This article is a guest post by Dr. Jason Thibodeau in which he responds to my article “Skeptical Theism and Skepticism Simpliciter: A Response to Jason Thibodeau.”
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Randal has provided a thoughtful reply to my argument for the conclusion that, if skeptical theism is true, then we must be skeptical about many religious matters, including the central claims of Christianity. I want to thank Randal for publishing my original article on his website, for replying to my arguments, and for allowing us to continue the conversation. While I am very grateful for his reply, I do not think that it is a successful one.
The heart of Randal’s response is that I have not shown that the possibility that God is deceiving us is anything other than a mere possibility akin to other skeptical possibilities, such as the possibility that you are now dreaming or are a brain-in-a-vat. Randal’s view is that such possibilities do not justify skepticism. He maintains that we can trust the deliverances of our sense organs and need not doubt the beliefs that we form on the basis of sensory experiences solely on the basis of the mere possibility that our senses are systematically deceived. Much the same, Randal claims, can be said about beliefs that we form on the basis of testimony, including divine testimony. In order to doubt the beliefs we form on the basis of our senses or on the basis of testimony, we need a special reason to think that our senses are being deceived or that the testimony is unreliable.
While I do not agree with everything Randal says about skepticism, I will not take issue with his position here since the foray into skepticism and how best to respond to it involves a wrong turn toward an issue that is not relevant to my argument. Randal sees me as, perhaps unwittingly, playing the role of the skeptic who points out that you have to know that your belief-forming mechanisms are reliable in order to trust the beliefs that these mechanisms generate. But that is not an accurate account of the substance of my argument. In this post, I will explain how Randal gets my argument wrong and try to lay out in more detail than I did in my original article the reasoning that supports my conclusion.
Randal offers the following brief paraphrase of my argument:
Jason claims that the Christian cannot know a claim like “Jesus died for our sins” because God could be lying.
This is not a good presentation of my argument, for two reasons. The first reason is that I was careful to not say merely that, for all we know, God has reasons to lie to us about very important things. Here is what I said,
It is possible that there are morally sufficient reasons that justify God’s causing (or permitting some other being(s) to cause) many humans to falsely believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.
So, what I said is that it is possible (a) that God has reasons to deceive us, and that (b) God has reasons to permit us to be deceived. And I was careful to indicate that the latter possibility does not have to involve God’s deceiving us; it could involve God permitting some other being to deceive us. The reason that this is important is that I wanted to avoid the issue, which is irrelevant for present purposes, of whether God, being morally perfect, could ever lie. That is why I added clause (b). God might never engage in a lie (I say this merely as a possibility, I am not convinced that it is true), but that would not entail that he never allows us to be deceived. In the same way, God might never destroy a city populated by hundreds of thousands of people, but, according to theists, he has allowed cities populated by hundreds of thousands of people to be destroyed.
The second, and more important, reason that Randal’s paraphrase of my argument is unacceptable is that I did not say that the mere possibility that God could be lying (or that he allows us to be deceived) is sufficient to justify skepticism about God’s veracity. I said that the possibility that God has reasons to allow us to be deceived, coupled with the claim, which the skeptical theist is committed to, that God does have sufficient reason to refrain from preventing horrors such as the Holocaust, justifies skepticism about the central claims of Christianity and many other matters of importance.
The most important part of my argument, which Randal has not yet addressed, is that the existence of reasons that justify God’s refraining from preventing horrors makes it more likely that there are reasons that justify God’s permitting our being deceived about a great many very important things. Thus, when Randal says,
My contention is that mere possibilities like this are not the kind of things that should worry a person. To say they are is to stake out a position in epistemology which leads to skepticism, whether you’re a theist or not.
he is missing the point of my argument. I am not saying that there is this mere possibility (that God might be lying) and this grounds skepticism. I agree with Randal that we need some reason to take the possibility seriously before it can justify skepticism. My argument is, rather, that skeptical theism gives us reasons to be worried about the possibility that God might have reasons to permit our being deceived.
Randal takes my argument to be this:
Premise: It is possible that God has reasons to deceive us (or to permit our being deceived).
Conclusion: We cannot be sure that we are not being deceived about the central claims of Christianity or a great many other very important matters.
But this is not my argument. My argument is this:
Premise: God has reasons, some of which are probably beyond our ken, to refrain from preventing events of great horror (i.e., skeptical theism).
Conclusion: Thus, it is not unlikely that God has reasons, some of which might be beyond our ken, to permit large numbers of people to be deceived about matters of great importance.
It would be legitimate to criticize this argument by suggesting that it is too compact. It is true that I left implicit some inferential moves. With that in mind, I will expand the above argument as follows:
(1) God has reasons, some of which are probably beyond our ken, to refrain from preventing events of great horror (i.e., skeptical theism)
(2) The deception of vast numbers of people about matters of great importance would be a significantly bad state of affairs.
(3) The deception of vast numbers of people about matters of great importance would not be as bad as the total amount of other horror (such as deaths by disease, starvation, war, the Holocaust, etc.) that God has refrained from preventing.
(4) If God has reasons, some of which are probably beyond our ken, for refraining from preventing all of this great horror (disease, starvation, etc.), then it is not improbable that he has reasons to permit the occurrence of events that would not be as bad.
(5) Thus, it is not improbable that there are reasons for God to permit the deception of vast numbers of people about matters of great importance.
Let me say a bit about what I mean about “not improbable that.” I do not think that we can say with precision how probable it is that, on the assumption that there are reasons beyond our ken that justify God’s failure to prevent horrors, there are reasons beyond our ken that justify God’s allowing us to be deceived. But I do think that the existence of the former kind of reason makes the existence of the latter kind of reason much more likely. The important thing with respect to Randal’s reply to my argument is that the probability that the latter sort of reasons exist is high enough (again, on skeptical theism) that we cannot just dismiss the possibility as a mere possibility that need not worry a theist.
At the end of his reply, Randal says,
This does not mean that one is excused from needing to consider defeaters to the various beliefs we form under diverse circumstances. But it does mean that those beliefs are treated as innocent until proven guilty.
My argument is successful if it shows that, on skeptical theism, the probability that there are reasons that justify God’s allowing us to be deceived about very important things is significant enough that it overcomes this presumption of innocence. And I think that I have shown this. It is not mere idle speculation that leads to the possibility that there are such reasons. It is, rather, a conclusion reached on the basis of comparing the evil associated with vast deception with the kinds and amount of evil that we know that God, if he exists, has reasons to refrain from preventing.