Response to ‘Capturing Christianity’ on “The Conflict Between Natural Theology and Skeptical Theism”

Cameron Bertuzzi of “Capturing Christianity” recently wrote an interesting post on the alleged conflict between skeptical theism and natural theology (i.e. arguments for God’s existence).

Undergirding the skeptical theist position is the idea that (on classical theism) God’s reasons for allowing and doing various things, especially in particular instances, are unknown. There are various forms of skeptical theism, and one of the most common formulations (as mentioned by Cameron) claims that our knowledge of goods and evils is not representative of all the goods and evils that there really are. Hence, the fact that we can’t see a good reason why God allows so much horrendous suffering, isn’t a reason to think that God doesn’t have a good reason.

Some Worries

One of the problems I have with Cameron’s post is the claim that if skeptical theism undermines arguments for God, then the effect is limited to only a few arguments like (inductive) arguments from fine-tuning. For instance, he says that a skeptical theist can:

… still affirm a whole host of arguments (e.g., the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Contingency Argument, Craig’s deductive version of the Fine-Tuning Argument, the Moral Argument, the Ontological Argument, Plantinga’s argument from knowledge and proper function, and many others). 

First off, it’s not clear that all types of skeptical theists can run these arguments. For example, the type of skeptical theism employed by Peter Van Inwagen [1] looks, at first glance, to be in conflict with running the ontological argument and the argument from contingency. In addition, one can run cosmological arguments that are inductive, and it’s far from clear why these would be immune from skeptical theism, including the version of skeptical theism that Cameron signs up to.

Secondly, if skeptical theism entails global skepticism, then skeptical theism indirectly undercuts all of the arguments from natural theology. One of the most common objections to skeptical theism is that it leads to global skepticism concerning knowledge, so that does seem to be relevant to the issue at hand since knowledge of God (via arguments) would be included in our “global knowledge”.

Thirdly, it’s not obviously true that the problem (of affirming skeptical theism and natural theology) wouldn’t impact Plantinga’s argument from knowledge and proper function, as pointed out by Justin McBrayer (who is a skeptical theist!).

Fourthly, at face value, skeptical theism would seem to potentially undermine arguments for Christianity. Take the argument from the resurrection. I can’t see a reason why God would start a false religion in the form of Christianity by resurrecting Jesus. But, that’s because (per skeptical theism) the goods that I know of aren’t representative of the goods that there really are. [2]

Conclusion

It’s far from obvious that if skeptical theism is true, then skeptical theism does not undercut most/all arguments for God’s existence. In fact, at first glance, skeptical theism seems to undercut the majority of arguments for God’s existence. [3]

Notes

[1]https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skeptical-theism/#BroModSkeApp

[2]Cameron briefly seems to hint that he thinks the problem of divine hiddenness is just an instance of the problem of evil, but he never specifies why he thinks this.

[3]Cameron overstates the degree to which the argument from fine-tuning (if sound) confirms theism over naturalism. That’s because on theism there is an almost infinite number of universes for God to design. In addition, even though one might think that the mere existence of life makes theism more likely than it would have been otherwise, one must also ask to what degree does human life confirm/disconfirm theism. To ignore the latter is to commit the fallacy of understated evidence.

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5 thoughts on “Response to ‘Capturing Christianity’ on “The Conflict Between Natural Theology and Skeptical Theism”

  1. Spin doctors, spin doctors, the world is full of spin doctors. These people have so many faces it is hard to tell who is speaking. With one face they claim the “no one can know the mind of god” and with another they claim to know exactly that.

    I don’t quite understand the fixation on philosophical arguments. Such arguments can prove nothing. All they can do is connect premises to conclusions … if, if the premises can be established as being true and the argument also, a true conclusion can be made. In all of the arguments for the existence of god either the logic is faulty or the premises are. So, no actual true conclusions are made.

    The most successful branch of philosophy, natural philosophy aka science, split off from philosophy in general some time ago and has been more successful (way more successful) than the rest of the field. But science doesn’t claim “truth” as a result of their studies, merely usefulness. All “correctness” is provisional.

    I think a more productive line of investigation is to question whether the actions claimed for their god exhibit any of the claims made for its powers (omnipresence, omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). When one does that it is quite clear that these claims are made out of whole cloth without even support from scripture. God himself, for example, claims to be the source of all evil, yet He is claimed to be “all-good.” So, the choice is between believing their god or believing some religious spin doctor … and guess which most choose?

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      “I don’t quite understand the fixation on philosophical arguments. Such arguments can prove nothing. All they can do is connect premises to conclusions … if, if the premises can be established as being true and the argument also, a true conclusion can be made. In all of the arguments for the existence of god either the logic is faulty or the premises are. So, no actual true conclusions are made.”

      With deductive arguments, especially deductive philosophical arguments, the main aim is to convince someone through premises which they ALREADY ACCEPT (implicitly). You say “such” arguments prove nothing, but then it sounds like you then say they don’t prove anything if they are unsound. I totally grant the latter. As Sean Carroll points out, the best approach is to compare models and see how they fit the data. For instance, one can ask whether naturalism better fits the data than theism. The key is that we have to abstract away from what we do know and ask honestly what we would expect to see in the world if each hypothesis were true. That’s not easy because of our bias, nevertheless, it is possible. And, people do change their minds in light of the evidence.

      You then say:

      “The most successful branch of philosophy, natural philosophy aka science, split off from philosophy in general some time ago and has been more successful (way more successful) than the rest of the field. But science doesn’t claim “truth” as a result of their studies, merely usefulness. All “correctness” is provisional.”

      That’s actually very debatable. Certainly, natural science is useful, but the answer to the question of truth and science is far from obvious.

      Finally, you say:

      “I think a more productive line of investigation is to question whether the actions claimed for their god exhibit any of the claims made for its powers (omnipresence, omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). When one does that it is quite clear that these claims are made out of whole cloth without even support from scripture. God himself, for example, claims to be the source of all evil, yet He is claimed to be “all-good.” So, the choice is between believing their god or believing some religious spin doctor … and guess which most choose?”

      If anything, I think that approach, in my experience, has been less fruitful. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, twist the Bible to say anything. However, it is true that many Christians just assume that Yahweh is God (and that Yahweh can do what he wants).

  2. The only defensible form of theism lies at the far end of this spectrum.
    We don’t know much beyond personal experience. We can’t know much beyond personal experience. I choose to believe that there is a reason for all this. Full stop.
    Sadly, the adherents of this doctrine are few.
    Due to an inherent human attraction to contradiction, perhaps?

  3. Cameron Bertuzzi

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Jonathan. You list four worries; let’s run through them.

    First you say that some versions of skeptical theism (e.g., modal skepticism) disallow running some of the arguments I’ve listed. That seems right to me. However, as I’m sure you realize, this has little impact on what I’ve written. You then say that some inductive versions of the contingency argument would be undermined by the kind of ST I endorse. Two points. First, I never cited the version of ST I endorse (I never even said I hold ST). Second, I’m not sure which version you’re referencing, but even if you’re right, the version I had in mind was deductive, so it wouldn’t rule that one out.

    Second you make the conditional claim that ‘if ST entails global skepticism, then we can’t run any arguments from NT.’ Suppose this is correct. Does it follow that the ST can’t run any arguments from NT? Not unless it’s true that ST entails global skepticism. Without a defense of this premise, all we have is a hypothetical worry–so, not much of a worry at all.

    Your third worry is that ST undermines Plantinga’s argument from warrant and proper function. Even if that were the case (of which I’m dubious), there are a load of arguments still on the table. So, again, we don’t have much of a worry.

    The last worry is that ST undermines the argument for the Resurrection. Suppose that’s true (which in this case I’m inclined to agree with). Does this undermine the point of the post? Not at all. I didn’t compare Christianity with Naturalism; I compared Naturalism with Theism. To quote myself: “Many believe that Natural Theology (NT) and Skeptical Theism (ST) are at odds with each other. After explaining the terms, I’ll explain why, from my perspective, this conflict actually helps the Theist and hurts the Naturalist.” I didn’t claim this conflict helps the Christian. Moreover, I’m a Reformed Epistemologist, so I don’t think arguments are needed for warranted Christian belief.

    In summary, these worries aren’t very serious worries. The first doesn’t impact the post at all, the second is merely hypothetical, the third is insignificant, and the fourth is aimed at something I wasn’t defending.

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