For years, I have been arguing that the evil atheist—someone who thinks that the existence of suffering in the world makes atheism reasonable—must be prepared to give a hypothetical outline of the sorts of evidence that they would find to be consistent with God’s existence. That is, unless they are just being dogmatic, the evil atheist needs to say what the world would look like if an omni-God exists. This is only fair since they are arguing that the existence of suffering, or the state of the world that we inhabit, is inconsistent with the existence of God. If it looks like there is no God here, then what would it look like if there were a God? A sudden cessation of the some evil like the genocides in the Sudan or Rwanda, or a miraculous cancelling of a tsunami wouldn’t do it. If a tsunami was suddenly, miraculously stopped, we’d have to wonder: “Well, where the hell was God when all of that other nasty stuff was happening? If he saw fit to do something here, then why not the bubonic plague, the Holocaust, or cancer? An omni-God would have done something about all of those, so there is no omni-God.” Suppose the evil atheist insists that there never would have been any suffering in the world from the start. Is that a satisfying answer? Not really. Hick and others have plausibly argued that real moral growth in free, finite creatures like us requires a challenging world that is not a hedonistic paradise. We need to see and learn from the consequences of our actions, and there need to be challenges in the world that we must meet in order for us to acquire certain kinds of moral and intellectual growth. Hick and this variety of theodicist need to argue that not even an omnipotent God could have achieve the same sort of moral growth in us by any other less painful method, and I haven’t seen a convincing argument to this effect. But the plausibility of the theodicy is at least great enough to raise doubts that the evil atheist should insist that a good God would make our world a paradise. It’s also possible that no matter how little suffering there was, and no matter how optimized an omnipotent God made the world with regard to suffering, the evil atheists would still be complaining. The worst of the suffering might only amount to an occasional paper cut, but they’d still be insisting that that shows there cannot be a loving and powerful God watching over us.
So roughly, the suggestion is that evil atheists are often being dogmatic. No state of affairs would really satisfy them with regard to suffering. They cannot outline empirically manifest circumstances that would convince them that God is real. So there’s something amiss deep in their argument.
But here’s another possibility. If God is an impossible being, then there could be no empirical circumstances that are consistent with his existence. That is, if the concept of God just doesn’t make sense itself, then no amount of theorizing about hypothetical worlds will give us a picture that reconciles God with reality. God’s existence isn’t going to fit into any of those descriptions of states of affairs because the very notion of God itself is rationally corrupt. God doesn’t fit with suffering or anything else because God just doesn’t make sense.
What does that mean? Deductive atheology has taken a couple of approaches. First, it has been argued that a single, essential property that is attributed to God is incoherent. Omnipotence or omniscience is impossible, for instance. And since God wouldn’t be God without omnipotence, then God is impossible. In a related set of arguments, logicians and philosophers have begun to suspect that since after centuries of effort we cannot devise an account of what omnipotence and omniscience are, the right conclusion to draw is that there really can be no such thing. This is not a deductive argument that they are impossible, as such. It’s more of a throwing up of the hands—nobody has been able to give a sensible account of the properties so it’s time to move on. It doesn’t make sense, after a point, to keep trying to sustain our concept of the aether, phlogiston, or caloric. At the very least, these arguments shift the burden on proof heavily onto the theist. If you think there is a God, you really owe us an account of what that being is that makes some basic sense. We’ve seen countless descriptions crash and burn now, so you’re really not entitled to move forward or have us take you seriously until you addressed some absolutely fundamental issues. See several of my earlier posts about omnipotence, omniscience, and deductive atheology for details.
The other approach that the evil atheist can take here is to say that the reason we can’t describe a world consistently with God and suffering in it is because the properties that are attributed to God are inconsistent with each other. God is alleged to be free and all just, or all merciful and all just, or transcendent and physical, or immaterial and the cause of the universe, for instance. But these pairs of attributes produce hopeless contradictions. (On a side note, the history of theology has produced countless tomes that engage in bizarre and baroque gymnastics to reconcile these sorts of problems in describing God. I recommend you only read enough of these to get the general sense of what they are doing. Any more will make you chew your own leg off like an animal stuck in a trap.) So God(MJ)—a God who is all merciful and all just—is impossible. And since no being who lacks M or lacks J is worthy of the name, there is no God.
When we understand the arguments for evil atheism in this framework, we can see that the evil atheist’s case is really pointing to a much deeper, more serious problem that has nothing to do directly with suffering. We can’t reconcile God’s existence with the problem of evil in the world because the notion of God itself is incoherent. And until the theist can provide a description of God that makes some sort of provisional sense in the light of these widely argument problems, their position can’t even get off the ground.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009