Sunday, June 03, 2012

C. S. Lewis's atheism

You ask me about my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention – Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand – thunder, pestilence, snakes etc: what more natural than to suppose that these were animated by evil spirits trying to torture him. These he kept off by cringing to them, singing songs and making sacrifices etc. Gradually from being mere nature-spirits these supposed being[s] were elevated into more elaborate ideas, such as the old gods: and when man became more refined he pretended that these spirits were good as well as powerful.


[i] C.S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves, 12 October 1916, Letters (London: Fount, 1988), p. 52.

57 comments:

Bilbo said...

C.S. Lewis: Mythiciist, Gnu Atheist?

Ilíon said...

There is, after all, nothing new under the sun.

B. Prokop said...

Amazing how long this modern myth of the origins of religion has been around, since there is zero evidence for it. The "proof" for this theory seems to go something like this:

1. I've made up this clever story about how Man thought millenia ago.

2. No one from that time is still around to contradict me, and they've left no record of how they actually thought. It doesn't matter that my story has no evidence whatsoever to back it up.

3. Chronological Snobbery is alive and well all around me, making my fantasy sound both inviting and plausible.

4. Therefore I can pass my story off as "true" without fear of being proven wrong.

5. In fact, I can count on my audience wanting it to be true, since it makes them sound oh-so-modern, enlightened, and smugly superior.

Ilíon said...

One encounters much the same phenonenon whenever Darwinists open their mouths about pre-man and/or early man did/was this-and-that, ergo modern-man thus-and-such.

For that matter, it's also very similar to the sort of "reasoning" involved when leftists open their mouths to (ahem) justify their demands to have power over the wealth, and lives, of others.

Papalinton said...

CS Lewis was just a fiction writer. A wonderful and imaginative fiction writer nonetheless. And all his work in the fiction genre, such as Narnia, Mere Christianity, etc are much admired even today. I say he would almost rival even Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov.

B. Prokop said...

To say Lewis was "just a fiction writer" is like saying Newt Gingrich is "just a novelist". Have you never read The Discarded Image, or Surprised by Joy, or even A Grief Observed?

Besides, fiction writing often contains the Greatest Truths. The Brothers Karamazov contains far more Truth about Humanity than any anatomy textbook.

grodrigues said...

B. Prokop:

"Besides, fiction writing often contains the Greatest Truths. The Brothers Karamazov contains far more Truth about Humanity than any anatomy textbook."

Exactly.

My background is in mathematics, and to a lesser extent physics, but if I were to be exiled in a deserted island with the proverbial choice of taking only a few books, my first choice would be the Bible, and not just because I believe it to be the inspired Word of God, but also because it is hands down the greatest and most important cultural monument of the western civilization. My second choice would be the collected works of Shakespeare. From hereon, things start to get difficult, but I assure you that before even a single book in mathematics or physics entered the list, a *lot* of other books would be chosen.

B. Prokop said...

grodrigues,

You've obviously been listening to Desert Island Disks on NPR. But on that show, the Bible and Shakespeare are a given and they ask the guest to choose a third. (I guess they didn't want too many people opting for the same two books over and over again.)

My hypothetical third choice keeps changing depending on my mood, but the following titles keep cropping up:

Canterbury Tales - Chaucer
Moby Dick - Melville
Le Morte d'Arthur - Mallory
The Gulag Archipelago - Solzhenitsyn

Andrew said...

Just one more reason why I want to read his letters!

It's interesting that this point of view has been around since even his time. Makes me wonder when this narrative began: the Enlightenment, perhaps?

Papalinton said...

rodrogues
if I were to be exiled in a deserted island with the proverbial choice of taking only a few books, my first choice would be the Bible, and not just because I believe it to be the inspired Word of God, but also because it is hands down the greatest and most important cultural monument of the western civilization.

Tell that to a muslim or a hindu. Two islands, the last two people in the world, on separate islands, not a quarter mile apart. One muslim and you. You both won't die of old age. Only one will. Religion guarantees it.

Bilbo said...

Two islands, the last two people in the world, on separate islands, not a quarter mile apart. One gnu atheist and one me. I fear for my life.

Papalinton said...

Dildo
Two islands, the last two people in the world, on separate islands, not a quarter mile apart. One gnu atheist and one me. I fear for my life.

And rightly so. They say, ""Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day;
Give him a religion, and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish""

Bilbo said...

Well played, Papa. :)

But what I would be afraid of is the Gnu Atheist's being able to kill two birds with one stone: Wipe out the last remaining vestiges of religion and provide himself with a plump, juicy Christian for dinner.

Papalinton said...

Bilbo
But what I would be afraid of is the Gnu Atheist's being able to kill two birds with one stone: Wipe out the last remaining vestiges of religion and provide himself with a plump, juicy Christian for dinner.

Not from this little sparrow, Bilbo. If that is your fear, then perhaps too many revelations from immanent Apocalypse writers have been read.

For me, the vast majority of believers are pretty OK. But I am an atheist and I love my life. End of story

Bilbo said...

OK, Papa, as long as you are the guy on the other island, I would sleep deeply at night.

Matt DeStefano said...

I'd be interested in reading more about Lewis's atheism. From the quote you've given us, his atheism seems like a knee-jerk reaction to religion in general. His atheism seems short-sighted and less informed philosophically than many of the "New Atheists". For example, this passage from Mere Christianity on Lewis's conception of the problem of evil:

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?"

This is a response I would expect to find to someone quite unread on the subject, and one I find shockingly bad for someone of Lewis's stature. I don't want to judge too harshly from these two excerpts, especially when one is only personal correspondence: could you point me to other parts of his work where he discusses his atheism?

Bilbo said...

Hi Matt,

His introduction to the The Problem of Pain is a good place. And of course, you could always read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

Bilbo said...

Or even his allegorical work, Pilgrim's Regress.

B. Prokop said...

"A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?"

Just what is so "shockingly bad" about this quote? This is exactly why the so-called Problem of Evil is actually a problem for atheism, and not for Christianity. The Christian knows precisely where evil comes from. The atheist has no rational explanation.

Matt DeStefano said...

Just what is so "shockingly bad" about this quote? This is exactly why the so-called Problem of Evil is actually a problem for atheism, and not for Christianity. The Christian knows precisely where evil comes from. The atheist has no rational explanation.

Prokop,

The Problem of Evil (PoE) is not a problem of "Where does evil come from?" The PoE is meant to point out that the existence of gratuitous evil either contradicts (logical) or provides evidence against (evidential) the existence of God.

If the theist insists on riding the coat tails of the "Moral Law" argument, we can simply reformulate the premise by introducing a conditional: "If God [a moral law-giver] exists, then evil exists" (see Graham Oppy's Arguing About Gods)

This objection really only flies in bad e-mail forwarding chains and in the work of pop-apologists like Ravi Zacharias.

B. Prokop said...

"The PoE is meant to point out that the existence of gratuitous evil either contradicts (logical) or provides evidence against (evidential) the existence of God."

Really? If one can only account for (explain the origin of) evil in a theistic universe, then it cannot be a logical problem for the believer. And as for evidential, that doesn't even remotely follow. If you can't have evil in an atheistic universe, then the existence of such is evidence against atheism.

Matt DeStefano said...

Really? If one can only account for (explain the origin of) evil in a theistic universe, then it cannot be a logical problem for the believer. And as for evidential, that doesn't even remotely follow. If you can't have evil in an atheistic universe, then the existence of such is evidence against atheism.

I've already explained this to you before, but the PoE isn't about "explaining the origin of" evil. From the SEP:

"The argument from evil focuses upon the fact that the world appears to contain states of affairs that are bad, or undesirable, or that should have been prevented by any being that could have done so, and it asks how the existence of such states of affairs is to be squared with the existence of God. But the argument can be formulated in two very different ways. First, it can be formulated as a purely deductive argument that attempts to show that there are certain facts about the evil in the world that are logically incompatible with the existence of God. One especially ambitious form of this first sort of argument attempts to establish the very strong claim that it is logically impossible for it to be the case both that there is any evil at all, and that God exists. The argument set out in the preceding section is just such an argument.

Alternatively, rather than being formulated as a deductive argument for the very strong claim that it is logically impossible for both God and evil to exist, (or for God and certain types, or instances, or a certain amount of evil to exist), the argument from evil can instead be formulated as an evidential (or inductive/probabilistic) argument for the more modest claim that there are evils that actually exist in the world that make it unlikely - or perhaps very unlikely - that God exists."

Your assertion that " If you can't have evil in an atheistic universe, then the existence of such is evidence against atheism." is wildly misguided. "Evil", in the context of the PoE, is not some metaphysical or Platonic concept like "the good", but rather refers to a set of states of affairs. So, the atheist can simply adopt something akin to Draper's Hypothesis of Indifference to suggest that those states of affairs are irrelevant to us (and indeed, Draper argues that observations of "evil" are better explained by HI than theism):

"(HI) neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by nonhuman persons."

B. Prokop said...

"in the context of the PoE, is not some metaphysical or Platonic concept like "the good", but rather refers to a set of states of affairs."

But that is precisely how I am defining it as well. Every point I made stands. The "set of states of affairs" that we observe in the universe is not possible in an atheistic existence. Therefore, their evident existence is a death blow to the very foundations of atheism.

Matt DeStefano said...

But that is precisely how I am defining it as well. Every point I made stands. The "set of states of affairs" that we observe in the universe is not possible in an atheistic existence. Therefore, their evident existence is a death blow to the very foundations of atheism.

Why are the "set of states of affairs we observe in the universe" not possible in an "atheistic existence"? Surely, we have gratuitous suffering in an atheistic universe - consider the HI proposal that I shared from Draper. The suffering of human beings is a byproduct of the operations of the universe and is not meant as a moral judgment on the behavior of human beings.

Matt DeStefano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rank sophist said...

Matt is missing the point.

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

Lewis means that it's incoherent to say that something is bad unless there is a standard of goodness that it fails to reach. There are no such things as "cruel", "unjust", "bad" or "undesirable" unless their opposites exist. This is basic logic. If there is no kindness, then there is no cruelty; no justice, then no injustice. Any argument from evil must necessarily take as its first premise that some kind of cruelty, injustice, badness or whatever exists. By doing so, it's forced to say that the opposites of these terms exist. Lewis then uses this to ask the question, "Where do these opposites come from?"

Only a few options exist. First, the materialist might say that they have been put there by natural selection; but this amounts to saying that they are illusory, which therefore means denying that "good" or "bad" really exist at all. Second, they could be put there by some outside force, whether it be the Form of the Good, a Buddhist super-reality or a more traditional God. This is the one that Lewis accepts. Importantly, Lewis believes what could recognizably be called classical theism (although he's a bit more univocal than people like Aquinas), in which evil is nothing more than a privation. He examines and rejects manichaeism as an alternative.

Bilbo said...

Hi Matt,

I copied the relevant portion from Lewis's Introduction in The Problem of Pain:

"Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, 'Why do you not believe in God?' my reply would have run something like this: 'Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe. As it is, however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space -- perhaps none of them except our own -- have any planets; and in our own system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And what is it like while it lasts? It is so arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but in the higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering. Every now and then they improve their condition a little and what we call a civilisation appears. But all civilisations pass away and, even while they remain, inflict peculiar sufferings of their own probably sufficient to outweigh what alleviations they may have brought to the normal pains of man. That our own civilisation has done so, no one will dispute; that it will pass away like all its predecessors is surely probable. Even if it should not, what then? The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.'"

Bilbo said...

I think Matt could try to answer Lewis this way:

1)If there were a God who cared about our happiness, there wouldn't be any (or a lot of) suffering.

2)There is some (or a lot of) suffering.

3)Therefore, there isn't a God cares about our happiness.

Bilbo said...

If this argument were sound, it wouldn't prove that there wasn't a God. Just that there wasn't a God who cared about our happiness.

Matt DeStefano said...

Lewis means that it's incoherent to say that something is bad unless there is a standard of goodness that it fails to reach. There are no such things as "cruel", "unjust", "bad" or "undesirable" unless their opposites exist. This is basic logic. If there is no kindness, then there is no cruelty; no justice, then no injustice. Any argument from evil must necessarily take as its first premise that some kind of cruelty, injustice, badness or whatever exists. By doing so, it's forced to say that the opposites of these terms exist. Lewis then uses this to ask the question, "Where do these opposites come from?"

Lewis says "my argument against God was that the universe seemed cruel and unjust" (a flimsy version of the PoE) and his solution as a theist is "Where do I get those notions, anyway?"

I feel like I'm beginning to bang my head against the wall here. Again - there is a difference between asking these questions alone (a debate about the meta-ethical realism of naturalism, etc.), and asking them in an attempt to defeat the PoE (which Lewis, Zacharias, and all those annoying e-mail chain letters do with regularity).

The latter simply doesn't work. We can just add a conditional premise that "If God exists, then evil exists." After all, the entire point of the PoE is to show that there is either a contradiction between God and the existence of evil or to show that the existence of evil makes God improbable.

Bilbo said...

Hi Matt,

I'm not sure I follow your argument. Is it this:

1) If God exists, then evil exists.

2) Evil exists.

3) Therefore...?

Bilbo said...

Or is it:

1) If God exists, then evil exists.

2) Evil does not exist.

3) Therefore God does not exist.

I think most people would question premise (2).

Matt DeStefano said...

Bilbo,

Thanks for quoting that section in Problem of Pain for me. It definitely improves upon the notion I got from that quote, but I still find it to be a bit of a weak version of the PoE.

Your hypothetical argument for me shows the conditional premise that we can introduce and rid ourselves of the problem that Lewis and others suggest we have. In fact, the argument you propose is a facet of the argument I'd prefer to mount against theism.

As for how I would respond (besides pointing out that the question of where good/evil come from are irrelevant): I would actually take a page out of Rowe's playbook and argue that we have two competing hypotheses to explain our observations in the universe:

theism: There is a God who is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent.

Hypothesis of Indifference (HI): neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by nonhuman persons.

As he argues in href="http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_draper/evil.html#scope">Natural Selection and the Problem of Evil, I think HI better explains our observations.

Matt DeStefano said...

Oops, sorry broken html tag. Here's the link: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_draper/evil.html#scope

Bilbo said...

Yes, I think Lewis's argument from his Intro to The Problem of Pain could be interpreted as an argument that HI is more probable than Theism.

rank sophist said...

The argument from evil focuses upon the fact that the world appears to contain states of affairs that are bad, or undesirable, or that should have been prevented by any being that could have done so, and it asks how the existence of such states of affairs is to be squared with the existence of God.

Where does our ability to know the difference between desirable and undesirable, bad and good, preventable and unpreventable come from? That's Lewis's point.

Alternatively, rather than being formulated as a deductive argument for the very strong claim that it is logically impossible for both God and evil to exist, (or for God and certain types, or instances, or a certain amount of evil to exist), the argument from evil can instead be formulated as an evidential (or inductive/probabilistic) argument for the more modest claim that there are evils that actually exist in the world that make it unlikely - or perhaps very unlikely - that God exists.

This is what Lewis did in the section Bilbo quoted above. It has the same problem: it makes claims about the universe that must either be based on nothing (natural selection, human invention) or on some supernatural principle. I personally don't find Lewis's moral argument to be definitive proof of God. It merely tells us that either A) morals are false and the argument from evil is incoherent; or B) morals exist and they must be based on something beyond the physical. As for what this supernatural thing may be, an almost infinite series of theories may be presented. Almost any religion--or almost any kind of supernatural philsophy--could use this argument.

Again - there is a difference between asking these questions alone (a debate about the meta-ethical realism of naturalism, etc.), and asking them in an attempt to defeat the PoE (which Lewis, Zacharias, and all those annoying e-mail chain letters do with regularity).

Actually, Lewis is doing the first of these. He was all about invalidating naturalism--just look at the argument from reason. He isn't trying to refute the argument from evil directly; rather, he's trying to show that a naturalist can't state it coherently. No amount of evidence can disprove God, because the existence of evidence presupposes a supernatural principle that allows us to recognize that evidence. Even if this supernatural principle is impersonal and uncaring, it must exist if there is to be any difference at all between good and bad, necessary and unnecessary and so forth.

On the other hand, if there is no supernatural principle, then it's meaningless to say that evil can disprove its existence. The only evil is that which natural selection and/or societal indoctrination forces us to think of as evil. It's an invented evil, and, if "evil-in-itself" exists, then we can never know it. As a result, it becomes incoherent to say that God is incompatible with certain evil things. It would be like playing a game with invented rules, and then saying that the existence of things that break these invented rules disproves a maker of hypothetical "real" rules outside of the game--a patent non sequitur.

The argument from evil can get off the ground if it settles for an impersonal, uncaring supernatural principle that allows us to recognize good and evil. Unfortunately, then it isn't an argument for naturalism, but rather one against Christianity. Even then, it fails against the God of classical theism, for reasons discussed in the last AfE throwdown.

Matt DeStefano said...

"Where does our ability to know the difference between desirable and undesirable, bad and good, preventable and unpreventable come from? That's Lewis's point."

Yup, and as I've shown repeatedly - that claim just doesn't get us anywhere in regards to the PoE. It's a separate claim entirely. But, Lewis is using it to try and dismantle the PoE. It doesn't work, and it's why theists have spilled a lot of ink trying to answer the PoE in less obviously wrong ways.

Actually, Lewis is doing the first of these. He was all about invalidating naturalism--just look at the argument from reason. He isn't trying to refute the argument from evil directly; rather, he's trying to show that a naturalist can't state it coherently. No amount of evidence can disprove God, because the existence of evidence presupposes a supernatural principle that allows us to recognize that evidence. Even if this supernatural principle is impersonal and uncaring, it must exist if there is to be any difference at all between good and bad, necessary and unnecessary and so forth.

This is eerily reminiscent of the logical consistency of "free will and choosing the good" debacle - I have to think you seriously don't understand what's going on here if you concluded he's doing the first. Here's an extended version of the quote lifted from here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil#.22Evil.22_suggests_an_ethical_law):

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies."

Clearly, he's doing the latter - arguing the PoE collapses if we don't have the Moral Law Giver. He says so himself ! But, for the umpteenth time, Lewis's criticism simply holds no weight. We don't need to state it from a naturalist perspective - we can introduce a conditional that says "If God exists, then evil exists."

Bilbo said...

Hi Matt,

I agree that we can restate the argument from the Problem of Evil so that we can sidestep the question of whether Good and Evil have some sort of real metaphysical status. But we should at least acknowledge that Lewis's argument from the real metaphysical status of Good and Evil is effective against versions of the argument of the PoE that do not restate the argument.

And I still don't get the "If God exists, then evil exists."

Matt DeStefano said...

Bilbo,

I think Lewis's Moral Argument is better suited (as rank has alluded to) arguments against naturalism. I don't think it's a very strong one because of the difficulties of grounding morality in God on one hand, and the plausible explanations of morality given naturalism on the other, but it's best understood in that light.

What I mean when I say "If God exists, then evil exists" is that we can counter the "If God doesn't exist, then good and evil do not exist. Therefore, we can't claim that "evil exists", and that collapses the PoE. However, we can introduce a conditional that says "If God exists, then evil exists". Since God can provide us with a substantial basis for good and evil, we can surmise that evil exists because God exists (whether evil is a privation of good, or an alternative account).

Bilbo said...

Matt,

I agree that the Moral Argument is better suited against naturalism than it is in proving God's existence. But someone who offers a traditional version of the PoE usually is a naturalist. Lewis's point could be interpreted as saying, "The problem of Evil is a problem for Theism only if Evil is metaphysically real. But if that is the case, then you at least must give up your Naturalism. Once you do that, Theism is on the table of alternative metaphysical views."

I still don't get the point of "If God exists, then evil exists." If you grant the truth status of that statement, then don't you end up proving that God exists?

Bilbo said...

g'night.

rank sophist said...

Matt,

I've read the entire book--no need to provide me with a longer quote. What Lewis is saying is that one cannot simultaneously have a true sense of right and wrong and be a naturalist. You are correct that you can run the AfE as a reductio from outside the opponent's logical framework, but, for this to work, you first have to show that evil-in-itself is a false concept. Otherwise, you're back to square one: using a supernatural principle to disprove a supernatural principle. Even if you show that the supernatural principle is inconsistent with certain beliefs about God, all that tells us is that our beliefs about God are incorrect; not that the supernatural principle is false. In either case, naturalism evaporates.

However, you're going to have a tough time disproving real evil; and, in the process, you'll lose all of the emotional tools generally applied by AfE people. (This includes everyone from Stephen Law to yourself in the previous AfE thread.) Lewis himself attacks the typical arguments that perceptions of good and evil are a societal or personal invention and/or a natural process.

Matt DeStefano said...

What Lewis is saying is that one cannot simultaneously have a true sense of right and wrong and be a naturalist.

Yep, and he's applying that criticism to the PoE as if it matters. We can talk about the meta-ethics of naturalism elsewhere, but it's simply irrelevant here.

You are correct that you can run the AfE as a reductio from outside the opponent's logical framework, but, for this to work, you first have to show that evil-in-itself is a false concept. Otherwise, you're back to square one: using a supernatural principle to disprove a supernatural principle. Even if you show that the supernatural principle is inconsistent with certain beliefs about God, all that tells us is that our beliefs about God are incorrect; not that the supernatural principle is false. In either case, naturalism evaporates.

I'm not sure what you mean by "outside the opponent's logical framework", but again - you keep making this mistake - the PoE is not concerned with evil as a "concept" but as a label for states of affairs. We're not using one "supernatural principle" to disprove another "supernatural principle". We're using our observations of suffering and holding them up against the omni-God.

Atheists think that this either presents a contradiction, or makes God vastly improbable (favoring HI, or another explanation).

rank sophist said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "outside the opponent's logical framework",

I'm referring to a person with no belief in evil running a reductio against a worldview that contains evil.

but again - you keep making this mistake - the PoE is not concerned with evil as a "concept" but as a label for states of affairs. We're not using one "supernatural principle" to disprove another "supernatural principle". We're using our observations of suffering and holding them up against the omni-God.

I didn't make a mistake. What is suffering? Why is it better or worse than not-suffering? Only two options for explaining it are available: either neither is better or worse, and our belief that not-suffering is preferable to suffering is societal conditioning and/or natural selection; or suffering really is worse, and the argument relies on the supernatural.

To get away from this objection, you have to use the AfE as a reductio, which means that you must first coherently state that suffering and not-suffering are the same on a metaphysical scale. This means providing arguments to support the idea that distinctions are societal/natural/personal constructions, and defending against counterarguments like the ones Lewis presents in Mere Christianity. Only then will you be able to run a reductio and thereby avoid refuting yourself with supernatural assumptions.

For an example of someone failing to do this, let's look at Rowe's argument.

1.There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

2.An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

3.(Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.


This rests on the assumption that "intense suffering" is morally negative, or at least undesirable. I must counter by asking why it is not rather desirable, or at least neutral. Used as a modus tollens, this argument is forced to presuppose the very thing that it tries to deny: some kind of supernatural moral basis. For premise 1 to get off the ground, Rowe must first explain how intense suffering has no inherent "goodness" or "badness". Once he has done this, he is free to run the argument as a reductio instead. Otherwise, he falls victim to Lewis's objection: he appeals to a supernatural moral principle in order to refute it.

rank sophist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rank sophist said...

Notably, if Rowe denies the real existence of morals and then continues to use the AfE as a modus tollens, he falls victim to my earlier objection: "It would be like playing a game with invented rules, and then saying that the existence of things that break these invented rules disproves a maker of hypothetical "real" rules outside of the game--a patent non sequitur."

Unless he uses the AfE as a reductio, he cannot possibly state it coherently.

rank sophist said...

Let me elaborate a bit further. Lewis's point is that no argument from evil can get away from the assumption of moral realism. However, moral realism entails something beyond the natural--a supernatural standard for morals. In Mere Christianity, Lewis starts from the acceptance of this premise ("a supernatural moral standard exists") and attempts to show that this standard is God-like. Whether or not he succeeds is irrelevant: a supernatural moral standard of any sort is incompatible with naturalism.

Any modus tollens argument from evil must necessarily assume moral realism, or it becomes a non sequitur. See the Rowe example above. The only other option is a reductio ad absurdum argument from evil. However, for this type of argument to actually disprove the existence of God, the person using it must first demonstrate that they can coherently accept moral relativism, and that they can defend it against counterarguments such as those by Lewis. Otherwise, the reductio has absolutely no weight: if no one accepts moral relativism, then, regardless of the reductio, everyone will continue to believe in a moral realism that presupposes a supernatural standard. To put it simply, the possibility of a convincing reductio AfE hinges on the possibility of defending moral relativism in a coherent fashion.

Matt DeStefano said...

rank,

Actually, Rowe's argument only needs you to accept that, all else being equal, non-suffering is preferable to suffering - we need not suppose it is "morally negative". You seem to understand this, by hinting at whether suffering is "undesirable", but keep reverting to this idea that the PoE necessitates supernatural moral realism.

From the SEP: "But if such a being exists, then it seems initially puzzling why various evils exist. For many of the very undesirable states of affairs that the world contains are such as could be eliminated, or prevented, by a being who was only moderately powerful, while, given that humans are aware of such evils, a being only as knowledgeable as humans would be aware of their existence. Finally, even a moderately good human being, given the power to do so, would eliminate those evils. Why, then, do such undesirable states of affairs exist, if there is a being who is very powerful, very knowledgeable, and very good?"

Most rational people will grant that, all else being equal, non-suffering is preferable to suffering. If you wish to deny that - hooray! - but I just don't find it to be a serious objection. Neither do the majority of theist philosophers who have argued against the PoE thus far (van Inwagen, Plantinga, Swinburne, Hick.. etc.).

rank sophist said...

Actually, Rowe's argument only needs you to accept that, all else being equal, non-suffering is preferable to suffering - we need not suppose it is "morally negative". You seem to understand this, by hinting at whether suffering is "undesirable", but keep reverting to this idea that the PoE necessitates supernatural moral realism.

Something being desirable or undesirable is only explicable in two ways. Either it is objectively undesirable, or subjectively undesirable. If it's subjectively undesirable, then, as I said, "It would be like playing a game with invented rules, and then saying that the existence of things that break these invented rules disproves a maker of hypothetical "real" rules outside of the game--a patent non sequitur." If it's objectively undesirable, then it falls to Lewis's argument. Again, the only option is to go with the first choice and then reframe the argument as a reductio. Otherwise, you succumb either to self-refutation or absurdity.

From the SEP: "But if such a being exists, then it seems initially puzzling why various evils exist. For many of the very undesirable states of affairs that the world contains are such as could be eliminated, or prevented, by a being who was only moderately powerful, while, given that humans are aware of such evils, a being only as knowledgeable as humans would be aware of their existence. Finally, even a moderately good human being, given the power to do so, would eliminate those evils. Why, then, do such undesirable states of affairs exist, if there is a being who is very powerful, very knowledgeable, and very good?"

Which, again, is a target for Lewis's objection. On what grounds do we judge these "undesirable states of affairs"? If the grounds are objective, then they must necessarily be mind-independent. And yet, these mind-independent grounds do not exist physically in our world. Therefore, they must be supernatural--beyond nature. Lewis argues that this supernatural standard is a God-like entity. Therefore, any AfE that assumes the existence of objectively undesirable things must also show that these objective standards are not God-like; otherwise, the argument refutes itself by invoking God to disprove God. Even if the standards are shown not to be God-like, any modus tollens AfE still destroys naturalism.

Most rational people will grant that, all else being equal, non-suffering is preferable to suffering. If you wish to deny that - hooray! - but I just don't find it to be a serious objection.

I don't deny it. I want you to justify it. Is suffering is worse subjectively or objectively? Again, if it's subjective, then the AfE's conclusion is a non sequitur; if it's objective, then the AfE refutes itself. A reductio from a coherent moral relativist position is the only option.

Neither do the majority of theist philosophers who have argued against the PoE thus far (van Inwagen, Plantinga, Swinburne, Hick.. etc.).

That's the majority? A handful of theistic personalists? Why should I care about what they said? I want an answer to this argument, here and now.

rank sophist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bilbo said...

Hi Rank,

Let's say that the statement, "Suffering is subjective," is subjective, thus neither objectively true or false. Could one still formulate an argument from the existence of suffering to the improbability of God's existence? I think so:

1) If God exists, he wouldn't want us to suffer needlessly; would know if we suffered needlessly; and has the power to stop us from suffering needlessly.

2) We suffer needlessly.

3) Therefore God does not exist.

The question of whether suffering needlessly is objectively evil doesn't seem to be involved in the argument.

Bilbo said...

Hi Matt,

Is your point that the statement, "If God exists, evil exists," is some kind of reductio ad absurdam? But it isn't. Watch:

1) Evil exists.

2) Therefore, if Superman exists, evil exists.

(2) follows from (1), given the rules of logic.

Bilbo said...

Hi Rank,

In my comment to you, that should be ..."Suffering is undesirable" is subjective .

rank sophist said...

Two points.

First, I'd like to add that any non-supernatural objective standard for measuring qualitative difference between "suffering" and "not-suffering" would somehow have to circumvent the is-ought problem. Unless you appeal to telos and natural law (and therefore commit yourself to a view incompatible with the AfE), I can't see that happening.

Second, the argument you took from Wikipedia is irrelevant to Lewis's objection. It would run something like:

1. The orthodox God would create a world that contains no states of affairs that orthodox theists agree are properly called 'moral evils'.
2. There exist states of affairs that orthodox theists agree are properly called 'moral evils'.
3. Therefore, the orthodox God does not exist.

Aside from being a shaky argument that relies on group agreement, it misses the point. Lewis was starting from the existence of a moral standard, and then moving on to peg it as God-like. This moral standard has nothing to do with "orthodox good and evil"; rather, it is something necessary for any "ought" judgment to be coherent. In other words, even if the above argument succeeded, it is largely meaningless. Lewis's argument runs as follows:

1. For any moral "ought" judgment to be objective, a mind-independent moral standard must exist.
2. This moral standard cannot be physical.
3. This mind-independent, non-physical moral standard is best explained as God-like.

Let's say that the crappy AfE above worked. It still doesn't put a scratch on Lewis's argument. Anyone who believes in objective morals must confront this argument, and any "orthodox theist" beaten by that AfE could still rest assured that God existed thanks to Lewis's argument. Also, all traditional AfE formulations (which are definitely more solid than the above) continue to take for granted the existence of a moral standard, which makes them self-refuting.

rank sophist said...

Let's say that the statement, "Suffering is undesirable," is subjective, thus neither objectively true or false. Could one still formulate an argument from the existence of suffering to the improbability of God's existence? I think so:

1) If God exists, he wouldn't want us to suffer needlessly; would know if we suffered needlessly; and has the power to stop us from suffering needlessly.

2) We suffer needlessly.

3) Therefore God does not exist.

The question of whether suffering needlessly is objectively evil doesn't seem to be involved in the argument.


This is better, but I still see a hole. Why wouldn't God let us suffer needlessly? If it's because suffering needlessly is bad, then the rebuttal begs the question. If suffering is not good or bad, then why would it matter if God let us do it needlessly? If I blew my nose needlessly, would it be evidence against God's existence? I don't think an "argument from needlessness" is going to gain much traction, personally.

Ilíon said...

"... Also, all traditional AfE formulations (which are definitely more solid than the above) continue to take for granted the existence of a moral standard, which makes them self-refuting."

There are no good arguments for atheism; there never were and there never will be -- every single one of them will be self-refuting in at least one way.

Meanwhile, there are a multiplicity of good arguments showing that God is, and necessarily is.

And these silly 'atheists' -- who generally haven't the fortitude to actually believe the atheism they assert -- will not admit to either of the above two truths.

t said...

2 excerpts from Lewis' poems:

"This is the end, the stratosphere,
The rim of the world where all life dies,
The vertigo of space, the fear
Of nothingness; before me lies
Blank silence, distances untold
Of unimaginable cold."

...

"...our own hearts
Have made a phantom called the Good, while a few years have sped
Over a little planet."

look them up.