Monday, October 13, 2008

Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 3 of 7: Loftus' continuing Argument from Evil in Why I Became an Atheist

The Evidential Problem of Evil


Loftus begins his treatment of the evidential problem:


Here the skeptical challenge is that theism is not logically inconsistent, but rather that it is implausible.  That is, given the quantity of evil in our world, it is improbable that a good, all-powerful God exists.  Additionally, given the fact that there is pointless or meaningless evil in our world, and there are compelling reasons to think there is, then it’s unlikely that a good, all-powerful God exists. p. 234


It is appropriate here to reiterate two points where Loftus’ argument is inconsistent.  The first is to remember that by “evil” he means “suffering”.  But by removing the moral quality of suffering, his argument says nothing about a “good” God.  The second thing is that, whatever Loftus says about the problem of evil being an “internal” problem for the theist, he’s arguing that God doesn’t exist “given the quantity of evil in our world”.  Either he’s trying to sneak in external evidence, or he’s just being sloppy in his presentation.  Maybe he really means to say “the quantity of evil...for the theist”, or “...on the Christian worldview,” but he doesn’t say that, so we’re left guessing, at least from this quote.

This statement also sets up his argument for the existence of “gratuitous” evil that comes in the subsequent paragraphs.  Gratuitous evil is defined as suffering that has no greater purpose.  It just happens.  Here, he says that there are compelling reasons to think that “pointless or meaningless evil” is a “fact”.

Now to be fair, Loftus’ treatment of the logical and evidential problems of evil come under their own subheadings, and are followed by the subheading “My Specific Case”.  This at least implies that Loftus thinks he can make a case that improves upon his descriptions in these sections.  One could be tempted to think that he’s not making any argument at all until that part of the chapter.  I don’t believe that this would be accurate, though.  Under this subheading and the last, Loftus never criticizes any of the skeptics that he quotes and never speaks of the arguments missing any element that he then purports to be adding in his “specific case”.  Also, he makes statements like the one above about “compelling reasons” to believe in gratuitous evil.  This tells me that, though he does a lot of quoting, he is making the arguments he writes in these sections.

So, what’s wrong with arguing from “gratuitous evil”?  Put simply, it can’t be done if he’s just looking to find an inconsistency in Christianity, which is all that an internal critique can do.  Again, either Loftus is just being sloppy here, not really understanding the difference between internal and external arguments, or he’s trying to sneak in an external argument without himself accounting for the “fact” that he demands a Christian account for.

He offers two examples, ostensibly as his “compelling reasons” to believe in gratuitous evil:


...a little girl...who was severely beaten, raped, and then strangled on New Years Day.  [The second] was of a fawn that was badly burned and slowly died from a forest fire, without any human observer.  Rowe argued that an omnipotent, omniscient being could’ve “prevented the fawn’s apparently pointless suffering.” A wholly good omnipotent being could have stopped the lightning from starting the fire, diverted it, kept the tree from starting on fire, or kept the fawn from being burned, or if burned, could have spared it the intense suffering for days by quickly ending its life.  But since God didn’t do any of these things, such a God doesn’t exist, for he would not allow this fawn to suffer if it doesn’t serve some outweighing attainable good, and not even a theist can come up with a good reason why such a fawn suffered. pp. 234-235


Rowe is right that Christians cannot give specific reasons for every example of suffering in the world, but to expect us to is ridiculous.  Re-read my summary theodicy and you’ll see that it does address all evil in the world, if not specifically, then formally.  The Christian worldview does not pretend to be able to give us a reason for every bad thing that happens.  It only offers the statement that nothing happens outside of the perfect plan of God, and that this evil (whatever event you pick) has its place that, if we knew all that God knows, would make sense to us.

Loftus brings up the fawn and animal suffering several times in these two chapters, and never seems to understand this point.  I find this ironic, since, on the same page as the above quote we find Loftus quoting Terence Penelhum:


“Any evils that a Christian will admit to being in the world, he must also say that these evils were allowed by God because their presence is at least compatible with the Christian’s own moral principles, and that these evils help with the furtherance of bringing about good in the world.  A Christian theist, when faced with what he admits to be an evil, must therefore hold that God allows it because the existence of it brings about good in the world.  To admit the existence of an evil which demonstrably cannot have this function would be to admit a proposition inconsistent with Christian theism.  For such an evil would be pointless.  It is logically inconsistent for the theist to admit the existence of a pointless evil.”  p.235


Penelhum is right.  For this reason and others, Christians do not admit the existence of “an evil which demonstrably cannot [bring about good].”  Loftus has not shown us an evil of this character.  He’s shown us things that the Christian can only guess as to the ultimate purpose for them.  This is not the same thing as what Penelhum is talking about.  Demonstrating that Christians can’t be sure about the ultimate purpose for an evil event is not the same as demonstrating that it cannot have such a purpose.  If Loftus thinks it can, then, to be consistent, he’d also have to say that every major scientific breakthrough in history was preceded by a period of time in which the things learned by that breakthrough couldn’t be true.  That is nonsense.  Mere lack of knowledge of a thing is not equivalent to a demonstration that the thing doesn’t exist.


Loftus’ Specific Case


This brings us to the problem as Loftus sees it.  He begins with some quotes, one by Weisberger, who says:


“Any proposed solution to the problem of evil which does not account for all kinds of evil in the world, both moral and natural, is deficient in some way, since evil is then not shown to be necessary.  And if some evil is not necessary, God’s goodness and/or power is called into question.” p. 235


I’ve already shown that the Christian worldview, while not accounting for every evil specifically, does account for every evil in it’s belief that God is in full control of all that happens and all that He does has a purpose, one that is good because He is good.

In a footnote to the above quote, Loftus says this:


...If my argument is correct, Christian theists cannot even begin to adequately explain why God allows so much suffering in this world.  Apart from that, I’m not the one who must also justify the miracles in the Bible, or theories about the incarnation and the Trinity.  Nor am I asked to justify the atonement, or the fives stages of gospel canonization via uninspired people, leading to the claim the New Testament is inspired, from which he gains his Christian beliefs in the first place.  Christian theists like Reppert must do this before getting to the problem of the suffering and why God purportedly commanded the genocide of the Amalekites.  Reppert shouldn’t even be dealing with the problem of evil because there are so many previous stoppers to his Christian beliefs.  But even if these previous stoppers don’t stop him dead in his tracks, then the final stopper is that his inspired book allows slavery, and human sacrifice, along with divine commanding of genocide, witch, and honor killings.  p.242


I won’t go into detail on all of Loftus’ criticisms of Christianity here--even though he says I have to.  I bring up this footnote to point out a glaring inconsistency in Loftus’ argumentation.  He says that a Christian has to deal with all the previous “stoppers” to his beliefs before dealing with the problem of evil.  Two problems with this come immediately to mind.  The first is that he gives no argument at all why a Christian has to justify every other Christian belief to his satisfaction before dealing with the problem of evil.  He just asserts it with no supporting argument.  The second is that he is again (and even more obviously) doing what he was accusing David Wood of in their radio debate, when he said that when Wood appealed to his other beliefs it showed that he couldn’t “defend the problem of evil in and of itself”.  Here, he is saying that Reppert shouldn’t deal with the problem of evil because of Loftus’ own beliefs that these other Christian beliefs are “previous stoppers”.  Loftus said something similar to this in one of his last comments to my articles on this subject.  If what he said against Wood is true, then he’s admitting here that his argument from evil is weak.  (My statements in this paragraph, by the way, are what an internal critique looks like.)

Is Loftus right? (Now a separate external critique of the footnote)  Is it true that these other issues are “previous stoppers”?  I can’t see how.  The only logical connection between the issues Loftus raises and the problem of evil is that they are (mostly) issues that should be wrestled with and understood by Christians.  There is no logical priority of, say, the Trinity, over against the problem of evil, at least in the sense Loftus seems to be insisting.  The attributes of God in question are His goodness, knowledge, and power, not His triune nature.  Without a good argument to support it, Loftus insistence that Christians “shouldn’t deal with” the problem of evil in and of itself looks like a desperate appeal to other issues rather than dealing with the issue at hand.

 In the rest of Loftus “specific case”, he basically falls prey to the assumption that what we know and think and what God knows and plans are roughly the same thing.  This is the only way his examples and arguments from this point on in the chapter make any sense, so I apologize in advance if my responses to his statements get a bit repetitive.


I’ll assume for the sake of argument that God exists.  Then why didn’t God just create a heavenly world with heavenly bodies in the first place? p. 236


If you read any Christian theodicy, it gives some reasons or purposes for why God allows or decrees the existence of suffering and evil.  Some of these reasons are speculated at, but always God’s infinite wisdom is referenced.  He knows why it is better that we should go through this history than that we just start out in heaven.  I submitted in my theodicy that one reason is to glorify God’s justice and mercy (Rom. 9:22-24), which could not be expressed if things had always been free of evil and suffering.

And remember, since Loftus says he’s only arguing against Christian theism internally, he has to show why I’m being internally inconsistent in order to challenge this belief.

Loftus offers a quote from Pierre Bayle:


“One might as well compare the Godhead with a father who had let the legs of his children be broken in order to display before an entire city the skill which he has is setting bones; One might as well compare the Godhead with a monarch who would allow strife and seditions to spring up throughout his kingdom in order to acquire the glory of having put an end to them.” p. 236


Such things would indeed be wrong for a father or king to do, because other people are their equals in nature.  It would not be wrong, though, for a man to crush and remake a pot, or to cover a painting with white to start over.  The examples given by Bayle do not fit the situation when talking about God.

Loftus posits three moral concerns with God creating the world as we see it:  that we don’t abuse our freedom, that the world will not cause us too much suffering, and that our bodies will provide some measure of well-being for us.  Each of these issues is attacked the same way.  Loftus comes up with lists of “God could’ve done it better” scenarios:


God could keep us from abusing our freedom, too.  He could’ve created us with a stronger propensity to dislike doing wrong just like we have an aversion to drinking motor oil.  We could still drink it if we wanted to, but it’s nauseating. p.237


God could easily keep a person from molesting a child or raping someone if at the very thought of it, the person began to suffer from severe nausea.  We have the ability to do this with alcoholics, so it should be no problem for God to do this with the most heinous of crimes.  p. 237


God could also implant thoughts into a person’s head to prevent him from doing evil; much like in Robert’s case above, except these thoughts would be good ones, from God himself. p. 237


The poison that Saddam Hussein threw on the Kurds and the Zyklon-B pellets dropped down into the Auschwitz gas chambers could have simply “malfunctioned” by being miraculously neutralized (just like Jesus supposedly turned water into wine).  Sure, it would puzzle them, but there are a great many things that take place in our world that are not explainable.  Even if they concluded God performed a miracle here, what’s the harm? Doesn’t God want us to believe in him? p.237


God should not have created predation in the natural world, either.  The amount of creaturely suffering here is atrocious as creatures prey on one another to feed themselves.  there is no good reason for this and every reason against it.  Something must die so that something else can eat. p. 238


Creatures do experience pain in proportion to the development of their central nervous systems, contrary to what Rene Descartes claimed...In lieu of this, all creatures should be vegetarians, or vegans. pp. 238-239


God didn’t even have to create us such that we needed to eat anything at all.  If God created the laws of nature then he could’ve done this. p. 239


In fact, there is no good reason for God to have created animals at all, especially since theists do not consider them part of any eternal scheme, nor are there any moral lessons that animals need to learn from their sufferings.  As a result, William Rowe’s argument about a fawn that is burned in a forest fire and left to die a slow death without any human observer is gratuitous evil, plain and simple.  It serves no greater good. p. 239


I pause in quoting the list here to make some observations.  The idea that God “could’ve done better” is interesting.  By saying this, Loftus is committed to the belief that, if God exists, then Loftus is either smarter or morally superior to that God.  He then concludes that God doesn’t exist.  But, if Loftus were to try to apply these arguments to, say, the Christian God, he’d find that they just don’t work.  That God is the all-wise sovereign ruler of the universe, who simply does not operate on such a puny mental scale as Loftus or anyone else.  For Loftus to suggest that he could be a better creator and ruler of this world than God is to create a straw-man argument against God.  Loftus is not here arguing against the Christian God.  He is arguing against his own made-up concept of what a good God would be like.  Again, I don’t know what to call this kind of argumentation except sloppy.

The second observation I want to make about this last quote is that Loftus is unambiguously appealing to what he considers to be “gratuitous evil”.  Now, either he’s still equating it with “suffering” without any moral content, in which case it is irrelevant, or he does believe that this suffering violates some moral standard.  He has not, as of yet, given us an atheistic justification for that moral standard, which we will see in more detail as we consider his “Atheistic Ethic” later.  Suffice it to say that he is not making any sort of internal critique here, since, by his own admission in quoting Penelhum, the Christian cannot logically believe in gratuitous evils.

Loftus continues the list:


All that seems to be required here is that we have rational powers to think and to choose, the ability to express our thoughts, and bodies that will allow us to exercise our choices.  So we could’ve been created much differently--easily.  p. 239


God could’ve created all human beings with one color skin. p. 240


God could’ve made all creatures sexually self-reproducing. p. 240


God could’ve created us with much stronger immune systems such that there would be no pandemics which decimate whole populations of people. p. 240


God could’ve created us with self-regenerating bodies. p. 240


God could’ve created us with a much higher threshold of pain.  he could’ve given us wings on our backs so we could fly to safety if we fell off a cliff, and gills to keep us from drowning. p. 240


Only if the theist expects very little from such a being can she defend what God has done.  Either God isn’t smart enough to figure out how to create a good world, or he doesn’t have the power to do it, or he just doesn’t care.  You pick.  These are the logical options given this world. p. 240


Most of the above has already been dealt with in principle, but a couple things are worth noting, First, in two examples above, Loftus suggests a difference in degree between what is and what he considers ideal.  He says we could have a higher threshold of pain and stronger immune systems.  He intimates something similar when he says that a little pain is a good thing.  Differences in degree such as this actually do nothing to move his argument forward, as can be seen by example:

First, why do we consider paper-cuts, sunburns, and stubbed toes to be minor sufferings?  I think it’s rather simple.  We know of major sufferings that far outweigh them.  What do small children do when they receive one of these minor sufferings?  They howl and cry as if they’ve lost their whole family in some disaster.  They have nothing greater to compare their suffering to and so consider that suffering to be grave indeed.  What if God prevented all of the major sufferings that Loftus refers to in his book?  What if all we had were these minor pains?  Simple. He would write a book about how terrible God is for not giving us a higher threshold of pain so that we could endure the “intense suffering” of a stubbed toe.  If the worst things we experience were these minor things, we would call them terrible, and Loftus would make the same argument.  If Loftus does think this is a good argument, then couldn’t we say that, since suffering isn’t much worse than we actually experience, that we have evidence that God is providing for our well-being?  If it works one way, it works the other.

Secondly, the statement in that last quote is just false.  Hume’s argument, and Loftus’ reiteration, assume a simplistic and naive understanding of God’s knowledge and goodness, that no thoughtful Christian embraces.  Loftus would do much better to argue against the Christian God as He is and is believed to be than making up this caricature and arguing against that.  This is the straw-man fallacy, plain and simple.

9 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

I'm back to skimming, sorry. But since you won't listen to me why not hear what Daniel Howard-Snyder says? Remember, he's NOT an atheist. He's a Christian philosopher. His conclusion is a meager one. You need to consider what he wrote. Print it off. Deal with it. Of course I don't agree with it, because it doesn't go far anough, but I think you'll learn something from it.

John W. Loftus said...

Skimming to a latter part...

Drew said: What if all we had were these minor pains? Simple. He would write a book about how terrible God is for not giving us a higher threshold of pain so that we could endure the “intense suffering” of a stubbed toe.

If I did write that book then the force of the argument in it would be significantly decreased in proportion to the amount of evil in the world. Hence, such a book would not give anyone a reason to think the Christian God did not exist. But with this present world such a book would indeed give people a reason not to believe. It's up to your God whether the argument has force or not, depending on the amount of suffering in it.

BTW Copyright laws apply. You are not permitted without permission to quote more than 500 words of my book. And I don't give you permission. You must summarize as best as you can or I will call this to the attention of Prometheus Books.

Cheers.

John W. Loftus said...

Skimming up from the bottom...

Drew: The idea that God “could’ve done better” is interesting. By saying this, Loftus is committed to the belief that, if God exists, then Loftus is either smarter or morally superior to that God. He then concludes that God doesn’t exist. But, if Loftus were to try to apply these arguments to, say, the Christian God, he’d find that they just don’t work. That God is the all-wise sovereign ruler of the universe, who simply does not operate on such a puny mental scale as Loftus or anyone else. For Loftus to suggest that he could be a better creator and ruler of this world than God is to create a straw-man argument against God. Loftus is not here arguing against the Christian God. He is arguing against his own made-up concept of what a good God would be like. Again, I don’t know what to call this kind of argumentation except sloppy.

I'm not claiming to be smarter than God, silly. I don't believe he exists. I'm looking at the world and questioning his existence. Since I can easily come up with a better world using my meager intelligence I doubt that an omniscient God exists.

If you want to truly engage me on my terms then you must stop being so sloppy with what I say.

Drew Lewis said...

Mr. Loftus,

Just a few things.

First, my stated purpose for this series is, and has always been, to address the problem of evil as the atheist uses it. It is a "Response to John Loftus..." after all. I've never said it was an "atheist" argument, so your protestations that I should look at other writers besides atheists are not relevant to what I'm addressing. I'm addressing your book and atheistic ethic.

Second, I counted, and I've already gone over the 500 word limit you refer to, so you can alert the authorities if you like. Since much of this material can be found on your blog, I don't see the problem. From this point, I'll be posting links to where any quotes can be found, verbatim or almost so, on your blog. Since you've already made these things publicly available for free, I don't know if you're just trying to silence me or what. I'm just trying to cite my source so that no reader thinks I'm misrepresenting you. I consider the first step of any good rebuttal to be an honest representation of an opponent's argument. Do what you think is right and honest.

Finally, on the question of who's smarter, you or God, I didn't say that you thought you were smarter than God. I know that you don't believe He exists. My point is that your argument assumes that you're smarter than Christian worldview's God if He exists. That you can understand this point is made clear later when attempting to handle the CORNEA defense.

Drew Lewis said...

Mr. Loftus,

I want you to know that I'm familiar with copyright issues, and I want to respect your place as the author of the book I'm responding to. I, of course, have no intention of quoting so much that a person could read your book on my blog. I only intended to be thorough and accurate in my representation of your arguments. So, in order to protect your rights to your work, I will make a stronger effort to paraphrase and quote smaller pieces of the book in future posts.

I have enjoyed your comments so far, and hope that by the conclusion of this response, we'll both understand perfectly each other's position.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

BTW Copyright laws apply. You are not permitted without permission to quote more than 500 words of my book. And I don't give you permission. You must summarize as best as you can or I will call this to the attention of Prometheus Books.

You don't understand copyright law, John—that isn't how it works. You don't get to dictate how many words of your book someone may reproduce; that sort of thing is covered by fair use. And so far, Drew's use seems entirely fair. Of course, I am not a lawyer, and maybe a court would disagree. Maybe you think your book is worth so much to Prometheus that they'll spend thousands of dollars in legal fees finding out. Then again, since these parts of your book are basically just verbatim copies of your non-commercial, freely available online articles, maybe not. Come to think of it, is Prometheus even aware of that? Most publishing houses won't touch second hand stuff that's already been published in some other medium.

Of course, if you're going to be so petty about it that you'll really push the issue, Drew could take down his posts in order to be on the safe side, legally speaking. But copyright bullies are a pet peeve of mine, and I'd feel morally obligated to offer him hosting for these articles on my own blog. Wanna lay bets on the relevance of American legal decisions in New Zealand?

John W. Loftus said...

dominic, you are such a Christian! You make Jesus proud. LOL

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

Actually John, I'm a terrible Christian and I shame my Lord and Savior every day. But I don't think that standing up for a friend is one of the ways in which I do that.

david said...

If I did write that book then the force of the argument in it would be significantly decreased in proportion to the amount of evil in the world. Hence, such a book would not give anyone a reason to think the Christian God did not exist. But with this present world such a book would indeed give people a reason not to believe. It's up to your God whether the argument has force or not, depending on the amount of suffering in it.

If the known evils in the present world were significantly decreased, there would be no means by which to re-assess the probability with respect to that world and determine that the "force of the argument in it would be significantly decreased."

To do so would require that you to qualify how much evil one would expect to begin with, but you have twice refused to answer that question. It seems rather arbitrary and subjective so say that the amount of intense suffering in the world is excessive if you haven't established a reference point by which to measure excess.