The Argument from Error

(surely this has already been thought by someone else, if so, excuse it)

In the Meditations Descartes says “if it were repugnant to the goodness of Deity to have created me subject to constant deception, it would seem likewise to be contrary to his goodness to allow me to be occasionally deceived; and yet it is clear that this is permitted.”

This made me think of an epistemological version of the problem of evil. I will present the argument, say some things abut it, and then wait for you to tell me whether you find it ridiculous or not. The argument goes like this.

P1 If (summing up) there is a three-O God then it cannot be that humans are constantly deceived.
P2 Humans are constantly deceived (by their senses, reasoning, intuitions, etc.)
C There is no three-O God.

If I remember properly, the usual reply to the “Problem of Evil” argument is that of Free Will. It is obvious that the same argument will not work here. The Free Will argument requires the possibility (or actual instances) of Evil, but not of error (or deception). One might be omniscient and still be free to take the dark side. So there is at least something attractive about the “Problem of Error” argument.

The obvious problem seems to be that one can turn Error into the epistemic counterpart of evil. So perhaps the theist will reply by saying that God wants us to have Free Epistemic deliberation. For which he requires that we are able to deceive ourselves. But this, to my mind, does not seem to make much sense.

Think of it this way. The Free Will argument works on the assumption that we are able to tell the difference between good and evil (otherwise we would not be able to pick). This literally means that it presupposes that we are correct about (i.e., have knowledge of) what is good and what is evil. The “Problem of Error” argument directly attacks this assumption.

Similarly,, for the “Free Epistemic Will” argument to work, it must presuppose that we are able to tell the difference between good (true) epistemic attitudes (beliefs) and bad (false) epistemic attitudes (beliefs). But if, as the argument says, God allows us to be deceived so that we are epistemically free, then we cannot be epistemically free. We cannot in fact choose between true and false beliefs because, to begin with, we cannot tell the difference between them (we are deceived). Hence the “Epistemic Free Will” reply does not seem to have any success against the “Problem of Error”. And we seem to have a better atheist argument than the “Problem of Evil”.

Briefly put, Descartes’ (my reading) point seems to be that not only did God did wrong by allowing the possibility of Evil. It did even worse by allowing the possibility of deception and error. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, false belief seems to be the worse evil. Can we be free even if we are constantly deceived?


7 Responses to The Argument from Error

  1. But doesn’t Descartes give a quite similar response to the Free Will Defence? (I’m not sure it is ‘standard’ in the Problem of Evil literature these days, but that’s another matter.)

    Descartes thinks that we are always free to withhold judgment. (Note he doesn’t need the stronger claim that we are free to give assent, just that we always free to not assent to any proposition.) Moreover, although we can’t always tell whether a belief is true or false, we can tell something procedurally about it. We can tell whether the belief was formed using the faculty of clear and distinct perception. And that faculty is unerring. So we can (and should if we’re following Descartes’ advice) only have true beliefs.

    This is, I think, Descartes’ response to evil demon scepticism as well. If we were being deceived by an evil demon, we wouldn’t have a method we could use that would lead to true beliefs. In fact we have a method, though often we are careless and don’t use it. That’s our fault. If we didn’t have a method, that would be God’s fault. And if the evil demon scenario were true, we wouldn’t have such a method, so God would be at fault. But God is faultless (as we can deduce by introspection!) so the evil demon scenario must be false.

  2. Edú says:

    That seems right. Thanks for your response Brian.

    What about an even more Cartesian reply to such argument? Descartes tells us not to trust any source of information that we have the slightest reason to doubt. We should not believe anything coming from such sources just as we do not believe anything that we know to be false. If Brian’s solution is correct, then the Faculty of Clear and Distinct Perception should be such that there is not even the slightest reason to doubt it. If there is any, then we should not trust it. Furthermore, if such were the case, then God did not equip us with the proper epistemic gear to enjoy that freedom of assent.

    Descartes, of course, does not offer any reason to doubt such faculty. After all, his aim is not skepticism. But we do have some reasons, I think. Consider Descartes’ own example of what he knows clear and distinctly: ‘I think and, hence, I am’. Hume has already given us reasons to doubt that there is such thing as what is referred to by the English pronoun ‘I’. In a different tone, Perry and Lewis have given us reason to wonder about the meaning of ‘I am David Hume’ or ‘I am Descartes’. We know, for example, that someone can self-ascribe the property of ‘being Descartes’ and be mistaken.

    For this to be possible it seems that the Faculty of Clear and Distinct Perception must be fallible. If so, then by Cartesian standards such Faculty is not trustworthy. If so, then (again) by Cartesian standards there is no Faculty which is trustworthy and so God did not equip us with the proper gear. We cannot exercise any freedom of ascent. Hence, either there is no God or God is perverse, ignorant, or weak.

  3. Patrick says:

    “In fact we have a method, though often we are careless and don’t use it. That’s our fault. ”

    That’s an interesting way of putting things; but it’s problematic for the theist, since if anything the method we have is the empirical scientific method, which does not appear to lead naturally to the conclusion that God exists! In effect we are positing that God gave us a very good means of obtaining knowledge, except that it doesn’t work for obtaining knowledge of God—and then we have to explain why a triple-omni God would not want us to obtain knowledge of him in the same way as knowledge of everything else.

  4. Enigman says:

    Hi y’all. God would be very different to “everything else” though, if by the latter was meant what is empirically accessible (God and Creation would be like author and fiction). Having said that, it does seem that Descartes’ method would, if used carefully, lead to agnosticism rather than theism. But regarding the argument from error, is P2 true? I’m not sure (e.g. there’s surely some apposite distinction between doubts about the reference of “I” and doubts about our own being:)

  5. alexandra says:

    hey edu-

    i was just reading clifford’s essay ‘the ethics of belief’ and after making his argument that it’s always wrong to believe without sufficient evidence, and that doing so is a ‘sin against mankind’, he writes:

    ‘If this judgment seems harsh when applied to those simple souls who have never known better, who have been brought up from the cradle with a horror of doubt… then it leads to the very serious question, who hath made Israel to sin?’

    i thought you might find this interesting.

  6. Orcus says:

    The conclusion that is provable is that we have not communicated a concept of a comprehensible Triple-O God in any consistent manner. (not here anyway)

    Limited Perspective, Failure to comprehend, Dialectic incapacity or ineffective rhetoric can result in a concept that is not consistently accepted. All can be the result of limited man whether divinely inspired or not changes nothing.

    You have all ready chosen based on a reasoned belief system and have realised its limitations on many occasions and changed it.

    Practically the difference between Good and bad is subjective. The consideration that There is more truth in any statement that the fact that I said it from my consideration is pride.

    We are all aware of situations where ‘others’ choose to act on belief with insufficient evidence. But we too are human and have lack of evidence of their condition.

    Perhaps you mean we manifest the same result when we refute recognition of conflicting reality. Not so if this were true reality would be deterministic and we would all be successful pessimists. Even with concerted effort we cannot guarantee the same negative (from out definition) result.

    So their is a gab in our comprehension call it god or what ever you like. sometimes we can influence it when we realize but part of it we don’t and remains incomprehensible. like some massive Nyarlothep encompassing our perception and reason. But hey that’s just my belief not a demonstrable manifestation.

  7. Bob says:

    Here’s the gap that no one see’s to notice…no, not what you have said, but hopefully what you are about to read. I’m only a year late, but hopefully someone still checks this.

    All beliefs aside, you base this off of a false premis, your part one.
    When considering an argument such as this, you must remember how this God is pictured to be…that is, perfect unto its (dare I say him?) self. The main deception led by those mainstream so called “religious” leaders is that they advertise themselves by selling out to the audience.”Certain death lingers on the audience,” after all. Considering all knowing and all powerful past what many consider as compared to our own form of perfection show this misconception. This God bases perfection on itself, and all arguements of existence aside, all angles are covered. Read for yourself, the picture painted from thousands of words says he knowingly created this, as in past our own concepts of time, and including all that has come to be and will exist in the end.

    Said in another sense, if you play around with a rock, you’ll still have a rock. Play around with something that you don’t understand as it was intended to, and well you’ll end up with something that you don’t understand, something that doesn’t make sense. The comment above this one calls you out on that. if you fail to draw boundaries around the basis of your arguement, as you did around what this God is supposed to be, then you can draw any conclusion you desire.

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