Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dougherty on the Parent Analogy and Skeptical Theism



I’ve written extensively about skeptical theism before, but a recent article on the topic caught my eye. It’s entitled “Reconsidering the parent analogy: unfinished business for skeptical theists” and it’s by Trent Dougherty, an excellent philosopher (and theist) working out of Baylor University, a Christian institution in Texas. When he’s not writing a seemingly-endless stream of philosophy articles, Dougherty occasionally writes amusingly cantankerous blog posts over at the Prosblogion.

Despite his theistic commitments, Dougherty’s article takes a skeptical look at skeptical theism, which is probably the most popular contemporary response to the evidential problem of evil. Highlighting a neglected part of the dialectic between atheistic proponents of the evidential argument (like William Rowe and Bruce Russell) and defenders of skeptical theism (like Stephen Wykstra), Dougherty argues that the main analogy used to support skeptical theism — the parent analogy — is seriously flawed.

This post will try to exposit Dougherty’s critique. It is split into three parts. The first discusses the evidential argument and the skeptical theist response. The second looks at the parent analogy and the challenges posed to it by Rowe and Russell. The third part looks at Dougherty’s critique and its implications.


1. The Evidential Argument and Skeptical Theism
The evidential argument from evil holds that the existence of (many) gratuitous evils, though not conclusive proof against the existence of God, certainly raises the probability of his non-existence. A gratuitous evil is defined as an evil which is not necessary for achieving some greater overriding good. The reasoning is that while God might permit evils to occur if they were necessary for achieving a greater good, he would not permit evils to occur if no such necessity were present. Thus, gratuitous evils, if they exist, provide evidence against the existence of God.

But do gratuitous evils actually exist? This is where the evidential argument runs into a spot of bother. To support the existence of gratuitous evil, proponents of the evidential argument must make inferences from cases of seemingly gratuitous evil to cases of actually gratuitous evil. That is, they must infer that if a situation appears to them to be a particular way, then it probably is really that way.

This is an inference that skeptical theists challenge. As Wykstra famously argued, the inference from what seems to be the case with respect to some particular fact to what actually is the case with respect to that fact, is only allowed when we could reasonably expect to have access to evidence that establishes facts of that sort. In other words, Wykstra argues that the key inference in the evidential argument is subject to a condition of reasonable epistemic access (CORNEA for short). He formulates this condition as follows:

CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim ”It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her (from Wykstra 1984, quoted on pg. 2 of Dougherty’s article).

Wykstra then argues that CORNEA is not met in the case of seemingly gratuitous evils:


  • (1) In order for the evidential argument from evil to succeed, the inference from the existence of seemingly gratuitous evils to the existence of actually gratuitous evils must be reasonable. 
  • (2) The inference from what seems to be the case to what is actually the case is only reasonable if CORNEA is met. 
  • (3) CORNEA is not met in the case of gratuitous evils, i.e. if God exists we could not reasonably expect to have epistemic access to the kinds of goods which might justify his permitting the existence of evil. 
  • (4) Therefore, the evidential argument from evil fails.


The notion of CORNEA is not, in itself, particularly troublesome. So the key to this argument is premise (3), the claim that CORNEA fails in the case of gratuitous evils. Wykstra (and others) defend this by using the parent analogy. We turn to that next.




2. The Parent Analogy and its Discontents
The parent analogy works as follows. Sometimes parents allow their children to suffer in ways that ultimately serve the children’s greater good. For instance, they allow their infant children to undergo rounds of vaccinations that can be painful, but are ultimately beneficial (despite what deniers might say). Furthermore, sometimes, due to the age and cognitive limitations of the infant child, the parent cannot disclose to them the reasons that justify their suffering. So, from the perspective of the infant, there does not seem to be any reason for their suffering. But that does not imply that no such reason exists. Thus, CORNEA is not (always) met in the case of infant suffering, due to the cognitive disparity between parent and child.

But, so the defenders of skeptical theism argue, the cognitive disparity between God and human beings is analogous to the cognitive disparity between a parent and an infant child. Thus, just as CORNEA is not met in the case of infant suffering, so too is it not met in the case of gratuitous evil. God may have his reasons for allowing seemingly gratuitous evil to occur and we would have no reasonable expectation of knowing what they were because of our cognitive limitations.

That gives us the following argument in support of premise (3):


  • (5) Parents are sometimes justified in allowing infant suffering (e.g. suffering in order to undergo vaccination) because this suffering ultimately serves the infant’s greater good. 
  • (6) But CORNEA is not always met in the case of infant suffering due to the cognitive disparity between parents and children. 
  • (7) The relationship and cognitive disparity between God and human beings is analogous to the relationship and cognitive disparity between parents and children, in all important respects. 
  • (3) Therefore (probably), CORNEA is not met in the case of gratuitous evils.




Premise (5) seems relatively uncontroversial here so the key to this particular argument lies in premises (6) and (7).

Let’s look at premise (6) first. As critics point out, this premise rightly states that CORNEA is not always met in cases of infant suffering. But this implies that it can be met in at least some such cases. In particular, as Rowe argues, it would likely be met whenever a loving parent had the ability to explain to the child why they had to undergo some temporary suffering. Consider, for example, the case of a four year-old child whose parents had given consent to undergo painful medical treatment (say, chemotherapy). Although there is a cognitive disparity between the parents and the child, the child has some capacity for understanding and, taking advantage of this, the parents would obviously try to explain to them why they had to undergo the painful treatment. Any loving parent would do this. So it is at least possible for CORNEA to be met in these cases.

The possibility of CORNEA being met in at least some cases of infant suffering has a knock on effect on the plausibility of premise (7). If God is a like loving parent, and if God is omniscient and omnipotent, surely he would try to explain to us why there was so much apparently gratuitous evil in the world? Indeed, he could have achieved this relatively easily: by endowing us with cognitive capacities sufficient to grasp the evil-justifying goods that he allows.

As Dougherty points out, this reasoning applies a fortiori to cases of apparently gratuitous human suffering. Why? Because it is the apparent lack of some justifying greater good that amplifies the degree of human suffering. If we thought there was going to be some ultimate payoff for our suffering, we would probably be more stoic about things, but if we are epistemically closed off from such justifying reasons, our torment is augmented.

In effect, then, we have a counter-analogy (and counterargument) which defeats Wykstra’s parent-child analogy.


  • (8) A loving parent would explain to their child, if they had the ability to do so the reasons that justify the child’s undergoing some temporary suffering in order to secure a greater good. 
  • (9) The relationship between God and humanity is like that between a loving parent with the ability to explain justifying goods and a child who had to undergo some temporary suffering in order to secure a greater good (because God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent and because the seeming gratuitousness of human suffering amplifies that suffering). 
  • (10) Therefore, if God exists, God would make known to humans the reasons that justify the existence of seemingly gratuitous evils. 
  • (11) Therefore, CORNEA is met in the case of gratuitous evil.




Responding to this argument, Wykstra offers an extended defence of the parent analogy. We’ll take a look at that, as well as Dougherty’s response to it, next.



3. Dougherty on Wykstra’s Defence of the Parent Analogy
Wykstra tries to defend the parent analogy by drawing a distinction between a morally deep (or obscure) universe and a morally transparent one. A morally deep universe is one in which evil-justifying goods are hard to discover for beings like us. This view of the universe is encapsulated in something Dougherty calls the Obscurity thesis:

Obscurity: If the world is made by an omnipotent, omniscient God, then it is highly likely that if evil is permitted, most of the goods for the sake of which it is permitted will be obscure to humans (p. 4)

This is to be contrasted with a morally transparent universe, which is one in which evil-justifying goods are easily discoverable by beings like us. This is encapsulated in something Dougherty calls the Transparency thesis (he actually calls it the Strong Transparency thesis but he never formulates a weak version so I’ve dropped that qualification):

Transparency: If the world is made by an omnipotent, omniscient God, then it is highly likely that if evil is permitted, the goods for the sake of which it is permitted will usually be transparent to humans.

The key question for Wykstra then becomes: if theism is true, which thesis is more likely? Obscurity or Transparency? Wykstra, unsurprisingly, favours obscurity (though he doesn’t name it as such). And he supports this by way of an extended version of the parent analogy.

The extended version argues that, “given what we actually know about our cognitive limitations” (the wording is Wykstra’s and is significant) it is highly unlikely that God-purposed goods would be transparent to us. This can be seen if we consider the analogous case of parent-purposed goods. According to Wykstra, the transparency of parent-purposed goods to a child depends on the intelligence, ability and goodness of the parent. As those three qualities go up, the more likely it is that the parent will carefully plan for the child’s welfare in the distant future (e.g. post-college and so forth). But, again according to Wykstra, the more the parent-purposed goods lie in the distant future of the child, the less likely it is that they will be transparent to the child.

This reasoning applies a fortiori to God since he has maximal quantities of intelligence, ability and goodness. His evil-justifying goods will probably be realised on a timescale that humans cannot appreciate and hence they are highly unlikely to be transparent. That gives us this rather complex argument in support of premise (3):


  • (12) If, assuming theism and given what we know about our cognitive limitations, the universe is more likely to be obscure than transparent, then CORNEA is not met in cases of gratuitous evil.
  • (13) The universe is more likely to be obscure on theism, given what we know about our cognitive limitations. 
  • (13.1) As a parent’s intelligence, ability and goodness increases, the more likely it is that the suffering-justifying goods for which they act lie in the distant future. 
  • (13.2) The more temporally distant are those suffering-justifying goods, the less transparent they will be to the child who is forced to suffer for their attainment.  
  • (13.3) The relationship between God and humanity is like that between a parent with high intelligence, ability and goodness, and a child (more so because God possesses maximal goodness, intelligence and ability).    

  • (3) Therefore, CORNEA is not met in cases of gratuitous evils.



Dougherty identifies two serious flaws in this argument. The first is in the formulation of premise (12). Wykstra deliberately relativises his argument to what we know about our cognitive limitations. This, in many ways, is what allows him to reach the conclusion that he does. But the whole point of the Rowe/Russell critique was that, given theism, we wouldn’t expect to have such cognitive limitations in the first place. If God really cared about us, like a loving parent cares about their child, he wouldn’t have given us those limitations. So to relativise the argument in this way is to miss the point of critique.


  • (14) The argument cannot be relativised to our current cognitive limitations because we wouldn’t expect to have those limitations if theism was true.


The second flaw lies in the revised version of the parent analogy, particularly in the appeal it makes to temporally-distant parent-purposed goods. As Dougherty points out, the temporal distance between the suffering/evil and the good for which it is necessary is irrelevant from the perspective of transparency. Whether the goods accrue in the distant future, or not, doesn’t necessarily make them obscure. Furthermore, it is the very qualities of God that allow him to plan for us on a cosmic scale (omnipotence etc.) that also make it more likely that he would make this a morally transparent universe.


  • (15) Temporal distance is irrelevant to transparency: the very traits that make it more likely for someone to plan for future goods make it more likely that they would make those future goods transparent.


So extended version of the parent-analogy is seriously flawed.





4. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of Dougherty’s critique. To recap, skeptical theism is the preeminent modern response to the evidential problem of evil. The parent analogy is the preeminent (indeed, only) defence of skeptical theism. According to this analogy, we have no reason to expect epistemic access to evil-justifying goods because: (a) the cognitive disparity between humans and God is akin to that between parents and children; and (b) parents sometimes inflict suffering upon their children for good reason, but those reasons are not accessible to the child.

This analogy has been challenged by Rowe, Russell and, now, Dougherty. According to these critics, the analogy fails because it ignores the fact that a loving parent with the ability to explain suffering-justifying reasons to their children would indeed explain those reasons to their chld. God is more like a loving parent with the ability to explain than like a loving parent without that ability. This holds despite Wykstra’s attempts to defend the parent analogy.

This conclusion has significant implications for the skeptical theism debate. As Dougherty notes, many critics of that doctrine focus on its super-structural features. In particular, they focus on the effect that the underlying skeptical principles may have on our other beliefs. I have pursued this kind of criticism myself in the past. But the parent analogy is the foundation of the whole doctrine. If those foundations are fundamentally flawed, then the super-structural problems are beside the point: skeptical theism doesn’t even get off the ground.

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