A redated post.
Hello Professor Reppert,
Peter van Inwagen has an interesting approach to the problem of evil in his new book. He makes an initial argument that we should be suspicious of the argument from evil simply because it is a philosophical argument with a substantive conclusion. He argues that because no philosophical argument with a substantive conclusion has been successful in the history of philosophy, we should doubt that any argument for God's nonexistence could be successful.
Now if it is indeed true that no philosophical argument for any substantive conclusion is successful in the sense that I have proposed, it immediately follows that the argument from evil is not a success in that sense---given, at any rate, two premises that I don't think anyone would deny: that the argument from evil is a philosophical argument and that the nonexistence of God is a substantive philosophical thesis. If we think of what I have just said as an argument for the conclusion that the argument from evil is (in my sense) a failure, I don't think it's a bad argument. But even if it's a good argument, it has an important limitation: it doesn't really tell us anything of philosophical interest about the argument from evil; it doesn't interact with the content of the argument from evil. I might have offered essentially the same argument for the conclusion that the private-language argument or the ontological argument or the analogical argument for the existence of other minds was a failure. It is my project in these lectures to try to convince you that the argument from evil does not have the power to turn ideally rational and serious and attentive and patient neutral agnostics into athesits. And, of coursee, I mean to do this by actually coming to grips with the argument. Even if it's true (as I believe it is) that no philosophical argument for a substantive conclusion has the power to convert every member of an ideal and initially neutral audience to its conclusion, I don't mean to argue from that premise. I mean to show how Theist can block Atheist's every attempt to turn the audience of agnostics into atheists like herself. I mention my general thesis about the inability of philosophical argument to produce uniformity of belief even among the ideally rational simply because I think it is a plausible thesis, and if you agree with me on this point, your agreement will predispose you to accept a conclusion that I will defend on other grounds. (The Problem of Evil p. 53)
JM: It seems to me that there are problems of self-reference here. Is van Inwagen's argument here an instance of an argument with a substantive philosophical thesis? It seems to be. If so, then we should doubt this argument.
Granted, his only purpose in presenting the argument is to predispose us that arguments from evil aren't successful. But should we grant even that much to him?
Also, I'm not so sure about his criterion of success for a philosophical argument. He states it as:
PVI: An argument for p is a success just in the case that it can be used, under ideal circumstances, to convert an audience of ideal agnostics (agnostics with respect to p) to belief in p---in the presence of an ideal opponent of belief in p. (p. 47)
I don't think the criterion is unreasonable. But I'm not terribly enthusiastic about it either. Something about the word "ideal" bothers me.
Anyway, that's one of the many topics of van Inwagen's new book. Have you had an opportunity to check it out? You might be interested in some of his themes which resemble arguments from C.S. Lewis' Problem of Pain.
This brings me to one of the most interesting topics in philosophy, something I call argument metatheory. What can arguments do, and what can they not do? First of all, maybe something is gone wrong when we start talking about the problem of evil as opposed to the argument from evil.
I have been criticized by some people who otherwise like my arguments because I make too modest of claims on behalf of my arguments. The problem is that any argument concentrates on one relevant factor in understanding the whole question of God, and kind of puts all the other factor in neutral, when in the real world these other factors have a whole lot to do with why we make the world-view choices we do. So I will say "Look at the fact that we draw rational inferences, think about what that entails, and ask yourself if that fits better in a theistic universe than an atheistic universe. What is the probability that it will arise given theism, as opposed to the probability it will arise given atheism." But I don't think any argument is so good that it could undergird the claim, for example, that atheists are all intellectually dishonest.
An argument in world-view controversy is often of the form "You can't explain this!" And the problem here is that, of course, logically no world-view, however good, is going to put you in a position where you can explain everything. Still, some explanatory failures seem more devastating than others.
In the absence of that silver bullet argument, how do we proceed? I use a Bayesian metamodel to help me here. It shows how an argument can be modestly successful in a world-view debate.