Sunday, December 28, 2008

Joe Markus on Van Inwagen on the Argument from Evil

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.

He says:

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.


Anonymous said...

Does this qualify as a self-referential argument? He says that no philosophically substantive argument has even been successful, the PoE argument is substantive, therefore we should reject (or at least be suspicious of) the PoE. I don't see how his argument could escape his own logic.

Mike Darus said...

I have a guess for what is behind "ideal" that JM senses. To a philosopher, the ideal agnostic would be the one that believes based on reason as the primary if not sole condition. This creates a huge problem with the argument from evil because its strength is in the emotional impact of the argument where the reader identifies personally and emotionally with the contention that there is too much evil and pain and that a (G)god would be morally obligated to greatly reduce the amount of evil (pain) or at least eliminate some if not all instances of it. In reality, the ideal audience is the one who depends more on other factors than reason to the extent that all answers suggested are insufficient.

philip m said...

His assertion that no purely philosophical consideration has the cogency to move a neutral person to one side of an issue does not seem to be an is just an inductive observation. Obviously there are people who claim to be persuaded by some argument or other. But his view is that if you consider any of them long enough, you will see both sides, and it won't be able to have any momentous force on a neutral mind.

If a neutral mind is persuaded, they probably did not consider the problem all the way around to see both sides of the issue. This view of his is probably a corollary of the fact that he does not find any arguments persuasive, and that he has considered them correctly.

In which case he is not making an argument, but merely an observation.

Joe said...

"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)"

To me this just seems bizarre and misguided on many levels. I don't understand the motivation for saying something like this.

I mean isn't an argument a success if it does any number of things including but not limited to:

1) Helping people better understand what they believe even if it doesn't change their conclusions? (I mean whether they are intellectually dishonest or not is somewhat separate)

2) Convincing *one* non-ideal person to accept truth and reject falsity due to good reasons.

How can we know whether the argument can work with an ideal agnostic unless we know what other believes that agnostic has and how strongly they hold those beliefs?

BTW: I have to consider PVI's argument a bit more but I have to say at first blush I would label it "the argument from prejudice."