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January 6th, 2005

The Problem of Evil hits the papers

One of the striking things about the tsunami coverage here in Melbourne has been how much of it has focussed on religion. The recent op-eds in The Age have been full of people arguing about how, or whether, religious views can accommodate tragedies such as we’ve seen in south Asia. Since I’ll be teaching the Problem of Evil as part of philosophy 101 this spring (using God, Freedom and Evil as the primary text), I’ve been following these discussions with some interest. I was surprised to find one of the responses I always dismissed as absurd actually has a little more bite to it when I actually tried thinking about it.

It’s worth noting that there is only a theological problem here for a special kind of theist. Believers in Greek-style polytheism don’t have a problem. Nor do believers whose God is morally pretty good, but not altgether perfect. Maybe a God like that well-intentioned colleague who is sometimes a bit forgetful. And there isn’t a problem for those who don’t believe in an omnipotent God, as apparently some prominent theists do not. But if your God is all-powerful and all-loving, there’s a prima facie problem.

One could try, as Bishop Phillip Jensen apparently did to say that it’s all part of God’s warning. But there are plenty of problems with that. Voltaire’s criticism of a similar move after Lisbon (there are plenty of worse sinners in Paris) seems on the money. And like earth to God, next time you want to send a message, try skywriting. It’s cheap, especially for you, it’s visible, and if there isn’t a plane involved, everyone will notice. During the cricket this week Peter Roebuck was having some fun gently mocking this line, saying something like “Hmmm so we’re meant to think God was sitting around and decided, I know, what we need now is a giant tidal wave that kills a couple of hundred thousand people. I think they’ll have to do better than that.” It could have been a fun discussion but the other commentator seemed a little nervous to be talking about anything more controversial than Yousuf Youhana’s field placings so it got cut off, but Roebuck was correct.

I think there’s a relatively straightforward solution to the Problem of Evil, the modal realism solution due to Donald Turner and Hud Hudson. I also think that the no best world solution is pretty good. To be sure both of these solutions have metaphysical oddities about them, but I think they are both perfectly fine solutions to the theological problems. So I’m mostly interested in mapping out the logical space here rather than trying to work out if there’s a knock-down argument against theism, which I’m pretty sure there isn’t.

But what I most wanted to write about was the response by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others; they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence. These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease, but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart.

In the past I always thought this was just a cop-out, akin to refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, or refuting the sceptic by holding up one’s hands. Then I realised, I support refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, or refuting the sceptic by holding up one’s hands, so maybe I better look into this more closely!

Put in terms we analytic philosophers would be more comfortable with, the argument might go as follows. It’s a familiar fact that when faced with a valid argument, one always has a choice between believing the conclusion and rejecting one or more of the premises. It’s also a familiar point that given how fragile philosophical reasoning can be, if we have a choice between accepting a philosophical claim and accepting some claim that we’ve received from a more secure evidentiary source, e.g. perception, common sense, gossip, reading tea leaves etc, the right thing to do is reject the philosophical claim. And that’s the right thing to do even if we don’t know why the philosophical claim is false. The upshot of this is that given a tricky philosophical argument for a claim that conflicts with something we know from a secure evidentiary source, and all kidding aside perception is basically a secure source, we should reject the philosophical argument.

Williams, if I’ve read him correctly, is arguing that believers can simply perceive God’s existence. Now this is not much use as an argument for God’s existence, since it is pretty blatantly question-begging, but there’s no such thing as begging-the-question when offering defences of your own view against alleged refutations. So I’m inclined to grant, or at least assume for the sake of argument, that (some) believers do have perceptual knowledge of God’s existence. Does this defeat the problem of evil?

I think not, as a close inspection of the parallels with Moorean common sense arguments shows. (I’m indebted over the next little bit to various conversations with Bill Lycan.) Moore wanted to defend common sense against philosophical attacks, such as McTaggert’s argument for the unreality of time, or the sceptic’s claim that he could not know of the existence of an external world. The trick was to (a) show that the philosopher’s conclusion entailed the opposite of some common sense claim (in McTaggert’s case this was “That I had breakfast today before I had lunch”) and (b) argue that the common sense claim was more plausible than some of the philosophical claim (in McTaggert’s case again “Temporal modes such as pastness and futurity are monadic properties of events.”). Both steps are going to be problematic for someone trying to offer a novel response to the Problem of Evil along Williams’s lines.

I won’t stress too much the problems with (b) here, but the rough idea is that the premises of the atheists Problem of Evil argument are hardly technical philosophical ideas. If they were, the problem wouldn’t get into the newspapers with quite the frequency it does. If anything, it’s the premises here that are common sense, though good philosophers (e.g. Plantinga) have noted that it is hard to get a rigorous statement of them. So the atheist doesn’t look like McTaggert or the sceptic to start.

The bigger problem is that the atheist’s conclusion here is nowhere near as radical as the conclusions Moore rejected, and they need not lead to the rejection of anything genuinely perceptual or common sensical. Remember the theological views I said at the top weren’t threatened by the tragedy, some of which were clearly theistic views. It’s consistent with the perceptions of God, at least as Archbishop Williams describes them, that they are perceptions of a less than all-loving, or a less than all-powerful, God. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how they could be perceptions of such a God, since these don’t seem to be observational properties.

Here’s an analogy to try and back that up. Imagine a debate between a common sense person Con, and a scientist Sci. Sci tries to argue that given what we know about subatomic physics, and how subatomic things tend to be widely separated, there are no solid objects. If Con responds by kicking a stone and saying “Look, that’s solid”, he’s given a perfectly sound defence of his view that there are solid objects, because he can see and feel (and hence perceptually know) that there are solid objects. Now imagine Sci does not argue with Con, but with Con’s radically common sensical cousin Rad, who thinks there are perfectly solid objects, where a perfect solid has material at every point in its interior. Sci points out that the assumption of perfect solidity is inconsistent with scientific theories. Rad responds by kicking a stone and saying “Look, that’s perfectly solid.” This response fails for multiple reasons. First, of course, it isn’t perfectly solid. Second, even if (per impossible) it was perfectly solid, this isn’t the kind of thing we could detect by simple observation, so Rad couldn’t know that it was perfectly solid.

I think the theist who responds to the Problem of Evil by appeal to their perception (or innate feeling or whatever) of God is in Rad’s position, not Con’s. It is arguable, and nothing in the Problem of Evil tells against it, that someone could perceive God’s existence. But they couldn’t simply perceive these superlative properties of God, because these are not available to simple inspection. (They might believe them for all other sorts of reasons, as we believe that stones are not perfectly solid for reasons that go beyond simple perception.) In general really we can’t simply perceive superlative properties – we can see that someone is tall, but have to infer from all sorts of facts that they are the tallest man in Britain. Hence the believer can’t just see that the conclusion of the Problem of Evil is false. But saying they can is not as bizarre, nor as non-responsive, as I always thought, so I’m rather glad Archbishop Williams wrote this piece. And I’m very glad that Australia is the kind of place where these kinds of debates can take place in public sphere, with something akin to arguments rather than name-calling being offered on both sides.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

23 Comments »

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23 Responses to “The Problem of Evil hits the papers”

  1. Greg Restall says:

    That’s a nice way of putting it! I’m glad you got that reading out of the Archbishop’s piece. I thought that this was the kind of ‘defence’ he was making, and I do think that there are some legs in that sort of line. I suppose to continue the discussion you’ve got to then figure out how the believer perceives that God is good, and that God is powerful, etc.

    In fact, what you get in the religious traditions (at least those of which I’m familiar) is the conclusion that the presence of evil is one of the things that leads us to the conclusion that what we mean by ‘good;’ when applied to God is not what we might have first thought. The Archbishop (and other somewhat orthodox believers, like me) will not want to go on to say that God is not omnibenevolent. To make the position more clearly coherent, however, I reckon that we need then to explain what we mean when we take God to be good (in any sense), and what grounds we might have for thinking that. I think I’ll need to think about this a bit more before saying more…

  2. Allan says:

    If I understand you right, you think the Archbishop’s argument doesn’t work because it it is a defense of “There’s a perfectly good and all-powerful God” which is not a piece of common sense the way “I know I have hands” is. But suppose the Archibiship aims to defend “There is a God” without being specific about properties – but we all know pretty much what he means by that. After all, the “Argument from Evil” is usually directed against theism rather generally. It seems to me like the Archbishop is on better ground here, if we grant theism has the same common sense status as anti-skepticism.

    (P.S. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to discuss the “views of the Archibishop” which makes me feel so Early Modern; I love it.)

    (P.P.S. I think you’re blurring a distinction that should be drawn – between Moore’s ‘refutation’ of skepticism by holding up his hands and his stance against skepticism by criticizing skeptical arguments as having premises no more plausible than that he knows he has hands. They occur in different papers (although he mentions, but does not go into details of, the latter in “Proof”), and one could think (as I do) that his strategy for concluding “that skeptical argument is unsound, because it’s premises are no more plausible than that I know I have hands” is legitimate while thinking that his “Proof” of the external world is not a good argument.

  3. Heath White says:

    Brian,

    Very nice post! There is another element in play, however. The archbishop’s language of “they have learned to see” is Kuhnian paradigm-language. I think the claim is, more or less, that believers are operating with a different perceptual framework than non-believers. So the analogy with common-sense arguments is limited, in that there is no suggestion that what is perceived is perceptible by everyone, or that what is thought plausible is thought plausible by everyone, or that (conversely) what the atheist asserts as intuitive is going to be intuitive to everyone. Differently put, the perception that the archbishop is appealing to is heavily theory-laden, and laden with a theory that he understands not everyone subscribes to.

    So I think the notions of “plausible” “more plausible than” “common sense” and “intuitive” on which Moore-style refutations rely—and which you find lacking or disanalogous in the archbishop’s argument—are precisely part of the issue between the archbishop (and the believers for whom he speaks) and the atheologians to whom he is replying. Part of what is being contested is, e.g., what is more plausible than what.

    Now, like Greg, I need to think before saying more….

  4. V. Alan White says:

    Brian, et al, if I may. The analogy of the Archbishop’s comment to Rad’s position is a very good one. Where Rad’s claim overlaps Con’s there may be something Moorean-meaningful to reply to Sci, but the uniquely Radish (sorry) point is unsupported by rock-kicking alone. So then the Archbishop’s defensible point is really that inchoate theism (some belief in god irrespective of the property particulars of god’s nature) is irrefutable by any problem-of-evil scenario because god is “imposed” by a kind of religious perception.

    That word and similar language in the passage stuck in my craw, for it implies that it is in some sense obviously a divine source that does the imposing. But common sense about rocks is one thing; parallel claims about commonsensical theism is quite another. I think that Hick is more nearly right in suggesting that the world presents itself in the manner of something like a gestalt diagram. Such a diagram is after all nothing more than lines and points on a page—that is what is presented. Discerning e.g. a pair of faces or a vase, however, is perspectival and inherently within the mind of the perceiver. So Hick acknowledges that theistic gestalts of the world are possible just as nontheistic ones. But as Hick also notes, whereas gestalt diagrams themselves are designed, and thus in some sense the interpretations are objectively fixed “there” on the page, the case of the world is more like that of Wisdom’s garden example, where the evidence for a caretaker is formed from what is given and is disputable, or perhaps even better, that interpreting the world is like seeing objects in cloud formations. If so, as Heath White’s post neatly notes, then the conceptual schemes that we’re handed by socialization make all the difference to what we see in the world as a whole. We can be coaxed into seeing something in a cloud even if we fail to see it at first, and millenia of prodding can certainly assure us quite convincingly (apparently, and in some psychological sense at least) that we see a benevolent old man in the cloud, but also that that black portion of the cloud is not really his black eye. Yet it is a cloud, and that part that we see as the eye is black. Why doesn’t it besmirch his image even if we claim to see that image, since it’s so obviously there?

    To paraphrase Fodor in the latest APA Proceedings: epistemology may be perspectival in some sense, but metaphysics ain’t. And the Archbishop’s point about the sociological durability of a perspective cannot begin to persuade me that god with any worthwhile moral providence exists. (And that’s precisely why Hick withdraws such providence from the world with his “soul-building” view, and why such a sophisticated view of theism is only an epistemological hairs-breadth from nontheism. I should say that I respect Hick for that far more than the confident strutting of a Swinburne, however.)

    By the way, it was in part the influence of this page Brian that inclined me toward Oxfam in making my own paltry contribution for relief of the tsunami horror.

  5. John Fischer says:

    Brian, I have found that John Perry’s Hackett dialogue on the problem of evil is good for introducing students to the problem. As with his dialogue on personal identity, it is fun to read and philosophically suggestive.

    I find the best theodicy (although I’m not sure I accept any theodicy) to be a combination of the no-best-possible-world claim and the “no-stopping-point” claim. That is, if it were reasonable to criticize God for creating this world, with all its suffering, then it would also be reasonable to criticize God for creating a world with a bit less suffering, and so forth. Since God is supposed to be Perfect, there would be no stopping point in the criticism of God. This seems to suggest that it is not reasonable to criticize God in the first place, as long as He has created a sufficiently decent world. But, as I said, I only find this the best, not necessarily an acceptable, theodicy.

  6. Matt Weiner says:

    John—
    Is the Perfection of God necessary for the idea that we should not criticize Him in that argument? I think of that argument as follows:

    (1) There is no best world.
    (2) If it were legitimate to criticize God for creating a world because a better world could have been created instead, then (by (1)) it would be legitimate to criticize Him for creating any world whatsoever.
    (3) So if the antecedent of (2) holds, God is free from criticism only if He creates no world.
    (4) But it would be better for God to create some worlds (such as arguendo this one) than no world.
    (5) So God could be legitimately criticized for creating no world.
    (6) Assuming that some course of action is open to God to perform without criticism, then the antecedent of (2) must be false—it is not legitimate to criticize God for creating an decent enough world, even if a better world is available.

    (6a) Or, if you don’t like the assumption in (6), if no course of action or inaction is free from criticism, then a good being should perform a course that can be criticized—so the fact that creating this world is open to criticism doesn’t cast doubt on God’s goodness. (I admit that this sound very weird, given God’s perfection.)

    (1)-(6) don’t invoke the idea that it’s illegitimate to criticize God because of His perfection, but rather (I think) use the “no stopping point” argument to try to reduce to absurdity the antecedent of (2). But I may be missing what you mean by the “no stopping point” argument.

    (I favor Hick’s theodicy, BTW, but I’m starting to think it may need supplementation from an argument like this. And vice versa. But I’ve already gone on too long….)

  7. Allan says:

    V. Alan writes:

    To paraphrase Fodor in the latest APA Proceedings: epistemology may be perspectival in some sense, but metaphysics ainít.

    For what it’s worth, I think Moore disagrees. In “Some Judgements of Perception” (I think, if I’m getting the name of the article wrong I apologise but I’m hundreds of miles from my books) he not only says that “I know this is a pencil” is immune to attack from skeptics, but that “This is a pencil” is immune to attack (from idealists, or whatever). As I read him, this means that he thinks that not only are some common sense epistemological claims resistant to any philosophical attack, but that some metaphysical claims are resistant as well. (This is just to say that I think there are better than awful prospects for a Moorean defense of “some belief in god irrespective of the property particulars of godís nature.”)

    As far as the methodology of Mooreanism, too, it seems like it should apply to a wide range of claims – epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, and (perhaps) theological. Certainly the “p is more certain than any of your premises” stance applies to such p as that there are composite objects, that some objects are colored, that it is wrong to tortue babies for fun and profit. (Or, strictly speaking, it would apply probably to that this is a table, that this table is brown, etc.)

  8. Heath White says:

    “But as Hick also notes, whereas gestalt diagrams themselves are designed, and thus in some sense the interpretations are objectively fixed ďthereĒ on the page, the case of the world is more like that of Wisdomís garden example, where the evidence for a caretaker is formed from what is given and is disputable, or perhaps even better, that interpreting the world is like seeing objects in cloud formations.”

    This strikes me as begging the question. Isn’t it a point at issue between the different perspectives whether the world is, in some sense, designed like a gestalt diagram, or is as random as a cloud formation?

  9. John Fischer says:

    Matt seems to have the argument I inchoately thought of regimented nicely. Something like that is what I had in mind! I think Hasker and Van Inwagen have developed similar arguments.

  10. Dan says:

    Isn’t applying necesity to God at all a limitation of omnipotence and, therefore, a contradiction to the assertion of omnipotence? In the most perfect world is God not permitted free will for the sake of the Good/perfect?

  11. Justin Coates says:

    Dan,
    I’m not convinced that applying necessity to God would be any different than applying rationality to God or recognizing that God’s subject to the rules of logic (although some like Descartes didn’t). It seems then that the Good/perfect would operate for God similarly to the principle of sufficient reason. Necessity, then, is no more of a limitation to God’s omnipotence than his inability to actualize a world that contains spherical cubes.

  12. Dan says:

    Simply saying that God is unable to combine two qualitatively different objects as one because they have opposed attributes (angles vs curvature) really doesn’t say anything about applying reason to God either way. It is in fact applying reason to two distinct geometrical ideas and sustaining those distinctions. To say that God is not capable of reshaping reason seems like an irrational assertion because the one who asserts this has no knowledge of God’s relationship to reason other than its own. Is it possible to collapse distinction? Is simultaneity also a possibility? Or even to reinvent the experience and concept of distinction? It seems logical enough, yet our minds wouldn’t be able to grasp such a change, excluding simultaneity. Categories being reoriented or changed all together would flip our knowledge upside down but this really says nothing about God’s knowledge, given God has any.

    Sufficient reason requires something be worth a certain value in order to compel action or choice towards that end. Having omnipotence would include the possession of one’s own will, given there is a will at all. If there is something that directs anything, this something is said to have authority over whatever it directs. If God does not direct God’s own will, God is not omnipotent. God in this scenario would be like an ox and the Good/perfect would be its master that guides and directs. And where do we get this idea of the good and perfect again?

    If God cannot act towards what lacks sufficient reason, God has no free will nor is God omnipotent. It is easy to see what is perfect in relation to something that lacks will or is object/idea (a straight line, perfect circle, etc). But if there is something perfect that has a will. Can such categories that display a single qualitative perfection create a perfect analogy by which a perfect will can be deduced in totality? This seems absurd. Almost as absurd as thinking logic is a complete system rather than a functional mode of thought useful for recognizing and sorting ideas and their relationships. Reason should at least give us the ability to recognize the limits of our knowledge.

    My point is that any discussion of God needs to be consistant with the assumptions it places in the direction of God. To assert something and negate it in the same breath and then negate it again through the use of argument, sends the thinker right back through the door he was intending to walk out of…

  13. V. Alan White says:

    In regard to Heath’s point about Hick’s use of the gestalt examples.

    Since Hick is of the opinion, consistently with his soul-building view, that the world must be roughly interpretable equivalently theistically and nontheistically, no discernible god-given design inherent in the world should be demonstrable in any final way (that would affect free choice). However, even from a nontheistic view, natural order of some sort must be found there (Hume’s point about universes and design). Merging these two points in the gestalt example allows Hick to concede that it is not irrational to see the world either way. I used the cloud example—probably too flippantly, for which I apologize—(and which I believe Hick refers to somewhere, but I could be wrong) to bring in your excellent point about Kuhn in relation to this—that even clouds, which everyone would concede are pretty accidently amorphous, are susceptible to various interpretations of form based on what we see and wish to see in them. Because of its regularities, the world is definitely not such an amorphous jumble, making the two gestalts of theism and nontheism all the more understandable.

    So I take Hick to be using the gestalt examples only to suggest how god is “hidden” in such a way as to make soul-building possible. And even as a nontheist myself (and formerly an evangelical seminarian), I do think Hick’s grasp of the gravity and subtlety of these matters is masterful. I do have problems with “no best world” efforts to salvage views such as his, but I’ve not got a fleshed out counterargument beyond saying they’re not intuitive.

    BTW I always recommend “Groundhog Day” to my students as an illustration of Hick’s theodicy.

  14. Neil says:

    I don’t know how people perceive God – whether they have special sense organs, for instance. But I think that the claim that is no harder to swallow than the claim that . Perceiving God is, presumably, not like perceiving a person. I don’t know that the thing I perceive is God by comparing it to other things, the way I know that Jim is the tallest man in Britain by comparison. Instead, it is somehow a direct perception of certain properties (otherwise how would we know that it is God we are seeing, and not a ghost, an angel, a demon or an encyclopedia salesman?) So the analogy with Rad brakes down.

  15. Justin Coates says:

    >

    I think that many theists would respond by saying that what qualifies as sufficient reason is grounded in God’s nature, but I could be wrong on that point. Moreover, it appears that you are begging the question against the compatibilist in this case by assuming libertarian freedom. If compatibilism is true, then I see no reason to think that God’s inability to act without sufficient reason constitutes a strike against his omnipotence.

  16. Justin Coates says:

    I meant for the previous post to begin with this quote by Dan “If God cannot act towards what lacks sufficient reason, God has no free will nor is God omnipotent.”

    Sorry

  17. John R. Richardson says:

    Brian:

    I was interested in your comment that there is a prima facie problem if you view God as all-powerful and all-loving. Normally there is another attribute that goes along with this: all-wise. You didn’t mention that. In this line I’d like to give you two hints about good and evil here on this earth: (1)There is much more to this earth life than you realize,(2)Study Mormonism.

  18. Luka Yovetich says:

    Brian,

    You say that you don’t think there are any knockdown arguments against theism. That doesn’t mean that you don’t think there’s best reason to think that God does not exist, right?

  19. Nenad Miscevic says:

    Thanks, Brian, for a fine analysis. I am writing a column on tsunami and god for my home newspaper in Rijeka, Croatia, exploiting a bit the stuff here and in the Crooked timber.
    Sadly, I have to say that priests in my country reacted more in the way you dismissed at the beginning, namely by blaming OUR SINS. The awful thing about our priests is their idea that tsunami is specifically punishment for sex-tourism; so the kids don’t only get sexually exploited, but then also drowned by the Hand of God! Sounds sadistic or sado-masochistic, but after reading the two threads, and realizing how many blows the poor Archbishop got, it looks to me that for a church propagandist it might be psychologically a better way to go, than apologizing for god’s blunders.
    But on the other hand, it just shows how much out of tune is the traditional Christian doctrine in relation to normal contemporary moral sensibility. It has been invented for a different kind of society and different popular morality, and this shows dramatically.

  20. Heath White says:

    V. Alan White—

    Thanks for the clarification; I get your point now. And “Groundhog Day” would be a good teaching tool!

  21. Dan says:

    “If compatibilism is true, then I see no reason to think that Godís inability to act without sufficient reason constitutes a strike against his omnipotence.”

    This is an issue of applied materialism. What can be seperated and potentially reconstructed are by definition material. If the sufficient reason, the Good, or the Perfect can be applied and seperated from God. They are not God. In the same sense, I would not refer to you as a person being your nature (biological make-up, drives, impulses, etc), unless I was a strict naturalist. Ironically, such a scientific perspective that views “person” as being, essentially, a generated illusion of biochemistry is quite popular and has some inductive evidence to go with it. The same is not different for a God logician who describes God according to God’s nature (drives, impulses, desired outcome, etc). The logic the God psuedo scientist uses is no different than a real scientist desconstructing a person’s being. There is one massive difference. For God there is no inductive evidence, just mere negations of our experienced reality or affirmations of it. If God, His “nature”, or sufficient reason are compatible, they are different ideas or “things”. They can be seperated and a hierarchy can be ascribed to them. If nature, even God’s own, is the authority by which God is compulsed, God’s nature is real and God’s person is not. Not surprisingly, the same can be said of human beings and our organic being. Humans specialize in making gods in their own image. A theologian would become angry if I said he was a biologically generated illusion. Will he then turn around and discuss how God’s nature is the true source of understanding God? Would he make God a mere generated personhood from a more objective source?

  22. ken says:

    Hi Brian, nice post, nice discussion.

    But I don’t read the passage you quote as making any sort of Moorean point. I thnk the Kuhnian reading is closer, at least given what you quote.

    There’s an assumption implicit in what you see as an argument from perception. I suppose one sort of theist might well reject it and that’s sort of how I read the passage you quote.

    The theist I’m imagining is sort of a pragmatist who rejects any sharp or principled distinction between pure epistemic rationality and practical rationality. He also rejects any sharp or principled distinction between judgment and perception. Or really maybe this pragmatist insist that it’s all just judgement all the way down, really. He can admit that there are the irritations of our sensory surfaces by the world. But he can insist that these aren’t yet anything “in the space of reasons.” As such, they don’t have any role in warranting our beliefs, though they may cause them.

    How does this help our theist friend? Well, our theist first asks what beliefs are for anyway and he asks what test there can be of their truth or falsity anyway.

    In answer, he gives a broadly speaking pragmatist answer. Beliefs are “for” supporting practical projects. Beliefs are “true” if in the holding of them one is thereby enabled to get on with and succeed in one’s projects. And maybe he adds that no belief directly “confronts” experience or perception (whatever these are) on its own.

    One’s projects include, of course, one’s explanatory projects. But it doesn’t just include these. And these aren’t partiuclarly privileged among one’s projects. They are as practical as any other. One’s projects will also include living a life that one can deeply endorse as one’s own or building with others life affirming communities. All these projects — including explanation — are in some sense practical and thus subject to the canons of practical rationality. Or to put it differently, there really is no distinction to be had between pure epistemic or evidential rationality and practical rationality. The only question is something like are they useful instruments in the pursuit of my projects.

    Suppose one granted all this — which I admit is pretty questionable. It’s not even inevitable to accept it if one wants to call oneself a pragmatist. Can’t the theist now claim that in “seeing” the world as providentially guided, despite the assaults on that conviction that tend to suggest the world is arbitrary, the believer exhibits a certain practical rationality. The very holding of that belief is instrumental to his keeping at, and maybe even succeeding at, certain life affirming, identity-constituting projects. This makes the providential hypothesis as kind of invincible armor against utter despair and hopelessness. (but it need not be particularly comforting at any given moment in the history of humankind. since the ultimate culmination may be very far off indeed.)

    I suppose that this sort of (whacked out) theistic pragmatist wouldn’t be big on the phenomenology of perception or on perception as a distinctive and particularly secure or trumping source of epistemic “warrant. “ That means that the talk about “seeing” the world as a freely given gift etc, isn’t about perception in some Moorean sense. It’s really about the irresitableness of adopting a kind of practical cum cognitive stance toward the world or something like that. It’s even sort of self-affirming, in a non-foundationalist sort of way, in the sense that maybe the theist cognizes that stance as in some sense practically indispensible through cognizing its contribution to rationally undergirding his confidence in the long run success of his most (by his lights) life affirming and identity constituting projects This is what I take the talk of believers not being able to deny “what is shown or given to them.” I don’t suppose that means what is “perceptually given.”

    Probably this is ultimately incoherent, but it does seem to me that there’s something very pragmatist sounding in an over the top sort of way in the passage you quote above. Anyway, that’s how I read it for what its worth.

  23. Tex says:

    I think Williams remarks are being misconstrued. He is not trying to refute the argument from evil by appealing to “perception” as in “I perceive a stone, a patch of red, God, etc.” I read him as suggesting that some people, partly due to their very briefly and metaphorically characterized life experiences, have learned to render, or have acquired the habit of rendering, their mental lives more or less coherent by believing in God. Dreadful but rare events like the tsunami do “assault” their convictions but do not necessarily override or extinguish them. This is a sketch of a psychological explanation as to why someone might remain a (traditional) theist in the face of a horrific event. However, I do not see it as an attempt to make a contribution to the analytical philosophy of religion.