Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Whose problem?

For whom is the problem of evil a problem?

***QUOTE***

George said:

"1.He never explains, from a secular standpoint, why the problem of evil is a problem. What is problematic about natural or moral evil?"


The "problem of evil" is not a problem for the naturalist.

You are quite correct that natural disasters and illness and violence are to be expected in the natural world, and the natural world does not care about what individual humans think about how "evil" or "unfair" something seems to their social primate brains.

The problem of evil only exists when theists start postulating all kinds of supernatural, personal, caring gods, that are the patrons of faithful humans, and allegedly care and watch over these humans and respond to their prayerful petitions.

Yet there is nothing to suggest from human history that any god of any religious tradition favors anyone, or prevents any evil from happening.

***END-QUOTE***

This won’t work. For the problem of evil is not merely internal to theism. In order for the naturalist to raise the problem of evil as a problem for theism, the naturalist must be able to identify objective instances of moral and natural evil, then take these paradigm-cases as a frame of reference.

The naturalist is comparing Christian theism with what he—the naturalist—regards as real evil in the world.

The internal critique cannot achieve escape velocity without an external standard of comparison.

This is exactly what we see in the examples that Harris has paraded to illustrate his point:

“Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most.”

“One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda…Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, many of them infants.”

http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200512_an_atheist_manifesto/

But if naturalism were true, why does Harris act as if this is not the way things are supposed to be? “Atrocity.” “Gratuitous.”

Continuing with George:

***QUOTE***

I don't think anyone has summed it up better since Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

***END-QUOTE***

It may be that no one has done a better job of summing up the problem of evil, but it’s not as if theologians are speechless in the face of evil. Harris contents himself with stating the problem as if the problem remained unanswered. He might not agree with the answers, but to keep repeating the question while ignoring a number of answers is anti-intellectual.

8 comments:

  1. Steve,

    Interesting post. However, I don't think that it applies in every case of an atheologian's use of the "problem of evil."

    Usually the a-theologian will claim that "evil happens" (therefore there is no God) and your criticism would apply. However, he doesn't NEED to do this to formulate an argument. All he needs to state is that "'evil' - as a theist would define it - exists" while maintaining a relativist position, and he could sidstep your objection.

    BTW - I believe your criticism of George is accurate - he is clearly appauled by the actions he posits. But what if he formulated his argument by saying that the THEIST should see these things as evil - even though he views them reserved nonprescriptive stance?

    Jim

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  2. This won’t work. For the problem of evil is not merely internal to theism.

    You're right, its not a problem for all theism, for there are many forms of theism that don’t postulate a supernatural deity that is actively altering the natural world, in order to care for certain individuals, or respond to their petitions of prayer for some change in events that will please them.

    In order for the naturalist to raise the problem of evil as a problem for theism, the naturalist must be able to identify objective instances of moral and natural evil, then take these paradigm-cases as a frame of reference.

    I don’t have to do any such thing, I just have to point to what theists consider evil, and show that their myriad gods are doing nothing to stop it. Most theists don’t want to die, or have their loved ones die slow painful deaths from diseases. Thus, they pray to their gods to intervene and provide a supernatural cure for these illnesses. If you don’t think that’s “objective” enough, I don’t really care.

    Yet these alleged caring gods who allegedly "intelligently designed" these killer viruses and cancers, don’t cure theists, or Reformed Protestant Christians, with any greater frequency than Buddhists or humanists or atheists.

    Again, if you want to claim that your god wants a little 12 year old Christian girl, to die a slow, painful death of cancer, and have her parents and her whole church, racked with anquish, as their prayers to this god go unanswered, that’s fine. I'm sure it can all be rationalized as "god's plan". But please don’t pretend that this god “cares” about the welfare of this little girl or her family in this life and this world.

    Killer diseases are not a "problem" or inconsistancy in the worldview of a naturalist. Disease is part of life, an adaptation or mutation, trying to survive and reproduce, and sometimes little girls die slow painful deaths of cancer as a result. And from that, we are inspired to develop better understandings of disease, and develop treatments and cures. That’s what the “naturalist” solution is. Your gods, as usual, are nowhere in sight.

    As far as your cliché strawman that I can’t critique your invisible god’s impotence, in the face of the death and destruction of his loyal followers, “ without an external standard of comparison”. I believe if I commissioned a poll, most Christians would agree that they don’t want to die slow, painful, premature deaths. Nor do they want their children to. And I believe the same poll would show most of these Christians believe they can petition the Christian god to change the course of events should they be stricken with a deadly disease. They may even say that there god is "watching out for them" or perhaps he has assigned an angel the task, or some such superstition.

    But if naturalism were true, why does Harris act as if this is not the way things are supposed to be? “Atrocity.” “Gratuitous.”

    I’m not sure who told you that naturalists can’t believe that certain human behaviors are atrocious or gratutious or even ‘evil’ without the benefit on your three headed Hebrew tribal deity. But I assure you, you’re wrong. Just because someone accepts the universe and natural world for what it is, and perhaps can even identify the causes of disease or violent tendencies in certain humans, doesn’t mean we surrender our value judgments of what we believe is good or right behavior.

    No, the “problem of evil” only exists when there is an allegedly omnipotent god that could prevent evil...but doesn't, for unknown reasons that theists like to rationalize.

    Perhaps you are the kind of theist who upon witnessing a rape, thinks “I’d better not do anything to stop it, I’m sure my personal god has a good reason for allowing this evil to occur.”

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  3. George, you started out making my point (see the first comment) but then collapsed into a moral judgement in your closing paragraph. So which is it?

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  4. George, you started out making my point (see the first comment) but then collapsed into a moral judgement in your closing paragraph. So which is it?




    Which is what? And where did I "collapse"? Your false dichotomy is not clear to me.

    Just because I'm a naturalist, doesn't mean I've surrendered my right to make moral or value judgments. Believe it or not, I can also still judge music, literature, fashion and art, as good or bad, without the aid of a Hebrew tribal deity whispering his "objective standard" for these things, in my ear.

    I thought I explained that in my reply. That's a really nasty fallacy spread by theists, in order to distract from any argument, that has a moral component. Theists, especially Muslims and Christians, certainly don't have the patent on human morality. Nor do their alleged killer gods.

    If you want to argue with me over rape being wrong, thats fine. If you agree its wrong, please don't pretend we don't share that same moral standard, in an effort to sidetrack the main discussion.
    "Rape" is wrong by definition. The value judgment is contained in its definition. Just like it is in the word murder.

    The fact remains, the alleged, caring, omnipotent, Christian god chooses not to stop rape, in the worldview of Christians. He doesn't stop rape in my worldview, because he doesn't exist, he's a figment of theist imagination. Thus his failure to act, to protect, and to cure, like any loving parent would, is a problem for Christians to rationalize, and they've become very good at it over the years.

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  5. George, from whence came your belief that rape is wrong? And is it a universal standard?

    Yes, death from cancer is nasty. But the grace of God is sufficent to carry His children through the storms of life.

    Finally, if you expect God to stop all moral evil, how would you expect him to do it? And what do you mean by evil?

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  6. Sorry George. When I say 'rape' is wrong I do it by an appeal to a universal standard for right and wrong. The best you can do is say either:

    1) Rape is
    2) Rape is something I personally dont like.

    You cannot say it's WRONG - that would be a moral judgment and implies a prescriptive proposition. The only things that can be 'true' in your universe of time, space, and matter are descriptive propositions (like (1) and (2)).

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  7. George said:
    ---
    Just because I'm a naturalist, doesn't mean I've surrendered my right to make moral or value judgments.
    ---

    True, but it does mean that you've surrendered the right to "force" your moral and value judgments on anyone else.

    You can make your moral judgements, but why should I care what your opinion is? You have no basis to conclude that your moral judgments extend beyond your own brain. Your moral judgments are just that--your moral judgments.

    Suppose I disagree with them. By what basis can you conclude that your moral judgments are right and mine are wrong? You have no grounds to argue from here.

    If you are going to stipulate that an action is wrong for both me and for you, then you must have some objective standard which transcends both me and you which you can point to. What is that standard?

    If you don't have an actual standard, then your complaint about "evil" is nothing more than my complaint that brocolli tastes bad: mere personal opinion.

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  8. Calvindude,

    I disagree, I like broccoli. And broccoli is good for you. I think we should all like broccoli. Therefore, you are wrong and I'm right. That's how I feel, anyway...

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