Thursday, May 29, 2008

Problem of evil - Rev Sam

The Reverend Sam finds the following response to the problem of evil rather compelling:

"Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all." In other words, as I put it, the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, and when Christian theologians treat this problem as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves."

Sam adds: "I think that this touches on the radically different foundational assumptions that people bring to the discussion, so it might be worth spending a bit more time on it. Not that I have any expectation of either side convincing the other, but it might help clarify the differences."

Let's discuss.

My opening question. Is the idea that, if we start with the foundational assumption that there is a good God, then whatever suffering there is - the suffering of thousands of children buried alive in the recent earthquake, for example - is, for some reason, insignificant (or - not the same thing - meaningless)? If so, what is that reason?

49 comments:

Tony Lloyd said...

I think this is a very odd reading of the Gospels. It sounds more like Budhism and certainly is not the message that I get from the Gospels. In particular such parts as Luke 12:24 "Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!" Seems to promise care from God.

Now, no doubt, Rev. Sam knows more about the Bible than I do and I am sure that the Gospels CAN be interpreted in his way. But which way is the "right" way? If I can take any meaning from the Gospels then the Gospels cease to have any use in reason: I can leap to any conclusion I want and back-fit the Gospels to provide "reasons".

I think that before we can get anywhere Rev. Sam has to persuade us that the "message" he assigns to the Gospels is the one intended by Jesus and the Gospel writers and not a back-fit by Rev. Sam.

splittter said...

Could this argument appeal to the idea of future reward in heaven ... basically robbing one of the ideas from pascal's wager ... if heaven gives infinite satisfaction or happiness or whatever then any amount of finite suffering on earth is insignificant by comparison.

Seems weak, but maybe one way to try and go.

Anonymous said...

Two points:

1) So where does this leave us on causing suffering to others? Not really that important so go right ahead?

2) Just because something (the Gospel) offers comfort still does not mean it is true.

Jackie said...

I think Anonymous has it nailed. If suffering and death are meaningless, then who is to condemn me for causing them? God's "Thou shall not kill" must be an arbitrary whim, just something to test our obedience. I bet all of God's laws are like that. Extrapolated further, right and wrong mean "obedient" and "disobedient"; there is no objective morality. God is just a cosmic tyrant to be bribed with obedience and adulation.

Sam Norton said...

The point is 'no ultimate meaning' - not no meaning whatsoever. I think the point that Hart is making is that Christians can't absolutise suffering, given everything else embedded in their worldview.

Anonymous said...

If we downplay the significance of suffering etc in the temporal world do we not also have to demote the good bits as well, including any "comfort" derived from Gospel to those currently alive?

If our suffering is of no ultimate meaning then our lives are of no ultimate meaning and there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in having them really does there? Can't really see a religion which leads to that conclusion lasting very long.

anticant said...

Is there really any point in discussing such twaddle? Haven't we got better things to do?

Stephen Law said...

Well I'm having fun.

But Sam, you say the problem of suffering just isn't something that calls into question the existence of God. Why not?

Can you spell this out very clearly, please?

Paul C said...

In other words, as I put it, the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, and when Christian theologians treat this problem as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves."

Just because somebody claims that the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, does not make it so.

Surely this isn't even an argument, let alone a compelling one? It's just sleight-of-hand - because there isn't a convincing answer to the problem, the next best thing is to pretend that it isn't a problem at all.

Kosh3 said...

The suffering of souls in hell is certainly held out to be a matter of great importance by religious texts and discourse - why then should suffering in the world be reduced in its significance?

It is one of the grounding motivational factors in abiding by gods command. Who wants to roast, after all?

anticant said...

Aren't we roasting already, by giving countenance to such arrant piffle instead of bending our energies to solving the world's escalating here-and-now problems?

Anonymous said...

"Suffering and death... have no meaning at all".

Right. So...

...what?!...

So your "good God"- what makes Him good? Do Christians use that word in a completely different way, since to me "good" has a lot to do suffering and well-being; those things have to be valued. What is GOOD? How're you going to define/ identify it in a world where suffering (therefore happiness?) and death (therefore life?) are meaningless?

Sam, you say that they are meaningful, but not in the ultimate sense of things. What is meaningful then, and why? From what should we derive ultimate meaning, and how is this justified without recourse to well-being/ suffering?

Sally_bm (who was about ready for a little rant- thanks!) (and who can't remember her password)

Sam Norton said...

I'm not sure I'd say quite so baldly that "the problem of suffering just isn't something that calls into question the existence of God" - what's at stake is what is meant or understood by 'God' in that sentence. I'm not persuaded that we can put much flesh on the bones of 'good' when that term is ascribed to God; the God I worship is beyond good and evil, he doesn't fit within those categories. Though I'd still want to call him 'good'...

(By the way, we've gone through some of this before, but it's possible I've missed something you've written on it since then. In any case, this is generally a good time for me to give some attention to it (all the major feasts having now been celebrated!)

The Celtic Chimp said...

Sam,

This is utterly irrelevant but I couldn't help noticing that you describe God as

beyond good and evil

this tickles me, as Nietzsche's book of that title crisises philosophers for their blind acceptance of Christian premises in their consideration of morality. :>

Jackie said...

Sam Norton,

Sorry if you've already done this elsewhere, but please define your notions of "good," "evil," and "God."

Sam Norton said...

Jackie - I don't think my notions of good and evil are much different from anybody else's, although the ascription of qualities to God is a special case and different rules apply (that is, language used of God is always analagous - I appreciate that takes a lot of unpacking which I can't do here).

As for God, go here.

Tom said...

It reminds us of Leibniz' theodicy(?) (théodicée) question, the justification of God in the face of evil. Boethius reformulates the question in two parts: if there is God, where does evil stem from? On the other hand, what is the origin of good if God does not exist?

The book of Job does not give an answer although the problem is raised. There probably is no answer (reminds me of the question of ultimate cause - cf. Stephen's Philosophy Gym).

Jackie said...

Sam,

It seems to me that what you attribute to "God," a secular person would call "conscience," "intuition", "insight" and "the nature of the universe." Whereas you believe that there are external components to those first three, a secular person would only see the last as external.

The god of most debates is a conscious, personal being with omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence, usually an assumed creator and ruler of the universe with interest in the minutia of human affairs. I'm not sure how your God is relevant to Dr. Law's post. We're talking about two different things.

Youngil Ely Loew said...

I have to agree with Mr. Law that the problem of suffering is a key issue in the discussion of God's existance. I wrote out a response to your earlier post, Intellectual Black Hole, (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2008/02/intellectual-black-hole.html )
on my blog, to address the existance of evil in this world.
I'm curious what you think.
I think the biggest problem with the discussion of God is that we are counting on people who don't really know his characteristics to decribe Him. Do you think it is possible that He exists, but most people are still only able to grasp certain aspects of Him and not the whole picture?
For example, when discussing such scientifically abstract concepts such as black holes, there are only a very few people who actually know what they are talking about... the rest are only getting second hand information. I think people's understanding of God probably works the same way.
Here's my blog: http://loew01.blogspot.com/
Dialogue is always good. Looking forward to more.
Sincerley,
Youngil Ely Loew

Sam Norton said...

Jackie - it's possible that we are talking about different things. That is, there certainly is a difference between the God of Christian faith and the 'God' of the philosophers. The interesting question is how much overlap there might be between them.

Xan Bozzo said...

I have enjoyed reading the comments on this blog, without quite feeling the need to add any of my own. I am curious of what Dr. Law, or any other frequenters to this blog might say, concerning the following:

It seems to me Rev. Sam is reiterating a significant element present in (though not limited to) Nelson Pike's article, "Hume on Evil". Rev. Sam seems to think there might be some, to use Pike's terminology, "morally sufficient reason" that excludes responsibility. The question is: does one find that the logically proper formulation of the problem (e.g. J.L. Mackie's classical article, "Evil and Omnipotence") exclude this possibility? Additionally, one would have to provide an argument for this as well.

Now, I by no means intend to suggest that I am defending this view; merely adding something to the discussion. My question for those interested would be: what does one think of the logical responses to the problem? Such as Pike's? Or Plantinga's?

Simply, of course, out of curiosity.

- Xan

Jackie said...

Sam said: "there certainly is a difference between the God of Christian faith and the 'God' of the philosophers."

I wasn't aware you were talking about the Christian God. Where do Jesus and the Bible fit into your faith?

Sally_bm said...

This is just getting interesting...

I'm still not satisfied with your explanation though Sam:

"I don't think my notions of good and evil are much different from anybody else's"

"the ascription of qualities to God is a special case and different rules apply"

I can see that, as a unique type of being, God is going to be somewhat beyond everything in the world and the language we use to describe worldy things. But when it comes to values themselves- like good and evil- I feel Xians be able to explain the extent to which they do and do not apply to God:

Xians often claim that their faith influences their life and makes them "more good", and see what's good, etc etc. And Xians certainly claim God is good. So I think they need to be able to say very clearly what they mean by that. What is the connection between God's goodness and earthly/ human goodness. What is the essential element of this goodness?

You offered that God is love. And presumably love is good in some ultimate way? Is this the "source" of God's goodness? Would your explanation as to why love is good help us understand your conception of God's goodness?

I can't tell if what I just wrote makes any sense or not, so apologies if it's a case of the latter...

Sally_bm said...

p.s. I just read your explnation of what you believe God to be (wrong order I know). And although I think the questions above are still important, I think we all need to realise that your conception of God is perhaps not the conception we are all arguing and disagreeing about. Although, I would say there is stuff to be disagreed about with your conception too (to me, it seems you personify lots of natural things, and group them into one unified being, without REASON to- but that's your perception of things I guess? Do you judge it to be based on perception rather than reason?) Couldn't let you get away scot free, anyway :-)

who was it who said...

It might be worth noting that the idea that God is beyond good and evil is not an odd one. Classically, God is not just that than which none greater can be conceived, but therefore also greater than that which can be conceived. E.g. if the origin of good lies with God's will (and judgement) then God is beyond good and evil as an author is beyond (transcends) the plots and intrigues of her stories. And that is just the ordinary notion of God as Creator.

Kyle P. said...

who was it:

So, since I can imagine something greater than that which actually does exist (something which prevents all the evil in the world), does that mean clearly "god" does not exist, or that if "god" does exist, it is totally incompetent, ignorant, or partly evil?

Further, the Christian "god" is often said to be personal and intervenes in the lives of us humans. Your analogy of "god" as the author of the book fails because of this. It would require that he is predetermining our fate, or in other words removing our free will altogether. Since I can conceive of a better "god", i.e. one who does not remove our free will, your "god" must not exist.

The biggest question your comment brings up is: What does it even mean for a "god" to be "greater" than another "god"? How can we judge these things? How can we worship something that isn't good, that isn't better than what we strive to be? I think we can all agree that worshiping something because it created the universe is not necessarily valid - that thing could be evil and wants us all to die. Perhaps we are failed experiments, or viruses that sprung up in his beautiful, clean universe. Hence worshiping it doesn't make any sense. Of course, it's obvious that no "gods" of any sort exist, so claiming that "god" is the greatest being which can be conceived is ridiculous.

Finally, it does not follow that because we can conceive of something that it must exist. I've read a lot of peoples' work on that argument, and it all fails to a simple observation: I can conceive of many things which do not exist in reality. They might "exist" as conceptions, but this is clearly not that same as existing in reality. You cannot simply define a being into existence.

Sam Norton said...

Jackie - not sure what lies behind your comment but I would have thought that the 'Rev' part of the title would have been a bit of a giveaway.

Sally (and Stephen) I realise I didn't pick up on Stephen's original question, "Is the idea that, if we start with the foundational assumption that there is a good God....." I'm not sure we agree on that foundational assumption. That's a large part of the problem. The precise way in which the Christian tradition talks about [the Christian] God as good needs to be unpacked and clarified.

Sally_bm said...

"The precise way in which the Christian tradition talks about [the Christian] God as good needs to be unpacked and clarified."

I agree. But as an atheist/ agnostic (I guess that makes me an agnostic?) I'd need you to lead me on that! What's your answer?

Jackie said...

Sam,

Your post didn't mention anything about the Bible or Jesus. You didn't describe a concious creator god - the kind of thing that would create Adam in its image and then damn Adam and Eve and their descendants for one act of disobedience. Did your sense of good and right cause a virgin to give birth to a combination of a man and conscience-intuition-insight-[the nature of the universe] baby 2000 years ago? Your God sounds a lot more like what my New Age mother believes in that what my Lutheran aunt woships.

Sally_bm said...

p.s. Wanted to share a thought that just occurred to me. Sorry it's off-topic...

I wish there was a church-like organisation for non-believers. Not with the indoctrination, scripture etc, but with the communal gathering, readings, philosophical speeches, singing, tea and biscuits. And a little discussion added on the side.

Unlike loyal followers of religions, non-believers can be picky and choose exactly what we want in terms of beliefs and practices; why not pick the best bits from religion as part of that? I'm jealous of people who have nice church communities; I often listen to the Sunday Service on Radio 4, and I love going to Quaker Meetings. But it's compensating for something that could legitimately be provided by non-religious sources. Why shouldn't there be something more concrete and institutionalised (if that's the right word?) for non-believers to enjoy?

who was it who said...

sally_bm, academia (especially philosophy) and political parties, maybe?

kyle p, fictional characters are as the author thought of them, whatever arguments literary critics might come up with, and however they seem to the reader. Similarly good is whatever God wants (if there is a such a God, who is the Christian God, but possibly not as all Luthereans believe), so it makes a little sense to say God is good, but is also (I wonder if this is Sam's point?) like saying that bent space-time is heavy.

Analogies rely particularly heavily upon ubiquitious principles of charity, and if mine fell it fell on deaf ears. God's creatures can be conscious, can have free will, because God is not a human author (is only like one in some ways, of course, as planets are like apples, rather than pears, although apples are more like pears than planets).

If butter is to bread as hats are to heads, and you point out that cows don't make hats, then you will probably not understand it when I say that you have knocked the stuffing out of a straw man, because for me to describe God as that which none greater can be conceived was neither for me to define him to be the unique thing that is that, nor for me to assert that he can be defined into existence in such a way.

anticant said...

sally_bm - try the British Humanist Association:

http://www.humanism.org.uk/site/cms/contentChapterView.asp?chapter=333

Sally_bm said...

Hiya Rev Sam
Academia and philosophy don't really offer what I'm after (not fully anyway). The thing I like about local religious communities is that people group together just cos they're local (and usually religious). The emphasis is more on the people coming together, even with the backdrop of religion. Philosophy discussion groups etc can be like that, but like academia the purpose is a bit too rigid, often.

Thanks anticant- I suppose humanism is the closest we have, although I still dislike the "ism", requiring people to ascribe to a set philosophy. Why shouldn't it be completely non-denominational? And I wish it was more widespread, like churches (used to be) with groups in most communities and villages etc. Anyway, I'm finding out about humanism now so thanks!

And Rev Sam again:
"good is whatever God wants". How do you also claim that your conception of good is similar to the general, non-religious conception of good? Is it a coincidence these conceptions coincide?

All the best (getting into the humanist mode of thinking already)
Sally

Sam Norton said...

Jackie - I think you need to look at my post again if you think I don't refer to Jesus (assuming you're talking about my post on what I mean when I talk about God).

Sally - are some of those remarks addressed at someone else, or is it an old post of mine you're talking about (if so, please remind me which one).

The point about language as it relates to God is something I might write up another post about in the next day or so.

Sam Norton said...

Kyle P - Wittgenstein once wrote "God's essence is supposed to guarantee his existence - what this really means is that what is here at issue is not the existence of something."

Sally_bm said...

Hi Sam

Sorry, you're quite right, someone else wrote that . I don't know why I read "who was it who said" and "Rev Sam"! Oops.

Paul C said...

Classically, God is not just that than which none greater can be conceived, but therefore also greater than that which can be conceived.

Yet you've just demonstrated that you can conceive God, in the sense that you've formed an idea of God and expressed it in words. If you think that God cannot be expressed in words, then congratulations - you've just made an argument that it's pointless to discuss God at all, let alone try to attribute any intent to him.

Analogies rely particularly heavily upon ubiquitious principles of charity, and if mine fell it fell on deaf ears.

Actually, no. Analogies rely on having an accurate correspondence with reality, rather than "charity". If your analogy failed, that means that it wasn't robust enough to take the weight of your meaning. The problem with words, you see, is that they have meaning.

Paul C said...

Sam:

That is, there certainly is a difference between the God of Christian faith and the 'God' of the philosophers.

I would tend to agree with this, but the question is, why? It seems to me that the primary reason is that the God of the Christian faith isn't robust enough to stand up to even the most cursory examination without collapsing into contradictions, but I could be wrong.

Kyle P. said...

who was it said, "You have knocked the stuffing out of a straw man, because for me to describe God as that which none greater can be conceived was neither for me to define him to be the unique thing that is that, nor for me to assert that he can be defined into existence in such a way."

Okay, are you claiming that you do not believe in such a "god" then? What was your point in even bringing that up? And again, the term "greater" has lost all meaning if nothing "greater" than it can be conceived. I guess it would be time for the superlative of that word. And again, how could this thing you call "god" be compared to anything at all? It clearly can't, given that you can't even describe its essence.

Sam, that seems to be a non-sequitur. Or are you saying that what is at question is the essence which we give to "god"? It sounds like you're saying if we just conveniently describe "god", then "god" exists. Well, I can say that about unicorns also. If we accept a unicorn as, "A horse that does or does not have a single, long horn protruding from its head", then we can clearly see that unicorns exist. Maybe I'm missing your point, though!

Here's a funny proof that unicorns exist that I heard, believe it or not, on youtube once (by user RabidApe):

If there exists an existing unicorn, then a unicorn exists. There are two possibilities: One, an existing unicorn exists. And two, an existing unicorn does not exist. Option two is clearly contradictory, because an existing unicorn must exist. Therefore, a unicorn exists.

anticant said...

This thread gets sillier and sillier.

no idea who said...

Yes, and unicorns are mentioned in the Bible (as very strong) so they exist. They are what people nowadays call "rhinoceroses." Some fools in the Middle Ages who hadn't even been to Africa probably didn't know that, found a narwhale's horn, connected it with the stong horses that they had in those days, and hey presto: the unicorns that don't exist. I'm wondering why someone as scientific as you would take that fool's definition of a unicorn to be definitive?

Also, pubs? Local public houses are good for communal gathering, readings, philosophical speeches, singing and a little discussion.

Paul C said...

Some fools in the Middle Ages who hadn't even been to Africa probably didn't know that, found a narwhale's horn, connected it with the stong horses that they had in those days, and hey presto: the unicorns that don't exist.

So somebody found the horn of a narwhale (which isn't a rhinoceros), imagined it on the head of a horse (which isn't a rhinoceros), and this demonstrates that unicorns (which apparently is a mistranslation of a word for wild ox, which is neither a horse or a rhinoceros) are in fact rhinoceroses (which bear absolutely no resemblance to horses, wild oxes or unicorns), and therefore the Bible is accurate?

Anticant is right, but I find it hard to imagine how this thread could get sillier.

Sally_bm said...

Hi no idea who said

I think pubs is perhaps the best suggestion! I live in a single-pub village, so the experience here is a bit limited! But in towns/ cities where there's more choice I guess they are good social places. Plus I'm 18 and a bit behind on the whole pub culture thing (*Sally sighs and slips resignedly into middle-age). I'm sure I'll learn all about their wonders at uni though!

Paul C said...

Sally - you want to try growing up in a no-pub village. It concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Anonymous said...

Getting back on topic - the significance of suffering - attempts to downplay it do not see to be consistent with some other aspects of the Christian tradition - the idea that no good deed remains unrewarded or no sin remains unpunished. The Christian God has something of a reputation for being a stickler for detail here. Is this undeserved is he/she/it really a "big picture" sort of deity?

Kyle P. said...

paul c: I think what "no idea" was elaborating on was the discussion we had a while back about making a theory fit the data, versus trying to interpret the data to fit the pre-formed, "inerrant" theory. Good work, no idea!

Who said this thread couldn't get any sillier? :)

Paul C said...

Kyle: indeed. However that unicorn argument is made seriously by Christians, while your argument is made seriously only binge drinkers. I just wanted to dive into the silliness before it got any deeper.

Kyle P. said...

Ha, well-said, Paul! Binge drinkers indeed.

Bruce said...

Today,we are proud to announce the launch of the new wedding support service sell ffxi gil,packed with features sure to sell ffxi gils delight adventurers across Vana'diel looking to exchange eternal vows with their beloved!Responding to player demands for greater customization,the new service will grant brides and grooms freedom in choosing location,timing,dialogue,and sell Final Fantasy XI Gil more for their ceremony,allowing them to create a truly memorable event all their own.Information on all the features,including in-game sell ffxi gil item vendors and wedding certificates,can be found on the new wedding support site,so head on over sell ffxi gils and get started planning the wedding of your dreams sell Final Fantasy XIGil!