Saturday, December 24, 2016

City on the edge of forever

To set the stage, let's begin with a definition: 

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.  In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.  If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom. 
If skeptical theism is true, it appears to undercut the primary argument for atheism, namely the argument from evil.  This is because skeptical theism provides a reason to be skeptical of a crucial premise in the argument from evil, namely the premise that asserts that at least some of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  If we are not in a position to tell whether God has a reason for allowing any particular instance of evil, then we are not in a position to judge whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  And if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist.

Now let's quote an atheist:

Jason Thibodeau 
We make judgements about the value of things; i.e., that something is good or that it is bad. And we make judgements about the relative value of pairs of things or groups of things; that one thing is better (or worse) than something else. 
In this case, I don't see how we can believe that the suffering of a child who is dying of leukemia can be either good or necessary for some greater purpose; a purpose which, incidentally, is unknown to us. One of the judgments that we make is that each human life is of infinite value. What greater purpose could the suffering and death of a child be necessary for the realization of? Our conviction that such suffering would be a tragedy is a manifestation of our judgement that it serves no greater purpose.  
Suppose such judgments are by and large accurate. When we judge that suffering is bad, we are correct; when we say that happiness is good, we are correct. When we judge that the loss of a life is worse than the loss of a wedding ring, we are correct. 
Suppose, on the other hand, that such judgements are not, by and large, accurate. When we judge that something is bad, we are often wrong; when we judge that something is good, we are often wrong. This might be true because there are valuable things the existence and magnitude of which we are ignorant. The existence of such valuable things might provide God with morally sufficient reasons to allow the occurrence of things that we judge to be horrors (such as a child dying of leukemia). But if this is true, then obviously we cannot trust our judgements about which things are good and which are bad and which things are better or worse than other things. It follows that, for all we would know, the death and suffering of children is good. For all we would know, war is good. For all we would know, famine is good.

This goes awry in so many different ways:

i) There's absolutely no basis in secularism for the claim that "each human life is of infinite value". For that matter, I don't think that's true from a Christian perspective, either. You can say each human life is valuable without saying each human life is infinitely valuable. What does that even mean? Moreover, what's wrong with saying some lives are less valuable than others? What about the possibility that some people devalue their lives through their misconduct? Take serial killers. 

ii) On the one hand, Thibodeau says "When we judge that the loss of a life is worse than the loss of a wedding ring, we are correct." On the other hand, he said "we make judgements about the relative value of groups of things; that one thing is better (or worse) than something else." Notice that his denial is inconsistent with his prefatory observation. It's not, in the first instance, a question of comparing a lost life with a lost wedding ring, but by his own admission, making comparative judgments about "groups of things." Not an isolated comparison between a life and a ring, but comparing the connected goods and evils between different chains of events. Sure, taken by itself, a wedding ring may be of trivial value compared to a human life, but what other things are linked to the respective chains of events? 

iii) And while, in general, a human life is more valuable than a wedding ring, some people can forfeit their prima facie right to life. Take serial killers. 

iv) Likewise, it can be simplistic to say something is either good or evil. Sometimes that's a false dichotomy. Once again, we need to distinguish between discrete events and chains of events. A child dying of cancer is generally evil in and of itself. I say "generally" because, if the child is Stalin, we might judge that differently. 

However, something evil can be a source of something good. But the fact that it produces a second-order good doesn't make the evil good. Rather, it means we're assessing the good of the whole as well as the good (or evil) of the parts. It's not merely an atomistic assessment of each particular incident, but judging the package. The package may have goods while some individual elements are evil. And some of those goods may be contingent on some of those evils. So you're rendering a collective judgment. 

And a collective judgment can be a qualified judgment. The resultant goods don't make the evils good. But it isn't just evil. Rather it's a combination of goods and evils. And their interdependent. You don't say it's better than it is. But it has an overall value that's distinct from the individual elements. 

Take marriage. Even in good marriages, bad things happen. Couples say and do inconsiderate things. But that doesn't mean it can't be a good marriage. 

v) We can judge a bad thing to be bad in itself. But our judgment may be shortsighted if what's bad leads to a future good, of which we're ignorant. It's possible to have trustworthy judgments about the present qua present, but have untrustworthy judgments about the future in relation to the present. 

vi) By the same token, retrospective judgments can be very different from how we viewed events at the time. Take people whose plans fall through. At the time, that may seem to be disastrous. But in some cases, looking back on the incident 10 years later, they realize that it would have been disastrous if their plans hadn't fallen through. 

vii) Thibodeau asserts that "Our conviction that such suffering would be a tragedy is a manifestation of our judgement that it serves no greater purpose." But that's a non sequitur. An incident can be tragic for some people, but benefit others. 

viii) There's nothing esoteric about the notion that, for all we know, something which seems to have no redeeming value at present may generate unforeseen goods in the future. It's not unique to theodicy or skeptical theism to point out that because we're in the dark about future consequences, we lack the necessary perspective to predict and assess what good may come of some event. It isn't special pleading for a Christian apologist to make that observation, for that's a general truth. 

ix) Take a famous episode from Star Trek: "The City on the Edge of Forever". In that episode, the Enterprise investigates a planet that's emitting time waves. One wave rocks the ship, causing Dr. McCoy to accidentally inject himself, making him psychotic. He beams down to the planet, with Spock and Kirk in hot pursuit. But they fail to intercept him before he steps into a time portal. At that point they lose contact with the Enterprise, because McCoy did something in the past that erased the timeline from which they came. So they step into the time portal, and come out the other end in New York City, during the Depression. They must figure out what McCoy did to change the future, and prevent it, to restore the original timeline. 

They go to a soup kitchen and befriend a pretty, idealistic social worker. Tweaking his tricorder, Spock discovers that in the future, she will lead a pacifist movement which will keep the US out of WWII, resulting in the Nazi conquest of the world. In the original timeline, she died before that happened. So they must prevent McCoy from saving her life, to avert that dire outcome, and restore the original timeline. 

When Kirk sees that she's about to be run over, not only does he not intervene to stop it, but he prevents McCoy from intervening to stop it. To an onlooker, his behavior is unconscionable. She was an admirable woman. What possible justification could there be for letting her die in a traffic accident? To McCoy, Kirk's behavior is inexcusable. But the audience knows something McCoy doesn't.  

x) In attempting to save her life, McCoy did the right thing, given the information available to him. In refusing to save her life, Kirk did the right thing, given the information available to him. McCoy acted on his prima facie duty, but that was morally overridden by Kirk's superior viewpoint. 

That principle isn't distinctive to theodicy or skeptical theism. In making morally responsible decisions, we must often take into account the impact of our actions. That interjects an element of uncertainty into decision-making, for the future is unpredictable to some degree, and increasingly unpredictable the further it proceeds. 

This doesn't mean results are the sole consideration in decision-making. But it's often a morally salient consideration. 

xi) Some time-travel scenarios may seem to be fatalistic. Was it McCoy's temporal incursion that changed the timeline, or was it the temporal incursion of Spock and Kirk that changed the timeline? Should they do something or nothing? If they follow him into the past, is that what changes the past? What if their effort to rectify the problem is the very thing that instigates the problem in the first place? (In the actual episode, that's made clear, but it's easy to imagine a variation in which it's not.)

If they don't know in advance, they must make their decision based on the information at hand. In the nature of the case, we can't take unknown variables into consideration. So that doesn't figure in our deliberations. 

That's analogous to the duties of human agents. By contrast, God has the entire context in view. In that respect, what's right for God might be wrong for you and me, or vice versa. 

xii) In addition, because God isn't human, he can do some things that might be morally or psychological harmful if humans did it. Suppose a house burglar breaks into my home. I shoot him in self-defense. I can live with that.

By contrast, suppose my teenage son, through no fault of his own, is prone to psychotic episodes. During one of these, he comes at me with a butcher knife. Suppose I'm armed. I could shoot him in self-defense, but I can't bring myself to risk killing my son. I could never live with myself if that happened. So I take the risk of being killed rather than taking the risk of killing him.

Suppose, though, I have a friend with me who's armed. He shoots him instead. Because my friend doesn't have the same emotional investment in my son that I have, he can do something I can't face up to in that situation. 


  1. I'll respond to some of your comments:

    i) Saying that a person has infinite value is just a way of saying that the value of a person is not measurable or comparable to other things of value. There is nothing that is more valuable than the value of a person. We don't know how to measure it and it is inappropriate to put a numerical value on it.

    I don't think you have shown that any person can forfeit the respect to which they are entitled. Even serial killers have dignity and their dignity deserves to be respected.

    ii) I have no idea what point you are trying to make here.

    ix) - x) Suppose McCoy had reason to believe that his judgements about what is good and bad (including his comparative judgements) are not reliable. He might have this reason if he had good reason to believe that there are things the existence and value of which we are ignorant. In this case, for all he knows, the death of Edith Keeler is a very good thing. This must be McCoy's judgement. Notice that this is true regardless of Kirk's viewpoint. We don't have to even suppose that Kirk is involved to see that, if McCoy is a skeptical theist, he must believe that, for all he knows, Edith's death is very good indeed. If this is so, then he must believe that he is not in a position to know whether it is his prima facie duty to try to save her life.

    According to skeptical theism, Kirk's viewpoint is not superior to McCoy's. Kirk knows things that McCoy does not. However, if skeptical theism is true, then for all Kirk knows, there are things the existence and value of which he is ignorant. For example, it is possible that the nazi conquest is necessary for the realization of something that is much more valuable than the elimination of Nazi Germany. Thus, given Kirk's viewpoint, it is possible that nazi conquest is not bad; it is possible that it is very good indeed. Thus, if skeptical theism is true, Kirk must be agnostic about his moral duty. He has no reason to think that he ought to let Edith die.

    1. My reply: