Why You Should be Skeptical of Skeptical Theism, pt. 2

In this post, I will assert the following:

  • There is good reason to believe that gratuitous suffering exists.
  • God has no valid excuse for any instances of presumed gratuitous suffering.
  • The onus in the debate over ST is equal on both the theist and the atheist.

Even though it appears last in the bulleted list, the issue of the onus is the briefest to address. Theists and atheists are frequently guilty of eschewing responsibility in the debate over ST and gratuitous suffering. Both have an equal burden: if the theist argues that gratuitous suffering does not exist and that God has a reason, he must show why God probably has a reason. He should also, contrary to the common sense of atheists, try to show why gratuitous evil is not so. Although outside the realm of theodicies and ST, the theist could argue that gratuitous evil and the idea of a just/omnibenevolent God are not incompatible.

On the other hand, the atheist must show that gratuitous evil is likely and that God either does not have a reason or no reason could suffice. I am going to prove all three: gratuitous evil is likely to exist, God likely does not have a reason, and it would not matter regardless because no reason could suffice.

Gratuitous evil is likely to exist.

What is the nature of gratuitous evil? I believe gratuitous evil is exemplified by needless suffering. Needless suffering is simply gratuitous evil in action. Here are some characteristics of needless suffering:

  • Undeserved
  • Irrevocable/incurable
  • Could not be prevented
  • Lessens the quality of life

Does anything exist that fits those criteria? Perhaps the most looming example is birth defects, but cancer, ebola, and some cases of HIV/AIDS all qualify as well.

Let’s start by analyzing birth defects and cases where HIV is passed from mother to newborn child. Is it undeserved? Well, the baby/the soul of the baby had no chance to commit any act at any time to deserve it, so yes. Is it incurable? Yes. Could it be prevented? No, birth defects cannot really be prevented. In the case of mother to newborn HIV transmissions, it depends. Do HIV+ women have a moral obligation to not bear children? Either way, the baby could not do anything to avoid getting it. Finally, does it lessen the quality of life? Absolutely.

What about cancer? I think it’s non-controversial that cancer is largely incurable, cannot really be prevented, and certainly lessens the quality of life. However, can one deserve cancer? Cancer is a cruel punishment even for the most aggressive of sinners. Furthermore, plenty of relatively innocent people get cancer while many guilty ones do not. Finally, what a person does during their time on Earth can be punished when they pass. If God expects his suffering admirers to wait until the afterlife for the joy he promises them, then God can wait until judgment day to punish aberrancy. It is unjust to do otherwise.

An important example of gratuitous evil often cited by atheists is deaths resulting from natural disasters. The question of incurability does not apply here, but natural disasters cannot be prevented and they certainly lessen the quality of life. This sends us back to the question of deserts and for the previous reasons, I will maintain that it is not possible to deserve getting killed by a natural disaster; this is highlighted by the fact that many babies die in natural disasters.

It is unlikely that God has a reason for perceived needless suffering.

Theists often try to make excuses for God such as “a perfect being need not explain himself to sinful humans” or “God has good reasons for not telling us why certain evils happen,” but this obscures God’s very agenda. Either God wants people to believe in him and establish a relationship with him or he doesn’t. Why is God dodging the hard questions, so to speak? His doing so hurts his credibility as a candidate for truth.

God obviously has no obligation to explain why X occurs, but he certainly must know that many people choose not to believe in him as a result of X. Again, if God loves his creations, why leave them wondering? Why alienate them when other believers receive “answers” to questions and prayers? I will express this as a syllogism below. Please keep in mind that this prong of ST and the problem of evil is theology-dependent.

1. Some humans perceive needless suffering.
2. Some of the humans in P1 refuse belief in God as a result.
3. God is capable of addressing the humans in P2 and explaining to them the error of their reasoning.
4. God does not do this.
5. From 4, God does not care if everyone believes in him.
6. If God loved his creations, he would want them to go to heaven to be with him.
7. If one is capable of belief and refuses belief, then one does not enter heaven.
8. God could assure all humans capable of people of belief believed without compromising faith.
9. God does not do this.
10. From 5, 6, and 9, God does not love his creations.

This is an aside, but I don’t see how God could blame humans for not believing in him. God is basically the worst father on the planet. He leaves his kids at the very first sign of defiance and refuses to come back to them, but still leaves minor clues of his existence all over the place to torture them with the thought. When the skeptical kids die, they’ll get to meet their father for one time before he obliterates their soul or sends them to be tortured for all eternity. That does not sound like a responsible parent, much less a perfectly loving or totally knowledgeable one.

No reason could possibly suffice.

This is my personally favored objection to ST because it allows the conversation to continue. If the theist maintains that God does have a reason for X, albeit one unknown to us, then the atheist can assert that it wouldn’t matter since no reason can cover God.

Even if God a bigger plan, he could have made a world in which it was achieved through different means. The fact that he did not is in and of itself cruel. From all this, I would derive as truth that God does not care about or is indifferent to human suffering; in other words, reducing the suffering of humans is not his priority. How can a being of even the slightest benevolence have such a stark disregard for human suffering?

Now that I’ve finished going over my three arguments in this post, I want to wrap this essay up with an analysis of arguably the best defense of ST.

Wyskstra’s “CORNEA”

CORNEA stands for condition on reasonable epistemic access. This condition is as such: the corollary of “There is no X” from “I see no X” is only valid if one would expect to see X in the first place. For example, it would be warranted to say “There is no elephant” based upon “I see no elephant.” Implied in this defense is that it would be unwarranted to infer that there is no reason God would allow X based upon one’s seeing no reason God would allow X.

The sensation of seeing an elephant is equivalent to there being an elephant in manner Y. Conversely, the sensation of not seeing an elephant is equivalent to there not being an elephant in manner Y. There is no need to make the corollary in the case of elephants or anything else accessible through sensory input.

Let X = reasons for needless suffering or gratuitous evil. We are not actually failing to see reasons for X; this is not a matter of sensation but rather perception and cognition. One’s failure to access reasons for X come as a result of unsuccessful deducing or conceiving of X. It does not follow that one’s failing to deduce or conceive of X means there is no X, but what if it is not possible to conceive or deduce X, i.e., only God can understand X. (What may be more important is that conceiving of or deducing X does not mean X exists, either).

This results in there being hidden reasons that only one hidden entity can understand. If X is impossible for humans to conceive or deduce, but possible for humans to understand, then this means there are hidden reasons that only one hidden entity knows about. This kind of truth is mysteriously ad hoc, and it’s more likely that there is no entity which knows about this truth; that is, needless suffering exists and the problem of evil succeeds.

Concessions/Final Thoughts

CORNEA still succeeds in showing there could be reasons, but it is unlikely. If everyone goes to heaven, the problem of evil fails by default. Sure, needless suffering would still be bad, but it would take away much of its potency. For example, it’s easy to overlook one slap on the face if you’re being given a million dollars for it. It might be more accurate to say that I would be less passionate about the problem of evil and the follies of a hypothetically omnibenevolent God if everyone got to experience eternal bliss after death.

 

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17 Responses to Why You Should be Skeptical of Skeptical Theism, pt. 2

  1. Suffering does exists, but are you sure that evil actually exists? Or is it really just a social convention? a concept that we’ve made up in order to explain things we’re too lazy or afraid to really understand?

    • Hi there, Good Old Neon. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I certainly appreciate it.

      As far as I’m concerned, the existence of needless suffering is what we should focus on in this debate. The definition of evil, good, and other such follies can be the topic of ethics debates. I don’t actually think evil exists per se, but I have yet to blog about my moral beliefs. I’m some sort of moral nihilist, although not in the morally unmotivated sense or in the common sense of the word. I don’t believe in objective morality and I don’t actually think subjective morality serves a purpose, but I do believe moral propositions are coherent, so I am not a non-cognitivist. Like J.L. Mackie, I just do not think what moral propositions refer to or depend on actually exist. Even if they did, it’s just a concept that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me.

      IMO, I’m not sure what the concept of evil explains about the world. If anything, the definition of evil has been a source of perpetual confusion since the beginning of mankind. What were you trying to get at with that inquiry?

      • I worked through a similar line of reasoning, similar to your blog post (although not as detailed or rigorous, lol), but then later I began to question whether evil/good actually existed independent of our subjective conception of it. i have not found a satisfactory answer. it seems to be something we make up.

        btw. sorry another tangent… this is pretty dense stuff. do you get many readers? I don’t. lol.

      • Yeah, I’m pretty sure we agree there. I don’t know how evil could exist outside of subjective conception. Facts clearly exist independent of opinion. If one has two apples and gains two more, then they have four apples. Evil cannot exist without some sort of agents to commit and receive it, though.

        The laws of logic denote that 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what, while there is no such universal simplification to be found in ethics. Do you kind of get what I’m saying?

      • And no, I don’t get many readers, lol. I’ll make sure to visit your blog.

      • Hi Thinking Emotions:

        Would you classify Mackie as a nihilist?

      • I’d classify him as a moral nihilist. I don’t know if he’s a nihilist when it comes to the meaning of life and such, though. If I had to guess, I’d say no. I think most people that are moral nihilists end up with a position that proves impractical to be consistent with. For example, a moral nihilist has no motivation to be moral, yet many act that way. When asked why a moral nihilist refrains from doing act X,Y,Z, they can’t offer much. A moral nihilist really has no justification to disapprove or approve of actions, and all of this leads me to virtue ethics. I’m pretty sure this how all moral nihilists and all virtue ethicists feel.

  2. I think the problem-of-evil argument is at best marginal. It’s true that if God exists, its implausible that God is benevolent. But it’s far more implausible that God, in the first place, exists. Which mean, to put the same point differently, the existence of evil may argue against a benevolent God’s existence, but it’s far from the strongest argument.

    One the other hand, I don’t know much about theology, and the biggest reason I hear for people to stop believing in God is observing unnecessary suffering. But as an outsider to the whole “religious experience,” there’s a great deal in the dogma itself that throws more doubt on God’s benevolence than the experience of suffering. Not just the “Fall” and its aftermath, but the continued threat of Satan. Maybe Christians, etc. don’t really think God omnipotent: sometimes it sounds like Satan could win.

    • I think the reason Christians and atheists disagree so sharply is due to psychology and not truth. I’m not closed to spirituality or the existence of God, but I find Christianity incredibly improbable. I will also admit that I am biased: if Christianity were true, it would be a horrible thing. In other words, I want atheism to be true, but I don’t think this precludes me from being objective enough to learn and understand Christian theism.

      I’m with you that the average believer in the United States is apathetic, uninformed, and generally doubtful. Not only because studies support this, but because I think Christianity and theism in general have taken some blows in explanatory power as science advances. I’m starting to see it as a retreating position, but there are some anomalies out there. Near-death experiences are still pretty bizarre and hard to account for. Recollections of Death was a startling read for me.

      • A theology prof. posted a study regarding which arguments pro and con theists, atheists, and agnostics find strong and weak. (http://tinyurl.com/7hlp895/) The problem of evil is regarded by theists and agnostics as the strongest con argument. For atheists the strongest argument is lack of evidence, but the POE is a very close second. So, most people find the POE a lot stronger, relatively speaking, than I do. (For me, incoherence is the strongest con argument; lack of evidence second.)

        What do these hard to account for near-death experiences consist of?

      • If you can, and you may not be willing or capable, get your hands on a copy of Recollections of Death. I was able to get it imported into my local library, but I had to wait a few days. I’m serious: read the book. It’s published by a previously skeptical cardiologist who was curious about near-death experiences after reading Raymond Moody’s Life After Life. He was confident he’d be able to completely resolve the issue without any reference to the supernatural, but he was perplexed by the results of his investigations.

        The feature seemingly most bothersome to him, and definitely most bothersome to me, was how these people perfectly reconstructed their operation and all the details of it without directly witnessing it. They described it exactly as an outsider would — misperceptions included. In one case, a gentleman actually misunderstood something he saw and described what he thought was a shot being injected into his heart. Sabom noted that this was actually a pump, but the pump looked nearly identical to a syringe.

        All things considered, there’s just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t add up to naturalism. Of course, the central debate is whether science will ever convincingly explain these phenomena, and I guess we’ll have to wait and see. It seems like neuroscience and neurology is making a lot of progress.

        http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/01/near-death-neurologist-dreams-on-the-border-of-life.html

      • you might find this semantic experiment interesting…

        many arguments against the existence of god (including POE) assume a certain type of god (all-good, all-knowing, etc). In other words, most arguments assume a monotheistic god. But once you’ve rejected the monotheistic religions… is there any reason to continue to make that assumption? so what about deism or Spinoza’s idea of God, or the idea of god as ultimate reality? Does atheism depend on defining god as Christians do? In other words, whether or not you find the idea of god to be reasonable, depends upon how you define god.

  3. >For example, a moral nihilist has no motivation to be moral, yet many act that way.

    Yes, I agree that’s an issue, and it goes to the bigger problem that if morality isn’t real, how does it actually influence people who do believe it: what, exactly, do they believe that makes moral principles effective? But I think I can provide for a non-nihilist version of the error theory, as in “Why do what you ‘ought’?—A habit theory of explicit morality.” (http://tinyurl.com/7dcbt7y/.)

    • Thanks for the link. This is a great way to solve the problem, and the argument you gave at the beginning is a good way to think about ethics as a subject. The unified, moderate approach is always the best. Why pick just one?

      Your bolded statement, the one about morality serving as a tool that distracts us from being egocentric and forms habits of us being more helpful to others, is exactly how I feel about moral behavior. However, not just explicit morality does this to us. Compassion is far more meaningful and concrete than “morality” or “goodness” ever could be, and therefore I find it a more motivational source of acting on the behalf of others or refusing to act at the request of others (a lot of deontological theories reduce to this). Of course, compassion is a primary source of moral input within virtue ethics, so perhaps it has its place there. All I wanted to get across is that the world might be better off if we did away with the concepts of “right” and “wrong” and instead just acted in the collective interest of humanity. Of course, this collective interest is diverse and irreconcilable, so it creates a new problem, but I think for the most part, people do not want to suffer. Therefore, we should avoid making people suffer or reduce suffering. Morality will always be a human idea first and divine prescription second, so I’m always discouraged when people want to make religion/spirituality the ontological and ideological source of morality.

  4. Is contemporary monotheism committed to God’s _present_ omnipotence? If not, I have to wonder why the argument is conducted, by both sides, as if there is this commitment. You know a lot more about the religions than I, so let me ask: what about God’s war with the devil: it seems inconsistent with God’s omnipotence.

    The best reconstruction I can come up with given my meager knowledge is that God permanently ceded power to his angels, who became free agents. [God’s omniscience seems to me part of his omnipotence.]

    Then, monotheists wouldn’t have the thankless task of proving all suffering is necessary. They can just blame it on the devil. Which it seems they all do–excepting the philosophers of religion that I’m familiar with.

    Of course, this doesn’t resolve the problem cleanly. One still must inquire why a loving God would sacrifice his power to another being, but this question seems more manageable than showing why an omnipotent, loving God would allow harm. The angel’s autonomous existence could be argued a higher good that would offset the collateral damage to human and animal interests.

    “Free will” that humans supposedly have should also, it seems to me, be viewed as a permanent ceding of power by God, who is no longer omnipotent and omniscient.

    [Doing theology seems a bit silly, but I figure, why should disbelief require abjuring the grand fun theology seems to be.]

  5. joseph says:

    Just wondering when you say that HIV infection of unborn babies cannot be prevented do you mean:
    1/ By the Babies?
    2/ By any human?

    If ‘2’ then this may be relevant:

    http://www.avert.org/motherchild.htm

    • I meant 1. If I were to assert HIV infection cannot be prevented by any human, I’d be fighting one heck of an uphill battle. In this scenario, I’m referring specifically to cases where mothers transmit it to their newborns. This hypothetical would not carry much weight if I were to change it to a negligent HIV+ woman infecting a careless man through intercourse.

      I was merely trying to demonstrate the helplessness of the child to be.

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