Tuesday, December 1, 2009

VSI Humanism, chpt 3 PART 2 (from comments)

Evidential problem of evil: conclusion

We have been looking at the evidential problem of evil – which constitutes perhaps the most powerful argument against traditional monotheism. The particular version of it presented here, which is based on an analogy with the problem of good, has been developed by a number of philosophers, including Peter Millican, Steven Cahn and myself.

Of course, it would be silly to claim to have shown there is no God in just a few pages. I certainly don’t make any such. The aim has merely been to illustrate just how serious a threat the evil god challenge presents to the rationality of Theism.

Notice that my focus here has been on God with a capital “G”. The problem of evil may constitute powerful evidence against a good God, and the problem of good powerful evidence against an evil god, but there are many other god hypotheses we might consider, none of which are threatened by these particular arguments. I don’t happen to believe there exists, for example, an omnipotent but morally neutral god. But at least that particular god hypothesis does not run up against the kind of evidence that appears straightforwardly to falsify the evil god and good God hypotheses.

Also notice that the evil god challenge also constitutes a threat to agnosticism regarding God. Surely, agnosticism is not a reasonable position to adopt regarding an evil God. It is obvious there is no such malignant being. But if agnosticism is not reasonable with regard to the evil god hypothesis, why is it any more reasonable with respect to the good God hypothesis?

“Surely it cannot be fairly obvious there is no God?”

Of course, the suggestion that it could be fairly obvious that the God of traditional monotheism does not exist will strike many – including even some atheists – as odd. How could it be fairly obvious that there is no such God if many millions of people – many of them very smart, educated people – believe in God nevertheless?

But of course religion has an extraordinary track record of getting even smart, educated people to believe things that are fairly obviously false. For example, polls consistently indicate that, currently, about one hundred million U.S. citizens, many of whom are reasonably well-educated – some even college-educated – believe that the entire universe is only about six thousand years old. For anyone with a decent level of education, it should, surely, be fairly obvious that the universe is a lot older than that.

When it comes to religion, the fact that millions of smart, educated people believe something is not good evidence that what they believe is not fairly obviously false (even if it is not obvious to them).

“I can’t prove there is a God, but you can’t prove there isn’t.”

When presented with a rational challenge to their belief, Theists sometimes say, ‘Look, I admit I cannot prove there is a God, but you cannot prove that there isn’t. Theism and atheism are “faith positions”. But then it follows that they are equally reasonable or unreasonable.’

But what, exactly, does ‘prove’ mean here? Prove beyond all possible doubt? It may well be true that we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that there is no god. But then we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that there are no fairies or unicorns or Santa. It’s just possible these things exist (perhaps there has been a huge and elaborate conspiracy to hide the truth from us). But of course, no one insists that belief in the non-existence of Santa is a ‘faith’ position. Certainly it does not follow that belief in Santa is just as reasonable as belief that there is no Santa.

Perhaps the suggestion is that it is not possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does or does not exist? But that is a very contentious suggestion. Actually, many Theists believe that the existence of God can be established beyond reasonable doubt. And almost everyone accepts that the available evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that there is no evil god. But surely, anyone who acknowledges that ought, then, to acknowledge at least the possibility that the evidence might establish beyond reasonable doubt that there is no good God either.

“So how do you atheists explain…?”

If we reject belief in God, how do we respond to one of the questions with which we began chapter two – why does the universe exist? What is our answer? Personally, I don’t happen to have one. This is a profound and baffling puzzle to which I am not sure I have a satisfactory solution.

Some Theists may take this to be an astonishing admission: “If you do not know the answer, they you do not know that our answer is incorrect. Your view is no less a faith position than ours.”

But to admit that one does not know the answer to a question is not to say that certain answers cannot reasonably be ruled out. Suppose Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And he just can’t figure out who dunnit. However, while Holmes can’t say who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is justifiably confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, an atheist can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, whoever or whatever created it (if anything) it certainly wasn’t the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of Christian theology. It may be that they can be as justifiably sure of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil god. Which is something even most Theists are justifiably sure about.

An atheist “leap of faith”?

But don’t we all have to make a “leap of faith” at some point – atheists included? Atheists, after all, believe that they inhabit a physical world filled with trees, houses, mountains and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses appear to reveal. But how can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth?. How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way. So atheists cannot justify their belief that their senses are fairly reliable. Their belief that the world they seem to experience is real involves a huge leap of faith.

Now it seems to many Theists that they directly experience God. So why shouldn’t they place their trust in this experience, in the same way atheists place their trust in their perceptual experiences? Neither, it seems can justify their beliefs based on these experiences. Yet we do not normally consider the atheist’s trust in the reliability of his or her senses to be unreasonable. So why should we consider the theist’s trust in the reliability of his or her religious experiences to be any less reasonable?

Further, the Theist might claim that, precisely because they place their faith in their God experience, they don’t have to place their faith in the reliability of their normal perceptual experiences in the way atheists do. If there is a benevolent God of the sort the theist seems to experience, that God will not allow them to be systematically deceived by their senses. If we believe in God, trusting our senses no longer requires a leap of faith. The reliability of our senses is underwritten by our experience of God.

So, the Theist may conclude, at least for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more or less a faith position than is an atheist’s belief in the external world.

This is an ingenious line of argument, and it may contain some truth. It may be true that atheism is a faith position because any belief one holds about how things stand outside of ones own mind is ultimately a faith position.

But that does not entail that theism and atheism are equally reasonable. One difficulty facing someone who believes in the God of traditional monotheism is that, while their belief that they experience such a God might lead them to trust the deliverances of their other senses, those other senses then quickly furnish them with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent being (see the problem of evil above). Their Theistic assumption quickly ends up undermining itself. That does not appear to be true of the assumption that our senses are generally reliable.

“Sophisticated” theology

Some Theists will be unmoved by the kinds of argument discussed in this and the previous chapter. They may say something like this:

The God that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either. You are working with an outdated and unsophisticated conception of God. “God” is the name I give to whatever is the answer to the question “Why is there anything at all?” – which is something unknowable, ineffable, beyond our understanding. We can say what God is not – that God is not literally a “thing” or “person”, for example. But we cannot say what God is.”

The view that we cannot say what God is, only what God is not, is sometimes termed apophaticism. Apophatic theism has its attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never say what God is, you can never be contradicted or proved wrong.

At first sight, apophatic theism appears to make atheism impossible. For example, say, “There is no such thing as God”, and the apophatic theist will actually agree with you – “Yes, there is indeed no such thing!”

The theologian Denys Turner is a leading exponent of this sort of theism. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (entitled "How to be an Atheist"), Turner says to the atheist:

It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say, “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.” REF P19.

Note Turner’s parting suggestion, here, that the issue between the atheist and a theist like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. Turner goes on to characterize the atheist as someone who isn’t engaged by such questions, who remains steadfastly unamazed and unperplexed by the fact that there is anything at all.

But if that’s what an atheist is, then I am not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to many of them).

Of course, most apophaticists aren’t just expressing wonder and advocating philosophical reflection. Indeed, even while professing ignorance, they often have an awful lot to say about God, even if it is heavily qualified and couched in the language of analogy and metaphor. For example, Turner himself says above that the world was created from nothing, rather than that it was caused, or just appeared from nothing. But as the thought that the world is created tends naturally to lead one on to the thought that it has a creator or cause, it looks as if Turner is here gesturing towards something at least analogous to a transcendent agent or cause. In which case, he is gesturing towards something atheists can begin to get their teeth into.

And of course, many apophatic theists also deem this mysterious, transcendent whatever-it-is worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of how, if it is really unknowable, they can possibly be in a position to know that worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards it?

In fact, if Turner is right and the world is created, doesn’t the appalling amount of suffering it contains give us excellent grounds for adding two more characteristics to the list of those apophaticists say their God is not – their God is not worthy of either our worship or gratitude?

7 comments:

splittter said...

Know it isn't an uncontroversial position, but you could mention that some kind of realism about the external world and some reliability about our senses tracking it based on scientific success is a position a fair amount of philosophers and many scientists broadly subscribe to.

Tony Lloyd said...

Speaking of the epistemological problem of evil (as I was) and the claims of people to direct experience of God (as Stephen was), Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago has been doing a study.

He questioned people on their attitudes, those of God and those of other people. People had, naturally, differing opinions but so it seems does God. God agrees with whoever he's "talking" to.

There's a write up here:

http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/11/creating_god_in_ones_own_image.php

(which I found via a link on PZ Myers' Pharyngula, if the link above doesn't work)

wombat said...

The god of people like Turner is surely not God as you defined earlier. The Bible/Pentateuch etc says all sorts of positive things.

scott roberts said...

But as the thought that the world is created tends naturally to lead one on to the thought that it has a creator or cause, it looks as if Turner is here gesturing towards something at least analogous to a transcendent agent or cause. In which case, he is gesturing towards something atheists can begin to get their teeth into.

I agree that, yes, this is where one can start to discuss the issue. Which is to say, one should throw out all concepts one has of "the traditional God of monotheism", for example, by throwing out any notion that one has understood what it means for God to be omnipotent and good, or creative, etc. Now having done that, one can ask the more basic question: is there a transcendent reality at all? Now if some form of idealist metaphysics is more reasonable than any form of materialist metaphysics, one is inclined to say yes, and the possibility of "transcendent agency or cause" -- speaking analogically, don't forget -- is quite plausible. If not, then not.

Which is to say, that unless and until the metaphysics is settled, all these other arguments and counter-arguments are a waste of time.

To state it another way:

1. I hold, through rational and empirical means alone, that some form of idealism is more likely to be the case than any form of materialism.

2. Some mystics purport to have had a revelation of transcendent reality (and call it Good beyond any of our feeble notions of goodness). As an idealist, it is a rather small leap of faith to accept what they say as authentic, while the conclusion that they are all liars or deluded is quite a larger leap.

3. I can then accept the more sophisticated concepts concerning God as espoused by theologians as having merit, and while perhaps not calling myself a theist, be at least able to find commonality with theism, and to reject atheism and agnosticism.

None of your arguments address point (1), so from my point of view, they are beside the point.

anticant said...

To me, the weakness of this type of discussion lies in the belief that reason can, and will, trump faith. That in itself is surely an irrational example of wishful thinking. As Pascal said, "all our reasoning reduces itself to yielding to feeling".

Anonymous said...

Some mystics purport to have had a revelation of transcendent reality (and call it Good beyond any of our feeble notions of goodness). As an idealist, it is a rather small leap of faith to accept what they say as authentic, while the conclusion that they are all liars or deluded is quite a larger leap.

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Anonymous said...

You say that "almost everyone accepts that the available evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that there is no evil god". I still cannot see what evidence does in fact establish that.

So I cannot see why "agnosticism is not a reasonable position to adopt regarding an evil God" or why it "is obvious there is no such malignant being".