I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.
Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?
But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.
But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.
The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.
But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.
In the first post, I gave some indications of why I think denying God's foreknowledge of free human acts doesn't really explain that much evil. What I'd like to do now is lay out a number of elements of the traditional response to the problem of evil, the one that open theists find unsatisfying. This will all be at a fairly basic level, but I'd like to get all the general things on the table before going into depth on how denying foreknowledge is supposed to help.
One of the primary strategies for responding to the problem of evil is to treat some good as a higher-order good in the sense that it can't exist without allowing some evil to exist yet the good is worth the evil it allows in some sense. Many traditional presentations of the problem of evil have assumed utilitarianism, and thus they will talk about the consequences for happiness and unhappiness, saying that more unhappiness is created than the happiness that requires it, so it's not ultimately worth it. Some theists have responded that utilitarianism is false, and thus the theist has more resources to explain evil. Some kinds of evil may simply be wrong to prevent, with no relevant questions about how much evil is allowed by not doing that wrong thing. If it's wrong to do it, then God shouldn't be expected to do it. So I don't want to assume utilitarianism here, even though it's easier to frame the problem of evil if you do have such assumptions. The way to think of higher-order goods in a non-utilitarian framework would be to see some goods as being so important that it would be wrong not to pursue them. Alternatively, one might simply see preventing certain evils as morally wrong, because any method of preventing that kind of evil would involve doing something wrong. Most theodicies or defenses (I'm not going to deal with the distinction some philosophers make between the two) fall under some kind of higher-order good, I would say.
I've gotten the sense that the problem of evil is the primary motivation for many who subscribe to what's commonly called open theism, i.e. the view that God does not know the future, takes risks, and changes his mind due to learning new information.
Some open theists take God to have voluntarily given up the right to have knowledge of the future for the sake of human freedom. The assumption is that divine foreknowledge and human freedom are incompatible. Other open theists take God's ignorance of the future to be a necessary fact about the nature of time, since there's no future to be known. This view assumes what I call a growing block theory of time. Some think it follows from presentism, i.e. the view that the present exists but the future and past don't, but if presentism is going to justify the view that there are no truths about the future, then it must also justify the view that there are no truths about the past. So it assumes a growing block view, according to which past and present exist but no future, since those truths aren't somehow sense "fixed".
I share neither of these assumptions, so I have little sympathy for open theism, but my concern here isn't to deal with those elements. I'm interested in a different motivation for open theism, the motivation that God's ignorance of the future can explain the kinds and amount of evil in the universe in a much more satisfying way than any other view. I just don't think that's true.
There's a debate within those who believe in some sort of rational defense of Christianity about how it should be done. The main lines of the debate are between what I call the classical apologetics view and the presuppositional view. I've never understood the presuppositionalist position, and all the arguments I've ever seen in favor of it seem so bad to me that I have to think there's something to the view beyond what people seem to me to be saying, but I've still seen no evidence that anyone has a better statement of the view and its claims than the bad ones I've so far seen. I've finally gotten around to putting together my thoughts on why I think presuppositionalism is fundamentally mistaken.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.