In his two-part article “If it’s okay for God to allow horrors, then we don’t know much about God” (Part 1; Part 2) Jason Thibodeau presents an articulate and concise skeptical argument against theism. There is a lot packed into his article, and I’m not going to attempt to address it all here. But in this article I do intend to critique what I take to be the core claim of the first part of his essay.
In the first part Jason argues that neither free will nor greater goods theodicies are sufficient to explain why God would allow the distribution and intensity of evil that we see. This leaves the Christian with skeptical theism according to which God may have reasons beyond our ken for allowing evil. But if that is the case, might God not also have reasons beyond our ken for deceiving us? Here’s how Jason puts the dilemma:
Given the assumption that God has morally sufficient reasons to fail to prevent the deaths of children in hot cars (and the many other horrors that we observe), what we should say is that we are not in a position to judge how likely it is that God has reasons to deceive us or allow us to be deceived about the Bible, the significance of Jesus, our own greatest good, and many other things. But, of course, most theists are not so humble when they speak about what God can do for us and the interest God has in our greatest good, nor can Christians admit that, for all we know, Jesus did not die for our sins.
What Christians ought to say, if they are skeptical theists, is that for all we know, God has very good reasons to allow us to believe that Jesus died for our sins even though he did not die for our sins. About these and many other very important matters, we could be gravely mistaken. We are just not in a position to know whether God has morally sufficient reasons to allow us to be so deceived.
I think Jason does a really good job of presenting his argument. However, I don’t think his argument is successful. Or, to put it another way, I don’t see any problem here unique to so-called skeptical theism. Jason claims that the Christian cannot know a claim like “Jesus died for our sins” because God could be lying. 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.
Let’s begin by getting one thing clear: the central issue at stake is not being lied to; rather, it is forming a false belief. So the problem is this: for all we know, if we listen to God we could be forming false beliefs. Does it follow that theists should be skeptics?
Before you draw that conclusion, consider this: if we listen to anybody telling us anything we could be forming false beliefs. And if we accept the deliverances of our memory we could be forming false beliefs. And if we accept our rational intuition we could be forming false beliefs. And if we accept our moral intuition we could be forming false beliefs. And if we accept the deliverances of our sense perception we could be forming false beliefs.
Philosophers have been wrestling with the worry of skepticism for hundreds of years. They’ve worried that in order to know that-p I must know that I know that-p. So for example, to know that I see an apple I must know that my sense perception is veridical in the conditions under which I form the belief that I see an apple. And to know that Jesus died for our sins I must know that God is testifying truthfully in the conditions under which I form the belief that Jesus died for our sins. Consequently, to know that-p I must know that I know that-p.
The problem is that there is no way to attain that second order knowledge across the spectrum of beliefs formed through sense perception, moral intuition, rational intuition, memory, and testimony. Some philosophers have concluded that we therefore ought to become skeptics about all the sources of belief for which we cannot know that we know (which, as I suggested, is arguably all of them).
I disagree with this dour conclusion. Instead, I reject the assumption that I must know that I know that-p in order to know that-p. (I provide extended discussions of these topics in my book Theology in Search of Foundations and The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. I won’t bother rehearsing those arguments here.) That which is true of the spectrum of deliverances for our belief including testimonial beliefs generally is also true of that subset of beliefs which originate in divine testimony.
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. Just as I am warranted in accepting the testimony of a stranger when I ask directions unless I have some reason to doubt that testimony, so I am warranted in accepting the testimony of God when I read scripture or pray unless I have some reason to doubt that testimony.