bookmark_borderDisturbing the public

The atheist blogosphere (to the extent that there is such a thing) seems convulsed about the question about whether public advocacy of atheism etc. is a good idea—after all, maybe the public can’t handle it. (I’ll just mention a post by Jason Rosenhouse; follow the links back from him if you’re at all interested.)

Everybody’s trying to figure out some principled position or other about the matter. But whatever comes out of such a debate, I doubt if it will be very generalizable.

Consider, for example, someone teaching science at a public university, like myself. Many of us in such a situation are nonbelievers; indeed, we very often encounter fundamentalist varieties of religion as a significant nuisance for science. We wish it would go away, and intellectually, we are not greatly enamored of non-fundamentalist religion either.

But also our first allegiance is more likely to be to the health of the scientific enterprise in a wider public context—not to the wider flourishing of nonreligious ways of life. These interests can conflict.

Worse, today we’re in a nasty political climate, where corporatist and religious conservatives are seeking to comprehensively undermine any public activity not narrowly devoted to policing the social world. They’re already out to destroy public universities (they may well be doomed institutions). In such a situation, the best interests of a public scientific enterprise may well demand that we not associate ourselves with religious skepticism. Why give the conservative loonies in charge an excuse to drop the axe? More to the point, why risk alienating liberal religious constituencies that would be perfectly happy to support science, and who might still help public universities enjoy a slow death rather than instant disembowelment?

That’s a difficult political calculation, and people in different circumstances may well make different decisions. If someone decides that keeping quiet would be best, I’d be reluctant to portray this as cowardice or contempt toward the intellectual capabilities of the masses. I’m not about to keep quiet, but that’s more because of general orneriness (and, not having children, having less to lose) than any deep principle.

bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 4

Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ Theorem in presenting most of the a posteriori arguments for and against God in The Existence of God (EOG), and he makes significant use of it in summing up his case for God. Although his argument can be presented without using Bayes’ Theorem, I want to stick closely to Swinburne’s presentation of his case as presented in EOG, so I expect to take a look at his use of Bayes’ Theorem as part of presenting and explaining his case for God.

This theorem looks a bit daunting initially, but it is not as complicated as it first appears. If you are unfamiliar with Bayes’ Theorem, as I was last year, think of it like learning a new game. Reading the directions to a new game often make the game seem very complicated, but once you have played it a few times, most of the rules seem quite natural, and you only need to refer to the directions for a few fine points every now and again. Similarly, if you are unfamiliar with Bayes’ Theorem, you can expect to be much less perplexed by it after walking through a few examples of how it is used by Swinburne in his case for God.

The general mathematical form of Bayes’ Theorem (as opposed to the precise formula) is not that complicated:

X = (A x B)/C

By the symmetry of equality we can infer this equation:

(A x B)/C = X

If you took algebra in high school, this shouldn’t look too scary. In fact, with a bit more manipulation, we get a rather familiar looking equation:

A x (B/C) = X

This is the form of unit-conversion problems. For example, take the coversion of feet into yards:

12 feet x (1 yard/3 feet) = X yards

So, if you can handle unit-conversion math, then you should be able to handle Bayes’ Theorem, at least to the extent required to follow Swinburne’s case for God.

Bayes’ Theorem looks a bit more complicated than the equations above, becuase the variables are replaced by expressions for conditional probabilities.

Logical probabilities are always given in terms of a specific body of evidence or information. As information changes, so do probabilities. If you shuffle a standard deck of cards well, and then pick a card at random, without looking at the face of the card, the chance that you will select the Ace of Hearts is about one in 52. The probability that you will select the Ace of Hearts = 1/52. But if you then turn the card over and you clearly see that the card is the Ace of Hearts, then the chance that you have selected the Ace of Hearts becomes about one chance in one, and the probability now = 1. The additional information raised the probability from 1/52 to 1 (certainty).

The conditional probability in this case could be expressed like this:

P (h I e)

Read this as: “The probability of the hypothesis being true, given the specified evidence.”

h: I will draw the Ace of Hearts
e: I will draw a card at random from a standard deck of cards that has just been well-shuffled.

In this case the conditional probability above means: “The probability that I will draw the Ace of Hearts, given the evidence that I will draw a card at random from a standard deck of cards that has just been shuffled.” So, in this case, we can agree with the following statement:

P (h I e) = 1/52

Read this as: “The probability that I will draw the Ace of Hearts, given that I select a card at random from a standard deck of cards that has just been well shuffled is equal to 1/52.”

One more complication, and then we can spell out Bayes’ Theorem. In confirmation theory, evidence is often divided into two categories: (1) specific evidence used to confirm or disconfirm an hypothesis, and (2) general background knowledge. e represents the former, and k represents the latter. So, what we are usually interested in figuring out is this:

P (h I e & k)

Read this as: “The probability that the hypothesis is true, given both the specific evidence cited and our general background knowledge.”

Now if we use some specific conditional probability expressions to replace the variables in the first simple equation presented above, we can construct Bayes’ Theorem:

P (h I e & k) = P(e I h & k) x P(h I k) / P(e I k)

Bayes’ Theorem has the same general form as this:

X = (A x B)/C

By the symmetry of equality we can restate Bayes’ Theorem with the “answer” on the right hand side of the equation:

P(e I h & k) x P(h I k) / P(e I k) = P (h I e & k)

To be continued…

bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 3

Before we look at the a posteriori arguments that Swinburne presents and evaluates in The Existence of God (EOG), I should briefly describe his views on a priori arguments for and against the existence of God.

In Chapter 1 of EOG, Swinburne mentions an assumption that his case for God makes:
In reaching my final conclusion about how probable it is that there is a God, I assume that no a priori arguments of either species, and no a posteriori arguments other than those that I discuss, have any significant force. (EOG, p.9)
In EOG, Swinburne ignores a priori arguments for and against God:
I shall not discuss a priori arguments–these are arguments in which the premisses are logically necessary truths–namely, propositions that would be true whether or not there was a world of physical or spiritual beings. Among logically necessary truths are the truths of mathematics or logic. Hence I shall not discuss the traditional ontological argument for the existence of God, or any variants thereof. Nor shall I discuss arguments against the existence of God that claim that there is something incoherent or self-contradictory in the claim that there is a God. (EOG, p.8-9)
So, the arguments that Swinburne presents and evaluates in EOG are all a posteriori arguments, arguments based on premisses that “report what are (in some very general sense) features of human experience…” (EOG, p.8).

How can Swinburne be justified in making the assumption that there are no a priori arguments which have significant force for or against the existence of God? For one thing, Swinburne mentions the views of leading philosophers of religion:
The greatest theistic philosophers of religion have on the whole rejected ontological arguments and relied on a posteriori ones. (EOG, p.9)
He also points out that the majority of philosophers are in agreement about the traditional ontological argument:
…almost all philosophers argue that it is not a good argument. (The Coherence of Theism, revised ed., p.273)

But Swinburne does more than just appeal to the authority of philosophical experts. The first book of his trilogy on theism, The Coherence of Theism, focuses on various a priori arguments against the existence of God, and it also includes a brief critique of the traditional ontological argument for the existence of God. His main objection to the ontological argument has general implications for other a priori arguments for the existence of God.

So, Swinburne’s justification for assuming that there are no a priori arguments for or against the existence of God which have significant force is that he has previously (in The Coherence of Theism) answered many a priori arguments against the existence of God, made a positive case for the meaningfulness and the coherence of the claim ‘God exists’, and presented a strong objection to the traditional ontological argument, an objection that applies to any argument which attempts to show that the claim ‘God exists’ is a necessary truth.

Here, for your personal enjoyment and edification, is Swinburne’s objection to the traditional ontological argument:
Nevertheless, it is, I think, easy enough to show fairly conclusively that ‘God exists’ is not logically necessary… .For to say this is, as we saw, to say that (s) ‘there exists a personal ground of being’ is logically necessary. But if this were so, any statement entailed by (s) would also be logically necessary. (s) entails such statements as the following: ‘it is not the case that the only persons are embodied persons’, ‘it is not the case that no one knows everything about the past’, ‘it is not the case that no one can make a weight of more than ten million pounds rise into the air’. Hence, if (s) is logically necessary the negations of these latter statements will be incoherent. But fairly obviously they are not. Fairly obviously ‘the only persons are embodied persons’, ‘nobody knows everything about the past’, and ‘no one can make a weight of more than ten million pounds rise into the air’ are coherent claims, whether false or true. Hence (s) is not logically necessary. (The Coherence of Theism, revised ed., p.274-275)
Since the traditional ontological argument is an attempt to prove that the sentence ‘God exists’ expresses a logically necessary truth, this is a counter-argument to the traditional ontological argument, and to any other a priori argument which attempts to show that ‘God exists’ is a necessary truth.


After my presentation Friday at the AAAS meeting, I stopped by the reception of DoSER (AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion).

It was interesting, but my impression was that this was a bunch of people trying to keep the peace by setting aside discordant voices: Dawkins-style nonbelievers and Discovery Institute-style believers. (In other words, anyone who more agressively highlights disagreements.) So it’s a bit of a club devoted to mutual back-slapping about their common reasonableness.

Having a dialogue is not a bad idea. Science and religion as important social institutions have plenty of incentive to keep the peace. Somebody should work on this. But it’s not me. One thing I like about science is that you’re allowed to call something bullshit as long as you’re willing to argue your case. In an environment like DoSER, I get the impression that this gets perceived as threatening the peace.

So I guess I hope DoSER and so forth continue doing useful political work. But if they get more influence, there’s also a danger that such efforts will be a bad intellectual influence. I wouldn’t like to see the sort of mush they promote to start interfering with work of real substance.

bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 2

Swinburne’s case for God (in The Existence of God, 2nd ed.) can be summed up this way:

1. Based on evidence other than religious experience, the existence of God is not very improbable.
2. If based on evidence other than religious experience, the existence of God is not very improbable, then the evidence from religious experience (in combination with other relevant evidence) makes the existence of God more probable than not.
3. The evidence from religious experience (in combination with other relevant evidence) makes the existence of God more probable than not.

Premise (1) is supported by the following claim:

4. Based on evidence other than religious experience, the existence of God is approximately as probable as not.

Premise (4) is based on Swinburne’s presentation and evaluation of ten a posteriori (empirical) arguments for and against the existence of God:

  • the cosmological argument (EOG, p.133-152)
  • the teleological argument from temporal order (EOG, p.152-166)
  • the teleological argument from spatial order (EOG, p.167-190)
  • the argument from consciousness (EOG, p.192-212)
  • the argument from moral truth (EOG, p.212-215)
  • the argument from moral awareness (EOG, p.215-218)
  • the argument from providence (EOG, p.219-235)
  • the problem of evil (EOG, p.236-267)
  • the argument from hiddenness (EOG, p.267-272)
  • the argument from history and miracles (EOG, p.273-292)

Swinburne thinks two of these arguments (one for God and one against God) have no significant force (i.e. are not good C-inductive arguments), and so only eight arguments contribute to the evaluation expressed in premise (4). Swinburne rejects the argument from moral truth (an argument for God’s existence), and he rejects the argument from hiddeness (an argument against the existence of God).

bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 1

Richard Swinburne summarizes his case for God in the final pages of the final chapter of The Existence of God:

…all that my conclusion so far amounts to is that it is something like as probable as not that theism is true, on the evidence so far considered. However, so far in this chapter I have ignored one crucial piece of evidence, the evidence from religious experience. I concluded the last chapter (p.326) with the claim that, unless the probability of theism on other evidence is very low, the testimony of many witnesses to experiences apparently of God suffices to make many of those experiences probably veridical. That is, the evidence of religious experience is in that case sufficient to make theism overall probable. (EOG, 2nd ed., p.341)1. Based on evidence other than religious experience, the existence of God is not very improbable.
2. If based on evidence other than religious experience, the existence of God is not very improbable, then the evidence from religious experience (in combination with other relevant evidence) makes the existence of God more probable than not.
3. The evidence from religious experience (in combination with other relevant evidence) makes the existence of God more probable than not.

Premise (1) is supported by the following claim:
4. Based on evidence other than religious experience, the existence of God is approximately as probable as not.
Premise (4) is itself a conclusion argued for in Chapters 6 through 12 in EOG, where Swinburne explains and evaluates what he takes to be the most plausible a posteriori (i.e. empirical) arguments for and against the existence of God.

Swinburne thus breaks down his case for God into two steps, as represented by the following two-premise argument (my summary of his reasoning):

Premise (2) is supported by the reasoning in Chapter 13 of EOG, called “The Argument from Religious Experience”.

bookmark_borderFroese, Bader, and the compatibility of science and religion

I just finished Paul Froese and Christopher Bader’s America’s Four Gods, which was a very interesting survey of American religious beliefs analyzed according to four major conceptions of God: the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, and the Distant God. It’s well worth reading.

Still, I have to gripe about something that appears on page 145.

The authors cite the books of Richard Dawkins, Vic Stenger, Mark Perakh, and myself as examples of “prominent science professors making similar arguments” against the existence of God. (Including me among the prominent is not a good sign.) Then, after adding Christopher Hitchens to the mix, they say

Although the arguments of the New Atheists are certainly engaging, they tend to misrepresent the current relationships among science, progressivism, and belief in God. Today, Democrats and cultural progressives are overwhelmingly likely to believe in God. Many professional scientists are also devout believers. In sum, a large swath of America is religiously devout, politically liberal, and scientifically savvy—three things we are told cannot go together.

Well, this misreads our arguments. First of all, like too many people, the authors confuse a pro-technology attitude in the general population with being supportive of science. These are not at all the same. I know this is a common mistake, but academics writing about science and religion have no business ignoring this distinction.

Second, some of us—Vic Stenger in particular—counts the believers in what Froese and Bader call a “Distant God” as near-atheists in a broad cultural and political context. Froese and Bader’s own data shows that political liberalism, a genuinely pro-science (not just technology) attitude, and weakness of religious commitment tend to go together. I have my doubts about Stenger’s lumping in Distant God believers with nonbelievers—in some contexts their supernaturalism is very significant indeed, and not just a pale echo of a more traditional God. But in the broad-brush political picture Froese and Bader are concerned about, I think that Stenger has it about right.

Third, our argument that science and religion are not as compatible as often presented does not imply that no scientists believe in supernatural entities. Of course many do—we argue, in some detail, that they are mistaken. And we add that the comparatively high levels of skepticism among professional scientists (not applied scientists) are no accident in the light of our arguments.

It’s disconcerting to be accused of misrepresentation by authors who do not accurately present our position. I daresay we might be wrong. We’re not social scientists, any of us. But, dammit, the argument we are engaged in is not something that can be deflected just by observing the existence of the Francis Collins’s of this world.

bookmark_borderHow Many Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’ – Part 6

In the last post on this subject (Part 5), I claimed that one can generate over 5,000,000 definitions of ‘divine person’ from a set of five divine attributes.

In reflecting over my previous analysis of how many definitions one can generate from a set of just four divine attributes (power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), I noticed that my specifications of four degrees of these attributes (human, superhuman, perfect, and eternally perfect) mixed two different types of specification together: strength and duration. By separating these two types of specification out, one can easily generate hundreds of millions of defintions of ‘divine person’ from just four divine attributes.

The word ‘God’ is a proper name, and, as Richard Swinburne suggests, the meaning of this name should be analyzed in terms of a definite description, a description which can be used to pick out a single individual person who is ‘God’, if theism is true.

The definite description to be used for this purpose can in turn be based upon a definition of the phrase ‘divine person’. In Swinburne’s view, the definite description and the associated definition of ‘divine person’ are criterial in nature. That is to say, it is not required that each and every condition be satisfied in order for a being to count as a ‘divine person’ or as the divine person; the requirement, in terms of the ordinary use of the word ‘God’ is that “many” of the specified conditions be satisfied, and that no other being satisfy as many or more of the conditions as the candidate for being ‘God’.

Swinburne goes on to propose a tightening or narrowing of the meaning of the word ‘God’ for purposes of philosophical investigation. His narrowing of the meaning of the word ‘God’ amounts to taking the conditions that define the phrase ‘divine person’ as being necessary conditions, as opposed to being criteria. In other words, each and every one of the conditions in the definition of ‘divine person’ must be satisfied in order for something to count as a ‘divine person’ and to be picked out as the individual who is ‘God’.

One of the necessary conditions specified by Swinburne is that the being be ‘eternally omnipotent’. It is important to notice that this necessary condition, although put in terms of two words, actually represents three different components of specification. The word ‘eternally’ specifies a duration of time through which the omnipotence must be possessed by the being in question. In Swinburne’s view, one can be queen for a day, but not God for a day. In order to be a ‘divine person’ one must be omnipotent not just for a day or a year or a decade, but one must have always been omnipotent and must always continue to be omnipotent. If there was ever a period of time when a person was not omnipotent (or will not be omnipotent), then that person is not a ‘divine person’, and thus is not ‘God’, according to Swinburne.

The concept of being ‘omnipotent’ actually contains two different types of specification: a general attribute (in this case: power), and a degree of strength of that attribute that a person can possess (in this case: perfect or unlimited). So, the necessary condition of being ‘eternally omnipotent’ means possessing a perfect or unlimited degree of strength of the attribute of power for an unlimited degree of duration.

This suggests a revision of my categories of degrees of an attribute involving separating out degrees of strength from degrees of duration. Thus there would be three degrees of strength of the four divine attributes:
1. human
2. superhuman
3. perfect
These three degrees of strength can be combined into six different ranges of degrees of strength:
1. human
2. superhuman
3. perfect
4. human or superhuman
5. superhuman or perfect
6 human or superhuman or perfect
Swinburne’s view, for example, is that it is a necessary condition that a being possess a perfect (or unlimited) degree of power in order to be considered a ‘divine person’. More specifically, it is a necessary condition that a being possess a perfect (unlimited) degree of power eternally in order to be considered a ‘divine person’. Possessing perfect power for a day or a year does not satisfy this requirement. So, we need to take into consideration the additional specification of the duration that the attribute (of a specified strength) is possessed by the being in question.

In the context of attempts to define the concept of a ‘divine person’ we must include the possibility of infinite durations of time, not just finite durations. In addition to finite durations there are three different types of infinite duration:
1. finite —-
2. infinite past
3. infinite future —->
4. eternal
As with degrees of strength, we can allow for ranges of degrees of duration:
1. finite
2. infinite past
3. infinite future
4. eternal
5. finite or infinite past
6. infinite past or infinite future
7. inifinite future or eternal
8. finite or infinite past or infinite future
9. infinite past or infinite future or eternal
10. finite or infinite past or infinite future or eternal

So, the basic components of a condition in a definition of ‘divine person’ are
(a) an attribute (4 possibilities), (b) a range of degrees of strength (6 possibilities), and (c) a range of degrees of duration (10 p

If we assume that power, knowledge, freedom, and goodness are relevant attributes for defining ‘divine person’ and that these are the only relevant attributes (a simplifying assumption), then definitions of ‘divine person’ will include four conditions containing a specification relating to each of the four attributes. For each attribute there are 6 ranges of degrees of strength x 10 ranges of degrees of duration = 60 different specifications for each attribute.

So, if we focus in on just definitions composed of four necessary conditions (one condition for each of the four attributes), there will be 60 x 60 x 60 x 60 different such definitions that can be generated. That means, from just four divine attributes, we can generate 3,600 x 3,600 definitions composed of four necessary conditions = 12,960,000 such definitions.

If we start looking at criterial definitions and definitions involving a mixture of criteria and necessary conditions, then the numbers expand significantly:

A. Definitions composed of 4 necessary conditions: 12,960,000.
B. Definitions composed of 4 criteria: 38,880,000.
C. Definitions composed of 3 criteria and 1 necessary condition: 103,680,000.
D. Definitions composed of 2 criteria and 2 necessary conditions: 77,760,000.
E. Definitions composed of 1 criterial condition and 3 necessary conditions: 0.

Total: 233,280,000 definitions of ‘divine person’ can be generated from just four divine attributes (power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), specified in relation to three degrees of strength (human, superhuman, perfect) in relation to four degrees of duration (finite, infinite past, infinite future, eternal), in the case where all four attributes are treated as being relevant. Millions more definitions can be created by using only a subset of the four attributes to construct definitions (e.g. creating definitions using only three of the four attributes).

bookmark_borderHow Many Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’? – Part 5

I have previously shown that using just four divine attributes (power, knowledge, freedom, goodness) that can occur in four different degrees (human, superhuman, perfect, eternally perfect), one can create more than 200,000 definitions of ‘divine person’.

That is not quite as impressive as the estimate of three million definitions that I made initially, based on some mistaken assumptions. However, it is very easy to get up into the millions of defintions. By adding just one more divine attribute, one that can occur in four different degrees (and ten ranges of degrees), the number of possible definitions of ‘divine person’ jumps up to well over five million.

I won’t go into all the details, but with five attributes, one needs to consider the number of definitions that could be generated under each of the following five cases:

I. All five attributes are relevant
II. Only four of the attributes are relevant
III. Only three of the attributes are relevant
IV. Only two of the attributes are relevant
V. Only one of the attributes is relevant.

The first case will obviously contain the largest number of definitions, so I calculated the number of definitions for that case:

A. Definitions composed of five necessary conditions: 100,000.
B. Definitions composed of five criterial conditions: 400,000.
C. Definitions composed of four criteria and one necessary condition: 1,500,000.
D. Definitions composed of three criteria and two necessary conditions: 2,000,000.
E. Definitions composed of two criteria and three necessary conditions: 1,000,000.
F. Definitions composed of one criterial condition and four necessary conditions: 0.

Total: 5,000,000 definitions of ‘divine person’ using five attributes that can occur in four degrees, in the case that all five attributes are considered to be relevant.

bookmark_borderA Simple Statement of the Problem of Evil

I have been trying to come up with a statement of the problem of evil that is comprehensible to undergraduates. Below is my draft. It makes for a rather long post, but any comments, suggestions, or criticisms would be appreciated.

Believers tell us that God is good. Not only is he good, he is perfectly good, supremely good, as good as can be. God is also powerful. Not only is he powerful, he is omnipotent, that is, all-powerful. Most theologians and philosophers have taken “all powerful” to mean that God can do anything except make a contradiction true. Making a round-square or a married bachelor or an odd number that is evenly divisible by two are among the things God cannot do. “Round-square,” “married bachelor,” and “odd number evenly divisible by two” are contradictions in terms, so for these things to exist, a contradiction would have to be true.1 However, anything else, any x such that we can say “God does x” without contradicting ourselves, God can do. He can, for instance, heal the sick, raise the dead, part the sea, or turn water into wine.
God is also the Creator of the universe. This means that everything that exists is created either directly or indirectly by him. God creates directly simply by willing something to be, as the first chapter of Genesis depicts: God says “Let there be…” and it is so. God indirectly creates in two ways. First, when he creates the universe he creates matter and energy and the laws that govern them. Then, through the lawful, orderly operation of natural processes, new things are brought into existence. For instance, if God creates the laws and conditions underlying the process of evolution, then evolution becomes the indirect means whereby God creates organic creatures. Scientists of the 19th Century therefore distinguished between the “primary cause”—God’s direct actions—and “secondary causes”—the physical processes whereby God’s aims were achieved in the natural world.
Another way that God indirectly creates is by bringing into existence sentient creatures that are endowed with free will and so act on their own to bring about new things. When some prehistoric human invented the wheel, it was indirectly created by God since humans are God’s creatures and God endowed them with the ability to make new things. So, whatever is brought about by nature or humans is indirectly created by God.
Note though that nature and humans often bring about very bad things. The natural world, operating in accordance with its innate laws, produces diseases, birth defects, parasites, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, explosive volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, and the whole system of “nature red in tooth and claw” whereby creatures survive only by painfully destroying other living, feeling creatures. Human beings, misusing their free will, do terrible things to one another and to other creatures. They commit massacres and genocides and acts of terrorism; they torture, abuse, rape, swindle, steal, cheat, oppress, exploit, lie, and deceive. Let us call the bad things brought about by nature “natural evil” and the bad things brought about by humans’ free actions “moral evil.” Since God created nature and human beings, it must follow that God, at least indirectly, is the creator of both natural and moral evil. Perhaps it is offensive to speak of God as the creator of evil. However, we must at least say that God does not prevent evil though, being all-powerful, he could.
Our concept of God therefore seems unavoidably to require that three things are true:
(1) God is perfectly good.
(2) God is all-powerful.
(3) God does not prevent the existence of natural and moral evil.
Yet as the Greek philosopher Epicurus observed long ago, these three claims seemingly form an inconsistent set. That is, any two of them could be true, but all three of them cannot. His reasoning was this: If God can prevent evil then if he is perfectly good he does prevent evil. If God is all-powerful then he can prevent evil. Yet God does not prevent evil. So, we must conclude that either God is not perfectly good or not all powerful. Epicurus’ reasoning is straightforwardly translatable into propositonal logic and easily proven to be valid, as I show in the footnotes.2
Since the conclusion of Epicurus’ argument has the logical form of a disjunction—either God is not all-powerful or he is not perfectly good—then seemingly believers must choose which disjunct they wish to discard. Should we regard God as less than all-powerful or less than perfectly good? Some opt for the former, but for defenders of traditional theism–believers in the historical creeds of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam—neither option is acceptable. For traditional theists, God, by definition, is all-powerful and perfectly good, so to give up either disjunct is to stop believing in the God of traditional theism. The upshot is that for traditional theists the conclusion of Epicurus’ argument implies the nonexistence of God as they conceive of him. A “God” that is not all-powerful or a “God” that is not perfectly good is not God. Hence, for the traditional theist, the real implication of Epicurus’ argument is that God does not exist.
All is not lost for traditional theism, however. If you reject the conclusion of a valid argument, you must hold that at least one of its premises is false. The only premise that looks shaky in Epicurus’ argument is the first one: “If God can prevent evil then if he is perfectly good he does prevent evil.” Is this necessarily so? Might not God have a morally sufficient reason for permitting some evil, that is, might it not be that some evils are necessary for the prevention of even greater evils or for the achievement of some great good?
Let’s look more closely at this notion of a “perfectly good being.” A good mother will protect her children, preventing them from suffering when suffering can and should be avoided. However, a painful inoculation may be necessary to prevent an even more painful
disease, so the good mother will permit the lesser pain to prevent the greater. Or consider that homework may be drudgery, but it is necessary for an education, and education is a great enough benefit to make the necessary drudgery worthwhile. A good mother will therefore insist that her children do their homework, even though it is tedious for them. A perfectly good being will therefore surely be one that prevents the existence of as much evil as it can, unless that being has a morally sufficient reason for permitting that evil. What could such a morally sufficient reason be? It would be when permitting the evil was necessary to prevent an even worse evil or for the achievement of some good so great that it makes worthwhile the necessary evils.
What, though, if the perfectly good being is also all-powerful, as God is supposed to be? In that case, (a) would not apply since there would be no evil that it was not in the power of such a being to prevent. In other words, an evil will exist only if God (the perfectly good, all-powerful creator) permits it to exist. Further, being perfectly good, God will permit an evil to exist only if he has a morally sufficient reason for permitting it (where, again, “morally sufficient reason” means that permitting e is necessary to prevent a greater evil or necessary to achieve a good great enough to make e worthwhile). Let’s call all the evils that really exist (in the past, present or future) “actual evils.” It follows that the following principle P must be true:
P: If God exists, then, for every e, if e is an actual evil then God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting e.
Proposition P is expressed as a hypothetical proposition. Let’s separate out the consequent of that proposition, and call it proposition Q:
Q: For every e, if e is an actual evil then God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting e.
Further, let’s define a “gratuitous evil” as an evil that not even God would have a morally sufficient reason for permitting. In other words, if an evil is gratuitous, then God, if he exists, will not permit that evil to become an actual evil. Conversely, if any actual evil is a gratuitous evil, then God does not exist. The crux of the problem of evil is therefore whether any actual evils are gratuitous evils.
One version of the problem of evil (the evidential version) can therefore be put like this: If Q is false, then, since it is the consequent of proposition P, by modus tollens the antecedent of P, “God exists,” must be false. Since we established P by appeal to the basic notions that constitute our idea of God, i.e., that he must be perfectly good and all-powerful, P is clearly true. Q, on the other hand, seems false. The world is full of atrocious evils that, so far as we can tell, are not necessary for the prevention of even greater evils, or for the realization of goods so great that they justify the occurrence of that evil. In short, there seem to be innumerable instances of what we have called “gratuitous evils,” that is, evils that are so senseless and avoidable, that God, if he exists, would not permit them. The plethora of apparently gratuitous evils is very good evidence that some actually are gratuitous, so we have very good evidence that Q is false, and thus very good evidence that God does not exist.
Suppose, for instance, that lightning starts a forest fire that destroys thousands of acres, panicking and then burning to death many forest animals. The painful death of many innocent creatures certainly seems to serve no good that an all-powerful being could not have accomplished in some other way that would require less suffering. Of course ecologists tell us that forests must occasionally burn to stay healthy, so it might be best for humans, as stewards of the earth’s resources, to let some fires burn. Remember, though, that we are not talking about what humans can accomplish given human limitations, but what an all-powerful being can do, and, prima facie—if being all-powerful amounts to anything—surely such a being could devise ways of having healthy forests without periodically causing the anguished deaths of the denizens of the forest.
Examples of apparently pointless evils could be multiplied indefinitely. Some evils are so egregiously awful that nothing conceivable would be a great enough good to justify permitting them. Dostoevsky famously put it this way in The Brothers Karamazov: If you could create a paradise filled with myriads of perfectly happy and morally good creatures (like heaven, supposedly) yet the price for that paradise was that one small child had to be hideously tortured to death, would you do it? The world we live in today is such that tens of thousands of small children die painfully every day. We cannot even begin to imagine what would constitute a great enough good to be bought at such a dreadful price. Absolutely nothing in our experience would even begin to qualify.
It is precisely here that some theists would object: Why should we expect to be able to conceive of the goods that God might accomplish? After all, as Scripture (I Corinthians 2:9) attests, “…as it is written, eye hath not seen, or ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Perhaps we have so little grasp of what omnipotence can accomplish over vast stretches of time and space that we are just not in a position to say whether or not God can bring about goods so great that they can redeem even the worst evils. Put simply, the evidential argument from evil I presented assumes that the fact that evils appear gratuitous to us is reason to believe that they actually are, but maybe this is not so.
In a newspaper debate on the problem of evil I once held with Professor William Lane Craig, he put the argument of the above paragraph like this:
We aren’t in a good position to assess with confidence the probability (or improbability) of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting bad things. Suffering that appears utterly pointless within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted in God’s wider framework. The brutal murder of a child may have a ripple effect through history such that God’s reason for not preventing the evil may emerge only centuries later or in another country (Dallas Morning News, 6/13/98).
According to Craig, then, we have no grounds for saying that it is probable or improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil, and so, it follows, we have no grounds for saying that evils are gratuitous just because they appear so to us.
Note, however, that Craig’s statement cuts both ways. Craig wants to deny that the atheist has good reason for saying that proposition Q is probably false, but, if so, these same reasons undercut the theist’s grounds for saying that Q is probably true. Craig’s argument rests upon the alleged unknowability of the opportunities for good that an omnipotent being might have. No matter how gross the evil, Craig thinks that it might—someday, somewhere, somehow—turn out to have been a necessary condition for the achievement of some justifying good. Or, we might reply, maybe not. Craig’s suggestion is, and can be, nothing more than a speculation, or, perhaps better, a statement of faith. Maybe no good is good enough to redeem the grossest evils, or if one is, maybe God could have brought such good about without so much evil (after all, he is all-powerful). If we have no clue what kinds of goods may be achievable, or how achievement of those goods could have made evils unavoidable (unavoidable, that is, even for God), then we really can’t say one way or the other.
In short, if Craig’s argument is sound, we all, theists and atheists alike, have to be agnostic about proposition Q. None of us is in a position to judge with any confidence whether or not God probably does or does not have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evils. In that case, though, don’t we also have to be equally agnostic about God’s existence? Can we even be confident that God could exist? Consider a parallel: Could koalas live in the wild in Texas? Well, since koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves, they can live in Texas only if eucalyptus can grow in Texas. If I can have no information one way or the other about whether eucalyptus trees can grow in Texas, I cannot say whether or not koalas can live wild in Texas. They can (so far as I know) if eucalyptus can grow there and they definitely cannot if it can’t.
Similarly, if every actual evil is non-gratuitous, that is, if an all-powerful perfectly good creator would have a morally sufficient reason for permitting it, then (so far as I know) God could exist. On the other hand, if any (even one) actual evil is gratuitous, that is, if a perfectly good, all-powerful creator would not have a morally sufficient reason for permitting it, then God cannot exist. If, as Craig asserts, we can have no way of knowing with any degree of confidence whether God would or would not have morally sufficient reasons for permitting actual evils, then we have no way of knowing whether God can or cannot exist. Anyone who wants to say that we can have grounds for asserting God’s existence must concomitantly have grounds for holding that no evil is gratuitous, but Craig seems to deny that we can have grounds for this latter claim.
Couldn’t we, though, have independent evidence for koalas (or God)? If a thriving colony of koalas is located in the Big Thicket, then we know they can live in Texas even if we don’t have any knowledge about the viability of eucalyptus in Texas. Indeed, the presence of koalas would show that there must be eucalyptus trees there even if we haven’t spotted them. Similarly, could we not have independent evidence for the existence of God such that, if the evidence is strong enough, we can be confident that since God does exist, he must have morally sufficient reasons for permitting actual evil? That is, good enough independent evidence for God could stand the problem of evil on its head: God exists, so the problem must have a solution, even if we do not know what it is.
Well, it all depends on what sort of evidence one might adduce. The most popular arguments for the existence of God do not conclude that God exists, but that a less specific designer or creator or first cause exists. For instance, the current “Intelligent Design” movement does not claim to show that the God of Christian faith exists, only that the universe has a non-specific intelligent designer. Similarly, perhaps the most popular argument of natural theology at present is the “fine tuning” argument that claims that the basic physical constants are “fine tuned” for complex life and that this is probable only if there is an intelligent creator that wants complex life. Yet, what good would a vague creator or fine tuner be if the moral attributes of such a being are left in doubt? It is precisely those moral attributes that are brought into question by the problem of evil. A fine tuner or first cause that is not perfectly good cannot be God. The upshot is that the arguments of natural theology support a case for theism only if the problem of evil is also solved. Otherwise, those arguments cannot establish the existence of God, but, at most, only some nondescript designer, fine-tuner, or cosmic kick-starter. So the arguments of natural theology give the theist no hope of avoiding a head-on confrontation with the problem of evil.
Arguments such as Craig’s, which philosophers call the “unknown purpose defense,” (UPD) are deployed by theists to block atheistic arguments from evil. Atheists frequently argue, as I did above with the example of the forest fire, that there are so very many apparently gratuitous evils in the world, i.e., evils so seemingly pointless and avoidable, that surely it is probable that an all-powerful being could and a perfectly good being would have prevented at least some of those innumerable evils. Therefore, the existence of so many apparently gratuitous evils is strong evidence against the existence of God. However, by appealing to supposed unknown purposes, theists deny that the fact that an evil appears absolutely pointless to us is any evidence that they really are gratuitous. After all, they allege, we simply cannot know what sorts of goods omnipotence can create nor can we have any inkling of the complex ways in which present evils are necessary for the realization of those putative goods. By analogy, lab rats cannot begin to comprehend the reasons they are put through travails in medical research. Perhaps we are no more capable of understanding the travails God puts us through. Such, by the way, is the conclusion, couched in splendid poetry, of the Book of Job.
Even if such appeals to unknown purposes serve to block the atheist’s evidential argument from evil, such appeals, as we have seen, have a severe drawback. The unknowability of God’s putative purposes in permitting gross evils extends to theists just as much as atheists. For instance, to take just one of literally countless examples, theists must hold that God permitted the occurrence of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 in
which 146 people, mostly girls and young women, were either burned to death or jumped to their deaths because of a fire in a sweatshop. The managers, it seems, had locked the exits to prevent workers from leaving before their shifts had ended. What conceivable good could not have been attained, even by the omnipotence of God, except by permitting this terrible fire? Theists can offer no clue as to what such a good might be or why it necessitated so gross an evil, but they are nevertheless confident that God does have a morally sufficient reason. On what possible grounds, though, do they base their confidence? Again, if, as Craig asserts, “we aren’t in a good position to assess with confidence the probability (or improbability) of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting bad things,” then no one would seem to have such grounds. If there are no reasonable grounds for such confidence, then there are no reasonable grounds for holding that a perfectly good and all-powerful being exists, or even could exist.
The UPD is probably the most powerful weapon in the theist’s arsenal for dealing with the problem of evil, yet, as we have seen, it is a weapon that seems more dangerous to its user than to the intended target. Really, though, the UPD is a failure even if we concede its main claim. The UPD claims that we cannot appeal to the fact that an evil appears gratuitous as evidence that it actually is. For the sake of argument let’s grant this claim. Still, the situation theists face with respect to the existence of evil is one where the odds seem to be overwhelmingly against them. Let’s suppose that, since the first existence of life sufficiently neurologically advanced to suffer pain (far back in the Paleozoic, no doubt) there have been a trillion (1012) instances of undeserved, unwanted suffering (seems a reasonable number). The theist must hold that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting every single one of those trillion instances of suffering, that is, not one can be gratuitous. Obviously, a being cannot be perfectly good if it permits pointless suffering—even one instance—that it can easily prevent. Hence, if one Diplodocus once suffered needlessly in the Jurassic, then God does not exist. Since we have presupposed a trillion instances of unwanted, undeserved suffering over the history of sentient life, the theist must hold that each such instance of suffering has nearly a zero chance of being gratuitous, otherwise the probability of the disjunction of these trillion individual probabilities will add up to a very high probability that some evil is gratuitous.3 What rational grounds could anyone have for holding that no sentient creature anywhere ever suffered needlessly? Here I shall merely assert that theists have no rational basis for such an assurance, and put the ball in their court to show that they do.
Some theists will say that they have already explained why God permits evils, even horrendous ones. Some theists still practice the ancient art of theodicy, attempting to explain the ways of God so that we can see why he permits evil. Among the most famous of recent theodicies are those of Richard Swinburne and John Hick. We do not have space to get into the details of these elaborate proposals. They are similar in that each holds that God permits evils to give humans opportunities that they otherwise could not have. Only by overcoming adversity and enduring travails can humans make themselves into compassionate and courageous beings. Indeed, Hick and Swinburne point out that a life with no challenges or discomforts would be a fool’s paradise that could produce nothing but a race of indolent, worthless lotus-eaters. The great souls of history—e.g. Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Pasteur, Albert Schweitzer, Socrates, the Buddha—attained greatness by facing moral or natural evil and overcoming it. Hence, the desire to end suffering is a desire to end all that can make life truly significant, all that can make life a glorious, hard-fought victory rather than an insipid indulgence.
These theodicies are ingenious, but fall far short of dealing with the problem of evil. I think the final word on all such efforts has been given by another major Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga:
Why does God permit all this evil, and evil of these horrifying kinds, in his world? How can they be seen as fitting in with his loving and providential care for his creatures?…The Christian must concede he doesn’t know. That is, he doesn’t know in any detail. On a quite general level, he may know that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees as better by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees as better is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world with all its ills, would be better than others we think we can imagine, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we can’t think of any very good possibilities. And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil—theodicies, as we may call them—strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous. Does evil provide us with an opportunity for spiritual growth, so that this world can be seen as a vale of soul-making? Perhaps some evils can be seen this way; but much leads not to growth but to apparent spiritual disaster. Is it suggested that the existence of evil provides the opportunity for such goods as the display of mercy, sympathy, self-sacrifice in the service of others? Again, no doubt some evil can be seen this way…But much evil seems to elicit cruelty rather than sacrificial love. And neither of these suggestions, I think, takes with sufficient seriousness the sheer hideousness of some of the evils we see.4
So, Plantinga admits that Christians do not know why God permits evil. He thinks that, despite this, Christians can still have confidence that God does have good reason for permitting evil. But how??? How do we penetrate the wall of imponderables raised by Craig and other defenders of the UPD? If the capacities and opportunities of omnipotence are unknown, then they are unknown. NONE of us can say with any confidence whether God probably does or does not have good reasons for permitting evils. So be it. In that case, NONE of us can say with any confidence that God exists.
1From the statement: “There exists something which is both round and square” a contradiction follows:
1) (x)(Rx & Sx) premise
2) (x)(Rx → ~Sx) premise
3) Rx & Sx 1, EI
4) Rx → ~Sx 2, UI
5) Rx 3, simp
6) ~Sx 4,5 MP
7) Sx 3, simp
8) Sx & ~Sx 6, 7 conj
Since we are assuming premise (1) true, and since premise (2) must be true (because of the meaning of “round” and “square”), and since Sx & ~Sx is a valid deductive consequence of those two premises, the contradiction Sx & ~Sx must be true. In other word, if a round-square exists (which is what the first premise asserts) a contradiction must be true.
2Let G = God is perfectly good; A = God is all powerful; P = God prevents evil; C = God can prevent evil. Epicurus’ argument can be proven as follows:
1) C → (G → P) premise
2) A → C premise
3) ~P /: ~A v ~G premise
4) (C & G) → P 1, exp
5) ~(C & G) 3, 4 MT
6) ~C v ~G 5, DeM
7) C → ~G 6, impl
8) A → ~G 2,7 HS
9) ~A v ~G 8, impl
3Recall that the basic rules of probability tell us that when we are figuring the probability of a disjunction (a or b or c…or n), we have to add up the individual probabilities. This means that individual events can be most unlikely, but their disjunction can be quite likely. For instance, there may be only a small chance that you will be involved in an auto accident on a given day, but if you drive every day, the chances are pretty good that you will be in one on some day in your lifetime. Similarly, even if the chance that a given instance of a trillion cases of suffering is gratuitous is quite low, the chance that one of that trillion is can be can be very high, and it only takes one instance of gratuitous evil to rule out the existence of God.
4Alvin Plantinga, (1985). “Self Profile” in Tomberlin, J.E. and van Inwagen, P., Alvin Plantinga. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, p. 35.