Below is the rebuttal for a debate between me and fellow blogger Potnia Theron (a.k.a. Steven) over the existence of God. The debate thus far:
- Round 1: Opening Statements
- Round 2: Rebuttals
- Maverick Christian
- Potnia Theron (Steven)
- Round 3: Questions
- Round 4: Answers
- Round 5: Closing Statements
I seem to have begun round 1 at a disadvantage. My responsibility in this debate is to argue for the existence of a being that is eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, morally perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient. That’s quite a tall order in the limited space I had, particularly with the last two attributes (omnipotence and omniscience) which I knew would be the most difficult to argue for. While I did offer justification for those two attributes, that justification is by itself insufficient to overwhelm the convincing force of the arguments from evil (or at any rate, something like arguments from evil) that my opponent gave in his opening statements.
A General Problem
Arguments from evil operate with an “If God did exist, he would not allow X” mentality, where X is some sort of evil. There are two types of evil: moral evil (evil resulting from misuse of free will) and natural evil (evils that occur in nature like cancer and tsunamis). From the standpoint of atheism, the argument from evil doesn’t work and indeed collapses before it can even get off the ground, because if atheism is true an objective moral standard doesn’t exist (as I argued in my opening statement), and an objective moral standard is needed for the argument to work.
To illustrate the problem, consider a hypothetical theist named Theophilus. 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 (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. Thus if God shared Theophilus’s standard of goodness, God would allow all the evil that exists in this world.
The atheist might say that if a perfectly good God existed, God would not adopt Theophilus’s standard of goodness; God would instead adopt the atheist’s standard of goodness. But there’s a problem: without an objective moral standard, there doesn’t appear to be any objective fact of the matter as to which moral standard of goodness (e.g. Theophilus’s) God would adopt if he existed, and thus there would be no objective fact of the matter as to whether God would allow evil if he existed. The argument from evil would then collapse under its own weight.
Suppose though that one accepted my opening statement’s moral argument, which argued for the existence of an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, perfectly good being who imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. While such an eternal sovereign entity that everyone ought to obey would seem to be a personal supreme being of some sort, the argument does not even attempt to establish that the entity is omnipotent and omniscient. So what if one is willing to grant the existence of the eternal sovereign entity (thereby abandoning atheism) but disbelieve in an omnipotent and omniscient God due to Steven’s arguments? In that case we will have to address the arguments more directly.
Arguments from evil typically claim that if God existed he would not allow some sort of evil to occur. In Steven’s argument, God would allegedly not allow any child to suffer when the suffering wasn’t for the child’s own benefit.
- If God exists, then no one ought to proactively prevent any child from suffering.
- But, someone ought to proactively prevent a child from suffering.
- Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
There is another problem with the justification for the first premise. Why think that any child’s suffering would benefit of the child if God existed? Steven supposes that allowing a child to suffer purely for someone else’s sake (or for no one’s sake) would constitute child abuse. The justification for the first premise relies on this assumption, but the assumption doesn’t seem quite right. Suppose for example Billy is a child stranded somewhere with a headache, but two innocent women are in a critical, painful condition and both will die if I don’t drive them to the hospital. I have two options: drive towards Billy and give him an aspirin that would prevent further headache suffering, which would result in the two women dying, or I could save the two women and leave Billy with his headache. In this case I choose to save the women and allow Billy to suffer for the sake of other people. Is this action child abuse because I am not proactively preventing a child (viz. Billy) from suffering? One could define “child abuse” that way, but I think we really want to define as child abuse as allowing/causing a child to suffer without a morally sufficient reason. All things considered, the justification for the first premise therefore fails.
The justification for the second premise falters for the same reason. It is of course true in general that we ought to proactively prevent children from suffering, but there are conceivable circumstances where one has morally sufficient reasons for allowing a child to suffer. I do not pretend to know what God’s morally sufficient reason is for allowing children to suffer. In some cases it may well be for the child’s own benefit, but I doubt this is the reason for all such cases.
First, it should be kept in mind that my responsibility in this debate is to argue that a being in the actual world has the following characteristics: omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, and metaphysical necessity. With that description kept in mind, argument #2 is this:
- If God exists, then nothing is ultimately unfair in any possible world.
- But, there is some possible world where something is ultimately unfair.
- Therefore, God doesn't exist.
But isn’t the being I’m arguing for metaphysically necessary? Yes, but the description I gave still doesn’t quite match the Plantingan God (omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect in all possible worlds). There is no contradiction in the idea that the being I described exists in the actual world and while this being is omnipotent in the actual world he is not omnipotent in every possible world—just as Michael Jordan was capable of playing great basketball in the actual world but there are possible worlds where he was not (e.g. due to a disability). So the type of God I am arguing for does not commit one to the Plantingan God (this is not to say I disbelieve in the Plantingan God, only that I’m not arguing for such a being in this debate). Moreover, none of my arguments for theism rely on God having omnipotence and omniscience in every possible world, though the moral argument and the LCA (collectively) seem to suggest an entity that is eternal, transcendent, and metaphysically necessary in every possible world.
At any rate, the first premise lacks adequate justification, largely because its alleged truth does not follow from the type of God I am arguing for in this debate. Still, let’s assume arguendo that the first premise is true so we can better examine the second premise.
Why think the second premise is true? An agnostic about the Plantingan God, it seems, should likewise be agnostic about whether there is any possible world where something is ultimately unfair. Let’s ignore that though and address Steven’s case of the Boltzmann brain. Wouldn’t such short life span be unfair? Not necessarily. Many theists believe in an afterlife, and the theist could believe that even in worlds with Boltzmann brains God has an afterlife prepared for such individuals (perhaps one where they could continue to make more choices?). It should be remembered that many theists believe an afterlife is available for babies who die in infancy and (if you’re pro-life) persons who die in abortions. So short life spans need not be unfair on a theistic worldview.
Morally Sufficient Reasons
Steven’s arguments are perhaps not strictly arguments from evil, but they at least resemble the argument from evil closely enough to be worth talking about, since both rely on claims about what sort of evils a perfectly good God would not allow. Arguments from evil critically depend on us not knowing of a morally sufficient reason for why God would allow evil, for if we did know of such morally sufficient reasons, the argument from evil would hardly be convincing. This raises an important question: if God did have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil we see, would we know about them?
I do not think it is necessarily the case that if God and evil co-existed that we would know why God allows evil. One mistake that theists and nontheists often make is having an overly anthropomorphic view of God. Among those who have the most anthropomorphic view of God, I think atheists take the cake; atheists would not allow evil and so they reason God would not either. It is surprisingly easy to forget that if God exists, God’s mind is infinite whereas ours is finite. Moreover, because the chasm between the God’s infinite mind and the finite human mind is so unfathomably vast, it’s very easy underestimate the effect his would have particularly if we have an overly anthropomorphic view of God. We cannot reasonably expect to know the “why” behind everything God does, and perhaps we cannot even reasonably expect to understand the “why” behind most things God does. Due to the chasm between God’s infinite mind and the finite human mind, it’s plausible that if God and evil were to co-exist we wouldn’t be able to comprehend all the reasons why God allows evil any more than an ant can comprehend why the sun gives off heat. By my lights, our inability to comprehend all the reasons why God allows evil is, if anything, to be expected.
Human knowledge of moral goods is finite and fallible (consider human disagreements about what is good and bad), and it may well be incomplete. To illustrate, at one point as a small child, the only moral goods I was aware of was pleasure and lack of pain. I have since learned that this moral knowledge was incomplete; pleasure and the lack of pain aren’t the only goods or even the most important ones. Consider a scenario I’ll call “Happy Land.” Everybody is bedridden as the result of being continuously fed drugs to put them into a state of extreme bliss all the time. While the drugs leave them in a mindless stupor and they can’t exercise much free will in their condition, the drug-induced euphoria results in a more pleasurable life than people have in the real world, and with all freedom removed there are no murders, rapes, thefts, or other moral evils that exist in the real world. There is great drug-induced bliss and no suffering. Which would you rather have? Happy Land or the real world? It seems to me that the real world is preferable to Happy Land, and if so that means there are more important things than mere pleasure and the lack of pain, and these important things are worth all the evil that exists in this world. If that’s true, the moral knowledge I had as small child was incomplete; pleasure and the lack of pain are not the only good things or even the most important things.
Not all of us our small children, but I think this illustration helps one to understand how one can have an accurate picture of moral goods (pleasure and lack of pain are good things after all) without having the full picture. We do not even have to look solely at small children for examples of incomplete moral knowledge either. Steven himself was seemingly unaware that there are in fact other morally sufficient reasons for allowing a child to suffer (considering that he believed any reason other than the suffering being for the child’s own benefit would be child abuse), and did not realize that one could allow the child to suffer purely for someone else’s sake without this constituting child abuse. I think it is likely, given us humans and the infinite non-anthropomorphic God, that we adult humans have an incomplete moral picture.
Adult humans and small children can of course still know how to behave properly even without a full understanding of all moral goods and evils, but as we tend to recognize that human knowledge is incomplete in many areas (mathematics, physics, etc.), I think it is quite reasonable to expect that human knowledge of goods and evils is no exception (perhaps human moral knowledge is not as incomplete as mathematics and physics, but it is plausibly incomplete to at least some degree). This especially holds if my theistic hypothesis is correct, since if God exists he is infinitely beyond us, even more so than an adult’s understanding of moral knowledge is beyond a small child’s. We cannot reasonably expect to understand the “why” behind everything God does, and I see little reason to believe that the reasons for why God would allow evil would be an exception.
One problem arguments from evil have is that to succeed they require an objective moral standard, and if atheism is true an objective moral standard doesn’t exist. Thus, from the vantage point of atheism, the argument from evil fails. One could get around this obstacle by conceding my opening statement’s moral argument and accepting the existence of the sort of personal supreme being that the moral argument argues for (eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, perfectly good being who imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority), though this would require abandoning atheism.
Argument #1 falters in part because there are morally sufficient reasons for allowing a child to suffer that go beyond the suffering redounding to the benefit of the child.
Argument #2 is flawed because it supposes that God is omnipotent and omniscient in all possible worlds. While there are some theists who believe God is omnipotent and omniscient in all possible worlds, not all theists do adhere to this view, and I myself am not arguing for the existence of that sort of deity in this debate (though I am arguing that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the actual world). Even if we ignore that, it is at best unclear that there are possible worlds that are ultimately unfair, since (among other reasons) God is capable of providing an afterlife for Boltzmann brains just as (so many theists presume) God does for babies who die in infancy.
A general problem with arguments from evil is that we are not in a position to know that God would not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil we see. It may be true that we cannot think of all the reasons why God would allow evil. Yet because the chasm between the God’s infinite mind and the finite human mind is so unfathomably vast, we cannot reasonably expect to know the “why” behind everything (and perhaps most things) God does. The argument from evil relies on us not knowing of morally sufficient reasons for why God would allow evil (if we did, the argument would fail) but due to the chasm between God’s infinite mind and the finite human mind, it is plausible that if God and evil were to co-exist we would not (fully) know why God allows evil any more than an ant knows why the sun gives off heat. The consequences of the infinite chasm between our minds and God’s may be unfortunate (e.g. we plausibly wouldn’t understand all the reasons why God allows evil), but they would be real if God existed. Inevitably, a comprehended God is not God.