Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil (PoE) is a powerful argument--perhaps the most powerful--against the existence of some conceptions of God.

The PoE essentially draws a distinction between our human value judgments about the world and what we would expect from an omnimax human-centric deity. We do not view the world as perfect--or even all that good--and we would expect better from such a deity.

Although it's reasonable to expect a perfect world from an omnimax deity, its necessary to show the distinction only by arguing that the world could, in our judgment, be merely better than it actually is. Consider a world exactly like our own, but that did not have, for instance, cancer of the rectum or bubonic plague. There's no logical problem: There are an infinite number of physical ailments that we already never suffer from; adding one more to the list doesn't seem to pose much of a philosophical problem.

If you want a bigger issue, how about the whole idea of evolution? It's not like evolution is logically necessary, especially for an even ordinarily intelligent being: We human beings did not wait a half-billion years to evolve a unicycle into a Prius, nor to evolve chewing willow bark into heart transplants. It's preposterous to believe that an omnimax deity would be at least six or seven orders of magnitude less efficient than mere human beings.

The only defense against the PoE is to assert that our value judgments about the world are incorrect--that this is indeed, if not "perfect", then the best of all possible worlds. But this view impales the defender on the other horn of the dilemma: If our value judgments are in fact incorrect, why are they incorrect? How can we correct them? If this is in fact the best of all possible worlds, why have value judgments at all? Does it mean anything at all then to call a deity all- or even maximally-"good"?

The most spirited attempt to wriggle from this horn is the Free Will Defense. But this defense ultimately fails for several reasons. It does not even begin to address natural evil (earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and the aforementioned cancers and diseases). Second, why should we consider "free will" good just because we happen to like it (or at least think we like it)? Third, many of our notions about ethics in general, like imprisoning people for murder, actually restrict this supposed "greater good" of free will.

Most importantly, there's nothing about free which entails that it must actually cause suffering to be valuable. We already cannot exercise any sort of meaningful freedom to "disobey" the laws of physics. Why could free will not, therefore, be further restricted to not be able to cause any sort of physical harm to other people? As the millionaire said to the starlet, we're now arguing over only the price.

The only options besides atheism are these:
  1. God is not omni-something (or not omni-anything)
  2. God is not primarily interested in human well-being
  3. This world is in fact the best of all possible worlds and any value judgment to the contrary is simply false

I don't know about you, but I'm going with atheism.

16 comments:

  1. Sir Bum,

    What is your standard of "good," against which you judge God Almighty?

    The PoE is a difficult one for believers and infidels alike, but your formulation of extreme examples obscures the problem. Cancer and Hurricane Katrina are large emotional problems, but are philosophically no more difficult than my urge to hit my brother. Why should God allow any of it? If there is any benefit to suffering, or a world where suffering can exist, then drawing lines in the degree of suffering is arbitrary. For all we know, God might have delivered us from far greater suffering than we can imagine and is only permitting that which is sufficient to help us grow.

    You do draw an interesting line in questioning why a being with free will shouldn't be prevented from harming other humans with his free will. Unfortunately, I can see no way that community could exist if we had no possibility to hurt each other, because then we would have no ability to help each other. The freedom to heal allows the freedom to torture; the freedom to blog allows the freedom to mock.

    I am not, however, willing to accept that this is the best of all possible worlds. The best would be a world with free will where we humans chose not to sin and hurt each other. Any deviation from that world is our responsibility, not God's.

    Lord, have mercy!

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  2. P.S. I won't be able to reply to this for a few days. I'm going on vacation, and my silence here will have to be a tolerated, lesser evil.

    Also, if anyone is annoyed by my terminology, I am playing up the strident theist a little in response to the strident atheistic tone here. Don't take it personally. :-)

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  3. "What is your standard of "good," against which you judge God Almighty?"

    Why do the faithful always insist on arguing from an authority that they know the person they're arguing with doesn't acknowledge?

    "For all we know, God might have delivered us from far greater suffering than we can imagine and is only permitting that which is sufficient to help us grow."

    But, as the Bum might argue, why would a God that is maximally God save us from some sufferings and not others? Why would a God who is all good and all knowing require suffering for growth in the first place?

    Because he's ultimately unknowable? How... convenient.

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  4. James,

    Was I unclear? I don't think I'm arguing anything strictly from God's standards here. I'm interested in knowing what Sir Bum's criterion for "good" is, and why it excludes things like pain and death. So far, the closest I've gotten is 2/3 of an explanation of MESR, which isn't enough to help me understand.

    Once I understand what "good" and "bad" are, then we can discuss why suffering unequivocally falls in the "bad" camp. From my perspective, suffering is the outcome of sin. We grow from it because it is the feedback we get that something is going wrong. Technically, if we never sin, I don't think we need to suffer.

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  5. Yaknyeti

    First of all, don't call me "sir", I know who my parents are. ;-) (I come from a long line of enlisted men.)

    What is your standard of "good," against which you judge God Almighty?

    This is precisely the point: By what standard of "good" is God judged to be omnibenevolent, or "all good"? If whatever God does is "good", then the characterization loses any meaning.

    In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? -- Leibniz

    I am playing up the strident theist a little in response to the strident atheistic tone here.

    No worries. Say what you please, within the boundaries of legal, noncommercial speech.

    I'll have to defer additional comments until after my dinner.

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  6. If there is any benefit to suffering, or a world where suffering can exist, then drawing lines in the degree of suffering is arbitrary.

    The PoE essentially draws a comparison with our own moral judgments and the way the world is. An omnimax god is not expected to draw any "arbitrary" lines.

    I can see no way that community could exist if we had no possibility to hurt each other, because then we would have no ability to help each other.

    Nonsense. There is nothing about the ability to hit me over the head with a stick the lack of which would prevent you from helping me figure out some difficult philosophical problem. Again, we expect an omnimax God to not only figure out the easy stuff like this, but also the more subtle and difficult issues.

    The best would be a world with free will where we humans chose not to sin and hurt each other. Any deviation from that world is our responsibility, not God's.

    Again, one has to question the wisdom and ethics of a god who would give such profound responsibility to a race so manifestly unsuited for it.

    [M]y silence here will have to be a tolerated, lesser evil.

    Must... resist...

    I'm interested in knowing what Sir Bum's criterion for "good" is, and why it excludes things like pain and death.

    Ah. That's easy, I'm a small-ell libertarian humanist. Human freedom and happiness is, on the whole, good; human suffering is, on the whole, bad. There are subtleties not covered by this oversimplification, but it's in the ballpark.

    This is an ethical position, not a meta-ethical position, so even the additional 1/3 of MESR would not have given you this particular information.

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  7. Yaknyeti

    Just out of curiosity (nice theological details are not relevant to the PoE), don't most Christian theologies consider humanity to be sinful not only by choice but by nature, connected to Original Sin?

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  8. I think the best theological response to the problem of evil is, to paraphrase Peter Van Inwegen parroting Dr. Pangloss: 'Those who think God could have created a better world haven't tried.' One must aknowledge that it might not be possible to build a world where suffering doesn't exist and that we can only vaguely speculate how that would work.

    Theists then move to trying to justify how such a state of affairs can still be harmonized with the notion of God as a transcendent unlimited entity. What you get is the notion that God cannot violate things like logic, and unknown to us, suffering is a logical consequence of the way the world is.

    But still, one would think God could simply make it so that all those inclined to actual murder and violence could act out in hallucinatory deliriums as they throw themselves harmlessly off cliffs. That might not get rid of all evil, but it would help alot of it...


    And if God hadn't been so reckless as to make his name with all the nature-defying miracles 2000 years ago, maybe I would think a God unable to alleviate all suffering wasn't such a let down. He should have known better...

    The PoE isn't a compelling reason to be an atheist - but it is another good one.

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  9. kipp:

    I think the best theological response to the problem of evil is, to paraphrase Peter Van Inwegen parroting Dr. Pangloss: 'Those who think God could have created a better world haven't tried.'

    Even absent the comparison to the preposterous and pathetic Dr. Pangloss, it should be noted that human beings have been successfully improving the world since the invention of fire and the wheel. We have not only tried to create a better world, we have had notable success in doing so.

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  10. Mr. Bum,

    I have a free moment after all, so let me shoot out a response here.

    If whatever God does is "good", then the characterization loses any meaning.

    Your phrasing here doesn't bother me, since the instincts on which we base our judgment were given us by God as well. If I accept the existence of God Almighty (omnimax, or whatever), then I accept that He created those instincts, and to use them for a definition of "goodness" still falls back on God as a source for "good."

    But it is a fact that some of God's choices run contary to my conscience, and this is where I would draw the dilemma. Why would God create such a contradiction?

    From my experience, I have seen good come out of suffering that runs against my sense of perfection. This makes my judgment appear somewhat faulty, so I'm willing to give God the benefit of doubt, particularly in large-scale situations whose constraints I can only begin to imagine.

    And, as one who believes that God wants me to use my judgment as best I can, I will praise Him for the things that make sense to me and question Him for the things that don't. :-)

    There is nothing about the ability to hit me over the head with a stick the lack of which would prevent you from helping me figure out some difficult philosophical problem.

    Huh? Stick with parallel situations, please. To prevent me from being able to beat your head, I would have to be unable to touch your head. (While you and I could get by with this arrangement quite nicely, you and your wife might be a different matter.) My ability to help you solve a philosophical problem requires that I have the ability to deceive you as well.

    The alternative is a world where interpersonal relationships run by natural laws as impersonal as gravity. If God wanted to do that, I suppose He could have - but I see it as inferior to free community in the same way that a sock puppet is inferior to a human actor.

    Christians may place a slightly higher value on community than most, however, because we believe that God is community. Trinitarian theology should probably out of the scope of this discussion, though.

    Again, one has to question the wisdom and ethics of a god who would give such profound responsibility to a race so manifestly unsuited for it.

    Sure, but the more convinced I am of our limitations in acting morally, the more convinced I am of my limitations in judging morally.

    I'm a small-ell libertarian humanist. Human freedom and happiness is, on the whole, good; human suffering is, on the whole, bad. There are subtleties not covered by this oversimplification, but it's in the ballpark.

    I find it surprising that a libertarian would outweigh the good of free will (freedom) with the evil of suffering.

    [D]on't most Christian theologies consider humanity to be sinful not only by choice but by nature, connected to Original Sin?

    The Eastern Orthodox are iffy on that question, but I'm still trying to figure out their position. Perhaps the safest thing to say as that we all have a disposition to sin that we can't overcome without the help of God, and that our relationship with God starts out in a very rough state.

    Be very careful with the term "nature" in any discussion of Christian theology, though, as it sometimes has very technical nuances. My gut-level response is to say that our nature has been corrupted, and is thus sinful. But, at the same time, we talk about Christ having a human nature that was clearly not sinful, so I'm not comfortable with the terminology.

    This brings up one final point in which I think Christianity comes out ahead of other religions with an Almighty God. Christians don't have a complete answer as to why God allows the suffering He does in the world. But we believe that God chose to take human form, suffering with and for us to reconcile us to Himself and undo the corruption that came as a result of our sinfulness.

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  11. Kipp,

    But still, one would think God could simply make it so that all those inclined to actual murder and violence could act out in hallucinatory deliriums as they throw themselves harmlessly off cliffs. That might not get rid of all evil, but it would help alot of it...

    I know that you're being somewhat comical here, but do you realize the full implications of what you're asking? You're wishing for Descartes' imaginary world, where an Evil Genius provides all the inputs to my mind and I can't distinguish reality from artificial stimulus. (Seen the Matrix?) Do you really think that would be better than the evil and good you see in the world today?

    Or, to take another tack, at what point do you draw the line between "allowed" evil and "force the guilty party to jump off a cliff" evil? Shall we include rapists as well as murderers? How about thieves? Liars? Those who post snarky comments on weblogs?

    I confess I've followed your basic outline of theistic argument, and simply don't find your rebuttals convincing. That may limit how much farther we can take this, if you feel likewise.

    Mr. Bum,

    it should be noted that human beings have been successfully improving the world since the invention of fire and the wheel. We have not only tried to create a better world, we have had notable success in doing so.

    This reminds me of a joke in which an engineer makes a similar argument to God. "God, look at all the wonderful things we've created. Why couldn't You have done a better job with the world in the first place?"

    God responds, "Show me what you're talking about."

    The engineer proceeds to pull scrap steel out of a box and assemble it into a machine that can cure cancer.

    God says, "Not good enough. You used My raw materials. Make your own steel."

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  12. Yaknyeti

    From my experience, I have seen good come out of suffering that runs against my sense of perfection.

    It's not enough to determine that it's possible for good to come out of suffering, it's necessary to show that suffering is logically necessary for good, since an omnimax god is constrained only by logical necessity.

    I will praise Him for the things that make sense to me and question Him for the things that don't.

    But you already know the answer to that question: You're wrong, God is right. Given an omnimax god, any time you judge something as "bad", you know that your judgment is incorrect.

    My ability to help you solve a philosophical problem requires that I have the ability to deceive you as well.

    Huh? How so?

    The alternative is a world where interpersonal relationships run by natural laws as impersonal as gravity.

    I.e. this world: Do you not think your brain is entirely subject to natural law? Perhaps not.

    Sure, but the more convinced I am of our limitations in acting morally, the more convinced I am of my limitations in judging morally.

    The logical consequence of this view is to suspend all your moral judgments and call everything good. Calling Dr. Pangloss!

    I find it surprising that a libertarian would outweigh the good of free will (freedom) with the evil of suffering.

    Unlike a theist, though, it's not a contradiction to construct and evaluate my notions of good in the context of this particular world, rather than the best logically possible world.

    Christians don't have a complete answer as to why God allows the suffering He does in the world.

    No fooling.

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  13. Mr. Bum,

    We seem to be talking past each other on the issue of whether it is possible to allow free will without allowing individuals to harm each other. Let me try to elaborate on my contention that I can't help you solve a philosophical problem without being able to deceive you.

    First, there is the physical situation. To keep me from being able to deceive you could be done physically by limiting my ability to talk. But clearly this doesn't work. The same words I use to deceive you in one situation could be the words I use to help you solve your problem in another situation. E.g., "The discussion at Mere Comments may shed light on this issue." The impossibility of a physical solution seems obvious to me.

    That leaves us with the free will situation. Let me repeat our exchange here:

    "The alternative is a world where interpersonal relationships run by natural laws as impersonal as gravity. "
    I.e. this world: Do you not think your brain is entirely subject to natural law? Perhaps not.

    My problem is with determinism. While our minds are certainly subject to the natural laws that exist (e.g., gravity), I don't believe that our decision-making is governed exclusively by such laws. (Yes, you can point to influences from genetics, such as a predisposition to alcoholism, but I don't believe that those have the final word.)

    To eliminate the possibility of doing evil to another, then, would require that my free will be restricted in my relationship to others. But, if God Almighty logically draws no arbitrary lines, how does He limit my free will to prevent me from doing evil without forcing me to do only what is absolutely best toward everyone else? There are certainly evils of omission as well as commission.

    So no, I don't believe that this world is one where interpersonal relationships are run (i.e., determined) by natural laws. Do we truly disagree here?

    The logical consequence of this view is to suspend all your moral judgments and call everything good.

    No, the logical consequence of this view is to correct my moral judgments in the light of what God teaches me. Is this what you imply above with "call everything good"? Everything God does? If so, I suppose I must answer, "Guilty as charged."

    But I should clarify that I don't consider everything evil that happens to be something that God is responsible for. God can be responsible for allowing evil in general (through the creation of free will) without desiring or causing every specific evil event.

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  14. Yaknyeti: We seem to be talking past each other on the issue of whether it is possible to allow free will without allowing individuals to harm each other.

    Probably, and the point is trivial anyway. The point is that, free will and human evil aside, the world can be and has been made better according to our judgment, implying either it was not created as well as it could have been, or our original judgment was faulty.

    I would be more than happy to trade away whatever satisfaction was gained by eradicating smallpox for never having had it in the first place. To assert the contrary is to take joy and pleasure in the suffering of everyone who contracted smallpox before it was eradicated.

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  15. I agree with Stendhal that the only excuse for God is that he doesn't exist.

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  16. Christians don't have a complete answer as to why God allows the suffering He does in the world.

    No, but but the problem of evil really comes down to only two possibilities:

    1. God is unable to prevent the suffering.

    2. God chooses not to prevent the suffering.

    Last week in Washington, a 5 year old child was killed in a gang related drive-by shooting.

    It could be that God couldn't save him.

    It could be that God just didn't care. That wouldn't look good for the "God loves you" claim.

    It could be that God wanted that child to die. In that case, the drive-by shooting was an instrument of God's will.

    It could be that God does not exist.

    I don't see any other choices.

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