28 September 2006

Objectivist: An Ugly Choice--The Problem of Evil

Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The existence of evil is obvious. All one has to do is read about Auschwitz, watch shows about rebels cutting off of arms in Sierra-Leone, or listen to calls on a rape crisis hotline. Evil presents a real problem for theists (those who believe that God exists). They often believe that God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, but it is hard to see how this fits with widespread evil. If God allows evil to occur, then it appears that he is uncaring and thus not all-good. If God doesn't allow it, but instead is powerless to do anything about it, then it seems that he is unable do something or doesn't know how to do it. As a result, he would not be all-powerful and all-knowing.

There are several evil-related problems that The Theist might consider. He might want to explain why there is any evil, why there is so much evil, and why evil plagues innocent creatures like infants and cute furry animals. The theist might assert that good can't exist without evil and hence evil is a means by which God makes the world a better place. The idea might be that only in the context of human suffering can persons can exhibit sympathy, courage, and kindness and that these virtues are the best features of the world. Hence, widespread suffering is necessary for human beings to shine and make the world a better place.

If this response involves the notion that good can exist only in the context of evil, then it is unconvincing. It is certainly possible for God to create a world without suffering. For example, he might have created a planet in which ET (the extra-terrestrial) and Barney the Dinosaur spend their time hugging, exchanging gifts, and giggling. This is a nauseating scenario, but nonetheless one in which there is good in the absence of evil. Even if this response were convincing, the theist still wouldn't have explained why there is moral evil. For example, he still wouldn't have explained the cruelty and malice that have characterized so much of human history and that regularly appears on the Jerry Springer show.

The Theist's best bet would probably be to argue instead that both natural evil (for example, disease-related suffering) and moral evil (for example, cruelty) are explained by the value of having creatures who have free will. The argument would be that the world is a better place when it has free beings who choose to do good but who can do evil, rather than robots that are mechanically designed to do good. Since God wants to create a really good world, he has chosen to create a world populated with free beings. On this account, then, the value of beings with free will in part explains why there is evil.

There are a couple of problems with the notion that human beings have free will, at least in the radical way that theists think they do. First, a human being is best thought of as similar to a really complex computer. Both have a processing unit (silicon chips in a computer and neural circuitry in the brain) and input (typed in commands or mouse clicks in the computer and environment influences in a person). On this account, a person's thoughts and actions are determined by the combination of circuitry and the input just as is the output of any other complex machine. Like other complex machines, persons cannot reshape the processing unit or input any more than they can jump out of their skin. That is, an individual's decision to reshape his brain or environment would itself have to be the result of what happened in the processor or the environment.

Second, on The Theist's account, a person has free will because he is a spiritual entity that is distinct from his brain and thus not at all like a complex computer. However, this position is so unscientific it hurts. There is a mountain of evidence that consciousness occurs in the brain. For example, different types of abilities (for example, speech and face recognition) have been found to correlate with activity in specific parts of the brain. Various changes in the brain (for example, the neural degeneration of Alzheimer's or the introduction of alcohol or LSD) produce changes in thought patterns. In addition, there is no evidence I'm aware of that persons exist after their brains have been destroyed. Also, the similar brain structure of human beings and other primates reflects their similar evolutionary past and the theist's ghost-in-the-machine account is at odds with evolution.

Given the problem of evil, the theist can retain his belief in God only by adopting philosophically indefensible and thoroughly unscientific views of human beings. What an ugly choice.


The Constructivist said...

O, I've said it before and I'll say it again: your notion of a mechanistic universe is so pre-20th C. You need a refresher course in modern physics! Seems there's plenty of room for nondeterminist ontologies if you take subatomic weirdnesses into account and get into the physics as well as the biology and chemistry of the brain...

Neil said...

Hey, C, I hope things are going well. O does not need a mechanistic universe, since the sort of indeterminacy postulated by certain interpretations of certain physical theories will not provide the kind of free will T needs. Randomness, or objective chance, does not yield freely done actions for which one might be help morally responsible. And the ontology of the determinist can be exactly the same as that of the indeterminist; it's the laws of nature only that need differ.

The Constructivist said...

Neil, thanks for the clarification, but I am wondering about the implications of very recent advances in quantum physics as well as older 20th C ones. Not being a physicist, I don't understand and can't explain them, but I think there's more than chance involved.

What do you think of T's invocation of "complexity" in response to O's claim? Is he heading toward "irreducible complexity" of the Intelligent Design "theory" or just making the simpler and science-fictiony point that computers might eventually arrive at a kind of consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Aren't our brains self-modifying (in an involuntary manner) in their very physical structure? Does this affect O's argument at all?

And O, how do derive support for libertarianism from your vision of a deterministic universe?

The Objectivist said...

Dear C and Neil:

I'll adopt Neil's point about leaving aside quantum indeterminacy since I don't think it provides support for responsibility.

Self-modifying brains don't account for human responsibility. To see this consider the following reason.

A computer can (theoretically) change its own silicon circuitry but only based on external input or commands from other parts of the circuitry. In any case, it's decision to change part of its circuitry and what changes to make would be dictated by previous states of its circuitry.

Now consider the mental states and that guide our actions. We can't choose these mental states from nothing. We have to have select them based on previous mental states that guide the selection process. Analogy: previous states of the silicon circuitry. Hence, the initial mental states and other external influences produce our choices, including the choice to change some of the mental states.

Hence, it seems that our mental states unfold in a way that is best explained by the initial distribution of mental states plus external input.

The ability of a computer or brain to modify its circuitry or the content that goes with it doesn't change this conclusion.
The same is true

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

Your question about political libertarianism and determinism is a good one and one that I'm worried about.

The cheap answer is that if human beings are not responsible for their actions, then utilitarianism, or something like it, is true and utility will likely be maximized in when government is minimized. Here I rely on the historical evidence that governments generally make life worse.

The other answer is that as I see it, libertarianism does nothing to establish moral responsibility. Now if human beings are still morally responsible for their actions, despite being determined, then they have human rights and no one should trespass on them except under extraordinary conditions. Big government tends to trespass on them constantly, so it's wrong because its violates human rights.

That said, there are some severe problems with my theory. Here are two.

1. Citizens waive many of their rights to live under a government and these include the rights against invasion into a person's economic life (e.g., taxes) and social life (e.g., drugs and prostitution).

2. Responsibility is in fact logically impossible because our mental states always result from previous mental states and external input. Hence, our current mental states are the direct result of our initial mental states and the successive external input in the same way that the 779th domino to fall is the result of the way the previous dominos were set up and the first one tipped over.

The Constructivist said...

Om Austin Cline runs the atheism/agnosicism page at about.com and seems to be the author of Jesus' General, a blog that parodies the religious right. He's created a gallery of fake/parody Christian right propaganda posters that aim to be a primer on their agenda fo America. Was wondering why your brand of atheist libertarianism is so different than his....

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
The posters I find are amusing and I'm not sure I disagree with them. The concern here is why atheists tend to want the government to support their view instead of staying neutral. For example, consider the use of tax dollars to promote sex education (without an emphasis on abstinence), evolution, and the idea that there should be a wall between church and state.

Why should Christian taxpayers be forced to pay for this and have it taught to their children? Have the secular humanists no respect for liberty?

It is precisely the problem of government that it creates problems that freedom of association, private funding of education, and private control of the airwaves would avoid.

The Objectivist said...

Any interest in posting an essay on this stuff? I'm sure you have strong views on it.

The Constructivist said...

O, I'll pass--got a 4th course here plus I'm taking a Japanese language course.

On another note, you should read Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn (the book your Gene Expression buddies were recommending). He says some interesting things about what genetic data suggest about early human behavior that have a lot of relevance to philosophical debates over the state of nature (he basically sides with Hobbes) and appears to suggest that adherence to pure libertarianism would necessitate a return to those early conditions of quite violent conflict and low life expectancy. Like everything else he argues, it's worth checking out counterarguments, but it definitely raises questions you may well be interested in, such as how human DNA has changed over time, the relation between the 'natural' and 'social,' and the political implications of genetics findings....

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

I'm very skeptical that a return to libertarianism would lead to a Hobbesian state. Libertarianism is a type of legitimate government and one that places great emphasis on the protection of rights against force, fraud, and theft. Anarchism might pose a threat of the Hobbesian state, but I don't see why libertarianism would.

Some governments on the libertarian end of things, e.g., Hong Kong until recently and the early U.S., didn't seem to have high rates of internal violence, at least against recognized citizens. It was a different matter for African Americans, Native Americans, etc.

The Constructivist said...

O, I was referring more to Wade's siding with Hobbes's take on the state of nature (human life as nasty, brutish, short) yet also characterizing it as quite conducive to individual freedom, based on his reading of evidence from human genetics of what life was like among the earliest humans. Just a side note.

You might check out our Clinton v. Bush exchange comments, as I've been putting up more on libertarianism there, if you are interested in continuing the exchange on the topic. I don't think God (or the Devil) would approve of our cluttering up the comments here with it....