Thursday, March 19, 2009

The cosmic slumlord?

Keith Parsons imagines that this is a good objection to the existence of God:

The chief task facing the proponent of the hypothesis-disconfirming argument from evil is therefore to deduce a class of evils that should not exist if God exists and then to point out clear instances of such evils in the world.[7] The model for an argument of this sort is given in a fable offered by Roland Puccetti:

Suppose we are all tenants in a large apartment building and we meet to discuss common problems. It is clear that the building has many faults. Walls are crumbling, ceilings develop cracks, the heat is sometimes off in winter and on in the summer, the elevators are unreliable, etc. The general feeling is that our landlord, whom none of us has ever seen, is either incompetent or selfishly indifferent to our fate. Some tenants, however, rise to his defence. They say he may have good reason for letting the building go on in this way, though when pressed they can't suggest any which sound convincing to most of us. Now what would we normally do if we saw no prospect of getting a reasonable explanation in the future? Surely we wouldn't just sit back and suspend judgement indefinitely. It is always possible that anyone really had good reasons for what he did, or what he did not do. Ignorance of possible motivation does not prevent us, in human affairs, from making a decision about someone's moral qualities.[8]

The relevance of this fable to the problem of evil is obvious. Indeed, on the face of it, everything Puccetti says about the earthly landlord applies a fortiori to the heavenly one; he seems much more callous than his mundane counterpart. Surely the enormous variety, extent, and magnitude of the evils found in the world place a much greater burden of justification on the theist than the ramshackle condition of an apartment would place on a defender of the landlord.

But there are three or four basic problems with this illustration:

i) If the only evidence we had for the existence of God was this kind of evidence, then we might possibly be justified in concluding that God was a cosmic slumlord.

However, the world we live in isn’t analogous to one huge, sprawling slum. Rather, it’s a world of starling contrasts. A contrast between good and evil, beauty and ugliness.

ii) This illustration also disregards the character of the tenants. Take public housing. Liberals love public housing projects. It’s one of those nice-sounding ideas that liberals find irresistible. Yet public housing traditionally leads to the "ghettofication" of the neighborhood.

You get give people quality housing, only to have the tenants turn the neighborhood into a slum. Public housing is a notorious magnet for violent crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution.

The problem was not with the facility, or the landlord, but the tenants. The original sin took place, not in a slum, but a garden.

iii) A Christian isn’t limited to the argument of silence to deflect the problem of evil. The Bible does supply some raw materials for a positive theodicy.

iv) And, of course, there’s the familiar question of whether an atheist can muster the moral standards necessary to even mount an argument from evil. A number of secular thinkers frankly admit that atheism leaves a moral vacuum.

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