Some Preliminary Notes on the Problem of Evil

I am putting together a large post on the problem of evil, where I intend to clearly and fully lay out my reasons for thinking that it is unsound. Before that, I want to outline some of the important ideas I will be drawing on. Since the main post is probably going to take a while.

I intend to put forward a positive skeptical theism, rather than a negative skeptical theism. Maybe a higher burden for me, but it is also compatible with some what I am thinking of as second order theodicies: reasons why God might want us to be skeptical theists.

Consider this principle: “An observation E is evidence of hypothesis H over the negation of H if H predicts E at a higher probability than the negation of H predicts E”

This is a straightforwardly Bayesian definition of evidence, but under this definition, it seems like the problem of evil fails. Since clearly, Christianity predicts the existence of horrors at some high probability, the existence of horrors can’t be evidence against Christianity.

The atheist here has a way to continue: Christianity doesn’t predict horrors a priori from some core principle, but instead slaps that prediction on to the world view in an ad hoc manner so that it won’t be defeated by evidence. Just like adding epicycles to geocentrism. Add enough epicycles and you can overcome and contrary evidence.

When it comes to predicting horrors a priori, I think we need to flesh that out more: neither you nor I can be said to really be making predictions here a priori at all. Both of us are embedded in long intellectual traditions which have evolved and developed in many ways because of the horrors that exist. Job might be the earliest Christian writing that exists, and you’re not willing to call it a priori. Maybe we treat this similarly to scientific advancement. I have an older theory which you claim has some ad hoc modifications to make my predictions true, while you have a newer theory which has no ad hoc modifications. I claim I have no ad hoc modifications, and that these predictions are really motivated by the belief. What we need to work out is whether my “ad hoc modifications” are epicycles or if they’re dark matter. I think that this doesn’t come down to “a priori” because that’s a mythical place neither of us can get to. I think it comes down to whether Christianity’s prediction of horrors (which you’ll definitely find in the scriptures) is consistent with the Christian worldview, or whether it’s an inconsistent or unmotivated concession to reality, to avoid rejecting Christianity entirely. And I think it’s easy enough to argue for that consistency.

Even if we take a very minimal Christianity to be the central motivating principle for our predictions, we have the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of all Christian theology. And the Gospel is that Christ came into a dark and evil world and rescued helpless, unworthy, and wretched sinners. So right there we have a motivated prediction of the existence of evil. We even possibly have a prediction for the greatest evil, the crucifixion of Christ. And not only the crucifixion, but the evil it takes to make the world dark enough, so that Christ is more glorious in incarnating. And the evil it takes to demonstrate us to be unworthy, or to make us unworthy. If we’ve predicted great evil, have we also predicted horrors? I think so. The only way we don’t predict horrors is if we also predict that we will have access to all of God’s reasons for each individual evil. But how would we have that access? Either God grants it to us via revelation, or we are able to plainly see it. But why should we expect either of those, given our wretched state and the transcendence of God? It’s very plausible that I can’t understand what an individual horror is doing any more than my cats can understand why I abandon them for hours every day. And it’s also plausible that God deliberately keeps such things hidden from us to remind us of our lowly state compared to Him, and to help build in us such qualities as trust and compassion. I don’t think it’s possible to truly develop compassion without being subjected to mysterious suffering, and I don’t think there’s any real trust if I always know precisely what God is doing.

If my wife says “trust me”, and I tell her “of course I trust you, I’ve got a hidden camera and microphone on your handbag”, maybe I don’t actually trust her. But if God wants us to trust Him (which He does under Christianity), then there must be some times of darkness where we cannot see what God is doing.

And there is one final strong argument here: some of the people who have experienced the worst horrors have remained theists, and indeed Christians, and have often said afterwards that they can see now what God was doing in them through the suffering and evil. The kinds of evil and suffering that they have experienced are not vastly qualitatively different to the kinds of evil you’re calling horrors and using to motivate your argument. But the people experiencing that evil are in a better place than you are to talk about whether it’s unjustified, and many of them say that it’s justified. Plausibly then, all such evil is justified. Does this argument work in reverse? Are those who don’t say it’s justified a problem for me? I don’t think so, I don’t think the observation is symmetrical. I think “I do see reasons, therefore reasons exist” is a lot stronger than “I don’t see reasons, therefore they don’t exist”. Seeing reasons is a very good reason for thinking that there are reasons, just like me seeing a chess tactic is a pretty good reason for thinking it exists: I’m wrong sometimes, but rarely. But when I don’t see a tactic, that is not a good reason to think that there is no tactic: I often miss tactics, much more often than I incorrectly see tactics. And I think also that the “I see reasons” often comes late in life, after a lot of reflection, and that puts it in a better epistemic position than “I do not see reasons”, which is often immediate and often supplanted by seeing reasons decades later. So by the fact that for any class of evil, some thoughtful, reflective people who have experienced that evil will eventually see reasons for it, I think we can plausibly say that there possibly exist reasons for any evil in that class. This undermines the atheist’s judgement that there are no reasons for some particular horror.

Calvinism, Hiddenness, and Skeptical Theism

When it comes to arguments against God, the two big ones are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. I think that Reformed thinking holds important solutions to these problems for the theist.

Divine Hiddenness

The argument from hiddenness, famously defended by John Schellenberg, goes something like this:

  1. If God exists, God would have good reasons to desire a close, intimate, and open relationship with each person (content of Christian theology of God and love)
  2. If God wanted such a relationship, He would have one (content of Christian theology on omnipotence)
  3. God does not have such a relationship
  4. God does not exist

The argument seems valid, so we must attack some premises. 3 is pretty sturdy, few people would argue that everyone has that kind of relationship with God. 2 might be questionable on grounds of libertarian free will, though even if such libertarian free will existed I think those objections would ultimately fail. So we have to attack 1.

And clearly, the Calvinist would reject 1. Calvinism is an (at least) plausible take on theism under which God doesn’t desire such a relationship with all people in that way. While God with His moral will desires such a relationship, with His sovereign will He elects some for such a relationship and ordains that others will not obtain such a relationship.

While this may just seem like a “Nah!” to premise 1, the Calvinist has strong reasons for thinking that this is the case. These are grounded in exegesis of various passages of scripture, which we won’t really go into here, but suffice it to say that the Calvinists think that they have very good reasons to endorse a theology which entails that 1 is false.

Apart from any exegesis of important passages like Romans 9 and John 6 and Ephesians 1 and 2, we can give a priori theological reasons that make this view at least plausible. Monergism itself is quite plausible, because if God is primarily interested in glorifying Himself (again, a priori plausible, as the most valuable being it is right for Him to display His value), then God will make Himself the primary mover. If God is interested in redeeming a people, it seems to better display His unconditional love by redeeming people who had nothing good in them wholly by Himself, rather than redeeming only those who had enough innate goodness to choose Him in the first place. And if monergism is true, then God has three options:

  1. Save everyone
  2. Save no-one
  3. Save some people

God clearly won’t choose 2, as then God does not get to demonstrate His unconditional love. And God has good reasons to not choose 1, because then God does not get to demonstrate His perfect justice. But it seems like the world is better if it is a world in which God fully displays a wide range of His attributes. So plausibly, God chooses 3. And if God chooses 3, then there are some people who are not saved.

So the Calvinist can comfortably reject 1, and the problem of divine hiddenness fails against the Calvinist.

The Problem of Evil

The other big boy when it comes to these arguments is the problem of evil. Specifically in question here is an evidential problem of evil, which goes something like this:

  1. If God existed, there would not be unjustified evil in the world
  2. There is unjustified evil in the world
  3. God does not exist

The response I want to use here is the skeptical theist response. That is: the atheist has no reason to think that there are unjustified evils, because we have no way of telling which evils are justified or not. Indeed, we have good reasons to think that we wouldn’t be able to see these reasons that God has for allowing evil.

One way that the atheist responds to this is to argue that God, if He existed, would not keep such reasons hidden from us. And the main reason that it seems that God would not keep them hidden from us is that many people seem to lose their faith over God’s lack of transparency here. There are, as the atheist says, many people who have become atheists because they have seen evils for which they can’t see any reasons God might have for allowing that evil. And so in order to preserve the faith of these people, God ought not ordain the existence of evil without also making the reasons for that evil transparent.

The Calvinist can also respond here: God will preserve those who He has elected, and will cause their faith to not fail because He is the ultimate source of their faith anyway. And indeed, anyone who falls away was never truly one of the elect. So in this case, it doesn’t seem like God has this motivation for making His reason transparent.

In the end, I think both of these arguments fail, and I think the Reformed theologian is in a stronger position to respond to each of them than other schools of thought. Turns out that if we emphasize God’s sovereignty and God’s holiness, arguments that rely on premises like “God would do X” are not all that troubling.

Charles Taylor on the Nature of Modern Atheism

…the prospect that religion might disappear under the forces of scientific refutation is abandoned, but the prediction that in humanity’s search for meaning in the future, religious answers will be relegated to the margins

But religion as a whole dissapear or be marginalized in this fashion? At first sight, there seems to be a difficulty with this, in that the very self-understanding of unbelief, that whereby it can present itself as mature, courageous, as a conquest over the temptations of childishness, dependence, or lesser fortitude, requires that we remain aware of the vanquished enemy, of the obstacles which have to be climbed over, of the dangers which still await those whose brave self-responsibility falters. Faith has to remain a possibility, or else the self-valorizing understanding of atheism flounders. Imagining that faith must just disappear is imagining a fundamentally different form of non-faith, one quite unconnected to identity. It would be one in which it would be as indifferent and unconnected to my selse of my ethical predicament that I have no faith, as it is today that I don’t believe, for instance, in phlogiston or natural places. This I suppose is something like what Bruce is predicting

Religion remains ineradicably on the horizon of areligion, and vice versa. This is another indication that the “official story” needs to be understood on a deeper level, as I have been suggesting above.

Something to think about as we engage with our atheist friends, especially those of the New Atheist tradition. It is always good to try to understand the deeper motivations and frameworks of the debates that we have, as well as critically evaluating arguments. We are not just out to win minds, but hearts.

All Religions are the Same: Secular Propoganda

We’ve all heard it before. It’s not really even an argument, just a rhetorical flourish. “All religions are basically the same”, says the atheist. They don’t even intend to argue for this point, they assume everyone will agree with them, and this is, in fact, the premise of their (normally implicit) argument that atheism is superior to religion. And of course, we might just chalk this up to the endemic ignorance that characterizes the New Atheist movement. But I think that there is actually a deeper and more insidious reason why this particular piece of ignorance is so prevalent.

Secularism is founded on what Charles Taylor calls “subtraction narratives”. The idea that religion and silly superstition were holding us back, and once we threw off these burdens and broke free from these chains, we were able to pursue science, rationalism, and humanism. That merely subtracting religion creates a secular person, a scientist and a rationalist and a humanist. Or at the societal level, once we stopped spending all our time worrying about religion and started actually thinking about the real world, we were able to produce the Enlightenment. Religion only holds us back and represses us, and once it is gone we advance.

This is, of course, a false narrative. In reality, the turn from Christendom to the secular age was not one of subtraction, but substitution. We didn’t lose a worldview of religion, we substituted an enchanted worldview for a disenchanted one, a theistic one for an atheistic one, a communal one for an individualistic one, etc. For a fuller treatment, read Taylor’s A Secular Age. But the point is this: we didn’t strip back the religion to find the bare “secular” man ready to be a humanist. Religion was replaced with a secular worldview, with humanism, with another set of values and presuppositions.

The secularist, now embedded in this new worldview (which is often naively accepted and never questioned) must now build a narrative of progress. And in this narrative of progress we contrast the regressive religion with the enlightened secularism. This is what motivates the grouping of all religions together: to maintain their worldview, the secularist has to see all religions as fundamentally the same, so that secularism can be fundamentally different from each, and fundamentally better. A sign of progress of humanity.

But in reality, secularism is just another worldview. It’s not fundamentally different to a “religious” worldview, and in fact I’d call it a religious worldview itself. It attempts to situate us in the world with grand narratives of progress and humanism (as opposed to grand narratives of salvation and redemption), it provides its own set of values and doctrines which can’t be questioned. It even gives a “sacred order” from which we derive a “social order” (see: Rieff’s Deathworks). But the secularist can’t accept that secularism is one competing religion among many, and must find some way to make it fundamentally different.

The truth is that not all religions are the same. They differ not only in doctrine or history, but in values, in the kinds of community or society they create, etc. Some religions are implicitly hostile to what we today think of as science, while one religion (Christianity) gave birth to science. Only a Christian worldview can give rise to something like science, while a Buddhist worldview cannot. For a fuller treatment, see Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason. Some religions lead to ethical treatment of minorities and disadvantaged groups, some do not. Some religions lead to societies governed for the welfare of the citizens, and some do not.

Look at all the secular values that I have appealed to there: science, humanism, rationalism, equality. The reason I do this is to point out that even from a secular point of view, treating all religions as fundamentally the same is foolish and ignorant. But of course the secularist has deep pressure to remain ignorant and foolish here, because part of the narrative of their religion requires that all other religions are the same.

 

Is Teaching Children Religion Indoctrination?

This point often comes up in debate: the atheist will claim that teaching your children that your religion is true is indoctrination. They will claim that we should tell our children that our beliefs are merely one among many, or that we should present our beliefs and let our children decide for themselves.

I think for the Christian to do that would be child abuse, or at the very least neglect.

Consider this analogy: should I teach my sons to treat women as being equally valuable to men?

The atheist cannot say “no”. Of course we should teach them that, we should teach them common decency and morality and how to be good people. We shouldn’t leave open to them the option of treating women poorly. We should explain to them why we must treat women as being equally valuable (they are as much persons as you are, etc.) but in the end, they must accept our answer here. Any other answer is unacceptable, and they will be punished for it if they don’t treat women well.

The atheist might say “but we are sure about women being equally valuable to men, we are not sure about religion”. But of course, the Christian is sure about religion. The atheist, if atheism is true, is right in saying that we shouldn’t teach children to be Christians. We shouldn’t teach them false things. But of course the atheist can’t assume atheism to be true to make their point, they are attempting to convince me, a Christian. And if Christianity is true, and if we are sure of it (as I am), then this argument fails.

The atheist might attempt to sidestep this and suggest that since people disagree about religion, even if we are confident ourselves we shouldn’t teach it. But they leave themselves open to the obvious response: people disagree about treating women equally too. Lots of them. I am sure you’ve probably noticed that.

Finally, the atheist says that gender equality is based on reason and evidence, and we present this to our children. While we just force our children to believe Christianity without presenting any reason or evidence. But of course that is false, a good Christian parent is one who makes a compelling age-appropriate case for Christianity. Not only with arguments, but with how they live their own life, full of love and holiness and obedience.

So where does the atheist go from here? Can they make a case that we should teach our sons to treat women as being equally valuable to men, while we should not teach them to follow Christ? I do not think the atheist can make this case.

If God is omniscient, all possible universes exist in his mind, and you shouldn’t expect any specific afterlife.

This is the title of a reddit post which presents a fascinating and original argument against God. It contains some premises that many Christians will be reluctant to accept, but given my particular idiosyncratic ontology and philosophy of mind, it does seem to be effective against me. Unless I can come up with a good response, I may be forced to change some of my beliefs. But it is early days yet. Here is the argument:

  • P1: God exists and is omniscient.
  • P2: Omniscience entails fully detailed, perfect knowledge/representation of everything.
  • P3: “Everything” includes all “possible/hypothetical worlds” (if this is not true, God can’t entertain counterfactuals, which is a pretty weird hole in omniscience).
  • P4: These possible/hypothetical worlds would be known in full, perfect detail/representation (P2)
  • P5: A perfect representation of a person would experience itself as an actual person with consciousness (like a simulation or “matrix”).
  • P6: Some portion of these worlds contain holy books telling them that God has such and such plans for it and the people within (P3).
  • P7: Some percentage of the worlds in P6 in which a given person experiences going to hell, or just living on forever in their body, in whatever sorry state they died in, and every other possible afterlife. Regardless of what they did in life (P3).
  • P8: There are more undesirable afterlives than desirable ones, as there are more ways for something to be miserable or suffering-inducing than for them to be perfect and happy.
  • P9: There is no way to determine whether one is in the specific world God created (if he even created any), or instead exists within a “simulation world” (P5 & P6).
  • P10: There are more “hypothetical/possible” worlds than actual, specifically created ones (trivially true unless he creates all of them, in which case the conclusion is still valid).

 

I give some suggestions towards a response in the thread, but I am not yet convinced I have a good response. Probably there is something simple which I am missing, but I thought I’d share it to praise it for being original, and to get the opportunity to hear other people’s opinions on it.

A Bad Response to the Problem of Evil

In thinking about the post yesterday I remembered a particularly bad response to the problem of evil that I often see Christians deploy. The atheist claims that if evil exists, then the God of Christianity cannot. And the Christian responds by saying something like “As an atheist, you can’t even know what evil is, since you need God in order for moral facts to be true. So without God, there’s no evil. And since you do not believe in God, you cannot believe in evil, so you cannot formulate a problem of evil.”

I think that this is a very poor response, because I think it misunderstands what the problem of evil accomplishes. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument.

If this is a new term for you, then I will give you another example of such an argument. Here we will prove that there is no largest integer. We will do this by first assuming that there is such an integer.

  1. Suppose N is the largest integer
  2. For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
  3. Therefore N+1 is larger than N
  4. Therefore N is not the largest integer
  5. Therefore there is no largest integer

 

Now, do I have to believe that there is a largest integer in order to make this argument? Premise 1 says that there is a largest integer, so surely I believe that. But obviously I do not. Similarly, the atheist makes an argument like this:

  1. Suppose God exists
  2. Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
    ….
  3. Therefore God does not exist.

 

Does the atheist have to believe premises 1 and 2 for the argument to work? No, of course not. The argument is essentially the atheist deliberately taking on the Christian assumptions, like God and evil (and they might even take our definition of evil) in order to show that these assumptions are false, just like premise 1 “N is the largest integer” is false.

So even if the atheist doesn’t know what evil is, even if the atheist is a moral antirealist who claims that there is no good and evil, they can still validly use this argument. Now obviously I think the argument fails, for reasons I gave yesterday, but the objection in question here is not a good one.

Some Christians think that this objection is the one given by God in Job. The Christian reads God’s monologue at the end of Job and hears God saying “Who are you to question me, I am the Lord, I know good and evil, I have the right to do whatever I want. You do not sit in judgment over me, I sit in judgement over you.”

And that’s right, that is what God is saying. But the right interpretation is not that we have no conception of evil by which we can argue. The right interpretation is that we are too small to understand God’s reasons for doing what He does. And certainly far too small to claim that God has no such reasons. I think the response given to us by God in Job is not the argument “You can’t talk about evil if you don’t know what God is”, I think it is “You don’t know all the reasons I have for what I do”. So in other words, I think God’s response is best charactarized by the use of higher order goods, which might be mysterious to us, in order to explain lower order evils. God does have reasons.

But there is another problem here I think. I agree that the atheist does not have a full grounding for evil, since as I’ve said before, moral facts (and all other kinds of facts) are grounded in God. And I do agree that the naturalist, materialist, physicalist worldview is less well equipped to ground moral facts than a theistic worldview. But put aside for the moment the fact that the atheist doesn’t need to believe in evil to use the problem of evil. But I think in general, atheists do indeed know what is good and what is evil.

Consider Romans 2: Paul claims that the gentiles, those who do not believe in God, know what is good and evil because their conscience testisifes to them. And Paul uses this as an argument that the gentiles are guilty of sin: their conscience told them what is right and what is wrong, and they knowingly did what is wrong. Atheists are not without a God-given conscience, so we are not unjustified in saying that atheists in general do know what is good and what is evil. Not as well as the believer perhaps, and they might not know why certain things are good or evil. But most of them not only believe that evil exists, they are usually right about what evil is. They don’t have God to ground it, but it’s not clear why grounding is necessary for them to deploy a problem of evil argument.

So while I do think the problem of evil argument fails, I think “The atheist doesn’t know what evil is because they don’t believe in God” is quite a bad objection to it.

Mackie’s Problem of Evil

John Mackie has presented one of the most popular formulations of the problem of evil, it can be accessed here. I will not reproduce all of his arguments, but he attempts to argue that the existence of a totally good, all-powerful God is incompatible with the existence of evil.

Of course, many believers have put forward objections to these arguments over the centuries, and so Mackie attempts to show why those objections fail. I think one of these attempts is no good, and I will briefly explain why.

One of the primary tools of the theist here is the appeal to the higher order good. God may allow the evil of fear to exist so that the higher order good courage might exist, for example. Clearly, courage would not exist without fear, and courage is good. Perhaps in God’s mind, the goodness of courage makes the evil of fear worth it. I don’t intend to imply that we can somehow measure the goodness of the situations and compare them numerically, I certainly don’t want to endorse utilitarianism. I only need to say that there is something about the higher order good case that justifies the lower order evil.

Mackie responds that sure, we can say that. But then we also have 2nd order evils, perhaps cowardice. And now we need to justify the second order evil. And of course, the tempting route for the theist is to justify it using perhaps a third order good. But Mackie says (denoting a second order evil by “evil (2)”):

But even if evil (2) could be explained in this way, it is fairly clear that there would be third order evils contrasting with this third order good: and we should be well on the way to an infinite regress, where the solution of a problem of evil, stated in terms of evil (n), indicated the existence of an evil (n + 1), and a farther problem to be solved.

I think this response is not very good. I think Mackie has assumed without justification that there exist n’th order evils that need to be explained. But it’s not clear to me that that is the case. I couldn’t tell you how high in order evils go, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that good could go a level higher. It’s not surprising that there would be an asymmetry between good and evil, where good is in some sense “more real” than evil. Many classical theologians have formulated notions of good that are convertible with being, so goodness is being and being is goodness. And under an idea like this, we would be shocked to see levels of evil for each corresponding level of good. Eventually, we’d expect to get to a point where good was simply higher than evil, and no equivalent high order of evil existed. There is a sense in which good is “bigger” than evil.

Mackie then moves on to discuss a particular case of the higher order good: free will. Being a Calvinist I am not particularly interested in making a free will defence when it comes to the problem of evil, nor defending a libertarian free will from Mackie’s objections in the paper. But I think this flaw with higher order goods is sufficient for the Christian to remain justified in their beliefs.