Ryan Nichols

Eighteenth-century Scottish culture initiated changes to thinking about philosophy of religion and the problem of evil that still structure the way thinkers in philosophy and theology address the problem today.

This conviction motivates my research within the framework of the Center’s "Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought" project. I will investigate ways that thinkers in the Scottish Enlightenment reconceptualized the problem of evil in light of sweeping changes in Eighteenth Century Scotland’s scientific context. Pressures placed upon commitment to God’s existence in this time arise first from the method and metaphilosophy of Eighteenth-century empiricism. Methodological empiricism restricted admissible evidence in debates about the problem of evil as symbolized in Cleanthes’ grand concession to Philo in David Hume’s Dialogues according to which only empiricist criteria ought be used in the weighing of the world’s pain and pleasure.

Second, the variety of data produced by new scientific methods raised doubts about the justifications of presuppositions about God and God’s relationship to the natural world and to humanity. For example, James Hutton (1726-1797) discovers that the Earth is ancient and is governed by geological forces that were until then unimagined. Thus it appears that God has created the Earth in accord with law-like generalizations that culminate in an act of natural evil that stunned Christian Europe, the fateful Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Understanding the role of emergent empiricist methods of natural philosophy and the data produced by these methods puts us in position to appreciate Thomas Reid’s (1710-1796) distinctively epistemic response to the problem of evil. Reid stresses Isaac Newton’s own methodological limitations on natural philosophy as found in the Principia’s ‘General Scholium'. There Newton argues that natural philosophy ought not discuss why events occur, but rather only how events occur.

So in the Scottish Enlightenment evil becomes a natural phenomenon caused by natural processes—processes that human beings can understand, explain and quantify through prudent inductions from a variety of observational data. Reid takes these implications to suggest epistemic boundaries on natural philosophy that in principle invalidate Hume’s inferences from the evidential problem of evil to the non-existence of God.

I will assess whether or not Reid’s skeptical theism and its deployment against the problem of evil depends upon a conception of Newtonian science that is biased in favor of maintaining commitments in revealed religion.