Sunday, March 4, 2007

Problem of evil - "atheists face it too"

The problem of evil is a problem if you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God. Actually, there are two problems of evil:

1. The logical problem. Suffering exists. But the existence of any suffering at all is logically inconsistent with that of such a God. Therefore that God does not exist.

2. The evidential problem. The sheer quantity of suffering is powerful evidence against the existence of an all-powerful all-good God.

Problem 1 is not much of a problem perhaps. It would do to show that some suffering is the price that logically must be paid for a greater good, e.g. free will.

Problem 2 is the BIG problem. Unfortunately, some think that by showing an all-powerful all-good God would put some suffering in the world for a greater good, that deals with problem 2. But of course, it doesn't. What needs explaining is not the existence of some suffering, but the sheer quantity - millions of years of unimaginable animal suffering etc. etc.

In his recent blog responding to this blog, Mark Vernon suggests, re. the sheer quantity of suffering there is in the world, that

good reasons for this state of affairs can be found in any intro to religion.

I think these "good reasons" are woefully inadequate. As do most atheists. And even quite a few theists. For a sketch of my worries see my The God of Eth.

But Vernon also says this:

I think that most believers would say that the problem of evil - which after all is something everyone faces in some form or other whether they believe in God or not - is the reason they believe in God, not a reason for not doing so: at least they have faith that good will finally triumph, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!

The problem of evil is "something everyone faces... whether they believe in God or not"? Really? Vernon has here switched problems in fact, to that of how, pyschologically, to deal with suffering. Yes, that is a problem for everyone. How do we cope? But that is not the problem we are discussing here. Which is how on earth can we maintain that it is reasonable (or even not unreasonable) to believe in an all-powerful all-good God in the face of such seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

One way of coping psychologically is of course to believe in God. That's a "reason" to believe, perhaps. But not the sort we are after. We are after the kind of "reasons" that make a belief more likely to be true.

After all, it might help me cope with my current financial nightmare if I believed I was going to win the lottery next week. But though it might help me psychologically cope now, this "reason to believe" doesn't give me the slightest reason to suppose it's true that I'll win. In fact, it very obviously isn't true.

16 comments:

Potentilla said...

It would do to show that some suffering is the price that muist be paid for greater goods, e.g. free will.

But this strikes me as a non-trivial enterprise in itself. After all, why is free-will evidently a good-in-itself, to set against the suffering? This argument is usually stated in the form of the things that people would (might) freely choose to do being the goods-in-themselves, for instance noble self-sacrifice. But why would noble self-sacrifice be a good (or even, arguably, possible) in a world that had no suffering for the chooser freely to decide to sacrifice himself to ameliorate?

Nigel Warburton said...

Isn't Vernon just guilty of equivocation? He seems to use 'Problem of Evil' to mean both (1) and (2) when it can only plausibly for a non-beliver mean (1)?

If he isn't guilty of equivocation, then he is straightforwardly wrong: I don't have see the problem of evil as a problem for me as I don't believe in the Theist's god, so don't have to square claims of an all-powerful, all-knowing, supremely benevolent God's existence with the undeniable fact of evil in the world.

Tea said...

potentilla,

In a sense you're right - questioning the intrinsic value of "free will" is itself an interesting philosophical problem. However, since most of us (that is, including atheists) tend to agree that free will is a good thing to possess, we must start from this common starting point. Therefore, pointing out the false dichotomy (either immense suffering or free will - as if there were no third option!) seems to me to be more promising. Why would anyone have to accept that we only have two options: either we give up our free will, or we just must live with tsunamis, famine, and earthquakes?

The Barefoot Bum said...

Tea:

However, since most of us (that is, including atheists) tend to agree that free will is a good thing to possess, we must start from this common starting point.

Not this atheist. I'm not at all persuaded that "free will" is even a meaningful concept much less an intrinsic good.

The Barefoot Bum said...

James Morrow's take on theodicy (Blameless in Abaddon) is, I think, the most compelling argument supporting the Problem of Evil.

The existence of an benevolent god is strongly rebutted not by the observation that the world is not perfect, but rather by the observation that the world could quite easily be better. Indeed it would seem that a bright 12 year-old could have made substantial improvements.

Mark Vernon said...

Bernard Williams wrote: ‘That religion can be a nasty business [with its evil admitting God] is a fact built into any religion worth worrying about, and that is one reason why it has seemed to so many people the only adequate response to the nasty business that everything is.’

The point about the problem of evil for religious people, as far as I can see it, is not that it can be tidily sorted out; there is nothing tidy about an evil world (which is what I mean by everyone has to face the problem one way or another). Rather it is that religions provide believers with resources to face evil - psychological, and logically not wholly consistent, for sure (incidentally, I did say that I don't buy the free-ill defence of evil; just that it is an argument worth engaging with): are we not human beings? As Dennis Potter once said: ‘Religion is the wound not the bandage’. It is the great laments, the raging, the cursing of God that represent some of the most profound responses to evil in the world. Who cannot fail to be moved by the Jewish Kaddish at a funeral?

Personally, I can understand that. I’d even go so far as to say that when facing difficulties myself that a religious setting has been a way of holding some of the tensions in one place so that I could face them in some way - not resolve them, not say ‘God is in his heaven and all is good’, but be with the pain, as it were. In fact, I’d say that the message of Job is that it is better not to believe in God, than to believe in a monster God who does evil at the angel’s request. The presence of the story in the Bible is a judgment upon the worst of the religious responses to evil, namely ‘you deserve it’. Don’t underestimate the capacity of the religious traditions to critique themselves!

In short, I try to look for the best in the religious traditions, which I think it is incumbent upon us - atheists and agnostics - to do, and wise in the modern world. Reject religious belief, sure. But reject it well.

Stephen Law said...

I think tea and BB are right the problem is to explain why God didn't make the world better (it surely could have had free will and less suffering).

I also think Nigel is right when he says Vernon seems to have committed the fallacy of equivocation. There's (1) the problem of explaining how there can be an all-powerful all-good God given so much suffering, and (2) the problem of coping, psychologically, with suffering. The atheist does not face problem (1). Vernon misleadingly gives the impression that they do, and he does so by not clearly distinguishing the two problems.

Mark Vernon also points out there's stuff of value in religion. Yes, in most things. Even Hitler made the trains run on time.

But that's irrelevant to the question we are discussing here which is, why suppose it is reasonable, (or as an agnostic like Mark may say, not unreasonable) to believe in God? Doesn't the evidence reveal belief in an all-good, all-powerful God to be just pretty obviously false?

Jacob said...

Slightly off topic, Stephen, but people don't claim that Hitler made the trains run on time, they claim Mussolini did. Not that Mussolini actually managed to do it anyway.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I don't find the "psychological" reasons for religion at all compelling, even on their own terms.

An atheist simply cannot pass the buck to a mysterious "higher purpose". Neither human evil nor even natural evil (tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.) can escape the domain of our responsibility--in the literal sense of our ability and duty to respond.

I don't want to comfort myself in the face of evil. I want to be uncomfortable, disturbed and at times even enraged about evil. I want to do something about it.

To the extent that one's religion also impels one to care and to act, why not just cut out the middleman? We have responsibility by virtue of our natural ability to respond. I don't see that adding a layer of supernaturalism on top of that natural ability gives us anything but at best a distraction and at worst and unwarranted and dangerous self-righteousness.

Everyone has to manage his life in his own way, I suppose. If religious people want to comfort themselves, that's their own business. But I hope they will understand that I find panglossian rationalizations and mission-from-god sanctimony neither appealing nor particularly worthy of respect.

Mark Vernon said...

Now wait a minute :-). I was not trying to explain how there can be an all-powerful etc God and lots of suffering. More fool me if I had tried. I was saying why I don’t think the fact of so much suffering conclusively disproves God. I am an agnostic.

And I’ve never said that the atheist faces the problem of evil in the same way as the theist, as I think you are now implying. Rather, (1) there is a sense in which the fact of evil is a problem for any morally minded person. And, (2) the difficult challenge the atheist faces is taking a version of the problem of evil that does not readily suit their convictions, but actually responds to the best of the theist’s responses to the problem of evil (free will and so on).

Also, what’s with this equivocation accusation? I’ll be clear. I think (1) your evidence is not as conclusive as you want it to be, and then (2) separately, though as part of the wider discussion, I’ve suggested that because there is evil is not a good reason for the believer to stop believing as far as they are concerned; for most, it is part of their belief. My reason for pointing this out is that I think it is best when assessing religion to deal with a version of religion that the believer would recognise.

Incidentally, someone else pointed out to me another reason why the quantity of suffering in the world is not a good piece of evidence for the non-existence of God - for the very reason that the argument is a quantitative one. What you’d actually have to show is that there was more suffering than whatever the opposite of suffering is: if there was just one more (what shall we call the unit?) ‘kakos’ of suffering then your empirical argument might be right. But this would involve you in some kind of suffering calculus, that would probably be even more misguided than Bentham’s felific calculus. (Perhaps this is why Dostoevsky focused on the injustice of just one child’s tear in his famous articulation of the problem of evil, rather than referring to the ranks of suffering Russians: but then that argument works so powerfully because of its psychological force.)

In fact, this other person went so far as to say that the atheist’s appeal to the presence of evil as part justification for their position is more about psychology than logic; he said that it is a rationalisation of their horror at people’s belief in an all-powerful etc deity in spite of their being so much evil. Hence comments like, ‘Doesn’t the evidence reveal belief in an all-good, all-powerful God to be just pretty obviously false’. The whole point is that it doesn’t, he said. Though I wouldn’t want to bait you :-)

Honestly: if I appear to ‘trade’ on ambiguity, it is done in good faith: we are talking about ultimate things here! And again, I am an agnostic. Ambiguity in these things, after as much careful and on-going consideration as possible, is precisely what I accept; indeed it is precisely what I think all the arguments, empirical and otherwise, suggest.

Potentilla said...

What you’d actually have to show is that there was more suffering than whatever the opposite of suffering is:

Why?

To support an omniscient omnipotent all-loving God, what you have to show is that ANY suffering is justified because it leads to good. This is both some sort of a quantitative question (is the good bigger than the suffering), sure, but also means that you can't define as "good" attributes that wouldn't (apparently) be necessary or relevant if suffering didn't exist.

tea, sure that's another approach. But I agree with BB that free-will is not only not a self-evident good, but is a fairly incoherent concept.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Mark Vernon:

One does not need a detailed understanding of computer science and information theory to conclude that Microsoft Windows was not in fact built by an omnimax deity.

I think the argument that the world appears moral character imperfect is actually a more difficult argument to make.

That I consider the moral character of the world, however, to be merely deficient argues either that the world could possibly be improved or else that my moral beliefs are so incoherent or false-to-fact that the notion of calling a God "good" loses any meaning whatsoever.

Stephen Law said...

Potentilla makes an excellent point, I think. To deal with the problem of evil we need to do MUCH more than show that there's more good stuff than bad. We need to show there's no unnecessary bad.

I suspect the fact that many theists seriously underestimate the seriousness of the problem of evil is because many are guilty of exactly this sort of confusion.

Mark V's point about the difficulty of precisely quantifying good stuff and bad is a red herring. It would be relevant if the situation were a close call. But where there's overwhelming evidence that there is unnecessary bad - and that is my contention - it's simply beside the point.

After all, we cannot precisely quantify happiness, can we? That doesn't justify us in being agnostic about whether torturing someone with a red hot poker makes them less happy than giving them a massage.

In fact, Mark V presumably isn't agnostic about an all-powerful all-evil God. He's an atheist, right? Why? Because there is too much good stuff in the world. The fact that this good stuff is not precisely quantifiable doesn't lead Mark to agnosticism re this evil god (does it Mark?) So why does he think it justifies agnosticism re. the good god?

Stephen Law said...

Jacob says:"people don't claim that Hitler made the trains run on time".

Google searches for "Mussolini made the trains run on time" and "Hitler made the trains run on time" give 806 hits and 267 hits respectively.

To be honest, I really have no idea whether either of them actually did run the trains on time.

Steven Carr said...

What is the 'logical' problem of evil?

Take a so-called 'logical' deduction.

Premise. My memory and senses tell me almost everybody has two legs.

Conclusion. It is a fact that almost everybody has two legs.

Is the conclusion a 'logical' deduction from the premise?

Christian philosophers have told me that Plantinga's defense to the logical problem of evil also show that it is not a 'logical' conclusion that almost everybody has two legs, from the premise that my memory and senses tell me that almost everybody has two legs.

So if that conclusion does not follow 'logically' from the premise, then what is the best word to describe the process of getting from that premise to that conclusion?

Personally, I think Christian defenses to the logical problem of evil are the Doomsday Device of Christian apologetics - taking all rational thought with it in the process of 'defending' their beliefs.

99.99% of the population would say that it was 'logical' to conclude that almost everybody has two legs from the premise that our senses tell us that Homo sapiens is a bipdeal species.

But if Christian defenses to the logical problem of evil also show that that is not a 'logical' conclusion, then what would be the best word to describe it?

Anonymous said...

I think a good read on the topic of evil, is 'The problem of evil and the judgements of God' by A.E. Knoch Here is one interesting comment he makes "All of mankind must learn to realize what God is to them by an actual experience of what it means to be without Him. Then they will be able to give Him the unforced outflow of their hearts. Then they will appreciate it when His judgments permanently right all wrongs and eliminate all evil, through the suffering Sacrifice He has provided." You can read the book free online at Concordant Publishing Concern. They believe in the salvation of all mankind. (universalist)