Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A secular outpost discussion of some of my objections to the argument from evil

A redated post. I should say that I don't endorse the claim that "if no one gets unjustly damned then whatever God dishes out is OK." At least not in my present state of mind. But if I held to such a theory, how would you refute me?

Jeff Lowder responds in this and in a previous post to some discussion of mine on the argument from evil. It seems to be a matter of figuring out the "scope" of arguments. I suppose you can have one argument that says that consciousness itself is more probable on theism than on naturalism. You might have another that says the fact that consciousness depends on the brain as much as it does confirms naturalism over theism. And then you have another argument that says that, given that it exists, the degree to which our conscious life is unpleasant and painful is more probable on naturalism than on theism. I still maintain that important phenomena that give rise to the problem of evil are themselves deeply problematic for naturalism, including consciousness, objective moral values (and yes I know all about running it as a reductio without presupposing objective moral values--I still think subjectivism undercuts the argument), and rational inference (we couldn't argue from evil if we can't infer). I'm agnostic as to whether an argument from evil can be made that disconfirms theism to some extent. What I object to is the claim that the argument from evil is a single, overriding reason for rejecting theism, that justifies irrationality charges against believers in God. At best it's one piece of the puzzle that goes the naturalist's way. Why is it supposed to me more important than all the other pieces?

50 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

How about if I use G.E. Moore's pencil analogy here. I am more confident that there is gratuitous and sensless evil that cannot be accounted for by theism, than I am that the arguments on behalf of theism are true. Therefore, I consider the problem of evil to be an empirical refutation of theism. It's the only real hard evidence either way.

Victor Reppert said...

But if there's trouble accounting for these very facts naturalistcially, then I can't see that this, alone of all the arguments, provides "hard evidence." What you get with suffering is exactly what you get with all the other stuff, an explanatory gap. We have some suffering that can be explained by theodicy strategies (including virtually all of my suffering) we have other suffering that might be said to cause a "hard problem," and we have an incomplete understand of God and God's ways. With, say consciousness, you have some aspects of the mind which are being nicely mapped by neuroscience, you have some "hard problems" that don't look like they are getting solved, and we have an incomplete knowledge of the mind and its relation to the physical brain. Ah yes, you say, science is progressing and theology is not. But the progress of science on this could very well, and I think will, make things worse instead of better. If we keep mapping the brain for years and the problem won't go away, then I think things are getting worse instead of better for the naturalist.

waylon said...

It's just an occam's razor kind of thing to us. The simplest solution to the problem of evil is that there is no omnipotent, benevolent intelligent being running the universe.

Sure, you can go through all kinds of convolutions to "prove" to yourself that this deity "might" have all kinds of potentially good long term reasons for allowing millions of children under the age of 5 to die of starvation every year, while answering other people's prayers for relief from minor daily inconveniences. Or you could say that an intelligent being that would allow this to go on is an evil being.

But those ideas (of a supernatural overlord) seem to be wishful/fearful thinking rather than a rational view of the universe.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, so, you're saying that the problem of consciousness is a problem for the atheist in the same way that the problem of evil is for the theist, correct?...except that science is making progress mapping the brain whereas theodicies are not. This to you is a standoff.

If this is what you're saying it's an interesting point.

However, the problem of evil doesn't show that a Supreme Being doesn't exist at all. It only shows that if God exists he's not an omni-theistic-God you believe in as a Christian. In comparison, the problem of consciousness does not lead to an omni-theistic-God at all.

So, are we really at a standoff, especially when at the present time we are making progress on mapping the brain? Let's grant for the moment that we are both right, in that both problems are not resolvable. Then what we have left is deism at best, from both sides of the fence. You must go on to defend the whole notion of a trinitarian, incarnational, atoning, and resurrecting divine being who acts in history. And the only way you can do so is through continguent historical evidence coming from an overwhelming superstitious and pre-scientific people. And you also have to show that you believe the truth about these things despite the fact that religious faith is overwhelmingly dependent upon when and where believers are born.

I could be comfortable with deism and merely say that a distant God is no different than none at all, whereas you could not be comfortable with deism.

So I don't see how our respective problems tip the scales toward your omni-theistic-God at all. Even if the problem of consciousness cannot be resolved and an adequate theodicy can be had, this still doesn't mean your omni-theistic-God exists. It just means that if he exists, then evil isn't a problem for believing in him. But if the problem of evil is as I claim it is, then your faith is delusional.

Victor Reppert said...

Neuroscience is effectively mapping the brain and not getting one step closer to solving the problem of consciousness. Therefore, the problem of consciousness gets worse and worse as science progresses.

There is a reasonable and expected ignorance about God's ways. We can understand them up to a point, that's to be expected, and so much of the suffering in the world is a necessary condition for a greater good. And then there is some that is harder to understand. Again, perfectly understandable from the point of view of theism. If you want to argue that consciousness is not a refutation for naturalism, then I can argue on similar grounds that evil doesn't refute theism.

We have to assume that a perfectly good God would want to minimioze suffering. Sometimes I think there ought to be more suffering in the world than there really is. But whatever God has chosen to dish out, so long as it doesn't result in anyone being unjustly damned, accords with my conception of perfect goodness.

John W. Loftus said...

Surely you've heard it all, but listen to the debate I had with David Wood on evil. I presented my case there.

Anonymous said...

VR wrote: "But whatever God has chosen to dish out, so long as it doesn't result in anyone being unjustly damned, accords with my conception of perfect goodness."

I didn't realise that standards for perfect goodness had fallen so low...

This quote is a prime example of why non-theists regard the problem of evil as so damning for theists (although not necessarily fatal for theism itself). Downgrading the concept of omnibenevolence to a simple avoidance of injustice in the afterworld in this way violates most people's notion of goodness, and smacks of either sophistry or a blithe indifference to worldly suffering.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the consciousness issue, you may be interested in a couple of recent articles:

An interview with a former Buddhist monk who wrote a book titled "Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge"

http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/11/27/wallace/index.html

Also, New Scientist recently put out an issue on the "big questions," including an article by Paul Broks, author of "Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology," addressing the consciousness issue:

http://www.newscientist.com/channel/being-human/mg19225780.073-the-big-questions-what-is-consciousness.html

Unfortunately, for that one you'll need a subscription to the magazine.

Victor Reppert said...

OK. I thought I would get a reaction to my weakened account of omnibenevolence. Now you have two options. Well, first, I am not sure I would want to define God's perfect goodness as omnibenevolence. But let that pass. You need now to do one of two things. 1) You can argue that there is an objectively valid conception of moral goodness that is violated by my definition. This commits you to objective moral values, which in my view is profoundly problematic for naturalistic atheism. 2) You need to show that I as a Christian really accept a much higher standard of omnibenevolence, that Christianity teaches that God's goodness amounts to more than that. Then you would have a reductio argument against my position.

I'm not sure what omnibenevolence needs to amount to. But I am not at all sure that a perfectly good being has to keep the universe clear of gratuitous suffering. Lots of people in the debate assume this without argument. It needs to be defended, especially if you want that "brass ring" argument that shows that theists are one and all irrational.

Anonymous said...

"Neuroscience is effectively mapping the brain and not getting one step closer to solving the problem of consciousness."

It appears to be building a large body of evidence that thinking is due to activity of the brain.
This is evidence that natualists and supernaturalist have to try and account for. It is not a problem peculiar to naturalism. I've yet to see a plausible theistic explanation for how the brain is able to do this.

Victor Reppert said...

It appears to be building a large body of evidence that thinking is due to activity of the brain.

VR: the best you're going to get out of science is correlations. Correlations don't give you an intertheoretic reduction. The categories of rational thought and the categories of physical science are logically incompatible.

Anonymous said...

And how does that threaten naturalism any more than Christian theism or theism in general? Neither an atheist or a theist apparently will be able to do more than correlate brain activity with thinking. So what?

John W. Loftus said...

Vic: 1) You can argue that there is an objectively valid conception of moral goodness that is violated by my definition. This commits you to objective moral values, which in my view is profoundly problematic for naturalistic atheism.

In the first place I believe there are objective moral values, just not ultimately objective moral values. And according to those values it's wrong to sit by and do nothing when someone is being gang raped and then murdered when I have the power to stop it. In fact, the more power I have to stop it without being harmed myself in the process the more I should do so. I suspect that I have just described what you should do as a Christian too, even if the grounds of your beliefs are different than mine.

But even if I thought there was nothing wrong in joining in on the gang rape and murder myself, it doesn't change the fact that you would still think you should stop it. Now based upon that moral notion we both have(again,whether or not I do is irrelevant), why doesn't God have the same moral obligation? That's your problem as a theist, not mine.

If there isn't a greater good for the girl who is being raped (let's say she is an atheist and will go to hell), then what could it possibly be? Not even God with omniscience can do something with that scenerio. There is no greater good FOR HER! If the greater good is for the lessons learned, or the laws that might be changed as a result, then God did not care FOR HER. He used her. And we're back to asking whether or not it's justifiable for anyone to use people as a means to an end (contra Kant). If God can use people as a means to an end, then he just doesn't care about the people who suffer like this.

What then does it mean to say God loves us all? He cannot. Given this scenerio and many others that take place daily, he cannot. There is no theodicy that can make sense of the way God acts here, ON YOUR OWN MORAL GROUNDS!

VIc: You need to show that I as a Christian really accept a much higher standard of omnibenevolence, that Christianity teaches that God's goodness amounts to more than that. Then you would have a reductio argument against my position.

Well, if a father knows how to feed his children, then how much more so does God the father, as Jesus indicated, right? I just laid out a case where we would be morally obligated to help, so how much more should God, on your own terms. But even if God is not bound by what Jesus said here, he should at least have our minimum standards of decency and morality. Why does he not even have those?

Who cares if he is omnibenelovent? He's not even good.

Victor Reppert said...

You can't assume she's going to hell. I'm not even assuming the doctrine of everlasting punishment here. That's not entailed by theism. Therefore, in the light of eternity, we do not know that there are no overriding reasons for not stopping the gang rape. God has many more things to consider than humans have, therefore, what might be an obligation for us (because he has commanded us to do it), is not an obligation for him (who has not commanded it to Himself).

Edward T. Babinski said...

How is one to disprove theism? or free will for that matter? They lie in "another realm" and hence are simply beyond reach of any solid disproof (and also beyond proof for that matter, though folks can hope it will come after they die, yet the knowledge of death and the fear that provokes would seem to cloud one's judgment).

Such concepts are unfalsifiable, and also have the greatest "elasticity" since they are "supernatural," and we all know that the supernatural is omni this, and omni that, and whatever else someone wants it to be, and so such an explanation has every possible elasticity and ingenuity at its explanatory disposal. It's like the way people explain their belief that prayers connect with God by explaining some as being "answered," and some "not answered," and others only answered after prayer and fasting, or after significant delay, or even then, "answered" in ways such as the person dying and going to heaven instead of being healed. Really, the ingenuity of explanations and the elasticity of thinking involved in accepting them all is amazing, no matter how things turn out.

In the SAME WAY, belief in a good supernatural God can explain any event including several mass extinctions in deep time throughout earth's history, to the death of one's child from a painful genetic disease that doesn't allow them to lay down without their skin blistering up and getting infected and peeling off which the child then suffers for years until a final infection kills them.

Personally, rather than discuss matters via the game of philosophy I'd sooner look around at the cosmos, as deeply and thoroughly as possible, and simply grow more aware of it, and grow more aware of my own psychology and more aware of my fellow human beings.

I love to experience nature, and it has many beauties from the human perspective. I also am aware of how every moment in a nearby garden or wild woods, animals are preying on one another from the tiniest microbes upwards. The microbes seem to be doing the most preying since they attack the young of all species, killing a large percentage of them.

I also prefer to be aware of geological history rather than salvation history. Salvation history differs from say, Zoroastrianism to Judaism (even within Judaism, the salvation history of the Jews and the Samaritans differed, since the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch as holy, not the prophets), and intertestamental Judaism and first century Judaism also contained different schools and sects. Christianity took matters further as did Islam and Mormonism after Christianity. Even within Christianity there was the famous Orthodox-Catholic split, then within Catholicism the Protestant-Catholic split, etc.

But GEOLOGICAL HISTORY is something geologists seem in agreement on, even concerning the six mass extinctions in the past on planet earth, and the ancestry of humankind from African bipedal apes. These things fascinate me far more than salvation history, as well as the sociological and literary study of ALL of humaity's ancient writings, rather than attempting to squeeze and hug the primeval history portions of the book of Genesis to my chest as the be all, and an end all, of truth.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,
You said the problem of consciousness gets worse and worse as science progresses? Actually, as neuroscience and cognitive science progresses the connections of the parts of the brain and how they affect everything concerning one's emotions, memory, behaviors, and consciousness, continue to grow more and more well grounded via further scientific research.

Neither is there any lack of neuroscientists who believe on the basis of such experiments that the brain is the organ of consciousness rather than a dualistic "something else" directing consciousness.

Even members within the Christian philosophical community are beginning to come up with monistic rather than dualistic philosophies of consciousness.

And Marc Hauser's book, Moral Minds, even takes up the question of the origin of morality.

~~~~~

As for "consciousness" it needs first to be broken down into types of consciousness and studied separately. And brain scanners are still in their infancy and can show activity in sections of the brain, but scientists are going to have to develop much finer scanners, and also develop a far more complete and much finer map of the entire human brain's architecture and electro-chemistry, a brain-nome--like we are doing for the human genome--before they can discover further connections between parts of the brain and how they work in relation to human behavior. Even the study of the human genome is at the point where simply knowing the genes is not enough, because each of their functions now has to be mapped, which is separating from simply mapping their structure. And we need to see how the functions of similar genes interact in great chains of reactions and within different species.

Looking at cells of course does not show the whole picture, not even the whole picture of the brain, nor the whole human being, nor the whole environment that that human being is perceiving and interacting with. So the study of the brain-mind will involve correlating studies at a variety of levels instantaneously to discover all of the connections.

The connections are being studied, and more data on them continues to come in.

Note lastly that the idea of a dualistic mind interacting with a physical brain is something that can never be disproved because of the flexibility and unfalsifiability of such a concept. Such a dualistic concept of the mind as something wholly other (i.e., that is the invisible "reason" for everything that's "smart" in us) is out there beyond proof or disproof.

There is so much that I see going on in the scientific press that passes through the Furman Library everyday, that there is no way I can even share all the references with you.

At one conference it was pointed out that not long ago the idea of scientists tackling the question of how "memory" functions in the brain was lauded as an impossible task that scientists would never ever come close to learning how it worked. But today there are increasing numbers of discoveries concerning how memory functions in a brain, including studies on a cellular and electrochemical level and cognitive levels as well. The connections keep coming in.

Edward T. Babinski said...

VIC: The categories of rational thought and the categories of physical science are logically incompatible.

ED: Your statement does not prove itself, because both dualists and monists agree the brain is a unique organ, and unique organs by definition fall into unique categories of their own.

Simple brains that allow the simplest of animals to learn and accumulate memories of their environment is a unique process as well, taking place on a scale far above that of individual atoms.

And as I've explained, atoms once joined to other atoms have properties different from that of individual atoms, especially in the macro world as one continues joining atoms to make molecules, joining molecules to make moleculer pathways and micro structures, and those joining together to form organelles, and organelles working together as cells, tissues, organs, organs working together as bodily systems like the digestive system or the renal system or the nervous system, then whole organisms interacting with other organisms on a macro-basis and perceiving and interacting with a world of light and color and sense and smell, etc.

Anonymous said...

VR wrote: "I'm not sure what omnibenevolence needs to amount to. But I am not at all sure that a perfectly good being has to keep the universe clear of gratuitous suffering. Lots of people in the debate assume this without argument. It needs to be defended..."

The onus is on you as a theist to define precisely what you mean by "perfectly good", not for the rest of us to try and second-guess you.

Fortunately your previous remark went a long way towards clarifying your notion of perfect goodness. And the upshot is that God is a being who is omniscient and omnipotent, and who doesn't damn anybody unjustly.

I think we can all live with that definition. And it solves the problem of evil at a stroke, too.

Victor Reppert said...

Back when I studied philosophy of science, the idea that anything was strictly falsifiable was considered to have been shot down by the Quine-Duhem thesis. So using "unfalsifiability" to show the inadequacy of "supernatural" theories is not a good argument, because naturalistic theories are every bit as unfalsifiable.

Lots of scientific stuff out there on the brain. Mostly done with the presupposition that there must be a naturalistic explanation for everything, so it's hardly a discovery if their theorizing comes out naturalistic. It couldn't be otherwise, else they wouldn't consider it science. Heads I win, tails you lose.

My point was that it's one thing to see correlations between the mind and the brain, it's another thing to reduce what seem to me to be logically incompatible categories to one another.

As for the problem of evil, I want to further note that I do sense the emotional strength of the appeal to pity which underlies the argument from evil, although I consider it a fallacious appeal to pity (ad misericordum). But human actions have short-range effects, and we are not in a position to see the long term consequences of our actions. So if there is some suffering there, we have to alleviate it. God on the other hand is responsible for an order of things that lasts an eternity. I happen to think that there is some price to be paid in terms of human suffering for living in a world where our choices matter. If God guarantees that no one ever gets brutally raped and murdered, then no human has the responsibility of preventing anyone from getting raped and murdered. Maybe that's a raw deal for humans, and God should take that responsibility. And maybe it isn't; maybe the good of allowing this kind of abuse of free will is a necessary condition for good consequences in the eternal order of things.

Anonymous said...

VR wrote: "Back when I studied philosophy of science, the idea that anything was strictly falsifiable was considered to have been shot down by the Quine-Duhem thesis."

So the claim that anything is strictly falsifiable has been falsified by the Duhem-Quine thesis? I would like to see an analysis of that...

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, I have never suffered much at all when compared to most people on our planet. In fact, I've had it easy by comparison. And yet life is still difficult for me, sometimes very much so, without going into much detail. Life is difficult. There's work. There's relationships. There's the struggle to understand. There's the winter cold, and car failure when you need a car. There's politics, and the drive for a mate, and keeping her.

This stuggle I have had built my "soul." I don't see how more suffering would've made me a better person. Like most people I have at least contemplated suicide (how seriously I don't really know in comparison to others).

Why it is that people need additional suffering due to rape, slavery, natural disasters, lethal parasites, holocausts, famines, hurricanes, poisonous plants, snakes, and spiders, is morally indefensible, especially when God purportedly has the power to eliminate them, and when he purportedly wants us to believe in him. No good person would created such a world or punish us with a world. No all-powerful person would allow such a world. No all-knowing person would be that dumb to create such a world.

Hey Vic, with all of the race based conflict and race based slavery we see, would you please offer me one reasonable suggestion why God didn't create us all with one color of skin?

Anonymous said...

"Back when I studied philosophy of science, the idea that anything was strictly falsifiable was considered to have been shot down by the Quine-Duhem thesis. So using "unfalsifiability" to show the inadequacy of "supernatural" theories is not a good argument, because naturalistic theories are every bit as unfalsifiable.

Lots of scientific stuff out there on the brain. Mostly done with the presupposition that there must be a naturalistic explanation for everything, so it's hardly a discovery if their theorizing comes out naturalistic. It couldn't be otherwise, else they wouldn't consider it science. Heads I win, tails you lose.

My point was that it's one thing to see correlations between the mind and the brain, it's another thing to reduce what seem to me to be logically incompatible categories to one another."

And non of the above appears to me to support your point that consciousness is a problem for naturalism. The problem as I see it is to account for the evidence that continually points to the brain as being capable of conscious thought. The theist can no more explain how the brain does that than the atheist.

Anonymous said...

No response from VR re falsifiability and the Duhem-Quine thesis, so I will expand:

Like most people who reach for the Duhem-Quine thesis whenever the subject of falsifiability arises, you have misconstrued the content of the thesis. The DQ thesis states that it is logically possible for a proponent of any theory to continue to defend the theory as true in the face of any number of potentially disconfirming observations. It does not state that it is impossible for any theory to be falsified (a claim which in any case would be self-refuting).

And it certainly is possible for a theory to be falsified: this happens, for example, whenever its proponents agree that it has been falsified by one or more disconfirming observations. Scientific theories are falsified in this way all the time.

In fact, it is rare for the proponents of a scientific theory to continue to uphold the theory once the scientific community has reached a consensus that it is false. (And if this does happen, as for example with Young Earth Creationism, the theory is usually reclassified as pseudo-science.)

There is no logical reason why Naturalism should be unfalsifiable. And I would argue that it is falsifiable, as its proponents are quite happy to list any number of potentially disconfirming observations that (crucially) they themselves would regard as disconfirming. An example of a potentially disconfirming observation for Naturalism would be the appearance of a (presumably supernatural) being who could repeatedly violate any relevant conservation law of physics, at will, under controlled laboratory conditions.

If you wish to claim that the evidential bases of theism and Naturalism are equivalent, the onus is on you to provide at least one example of a potentially disconfirming observation for theism. So is there any conceivable observation or event that, in your opinion, would falsify theism?

Victor Reppert said...

I can imagine all sorts of things that would refute theism. If it were discovered that someone were in hell forever simply because of a divine fiat when that person could have been just as easily saved would do it for me. So from my point of view both theism and naturalism are falsifiable.

The problem is that while there is a close correlation or relationship between the mind and the brain, something that would be readily acknowledged and even insisted upon by an emergent dualist like Hasker of a Thomistic dualist like Leftow, given the discrete character of physical particles and the non-discrete character of mental states, I don't see a reduction on the horizon. In fact the situation is so difficult that some people are appealing to quantum mechanics in order to expand the concept of the physical in order to explain consciousness. See the article by Stapp I linked to about a year and a half ago.

Anonymous said...

VR wrote: "I can imagine all sorts of things that would refute theism. If it were discovered that someone were in hell forever simply because of a divine fiat when that person could have been just as easily saved would do it for me."

How exactly could such a thing be "discovered"? And how could the existence of a "divine fiat" (of any kind) be said to falsify theism? Christian theism perhaps, but not theism in general.

Mike D said...

I am out of sequence, but I would like to go back to John Loftus' argument about God's moral duty to prevent evil. I agree with his scenario that humans have a moral duty (or at the very least a moral opportunity) to intervene to prevent evil from occuring to others. The gang rape situation interposes a good person who has the means and opportunity to stop others from commiting an evil act and a victim from suffering. The moral obligation to prevent the evil is similar to the biblical observation, James 4:17 "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins."

He then imposes the same moral code on God. A good God would not permit evil that He has the means and opportunity to prevent. The Christian theist cannot agree with this. As we afirm the existence of a good God and observe the presence of great evils, it is clear the God is not preventing these evils from occuring. The best of Christian theology does not propose the existence of the God one prefers, but attempts to describe the God who is.

One key issue is the paradox that John's thesis creates. If God were morally required to prevent evil from occuring, no evil could occur since God would intervene in all situations and humans could have no moral obligation to prevent evil since they would have no opportunity themselves. The premise that God is morally required to preven great evils cannot stand.

Victor Reppert said...

As I've said over and over, I think if a lot of considerations on behalf of theism were to collapse, I could imagine giving the belief up. I don't know if I have to envision the specifics in order for the belief to qualify as falsifiable.

What would falsify biological evolution?

Anonymous said...

" I don't see a reduction on the horizon. In fact the situation is so difficult that some people are appealing to quantum mechanics in order to expand the concept of the physical in order to explain consciousness. See the article by Stapp I linked to about a year and a half ago."

Again, why is that any more of a threat to naturalism than it is to any other philosophical world view? Theists have has much trouble explaining this exact correlation of brain activity with mental activity as atheists do.

Victor Reppert said...

God wills the correlation? That is what Adams argues in Flavors, Colors and God.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, even if I were a theist I would not accept that as an explanation for how brain activity is able to correlate with mental activity so perfectly. Your "explanation" only tells me that it was God's wish that human brains be capable of conscious thinking.

Victor Reppert said...

So you don't see how an omnipotent being can make his thoughts actual?

More precisely, thought, and not non-thought, is fundamental to the universe if theism is true. Mind has the power to create matter and create relationships between mind and matter. Matter cannot create mind. Add up material states all you like, and you can imagine those states existing without consciousness.

Anonymous said...

"So you don't see how an omnipotent being can make his thoughts actual?"

No I don't. Why don't you lay out a model showing how this omnipotent being can do that? A model that can be tested for its accuracy.
Sorry, but I have yet to see a theist lay out a persuasive model explaining the evidence we so far have of the correlation of brain activity with mental activity.

Victor Reppert said...

But does the question "How can" make sense if the being in question is omnipotent?

Anonymous said...

VR wrote: "As I've said over and over, I think if a lot of considerations on behalf of theism were to collapse, I could imagine giving the belief up. I don't know if I have to envision the specifics in order for the belief to qualify as falsifiable."

You are of course under no obligation to answer my question. But if you want to claim that theism is falsifiable, I am under no obligation to take that claim seriously unless you provide some supporting evidence. Surely a single example of a potentially disconfirming observation for theism is not too much to ask for?

VR wrote: "What would falsify biological evolution?"

Although this is an obvious attempt to deflect attention away from the (un)falsifiability of theism, it is still an interesting question. Philosophers of science have spilt gallons over ink over it, so I doubt if can add anything new here.

As I mentioned in connection with the Duhem-Quine thesis, a theory is falsified if two thing happen:
(i) a potentially disconfirming observation is made; and
(ii) the proponents of the theory agree that the observation has falsified the theory.

Historically, there have been a number of occasions when a potentially disconfirming observation for evolution could have been made. Right from the start it was recognised that evolution needed tens or hundreds of millions of years to operate effectively. So when the first radioactive determinations of the age of the Earth were made, a result of the order of 100,000 or a million years would have been disconfirming. The same is true of the more recent cosmological determinations of the age of the Universe, which (fortunately for evolutionists) come in at billions of years.

Similarly, when the first methods for measuring allele frequencies and calculating genetic distances between species were developed in the 1960s, a potentially disconfirming observation would have been made if it had turned out that the genetic distance between human beings and sharks or crocodiles or earthworms was the same as (or even closer than) the genetic distance between human beings and chimpanzees. But it did not turn out that way, and evolution was not falsified in this instance.

I am not a professional evolutionary biologist myself, so I don't know whether there are other potentially disconfirming experiments hovering on the horizon at the moment.

The second question, whether evolutionary biologists would recognise a potentially disconfirming observation if one was made, is more problematic. If a large suite of advanced mammal fossils was found in an unquesionably pre-Cambriam rock stratum (another potentially disconfirming observation, by the way), would evolutionary biologists as a group accept that evolution had now been falsified? Or would they, like Young Earth Creationists, stubbornly insist that the fossils were a fraud, or construct increasingly tortuous explanations of how the fossils got there? I honestly don't know.

So, yes, there could be potentially disconfirming observations for evolution, but it is not clear that evolutionists would accept them if they were ever made. All of which is just a restatement of the Duhem-Quine thesis, of course.

Anonymous said...

"But does the question "How can" make sense if the being in question is omnipotent? "


Theists seem to assume that with the label "omnipotence" one need not be obligated to explain the "how can." Maybe that's because they put the emphasis on "can" rather than "how"?
But from a naturalistic perspective, as long as this omnipotent being is performing an action in space and time (does it even make sense to speak of action outside of space and time?) then the "how" is the important word in "how can."
You keep critiquing naturalism for not being able to answer how the brain can engage in conscious thought. Yet theism is apparently just as incapable of providing an answer to that question.

Victor Reppert said...

All sorts of disconfirming observations could occur. We could discover the court records of Pontius Pilate, and find that his account of what happened in the life of Jesus contradicted those of the gospels. That for me at least would count against theism because I consider Christian revelation to be the best-evidenced revelation we have, and also because on my view given the state of the world, there should be a revelation. I consider the extent, type, and distribution of human suffering to provide some evidence against theism. I just think the evidence is overrated and, in my view, outweighed by numerous kinds of theistic evidence.

It seems to me that the way in which the naturalist asks "how" begs the question in favor of naturalism. The concept of what will count as evidence requires a naturalistic conclusion. So then it's no surprise, once we get done that all the evidence supports naturalism. It looks like a vicious hermeneutical circle to me.

If the stars in the sky were to spell out the words "TURN OR BURN: LOFTUS THIS MEANS YOU" (I had to use his name because I don't know yours) would you say "I don't know how God did that. I guess I don't have to follow the warning."

Anonymous said...

VR: "We could discover the court records of Pontius Pilate, and find that his account of what happened in the life of Jesus contradicted those of the gospels."

Again, evidence against Christian theism, not against theism in general. (And do you really think that the discovery of Pilate's court records would cause 2 billion people to renounce Christianity? I doubt it.)

VR: "The concept of what will count as evidence requires a naturalistic conclusion. So then it's no surprise, once we get done that all the evidence supports naturalism."

We all have eyes, ears and brains that operate in roughly the same ways. The concept of what constitutes "evidence" in favour of a substantive claim is understood by everyone and is used with little or no dispute every day, in science, in the courts, in the newspapers etc. etc. (Individual evidential facts can be and are disputed, of course - I can stubbornly claim that OJ was nowhere near the crime scene, for example - but the question of what would constitute evidence, if it were true, is rarely disputed.)

When you make an unusual claim which you assert has an important bearing on everyone's lives, it is not unreasonable to ask you to provide supporting evidence that _everyone_ can grasp, not just a privileged elite with access to some esoteric revelation.

VR: "If the stars in the sky were to spell out the words "TURN OR BURN: LOFTUS THIS MEANS YOU" (I had to use his name because I don't know yours) would you say "I don't know how God did that. I guess I don't have to follow the warning.""

If such a thing were to happen, I would certainly regard it as evidence against naturalism. Naturalism is falsifiable in many ways; theism doesn't seem to be.

Victor Reppert said...

AN: If such a thing were to happen, I would certainly regard it as evidence against naturalism. Naturalism is falsifiable in many ways; theism doesn't seem to be.

VR: Let's go back the the QD thesis and falsifiability. You pointed out that a position could attain falsifiability in fact, if there were a consensus among the informed community, even if the logical possibility remained to hold on to the belief in the teeth of the counterevidence. The evidence goes south, some people hold on but many give up. I will admit that in the case of religious beliefs there is sometimes an emotional motive to hold on in the teeth of counter-evidence.

Let's take an example. Suppose I were committed to the belief that Elvis is risen from the dead. You take me to Memphis, open up the tomb, I insist on a DNA test, you provide the DNA evidence, and I give up and change my religion. Was my belief falsifiable? Well, of course I COULD have held on and engaged in a sort of rearguard apologetic, but the QD thesis shows that I COULD do the same thing.

There's nothing about the "supernatural" character of a claim that makes it falsifiable or unfalsifiable. What makes it falsifiable is whether the adherents actually give up in the face of counterevidence.

Victor Reppert said...

I meant to say, I COULD do the same thing with a naturalistic thesis. People could be a stubborn about rejecting the Theory of Relativity as they are with rejecting the Ancient Earth. (I think I heard of someone who is). It's just that people don't in fact. Is falsifiability a matter of everyone in fact giving up? That means you can't really say that anything is unfalisfiable in principle, because we just have to wait to see if everyone gives up.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that the way in which the naturalist asks "how" begs the question in favor of naturalism. The concept of what will count as evidence requires a naturalistic conclusion. So then it's no surprise, once we get done that all the evidence supports naturalism. It looks like a vicious hermeneutical circle to me.

If the stars in the sky were to spell out the words "TURN OR BURN: LOFTUS THIS MEANS YOU" (I had to use his name because I don't know yours) would you say "I don't know how God did that. I guess I don't have to follow the warning." "


There seems to me to something wrong here because your second paragraph appearsto prove your first one wrong. If the stars did take on that pattern I would have to change my mind regarding naturalism. So even though I would retain my insistence on being able to understand how such a thing occurred I would not find that the evidence here supports naturalism.

Are you saying that simply because we are able to give an explanation of "how" something happens that means it can't be supernaturally based?

Victor Reppert said...

No, the point is that even though you would accept this as evidence that naturalism was false, your theory for what it takes to have an explanation would have to be altered if you did.
We might ask, "How did God arrange those stars in the sky? By what means and mechanisms. Show me the mechanism for how God did it or I will regard it as a weird accident." You wouldn't say that, but what you would then have to do is expand the class of acceptable explantions.

Of course, with many theistic explanations, you do have a trail of naturalistic effects leading up to it. Theistic explanation does not rule out, or in, secondary causes.

Anonymous said...

"No, the point is that even though you would accept this as evidence that naturalism was false, your theory for what it takes to have an explanation would have to be altered if you did.
We might ask, "How did God arrange those stars in the sky? By what means and mechanisms. Show me the mechanism for how God did it or I will regard it as a weird accident." You wouldn't say that, but what you would then have to do is expand the class of acceptable explantions. "


I don't think that to be true. If God did move the stars around then there should be an explanation for how He did it. Once an action takes place in space and time I don't know how you can avoid an explanation for how that action took place. But in this case it would be clear, to me at least, that God was the one who performed the action.

I am having trouble understanding why an explanation of how God moved the stars around should somehow result in a denial of that God. It seems to me that my reliance on "how explanations" does not prevent me from coming to the conclusion that naturalism is false.

Anonymous said...

"I meant to say, I COULD do the same thing with a naturalistic thesis. People could be a stubborn about rejecting the Theory of Relativity as they are with rejecting the Ancient Earth. (I think I heard of someone who is). It's just that people don't in fact. Is falsifiability a matter of everyone in fact giving up? That means you can't really say that anything is unfalisfiable in principle, because we just have to wait to see if everyone gives up. "

If I understand what that other Anon is saying, I'd say your conclusion is incorrect here. We can indeed say that something has been falsified without everyone accepting that falsification. It takes a consensus of agreement to verify that claim, not 100% agreement.

It's been many years since reading "The Discarded Image", but didn't Lewis say pretty much the same thing there that Anon is saying:? That, e.g., there was a consensus on the validity of the medieval cosmology that was replaced with another one when that consensus changed due to the accumalation of new evidence?

John W. Loftus said...

Lat night I looked up in the sky and the stars spelled out these words: "TURN OR BURN: LOFTUS THIS MEANS YOU."

Since I didn't believe God could act in a material world, being a spirit. I next wondered if David Copperfield had been hired by Dr. Reppert to play a trick on me. But I could find no evidence for this, and surely Reppert wouldn't waste his money on this, if he had it.

So I don't know what to think now. It's a Kuhnsian anomally. ;-)

Victor Reppert said...

John: Are you telling me your unbelief is now unfalsifiable? Usually when atheists complain that theistic claim are unfalsifiable, and theists ask them what would falsify their atheism, they come up with something like this. I got this from my good friend Keith Parsons.

John W. Loftus said...

Oops! I can see I'm in trouble now. I was just trying to inject some humor here. But I can see you've made a new post about this. It's an interesting question, so I'll think about it and respond later.

Nullasalus said...

Just to chime in here...

For me, and I seem to be in the minority on this, the problem of evil hinges in particular on what constitutes to an individual being. When I hear that 'A truly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God could have made a vastly better world, with no natural evil, no moral evil' etc, I'm boggled. As that person is essentially arguing 'the fact that God would allow me personally to exist is evidence against either God's omnipotence, omniscience, or omnibenevolence'.

Think about it this way: A universe different than the one we inhabit is a universe with a different timeline. Particularly for beings posited to have eternal life (all of humanity, at the very least), to change a universe is to eradicate all life in it, and replace it with something distinct. 'A nullasalus who did not go to PSU' is useful as a thought device, but a nullasalus who did not go to PSU would not be me. Let me repeat. My individual being - whether you're assuming physicalism, dualism, or something in between - is linked and dependent entirely on the world having been exactly as it was. A universe that did not unfold the way this one has, would not result in 'me'. It may result in a person similar to me. Maybe so similar that it would be hard to tell the difference (though in the case of a world without evil, certainly not). But it's not 'me'. It's a different, distinct being altogether.

So on that reasoning alone, one purpose for the presence of evil in the world is already obvious - because there is no other way to actualize the individuals that exist in our universe. Not only that, but every evil we have experienced - every death, every suffering - is in principle something that may be corrected and improved upon within the same universe, necessitating no alteration of the past itself. The fact that we see that already happening through advances in science, logistics, and elsewise only adds to that justification.

So from my (admittedly, again, vastly minority) point of view, the problem of evil with regards to theism in general, and Christianity in particular, is moot. And it puts the person who insists that a truly benevolent God would not allow evil in the odd position of saying 'A truly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God would not only refuse to allow any sinner to exist, but would not allow anyone who experienced evil to exist. It would be beneath Him.' Pretty odd conclusion, that.

One Brow said...

VR: the best you're going to get out of science is correlations. Correlations don't give you an intertheoretic reduction. The categories of rational thought and the categories of physical science are logically incompatible.
I expect eventually we will be able to repair nerve damage to some degree, perhaps even enhance parts of the brain.

When we have this capability, after a period of time we will see that, by conducting certain repairs, we can restore memory functions (or can not), we can restore more rational, careful decision making (or can not), we can restore the compassion people feel (or can not). Note, these are all things that people seem to have lost in brain injuries of various kinds. It will go much farther than mere correlations. I am content to see that out before I say one side or the other can be proven.

Nullasalus said...

As far as the naturalism debate goes re: the brain.. again, I'm in the minority here (as a theist and a Catholic), but even if we were to consider the mind as entirely emergent from the brain - and like Victor, I'm skeptical about whether any number of repairs or enhancements will solve the 'hard problem' - I have to wonder whether that would enhance the theist's argument more, or the atheist's.

I'm not a big fan of 'supernatural' - whenever I read about it, it seems as poorly defined as 'materialism' - but quite a lot of what is typically filed under naturalism seems to me entirely possible in principle to file under supernatural or at least immaterial. I'm thinking of Hawking Flexiverse here, some QM interactions and views, etc. Or put another way - if God does exist as theists believe, from His perspective, would He consider the supernatural to be supernatural? Would He consider miracles to be miraculous? And if not, doesn't this amount to a question of perspective more than strict category?

Anyway, I'm offering this up in the presence of actual philosophers, apparently, so I'm ready to have these views ripped apart if the interest catches. Oh, and as to why the PoE is considered by some to outright falsify theism (or at least Christianity) - I'm a cynic, and think it's because it has less to do with actual belief in the falsification, and more to do with wanting one less theist around.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Hi Victor -- I blogged about this at http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/06/victor-reppert-on-argument-from-evil-as.html.