Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why won't God amputate heels?

My post on amputees provoked a number of predictably uncomprehending objections from village atheists:

Before commenting on the specifics, let’s back up a bit.

The presupposition of the amputee argument is that God doesn’t heal amputees because:

i) Unlike other reported miracles, you can’t fake limb regeneration

ii) Ergo, there is no miracle-working God

However, this intersects with the argument from evil. If God has a morally sufficient reason not to heal amputees, then you can’t validly infer God’s nonexistence from amputees whose prayers go unanswered.

And the assumption that typically underlies the argument from evil is that we can imagine better possible worlds than this world. God is culpable for failing to create a better world, since that option was available to him.

And this, in turn, is related to the notion of a best possible world. However, I think that’s simplistic.

Now there may be philosophical versions of the argument from evil that don’t require this assumption, but I’m discussing the popular argument from evil. In the popular version, an atheist studies the actual world and imagines all the improvements he could make if he were God. Surely an omniscient, omnipotent God could do a better job than this?

But is that really so obvious? Take those eugenic scenarios about a utopian future where everyone is handsome, healthy, wealthy, and young. Like teen dramas where everyone has perfect teeth. Every student drives a Porsche. Every girl is busty and every boy has six-pack abs. A world designed by a cosmetic surgeon.

In some respects that’s a better world than a world in which many people are homely, sickly, poor, and elderly. But is the utopian vision truly ideal?

A world in which everyone is handsome, healthy, wealthy, and young is a world deficient in character-building virtues. No one has to share. No one has to sacrifice. A Nietzschean world that’s intolerant of the weak. Disdainful of losers. A world of full of fair-weather friends.

If you fall behind, you will be left behind. No one will go back for you. Buff bodies and hollow souls.

I’m not presenting that as a stand-alone theodicy. I’m just questioning the glib assumption that underlies the popular argument from evil.

IOIOOIIOIO 13 points 17 hours ago

So. Why doesn't god cause all the criminals (or future criminals, or future parents or grandparents of criminals) to have their limbs amputated?

Because that eliminates some goods in the process of eliminating some evils. So the question is whether that’s better overall.

missssghost 32 points 20 hours ago

God won't heal amputees because he doesn't want them to have children (?) in the off chance their children will be criminals?

i) Which fails to distinguish between some, none, and all.

ii) I didn’t propose this as the only possible reason that God doesn’t heal all amputees. But that’s one possible consideration.

iii) God doesn’t do things or refrain from doing things on the “off-chance” that something bad will happen. God is omniscient. God knows who will do what under any given circumstances. (Indeed, God predestines the outcome.)

EarBucket 8 points 13 hours ago

I'm trying to imagine Jesus refusing to heal people because their hypothetical future children might turn out to be criminals.

i) As a matter of fact, Jesus refuses to heal most people.

ii) Jesus knows the consequences of healing or not healing someone. It isn’t guesswork.

iii) If healing one person harms another person, why wouldn’t Jesus take that into account?

iv) Once again, I’m not suggesting this is the only reason God declines to heal everyone. But if your going to deny God’s existence because he doesn’t heal every amputee, then you do have to consider the hypothetical consequences of healing every amputee.

The popular argument from evil also turns on the hypothetical assumptions about a possible world where God heals amputees. So hypotheticals cut both ways.

bloody_hell 18 points 20 hours ago

This is the logic that this post boils down to. God doesn't heal amputees because it would create a butterfly effect that just might cause negative consequences down the line. In effect, it's an argument against any kind of medical intervention to save lives.

i) This is the third atheist to make the same mistake. They don’t even grasp the position they presume to attack.

In classical Christian theism, God enjoys both foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. Therefore, it’s not a case of divine action or inaction based on something that “just might” cause a negative effect down the line.

God knows the consequences of divine action as well as the consequences of divine inaction in every situation. (Indeed, God is the source of these possibilities. What’s more, we’re dealing with hypothetical decrees.)

ii) Likewise, it’s not an argument against “any kind of medical intervention to save lives.” To begin with, physicians, unlike God, don’t know the long-range effects of medical intervention in any given case.

iii) Moreover, the law of unintended consequences doesn’t mean unintended consequences are invariably bad. Unintended consequences could be good, bad, or both.

iv) The commenter is also missing the point. This is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not as if medical intervention has uniformly deleterious consequences while medical nonintervention has uniformly beneficial consequences–or vice versa. 

Rather, we’re dealing with alternate combinations of beneficial and deleterious consequences. Given our shortsighted perspective, we can’t say which combination is better overall or worse overall.

This isn’t a terribly complicated argument.

False. The world is getting better, steadily, despite what anyone might think. On the whole, murder, violence, rape, sickness, war, poverty, domestic violence, suffering and any other negative you can reasonably assert, is decreasing. Significantly.

i) Pinker’s historical analysis is dubious:

ii) To know that this isn’t the best world God could make requires exhaustive hindsight and foresight to compare one possible world with another (or other) possible worlds(s).

iii) Finally, his objection misses the point. Positive consequences can also have negative consequences, and vice versa.

Take murder. That generally has immediate negative consequences (to the murder victim and his friends or family). But it can also have positive consequences down the line. Suppose the would-be murder victim survived to father a son who kills a pedestrian in a DUI incident. Which outcome is ‘better”? Better for whom? Better for the would-be murder victim but worse for the would-be vehicular manslaughter victim.

Likewise, if a drug lord is murdered by a rival drug lord, is that good or bad? 

hsmith711 12 points 17 hours ago

If 51%+ of humans will commit violent crime in their lifetime, it would make sense.
Unfortunately, it is probably more like 1%... so this is pretty stupid.

i) 1% can do disproportionate harm.

ii) This objection also disregards the cumulative effect.

Analbox 2 points 11 hours ago

I think the subtext is that cancer exists to kill evil people who will probably do evil things.

No, that’s not the subtext. Try again.

ghostfox1_gfaqs 6 points 16 hours ago

Given the odds a few amputees would make kids that would cure cancer, etc, it falls apart really quickly.

i) Given that amputees are a tiny fraction of the population, the odds of that happening are pretty remote.

ii) In any event, this is the fourth atheist to make the same mistake. God doesn’t have to play the odds.

We need to distinguish between our viewpoint and God’s viewpoint. When an atheist denies the existence of God because amputees aren’t healed, that commits him to probabilistic questions regarding the beneficial and/or deleterious consequences of God healing amputees. In assessing the argument from evil, the odds are relevant.

But from God’s perspective (prescinding open theism), it’s not a matter of calculating the odds.

iii) In addition, it’s inevitable that some deleterious consequences would result from healing every amputee.

MarlovianDiscosophia 9 points 20 hours ago

The moral of the story? Never reproduce.

Another brain donor. Why can atheists only keep one idea in their head at a time?

The moral of the story is not “never reproduce.” The moral of the story is that having kids has differential effects. Therefore, you can’t say one outcome is uniformly better than another.

tnova 5 points 9 hours ago

He misses the point of the question, which is really "Why do miracles only happen in cases where a natural explanation is possible or likely?"

That begs the question, as well as disregarding the counterevidence. Notice how the commenter blows right past my reference to Keener’s two-volume monograph.

conrad_w 10 points 20 hours ago

hmmm its all about balance is it? Healing all amputees would enable some to commit crimes so better to leave them limbless? I can't think of anything more obnoxious.

i) How is that obnoxious? If I knew that by helping one person I was harming another, why shouldn’t that factor into my decision to render assistance–or not? Some consequences are more consequential than others.

Apart from the unfalsifiability of that claim…

To say that God could make a better world than this one is equally unfalsifiable claim. I’m simply meeting the atheist on his own ground.

…it implies that on the whole having limbs leads to more sin than good. Would we be better off amputating all our limbs? Or is the amount of limblessness in the world perfectly titred to give the best sin to good ratio? In that case, why both healing them - God has condemned them for their future iniquities.

That’s simplistic. A world where everyone is an amputee is a world where the human race will rapidly go extinct. Under that scenario, all the consequences line up in one direction. That's hardly equivalent to what I'm discussing. 

I once asked a doctor what he would do if a murderer came to him for treatment. He said he would treat them as any other patient. This is the right attitude: Treatment should be based on need not desert. Even if it were true that the amputees are comprise the worse of humanity, we should do everything we can to help them and damn the consequences.

Really? If Stalin had a cerebral aneurism which the neurosurgeon could fix, knowing that by extending his life, Stalin would murder 20 million people, the neurosurgeon should damn the consequences and operate?

Nice to see the moral clarity of atheism on public display.

torrent5/22/2012 9:01 PM

Think what the world would be like if we applied that mentality to all medicine.

He has problems following the argument. The argument wasn't that a world without cancer is worse than a world with cancer. Rather, the argument was that each scenario has its share of tradeoffs. Therefore, you can't say that one scenario is uniformly better (or worse) than another. That distinction shouldn't be hard to grasp.

Do you personally know every Muslim?

Must insurance companies personally know every teenager to know that teenagers in general have a higher incidence of traffic accidents than thirty-somethings? Must insurance companies personally know every past and future decedent to produce actuarial charts?

Assessing frequency doesn't require omniscience–just a representative sample group.

It's a fact that suicide-bombers, honor-killings, and female genital mutilation predominate among Muslims. Since a percentage of Muslims engage in these activities, if you have more Muslims, that will raise the number of incidents.

AmoDman 0 points 1 day ago

That blog post seems to be presuming a lot of understanding about divine mystery...

The argument from evil presumes a lot of understanding about divine mystery.

Thehuntmaster89 2 points 4 hours ago

Remember when hitler killed all those people because he thought that, given time, they would ruin his country through corruption and deceit
sound familiar? This kind of stuff is genuinely disturbing and not the belief of any sane individual that's for damn sure.

I don’t know if this comment is directed at my post or another commenter. In any event, it’s an argument from analogy minus the supporting argument.


  1. I, for one, will sleep much more soundly knowing that the Vanguards of Reason are dutifully extinguishing the fires of xian superstition, amirite? After all that work ridding the world of the invisible sky wizard, it must be time to light up a bong and play Xbox!

  2. You write the best post titles.

    1. Long after the content is forgotten, my titles will be remembered!

    2. A dubious distinction, Steve. This as yet unamputated heel has a problem with your formulation here:

      Your God is indistinguishable from chance. Your claimed fact that whatever ends up as being the "ultimate good" for God is impenetrable to mortals makes any balance of what we mortals perceive as good and evil moot means, for you, by definition, that anything goes, because it's God's will. This is simply a definition of terms that results in "heads I win, tails you lose". Not compelling to the reality-informed, Steve.


    3. zilch said:

      "Your God is indistinguishable from chance."

      At the risk of stating the obvious, the atheist's argument ("why won't God heal amputees?") assumes for the sake of argument that the God of the Bible exists. It's an attempted internal argument against Christianity. For context see Steve's previous post as well as the original post where Dr. Chris Hill threw down the gauntlet when he gave a link to the argument.

      "Your claimed fact that whatever ends up as being the 'ultimate good' for God is impenetrable to mortals"

      I don't this is a fair inference from Steve's post. Let alone something Steve explicitly "claimed."

      Also, I think "impenetrable" might be too strong. God does graciously share to a degree his plans with his people in the Bible. Plans which include "the ultimate good for God."

      But even if what you say were true, how does it even touch on Steve's point in this post? Why should God share his ultimate designs with us?

      "makes any balance of what we mortals perceive as good and evil moot means, for you, by definition, that anything goes, because it's God's will."

      Just because I might not know the ultimate reason(s) why the Mexican drug lord El Loco murdered this or that individual doesn't therefore mean my perception of murder is "moot" or that "anything goes" now.

      What's disconcerting is you act as if it's justifiable to refuse to do what's right if we don't know God's ultimate reasons. You act as if it's justifiable to refuse to save a drowning child unless God explains in detail his ultimate reasons for saving the child, for instance.

      By the way, you need to make a distinction between those who are part of God's people and those who are outside. God could very well share with insiders what he wouldn't share with outsiders.

      "Not compelling to the reality-informed, Steve."

      What you've said isn't compelling to the rationally-informed.

    4. Okay, rocking. You are not aware of how your worldview informs your perceptions. Good be with you.

      cheers from sunny vienna, zilch

    5. zilch said:

      "Okay, rocking. You are not aware of how your worldview informs your perceptions."

      What I'm not aware of is how you drew that conclusion from what I said above. But I guess it's no surprise considering how you drew your previous conclusions.

      "Good be with you."

      Of course, given your worldview, there's no objective goodness. But we've covered this ground many times already. Ho hum.

    6. zilch

      “Your claimed fact that whatever ends up as being the ‘ultimate good’ for God is impenetrable to mortals…”

      That wasn’t my claim. Try again.

      “…makes any balance of what we mortals perceive as good and evil moot…” means.”

      In the nature of the case, perceiving the balance between good and evil requires very long-range vision. It also requires detailed knowledge of the road not taken.

      “…means, for you, by definition, that anything goes, because it's God's will.”

      Demonstrate by logical inference how that follows from my argument.

      “This is simply a definition of terms that results in ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. Not compelling to the reality-informed, Steve.”

      There’s nothing uniquely Christian about my argument. As I noted at the outset, this is a well-worn theme in time-travel scenarios. Are you saying science fiction writers who explore this theme are crypto-Christians?

    7. rocking- of course, given your worldview, there's no reason to drink H20 rather than H2SO4. Ho hum.

      steve- if God's ultimate good is penetrable to mortals, perhaps you could explain, say, how the Holocaust was, on the balance, good- or point me to some mortal who can explain this, if you can't. Having "very long range vision" is tantamount to saying "everything is for the best in this best of worlds": it's content-free. Your position boils down to "there is no evil, ultimately". Mine does too, but for different reasons: you claim that pain and suffering is necessary, I claim it is simply a fact of life to be avoided if possible, for myself and others.

    8. zilch5/25/2012 6:44 AM

      "steve- if God's ultimate good is penetrable to mortals, perhaps you could explain, say, how the Holocaust was, on the balance, good- or point me to some mortal who can explain this, if you can't."

      i) You fail to distinguish between a theodicy, which supplies a general explanation for evil, and a specific explanation for any particular evil. Those are separate questions.

      ii) Apropos (i), God can reveal a general explanation for evil.

      iii) Over and above revelation, the "ultimate good" becomes more apparent as the present recedes further into the past. The ultimate good becomes more apparent, in retrospect, as we see all the consequences unfold. Insight through hindsight. But it's only at the end of the church age that we will see the emerging pattern in toto.

      "Having 'very long range vision' is tantamount to saying 'everything is for the best in this best of worlds': it's content-free."

      i) I explicitly argued against the possibility of a best world.

      ii) You fail to grasp the fact that when an atheist contends that this is not the best possible world, given the alleged existence of gratuitous evil, he himself is assuming a burden of proof. He's comparing the actual world to possible worlds. And it requires long-range vision even to judge the overall good in the actual world–much less comparing it to other possible worlds. For you must judge the present in relation to the future, in a part/whole, means/ends relationship.

      "Your position boils down to 'there is no evil, ultimately."

      That's simplistic and equivocal. Evil can be evil in itself even if evil facilitates good over the long haul.

    9. zilch said:

      "rocking- of course, given your worldview, there's no reason to drink H20 rather than H2SO4. Ho hum."

      I was talking about the foundation for objective morality. What does this have to do with what I was talking about?

      Besides, drinking H2SO4 doesn't necessarily have anything to do with morality. It's possible for someone to drink H2SO4 simply because they're stupid. As the little ditty goes: "Johnny was a chemist, but Johnny is no more. What Johnny thought was H2O was H2SO4."

  3. Mr. Hays, would you recommend me any essay that unfolds this statement: "In classical Christian theism, God enjoys both foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. Therefore, it’s not a case of divine action or inaction based on something that “just might” cause a negative effect down the line"?

    I just can't grasp the last sentence.

    1. In classical Christian theism, there's no uncertainty in God's knowledge of what will happen or what would happen.

  4. rocking- you said: I was talking about the foundation for objective morality. What does this have to do with what I was talking about?

    You objected to my wishing you well (by saying "good be with you") by pointing out that atheists have "no objective goodness". I was simply giving an example of how, even lacking "objective" standards of goodness, it's possible to make useful decisions about goodness- for instance, the relative goodness of drinking water and sulphuric acid. No "objectivity" or "foundation" necessary for goodness, or morals, to work.

    steve- I still don't see how this God of yours affects the world in any way, say in the present example of healing amputees, that is indistinguishable from no God existing.