Monday, January 29, 2007

Debating the problem of evil

Over at David Wood's blog, I've been debating the problem of evil in the combox. Here's my side of the exchange:

steve said...
Hi David,

I see you're using the freewill defense. That's a standard theodicy. No surprise there.

As a Calvinist, I'm not a big fan of the FWD.

However, that's beside the point since you're debating Loftus rather than me.

With that in mind, I'd like to make a few points if I might:

1. A cornerstone of Loftus' atheology is his assumption that Christians are, in principle, able to override their (religious) social conditioning.

That's one reason he writes and blogs and debates in favor of atheism.

Although he doesn't think he can dissuade every Christian, he believes it's possible to convince some Christians that Christianity is false.

The question this poses for him is whether it commits him to some version of (libertarian?) freewill.

Are we ever free to override our social conditioning, including our religious conditioning?

If not, then who is his audience? What is he trying to accomplish?

If need be, this could also be expanded to the question of biological or genetic determinism. From his viewpoint, we are strictly biochemical organisms.

So, if you combine physical determinism with social conditioning, it's hard to see where there's room to break our religious programming, for those of us who have been conditioned (on his view) to be Christian.

2. BTW, it's not clear to me whether he's attempting to mount an internal or external argument from evil in his debate with you.

That needs to be clarified, for it affects the burden of proof. If he is covertly operating with an external argument from evil, then the onus is on him to establish some version of secular ethics which will underwrite his paradigm-cases of evil.

3. On a related note, he would also need to establish some version of secular anthropology which makes room for pain and suffering, pace eliminative materialism.

I don't think he has any good answers to these questions, which is why he invariably dodges that challenge.

4. Yet another problem is that, even if he's mounting a consistently internal critique, unless he's a moral realist, who cares where the truth lies?

In other words, it's only (morally) wrong to be (factually) wrong if there's such a thing as right and wrong.

If you deny the distinction between right and wrong, then the distinction between truth and falsehood is trivialized.

For even if I'm mistaken, why should I care unless I'm under some moral obligation to hold true beliefs?

While it's logically possible to be both an ethical antirealist and an alethic realist, ethical antirealism detroys the logical incentive to be a truth-seeker.

9:09 AM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

"Free will does not have to exist for one to be able to come to disagree with opinions they were brought up in. That should be obvious. Only an absurdly naive view of human psychology could claim otherwise."

You seem to be parachuting into this discussion without knowing much about Loftus' position. In his "Outsider Test," which he trots out ad nauseum, Loftus argues that religious beliefs are socially conditioned.

Therefore, the question of whether we are ever free to override our socially-conditioned beliefs (be they religious or irreligious) is directly relevant to his own position.

I'd add that his position on social conditioning logically commits him to cultural relativism, which—in turn—logically commits him to moral relativism. In that event he could never mount an external argument from evil, but, at best, an internal argument from evil.

"A secular ethic is no problem."

Surely you jest. There are many obstacles to secular ethics. Indeed, a number of secular philosophers subscribe to some version of moral relativism as a logical entailment of their secular outlook. For examples of both, see:

"But it isn't necessary to the argument from evil (so I won't go into my own meta-ethical views here). The argument from evil depends on the contradiction between calling a person loving and saying they would not help someone in dire need."

This is a straw man argument. What position are you opposing? Judeo-Christian theism? If so, such a simplistic formulation of the "contradiction" will hardly do. There's more at issue than a loving God and a person in need.

There is also the issue of how a *just* God should treat a *sinner*.

There are times when it would be immoral to help a person in dire need. If Joseph Stalin is in dire need of a heart transplant, and I'm a heart surgeon, should I supply his need? Hardly. He's a mass murderer. The longer his lives, the more innocent victims he murders.

"Please clarify. I'm not sure what you are saying here."

Eliminative materialism relegates pain and suffering to folk psychology. Eliminativism denies such mental states as pain and suffering.

"To be moral, fundamentally, is simply to be concerned for the well-being of others. To love."

That's all assertion and no argument.

"Love needs no external sanction. Divine or otherwise. It is of value in and of itself and, therefore, the basis of morality poses no difficultly for either I, an atheist, nor you, a theist."

That's another assertion absent an argument. You are *reducing* morality to love, and then *stipulating* that love is an intrinsic value.

How does a secular worldview underwrite your value system? How do you avoid the naturalistic fallacy or the is-ought fallacy?

"If you are going to argue that the nontheist has no basis for morality then you cannot, as I do, consider love of intrinsic value---for you it can only draw its worth from an external source. Surely that is not a position you are comfortable taking."

1. To begin with, I don't reduce the sum total of morality to love.

2. An external source can be quite germane to grounding morality. In Christian ethics, God endowed human beings with a certain nature. We are a specific *kind* of creature. Hence, what is licit or illicit conduct is in some measure indexed to our natural constitution. To the way in which we were designed to function.

"So far as I can recall, John never claimed to be an eliminative materialist, nor is that position the only or the the dominant position, among athiests. So why would he need to explain suffering in terms of it?"

If his argument from evil is, in part, an external argument, then he needs to establish that biochemical organisms like men and other animals are capable of pain and suffering. For if they are incapable of suffering, then they are incapable of *gratuitous* suffering—and the argument from evil turns on the alleged existence of gratuitous suffering.

Eliminativism is arguably the most consistent form of naturalized epistemology. A secularist is committed to a program of naturalized epistemology.

Yes, there are well-known critics of eliminativism like Nagel and Searle. And eliminativism is easy to critique on its own grounds.

But it's not so easy to critique of you share the operating assumptions of the eliminative materialist. The Churchlands argue that if you're a committed physicalist, then that, in turn, commits you to eliminative materialism.

Nagel and Searle don't attack it on that basis. They attack it on its own grounds.

But that doesn't relieve the dilemma. The relation between physicalism and eliminativism. They don't explain how physicalism fails to implicate eliminativism.

4:48 PM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

"And I still contend that its quite obvious that, even if free will does not exist, that social conditioning is not necessarily absolute or inescapable. If you think otherwise please present an actual argument or evidence for this claim."

You're missing the point. This isn't *my* argument. This is Loftus' argument. I am merely pointing out a tension between his appeal to social conditioning in the Outsider Test, and his attempt to persuade readers of the moral and intellectual superiority of atheism.

He using social conditioning to discredit Christian faith, but he acts as if the secular humanist is exempt from social conditioning.

"The working out of this conflict in favor of abandoning religious beliefs is just as compatible with determinism as with free will."

Remember that my objections weren't originally directed at your position, whatever that is, but against Loftus' position.

Are you presuming to speak for him, or to speak for yourself?

"ReallY? Like an newborn slowly and agonizingly dying of a congenital defect? What is a just God's response to this newborn 'sinner'."

Once again, what position do you think you're opposing? Christian theology? According to Christian theology, why do some people die in infancy? Due to original sin.

If you don't like that rationale, you can attack it, but you can only do so by shifting from an internal critique, based on the allegation of inner tensions in Christian theology, to an external critique, in which you criticize original sin according to some principle of secular ethics.

"Its my understanding of how the concept of being moral is generally used (as in the Golden Rule)."

You're isolating the Golden Rule from the totality of Biblical ethics. The God of the Bible is the judge of mankind. He's a God who punishes sinners with historical as well as eternal penalties. He is a divine warrior as well as a redeemer.

If you're going to mount an internal critique of Christian theism, then you don't get to be arbitrarily selective and lopsided about the revealed character of God.

Thus far you're attacking a caricature of Christian theism. So your objections miss the target.

"According to you.....not according to any atheist posting in these comments."

The fact that the atheist commenters on this blog haven't throughout through their position is irrelevant to the inner logic of physicalism.

"We've certainly gotten far removed from the problem of evil."

No, eliminative materialism is not far removed from the problem of evil. Nothing could be more salient to the issue at hand.

An atheist can either try to mount an internal argument from evil or else an external argument from evil.

To do the latter, he must, among other things, show that, despite physicalism, biochemical organisms are capable of pain and suffering.

If he can't do that, then he's left with an internal critique.

8:37 PM

steve said...
I'd add that over at my blog, Loftus has commented favorably on Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett. That would point him in the direction of eliminative materialism.

5:37 AM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

“So this is your explanation for a loving God's inaction to aid an infant in terrible pain? The infant is tainted with original sin and that makes inaction A-OK.”

You have a problem keeping track of your own argument. If you are presenting an *internal* critique of Christian theism according to the argument from evil, then you have to define the key terms in light of Christian *theology*.

This really shouldn’t be hard to grasp. What Christian theologians have you read? What Bible commentators have you read?

“Its perfectly subject to both critiques---inconsistent internally and, in terms of an external critique of the values expressed, it leads (as in your excuse for inaction in response to a suffering infant) to blatantly cruel moral principles.”

Internally inconsistent according to what yardstick? According to Biblical descriptions and ascriptions?

In order to substantiate your claim that it’s “blatantly cruel,” you will need to mount several interrelated arguments:

i) You will need to mount a general argument for some version of secular ethics.

ii) You will need to mount a general argument for some version of secular anthropology consistent with the notion of cruelty to biochemical organisms.

iii) You will need to mount a specific argument regarding the cruelty of original sin.

Thus far you are using adjectives to do the work of arguments. Do you have any supporting arguments for your position? Are you capable of making a reasoned case for your belief in the argument from evil? Or will you continually resort to tendentious assertions and question-begging adjectives?

“I, and so far as I can tell, no other atheist posting here, is an eliminative materialist. You can attempt to paint us with that brush all you like but you will only be attacking a strawman if you do.”

The question at issue is not what you *do* believe, but what you *should* believe given your secular precommitments.

If you’re going to shift to an external version of the argument from evil, then you have an intellectual obligation to deal with eliminative materialism since that is a potential secular defeater to your critique.

“I'm not a physicalism (as I said before). And, even if I were, eliminative physicalism is a minority position among atheists.”

i) That’s not a cogent objection.

ii) The leading contemporary critics of Christian theism are card-carrying materialists. And that’s integral to their attack on the faith.

“We all know pain and suffering exists because we've all experienced it. Any claim that they don't is simply too absurd to take seriously.”

I agree with you that eliminative materialism is absurd. But I agree with you on my grounds rather than yours.

While it is, indeed, absurd on its own grounds, it is not absurd in relation to metaphysical naturalism. If it’s absurd, then that represents a reductio ad absurdum of metaphysical naturalism.

“Why is it the theist posters are all attempting to divert the discussion from the problem of evil. It is, after all, the chosen topic of this blog. But every time we begin to discuss it someone want to divert the issue to some supposed problem they see with atheism. You can discuss that if you like, of course, but the evasiveness is telling all the same.”

You seem to lack a certain degree of mental discipline. Try to remember that we are answering you on your own grounds.

Either you are presenting an internal version or an external version of the argument from evil.

If internal, then you need to define the key terms according to Christian theology.

If you claim to be performing an internal critique, but fail to do this, then you are being inconsistent with your own stated agenda.

If external, then you need to do two or more things:

i) Establish a secular version of moral realism;

ii) Establish that biochemical organisms like human beings or higher animals are capable of being wronged and or suffering pain.

And that’s just for starters. Beyond the preliminaries, you would that have to show that:

iii) The evils in question are gratuitous evils.

Thus far you have failed every step of the way by assuming what you need to prove.

If it’s your position that atheism is intellectually superior to Christian theism, then you need to redeem your rationalistic claims with a commensurate level of argumentation.

Are you up to the task you set for yourself? Or is your atheism a blind faith-commitment? Secular fideism.

9:35 AM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

“Anyway, Steve has given his answer to the problem of the infant slowly and agonizingly dying of a congenital defect (since its tainted with original sin, God is, apparently, willing to stand by and watch it suffer). What's your answer? Hopefully you can come up with something less blatantly cruel.”

i) Once again, Ellis is unable to stick to his own point. He was the one who, along with Loftus, and a number of others, chose to frame the argument from evil as an internal critique of Christian theism.

I am simply answering him according to the terms in which he himself chose to cast the issue. When, however, I answer within his chosen framework, I repeatedly encounter this unresponsive response.

So I guess the question we need to ask at this juncture is if Ellis was being sincere or disingenuous in the way he framed the issue?

Does he believe his own argument or not? If he doesn’t believe his own argument, why should anyone else?

By reiterating the charge of “blatant cruelty,” he has apparently reverted to an external version of the argument. If so, then how does he propose justify his external standard or morality?

The argument from evil is a philosophical argument. It will not do level intellectual objections to the Christian faith, only to resort to anti-intellectual question-begging as soon as someone takes you up on your challenge.

By shifting from an internal to an external argument, he is thereby shifting the burden of proof. The onus is back on him to justify his moral discourse. This is not something which is logically entailed by metaphysical naturalism, even if metaphysical naturalism were true. It isn’t even clear that this is at all consistent with metaphysical naturalism. So he needs to come up with an argument for his own position instead of ducking the burden of proof which he himself has implicitly assumed by switching over to an external version of the argument from evil.

ii) You also caricature the opposing position by saying that, on this view, God is willing to “stand by and watch it suffer,” as if God is indifferent to human suffering. Once again, that hardly constitutes an internal critique of Christian theism.

There is, in Scripture, an overarching rationale for the fall (e.g. Rom 11:32; Gal 3:22).

Has Ellis ever read the Bible? What Christian theologians or Bible commentators has he read, if any?

It should be needless to point out that you can’t very well perform an internal critique of Christian theism in ignorance of Christian theology. Why does Ellis find that such a novel or difficult concept to wrap his mind around?

Could I perform an internal critique of naturalistic evolution without bothering to read the standard evolutionary literature?

“It is your position that it is not inconsistent for the entity you call God to be described as loving and benevolent and yet to do nothing for an infant suffering excruciating pain over the course of days or weeks. You claim that this is so because of original sin.”

It is not inconsistent with the character of God in Scripture that babies sometimes suffer or die. Infant mortality was high in Bible times. Bible writers were certainly aware of infant mortality. More so that we are with the benefit of modern medical science.

The question at issue is whether such suffering is ever gratuitous. Is it unjust? Is it pointless? I’d say no on both counts.

“Please present an argument for this position, if you don't mind.”

An argument for what position? The justice of original sin? The purpose of pain and suffering?

One argument I’d direct you to is Alvin Plantinga’s supralapsarian theodicy:

Perhaps the most intriguing argument of the book is made by Alvin Plantinga in ‘Supralapsarianism, or ‘‘ O felix culpa ’’ ’. First Plantinga offers a careful discussion of a traditional position : The value of the Incarnation is so inestimably great that a world in which sin occurs and the need for atonement arises is a very, very good world. He responds to possible questions. Why suffering ? Some is the result of free creatures choosing evil and causing suffering, and some suffering may be instrumentally valuable, perhaps as a means towards improving our character, and especially as a way of our sharing in the redeeming passion of Christ. Why so much sin and suffering ? Plantinga writes, ‘ it seems to me that we have no way at all of estimating how much suffering the best worlds will contain ’. action/cjoGetFulltext?fulltextid=394002

1:31 PM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

“Steve, I think we would all agree that if we were given the ability to make whatever we imagined come true and we saw an infant slowly dying in agony of a congenital defect we would cure it (or for that matter if we simply had a medicine which would cure it we would administer it). We would do so because we love and care for others and wish them well.”

1.Before addressing his question, I’d note for the record that Ellis has been running away from the internal version of the argument at every opportunity. He clearly doesn’t want to defend his version of the argument from evil because he cannot.

Instead, he wants to debate my own position on the problem of evil. I’m okay with that, but it represents a complete abdication of his original position. Even though this was his own argument, he has to abandon it.

2.His example also demonstrates the degree to which the persuasive force of the argument hinges on the apt choice a particular illustration.

For Ellis, it’s self-evident that one should help a child in need. But it only takes a little imagination to see how simplistic that is.

Sure, I’ll help a child if I can because all I see is the child. I don’t see his future career.

But if he’s healed, the child will grow up. Suppose I could see him as an adult.

Suppose I’m a Jewish physician. Suppose the child is little Hitler. Suppose I foresee that this child will be the instrument of the holocaust if I save him.

By saving this one child, countless other innocent children will be burned alive in the ovens of Dachau. By saving this child, I condemn my own children to death and destruction.

Suddenly, the moral clarity of Ellis’ illustration loses its moral clarity. Suddenly our moral intuitions become cloudy and conflicted.

I don’t wish everyone well. I don’t wish Bin Laden well. To wish Bin Laden well is to wish his victims ill.

This is one of the problems with Ellis’ myopic analysis. He never attempts to consider the counterexamples.

“But you feel that, although God also loves and cares for us all and wishes us well, he has some intervening valid reason why he refrains from doing what one would naturally expect a caring person to do in this situation.”

i) Actually, I don’t feel that way. I’m a supralapsarian Calvinist. I don’t believe that God loves everyone equally. I don’t believe that God loves the reprobate in the way he loves the elect.

ii) And this goes to another difficulty with the argument from evil. There is no uniform version which will target every theological tradition. You can’t use the same version on me that you can use on David Wood, or vice version.

Likewise, a libertarian will have a different theodicy than a Calvinist or Thomist.

iii) Ellis also operates with a fundamentally unscriptural assumption. From a Biblical standpoint, the real question is not, “Does God love everyone?” but “Does God love anyone?”

God is just, but we are unjust. Therefore, we would expect a just God to condemn everyone if everyone is sinful.

That’s what a just God is supposed to do. Exact judgment on evildoers.

If you’re going to present an internal critique, that’s the sort of consideration you must take into account. But you have the presumption exactly backwards.

BTW, there is a Scriptural solution to the Scriptural conundrum in the cross.

“I am not going to get into an argument with you concerning who knows more about christian theology. I just want an answer to this very important question: Why does a loving God refrain from coming to the aid of this infant?”

Depends on what you mean. A theodicy offers a general answer to the problem of evil. It doesn’t presume to explain how any particular evil fits into the grand scheme of things. Rather, it explains, at a general level, the ulterior rationale for the existence of evil in the plan and purpose of God.

4:40 PM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

“Interesting response. However, when comforting a friend who has lost a child as an infant I don't recommend explaining to them ‘God had his reasons, perhaps your child would have been a Hitler, or a serial killer’.”

Now you’re posing a different question. And if you really think that’s a valid objection to my position, then it’s an equally valid objection to metaphysical naturalism.

How would Michael Ruse or Richard Dawkins answer your question? Well, if they were brutally frank, the answer would go something like this:

“Remember that for the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria. You child was just a survival machine—a robotic vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. Sure, you may grieve over his premature demise, but keep in mind that ethics is an illusion put into place by our genes to keep us social. Ultimately there is nothing—moral nihilism, if you wish.”

The problem with unbelievers like Ellis is that while they window-shop for atheism, they refuse to pay the high price for the goods they covet. They pretend that they can continue to retain their common sense morality. They don’t face up to how utterly grim their secular outlook really is.

Now, there are candid writers like Quentin Smith and Michael Ruse who do admit the cost of atheism.

You also have morally and intellectually conflicted unbelievers like Dawkins who are very moralistic even though they also champion a ruthlessly reductionistic view of human nature.

“An infant is an evildoer?”

No, but he would grow into an evildoer.

“OK, so far your answer for why God doesn't aid the, oh, I suppose it must be millions of infants over the ages who have died slow agonizing deaths is that they might have grown up to be terrible people like Hitler.”

No, I didn’t offer that as a comprehensive explanation. I’m merely commenting on the limitations of your chosen illustration. What you ignore or overlook by treating these cases in such a discrete, self-contained, compartmentalized fashion.

“Are there any other explanations you consider plausible?”

I’ve given you two other explanations. Original sin is a general explanation, and that, in turn, figures in a supralapsarian theodicy—which I pointed you to.

john w. loftus said...

“If this is God's excuse for not saving the lives of over 40,000 children who die every day of hunger…”

No, that’s not an all-purpose “excuse.” I’m merely answering Ellis on his own level. He gives an example, and I point out the shortsighted quality of his example.

david b. ellis said...

“And, remember as well, that there may well be people who visit this blog who HAVE experienced the loss of a beloved infant child. Such a comment as Steve made can only serve as salt in an already terrible wound.”

i) If that is his chief concern, then I trust that Mr. Ellis will write to Dawkins, Dennett, Michael Ruse, Peter Singer and the Churchlands to stop publishing books and articles in which they purvey such an utterly bleak outlook on human nature and human existence.

After all, we wouldn’t want grieving parents to stumble across such discouraging literature. If they took it to heart, it would leave them inconsolable.

Come to think of it, I trust that Mr. Ellis will lobby for the removal of naturalistic evolution or atheism generally from the public school and college curriculum since it presents such a depressing view of the human condition.

ii) Speaking of which, naturalistic evolution, unlike Christianity, offers no hope beyond the grave. It’s the counsel of despair.

iii) Oh, and why does Ellis think it’s wrong to hurt the feelings of grieving parents? What is his moral justification for that position? I can give a Christian justification. But what does he offer by way of secular warrant for his scruples?

john w. loftus said...

“So understood. But then let's have Steve give us some realistic examples for why 40,000 children die every single day of hunger while Hitler was allowed to live!”

As usual, Loftus is posing questions I’ve often answered on my blog.

“According to Steve these children go to hell.”

i) Really? Can he quote me on that? Where have I ever said that everyone who dies in infancy goes straight to hell?

All I said here is that infants die as a consequence of original sin.

The same holds true for Christians. Christians die. And they die as a result of original sin (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15).

ii) I’d add that while Loftus indulges in his Ingersoll-style of demagoguery, he has yet to make a case for secular ethics.

david b. ellis said...

“It would be equally valid to focus on the suffering of animals.”

i) Why does a naturalist fret over the suffering of animals? Animal suffering is a natural part of the ecosystem. This is not gratuitous evil. It has a natural function in the survival of the fittest.

Here is yet another example of how an unbeliever cannot bring himself to be true to his secular creed. He measures the natural world by some ideal yardstick. His yardstick is not derived from the natural world itself, for he measures the world by his yardstick.

Why does he, as a secularist, act as if things are not the way they are supposed to be? What’s his standard of comparison? Where does it come from? Isn’t the world all there is?

ii) Do animals suffer? The Churchlands regard that sort of claim as a relic of folk psychology.

iii) He should also read Nagel’s classic essay on what it’s like to be a bat. Nagel is another secularist.

11:34 AM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

“Naturalism does not entail moral nihilism. I would ask you to present an argument for that claim but it would take us off topic (yet again) and I prefer not to keep getting sidetracked.”

1.Apparently you think my links are merely cosmetic or decorative. I already gave you what you ask for. If you scoll back up to my very first response to you, I link to a number of secular philosophers who argue for moral relativism. It would expedite the dialogue if you were to acquaint yourself with your own side of the argument.

In my last reply to you I was quoting verbatim from Dawkins and Ruse. For starters, read Ruse’s evolutionary argument for moral nihilism in the above-cited interview.

2.And, once again, you act as if this is a side-issue. To remind you once again of what you shouldn’t need to be reminded of, if the argument from evil amounts to an external argument, then whether an atheist can justify moral absolutes is hardly a side-issue.

Is there some reason you are either unwilling or unable to absorb these basic distinctions, no matter how ever they’re drawn to your attention?

Or are you just being evasive because you are unable to uphold your end of the argument?

“Does that mean its a morally perfect being has no motivation to come to his aid.”

Are you still attempting to deploy an *internal* argument from evil? If so, are you defining “moral perfection” according to Scripture, or your extraneous preconception of moral perfection? If you’re going to present an internal critique, then Christian theology must supply the lexicon.

Thus far you have made no effort to do so. If you don’t take your own argument seriously, why should anyone else?

“If it does, then being morally perfect sounds remarkably like being evil.”

The essence of justice involves a fundamental distinction between guilt and innocence, and the respective response appropriate to each.

If you can’t grasp that distinction, then it’s your position which is indistinguishable from evil.

“I am looking for YOUR position.”

I have stated MY position.

However, the onus hardly lies entirely on me. Each side has its own burden of proof to discharge. I realize that, at this point, you have no recourse but to shift the whole load over to me since you’ve been unable to make good on your original claims.

But I will continue to hold you to the terms in which you chose to frame the argument from evil unless and until you admit that your version of the argument was a failure, and you publicly withdraw that form of the objection. If you think I’m going to let you off the hook, you’re greatly mistaken.

“I do not equate the good with the natural.”

i) That’s an assertion, not an argument. If you think animal suffering is a defeater for Christian theism, then you need to work this up into an actual argument.

ii) And I don’t equate animal suffering with gratuitous suffering since animal suffering serves a natural purpose in the ecological balance. And if it’s purposeful, then—by definition—it isn’t gratuitous.

“I am able to imagine a world where there is no extreme suffering and living beings are able to live richer, more fulfilling lives. This is a state of affairs which would be intrinsically preferable to the world we observe.”

Several problems:

i) Not everything that’s conceivable is possible. You need to present a detailed, working model of your alternative. What are the unspoken or unforeseen trade-offs in your scenario?

ii) You are now appealing to hypotheticals and counterfactuals. What is the ontological status of abstract possibilities in your secular outlook? In what or whom do such possibilities inhere? Does your worldview have the metaphysical machinery to underwrite these modalities?

iii) Why would you, as a secularist, imagine a better world if the actual world is the only world you know? This is not an argument from experience.

iv) How do you get around the naturalistic fallacy and the is-ought problem?

“Are you contending animals cannot suffer?”

i) That’s a red-herring. Suffering, per se, is irrelevant to the argument from evil. The only thing that’s pertinent is the existence (or not) of *gratuitous* evil.

Do you think you can get away with dropping key features of the argument from evil and I won’t notice?

ii) BTW, are you still attempting to deploy the *internal* version of the argument from evil? If so, how is animal suffering incompatible with Christian theology? Does the Bible have a doctrine of animal rights? Did Peter Singer write a book of the Bible?

“I have.”

If you’ve read Nagel’s essay, then how does your ascription of animal suffering avoid the charge of anthropomorphism?

“Rather than namedropping, though, I would be more interested in hearing arguments for your position on the problem of evil.”

That’s a very vague request. And I’ve already spoken to that issue several times now.

eas239 said...

“Steve, just because you don't like the alternative doesn't prove Christianity is right.”

True, but irrelevant to the issue at hand. The argument from evil levels a moralistic objection to the Christian faith. Hence, the question of whether secularism devolves into moral nihilism is quite germane to the debate.

If the alternative is amoral, and if the argument from evil collapses into an external objection, then the argument from evil collapses of its own dead weight.

7:01 AM

steve said...
david b. ellis said...

“I am well aware there are naturalists who believe in moral relativism (as there are also naturalists arguing for practically every possible metaethical position). That no more necessitates that I agree with them than you are required to agree with a christian holding theological opinions contrary to your own.”

i) To begin with, I’m debating positions, not people. The fact that you choose to turn a blind eye to basic problems with metaphysical naturalism makes it easier for you to foster the illusion that you have a strong case against Christian theism—when, in fact, you’ve dealt yourself a losing hand.

I don’t limit myself to your arbitrarily restrictive and intellectually evasive version of metaphysical naturalism as it bears on the argument from evil.

I reserve the right to quote other representatives of atheism who don’t duck the hard questions the way you do.

You are not the only spokesman for the position you represent, and thus far, you are a very selective representative.

ii) The question is not whether Ruse et al. have a different *opinion* on the subject. Rather, the question is what supporting arguments they present for their opinions. Ruse has *argued* for moral nihilism on the basis of naturalistic evolution. So have others whom I cite.

So, yes, you, as a secular humanist or whatever you call yourself, are responsible for defending your version of atheism over against rival versions.

They have made a case for their position. You have offered no counterargument.

And if you are unable or unprepared to shoulder the intellectual responsibilities, that will not hinder me from citing other spokesmen who are either more candid or more thoughtful that you are.

iii) Oh, and incidentally, I spend a lot of time defending my theological position in relation to rival theological traditions.

“The other form of the problem avoids debate on meta-ethics and is for that reason simpler and preferable. That version claims not that God would be evil for his inaction but simply that it is entirely implausible to that a loving person would not act to come to the aid of a suffering infant.”

“Implausible” on what grounds? Internal or external?

“It does not make a moral judgment.”

i) Of course it makes a moral judgment. It makes a moral judgment about what constitutes a “loving” or “caring” person, and it makes another moral judgment about what constitutes an “unloving” or “uncaring” action. You are blind to your own, unconscious assumptions.

So you are knee-deep in moral judgments in order to leverage your version of the argument from evil.

ii) But even though the question of plausibility is irrelevant to the internal argument from evil, let’s say a couple of things about it anyway:

a) As David Wood rightly points out, when you start talking about whether a Christian theodicy is plausible or not, you cannot isolate the question of plausibility from your larger body of beliefs. What is plausible (or not) is plausible in relation, not only to the immediate issue at hand, but to what other evidence you have that bears on the existence of God.

b) Ironically, the argument from evil is only plausible if you believe in God. For if there is no God, there is no evil.

An atheologian must affirm in the premise what he denies in the conclusion. Without the existence of God feeding into the premise to underwrite moral absolutes, the argument from evil is a racecar with square wheels.

iii) Hence, nothing could be more implausible than the argument from evil. Its plausibility derives from our instinctual belief in evil, a belief which secularism falsifies. Put another way, evil falsifies secularism.

“And, therefore, one is not required to endorse a secular system of object moral truths to consider the problem of evil valid. Even the moral relativist and moral nihilist can consistently employ this argument.”

Even if this were true, which, as I just pointed out, it is not, who cares? If there is no right or wrong, then why should your or I care whether or not people are loving or caring?

If there is notright or wrong, then why should you or I care whether Christianity is true or false?

If it’s not morally wrong to be factually wrong, then what difference does it make whether I was right and you were wrong, or vice versa?

If moral antirealism is true, then there’s no duty to be truthful.

Like a lot of unbelievers, you blink in the face of the secular abyss. You refuse to consider the radical consequences of a consistently secular outlook.

“It is you that claims a secularist should consider what is natural some sort of moral standard.”

Since, for a secularist, nature is all there is, the only moral standard could be a naturalistic standard. A standard which in some sense derives from the natural world.

“Since an omnipotent being is able to order the world in ways that do not require animals to suffer it is, in fact, gratuitous.”

Now you’re redefining the terms of the argument from evil. The fact that there might be an alternative state of affairs doesn’t render the actual state of affairs gratuitous as long as the actual state of affairs is purposeful or functional in the sense that everything happens for a reason.

What you are trying to do is shift the debate from gratuitous evil to greater or lesser evils, or greater or lesser goods. Comparative goods and evils. That’s a completely different argument.

“A deity is not limited to a natural order that requires animal suffering. If he is he's a rather pathetically weak god.”

Which is not the issue. The issue is the gratuity (or not) of evil.

You would have to argue (i) that a world without animal suffering is a better world over all than a world with animal suffering, and furthermore, (ii) that God is obligated to choose between the greater of two alternative goods.

That’s a very different argument. And you have yet to offer such an argument. All you do is to verbally hypothesize about a better world without presenting a working model of what such a world would look like through-and-through.

“For omnipotent beings this would be achievable. And they certainly could improve on this world. “

i) When you say that God could improve on this world, is that an internal or external value-judgment?

ii) Christian theology doesn’t maintain that the present state of the world represents the best-case scenario. This is a fallen world. But you have left eschatology out of your evaluation.

iii) You *say* God could improve on it, but you fail to *show* how he could. You are only making verbal noises without *illustrating* your assertions in any detail.

It’s one thing to *talk* about a better world, quite another thing to *lay it out*.

It’s easy to postulate what seem to be discrete, self-contained improvements while freezing everything else in place. Quite another to integrate those hypothetical improvements into a fully-furnished world.

But apparently discrete changes may entail far-ranging adjustments or tradeoffs between one good and another good.

So show us your blueprint for a better world.

“Another effort to send the discussion into abstract metaphysical sidealleys. Sorry, but I'm not going to take the bait.”

i) I appreciate your felt need to argue on the cheap and limit exposure to your vulnerable outpost. But you don’t enjoy that luxury.

The argument from evil involves possible worlds semantics. Could God come up with a better world than the actual world? Is this the kind of world we would expect from him?

By definition, possible worlds involve global, maximal scenarios rather than localized tinkering, as if you can propose airtight changes that have no larger ramifications. But that’s not how possible worlds hang together.

ii) Much as you would rather not expose your soft underbelly to rational prodding, you don’t have the intellectual right to make convenient assumptions that have no place in a secular worldview.

You’re the one who’s floating hypotheticals and counterfactuals. Fine. You have to pay for merchandise on the way out door. No intellectual shoplifting or freeloading allowed.

I realize that, for tactical reasons, you’d like nothing better than to artificially and duplicitously restrict the range of issues by, on the one hand, helping yourself to cost-free assumptions while, on the other hand, debarring your opponent from charging you for the merchandise.

Either you argue from your worldview or mine. If from yours, then you will have to articulate a coherent worldview whenever you make claims that carry a metaphysical surcharge.

Unbelievers get away with a lot by taking many things for granted that are implicitly rescinded by their unbelieving viewpoint.

“Do you think God cares whether animals suffer?”

i) I can’t speak for God since God has never spoken to that issue.

ii) According to Scripture, animal suffering would not be on a par with human suffering. Animals are amoral. They are essentially mortal, disposable creatures.

iii) Ironically, I have a more pragmatic and hardnosed attitude towards the animal kingdom than the average unbeliever, who claims to be a naturalist and card-carrying Darwinian, but entertains a very teary-eyed view of the animal kingdom.

iv) From a Biblical standpoint, there’s a basic difference between Eden and the wilderness. The wilderness isn’t meant to be Edenic. It’s harsh and inhospitable. That’s one reason the expulsion from Eden was punitive.

A wilderness can be cultivated. Wild animals can be tamed. It can be turned into Eden. But that is part of the cultural mandate.

v) I don’t take the argument from animal suffering seriously. It’s an argument that’s appealing to decadent, pampered urbanites who like dogs, cats, and whales better than children.

Ranchers, farmers, and hunters aren’t so sentimental.

“Since I do not think you honestly believe animals are incapable of pain I am not going to waste my time on the above nonsense.”

You think that Thomas Nagel’s tightly-reasoned essay is nonsense?

Notice how frequently Ellis must retreat into anti-intellectual evasions and dismissals to salvage his secular outlook.

“You claimed that original sin is the reason it is not inconsistent with God's caring nature for him to not come to the aid of a suffering infant.”

i) No, I never made that claim. Observe the way in which Ellis builds his own question-begging assumptions into his mischaracterization of my claim.

Let’s step back a few paces and set the record straight. I have never bought into his tendentious talk about God’s “loving” or “caring” nature, because these are cipher terms which he chooses to define without recourse to Scripture or Christian theology.

ii) Incidentally, Ellis happen to believe that Peter Singer is a loving and caring person when he proposes to euthanize infants instead of intervening to save them?

iii) The internal argument from evil purports to generate a logical and theological dilemma for the Christian, thereby forcing the Christian to relinquish at least one of the key premises, and thereby forfeiting Christian theism.

I simply pointed out that, according to Scripture, human beings die as a consequence of original sin, including the death of infants or young children.

So infant morality doesn’t generate a logical or theological dilemma among the set of doctrines comprehending the Christian belief-system.

There is no even prima facie contradiction.

iv) The atheologian generates a false dilemma by presenting a severely stripped down version of the relevant data.

To begin with, there is more to the Christian faith than Christian theism. There is also Christian theology, which is inclusive of, but broader than, Christian theism. There is much more to the theological status of evil than the doctrine of God alone.

v) For purposes of rebutting the internal argument from evil, I don’t even need to demonstrate that original sin or a supralapsarian theodicy is *true*, but only that the problem of evil is *consistent* with Christian theology.

1:10 PM

steve said...
David B. Ellis said...

"If you wish to actually present your argument as to how original sin explains a loving Gods inaction in regard to the suffering of infants I'll be glad to respond to that though. So far you have consistently ducked that question."

You seem to be constitutionally unable to get inside a position you disagree with to attack it on its own grounds. Yet that is the essence of an internal critique.

As I said at the very outset of this thread, the question at issue is not how a *loving* God deals with people qua people, but how a *just* God deals with fallen creatures.

You invariably strip away the theological presuppositions which condition a Christian answer to the problem of evil.

Your mental block prevents you from ever mounting an internal argument from evil.


  1. For Mr. Ellis:

    Mr. Ellis, you are attempting an INTERNAL critique. That means you need to show that the problem of evil is a problem using the premises and definitions from Christian theology.

    For example:

    If God is omnibenevolent, and/or babies are "innocent" then it is wrong at worst or inconsistent at best for God not to keep them from death. The first to premises must be true according to Christian theology, since these are dogmatic, not predogmatic conclusions.

    That's very simplistic, but it's meant to be a simple example since you can't seem to grasp your duty the way you framed the issue.

    The first premise, "God is omnibenevolent" might work against a generic Arminian theodicy. But Calvinist theodicy denies this outright through many caveats. God is "omnibenevolent" according to the standard Reformed tradition, only insofar as He draws near to the world and holds off judgment for the sake of the elect ().

    Babies might be innocent to a functional Pelagian or for Christians denying original sin. But most Arminians have a hard time with the imputation of Adam's guilt and less of a hard time with original corruption. That's an inconsistency in their theology, but not in ours.

    So, at best you might score some points against Arminianism and the others positing libertarian action theory and particular a priori ideas about God's justice and mercy, but none vs. Calvinism.

    You need to take Christian theology into account and say, "Given these premises from Christian theology - which I would add you render in an accurate manner-, then..."

    Is that clear? Otherwise, when you get upset at the idea of original sin or the death of infants, you're mounting an EXTERNAL critique of Christian theism, which cuts against the grounds you stated for your critique.

  2. Try to internally critique this theodicy: There is a creator God named Bruce. He is only as good as the average human being, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Sometimes he'll give you the shirt off his back, and other times he'll torture you. You never know what he'll do, since he acts just like human beings. But he claims that whatever he does is good, by definition, since he is the standard for goodness. He tells us to do one thing, but secretly makes us do something else. He blames us for our actions and desires when we could not do otherwise or desire anything different. He creates people with the intention to torture them for all eternity, while he creates others with the intention to bless them with joy unspeakable for all eternity. But everything he does is good by definition, since he's God.

    Now, granted I didn't spell out all of the details of this theodicy, but I mean it to be just like Calvinism. How would you offer an internal critique of it? Surely you don't believe in Bruce, do you?

    Now, the reason why people believe in Bruce is because of some ancient writings by superstitious people in the heartland of China during the 1st century A.D.

    In the first place, your critique of this theodicy would be just like mine, and yet those who believe would claim you never offered an internal critique because you never took all of the elements of what they believed into account.

    In the second place, you would claim that they should choose whether to believe these ancient writings or whether to deny the purported goodness of their God. Let's see, ancient writings, or the goodness of such a Deity? Choices, choices, choices.

  3. John W. Loftus said...

    "Try to internally critique this theodicy: There is a creator God named Bruce. He is only as good as the average human being, sometimes good and sometimes bad..."

    No one ever said that an atheologian is limited to an internal critique. In principle, he is free to present an external critique.

    The argument from evil can either take an internal or external form.

    But if the atheologian announces that he is going to deploy the internal argument from evil, then we hold him to his stated aims. Did he hit the target which he himself was aiming at?

    If Loftus thinks that Christian theology, or some particular version thereof, is insusceptible to internal critique, then he can try to mount an external critique.

    The reason that Loftus doesn't exercise that option is that, by his denial of intrinsic good and evil, he has cut himself off from that recourse.

    His atheism doesn't have the moral resources to attack the Christian faith.

  4. The only external critique I can offer of your theodicy is an examination of the basis of your theodicy. You claim it's to be found in the Bible. Arminian scholars can argue with you for me and I defer to them. Why should I bother, when they already do so?

    What I can do is to offer a critique of your control beliefs about the nature of history, science, religious diversity, and the credibility of miracles. I have a limited expertise, and it's not in Biblical studies.

    So let's deal with our respective control beliefs, okay? I've spelled out mine here. Care to engage me in a discussion of any or them or all of them? Do you want to spell out the epistemological reasons why you have adopted yours so I can engage in them? If so, we're speaking about the same thing (for once).

  5. Loftus asks:
    Try to internally critique this theodicy

    This is actually really simple:

    1) Bruce is "sometimes good and sometimes bad."

    2) "But everything [Bruce] does is good by definition, since he's God"

    3) 2 contradicts 1.

    That wasn't difficult at all, John. Notice, I did not add any external argument at all; I simply quoted two "facts" required by your "theodicy."

    Of course, you are flat wrong when you say: "Now, granted I didn't spell out all of the details of this theodicy, but I mean it to be just like Calvinism." Calvinism doesn't hold to your first premise.

    "That's why I say hey man, nice shot."

  6. calvindude, you just offered the same argument I do against Calvinism, because this describes your God. I said I was describing Calvinism, and I believe you just critiqued your faith. Read it again. By definiton Bruce always does what is good.

    I won't bother with your response.

  7. Loftus,

    YOU read it again, Lofty. Your first premise in your "theodicy" is rejected by Calvinism. As such, your entire "theodicy" is NOT analogous to Calvinism.

    I stayed strictly internal with your "theodicy."

    Your problem is that you're so used to asserting your own definition of Good and Evil (ie: an external belief) into the argument you can no longer differentiate between what is internal and what is external.

    Calvinism rejects your first premise. To give you a counter-theodicy to your proposed one, the Calvinist would say:

    1) God always does good.

    2) God is the definition of Good.

    There is no contradiction between 1 & 2--in fact, they convey the same concept. But this is not the premise that your argument had.

    I engaged with you on an internal level. You need to learn to do the same.