Skeptical Theism vrs Theodicy

It’s not uncommon to find theistic philosophers and, more frequently, apologists appealing to both skeptical theism and to various theodicies in their responses to the problem of evil. However, the two approaches are not obviously compatible. Before I examine the compatibility of these two enterprises, I had best briefly outline what the problem of evil is and how each of these approaches traditionally seeks to answer it.

The problem of evil comes in various guises, but for my purposes here one of the most popular forms will suffice:

(1) If God exists then gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil exists.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

This argument will, of course, be nuanced differently by different thinkers; sometimes it will come in a deductive form, other times in an inductive form, for instance.

Take now two theists: Joe Skeptic and George T O’Dicist.

Joe Skeptic – as the name suggests – is representative of the skeptical theist school of thought. Joe will be quick to point out that mere mortals such as you and I are not epistemically well placed to make the kinds of judgments required to make the problem of evil a successful atheistic argument. God, surely, has lots of reasons for acting as He does; reasons which we simply do not know – and possibly cannot expect to know. Many evils certainly look gratuitous, but we see only through the eyes of finititude. Joe, being a Tolkien fan, reminds us of Gandalf’s words in Lord of the Rings: “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” And thus, for the skeptical theist, we simply cannot make such judgments. We have no way of knowing if any evil is gratuitous or such that there is no morally sufficient reason for God to allow it, even though we do not – or cannot – know these reasons. “How do we know? We can’t know,” says Joe.

George thinks Joe is punting to skepticism far too soon. George reckons that we can plausibly know why God allows certain evils. Perhaps God allows some suffering for the greater good of permitting morally significant freedom. Perhaps other forms of suffering play their part in the world as a “vale of soul-making.” Or, maybe some instances of suffering are plausibly divine punishments for sin. These are just a few of the bewildering array of theodicies on offer from George and his cohorts.

The main difference between Joe and George is that George is claiming detailed knowledge concerning the morally sufficient reasons God has for allowing suffering, whilst Joe is pleading agnosticism on the matter. Joe says: “We don’t/can’t know why God allows suffering.” George says: “God allows suffering because X, Y, Z.” But, of course, in real life many of those who engage with the problem of evil are neither Joes nor Georges, but rather a curious hybrid of the two. Frequently, and this is nothing other than my own observations, I see my fellow theists begin with bold theodicies and, in the course of debate, weaken their claims until they arrive at skeptical theism. Other times theists will change their hat to suit the occasion (or their mood). And this, I’ve also noticed, can be a source of frustration to atheist thinkers: “Do you know or not?” “If you claim we don’t or can’t know, why don’t you spend some time criticizing theodicists?”

Despite all this it seems to me that skeptical theism need not be in conflict with the enterprise of theodicy, though the latter will require certain restrictions to be put upon it. In order to be fully compatible with skeptical theism, theodicy must refrain from any attempts at big, sweeping, assured statements. What I mean is that theodicy should refrain from saying such things as: “This instance of suffering is due to X,” or “Suffering in general is due to Y.” Critics might here complain that I am effectively saying theodicy should cease to be theodicy. I admit, if a full compatibility with skeptical theism is to be achieved then theodicy must make compromises. However, I don’t mean to make theodicy redundant – and readers of my blog may well know that I defend a form of theodicy which attempts to combine a modified form of Leibniz’s best possible world with a version of Irenaeus’ soul-making approach. What I do think needs to happen is a humbling of the theodicy enterprise. Instead of claiming God allows some specific or general type of suffering because X, Y, Z, the claim needs to be restricted to something like, “God might allow some instance or type of evil because of X, Y or Z.” Or, alternatively, “X, Y and Z are, plausibly, morally sufficient reasons for God to allow some instances or types of suffering, even if we do not or cannot know if X, Y or Z constitute God’s actual reasons for allowing some instance or type of suffering.”

This, I think, would make theodicy fully compatible with skeptical theism. But is there any benefit in such a weakened form of theodicy? I think there is. There are lots of areas of human knowledge where it can be important to venture even tentative explanations for seemingly recalcitrant facts. Certain aspects of origin of life studies or evolutionary theory can be like that, for instance. Theories can often seem more plausible in the face of uncertainty if we are able to at least take stabs a possible explanations for data that proves difficult to account for. In particular with respect to the problem of evil, we can note that forms of suffering and evil are not all equal. There are some forms which might be accounted for fairly easily; whereas other instances seem intractable. By providing plausible explanations for certain forms or instances of suffering, theodicy can increase our confidence that plausible explanations exist also for these more difficult instances of evil.

Perhaps the skeptical theist might also make a compromise here. Rather than dogmatically asserting that we can’t know, perhaps he should hold to the weaker statement of skeptical theism – that we don’t know, or don’t know fully, why God allows some instance or form of suffering. This attitude would then allow theodicy some role in at least investigating whether or not plausible reasons for some evils can indeed be found, or at least rationally surmised. This surely would be a sensible compromise for the skeptical theist to make, since it avoids for him a rather uncomfortable knowledge statement (“we can’t know”) which sits uneasily with his overall outlook. Skeptical theism of the form “don’t know” seems, to me anyhow, more internally consistent than the “can’t know” form.

Such an “agreement” between these two approaches has analogues in other disciplines. Take, for example, the philosophy of mind. Some philosophers of mind – most notably Colin McGinn – reckon the problem of consciousness is one which we are simply cognitively unequipped to solve, and we need to simply live with it. Others – rather hopefully – think it is solved. Though these two positions aren’t immediately compatible, we can adopt elements of both: we can agree with McGinn that the problem has not in fact been solved; but agree with the optimists that we can make some progress, even if we can’t solve the problem at present.

What this gives us is a much healthier attitude, one that appeals both to our sense of realism and to our sense of curious optimism and which might lead us to say something like: “I’m not sure we can know, but let’s try.” And thus, with one or two compromises made, it seems to me that Joe and George can safely sit at the same table.

Stephen J Graham



Filed under Problem of Evil

2 responses to “Skeptical Theism vrs Theodicy

  1. That was a very interesting article and a nice attempt at appeasement.
    I like the idea that when Joe and George sit at the same table, they will both necessarily have to have left their own tables to meet at this new one.
    This mirrors nicely the Christian message, where the impossible struggle between doing right and doing wrong is resolved by turning to Christ. Christ is the “new table”. All leave their own tables to come to His.
    However, I must confess that I am a little uncomfortable with attempts to humanize God, and describe his mental activities as one would describe our own.
    Of course, it is only natural to want to do this, to imagine that God has “reasons”, that he is in the business off allowing stuff to happen. The latter is very easily settled if we take as axiomatic that God is sovereign. In that case, everything that has ever happened or will ever happen has by definition been allowed by God. We cannot even begin to suggest the plethora of phenomena that will never exist because God has forbidden them.
    In fact, the Biblical God rarely feels the need to justify His actions by giving reasons. The most notable exception of course, is in John 3:16: why did He give His only begotten Son? Because he “so loved the world”.
    It seems to me that Christian discipleship is primarily concerned with love and obedience. Humanizing God’s thought processes is bound to leave us all somewhat unsatisfied if we continue to worry at it as if through persistence we could one day understand the mind of God.
    Would finding an explanation for the existence of apparently gratuitous evil better enable to the Christian to feed the hungry and clothe the naked? I’m not convinced…

  2. Blimey Stephen! If somebody has to broker a peace deal before Joe and George can share a table, it doesn’t bode well for resolving such doctrinal differences as transubstantiation or justification by faith alone, does it?

    But seriously, is skeptical theism vs theodicy much of talking point in the Christian community? I suppose you’d know the answer to that better than me. I wouldn’t have expected it to generate much discussion there.

    As an outsider, what is most striking for me is what Joe and George have in common. Both take it as axiomatic that God (the Christian God, omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely benevolent) exists. Once that is allowed, then of course, the existence of evil must have some explanation, even if we don’t know what it is. As you say, that’s what happens in other areas of enquiry. Evolutionary theory is so strongly attested by the evidence that no mainstream scientist doubts it. Which means that where there are problems with the theory we proceed on the basis that the problems can be resolved and fitted into the theory once we know more, not that evolutionary theory itself needs to be kicked into the long grass. BUT that approach is only justified because the evidence for Darwin’s theory *is* so strong. Can the same be said of the evidence for God’s existence?

    So I would have expected the discussion would only really get going once Thomas joined tried to join Joe and George. Thomas doesn’t start with the presumption that God exists so he doesn’t have a “problem of evil” which he needs to reconcile with God’s existence. For Thomas, evil is just what it appears to be: evil.

    Show me your strong evidence that God exists, evidence as strong as for Darwinian evolution, and I will be the first to join you in saying: “OK, God exists. That means that the existence of evil must be compatible with his existence. Whether we figure out how or why is another matter. But now it’s proved God does exist, we can be sure that evil is explicable.”

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