Mysterious ways.

That phrase, often used by sceptics to mock the implausible intellectual manoeuvres theists make to rationalise their God’s behaviour, turns out to be the backbone of an entire body of philosophical thought. Meet “sceptical theism“. The squirming begins:

Analogies are often used to support and drive home the skeptical theist’s point. We can’t use our failure to see any insects in the garage (when taking a look from the street) to conclude that it’s unlikely that there are any insects in the garage. We can’t use our failure to discover any rational agents on other planets to conclude that it’s unlikely that there are some on some other planet. We can’t (if we’re chess novices) use our failure to detect a good reason for a particular chess move made by a world champion chess player to conclude that it’s unlikely that there is any good reason for that chess move. Likewise, say skeptical theists, we can’t use our failure to discern any God-justifying reason for permitting (E2) to conclude that it’s unlikely that there is any God-justifying reason for permitting (E2). There’s nothing unreasonable or excessive about the skepticism involved in the cases of the insects, extraterrestrial life, or chess champion. Skepticism in those cases doesn’t seem to force us to accept other more extreme and unpalatable sorts of skepticism. Likewise, says the skeptical theist, there’s nothing unreasonable or excessive about the skepticism involved in the case of God- justifying reasons for permitting (E2).

E2 in this paper happens to refer to the event in which a five year old girl is raped and strangled to death, but it could just as easily be Rowe’s burning fawn or the Japanese tsunami.

The analogy with chess strikes me as absurd, and I think it’s quite easy to say why. Chess is a realm in which we find it reasonable to defer to experts precisely because it involves expertise. To play the game is to have a special kind of knowledge. But ethics is, at least for most people – including most theists, I imagine – supposed to be different. We’re supposed to somehow have knowledge of and access to moral truths, be it by rational introspection, divine revelation or something else. In that respect, ethics is unlike chess fundamentally democratic. It’s a ‘game’ that everyone plays just by virtue of being human.

And this is why it is so hard to stomach the claim that, yes, there may appear to our minds to be no moral reasons for God to allow apparently pointless suffering, but that doesn’t mean those reasons don’t exist. Maybe we just can’t access or comprehend them.

How can we fight the urge to object and ask what these reasons could possibly be? How can we not wonder why they are hidden from us and seem eternally incomprehensible? I don’t think much epistemic arrogance is required here. Demonstrating modesty or humility by pleading for caution on these type of questions isn’t praiseworthy. It’s a repulsive and much more irresponsible form of scepticism. And we shouldn’t, of course, forget the words of Kant:

Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognise Him as such.

We shouldn’t bend over backwards to twist evil into goodness because we want to retain the belief in a great God. We should recognise evil as evil, and doubt the existence of that God. The ‘mysterious ways’ defence strikes me as the antithesis of everything philosophy, in its encouragement of critical thinking, is supposed to stand for.


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