September 2012


As is well known, Plato’s Theaetetus defines knowledge as, roughly, justified true belief.  It is also well known that Descartes sought a certain and irrefutable foundation for knowledge and found it in the fact that whatever else he doubted he knew for sure that he existed.  Both of these thinkers would hold that knowledge must be true—or else it’s not really knowledge.

On the other hand, it is common to say that scientific knowledge is always changing, and that what passed for knowledge in ancient times—or even last week!—was mistaken.  It is also common to use expressions, such as “true for me,” or “true for you,” as well as, “that’s what I got out of it,” in the sense that what you got out of it could be quite different and yet we’d both know what the book (or movie, etc.,) was about.

An easy way to solve this conflict of intuitions is to hold (1) that real knowledge is always true, but (2) sometimes in the past (or in the present) we have thought (or think) that we knew (or know) something when we actually didn’t (or don’t), i.e., that apparent knowledge can be false.  In fact, I like this solution, but at the same time, something about it bothers me.  It’s facile.  It overlooks a serious difficulty.

Consider my set of beliefs at any given time.  Experience has taught me that the set taken as a whole most likely contains false beliefs, but it’s impossible for me to hold that any single member of the set is false—after all, it’s a belief.  So I believe with regard to the set that it contains false beliefs, but there is no single belief in the set such that I believe it is false.  Belief is not knowledge, of course.  But unless the set of propositions I claim to know is extremely small (confined, say, to simple arithmetical statements and Descartes’ cogito), the same difficulty that affects my set of beliefs also affects my set of knowledge claims.  In other words, I know with regard to the set that, if past experience is any guide at all, it contains false propositions; but there is no single knowledge claim within the set that I know, or even could now know, to be false.

The upshot seems to be that I am constrained to believe, with regard to the things that I know, that at least some of them are possibly false.  Nor will it help to say that when “S knows that P,” then it is always true that “S knows that S knows that P.”  This may be true, but the higher order claim is subject to the same difficulty as is the simple and direct claim.  I can know something, and know that I know it, and yet be mistaken.  But there’s no way of knowing!

At least, there’s no way of knowing until I find out.  Hmm . . . .  Maybe I should withhold judgment and never claim to know anything until I’m absolutely sure?  But how is that different from resolving never to claim to know anything until I actually know it?  Which restores the conundrum:  I can’t know anything without believing that I know it, and believing that I know it blinds me to the possibility that it might be false, since real knowledge has to be true.  Again, I know the set has false members, and yet I know each member of the set to be true.

Or should I bite the bullet and hold that it does make sense to claim quite openly that many of the things I really know are in fact possibly false?  This solution to our difficulty is called fallibilism, i.e., the view that our knowledge claims are in many cases fallible.  It doesn’t exclude the possibility of genuine insight into self-evident propositions; what it excludes is rather the infallibilism that results from holding that knowledge is by definition true.  I can truthfully say that I know the principle of non-contradiction, but I can also truthfully say that I know smoking and junk food are bad for us.  In Sleeper, Woody Allen imagined a world where science had shown that tobacco and hot fudge are the keys to longevity, but it would be absurd for me to claim that I don’t know otherwise—even though science may one day prove him right!

Evil and the It’s-Worth-It Thesis

All of the most plausible responses to the problem of evil –the problem that the reality of evil in the world causes for believers who hold that the greatest possible being (God) exists– reach the same point but then advance no further. Less convincing responses typically downplay the reality or severity of evil, or they downgrade God to something less than the greatest possible being. The most plausible responses do neither. Instead, they identify some good that can be realized and advanced thanks to the reality of bad things (reconciliation with God in friendship and familial love is one candidate), and then they maintain that the realization and advancement of this good is worth the reality of bad things in this world. Thus, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil come down to an it’s-worth-it claim. But is any good truly worth the variety and amount of evil that the human race and the rest of the natural world have caused and suffered over tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years? The most plausible responses never get around to manifesting the it’s-worth-it claim, and how one would go about doing so is not obvious.

The difficulty in showing it’s worth it is the incommensurability or irreducibility of many values. Community, life, health, knowledge, beauty, and many more are different like apples and oranges, and nobody has ever shown that this many units of one are worth that many units of the other. Similarly, nobody has ever shown that something like heavenly community in the future is worth the destruction of earthly goods now. But here are three approaches to making good on the it’s-worth- it claim.

First, one could maintain that God possesses not mere omnipotence (the ability to do everything that can be done) but super strength omnipotence (the ability to do what cannot be done). Accordingly, God can square the circle and specify precisely the square root of 2. So also, God can conquer the problem of the incommensurability of values and make the disvalues in the world truly worth the realization of some positive value. The difficulty with this approach is that it quickly turns our talk about God into gibberish. If God has super strength omnipotence, then he can also conquer every contradiction. Thus, the propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” can be both true because God can bring about the truth of a contradiction. They also can both be false, and they also can both be true and false. Likewise, for “God is good” and “God is evil,” “God loves human persons” and “God does not give a damn about them,” and so forth.

Second, one could say that the incommensurability of values is a problem for us, but it is not an intrinsically insurmountable problem. Accordingly, God, the ultimate mega mind, can in some way that we cannot understand perform the calculus of values and show that the reality of evil is worth some good that will emerge. This approach to showing that it’s worth it, however, is unsatisfying because it leaves the mystery of understanding the it’s-worth-it claim where we found it: a mystery.

Finally, one could say that God is in the same boat as us with regard to the reality of evil. I cannot bring a child into this world without also guaranteeing that she or he will suffer, fail dismally as a moral agent, and ultimately die. I cannot pursue health in myself or others without drugs and treatments that cause all sorts of bad side effects. I cannot write this blog with risking confusing, angering, or demoralizing readers of it. So, just as I cannot bring about many goods without at the same time bringing about a host of evils, so also perhaps God cannot either. Moreover, the evils that I do bring about are worth it in the sense that they are worth it to me: I want to realize certain goods in this world (rather than do nothing) and do not intend, not even a little bit, the evils that I bring about as well. Similarly, perhaps one can say of God that whatever good He is trying to realize is worth it because He would rather do something than nothing and He does not intend the evils that come about in the course of pursuing that good. The difficulty with this approach is twofold, however. On the one hand, just as the defense of human actions by appeal to the distinction between intended goods and unintended evils often appears to be mere sniveling or shuffling, so also defending God by appeal to the same does not appear to preserve His perfect goodness. On the other hand, God appears to be as puny and weak as human agents who are stuck in a universe that disallows the bringing about of good without the bringing of evils as well.

In the end, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil hit the same sandbar that impedes further progress on the problem, and how to get off the sandbar is hard to figure out.