28 September 2006

The Theist: Evil--A Poor Excuse for Atheism

Evil: A Poor Excuse for Atheism
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Atheists have long depended on one sort of argument: if God existed, there wouldn't be any evil (or this much evil, or certain kinds of evil), but this evil is real, therefore God doesn't exist. Some believers try to escape the argument by denying that evil exists. If you meet such a person, you can educate him by calling him a moron and kicking him in the shins, thus acquainting him personally with the evils of verbal abuse and shin-pain. Then, inform him that denying evil is no way to defend belief in God, for the major theistic religions all strongly assert the reality of evil. How, then, to respond to Steve's atheistic argument?

First, theistic philosophers have made great progress on this topic in the last 40 years. For a summary, see the chapter by Daniel Howard-Snyder in the book Reason for the Hope Within (Eerdmans, 1998).

Here I'll give two replies. First, we humans don't know enough for The Objectivist's objection to work. The Objectivist is like a kid who stumbles upon the early stages of a construction project, seeing only a messy, bulldozered field. This know-it-all kid refuses to believe that any master builder is involved. "It is self-evident, ain't it, that no building is going up here. Surely, a real builder would just be putting up a building already, so there ain't no builder." Just as with our imaginary little know-it-all, the atheist's judgment is premature, and he also refuses to see the purposes which are already evident in this early stage of God's building project. Both overestimate their own understanding--in the one case of how to erect a skyscraper, in the atheist's case, of how best to run the world. In sum, The Objectivist has no good reason to hold that "if God existed, there wouldn't be (any, or certain kinds of) evil."

Second, for many particular kinds of evils, we can think of reasons why God would justifiably allow them. This is not to say that believers know exactly why particular evils are allowed--such as the death of your relative, or the Super Bowl record of the Buffalo Bills. Rather, we know some kinds of goods such that God bringing them about logically implies that he also makes possible or actual certain kinds of evils. For example, if God is going to make me free to live well or badly, he can't also be constantly preventing me from messing up my life and others' lives. Thus, by giving me freedom, he opens the door to both wrongdoing and suffering.

Further, suppose that God wants people to be free to believe in his existence or not. This entails making a universe in which there is evidence of his existence, but it is evidence which can be systematically ignored by the obstinate. Again, if God wants us to freely control our bodily actions, and not just our choices, that requires him to make the world run by natural laws which are almost never "broken." This implies that miracles are rare, and so people are going to end up getting hurt whenever these natural forces are misused. Now all of this needs developing, but for more, check out Howard-Snyder, cited above.

The Objectivist makes the mind-boggling claim that there's no such thing as free will. To the contrary, we all know that we sometimes act freely, and that we (and others) freely shape our moral character over time. We are often palpably aware that we can choose more than one option in a situation. Just think of standing in line at your favorite fast food restaurant--so many good, greasy choices available--how torn you are! Further, since moral responsibility requires that we choose freely, why doesn't The Objectivist go all the way, and deny that anyone is responsible for anything he or she does?

The Objectivist thinks we can choose freely only if we have souls, and he thinks science has demonstrated that there is no soul. About the first, he hasn't shown why a purely physical entity, when highly organized, can't have the power of free choice. As to the second, Steve thinks science has demonstrated that "consciousness occurs in the brain." There are a number of well-known believers in souls, though, who know more of the brain science than Steve does. Why? Because the evidence shows only that certain kinds of consciousness depend on certain parts of the brain functioning properly. As long as people have believed in souls, they've been aware of the phenomenon of drunkenness, and that a blow to a certain part of the head can hurt one's memory, etc. As to evolution: if consciousness can suddenly appear in the world, why not souls as well?

Like countless other atheists, The Objectivist rejects belief in souls not because of the scientific evidence, but rather simply because it conflicts with his philosophical commitment to a purely physical cosmos. But denying human freedom and moral responsibility, and asserting "If I were a perfect creator of the universe, I wouldn't allow such and such"--these show far more intellectual hubris than postulating a soul as the subject of consciousness which uses and depends on the brain. In any case, whether or not there are souls, evil is a poor excuse for atheism.


The Constructivist said...

T, it seems to me your "don't put a period where God has put a comma" argument (to paraphrase Gracie Allen) saves God at the expense of all organized religion or attempts to gain authority by invoking God's blessing for your chosen endeavor. If the ways of Divine Providence are simply too mysterious for us limited mortals to understand, whether Pope, president or professor, we all should be pretty humble about claiming what God might want or plan, right?

The Constructivist said...

T, to go a step further, how does your response to O not call into question responsibility-based or ethical claims just as much as O's? "My being a serial killer may well be part of God's ultimate plan for humanity, and who are you to say I'm wrong?"

The Objectivist said...

Dear C and T:

There is a problem with whether it is logically possible to create a best possible world. For example, worlds might be like integers, in that a higher (or better) one always exists.

So C has some manuevering room here to say that it's a pretty good world. It's not the best, but creating the best is not a possible task.

However, if there are not greater and lesser infinities (and apparently there are), then God could have created a best world. Namely, the world with an infinite amount of value places (e.g., persons having pleasure) and an infinite amount per place.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

I don't think T would want to say that serial killers, Mao, etc. are part of God's plan. Rather, he would say that they are part of the world in which God created free beings and then those beings chose to do evil.

However, it still seems unclear why his plan would allow for responsibility-undermining conditions (e.g., the mental illness of disorganized serial killers). After all, these are not due to human freedom (in a broad sense that includes both free will and rationality).

Also, the suffering of cute little kittens and fluffy bird chicks seems hard to fit into a divine plan.

The Constructivist said...

O, I agree that under pressure T would more likely resort to his second line of response to you. It was his first line of argument I was focusing on, namely his (and others') attempt to update the argument by design. Given his emphasis on human limitations and fallibility, it seems as much an argument for agnosticism as for theism.

What I was trying to get at in my earlier comment was the mindset of a Puritan serial killer (the Puritans tended to emphasize grace over faith or works, so always had to struggle with the notion that being a 'visible saint' was no guarantee of that ticket to heaven)--and to pose the question of whether we could really say he was wrong....

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I guess the idea of saving souls based on grace rather than praiseworthy actions or character strikes me as not something an all-good being could do.

It would be arbitrary to just save some souls, why not save them all? After all, this doesn't cost God anything. I suspect a maximally loving being would do this.

Even if an evil person is part of God's plan, he's still evil, so I don't see how he could be worthy of being saved.

I guess in the end I don't see how the grace doctrine is plausible.

What's your take on this?

The Constructivist said...

I don't understand its appeal or logic, either. Emily Dickinson has many poetic parodies of the Puritans' notion of God and suggests in several places that if they are right about predestination and God's sovereignty, than God either has a cruel sense of humor or is a sadist.

In practice, most Puritans weren't so absolutist but over the course of the 17th C they had many many debates over the proper balance between grace/faith/works. I suppose such debates continue today, but never having been a Christian and not even being a half-decent Jew, I haven't bothered to keep up with post-17th C developments....

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I wonder whether the reason that neither of us are religious is because the problems plaguing Judaism didn't fool our parents (and especially given your father given his intellectual prowess) and so they just couldn't bring themselves to motivate Judaism in us. They might have gone through the motions, but you can only do so with so much conviction. Anyway, that's just an idea I'm wondering about. I'm hoping Japan is treating you well.