On “The Limitations of Pure Skeptical Theism”

In his article, “The Limitations of Pure Skeptical Theism,” Paul Draper argues that skeptical theism can’t be applied to Humean arguments from evil (like Draper’s own argument). To be sure, Draper repeats some of the points that he has made before. Nevertheless, it seems that (many) skeptical theists needed a refresher.


As a reminder, skeptical theism claims, “…we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.” [1]

In addition, Humean arguments from evil are arguments that focus on comparing multiple hypotheses in their ability to explain the existence of evil.

Draper’s Point

Drapers’ main objection to skeptical theism is that it doesn’t really change anything with respect to our epistemic situation. It’s true that, for all we know, God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing various evils in the world; however, it’s also true that, for all we know, God doesn’t have morally sufficient reason for allowing various evils in the world. In fact, for all we know, God is able to accomplish all she wants without all the evil in the world. [2]

One of the most popular skeptical theists is Michael Bergmann. His version of skeptical theism asserts that our knowledge of goods and evils is not representative of all the goods and evils that there really are. Hence, just because we can’t see a good reason why God allows evil, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good reason. Bergmann claims that skeptical theism could apply to arguments from evil like Draper’s argument. That’s because, according to Bergmann, Draper’s argument relies on assessing the probability of there existing various evils given the hypothesis of classical theism, but skeptical theism denies that we can do this.

Draper’s response is that Bergmann is confusing objective probability with epistemic probability. Even if, according to Draper, we are unable to determine the objective probability of there being various evils given theism, that does not entail that we can’t assign a high epistemic probability that various evils would not exist given theism. [3] Hence, Draper-style arguments from evil don’t rely on the assumption that we are in a position to see that God doesn’t have a good reason for allowing the existence of evil.

It doesn’t seem that hard to see why someone would/should have a high confidence level that we wouldn’t see the types of evil that we observe if theism were true; the whole reason there is a problem of evil in the first place is because, prima facie, there does seem to be a tension between the existence of God and the existence of evil!

Perhaps there is a version of skeptical theism that can be applied to Humean arguments from evil like Paul Draper’s argument. For now, however, it appears that the verdict is that skeptical theism is useless when applied to certain arguments from evil. Or, skeptical theism alone can’t undermine particular arguments from evil. [4]

[1] https://www.iep.utm.edu/skept-th/#H6
[2] Draper, Paul (2013). The Limitations of Pure Skeptical Theism. Res Philosophica 90 (1):97-111.
[3] Ibid.
[4] I find the claims, “The existence of evil doesn’t count as any evidence against God,” and,”Evil doesn’t give anyone prima facie justification to believe in God’s nonexistence,” to be incredible. Literally, I don’t find such claims to be credible.


7 thoughts on “On “The Limitations of Pure Skeptical Theism”

  1. Are you aware of anyone having cataloged all of God’s decisions/actions in scripture? To make claims like “no one can know the mind of god” and “we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting” should at least be based upon patterns in the recorded actions of said god, no?

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

      I don’t deny that there’s a tension between Christian theism and skeptical theism. As you mentioned, it seems that in certain passages of that Bible we are told what Yahweh’s reasons are for acting. Hence, we wouldn’t be in the dark.

  2. Doesn’t this hark back to the big dust-up between Pruss and the Churchlands over the applicability of Bayesian reasoning?
    I have to disagree with you – but only in the case that we are totally skeptical.
    And I think that total skepticism is the only consistent stance.
    The proposition in question – God is limitless and thus incomprehensible -does not refer to the logical limitlessness that we are accustomed to from mathematics, which is in a sense, quantitative.
    It is a qualitative limitlessness.
    In that case we have no reason to posit any regularity in the variable, and so talk of probabilities is meaningless.
    I see this same sort of problem with cosmological fine tuning. The set of normalizing numerical values in physics must be what it is, if physics must be what it is. But we have no empirical basis – like the one which undergirds physics – for saying so.
    What’s left is a mere rhetorical tautology: physics must be what it is for physics to be what it is, and that can’t support speculation.
    God is in the same boat. Visible chunk of God/Divine remainder = 0. Or else we can begin to speculate…

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

      Thanks for the response. If God exists and is so mysterious, then perhaps we should be totally agnostic about his existence. Like you said, on your view, God is ‘limitless’ and ‘incomprehensible’. Theists are free to take this stance, but I don’t think most would want to. In addition, I don’t see how that view can fit with subscribing to a particular form of theism (Islam, Christianity, etc)

      I certainly think that if a hypothesis makes no predictions, then that’s a strike against it. What you are saying makes me wonder if your view of theism is even unverifiable/unfalsifiable. How would reality look any different if the view were false? If there’s no way to tell, then why would one be a theist?

      And if God is totally incomprehensible, then it seems we are totally in the dark about any other attributes of God. Again, one is free to take this view, but most theists wouldn’t welcome this implication.

      1. …and yet I see religious folk making these assertions about completeness, limitlessness, ineffability… all the time, and sometimes in the same sentence in which they also assert that God is a person!
        It might seem that an untestable hypothesis would carry no weight, but look at string theory (it might be untestable).
        More to the point, look at scientific instrumentalism. As you say, the world works the same whether one takes an instrumentalist viewpoint or a realist viewpoint. Yet there is an immense amount of angst generated by the choice between those stances.
        These things have psychological significance, which is the most significant kind of significance:)

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

        Thanks. I was careful not to say that an untestable hypothesis carries no weight. I simply think that it counts (somewhat) against the hypothesis.

  3. Pingback: Skeptical theism and the appeal to divine supremacy fallacy – AnonofReason

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