they probably are true given skeptical theism. I think the only reasonable thing to do is reject skeptical theism. But then you either have to show reasons why God permits evil or accept that the evidential argument from evil. You could argue that God permits evil because of free will or soul-building, but these have serious problems. With free-will, there’s the question of why out of the infinitely many people God could have chosen to create, he didn’t avoid creating the people he knew would commit horrific acts of evil. With soul-building, there’s the issue of why God can’t prepare you for heaven without horrific pain. And do those who die young without having their souls built up not get the full benefits of heaven, or does God use his magical powers to instantly prepare their souls? With both of these attempts to avoid the problem of evil, you eventually get to the point where you basically have to say that maybe there are things about free will or souls that is beyond our comprehension and even if it doesn’t seem justified to us, it may have justification. But then you’re back at skeptical theism. So I think that skeptical theism is the only real way around the problem of evil, but accepting it leaves mainstream Christianity in ruins.

In the end, I think the only sensible position to take is to accept that the evidential argument from evil is a good argument against the existence of God and then to try to argue that the reasons for believing in God are even stronger than the reasons against believing in God.

And even then, they’d have to accept that God has sometimes lied unless they want to take a very counterintuitive interpretation of the Bible. As you point out, there are tons of passages that make it seem like God lies. But I guess if they don’t adopt skeptical theism they could say that in those cases they can identify justifications for why God lied, but they can’t think of any justifications for God lying about Christians ending up in heaven so there probably aren’t any.

UnBeguiled said...
October 26, 2009 at 12:02 AM  

Stephen Law has a nice essay disemboweling theodicies:


Scroll down to "The evil God hypothesis and the problem of good"

UnBeguiled said...
October 26, 2009 at 12:14 AM  

Also, this reminds me of my "Biblical argument against theism" which is a tongue-in-cheek riff on Plantinga's "Evolutionary argument against naturalism" (EAAN)


Mike said...
October 26, 2009 at 7:17 PM  

Yeah, it is pretty similar to your post. The only problem with using the Bible is that people can always claim that you're interpreting it wrong. Sometimes you're not and they're just saying that to avoid accepting your conclusions, but sometimes their interpretation might actually be pretty legitimate. I don't really know that much about hermeneutics, but it definitely seems like the Bible does say that God lies.

Mike said...
October 26, 2009 at 7:30 PM  

I love the evil God hypothesis, though I hadn't read Stephen Law's version of it before. I think he lays it out pretty well. I've yet to hear a good response from a believer.

I listened to a lecture where Peter Kreeft said that you should still act the same because if the evil God exists it wouldn't matter what you do. One problem with this is that I don't think most Christians would really be able to accept that even if God exists, there's only a 50% chance that he's loving. But second of all, I don't see why the evil God couldn't have a heaven for those who do the opposite of what the good God would want. If Christians say hell can just be separation from God, why can't heaven in this scenario merely be separation from the evil God. Since there's no a priori reason to expect a good God over an evil one, and the evidence in this world doesn't point to one over the other, I don't know how you could possibly conclude that the good God exists, even given the existence of God.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
October 27, 2009 at 9:52 AM  

"You’d also have to believe that there’s no reason to trust God when he says that you can get eternal life."

Well sure, trust has to be earned in some way. And presumably Christians are already okay with the smashing job God has done throughout history in taking care of his chosen people. So how are they going to complain? Again, it just comes down to already abysmally low standards they can't all of the sudden toss overboard because God doesn't always tell the truth. If Christians already believe they have a working and healthy spiritual relationship with this deity, then why do the white lies in the Bible matter? Obviously according to their already accepted evidence, God must be trustworthy enough and so arguably they could still tell themselves heaven is probably real.

You've read Vox Day's stance on arbitrary divine morality, right, in his exchange with Luke Muehlhauser? So there's at least one example of a Christian who will jump any moral shark just to not have to be responsible for thinking his own moral thoughts for himself. I don't know what's so terrifying about having to figure it out for yourself, but oh well. That's just how they are.


Mike said...
October 27, 2009 at 3:41 PM  

Yeah, I read their exchange. His views are so far from what any average Christian actually believes, and yet he gets offended when you suggest that his ideas might not actually be mainstream. I don't know his motivations for holding onto Christianity, but I think most people would probably give up belief altogether if they were left with only the shell of traditional Christianity that Vox holds on to.

By the way, thanks for making me think about trust. I started to reply, but I'll probably just end up turning it into a post.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
October 28, 2009 at 12:32 AM  

Vox Day appears to be under the spell of "real evil" and how well the Biblical glove fits his intuitions on morality. Here's my post on it.

I'll look forward to your post on trust, but as another thought, it seems to me that Christians aren't really sacrificing much to exchange some extremely ad hoc excuses (that you've been pointing out) for accommodation of various plausible white lies in Biblical theology. Trust is trust and if God can get credit on the one hand despite the overwhelming evidence he doesn't give a crap about anyone, then what's the difference? Other than their Christian worldview starts squaring more with the evidence.

Granted, this is still deal breaker land for someone like me, since there's no excuse for any moral inefficiency that would justify any white lying at all (as you may recall from my opening statement in the debate with Zi), but it can at least be pointed out how weak a trusting position it is even if no Christian ever says, "Hey, that does make a more coherent Christian worldview and does enable me to participate more in modern solidarity." There are a million ways to play the fact they can't conjure up a trusting relationship out of nothing in a world like this.

I'm sure many Christians will go down with the orthodox ship no matter what and I don't really expect much regardless. I resolve to simply make lots more sense than they can ever hope to make and that other people (already convinced non-believers that need reinforcement and fence sitters who are looking for a more intelligent position) will make more informed decisions regarding their beliefs. But there are some liberal theologians out there who may appreciate not taking such a hard line with absolutely everyone as though it always has to be extreme atheism vs extreme Christian fundamentalism. I'd like to be able to reach out to them as well.


Mike said...
October 29, 2009 at 12:32 AM  

I liked your post on Vox Day. I really wonder what's going to happen with that debate. It seems like Vox is just doing a lot of name-calling at this point and justifying it by saying that Luke really is an idiot. I have a feeling it's not going to go anywhere substantive.

“I resolve to simply make lots more sense than they can ever hope to make and that other people… will make more informed decisions regarding their beliefs.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much all you can do. There aren’t many people who would consider atheism regardless of what you say. But even if someone is going to stay a theist, I’d at least like them to understand that there are reasons why we don’t believe in God. Even if they still think we’re dead wrong, at least they might just think that we’re mistaken instead of thinking we hate God.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
October 29, 2009 at 1:25 AM  

I quit following it. Last I saw, Luke was doing well, and Vox was allowing it to degenerate as you've noted. Not sure if I'll backtrack or not to catch up to wherever it is now.

"Even if they still think we’re dead wrong, at least they might just think that we’re mistaken instead of thinking we hate God."

I agree that is important as well.

kadir karabaş said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:11 PM  
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