- How do you explain slavery in the bible?
- Fallacies that physicists fall for – Feser
- An Existentialist’s Ethics – Plantinga
- What Hollywood Really Wants
- How Religious Freedom Redefines Religion
- How Secular Historians are Busting Myths About Jesus
- Debating the problem of evil on Reddit
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.
- Suppose N is the largest integer
- For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
- Therefore N+1 is larger than N
- Therefore N is not the largest integer
- 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:
- Suppose God exists
- Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
- 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.
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.
Many people object that philosophical arguments for theism such as the cosmological argument do not arrive at the God of any particular religion, but instead prove the existence of a deistic God: who created the world or who upholds existence but who does not interact at all with humanity. I think we can make a good argument against this by looking at Christianity and arguing that this does appear to be the God of philosophical arguments.
But I think also we can extend the philosophical arguments to rule out deism. We can extend the cosmological arguments to show that God actually would interact with humanity, based on what we’ve already concluded about God. And not only that, but I think we can extend them in a way that rules out several of the other contenders for claims about God.
From the philosophical arguments, we conclude that God is good, and indeed perhaps Goodness Itself. At the very least, God is the highest good. We also conclude that God is all knowing and all powerful. So we take these conclusions as premises now.
Supposing that God is all good, He must want good for the entire universe. He wants the galaxies to be good galaxies, He wants the atoms to be good atoms, and He wants the people to be good people. And it seems that for people to be good people, the goodest people they can be, He has to direct their affections towards the good. That is, God must direct their affections towards God. Perhaps not each individual person (He may have other purposes in mind for individuals, see Romans 9), but people in general. It seems that God, being good, must draw the world to Himself. And so He must reveal Himself to them, so that they can pursue Him.
By being good and rational, God must be incapable of lying and self-consistent. So that means that all of God’s revelations must be consistent with each other, and they must be truthful. I believe this rules out Islam, which is inconsistent with the previous revelation from God. Muslims will claim that the previous revelations have been corrupted, but not only is there no evidence of this, there is significant evidence that they have remained in their original form. The Old Testament and New Testament were written over centuries by ~40 different authors, while the Quran was written by one man over a few decades. The New Testament is a perfect fulfilment of all prophecy in the Old Testament, is perfectly consistent with the Old Testament, and presents itself as the final revelation. This is of course only a summary of a fuller argument against Islam that I may one day make, but it gives us plenty of reason to prefer Christianity over Islam.
Returning to deism, I claim that deism does not have a sufficient response to the problem of evil. Remember that if there is a deist God, then that God is still good. So we’d expect some pretty convincing reasons as to why the deist God knowingly (because the deist God is still omniscient and omnipotent) created a universe that contains evil and suffering. Theists appeal to God’s purpose for the universe in explaining why evil exists: in order to bring about some higher order good. Some appeal to free will as a specific higher order good, but I don’t think we need to do that here.
But under many conceptions, the deist God is a God who doesn’t have any specific purpose for the universe, or at least for the rational beings within the universe. But if there is no purpose for the rational beings in the universe, then there cannot be a sufficient reason to ordain that evil would exist.
So it seems that on the whole deism is significantly less plausible than theism, and that Christianity provides the most plausible theism.
The somewhat intimidating title of this post was taken from a Reddit post of the same title, which presented the argument made in a paper by Sharon Street. I won’t reproduce those arguments here, the Reddit post does a good job of explaining them. I’ve been unable to find a publically accessible mirror of the paper, but I am happy to update this if I do find one. The main idea here is this: If everything happens for a reason, then we have no idea what reasons are.
I think pretty clearly that we must take the agent-relative horn. There are some things that God does that are only right for God to do, and not for us to do. Many of God’s reasons for actions are agent-relative, they are not the kinds of reasons we should have.
In that case, we must answer how we know what is moral and what is not. Seems to me that the Christian can give several avenues of knowledge here. We have moral facts revealed in scripture, we have moral facts as testified to us by our conscience, we even perhaps have moral facts that we have deduced via a secular moral system such as Kantianism. That last statement may be controversial to some Christians, but I think it is reasonable to say that we can use our God-given reasoning abilities to determine what is right and wrong. It’s not like those moral facts are not still grounded in God, as He grounds reasoning itself and indeed all facts.
So with regards to “secular” moral reasoning, the argument is that one of the main “selling points” of religion is that it gives us some advantage in moral reasoning, and if we are forced to appeal to “secular” moral reasoning then religion becomes weaker. But I am not sure this is a very significant problem for the Christian since we are already told in scripture that the “secular” use of the conscience is appropriate, because God gives that to us. Presumably, God gives us reason as well, and so using reason to arrive at moral conclusions is valid. Hence the scare quotes around “secular”: for the Christian, nothing is ever really secular. It is all grounded in God.
But let’s suppose that we do not take this route, and instead, we rely on what we might call a “sacred” moral reasoning. Perhaps this can be written revelation, or a God-given conscience, some kind of innate moral intuition. And now the sceptic launches into another argument: this revelation given by God should be clear and unmistakable. And since the sceptic doesn’t think it is clear and unmistakable, we cannot believe that any such revelation has been given.
I do not agree with the premise that any revelation from God should be clear and unmistakable. I instead would believe this premise: revelation would be clear and unmistakable to a reasonable person. But I also believe (as Romans 1 teaches) that the heart of every foolish man has been darkened so that they suppress knowledge of God, and so the revelation that ought to be clear and unmistakable is now no longer.
I might be willing to accept that God ought to give moral revelation (again, including a conscience and scripture) that should be clear and unmistakable to a reasonable person. But I don’t see any reason to think He ought to give one that would be so to an unreasonable person. Certainly, He could, just like He reaches in and regenerates someone before they repent of their sin and before they know Him, so that they can do those things. But I don’t think He has any obligation to.
But I might even go a step further and say that the conscience that God has given us is pretty clear and unmistakable. I think the vast majority of people have a pretty accurate innate sense of right and wrong. It can get a bit messy in weird edge cases (like trolley problems) but that’s not a big deal. I think the vast majority of us if we are honest, will say that in the vast majority of the time we know what is right and what is wrong. We might still do wrong, but we know it’s wrong. And for the rare person with a defective conscience (which normally happens because a person has essentially starved it by ignoring it) the fact that everyone else has one is good enough evidence of right and wrong.
This all together seems like a sufficient response to the argument that monotheism entails normative scepticism.