Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Super Evil Challenge

Let’s say in a problem solving situation or an exertion of the will of a being with a purpose, when all of the downsides, negatives, and evils have been reduced as much as they can given the parameters of the problem and the tools available for solving it, then the evils associated with the solution or act have been optimized. It is not enough that some good come from an evil, nor is it enough that more good come from the evils. It might not be worth it, or there might be some better solution available with less evil. Suppose that you have a tooth that has a cavity that needs to be treated. You could continue to ignore it. Or a neighbor has offered to pull it out with some pliers with no anaesthetic for free. Or you can go to the dentist on 25th street who will fill the cavity for $500. Or there is another dentist on B street who will fill the cavity for $250, and you have every reason to think that the 25th street dentist and the B street dentist will do equivalent work. You can afford $250, but not $500 for the problem. There are 4 solutions available in the situation, but one of them is better overall than the others. The evil that you will have to endure with the B street dentist, the discomfort of getting the tooth worked on, the lost time from work, and the $250, is optimized with regard to the solution which is addressing the cavity.

Theistic solutions to the problem of evil should be understood from the other side of the equation. We find ourselves in the midst of what might possibly be the equivalent of a complicated, painful, and very large procedure that is lasting for eons. If there is an omni God, then the evils of the procedure would have been optimized. Every pain, every death, every bit of suffering, and every parking ticket or ingrown toenail would have been minimized as much as is logically possible. But we don’t and can’t know from seeing the planning and decision making process that things have in fact been optimized. We don’t even know that there was planning or decision making process at all or that any of it has a point. And the analogy is strained by the fact that God is alleged to be an omni-being. The dentist (and your neighbor) is limited by her knowledge, her tools, her education, her ability to deaden pain, and her materials. She will readily admit that her methods are not perfect, but they are the best she can do. But an omni-being would suffer none of those physical limitations of knowledge and power. An omni-being would be able to produce the best solution that is logically, not just physically, possible.

From where we are in all of this, all we can do is observe features of the events surrounding us and try to figure out first, if there was a planning and decision making process to it at all, and second if there are any reasons to think from the events around us that every single evil that has ever transpired is an optimized evil. Is someone going to work on us with a pair of rusty pliers? Is there any point to it all? Or is it evident that this is the most highly tuned, sensitive and pain-efficient procedure that an infinitely wise, good, and powerful being could have produced?

In every case in your life where you perform some action from the most trivial to the most important, you do so on the presumption that the world could be better in some fashion than it actually is. Things would be better if I had a cup of coffee. Things would be better if we could achieve peace in the middle east. Things would be better if a Democrat was elected president. Things would be better if I stepped out of the path of that oncoming bus. Right now, without even thinking about it very hard, you can come up with a thousand ways in which the world could be improved. And you can come up with a list that isn’t just about improving it selfishly for you, but ways in which it could really be improved for everybody.

First, it’s hard to see how we could possibly rectify believing that evil has been cosmically optimized with any sort of action on our parts. Second, it’s also obvious that every decision that you make, opinion that you express, and action you perform presumes that evil has not been optimized in the world. If we didn’t presume that things are not optimal, we’d have no grounds for acting. Third, of the face of it, every one of us encounters a multitude of situations every day where it sure looks like things could be better than they are, if only by a little bit.

So the burden of proof for theism in the face of the problem of evil is to overcome all of the evidence in all of our lives for a suboptimal world and show that evil has been optimized in every regard for every moment of all of history. The indirect route of doing that is to give an argument for an OG’s existence that is more compelling than the extent to which evil does not appear to be optimized. Can the burden of proof that all evil in the history of sentience is optimized evil be met? Do we have reasons for believing in God that are more compelling than all of the suffering in history. I don’t think that we have such reasons. The vast majority of people, even the believers, seem to agree that the existence of God is not the sort of thing that can be proven or shown through argument.


Tom said...

I’ve been reading about theodicies, and here are some by William Lane Craig.

One theodicy is that humans are simply not in the position to assess the pointlessness of pain. Humans are limited by time, space, intelligence, and insight, while God is infinite and can see the end of history. And so God has a morally adequate reason for allowing suffering, we just can't fathom it. Perhaps certain evils which seem pointless could “send a sort of ripple effect through history, so that God's morally sufficient reason for permitting might not appear until centuries later or maybe in another country" (http://youtube.com/watch?v=G2QfIkFsVlU).

Here are three replies to the theodicy, two of which you mentioned:

1) If we cannot understand why God permits evil, that is, if we are in no position to know God’s reasons for his actions, then we are also not in the position of knowing whether God’s reasons are good or bad. If we don’t know that, then we don’t know whether God is benevolent or malevolent. That’s a big problem.

2) If god is omnipotent, he could bring about any end without the need of intermediate steps. Imagine the death of a child from a car accident caused her family to attend church more often and consequently they become closer to God. Being omnipotent, God could have brought the same end while avoiding the death.

3) If God allows evil for an important reason that we cannot fathom (except that it is good), then why do we try to stop evil? If evil brings a greater good, then why feel pity for a hurricane victim or a sexually abused child? I can think of only one answer. God allows evil so that humans will try to stop it. It is in this very act of stopping evil (through helping, compassion, empathy, etc.) that brings about God’s desired end. But that is just as corrupt as a doctor who infects patients with some disease to be able to cure them later.

In the same conversation, William Lane Craig offers another theodicy – one where we do actually know what God’s reason for allowing suffering is. And it is this, paraphrasing a little:

Only in a world containing pointless suffering would the maximum amount of people freely come to know God and gain eternal life…After all, in the Christian perspective, the purpose of life is not human happiness but rather knowing God and eternal life.

I’m confused about this one. If God allows evil in this world ultimately to sway the maximum amount of people to come to know him, how is that free will? And why don’t we all believe in God? In addition, if the purpose of life is not human happiness, but rather knowing God and about eternal life, God could have created a world more suitable for this purpose – for instance, a world in which every human pops into existence at their own isolated prison cell, incarcerated but with the innate ability to read. They are there for their entire life, and are given only two things to read: the Bible or a compilation of various issues of Reader’s Digest. This world might be hellish and mega boring, but happiness is not God’s main concern in the Christian perspective according to Craig’s statement. More important is the freedom to chose or reject God, and of course, coming to know God and eternal life.

One last theodicy that Craig offers: eternal life with God is so infinitely pleasurable and glorious that the sufferings of this life are not even worthy to be compared with it. If Heaven is +100, then evil on earth is only, say, -5.

My reply is that while it may be the case heaven is infinitely pleasurable, this does not account for the uneven and often random distribution of suffering. There are those who live rich and comfortable lives, and there are those who are tortured during civil wars. The promise of an infinitely pleasurable afterlife does not explain why some suffer more than others.

In the end, Dr. Craig gives this argument to show that evil actually proves the existence of God, rather than disproving God.

1. If God does not exist, then objective morals do not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. If evil exists, objective morals exist.
4. Objective morals do exist.
5. God exists.

This is similar to the moral argument that if there is no God, then there is nothing that makes moral statements true or false. All actions become permissible. I think this is a big concern for most theists. I’ll leave this for someone else to respond.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Tom. Good, insightful comments. It's really too bad that Craig's work gets as much attention as it does, given the poor quality of the reasoning. But I guess he gives something to tear up.

In general, appeals to our stupidity or our limitations as defenses of contentious religious positions should be viewed with great suspicion. If in the end someone is trying to get you to believe or accept that some claim is true, change your life, convert, or see things their way, and "we are just too finite, and too small to understand the mysteries of God" figures in anywhere in the conversation, they are trying to pull one of the oldest, dirtiest, and most dishonest tricks in the book. It shows a profound lack of intellectual integrity on their part, it insults those of us who are exerting the effort to try to understand their theistic positions, and they have let themselves and everyone else down by not putting more effort into having clear, sufficient reasons for what they believe. None of us should tolerate this slippery move any more. As you say, it completely undermines whatever thesis they are trying to argue is true. We are all too closely connected on a small planet, and vast efficient means of killing are too readily available to overzealous maniacs for us to ever allow this "God is a mystery" bullshit into the conversation.

Anonymous said...

My response to any version of the "god is a mystery" argument:

If god is a mystery, then how can ANY values of right and wrong be taken from "it?"

How can any religion or moral system be formed around mystery?

A: It can't.

My response to any version of the soul-builing argument:

Anyone with any imagination can see that A) God could have built souls in many other ways, ways that don't include real existential suffering. Why not just train souls in a non-material simulacrum? And B), why couldn't God create us from scratch exactly how he wants us? Is he limited? No? Well, sorry Theist, but you can't have your cake and eat it too -- either God is perfect or it is not.

Finally, how can god desire anything for humans?

Desire is a lack of something. A NEED. Hence, a perfect being cannot have desire.

However, desire is what motivates any creature to keep on existing at all.

So if god has no desire, then god must not exist.

Hence, no god.

Now we understand all the pointless suffering in the world!


Anonymous said...

Now I understand that arguments by analogy fall apart under greater scrutiny, but here is one anyhow concerning this idea of evil's being necessary for humans to understand some greater good.

If I were to hack off the legs of my ten month old so that she would come to realize that greater powers surround her, who would call me benevolent -- even if I promised to carry her on my shoulders, particularly along beaches, for the rest of her life? If I were to let rabid dogs run wild through the house while she is playing in the living room just to scare the hell out of her so that I could round up the dogs to save her, in effect gaining her thanks, who would call me benevolent? If I were to do all of those things and then later, when she became an adult and asked me why I allowed all of that to happen, responded, "You cannot even begin to understand my ways," who would call me benevolent?

Again, I know that arguments by analogy fall apart under scrutiny, but if anyone is going to argue that God is good, that person has to provide some persuasive explanation of what "good" means since my understanding of good does not even begin to describe much of the suffering in the world.


thinker said...

When we are looking at how the universe was created we have to put everything we know aside and realize we dont know everything another thing is that the universe is suppost to be infinite so there are infinite possibilitys of other worlds like ours