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Problem of evil

OK enough silliness. let's get back to the problem of evil. We did not yet properly tie up the discussion of the Rev Sam's various strategems for dealing with the problem. I'll do that next...


Sally_bm said…
I thought we wrapped it up concluding that Rev Sam, as he himself admitted, had no reasonable solution to the PofE but believed there was one (a solution) nonetheless, that maybe, one day, he'd find- and, please, share it with us all! Sam in the end said that the other discussions (Wittgenstein etc) were seperate issues, accidentally masking the fact that he had no satisfactory solution to he problem. Non?
anticant said…
During a recent light-hearted discussion with a lifelong Roman Catholic friend [ex-priest] we raised the problem of evil, to which he responded with "Ah, you're using logic to address a theological question! Do you know about Pascal's Wager?" "Oh yes", we replied, "but the problem with THAT is that he doesn't say which god it's advisable to believe in to escape going to Hell. Mightn't it be Allah, Thor, or maybe Baal?" "Oh dear", he said, "I'd never thought of that - I'll have to ponder over it".

And I used to think that Catholic theologians were astute casuists....
Andrew Louis said…
In Steven Pinker’s book, “The Blank Slate”, he talks of an experiment per form on Dogs. In it they a control group of dogs raised in a normal environment and a test group raised in a pain free environment. After some time in the dogs development they took the normal dogs and pricked them on the paw with a needle, and as expected gave out a yelp. On the other hand the so far pain free dogs were pricked and they gave no reaction what so ever.

The point was to suggest that pain is learned.

So what’s the problem with evil, I’m sure I see it? It seems to me that we know everything not because of the thing in itself, but as a relationship to other things. In other words without evil, how do we know love? How does one know he’s feeling great if he’s never felt like garbage? And why does a meal always taste so great after you’ve suffered for it?

Chinese philosopher Mencius says: when heaven wants to perfect a great man it tries him in every possible way until he comes out triumphantly from all his painful experiences.
(which of course doesn’t necessarily suggest that he lives either.)
Stephen Law said…
Hello Andrew - let me know what you think of this:
Anonymous said…
andrew - The other interpretation of the Pinker experiment is that the pain response is learned. Contrast this with experiments on lab rats where the animal is held underwater despite its struggles until it almost drowns. After many repetitions of this it stops struggling. Has is lost its fear? Does it accept its fate or simply learned that faced with an implacable lab technician it is simply futile to struggle?

It is also not a given that evil is required to know love. Did Pinker's dogs not wag their tails when being petted or fed?
Andrew Louis said…
This is certainly a good case to put in front of a Judeo-Christian thinker. Although I confess that, whereas I do have a deep respect for those values and traditions, my view of God does not follow from it.

I think it a bit idolatrous to assign God characteristics which are clearly human (and I use idolatrous from the Christian perspective). To say that God is “good”, or “bad”, is to place God in a box, to mistake the finger for the moon. Defining something or giving it a definition is a conscious act of division and thus differentiates it from other things. God should not be looked at in this way; rather God should be looked at as all embracing from which all things are derived.

I feel this act of differentiation is a Christian flaw stemming from western forms of logic finding they’re way into “mystic”/intuitive thinking.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Andrew - but if God is not good, there is no problem of evil. So why were you offering solutions to it?

Is your God worship-worthy, I wonder?
Andrew Louis said…
That's what I'm saying... The pain response is learned.

When Pinker's dogs wave they're tails:
I have a dog myself, and when I get home he wags his tail, jumps up me, licks my face, so on and so on. He's been without me all day, he's happy to see me (there's an opposition there). But after I've been a home a while, he goes to his corner. Surely he gets bored with me... Sorta like my wife.

Do you miss someone after you've been in the same room with them for hours, even days?
Andrew Louis said…
Stephen, (good point, I just think it's an interesting conversation, wanted to jump in with a different perspective)

I'm simply saying I find Christian thinking flawed in this respect and I don't think theres a solution as a result. I would tend to agree with you that evil is a problem if God is called Good.

Is my God worship worthy? If by worship you mean going to church, praying (asking for stuff, hope and forgiveness), then no. If by worship you mean waking in the morning and making your bed, eating when you hungry, then yes.
Anonymous said…
Andrew - Well actually you said "The point was to suggest that pain is learned. "

My point is that I do not think the lack of a learned response indicates the lack of pain. Admittedly Pinker's book may go into this in greater depth and actually draw this conclusion but on the basis of what you said this did not appear to be the case. Would you perform surgery without pain relief (assuming this is medically OK) on new-born babies or puppies on the grounds that they had not sufficient experience to have learned pain?
Andrew Louis said…
the point wasn't to suggest that they were not feeling anything (surely the felt something, presumably what we call pain). It was to suggest that they were unable to interpret what they were feeling as a detriment to they’re being and therefore they’re body did not respond physiologically by reacting in some frantic manner and releasing endorphins into the brain. The dogs simply didn’t know what to think of the sensation, they didn’t (for the first time feeling it) necessarily look at it as a bad thing and therefore did not react.

You LEARN that the sensation of pain is bad. And of course Pinker fills in all the physiological holes of hows he believe this works.
David B. Ellis said…

I thought we wrapped it up concluding that Rev Sam, as he himself admitted, had no reasonable solution to the PofE but believed there was one (a solution) nonetheless, that maybe, one day, he'd find- and, please, share it with us all!

Oh, there's a perfectly reasonable solution to the POE:

God doesn't intervene to aid those in tremendous suffering because fictional characters can't actually do anything for those in distress.

Its just not a solution that Rev Sam or other theists like.
Anonymous said…
anyone have any weblinks to information regarding the experiment with the dogs mentioned here?
Andrew Louis said…
The experimental dogs were reared in isolation from puppies to mature dogs in cages that were designed to eliminate all sensory stimulation possible, and all social contact. The control dogs were reared normally in the laboratory and in private homes as pets..........

I don't recall if this was the one referenced in the book, but here is a link to such an experiment...
jeremy said…

If you have the time, please could you let me know where in the book that experiment is. I've got the book, but I don't recall that particular conclusion, I'm afraid. I'm also not sure the conclusion's characteristic of Pinker, either, but I may be mistaken, of course!

Anonymous said…
Does evil exist?
David B. Ellis said…
Evil, in the context of the POE, refers to suffering (which can be subdivided into natural evils, suffering caused by natural processes--disease, tornadoes and the like, and moral evils--suffering caused to one individual by another).

Suffering does exist so, yes, even for a moral nihilist, evil exists in the sense the work is used in this context.

The confusion over this term is why I prefer to call the problem of evil the problem of unnecessary suffering.

It avoids a lot of confusion.
Stephen Law said…
Hi anonymous. Perhaps you are not aware that the problem of evil is the problem of naturally caused suffering and moral depravity (e.g. torture of the innocent). Such evil clearly exists.

Not sure what you had in mind.
Andrew Louis said…
just out of curiosity. If you were to make an argument in support of Sam on the problem of evil, how would you do it? Simply for the sake of flexing intellectual ego....

Is there a logicacl arguement to be had beyond what you layed out here?: (not that these are logical)(

Do you expect Sam in this case to actually come up with something beyond mysticism that's plausable?
Stephen Law said…
Hi Andrew

I can't construct a decent argument in defence of Sam's position. It seems rationally indefensible.

I expect Sam to come up with a half decent argument if he wishes to maintain that his position is not unreasonable.

The God Eth article was an early draft. I have a much more worked out academic version now. There are other args against the existence of God, of course.
Anonymous said…
Bump for info regarding pain, dogs, and learned responses. Google gives me nothing on it.
Anonymous said…
Well, I was just thinking about what I consider to be evil. For example, I would consider many of the acts of Hitler as evil, likewise I would consider for many of the acts during the crusades as evil. Acts causing unnecessary suffering.

But, clearly Hitler or the crusaders thought what they were doing was not evil, they believed the suffering they caused was not unnecessary.

In essence it is their perspective against mine.

In fact the very use of the word "unnecessary" is a judgment call. It is saying, in my opinion it is unnecessary. But others would say some times of suffering are necessary.

A modern example would be the abortion problem. Some would say that abortion is a necessary "evil". Others would say it is an unnecessary "evil". Meanwhile others would say it is not "evil" at all but a good thing.

The rationality and ethics tend to hinge ultimately on certain vague terms, such as personhood. Degrees of suffering, and varied degrees of rights.

So... is evil just perspective? Or can it be measured? Does it actually exist? Or is it a construct based in our definitions of necessary... If you get what I mean.

Sorry if I am rambling, I am a novice but someone that likes to think all the same.
anticant said…
Stephen: why do you persist in thinking that logic can be fruitfully applied to theology - which, by definition, is grounded in irrational beliefs? You are never going to convince Sam, or any other theist, that their faith is misguided by using logical arguments.

anonymous: why do you think that Hitler, Stalin, Torquemada, Pol Pot, or any other persecuting tyrant considered that the suffering they caused was "necessary"? Most likely, they never even thought about it, because for them, acting out their perverted beliefs was obviously "for the best".

Remember Stalin's remark to Churchill that "the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic."
Jac said…
anticant, if not by logic, then how do you think people stop believing in gods? Logic is what lead me to atheism. Some theists want to be logical. They like to think that they are logical. Someday, after seeing how they can't logically suport their beliefs, they may recognise that they can't be logical and faithful, and will make a choice. Some will choose logic.
David B. Ellis said…

But, clearly Hitler or the crusaders thought what they were doing was not evil, they believed the suffering they caused was not unnecessary.

In essence it is their perspective against mine.

The POE is only applicable to beings both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Neither of which applies to any human being. Including Hitler.

And the question is why, for example, an omnipotent being would need to allow a child to be born with torturous genetic defects that cause it to live a short and agonizing life. It is implausible in the extreme to say that child's suffering was necessary in order to achieve some greater good when talking about an omnipotent being.
anticant said…
There is no "problem of evil" unless you believe in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Being.

Wickedness, cruelty, and moral depravity [in human terms] are real. They are the real problem, which we should be addressing in human terms. Arguments about a fictional 'problem of evil' posed by the hypothetical existence of a God for whom there is no credible evidence are just a waste of time.
Andrew Louis said…
Once again, here it is:

Melzack, R., & Scott, T. H. The effects of early experience on the response to pain. The Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1957, 50, 155-161.
Anonymous said…
Found the button for name (slow on these computer things I know...)

thanks for the reply.. I am well interested now! I replied from home on the other one, this is during my late lunch break at work now :(

Please continue to excuse the crap philosophy of mine, I am not trained at all in the jargon I've just read a bit, and read one of Dr Law's books recently and found this blog...

david b.ellis kindly replied... "the question is why, for example, an omnipotent being would need to allow a child to be born with torturous genetic defects that cause it to live a short and agonizing life. It is implausible in the extreme to say that child's suffering was necessary in order to achieve some greater good when talking about an omnipotent being"

Something like Tay Sach would fit here I think?

But do you or I decide what is unnecessary? Or does a culture? Or does a doctrine?

Whilst I agree that such a necessary life is implausible, that is just you and me agreeing.

In pure (sick I totally agree but go with me) survival of the fittest thinking, the child that dies from genetic defect is necessary in order to improve the survival and progress of our species.

So is it a necessary thing if you held such a view of the purpose of life? I would argue no because I disagree with that purpose, because I have been brought up in my culture and by parents to value life and cherish it, not to think of nature as "red in tooth and claw". The childs suffering then appears to me as though it is unnecessary.

So in order to define "unnecessary" or evil, a filter or a category of genuine unnecessary suffering or evil should exist?

The basic (crude i know and there is much more to it) argument is...

1) A good god exists
2) Unnecessary suffering exists
3) A good god would not allow unnecessary suffering (point argued by Dr Law)
4) Therefore a good god does not exist

But does evil (unnecessary suffering) exist in reality and not just in my opinion or your opinion or Dr Law's or anyones?

Because as you have suggested.. opinions of humans vary and only in the context of an omnipotent being would there be real definition of unnecessary suffering because only there would there be a defintion of goodness and a being capable of rendering that which is not good as not actual. But that definition would belong to that being not to you or I correct?

If however our definition of goodness and context for unnecessary suffering or evil does not exist, you cannot use it's hypothetical existence to rid yourself of a good god....

If however evil in the context of my argument refers merely to my own understanding of unnecessary suffering and therefore evil, then I can only question the goodness or activity of a god from my own aprehensioon of goodness, I cannot remove that god all together, I just end up saying well if god exists I don't like god. Churchill's comment... "god, god is a shit!" is about where you end up.

I can therefore only say.. In my opinion the evil that exists excludes a good omnipotent god.

But that is my opinion not a necessary conclusion. Even with a concensus of my friends and people that hold similar theological or philosophical positions we are still left with opinion, strong opinion but opinion none the less rather than a necessary conclusion.

To remove god surely we would have to quantify evil... Put a measure or scale on it, else it is left with opinion and perspective.

So in essence to convince people that a good god cannot exist because of the unnecessary suffering we would have to put a unit of measure on the evil in existence and say 25 spags of evil exist compared to 2 sprogs of good, a ration of 5:1 is justifiable but this is a ration of 12.5:1 and hence a good god is implausible.

It seems rather a long circle to me unless you have an objective measure of unnecessary suffering. Because some argue that god does have some sort of plan and allows stuff and that they just trust that god knows what he is doing... In essence they suggest that what appears unnecessary to me is necessary to god in his "infinite" wisdom and hence they stick with god....

I don't think it will change any hearts if we bottle down to "in my opinion if I was an omnipotent good god I would not allow evil".... Because I am not a good omnipotent god so I am kind of stuffed on that one! A fact for which I am sure you are all grateful for, mostly because if that god does exist spending time on here is probably not what you would want him to be doing anyway :)
Anonymous said…

Surely an omnipotent God could arrange things so that even suffering which was only in the opinion of the sufferers was eliminated? Didn't see many people falling into a deep sleep full of happy dreams just before the last tsunami did we?

The natural selection argument does not really apply here; this only applies to fitness for reproduction. Removal from the gene pool can be quite painless.

If you like, the quantification of evil is one of the tactics often used to excuse God. In effect saying that some evils are outweighed by greater goods and that (I think this is key) the evil is a logical necessity for the good to occur.

Stephen did a piece about the idea of suffering being needed to build character for instance - you might want to have a look here
anticant said…
bob_farmer - you don't require "jargon" to practise philosophy; just a questioning critical faculty and close attention to the accurate meanings of words and the ways in which they are being used in the discussion.

Unlike religion, philosophy isn't an 'esoteric' subject comprehensible only to the initiated. Ultimately it is about the application of reason and logic, however jargon-ridden some philosophical texts may be.

Stephen, no doubt, will correct me about this??
Anonymous said…
"Surely an omnipotent God could arrange things so that even suffering which was only in the opinion of the sufferers was eliminated?"

Am i suffering if I lack food? - Yes
Am I suffering if I lack an ipod? - Depends on your definition of what is necessary for your needs correct? For example if it was necessary that I had an ipod and I lacked one, I would be suffering....

In essence you think of god as some sort of cosmic vending machine....

But that would be a god that lacked will, but rather god would be there to satisfy the will and desire of others. If that is what your idea of god is, then it is at odds with many other's ideas of god.

I mean there are so many different ideas of god out there, heck even the western view of god is so varied. For example a christian friend of mine would simply reply, well god keeps a promise and so when he said he would do one thing, he would not do the opposite. That changes the idea of what omnipotence is... It gets around the argument of, can god make a rock he cant move? The answer from my friend is simple, yes, he just promises not to move it.

In essence we are back to perception of necessary suffering although I do not agree that if god was good and omnipotent he would have to supply according to the perceived needs of his creatures, rather he would supply according to his perception of their needs...

We are back to perception... If I were god I would not do it that way... But I am not god... It doesn't help me convince the theist to change...

If quantification of evil is a tactic used against the problem of evil argument and we have no counter but leaning back on our perception we are at a dead end surely... has no-one offered an objective measure of evil that would be used to say... this exists so god cannot?
anticant said…
"some sort of cosmic vending machine...."

Brilliant!That's exactly how a great many believers do appear to think of God.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Andrew, I read the article and found it quite interesting (and ethically problematic).

One set of experiments describes two sets of dogs, one of which was deprived of all normal interaction from 4 weeks to 8 months of age. In this way, their opportunities to feel pain would have been greatly reduced. By hypothesis, during this time strategies are learned for avoiding pain which are important for the course of the dogs life.

The dogs were chased around with an electric car that would deliver a shock. If the dog was able to avoid the shock 5 times in a row, testing would be halted. The isolated dogs, being less able to avoid the car, naturally received more shocks than the control group dogs (something like ~4 times as many shocks). Interestingly, 2 of the isolated dogs were completely crap at avoiding the car, and were shocked to the maximum allowed without making any real effort to avoid it (40 times was the upper limit). The average number of shocks for the isolated dogs as a group was ~24.

Generally, the control group of dogs were much better at avoiding source of pain (i.e. the remote control car) as compared with those dogs who had been isolated. The isolated dogs most certainly felt the pain, they were just not as skilled in avoiding it. The control dogs would wait until the last moment before moving in order to avoid being shocked, whereas the movements of the isolated dogs were much more exaggerated.

2 years later 2 of the isolated dogs were tested again. They showed improvement (16 shock average), but still were not as efficient at avoiding pain as the dogs who were exposed to it at the developmental stage.
Anonymous said…
Perhaps those conducting the experiment considered their actions to be necessary provocation of suffering for a percieved greater good...

the question remains... if evil only exists in reality (and not merely by individual or group perspective) if there is a god, cant it really be said... evil exits so god cannot?

brings me back to... it is possible god exists, i just dont like him...

but that again is perspective..

I've been thinking about the greater good idea regarding this experiment...

It all depends on the outcome and ultimately purpose as to if some suffering is necessary...

the argument the problem of evil presumes that the purpose of life is a suffering free life. Hence suffering is wrong.

But what if the purpose of life is not that, what if the purpose of life is to discover your need for god? Perspective of suffering changes then, from that of unnecessary to that of essential, without suffering we would not know we lacked anything, and with seemingly unnecessary suffering it would be necessary for god to exist... hence we would look for god.

But what kind of god would we look for... the grand judge in the sky? the omnipotent tyrant? or a god that is suffering too?

Just random thoughts, I am not converting!
David B. Ellis said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
bob - the point about "suffering in the opinion of the suffer" was motivated by soething I read about the definition of pain.

"'Pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever he says it does".

Admittedly this is from a Wikipedia entry and I haven't drilled down to the attributed source (M. McCaffery) but it seems a workable definition.

I was really trying to highlight the idea that even if certain events are "for the greater good" - e.g. thousands must die in an earthquake, they need not suffer.
Following on the medical theme rather than the vending machine, surgeons do not (usually) simply hack away irrespective of the patients pain, safe in the certainty that an effective cure outweighs all else they administer analgesia if at all possible. So why shouldn't God? Whats the point of being omnipotent if you can't help people? Unless of course you enjoy having them to suffer...
Anonymous said…
Well, the surgeon illustration could also be used in favour of god...

Surgeons use pain as a guide, yes they minimise it, and then use it to guide recovery. In addition, as I was reminded the other day, death is not an end to someone that believes in god.

Unless we can come up with some measure to detail exactly how much suffering is required before it is unnecessary. Such as a quantification of "evil" and as such, this much evil outweighs the reasonableness of any such good purpose we are stuck.

I'd hate to see the math, the waving of the eternity in heaven stick does make the balance in favour of god. I tried that one and suggested well some have eternity in hell and that pushes in the no god direction too. But then I am countered by the... Well god decides at the end of the day and he is good so would not do anything unjust in his eyes...

Brings me back to the I dont like god very much then thing. I hate to admit it but the christians do have a case. They suggest that suffering is a consequence not an intention. A god that is supposed to be both good and yet judge would then wish to reform and remove that consequence. You end up looking for a suffering god and the christians say that they have that one....

either way it comes down to my own personal opinion as to necessary, unnecessary, purpose of life if god exists, definition of omnipotence, and my own likes or dislikes...

if that is the case this argument will go on forever until we all find out the easy or hard way i guess.
Stephen Law said:

"...but if God is not good, there is no problem of evil."

This is the crux of the matter. The Problem of Evil is not an argument against the existence of a god -- indeed, Greek mythology is rampant with such behavior on the part of its deities. It is specifically an argument against the conception of the specifically Christian iteration of god.

In order to properly appreciate pleasure or goodness, one must be able to juxtapose them to something. Thus pain and evil serve a purpose. The argument ultimately is useful because it eliminates the possibility of an all-powerful and benevolent creator: To be both, it would have been able to realize its experiment without including misery. A necessity of misery implies that there are limits to omnipotence, while a willful inclusion of evil implies a lack of benevolence.

"Idolatry" is just a semantic escape-clause from this fundamental problem.
Andrew Louis said…
not sure what you're referring to - however when I use the term idolatry, it's all inclusive. Many Christians look at this term to simply include objective (corporeal) forms of idolatry, whereas they ignore "subjective/ideal" idolatry. By ideal I simply mean, (in the case I was referring), the assigning of attributes which can either be subjective (what's good and bad) and/or based on a dynamic set of relationships. In either case you differentiate the now object (God) and subject it to reason – in which case it cannot stand.

When you idolize God, you take away from (it’s) essential essence.
Anonymous said…
"A necessity of misery implies that there are limits to omnipotence.."

Nice quote...

Ironically, I don't think the christians believe in a god with unlimited omnipotence....

For example, a god that keeps a promise would still be capable of anything, and yet limited by a commitment.

Is it possible that a god can commit not to act and actually would keep that commitment despite the pain it caused? What's more important, the word kept or the suffering that may result from keeping that word? A benevolent god would be hurt by this situation. If suffering was to result, a god that did not even try and reach out would be unloving, but do we not see that with christianity?

It is not logical to have unlimited omnipotence anyway, you don't need to go further than that if someone claims this about their god.

So if the christians claim their god is able to do absolutely anything, their god can lie, hence their god is not good in his own definition. You don't need the problem of evil to rid yourself of such a god concept. I know of very few christians who truly believe in the kind of god you are eliminating.

Clearly you havent been around enough christians that know what they are talking about.

"I know of very few christians who truly believe in the kind of god you are eliminating."

The "No true Scotsman" fallacy doesn't exactly make for a compelling argument.

"Clearly you havent been around enough christians that know what they are talking about."

Is this the kind of forum where I can call bullshit on someone? Because "clearly," you can demonstrate no such thing. What you mean here, Mr. Farmer, is "Clearly you haven't spent enough time around Christians I agree with."
When you idolize God, you take away from (it’s) essential essence.

An essence that is diluted when you try to comprehend it? That's fracking ridonkulous.

I'm sorry, I have no way of being polite about it. That's the stupidest thing I've ever read.

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