Friday, June 30, 2006

The Problematic Presuppositions of the Argument from Evil

Tim said...
"But what you seem to have admitted is that evolution doesn't explain why the pain exist."

I'm afraid that I really don't understand what you are objecting to here.
The pain behavior system that evolution has "designed" for humans involves feelings of pain. Perhaps another system may have have worked as well. Although for creatures as complex as us, it does seem a little difficult to imagine what this pain behavior system would be like without the sensation of pain.

It appears quite obvious to me that for highly devoloped animals like us, conscious sensations are a very effective evolutionary advantage.
Also, becuase consciousness may not be what you would expect it to be under your metaphysical system, that does not mean it is merely an illusion or unreal.
And a 3rd person description of consciousness is always going to differ from the 1st person experience of it.
Again, I really am having trouble understanding or seeing a problem here.

It may be hard to imagine pain behavior without the sensation of pain, because we presume that critters like ourselves are suffering pain when they are in similar states to the states we are in when we suffer pain.

The problem has to do with what is called the argument from consciousness. Pain requires actual consciousness, not systems that act is if they were conscious. If you read people like David Chalmers, they argue that consciousness is a hard problem for naturalists. The idea of a self that feels, that has a point of view, etc. is something that doesn't fit very well with the world-view that says that all facts are facts discoverable by some science or other. So I am saying that the very things that atheists use to support the argument from evil are not things that atheists can explain easily themselves. They presuppose that there is consciousness and consious sensations or qualia, which is hard to understand on a naturalistic world-view. They presuppose the existence of objective moral values, which doesn't make sense on naturalism, and they presuppose that they can draw rational inferences, which, as I have proven conclusively :), isn't possible on a naturalistic world-view.

So the naturalist expects us to accept his world-view on the basis of things are problematic from his own perspective. Maybe not problematic in the same way that evil is problematic for the theist, but equally if not more problematic.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Naturalism and the problem of pain

I suppose pain behavior could have been developed through evolution without the sensation of pain. So? This doesn't mean that pain behavior with the sensation of pain isn't just as likely to develop through evolution.
I have to wonder why this so-called benevolent, all-powerful being didn't create humans to have this pain behavior without the sensation of pain? It would seem he'd be motivated to do so through his loving kindness.
Such motivations are irrrelevant to evolution. That's why there really is no problem of evil under an evolutionary theory.
Whether or not morality is objective or subjective seems to me to be a seperate issue.

But what you seem to have admitted is that evolution doesn't explain why the pain exist. Why are there subjective states at all. According to naturalism there is no difference without a physical difference. What is the difference between the actual world and one physically like this one in which you are me and I am you? We can surely imagine the possibility, but naturalism, with its emphasis on third-person truths, can't account for it.

I have to have a point of view in order to be suffering pain. If I have lower back pain, then my pain hurts from my point of view but not from yours. On a naturalist view, particles go from one place to another. They sometimes become "systems," from our point of view, just as the computer I am typing on is a system. But how do some systems acquire points of view, so that they can suffer pain, and not just adopt pain behavior. Science has no clue, and I maintain that this is because the point of view adopted by science is constitutionally incapable of explaining this sort of thing, and any attempt to explain the kind of consciousness that permits us to take pain seriosuly is going to be guilty of changing the subject. If what we call pain is just the by-product of the user illusion, then why should be get all riled up because God permits it, or even inflicts it. In the final analysis, it's not real.

Loftus on theism and objective moral values

John W. Loftus wrote: Look, even a first grader should now that he or she should not cause unbearable suffering to another person, even if it's a punishment for what that person has done wrong. We should always treat people respectfully. We should never torture people to death. And we as a civilized nation even exercise capital punishment in a humane way, unlike that barbaric God of yours.

Let's pose the following problem. Let's take the simple statement "It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement." And let's look at the kinds of facts there can be in a naturalistic universe, a universe which in the last analysis can be described by the natural sciences. There can be a number of different types of facts in the universe: physical facts indicating the state of the fundamental particles that exist when a person is in pain. Chemical facts indicating what is going on with the body's chemistry. Biological facts about what causes the pain sensors to activate. Psychological facts about how human beings are affected by pain. And sociological facts about what groups of people approve of what types of behavior. But how do moral facts fit in. Describe the physical world from the most fundamental level to the highest level of analysis and you will not find anything that closes the question of whether it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for our own amusement. There is an absolutely unbridgeable conceptual gap between the "ought" of ethics and the "is" of science.

Of course there are non-theistic philosophies that affirm some kind of objective standard of moral values. Platonism, although theistic, bases moral values on the Form of the Good, which is not identical to God. Fine, but do you really want to accept a doctrine of pre-existence in which we knew the forms and recollect them here on earth? That doesn't do a whole lot from the point of view of naturalism. Maybe Aristotle has an objective basis for moral values. But even though Aristotle didn't believe in personal God, he did believe in an inherent purpose in things in the world. He thought there were no purely material objects: everything was a combination of matter and form. Try that out on Richard Dawkins and see what he thinks of it.

Even a first grader realizes that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary and unbearable pain. But to say that a first grader knows this implies that it is true. And I claim that it is not the sort of truth that can be true in a naturalistic universe. The ontological commitments of naturalism force us to treat these judgments as subjective, even though deep down we all know that they are objectively true.

If a supremely powerful being has inflicted unnecessary pain on human beings for his own amusement, (or maybe his own glory), then I would like to say that this is wrong, and so would you. The only trouble is, you have to borrow my world-view in order to say it.

The atheistic problem of evil

Tim said...
You make many good points, John.
I think the christian concept of a god who is all-powerful, all-good and works within human history results in the problem of evil. Perhaps that is one advantage polytheism has over monotheism, evil is easier to account for under it. Of course, neither hold a match to the theory of evolution. Under it the philosophical problem of evil simply vanishes. All one needs worry about then is the practical problem of how to reduce evil.

It isn't at all clear to me that evolution really explains the existence of pain. The inner state of being in pain is not evolutionarily relevant. What evolution should produce is pain-behavior, that is aversive behavior. The inner qualia of pain is not necessary to the production of this aversive behavior, and is in fact a serious anomaly from the point of view of evolutionary naturalism.

Further, there is an equally serious problem, from the point of view of naturalism, of accounting for the existence of an objective moral standard that proscribes inflicting unnecessary pain on others. If the object of the game is to get your genes passed on, then I ought to do whatever it takes to make sure my genes get passed on, and if it causes unnecessary pain on others, why should my selfish genes care about that?

So I think atheists do have a problem of pain and evil, just a different one.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

From Thomas Talbott's "C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil"

Perhaps Beversluis thinks that God could have improved things immeasurably by eliminating cancer from the world. But how could anyone (who is not omniscient) possibly know that or even have reason to think it true. Try this thought experiment. Try to imagine what our world (with exactly the same persons in it) might have been in the absence of cancer. Our experiment won’t be at all technically accurate, of course, and may even be incoherent, but it may also be pedagogically useful. To begin with, then we must delete from the world (in our imagination) all the pain and suffering caused by this terrible disease as well as all the psychological torment experienced by both cancer victims and those who love such victims; then we must delete all the good—such as the courageous endurance of pain—for which the cancer is a necessary condition; then we must delete all the free choices—and all the consequences of such free choices—that either would not have been made at all or would have been made differently if our world had been devoid of cancer. As one can see, things quickly get complicated. If God exists and there is an afterlife, some of the choices may be choices that result in eternal joy and happiness for some persons. But that is just the beginning of our experiment…Trying to figure out what a world of free persons would be like in the absence of cancer is not like calculating where the planets would be if they had been in certain specified positions last year…Once one begins to think through such complexities as these—which we have barely touched upon—the anti-theistic argument from evil begins to look less and less plausible.

Talbott, T.B. (1987) “C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil,” Christian Scholars’ Review, 17(1): 36-51

The C. S. Lewis Defense

The C. S. Lewis Defense
C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain is Lewis’s first full-dress book of Christian apologetics. Since it does include the claim that God uses pain as a “megaphone” to rouse a deaf world, and since he also makes the claim that God uses pain to shatter our illusions, it might be valuable to see if Beversluis can successfully make the charge that in making these statements he lapses from a Platonistic to an Ockhamistic view of the relation between God and goodness.
The problem of evil has been discussed extensively in the last 40 years, and one of critical distinction is the distinction between a defense and a theodicy. A defense attempts to rebut arguments from evil and did not necessarily attempt to provide a true explanation as to why suffering is permitted. A theodicy tries to account for suffering, giving the true explanations for why creatures suffer. A defense gives a possible explanation for the existence of suffering, showing that argument that God and suffering are incompatible is unsuccessful.
Alvin Plantinga developed the Free Will Defense to deal with the argument from evil. Atheist philosophers like Antony Flew and J. L. Mackie had argued that the existence of evil was logically inconsistent with the existence of God, that anyone who believed in God and also accepted the existence of suffering in the world was contradicting himself. However Plantinga argued that the at least some evil, namely, the evil that results from human action, is compatible with the existence of God, in that the freedom to act against the good was itself a good, but in creating that good God would have to open the possibility that the choices thus made were the wrong choices. However, Plantinga had to consider the fact that at least some evil is not the result of evil actions on the part of human creatures. The Asian tsumani in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, look to have not been caused by humans.
But Plantinga responded to this by saying that it was at least possible that all the suffering in the world was caused by the actions of rebellious free agents, either human or demonic. Thus, for example, it is at least possible that while humans cause evils like murder, perhaps Satan and his minions might have caused Katrina to occur in the way that it did, in order to inflict pain and suffering on the human race. Now, if you objected that, even if possible, this wasn’t very likely, Plantinga would argue that insofar as the atheist had begun by arguing that the theist was committed to a contradictory position in accepting the existence of both God and evil, the atheist would now be shifting ground, retreating to the probabilistic or evidential problem of evil rather than the logical problem of evil. The logic of each new variation in the argument from evil must be examined. For example, if the argument is a probabilistic argument from evil, how is probability theory being used? In Plantinga’s writings on the argument from evil, the emphasis is always on showing that the arguments from evil don’t work, and apart from an appeal to free will he really does little to explain exactly why evils are permitted. This approach I will call the defense strategy. It is a strategy grounded on our expected lack of understanding of the purposes behind God’s permitting suffering.27
Other thinkers have gone farther in attempting to explain why God permits suffering. This strategy is called a theodicy. The idea here is that even if we are able to show that there is something wrong with every version of the argument from evil, we would like to know, as best we can, why God permits suffering. Without some explanations as to why God permits suffering, some have argued that this puts the theist at a disadvantage relative to the atheist, who argues that as a matter of course his own view would allow us to anticipate the mixed bag of good and evils that we see in the world.
It is often thought that Lewis’s The Problem of Pain is a theodicy in the classical sense. But is it? Lewis begins the book by noting the fact that people do not typically believe in God’s goodness because they infer the goodness of God from the goodness of creation; they instead believe in God’s goodness for other reasons. A sense of what Rudolf Otto called the Numinous, our sense of moral obligation and moral failure, the combination of those two elements to make a moralist religion amongst the Jews, and the claims of Christ are all things that, amongst real people, cause belief in a good God. So if for independent reasons we think that God is good, how do we account for evil in a way that makes sense? That is how Lewis construes the problem of pain.
Thomas Talbott argues that the crux of Lewis’s response to the problem of evil can be found in the second chapter, entitled “Divine Omnipotence,” and says that everything else in the book is ancillary. By this he means that “even if his arguments in these subsequent chapters were substantially mistaken, his basic reply to the argument he set out to refute, the reply developed in chapter 2, would stand. If Talbott is correct, however, this would be a successful defense of theism against the argument from evil, but it would not be a theodicy.
Lewis’s defense against the argument from evil has three steps to it. The first step is to point out that even an omnipotent being can do the “intrinsically impossible,” that is, anything that involves a contradiction. An omnipotent being cannot make 2 + 2 =5, or make it the case that the Apostle Paul freely repents of his sin. Lewis says, “You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.” Alvin Plantinga, in his Free Will Defense, argued that there were possible worlds that God did not have the power to actualize, because these world’s actuality depends upon people freely choosing X who in fact chose Y.
The second step is to argue that we are not in a position to know for sure what is and is not logically possible. Is it logically possible to go backward in time? Some people think that it is, others do not. Thus, we may think that things are logically possible when they are not, or think that they are logically impossible, when they are logically possible.
Third, the complexities involved in creating a world of free creatures who can freely choose to obey or disobey God is a good deal more complex than it looks. Thus Lewis says:
There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a 'self', can exist except in contrast with an 'other', a something which is not the self. It is against an environment and preferably a social environment, an environment of other selves, that the awareness of Myself stands out.
Hence a society of free souls seems on its face to require a relatively independent and “inexorable” Nature, a Nature containing objects which could be used for mutual benefit if parties cooperate, and which can be used to harm one another if parties oppose one another. Thus, in creating a world of free persons, Lewis suggests that God may have had not choice but to open up the possibility of pain and suffering.
Lewis suggests the possibility that God might, through miracles, correct the effects of the abuse of free will, but he says that would effectively nullify the freedom of the will. He writes:
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of the abuse of free will by his creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void .
Imagine, for example, a world in which all virtuous actions were rewarded in short order and all vicious actions punished in short order. In such a world there would be no effective free will, because no one in their right might would be so much as tempted to do the wrong thing. Everyone would do the right thing out of self-interest.
But Lewis doesn’t claim that he knows, or that anyone knows, what God could have done and what God could not have done.
As I said before, this account of the intrinsic necessities of a world is meant merely as a specimen of what they might be. What they really are, only Omniscience has the data and the wisdom to see: but they are not likely to be less complicated than I have suggested.
So, Talbott argues, Lewis’s defense of theism works not by showing that some better would be impossible, but by showing that since we don’t what worlds are and are not possible, and if they would really better worlds or whether they would not be better worlds, the argument from evil falls before the C. S. Lewis Defense.

Satan and the Problem of Evil Redated

This is an old post of mine, with the comments included in the same line as the text, on the role of Satan in the problem of evil.
Friday, April 22, 2005
Could it be Satan?
My daughter is writing a paper on the problem of evil, and asked me what I thought of the attempt to explain natural evil as a species of moral evil. In the literature on the problem of evil, moral evil is thought to be the result of the actions of creatures do wrong. Examples of this would be Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews, the party purges of Stalin, the murders of Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper, but also would include less dramatic evils such as the sins I have committed today. Natural evil is evil that does not result from the actions of creatures, such as earthquakes, floods, being struck by lightning, illness, old age, etc.
In the case of moral evil, a solution looks to be available. God, it seems, has an interest in free obedience, and by free I mean that obedience that is not determined or controlled by God himself. (See my discussion of Star Trek in a previous entry). But in order for God to open the way obedience that is free in this sense, God must refuse to control the outcome of our choices, but if he does that, then he risks the possibility that disobedience. I realize this involves rejecting the claim that free will and determinism are compatible. If freedom and determinism are compatible, then God could have created the World of Mr. Rogers, the world in which everyone freely does what is right.
Plantinga’s Demon Scenario
For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that the problem of moral evil is answerable in terms of human free will. This still leaves the serious problem of explaining natural evil. In Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, he mentions the idea that all evils are broadly moral evil, because while some evils are the result of human free choices, other evils are the result of the free choices of non-human creatures. He writes:
But another and more traditional line of thought is pursued by St. Augustine, who attributes much of the evil we find to Satan, or to Satan and his cohorts. Satan, so the traditional doctrine goes, is a mighty non-human spirit who, along with many other angels, was created long before God created man. Unlike most of his colleagues, Satan rebelled against God and since has been wreaking whatever havoc he can. The result is natural evil. So the natural evil we find is due to free actions of non-human spirits.1
Now, Plantinga points out that for Augustine, this appeal to Satanic agency is an attempt to provide a theodicy, that is, to provide a true explanation for why God permits suffering. A defense, on the other hand, is an attempt to refute some version of the argument from evil. That may involve providing the actual explanation for the existence of evils, but it may not. The argument from evil Plantinga is discussing here is often called the logical problem of evil; it involves the claim that theists, in believing both that there is a God and in also being a realist about the evils in the world, the theist is implicitly contradicting himself. All we need to refute this argument is to provide a possible scenario according to which God and the evils in this world co-exist. Plantinga therefore claims that the demon scenario meets this requirement, and therefore, he claims the logical problem of evil stands refuted.
Over the years, and largely due to the work of Plantinga, attention has shifted from the logical problem of evil to the probabilistic or evidential problem of evil. The idea is that while it is possible that God existence is compatible with the suffering and evil we find in the world, nevertheless, it can be argued that evil in the world makes God’s existence improbable, or that that evil and suffering is strong evidence against the existence of God. In response to this argument, Plantinga says:
(The demon scenario), for example, involves the idea that the evil that is not due to free agency, is due to the agency of other rational and significantly free creatures. Do we have evidence against this idea? Many people find it preposterous; but that is scarcely evidence against it. Theologians sometimes tell us that this idea is repugnant to “man come of age” or to “modern habits of thought.” I am not convinced that this is so; in any case it does not come to much as evidence. The mere fact that a belief in unpopular at present (or at some other time) is interesting, no doubt, from a sociological point of view; it is evidentially irrelevant. Perhaps, we do have evidence against this belief, but if we do, I do not know what it is.2
I recall a conversation in my office with Plantinga when I was a fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame in which Plantinga told me that even though he presented the scenario as a possible scenario, he considered demonic influence to be the real explanation of many of the evils in the world. Certainly this explanation has biblical support, as is evident from reading Job or the Gospels. It also has the support of an obscure popular British theologian from the middle of the past century, a guy by the name of..uh..uh..Lewis. (See the Animal Pain chapter of The Problem of Pain).
Atheist philosopher Keith M. Parsons, in his book God and the Burden of Proof, however, offers two criticisms of the demon scenario as a defense against the problem of evil. He writes:
But how is this even possible? What would it be like to bring about natural evils? Natural evils are caused, so far as we can tell, by the same fundamental laws of nature that explain all other natural phenomena. Earthquakes are caused by the same tectonic processes that produce majestic mountain ranges; pathogens and parasites evolved according to the same kittens and butterflies, weather systems that bring balmy breezes to one region bring tornadoes to another. The causes of natural evil are thus so intimately involved with (and often identical to) the causes of all other natural phenomena that to cause natural evil, it would seem necessary to cause nature.
But in that case, what becomes of the doctrine of God as creator? At best we would seem to have a kind of dualism reminiscent of Manichaeism—a heretical movements in the late Roman Empire that viewed the cosmos as the creation of eternally opposed good and evil principles. If the demon scenario is thus inconsistent with the doctrine of God as creator, it cannot be of any use to Plantinga, not even as a bare possibility.3
He goes on to say:
A further difficulty with Plantinga’s argument is his assumption that free will could have the sort of absolute value he thinks it might have. As we saw earlier, ordinary moral judgments do not grant such a value to the possession or employment of free will. For instance, if I knew that a terrorist, of his own free will, planed to plant a bomb on an airliner, I would feel obliged to do everything in my power to inhibit him from exercising his free will in that way. How then is it possible that God could be justified in allowing Satan to run amok? How is it consistent with the goodness of God not to have placed greater restrictions on Satan’s freedom?4
So I’m going to put the question to my commentators, having presented both sides of the argument. Are at least some natural evils due to the influence of Satan and his minions? Or not?

1 Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 192. He references “The Problem of Free Choice”’ in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 22 (New York: Paulist/ Newman Press), pp. 71ff.; and Confessions and Enchiridion tr. and ed., by Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminister Press), pp. 341-6.
2 Plantinga, p. 195.
3 Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989) pp. 123-124.
4. Parsons, p. 124.
posted by Victor Reppert @ 11:28 PM

At 7:43 AM, Jason said…

Considering that it took me 167,068 words (including parenthetical footnotes {wry g}) to reach an answer to this question that I could understand and be satisfied with, I don't think I can possibly justify my answer in a comment.

But for what it's worth: I _am_ sympathetic to Keith's criticism (as far as it goes); and to the questions he himself is (perhaps somewhat rhetorically) asking.

Keeping in mind the vastness of the topic and the (relative) paucity of commentary space-time {s!}, these are the comments that occur to me:

a.) I think the term 'natural evil' is a non sequitor. I don't hold tornados, for instance, morally responsible for their behaviors.

b.) I do think there are rebel spirits messing around in our Nature (along with perhaps an unknown selection of what Lewis once called 'neutrals'); and that they tend to congregate around destructive natural reactions, ramping up the effects where they can, where not outright instigating them. (Sidenote: Gregory Boyd, in _God at War_, notices that during the tornadic incident reported by the Gospels on Galilee Lake--the Greek is literally a 'whirl of wind', and the visual and audible cues are consonant with a tornado hitting the lake--Jesus rebukes the wind in exactly the same way He exorcises possessing devils. To this I suppose I could add the nearly universal human intuition on such things throughout history, from which we still derive the term 'dust devil'.)

c.) I don't think rebel spirits are necessarily to blame for all such 'natural disasters'. (Though I note, in passing, that the word 'disaster' itself holds much the same implicit meaning: hostile star.)

d.) I strongly suspect, though I am not entirely sure, that a significant amount of what we would call 'bad' evolutionary development, can be traced to the tampering of these spirits in genetics.

e.) At the same time, I _am_ entirely sure that the Problem of Pain in regard to animals is somewhat moot. To whatever extent animals are unconscious, then (by tautology) they are not consciously suffering whatever is happening to them--which doesn't excuse malicious tampering with them. (If someone rapes a hole in a wall, then an evil is still being committed, though the hole itself isn't conscious. The intention is what counts.)

While I do believe some animals are in fact conscious, particularly individuals of them (and I strongly suspect it in other cases), I don't believe all animals everywhere have always been conscious. A body can go into all sorts of odd reactions when it is suffering (whether pain or pleasure), which we (as conscious act-ers ourselves) can sympathize and empathize with. But the fact that we can imagine how _we_ would feel if it was happening to us, does not mean the animal (or a plant, for that matter) is necessarily 'feeling' it, too.

f.) I also consider the question of suffering in animals to be a philosophical smokescreen. I _already_ know that _I_ suffer in ways I believe to be unjustly afflicted on me. (Though I don't believe all my suffering is unjustly afflicted on me. On the contrary, I believe some of it is very justly afflicted on me. I even pray and hope for certain sufferings to be induced in me. So do the vast majority of humans throughout history, today and every day; as should, but probably won't, be manifestly obvious. {g} 'Suffering', per se, is important, but it isn't the crucial problem.)

Adding a definitely suffering animal to the mix doesn't add to the principles involved in the questions and answers already raised by my own existential evidence.

g.) Relatedly, I find theodicy to proceed a lot more smoothly when I stop asking why God would allow a rebel angel or a dictator or mass murderer do whatever they've succeeded in doing, and start instead with why God allows _me_ to inflict injustice (however 'big' or 'small' it may seem)--and rigorously stay on _that_ question until I've worked out as many answers as I can figure.

h.) The answers to which, I find I can sum up in a principle: God loves His enemies, too.

i.) Which brings me back to the point, that the problem of evil, as pressing as it is on us, is not what I would call a first-order philosophical question. It's more like 350th in line. _Any_ cogent answer to it requires a whole bunch of other questions to have been settled first insofar as possible.

(A brief summary of questions to be answered would include God's existence, characteristics, relationships to us and to the evident field of Nature, and intentions toward us and Nature, including toward any enemies of His. If the question of God's existence is answered in favor of atheism, for example, then the mediant questions leading to the problem of evil will change somewhat, and the answers will in many cases change radically. Ditto if the question of characteristics is answered in favor of pantheism, etc.)

j.) In passing, I think that a Fall of Mankind is also implied by the available evidence, and that this has its own contributions to our situation throughout human history. (I mention this because I didn't see it mentioned in Victor's overview. {s}) I'm more than a little agnostic as to historical details, although I think Gen 1&2 works well enough in getting across the basic principles, one of which is that it _is_ historical somehow. (i.e. there's clearly a whole lot more to the story than what's shown there, but not _less_.) By 'the available evidence', btw, I don't mean scriptural authority: I'd believe the same thing if I had never heard of Genesis.

(Most of what I've said above isn't argument but conclusion; which apart from argument, I know can only look like mere assertion. I'm not asking anyone to believe it, certainly not on what appears to be my mere say-so. {s!})

'kay, back to "work" work...

At 7:29 AM, Ross Parker said…

Dr Reppert's initial post made me think immediately about Greg Boyd's book "Satan and the Problem of Evil" where he develops his Warfare Theodicy. He takes the idea that "natural" evils are possibly caused by agents (Satan and his Demons) an fleshes it out. It is a thought provoking work....

Thats my $0.02

Ross Parker

At 10:49 AM, Johnny-Dee said…

I think there is plausible room to affirm that some apparently "natural evil" is the result of demonic (or other malignant immaterial beings). If theism is true (no less Christianity), there is no problem with sayign immaterial beings can interact with the material world. Moreover, it is not ad hoc for theists to appeal to evil supernatural entities since they are apart of the theistic worldview.

What I think is difficult is to say that all "natural evil" is the result of demonic forces. Elsewhere, I have laid out some initial thoughts on how natural evils still might (realistically, not just as a logical possibility) be the result of free will.

At 6:48 PM, Darek Barefoot said…

I don't think we need to see natural disasters as the work of Satan (directly, anyway) to account for them. They must be seen in terms of the biblical doctrines of creation and the fall into sin. Man was given supremacy over the material world, and therefore man's alienation from God entailed the alienation of nature.

According to Genesis, God prepared the universe in successive steps until, with the creation of man, it at last began to reflect the divine image. It is apparent, however, that while God completed his own part of the project, he intended further progress to be made by man himself. God's creative works were "very good" and "complete," not in that there was nothing more to be done with them, but in that they had been brought to the ideal stage for man to play his divinely appointed role regarding them. God put all creation in subjection to man and woman, and we tend to assume, incorrectly, that this refers to the power human intelligence has always afforded man over his environment. Instead, the Bible says that the mandate over creation has never been carried out except insofar as Jesus is poised to exercise it (Heb. 2:8-9).

Having creation in subjection means more than tinkering clumsily with the created order as man does now, often with destructive results. Paul in Philippians says that Jesus will transform the bodies of believers to be like his own “by the exertion of the power he has even to subject all things to Himself (Phil. 3:21).” Holding creation in subjection, then, means being able to glorify it, having the means to alter physical reality from the inside out in ways undreamt of by man in his present state. We at best can dimly conceive of how unfallen man, equipped with powers no human except Jesus has ever wielded, was supposed to have beautified the natural order. Instead, because of the fall into sin nature was crippled at the moment of birth and left "groaning" in misery, awaiting liberation under the coming kingdom of Christ, the "last Adam" (Rom. 8:19-22; 1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus controlled natural forces at will; sinful man cannot. In Christ, God will restore tenancy of creation to humakind, but not until the drama of redemption has unfolded. That drama entails the call to faith and must play itself out against the backdrop of a fallen and dangerous world.

None of this may be a sufficient explanation of natural disasters/tragedies in purely logical or philosophical terms. For some of us, it is spiritually satisfying albeit mysterious. But the atheistic alternative has its own mysterious and distinctly unsatisfying aspects. It stipulates a dangerous and indifferent universe, but does not explain why part of that universe--namely us--feels a sense of alienation and tragedy, what I call "cosmic discomfort." To me, the Christian account is much the better one on that score alone.

At 10:31 PM, Daryl said…

Firstly I have a problem with the terms we are using. Moral evil is evident, it is human thought/action in rebellion against the will of God. If God intends us nothing but good then any rejection of His will can only do us harm. Calling the events of nature "evil" involves a whole other set of suppositions. Evil to whom? Of course we consider ourselves the most important things in the universe so we intepret anything that occurs as it relates to us, I am not so sure that is God's perspective. How can we know if an earthquake is evil? It is as if Job decided to tell God how the universe needed to be run. Perhaps the earthquake, or the possibility of earthquakes, is an unavoidable consequence of creating a world where our lives are possible. There are so many perimeters that if changed slightly would exclude life altogether perhaps excluding the possibility of natural disaster would exclude much more.

At 6:36 PM, Edward T. Babinski said…

Is there anything more idiotic than philosophizing when it comes to answering the big questions?

Several philosphers in Vic's blog have argued that "evil" comes from "evil beings," or that pains in nature originate from "beings that inflict pain."(Such "answers" "explain" nothing and only move back the question one step further.)

Vic also seems to want to play round with the phrase "free will" as if that solves anything. Every variant definition of "free will" simply raises different kinds of theological questions whose answers remain problematical.

So I have yet to see philosophy settle any of the big questions or debates. See:

I will say that Jason's mention of the etymology of the word "disaster" provided me with a new bit of trivia. Thanks Jason! Though piling the etymology of "disaster" on top of the phrase, "dust devils"--as if building a tower of such babel amounts to anything--seems ludicrous.

Jason, there is no philosophical proof (nor any "science") in either the Bible or etymologies of the Oxford English Dictionary. See this article to learn more about "wandering stars" that the ancients interpreted as gods who watch mankind:

At 7:26 PM, Edward T. Babinski said…

Vic, Why can't you be satisfied as a philosopher with simply trying to get more people to acknowledge which things they know the MOST about, and which they know the LEAST about, rather than tying to get others to agree with you concerning your "Christian" beliefs about so many things both seen and unseen, in nature and supernature, in this life and the next?

Your work thus far also seems to be assuming that there are only two choices, 1) no meaning whatsoever to life, or, 2) meaning lay in accepting the dogmas, doctrines and holy book of one particular religion.

Have you studied some of the multi-sided, maybelogic philosphical questions that folks like Robert Anton Wilson and Raymond Smullyan raise in their works? Check them both out on the net.

Wilson recently wrote at his site:

I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions.

I strongly suspect that a world "external to," or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense.

I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignity, like Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology.

I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback.

I more-than-half suspect that all "good" writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of "alteration in consciousness," i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don't become alarmed -- I think good acting comes from the same place.]

I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by "angels" and "gods" states it an even more archaic argot.

These suspicions have grown over 72 years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe I'll arrive at firmer conclusions.



Here are also some further interesting comments from a former fundamentalist contributor to Leaving the Fold, Will Bagley, who writes:

For me, everything on the spiritual path does not require faith of any kind. You learn from your own experience each step of the way. Even if you want to, you cannot know something as true until your experience reveals it to you. It is of course possible to hypnotize yourself into believing some particular dogma or other is true, but that hypnosis does not add up to any kind of knowing. Merely memorizing that 2+2=4 and believing that equation to be true does not mean that you can add and does not mean that you know “why” it is true. This is why fundamentalist spirituality of any kind, Christian, Moslem, Jewish, and even Buddhist is filled with memorized slogans, like “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior?” I did experiment one time with answering a fundamentalist Christian with nonslogan words and found that they did not register and made the person very uneasy. I was not using the secret handshake of the tribe to get “in.” The word “conjure” is French meaning “with knowledge” and means that a formula only has the power to evoke reality when it is used with a genuine understanding of what it means. (A related thought is this: The word “idiot” means “one who is sacrificed” and there are 18 idiots that need to be sacrificed in one Sufi system in order to arrive at enlightenment or sanity). Another kind of faith emerges from study, practice, and meditation, and arises from experience itself.

The second thing I do not believe in is trying to prove I have the answers concerning the major questions about this life and the next, in both the seen and unseen worlds.

One thing however does appear to be quite true in a very experiential way anyone and everyone can understand. It is this: What you decide is true affects how you see “reality.” There are some interesting experiments you can do to feel this and which are mentioned in a lot of Sufi and Buddhist training manuals. Try to imagine for one week that the universe is merely physical and that everything happens because of physical laws governing essentially random and meaningless causes. Get deep into this belief system, believing that you are merely a body and when the body dies you will be completely annihilated and that aging and death is inevitable and that there is not supreme Being running the show and that life on Earth is a freak improbable happening and that we might be the only lifeforms around and will probably be completely annihilated something when our Sun goes supernova. Feel that if something happens to you, it is pure coincidence with no higher meaning. Notice what life feels like when you live this view out.

Next try out the view that there is a personal God watching you and judging your every move and that depending on how good or bad you are that you will go to heaven or hell forever and that everything that happens to you is this God blessing or cursing you for things that you have done or even merely thought to do and that every disaster, every death, every disease, etc. is this God punishing someone for “sins” or for the sins of their parents and that if you repent hard enough and beg for forgiveness thatü something this God will forgive you if you are “sincere” enough.

You can note how each belief system feels just by the use of active imagination, even while simply reading the above descriptions. You may notice that some parts of you empathize with parts of both stories. For instance, it might feel like a relief to know that when you stub your toe that it is merely an accident and that God is not trying to tell you something through this or a relief to feel try when you do something wrong that it is not counted and weighed upon Judgment Day. Yet it also might not feel good to know that “evil people” can get away with shooting and annihilating “good people” and that there is no justice woven into the universe at all and that everyone that you love will be less than a memory and that some people that you love, dying very young, will never have had any kind of meaningful existence, and for some of these their entire short existence may be just pure pain.

There are, of course, many views about what reality is, not just two.

There's a view that God exists and created the cosmos, but does not ensure human immortality. Or the view that God exists and intimations of his existence have appeared in all the world's religions, no one of which is "inerrant" in its holy book and traditions.

If you play around with beliefs, you might develop some “ontological flexibility” and also question whether it's wise to look through the lens of one particular belief so fervently as to exclude the possibility of entertaining multiple beliefs or living with a wider range of questions.

Having said all this, Dogen Zenji, an advanced Zen master, once said, “The universe is a bright pearl.” What could he have meant? What kind of space was he coming from? What happens to our mind when we try to feel what it would mean if it were true?

Some capitalists say, “Time is money.” What could they mean? What kind of space are they coming from? What happens to our mind when we try to feel what it would mean if it were true? How would Dogen Zenji and the capitalists view paying our rent every month? *smile*


At 7:43 PM, Victor Reppert said…

Ed: For an agnostic, you certainly do like to pontificate!



At 9:15 AM, David said…

I don't buy the standard free will defense, but if Satanic agency exists, it is as plausible a candidate for causing moral and natural evils as any other finite agent capable of acting in the world. It's just a question of the scope of their power.

The Bible also assigns the creation of natural evils to God (Romans 8:18-25 for example). His purposes in willing these evils are many. Sometimes it is to punish, sometimes to cause repentance. But it's very clear that it has moral purposes.

At 11:55 PM, Edward T. Babinski said…

Dear David,

In the response before this one you wrote about "God's moral purposes" that you believe lay literally everywhere in nature, from God creating evil and pain and suffering to demons doing it. Nice to know both sides are on the same painful page, creating pain and suffering, for all of those "moral purposes" you wrote about.

Actually, I don't know what to make of nature and wouldn't even begin to hazard a guess concerning what "moral purposes" lay behind any particular pains or messiness in the cosmos, either the physical cosmos or the biological one.

Take the fact that today's astronomers speak in terms of a messy astronomical past filled with orbital perturbations, even a treacherous future filled with bleak possibilities for our planet and/or solar system:

Articles from New Scientist

"Birth of the planets: The Earth and its fellow planets may be survivors from a time when planets
ricocheted around the Sun like ball bearings on a pinball table" 24 August 1991 issue 1783

"Jupiter drifted towards sun in its youth" The giant planet drifted tens of millions of kilometres towards the sun in its youth, a new study suggests, perhaps even helping to form the Earth. 26 September 2004

"Wandering Jupiter took trek towards the sun" 25 September 2004

"Planet formation is violent, slow and messy" A new view of planet formation is revealed by observations of nearby stars - it suggests Earth-like planets might
be common. 19 October 2004

"Did a planetary wobble kill the dinosaurs?"... A wobble in Mercury's orbit could have wiped out the see when the next potentially catastrophic planetary wobble will be...

"New moons suggest brutal beginnings" Five new moons
circling Neptune, and two tiny moons newly discovered around Saturn hint at violent pasts 18 August 2004

Or a nearby star could go nova, or simply pass near our sun. Also, there's the fact that hundreds of
asteroids cross the earth's orbital path each year, and the geological record contains impact craters throughout geological time.

Even our genes apparently have undergone loads of perturbations due to mutation-facilitating ALU
sequences, according to this week's news. ("Scientists track 'stealth' DNA elements in primate evolution" 02 May 2005)

Not to mention living with the knowledge of other kinds of perturbations, like several major (and many minor) periods of extinction in the past.

Not to mention the fact that a third to a half of all fertilized human eggs simply don't survive. Even of those humans who get to emerge living from the womb, half of them used to die by age seven (according to Buffon, writing 200+ years ago).

In nature some species lay several thousand eggs, that vast majority of which don't survive. Plant seeds face a similar rate of death. Some bacteria divide so fast
that they could fill the oceans and land in a few days, but their death rate is likewise enormous.

Speaking of "purpose" all I hazard to say is that each organism appears to be tested by nature beginning with prefertilization "sperm wars," then during the zygote and
early embryogenesis stages when a third to a half of them all don't survive, and there's the missing twin syndrome later on in pregnancy, a quite common failing, such that perhaps 30% of all single births were once twins in the womb, and then after birth
during childhood more testing from mother nature takes place with a large childhood mortality rate (which if you survive that test, your odds of surviving to old
age are greatly enhanced), all the way up to adolsecence when human beings begin another breeding
cycle, and then social and sexual selection plays a further testing role. Such a rigorous testing plan
occurs throughout nature for every individual of every species. And the tests are basically all reproductive in the end, whether or not your genes are passed along. I don't see exactly how "moral" such a testing pattern is, but that pattern is far more plainly visibly than the one you mentioned, of pains because caused by God and demons for "moral" purposes.

I am not denying moral purposes exist, but I am saying that some plans appear plainer and more easily grasped than others.


At 2:30 PM, CenterUniverse said…

The introduction of evil/death and suffering into the word began in the book of Genesis with the fall of man account.

Satan is not the cause of evil, but he preys on the weak minded to influence it.

We must understand that this is a fallen cursed world we live in, infected with years of degeneration.

Satan is the not the ruler of hell, nor will he ever be, he will however be one of its victoms at some point in time.

ThanX <><

Thomas Talbott attacks Calvinism

This is a link to a critique of Calvinism, in the context of an online discussion, from 10 years ago, by Thomas Talbott, professor of philosophy at Willamette University.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Howard-Snyder on the problem of evil, and other stuff

This is Daniel Howard-Snyder's essays, which include one that I recommend on the problem of evil, entitled "God, Evil and Suffering."

Monday, June 26, 2006

Some basic discussion of the problem of evil

Some argument from reason discussion from Travis White

More material for an article I am writing: Did Lewis abandon his apologetics when he wrote A Grief Observed?

Did Lewis Abandon his Apologetic Position in A Grief Observed?
Another considerably more complex challenge to Lewis’s apologetical coherence has been the claim that in the course of grieving his wife’s death he retreated from some of the positions he had taken with respect to the relationship between God and goodness. Throughout his apologetic writings, Lewis had contended that when we say that God is good we mean something that is in some way continuous with the word “God” as applied to human beings. This doctrine of continuity is what Beversluis calls Platonism. The opposite view, which he calls Ockhamism, is the view that in calling God good we mean something completely different from what we mean when we call a person good. So, for example, if God, before the foundation of the world, were to predestine a few people for heaven and everyone else to everlasting torture in hell, this would be good in virtue of the fact that God commanded it. The fact that this action would be regarded as cruel by any humanly conceivable moral standard would be simply dismissed as irrelevant. The fact that this is an affront to reason, only shows that natural human reason is fallen and part of our desperately wicked human nature. It is not surprising that Ockhamism is popular among Calvinists, including Calvin himself.11
Now if this is correct, this would be a profound shift in Lewis’s thinking. After all, he had written an entire book of apologetics defending the claim that it is rational to believe that God is good in some recognizable sense even though there is a great deal of evil in the world. This is necessary only if there is some commensurability between our concept of goodness as applied to ourselves and the concept applied to God. If Ockhamism is true, then it is a full and complete answer to the problem of evil to say the words of Rom 9:22: “Who are you, o man, to answer back to God.” Lewis consistently condemned this Ockhamist position, at one point even claiming that such a doctrine would reduce Christianity to devil worship.
Now in order to set the stage for our discussion of A Grief Observed, we should make a distinction between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain is directed at the intellectual problem posed by human suffering. In the context of the discussion of an intellectual argument, it does not matter whether the sufferers are tsunami victims in Asia, or fellow American citizens who burned to death in the 9/11 attacks, or one’s nearest and dearest family members, or even one’s own suffering. From an intellectual perspective, all of these instances of suffering are of equal concern, but from an emotional perspective, the nearer the suffering is to ourselves the more difficult it is to accept. A Grief Observed is a piece of pastoral theology aimed at the bereaved, focusing on the emotional problem of evil.12 However, it doesn’t follow from this that, in facing the emotional problem of evil, one might not have to come to terms with some intellectual issues. However, the main issue in the book is how to deal with the emotional impact of grief, and is not primarily an attempt to solve the problem of evil from an intellectual perspective.
A Grief Observed is Lewis’s account of his own response to his wife’s death. Late in life he married Joy Davidman, whom he knew to have cancer. Miraculously, after a prayer for healing, Joy’s cancer went into remission and the couple enjoyed a period of wedded bliss which included, among other things, a trip to Greece. However, eventually she relapsed and died.
Lewis had been an atheist earlier in his life, and echoing that earlier perspective, he expressed deep anger toward God, calling him a “Cosmic Sadist,” an “Eternal Vivisector,” and a “very absent help in trouble.” In the latter portion of the book Lewis withdraws the charges against God and accepts God’s goodness. It is Beversluis’s thesis that in the early stages of the book Lewis insists on the Platonistic understanding of God’s goodness, and concludes that God is a cosmic sadist. However, according to Beversluis, in the latter part of the book, he retreats to an Ockhamist position in order to escape those distressing conclusions, withdrawing the protests, but also the insistence that God be good in humanly recognizable terms.
Now although A Grief Observed is not primarily address to the intellectual issue, Lewis does pose the problem of evil in forceful terms, in the context of his own grief. He writes:
Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'? Doesn't all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?13
However, if we are to say that the problem of evil posed an overwhelming intellectual problem to Lewis in his hour of grieving, it must be the case that some world-view distinct from a theism which included the commensurability of divine goodness to human goodness would have to be available to him. When we read Lewis’s account of his own conversion to Christianity, we find that even though Lewis formerly defended atheism on the basis of the problem of evil, he never said that he became a theist or a Christian because he had found excellent answers to the problem of evil. Rather, he seems to have accepted theism largely because he found alternative world-views inadequate. If he his suffering really has given his cause to doubt his faith, then there must be some world-view other than theism which has been rendered plausible by his sufferings.
And what would that world-view be? It would certainly not be materialism. In language reminiscent of the argument from reason, he once again affirms that he finds that worldview thoroughly unbelievable.
If H. 'is not,' then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren't, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared. But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe — more strictly I can't believe — that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.14 Notice his argument that he cannot believe that one cloud of atoms can make a mistake about other clouds of atoms. He offers no detailed defense of this kind of argument, the way he did in the face of Anscombe’s criticisms, but here he is answering himself, not Anscombe. He is indicating, in his own mind, why materialism is unbelievable.
In fact, if you think about it, Lewis’s complaint against God makes sense only if you attribute a supernatural cause to Joy’s recovery. If what God did was simply let nature take its course and there was no miraculous recovery for Joy, then there cannot be a case against God. If materialism is true, then both Joy’s remission and her recovery would be simply a matter of nature taking its course. In Miracles Lewis said that we should not expect miracles on an everyday basis. So one way for Lewis to resolve his problem with God would be to accept a “materialist” explanation of the events related to Joy’s cancer. (Of course, non-materialists can accept materialist accounts of various phenomena without inconsistency). What Lewis seems angry with God about is that God gave him “false hopes” and “led him up the garden path.” But if God was not directly involved, there would be no problem.
So Lewis considers instead the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist. He writes:
No, my real fear is not of materialism. If it were true, we — or what we mistake for 'we' — could get out, get from under the harrow. An overdose of sleeping pills would do it. I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe, 'God always geometrizes.' Supposing the truth were 'God always vivisects'?15
However, Lewis has some things to say about the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist. He writes:
I think it is, if nothing else, too anthropomorphic. When you come to think of it, it is far more anthropomorphic than picturing Him as a grave old king with a long beard. That image is a Jungian archetype. It links God with all the wise old kings in the fairy-tales, with prophets, sages, magicians. Though it is (formally) the picture of a man, it suggests something more than humanity. At the very least it gets in the idea of something older than yourself, something that knows more, something you can't fathom. It preserves mystery. Therefore room for hope. Therefore room for a dread or awe that needn't be mere fear of mischief from a spiteful potentate. But the picture I was building up last night is simply the picture of a man like S.C. — who used to sit next to me at dinner and tell me what he'd been doing to the cats that afternoon. Now a being like S.C., however magnified, couldn't invent or create or govern anything. He would set up traps and try to bait them. But he'd never have thoughts of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn't make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend.16
Now Beversluis’s commentary is as follows:
The shift occurs the moment Lewis begins to suspect that the hypothesis of the Cosmic Sadist is too anthropomorphic. According to such a view, God is like the man who tortures cats, and that is unbearable. Lewis recoils from this view and assures himself (and his readers) that when he called God an imbecile, it was “more of a yell than a thought.” After that, we hear no more about the Cosmic Sadist.17
In short, Beversluis supposes that Lewis is recoiling from the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist for emotional reasons.
But is this all it is, an emotional recoil? It is at this point that my interpretation of A Grief Observed parts company with Beversluis’s As it happens, the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist had already surfaced in Lewis’s apologetics, in his discussion of Dualism in Mere Christianity. Although there are many types of dualism that have been discussed in philosophy and religion, the Dualism Lewis is referring to is the kind of Dualism which says that the world was created jointly by eternally existing beings, one good and one evil. But Lewis argues that the idea of an evil creator, or even an evil co-creator, is incoherent. He wrote:
If Dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel because they have a sexual perversion, which makes cruelty cause a sensual pleasure in them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it—money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. I do not mean, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness, you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. … In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.18 This argument, if correct, refutes the possibility that the world was created by an evil being, or even co-created by an evil being. A close reading of the passage from A Grief Observed shows that Lewis is there making exactly the same point. If Lewis is making or even referencing this argument, then it should be no surprise that we hear no more of the Cosmic Sadist. We should expect nothing else. This is why Lewis says that the name-calling that he directed toward God was “more of a yell than a thought,” and why he accuses himself of not thinking clearly when he criticized God in the earlier passage.
Lewis next turns to the possibility that, because of human depravity, his understanding of what is right and wrong is simply mistaken. If this is the case, then perhaps God really is a sadist, only sadistic behavior is really right because it is God who does it. Lewis had attacked this position in very harsh terms in his previous writings, including The Problem of Pain.
It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker, and against Dr. Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that "they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides his will."19
However, in A Grief Observed he presents what in my estimation is his most forceful anti-Ockhamist argument. If God’s white can be our black, if our standards of good and evil mean nothing, then we cannot count upon God to do anything whatsoever, including follow through on his own threats. Thus if Ockhamism is true, and God says “Turn or burn,” he could just as easily burn us after we turn (and reward all the ones who didn’t turn) just because, after all, his white could after all be our black.
And so what? This, for all practical (and speculative) purposes, sponges God off the slate. The word good, applied to Him, becomes meaningless: like abracadabra. We have no motive for obeying Him. Not even fear. It is true we have His threats and promises. But why should we believe them? If cruelty is from His point of view 'good,' telling lies may be 'good' too. Even if they are true, what then? If His ideas of good are so very different from ours, what He calls Heaven might well be what we should call Hell, and vice-versa. Finally, if reality at its very root is so meaningless to us — or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles — what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else? This knot comes undone when you try to pull it tight.20
Rene Descartes, in order to raise skeptical doubts about even our firmest certainties, imagined that we might be under the influence of an omnipotent evil demon whose goals is to deceive us as much as possible, and more recent philosophers have speculated about the possibility of our being brains in vats. The epistemic upshot of Ockhamism is essentially the same as the upshot of these hypotheses. According to Ockhamism, we are under the complete control of a being whose motives are either wicked or incomprehensible, and we will believe the truth only if this being arbitrarily chooses that we shall believe the truth. According to Lewis, Ockhamism is every bit as self-refuting as naturalism. If it is true, then we cannot believe the truth of Ockhamism, or of anything else, in a way that gives us any rational confidence that it is true.
Beversluis argues that in A Grief Observed Lewis begins by insisting that God’s actions be good by standards that are commensurable with the standards we use to judge human behavior. Employing those standards, according to Beversluis, Lewis rightly came to the conclusion that God would have to be a Cosmic Sadist. To escape these unpleasant consequences, however, Beversluis claims that Lewis abandoned his long-held Platonism in favor of Ockhamism, accepting God’s goodness only in virtue of accepting a vacuous standard of good and evil.
But this overlooks the fact that in A Grief Observed Lewis presents arguments against both the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist and the thesis of Ockhamism. Of course, Beversluis is not the only person to have overlooked these arguments; favorable commentators like Richard Purtill have overlooked them as well.
What do Lewis’s critics expect; that as a safeguard against grief he should rehearse his intellectual grounds for belief? But Lewis had no intellectual doubts about his faith, and no new data which might give him intellectual grounds for doubting his faith…There is in fact no evidence at all that Lewis was moved to any intellectual doubts at all by his personal loss, and thus there was no need to renew or rehearse his arguments.21
The difficulty with Purtill’s claim here is that is assumes that it is introspectively obvious to a sufferer whether or not the doubts are intellectual or emotional in nature. This is far from the case. One of the pastoral needs of a bereaved person might be to understand that their grief experience in now way changes the evidential situation. That is why I would not call A Grief Observed a book of Christian apologetics, since it has other functions to be sure, but it nevertheless did perform an apologetic role. Contrary to what Purtill suggests here, Lewis did rehearse at least some of the reasons he had for being a Christian, and found them to be still standing.
Given the fact that Lewis attacks the coherence both of the Cosmic Sadist theory and Ockhamism in A Grief Observed, what do we make of Beversluis’s charge that Lewis, in understanding the pain of his own bereavement and accepting the loss in the way that he did, he implicitly accepted an Ockhamist account of God’s goodness? After all, the fact that there are anti-Ockhamist arguments in A Grief Observed shows that Lewis never explicitly embraced Ockhamism in that work. But perhaps his response to his own suffering was implicitly Ockhamistic, even though he did not realize it.
What I find puzzling, however, is that the actual content of what Beversluis says happens in A Grief Observed is very similar to his verdict on the Problem of Pain. In his discussion of The Problem of Pain Beversluis defines Ockhamism as
>(W)hen we talk about God’s goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings. To suppose that God must conform to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy. God is bound by nothing and answerable to no one.22 Later on, he writes that he is not going to claim that Lewis is an Ockhamist in The Problem of Pain. He says:
At this point, I should perhaps allay possible suspicions that I am going to end up claiming that Lewis was really an Ockhamist. I am not. What I do insist on, however, is that by the time his argument has run its course he no longer claims that God’s goodness is recognizable in any ordinary sense. On the contrary, he suggests that we can call God good only if we are willing to assign a new meaning to the term.23
But I thought that what it is to be an Ockhamist was that you assigned a new meaning to the term “good.” Or, looking at it from the opposite side, what it is to be a Platonist is to hold maintain that our standards of good and evil must hold firm. Beversluis culminates his analysis by saying:
How is Lewis’s view with its new meanings for good and love different from the Ockhamist view he deplores? In The Problem of Pain we are confronted with an apologist emphatically endorsing a view that he almost immediately lays aside for a position that differs only semantically from the position he claims to reject. By the time he has finished, our “black” has become God’s “white”, and moral standards have been reversed. What we call suffering, Lewis calls having our illusions shattered. What we call happiness, Lewis calls self-indulgence. What we call a moral outrage, Lewis calls a compliment. What we call kindness, Lewis calls indifference. What we call cruelty, Lewis calls love.24
When we get to A Grief Observed, Beversluis says
The God who knocked down Lewis’s house of cards is not a Platonistically conceived deity who is good in our sense, but rather an Ockhamistically conceived being who is declared good no matter what he does. Lewis’s “rediscovered” faith is a fiath in a God whose goodness is unlike our own that it can bee called good only by laying aside our moral standards together with our ordinary criteria for determining who has true faith and who does not. It is in this alarming sense that Heaven is said to “solve” our problems. Good now means “whatever God wills or permits.”25
So in his critique of The Problem of Pain Beversluis accuses Lewis of revising our moral standards, but this does not make him and Ockhamist; it only puts him in a position that differs only semantically from Ockhamism. In A Grief Observed he claims that after Lewis stops expressing anger toward God he reverses our moral standards and in so doing he becomes an Ockhamist. Quite honestly, the “semantic” difference between these two critiques escapes me. In order to argue for a profound transformation between The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed Beversluis has to forget the charges that he leveled against the former work. At one point Beversluis suggests that the evil Lewis faced in his grief experience was one that was of a kind that could not be accounted for by the explanations he had used in The Problem of Pain, since God was directly implicated, but that won’t do, since a good deal of his discussion of that book concerns his critique of Lewis’s “Shattering Thesis,” in which God brings us to knowledge of himself by shattering our illusions. At another point remembers his discussion of the Shattering Thesis, but says
The Shattering Thesis of A Grief Observed is not, of course a hitherto unheard-of idea in Lewis’s writings. It can be found in The Problem of Pain. What is new is not the thesis but Lewis’s recognition of its logical impact on the believer.26
But this won’t do either, since Lewis clearly doesn’t recognize that he has become an Ockhamist. But in fact, as Beversluis himself points out, Lewis maintained that his doubts had psychological, and not logical causes. In short I find no logical way to argue for a fundamental transformation of Lewis’s position between The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. If Lewis is open to the charge of Ockhamism in A Grief Observed, then he was an Ockhamist in The Problem of Pain. If Lewis can be acquitted of the charge of being an Ockhmist in The Problem of Pain, then the same arguments can be used to show that he was not an Ockhamist in A Grief Observed.

A resource for Aristotle's metaphysics

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Edward Cook's defense of the argument from desire

This is an interesting paper. It had been suggested to me by Don Jr. in a previous discussion of this argument.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

I'm about to lose my lunch again

Apparently there is a violent video game for Christians, courtesy of the Left Behind people.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A critique of A. N. Wilson

The False Anscombe Legend

This is familiar material to those of you who read my book or my essay for the Chronicles of Narnia volume, but I am working on an entry for a C. S. Lewis encyclopedia, so I have put a couple of things I wrote in different places together here.

The False Anscombe Legend
It is sometimes argued that not only are Lewis’s apologetics woefully inadequate, but that Lewis himself recognized this and abandoned apologetics at the height of his apologetic career, as a reaction to a devastating encounter with a real philosopher. This encounter was not with an atheist, it was with the Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe.
The legendary debate with Anscombe took place at the Oxford Socratic Club on February 2, 1948. In his book Miracles, published the year before, Lewis argued that naturalism—the view that only physical reality exists—is self-contradictory. Anscombe sharply criticized the argument, claiming that it was confused and based on the ambiguous use of key terms. According to the “Anscombe legend,” Lewis not only admitted that Anscombe got the better of the exchange, but recognized that his argument was wrong. Further, as a result of the exchange, Lewis gave up on Christian apologetics. According to Humphrey Carpenter, one of the purveyors of the Anscombe legend, “Though [Lewis] continued to believe in the importance of Reason in relation to his Christian faith, he had perhaps realized the truth of Charles Williams’s maxim, ‘No-one can possibly do more than decide what to believe.’’ In short, Lewis went from a belief in the rationality of his faith to a fideistic position, according to which belief is based on faith and should not be defended rationally.
Now it is true that, immediately following the debate, Lewis expressed disappointment to friends as to how the debate went. Further, Lewis did think that Anscombe’s objections were serious enough to require him to rewrite the relevant chapter of Miracles. And it is also true that he wrote no more explicitly apologetic books after Miracles. But we have no reason to believe that he had any apologetic books in mind that went unwritten because of the exchange with Anscombe. What we do know is that he did continue to write essays on apologetical subjects. In “Is Theism Important” (1952), Lewis affirms the importance of theistic arguments, and says “Nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least probable arguments for Theism.”4 In “On Obstinacy of Belief” (1955), Lewis defends Christianity against the charge that while scientists apportion their beliefs to the evidence, religious people do not, and are therefore irrational. In “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger” (1958), Lewis defends his Christian apologetics against criticisms from a prominent theologian, hardly what you would expect him to do if he thought his career as an apologist had been misguided The essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (1959) is a stinging assault on modern Biblical scholarship of a skeptical variety, the sort of scholarship that is currently represented by members of the Jesus Seminar.7 If that essay is not a piece of Christian apologetics, then I simply do not know what the term means.
I should note that Lewis not only revised his chapter on Miracles, he expanded the chapter. Now if you really thought that someone had proved you wrong, why in the world would you expand the very chapter that had been disproved? What is more, this revision was not just something he thought of years later; an examination of the original issue of the Socratic Digest in which Anscombe’s article appears we find a short response by Lewis in which he lays the foundation for the subsequent revision, which appeared in 1960.8
One devastating blow to the Anscombe legend has come from a surprising source. In his 1985 book C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion John Beversluis criticized C. S. Lewis’s apologetics as a failure, and in so doing made reference to the psychological impact of the Anscombe incident. He also analyzed the arguments, and found that “the arguments that Anscombe presented can be pressed further, and Lewis’s revised argument does nothing to meet them.” However, in a subsequent review of A. N. Wilson’s biography of C. S. Lewis, which implied Lewis wrote Narnia because he was running away from the thumping he got from Anscombe, Beversluis, much to his credit, abandoned the Anscombe Legend entirely. He wrote:
First, the Anscombe debate was by no means Lewis's first exposure to a professional philosopher: he lived among them all his adult life, read the Greats, and even taught philosophy. Second, it is simply untrue that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics. In 1960 he published a second edition of Miracles in which he revised the third chapter and thereby replied to Anscombe. Third, most printed discussions of the debate, mine included, fail to mention that Anscombe herself complimented Lewis's revised argument on the grounds that it is deeper and far more serious than the original version. Finally, the myth that Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics overlooks several post-Anscombe articles, among them "Is Theism Important?" (1952)—a discussion of Christianity and theism which touches on philosophical proofs for God's existence—and "On Obstinacy of Belief"—in which Lewis defends the rationality of belief in God in the face of apparently contrary evidence (the issue in philosophical theology during the late 1950s and early 60s). It is rhetorically effective to announce that the post-Anscombe Lewis wrote no further books on Christian apologetics, but it is pure fiction. Even if it were true, what would this Argument from Abandoned Subjects prove? He wrote no further books on Paradise Lost or courtly love either.

A Christian skate time at the rink? No way

HT: Ray Schneider. What do you all think of this case?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Another press release from Rob Crowther of Discovery Institute

Fire away, Darwinists!

(206) 292-0401 X107


SEATTLE — Over 600 doctoral scientists from around the world have now signed a
statement publicly expressing their skepticism about the contemporary theory of
Darwinian evolution. The statement, located online at,
reads: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and
natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of
the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

The fastest growing segment of the list is scientists from outside the United
States. International scientists now represent just over 12% of all signers,
and as a group has seen nearly 40% growth in the past four months.

“I signed the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism statement, because I am
absolutely convinced of the lack of true scientific evidence in favour of
Darwinian dogma,” said Raul Leguizamon, M. D., Pathologist, and a professor of
medicine at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, Mexico.

“Nobody in the biological sciences, medicine included, needs Darwinism at all,”
added Leguizamon. “Darwinism is certainly needed, however, in order to pose as a
philosopher, since it is primarily a worldview. And an awful one, as Bernard
Shaw used to say.”

The list of 610 signatories includes member scientists from National Academies
of Science in Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary, India (Hindustan), Nigeria,
Poland, Russia and the United States. Many of the signers are professors or
researchers at major universities and international research institutions such
as Cambridge University, British Museum of Natural History, Moscow State
University, Masaryk University in Czech Republic, Hong Kong University,
University of Turku in Finland, Autonomous
University of Guadalajara in Mexico, University of Stellenbosch in South Africa,
Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in France, Chitose Institute of Science &
Technology in Japan, Ben-Gurion University in Israel, MIT, The Smithsonian and

“Dissent from Darwinism has gone global,” said Discovery Institute President
Bruce Chapman, former US Ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna. “Darwinists
used to claim that virtually every scientist in the world held that Darwinian
evolution was true, but we quickly started finding US scientists that disproved
that statement. Now we’re finding that there are hundreds, and probably
thousands, of scientists all over the world that don’t subscribe to Darwin’s

Discovery Institute first published its Scientific Dissent From Darwinism list
in 2001 to challenge false statements about Darwinian evolution made in
promoting PBS’s “Evolution” series. At the time it was claimed that “virtually
every scientist in the world believes the theory to be true.”

Prominent signatories include U.S. National Academy of Sciences member Philip
Skell; American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Lyle Jensen;
evolutionary biologist and textbook author Stanley Salthe; Smithsonian
Institution evolutionary biologist and a researcher at the National Institutes
of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information Richard von Sternberg;
Editor of Rivista di Biologia / Biology Forum --the oldest still published
biology journal in the world--
Giuseppe Sermonti; and Russian Academy of Natural Sciences embryologist Lev


For additional information visit the Center for Science & Culture website at

Visit ID The Future, for news about the science behind intelligent design at:

And be sure to Read Evolution News & Views, about media coverage of the debate
over evolution at:

To unsubscribe to this list:

Tibetan teen really into Western philosophy, man. How cool is that?

HT: Jim Lippard

Monday, June 12, 2006

A blogger comments on the AFR debate

J. D. Walters, a new blogger, has some things to say about the Reppert-Carrier exchanges.

Rob Crowther on the South Carolina decision concerning evolution

ID always gets the blood going.

(206) 292-0401 X107

Columbia, SC –- After months of debate, today the South Carolina Education
Oversight Committee unanimously ratified high school biology standards requiring
students to understand why "scientists continue to investigate and critically
analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." The South Carolina State Board of
Education adopted the standards unanimously last month, and submitted them to
the EOC for approval. South Carolina’s new evolution standard does not require
teaching the theory of
intelligent design.

The biology standard approved requires students to be able to, “Summarize ways
that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically
analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” This falls under the overall biology
standard which says that “The student will demonstrate an understanding of
biological evolution and the diversity of life.”

“This victory is an important milestone towards improving the quality of science
education, by ensuring that students learn the full range of relevant scientific
evidence, including the scientific criticisms of evolution,” said Casey Luskin
an attorney and public policy analyst with Discovery Institute’s Center for
Science & Culture. “South Carolina is the fifth current state to require
students to learn about scientific criticisms of evolution and this policy helps
remedy the problem that most
biology textbooks today largely ignore scientific challenges to Darwinism.”

South Carolina State Senator Mike Fair, a member of the Education Oversight
Committee, and Terrye Campsen Seckinger, a member of the South Carolina Board of
Education, issued a statement applauding the approval of the new high school
biology standards: “It is impossible to meet this standard without the
discussion of the meaning of critical analysis as it applies to evolutionary
science. This is a great improvement over our 2000 standards. Students will
now have the opportunity to wholly
learn about the theory of evolution. This means that students will have the
opportunity to fully discuss all aspects of evolutionary theory instead of
limiting discussion to only evidence that might support it.”

Discovery Institute is a non-profit, public policy center that studies issues
from transportation to technology to science. In science education, it supports
a "teach the controversy" approach to Darwinian evolution and believes that
students should have the opportunity to study both the strengths and the
weaknesses of Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory. At the same time, the
Institute opposes any attempt to mandate the teaching of alternative theories
such as intelligent design by
school districts or state boards of education.

To schedule an interview with a Discovery Institute representative contact
Robert Crowther at 206-292-0401 x107, or e-mail

Link to SC standards:

Link to Fair/Seckinger statement:


For additional information visit the Center for Science & Culture website at

Visit ID The Future, for news about the science behind intelligent design at:

And be sure to Read Evolution News & Views, about media coverage of the debate
over evolution at:

To unsubscribe to this list:

Kissane against Craig on actual infinity

This is S. J. Kissane's argument against William Lane Craig's argument that the universe cannot have been in existence of an infinite length of time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Talbott's response to Beversluis

In an earlier post I presented John Beversluis’s critique of C. S. Lewis on the problem of evil. Beversluis’s central argument is that if theism retains the meanings we ordinarily attach to the term “good,” we have to admit that God is not good thus defined. If, on the other hand, we redefine goodness, we get the appropriate result, but it then means nothing to suppose that God is good.

Let us suppose, for example, that we define goodness as “in accordance with the will of the most powerful being in existence.” If we defined goodness in this way, we would have no trouble justifying the claim that God is good, but, the claim that God is good would be trivialized. If on the other hand, we retain the commensurability between the goodness of God and the goodness of human beings, we find that God must be regarded as not good. Beversluis maintains that Lewis does what he thinks, in the last analysis, any theist must do in order to justify God’s goodness, provide a revised definition for goodness. In particular Beversluis thinks that Lewis fatally compromises his Platonism convictions when he says that God sends pain to people to shatter their illusions.

Thomas Talbott, in his outstanding essay “C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil,” begins his discussion by drawing attention to the following statement from The Problem of Pain. Lewis writes:

If God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
Talbott continues:
One the one hand, says Lewis, God’s judgment must differ from ours because he is wiser than we are; on the other, as indicated in the previous quotation, God’s good cannot be the same as our evil. Herein lies, I believe, a solution to the problem of evil.
In what ways might the moral judgments of a wiser person disagree with those of one who is not so wise but is operating essentially from the same moral framework? When considering a disagreement about the moral character of an act, one must distinguish carefully between two different cases: one in which all of the relevant facts, (such as the exact circumstances of the act, the available alternatives, etc.) are known, and one in which some of the relevant facts are not known. In the former case, a disagreement about the precise nature of the act—whether it be, for instance, a good act or a bad act, a loving act or a cruel act—probably would imply a difference in fundamental moral concepts; but in the latter case, (where some of the relevant facts remain unknown or are in dispute) such a disagreement would clearly not have that implication. A primitive who concludes that men in white coats bearing needles are cruel to children need not be operating from a moral framework that differs substantially from our own; nor would it be surprising to find that a loving father in a primitive culture wants to “protect” his child from the very shot of penicillin that a missionary doctor, filled with the love of God, wants to administer. The loving father simply lacks some important information. It is on ly an analogy, of course (and we should remember that primitives are often wiser than we are), but the analogy does illustrate an obvious point. That God is willing to permit a child to die from cancer, even though the child’s loving father desperately tries to save her, in no way entails that God’s “white” is the same as our “black.”

Talbott, T.B. (1987) “C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil,” Christian Scholars’ Review, 17(1): 36-51

I am including a link to Tom Talbott's home page.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

NBA, NFL, or the Sopranos?


36 have been accused of spousal abuse
7 have been arrested for fraud
19 have been accused of writing bad checks

117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least 2 businesses
3 have done time for assault
71, repeat 71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit
14 have been arrested on drug-related charges
8 have been arrested for shoplifting
21 currently are defendants in lawsuits, and
84 have been arrested for drunk driving in
the last year
Can you guess which organization this is?
It's the 535 members of the United
States Congress.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bill Craig responds to Ehrman

My, this is really condescending. Robert Miller isn't
just Bart Ehrman's publisher! I knew Robert from
previous projects and was contacting him for advice
about the series of books in natural theology JP
Moreland and I are proposing, and HE brought up the
debate, having heard of it from, I think, Ehrman.
Since Ehrman skotched the project--which Charles
Anderton of Holy Cross broached to Ehrman and me--, I
haven't spoken about it again to Robert.

As for the objections, I'm glad the transcript is
available so that folks can form their own opinions!

Do, you have Ehrman's email? I want to write him
directly about this.


VR: Well, I hope they get the misunderstandings ironed out. As for what Craig was responding to, see here. I'm sorry. Even on the best reading, Ehrman comes across shockingly arrogant.

Uriah Kriegel on Narrow Contents

This site has a link to a paper on narrow contents, arguing that all conscious contents are all the nonderivative contents that exist, and that all other contents are derivative from that.

The Setting of the Suns

Alas, the Suns' season has come to an end. Now to see if new owner Robert Sarver manages to avoid a case of Colangelo-itis (the previous owner, in other ways running and outstanding franchise, had a bad habit of not leaving well enough alone and made too many trades) and employs the following recipe for a championship team next year: Add Amare Stoudemire and stir.

Craig vs. Ehrman: Get it here!

William Lane Craig wrote:

Since Ehrman is not permitting the publication of this
debate, could you help to make this address known,
perhaps providing such a link at any websites you are
involved with?



Bill: Would be more than happy to do so!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Mere Christianity Study Guide

John Beversluis's Critique of the Problem of Pain

This is my exposition of John Beversluis's critique of The Problem of Pain. It is part of a paper I have been writing on Lewis and A Grief Observed. It is unfotunate, I believe, that Beversluis combines this critique of The Problem of Pain with an attempt to show that in A Grief Observed Lewis abandoned a previous commitment to what Beversluis is calling Platonism. This is because, in his critique of the Problem of Pain, he actually claims that Lewis turns out to lapse into Ockhamism after professing Platonism. That being the case, he can't very well say that there is a retreat into Ockhamism in A Grief Observed, if the real retreat took place in The Problem of Pain in the first place.

In this section, I am not attempting to defend Lewis against these criticism. I think it has been done by effectively by Thomas Talbott in C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil (Christian Scholar's Revew, 1987) and James Petrik (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 1994). In future posts I may present their replies.

Beversluis’s Critique of The Problem of Pain
As I indicated, his critique of Lewis’s theistic arguments is not the main argument of the book. This begins when he criticizes Lewis’s treatment of the problem of evil. Beversluis begins by contrasting the Platonist view, according to which our ordinary conception of goodness is commensurable with the concept of goodness as applied to God, and the Ockhamist view, according to which what we mean when we say “God is good” has nothing to do with what we mean when we say, for example, that “My friend is good.”
Consider the following presentation of the argument from evil.
(1) Gratuitous evils, (evils that do not contribute to a greater good) probably exist.
(2) Gratuitous evils are incompatible with the God of theism (omnipotent, omniscient, all-good).
(3) Therefore, the God of theism probably does not exist.
This argument has a presupposition that some Christians have questioned. It presupposes that "good" is somehow independent of the will of God, and that it has some objective meaning independent of the will of God. That presupposition, which Beversluis calls Platonism is that "the term good cannot mean some thing radically different from what is means when applied to men." The opposing view is that he calls the Ockhamist view, set forth by William of Ockham. This is Beversluis's exposition:

According to this view, when we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings. To suppose that God must be conformed to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy. His is not under any moral constraint to command certain actions and to forbid others. He does not, for example, forbid murder because it is wrong; it is wrong because he forbids it. If God would command us to murder, then that would be our duty, just as it was the duty of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or Elijah to slay the prophets of Baal, or Joshua to slaughter the Canaanites right down to the last woman and child. Some Ockhamist Christians have even gone so far as to say that God could have reversed the entire moral law and made virtues not only of murder but of adultery, theft, coveting and bearing false witness. As Ockhamist John Calvin puts it, "The will of God is the highest rule of justice; so that what he wills must be considered just...for this very reason, because he wills it." (Calvin's Institutes, book 3, chapter 3, section 2) And one contemporary Calvinist, Gordon H. Clark, surpasses even Ockham and Calvin on this point. "God .... cannot be responsible for the plain reason that there is no power superior to him; no greater being can hold him accountable; no one can punish ... there are no laws which he could disobey."13
Lewis, of course, steadfastly opposed this Ockhamist position. He wrote:
It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker, and against Dr. Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that "they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides his will."14
However, while Lewis steadfastly proclaimed his commitment to Platonism in The Problem of Pain and elsewhere, Beversluis questions whether he really remains faithful to his professed Platonism throughout The Problem of Pain. On Beversluis’s account, Lewis uses three stratagems to explain evil and suffering:
1) An “inexorable” nature that is required for communication between two or more conscious beings.
2) Human (or demonic) free will.
3) God shattering our illusions to bring us to knowledge of himself.
Although Beversluis is critical of the use of the first two ideas to alleviate the problem of evil, it is the final category that leads Beversluis to claim that Lewis has fundamentally and fatally compromised his “Platonistic” view of the goodness of God. First, Beversluis contends that in order to permit the Shattering Thesis Lewis presents a discussion of the concept of divine goodness that essentially alters the concept of goodness, making it unrecognizable. Second, Beversluis charges that the concept of goodness in The Problem of Pain is so harsh that it violates the standards of morality that we routinely impose on human beings. Finally, Lewis’s belief in redemptive suffering leads to abhorrent consequences when applied to actual human sufferers.15
Now it is important to notice that Beversluis does not charge C. S. Lewis in the Problem of Pain of actually becoming an Ockhamist. He explicitly denies this:
At this point, I should perhaps allay possible suspicions that I am going to end up claiming that Lewis was really an Ockhamist. I am not. What I do insist on, however, is that by the time his argument has run its course he no longer claims that God’s goodness is recognizable in any ordinary sense. On the contrary, he suggests that we can call God good only if we are willing to assign a new meaning to the term.16
However, he maintains in the end he says,
How is Lewis’s view with its new meanings for good and love different from the Ockhamist view he deplores? In The Problem of Pain we are confronted with an apologist emphatically endorsing a view that he almost immediately lays aside for a position that differs only semantically from the position he claims to reject. By the time he has finished, our “black” has become God’s “white”, and moral standards have been reversed. What we call suffering, Lewis calls having our illusions shattered. What we call happiness, Lewis calls self-indulgence. What we call a moral outrage, Lewis calls a compliment. What we call kindness, Lewis calls indifference. What we call cruelty, Lewis calls love.17
Here I must confess my total puzzlement. Why isn’t he accusing Lewis of becoming an Ockhamist. Recall above how he defined Ockhamism:
According to this view, when we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings.
From this we can draw two conclusions. One is that Beversluis believes that Lewis’s Platonism is compromised beyond repair in his analysis of divine goodness in The Problem of Pain, and that this compromise is not sufficient to make him an Ockhamist. The only thing I can infer from these two claims is that on Beversluis’s view Lewis has not become an Ockhamist in The Problem of Pain he fails to see the Ockhamistic implications of his own position. But I would still point out that according to Beversluis’s definition, people who radically alter the definition of goodness are Ockhamists, whether they perceive themselves as such or not.
However, this is going to cause a problem when Beversluis tries to say that Lewis, at least temporarily in response to his own grief experience, accepts an Ockhamistic view of God. It would be one thing to argue that Lewis was an uncompromising Platonist in The Problem of Pain and then lapsed into Ockhamism in A Grief Observed. It is another to argue that Lewis’s position in The Problem of Pain “differs only semantically” from Ockhamism, and then to argue that he actually does become an Ockhamist in A Grief Observed. What is the “semantic” difference?