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From the Appearance to the Reality of Excessive Suffering: Theodicy and Bruce Russell’s ‘Matrix’ Example


In a popular paper, Bruce Russell argues that our nonperception of divine reasons for apparently pointless suffering justifies belief in the nonexistence of God. Russell generally accepts the common interpretive norm that we are justified in believing that something does not exist when we do not perceive it, if and only if we have reason to believe that we would perceive it if it did exist. However, on the strength of an example from the film The Matrix, Russell argues that this interpretive norm does not apply to the belief in God’s nonexistence based on our nonperception of reasons that would justify apparently pointless suffering. My paper undermines Russell’s effort to restrict the scope of this interpretive norm. It thereby leaves open the door to agnosticism.

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  1. Russell considers van Inwagen’s views in Inwagen (1988, 1996a, b).

  2. For an important discussion of the use of the term ‘appears’ in William Rowe’s treatment of the evidential argument from suffering, cf. Wykstra (1984).

  3. Russell seems to restrict this norm of inference much more narrowly than seems warranted by common usage. Referring to the way in which he comes eventually to characterize this norm, he says, simply, ‘Sometimes we argue this way, and rightly so’ (Russell 2008: 232). The restriction seems to me to run counter to the extent of this norm’s usage, as I take us to be ignorant of so much, and to have to suspend our judgment on so many matters.

  4. Discussion of this principle is also found in Wykstra (1984).

  5. The equi paribus qualification covers cases such as rooms the size of airplane hangars, or as yet undiscovered species of elephant the size of a handbag.

  6. Emphasis added. While Russell appears to side with traditional theists in his assumption that, even if there actually were a divine purpose or reason for the suffering of this world, we could not access it, there is nonetheless a certain (tame) ambiguity in his paper concerning what exactly is hidden from our view: strictly the focus is on the hiddenness not of God, but of God’s reasons for allowing apparently excessive or pointless suffering. I preserve this ambiguity, opting for the formula ‘God and/or God’s reasons’.

  7. Arguably, in fact, he conflates different ways of failing to see (and, by implication, different ways of seeing). Consider how he sets up the argument he eventually attacks: ‘Some would argue that it does not since failure to see something (an elephant, a person, a reason) gives us reason to believe it is not there only if we are justified in believing that if it were there we would see it. But we are not justified in believing that we would see God’s reasons for allowing so much suffering even if those reasons existed. So not seeing any [reasons] does not justify us in believing there are none’ (Russell 2008: 232). Russell’s rejection of this conclusion has nothing to do with any need he perceives to distinguish different ways in which we fail to see at least two very different kinds of thing, e.g., ‘an elephant, a person, a reason’. See n. 8 for discussion of ways in which this is problematic.

  8. My insistance on the relevance of the ‘why’ (or ‘how’) of nonperception of X to the rule governing inference to X’s nonexistence, rests on the fact that the rule justifies the inference subject to our in fact having ‘reason to believe that [we] would see [X] [which in fact we do not see] if it were there.’ This requires us to know what ‘we would see if [X] were there’. However, for this to make sense, we must further know what ‘seeing X’ means, since ‘seeing X’ is built into the judgment that ‘we would see X’. From this follows my insistance that knowledge of the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of our nonperception of X feature in the determination of X’s nonexistence: simply put, it derives from the fact that this requirement is built into the rule.

    Quite apart from this, however, the demand makes sense on its own terms, as an example suggested by one of this paper’s reviewers illustrates. What can be inferred—and why—from my failure to see, e.g., the reason behind a Kasparov chess move? To answer, one needs to know what it means for someone to ‘see a reason’ for a chess move. For consider: assuming that Kasparov’s reason is ‘there’, we know in a general way that it is not there in the way that a pawn is ‘there’ on a chessboard. When we think of seeing ‘Kasparov’s reason’, unlike seeing a pawn it is not (or at least not directly) a physical object in a given space that we consider; rather, our focus is the significance for the game of a pawn’s being (or not being) in a specific physical space. Nor do we think of ‘Kasparov’s reason’ as something that enters into causal relations with the organ of physical sight: reasons for chess-moves do not impinge on any part of our eye. Thus, barring extraneous considerations—perhaps an impenetrably dense fog suddenly descends on the chessboard and shrouds all the pieces—normally, we see pawns on chessboards by opening our eyes, and when we fail to see them under that condition (plus other mundane conditions), it is absurd to suggest that we take a closer look.

    By contrast, if we speak of ‘seeing’ Kasparov’s reason, it is only by analogy to physical sight. If we are at all to ‘see’ Kasparov’s reason—granting its presence or ‘being “there”’ in Kasparov’s mind (or in Platonic Chess Form heaven)—it is by our thinking about, or considering, or reflecting upon Kasparov’s chess predicament (which predicament is itself only analogically described as being ‘seen’). When it comes to Kasparov’s reason, it makes sense to speak of our ‘looking’ more closely for it, because ‘looking’ is only an analogy for what is really going on, namely ‘thinking’, ‘reflecting’, etc.—activities that target abstract possibilities and entailments rather than light-reflecting physical objects.

    The point is clear: because we know what makes for the perception of pawns (and their kin), we know that our nonperception of a pawn on a chessboard licenses our inference that no pawn exists there. By contrast, as before (but only differently so), because we know what makes for the ‘perception’ of chess reasons, we know that our non-perception of Kasparov’s reason for moving his pawn does not license the inference that he has no reason to do so. The moral here is not that analogies mislead, though of course that is true and relevant. Rather, it is that any number of absurdities follow from any approach (to the interpretive rule) that consigns the ‘why’ or ‘how’ of nonperception to irrelevance and insists instead upon the sole relevance of the ‘that’ of nonperception. So blunt an approach is bound to fail in all but nonanalogical usages of ‘perception’.

  9. Particularly since Schellenberg 1993, the main focus on divine hiddenness has concerned the reasons or motives God might have for remaining hidden from humanity. In our discussion, however, I take ‘divine hiddenness’ to refer simply to the de facto hiddenness of those reasons, quite apart from any motives that might explain it. The hiddenness of any reasons God might have for not revealing either Himself or His evil-justifying reasons is simply not this paper’s agenda. That said, it seems right for Alston to include that second-order question within the general problem of evil, inasmuch as ignorance of the reasons for our suffering seems itself to be an evil apart from or additional to the suffering itself: ‘There is, to be sure, a question as to why…God does not fill us in on His reasons for permitting suffering. Wouldn’t a perfectly benevolent creator see to it that we realize why we are called upon to suffer? I acknowledge this difficulty; in fact it is just another form taken by the problem of evil. And I will respond to it in the same way. Even if we cannot see why God would keep us in the dark in this matter, we cannot be justified in supposing that God does not have sufficient reason for doing so’ (Alson 1996: 123, n. 22).

  10. For further discussion of The Truman Show in relation to The Matrix, cf. Žižek 2002.

  11. I say merely that this may be the case, because there may be a problem of internal coherence of the hypothesis of hidden supercomputers as it is entertained by those within the Matrix. If we were truly in the Matrix, as Russell hypothesizes, then though indeed we could not realize this, it is not clear that (or how) the hypothesis of our being there could ever even get off the ground. On the point in question—whether or not hidden supercomputers are running the show—what exactly within the experience-world of the Matrix could motivate the question whether there is something different going on from what appears to be going on? What specifically nonMatrix-like experiences could anyone inside the Matrix have that stood in the requisite contrastive relation to specifically Matrix-like experiences? Are not nonMatrix-like experiences meaningful as such only for nonMatrix experiencers like us, i.e., outside observers? Are not all experiences in the Matrix manufactured Matrix-like? At least for those within the Matrix, any discrepancy between appearance and reality on the question of Matrix-generated vs. nonMatrix-generated experiences seems to be at least questionable; so one wonders how the justificatory question, which presupposes that discrepancy, could arise. Compare, by contrast, the notion that hidden divine reasons explain life’s apparently gratuitous evil. Surely, a case can be made that this occurs to us precisely because that apparently gratuitous evil stands in stark contrast to other value experiences or beliefs we have about the moral character of our world.

  12. Here, it seems à propos to observe that the Cartesian hypothesis of an omnipotent deceiver—which, along with the familiar device of the brain in the vat, might loosely be compared with Russell’s Matrix example—is not a scientific hypothesis to be ranged against other, competing scientific hypotheses. Empirical science (as distinct from, say, epistemology, or metaphysics) assumes the reliability of reason as an instrument of adjudication, whereas that reliability of reason is precisely what the omnipotent deceiver hypothesis is constructed by Descartes to undermine. That is, the omnipotent deceiver hypothesis targets the very arena in which scientific hypotheses compete. Descartes himself regards his hypothesis in pointedly nonscientific terms: ‘[S]ince since I have no cause to think that there is a deceiving God, and I do not yet even know for sure whether there is a God at all, any reason for doubt which depends simply on this supposition is a very slight and, so to speak, metaphysical one. But in order to remove even this slight reason for doubt, as soon as the opportunity arises, I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver.’ Descartes claims that the deceiving God hypothesis is ‘testable’—my term, not Descartes’—not by appeal to or ‘testing’ against scientifically accessible facts, since that kind of appeal or test is no longer possible—but by means of conceptual analysis in response to the question, ‘whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver’ (Descartes 1985: 25). My views on the nature of Descartes’ treatment of the omnipotent deceiver hypothesis are also discussed in Scott (1992, 2008, 2009). For discussion of Descartes’ skepticism in relation to The Matrix, cf. Erion and Smith (2002).

  13. Such considerations inform the following. Granting my contention that the Matrix can be unmasked by natural means, one reviewer of this paper asks me to ‘suppose, rather, that we have envatted brains grown in vitro from a small clump of embryonic cells, with the rest as per Putnam’s “brain in a vat” scenario. Given what “natural events” are in this scenario, it is hard to see how there could be any unmasking [to the envatted brain] of [its envatted predicament].’

    My response focuses on the appeal here to ‘what “natural events” are in this scenario’. What are these ‘natural events’? Are there any? If ‘natural events’ involving brains in vats can be imagined, then why cannot ‘natural events’ be imagined in which those same brains think their way to (and so out of) their envatted predicament? After all, if we can attribute thought to such brains—and what would be their instructional value otherwise?; and if, further, we say those brains can do what we do when we think—namely (and uncontroversially), use what they know or think they know to learn or think about other things—then can we really affirm there to be in principle no cognitive route for them, by their own or some other natural agency, to self-understanding? In short, if we can think and perhaps discount the possibility that we are merely envatted brains, why cannot envatted brains in principle (if not in individual instances) think and perhaps discount that possibility too, for themselves?

    Perhaps it will be said that such speculation lacks any basis, but might not the same be said of any claims about vat-brain thinking? Methodologically, as soon as one starts to probe these science-fictional brain-in-vat hypotheses for their instructional value, there seem to be only two resources on which to draw: science and fiction; and there are reasons to suspect that neither takes us very far. As regards science, today’s defenders of the hardness of the hard problem will object that (putatively natural) ‘facts’ about the thought capacities of vat-brains in some future world—facts taken to be available through some future science that enables scientists to envat brains—cannot be uncontroversially invoked. As they see it, the state of future science is an unknown—possibility even an unknown unknown—as regards whether and how brains might exist as thinking things in vats. Their point is that for ‘hard’ (i.e., principled) reasons we cannot say right now, in connection with our own brains in our own bodies, how brains relate to their (brains’) quality of being conscious. As for the counter-claim that it is by extrapolation that such claims can be made, defenders of the hard problem respond that there is no relevant aspect of present understanding that can serve as the basis for such extrapolation: after all, they say, the problem is hard.

    When all else fails, perhaps philosophy provides some assistance. To answer the question, e.g., ‘By what natural means could a really smart vat-brain be forever precluded from inferring its way to self-understanding?’, we might consider whether recourse is available to (e.g.) some ‘perfect scientist’ who unerringly chemically manufactures an envatted brain’s thoughts and experiences. For reasons already stated, defenders of the hard problem will deny that this dispositif provides insight into such a brain’s thinking. For one thing, knowing ‘from the outside’ (as it were) that the scientist’s science is ‘perfect’ does not of itself reveal what that perfect scientific understanding is. Perhaps more to the point, there is the problem that a scientist can be natural or perfect, but not both. Thus, as a tool for the exploration of the possibilities that interest us here, the ‘perfect scientist’ looks to be the equivalent of the Cartesian omnipotent deceiver. And this, as noted already (supra, n. 12), is distinguished not as a scientific device, but (following Descartes) as a ‘metaphysical’ one, targeting as it does not science but meta-science—not reasoning within the arena, but the reasoning arena itself. Of course, because science-centered visions of the future can frequently be regarded as fictionalizing in the service of, e.g., ethical (as opposed to scientific) self-understanding—think Brave New World—a ‘perfect scientist’ might also find employment there.


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Scott, D. From the Appearance to the Reality of Excessive Suffering: Theodicy and Bruce Russell’s ‘Matrix’ Example. SOPHIA 61, 283–301 (2022).

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