Friday, 30 July 2010

Does evil make God improbable?

Last time we examined the argument that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God - the deductive argument from evil. Hopefully I showed that the argument isn't successful. Today we're going to see whether the existence of evil poses a different kind of problem for theists. We're going to see if the existence of evil makes belief in God irrational. Like I said last time, please understand that we're tackling the purely intellectual side of the problem of suffering so don't think I'm insensitive to the emotional pains of evil just because I am dissecting this problem in a 'detached' intellectual way. I think our pain matters and I think also it matters to God. But the aim of this entry is not to counsel anyone.

Let's carry on ...

The evidential argument from evil

Let's return again to our favourite hypothetical debaters, Benny the Christian and Jimbo the skeptic. In the last entry we saw that Benny had the means to counter Jimbo's deductive argument from evil. Because it is possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil, it is not impossible for evil and God to co-exist. So where does this leave them?

Jimbo: Gotta say Benny, I'm impressed that you managed to defeat the deductive argument from evil. But you aren't out of the woods yet my friend.
Benny: Oh no?
Jimbo: Nope. It's slam-dunk time. You see perhaps God does have a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil. But given the extent of evil we see in the world and the types of evil we see, it just isn't likely that he does.
Benny: I don't like the sound of this. You're gonna have to explain your point further.
Jimbo: Gladly. Imagine a deer in a forest. There's no one around. And as it happens it's standing next to a rotting tree. The tree collapses and lands on the deer crushing its back legs. The deer isn't dead yet but it can't move and it is in agony. After a couple of hours a bear finds it and eats it further adding to the deer's agony before it finally dies.
Benny: That isn't the most pleasant thing to imagine...
Jimbo: Quite. Can you think of any greater good that would be achieved by this happening?
Benny: ... not really.
Jimbo: Indeed. We seem to come up short when we think of any reason that might justifiably permit God to allow this to happen. It seems reasonable to think that probably, no such reason exists. And as a result, probably God doesn't exist.
Benny: This does sound quite convincing...

Benny is right, it does indeed sound convincing. This is the evidential argument from evil. Or to be more accurate, this is one example of an evidential argument from evil. There's more than one way a skeptic can present this sort of argument but as a species they share a similar spirit to the one Jimbo presented. The idea is that some amount or type of evil appears to be gratuitous - that is, unnecessary - and so most likely there are no good morally justifiable reasons for these evils to be permitted. And if God doesn't have a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil, that means he can't exist (or at least, he can't be both all-loving and all-powerful simultaneously).

How can we give Benny a hand here? Debates over the strength of the evidential argument continue and being but a new student of them myself I shall just pass on what I've learnt from those on the front lines.

The worst case scenario

For the sake of argument let's assume that Jimbo is right and that looking at the situation it is quite improbable that there exists a morally justifiable reason for why the deer died as it did. We might think then that, judging solely by the kinds of evil that exists, the existence of God is improbable. But the key thing to note is that this argument is judging the liklihood of God's existence based on evil alone.

Imagine you have a friend who has gone to buy a pet earlier today. She has gone to 'Pet's Palace of Perfectly Pretty Poodles', a shop well known for selling Poodles. In fact the shop holds 99 animals and all but one of them are Poodles. The other one is a cat (leftover from the times before the shop owner began literally worshipping the pink pooches). Based on this knowledge alone if you had to guess what pet your friend took home, you'd say it is overwhelmingly likely that she purchased a Poodle. It would be pretty unreasonable to think she'd bought the cat. But what if you knew that your friend was both scared of dogs and allergic to them? Then your estimation would radically change - it would be more reasonable to think that your friend bought that lone cat.

Similarly it might be the case that based on evil alone, the existence of God is unlikely, but with our other knowledge factored in, the probability is not so low or is even high. So if you already have good grounds for believing that God exists, then the evidential argument from evil doesn't render your belief irrational. If you don't have good reasons for believing in God this argument might push you more toward atheism, and if you're already there, well then, you'll feel more secure in your atheism. But what more can we say?

What are the odds?

You might have noticed a certain assumption within the argument. It goes something like this; "we can't think of a morally justifiable reason for why x occurred. If there was such a reason, probably we would know it. But we don't know it, so there probably isn't such a reason." But is this assumption correct? Why think that if there is such a reason, we would know it?

Imagine a field of thousands of acres. It's vast, expansive, and rather pretty. And you're stuck inside. You're in the kitchen of some manor overlooking just a few feet of the field which is the grounds of your place. You're already kind of annoyed at being stuck inside when you could be roaming the grounds, but to make matters worse your spouse comes in the room and asks you where the kids are. Apparently, you ought to have been looking after them. You aren't sure where they are but you decide to narrow down the options. You peer out of the window at the small part of the grounds you can see. You can't see the kids there and so you conclude that they aren't in the grounds. Would this be a reasonable conclusion?

No, it wouldn't be seeing as you aren't in a position where you'd be likely to see the kids if they were in the grounds - after all it's a massive area and you can only see a very small part of it. Perhaps we are in a very similar position with God and evil. We can't see a morally justifiable reason for certain evils, but then maybe we just aren't in a place where we're likely to see those reasons. After all God is far more intelligent then we are and as Isaiah 55:8 declares, his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways. This gap between ourselves and God means it might not be as probable that there are no morally justifiable reasons for certain evils as we think.


Another factor to consider in our estimations of the probability that God could have a morally justifiable reason for evil, is any plausible theodicies we might have. A theodicy is a proposed reason that God might have for permitting certain kinds of evil. The most famous and most widely accepted theodicy is the 'free will theodicy'. This theodicy attempts to explain why God allows evil performed by people. The reasoning is that genuine free choice is a valuable thing - if we were forced to do certain things (like love) they'd be a lot less meaningful. Because of this, God gave humans genuine free will and because God cannot force anybody to act a certain way without taking away their free will, necessarily he must allow some people to commit evil if they want to. The theodicy is not without its counter-arguments (and counter-counter-arguments etc) but it is illustrated here by way of example. A plausible theodicy will certainly impact our etimation of the odds involved here.


The evidential argument from evil is not a bad argument but even if we can't boost the probability of God having a morally justifiable reason for certain evils, this is only a problem for the person whose basis for believing in God is already rather shakey. Evil provides more disturbing emotional concerns than intellectual ones. Jimbo hasn't given Benny a slam-dunk yet! And as I hope to explore later in the blog, evil might present the atheist with their own challenge to overcome.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Does evil disprove God?

Having spent some time establishing the fact that Christianity is not anti-intellectual in principle, it's worth having a quick look at whether Christianity is anti-intellectual in actuality. That is, are there are certain facts that we know that render Christianity impossible or irrational? After all it's good and well to say that Christianity doesn't teach you to throw your brain away, when it might be the case that actually believing it would require you to given the circumstances. Many people believe this is the very position we find ourselves in. And frequently a chief reason cited as the cause for this sorry states of affairs is the argument from evil, a.k.a the problem of suffering.

What problem are we looking at?

Now before we jump in to examine this objection we need to clarify what exactly it is we're trying to achieve. We've all experienced suffering of various kinds and for many of us the tension between God's existence and the existence of evil is not a purely academic concern. It is personal and it hurts. This entry is absolutely NOT going to counsel those hurts. It is going to focus on the intellectual problems evil gives us. So please do not think I'm being intentionally cold or detached when I discuss the matter.

With that caveat aside, there is yet another to consider. Conversations like the following are familiar to many of us:

Benny: Man, God is so good. He's really blessed my life.
Jimbo: Oh? If God is so good then why does he allow earthquakes and murders?
Benny: Urm ....

Yeah... *the theists in the room all nod understandingly*. Now in actual fact the way that Jimbo has expressed the problem of suffering is rather distracting. What he hasn't said is what actually follows if Benny is unable to answer. Does that mean that God can't exist? Does that mean that Benny's belief in God is irrational? Jimbo hasn't clarified either way. He hasn't really presented an argument. If you're a skeptic I'd encourage you to actually formulate the steps of the argument you're putting across. If you're a theist I'd encourage you to call out anyone who approaches the subject in this way. Sometimes this sort of presentation is masking a mere 'argument from outrage' rather than an honest rational enquiry. Let's say that Benny challenges Jimbo on this and Jimbo obliges and forms the following argument...

Jimbo: Benny my boy your theism is done for! You think that God is all-powerful and perfectly good. But if God is perfectly good he always desires good for his creatures. And if God is all-powerful then God always has the power to carry out what he desires. So there shouldn't be any evil. But evil exists! Therefore your God cannot.

So Jimbo has contrued the argument so that it's trying to persuade us that God logically cannot exist alongside evil.

A heavy burden to bear

The form of the argument Jimbo has presented is called the logical argument from evil or the deductive argument from evil. This argument would have us believe that to claim that God exists alongside evil is as impossibly contradictory as saying that your mother exists and doesn't exist at the same time. This is a very strong claim and the burden is on the skeptic to demonstrate this impossibility. For the theist to defuse the argument, all that must be done is show that it is possible that God can exist alongside evil. Benny doesn't have to explain why God permits evil he only has to show that it is not impossible for them to co-exist (that is why posing the question as Jimbo initially did can be distracting). As it happens it is quite easy to show that the two can possibly co-exist. In fact philosophers have basically abandoned the logical form of the argument (it is the 'evidential' form of the argument from evil which is discussed nowadays, and we shall turn our attention to it next time).

The solution

Simply put it is possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for permitting the existence of evil. Philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder says this about the failure of the logical argument from evil:

"... nothing we know rules out the possibility that there is a morally justifying reason for a wholly good thing to permit evil she could prevent. Indeed, consider the proposition that

J: There is a morally justifying reason for God to permit evil he could prevent, a reason we could not know of, and He permits evil for that reason, and evil results.

Nothing we know rules out J as a possibility ... (The Evidential Argument from Evil. 1996: xiii-xiv)"

And well, that's it. Because it's possible, it's not impossible. So evil alone does not disprove God. Next time we'll see if evil nonetheless gives us a good reason not to believe in God.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Doesn't the Bible itself say that the Cross is foolish?

It's been a couple of weeks since the last entry but I haven't died. I've been infected with a bit of Summer complacency (Pokemon HeartGold is pretty addictive) and in addition to that I've had my birthday and my graduation. It's time however to get back to looking at Bible verses accused of being anti-intellectual, to see whether an informed reading bears that out.

Aha! The Bible describes the Cross as foolish!

The passage under question today is 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
On face value it seems quite obvious that the author of 1 Corinthians (Paul) is admitting that Christianity is a foolish and consequently quite irrational belief. This would be odd coming from a man who was convinced of Christianity's truth and who spent time debating his belief with philosophers and people of Jewish faith. What key can unlock this passage?

Wisdom is the key!

You'll notice that wisdom is a prominent theme throughout this passage. But what does it actually mean? Well in the Bible there is a whole book dedicated to wisdom: Proverbs. If you read Proverbs you'll quickly notice that it is concerned with moral matters and how to make practical decisions. It isn't about 'facts' or 'knowledge' as such, more how we actually apply our knowledge to real life. Wisdom, Biblically speaking, has a lot to do with morality (J.P. Holding, our source for other contextual concerns, concurs). So how does this understanding of wisdom help us to understand this passage?

We should recognise that the central Christian claim - that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he was crucified, and that he was resurrected in a body - was very much against the socially ingrained way of thinking about God and what was honourable. Christianity would have been offensive and would have seemed utterly foolish to the people of the time. It was very much against conventional wisdom. J.P. Holding outlines a number of factors that made Christianity appear foolish over here, but we shall only need to look at one.

A dishonourable death

The two people groups mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 are Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews, specifically Greeks). Both at this time and place in history were hugely concerned with honour. What was honourable always dictated what was morally right to do. The trouble is, crucifixion was an utterly dishonourable death. A religion centred around this sort of execution would seem literally foolish, especially when the person crucified is said to be God - the very being deserving of the highest honour! As such the central Christian claim was contrary to the wisdom the Greeks sought as God's valuation of what is honourable differed from theirs. As for the Jews seekings signs, they were after miraculous wonders that would overthrow their Roman occupiers and establish Israel as God's kingdom on earth. They weren't after a crucified messiah; God's estimation of what was the wise thing to do differed from theirs.

In conclusion this passage does not teach that Christian ought to be ignorant or actually foolish. Only that Christians should expect that people will consider their beliefs foolish given how contrary they can be to accepted wisdom.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Don't study philosophy?

Today we are again looking at a Bible passage sometimes accused of teaching anti-intellectual ideas. This time it's Colossians 2:8 which reads,

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

Well meaning Christians have at times interpreted this as an instruction to stay away from philosophy. That would certainly be bad news for me who's spent the last three years studying it! But is that what this passage is really getting at? I sincerely doubt it.

For one, philosophy is not inherently anti-Christian. You can have philosophies which are consistent with a Biblical worldview, and philosophies which aren't. The Christian community should be developing Biblical philosophies for understanding the world. Does then, Colossians 2:8 prohibit studying unchristian or 'wordly' philosophies? No. The author, the apostle Paul, instructs the Christians at Colossians to see to it that they aren't taken captive by said philosophies.

Intellectually oppressive?

But surely Paul can't just instruct people not to believe certain things; what if a Christian came to think by genuinely valid arguments that an alternate philosophy is true? That is a good question, but is outside of Paul's concern in this passage. He is not talking about how to handle genuine intellectual issues and doubts, he is writing a warning about the risk of being seduced into a philosophy for the wrong reasons. Note how he is talking about philosophy which "depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." In other words he is talking about philosophies which take it for granted that Christianity isn't true and base their thinking on things the non-Christian world assumes are true or valuable.

Christianity was very contrary to the ingrained way of thinking about God and the things that are honourable back in the first century when the religion began and grew. Early believers suffered social persecution and were under immense pressure to change their views to those more culturally acceptable. Paul is warning and reminding the Christians in Colossians that the philosophies that the world around them espouses are "hollow" and ignorant of the true riches to be found in Christ.

There is much for a modern Christian to take from Colossians 2:8, but there certainly isn't a prohibition against studying philosophy! I also recommend this article for a further look at what this passage really teaches about how Christians ought to view philosophy.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Do not use your own understanding?

We're continuing our effort to correctly understand Bible passages accused of being anti-intellectual and today we're looking at Proverbs 3:5,

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding

Some would claim this passages instructs Christians to not think for themselves or question their faith in any way. This reading is unlikely to be correct given how at odds it is with various passages that do encourage believers to be critical (Glenn Miller from rounds up a few here). So how are we to understand this passage?

Likely, we are to understand it in much the same way as the Hebrews 11 passage that we looked at in the previous entry. We should consider our knowledge that faith is loyalty to God based on the evidence of his trustworthiness (see here) and see how this fact illuminates the text. And illuminate it does! Simply put, when we have evidence that God is trustworthy based on the things we do understand, we can trust him for the things we don't.

We use similar principles all the times. If I talked to an astrophysicist and knew she had a P.H.D., I'd have good evidence based on my understanding that a P.H.D. is a high level qualification, to trust her judgment on astrophysics which I don't understand much about myself. Similarly, once God has demonstrated his trustworthiness to a believer, he/she is rational to trust him in things that they don't understand themselves. For example a Christian may not understand exactly how forgiving his parents for hurting him will be beneficial, but he knows that Jesus commands it, and that Jesus demonstrated his loving nature by dying on a cross for him. Based on this the Christian can trust Jesus' judgment on the matter.

In conclusion Proverbs 3:5 should not be used by either a Christian or a non-Christian to try and demonstrate that Christianity is anti-intellectual!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Faith is blind certainty?

We're looking at the moment at Bible passages often accused of teaching anti-intellectual ideas. Today's passage is Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Critics of the idea that faith can be reasonable will point to this and say "aha look! Faith is precisely about what cannot be seen or proved!" To get to the real meaning of this passage we need to recover the Biblical meaning of faith that we looked at in the second entry on how Christianity fits with reason. We saw there that faith is loyalty to God based on the evidence of his trustworthiness. Hebrews 11:1 is just explaining a practical outworking of this. When we have evidence of God's trustworthiness we can confidently trust in the things we have hope in that he has promised us, including those things for which we cannot directly see the reality of (such as future resurrection).

It is worth noting that hope back then didn't mean the kind of wishful thinking that it sometimes refers to nowadays when we say things like "I really hope I win the lottery!" The word then denoted an expectation or confidence in something as quickly explained by JP Holding here.

We've still got a few more passages to examine so it'll be on to another one in the next entry!

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Do not test the Lord your God?

In the last few entries I've made a case for the reasonableness of Christian faith. In response to such arguments, Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes produce Bible passages that are allegedly anti-reason or anti-evidence.

A Christian will sometimes adopt the extreme position called 'fideism', which is the belief that our faith in God is something completely divorced from our rational faculties. This position is probably self-defeating. If truths about God cannot be arrived at via reason, then we cannot have any reason to believe in fideism. So why accept it? Fortunately very few Christians seriously hold to fideism. The vast majority of well meaning Christians accept that rational thought is in some way a part of faith, but find certain Bible passages that seem to caution against it. Let us then turn to the first of these important passages.

Do not test the Lord your God

The command to not test the Lord your God is explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 6:16

Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah.

Some people would have it that this means that we cannot inquire into the evidence supporting our belief in God. But does this verse really prohibit honest truth-seeking? If it did it would certainly be at odds with some of the verses we looked at in previous entries. We need to look at the event that this verse is referencing. What happened at Massah?

The event is described in Exodus 17. The events that proceed this particular event will likely be familiar to you even if you're not a Christian: Moses leading the Iraelites out of Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. Even if you don't believe all this actually occurred, it is still important to look at it, even as a story, to see what the Biblical text is saying.

In Exodus 17 the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water and quarreling about whether God is really with them or not. Fair enough but are these people really honest doubters inquiring into the truth about God? Hardly, they have been presented with masses of evidence for God's care of them. He even rains bread from the sky for them in the previous chapter. They have ample reason to believe that God is looking after them, they just want him to perform for them at will. Let's look at the context in which Jesus uses the Deuteronomy 6:16 command.

Jesus quotes the command in Matthew 4 when Satan is tempting him (in the desert like the Israelites were funnily enough).

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Clearly Satan (whatever you take him to be or to represent) is not asking Jesus to test the evidential foundations of his belief in God. He is asking him to force God's hand so to speak in producing an act of power. It is to this coercive attempt that Jesus replies with Deuteronomy 6:16.

In conclusion the command to not test the Lord your God has nothing to do with honest truth seeking. It is about needlessly forcing God to demonstrate his power. He is not a magician to perform at our will after all. We will move on then, to look at other verses often interpreted as being anti-reason.