Phenomenal conservatism: the idea that, absent good counter-arguments, things are probably how they seem to be. So, gratuitous suffering?

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Skeptical theism is defeated by phenomenal conservatism. Big words, phrases, terminology, jargon. But also, big ideas.

If you’re not familiar, skeptical theism is the philosophical term for “God moves in mysterious ways.” When confronted with the problem of evil (why does so much suffering exist given “OmniGod” is all-knowing, -powerful, and -loving?), the theist often answers that we don’t or can’t know the mind of God.

This get-out-of-jail-free card seeks to get God off the hook in light of cancer, genocides, tsunamis, predation, and stubbing your toe in the morning. Any amount of suffering has to be necessary for some greater good—it cannot be gratuitous. In light of not knowing what the reason or greater good might be (though some theologians try to give it a go with free will, soul-building, Original Sin, and other mechanisms), the theist throws up their hands and declares, “Well, there could be a reason!”

A theist should not lament any suffering. They should praise God’s supreme judgment in every single case, rather like the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s all useful. It’s all necessary. It’s all the correct design, creation, and judgment of the supreme creator. No whingeing.

This is infuriating since, in all other contexts, theologians seem to know precisely what God thinks and intends. But when it is convenient for them, suddenly it’s all a mystery.

There are many critical things to say about skeptical theism, but one philosophical tack to dealing with this is actually a very straightforward layman’s approach: phenomenal conservatism.

This is an epistemological method espoused by some philosophers, such as Michael Huemer. The idea is that we are justified in holding beliefs about the world by the way they “seem” or “appear.”

Take, for example, the idea that we are living in a real world, and not in The Matrix, or that we are brains in vats, or that the world started 20 minutes ago and all of our information and memories were injected into our newly formed brains. Phenomenal conservatives would say, “Well, it doesn’t seem that this is the case, and I have no good reason to think it is, and I have no defeaters against why it isn’t.”

As Huemer sets out:

The intuitive idea is that it makes sense to assume that things are the way they seem, unless and until one has reasons for doubting this….

If it seems to S that P, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some justification for believing that P.

The phrase “it seems to S that P” is commonly understood in a broad sense that includes perceptual, intellectual, memory, and introspective appearances. For instance, as I look at the squirrel sitting outside the window now, it seems to me that there is a squirrel there; this is an example of a perceptual appearance (more specifically, a visual appearance). When I think about the proposition that no completely blue object is simultaneously red, it seems to me that this proposition is true; this is an intellectual appearance (more specifically, an intuition). When I think about my most recent meal, I seem to remember eating a tomatillo cake; this is a mnemonic (memory) appearance. And when I think about my current mental state, it seems to me that I am slightly thirsty; this is an introspective appearance.

Even though this is a position that many theists favor themselves (well, it seems like God exists, so…), it can be applied to the problem of evil.

Suffering seems gratuitous. From stubbing my toe to getting cancer, from every unit of pain and suffering involved in predation to tsunamis killing 230,000 people, from pandemics to genocide, there appears to be an awful lot of suffering—far more than one would think necessary.

Remember, on theism (belief in OmniGod), there is no such thing as a tragedy. All suffering happens for a reason—for a greater good. Each and every unit of pain and suffering since the beginning of the universe must have been necessary. It couldn’t have happened in any better or nicer or less painful way. Otherwise, it would have.

A theist should not lament any suffering. They should praise God’s supreme judgment in every single case, rather like the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s all useful. It’s all necessary. It’s all the correct design, creation, and judgment of the supreme creator. No whingeing.

Except, it doesn’t seem that way.

It seems gratuitous, and this is prima facie evidence against the existence of OmniGod. And phenomenal conservatism says we are justified in this because we are absent any defeaters.

Just saying that “there could be a reason” is not a defeater. That’s like saying that “unicorns could exist” is a defeater for my claim that unicorns do not exist. Just saying something “might be the case” does not a justifying argument make.

The only realistic option for the theist is to claim that there are other external arguments that lead them to believe that God exists and that, by inference, there must be a reason for such suffering. This is something philosopher Michael Tooley discusses in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the problem of evil.

The problem is that none of those external arguments for God argue for God’s omnibenevolence, so they miss the mark. As Toohey states:

The situation is not essentially different in the case of the argument from order, or in the case of the fine-tuning argument. For while those arguments, if they were sound, would provide grounds for drawing some tentative conclusion concerning the moral character of the designer or creator of the universe, the conclusion in question would not be one that could be used to overthrow the argument from evil. For given the mixture of good and evil that one finds in the world, the argument from order can hardly provide support even for the existence of a designer or creator who is very good, let alone one who is morally perfect. So it is very hard to see how any teleological argument, any more than any cosmological, could overturn the argument from evil.

A similar conclusion can be defended with respect to other arguments, such as those that appeal to purported miracles, or religious experiences. 

The only sort of argument that could do this would be an ontological argument that attempts to smuggle in omnibenevolence as a necessary characteristic of this necessary being. That is, in my opinion, a tall order.

As Emerson Green, whom I recently interviewed (and who returned the favor) opines in his piece on skeptical theism:

Everyone agrees that there seems to be gratuitous suffering. So until you’ve offered a defeater for that seeming, then we’re rationally justified in affirming that the world is how it seems in this regard. And since the existence of gratuitous suffering is far more likely on naturalism than on theism, the fact that we observe gratuitous suffering is strong evidence against theism.

We have two hypotheses competing here:

  1. God is love. OmniGod exists and has designed and created the world. Thus, conforming the world to fit in with his characteristics of being all-knowing, -powerful, and -loving.
  2. Naturalistic atheism. The universe is ambivalent to pain and suffering. Evolution works with the tools it has available. Shit happens.

Which thesis best predicts the data, the phenomenal amount of suffering throughout time and space? And, take note that very often this suffering does not involve humanity and is thus unconnected to any reason pinned on humanity. A fawn dying in a forest fire, a baby water buffalo being ripped apart alive by a pride of lions, a tsunami destroying a mangrove ecosystem.

As I said in my last piece on skeptical theism, if it walks like a suffering duck and quacks like a suffering duck, then it probably is a suffering duck. And there is no good reason to think that an all-loving God made it that way.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...