The Problem of Evil hits the papers

by Brian on January 6, 2005

One of the striking things about the tsunami coverage here in Melbourne has been how much of it has focussed on religion. The recent op-eds in The Age have been full of people arguing about how, or whether, religious views can accommodate tragedies such as we’ve seen in south Asia. Since I’ll be teaching the Problem of Evil as part of philosophy 101 this spring (using God, Freedom and Evil as the primary text), I’ve been following these discussions with some interest. I was surprised to find one of the responses I always dismissed as absurd actually has a little more bite to it when I actually tried thinking about it.

It’s worth noting that there is only a theological problem here for a special kind of theist. Believers in Greek-style polytheism don’t have a problem. Nor do believers whose God is morally pretty good, but not altgether perfect. Maybe a God like that well-intentioned colleague who is sometimes a bit forgetful. And there isn’t a problem for those who don’t believe in an omnipotent God, as apparently some prominent theists do not. But if your God is all-powerful and all-loving, there’s a prima facie problem.

One could try, as Bishop Phillip Jensen apparently did to say that it’s all part of God’s warning. But there are plenty of problems with that. Voltaire’s criticism of a similar move after Lisbon (there are plenty of worse sinners in Paris) seems on the money. And like earth to God, next time you want to send a message, try skywriting. It’s cheap, especially for you, it’s visible, and if there isn’t a plane involved, everyone will notice. During the cricket this week Peter Roebuck was having some fun gently mocking this line, saying something like “Hmmm so we’re meant to think God was sitting around and decided, I know, what we need now is a giant tidal wave that kills a couple of hundred thousand people. I think they’ll have to do better than that.” It could have been a fun discussion but the other commentator seemed a little nervous to be talking about anything more controversial than Yousuf Youhana’s field placings so it got cut off, but Roebuck was correct.

I think there’s a relatively straightforward solution to the Problem of Evil, the modal realism solution due to Donald Turner and Hud Hudson. I also think that the no best world solution is pretty good. To be sure both of these solutions have metaphysical oddities about them, but I think they are both perfectly fine solutions to the theological problems. So I’m mostly interested in mapping out the logical space here rather than trying to work out if there’s a knock-down argument against theism, which I’m pretty sure there isn’t.

But what I most wanted to write about was the response by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others; they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence. These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease, but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart.

In the past I always thought this was just a cop-out, akin to refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, or refuting the sceptic by holding up one’s hands. Then I realised, I support refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, or refuting the sceptic by holding up one’s hands, so maybe I better look into this more closely!

Put in terms we analytic philosophers would be more comfortable with, the argument might go as follows. It’s a familiar fact that when faced with a valid argument, one always has a choice between believing the conclusion and rejecting one or more of the premises. It’s also a familiar point that given how fragile philosophical reasoning can be, if we have a choice between accepting a philosophical claim and accepting some claim that we’ve received from a more secure evidentiary source, e.g. perception, common sense, gossip, reading tea leaves etc, the right thing to do is reject the philosophical claim. And that’s the right thing to do even if we don’t know why the philosophical claim is false. The upshot of this is that given a tricky philosophical argument for a claim that conflicts with something we know from a secure evidentiary source, and all kidding aside perception is basically a secure source, we should reject the philosophical argument.

Williams, if I’ve read him correctly, is arguing that believers can simply perceive God’s existence. Now this is not much use as an argument for God’s existence, since it is pretty blatantly question-begging, but there’s no such thing as begging-the-question when offering defences of your own view against alleged refutations. So I’m inclined to grant, or at least assume for the sake of argument, that (some) believers do have perceptual knowledge of God’s existence. Does this defeat the problem of evil?

I think not, as a close inspection of the parallels with Moorean common sense arguments shows. (I’m indebted over the next little bit to various conversations with Bill Lycan.) Moore wanted to defend common sense against philosophical attacks, such as McTaggert’s argument for the unreality of time, or the sceptic’s claim that he could not know of the existence of an external world. The trick was to (a) show that the philosopher’s conclusion entailed the opposite of some common sense claim (in McTaggert’s case this was “That I had breakfast today before I had lunch”) and (b) argue that the common sense claim was more plausible than some of the philosophical claim (in McTaggert’s case again “Temporal modes such as pastness and futurity are monadic properties of events.”). Both steps are going to be problematic for someone trying to offer a novel response to the Problem of Evil along Williams’s lines.

I won’t stress too much the problems with (b) here, but the rough idea is that the premises of the atheists Problem of Evil argument are hardly technical philosophical ideas. If they were, the problem wouldn’t get into the newspapers with quite the frequency it does. If anything, it’s the premises here that are common sense, though good philosophers (e.g. Plantinga) have noted that it is hard to get a rigorous statement of them. So the atheist doesn’t look like McTaggert or the sceptic to start.

The bigger problem is that the atheist’s conclusion here is nowhere near as radical as the conclusions Moore rejected, and they need not lead to the rejection of anything genuinely perceptual or common sensical. Remember the theological views I said at the top weren’t threatened by the tragedy, some of which were clearly theistic views. It’s consistent with the perceptions of God, at least as Archbishop Williams describes them, that they are perceptions of a less than all-loving, or a less than all-powerful, God. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how they could be perceptions of such a God, since these don’t seem to be observational properties.

Here’s an analogy to try and back that up. Imagine a debate between a common sense person Con, and a scientist Sci. Sci tries to argue that given what we know about subatomic physics, and how subatomic things tend to be widely separated, there are no solid objects. If Con responds by kicking a stone and saying “Look, that’s solid”, he’s given a perfectly sound defence of his view that there are solid objects, because he can see and feel (and hence perceptually know) that there are solid objects. Now imagine Sci does not argue with Con, but with Con’s radically common sensical cousin Rad, who thinks there are perfectly solid objects, where a perfect solid has material at every point in its interior. Sci points out that the assumption of perfect solidity is inconsistent with scientific theories. Rad responds by kicking a stone and saying “Look, that’s perfectly solid.” This response fails for multiple reasons. First, of course, it isn’t perfectly solid. Second, even if (per impossible) it was perfectly solid, this isn’t the kind of thing we could detect by simple observation, so Rad couldn’t know that it was perfectly solid.

I think the theist who responds to the Problem of Evil by appeal to their perception (or innate feeling or whatever) of God is in Rad’s position, not Con’s. It is arguable, and nothing in the Problem of Evil tells against it, that someone could perceive God’s existence. But they couldn’t simply perceive these superlative properties of God, because these are not available to simple inspection. (They might believe them for all other sorts of reasons, as we believe that stones are not perfectly solid for reasons that go beyond simple perception.) In general really we can’t simply perceive superlative properties – we can see that someone is tall, but have to infer from all sorts of facts that they are the tallest man in Britain. Hence the believer can’t just see that the conclusion of the Problem of Evil is false. But saying they can is not as bizarre, nor as non-responsive, as I always thought, so I’m rather glad Archbishop Williams wrote this piece. And I’m very glad that Australia is the kind of place where these kinds of debates can take place in public sphere, with something akin to arguments rather than name-calling being offered on both sides.

{ 85 comments }

1

Antoni Jaume 01.06.05 at 10:26 pm

As a non native user of English I may get it wrong, but I think that the earthquake and tsunami that followed it had bad consequences for people, and other living beings, but that was not evil.

In any case, the myth of original sin seems to be the prototype of what would be God action. If we are to be responsible of our acts, God must not intervene on physical events. In any case God will not intervene, as God did not avoid that Adam sinned.

DSW

2

Mill 01.06.05 at 10:45 pm

Mmm.. I don’t buy it. If you’re granting people the super-power of directly perceiving God in some way not currently explicable by science, why not also the super-power of directly perceiving God’s all-goodness?

i.e. since we have no idea how this “perception” works, on what basis do we start defining its capabilities and limits?

3

jr 01.06.05 at 10:46 pm

If you believe that you have an immortal soul, then you must conclude that our lives here are trivialities – less than an eyeblink compared to our existence in the hereafter. What is the importance of the duration of one’s life or the cause of one’s death compared to eternity? And, although it seems important to us, how insignificant and brief any suffering on earth must seem to those already in the afterlife — particularly since the souls of those killed in the tsunami are now where God wants them to be, wherever that is.

I personally think that this is nonsense. But it does seem to me that Christians must believe it if they are serious about their faith.

4

andrew cooke 01.06.05 at 10:47 pm

does the modal realism solution have a problem with infinite numbers of good worlds? i’m not sure – it just struck me that the moral calculus involved seemed a bit naive (but then it’s perhaps not the kind of detail you’d cover in a blog post).

i guess you can probably make the argument by comparing relative goodness rather than absolute goodness. but if there are an infinite number of perfect possible worlds, it doesn’t seem blindingly obvious that a further infinitude of better than average worlds is helping any.

5

Mill 01.06.05 at 10:51 pm

Yeah, jr, I’ve always wondered that about Christianity too. If death is the gateway to eternal bliss, why is everyone so sad at funerals? Perhaps one of the articulate and reasonable Christians who hang out here can explain.

6

Eve Garrard 01.06.05 at 10:59 pm

Brian, you allow that the believer could directly perceive God’s existence. So he can directly perceive some of God’s properties (he can’t perceive just the existingness of God!) How can we tell in advance which properties can or can’t be directly perceived? *Why* couldn’t a believer directly perceive absolute goodness? You assert that superlative properties can’t be perceived, but don’t explain why – you just give examples such as being the tallest person in the world. But the way in which absolute goodness is superlative doesn’t seem at all like the way in which being the tallest person in the world is superlative. So even if the latter isn’t directly perceivable, it doesn’t seem to follow that the former isn’t. Can you expand on this a bit further?

7

Brian Weatherson 01.06.05 at 11:04 pm

I am a little worried about Mill’s reaction – if we grant ability to perceive God, why not grant ability to perceive superlative qualities? My main reaction, and I don’t want to pretend this is knock-down, is that coming to directly believe that something (i.e. God) exists, and has familiar properties (i.e. goodness and power) is sufficiently similar to perception that it warrants the epistemic approval perception actually has. (Even if its subject is one that a lot of people don’t or can’t perceive.) But direct awareness of superlative properties is quite a different story, as the fact that we can’t just perceive X is the tallest man in Britain shows. So whatever the believers want to call it, I don’t think this counts as perception, or as anything sufficiently like it to get epistemic praise.

Andrew, the modal realism solution doesn’t work if we just want to add up the number of utils or whatever created. This is a fairly common problem we face with decision theory in the face of infinity. I’m just working with a simple premise that if something is good, and it does not hurt anything else by bringing it into existence, then it is good to bring it into existence. That is not meant to be something that’s derived from a general maximisation principle – it’s just a premise.

8

Brian Weatherson 01.06.05 at 11:10 pm

Oops, my post and Eve’s passed each other. I’m going to be away from a computer for a bit, which gives me more time to think of a response. I’ll just note that when we focus on whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing, the disanalogies with regular superlatives look a lot weaker to me. (And qualifying power is much less of a problem I think than qualifying goodness, which is why Rev Costello, among others, I think adopts that line.) Maybe I’ll be able to come up with something more substantive than that before I see a computer again…maybe not.

9

ponte 01.06.05 at 11:10 pm

I went out looking for God the other day and I couldn’t pin him.

So I figured if I couldn’t find him I’d look for his stash.
His Great Lake of Love that holds the whole world in gear.
And when I finally found it I had the great pleasure of finding
that people were the guardians of it. Dig that.
So with my two times two is four,
I figured that if people were guarding the stash of Love known as God,
then when people swing in beauty they become little gods and goddesses.

And I know a couple of them myself personally.
I know you do, too.
I think people should worship people.

I like to worship somethin’ I can see,
somethin’ I can get my hands on,
get my brains on.

I don’t know about that Jehovah cat!
I can’t reach him. I don’t know, I’m …

Seemed like every time I found myself in a bind I always, uh,
nothing mystic came along to help me,
some man or some woman stepped up there, and said, “We’ll help you.
We’ll do this. We’ll do that.”

-Richard Buckley

10

abb1 01.06.05 at 11:22 pm

I read this paper a while ago and thought it was charming and amusing: On the Limits of Reflection: A Theory of Evil (pdf). This is not about the natural disaster kind of evil (which, I agree with Antoni, is not really ‘evil’, or, at least, not what the author calls ‘active evil’), but rather about Bush’s ‘evildoers’, evil people. I am still not sure if this guy is serious or not; you philosophers here will probably see it right away.

11

Eve Garrard 01.06.05 at 11:23 pm

Brian, I absolutely agree that qualifying power is much less of a problem than qualifying goodness, which is why I chose to focus on absolute goodness! But also, events like the tsunami strike first and foremost at our conception of a *loving* God, so though I agree we need omnipotence (and omniscience) to generate the full problem of evil, nonetheless I think divine benevolence is at the core of our worries. I’ll look forward to your further thoughts on this.

12

sennoma 01.06.05 at 11:23 pm

If the believer (Bel) has perceptual evidence both of God’s existence AND of the presence of evil in the world, does that not imply something of the nature of God: that is, shouldn’t theists believe in a fallible (not omnipotent, not omnibenevolent, whatever) God on the basis of their own senses? I know that sidesteps the POE, but does it say anything interesting about the kind of belief Williams is arguing for?

13

sennoma 01.06.05 at 11:27 pm

(Also: if the server tells you it had an internal error and couldn’t post your comment, check before reposting. It lied to me, it could lie to you.)

14

Jim Harrison 01.06.05 at 11:34 pm

Evil makes zero sense as a cosmic concept. You might as well talk about the gender of quasars as the goodness or badness of non-human natural phenomena like tidal waves.

The gallons of ink spilled on the issue of the goodness of God is simply more evidence of the pointlessness of literally-construed theological reasoning. From contradictory premises, one can validly deduce any conclusion. No need to verify this little fact of logic by generating nonsensical conclusions ad infinitem.

15

Mary 01.06.05 at 11:58 pm

I’m with Mill and Eve on this one…you have to make a lot of logical leaps to make the argument work, e.g. perception of God is exactly like normal perception, while perception of God’s absolute goodness is exactly like perception of a comparison between two qualities.

Why is qualifying power less problematic than qualifying goodness?

16

fdl 01.07.05 at 12:28 am

As an agnostic, i confess that all of this appears to me to be sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This is how i see it: theists have this thing called “faith” which means they BELIEVE in a thing called “god”.

Now, what I don’t understand is the application of logic and reason to “faith” and “god”. Isn’t the very essence of faith the LACK of reason and logic?

Reduced to its simplest, the Archbishop’s statement to me appears to be:

1. Assume the existence of an all-powerful and benevolent god.
2. Understand that you’re not god.
3. When bad shit happens, recognize that we cannot understand god because we are not god.

Well, ok. At least item 2 helps explain item 3. but no one is really any closer to explaining item 1 to me.

The modal realism argument linked in the post appears to me to be:

1. Assume the existence of a almost omnipotent god.
2. When bad shit happens, it’s god’s fault.

well, ok, i guess. but here’s the thing. why would anyone want to bother assuming the existence of a defective god? What’s wrong with nature?

Francis

17

madison 01.07.05 at 12:38 am

“I’ll be teaching the Problem of Evil as part of philosophy 101 this spring”

What a coincidence, I’ll be learning about the Problem of Evil as part of philosophy 101 this spring.

18

Russkie 01.07.05 at 12:43 am

Wasn’t it David Lewis who said that all possible worlds are actually actual??

So that every possible evil was actually happening in some alternate but real universe.

19

freddie 01.07.05 at 1:52 am

I am reminded with the line from some place in Woody Allen. Somone says to Allen (or an Allen character–God doesn’t play dice with the universe (citing Einstein). The other replies: No. He plays hide and seek. Nature, as Crane says in his poetry and fiction is Neutral…all is contingency, chance. The tsunami is a wonderful arguement for Intelligent Design!

20

Dabodius 01.07.05 at 2:38 am

Pirkei Avot 4:19: “Rabbi Yannai used to say: it is not within our power to explain the prosperity of the wicked, nor the suffering of the righteous.” And that is pretty much what the voice from the whirlwind told Job, though in second person. On the other hand, it is well within our power to clutter our ontologies with possible worlds.

21

wbb 01.07.05 at 2:46 am

why would anyone want to bother assuming the existence of a defective god

1. because their faith is slipping but not yet completely

2. they work in a philosophy department and that is the type of work you get paid for

22

Ayjay 01.07.05 at 3:45 am

Re Mill: If death is the gateway to eternal bliss, why is everyone so sad at funerals? Perhaps one of the articulate and reasonable Christians who hang out here can explain.

Because when someone you love dies, and you’re not going to see them again in this life, and your own death may be decades away, that makes you really really sad. When you are separated from people you love, you miss them.

What an odd question. . . .

23

Ayjay 01.07.05 at 3:52 am

Re jr.: If you believe that you have an immortal soul, then you must conclude that our lives here are trivialities – less than an eyeblink compared to our existence in the hereafter. What is the importance of the duration of one’s life or the cause of one’s death compared to eternity? And, although it seems important to us, how insignificant and brief any suffering on earth must seem to those already in the afterlife — particularly since the souls of those killed in the tsunami are now where God wants them to be, wherever that is.

This is indeed what and apostle Paul says: that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be.” But it is also the case that Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus, even though he is about to bring him back to life. Christianity holds both positions: that present suffering is dwarfed by future blessing, but that it’s worth weeping over all the same. Because that’s not the way it was supposed to be.

24

Ayjay 01.07.05 at 4:06 am

I think people should consider why something like the recent tsunami raises for us the problem of evil in a way that other evils — “natural evils,” the theologians call them — don’t. On the day that the tsunami devastated Southeast Asia, how many people (including children and adults in the prime of life) died in slow agony from cancer, or AIDS? The sudden death of great numbers of people in a concentrated area is obviously, and for obvious reasons, more striking to us than the slow, ongoing devastation of diseases that ravage far more lives — but philosophically or theologically speaking, is such an event more significant? I don’t think the problem of evil would be any less pressing for Christians (and I am one) if there were no Asian tsunamis or Lisbon earthquakes. Theistic belief wasn’t more reasonable the day before the tsunami; nor was it any less reasonable the day after.

25

Delicious pundit 01.07.05 at 5:03 am

Re Mill: If death is the gateway to eternal bliss, why is everyone so sad at funerals? Perhaps one of the articulate and reasonable Christians who hang out here can explain.

Because when someone you love dies, and you’re not going to see them again in this life, and your own death may be decades away, that makes you really really sad. When you are separated from people you love, you miss them

Father Hopkins, as I read him, had a cooler view:

Margaret, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

26

Atheist 01.07.05 at 8:18 am

Anyone who believes that any strong perception he has cannot be wrong is crazy, and certainly wrong. We have many strong, direct perceptions that are not just demonstrably false, but are so false that the person who had the perception can be convinced that their perception was false. Optical illusions, or feeling like the room is spinning when sick or tired, or pushing your arm against a doorway and stepping away after a while and it feels like the arm’s being pulled up. Immediate, concrete perceptions can be false, and many an anti-theist can provide good psychological accounts of why the god-perceiver could well be mistaken. (See Daniel Dennett for a good account of this in the tougher problem of consciousness.) If I start seeing green leprechauns, it may be hard to talk me into believing that I’m delusional, but if it can’t be done, I’m crazy. If on the other hand I assert that any direct perception above X in strength cannot be disproven, I’m just wrong. (I suppose one way out might be to choose a perception that makes no disprovable claims about the world. However, even something as vague as a “strongly sensed presence in the room” is on shaky ground when an electrode to the right part of brain has been shown to produce exactly that sensation, on cue.)

In any case, since an even semi-potent god could readily have save a few drowned children without in any conceivable way impacting the free will of anyone else, I’m perfectly willing to believe that God exists and is indifferent to the point of evilness.

27

Scott Martens 01.07.05 at 9:14 am

Christian thought is not uniform, but certainly a very significant segment in Anglophone countries (and not so coincidentally the body of thought I’m most familiar with) does argue that God’s existence, goodness and omnipotence are humanly perceptible. This is known as personal revelation and prevails among Protestants in the Americas. I am less clear on the prevailing currents of thought in Catholicism and eastern Orthodoxy, but both have a far stronger tradition of writing and publishing various sorts of “proofs” of God’s existence.

This argument isn’t as logically implausible as it first appears. We have nothing more than our perceptions to go on and no mechanism for simply aligning everyone’s perceptions into a common account of the world. Other sorts of arguments from revelation go unchallenged in the world – political conversion for example – and it’s not immediately possible to reject this one class of revelatory claim.

However, to account for the differences in people’s revelations about the existence and nature of God, as well as the existence of evil, while at the same time claiming God is good and omnipotent, we have to assume that heresy and evil are both part of the way God wants the world to be. There is quite a bit of theological discussion of how such a conclusion can be accepted, but in the theological circles I’m familiar with, the conclusion is not challenged.

The most coherent account I’ve come across is simply that God has created the world and the evil in it for some good and reasonable purpose, but that this purpose either has not been or cannot be revealed to people.

As theologies go, it’s not a bad one, but it has a number of more difficult implications. It means we are necessarily ignorant of what God wants people to do. My theology prof in college took it as evidence that God wants us to do the best we can, given the circumstances that are available, and to trust our moral sense rather than getting all worked up about nit-picking issues. This is the Arminian tradition. (I used to call it “Learn to trust the Force, Luke.”) The Calvinists go from there to predestination: if you are evil, it’s because God wants you to be evil, if you’re good, it’s because God wants you to be good, and there is little point in fighting it. Theirs is a harsh God, but no less all-loving for it. (The “Tough Love” school. They used to have a good line about how being born black was a punishment from God too.) Christian mystics – end-times fundamentalists for example – think God left us obscure clues in the Bible about what his plans are and what we should do in response. Why God should want his desires and plans to be revealed only to people who pour over the Bible loking for cryptic messages is left uninvestigated. (“God the cryptography nerd.”)

But explaining this tsunami is no big deal for any of these traditions. For Arminians, God’s unseen and unknown goal is in some way advanced by killing all those people, and God had good reasons for allowing it which we cannot know. Equally, the sorrows of the survivors and the horror of onlookers are also part of the plan, as is the outpouring of aid and support. God wants us to do the best we can under the circumstances, and that means helping folks out. For Calvinists, the Unchristian dead got what was coming to them; the Christian dead are now in heaven; the bereaved survivors are getting what they were destined to get and presumably deserve it. For mystics, the whole thing is predicted in Matthew 24:6-8 and Luke 21:6-11 and it’s another sign of the approaching End Times.

No problemo.

Of course, the great thing about personal revelation theology is that if you don’t share this revelation, it’s your fault, because God is broadcasting loud and clear. Ergo, presenting contrary arguments shows that you are in denial and can therefore be discounted.

28

Brian Weatherson 01.07.05 at 9:40 am

Finally back to a computer to answer Eve’s earlier questions. One quick terminological comment on what’s happened in the interim – of course it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call a tsunami “evil”. The phrase “Problem of Evil” is the one that’s stuck however, so that’s just how I’m calling it. Brushing things off like this may have a cost. I think Plantinga and others make good points about how getting clear on just what the argument is meant to be about makes it less clear that it’s a knock-down argument.

Back to whether we can perceive *perfect* benevolence and *absolute* power. I can’t offer much more than metaphors, but maybe metaphors will help. And after a few hours thought I can offer _different_ metaphors.

Imagine standing in front of a tower that rises in front of you literally as far as the eye can see. It’s a cloudless day, so you can see the sky, but you can’t see a top to the tower. For all you can see, the tower is infinitely tall. Should we say that you can see it _is_ infinitely tall? Or that you can see it is not? I’d say neither – you can see it’s a whole lot bigger than you, and that you’re not capable of judging its dimensions to any degree of accuracy, but you can’t see whether it is finite or infinite.

My impression was that believers faced with religious experiences were in a similar position to the person standing before the tower. They can (or think they can) see God exists, and that His properties are overwhelming compared to theirs. But it doesn’t at all follow from that that they can see whether His powers are infinite or finite. And while that doesn’t actually matter for a lot of purposes, since it is still literally awesome either way, it makes all the difference in the world here.

Maybe that’s the wrong metaphor though. The other reason I was thinking you couldn’t just see whether God was perfect was that imperfections are absences, and you can’t see absences. But that’s just wrong. If someone doesn’t have a nose, you can see that by looking at them. Relative to most humans, the absence of a nose is a _blemish_, and you can see blemishes.

On reflection on Eve’s point, it is plausible that if God wasn’t morally perfect, any imperfections would appear to be blemishes. So it does seem that there’s an analogous way in which the believer might perceive God’s perfect goodness – she might perceive God and perceive He is free of blemishes.

So does that carry across to perfect power? It could, though here I baulk a little. It doesn’t seem to me that if God couldn’t, for instance, make a talking jellyfish, that is the kind of thing that would immediately strike one who saw God as a blemish. It probably isn’t the kind of thing one wouldn’t think about evaluating God with respect to unless you had a particular fascination with talking jellyfish. (Or maybe God is wearing a “By the way, I can’t make jellyfish talk” T-shirt.) I think (and boy am I on weak ground here) that we perceive the lack of common abilities as blemishes, but absences of things over and above the normal are not what we see or feel, they are things we deduce by reflection or further observation.

One other point on wbb’s question. I think it’s actually kind of odd that so many people are attracted to religions with *all*-powerful, *all*-knowing gods. I can see the benefit in believing in an all-good God, because that might help make the universe make moral sense. But many many cultures have believed in smaller gods, gods who don’t have complete control of their creation, and omnipotent omniscient gods seem like an odd modern creation. Maybe they are a case of philosophical/theological advance, but it seems odd to say a firm believer in, say, the Greek Pantheon has a slipping faith.

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Scott Martens 01.07.05 at 9:59 am

Brian, most believers in the Greek Pantheon had a “slipping faith.” The intellectuals tended to evoke the “Gods” in plural in the same sense that Confucius evoked “Heaven” – as a synonym for whatever unknown forces ran the world. For the rank and file, the world was full of gods – big and little – and the ones that had a strong personal attachment to just one god tended to view them as approaching all powerful. Otherwise, their gods were little more significant than dispensible superstitions and ritual objects. Paul in Acts 17:22-23 makes fun of the faith of the people of Athens, sarcastically calling refering to its strength because some of the them left offerings at the “Temple to an Unknown God”.

The Roman world was rife with narrow cults and mystery faiths like Mithraism and Christianity. The hardcore religious believed in those kinds of things. Worshipping the Gods was simply a civil obligation, one that seems not have been taken all that seriously. The Roman were entirely content to add new gods to the official pantheon – it was an effective mechanism for disempowering quasi-monotheistic cults and mystery religions.

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dave heasman 01.07.05 at 10:26 am

Thanks, Ponte, for the Buckley quote; I’d not heard it before. For those yet to know of him, he’s usually known as “Lord Buckley” and his records are being reissued. It’s hard to believe he’s been dead 44 years.
Good tracks to start – “Scrooge”, “Jonah & The Whale”. And yes, I thought it relevant, too.

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Matthew2 01.07.05 at 1:44 pm

You should also consider the Looneyville analysis:
1) We’re all going to die anyway (but I‘m going to heaven!)
2)This is a punishement for gays, atheists etc.
3)The end is nigh!

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ayjay 01.07.05 at 2:18 pm

I’m pretty sure Brian has mischaracterized Williams’s position. Williams actually does not say that believers simply “perceive” God, but that they have learned to understand and organize their experiences in certain ways which acknowledge God as a giver of gifts. In the passage Brian quotes Williams is not even saying that believers are right to hold the views they do. He’s not making an argument in favor of religious belief, but rather offering an explanation for why people who believe specifically in the God of Christianity do not cease to believe when confronted by events such as the recent tsunami: it is because they have, over a period of time, formed enduring “habits of the heart” that sustain them even when they are rocked by events that challenge their commitments. Brian has, I think, misconstrued the genre of Williams’s statement: it’s not a piece of apologetics, but a brief essay in the phenomenology of belief — something like Peirce’s famous essay “The Fixation of Belief.”

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Eve Garrard 01.07.05 at 3:27 pm

Brian, an awful lot is going to turn on which metaphors we use. so we ought to broaden the range. For example, do you think that when we’re faced with a perfect circle, we can see that it’s a perfect circle? I’m inclined to think that we can, even if we couldn’t detect slight deviations from its perfection if it had any. Can we see that a work of art is flawlessly beautiful? Surely we can. And we shouldn’t get too hung up on examples that rely for their force on specific features of our sensory apparatus, since I presume that believers who (ex hypothesi) perceive God’s existence don’t necessarily do so with any specific organs of sense. (And we don’t exactly *reason* our way into seeing that modus ponens is valid on all occasions, do we? I presume we need to be able to see that already, in order to do any reasoning.) And as far as perceiving absences goes, I think you’re right in saying that it’s the lack of normal things that we perceive, but I can’t see that it follows that these absences have to be blemishes to be perceived. If I’m normally surrounded by people suffering from chronic acne, then I may directly perceive that a particular individual lacks any skin spots; but that lack isn’t a blemish but rather a perfection. If I can directly perceive that, perhaps I can directly perceive the lack of any sin. All this suggests to me that we need some more systematic account of what kind of properties we can and can’t directly perceive, in order for the argument about the PoE to work.

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derek 01.07.05 at 4:13 pm

You’re the philosopher, not me, but I really thought the tsunami would have raised “Problem of Pain” issues, not “Problem of Evil” ones. Aren’t they supposed to be two different things?

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derek 01.07.05 at 4:15 pm

You’re the philosopher, not me, but I really thought the tsunami would have raised “Problem of Pain” issues, not “Problem of Evil” ones. Aren’t they supposed to be two different things?

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Martin 01.07.05 at 4:19 pm

I have a vague recollection of Daniel Davies, in some comment somerwhere a year or two ago (which I am unable to locate in the time available to me), saying something like:

I always thought that the best argument for the existence of God was empirical. Over the course of history, numerous individuals who, in other contexts, had a deserved reputation for reliability and truthfulness, have claimed to have experienced contact with God.

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Andrew 01.07.05 at 5:14 pm

Hasn’t anyone ever heard the dog analogy? Suppose your dog gets cancer and you decide to give him chemo and radiation therapy. While undergoing treatment the dog is in immense pain and looks at you with a “How could you do this to me? I thought you loved me!” look. You look back overwhelmed with compassion, but there’s no way you can explain to your dog that the pain you’re inflicting is for the dog’s benefit; the dog lacks the capacity to understand the idea of cancer, much less that he has it. So the dog is left with the “Problem of Evil You”, but it’s not a real problem, it’s just that the dog can’t solve it.

You might say the analogy breaks down because you’re not omnipotent. What if you could prevent the cancer from happening in the first place? But suppose the dog is a better dog after the disease and the treatment? Okay, what if you could at least let the dog know what’s happening to it? But suppose it wouldn’t be as good a dog after if it knew what was happening at the time? Okay, why can’t you make it possible for the dog to get that good without going through the pain? Okay, but I think everyone can acknowledge that you’re carrying a lot more metaphysical water than you were when we started.

I’m obviously not a philosopher, and in fact usually take a dim view of whether there’s any point to it, even though I sometimes enjoy it. Is there anything obviously wrong with this line of reasoning?

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Andrew 01.07.05 at 5:21 pm

Hasn’t anyone ever heard the dog analogy? Suppose your dog gets cancer and you decide to give him chemo and radiation therapy. While undergoing treatment the dog is in immense pain and looks at you with a “How could you do this to me? I thought you loved me!” look. You look back overwhelmed with compassion, but there’s no way you can explain to your dog that the pain you’re inflicting is for the dog’s benefit; the dog lacks the capacity to understand the idea of cancer, much less that he has it. So the dog is left with the “Problem of Evil You”, but it’s not a real problem, it’s just that the dog can’t solve it.

You might say the analogy breaks down because you’re not omnipotent. What if you could prevent the cancer from happening in the first place? But suppose the dog is a better dog after the disease and the treatment? Okay, what if you could at least let the dog know what’s happening to it? But suppose it wouldn’t be as good a dog after if it knew what was happening at the time? Okay, why can’t you make it possible for the dog to get that good without going through the pain? Okay, but I think everyone can acknowledge that you’re carrying a lot more metaphysical water than you were when we started.

I’m obviously not a philosopher, and in fact usually take a dim view of whether there’s any point to it, even though I sometimes enjoy it. Is there anything obviously wrong with this line of reasoning?

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HP 01.07.05 at 5:54 pm

I would think that there’s a degree of inherent conflict between omniscience and omnibenevolence. I know that for me, the more I know about some people, the harder it is for me to love them.

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jr 01.07.05 at 6:34 pm

Of course we suffer, feel pain, are sad, etc. But if you believe in an immortal soul, you must conclude that our lives on earth are really quite trivial – except to the extent that they serve as a sort of “pop quiz” that decides whether we’re going to heaven or hell. For immortals – God, the saints, the angels, the dear departed – the afterlife is where the action is. Innocents suffer and the guilty prosper now, but in the hereafter everything will be made right. Joe Hill wrote a song about it – “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die,” went the chorus.

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Jason Stokes 01.07.05 at 6:44 pm

I think you’re reading too much into Rowan William’s comments. All he seems to be saying is belief in God, for believers at least, is incorrigable. Or not even that: perhaps simply a matter of habit.

I can’t for the life of me see how he’s arguing that believers “directly perceive” God’s existence.

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Jason Stokes 01.07.05 at 6:46 pm

I think you’re reading too much into Rowan William’s comments. All he seems to be saying is belief in God, for believers at least, is incorrigable. Or not even that: perhaps simply a matter of habit.

I can’t for the life of me see how he’s arguing that believers “directly perceive” God’s existence.

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pierre 01.07.05 at 6:47 pm

I haven’t looked at Plantinga’s “God, Freedom, and Evil” for over ten years but I recall being extraordinarily dissatisfied with it.

The reason this problem is of general historical interest lies in the psychological anthropomorphism commonly attributed to an infinite being (i.e. the Christian God): consciousness of, and responsibility for, “Evil”. Such a being is prima facie absurd (see Hume’s “Dialogues on Natural Religion” for the classical statement.)

Plantinga presents a dry general analysis of the consequences of infinite characteristics ascribed to an infinite being, and concludes that at least one calculus of infinite attributes can be defined which is not prima facie absurd — given a certain number of lemmas which his text does not attempt to examine.

I remember thinking: And for this he gets tenure?

But perhaps my memory is faulty, and in any case an analytical philosopher would surely characterize the book somewhat differently. :-)

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pierre 01.07.05 at 6:57 pm

Actually, re-reading Brian’s post …

It’s worth noting that there is only a theological problem here for a special kind of theist. Believers in Greek-style polytheism don’t have a problem. Nor do believers whose God is … not altgether perfect. … And there isn’t a problem for those who don’t believe in an omnipotent God, as apparently some prominent theists do not. But if your God is all-powerful and all-loving, there’s a prima facie problem.

… I don’t think I’m saying much he doesn’t already appreciate. My real comment is that “G, F & L” seems like a really strange text for an intro survey course. (Given the title, students are sure to expect something much more like Hume.) When I was done with it I thought Plantinga should have written a conclusion that said, “Aw shit, this isn’t going to convince anybody. I guess I’ve proven that if there is a god she/he/it/they is in some way finite.”

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abb1 01.07.05 at 7:20 pm

I always thought that the best argument for the existence of God was empirical. Over the course of history, numerous individuals who, in other contexts, had a deserved reputation for reliability and truthfulness, have claimed to have experienced contact with God.

This is true, but it’s just a part of it.

What’s more important is that hundreds of millions of people in the world do things every day that can’t be reasonably explained without a powerful supernatural force: hundreds of millions of them, for example, simultaniously turn into the same direction, fall on their knees and start praying – and they do it six times a day! every say!! I can’t imagine any worldly power being able to achieve something like this. If this is not a definite empirical proof of God’s existence, then I don’t know what would satisfy you people.

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ayjay 01.07.05 at 7:33 pm

Of course we suffer, feel pain, are sad, etc. But if you believe in an immortal soul, you must conclude that our lives on earth are really quite trivial – except to the extent that they serve as a sort of “pop quiz” that decides whether we’re going to heaven or hell.

1) In my book, anything that decides whether I’m going to heaven or hell is most definitely non-trivial.

2) You’re confusing duration and importance. A brief experience is not ipso facto less important than a long one. (Just ask anyone who got caught in the tsunami.)

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bob mcmanus 01.07.05 at 8:22 pm

“but I really thought the tsunami would have raised “Problem of Pain” issues, not “Problem of Evil” ones”

Aw heck, just retitle the post “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People” or something

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pedro 01.07.05 at 9:01 pm

The no best possible world solution is pretty cool. Cosmological ideas coming from astrophysics aside, one can dismiss the first cause argument–even assuming its hypotheses–by simply postulating the possibility that the ordering cause

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jet 01.07.05 at 9:16 pm

Andrew,
What if you could have prevented the cancer, but didn’t so that you could give the radiation as a test of your dog’s love for you. If the dog’s love isn’t absolute, then not only would you know it, but the dog would know it too. And the dog’s introspective knowledge is the whole purpose of the cancer. So if any of you are in doubt to how much your dog loves you, you now know how to test them. I’m still not sure why God would demand such absolute love. I only require that my dog wag its tail when he sees man and not shit on the carpet.

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bull 01.07.05 at 10:38 pm

It’s obvious to me that if there is an omniscient God who created the universe then He’s a sadistic creep.

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Art 01.07.05 at 11:30 pm

abb1,

I can’t tell whether this remark was tongue in cheek or not:

What’s more important is that hundreds of millions of people in the world do things every day that can’t be reasonably explained without a powerful supernatural force: hundreds of millions of them, for example, simultaniously turn into the same direction, fall on their knees and start praying – and they do it six times a day! every say!! I can’t imagine any worldly power being able to achieve something like this. If this is not a definite empirical proof of God’s existence, then I don’t know what would satisfy you people.

… but if you wanted an argument that this is the work of man, I would have thought that pointing out that hundreds of millions more turn in opposite directions would suffice.

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Thomas 01.07.05 at 11:39 pm

This is somewhat interesting. How do about the Gnostic answer to the problem of evil? Basically:”Considering that large numbers of people claim to have been inspired by a loving God do to do Evil things we conclude that they are in fact experiencing a supranatural entity, but the entitiy in question is a lying evil bastard, and we wish to have nothing to do with it.” Restating: All religion is demonic in origin and ought to be treated with great suspicion.

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Mary 01.08.05 at 12:52 am

“I always thought that the best argument for the existence of God was empirical. Over the course of history, numerous individuals who, in other contexts, had a deserved reputation for reliability and truthfulness, have claimed to have experienced contact with God.”

I usually think philosophers get everything wrong, but Simon Blackburn had a good answer to this one (probably quoting some other philosopher): which is more likely, (a) that such testimony is correct, or (b) that these witnesses were mistaken in their claims (e.g. hallucinations, misperceptions), or somewhere along the chain of communication someone misunderstood their testimony (e.g. telephone game)?

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Bucky 01.08.05 at 3:19 am

Evil is what pisses off the volcano.

When George Bush says “America” what he means has very little to do with what Thomas Paine meant when he used the word.
“God” being the locus for a pretty much non-corporeal thing, the definitional inexactitude increases, as does the subjective leeway.
A lot of the debaters have a sense of it not mattering much – no pressure – so there’s a lackadaisical manner, a childish curiosity and sense of play.
Mostly that comes from not experiencing horrendous events close-up, and from not having the awesome majesty of organized religion claiming your identity since childhood.
Bush, and the less visible and more controlling personalities behind him, use the original sense of America – land of the free, home of the brave – to coerce and manipulate an increasingly confused and disoriented citizenry with appeals to their growing anxiety, their cowardice.
Land of the scared, home of the selfish. It’s still “America”.
“God” is like water now – brandable, commodifiable – once free, now marketed, trademarked, owned. Intellectual Property.
Like other forms of Intellectual Property it’s mostly a matter of getting to the resource first and setting up your claim markers and then having the wherewithal to defend your claim. What’s really there, the reality of it, becomes yours to determine and create, because you own it.
So we have legal ownership of creative works in the hands of men who simply finagled an interest; while the artists themselves, and/or their heirs, are shit-out-of-luck, contractually.
It’s not unthinkable that our religious landscapes are similarly polluted.

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cavanaghjam 01.08.05 at 4:53 am

Every time Gaea shrugs, life dies and life is born. We live on the shoulders of an indifferent goddess. To assume more is mere anthropomorphism (sp?).

It is not a question of evil. Only the actions of man are evil, and man is redeemable through varied means though few choose to be redeemed.

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bad Jim 01.08.05 at 7:07 am

Others are more matter-of-fact:

An Act of God is, in insurance terms, defined as “a sudden and violent act of nature which could not have been foreseen or prevented”.

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Peter 01.08.05 at 10:45 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

So do monotheistic religions always produce scapegoats? How bad for us is it that the U.S. is now widely perceived as one among Muslims? And does this explain the treatment of gays we’re seeing by some fundamentalists?

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Peter 01.08.05 at 10:45 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

So do monotheistic religions always produce scapegoats? How bad for us is it that the U.S. is now widely perceived as one among Muslims? And does this explain the treatment of gays we’re seeing by some fundamentalists?

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Peter 01.08.05 at 10:46 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

So do monotheistic religions always produce scapegoats? How bad for us is it that the U.S. is now widely perceived as one among Muslims? And does this explain the treatment of gays we’re seeing by some fundamentalists?

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Peter 01.08.05 at 10:47 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

So do monotheistic religions universally produce scapegoats? How bad for us is it that the U.S. is now widely perceived as one among Muslims? And does this explain the treatment of gays we’re seeing by some fundamentalists?

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Peter 01.08.05 at 10:48 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

So do monotheistic religions universally produce scapegoats? How bad for us is it that the U.S. is now widely perceived as one among Muslims? And does this explain the treatment of gays we’re seeing by some fundamentalists?

62

Peter 01.08.05 at 10:50 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

So do monotheistic religions universally produce scapegoats? How bad for us is it that the U.S. is now widely perceived as one among Muslims? And does this explain the treatment of gays we’re seeing by some fundamentalists?

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Peter 01.08.05 at 10:52 am

Suddenly, I understand why the Jews were blamed for the Black Death (supposedly they were poisoning the wells). In the religious framework at the time, there either had to be somebody to blame, or it had to be literally an act of God. And as people were reluctant to blame God for the Black Death, and the Jews were already distrusted and close at hand, the blame naturally fell on them.

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abb1 01.08.05 at 12:45 pm

Art,
tongue in cheek, I guess, but there is a serious point here: ‘God’ is a very real and very powerful social phenomenon. As such it affects billions of people, including you and me. For many people (obvious example: someone who is being killed in the name of God) ‘God’ (social phenomenon) is just as real and powerful as if it were a physical phenomenon. Doesn’t this, in a way, demonstrate God’s existance?

Cheers.

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abb1 01.08.05 at 12:56 pm

See, if you travel on an airplane and the airplane suddenly turns into a ball of fire – according to the ‘will of God’ – whatever the mechanics of this event are, isn’t it real enough to convince you?

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Andrew 01.08.05 at 1:24 pm

In response to jet, your question is very far from the problem of evil and turns on a specific, and I must say rather obscure, point of monotheistic doctrine. In fact, it runs counter to, for example, Calvinist doctrine as I understand it, where God doesn’t “demand” anything because it’s not in fact within our power to give it. The New Testament points instead to character-building. The idea is without suffering everyone would turn out like Paris Hilton or W.

To get back to the topic, and boil things down a bit, it seems that one of the unstated axioms of the problem of evil is that an all-good God would never cause suffering. How do we know this? What if an all-good God, properly understood, is obligated to cause suffering? You might say, however much certain kinds of suffering in other contexts might be beneficial, the kind and degree of suffering caused by the tsunami must, prima facie, not have that property, but how do we know?

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x 01.08.05 at 2:33 pm

– Aw heck, just retitle the post “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People” or something

Why not simply “Why do bad things happen at all”?

Boiling it down further… why does anything happen or exist at all…

I find it interesting that even people who do not believe in any god have absorbed the religious idea of projecting moral reasons onto natural events.

So on the one hand, we get religious people like creationists applying religious reasoning and demands to scientific explanations of natural events; on the other, we get non religious people trying to extract rational coherence from religious ‘explanations’ or beliefs, or the mere phenomenon of religious faith in some divine entity. It’s more projection than questioning.

What the archbishops says makes perfect sense in his own field. I don’t think he’s trying to advance any argument at all. It’s just an observation on how the nature of religious experience and belief (in the spiritual sense, not its social and political aspects) is not tied to how good or bad things go. That’d be a purely functional, utilitarian view of religion/god, like a magic talisman, that’s supposed to make everything good and happy and if you worship it you’ll get happiness and good luck, and if you don’t, you get punished with catastrophes and disasters.

He’s saying, religious faith does not and should not work like that. It’s a wise observation to make for a religious figure.

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Tracy 01.08.05 at 4:00 pm

Andrew – say one day you walk into a room and discover a guy in there who’s just about to force a small child’s hand in a fire. You then, being a good-hearted person, promptly jump forward, yelling something like “What are you doing? Stop!” The guy turns to you and says placidly “it’s for the kid’s own good. I can’t explain why as my reasons are beyond your comprehension. Just trust me.” Would you then regard that as ample evidence that he’s actually a good guy and it’s perfectly right for the child to be tortured?

If so I hope you never become a policeman or a judge as any criminal could get off by saying that.

And of course we are not even talking about a god who says that himself, but about a god who other people defend by saying that. We don’t even have his word that he’s acting, or not acting, for the best.

What’s really weird is that the people who defend tsunamis and cancer and the like don’t take the obvious next step. If suffering is so character-building then presumably anyone who tries to alleviate human suffering is harming the victims’ characters. So presumably all the doctors, nurses, engineers, search and rescuers, etc, are actually doing bad things. And what can we say about the depths of evil of those people who installed a tsunami warning system in the Pacific? Or a mother who comforts a sick child? But yet, God gets praised and these people never get condemned.

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bob mcmanus 01.08.05 at 5:35 pm

“Why not simply “Why do bad things happen at all”?”

Because I was trying to make an allusive joke.

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bob mcmanus 01.08.05 at 5:50 pm

“I find it interesting that even people who do not believe in any god have absorbed the religious idea of projecting moral reasons onto natural events.”

My allusive joke (referring to a best-selling work of pop philosophy) may have had a point, in that the “Problem of Pain” is not limited to believers, at least emotionally.

Even an atheist feels that a ten year old getting terminal cancer is not only tragic or sad but somehow unfair. This sense of “Natural Justice” may be illogical, but may be instrumentally necessary (Kant) and may help explain the resistance to secular modernism and Darwinism.

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Andrew 01.08.05 at 6:32 pm

tracy, I’m not defending God or tsunamis or cancer at all in this thread. Certainly the tsunami cannot in any way be considered “evidence” of God’s goodness, should he exist. The scope of the Problem of Evil is whether it poses a problem concerning either his existence or his all-goodness. I think it’s not only appropriate, but necessary, to be angry at God if a) you believe he exists and b) you believe he caused these things to happen. That’s a far cry from proving that if he existed and were all-good and all-powerful that this wouldn’t happen. We assume it to be true because of our reaction, but we don’t know it.

One school of thought about suffering is that its purpose is precisely to give us the opportunity to practice compassion by responding to it. I think that’s rather facile myself, but it would certainly be a counterargument to your argument about what our response should be given the premises.

I’m kind of in Rowan Williams’ boat. The world would be a lot easier to understand if I didn’t believe that God exists, but that option isn’t open to me. Instead I have this difficult, terrifying problem to deal with. Wrestling with the problem has had its effects on me; others (who actually know me) can judge whether they’ve been good or bad. I imagine a lot of believers are in the same boat. Believers who don’t see that there is a problem disgust and frighten me, as they probably do you.

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Andrew 01.08.05 at 6:51 pm

My comment was cross-posted with Bob’s. It’s true that atheists have the equally difficult, terrifying problem of an indifferent universe to deal with. It’s not a paradox or conundrum, but practically speaking it’s the same problem.

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Laon 01.09.05 at 1:47 am

Andrew said:
“atheists have the equally difficult, terrifying problem of an indifferent universe to deal with. It’s not a paradox or conundrum, but practically speaking it’s the same problem.”

Two observations. First, there is nothing terrifying or even difficult about the universe being indifferent. The universe isn’t sentient, so I don’t expect it to have opinions or preferences.

Small parts of the universe are also indifferent to me, like the planet Earth, nebulae, also the swimming pool across the road: absolutely indifferent to me and you, every one of them. Doesn’t seem at all scary or difficult, either taken singly, or in bunches, or (in the form of the universe) all at once.

But if there are people who think it’s terrible or scary that the universe is non-sentient and indifferent, then their emotional reactions are a problem for them. In one sense their problem is cognitive; they aren’t thinking clearly. But the solution I’d suggest would be to have a really long, close talk with their parents, or hug someone they love. The universe can’t be your friend, or love you, because that’s its nature. But people can, so long as you’re reasonably nice to them.

So anyone expecting care or concern from the universe instead of from the people they should be close to, has made a basic but fixable mistake.

Second, the non-sentience, and therefore indifference, of the universe isn’t a problem. Therefore it can’t be the “same problem” as anything.

Third, there is a problem for people who believe in a god that is omnipotent and omni-beneficent. Because that god is logically responsible by action or inaction for the death by drowning of 160,000 people, and counting, plus the misery and further deaths that are following from that.

The obvious solution is to abandon belief in a god that is both omnipotent and omni-benevolent. But if I didn’t want to abandon that, perhaps for emotional reasons, then I could deal with it by going to church, and giving god credit for the clean-up that is actually being done by humans, and not thinking about the responsibilities of an omnipotent being. Denial, essentially; that seems to be the most common solution.

Alternatively, you bring in a patch. The patch might be the idea that these hundreds of thousands of deaths are really a sign of benevolence, and was all for our own good, because the being responsible loves us, really, but we’re too small to understand how this is good for us. Maybe, for example, it was a love-tap, to remind us to continue loving, fearing and obeying this god.

This seems to be the sort of rationalisation that keeps people from leaving violent and abusive relationships, and it may not be part of a very healthy mind-set. Still, if people need to hang on to a god that is both benevolent and omnipotent, then that’s another way of doing so. It also seems to be popular. (The Anglican Archbish of Sydney, for example, took the “it was God’s judgement” line; I must say that if I were a Christian I’d think the man was in the wrong job, but as an atheist I approve of the sterling work he’s doing for our team.)

So atheists don’t have a problem at all, while theists have a problem which can easily be denied or rationalised away.

By the way, speaking of humans being more responsive than non-sentient or imaginary entities, Medecins san Frontieres would still like donations to their general fund, which will be used for tsunami relief as further projects are launched in the coming days. It’s only the specific tsunami relief fund that has met its target at the present time.

Laon

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Laon 01.09.05 at 1:56 am

I said:
“two observations”
Then I said:
“first”, “second”, “third”.

Just call me Cardinal Fang.

Ordinal Laon

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Nate 01.09.05 at 3:18 am

From part of a similar post on my own blog.

The Salvodoran theologian Jon Sobrino, writing in response to the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador (quickly forgotten outside of El Salvador), maintains the depth of that question but adds a second: where are we? This is not just a question about our relief efforts now, but about our inattention before the tsunamis. Why, in a world of such resources, were so many malnourished children unable to escape the waves? Why did so many buildings collapse in a world where our sturdy structures protect our books, our stereos, our entertainment centers? How do the structures of international aid and debt which support our lifestyles contribute to the vulnerability of our world’s poor?

But before we dismiss disasters only as “acts of God” beyond all reasoning, we must ask ourselves the second question: how are these disasters also acts of humanity, acts of ours, what we have done or failed to do?

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x 01.09.05 at 12:05 pm

Bob – of course that problem of pain is not limited to believers. Still, what I meant is, that approach to it is essentially religious, it looks for a meaning when there should be none, because for an atheist there is no divine masterplan or “explanation” of the kind religions give, usually involving a fall from grace which brought death and pain to the world and another dimension where everything is perfect bliss etc. etc..

I’m not saying that not believing in all that means one shouldn’t be upset by suffering and death. Suffering is human, it’s not an exclusively religious problem, and it shouldn’t be, in fact, that’s exactly my point. Can’t have it both ways – if you don’t believe in a divine entity, then you don’t go projecting divine attributes to natural phenomena. Actually, I think it would be nice even if religious people stopped doing that, because even when you believe in a divine entity, it’s by definition not human and not to be found within nature, so it’s pointless to attribute divine meaning or “rational” moral explanations to natural events, it’s just an excuse to use religion as an instrument of fear.

That’s what I like about the quote from Rowan Williams, it doesn’t give you a dogmatic answer to that “why do bad things happen”. It may be a bit too conveniently evasive about how to deal with the question from a religious point of view, but I much prefer that than fundamentalist certainties and apocalyptic views of divine judgement through natural disasters.

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Tom Doyle 01.10.05 at 6:35 am

“Andrew

” imagine a lot of believers are in the same boat. Believers who don’t see that there is a problem disgust and frighten me, as they probably do you.”

I think i don’t see that there is a problem, so what problem should I see so as not to disgust and frighten you.?

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kyan gadac 01.10.05 at 2:36 pm

It’s probably irreverent but i started my own thread on this debate. God smiles on us in our sadness.God forgives our sins. God does not do good.

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Strange Doctrines 01.10.05 at 6:28 pm

(Regarding the modal solution here.)

Is it really better that our world exist than not?

Note that this is a distinct question from whether our world ought to continue to exist given, that it does.

Consider the following analogy: a married couple knows with 100% certainty that if they try to get pregnant this evening, the child that will result (call this child Adam) will have a life that will consist of 50.0000001% pleasure and 49.0000009% pain. (For convenience, assume Adam’s marginal hedonic effect on the world will have the identical ratio). As it happens, this is the only chance the couple will have to get pregnant, and they know this too with 100% certainty.

Question: From the perspective of these parents, is it better that Adam be brought into existence than not?

I don’t think it’s at all clear that the answer is “yes.” One might want to answer, “Well, by definition, the answer is ‘yes,’ because by definition one alternative is better than another because the one has net positive utility.”

But there is a competing intuition (isn’t there?) that 49.0000009% is a daunting share of pain for a person to have to go through life with. This intuition, I think, runs in favor of human lives that preponderate heavily in favor of high positive-to-negative hedonic ratios. (Perhaps this intuition is related to the fact that we seem far more motivated to avoid pain than to seek pleasure.) And it’s just not clear that loving parents would want to bring a life into the world whose positive qualities preponderate so narrowly.

In any case, it’s a hard question.

An easier question is the second one–whether it’s better that Al should continue to exist than not once he in fact does exist. The intuition here runs far stronger in favor of a “yes” answer. Actually, that’s too weak. No loving parent would say, “You know, Adam’s life is only going to be narrowly net positive, so let’s euthanize him,” or like that. It’s unthinkable–far more unthinkable than the prospect of simply opting not to conceive Al in the first place (which isn’t unthinkable at all).

The point here is that it’s plausible to weight the ratio of pain to pleasure in the world as I did in Al’s prospective life. If so, then despite our clear will to persevere in the world in which we find ourselves now, it’s nonetheless arguable that from the perspective of a benevolent deity ex ante (which perspective I take to be analogous to that of our prospective parents), this world ought never to have been brought into existence.

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Tracy 01.11.05 at 8:27 am

Andrew, you set up an example where we were expected to draw the conclusion that people’s suffering is inflicted by God for good reasons. I provided a counter-example, where we know suffering is happening, but we do not know if it is happening for good reasons, having only an unsupported statement to that effect, and asked what sort of conclusions you would draw in that situation. Why do Christians always give the first example and not the second?

What puzzles me is Christians, who, faced with a God for which if he’s all-powerful then, at best, you don’t know if he’s good or bad, still carry on worshipping him. Believers who don’t see a problem are less worrying to me, I can excuse them by saying they haven’t thought about it. People who believe in an all-powerful God but don’t worship him/her/it are also not a problem. It’s the ones who have thought about it, and still go on praising what, for all they know, may be the greatest monster the world has ever seen, who worry me.

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perianwyr 01.11.05 at 8:16 pm

Consider the following analogy: a married couple knows with 100% certainty that if they try to get pregnant this evening, the child that will result (call this child Adam) will have a life that will consist of 50.0000001% pleasure and 49.0000009% pain.

Is non-existence counted as pain, or neutral?

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Fog 01.12.05 at 5:58 pm

Maybe Allan Watts might give better insights into the problem of evil than the story of Job. Watts believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful God, who, in “his” (cultural convention – assigning gender to God is foolish) perfect state, was perfectly bored (where’s the challenge?). The divine spark in all of us is our little piece of God’s consciousness incarnate. The conditions of life on earth, like birth, death, pain, joy, good, evil etc, are the ways in which God creates meaning for us (himself, after all!). Homer echoed this thought when he created frivolous gods in the Iliad. As immortals, they suffer no consequences, they always had another mulligan to take, therefore they were not serious creatures. We mortals are all bits of God’s consciousness playing our parts in Shakespeare’s eternal play. We just aren’t allowed to know it’s all a play while it’s going on, because if we did, we would become frivolous like Homer’s gods, fearing no earthly consequences. In this view, death is not evil because 1) the divine spark is immortal, and 2) death gives life its intensity. It’s all good. But not easy. I don’t think anyone need be ashamed of feeling daunted by life, because the human condition is the most intense, meaningful experience conceivable by the mind of God

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Strange Doctrines 01.12.05 at 10:37 pm

Is non-existence counted as pain, or neutral?

Neutral–although the knowledge of impending nonexistence would count as pain due to the (in most cases) predictable existential angst.

Also, sorry for the faulty math. That should be 49.9999999%.

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Strange Doctrines 01.12.05 at 10:38 pm

Is non-existence counted as pain, or neutral?

Neutral–although the knowledge of impending nonexistence would count as pain due to the (in most cases) predictable existential angst.

Also, sorry for the faulty math. That should be 49.9999999%.

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Ken Miller 01.13.05 at 3:04 am

The question of the perceptibility of the God of the Bible is not something of pure speculation, though it is commonly, philosophically, debated as such.

Had God chosen to not reveal Himself in various ways, He would indeed be imperceptible. We would be walking about without a clue of His existence. However, He has been active in revealing Himself throughout history.

One of the authors from the Bible states that in ages past, God spoke to His people through His prophets, the most notable being Moses. To Moses, there was direct revelation as to His nature, His attributes. But the people also witnessed His presence and displays of various aspects of His nature.The Jewish people celebrate Passover to this day as a testimony to those displays.

That particular author goes on to say that God had now spoken to his generation in His Son. The people had the opportunity to see God up close. What did they see? In addition to seeing a man with flesh and bone, they saw His command of nature, command over disease, command over life and death. And yes, they heard Him talk about what it means to perceive God, even to have a relationship with Him. After all, He is first and foremost a personal God.

If we have the ability to perceive God’s nature, is it possible for us to fully perceive or comprehend God’s nature? What would that experience look like?

We get a glimpse from Moses’ experience. God hid him in a cleft on a mountain, then passed by, revealing just a small portion of His glory. Had God fully revealed Himself to Moses, he would have been completely consumed (dead).

Other prophets had similar experiences, exclaiming such things as “Woe is me, I’m undone,” or described as falling as a dead man before God.

So no, we have no way of experiencing full comprehension of God’s nature, though believers get the opportunity to know Him better, experiencing his immediate presence throughout eternity.

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