Monday, September 10, 2007

Two arguments from evil by Spencer Lo

Spencer Lo writes:

1. The Christian God strongly desires a loving relationship with almost every human being, and desires it to last for all eternity. [Christian assumption]
2. A loving relationship with God is possible only if one (a) believes that he exists and (b) chooses to be in a loving relationship with God.
3. Therefore, if the Christian God exists, since he wants humanity to have a loving relationship with him, he would make his existence well-known to almost everyone, thereby ensuring condition (a). (from 1, 2)
4. There are multitudes of conflicting religions and religious beliefs (Christianity, Islam, Hindus, Buddhism, secularism, etc), and more people who don't believe that the Christian God exists than those who do. [empirical assumption]
5. Therefore, not almost every human being believes that the Christian God exists. (from 4)
6. Therefore, the Christian God's existence is not well-known to almost everyone. (from 5)
7. Therefore, the Christian God doesn't exist. ( from 6, 3)


The reason I formulated (2) the way I did was to block the free will defense.The thought is: even if there is libertarian free will, belief in God is not a choice. I can no more choose to believe that God doesn't exist than I can choose to believe that an invisible genie isn't in my room. If I did believe that an invisible genie is in my room, I can then choose to talk to him. Similarly, I can choose to be in a relationship with God, but only after I believe he actually exists. Many Christians who cherish free will claim that if God's existence was so obvious, everyone would be forced to accept Jesus as their lord and savior, and thus salvation would not be a free choice. This just seems false to me. Belief is a necessary but not sufficient condition for acceptance. I can believe that there's life-saving medicine at the nearest store, but that in itself doesn't force me to go there and buy it.

Argument 2

1. If God exists, then pointless suffering wouldn't exist.
2. It is untenable to claim that pointless suffering doesn't exist.
3. Therefore, it is untenable to claim that God exists.

Defense of (2)

1. God is all-powerful and all-knowing. [Christian assumption]
2. Hence, God can thwart or prevent any negative consequences which may arise from a particular action. (from 1)
3. If God intervened to thwart or prevent suffering, he could thwart or prevent any negative consequences which may arise from such intervention. (from 2)
4. Therefore, God can't have a consequentialist justification for not thwarting or preventing suffering. (from 3)
5. The only other possible justification for not thwarting or preventing suffering is deontological: God is morally forbidden to intervene because of the nature of the intervention itself.
6. However, since God is the moral legislator, (5) is untenable.
7. Apart from a consequentialist or deontological justification, there is no other type of justification that God can appeal to to not thwart or prevent suffering.
8. Therefore, it is untenable to claim that pointless suffering doesn't exist. (from 7)

The intuition that God can thwart or prevent negative consequences without having to prevent the action is quite strong. Suppose I see a small child about to walk into a building rigged to explode as soon as he enters it. I can easily prevent him from walking into the building, but I choose not to. Why? Because I know that if I prevent him from walking into the building, 5 millions people will suddenly die horrible deaths as a result of my action. Hence, I justify my inaction to prevent an instance of suffering by appealing to the negative consequences which would have inevitably resulted from my action. Me acting to save the child will bring about far worse consequences than me not acting to save the child. Hence, I have a morally sufficient reason for my inaction.

However, since God is omnipotent, he can have his cake and eat it too. He can prevent the child from walking into the building and the deaths of millions who would have died as a result of God's action. There are no negative consequences that God cannot prevent which would result from him thwarting or preventing suffering.

Only if there is a logically necessary connection between a particular action and its negative consequences would God then not be able to thwart or prevent those consequences without preventing the action. However, at best, it seems that in most cases the kind of necessary connection involved is only causal. Since God can perform miracles, he can surely suspend "natural regularity," and there doesn't seem to be any limitation on the amount of miracles he's allowed to perform. I think the burden would be on the theist who wants to posit a logical necessity between an action and its consequences.

12 comments:

stunney said...

Lo's premise number 4 states that:

There are multitudes of conflicting religions and religious beliefs (Christianity, Islam, Hindus, Buddhism, secularism, etc), and more people who don't believe that the Christian God exists than those who do. [empirical assumption]

This strikes me as very faulty for the following reasons.

Let's suppose that all who come to the Father do so through Jesus Christ. Why is it necessary for them to get the name right, or have a true description inside their heads of Christ's salvific mediation role in the conceptual terms of Christian theology? Not even Christians have perfectly correct descriptions inside their heads of all the theological facts. But why should not having the correct descriptions of God entail an inability to have a relationship with God? Does a man have to have a perfectly true and comprehensive description of his wife to have a relationship with her?

It's the Hesperus/Phosphorus thing again, I'm afraid. Frege's distinction between sense and reference, semantic and epistemic externalism, direct reference rather than the descriptive theory of reference, Kripke, and all that jazz.

Jesus was an early opponent of the descriptive theory of reference. In Matthew 25, there is the parable of judgement. In that parable, the damned—---or to use the politically correct terminology, the 'eschatologically challenged' or the 'differently saved'--—–protest their innocence, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, etc, and not give you food, etc?" They're told that insofar as they neglected to care for the poor, they neglected to care for him, Jesus Christ. In another saying, Jesus says that it's not those who say "Lord, Lord" who will inherit the kingdom, but those who actually do God's will. That could mean 23 million atheists will inherit the kingdom, and every TV evangelist will have to spend 14.5 trillion years in purgatory.

Two points to keep in mind. 1) Contradictory beliefs of any kind can't all be true; but some beliefs are true, and it's no argument against Christianity being true that some people hold beliefs that contradict it, just as it's no argument against evolutionary naturalism being true that some people hold beliefs that contradict it. 2) People do manage to refer all the time despite very often doing so under false descriptions and inadequate conceptualizations. And this is as true of science as it is of theology.

And here's a philosophical example: Let's suppose that substance dualism is true. It would not follow that all materialists had always failed to refer to anything when they used the word 'mind', and that all Berkeleyan idealists had always failed to refer to anything when they used the word 'body', even though the materialist theory of mind and the idealist theory of body are both erroneous, ex hypothesi.

A little lecture room trick is to point to an object while saying to the students, "D'you see that little metal chalk box over there attached to the wall?" They all nod and mumble affirmatively. Then you tell them that it's actually plastic and isn't a box at all, but a small shelf.

Meanings are not objects---descriptions---that exist inside human heads. Saying what they are is very tricky, especially if you're a materialist.

Christianity being true is compatible with:

a) there also being some evidence for the truth of other religions

and with

b) bits of other religions also being true,

and, most importantly, with

c) adherents of other religions actually referring to many of the spiritual facts represented by Christian theology, but under strictly false or somewhat inadequate descriptions.

In the subject of history, there is often a range of evidence to support a number of conflicting theses, e.g, about Napoleon's generalship, or why Germany lost the First World War, or the social attitudes of ancient Greeks towards homosexuality, or why Britain was able to acquire such a large empire. Etc. None of this entails that historians who hold flawed theories and theses about past persons and events are not nevertheless successfully referring to those persons and events.

The Arabic word for 'God' is 'Allah'. Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi and Lebanese Christians use that word exactly as Germans use 'Gott' and we use 'God' and Mexicans use 'Dios', etc. Now suppose the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is true. Would that mean that every time a Muslim said 'Allah', s/he was not referring to the trinitarian God? Or let's suppose a little old Catholic lady thinks that each divine Person has a separate and distinct will, which is in fact not the case according to Catholic theology. Does this mean that when she recites the Creed at Mass each Sunday, she is not in fact referring to God, but is merely reciting her heretical belief in tritheism?

The moral is that we should dump the idea that successful reference---and hence mental relations to other minds and bodies and events generally----can only be achieved and determined by having true descriptions in the heads of individual humans. If reference and meaning were all determined by or identical with the descriptions inside individual human heads, we could not refer or communicate or translate, because those descriptions—–the ideas we each have in our heads and which we associate with words in our various languages——-vary enormously, and are very often wholly or partially false, or inadequate, inaccurate, and misleading.

A scientific example: Hans Halvorson's demonstration that localized particles are not real, and hence that 'particle talk' has merely pragmatic utility, and is false if construed ontologically.

So, it's not just that religions fail to agree. It's human thoughts generally about lots of things failing to agree. If the fact of disagreement about religion disqualifies religion from the possibility of achieving referential and epistemic success, the same kind of disagreement disqualifies human thought generally, including thoughts about the physical world. But once one becomes a devotee of the gospel of Kripkeanism, you stop worrying about the possibility of one's descriptions of reality being false having the effect of preventing successful reference. So the physicists really are talking about a physical world, and the theologians really are talking about God, even if their descriptions are conflicting, changing, and more or less inadequate in both cases.

The solution is modal logic. There is a possible world in which Berkeleyan idealism is false and in which matter exists independently of minds. There is a possible world in which theism is true. So we can refer to those possible worlds, and hence to mind-independent matter and to God, since reference does not reduce to description of actual world naturalistic entities. Propositions and possible worlds are not physically detectable entities, and yet both are required by scientific reasoning itself, let alone theology.

Hence, there is a possible world in which Christianity is true and Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and even atheists come to the Father through Jesus Christ without having subscribed to the relevant bits of Christian theology. And I believe that possible world coincides with, or is, the actual world.

Lah-dee-dah.

Jason Pratt said...

Aside from the intrinsic interest of the post (and Stunney's comment), I think I missed the part where Argument 1 was supposed to be a variant of the Argument from Evil. Was that Spencer's way of describing it, or Victor's?

Stunney's comment incidentally is less against element (4) than against the phrasing and/or content of element (2). Also, considering that the word for punishment in the judgment of the goats is a word for _cleaning_, then yeah actually they might count as being differently saved. {g} (Or not so differently, per GosMark 9:49-50...)

That being said, the argument would (or might) still stand insofar as a Christian promotes item (2) as is. Christians who reject the gnostic heresy, on the other hand, probably won't accept item (2). Insert irony here as applicable. {shrug}{s}

JRP

stunney said...

Good point, Jason.

'Gnostic heresy' is a nice way to put it.

I must learn to be more succinct.

IlĂ­on said...

"I can no more choose to believe that God doesn't exist than I can choose to believe that an invisible genie isn't in my room."

Actually, this isn't true. One *does* choose to believe the things one believes; one does refuse to believe the things one disbelieves.

Just as love is an active choice/decision, so is belief.

Whether one has warrant for one's choice (of either love or belief) is a different matter.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Hey, I get to agree with stunney.

A good friend, who's an Evangelical "all-but-minister" (finished seminary but never got "called" to a parish), likes to say that all his copies of the Bible must be defective, because in that famous passage in John, his says, "...that all who believe in Him shall not perish..." -- whereas so many other people seem to have copies that say "...that all who believe in Him and have correct theology shall not perish..."

Similarly, my Bibles all seem to be missing the part that says "...that all who believe in Him shall not perish, but everybody else shall..."

stunney said...

Sturgeon's lawyer wrote:

Similarly, my Bibles all seem to be missing the part that says "...that all who believe in Him shall not perish, but everybody else shall..."

No, that won't do. My argument still applies, even for hardline atheists. Most such folk 'believe in' reason and morality. Assume that a fully rational and well-informed person----we can call this hypothetical person 'C. S. Lewis'---grasps that a logical consequence of believing in reason and morality is that one ought to believe in the metaphysical basis of reason and morality, and this basis is, in reality, God. Then the atheist 'believes in' God, but under very false descriptions. The atheist might well believe in 'the truth' and that ideally one ought to believe in all propositions that are entailed by one's sincere beliefs. And so the atheist has beliefs that logically imply that she ought to believe in theism.

What prevents us much of the time from seeing this is the fact that referential opacity is always lurking in intensional contexts, such as those created by verbs attributing propositional attitudes.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Stunney,

Given the very relaxed definition you propose, I accept your amendment. However, I think that you're treading onto the border between "faith" (the grace by which we are saved) and "belief" (acceptance of an intellectual proposition, i.e., "God exists," or "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again").

Faith, a grace, is independent of our "works," such as belief in specific propositions. Faith is what (ideally) leads us, whether Christian, Jew, Hindu, Atheist, or Born-Again Pagan, to hold to the best ethics and morals we understand, regardless of the cost to ourselves - in fact, not to see our own good as the summum bonum.

Jason Pratt said...

{nod} Agree with Sturg. It's this faithfulness which I believe the Holy Spirit (the 3rd Person of God) is working to bring about in "_every_ person who is coming into the world". (Jn 1:9) When one is working with the 3rd Person, one is in cooperation with the other two Persons as well (thus the link to the Son in Jn 1:9, too, for instance); thus the whole economy of salvation is going on behind the scenes in everyone, whoever and wherever they are.

As Christians we are in a position to take down the veil (as it were) and talk more specifically about what is actually going on, theologically (assuming we're right {g}); but it's going on regardless of whether we see it or not.

I came up with a refined version of the sceptical argument from injustice last April, when Richard Carrier debated Tom Wanchick--I thought Richard's version was poor as stated but had some potential. I know I've posted it up at least once, maybe twice, to comment threads since then, but have never gotten any feedback on it. I may dig it up tonight or tomorrow and try again.

JRP

DRM said...

I believe the last part of this post was inspired by my response to Spencer on the reasonable faith website forums.

On those forums I intended a much less powerful claim than that causes have necessary consequences, where necessary consequences were taken as specific. All I contended was that for any cause, it doesn't seem to me plausible that God could change the nature of such a cause to produce effects opposite from what it normally does. This leaves a wide range of effects open for the cause to produce. I think this needs to be specified more than what I did on those forums. But the idea is that the universe is constructed in such a way that those causes within it interact with it in such a way as to produce certain effects.

I think this is a fairly plausible claim. It leaves open the possibility of God changing the nature of the universe, or of specific causes, or of specific effects. This was the first and other half of my response to Spencer. My claim is that canceling the consequences of an agent's choice is not more or less problematic than canceling that agent's choice. I think it would be most plausible to argue this from a value standpoint, where such a cancellation would be a devaluation of the agent-as-cause.

I now think it's more plausible in his second argument to challenge his 5th and 6th premises in his supporting argument for premise 2:

It is untenable to claim that pointless suffering doesn't exist.

It seems to me to be based on an overly simplistic form of Divine Command morality. If such a morality somehow includes God's nature in the theory, then it could be claimed that God has deontological reasons despite being the moral legislator, since there is moral legislation that would go against God's nature.

Those were my shots against Spencer arguments. But I do think his arguments deserve serious consideration, and better analysis than what I'm capable of.

stunney said...

sturgeon's lawyer wrote:

However, I think that you're treading onto the border between "faith" (the grace by which we are saved) and "belief" (acceptance of an intellectual proposition, i.e., "God exists," or "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again").

Faith, a grace, is independent of our "works," such as belief in specific propositions.


Ah, but I'm a Catholic, you see. And the question I was addressing was that raised by Lo's premise number 4, which states that "... [there are] more people who don't believe that the Christian God exists than those who do.

Given my argument, that premise is straightforwardly false because of the intensionality of the context. In other words, contrary to Lo's assumption, most people do believe in the Christian God, if God = the Christian God. Given that de re identity, it is sufficient that they are theists, and unnecessary for them to be Christian theists, for them to believe in the Christian God. Just as it's sufficient, given that the Morning Star = the Evening Star, for someone to believe in the existence of the Morning Star that they believe in the existence of the Evening Star, and unnecessary for them to believe in its existence under the name 'Morning Star'.

So Lo needs to return to the drawing board, and maybe take a refresher course in Philosophy of Language 101.

Jason Pratt said...

Actually, Stunney, I think you and Sturg are on the same page there.

DMV: {{I think it would be most plausible to argue this from a value standpoint, where such a cancellation would be a devaluation of the agent-as-cause.}}

I tend to agree. The 'argument from evil' portion of my ongoing "Ethics and the 3rd Person" series over at the Christian Cadre, says much the same thing.

Now if I could only find what I did with that AfE/S variant I came up with last year... {lopsided g} (It isn't in that entry, which was originally drafted back in 2000.)

JRP

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

stunney,

Jason is right; we're agreeing vehemently. (And I'm a Catholic also.) I absolutely believe that God is God (Allah il'Allah), regardless of our terminology. It's one of my two foundational theological principles here, that I call the Bigness Principle: God is not only bigger than our opinions about Him, He is bigger than the questions our opinions try to answer.