Sunday, December 28, 2008
Could it be pretty obvious there's no God?
[This is from forthcoming book edited by Russell Blackford, called 50 Voices of Disbelief].
“Let us say: 'Either God is or he is not.' But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question.“ Blaise Pascal.
Like Pascal, many theists believe reason cannot determine whether or not God exists. Indeed, many suppose that, because God, if he exists, transcends physical reality, it is in principle impossible for us to determine whether God exists simply by observing
it. Science, and empirical observation more generally, can provide, at best, a few clues. They cannot settle the question beyond reasonable doubt.
I reject that view. It seems to me that by observing the world around us, we can answer the question of whether God exists. In fact, I’m going to suggest it’s pretty obvious there’s no God.
That last claim may surprise even some atheists. How could it be pretty obvious there’s no God? Surely this is a tortuously difficult and complex question over which the greatest minds have pondered for millennia, without ever reaching any real consensus. How, then, can the answer be pretty obvious?
Yet I think it is pretty obvious. I’ll sketch a case for that conclusion here.
To begin, let’s clarify which God we are talking about. The Judeo-Christian god is the God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is, according to religious orthodoxy, all-powerful, all-knowing, and, perhaps most importantly, maximally good – as good as it’s possible to be. Indeed, we’re told that God loves us as if we were his children.
Those who consider belief in this particular deity at least not unreasonable will typically point to a range of arguments to support their belief. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” they may ask. “God explains the existence of the universe. And God’s existence, being necessary, requires no further explanation. So you see? - God provides the only remotely satisfactory answer to this question.”
Or they may run a fine-tuning type argument, like so: “Only a very particular set of laws and initial conditions can create a universe capable of producing conscious beings such as ourselves. What is the probability of the universe having just these features by chance? Astronomically low. Far more likely, then, that some sort of cosmic intelligence deliberately designed the universe that way. That intelligence is God.
These arguments, the theist will usually concede, may not constitute proofs – but they do show that belief in God has at least got something going for it, rationally speaking.
Trouble is, these arguments are very weak.. The most they establish, if anything, is that the universe has some sort of creator or designer. It is, as it stands, a huge further, unwarranted leap to the conclusion that this creator-designer is all-powerful and maximally-good. These arguments, as they stand, no more support that conclusion than they support the conclusion that the creator-designer is, say, maximally evil (which they don’t support at all).
Things get worse. Not only do many (if not all) of the most popular arguments for the existence of God fail to provide much reason to suppose this particular, Judeo-Christian, God exists, there appears to be very powerful evidence against that hypothesis. I am thinking, of course, of the “problem of evil” (“evil” in this context, covers both pain and suffering, and also morally bad behaviour – such as killing, stealing, and so on). In fact, there are two problems of evil – the logical problem, and the evidential problem.
The logical problem of evil
God, if he exists, is all-powerful, and maximally good. But the existence of such a being is surely logically incompatible with the existence of evil. An all-powerful being could prevent evil existing. Being maximally good, he would not want evil to exist As evil exists, it follows, logically, that the Judeo-Christian god does not.
Notice that the amount of evil the world contains is not relevant here. The argument is that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil at all.
The logical problem can perhaps be dealt with by suggesting that God would want to create a maximally good world – a world as good as it is possible for a world to be. And a maximally good world might contain some evil. Why? Because that evil is the price paid for some greater good – a good outweighing the evil. Such a maximally good world would be even better than a world containing no evil.
So, for example, a Christian might claim that free-will is a very great good. True, given free-will, we then sometimes choose to do bad things. But the good of free-will outweighs the badness of those bad things we do, which is why God would still create such a world.
The evidential problem of evil
As I say, the logical problem is that of explaining why an all-powerful maximally good God would allow any evil at all. Perhaps it can be solved. The evidential problem, by contrast, is that of explaining why this God would allow quite so much evil into his creation. Even if we acknowledge that an omnipotent, omniscient and supremely benevolent being might create a world with at least some evil in it, surely there would be no reason for him to create a world containing such extraordinary quantities of pain and suffering?
We can sharpen the problem by noting that God will presumably not allow gratuitous suffering. There must be a good reason for every last ounce of it. But when we consider the enormous quantities of suffering the world contains – including the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans made an appearance (including the literally unimaginable horror caused mass-extinction events the second to last of which wiped 95% of all species from the face of the Earth)– doesn’t it quickly become apparent that it cannot all be accounted for in this way?
So, while the logical problem of evil can perhaps be dealt with, the evidential problem looks, to me, a very serious threat to the rationality of theism. It seems that, not only do most of the popular arguments for the existence of God fail to provide much support to the hypothesis that there’s an all-powerful maximally good God, there is also very powerful evidence against the hypothesis. Far from being a “not unreasonable” thing to believe, then, it’s beginning to look like belief in the Judeo-Christian God is very unreasonable indeed.
How do theists respond to the challenge posed by the evidential problem of evil? Often, by constructing theodicies – theistic explanations for the amount of evil that exists. Many such explanations have been developed. Here are three popular examples.
Free may be invoked to deal not just with the logical problem of evil, but also the evidential problem. Here’s a simple example. God gave us free-will. Free-will is a great good. It also allows for certain important goods, such as our ability to do good of a our own free-will. True, God could compel us always to be good, but then we would be mere puppet beings, and so not morally responsible or praiseworthy for our good actions. Good done of our own volition is a far greater good. True, as a result of our having free-will we sometimes do wrong – we steal, kill and start wars, for example. But these evils are more than outweighed by the goods free-will allows.
This is, to borrow theologian John Hick’s phrase, a “vale of soul making” . God could have made a heaven-like world for us to inhabit. He chose not to, because he wants to give us the opportunity to grow and develop into the kind of noble and virtuous beings he wants us to be. That kind of growth requires a struggle. No pain, no gain. Many people, having come through a terrible disease, say that, while their ordeal was terrible, they don’t regret having been through it. For tt gave them the opportunity to learn about what is really important, to develop morally and spiritually. By causing us pain and suffering, God gives us the invaluable opportunity to grow and develop both morally and spiritually.
The laws of nature theodicy
Effective human action requires the world behave in a regular way (for example, I am able deliberately to light this fire by striking my match only because there are laws that determine that under such circumstances, fire will result from the striking of a match). That there be laws of nature is a prerequisite of our having the ability both to act on our natural environment and interact with each other within it. These abilities allows for great goods. They give us the opportunity to act in a morally virtuous way. True, such a law-governed world inevitably produces some evils. For instance, the kind of laws and initial conditions that produce stable land masses on which we can survive and evolve also produce tectonic shifts that result in earthquakes and tsunamis. Still, the evil earthquakes and tsunamis cause is more than outweighed by the goods these same laws allow. We might think it possible to design a world that, as a result of being governed by different laws and/or initial conditions, contain a far greater ratio of good to evil (that contain stable land masses but no earthquakes, for example), but, due to consequences we have failed to foresee (perhaps the absence of earthquakes is at the cost of some even worse kind of global catastrophe), such worlds will, in reality, always be worse than the actual world
Of course, all three theodicies outlined above have weakness. Take the free-will theodicy: it fails to explain so called natural evils – such as the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters. The character-building theodicy also raises such questions as: why hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering? Did their characters need building too?
Still, many of the faithful, while admitting that the evidential problem of evil is not easily solved, may suggest that such moves, taken together, at least do much to reduce the scale of the evidential problem. Enough, at least, to make belief in God not unreasonable after all. They may also, as a parting shot, play the mystery card.
The mystery card
This really is the best of all-possible worlds. Ultimately, the fact that God would allow such horror does make sense. It’s just that, being mere humans, we can’t see how. Remember, we are dealing here with the mind of God - an infinitely powerful and wise being whose plan is likely to be inscrutable to us. Show a little humility! If there is a God, and this is all part of his divine plan, it’s hardly surprising we can’t make much sense of it all, is it? So the fact that we can’t make much sense of it is poor evidence that there is no God.
I now come to the central aim of this little essay, which is to explain why I find these kind of responses to the evidential problem of evil woefully inadequate. Indeed, I believe it remains pretty obvious there’s no such God. I’ll explain why by means of an analogy.
The evil God hypothesis and the problem of good
Suppose that there is no all-powerful, maximally good God. There is, instead, an all-powerful, maximally evil God. His depravity knows no limits, his cruelty no bounds. Call this the evil God hypothesis.
Suppose I believe in such a being. How reasonable is my belief? Surely, very unreasonable indeed.
But why? After all, as they stand, the two popular arguments for the existence of God we examined earlier, provide, as we saw, just as much support for the evil God hypothesis as they do the standard good God hypothesis. As these arguments are widely supposed by Christians, Jews and Muslims to provide significant rational support to their belief, shouldn’t they acknowledge that, as they stand, they provide much the same level of support the evil God hypothesis.
But of course, hardly anyone believes the evil God hypothesis. It’s immediately dismissed by almost everyone as, not just not reasonable, but as downright unreasonable. It’s pretty obvious there’s no such being. But why?
Well, isn’t there overwhelming evidence against the evil God hypothesis - the evidence provided by the enormous amounts of good that exist in the world? Perhaps an evil God would allow some good into his creation for the sake of greater evils, but would he allow quite so much? Why does he allow love, laughter and rainbows, which give us so much pleasure? Why would an evil God allow us children to love, who love us unconditionally in return? Evil god hates love! And why would an evil God allow us to help each other and relieve each others’ suffering? That’s the last thing an evil God would do, surely?
Perceptive readers will have noticed that this objection to belief in an evil God mirrors the problem of evil. If you believe in an all-powerful maximally good God, you face the problem of explaining why there is quite so much evil. If you believe in an all-powerful, maximally evil God you face the problem of explaining why there’s so much good. We might call the latter problem the problem of good.
Despite the fact that the evil God hypothesis is about as well supported by many of the most popular arguments for the existence of God as the good God hypothesis, almost everyone immediately dismisses it as silly and absurd. And rightly so. Why? Because of the overwhelming empirical evidence against it provided by the problem of good.
But now consider these moves that might be made to deal with the problem of good.
Reverse Free-will theodicy
Why would an evil God allow us to selflessly help each other and reduce suffering? Well, evil God gave us free-will. Free-will allows for certain important evils, such as the ability to do evil of our own free-will. True, God could have simply compelled us always to do evil, but then we would be mere puppet beings, and so not morally responsible or blameworthy for our evil actions. For true moral depravity we must freely choose to do wrong. That’s why evil God gave us free-will. It allows for the very great evil of moral depravity. True, as a result of being given free-will we sometimes choose to do good things – such as help each other and reduce suffering. But these goods are more than outweighed by the evil free-will brings.
In addition, free-will also allows for certain important forms of psychological suffering. True, God could have just tortured us for all eternity with a red-hot poker, but how much more satisfying and evil to mess with our minds. By giving us free-will and also weak and selfish natures, evil God can ensure that we suffer the agony of temptation. And then, when we succumb, we feel the torture of guilt. We can only suffer these deeper, psychological forms of anguish if we are given (or are given the illusion of ) free-will.
Hick was mistaken: this is a vale, not of soul making, but of soul-destruction. Evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair.
Why, then, does an evil god create natural beauty? To provide some contrast. To make what is ugly seem even more so. If everything were uniformly, maximally ugly, we wouldn’t be tormented by the ugliness half as much as if it was peppered with some beauty.
The need for contrast to maximize suffering also explains why evil god bestows upon a few people lavish lifestyles and success. Their great fortune is designed to make the suffering of the rest of us even more acute. Who can rest content knowing that they have so much more, that they are undeserving, and that no matter how hard we might strive, we will never achieve what they have. Remember, too, that even those lucky few are not really happy.
Why does evil God allow us to have beautiful children to love and that love us unconditionally in return? Because we will worry endlessly about them. Only a parent knows the depths of anguish and suffering that having children brings.
Why does an evil god give us beautiful, healthy young bodies? Because we know that out health and vitality will be short-lived, that we will either die young or else wither and become incontinent, arthritic and repulsive. By giving us something wonderful for a moment, and then gradually pulling it away, an evil god can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it in the first place.
Reverse laws of nature theodicy
Effective and purposeful action requires the world behave in a regular way. That there be laws of nature is a prerequisite of our having the ability to both act on our natural environment and interact with each other within it. These abilities allows for great evils. For example, they give us the opportunity to act in morally depraved ways – by killing and torturing each other. By giving us these abilities, evil god also allows us to experience certain important psychological forms of suffering such as frustration – we cannot try, and become frustrated through repeated failure, unless we are first given the opportunity to act. True, such a law-governed world inevitably produces some goods. For example, in giving us the ability to act within a physical environment, evil god gave us the ability to avoid that which causes us pain and seek out that which gives us pleasure. Still, such goods are more than outweighed by the evils these laws allow. We might think it possible to design a world that, as a result of being governed by different laws and/or initial conditions, contain a far greater ratio of evil to good (that contain far more physical pain and far less pleasure, for example), but, due to consequences we have failed to foresee (perhaps the greater suffering will result in us being far more charitable, sympathetic and generally good towards others), such worlds will, in reality, always be better than the actual world.
Of course, if these reverse theodicies fail to convince, then I can always play the mystery card:
The mystery card
This really is the worst of all-possible worlds. Ultimately, the fact that an evil God would allow love, laughter and rainbows does make perfect sense. It’s just that, being mere humans, we can’t see how. Remember, we are dealing here with the mind of God – a being of infinite power and guile. Show a little humility! If there is an evil God, and this is all part of his divine plan, it’s hardly surprising we can’t make much sense of it all, is it? So the fact that we can’t make much sense of it is not good evidence that there’s no evil God.
Many other (if not all ) standard theodicies can be similarly reversed. Should we conclude, then, that we were mistaken? Should we suppose that belief in an evil God is, despite the apparent evidence against to the contrary, not unreasonable after all?
Of course not. The evil God hypothesis remains pretty obviously false. The fact that we can gerrymander such explanations for what looks to be overwhelming evidence against the evil God hypothesis doesn’t show that there isn’t overwhelming evidence against the hypothesis, or that the evil God hypothesis is not, indeed, a very silly thing believe.
Ditto, I suggest, the good God hypothesis. The good God hypothesis, far from being something it’s impossible for reason to determine the truth or falsity of, is, in fact, straightforwardly empirically falsified. It is, to any one with eyes to see, pretty obviously false (the real mystery, I think, is why so many fail to see this).
Perhaps the universe has a creator. Perhaps there is some sort of intelligence behind it. But, even if there is, we can be very sure it’s not the evil God, can’t we? So why can’t we be equally sure it’s not the good God? We may not know what or who did create the universe, if anything. We can still be pretty sure who didn’t.
Of course, those who believe the good God hypothesis will no doubt now try to establish some asymmetry between the good and evil God hypotheses. There are some asymmetries, in fact. But I cannot see that any of them tilt the scale of reasonableness significantly in the direction of the good God hypothesis. Which is why I don’t believe it. Seems to me the good God hypotheses, like the evil God hypothesis, is pretty obviously false.