Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dawkins, problem of evil, "God of Eth"

In The God Delusion, in the bit I've just read, Dawkins suggests that the problem of evil is not a particularly strong objection to religious belief because (i) it works only against the all-powerful, all-good conception of God, and (ii) the theists have developed lots and lots of answers (free-will, character building, plus all the other theodicies) to defend their belief.

Dawkins prefers his own argument based on the improbability of God (which he explains in the video we're discussing at 13mins 45 secs to 14 min 40sec)

I think Dawkins may have underestimated the power of the problem of evil. Given that the problem of good (see "The God of Eth" link, left) does indeed more or less conclusively establish that there's no all-powerful, all-evil God, why doesn't the problem of evil more or less conclusively establish there's no all-powerful, all-good God?

I'd suggest my "God of Eth" challenge sharpens the problem by exposing the rather laughable character of the explanations theists come up with to account for the sheer quantity of suffering that exists. Sharpened in this way, the problem of evil is, I think, pretty much insuperable for the theist. Indeed, I think it reveals that belief in the God of traditional theism is pretty obviously false.

Certainly, if we're focusing on what will actually change minds and win converts, I suspect the "God of Eth" challenge is rather more likely to give the faithful a jolt (so they may get a glimpse, if only for a second, of just how silly their belief system really is - I have already seen it induce a moment of wide-eyed panic in one or two: a real "Oh shit!" moment).

I think there may be potentially serious problems for Dawkins' appeal to God's improbability, which I'll come to next.

12 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

There are way too many skeptics who fail to realize the power of the problem of evil for the Christian theistic view of God. I've developed what I think is a powerful argument of this problem here. If you'd prefer not to watch the video, my opening statement can be read in one of the links I provided below it.

Rev Sam said...

Hi Stephen - I quickly skimmed your 'God of Eth' post, and I would want to agree (with some caveats/clarifications) with your last sentence: "even if the universe does have a designer/creator, isn’t it patently obvious that this being is neither all-evil, nor all-good?" - but then, as I understand it, that's orthodox theology. God is not assessable by us - so we can't call God 'good' in a moral sense. (How should we assess, eg, Isiah 45.7?)
We (ie believers) do continue to call God 'good' - but we can't put very much content into it. We can never, for example, create a class of 'good' things, and then say that God is a member of that class - for the simple reason that, by definition, God cannot be a member of any class.

I wrote a little bit on the problem of evil here, a couple of years ago, but my views haven't changed much. I think Ivan's argument (in Karamazov) sums it up best - he wants to give back the ticket of entry to creation. I think a believer is committed to accepting the ticket, and that this necessarily is a religious stance (whatever language you then want to use to describe the viewpoint taken). Once you say 'yes, I accept the ticket' - then you're stuck with wrestling with the problem of evil in an intellectual sense, but you've already given the most important answer - and so far as I understand it, the religious path is simply working out the implications of that initial 'yes', whatever language we might use to describe it.

onthesideoftheangels said...

Might I request that before any discussions about the problem of evil start that a clarification of what this thing called evil actually is ?
Everything so far seems to be confused to say the slightest.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Rev Sam: If we can't call a God "good" in any nontrivial sense, then why do anything but rail against its tyranny? Why not then be an atheist at least in the sense of refusal to worship?

To refuse to call God "good" is also to remove the very last job that such a being could have. With evolution, cosmology and science in general, God has lost his job as a guide to the unfolding of the world. To talk about a Deistic God as the originator of the universe is to say nothing more than that the universe exists. Without God as a moral being, it ceases to be a concept relevant in any sense.

Stephen Law said...

For evil, read suffering. It would be better called the problem of suffering, or, better still, gratuitous/unnecessary suffering.

Stephen Law said...

Sam - can I post that linked article for discussion? Do you mind?

Rev Sam said...

As long as you make it clear that it's not meant to be an academic article!! (ie robust against all possible objections....) It's mainly me thinking out loud - but sure, let's have a natter about it.

Ron Murphy said...

I'm an atheist, from reason not faith. I don't believe what I'm about to point out, but it appears to me that in the whacky world of theism these points could be reasonable answers to the problem of evil. As such, the problem of evil objection to theism isn't strong enough to persue.

Here goes:

Natural disasters aren't evil. They are just events. They may cause human (and animal) suffering, but that is a suffering measured only on a selfish human scale. God may well want us to overcome that suffering. Not necessarily now, for any particular event, but over time, as a race, in our eventual growth and development (His evolution?) towards the type of people that would be worthy of being in heaven. Whether God creates the desasters or simply rolls the dice (omniscience and omnipotence questions here) doesn't matter; and anyway how would we know which, not having His powers of understanding.

Committing sins (assuming He decides what these are, and that He has in fact informed us through the ten commandments and other means) is the origin of human evil. The temptation to sin tests us for His purposes, not ours.

Free-will appears to contradict Gods omnipotence in that if we're free it implies He has given up some controlling power and is no longer omnipotent. His omnipotence, and hence our lack of really free-will, appears to suggest we are not responsible for our sins, and on that basis they aren't a very good test of our goodness. This is a debate we may engage in, with our limited capacity to understand His reasoning.

It may be that the limits of our powers or reason don't provide us with the tools to answer these points. We already recognise there are some limits to reason - i.e. inductive reasoning. Maybe there is a capacity of reasoning or a theory of knowledge that we are not yet familiar with. Theism only suggests God knows everything, not that we as theists do. Here we theists might agree with atheists on some of the limits of absolute knowledge. We know only one thing is absolutely, and that's God.

The God of Eth argument says nothing. Stephen Law and anything he says is merely another challenge to our faith. God really wants us to ignore it and continue to believe.

And so on. All bollocks of course, since it all presupposes God exists at all, and if he does that he is the God that we believe in. The failure to satisfactorily support the case for God makes the whole issue of the problem of evil irrelevant. If we first suppose God does exist, then theism can explain anything it damn well wants to.

onthesideoftheangels said...

Sorry Ron but you appear to have a slightly distorted perception of what real christianity [i.e. the pre-reformation bunch] defines as evil or sinful.

primarily there is original and actual sin

A lot of secular humanists and atheists think they know what original sin is; but they have spent so long dismissing and ridiculing it they never bothered to really find out what they were against.

actual sin is easy enough to understand and is as blatant as colour or smell - it is always an act of free will, but the freedom is limited and hampered not only by my own sin, but by the sins of other, any act of love towards the good makes me more free, any sin diminishes it but my human dignity and worth in that freedom can never be annihilated no matter what sin I commit - my link with the Godhead is unbreakable and nothing cannot be forgiven. M freedom is always limited to some extent by my natural condition - predilections towards selfishness,envy, malice, deceit etc - it varies between each and every one of us - this is the scarring I and others have induced upon the eternal cosmos by the totality of mine and others sins [even the ones I have yet to commit] my nature is scarred by it - this 'original sin' that entered the world via the first willed thoughts and actions of the first free-willed entities , contaminated by the collective
acts against the lovng freedom committed by those in the future.

Original sin is what you can call the outcome of collective responsibility for one's actions and the transcendent extra-temporal and extra-spatial consequences within the cosmos due to one's actions.It's like the worm ourobouros - a serpent eating its own tail. Ultimate responsibility -To some extent It's my fault I am the way I am, to some extent It's others fault too, and to some extet it's my fault others are the way they are.

we see sin as affecting the whole fabric of everything - this may seem like a cross between Buddhism
and Stoical metaphysical pantheism but it really isn't because we see the universe as Apeironic - there's a beyond from whom all good things come - That beyond is God. The pre-socratics arrived at this conclusion via Reason, the religious opened their hearts to look themselves and the world with integrity and sincerity.
[Dude if you think the ten comandments are merely ten rules you are very mistaken - they're a basic rough outline on the way one should act towards the whole - just look at the structure - sin against the source at the beginning, sin against the self at the end and as one approaches the middle from each end it's sins against one's neighbour and one's community. eric voegelin gave a good description of its formulation in 'Order & History']

The teachings of Christ transcend these laws into how to lead a life of Love and mercy and responsibility to oneself and everyone around you - you may disagree with them personally but ultimately that disagreement will end up disagreeing with the real you and the way you lead your life.

Why does evil exist ?
because we are free-willed agents
why does God allow such freedom ?
For Love to exist - for acts of goodness and kindness to be made manifest [something which could not exist in an automaton world of determinism or behaviourism]
why evil ?
why else but for a greater good ?

and the existence of God is not the pre-supposition within this morality

the pre-supposition is purpose and meaning and a tao-like morality within everything which seems to sing within the whole human collective and is not some sort of genetic make-up or cultural social contract - we actually do possess a conscience which is greater than the way we act in our daily lives -something which aspires to the best of us and inspires us towards the ideal , no matter how weak-willed and how many times we fail to live up to ourselves [Dawkin's definition of altruism as a genetic misfiring?? PLEASE!!?? how could he be so ignorant of the human condition ?]

A consequence of that purpose and meaning and source of these things we seem to be so axiomatically endowed with [morality/will/intellect] implies a necessary induction into the unknown possibility of a source and sustainer...

and that's why people began to sense a spiritual awakening and relationship with the phenomenon around them in the mythic age and in the philosophical age to conclude that there is a God,[ref xenophanes of colophon's definition] omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent but beyond all the physical limits we endure.

Why do people believe in a God ? because some have the strength of intellect and purpose to question , understand and hope that the implied meaning to all this is reflected in an actual cosmic meaning - this may be naiive, futile and erroneous - but it most certainly isn't irrational; and I object when you imply that all theists are some sort of gullible superstitious idiots blinkered from reality.

They may be wrong in their hope ; but they most certainly are not wrong in their reasonings behind that hope - intellectually it is quite tenable - rationally it is feasible to extrapolate localised purpose and meaning to that beyond its ostensible remit - for how else could it exist without being itself delusory and objectively meaningless ?

call theists fools, say that they are wrong, but you have no right to accuse them of complete idiocy - they merely believe that the whole thing makes possible sense; and isn't some sick irredeemably cruel cosmic joke where localised entropy makes us dance to the tunes of death and annihilation merely to accelerate everything to ultimately be under the thrall of the second law of thermodynamics and enter nothingness.

theists may be fools for believing such
but are atheists any more smug in their belief in the realisation that the ultimate meaning is there never was one and all our hopes and dreams and aspirations made manifest while we symbolised this perceived order throughout history via art and music and literature and scientific endeavour must ultimately come to naught ?

The theists don't deserve ridicule when they are idealistic enough to believe that love and goodness and beauty and truth actually mean something and are not some cosmic aberration.

and no matter how much Dawkins twists and perverts history into implying all this aspiration to perfection and belief in ideals and a cosmic hope was an evil affront to human decency...

I know it's not true. Theists are among the best of us, the most human, the most real...sure being human beings all religions succumbed to human passions and violences and used spiritual externals as justification like any coward does fleeing from responsibility; but it doesn't make the ideals within those religions for the betterment of the human spirit any less commendable in the fact that they as weak-willed humans failed to live up to them.

Shame on you for implying it did.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi onthesideofangels,

"Sorry Ron but you appear to have a slightly distorted perception of.."
I accept that, but then the whole of theism is a collection of distortions of what might be some basic reasonable hypotheses. - which was part of the point I was making.

For example, the hypothesis that there was some deistic first cause that does not require some prior cause may appear problematic to our current understanding of 'cause'. It's a dodgy hypothesis because it appears to conflict with what we understand to be 'cause' and its role in our current understanding of the universe, but since we're talking now about the beginnings of the universe science itself is in unknown ground too. Once a first cause is accepted it is reasonable then to hypothesise about the beginnings of other things that we know through experience and experiential evidence. Evolution is a good hypothesis because every time we find some new experiential evidence it has supported it, and so on.

But, what would lead anyone to then think that all the religious baggage that theists add to some basic hypotheses has any reality to it? "primarily there is original and actual sin." Why? What on earth (or heaven) makes you think that?

Then "actual sin is ..." - more Disney stories. "Original sin is .." and yet more. Note I'm not saying that 'sin' can't be used as a metaphor for human action and morality - a label and a convenient description that avoids having to deal with disagreements about the detail of morality when we broadly agree that something is immoral.

"The teachings of Christ transcend these laws..." I'm not sure what you mean by that. But just because some guy a couple of thousand years agos said some stuff doesn't make it true. He might have had many fine things to say, but some of the things he supposedly said, or that were said by others about him have no foundation in anything we experience. He is the Son of God? What makes you believe that? He performed miracles? Why would you believe that? Nut is the ancient Egyptian sky goddess. The sky is Nut's body, arching from horizon to horizon. Why don't you belive that?

"you may disagree with them personally but ultimately that disagreement will end up disagreeing with the real you and the way you lead your life" - what is this nonsense other than a trick of words. It means nothing. If I disagree with something and continue to disagree with it all my life then that is the real me and the way I lead my life.

"Why does evil exist? because we are free-willed agents" - There is some debate about whether we have free will (see http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/andrew_melnyk/physicalism.html and subsequent pages) but in what way does that imply 'evil' exists, other than because you say it does?

"and the existence of God is not the pre-supposition within this morality" I think many theists believe it does. If it doesn't, then what use is God? We can do the whole good/evil thing without him. In practice I personally think this is what's happening here. Theists make stuff up and dress it up in pseudo rationality. Throw in a few historical characters, pick up on some respected philosophers and choose bits of their ideas that fit your ideas, and there you have it - theology, God.

"Why do people believe in a God ? because some have the strength of intellect and purpose to question , understand and hope that the implied meaning to all this is reflected in an actual cosmic meaning.." That could be used as an argument as to why some people didn't believe in God; but the problem is it isn't a good argument. Having the strength of intelect to question merely means you can question - it doesn't predict the answer; and so it doesn't follow that it's a reason to believe in God.

"I know it's not true." Really? On what basis? This is the arogance of theism - you KNOW ABSOLUTELY! Compare this to the science/reason based athism - we hypothesise and support the hypotheses, but we don't know absolutely. Theists are not open to persuation (generally), atheists are (generally). I would happily belive in God if there were good reason. I'm quite happy to have my ideas questioned. But I suspect, based on experience, the most useful and rational criticism I would get for this post would be from other rational atheists/naturalists/scientists, rather than from most theists.

"Theists are among the best of us." I'm sure there are some very good ones. Some atheists are among the best of us too, wouldn't you say? So what?

"but it doesn't make the ideals within those religions for the betterment of the human spirit any less commendable... Shame on you for implying it did." I'm for anything that is for the betterment of the human spirit (assuming we agree what that is). There are many ideas and ideals that religion holds that most atheists would agree with. The problem lies with the junk.

1. Start with a basic unknowns - the origins of the universe and, subsequently, life.

And then either...

2a. Propose one hypothesis - that there is some ultimate creator of some kind called God - is about as far as rational argument can take it without trying to match further ideas to our experiences.

or...

2b. Propose another hypothesis - that there isn't some first cause. This then leads to debates about multiverse, continuous expanding and collapsing universes, naturalism, etc. All hypotheses.

And then either...

3a. From 2a, suddenly believe everything about God, being a personal thinking god to pray to, who has all the other properties that theism variably attributes to him, who gives us free-will and allows us to choose good or evil and rewards us, insists that some of us follow one set of rituals while others follow different sets, etc. Additionally, many of these ideas don't fit in any way with our experiences - all the supernatural stuff. These supernatural ideas can be generated by our imagination - but only as distortions and extrapolations of more basic ideas we have. Sure, many of the ideas have been tuned in response to rational objections. The Nut goddess for example - ok as a metaphor for some maternal supernatural figure, but a little embarassing when taken literally. Theisms have had a few centuries to fine tune, and they go on fine tuning in an attempt to appear rational.

or...

3b. Use as evidence only what we find and can verify fits experience, and resists falsification. If we establish results that satisfy all the the requirements of rational argument and scientific method, give them a high degree of acceptability and use them as a foundation for further study. Grade hypotheses on the extent to which they satisfy these requirements. The result is that some of our experiences support both hypotheses 2a and 2b to some degree. The Naturalist movement tends towards 2b, to the degree that it pretty much rejects 2a. Even Dawkins admits he has no evidence to falsify 2a. We also have many hypothesese that can't be tested (yet, and maybe never), but which still provide reasonable explanations using this naturalistic experiencial modal without recourse to supernaturalism (of which we have no experience).

There is no human experience that fits with 3a, unless you make claims for 'visions' and other revalations, but then they fit very well with other naturalistic experiences that don't require 3a: mental illness, delusion, hoaxes, wishfull thinking, wild imagination, gullibility.


Your response examplifies the point I was making in my previous post, and the reason why the 'problem of evil' is irrelevant.

Wholeflaffer said...

I find Dawkins' making a non-argument, to the point of being fallacious, by reasoning that since there are so many responses to the Problem of Suffering/Evil that we should just toss out the problem. Such sleights of hand are typical of Dawkins when he leaves his specialty and treads in other waters (and some say that the sleights of hand are typical of his work WITHIN his specialty).

But I am most surprised at the response that somehow Theology can toss out the omniscient, omnipotent, all-good properties of God and you are still left with something. I cannot see a Christian doing such a thing.

Strange arguments indeed.

Ron Murphy said...

The problem of evil is one that theists might have to contend with, within the scope of their belief system - that god exists, is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc. Within that system it does pose problems. However, most of the responses make sense (or don't depending on your point of view) within that system. So, two theists might argue: theist-1, "evil exists because god wants us to overcome the temptation for evil", and theist-2, "ok, but why all the suffering not caused by temptation, such as natural disasters", ... and so on. They are argueing within the context of an existant god, where they are debating about his purpose and the interpretation of evil in his scheme of things.

I haven't seen one argument that is based on evidence, other than the evidence that events happen, some events are attributable to the actions of humans and some are not, and of all these events there are some we calls as undesirable. From those basic experiencial facts, to then suppose there must be a god and these 'bad', 'evil' events play some part in his scheme and its relation to us, is all nonsense, from an reasoned atheistic world view.

So, an atheist arguing about the problem of evil with a theist isn't going to get very far. Whatever reasoned objection the atheist might put forward the theist will always respond with some feature or purpose of god and the thistic world view that requires the atheist to return, yet again, to the basic objection about the existence of god. Once the atheist says something like, "ok, assuming there is a god, and he as the properties of..., the problem of evil is a problem because...", then the atheist becomes embroiled in the world of magic where any explanation about the problem of evil will fit.

This is why I contend that, from an atheist's point of view, the problem of evil is best left to the theists to argue about amongst themselves. From the atheist's point of view it is irrelevent.