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 for example a theist named Theophilus replies 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 (by advances in medical technology, learning to share our food with the hungry, etc.) with the limited abilities we have, and that it’s better for humans to do this than God doing it for us. And so with this view of what is good God does not intervene, because the existence of this suffering cannot be removed without also destroying the greater good of us humans trying to overcome the evil that causes it. Like any good theist, Theophilus believes that God’s view of goodness is correct (since an omniscient God believes only what is true) and better than any competing view of moral goodness.

The atheist could reply saying that Theophilus’s view of goodness is incorrect and that it would be better (for example) to give humans superpowers that would enable them to easily eliminate the evil that causes suffering, rather than limiting humanity’s ability in the way that Theophilus thinks is good. But if the atheist replies that Theophilus’s view of moral goodness is wrong and that a perfectly good being would not behave in the way Theophilus thinks, for this reply to be successful the atheist would have to believe that his own view of moral goodness is objectively better than Theophilus’s view, and the atheist will have to say that Theophilus’s moral standard (which he thinks a perfectly good God would have) is objectively incorrect as opposed to just not liking it very much.

Why does a successful argument from evil requires the existence of an objective moral standard? I think it becomes clear when we reflect on the following question. For the atheist who denies the existence of objective moral values, how could an atheist reasonably respond to Theophilus’s claim about it being good for God to allow evil? Say “I don’t believe an objective moral standard exists, but if did exist, it would be my standard and not yours”? Without conceding the existence of an objective moral standard, the atheist doesn’t appear to have any grounds for thinking that if God existed he would adopt the atheist’s moral standard instead of Theophilus’s. So 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 very much 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 the atheist doesn’t have a good argument from evil that is reasonable for him 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 collapses under its own weight

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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