Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Inductive Problem of Evil Argument Against the Existence of God

One of the most influential statements of the problem of evil argument for atheism goes something like this. In the history of sentient beings on this planet, there have been countless instances of prolonged suffering and death that occurred in isolation. Rowe gives a now famous example of a fawn that is burned horribly in a forest fire and that dies very slowly over the course of several days. By hypothesis, no humans find the fawn, no one exercises the virtues of kindness or sympathy by helping the fawn, and the slow, torturous death of the fawn doesn’t make some causal contribution to some chain of events that ultimately creates more good than evil, or helps to avoid some worse evil. If the fawn had died even one day or one hour sooner, the world would have been a better place. Surely, there have been many such events in the course of life on this planet. In order for Rowe’s argument to be successful, however, it need only be reasonable that there has been at least one such case in the millions of years that there have been creatures that are capable of suffering.

The argument is that if there was an all powerful, all knowing, and all good being, he would have eliminated such an instance of suffering. But since there surely are such cases in the world, there must not be an omni-God.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Rowe’s argument, and the reason that it has been so influential, is that it seems obvious to anyone who thinks about it that there must have been cases like the one described. To deny Rowe’s first premise:

“There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.”

would be to assert something that seems to utterly defy common sense, namely,

“There has never, in all the billions of years that creatures capable of experiencing pain on Earth, been a single instance where one of them experienced a moment of pain that was not absolutely necessary and that served some greater good or helped avoid some greater evil.”

That is, if you deny Rowe’s first premise, you have to adopt the view that there has never been any suffering that could have been eliminated or avoided from the larger perspective. And believing that have proven to be very difficult for anyone who has experienced what seemed like pointless suffering, or come across the corpse of a whale on the beach, or seen the ravages of disease.

Consider these two cases. These are not the sorts of examples that Rowe had in mind. An important facet of Rowe’s example is that the suffering occurs in complete isolation from human exercises of virtue or moral growth. But the cases graphically illustrate some closely related points:

On Dec. 26th, 2005, an enormous tsunami struck the coast of Thailand and surrounding areas. The best estimates of the death tolls now are around 240,000 people. Twins, Charlotte and Marcus, were vacationing with their parents on the beaches in Thailand when the wave swept inland. Their family became separate and their parents were killed. Here is Charlotte’s firsthand account of the event from The Guardian (Sat., Dec. 23, 2006):

Boxing Day in Khao Lak, 2004. Mum, Dad and I are lying on the sunbeds. Marcus has stayed in our room, watching a film. Mum is reading her diving magazine. I rub sun lotion all over myself. Dad is looking out to sea in a strange way. Mum and I look up and see the water disappear, leaving all the fish on the sand. We see children running out to help the fish back into the water, so that they do not die. Dad wants me to fetch the camera from the hotel so that we can film the water disappearing. I am too lazy. Dad gets up to fetch it himself, but first he and Mum have a little argument. Dad thinks that the water is drawing out. Mum and I shriek, "It's coming in."
"Calm down - of course it isn't coming in," says Dad, on his way to the hotel. I have not seen him since.

Mum and I see the wave. We take our stuff and run. Mum runs away ahead of me. I hear her voice: "For goodness sake run, Charlotte! Whatever happens I will always love you." I have not seen her since.

She disappears without bothering to check whether I am behind her. I run in panic, upwards, as far as I can. Get to a flight of steps where there is chaos. A small child is standing by the steps crying. The mother has left the child alone.

I am holding tightly on to the stair rail when the wave roars in over the whole of Khao Lak. I feel the wave rolling over me and pulling away the rail. I go with the wave out to sea and in again, several times. Under the surface, I swallow gulps of salty water when I try to get air. I will not survive if I do not come up to the surface. In the end I can take deep breaths. With my eyes closed. I am hanging in something, a tree? The roof of a house? The thing I am hanging on snaps and I am pulled out to sea again, out and in. After perhaps seven minutes I open my eyes. I have landed up by the hotel and see masses of people lying there, blood everywhere.

And here is an account of the course of cholera in its victims. The disease has literally killed millions of people in the course of human history.

"Cholera is a horrific illness. The onset of the disease is typically quick and spectacular; you can be healthy one moment and dead within hours. The disease, left untreated, has a fatality rate that can reach fifty per cent. The first sign that you have it is a sudden and explosive watery diarrhea, classically described as “rice-water stool,” resembling the water in which rice has been rinsed and sometimes having a fishy smell. White specks floating in the stool are bits of lining from the small intestine. As a result of water loss—vomiting often accompanies diarrhea, and as much as a litre of water may be lost per hour—your eyes become sunken; your body is racked with agonizing cramps; the skin becomes leathery; lips and face turn blue; blood pressure drops; heartbeat becomes irregular; the amount of oxygen reaching your cells diminishes. Once you enter hypovolemic shock, death can follow within minutes. A mid-nineteenth-century English newspaper report described cholera victims who were “one minute warm, palpitating, human organisms—the next a sort of galvanized corpse, with icy breath, stopped pulse, and blood congealed—blue, shrivelled up, convulsed.” Through it all, and until the very last stages, is the added horror of full consciousness. You are aware of what’s happening: “the mind within remains untouched and clear,—shining strangely through the glazed eyes . . . a spirit, looking out in terror from a corpse.”

“Sick City,” Steven Shapin. The New Yorker, Nov. 6, 2006.

Rowe’s point is that even if some of the instances of people suffering or dying from cholera contributed to some greater good or avoided some greater evil—someone’s immune system grew stronger, scientific knowledge of hygiene and sanitation improved, or some future genocidal dictator died in the crib—it is perfectly reasonable to believe that at least some of the cases did not play some positive role like that. There may have been some net benefit to the suffering that someone like Charlotte experienced as a result of the Christmas day tsunami (although she would likely reject the claim that she is somehow better off for having her parents torn away from her, battered, and drowned), but there must have been some of the suffering and death induced by the tsunami that did not do anything good. The reason Rowe’s argument is so powerful is that there only needs to be a single instance like that to render the first premise true, and the argument sound.

The surprising thing for me is that I have thought about it for years, and I don’t think the argument works. The reason I don’t think it works is that reflecting carefully on the notion of an omni-God and the kind of relationship he might have to the world, it undermines the powerful intuition we initially have in favor of Rowe’s first premise. But a full discussion of that will take some space, obviously, and will fill up the better part of a chapter in the atheism book I am writing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Miracles Make It Harder to Prove God is Good

Miraculous events that serve to alleviate suffering generate an acute problem for attempts to prove the existence of God from miracle evidence.

Suppose Jesus heals a crippled man so that he can walk again, or cures a group of lepers, or God otherwise prevents some local instance of suffering. Or suppose that of the millions of pilgrims who have bathed or drunk the waters at Lourdes, France, some of their medical problems were miraculously cured. The overwhelmingly obvious question to ask in each of these cases, especially if the event is being held up as evidence for the existence of an infinitely good and loving God, is “why not more?” Even the Catholic Church has only officially recognized a handful of cases at Lourdes as authentic miracles. At any given moment on the planet, there are most likely thousands or even millions of people claiming to have had some beneficial miracle that alleviates suffering. But at any given moment on the planet there are millions or even billions of other people who are not being cured, healed, or benefitted.

So the occurrence of one beneficial miracle in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering seems to count heavily against attributing omnibenevolence to the source. Here the question is can the occurrence of miracles be reasonably construed as evidence for the existence of an omni- or Christian God? Were some supernatural force to alleviate some cases of suffering and not others, then at the very least it will take some careful argument to show that that evidence is even consistent with the attribution of omnibenevolence. If there were two people walking out in an intersection about to be hit by a bus and you could save one of them both without much effort, but you restrained yourself and only called out to or pulled one of them back, we wouldn’t judge you to be as good a person as someone who saved them both. If a doctor travels to an African village with enough polio vaccine to inoculate 1,000 children, but only gives 10 of them the shot and throws the rest of the vaccine away, and then watches the remaining 990 die or be crippled, we would conclude that doctor was a monster, not a saint.

Even if some supernatural force were to reach out and instantaneously eliminate all of the suffering in the world today, one would think that an omnibenevolent being would have done it sooner. What was he doing yesterday? Was he busy? Off on errands? And what was he doing in 1945 during Auschwitz, or while the bubonic plague was ravaging and killing millions in Europe during the middle 1300s?

Much to our surprise, the classical problem of evil is made worse by cases where God is alleged to have done something good for someone. Every case where someone claims that their prayers led to their rapid recovery from terminal cancer, or that their piety helped bring back a loved one safe from the fighting in a war zone shines a powerful spotlight on centuries of gratuitous suffering that went unabated despite heartfelt prayers, decent lives, and fervent piety.

It would have been more plausible, perhaps, to argue that God is all good and loving had that particular beneficial miracle not happened. That is, the theist in these cases would have less explaining to do, and could possibly make more sense of the compatibility of a world that does not have local, seemingly arbitrary miracles, than a world where a tiny bit of suffering is alleviated in a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, or in Amsterdam, while wars, famine, plagues, and drought kill millions elsewhere. If an omni-God performed no local miracles, one might hope to offer up some generalized account of gratuitous suffering like Hick’s soul-making theodicy. But if you try to derive God’s omnibenevolence from miracles, you’ve opened the door wider to the problem of reconciling it with all the staggering amounts of suffering in history that went on without intervention.

From a purely strategic perspective, the Christian theist should view miracle claims with a great deal of caution and skepticism. If God is bothering with those sorts of petty and inconsequential problems in the world, how could one plausibly argue that he’s also the Alpha and the Omega, the grand author of the universe? It seems to me that a God who bothers with statues that cry blood, clouds that resemble the name of Allah, or raising Lazarus from the dead (and not 6 million Jews in the Holocaust) is a harder one to defend and believe in than no God at all.

So even the project of showing that beneficial miracles are consistent with the existence of an all good, all loving supernatural force is plagued (pun intended) with difficulties. Reading off positive, supporting evidence for the attribution of omnibenevolence from some miracle is outrageous.

Monday, June 11, 2007

We Are Wired to Resist the Truth About Pointless Suffering

Here are a couple of conclusions discovered in psychological studies that have profound importance for God believers and non-believers who are considering the question of gratuitous and inscrutable evil and the existence of God.

First, Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness points out that, “research shows that when people are given electric shocks, they actually feel less pain when they believe that they are suffering for something of great value.” The study he’s referring to is P.G. Zimbardo “Control of Pain Motivation by Cognitive Dissonance,” Science 151: 217-19 (1966).

Second, a number of researchers have shown that when test subjects are confronted with puzzling, random, or unexplained sequences of events they spontaneously form hypotheses about a causal relationship between them. They provide causal explanations even when none are apparent, they infer them even when not instructed to, and they remember described scenarios by means of causal cues better than by non-causal memory cues. See B. Weiner, “’Spontaneous Causal’ Thinking,” Psychological Bulletin 97: 74-84( 1985). R.R. Hassin, J.A. Bargh, and J. S. Uleman, “Spontaneous Causal Inferences,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38: 515-22 (2002).

One of the most contentious topics among believers and non-believers is the compatibility of an omni-God with the presence of inscrutable evil in the world. And anyone who has engaged in one of these conversations will note the powerful presence of the sentiment that “everything happens for a reason.” I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people insist on this platitude in response to the question of evil. And it is also obvious how much comfort people derive from that thought alone.

And what these psychological studies make clear is that humans possess a powerful epistemic, and emotional craving a causal explanation for everything they encounter. We find unexplained, random, seemingly unconnected events frustrating to the point of madness. And when it comes to the question of events that create pain, that urge is even stronger. The Zimbardo study shows that the pain actually feel less intense as long as the subject believes that it is occurring for some worthy cause. This sheds new light on the frequent comment by believers, “I just couldn’t face the world or my life if there were no God.” They aren’t kidding. We have a powerful cognitive mechanism that generates causal inferences and explanations even when there isn’t one present.
And in the case of pain, we have an additionally powerful subconscious motive or urge to explain it away in some fashion—it will literally feel less painful if we do.

So the atheist who presses the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God is up against powerful human psychological tendencies. What gives the problem of evil objection to the existence of God the most force is the line of argument that there are events that generate massive amounts of suffering and death in the world—like the Thailand tsunami that killed over 230,000 people. And that an omni-God would never tolerate such events. So an omni-God doesn’t exist. And if there is no omni-God who permits such events as part of some grand cosmic plan, then those events are in fact random, pointless, and without any sort of redeeming payoff. And it is that last implication of the atheist’s argument that people find so deeply unpalatable. Our cognitive constitution is configured to resist that sort of conclusion, even when it is obviously true, with all its might.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Incoherent: I Believe Because It Makes Me a Moral Person

There is another more superficial argument that also deserves mentioning here. Many people have the pessimistic view that the only thing that could motivate essentially selfish and sinful beings to act morally is the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. The only reason that humans are moral, on the rare occasions when they are, is that they either are actually being selfish and just trying to get the big payoffs for being good: heaven. Or again, they are essentially being selfish and it is only the fear of punishment, of an eternity spent suffering horribly in hell, that keeps them from smashing and grabbing everything they want. So again God is invoked to solve the problem of morality. But here the argument is quite queer. The suggestion is not that people act morally, therefore there must be a God. It is more like, if people were to believe that there is no God, then there would be nothing to restrain them from the worst sorts of behavior. So it is better that we all believe. This is a queer argument because it seems to be an argument not for the conclusion that the sentence “God exists” is true, but the conclusion, “To avoid disaster, it is better for everyone including me and you, to believe that God exists (whether or not he actually does.)” It would be like the case where your ailing grandfather has died, and your grandmother is also in such precarious and bad health that the family decides that it would be better not to tell her. It would be better for her not to believe that Grandpa has died because having that belief itself, even though it is true, would have disastrous practical consequences.

The “Believe in God, or else,” argument here gets even stranger when it is allegedly a believer who states it to the non-believer. This person is playing the role of Grandpa, Grandma, and concerned family all by themselves. The believer seems to be saying about themselves, “well, I choose to believe in the existence of God because if I don’t, I know that I am such and awful person and I have such powerful evil urges that I would not be able to restrain them without the fear of eternal punishment.” The obvious question to ask is, “well, who is the executive decision maker who’s in charge enough to be making that decision about what beliefs are needed to keep me in check?” We’d like to talk to that guy—he seems reasonable and thoughtful enough about his behavior and his urges. Even if you did believe this about yourself, and as a result you come to believe in belief, as Daniel Dennett puts it (Breaking the Spell), how would you go about perpetrating this deception on yourself? You don’t really believe in God, or you don’t see any good reasons to believe other than that doing so would help keep you in check and minding your manners, so you set about getting yourself to actually believe that it is true—not just practical, but really true—that there is a God. What would the next step be? Pascal recognized a similar dilemma and recommended that you talk like the believers, surround yourself with them, act like they do, and go through all the motions as if you believe until you have “deadened your acuteness” which brings to mind smacking yourself with a hammer or something.

But here it’s not you’re just trying to hedge your bets to possibly get into heaven like Pascal was doing. You have recognized that it would produce better, more moral results if you were to believe something false or unsupported because otherwise your natural tendencies, which you have decided are wicked and depraved on grounds that must be completely independent of the God question, will win out. Evidently, you are completely capable of figuring out what is right and wrong and acting in accord with it without any reference to God at along. And this is what the non-believer who was scratching her head at your “Believe in God, or else,” argument was trying to say all along.

In James Morris’ novel, Towing Jehovah, they find the 2 mile long corpose of God floating in the ocean. A small group of people are in charge of towing the body with an oil freighter to the Arctic Circle to keep it on ice. As the truth that God really is dead slowly settles in on the crew, a drunken orgy of violence and sin does erupt. But then one of them gets murdered, and they sober up and realize that it was really their own self-restraint that was leading them to behave themselves all along.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Knowing Your Own Mind About God

In general, we think of ourselves as idealized reasoning agents. When we are making decisions, forming opinions about things, or sustaining a belief or behavior, we tend to think that some careful reasoning and attentiveness on our own part will help insure that the results are rational. We also have the view that the contents of our own minds, our motives, our reasons, and our beliefs are readily available to us, transparent, open, and incorrigible to introspection. You know your own mind better than anyone else, and you know your beliefs, your reasons, your motives, and the extent to which your decisions are reasonable.

Volumes and volumes of contemporary research in psychology and philosophy are making it clear that most, if not all of these assumptions are grossly mistaken. A recent article in New Scientist details a long list of ways in which we all make bad, irrational decisions.

Here are just a few of the highlights:

People are very bad at anticipating how happy a choice will make them, or how bad the consequences of some feared negative outcome will really be. We to think that winning the lottery will make us happier than it actually will, and we tend to think that a disaster like losing a leg will be make our lives much worse than it does.

Our emotions have a very strong impact on the outcomes of our decisions. For example, men who are mad will gamble much more and take bigger risks when they are angry.

Confirmation bias—emphasizing or selecting evidence that supports a pet belief while neglecting evidence that would refute it—affects us dramatically and makes it very hard for us to make decisions that adequately weigh all the alternatives. To make matters worse, we estimate that confirmation bias will affect other people’s decision making much more than it affects our own. Our cognitive constitution tries to latch onto examples or data that corroborates favored views that we have already made up our minds about. The tendency is very strong and it often requires a powerful force of will to resist it and actively seek out contrary opinions, alternative explanations, and different possibilities.

The full article is here:

Now let’s consider the God question. On the classic, old school theism model,

1a) the theist holds that a reasonable person who considers the right evidence objectively and rationally will be justified in believing that God exists,

1b) the atheist or agnostic holds that a reasonable person who considers the right evidence objectively will be justified in believing that God does not exist, or that God’s existence cannot be known respectively.
2a) the theist holds that a person who considers that evidence and doesn’t conclude that God exists is being irrational.
2b) the atheist holds that a person who considers all the relevant evidence and doesn’t conclude that God doesn’t exist is being irrational. The agnostic holds that it is irrational not to be agnostic from the evidence.
3) knowing whether or not you believe in God and what sort of belief that is simply a matter of introspecting your own thoughts, and
4) knowing what your reasons are for believing in God (or not) is also merely a matter of introspecting and it will be clear to you what your grounds or reasons for believing are.

Today, despite many developments in what is being called post-evidentialist or post-modernist theism, probably most of the people engaged in this discussion about God either explicitly or implicitly endorse either 1a), 2a), 3) and 4), or 1b, 2b), 3) and 4).

There is a lot to comment on here. But let’s focus on 3) and 4). A number of developments in experimental psychology, cognitive research, and epistemology have made it increasingly clear that 3) and 4) are mistaken. That is, there are good reasons to think that in many cases, what you believe is not actually available to introspection, and the grounds or reasons for your beliefs are either not available to introspection, or introspection is not a reliable or accurate means of determining the grounds of your belief.

I’ll just sketch out a few of the more interesting cases and arguments that seem to support these conclusions. What people will report they believe, it turns out, is highly influencable by environmental factors, priming, context, and expectations. In a number of important experiments, it has been shown that when an image of something that test subjects find objectionable is flashed at them for an interval that is too short for them to be consciously aware of it (approx. less than 250 milliseconds), they will then respond differently to questions or tasks put to them than they do when they are not primed with the fast image. What this suggests is that there are cognitive gears set in motion below the conscious threshold that affect what we experience or are conscious of, but we are completely unaware of these mechanisms. It would seem to follow then, that your introspections of what you believe or what you experience are relatively late stage results of processes that occur without your control, supervision, or access. And your reports about what you believe and why you believe it may or may not align with what is really going on in your head.

A couple of other examples deserve consideration. There are cases where patients, particularly some kinds of stroke victims, will report that they are in pain but there in nothing particularly unpleasant about it. They can recognize that they are experiencing pain, but it lacks the painful affect. There are also cases, now famous in the philosophy literature, of people with blind sight. They report, and insist, that they are blind. But when asked to guess, or given visual tasks that they attempt like counting objects, they will consistently offer the correct answers. And there are cases of the reverse where someone insists that they are not blind, but when given visual tasks it is clear that they cannot see anything. When asked why they didn’t succeed at the counting task or navigating around objects, they will continue to say that they can see but that they were distracted or confused, or they will make some other excuse.

There is a great deal more to be said here about these case and their implications. But an important point that I want to draw out is that our common sense view about being able to know what we believe and being able to know the reasons or causes that lead us to believe it, is simply not trustworthy. Your own mind is simply not as transparent or accessible to you as you thought it was. And this point is particularly important for the question of believing in God. Most people will readily admit that the existence of God is a matter of incredible emotional, psychological, and personal importance. Even without third party neuroscience researchers to test and examine our reports about our beliefs, we all know that when it comes to God, there are powerful sub-conscious, or non-rational aspects of our cognitive constitutions at work. I’ve called this deep felt need that we have for there to be a God The Urge in previous posts.

So here’s the point: since we are not very good at knowing our own minds, and since we all seem to have The Urge, it stands to reason that the rationality of religious beliefs are prima facie suspect. And they should be suspicious to you even if you have thought hard about it and it still seems to you that you have good reasons for believing and that those reasons are why you believe. Strange things happen in the recesses of the human mind/brain. And a lot of very careful research and arguments are starting to suggest that there is an evolutionary, biological foundation of religious belief. I would also submit that the near universal subscription across cultures and across time to beliefs about some sort of afterlife, some sort of higher, supernatural power, screams out for an evolutionary, biological, or neurological explanation. In human history, we just don’t find that many people in that many cultures and eras in such deep agreement about anything. That they all believe in some kind of God or gods and the afterlife, and that they spend their time bickering about the details, suggests that the rudiments of belief belong to something much more basic than our higher, rationalistic intellects.

I am not arguing that rational autonomy is altogether impossible, although I think for many people concerning many beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, it is. But what is becoming clear as science allows us to understand ourselves better, including the deepest, most private parts of our minds, is that achieving rational autonomy is much, much harder than we assumed for centuries. And one of the lessons here is that achieving intellectual discipline and freedom has to be a higher priority in your mental life than adherence to an ideology. Being an atheist or a theist has to come second to being a clear, objective, careful, and diligent thinker. Otherwise it the ideology that’s believing you, not you in charge of your own mind and beliefs.