The "It's hopelessly impressionistic!" response to the evidential problem of evil

The suggestion that the evidential problem of evil is pretty useless as an argument against the existence of God because it is based on claims about suffering, etc. that are hopelessly "impressionistic" has come up several times recently.

David Hart made the move in response to my contribution to 50 Voices of Disbelief (see this post). And now "Fun with Formal Ideas" runs the same move in a comment on the preceding post.

So it's worth dealing with. Here's the comment on the preceding post (nb by "Eth" commentator means the God of Eth):

"Eth is impressionistic, Stephen, it is not founded in any facts, data or evidence where these may be considered synonymous or statistically significant and relies finally upon a appeal to common sense."

David Hart said:

"Nicholas Everitt and Stephen Law recycle the old (and incorrigibly impressionistic) argument that claims of God’s omnipotence seem incompatible with claims of his goodness."

{POST SCRIPT: as TAM's transcript of the radio prog reveals, Denis Alexander also hints at the "It's hopelessly impressionistic" move. Re. huge amounts of suffering, Alexander says: "we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but..."}

The objection seems to be that assessments of how much good or evil exists are so subjective and unreliable as to be pretty worthless as evidence. Pain and suffering, for example, cannot be given numerical values, or reliably measured using a calibrated instrument in the way, say, mass or velocity can. Ditto happiness, etc.

Does this really deal the evidential problem of evil a fatal blow?

I don't see why.

The evidential problem of evil (and mirror problem in the God of Eth) is based on the empirical observation that the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering. This provides us with excellent evidence there is no all-powerful all-good God, in the same way immense amounts of (from an evil God's point of view) seemingly pointless good is excellent evidence there's no evil God either.

Consider a different scenario - a school run by an all-powerful headmaster whom we never see. But we can see how his school is run. Many pupils are beaten senseless, forced to eat shit, and left physically and psychologically crippled by their experiences. Others have wonderful gifts bestowed on them - great food, education, etc. The distribution of these goods and evils appears to be pretty random.

Now consider two hypotheses - that the school is run by a supremely wicked headmaster, and that the school is run by a supremely good headmaster. Both are pretty decisively ruled out by what we observe of the way the school is run.

Notice that the fact that we cannot give numerical values to the pleasures and pains we observe being dealt out, or place them on some sort of objective, calibrated weighing scale, is largely irrelevant. It does not follow that the argument against each hypothesis is based on evidence that is "hopelessly impressionistic".

If that *did* follow, no conclusions about the moral properties of any individual could ever be drawn on the basis of the pleasures or pains they knowingly inflicted. For the reasoning we used would similarly be based on assessments that were "hopelessly impressionistic"!

The "hopelessly impressionistic" response to the evidential problem of evil is, in short, mere smokescreen.

For the evidential problem of evil and my version of it go here.

What complicates things is that the "hopelessly impressionistic" move is often mixed together with a "no-see-um" move (I think Hart is running a combination of the two - though it's hard to be sure).


Stephen Law said…
PS DM will no doubt post another of his loopy comments here shortly. Let's ignore him...
DM said…
little liar, stephen...

welcome to THE REAL WORLD...

how about I believe in WHATEVER I want and you have nothing to say!

let me show you the end results of this particular *ONE-DIMENSIONAL SCIENTIFIC MODE*
of thinking that is called *CRITICAL THINKING*, which is completely divorced from
any human objectives...

this style has been perfected by dawkins, pz, randi and the other *NEW ATHEISTS*
hey, atheists don't even BELIEVE IN BOOBIES!!!
they thought BOOBIES had no effect... WRONG!

see, I just want to make it clear to the rest of you:
jen is unable to see that there is a CONFLICT BETWEEN EROS & SCIENCE....

see how we take a term and convert it into its AUTHENTIC POLITICAL DIMENSION - THAT
OF LIBERATION - not just merely harmless expression...

Visit for the BOOBQUAKE:
Martin said…
I'd challenge your empirical observation that "the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering" with two observations of my own. Most of the universe appears to be completely lifeless, leaving just a tiny pinpoint, the earth, where there is suffering. Secondly, what does "immense" mean, when there are no other measures of suffering to calibrate it against?
DM said…
stephen you are superficial little thinker trying to FIGHT THE SUPERNATURAL...

Steve said…
I listened to you debating some Christian Scientist on a podcast where you raise this issue. He really didn't answer your points that if there is a God he is neither all good as the Xtians want or all evil as he has allowed the Universe to contain both good and evil. I agree that it is clear that if there is a god, he hasn't taken any sides in the good vs evil debate.
Use Occam's razor - don't add complexity to explain something when a more simple explanation will do the job. No need for a god when there is no evidence or need for one. Why people can't see that I don't know.
wombat said…
If one were to simply argue that the evil is not in fact pointless but is a route to a greater good, then, as you say, the same argument can be still applied for an evil God. Isn't there a further point here though, in that this "greater good" is only realized in an afterlife of some sort (as if the old pupils of the capricious headmaster invariably turned up as adults with glowing testimonials like "Well, although I couldn't see it then of course, being thrashed at random made me the success I am today...") and what we do to each other in this life doesn't much matter. Ok we are not supposed to inflict suffering on others etc. but it's not a really important kind of suffering is it? After all its how you bear you own suffering that matters not how much you dole out...

Are theists really content with the downgrading of life in the temporal world that this seems to entail?
This was painful to transcribe but here in an unedited transcript of Denis' initial response to Stephen's evil god hypothesis:

We're in a pretty poor position, uh really ... not being God, to weigh up .. you know ... the pros and cons of, let's say the level of suffering or pain and so forth and, I mean there is, there are of course various, as I'm sure Stephen well knows, there are very standard responses to this, I mean one is we, we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but we all know also of examples where you know suffering actually can be good for people or can be there for a particular purpose that we, the person, the individual doesn't know about but which they find out later on or they don't find out later on so I think the Christian argument can take several approaches here but I think one is, of course, that it may be that the only way in which thinking freely, choosing beings, intelligent beings, can come into being is through carbon based life and certainly the evolutionary account would suggest that, you know, people playing with silicone based life and so forth, but in terms of the sort of life that we know about, that can be intelligent life, that can appreciate the universe, that can have consciousness, that can choose between good and evil and so forth, that seems to be carbon based life, and there are good biochemical reasons actually for thinking that's probably the only kind of life we're going to find anywhere in the universe, I mean the universe is uniformly the same from the point of view of its chemistry and biochemistry and we can see a very long way into the universe so biochemically it's looking pretty uniform so it seems quite likely that carbon based life is the only kind of life that is possible. Now if that is the case, it might turn out to be the case and this is what we don't know, that really if you want beings who can freely respond to god's love or not who have free choice then this is the kind of universe that you're going to have to have and, also, it's a universe with costs, it's a universe with particular costs, and of course if it's the only universe, then it will be very hard to mount any kind of defence against Stephen's critique but, you know, the Christian will obviously want to say that we're looking forward to new heavens and a new earth where these things won't be the case so there are certain goods that will be achieved and there's a certain price in achieving those goods.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I just listened to the podcast. I thought it was good, and you gave some insights that I hadn't heard before.

When the discussion went to the 'fine-tuning' of the universe, I immediately thought of Paul Davies, whom I believe has written the best words on this, and I wasn't surprised when you mentioned his name.

Chance plays a much greater role in nature than people realise: not just quantum mechanics, but chaos theory and complexity. Even statistical analysis of evolutionary branching reveals an exponential rule (like radioactive decay) not a standard mean (like a bell curve).(New Scientist, 13 March 2010)

I liked your point that people sometimes confound a metaphor with reality without realising it (the mountain of guilt causing an earthquake, is of itself a good analogy).

You also make a good point about non-spatial-temporal agencies involved in a spatial-temporal world. Alexander talks about 'mind' which is the nub of the argument. Without mind there would be no god, and no good or evil as a concept either.

He points to Christ as the response to both of your arguments: evil god and non-spatial-temporal god. But one could argue that Christians project their mind-conceptual-benelovent-god onto Christ, rather than the other way round.

The Hindus do attempt to address your point, by the way, because Shiva is both giver and destroyer. Likewise, the Judeo-Christian God is like a stern father who both loves and punishes his children. It's just that the punishment is not only severe but eternal.

Regards, Paul.
Good morning, Stephen.

“The "It's hopelessly impressionistic!" response to the evidential problem of evil”

I don’t recall using that adjective but I suppose as a misquote it’s fairly mild, although the touch of hysteria looks tactical. If you wish I can say something like that. How about:

“Eth is pathetically impressionistic.”

Or we could go for the much stronger:

“Eth is pathetically impressionistic!”

Perhaps I’ve misjudged your false quote. It may not be tactical and instead you’re just going with your guts, your false quote intended to convey to your more avid readers your impression of the arguments against Eth. Yes, that must be it, but let me know if I can help, won’t you? An imagination is a terrible thing to waste when there are so many dialogues to be dreamt up and thoughts to be experimented upon.

I’ll try to reply on the original post later today. Enjoy your morning, Stephen.
Stephen Law said…
"Hopelessly impressionistic" is the title I am giving to the argument, which many people run.

David Hart uses it, placing the adjective "incorrigibly" in front of "impressionistic").

As TAM's transcription of Alexander reveals, Alexander also hints at it: re. levels of suffering: "we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but..."

So I wasn't intending to quote you directly (I do accurately quote you, of course).

However, I did assume you take the charge of being "impressionistic" to undermine, i.e. to render hopeless as an argument, the evidential problem of evil. If you are complaining about that - well, yes: I am guilty as charged.

But is that not your position?

Looking forward to your responses....
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for the transcript TAM. It's interesting how much is telegraphed rather than explained.
wombat said…
Atheist Missionary

So from the transcript (I'm impressed by your industry!) we get

1. (Implied) God is omnipotent but constrained by laws of some sort.

2. The only form of thinking life with free will possible is carbon based.

3. Some evil is a consequence of it being this type of universe, capable of carbon based life.

4. We are looking forward to a universe where this is not the case.

Yipee! No more evil..

Now doesn't (4) mean that we are going to abandon thought and free will in the next life? You'd be kind of disappointed if you could feel such things without thought and free will.

Either that or (2) or (3) is wrong.
Stephen Law said…
Wombat - that there is no free will in the after life is the view of e.g. philosopher of religion Tim Mawson (and maybe Swinburne - I have not checked.).
wombat said…
Ive seen the idea of there being no free will in the afterlife elsewhere too. Is it a concept that the Christian in the street is comfortable with? Aside from it at first glance being like most people's idea of a living hell - a sort of spiritual version of "locked in syndrome", it seems to suffer the same problem as the non-spatial mountain and the non-temporal agent in that it seems to be a state where morality is not possible, pleasure cannot be experienced, intellectual satisfaction never achieved. It is non-existence as far as most people would understand it.

Is Denis signing up to that? Doesn't sound like its going to fill the pews.
Stephen Law said…
I think pleasure is still possible, but moral agency won't be, of course. I agree it's not what many suppose they are signing up for!
This comment has been removed by the author.
wombat and stephen, your ponderings about the afterlife reminded me of this caricature:
Sam Norton said…
Stephen, you say "The evidential problem of evil... is based on the empirical observation that the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering."

What does 'seemingly pointless' add to the argument? I think that you can (just about) argue that suffering as such is an empirical phenomenon - but surely whether it is pointless or not cannot be assessed empirically.
wombat said…
So the greatest possible good, the one that trumps all other goods, the one that justifies any amount of the bad stuff, the cornerstone of countless theodicies - free will - is simply not available in the afterlife.

Stephen Law said…

Suppose someone I assumed was good tortures somebody.

That's pretty good evidence they're not so good after all, UNLESS I discover that e.g. the torture was of a terrorist to prevent explosion of a bomb that would kill millions. Then I can see there was a point to it, and so maybe they are good, despite the torture.

But if the torture was seemingly pointless, then it is good evidence they ain't so good.
Sam Norton said…
Stephen, you're assuming that torture is bad. I agree with you, but I'm pretty sure it's not an empirical perception or judgement, which is my point.
Stephen Law said…
No, you never mentioned "bad" before, Sam. What exactly is your point? Do you have some sort of objection to the problem of evil?
Paul P. Mealing said…
Your point about torture raises an interesting point about war in general, where one person's evil is another person's heroic act, like 9/11, for example. There is a subjective element involved.

But suffering is universal, whether it's created by nature or man. Just because you can't specify a quantitative scale to it doesn't mean that it's not empirically validated. If you believe that God created the universe and everything else in it, then you must acknowledge that 'He' (assuming God has such anthropomorphic attributes as gender and intelligence and morality) must have created suffering as part thereof.

Regarding Wombat's comment on an afterlife and free will, it just indicates that any speculation about an afterlife is also anthropomorphic in the extreme.

An afterlife, by definition, assumes sentience without a brain, for which there is nothing in this world with which to compare.

Regards, Paul.
Sam Norton said…
Stephen, I think you're muddying the waters (rather ironic, given what you say about the religious). My question/assertion is extremely simple.

You said "The evidential problem of evil... is based on the empirical observation that the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering."

I dispute that "pointless" is an empirical judgement.
Geert A. said…
Sam Norton is right to point out that many of the adjectives used by Stephen are subjective and non-empirical (e.g. "pointless" suffering).

However, remember that this vocabulary is actually not introduced by Stephen himself but by the theological camp.

Let me explain.

Remember that there is only one empirical observation to be made about Gods: there is no clear empirical evidence for such entity or entities at all and thus there is no empirical reason to hold the hypothesis 'God(s) exists'.

That's all there is to say about that actually.

Now, Sam Norton says "Stephen, you're assuming that torture is bad. I agree with you, but I'm pretty sure it's not an empirical perception or judgement, which is my point."

When talking about a non-defined Allmighty God, calling torture bad would be subjective indeed. As it would be to assume there is only one.

However, when discussing the Christian God we may well use the magical / subjective frame theologists have introduced and use "torture is bad" to disprove "Him".

Stephen did not "mud the waters" the waters were already mudded.
Hi Stephen.

“"Hopelessly impressionistic" is the title I am giving to the argument, which many people run.”

I suppose if it helps you think about it then who am I to object. Reads like a cartoon of the argument, for the sake of the gallery.

“David Hart uses it, placing the adjective "incorrigibly" in front of "impressionistic").”

I don’t think it’s pedantic to point out that incorrigible and hopeless have different meanings.

“As TAM's transcription of Alexander reveals, Alexander also hints at it: re. levels of suffering: "we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but..."”

Yes. More on this later, I expect.

“So I wasn't intending to quote you directly (I do accurately quote you, of course).”

Your cartoon quotes both myself and David Hart neither directly nor accurately.

“However, I did assume you take the charge of being "impressionistic" to undermine, i.e. to render hopeless as an argument, the evidential problem of evil. If you are complaining about that - well, yes: I am guilty as charged.”

With all this reaching you're bound to sprain something.

“But is that not your position?”

If it isn’t then what title shall you give it? I can’t wait to see.

“Looking forward to your responses.... ”

Here; you say that now.
Sam Norton said…
Geert, that's all beside the point. My views on a/theism are irrelevant to the question at issue. Stephen made a point, I think it needs either further explanation or rewriting. You say the language comes from the theological camp - maybe it does, maybe it doesn't - my challenge is to get Stephen to make his argument without using such language. It's a very small contention, but I find the over-reaction rather revealing.
Stephen Law said…
Fun with Formal Ideas clearly is a troll and can sod off. His future points will be deleted.

Sam - as per usual, I have no idea which question I am supposed to be answering, or why. Rather than embarking on the usual wild goose chase, can I ask, is it any of the following (and if it isn't, what is it, exactly?):

(1) Stephen, you must articulate the problem of evil without using moral concepts. Can you do so? (my question to Sam: why must I articulate it without using moral concepts?)

(2) Stephen, you say that whether or not an action is pointless/has a point can be empirically established. How?

(3) Stephen, your argument presupposes that we can empirically establish moral facts. We can't. Or, if you think we can, explain how.

By the way, (2) and (3) are distinct questions. Would be a mistake to run them together. If Sam wants answers to both questions, can he say so, please.
Stephen Law said…
Sam, I do very much hope your not again employing "the way of questions"! See this earlier post I made after a very, very long and largely pointless exchange with you.

Do please list precisely what questions you want answered (a list) and what the relevance of the questions is.
Sam Norton said…
Mainly (2) but I'd be grateful for explanation of how it differs from (3).

(1) is oxymoronic.
Sam Norton said…
From that earlier post: "Oh dear, someone has just made a very telling objection to one of your cult's core beliefs. How do you respond? Why not use that time-honoured bullshitter’s technique: the way of questions. First, suggest your critic is being crude and unsubtle in his or her thinking. Then ask them a rather vague question that is only tenuously related to their objection (but make sure it contains some of the same key words as the objection, so it seems like it could be relevant)."

Hmm. Seems like a perfect description of your response to me in this thread!!

Going back to my earlier comment, how exactly is my saying "I dispute that "pointless" is an empirical judgement" in any way obscure or unclear? You continue to obfuscate and confuse, bringing in old posts and arguments to what is surely a very simple and straightforward issue.

Perhaps I've stumbled on something more significant than I realised.

I'll shut up and go away if you want me to.
Stephen Law said…
OK. QUESTION: Stephen, you say that whether or not an action is pointless/has a point can be empirically established. How?

ANSWER: Whether an action has a point, or is pointless, depends on what ones aims are. If I want to make bread rise, there's a point to adding yeast, and not much point in adding chalk.

That there is a point in adding yeast, and not much point in adding chalk, is empirically establishable.

Notice the above example has nothing to do with morality.

Re the good god hypothesis, I assume that a good god will aim to maximize good. He will not aim to introduce or allow pointless suffering (suffering that is not e.g. the price he has to pay for some greater good.)

*Some* suffering might clearly have such a point, given the larger aims of such a being. That it might have such a point might even be empirically established (e.g. we might empirically discover that certain pains are inevitable if we want to achieve other goods).

However, in the absence of any evidence of it being for some such point, huge quantities of (thus "seemingly pointless") suffering is evidence that there is no all-powerful all-good god who aims to maximize good.
Stephen Law said…
Sam - no don't go away - only trolls are banned, and you are not one.

But you do ask very ambiguous questions, and also switch questions, and endlessly ramify questions, which leads to considerable frustration for me (and no doubt also for Geert A., whom you now claim has misunderstood what you are asking and why).

Hence my insistence that you clarify which precisely which question you are asking, and why.
Sam Norton said…
Stephen, you seem to be importing the conclusion into your premise. You've changed the language to 'aims' but the substantive point is still there, you've just shifted the language. Are 'aims' empirically establishable? I would say no, in just the same way as establishing something as 'pointless' is not empirically establishable.

Just to spell it out:

a) my aim (or 'point') is to make bread;
b) adding yeast to dough and cooking it will make bread;
c) it is empirically establishable that b) is true

doesn't establish that b) is either pointless or not without assuming the truth of a), which you've assumed, rather than argued for or demonstrated.
Stephen Law said…
Yes except you forget I am running an argument against the hypothesis that there is a God with such aims.

If I see someone has been mixing flour, water etc, but instead of adding yeast has added chalk, I will justifiably conclude that either this was a mistake on their part, or else their aim was not to make risen, edible bread.

As the all-powerful creator doesn't make mistakes, his introduction of huge quantities of pointless suffering into his creation is similarly excellent evidence that his aim is not to maximize good. In which case he ain't your God.

I guess you'll now switch to different question: "But how do you know it is pointless?" etc.
Stephen Law said…
In any case, aims and intentions are empirically establishable. They do it in court every day.
Sam Norton said…
re: your 11.45 comment first, I think "empirical" re court cases is different from "empirical" re philosophical/scientific discussion. I could be wrong.

re: your 11.43 comment, I'd remind you of my original comment in this thread, ie what does 'pointless' add to the argument? Why don't you just restrict it to 'suffering', ie creator makes world with lots of suffering, therefore can't be good?

Given a premise of 'God intends there to be (no or minimal) suffering' I would accept that there is empirical evidence (of suffering) that counts against that premise. I see that as the core of your argument.

I still don't see what the language of 'pointless' adds, except as an amplifier.
wombat said…
Re: "Pointless" suffering.

In some cases we can discern a point to the suffering. Either it is self inflicted for a perceived greater gain (training for a marathon) or by others for the good of society (e.g judicial punishment) or simply for fun. At the very least this excludes those instances where someone else could reasonably be said to be the agent involved. Its an attempt to let God off at least a little bit perhaps? There's still a huge amount of suffering with no discernible agent.

Indeed if you are God even the marathon runner's travails are pointless. Plenty of people achieve their goal through long hard work without actually suffering. For example staying in and practicing the violin for two hours every night instead of going out with friends. So make the runner show discipline, hard work and self sacrifice but why make him suffer? The only time suffering has a point per se is surely when the suffering is the point. Torture and punishment basically.
Stephen Law said…
The point of "pointless" Sam is not, as you suggest, as an amplifier. If there were clearly a point to certain examples suffering, from such a God's point of view, it would not then be evidence against his existence.

It's only if suffering is seemingly pointless - if there's no discernible reason why such a being would inflict it - that it's good evidence against such a being.

Hope this finally clears this up.
Stephen Law said…
re court case - it's the same old "empirical" Sam.

In court, we need evidence (obviously empirically-based) not just that A killed B, but that A did so intentionally, before we can reasonably find A guilty of first degree murder. This happens all the time. The intentions of others can be established beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of empirical evidence.
ABC said…
Is the debate over the pointlessness (or not) of suffering not the essential distinction between the logical and evidential problems of evil, as well as being quite key to the latter argument?

i.e. there appears to be no obvious point to certain forms of suffering, but in theory it's logically possible God could have some reason to allow it/inflict it, therefore (logically) the existence of apparently pointless evil is not incompatible with the existence of an all good God

However, the fact that, despite exhaustive investigation, we can't seem to see any plausible reason for an all good God to allow certain types of suffering would therefore suggest it's unlikely an all good God exists

On the latter view, if the theist thinks there is a point to all forms of suffering obviously they have to explain why, preferably in a manner that doesn't rely on the usual absurd rationalisations, special pleading moves etc. that are prevalent in religious apologetics, and(as Stephen has presented in his arguments) in a manner that makes the hypothesis more likely than an all evil God that sometimes allows for good to happen
Paul P. Mealing said…
Everyone acknowledges the value or merit of 'sacrifice' to achieve a goal, which could include anything from winning a football grandfinal to combating climate change.

However, if you want an example of 'pointless' suffering look no further than the animal kingdom, leave humans out of it altogether.

The question I ask is: why would anyone worship a 'god' who created suffering? It's the most perverse idea I've ever heard of. I came to this conclusion in my teens, and I haven't changed it since.

Regards, Paul.
Sam Norton said…
Re: the court example, I think you're stretching 'empirical' to suit your own purposes (quick wiki reference for how 'empirical' is normally used: )

You seem now to accept that "pointless" is not empirical - that is, it only functions in your argument because of the prior premise about the nature of a good God (which is an entirely separate argument, which we needn't get into).

You haven't shown that a "point" can be empirically established, which was my original concern.
Stephen Law said…
The wiki page you refer to says empirical includes information gained by observation. What's the problem?

In a court, the evidence is all empirical (note that testimony is a form of empirical evidence).

I now have no idea what you are objecting to. Can you spell it out, please. Not a question, an objection, making clear precisely what you are objecting to and precisely what the nature of your objection is. Thanks...
Stephen Law said…
Of course, that God aims to maximize good (or at least won't introduce suffering that is not the price paid for greater goods) is not a claim made on the basis of empirical observation. Rather, that is just the God hypothesis I aim to refute. Is the claim that it is not an empirically based judgement your point? I have no idea. If it is, so what? What is the relevance to my argument? How does it undermine it? Where are you going with this?
Sam Norton said…
Seems like you're indulging in the way of questions!! :)

My original comment: "Stephen, you say "The evidential problem of evil... is based on the empirical observation that the universe is filled with immense amounts of seemingly pointless suffering."

What does 'seemingly pointless' add to the argument? I think that you can (just about) argue that suffering as such is an empirical phenomenon - but surely whether it is pointless or not cannot be assessed empirically."

You haven't shown that "pointless" can be established empirically. It is dependent upon prior assumptions about goals; for the purposes of your argument, it is dependent on prior assumptions about the goodness of God. Which is fine, I don't particularly have a problem with your logic on this, I just don't think you can claim that 'pointlessness' is an empirical observation.
Stephen Law said…
Ah, I see, you have no objection at all.


I have now explained why the apparent pointless of the suffering is worth pointing out. If it were not pointless, from a good God's point of view, it would not be evidence against such a God. Don't you accept this? Apparently not cos you ask the same question again.
Stephen Law said…
One last clarification. Tons of suffering that doesn't allow for greater goods is pointless, given the aims of a good God.

That there appears to be a great deal of such suffering is an empirical observation. How else could you know such suffering exists (other than in your own case)?

Of course, its pointlessness is relative to the aims of the God we are considering (it's not pointless relative to an evil god), which are just assumed here. If that's your point, well yes, obviously....

We can observe that if there's a good God, this suffering would seem to be pointless (note the "seemingly" - there might still be a point, but there's none we can discern), but if there's an evil God, there would obviously be a point to it.

I am hoping this is now clear and we can move on. Also glad you have clarified you are not, in any case, raising any sort of objection to my argument.
Sam Norton said…
Actually, I think my view was pretty explicit in my very first comment; as I said 'it's a very small contention'. We agree that 'pointlessness' isn't empirical, but, given a claim about "pointfulness" (to use that language) then there may be consequences that can be empirically assessed. I'm glad we've agreed.

So all the weight of the argument comes with how you assess the nature of 'good' when it comes to talking about God, but we've gone round the houses on that too, and I know what you think about apophaticism... :o)
Stephen Law said…
I know you think your point was clear, but I am afraid it wasn't clear to me, or to Geert, for that matter! One of the questions you asked was: "What does 'seemingly pointless' add to the argument?" Hopefully you can now see what it adds.

Incidentally, God's aims are assumed for the purposes of this argument. Not empirically established. But, just to repeat, that is not to say that aims cannot ever be empirically established, they can - in a court of law, they often are.
Martin said…
Give me an example that justifies "the universe is filled". My own empirical observation is that "the universe is devoid of suffering, except on earth". Suffering has never been observed anywhere, except on earth.

Secondly, justify the phrases "immense" and "tons of suffering". That there is some, there is no doubt. But why stress that there is a very large amount, except to introduce the idea that there is too much for there to be a good God?
wombat said…

Minor quibble but I believe some astronauts have had rather an uncomfortable time of it.

It's another train of thought though - the Universe isn't filled with anything much at all which doesn't seem to point to any kind of experience, good or evil, being maximized. It's pretty much empty, as the author of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" pointed out.
Martin said…
Good point Wombat, but that still makes my observation trillions of times more accurate than Stephen's.

I am curious as to how easily Stephen's argument slips from suffering to evil. Yes, we all experience suffering at some time in our lives. Evil I interpret as inflicting unnecessary suffering upon others. I am much less sure that evil is particularly common.

If suffering were a simple attribute which God had introduced, but which was strictly speaking unnecessary, then we could say that God was being evil. However I don't believe suffering is unnecessary. Pain for instance is a necessary evolutionary consequence of having a physical body that can be harmed. Pain is a warning that physical damage is occurring to our bodies. Strategies to avoid pain help ensure our physical bodies are kept intact and healthy. Other types of suffering have similar evolutionary causes.

If you think as I do, then the existence of suffering tells us nothing about whether God exists or not. I happen to believe that there is no God, but even if there is, and somehow we were designed attribute by attribute, then suffering would still be a necessary attribute of a thinking being with a physical body. Suffering is the part of pain which we are able to transmit to other conscious beings.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Martin, by "filled" I didn't mean spatially filled, like a bucket. I mean there's a lot, like hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering.

The point you make about pain could be made in defence of an evil God re pleasure. e.g. He had to give us bodies that produced pleasurable responses when fed food, got sex, etc. as otherwise we would not pursue these things, the species would die out, and so no more suffering. Does that rescue the evil God hypothesis? I think not.

Of course we can think up some benefits to pain, as we can some downsides to pleasure. That's not the point.
wombat said…
FWIW the "hundreds of millions of years" worth is pretty much the time equivalent of the empty Universe. There were (as best we can tell) billions of animal free years in the past before anything evolved enough to suffer. Anyway thats not the point. Lots of suffering on a human scale either way.


I disagree with "suffering would still be a necessary attribute of a thinking being with a physical body."

I suspect that is more like "a thinking being with a physical body is necessary for suffering". Suffering seems to be an emotional reaction to physical pain amongst other things but it seems perfectly possible for a body to function without this linkage. Lower animals which do not exhibit emotions and so cannot suffer in that sense are perfectly capable of responding to stimuli to run away, avoid bad food and escape self inflicted injury so I don't think that even if one can argue that pain is an evolutionary necessity or at least very highly favoured, suffering is a logical necessity. Then again there appear to be unusual cases where peoples ability to suffer has been removed, even though they still feel physical pain. This does not seem to remove thought or even the ability to feel other emotions. It may well be a consequence of the way our minds have evolved but, like male nipples, but it does not seem to me to be necessary.