Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Religious theodicies

I'm going to comment on Michael Tooley's analysis:

I'll begin by making two preliminary observations:
i) Who should write the entry on the problem of evil? An atheist or a theist? If a theist, would that be a Christian, Jew, Muslim?
Tooley is a prominent atheist. So we know going in what his conclusion will be. In the nature of the case, he will deem all available theodicies to be a failures. At best, then, a Christian would read this entry to find out how an atheist views the problem of evil. That can be a useful exercise. But it will be one-sided. 
ii) For some odd reason, Tooley picks a religious theodicy based on Gen 1-3. Nothing wrong with that except that it's misleading. A religious theodicy or Christian theodicy can operate at a higher level of abstraction than that particular narrative. Take a supralapsarian theodicy:
That operates on more general principles than the specific details of Gen 1-3.  
The four types of theodicies considered so far all appeal to beliefs and evaluative claims that the theodicist thinks should be acceptable, upon careful reflection, to anyone, including those who are not religious. But if one thinks that one’s religious beliefs are ones that it is reasonable to accept, what is wrong with a theodicy that appeals to some of one’s religious beliefs? Of course, if the religious beliefs to which one appeals, taken together, entail the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person, such a theodicy would be question-begging. 
i) We need to distinguish between defensive and offensive apologetics. It's true that a theodicy which appeals to the theological assumptions of the Christian won't be persuasive to an atheist. But what if that's not the aim? What if the aim is to show that the problem of evil is consistent with Christian theology? 
ii) Moreover, every argument takes some things for granted. But it's often possible to provide independent arguments for the theological assumptions feeding into a religious theodicy. 
The religious theodicy in question is as follows. First, human beings, rather than having arisen through a process of natural evolution, were brought into existence by the creator of the universe. He placed the first two human beings in a perfect world, free of suffering and death. Those human beings, however, freely chose to disobey a command of the creator, and the result was the Fall of mankind, which meant not only that the first two humans became subject to suffering and death, but that all of their descendants did so as well. The creator, however, lovingly engaged, several generations later, in a rescue operation, in which he, in the person of his son, became incarnated as a human being, and by undergoing a sacrificial death, made it possible for the creator to forgive every human who accepted this sacrifice, and who would then enjoy eternal beatitude living in the presence of the creator.
i) There are some problems with that summary. It seems to be cast in terms of libertarian freewill, but, of course, predestinarians (e.g. Thomists, Calvinists, Augustinians) can invoke the same narrative.
ii) It isn't necessary that God placed the first two human beings in a "perfect word, free of suffering and death." The frame of reference isn't the world at large, but the garden of Eden in particular. Likewise, the pristine world needn't be free of suffering and death generally, but human suffering and death in particular. 
It is not, of course, a full theodicy, since it does not account for the suffering of non-human animals, at least before the Fall.
That presumes that animal suffering is a problem for Christian theology. But that's not something which an atheist is entitled to take for granted. Minimally, both sides have a burden of proof to discharge. 
So let us focus on it simply as offering an account of God’s justification for allowing human suffering. Thus viewed, how successful is it? To be successful, a theodicy must appeal only to beliefs that it is reasonable to accept.
This goes to the problem of common ground. Is there a set of universally acceptable "reasonable" beliefs? And this isn't just between Christians and atheists. Atheists range along a wide continuum of philosophical beliefs. So is it even meaningful to say that "a theodicy must appeal only to beliefs that it is reasonable to accept" if that's an empty abstraction? Does that standard of comparison even exist? 
Do the beliefs involved in the above story qualify? It would seem not. First of all, among the crucial beliefs is the belief that human beings, rather than coming into being via a natural process of evolution, were specially created. In setting out the story, I have not specified how that was done. Traditionally Christians believed, either that Adam and Eve were created ex nihilo, as the story of creation in Genesis 1 seems to say, or else, as the creation story in Genesis 2 says, that Adam was created out of the dust of the earth, and then Eve was formed, sometime later, out of one of Adam’s ribs.
Again, though, this raises the question of reasonable to whom? Clearly this was reasonable to the narrator and his target audience. This was reasonable to ancient Jews. This was reasonable to Christians throughout church history at least until the advent of Darwinism. So what supplies the frame of reference for what's reasonable? 
There are very good reasons for rejecting both of these accounts, since the evidence that humans are descended from earlier primates is extremely strong indeed. Especially impressive is the evidence provided by DNA studies, described by Daniel J. Fairbanks his book Relics of Eden, and which includes such as things as the evidence that human chromosome number two resulted by fusion from two primate chromosomes, together with facts about (1) transposable elements, including retroelements, (2) pseudogenes, and (3) mitochondrial DNA.
The account is certainly at odds with the theory of human evolution. There are, however, many scientists and mathematicians who consider the theory of evolution to be unreasonable:
In the light of such evidence, it is not surprising that many Christian philosophers have accepted the hypothesis of common descent, and have adopted some form of theistic evolution, in which the creator intervened at some point to transform some earlier primates into members of a new species, Homo sapiens. But while this version of special creation is an improvement, given the very close relations between human and chimpanzee DNA, and the fact that known mechanisms of chromosome rearrangement render the transition from some non-human species to Homo sapiens not at all improbable, the postulation of divine intervention at that particular point does not seem plausible.
I agree with him that theistic evolution is ad hoc. 
It would be a different matter, of course, if humans had immaterial minds, but there is very strong empirical evidence against that view, including such things as the effects of a blow to the head and brain damage of different sorts, the effects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the decline of mental capacities with aging, the relations between the mental development of children and the growth of neural circuitry, the inheritance of personality traits, the different correlations in the case of identical twins versus fraternal twins with regard to such traits as intelligence, the effects of psychotropic drugs, such as Prozac, and so on (Tooley, 2012, 42–4).
Honestly, it's hard to take that seriously. He acts as if dualists aren't used to fielding stock objections. Moreover, he ignores evidence to the contrary. There's the hard problem of consciousness. There's evidence for the ontological independence of the mind (e.g. veridical NDEs, OBEs, apparitions). 
Secondly, the story postulates not just a special creation, but also a special creation in which humans, initially, were not subject to suffering or death. Given, among other things, that that period was a very short one, one cannot offer positive historical evidence again the existence of such a short period that involved only two humans. But the belief is surely a remarkable one that can be viewed as likely only if it is supported by evidence. The evidence that can be offered, however, consists entirely of the creation story in Genesis, so that question is, how reliable is such evidence? To answer that question, one can see what other stories one finds in Genesis. One striking story is that of Noah—who apparently lived around 4500 years ago—according to which there was a worldwide flood that killed all animals on Earth, except for those that were on the ark. But there are excellent reasons for believing that such a story is very unlikely to be true, both in the light of the number of animal species that currently exist, and in the light of the evidence—attempts by authors such as Whitcomb and Morris in their book The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (1966) to argue otherwise notwithstanding—that there has not been any world-wide flood in the past 5000 years.
i) To begin with, The Genesis Flood was published in 1961, not 1966. That hardly represents state-of-the art flood geology. At the very least, Tooley needs to engage more recent proponents, viz. Steve Austin, Kurt Wise, Andrew Snelling, Jonathan Sarfati.   
ii) He ignores exegetical arguments for a local flood, viz. Arthur Custance, Ronald Youngblood, and John Walton. And he ignores scientific models of a local flood, viz. Carol A. Hill ("The Noachian Flood: Universal or Local?").
It's easy for a modern reader to subconsciously project his sense of world geography onto the topographical descriptions in the ancient text. But the original audience didn't operate that frame of reference. There's an illicit substitution at work. 
In addition, those who view Genesis as a source of important truths do so because it is part of the Bible. So one can also ask about the reliability of the Bible when it testifies to remarkable events. In many cases, of course, there is no way of checking whether those remarkable events actually took place, but when there is, one finds that there is good reason to believe that the event in question did not take place. Thus, for example, there is the story of the sun’s standing still for about a day during Joshua’s battle at Jericho, the story of the slaughter of all of the Egyptian first-born children, and the story of the graves being opened and the dead walking around the city at the time of Jesus’s death (Matthew 27: 52–53). One would surely expect non-Biblical records of such events if they had really taken place, but there are none.
i) Whether we should expect extrabiblical records of Joshua's Long Day depends, in part, on how we interpret that event. It was a miracle of sunlight, but it may have been fairly localized. Keep in mind that day and night depend on where you live. Only people living on the part of the globe facing the sun during the hours in question would even be in a position to observe a miracle of sunlight. People facing away from the sun during the hours in question would be oblivious to the miracle of sunlight. 
Keep in mind, too, that many primitive societies are preliterate. What records would they leave? They don't keep records in the first place. And due to the ravages of time, ancient records are typically lost. 
ii) Why would we expect extrabiblical records of the plague of the firstborn? What papyri records of any kind have survived from Pharaonic times? Scripture doesn't identify the Pharaoh of the Oppression. We wouldn't know whose tomb it was even if we discovered it. And many Pharaonic tombs have never been excavated.
And even if they were, the records they contain are propagandistic, extolling the fabled exploits of the late Pharaoh. They would never record a humiliating national defeat. 
iii) Why would we expect extrabiblical records of OT saints raised on Good Friday? Only those who died within living memory would even be recognizable to remaining friends or family. Moreover, the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground in 70 AD. Most records were obliterated in the conflagration. And oral history died with the victims of the massacre. 
Finally, the religious theodicy that we are considering also involves a number of very problematic moral claims. First, we are asked to believe that there is nothing morally problematic about a morally good deity making it the case that if one of the first two humans disobeys some command, all of the many billions of descendants of that human will, as a consequence, be subject to suffering and death to which they would not otherwise be exposed. Secondly, we are also asked to believe that a morally good deity is unable to forgive people their misdeeds unless he becomes incarnate in the form of his son and suffers a sacrificial death. Thirdly, while, according to this story, those who accept the sacrifice made on their behalf have all their tears wiped away and enjoy eternal happiness in the presence of God, those who do not accept the sacrifice fare considerably less well, and suffer eternal torment in hell. So we are being asked to believe that such eternal punishment is not morally problematic.
i) Once more, this goes to the presumption of what's reasonable. Those weren't "very problematic moral claims" to the Bible writers and their audience. So Tooley's objection is ethnocentric. It reflects a very modern, Western, secular perspective. But what makes that the yardstick? 
ii) Christian philosophers and apologists have, of course, defended these claims. It's not as if arguments are lacking. But why is the onus on the Christian? At the very least, a secular critic must shoulder his own burden of proof. 
iii) If secular ethics is unable to justify moral realism, his ethical objections are stillborn.

1 comment:

  1. "There are very good reasons for rejecting both of these accounts, since the evidence that humans are descended from earlier primates is extremely strong indeed. Especially impressive is the evidence provided by DNA studies, described by Daniel J. Fairbanks his book Relics of Eden, and which includes such as things as the evidence that human chromosome number two resulted by fusion from two primate chromosomes"

    Actually, as Casey Luskin has documented:

    "Daniel Fairbanks admits in his ardently-pro-common-descent book Relics of Eden that the alleged fusion point in human chromosome 2 only shows 158 repeats, and only '44 are perfect copies of TTAGGG or CCTAA.' (p. 27) So if two chromosomes were fused 'end-to-end', then a huge amount of alleged telomeric DNA is missing and/or garbled."

    People can read the rest of Luskin's reply if they're interested in more details about the fusion claim.

    "together with facts about (1) transposable elements, including retroelements, (2) pseudogenes, and (3) mitochondrial DNA."

    He'll have to be far more specific with his arguments about each of these. Is he suggesting transposons, pseudogenes, and other shared mutations are strong evidence for (universal) common descent? Is he alluding to Mitochondrial Eve with his point about mDNA? If so, these have each been soundly, validly, and reasonably addressed. At the bare minimum, there's significant enough doubt to question whether any of these constitutes strong evidence for "evolution."