Saturday, January 15, 2005

Natural Evil

Many people have been discussing the problem of evil recently. Let's pretend that appeals to 'free will' can answer the problem of moral evil (which I don't believe for a moment), and just consider the problem posed by natural evil. An omnipotent God could have prevented the recent tsunami without interfering with our free will. So if he were truly benevolent, he would have done so. Yet the tsunami occurred. So there mustn't be any truly benevolent and omnipotent God.

There are several responses the theist could make. Firstly, he could try to reduce all natural evil to moral evil, by suggesting that natural disasters were caused by the free choices of supernatural beings. Cf. Maverick philosopher:
If someone can see his way clear to accepting the existence of a purely spiritual being, then the belief in angels, fallen or otherwise, will present no special problem. Given the existence of fallen angels, the Free Will Defense may be invoked to account for natural evils such as tsunamis: natural evils turn out to be a species of moral evils.

I suppose believing in fallen angels (or gremlins, or *insert supernatural villain of choice*) is no worse for our ontology than believing in the theistic God. But it's more than a bit lame to appeal to such entities when explaining natural phenomena. I mean, it'd be understandable if you were the shaman of an isolated tribe that'd just discovered the wonders of the wheel. But, really, hasn't our civilization learnt a thing or two about how the world works since then? *shakes head in disgust*

An even worse response would be to deny that anything bad had happened. Norm Weatherby writes:
The Tsunami is "Evil"? How so? It's a natural phenomena. It's neutral in the good vs evil game. Lots of people who were eventually going to die, died. That's bad? Maybe inconvenient or sad for some. Hardly "evil".

Yes, that's bad. How morally obtuse are you? We're supposed to believe that the incredible suffering of untold thousands (millions?) is "maybe inconvenient" (a gracious concession, to be sure), but not really anything bad? Perhaps one would prefer to restrict use of the word 'evil' to agents - I sure hope that's the sole reason for the scare quotes - but there can be no question that natural catastrophes are indeed harmful.

More generally, for those who deny that human suffering is unjust (perhaps by appealing to 'original sin'), this raises the question of why it matters when we harm each other. Aren't rape and murder wrong? Even in the case of natural disasters, why should we help the purported 'victims' if they weren't wronged? If God doesn't think they're worth helping, why should we? But surely we should help them. So this response can't work.

Another misled (though at least not misanthropic) response was suggested by 'Jeremy' in the comments at Jason's blog:
I don't hold myself to that standard. I have some degree of relative power (being a citizen of a relatively wealthy country), yet I don't think the choice NOT to contribute to the tsunami relief effort is evil. Presumably god is more moral than any human, but I'm still not convinced that requires that he be an intercessory deity.

1) We don't claim omnibenevolence - and just as well! It's permissible for us not to give to charity, but it sure isn't morally perfect of us.
2) A key disanalogy is that it costs us to help. But God (we're told) is omnipotent, so there are no opportunity costs to his actions. If you could relieve the suffering (or, better yet, prevent the disaster in the first place) just by clicking your fingers, surely we agree that it would be morally despicable to fail to do so.

More interesting is the 'Moorean' response seemingly favoured by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and perhaps Brandon of Siris. In short: God exists, therefore the problem of evil must have a solution. Taken alone this response is patently question-begging. I guess it wouldn't be so bad if supplemented by an independent proof of God's existence. But I've never come across a plausible one of those before (especially not one that proves benevolence), so I currently don't think much of this strategy.

The usual response is simply to plead ignorance. We can't see why God would allow such an awful event, but perhaps he had some reason that we are unaware of. There are several problems with this. Justifying harm in the name of "God's plan" or the "greater good" would seem to assume utilitarianism, which I'd expect most theists to oppose. Further, if God is omnipotent then he shouldn't need to employ bad means to good ends. He presumably could bring about those ends directly. Plans are for the powerless - what need would God have of them?

Moreover, Chris Kane at FBC has previously argued that God can't make use of incomprehensible justifications, for in doing so he would fail to be a perfect moral example. In the comments there, Clayton (see also here) makes the point that the ignorance response would seem to deprive us of moral responsibility, for we can no longer reliably tell good from bad, right from wrong. What seems atrocious to us might be part of God's plan. To respin an earlier question: if God doesn't think someone is worth helping, why should we?

Indeed, I think this response is just a more sophisticated version of the 'no harm was done' response - the key change being that we're instead supposed to believe 'the harm was worth it'. I guess it's possible, but I sure don't find it plausible.

Another interesting approach is the slippery slope argument against interference, which is similar to the claim that there is no 'best possible world' so God cannot be faulted for not creating it. Opiniatrety exposes the invalid logic employed here:
The argument is a reductio of the antecedent of (2)--that it's legitimate to criticize God for creating a decent enough world if He could have created a better world instead. But that reductio only establishes the following:

(6a) There is some decent enough world such that God would be exempt from criticism for creating it, even though He could have created a better world instead.

It does not establish that this world is such a world. There may be a principled way of picking out the worlds such that God can be [criticized] for not creating a better one (even though they are decent enough). And our world can be such a one.

Blogosophy offers an even more forceful refutation:
If No Best Possible World were sound, then since the argument doesn't depend on any actual features of the world--and particularly doesn't depend on the nature or amount of evil and suffering in the world--it would be sound even if the world were literally Hell on Earth... But if that's the case there's something horribly wrong with any definition of benevolent that's compatible with the No Best Possible World defense; we wouldn't ordinarily call a being benevolent if it created only Hell and condemned *everyone* to it. So either NBPW requires that you adopt an unacceptable definition of benevolent, or it is unsound.

The modal realism solution seems to work, except that modal realism itself is so implausible.

Lastly, there's an argument I heard once (but not recently), suggesting that God shouldn't ever break the laws of nature. I don't recall the exact argument, but the gist of it was that living in an unpredictable/chaotic world would be really bad, so we need exceptionless laws of nature to prevent this. But that doesn't sound very plausible either. Surely God could have prevented the tsunami without anyone realising the laws of nature had been broken, so nobody would be upset. Perhaps this is meant to be a 'slippery slope' argument, but then it falls victim to the above criticisms.


To sum up then, I don't think there is any good answer to the problem of natural evil. The best 'solution' is probably just to plead ignorance, but we saw that this is problematic in several ways. Even if the problem of evil isn't a decisive refutation, I think it's about as close as philosophical arguments ever get. If anyone wasn't already entirely convinced of the existence of the theistic God, it should be more than enough to lead them to skepticism. And even for the convinced theist, I think it should at least raise some significant doubts.

25 comments:

  1. "In short: God exists, therefore the problem of evil must have a solution. Taken alone this response is patently question-begging. I guess it wouldn't be so bad if supplemented by an independent proof of God's existence."

    I don't see why this is a problem. For example, if a guy calls his girlfriend every night to talk on the telephone, but one night the girlfriend waits for his call and it never comes, I think the girlfriend would be quite reasonable in thinking that there must be a good reason for why he didn't call. If he usually calls and she thinks he is going to call again and he doesn't, "he must have a reason" seems like an acceptable answer. So, even if it is question-begging, I don't see why this is problematic in itself. (But it's not, since when you beg the question, you assume what you are trying to prove. Responses to the PoE aren't trying to prove anything, they are trying to answer objections. If those objections are strong enough to convince a person to give up belief, then so be it, but I don't see a problem with holding the belief until the objections are strong enough.)

    The reason it isn't "supplemented by an independent proof of God's existence" is because, first, there is no such thing and I'm not sure why there should be one. Second, even if there was such a thing, a person who knows God exists doesn't need to give you a proof of God's existence in order for the PoE to be reasonably solved for himself. If he is trying to convince you to believe, that is another matter.

    In any case, the real problem of evil - "Why did this happen?" - cannot be answered by anybody. Some people act like they know the answer (God was angry, etc.), others say it is a non-sensical question since natural phenomena don't have reasons for doing things, and others admit they just don't know the answer. I don't know how anybody could know the first, the second is just as question-begging as any thestic answer (not that this is necessarily problematic), but the third seems to me to be reasonable.  

    Posted by Macht

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  2. Besides, if I gave up belief, I'd still have to do the same thing when theists asked me to explain the origin of life. I'd have to answer that I don't know but that there will be a naturalistic answer some day. Then the theist will accuse me of begging the question and I'd be in the same boat as I'm in now.  

    Posted by Macht

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  3. Richard, I'm not convinced that anyone has ever put forward an argument from natural evil that is both coherent and is a genuine problem. Just three problems, off the top of my head, that such arguments generally face:

    * Where is the evil in a case like that of the recent tsunami? Well, it can't be earthquakes and tsunamis in themselves; therefore it has to be how they are related to us. But this suggests that the problem of natural evil presupposes that if theism is true creation's value consists entirely or primarily in its value for us. But this is not a requirement of theism, although there are theists who hold such a view. (Arguments from evil usually use exactly the same pattern of reasoning as design arguments; they just argue try to argue it in reverse - take the design theist's modus ponens and make it an atheist's modus tollens. Thus they can be very powerful against theistic views built entirely on design considerations; but it isn't clear they really have any force against any other view.)

    * But more problematically, what is evil about such cases even for us ends up reducing down to two things, and two things only: Some things die, and some things experience pain. And neither of these is unambiguously evil in the way the problem of natural evil in most formulations would seem to require.

    * The problem of natural evil not only faces problems due to the particular sort of evil it considers, it faces more general problems associated with other problem-of-evil cases. One of these is the omniscience problem: since most such cases assume omniscience, they need also to account for the complications omniscience introduces into the problem: in other words, they need to show good reason for thinking that even from the perspective of omniscience there would be no good that would suffice to justify the world as we have it. This is a high standard to which virtually no one who appeals to the problem of natural evil ever holds himself. (And note that this is not an ignorance theodicy; it's simply the point that, if the argument from natural evil is formulated so as to involve omniscience, it must provide reason to draw its conclusion on the supposition of omniscience, or it does not refute anything at all. To adapt Schopenhauer's famous dictum, premises are not taxi cabs: you cannot ride them only as far as you want to go and then get off. And this is true particular for a reductio ad absurdum and arguments like it - and arguments from natural evil generally take this form.)

    While I do think there are top-notch proofs of God's existence (Scotus's triple primacy argument, for instance), I think Macht is right about the question-begging issue; for the only sense in which the response 'begs the question' against the problem of evil is the sense in which the problem of evil 'begs the question' against the response: that is, short of actually showing rigorously that there is a contradiction, the argument from evil doesn't actually do much. The standard view is, and has always been, that the things it claims are inconsistent are consistent; and unless it shows that this view is false, what has it actually accomplished? So it is entirely reasonable to say in response to it: "Well, I hold, for whatever reasons, that God exists, and is benevolent, and is omnipotent, and is omniscient, and I also agree that there is evil: you say that this is inconsistent - then show me exactly how to derive the contradiction from this set of premises, without supposing anything false, dubious, or highly debatable." And I am not convinced any proponent of the argument has made any plausible attempts to meet this challenge. 

    Posted by Brandon

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  4. But doesn't it seem fairly obvious that moral perfection requires preventing harm (/evil) if possible? What's not plausible about that?

    "Besides, if I gave up belief, I'd still have to do the same thing when theists asked me to explain the origin of life. I'd have to answer that I don't know but that there will be a naturalistic answer some day. Then the theist will accuse me of begging the question and I'd be in the same boat as I'm in now."

    There's a huge difference here if you compare the track record of science vs. religion in providing us with good explanations of worldly phenomena. Science has been shown time and time again to explain the previously unknown. For that very reason, religious explanations have all but disappeared (BV's tsuanmi-inducing 'fallen angel' aside :P).

    Our scientific knowledge is always advancing - I expect we'll understand abiogenesis by the end of the century. Do you think the problem of evil will likewise be resolved soon? 

    Posted by Richard

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  5. "'God exists, therefore the problem of evil must have a solution. Taken alone this response is patently question-begging.'
    I don't see why this is a problem.
    "

    Well, it's failing to address the argument. Faced with any argument you don't like, one could just dogmatically deny the conclusion. But such behaviour is philosophically suspect unless you can also cast some doubt on the premises. And saying nothing more than "the conclusion is false, therefore one of the premises must be" seems a pretty slimy way of doing this! 

    Posted by Richard

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  6. So what you are saying is that if I gave up belief in God, I might have other reasons for sticking with my non-belief even though I have to answer "I don't know" about a pretty tough question? I can live with that.

    And yes, I do expect that someday I will better understand why tragic events occur. 

    Posted by Macht

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  7. "There's a huge difference here if you compare the track record of science vs. religion in providing us with good explanations of worldly phenomena. Science has been shown time and time again to explain the previously unknown."

    I'm not sure I follow you here, Richard. Macht's opposition was between naturalism and theism; and, indeed, rejecting theism doesn't leave you with science, it leaves you with naturalism.
    It's only the naturalist who will slip into thinking that science = naturalism. (But on a theistic view, a scientific explanation is not only not naturalistic, it is a description of natural providence itself.)

     

    Posted by Brandon

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  8. Well, okay then, consider the remarkable success of naturalistic explanations of worldly phenomena - especially in biology. It wasn't that long ago that people had to fall back on religion to explain the diversity of life on Earth. Now we have the theory of evolution which deals with that quite nicely. So my point is simply that it seems reasonable to think that we'll soon develop a similarly successful naturalistic account of abiogenesis. By contrast, it doesn't seem likely that we'll soon have a good explanation of why a benevolent God would allow the recent tsunami to occur. 

    Posted by Richard

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  9. Richard, I'm still inclined to think you're slipping too easily from 'scientific' to 'naturalistic' and back again. Naturalism is parasitic in the sense that naturalistic explanations have no success qua naturalistic; the prevailing brand of naturalism just co-opts scientific successes, as they come about, as its own. I think historically most naturalistic explanations have turned out stunningly false (including some nineteenth century explanations of the diversity of life). And on the supposition that theism is true (assuming something reasonably robust, and not just a bare deistic existence-of-God claim), naturalism's co-opting of scientific successes would rest on a mere confusion about what science is actually discovering.

    But that might just be a general point of disagreement. I'm more curious about what you require from a "good explanation of why a benevolent God would allow the recent tsunami to occur". 

    Posted by Brandon

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  10. "I'm more curious about what you require from a 'good explanation of why a benevolent God would allow the recent tsunami to occur'."

    Well, something like the sorts of responses I looked at in the main post, except without the flaws :) 

    Posted by Richard

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  11. I'm pretty much in agreement with Brandon that you are equivocating between naturalistic and scientific. Even granting that science must be methodologically naturalistic, it doesn't follow that science will be able to explain everything unless we are working within a metaphysical naturalistic framework. Then the "I don't know but I'm sure there will be a natural explanation someday" makes sense but it is question begging (in the same sense that you used in your original post).

    "Well, it's failing to address the argument. Faced with any argument you don't like, one could just dogmatically deny the conclusion."

    I suppose I could do that, but I don't. And I did address the argument, by saying you left out an important part - "All things being equal, if he were truly benevolent, he would have done so." And, yes, I'm dogmatically claiming that all things aren't equal (God could have a reason) and at the same time you are dogmatically claiming that all things are equal (God couldn't have a reason). The only thing we are left with is if we take the middle ground between our dogmatisms (It's impossible to tell if all things are equal (If God exists, we don't know if God has a reason or not)) and then your argument doesn't work.

    And even granting you that, you still haven't really given a good argument - your argument would work just as well for the situation in which I didn't have enough sugar in the house to put in my coffee - "if he were truly benevolent, he would have given me enough sugar. Yet I don't have enough sugar. So there mustn't be any truly benevolent and omnipotent God." The fact that I didn't have enough sugar in the house to put in my coffee clearly doesn't say anything about whether God exists. And I'm not saying that my not having enough sugar is on the same level as the tragedy of the tsunami, I'm saying your argument works for either one and therefore isn't a good argument. 

    Posted by Macht

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  12. Can you outline what sort of a reason God might have for allowing natural evils? (It's easy enough in your 'telephoning the girlfriend' example, so if there's supposed to be any sort of analogy there...)

    "The fact that I didn't have enough sugar in the house to put in my coffee clearly doesn't say anything about whether God exists."

    Either we can provide reasons why a benevolent being might allow such a minor harm, or we cannot. If we can (as is surely the case!), then the cases are not analogous. If we cannot, then it does indeed count as evidence against God's existence. 

    Posted by Richard

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  13. "Can you outline what sort of a reason God might have for allowing natural evils?"

    I don't think it would do any good. It would be pure speculation.
    Can you outline why (if he exists) God couldn't have a reason (that is your position, right?) have a reason?

    "Either we can provide reasons why a benevolent being might allow such a minor harm, or we cannot. If we can (as is surely the case!), then the cases are not analogous. If we cannot, then it does indeed count as evidence against God's existence."

    Again, I could speculate why God didn't give me sugar just as I could speculate as to reasons why the tsunami occured, but I don't think it would do any good in coming to an actual answer. And that's why I say I don't know.

    But now you are confusing between our being able to provide reasons and God having reasons that we aren't privy to. In order for your PoE argument to work - it's not enough to say that we can't provide reasons - you have to say that God can't have any reason for doing so. And I see no reasonable way in which you can hold that position. Here's your argument again with the necessary additions:

    "An omnipotent God could have prevented the recent tsunami without interfering with our free will. So if he were truly benevolent, he would have done so, given that he had no reasons not to do so. Yet the tsunami occurred. So there mustn't be any truly benevolent and omnipotent God."

    I don't see why the italicized part is obviously true and you haven't argued for why it is true or even probably true. The other two positions (that God did have reasons (either knowable or unknowable) or that we are unable to tell if God had reasons or not) make your argument unworkable.

    As you can see, the "I don't know God's reasons" answer is usually stated as an answer to the PoE, but all it's really doing is pointing out an unstated assumption in the PoE. Unless you can defend the implicit "God can't have a reason" assumption in your argument, I still don't see why the PoE as you've stated it is a problem.  

    Posted by Macht

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  14. I'm working from the assumption that if we can't imagine something, that's a prima facie reason to think that it's impossible. If, despite our best efforts, we can't come up with any reason why a morally perfect being might allow evil things to happen, then we can reasonably (if not definitively) conclude that there is no such reason.

    By the way, since you seem to be favouring the 'plead ignorance' approach, what do you think of the problems with this that are outlined in the main post? (You may need to follow a couple of links to get the full details.) 

    Posted by Richard

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  15. 1) I can imagine why God might allow the tsunami but like I said it doesn't do any good to speculate.

    2) Saying that God has reasons that I don't know doesn't imply utilitarianism in any way.

    3) The omnipotence objection assumes what Brandon was talking about above about creation's value consisting in it's value for us.

    4) The "God can't make use of incomprehensible justifications" goes back to what Brandon was talking about with omniscience only a different aspect of it. If you are going to take the omniscience premise seriously, then the "God isn't setting a good example" doesn't work because we will all recognize that God knows more about the situation then we could ever know. Chris's argument fails because he ignores the fact that God does do things for reasons that we don't know (for whatever reason). That is, it doesn't seem like God is forced to hide his reasons, but that he chooses to. This is neither "trickery, deception, stealth" nor "subtle and indirect tactics," since God is pretty straightforward that he doesn't reveal all his reasons to us for every thing he does. As long as God is clear on that - and he is - I don't see the problem.

    5) You aren't answering any of the problems with your own argument, which I've been asking you to do for a few posts now. So my answers to the above are moot until you come up with a sound argument. Stated again, your argument assumes that God CAN'T have any reason for allowing these tragedies to happen. Unless you make some sort of argument as to why God CAN'T have any good reason, your argument fails. This is exactly the point Brandon made in his first post when he said that you "need also to account for the complications omniscience introduces into the problem: in other words, [you] need to show good reason for thinking that even from the perspective of omniscience there would be no good that would suffice to justify the world as we have it. This is a high standard to which virtually no one who appeals to the problem of natural evil ever holds himself."

    But you haven't shown that, you've only assumed it. 

    Posted by Macht

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  16. Macht, given that I answered you in my immediately previous post, it's a bit unfair of you to complain that I haven't done so. If you don't like my answer, by all means explain why. But don't pretend like it isn't even there.

    You keep saying "it doesn't do any good to speculate", but that's just not true. If you can provide a plausible reason why a morally perfect being would want natural evil to occur, then that would resolve the entire problem in your favour. Whammo, case closed.

    Unless, of course, by 'speculate' you simply mean "I could weasel up some utterly unconvincing response and pretend it was decent". In which case, sure, I'd agree that this would be pretty useless - we might as well just save time and agree that yes, indeed, nobody can imagine any (plausible) reason for allowing evil.

    The way I see it, I've presented a solid prima facie case here, and your response sounds to me like a whiny "but you can't prooove it for absolutely certain!"

    Sure. But I can't prove I have two hands either, if you're going to be that picky. Really, at this stage I'm not sure if you can grant that I know anything at all. And this all leads to the "deprives us of moral responsibility" objection to your ignorance-response, which was the one I was really interested in hearing from you about.

    Maybe you meant something more than the caricature I painted above. If so, you're going to need to be more careful to distinguish your position from that silly whiny one. Because I'm just not seeing any difference here. Brandon spoke of "high standards"; they look to me unreasonably excessive.

    You seem to be making a big deal of "omniscience", but I don't see how that impacts this argument any more than it does every other argument in philosophy. We're not omniscient, obviously. There are things we don't know; consequences and reasons that we're not aware of. But, radical skeptics aside, that doesn't usually stop us from doing philosophy. Why should it in this case?

    To make this clearer, just take God out of the picture entirely. Forget whether *he* has a reason. I'm interested in whether there *is*, in objective fact, any good reason. (Clearly if God is omniscient these two questions come to the same thing.) The latter is obviously just a normal, run-of-the-mill, philosophical question. It's the sort of thing we answer with reasonable (but less-than-certain) confidence all the time. So why the radical skepticism?

    P.S. It's a bit hard to read tone over the internet, so just in case... if you're not enjoying the conversation, no-one's forcing you to continue it. You're most welcome to, of course, so long as you don't mind (or, better yet, are positively enjoying it)! But please, if you do mind, then just forget about it - we'll discuss something else another day. 

    Posted by Richard

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  17. The issue that arises with omniscience has to do with the circumscription condition. An argument from evil basically forces us to do a search of the field "possible reasons for such-and-such" in order to find a reason that is sufficient to justify (or, to eliminate all reasons as not sufficient sufficient to justify). The field of possible reasons is utterly immense; what we normally do is circumscribe it with a set of assumptions, e.g., the reasons we can think of. But we can't do that when we are dealing with omniscience; to get an answer we have to search the entire field (precisely because we are dealing with omniscience). In other words, arguments from evil have to show that there are no reasons that sufficiently justify the allowing of evil for an all-knowing being; i.e., for someone who knows every possible reason for doing something and can act or not act accordingly. An argument from evil effectively is an argument that even an omniscient being could think of no reason for allowing evil. But the only way we actually ever prove anything about what an omniscient being could not know is to demonstrate rigorously that it is logically impossible.

    You are right that in our own case we can handle these sorts of questions easily; but in our own case we aren't handling omniscience and therefore can introduce circumscription conditions to make our argument easier. People who employ arguments from evil don't generally meet the standard of argument their own argument requires if it is to draw the conclusion they claim should be drawn. 

    Posted by Brandon

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  18. Brandon, I still don't see how that differs from everything else in philosophy. The field of real possibilities is always "utterly immense", and restricting it to what we can imagine is about the best we can ever do. But we still do it.

    To put my point another way, isn't all of philosophy just trying to see the world from a God's-eye view? That is, trying to get to the objective fact of the matter, independent of our own subjective restrictions? So omniscience is always relevant, because it's what we're always striving for but can never quite achieve.

    So I really don't understand what you're getting at here. What's the difference between a reason-for-God and a reason-in-objective-fact? You seem to be suggesting there's something especially difficult about the former. But surely they're the same thing!? 

    Posted by Richard

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  19. Richard, the way we do it is by circumscribing the field of possibilities until we get the relevant set. But omniscience can't be circumscribed.

    I don't think it makes much sense to say that philosophy is an attempt to get a God's-eye view of things. To be sure, there is a sense in which we can make some headway on something like this - namely, we can show things to be logically possible and logically impossible. But this is precisely what isn't being shown here. And in ethics (which is the closest philosophical field to theodicy) we are never trying to consider all possible reasons, but only a very circumscribed set of them - those relevant to rational animals like ourselves. This is what is usually meant by objectively justifying reason: it's an objective reason that would justify our acting in a certain way. To move to this topic we have to re-adjust the settings to a much larger group of reasons: reasons available to an omniscient, omnipotent being; and there are presumably many, many more reasons (presumably infinitely many reasons) available to an agent with such resources than there are to us. So no, I don't think we do anything elsewhere in philosophy that's really like what the argument from evil is trying to do. I think problem-of-evil people are slipping in a set of circumscription conditions (those that confine the field to reasons generally like the sorts that can justify our actions as non-omniscient, non-omnipotent rational animals) that they haven't shown themselves entitled to in this case. If they would actually rigorously demonstrate a contradiction here, there wouldn't be a problem. 

    Posted by Brandon

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  20. Richard, sorry, I didn't realize that was your answer since it didn't seem to me to be addressing the problem (but now I see that it is).

    What I mean by speculating is that I could come up with all kinds of scenarios about what would have happened had God prevented the tsunami. What *could* have happened may be better or it may be worse (we can imagine better and worse chains of events in a no-tsunami scenario). What *would* have happened only God can know. Any speculation that I might engage in is only going to tell us about what could have happened.

    Surely you can imagine something that SOME reason why God would allow the tsunami to hit. *SPECULATION ON*Let's assume that God's reason was to prevent something worse from happening (we could speculate about other reasons, too, but this one seems reasonable). Maybe if the tsunami hadn't occured, by this time next year a major famine would have hit the area leaving more people dead, leaving less people offering humanitarian aid, and leaving less people asking these types of questions about God.*SPECULATION OFF* And that's not my best effort, that's just off the top of my head. But it's stupid to speculate like that since it tells us nothing about what would have happened. And because it can't tell us what would have happened, it can't tell us about God's reason, either.

    Your argument depends on God having no reason. I just imagined some reason why God might have allowed the tsunami, so your "if we can't imagine something, that's a prima facie reason to think that it's impossible" statement no longer applies. You've also suggested that we take God out of the picture, but I don't see how we can do that since reasons don't just exist "out there," they have to come from something capable of having reasons. But that's trivial since your main point was whether or not there is an actual reason. And my point this whole time is that you have to be able to say "No, there is no actual reason" in order for your argument to work. And you can't do that.

    The truth is that nobody has an answer to the question "Why? For what purpose? For what reason?" This could be because the question makes no sense because there is no god. There just is no why, there is no reason. It could also be that there is an answer but we just don't know what that answer is (because we aren't omniscient, because God has decided not to reveal to us the reason, etc.). Our answer to this, however, depends entirely on what we already believe about God. And so if we are going to come at the PoE from some sort of "neutral" ground where we neither assume God exists nor assume that he doesn't exist, then we can't come to any real conclusion since the answer to the "could God have a reason" can't be arrived at from a "neutral" stance.

    Here's (roughly) your original argument:
    1) If X has attributes A, B, and C, X wouldn't allow E to happen.
    2) E happened.
    3) X with attributes A, B, and C doesn't exist.

    Here's what I said it should be:
    4) If X has attributes A, B, and C, X wouldn't allow E to happen without a reason.
    5) E happened.
    6) X with attributes A, B, and C either doesn't exist or had a good reason to allow E to happen.

    You followed with this:
    7) If X has attributes A, B, and C, X wouldn't allow E to happen without a reason.
    8) E happened.
    9) X with attributes A, B, and C didn't have a reason to allow E to happen
    9a) If we can't imagine a reason, then there is no reason.
    10) X with attributes A, B, and C either doesn't exist.

    In reply to 9a), I said two things:
    11) I imagined a possible reason
    12) I referred back to what Brandon said about taking omniscience seriously. Our inability to imagine a reason or come up with an actual reason can't be evidence for there being no reason because "the field of possible reasons is utterly immense." Or as some people say, "Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack."


    Without assuming X exists or assuming X doesn't exist, this is the only plausible argument that can be made, IMO:
    13) If X has attributes A, B, and C, X wouldn't allow E to happen without a reason.
    14) E happened.
    15) We don't know if X could have a reason or not
    16) That's it, that's all we can say

    Actually, we still can say this:
    17) If there is a reason, we don't know that reason (follows from 15)
    18) If X with attributes A, B, and C exists, then X had a reason
    19) If X with attributes A, B, and C doesn't exist, then there is no reason to be had

    Then if we believe either X exists or doesn't exist, we can take our pick from 18 or 19, respectively.

    PS - I am enjoying this. Perhaps too much.  

    Posted by Macht

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  21. 18) should be this:

    "18) If X with attributes A, B, and C exists, then X had a reason, which we don't know"

    And that happens to be my position! 

    Posted by Macht

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  22. "I am enjoying this. Perhaps too much."

    Ha, glad to hear it :)

    I've got to stop commenting this late at night, however, so I think any substantive response from me will have to wait until tomorrow! 

    Posted by Richard

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  23. Macht, I don't think we need to worry about the details of the speculation. But to take the general suggestion: "God's reason was to prevent something worse from happening", I'm not sure that holds up.

    For starters, it seems God would thereby be treating the tsunami victims as mere means (to the prevention of other harms), rather than as ends in themselves. Maybe God just isn't a Kantian. I guess that's okay - I favour utilitarianism myself - but it seems the sort of result that should discomfort many theists. (Allowing harms for the sake of the 'greater good' sure sounds utilitarian to me, despite your earlier protestations!)

    Second, and more importantly, surely an omnipotent being could prevent both the tsunami AND the 'something worse'! To repeat the point from my main post: if God is omnipotent then he shouldn't need to employ bad means to good ends. He presumably could bring about those ends directly. Plans are for the powerless - what need would God have of them?

    If this objection holds up, then you have not, in fact, managed to imagine a good reason. If you can think of another which may fare better, feel free to put it forward. Otherwise, I guess we're just stuck with the ignorance defence.

    I still think it's just far too strong. Let's suppose for a moment that an omnipotent, omniscient deity exists. Your argument implies that there is nothing God could possibly do which would justify us doubting his benevolence. If he turned Earth into Hell and tortured us for all eternity, you could answer "he might have a reason, you can't know cos you're not omniscient like he is". Really. That's just absurd.

    I agree that the inference: "we can't imagine a reason therefore there is no reason", is not, strictly speaking, a logically sound one. It's possible for the antecedent to be true but the consequent false. But that's okay, because I've always emphasised that my argument here was not a decisive one.

    Here's what I'm really saying: we can't imagine a reason, therefore there probably isn't one.

    Alternatively: we can't imagine a reason, therefore we are justified in believing there isn't one.

    And don't forget that the first 'we' is not just one individual (whose imagination may well be lacking, after all), but the sum of all human thinkers that have ever been. No-one has ever proposed a convincing reason here. Despite lacking omniscience, we're a pretty imaginative species, so I reckon that counts as pretty good evidence, really.

    So I'm not suggesting that the problem of evil renders theism inconsistent, or any claim so strong as that. I'm just saying it makes theism less plausible. Implausible, even. That's all.

    P.S. I'm still curious to hear what you think of the "ignorance defence deprives us of moral responsibility" problem. 

    Posted by Richard

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  24. "Plans are for the powerless - what need would God have of them?"

    I didn't quite understand why you said that in your original post. Presumably, some of the most powerful people in the history of the universe had plans. I make plans all the time and I wouldn't consider myself powerless. So I don't see anything really wrong with God having a plan. If that plan was purely utilitarian, then yes I would wonder why God wouldn't just cut to the chase and bypass everything to get to the ends. Traditionally, Christian theology has held that God sees value in his creation, in being in relationship with his creatures, with showing mercy on them, showing justice, providing salvation, etc. These are all part of the plan, so I would argue that God sees value in his plan itself, and not just in where the plan ends up.

    I don't think my "God's reason was to prevent something worse from happening" implies utilitarianism although my specific example used "more" and "less" so I can see how it would seem that way. (Personally, I think utilitarianism is "partially true" - meaning that if something is the good or right thing to do, many times we would expect the outcome to reflect that, especially in the long run (but I don't think this always is the case).)

    Skipping back a bit, you said "if God is omnipotent then he shouldn't need to employ bad means to good ends."

    This goes back to what Brandon said about thinking that "creation's value consists entirely or primarily in its value for us." Here's where I admit that I don't think God is omnibenevolent in the way that most proponents of the PoE use the term (of course, I don't think ANYBODY thinks God is omnibenevolent in that sense). The term means "perfectly good" or "pefectly loving." What most proponents of the PoE seem to mean by this is that God will do everything in his power to bring about the best situation for every single human. Others might mean that the term means that God possesses the greatest degree of goodness possible. I reject both of those views on the grounds that they aren't Biblical and they would lead to absurd conclusions (e.g., my having a hangnail would count against God's omnibenevolence).

    To tell you the truth, I don't know what most believers mean by the term. I can tell you what I mean by the term, though. I take "perfectly" to mean something more along the lines of "faithfully." God is good in just the ways he promises to be good and he will remain faithful to those promises. If God enters into a covenant, then he will remain faithful to the promises entailed in that covenant. There is nothing that leads me to believe that God has promised to prevent all bad things from happening to all people. Quite the opposite, he even asks us to "rejoice in our sufferings." This implies that we should expect bad things to happen to us.

    In short, God is good, but he is only good to us in the ways he promises to be good to us. And these promises don't include anything like "maximizing the happiness of all people" or "making sure no bad things happen to anybody, ever."

    If you think this means that I shouldn't use the word "omnibenevolent" to describe God, that's fine, I rarely use the word anyways. I obviously don't use it in the same way that most people seem to, but I don't think that the way most people use it makes that much sense, anyway.

    "We can't imagine a reason, therefore we are justified in believing there isn't one."

    I think the best you can say is "We haven't imagined a reason, therefore we don't know if there is a reason or not." At least, I don't see anything preventing us from imagining a reason (for one, I still think my imagined reason above is a good one). I can't imagine a square circle because it contradicts itself. If there was something contradictory about God having a reason, then you might be justified in saying "can't," but I don't really see anything contradictory about it. I think Brandon's argument for why you are wrong on this point is a good one, too.

    I don't see why my agnosticism about God's reasons should deprive us of moral responsibility. As a moral agent, I have to act based on what know and not on what others know or might know. I would argue that almost every moral decision we make involves ignorance about the full situation. Some of this ignorance may be relevant to the moral choice we have to make, some of it may not be relevant. I might even know that somebody has access to this knowledge even though I don't. In any case, we make moral decisions all the time while lacking relevant information and generally we are held responsible for our decisions in the context of the information we actually had. For example, if a criminal on the run from the police walks by me on the street I wouldn't be morally responsible for not calling the cops if I didn't know he was a criminal on the run. The fact that other people know he is a criminal on the run doesn't deprive me of the responsibilities I have given the information I have.

    "What seems atrocious to us might be part of God's plan."

    Similarly to what I just said, imagine we have two firemen - one omniscient, one not omniscient. These two firemen might do way different things if faced with the same situation. If a 10 year old Hitler was trapped in a burning building, an omniscient fireman might be doing the right thing not rescuing him (I say "might" because maybe that wouldn't be the right thing to do, but let's assume it is for this example). A normal fireman, not knowing what 10 year old Hitler would become, would be doing the right thing by rescuing him. Both are responsible for what they know. The fact that the two do different things doesn't deprive either of them from their moral responsibility. It just means that the normal fireman made a decision based on what he knew at the time.  

    Posted by Macht

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  25. I've continued this discussion in a new post

    Posted by Richard

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