Monday, October 01, 2007

Reply to Ron on the problem of evil

Ron wrote: The AFE is a 'defeater' argument designed to show that there are internal contradictions in the theistic position. So while Lewis is correct technically, he misses the point that the AFE is concerned only with the rationality of the theistic position. The position of the atheist (or anyone else who uses the AFE) is not relevant. I think this is a mistake I've seen Christian apologists make.

VR: It is quite true that you can advance the argument from evil as a reductio against one's Christian opponent. What that entails is showing that as a Christian one must accept the moral premise of the argument (typically, a perfectly good being will prevent unnecessary suffering if possible, unless that suffering is necessary for a greater good), even though the atheist objector considers it subjective. But can you count on the Christian theist to accept that premise? Even if the theist accepts that premise in human contexts (and even that's not clear) it doesn't follow that the theist is inconsistent in not applying it to God.

In his debate with Keith Parsons William Lane Craig says that God is justified in ordering the Amalekites to be slaughtered down to the last man, woman and child, because God is the author and giver of life and therefore can take life as he chooses. Of course, Parsons found this shocking, and I personally find it counterintuitive. But I don;'t find Craig's position inconsistent. I don't see how an atheist can object to Craig's position without appealing to an objective standard that both the atheist and the theist share.

I've covered and discussed this point on here quite a bit, as the link should show.

16 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

We find things like this in the Bible that are at the very least "counter-intuitive," as you say, and yet we are to believe anyway.

The argument that God can kill because he gives us life is internally problematic without us resorting to an objective standard. If I give someone something, a gift, I cannot just take it back without having a moral or legal reason for doing so. I cannot give someone blood to save his life and then demand it back. Why can't I? Because once a gift is given it is no longer mine to take back. So we're back to the moral/legal reasons for God to take a life without reference to the fact that he gave us life in the first place. This is the problem.

So either 1) God is not bound by the ethical standards he sets down for Christians, or 2) God’s ethical code is absolutely mysterious to us. At this point, the whole notion of God’s goodness means nothing to us at all, as John Beversluis has argued: “If the word ‘good’ must mean approximately the same thing when we apply it to God as what it means when we apply it to human beings, then the fact of suffering provides a clear empirical refutation of the existence of a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. If on the other hand, we are prepared to give up the idea that ‘good’ in reference to God means anything like what it means when we refer to humans as good, then the problem of evil can be sidestepped, but any hope of a rational defense of the Christian God goes by the boards.”

Cheers.

Jason Pratt said...

While I don't actually agree with Beversluis' argument (for technical reasons I won't go into here), I do otherwise agree with John's crit of WLC's defense.

Vic: {{Of course, Parsons found this [defense shocking, and I personally find it counterintuitive. But I don;'t find Craig's position inconsistent.}}

In a very limited sense it isn't inconsistent; but I have argued that it becomes extremely inconsistent when combined with other positions WLC accepts and proposes. It's basically the reason why I have always scored Keith a win by a solid edge in that debate.

JRP

Jason Pratt said...

In regard to Ron: it isn't that Lewis "misses the point". What he does is go on beyond the point to make a practical application of it--which he did in fact do in his own life before becoming a Christian. Then from that practical application he derives the further point: putting the AfE into actual practice logically results in arriving back at a tacit requirement of God as ethical standard sooner or later. (Or so Lewis himself found, as an atheist, to his consternation.)

That progression leaves the AfE which preceded it, still where it is, with a hint that either the premises or the logical validity must be incomplete or incorrect.

JRP

Some chap said...

I think Victor is right, beacuse which of the following seems easier:

1) To argue that commanding the slaughter of the Amelikites was a bad thing to do

or

2) To argue that the Christian must accept a certain moral theory to the effect that commanding the slaughter of the Amelikites turns out to be a bad thing to do.

Intuitively, 2) seems harder.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

I agree that it is counterintuitive to suggest that "slaughter the Amalikites" is "good." I retreat to the position taken by the Book of Job: it is not that God is evil or even that God is good, but that God acts on a scale upon which we have absolutely no perspective to judge whether God is good or evil.

That is the meaning of God's speech to Job, "Where were you when I made the world?" and all that: not "you worm, how dare you judge me?" (as it is often mistakenly understood) but "you have no basis for judging my actions, you don't have the perspective." And yet: "Job has spoken rightly of me," so we are allowed and even encouraged to try to understand and judge. Just, don't expect to be right.

"God is good" must never be interpreted to mean "Might makes right." The analogy of the potter and the pot is deeply flawed (sorry, St. Paul), because a pot feels no pain.

Jason Pratt said...

While I agree with Sturg's point about the perspective and lack of data in trying to figure out why God has allowed (or even actively done) a particular thing, I _don't_ think this is the same as being unable to judge (in the sense of arriving at a correct conclusion, from whatever X set of data might allow this) whether God is good or not.

The pertinent question at hand for Job was not whether God was good (or rather the concept may have been considered but was then rejected). The pertinent question was why God was doing or allowing this when so far as Job knew he himself hadn't done anything to deserve it as punishment. His three pals (not sure what to make of wandering teenager Elihu who shows up to make his own observations in a different literary dialect of Hebrew, in no active connection with the rest of the plot) are quite sure Job _has_ done something to warrant this and in effect end up acting like little satan/accusers against him (when they're supposed to be comforting him).

I strongly suspect this thematic ties in to the prologue, and to God's conclusionary remarks about Bahamut and Leviathan. Unlike Job, we're shown some very key points of data for why God allows Satan to nuke Job and his family: it's _for the sake of Satan_. And not just in a 'see there, huh, you worthless goob' kind of way either; that's what the things about God taming the rebel dragons and getting them to form a convenant with Him point to.

The whole point seems aimed at an eventual reconciliation of Satan to God; with the three little human adversaries' reconciliation to Job and to God being the first fruits of this (it's clear God sees a need for them to be reconciled to Him as well as to Job for what they've done).

If so, it makes a powerful contribution to theodicy. It certainly fits into the theme running across both canon sets, of 'the innocent suffer _for the sake of_ the guilty who are beloved, too'.

JRP

Victor Reppert said...

John: I don't think that, as a Christian, I am required to believe that the ban on the Amalekites was morally right. Bill Craig does. I don't buy his defense. But I believe in objective moral values grounded ultimately in theism. You don't.

I do think that the objection to the ban on the Amalekites presupposes moral objectivism. According to cultural ethical relativism, something is right or wrong just in case the culture approves of it. We don't find any objections to the ban coming from within the culture, only from people long after the fact and separated from the culture. Therefore, if relativism is true, the Amalekite ban is justified.

Empirical evidence suggests that when we receive life from God it's a loan, not a gift.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic said…John: I don't think that, as a Christian, I am required to believe that the ban on the Amalekites was morally right. Bill Craig does. I don't buy his defense.

Then you’re in good company with Stephen T. Davis (read down a bit). I don’t think infallibility as your standard of Biblical authority works. Good luck with that. It’s called cherry-picking, isn’t it?

Vic: But I believe in objective moral values grounded ultimately in theism. You don't.

There are no ultimate objective values, true, but that does not mean there are no objective values. Several moral theories defend objective values, even if they aren’t ultimately objective. Besides these values you affirm are not found within the Bible itself, since you disagree with the Bible about the Amalekites. So where do you get yours? Probably the same place I get mine, right? How can you seriously deny this if you pick and choose from the Bible? At least Craig is consistent by trying his very best to defend the source of his values.

Vic: I do think that the objection to the ban on the Amalekites presupposes moral objectivism. According to cultural ethical relativism, something is right or wrong just in case the culture approves of it. We don't find any objections to the ban coming from within the culture, only from people long after the fact and separated from the culture. Therefore, if relativism is true, the Amalekite ban is justified.

But even a relativist can argue her case, correct?...and that means arguing against other cultures. Even a relativist can argue that honor and witch and homosexual killings, which we find in the Bible, should be rejected by rational people. She does not have to sit idly by and not argue her case, just as she doesn’t have to take a beating and like it.

Vic: Empirical evidence suggests that when we receive life from God it's a loan, not a gift.

I’m not sure what evidence you’re referring to here. Nonetheless, for Christians to respond that God’s gifts always have strings attached, like our obedience, then God never truly gives us anything. What kind of gift is it is I save a person’s life and then tell him I’ll kill him if he doesn’t do as I say? For Christians to retort that God can do whatever he wants to because he’s God, still doesn’t morally justify his actions. God’s actions still must be justified on their own moral merits.

My questions have to do with evaluating God’s moral standards for doing so when his personal standards are contrary to the very ones believers find in the Bible itself. This makes it an internal problem for what the theist believes. Such a problem would arise even if there were no atheists around to press this argument against the theist. Atheists have their own problem when it comes to justifying their moral values. But it wouldn’t solve our particular problem by throwing out a red herring that theists have a problem too, just as it doesn’t solve your particular problem to do likewise.

Victor Reppert said...

It's cherry-picking only if it's arbitrary, John. And even inerrantists have to use hermeneutical principles of some sort to deal with various problems. You can accuse Bill Craig of cherry-picking if you want to because he accepts the Big Bang and denies YEC and a comprehensive chronology in Genesis. It's amazing how popular fundamentalist arguments are with atheists.

If cultural relativism is true, the culture one is in calls it, and its moral code cannot be mistaken.

The reason I said that life is a loan is that whether the Amalekites get slaughtered by an Israelite sword or die of old age, they still die. If we go by Bentham's utilitarian principle, it's pretty much up for grabs whether it would be conducive to the greatest good for the greatest number to kill the Amalekites or let them live. It could be that the slaughter led to a greater eternal balance of pleasure over pain. But I don't know that, so I can't actually defend the slaughter myself.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic said...It's cherry-picking only if it's arbitrary, John.

Yes indeed, but it just seems to me every Christian does it. They each have their own specific criteria for non-arbitrary cherry-picking, that's all. It's the problem of the canon within the canon, as you well know, and it sure looks arbitray to me...all of it.

If cultural relativism is true, the culture one is in calls it, and its moral code cannot be mistaken.

Yes it can! Cultures change for one generation to the next, and for them to do so they change from the inside. To say they cannot be mistaken is problematic on a variety of levels, for instance there are cultures within cultures, and the fact that cultural relativism reduces to individual relativism, and any relativist can argue against his culture. There's more....

It could be that the slaughter led to a greater eternal balance of pleasure over pain. But I don't know that, so I can't actually defend the slaughter myself.

Noseeum, eh? You have no reasonable seeability to see such things? I guess then you have to make a choice. Do you open your eyes and then conclude the arguments that you're so convinced of are wrong?...or do you shut your eyes and maintain your arguments against what is right in front of your eyes?

The arguments for the existence of God all have holes in them. Where is the hole in the empirical evidence of that which we plainly see?

Cheers.

Victor Reppert said...

JL: Yes indeed, but it just seems to me every Christian does it. They each have their own specific criteria for non-arbitrary cherry-picking, that's all. It's the problem of the canon within the canon, as you well know, and it sure looks arbitray to me...all of it.

VR: You're going to have this problem whether you canon is constitutional law, or science or Scripture, or the teaching of the Catholic Church. It's the human condition. Learn to live wiht it.

J. Clark said...

Seems to me that Victor established the criteria for making a judgment: "led to a greater eternal pleasure (good)" He's just admitting what every wise man does, "I don't know" The greatest philosophical phrase ever uttered. He doesn't have the perspective to give the final say.

Jason Pratt said...

Vic: {{You can accuse Bill Craig of cherry-picking if you want}}

Um, I think he was accusing _you_ (and me by extension) of cherry-picking, Vic. {g} That's why he wrote "At least Craig is consistent by trying his very best to defend the source of his values."

Personally, I don't think I've ever argued once that any of us get our morality 'from the Bible'. So I don't really have a problem of John getting his morality from somewhere else other than 'the Bible'. (Neither do you, in my experience, I'm pretty sure, despite what John seems to think or maybe hope. {s}) I think he gets his morality from God, the same as we do. (Typically the scriptural authors agree on that, incidentally; St. Paul in Romans 2 comes to mind, and not necessarily against 'those who do not know the Nomos' either.)

John: {{But even a relativist can argue her case, correct?...and that means arguing against other cultures. Even a relativist can argue that honor and witch and homosexual killings, which we find in the Bible, should be rejected by rational people.}}

Sure. But her argument can only be accepted by either believing or pretending that ethical relativism isn't true after all. {g} Otherwise the most she can be saying in effect is "my own culture (which may ultimately reduce down to me personally as an individual) doesn't like this--it makes us itch or the equivalent thereof".

Which possibly you may be actually agreeing with. It should be obvious though that an overarching objective morality has a seriously practical result when it comes to moral reasoning; and if there is no ultimately objective moral standard within which we're operating, then there's going to be a corresponding practical limit even in principle, sooner or later, to how far moral exhortation can even possibly go in the most ideal situation. Eventually a brick wall that no one can possibly get around is going to be reached, even with the best of intentions on either side. And after that, it's only might makes right.

But then, if there is no ultimately overarching objective moral standard, then it really is the case that (ultimately) effective application of power makes 'right'. Which you yourself agree is no moral justification at all.

It doesn't matter then, that "Several moral theories defend objective values". Without the ultimate objective morality you simultaneously deny the existence of (by contrast with your affirmation), it comes down to mere power exertion in the end anyway, which is "no moral justification at all".

Even less then does it matter that an ethical relativist can 'argue her case', too. It can only have relevance as an ostensibly 'moral' case by borrowing capital that doesn't in fact exist.

All of which tanks the whole anti-theistic argument from evil, in passing, too. {s} (As Lewis once discovered for himself.)

{{But it wouldn’t solve our particular problem by throwing out a red herring that theists have a problem too, just as it doesn’t solve your particular problem to do likewise.}}

I agree with that both ways, incidentally (and said as much recently in my series of posts about ethics over at the Cadre--including where I critiqued monotheistic ethical theories). I would still agree with it both ways, if you replaced 'a red herring' with 'an actually pertinent observation'. {s} (Since I think the observations either way on this topic are pertinent and important, generally speaking.)

{{Nonetheless, for Christians to respond that God’s gifts always have strings attached, like our obedience, then God never truly gives us anything.}}

On the other hand, if it's impossible for multiple Independent Facts to exist per se (and I think it is; and every philosophical naturalist per se agrees with that, btw, or else they'd be cosmological dualists instead at least), then it's also impossible for God to create multiple Independent Facts, which means it's impossible for God to make us into IFs. Which in turn means it's impossible for God to give us something without 'strings attached': our own existences and the existence of whatever it is He gives us, are eternally and continually dependent on Him anyway.

So the problem isn't (or shouldn't be) the mere fact that strings are attached. We're derivative creatures; that's just how it is, and it'd be the same even if atheism was true (naturalistic or otherwise). It's the _kind_ of strings being proposed to be attached; and those could be misunderstood in quality and/or intention by proponents on either side of the aisle.

{{They each have their own specific criteria for non-arbitrary cherry-picking, that's all. It's the problem of the canon within the canon, as you well know, and it sure looks arbitray to me...all of it.}}

Now make up our minds, John: is it non-arbitrary (even if multiple parties do it), or is it arbitrary? I dispute with other Christians often enough myself, but I rarely if ever find good grounds to call their choices of criteria merely 'arbitrary'. (Even when they themselves end up trying to present their criteria in a merely arbitrary fashion, bless their hearts. I do crit them on that, too, when they try it, but I don't usually find grounds to seriously believe they really are only being arbitrary. The actual criteria just hasn't been identified yet.)

{{Cultures change for one generation to the next, and for them to do so they change from the inside. [As part of a defense that ethical relativists can be actually correct about an ethical position being mistaken.]}}

The change doesn't in itself entail progress from mistakes, John, or even correct recognition of mistakes, as you ought to be well aware.

{{To say they cannot be mistaken is problematic on a variety of levels}}

Indeed!--but not because there are cultures within cultures, and not because the reduction can eventually go down to the individual level. No overarching objectively moral standard, means that the walls just get thrown up eventually around every individual in mere competition with each other and no common ground on which to reason ethically to a shared conclusion.

JRP

Ron said...

Thanks for the response. This is an interesting discussion.

It appears to me that debate about moral realism (or objectivism) vs. moral relativism to be fruitless. I think everyone at heart knows that moral values really exist and aren't just subjective constructions. Otherwise, atheists wouldn't point out all the bad events in Christian history. Why would Dawkins point out the moral evils of Christians if he didn't believe that morality was something absolute and not just a cultural or biological product?

Dr. Reppert, a few years ago I struggled deeply with the Amalekite situation. The evangelical answers didn't satisfy me then or now. The only conclusion I can come to is that the evangelical theory of biblical inspiration is flawed. I don't pretend to have the answer for how one ought to interpret Scripture but I'm fairly certain that it has to be through the lens of the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Without the hope He brought us, what happened to the Amalekites wouldn't really concern us today.

Anonymous said...

'I don't think that, as a Christian, I am required to believe that the ban on the Amalekites was morally right.'

Who is Victor to question the moral rules given to us by God?

Anonymous said...

An objectively bad moral thing is something that is wrong , whichever agent does it.

Obviously, there are trivial exceptions, where one agent is in a privilged position.

For example it is wrong to spend money belonging to X, except if you are X.

Similarly it is wrong to take life, except for the person to whom life belongs.