Monday, February 4, 2013

Rosenberg’s Argument from Evil Folly

In my last blog entry I mentioned the debate between atheist Alexander Rosenberg versus William Lane Craig, the debate topic being “Is faith in God reasonable?” Alexander Rosenberg denies the existence of objective moral values but in the debate he had with William Lane Craig he argued the problem of evil. Yet without belief in an objective moral standard (as of what is morally good) the argument from evil shoots itself in the foot, because it removes all grounds for attacking even a trivial theodicy (where a theodicy is an alleged reason of why God allows evil).

Suppose a hypothetical theist—call him Theophilus—concedes there are evils in the world but believes it is morally good for us humans to try to fight against them (refraining from doing morally wrong actions, advancing medical technology, learning to share our food with the hungry, etc.) with the limited abilities that we have, with the obstacles we face etc. and that this is better than God making the evils any less bad, such that if God shared this standard of moral goodness, God would allow all the evil that exists in this world, because on this standard of moral goodness God would have morally sufficient reasons for doing so (it is good for humanity to fight against these evils with limited abilities etc.).

An atheist might reject Theophilius’s view of what is morally good, and say that if God adopted the atheist’s standard of moral goodness, God would not allow the evil that we see.

So on one standard of moral goodness, God would not allow the evil in the world, but on another moral standard, God would allow our world’s evil. The problem for atheists who reject moral objectivism but embrace the argument from evil is this: without an objective standard of goodness, there’s no objective fact of the matter about which standard of goodness God would adopt if he existed, and thus there’d be no objective fact of the matter over whether God would allow evil if he existed, in which case the argument from evil would collapse under its own weight.

I’m not saying Theophilus’s theodicy is correct. But even if we grant it as foolish, without an objective moral standard the atheist who rejects moral objectivism is powerless to reject even Theophilus’s theodicy for why God allows evil. So for the atheist to put forth a successful argument from evil, the atheist needs to adopt an objective moral standard. However, it seems that if God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist, and if that’s true, then if objective morality does exist, then God does as well. Paradoxically, the argument from evil can be used as an argument for theism as follows:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective evil does not exist (since there wouldn’t be an objective moral standard).
  2. Objective evil does exist (thereby entailing an objective moral standard).
  3. Therefore, God exists.
It may seem like a trick, but as long as the first premise is true, objective evil implies God’s existence. The argument from evil is emotionally powerful, but emotions sometimes mislead the intellect. As long as the first premise is true, the argument from evil doesn’t work intellectually, even if we don’t know why God allows evil. (Since I’ve argued for the idea that objective morality doesn’t exist if God doesn’t exist elsewhere, I won’t repeat myself here about why objective morality implies God’s existence.)

Without conceding the existence of an objective moral standard, the atheist is powerless to attack even facile reasons for why a perfectly good God would allow evil, at least when such reasons are consistent with the theist’s view of moral goodness. This raises another point: even if the atheist has no grounds for thinking that God (if he existed) would adopt the atheist’s standard of goodness when deciding what evils to permit, couldn’t the atheist at least criticize the theist for having an inconsistency in the theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good God allowing evil? That depends on the theist, but it’s relatively trivial to construct a view of goodness that is consistent with a perfectly good God allowing evil in the world, as the case of Theophilus illustrates. Even if Theophilus’s view of goodness is mistaken, it isn’t self-contradictory. Similarly, even if my own view of moral goodness is mistaken, I doubt there is anything self-contradictory about it with respect to a perfectly good God allowing evil in the world, in part because I don’t claim to have a complete picture of what moral goodness constitutes (though I’m pretty sure we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves), and I concede that there might be goods I am unaware of that constitute at least part of the reason for why God allows evil.

But even if I were to have an inconsistency in my own personal view of moral goodness, without an objective moral standard atheists doesn’t have a good argument from evil that is reasonable for them to accept. Without an objective moral standard, there’s no objective fact of the matter about which standard of goodness God would adopt if he existed, in which case there would be no objective fact of the matter about whether God would allow evil if he existed, in which case the argument from evil would collapse under its own weight. Consequently, atheists who reject moral objectivism shouldn’t be using the argument from evil.

11 comments:

  1. I don't think this is compelling at all. Moral nihilism can be true and there would still be a fact of the matter as to what a supremely benevolent and loving being would do in any given situation. It has nothing to do with moral theory. The question is, rather, is the *amount* of suffering in the world compatible with the existence of a supremely loving and benevolent being that is also omnipotent. The atheist can still reply to that (pretty bad) theodicy as follows: As an omnipotent being He could have accomplished that without allowing *this much suffering in the world.* There is still a fact of the matter about whether this much suffering is required for that alleged good, and very clearly it isn't. Moreover, the POE can be an *internal* critique. The atheist obviously doesn't have to agree with the internals of theism to argue that it is internally inconsistent.

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    1. The atheist can still reply to that (pretty bad) theodicy as follows: As an omnipotent being He could have accomplished that without allowing *this much suffering in the world.*

      Not quite. Theophilus believes it is good for us humans to try to fight against this suffering with the abilities we have, and that this good outweighs the evil of the suffering. On this view of goodness, not even a morally perfect and omnipotent God can get rid of this suffering without also getting rid of the outweighing good (the existence of such suffering to fight against). You could say that this view of goodness is incorrect and that a perfectly good being would not allow it, but then you’d need to appeal to an objective moral standard to say that if a perfectly good God existed he would share your conception of goodness over Theophilus’s.

      Moreover, the POE can be an *internal* critique. The atheist obviously doesn't have to agree with the internals of theism to argue that it is internally inconsistent

      The problem is that it’s very trivial to come up with a variety of theism and theodicy that is internally consistent, and to propose a theodicy that explains why God allows evil that is consistent with the theist’s view of goodness, as the case of Theophilus illustrates.

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  2. Well done, Maverick. And this is just one example of inconsistency from Rosenberg's side of the debate....

    After reading analyticphilosopher's comments, it occurs to me that the atheist also needs to determine *how much* suffering in the world would be "acceptable" to be compatible with his/her version of an all-loving, omnipotent, & omnibenevolent God. Surely there would be disagreement among atheists. Some might accept some wars and others no wars. Some might accept some disease, injury, and other medical conditions, while others would think it should all be absent. Some might only care about humans, while others would treat some or all other life as equally deserving of no pain & suffering whatsoever. It all comes back to whether or not there is an objective standard and to whom does it apply.

    We could & should also distinguish moral evil (committed by moral agents w/ free will) from natural evil (e.g., predation, disease, natural catastrophes). But, I suppose most non-theists would say that a hypothetical god that allows (or perpetrates?) "too much" natural evil is committing moral evil. And, then, we're back to the grounding question....

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  3. Congratulations, MC, you've just jettisoned your sense of compassion, empathy and morality.

    It seems you stand behind CS Lewis' "defense" of the problem of suffering by appealing to belief in god as a good that trumps all others. By that logic, ANY atrocity is acceptable if it leads people to Christ.

    http://www.amazon.com/review/R1UNOP41DTN8MS/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060652969&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=#wasThisHelpful

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    1. How in the world did I jettison my sense of compassion, empathy and morality? All I did was show that if an atheist rejects the existence of an objective moral standard, any argument from evil won’t have an intellectual leg to stand on. Do you have anything to say to address the content of the article?

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    2. If you're going to defend gratuitous suffering and redefine omnibenevolence to allow for suffering and a tri-omni god, then yes, you have essentially conceded that there are things your god values more than a world without suffering.

      Which means that he's not all-loving, and therefore unworthy of worship.

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    3. If you're going to defend gratuitous suffering and redefine omnibenevolence to allow for suffering and a tri-omni god, then yes, you have essentially conceded that there are things your god values more than a world without suffering.

      Even if that’s true, none of this addresses the intellectual problem I described in the article (the problem with the atheist who wants to argue the argument from evil without accepting an objective moral standard). It sounds like you’re attacking the theist’s rebutting the argument from evil more generally rather than attacking the content of the article, in which case I’ll start a new thread to address what you’ve said.

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    4. Like I said, if you're going to redefine omnibenevolence, then we can't have an honest discussion.

      Also, if having the "opportunity to alleviate suffering" is enough to justify suffering, then hell is superior to heaven, because hell would grant its residents the ability to alleviate suffering (whilst heaven would be sans suffering from day one). That's a prima facie ludicrous claim.

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    5. Winston, since you are going off-topic (in that you are not addressing the actual argument of the OP, which among other things does not redefine omnibenevolence) I have addressed your topic here

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    6. Theophilius' position would have him ignore a rape instead of informing police or intervening to protect the victim because God, the standard of all morality, would also allow the evil act to occur. This is very much against Kant's categorical imperative-- God can't be the standard if he is allowing evil, because that would mean everyone should allow evil. While Jesus did teach us to turn the other cheek, this case seems rather extreme and counter intuitive.

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    7. Theophilius' position would have him ignore a rape instead of informing police or intervening to protect the victim because God, the standard of all morality, would also allow the evil act to occur.

      Not at all. You seem to have forgotten that Theophilus believes “that the reason why God allows horrible things to happen is that in God’s eyes it is good for us humans to try to overcome and wipe it out.” If it is good for us humans to try to wipe out evil, wouldn’t it be more logical to conclude that on Theophilus’s view it is good for humans to combat evils like rape?

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