Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The mystical security guard

One objection to some solutions to the problem of evil, particularly to sceptical theism, is that if there are such great goods that flow from evils, then we shouldn't prevent evils. But consider the following parable.

I am an air traffic controller and I see two airplanes that will collide unless they are warned. I also see our odd security guard, Jane, standing around and looking at my instruments. Jane is super-smart and very knowledgeable, to the point that I've concluded long ago that she is in fact all-knowing. A number of interactions have driven me to concede that she is morally perfect. Finally, she is armed and muscular so she can take over the air traffic control station on a moment's notice.

Now suppose that I reason as follows:

  • If I don't do anything, then either Jane will step in, take over the controls and prevent the crash, or she won't. If she does, all is well. If she doesn't, that'll be because in her wisdom she sees that the crash works out for the better in the long run. So, either way, I don't have good reason to prevent the crash.
This is fallacious as it assumes that Jane is thinking of only one factor, the crash and its consequences. But the mystical security guard, being morally perfect, is also thinking of me. Here are three relevant factors:
  • C: the value of the crash
  • J: the value of my doing my job
  • p: the probability that I will warn the pilots if Jane doesn't step in.
Here, J>0. If Jane foresees that the crash will lead to on balance goods in the long run, then C>0; if common sense is right, then C<0. Based on these three factors, Jane may be calculating as follows:
  • Expected value of non-intervention: pJ+(1−p)C
  • Expected value of intervention: 0 (no crash and I don't do my job).
Let's suppose that common sense is right and C<0. Will Jane intervene? Not necessarily. If p is sufficiently close to 1, then pJ+(1−p)C>0 even if C is a very large negative number. So I cannot infer that if C<0, or even if C<<0, then Jane will intervene. She might just have a lot of confidence in me.

Suppose now that I don't warn the pilots, and Jane doesn't either, and so there is a crash. Can I conclude that I did the right thing? After all, Jane did the right thing—she is morally perfect—and I did the same thing as Jane, so surely I did the right thing. Not so. For Jane's decision not to intervene may be based on the fact that her intervention would prevent me from doing my job, while my own intervention would do no such thing.

Can I conclude that I was mistaken in thinking Jane to be as smart, as powerful or as good as I thought she was? Not necessarily. We live in a chaotic world. If a butterfly's wings can lead to an earthquake a thousand years down the road, think what an airplane crash could do! And Jane would take that sort of thing into account. One possibility was that Jane saw that it was on balance better for the crash to happen, i.e., C>0. But another possibility is that she saw that C<0, but that it wasn't so negative as to make pJ+(1−p)C come out negative.

Objection: If Jane really is all-knowing, her decision whether to intervene will be based not on probabilities but on certainties. She will know for sure whether I will warn the pilots or not.

Response: This is complicated, but what would be required to circumvent the need for probabilistic reasoning would be not mere knowledge of the future, but knowledge of conditionals of free will that say what I would freely do if she did not intervene. And even an all-knowing being wouldn't know those, because there aren't any true non-trivial such conditionals.


Jakub Moravčík said...

there aren't any true non-trivial such conditionals.

??? How come?

Walter Van den Acker said...

How are we, on sceptical theism, capable of deciding what kind of evil could lead to a greater good?

It seems like the we have only our intuitions at our disposal, and those intuitions tell us that we should prevent all evil (if possible).
That means that, up and until we have some very good reason to think that some evil is necessary for some greater good, we are warranted in thinking that all evils are gratuitous and, hence, we are warranted in thinking that, since an omnibenevolent being won't allow gratuitous evil, such being most probably doesn't exist.
The bottom line is, I think, that sceptical theism might give us some defense against the logical problem of evil, but it doesn't do much agianst the evidential problem of evil.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Moravcik:

Because of the arguments against Molinism. :-)

Mr. Van den Acker:

Actually, it doesn't follow that we are warranted in thinking that the evil is gratuitous. See the argument in the post. One can have C<0, i.e., the evil is on balance harmful, and nonetheless the security guard is justified in not intervening.

Moreover, the inference from "we should prevent E, so E is probably gratuitous" -- common as it is in the discussion -- confuses expected utilities and probabilities. This probably deserves a separate post, though.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

If C<0 The guard is justified in not intervening if p is significantly high. But if Jane is omniscient, she knows exactly what you are going to do, and that has nothing to do with Molinism being true or false.
Unless you are an open theist, all-knowing includes knowledge of the future. It is not a matter of what you would do when faced with a hypothetical situation, it is a matter of what you will do in the future.

Now, in fact none of this has anything to do with my objection, which is not that there cannot be some far-fetched scenario in which evil is non-gratuitous, but that unless we have a very good reason to think otherwise, we are warranted in thinking that all evil is gratuitous. In trying to prevent evil from happening, hardly anybody ever thinks about the possible good this evil may bring about, precisely because the belief that evil is, on many occasions, gratuitous is properly basic.
Of course, even properly basic beliefs may be wrong, and we may be brains in a vat after all, but until there is some good reason to believe we are, hardly anyone takes this belief serious.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Consider the kind of gratuitousness that we think about in everyday cases -- i.e., when we're thinking about what we should do, not when we're thinking about what God should do. This is the kind of gratuitousness as when we think we should prevent someone's leg from being broken.

This is the kind of gratuitousness that would be undercut by a robust awareness that there is a lot of chaos in the world. For, given enough chaos, short-term effects will be swamped by long-term effects. (See my second post from today.) And long-term effects are not related to short-term effects in such a way that we can make inferences from the short-term to the long-term.

Thus, the very serious possibility that we have all of this chaos in the world should defeat most if not all our intuitions about ordinary gratuitousness.

Walter Van den Acker said...

When we think that we should prevent someone's leg from being broken, we should act upon this thought and actually try to prevent it.
The mere possibility that our intuition in this respect is wrong does not warrant the belief that it is wrong,
no matter how robust the awareness is that there is a lot of chaos in the world.
This, combined with the claim that actually this chaos is governed by a being that is omnipotent and omniscient seems enough warrant for the belief that such a being could come up with solutions that do not entail evil.
Maybe that could turn out to be impossible, but until it is actually shown to be impossible I don't see any reason to think that a being capable of everything (far beyond our limited imagination) could not achieve this.

Alexander R Pruss said...

On the chaos hypothesis, however, it's not just possible that we're wrong, but the probability that we're wrong is almost 1/2.

But the crucial point, which I make in today's post on the probability-expectation fallacy, is that our decisions shouldn't be made on the basis of the probability that something is going to cause long term harm, but on the basis of the expected value. And the expected value doesn't always align with the probabilities.

Tom said...

Dr. Pruss,
I agree that Molinism is false and there are no counterfactuals of freedom. The problem is how can God know our free choices without being passive with respect to them? It would seem as though God would learn them and thus His knowledge (which is His nature) would be contingent.

Any answer is helpful, thanks

Alexander R Pruss said...

When I know a contingent fact, I form a representation in me of the fact. This representation would have been different had the fact been sufficiently different.

But God doesn't know by forming representations of facts. He has something more like direct vision of these facts. Now our vision works through representation: I see a circle and there is a circular area of excitation on my retina, while if I see a square, there is a square area of excitation on my retina, and then there are different signals in my visual nerves, etc. But the direct vision that God has isn't through representation. He just directly sees how the facts are, and he is no different for seeing them, no matter what the facts are.

This is a tough problem. In fact, I think it is a tougher problem than the problem of foreknowledge (which I think isn't a problem at all, except insofar as it's a species of this problem).

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

The probability that we're wrong is almost ½ on a simple chaos hypothesis, but theism does not just present a simple chaos hypothesis. It proposes a system that, upon first glance, seems chaotic to us but is, in fact, highly structured by an omniscient, omnipotent being.

And this being allegedly doesn’t tell us that, since the probability of us being correct is merely ½, whatever we decide to do is fine. Instead it tells us, through our moral intuitions, that we should prevent any evil that we can prevent unless it is clear that a greater good comes from it.

So, in the hypothetical case in which God exist and is all you claim He is, the probability that we are wrong is much lower than ½ and the probability that we are wrong in every case is even very close to 0

The probability that, given sceptical theism, you are wrong about at least one aspect of God is much higher.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

You say, "But the direct vision that God has isn't through representation. He just directly sees how the facts are, and he is no different for seeing them, no matter what the facts are."

But doesn't your appeal to probabilistic reasoning entail that there is in fact a difference in God's mind between the state in which He does this probabilistic reasoning and the sate at which He knows, for certain, that you warn (or don't warn) the pilot?

Alexander R Pruss said...

No: the divine action has to be based on the probabilities, since otherwise we would have a circularity in the order of explanation (much as in time travel cases where you know how to build a time machine because your future self told you), but the knowledge and the probabilities are always something God is aware of.

Walter Van den Acker said...

That is not an answer to my question, but I'll leave it at that.

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