Sunday, November 18, 2007

God or Gratuitous Evil?

The depth of the problem of evil is frequently not appreciated by either believers or, ironically, by non-believers. If someone believes that there is a God, then they are committed to the view that every single instance of suffering that any sentient being has suffered in the entire history of the universe is such that it could not be decreased, eliminated, or altered in any way without making the world, on the whole, a worse place.

An infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good being would not tolerate the existence of any truly gratuitous or pointless evil. So the believer can’t be satisfied merely with the possibility that there could be a God and that that God could possibly have optimized every instance of suffering in the universe. In order to be reasonable in believing that there is such a being, the believer’s sum evidence must indicate that in fact, there has never been a single instance of gratuitous suffering or an instance of suffering that could have been reduced, eliminated or altered in any way without making the world a worse place.

The irony here is that on a daily basis, we all operate with the view that there are countless instances of suffering that should be eliminated, reduced, or altered in order to make the world a better place. We see homeless people on the street that need help, there are countless people suffering from war, disease, famine, and starvation. There are animals that need to be protected. The examples of suffering that we ordinarily take to be gratuitous are countless. Call all of those cases the evidence for gratuitous evil. To believe in God reasonably then, one needs to have such compelling evidence that there is an omni-being that it eclipses and is more convincing that the evidence for gratuitous evil. That is, one needs to have better evidence for the existence of a divine being who would not tolerate any gratuitous evil than one has evidence for the existence of any gratuitous evil.

So here’s the crux: many people have argued for the existence of God, although the consensus among philosophers of religion is that no such arguments are successful. And many people believe that they have evidence for the existence of God. But does anyone think they have evidence for God that is more compelling than the evidence that we all have for the existence of gratuitous suffering in the world?

15 comments:

Michael Evey said...

I think that a lot of the "evidence" for God's existence that many theists consider more compelling than the evidence that there is gratuitous evil generally hinges upon displaying the abundance of good that exists, while simultaneously attempting to minimize the significance of the alleged gratuitous evils. But this always fails to satisfy. In the end, what the atheist seems to require is some hard evidence, such as seeing the face of God, accompanied by a displayed of his awesome powers. Short of this, I cannot say what would suffice, but rest assured it is not anecdotes of miracles or even profound experiences, and certainly not images of the Virgin Mary emblazoned upon slices of Wonderbread. When asking for evidence, anyone with strong atheist leanings, not merely an agnostic or someone seeking confirmation, is looking for verifiable proof, not merely strong evidence, for the atheist is, in my experience, just as prone to stubbornness and dogmatism as the theist.

Dwight said...

What if one believes that God is finite and can be frustrated by the travails of existence and the indifference of the human heart. HN Wieman's conception of God is what I'm thinking about but even the Bible's language about God is closer to this than the accounts that make God omni everything.

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s d owen said...

I agree with you, MM, that GE is as you describe it, but the problem is that most theists don't see GE this way.

This is why they posit original sin and soul-building and free will, and this is why most theists, the non-philosopher types, don't think that animals have souls.

That is, animals may experience pain, but suffering is reserved for beings endowed with souls.

More and more my thought is going in the direction of not caring what theists think -- they are simply playing a different game than we are -- the faith game.

This is not to say that they can't understand our points, but it is to say they simply believe their terms and concepts are true while ours are wrong, perhaps sinful.

I think atheists should concentrate on those in the middle, those not entirely programmed with the faith virus, because those that have already caught it might as well be abandoned to the plague.

aj 192 said...

I think that given the evidence of gratuitous evil, it is still possible for individuals to be warranted in believing that God exists. They may have their reasons which allow them to hold the beliefs that God exists and there is evil in the world. They would have to deny that there is any gratuitous evil. Theists may appeal to the soul-building answer but this answer doesn't seem to persuasive to me because there is no way to check such an answer. A person may benefit from an instance of gratuitous evil in that he becomes a better person. However, it could have just as easily happened that he still became that great person without having been subjected to the instance of gratuitous evil.

paulv said...

If someone believes that there is a omnipotent good God, then they need only commit to the view that every single natural law, or elementary constant could not be altered in any way without making the world, on the whole, a worse place.

paulv said...

If someone believes that there is a omnipotent good God, then they need only commit to the view that every single natural law, or elementary constant could not be altered in any way without making the world, on the whole, a worse place.

Jon said...

God could have made the laws of nature different that lead to a better world. Therefore God does not exist.

paulv said...

Which law would you change to make a better world?

Jon said...

If I was God I might not need to change any of the laws that we experience - just create new ones -
If I could imagine a "better utopia" then this one, then I am sure that God could create an even better one with better laws that create a better universe.

As far as our laws - God could tweek say any one of the constants of nature just enough to make the universe come out a little bit better while at the same time not tweeking them too much that would prohibit life from forming or forming in the same exact fashion.

The only way I could be refuted is if the current laws are perfect and a better universe could not be created. Why assume that these laws are perfect? I guess the counter response is to say "Why assume that they are not perfect?" But, I think from what we observe with the amount of suffering in the world, plus the assumption of God's infinite power the burder of proof lay more on assuming that this is a perfect universe and could not have come out any better with any improvement in tweeking.

But, I see a quantum mechanical problem with our type of universe -namely quantum mechanics- that dictates that the univese cannot be fully predicted because randomness is inherent in nature. Can we not imagine a universe that can do without quantum flux? That a Standard Model could exist without the flux and be determined? If so then we can imagine a determined universe that is an improvement. But I don't like determinism so that last example fails according to my taste. Then God could create a 'randomness within probability' that has a much higher probability that the quality of life in the universe was much better - by tweeking any of the current laws just enough or creating new ones - Why not? As long as we assume this universe is not perfect.

paulv said...

I think when we see how much seemingly useless suffering there is, most of us conclude that there could be a better universe. And I am not sure now whether one needs to conclude that this is the best possible universe to believe in a good god, only that it is fundamentally good universe. God could have made many universes with different laws, and we are in one of them.

The problem of evil or suffering to me has many solutions. One silly one is to propose an afterlife where useless suffering is compensated for. Another is to accept that suffering is required by the laws of this universe that enables say evolution. (We all have a desire to reproduce, yet some traits must die out, this creates the tension and struggle we call suffering and it is built into our universe)

I have been thinking again about the idea of consistancy. If we have free rational thought, it follows that this is a potential property of matter or the stuff of our universe, and that it should occur elsewhere in the universe. But it means it could (and perhaps should) also occur in whatever preceded this universe. It does not seem to me to be reasonable to assume that nothing existed before this universe, or nothing exists outside of it. Then the question is "what is the nature of this other reality". If we define god as a higher reality, then it seems like atheism is a non-starter. We may like science does, limit our discussion to testable things within this universe, but that is different than attempting to prove that nothing exists outside our present universe.

In other words, it is a fight not to prove that god does not exist, but rather a fight about the nature of reality(god). I,e the problem of evil is a great argument that an anthropomorphic god (who cannot tolerate suffering or evil), does not exist, but it does little to prove that an indifferent, but yet potentially benign intelligence is not present outside (or even inside) our universe. Believing in an indifferent god, or no god, are in most practical terms inconsequential. And showing that the Jewish, or Muslim, or Christain gods are unlikely to exist as advertised, is something that is more do-able, than trying to prove that an undefined entity (God) cannot exist.

Jon said...

Good points Paulv, now I will attempt to counter your points:

I believe that the solutions to the problem of evil fail, concerning your solutions: 1. Compensation - If millions of young children are brutally raped, tortured and killed throughout history how is god going to compensate them? God in Heaven:"Oh I'm sorry dear child, but here let me erase your memory of those terrible events and make you feel bliss for eternity." Presumably God in Heaven would have to erase everyone else's (including the non-victims) memory of those events as well. And that would be intellectually dishonest.

Why would the omni-god use evolution? To an omni-god evolution is a Rube Goldberg Machine, therefore it is messy and caused too much unnecessary suffering for countless sentient beings. It would be more elegant for an omni-god to just poof us into existence into a higher state of being. Therefore our universe has nothing to do with an omni-god.

Your right it does appear to be unreasonable to assume that nothing existed before or outside the universe. There is no such thing as before the universe or outside of the universe, both on logical grounds and on physics grounds. The universe is all there is, was, or will be. At the same time it is reasonable to assume that we will never grasp the totality of the universe. Also, maybe I'm not exactly up to date on Cosmology, but from my current knowledge, we can only predict the part of the universe that we know to a microsecond after the Big Bang - and I'm not sure that we have even come close to the Planck Scale with it.

The universe is defined: "as everything" both scientifically and philosophically, so the burden of proof is on those who think that there could be something that exists outside the universe. If something exists 'outside of everything' then that is the non-starter and logical contradiction. Also, there is nothing that is higher than reality, there is just reality - Or what is real from what is not real. On the side: If someone says that something exists outside of reality or higher than reality then that equates to saying that something does not exist in realiy or is not real.

Speaking of "indifferent and potentially benign intelligences that are not outside (or even inside) our universe" is like or even worse than speaking of pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, or some kind of unimaginable god. The burden of proof lay in those who believe in such imaginable or unimaginable entities.

paulv said...

I accept that the burden of proof is on those who believe in god(s). And I believe that the existence of god cannot be proven. (Who would want to believe in a god who's existance was provable by mere mortals?)

The other distintion you mention, is the use of the word "universe", versus "known universe", or "ensemble of universes". In my defence I used it as "our known universe". Physicist are speaking of other universes, and I don't know what word they use to describe the reality that encompasses the totality of all universes.

So physicists speculate what is outside our known universe, and while they don't expect us to accept these speculations as proven, they don't stop speculating either. It seems strange to me to argue that only physicists should speculate on the full nature of what is real (but as yet unknown), while the rest of us should all act as though only what is known is real.

The great appeal of art and religion, may be that is allows that simple beings can somehow make a connection with "the cosmos, god, another plane, meaning (pick your favourite word)". This idea of connection could be a total fantasy on the part of the artist or believer. Or it could in some albeit misunderstood or twisted way, be partly true.

Back to evil...

The existance of evil does say something about the nature of god/reality. It says that in our reality suffering exists, and no external hand can be seen to alleviate it. That means that there is no external hand, or that the external hand has chosen not to interfere (at all or in a deterministic way)

So religions that expect god to put a pillow on the ground, every time a believer trips should dissapear fairly quickly. Other religions have devised more or less rigorous explanations (Yin/Yang, original Sin, Satan) to account for the real nature of the world we find ourselves in.

The question of evil, does highlight inconsistancies with some of these, but I don't see them as conclusive. On this I can agree to disagree with you.

Before quantum theory, we made many logical statements, like light cannot be a particle because we can see diffraction effects. So when we say a good god cannot exist, because we see sensless suffering, it seems for me difficult to conclude that an omni-god would be bound by this sort of black and white logic when light photons are not. In the light question, we ended up changing our conceptions of particles and waves (of probability density, rather than waves in a medium).

So I don't dispute the use of the question of evil, to make people revise their images of good, god, or evil. For me though it is not evidence of inexistance of either of the three.

I am grateful for both the site, and your responses for helping me think about these things, and have found Theistic sites to be quite closed to discussions that might deviate from a prescribed view.
Maybe they exists somewhere, I can't prove they don't.

Jon said...

Some of my thoughts:

I'm not certain of what all of physicists think, but some of them and philosophers have clarified the word "universe"; difinitly not perfectly, for example, Susskind said that he prefers to use the word Megaverse instead of Multiverse for logical consistency. This is due to the trouble with logic and the word Multiverse in describing different domains of "our universe".

I agree that it is strange for a view that says that it is only physicists that decide what is real - for we know that there is a range of the real or a spectrum of reality, e.g. qualia or qualitative thinking (what is this "feeling" that a collection of nuerons causes to emerge), the ultimate ontological significance of being (the shells within the shells of existence, e.g. from naked eye observations to the microscope to the electron microscope to the particle excelerator to our limits of technology ... then maybe an infinite nautulous or shells within shells... (These shells within shells I find appealling and logically clear unlike some physicists or other thinkers)

Then we speak of the problems of morality and how those problems are applicable to gods or the omni-god. I am not certain that there is a perfect logic to moral thinking, intentions, and actions. There appears to be however a particular range or spectrum to morality concerning suffring, virtue, learning, duty, happiness, ect... that have been discussed and continue to be discussed and we can seperate rationally what is better and worse to a good extant.

I see that the biggest disagreements or uncertainties lay in what an omni-god would create in us and for us. I personally think that there is something mystical about existence while at the same time deny god due to my disagreements with an omni-god way in which the world would be created, but I enjoy the differences of opinions and I attempt to keep an open mind about them.

- and for that I don't believe I will go to a hell.