Friday, September 29, 2006

Gareth McCaughan and the Problem of Evil

read Gareth's account of his own deconversion. Of courses, he and I
locked horns a couple of years ago on my book. Since that time I
started my blog, www.dangerousidea.blogspot.com, and haven't been here.
On my site I issued this challenge, and got devoted several posts to
it, mostly last summer. Here's the challenge I gave:


A Challenge to Advocates of the Argument from Evil
I'd like to make an methodological point in discussions of the problem
of evil, a part of the Plantingian legacy. If the theist begins by
offering explanations of the existence of evil, and the discussion
focuses on the adequacy of these explanations, the theist puts himself
at an unfair disadvantage. If I as a defender of the argument from
reason were to say that since we don't now have a detailed explanation
of the evolution of the brain, the argument from reason succeeds, I
would be rightly criticized. I would be accused of the God the the Gaps
fallacy. The same principle applies here to the argument from evil. The
correct procedure, it seems to me, is to ask the atheist to present
his/her argument against theism. Is it a logical argument, a
probabilistic argument, or some other kind of argument. Show me the
argument, let me see what the premises are and what the conclusion is.
Then an explanation, or a possible explanation, for evil might be
required. Or not, depending on the structure of the argument. So I'm
going to issue a challenge to atheists. Give me your version of the
argument from evil. Numbered premises please.
And, of course, I want to be given some good reasons why I should
accept all the premises.

Here's what I am getting at. The argument from evil is supposed to have
a special pride of place amongst arguments concerning theism, both pro
and con. Every version of the argument from evil that I saw put on my
blog seemed to me to have questionable premises which
indicated to me that the argument was inadequate, even absent any throughgoing
across-the-board explanation for some particular evils, such as the
Asian tsunami in 2004. To make matters worse for the atheological
argument, the atheist has to appeal to some moral premise (A perfectly
good being eliminates evil as far as possible) which he must either
contend is objectively true (which in my view compromises naturalism)
or appeals to a value that all theists, or maybe all Christians accept.
Some people think that this sort of thing is true by definition, but I
am unpersauded of those claims.


Now I am not at all sure that a good version of the argument from evil
can't be developed that doesn't have some disconfirmatory impact on
theism. It's just a whole heck of a lot harder than it looks. I think
if you greet the problem of evil with the type of skepticism that I
have every right to expect that my own favorite argument will receive
from its critics, it proves to be overrated.

A good volume of essays on the evidential argument from evil came out
in the 90s, edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder.

But I think the idea that the AFE is really powerful, unlike your
average theistic argument, or even just your average philosophical
argument (like Wittgenstein's private language argument), is generated
by the idea that somehow, if the theist can't explain all of human
suffering and give God's reason for permitting it, theism is thought to
be deficient.

A link to Gareth's deconversion story is here.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

It mostly depends on the kind of God the theist believes in. Isn't it obvious that there is no problem of evil for a God that is less than perfect or even evil? I know there is one strand of the Jewish faith that accomodates the view that evil also comes from God. I would think similar views could be found in other theistic systems.
Problem of evil is so difficult for the Christian theist because of the kind of God he claims to believe in. This God supposedly loves humans so much that He was willing to suffer death and the torments of God's punishment in order to obtain atonement for them. Yet He won't lift a finger to prevent all the millions of cruel things that happen on a daily basis to those same humans. Not to mention all the suffering in the rest of the animal kingdom.

Anonymous said...

Just to add. When discussing this with Christian theists I often have the sense that there is a lack of imagination regarding the degree or amount of suffering that is taking place on earth every moment. I find the thought so staggering that traditional arguments like free will that are used to justify such suffering seem laughable.

Victor Reppert said...

OK, could you formulate these claims in a numbered-premise argument?

Are people looking for a father in heaven, or a nanny in heaven?

Anonymous said...

"OK, could you formulate these claims in a numbered-premise argument? "

Um, no. I'm not really interested in formulating a logical problem of evil argument. It is always possible to justify any amount of evil using a logical format. Pretty much speaking from the gut here.

"Are people looking for a father in heaven, or a nanny in heaven?"

I can't speak as to what other people may be looking for. Neither of the two choices you've given above are particularly appealing. Do you really think those are the only two possibilities we have to choose from when imagining what God may be like?

Mike D said...

Is it fair to say that the person who asks why God won't "lift a finger" to prevent "evil" is imposing a reqirement that God be the all-powerful Nanny?

Victor Reppert said...

No, but where do you draw the line? First we have to know what is meant by lifting a finger. On what grounds do we deny that God isn't doing plenty to keep things from being a whole lot worse than they are now? How many potential Hitlers had heart attacks at an early age who, had they lived, would have made the world a worse place than it now is? C. S. Lewis prayed for his wife and apparently she had a few years added on to it, and the doctors thought it was (apparently) miraculous. If God were to make things better, would he have to make himself obvious in so doing? If it becomes obvious that God is relieving suffering in the world on a massive scale, doesn't human nature suggest that we will just let God get on with the business of relieving suffering and attend to other things?

If evil is a problem for theism, is good a problem for atheism? Why not?

Don Jr. said...

Anonymous,

It would help to understand your actual argument--and separate it from mere rhetoric--if you put it in logical form. Even evidential arguments from evil are put into numbered arguments; it's just that they aren't deductively valid. The "logical argument from evil," on the other hand, is deductively valid. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. This is why it, if successful, it is so powerful. But the evidential argument from evil is also a logical argument (if it's not then it's not really an argument, or if it is then it's an illogical one); it's just that its conclusion doesn't necessarily follow from its premises. Nevertheless, evidential arguments from evil attempt to provide good (not conclusive) evidence for their conclusions, and they may be placed into numbered form for the sake of clarity, that is, to help separate a strong (though not conclusive) argument from mere rhetoric. Presenting a good argument formally would only make it more clear to the mind--and thus, if good, more compelling. There is a flipside to that though. If the argument is not good, it will be more clear that it is not good (if presented formally).

I'm sure you may be aware of all of this, Anonymous. But I'm just emphasizing the reasons behind Victor's asking for formally presented arguments. Either way, it will help show more clearly the true nature of the argument. It's primarily for the sake of clarify. If it's a good argument, it will only help. If it's a bad argument--well.

Anonymous said...

"First we have to know what is meant by lifting a finger. On what grounds do we deny that God isn't doing plenty to keep things from being a whole lot worse than they are now?"

Sigh.:-) It all depends on what kind of God we are talking about here. If God is all-powerful and all-good, it is hard to understand why things are not much, much better than they are now. I.E., this world does not seem to me to be the type that an omnipowerful, omniscient, and omnibenevolent one would create.
If God is limited in His powers or if He is also the source of evil, then there is no real problem in understanding the evil around us.

Mike D said...

Anonymous,
Victor asked, "Where do you draw the line?" How much better should the world be to support omnibenevolence? Maybe it is good enough. If we lived in a world where the worst evil was a stubbed toe, would we still be complaining about the problem of evil? Why didn't God stop me from stubbing my toe?

Steven Carr said...

It is nice to know that there nio guarentees of a suffering-free existence in Heaven.

Or at the least, such guarantees should be treated by Victor with the same scepticism that he would treat a guarantee by God that he will not create any further pathogens along the lines of HIV.

Steven Carr said...

What would Jesus do if he saw cruelty and suffering and starvation and drought?

And then equate Jesus with God.

John W. Loftus said...

Vid, you ask, "Where do we draw the line?" That's like asking "which whisker is the one, such that when it's plucked, no longer leaves a beard?" It's perfectly reasonable to say what abeard it without that level of specification. So this line drawing argument does not apply to this particular world. This particular world has senseless suffering in it, and this is the world we're looking at to determine if a good God exists...not some other one.

John W. Loftus said...

Sorry Vid, I mean Vic. ;-)

JD Walters said...

Wow,

Gareth's deconversion is a textbook model. Not that I don't respect his decision. Recently I had a very good friend who just flat out said he doesn't believe in Christianity anymore, and I know him to be a sincere seeker of the truth, so I can't deny that he's sincere and that he thought things through carefully.

Nevertheless I think it reveals the usual misunderstandings of even those who haven't been Christians all their lives. The theological virtue of faith is NOT something exercised in the absence of good reasons to believe. If you don't think you have good reasons (but based on what evidence, and by whose evidential standards?) to believe, you just plain shouldn't. The part about the Bible's 'horror passages' is straight out of Dan Barker's "Losing faith in faith" and seems an example of the 'argument from personal outrage' and really doesn't say anything about the existence of God. What if someone refused to believe in the existence of Hitler just because he was appalled by the terrible things he heard Hitler was doing? (I am not attributing evil deeds to God, not by a long shot).

The argument from apathy or coincidence perhaps resonates more strongly with me, but to attribute many events in which Christians claim to have encountered God to coincidence is already to have in a sense accepted the unbeliever's mindset, so it is quite circular. I won't deny that I wished many times for a personal miracle, the booming voice of God to dispel my wildest doubts. It took me some time to learn that God doesn't work like that (except in very unusual circumstances), and I shouldn't even have expected him to, given my religion's basic beliefs.

Inevitably when we get to the level of contrasting worldviews, the kinds of evidence which can be brought forward, for or against are so wideranging and hard to classify (except in the case, say of someone who believes that the Earth is flat) that going from one to the other is essentially not a matter of proving or disproving, but becoming increasingly attracted to the vision articulated by one worldview or another. To be sure, if something like the Resurrection were to be proven false, to the satisfaction of theists and atheists, then Christianity as a worldview would fall. But in absence of such critical tests, it really is to some extent a matter of conscience and personal decision to respond to the vision set forward by a particular worldview. For me the litmus test of Christianity is that it makes better sense of the existence of the Universe, the existence and character of human beings and the problem of evil than any other worldview on the 'catalogue'. But something that makes perfect sense to one person might be absolute gibberish to someone else.

But one thing that is inexcusable for a former Christian is not to take into account the 'proof by consciousness of sin'. Ultimately to believe in God is not to assent to a set of intellectual propositions, but to realize in your heart that your autonomous stance is mistaken, and that you stand convicted of denying the Creator's call to responsibility and loving relationship. The act of believing in God coincides with the realization of the error of human autonomy. These two cannot be separated. If someone 'believes' in God based on arguments and reasoning but does not accept that he is a sinner, he is not really a Christian. And these two cannot be properly separated in time either, or something has gone wrong.

Steven Carr said...

It appears JD Walters is only satisfied by a worldview where the being he worships commands men , women and children to be killed (See 1 Sam 15:3)

Such a being appeals to his sense of what is true about the world.

No wonder he thinks that he is a sinner, when he is not outraged even by the horror parts of the Bible.

JD Walters said...

The Being I worship may have ordered the death of men, women and children at a certain point in history and under unusual circumstances, but that is his right as Creator of the world. If we have any right to demand that God love us and show mercy on us, it is because God Himself chooses to extend this priviledge in the form of a covenant, which in many ways resembles a legal contract. It spells out what the rights of the creature are before the Creator: outside the limits of that covenant God owes us nothing.

You seem to think that killing anybody, anytime anywhere is always wrong. That goes against thousands of years of practical moral judgment involving cases of self-defense, conduct during wartime, etc. Say my father was a general and during wartime ordered the deaths of innocent people in order to achieve some military objective. Does that mean that I should not still respect him as my father, especially if he takes good care of me and does not as a matter of practice go around ordering the deaths of innocent people?

As usual Steve Carr shows the intellectual and moral maturity of a 6-year old (though I have a brother around that age who could probably run circles around your moral reasoning).

Anonymous said...

"As usual Steve Carr shows the intellectual and moral maturity of a 6-year old (though I have a brother around that age who could probably run circles around your moral reasoning)."

Actually, I find you to be the one acting rather immature here. You seem incapable of recognizing that someone disagrees with you without making some kind of snide remark.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous,
Victor asked, "Where do you draw the line?" How much better should the world be to support omnibenevolence? Maybe it is good enough. If we lived in a world where the worst evil was a stubbed toe, would we still be complaining about the problem of evil? Why didn't God stop me from stubbing my toe?"

Wow, this is like the prisoner complaining to the warden about beatings and rapes occuring in the prison and the warden responding by saying, why should I try to prevent them, you'd just complain about stubbing your toe if I did.
You are just reinforcing my basic impression that many Christians seem incapable or maybe it is just unwilling to acknowledge the amount of evil in this world.

Anonymous said...

"If it becomes obvious that God is relieving suffering in the world on a massive scale, doesn't human nature suggest that we will just let God get on with the business of relieving suffering and attend to other things? "

And this would be a bad thing, how?

JD Walters said...

"Actually, I find you to be the one acting rather immature here. You seem incapable of recognizing that someone disagrees with you without making some kind of snide remark."

But I only offered the snide remark after demonstrating how off-the-mark Steve's comment was. This isn't just about disagreement. It's about Steve popping up with the same old tired 'proof-texts' of God's moral inferiority, without really engaging with anyone's arguments. You'll notice that he didn't actually contest anything I said in my previous post, he's just trying to be annoying. You'll also notice that most, if not all of my 'snide remarks' are directed at no one but Steve himself, because he has demonstrated time and time again in our exchanges that he is simply unable to take his opponents' positions seriously, and I am tired of these breaches in intellectual decency.

There are plenty of respectable sparring partners here, including "Blue Devil Knight", whom I greatly respect for his honesty and clear-thinking, but Steve Carr is not one of them. Until he shows that he can take his opponents seriously and treat their arguments respectfully I don't feel inclined to show him the same courtesy.

Steven Carr said...

JD Walters
'The Being I worship may have ordered the death of men, women and children at a certain point in history and under unusual circumstances, but that is his right as Creator of the world.'

CARR
It is very, very scary that there are people in the 21st century who claim that it is God's will that certain people be killed, and that they see nothing wrong with that.

JD just plain scares me. I have to speak up about such people.

There are people in the world who react to evil by saying that it is God's will.

As we have seen , so many times in the beginning of the 21st century, a minority of people can draw the conclusion that it is God's will for such evil to be carried out.

Steven Carr said...

JD Walters
'Say my father was a general and during wartime ordered the deaths of innocent people in order to achieve some military objective.'

CARR
Again Christians reveal that they think that innocent people should be killed if it furthers an objective dear to them.

Of course, in religion's eyes, there is no such thing as an innocent person. Jesus supposedly said 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone', thereby rendering everybody in the world worthy of death in the eyes of a person like JD Walters.

JD Walters said...

Steve Carr,

HAVE YOU GOT EYES TO SEE? What is it about "at a certain point in history" that you don't understand? Christians don't abide by Old Testament conquest regulations anymore, or at least they shouldn't. We're under the New Testament now, and any sort of judgment to be pronounced on people is in the hands of God, not us. Find a single non-fundamentalist non-Neoconstructionist, non-theocratic, level-headed sensible Christian who thinks that Christians are sometimes ordered to kill people in order to further God's will and I'll give you a thousand dollars.

Well, I suppose you could say Dietrich Bonhoeffer falls into that category, but he had the thoroughly reprehensible aim of trying to assasinate Hitler, so that the Jewish genocide and the German conquest of other countries would stop. No, we wouldn't have wanted that, now would we? No, it's always wrong to kill someone, even if that someone is brutally slaughtering millions and millions of people.

Steve Carr scares me and I have to speak out about such people. Even in the 21st Century there are people who know no limits to their perverse desire to discredit other religions than their own, even if it means renouncing the basic moral heritage of the human race.

And unless you have a clue about what it means for something to be God's will, I advise you to stop trying to use it to trip up other people. I could apply Jesus' own advise (which apparently you have thoroughly twisted and misunderstood) to you: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone".

Even though it's not very Christian of me, I was secretly hoping that you would once again put your foot in your mouth so I would be vindicated in my 'snide remarks' (according to the Anonymous post) toward you. Frankly I'm reaching the limits of my tolerance for your misunderstanding of the overall Bible message, your twisting out of context and proportion of EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY and your complete lack of intellectual courtesy. So what am I going to do about it? Pray for more tolerance. THAT'S what being a Christian is all about. You certainly won't catch me claiming that it's God's will for you to be killed or that you're under God's curse or whatever. Such a crazy idea could only occur to someone who's not a Christian and who doesn't really understand the message of Christ.

Edward T. Babinski said...

WHAT DID C. S. LEWIS DREAD MOST? (READ ON AND FIND OUT)

Vic,
Your defenses are purely hypothetical like your suggestion that maybe God has been stopping "potential Hitlers" via supernaturally inducing heart attacks in select people. (Is that a new I.D. hypothesis?) It also simply begs the question of why the heart of Hitler himself was allowed to continue to beat, though I suppose you can hypothesize a reason for that out of thin air as well.

And what about the way you reduced the question of God's glaring absence in the realm of human and animal suffering for hundreds of millions of years, boiling it down to..."Do you want a father in heaven or a cosmic nanny?" Sounds almost like you're calling suffering people, "sissies" when you claim they want a "nanny."

Yet aside from atheists, have you considered that perhaps many of the folks who would like a bit of "nannying" include devout religious believers praying earnestly for any and all possible supernatural "nannying." Heck, I'd just like a God who acted a bit more like a concerned (more visibly active) parent rather than say, a deadbeat Dad.

God creates an entire universe, spends the Old Testament behaving in a way that should have earned Him a restraining order, then spends the last couple of millennia incommunicado. Thanks, Dad.

God threw his first two children out of the house (in this case a garden) after their first mistake, and barred their way back with a flaming sword? How many fathers would treat their children that way after their first mistake? And what a way to treat “newborns” who were also “newlyweds.”

Why did God fill the world with his own children, knowing that he would have to destroy them? And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?

The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. But God did not forgive the ignorant and thoughtless first pair of juveniles even their first small offense and say, “You may go free this time, I will give you another chance.” On the contrary! He elected to punish their children, all through the ages to the end of time, for a trifling offense committed by others before they were born. He is punishing them yet. In mild ways? No, in atrocious ones.

I believe in Someone Out There--call Him God, since other names, like Festus or Darrin, do not seem to fit--but I am not entirely certain that He is all that mindful of what goes on down here. Example: Recently a tornado destroyed a town in Texas and dropped a church roof on a batch of worshipers. One of the few things left standing were two plaster statues, one of Jesus, the other of Joseph. The townspeople, according to the news, “looked at the statues’ survival as a sign of God’s love.” Hold the phone. This sounds like the he-beats-me-because-he-loves-me line of thought. If the Lord in his infinite wisdom drops a concrete roof on the true believers but spares two hunks of modeling compound, it is time to question the big Fella’s priorities. If I have to be made up of plaster to command attention in this universe, something is amiss.

Vic, where is the philosopher inside you who acknowledges a bit more of the myriad burning questions concerning things that none are certain about, that none have seen?

I challenge you to ponder something C. S. Lewis wrote the year of his death: "The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. [God]. The conclusion I dread is not 'so there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"

Lewis was confronting the pain of his wife's death by cancer and his own coming demise from a long painful bout with cancer as well. So for Lewis the problem of pain had grow accute, such that based on his experiences He even "dreaded" what "God" might really be like. Which reminds me of the story Mother T. used to repeat about a man she met who was suffering from cancer and in great pain, and Mother T. (who didn't believe in using pain-killers) told the man, "Jesus is kissing you," and the man replied, "Then I wish he'd stop." That story appears to echo the story of Lewis's greatest "dread."

Pain is a burning perpetual question and remains so even for religious believers praying earnestly for its removal. Neither did even the so-called bodily sacrifice of God stop the pain of this world which keeps going and going for two thousand years now.

By the way, Charles Williams, Lewis's friend, didn't think much of attempts by theists (or the urge to make such attempts) to justify the pains of this world, as Lewis himself recalled in his introduction to a book on Williams.