Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The (First) Loftus-Wood Debate Is Now Available Online

My first debate with John Loftus on the Problem of Evil can be watched below. John and I decided to make it available several months ago, but, unfortunately, neither of us had a clue how to do it. John did his homework, however, and is now an expert on Google Video. (Note: Due to some technical difficulties on the evening of the debate, the sound quality isn't very good. So be prepared to crank up the volume and listen closely.)

I'm looking forward to feedback. (And wouldn't anyone like to see a debate titled, "Loftus vs. Wood III: Why an Atheist Became a Christian, and a Christian Became an Atheist"?






For John's comments on the debate, see "Comments on the Loftus-Wood Debate on the Problem of Evil."

For my comments on the debate, see "The Will to Disbelieve: A Critical Review of the Loftus-Wood Debate."

Click here to listen to a Podcast of my second debate with John Loftus, on "The Debate Hour."

For a review of the second debate, see Mary Jo Sharp's "Loftus-Wood Round Two: Another Failed Argument from Evil."

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Hitchens-Wilson Debate

Here’s an excellent written debate between Christopher Hitchens (God Is not Great) and Douglas Wilson (Letter from a Christian Citizen) on the topic “Is Christianity Good for the World?” Both participants are good writers and quite witty. I think Wilson won by a significant margin, as Hitchens failed to make a strong case and never really answered Wilson’s objections. Hitchens briefly mentions the Problem of Evil, though the real value of the debate (for purposes of this blog) is the discussion of objective moral values.

In his opening, Wilson raises the issue:

In your concluding paragraph you make a great deal out of your individualism and your right to be left alone with the “most intimate details of [your] life and mind.” Given your atheism, what account are you able to give that would require us to respect the individual? How does this individualism of yours flow from the premises of atheism? Why should anyone in the outside world respect the details of your thought life any more than they respect the internal churnings of any other given chemical reaction? That’s all our thoughts are, isn’t that right? Or, if there is a distinction, could you show how the premises of your atheism might produce such a distinction?

Wilson repeats his challenge in every imaginable way, yet Hitchens’s most detailed response is this:

Our morality evolved. Just as we have. Natural selection and trial-and-error have given us the vague yet grand conception of human rights and some but not yet all of the means of making these rights coherent and consistent.

Wilson, of course, had already challenged this response:

I have been asking you to provide a warrant for morality, given atheism, and you have mostly responded with assertions that atheists can make what some people call moral choices. But what I have been after is what rational warrant they can give for calling one choice “moral” and another choice “not moral.” You finally appealed to “innate human solidarity,” a phrase that prompted a series of pointed questions from me. In response, you now tell us that we have an innate predisposition to both good and wicked behavior. But we are still stuck. What I want to know (still) is what warrant you have for calling some behaviors “good” and others “wicked.” If both are innate, what distinguishes them? What could be wrong with just flipping a coin?

I’m not sure why, but every time I hear theists bring up this objection, I actually expect atheists to come up with some sort of reasoned answer. My expectation may be put as follows: “Here Hitchens has written a bestseller on why Christianity is bad for the world. Surely he must have carefully thought through these issues. Hence, when asked for an explanation for his moral views, he will be able to give one.” Yet he wasn’t able to give one. Wilson sums up the situation nicely:

You are a gifted writer, and you have a flair for polemical voltage. But strip it all away, and what do you have underneath? You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not. But God has gifted you with a remarkable ability to denounce what ought not to be. And so, because you reject him, you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister who wrote in the margin of his notes, “Argument weak. Shout here.”

(Wilson’s assessment here applies not only to Hitchens, but also to Dawkins, Harris, and other atheist fundamentalists.)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Dawkins Interviews Alister McGrath

Here’s an interesting discussion between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, which was edited out of Dawkins’s video The Root of All Evil? They start talking about the Problem of Evil in the middle of the interview, but the entire program is worth watching.

I find it interesting that Dawkins frequently claims that he’s interested in dialogue with theists and that he just can’t find any. Yet he refuses to debate his views with Christians (click here for one example). It’s as if he’s saying, “I really want to discuss this stuff with Christians, but not really.”

Given Dawkins’s reluctance to engage with knowledgeable theists, I was impressed that he interviewed McGrath. It is clear, however, that when Dawkins says he’s interested in “dialogue,” what he really means is that he wants extended Q & A sessions, with him doing the questioning.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger, Part Five: Free Will and the Women of Stepford

[This is the fifth part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]

The strength of the Argument from Evil comes from the prevalence of suffering in our world. Some arguments in the Philosophy of Religion are so subtle and complicated that they lose their force somewhere in the lengthy lists of highly abstract premises. The Argument from Evil, on the other hand, is constructed upon the sturdy foundation of human and animal suffering, for which innumerable examples may be given.

Yet many theodicies (i.e. attempts to account for evil in terms of certain good states of affairs that cannot be had without suffering) are also based on features of experience that are obvious. For instance, many theists point to the value of free will and argue that human freedom is so significant that God may allow a degree of moral evil simply because our freedom is valuable—even if we misuse it. Similarly, theists often point to the value of hardship in developing virtues and in helping us recognize our dependence on something greater than ourselves.

Difficulties arise when some atheists reject the importance of the goods appealed to by the theist. “Who cares about free will?” an atheist may ask. “What’s so important about virtue?” asks another. Here the theist finds herself in a difficult spot, for she cannot prove that a value judgment is true. All she can say is something like “Well, free will is quite important to me.”

Of course, a theist could turn the atheist’s objection around and say, “Okay, what’s so important about suffering?” This would be a shocking reply, since suffering is so obviously important. But that’s exactly the point. Although suffering is extremely significant, to say that it is significant is nevertheless a value judgment. What does this mean? It means that some things cannot be proven with arguments, even though they are quite obviously true.

When the atheist complains that free will isn’t important, he is taking advantage of this fact. He is saying, in effect, “Everyone knows that free will is important, but you can’t prove it, so I’m not going to accept your response.” At this point, it may be helpful for the theist to offer a few thought-experiments. For example, the theist might ask the following: “Suppose you had a button, and if you push the button, all suffering will end. But here’s the catch. From that point on, all of our decisions will be made for us. We will forever lose our ability to decide what we want to do, and we will be automatons for all eternity. Would you push the button?” Some atheists, such as John Loftus and Andrea Weisberger, would answer in the affirmative. But most people would rather retain their freedom, even if means that we will continue to suffer.

Consider another example. After my first debate with John Loftus, I brought up the movie The Stepford Wives (read my post here), where the husbands of Stepford replaced their human wives with beautiful robots who obey their every command. I asked the audience how many of them would prefer a “perfect” robot wife (with no free will) to an “imperfect” human wife. Interestingly, the only person in the room to raise his hand was Loftus! Thus, there were several atheists in the room who understood that there’s something important about freedom. Love from a wife who is free to leave is better than the “love” of a robot who is programmed to obey.

This is quite significant, for when atheists like Loftus and Weisberger question the value of free will, this may reflect an abnormally low opinion of human freedom on their part. With this in mind, let us consider the brief statement of the free will theodicy that I offered in my opening statement.

Free will theodicies are attempts to explain why God might permit moral evil. They’re based on two central ideas:

(1) A world containing free beings is better than a world without free beings, since only free beings can genuinely love, or choose the good, or be moral in any meaningful sense.

(2) True freedom entails that we also be free not to love, or to choose the bad.

On this view, moral evil is a misuse of moral freedom. So genocide, and child abuse, and rape—these would be evils that result from a misuse of freedom. But otherwise, freedom is a wonderful gift.

I offered a more complete treatment of freedom in my rebuttal, but Weisberger only comments on my opening statement. Referring to the two central ideas listed above, she remarks:

Of course, both of these claims are highly questionable. Why is it the case that a world with free will is better than a world without? How is the value of free will quantified so as to make such a claim? What measurements would be used to determine that free will is so intrinsically valuable that without it our lives would somehow be diminished? Considering that god itself does not have free will, namely the ability to even choose to do evil since god is perfectly good, it does not seem that it is really such a boon to existence.

And, does true freedom really entail the choice to choose evil? If we had the choice between very good, good, and uneventful actions, would that not be a real choice? Is it not a real choice if I am only choosing between oatmeal and Frosted Flakes for breakfast? Could not free will also refer to the ability to choose to act, and not necessarily to commit the act? (As in choosing to create a plan to do evil, but not have the ability to carry out the plan?) If so, then is not having the ability to fly, no matter how hard we flap our arms, a limitation on free choice? In other words, is ‘true freedom’ the same as absolute freedom? If so, then we do not have that now.

This hardly qualifies as a refutation of free will theodicies. Let’s take each of her criticisms in turn.

(1) “Why is it the case that a world with free will is better than a world without?”

As I said, only free beings can genuinely love, or choose the good, or be moral in any meaningful sense. But Weisberger ignores this simple point without commenting. If she finds it difficult to understand why free will is important, she only needs to ponder the plight of the women of Stepford.

(2) “How is the value of free will quantified so as to make such a claim? What measurements would be used to determine that free will is so intrinsically valuable that without it our lives would somehow be diminished?”

Notice that Weisberger is merely pointing to the fact that value judgments cannot be quantified in the manner in which, say, weight or height can be quantified. Yet the same is true of the value of human suffering. Hence, if value judgments are going to be inadmissible in arguments, atheists must drop the Argument from Evil.

(3) “Considering that god itself does not have free will, namely the ability to even choose to do evil since god is perfectly good, it does not seem that it is really such a boon to existence.”

Here Weisberger demonstrates some confusion as to what free will is. She defines free will as “the ability to choose evil,” which is a complete misunderstanding. We can correct this error by distinguishing between two different levels of free will. On one level, freedom of will means the ability to choose what we want to do. I have the option of going to see two different movies tonight, and I choose one over the other, because that’s the one I prefer. No one forces me to make a choice against my will. Notice that the Stepford wives would have at least some freedom on this level. That is, the Stepford wife chooses to get her husband some nachos, not because he forces her, but because she wants to please him.

But this brings us to a second level of freedom. A Stepford wife does exactly what she wants to do, but the reason she wants to do it is that she was programmed to have a specific will. Now that she has this specific will, she is free to do as she chooses. But would we say that this freedom is genuine? Of course not. I would argue that first-level freedom is only meaningful if we are not programmed (i.e. we must also have second-level freedom).

With this in mind, does God have free will? Since God can certainly do what he wants to do, he has first-level freedom. Moreover, since he was not programmed by anyone to have a certain will, God also has second-level freedom.

So God clearly has free will. Why, then, does Weisberger define freedom as “the ability to choose evil”? Her misunderstanding here is based on the difference between humans and God. If God programs a human being to choose certain things over others, then that person does not have true freedom. Hence, if a person is going to have true freedom, he must be able to do things that do not accord with the will of God. To choose something which is against God’s will would be evil. This means that if humans are to be free, they must have the ability to choose evil. But to apply this rule to God would be a mistake. Weisberger is saying, in effect, “God cannot choose to do that which is against God’s will,” which is true but meaningless, and has nothing to do with free will.

(4) “And, does true freedom really entail the choice to choose evil?”

As we have seen, true freedom consists of two criteria: (i) the ability to choose according to your will, and (ii) a will that is not programmed by someone else. Thus, for human beings to be free, we must not be programmed by God. If we are not programmed by God, then we are free to act against his will. If we are free to act against his will, then, for humans, true freedom entails the ability to choose evil. (Note: This doesn’t mean that we must choose evil, only that we have the ability.)

(5) “If we had the choice between very good, good, and uneventful actions, would that not be a real choice? Is it not a real choice if I am only choosing between oatmeal and Frosted Flakes for breakfast?”

One might reasonably argue that choosing an “uneventful” action over a “very good” action would be evil, since we would be choosing something worse over something better. (Yes, Dr. Weisberger, it’s quite easy to play with definitions. But it doesn’t really move the argument forward.) I would agree that choosing one breakfast over another is a choice, but this is hardly meaningful freedom. To illustrate, let’s return to The Stepford Wives. Suppose a husband says, along with Dr. Weisberger, “Well, one freedom is as good as the next. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to program my wife to obey me in all matters related to cleaning, sex, and other types of service. But I will give her the freedom to choose her own breakfast. Is this not true freedom?” No, it’s not. And a programmed wife isn’t very far from a blow-up doll.

(6) “Could not free will also refer to the ability to choose to act, and not necessarily to commit the act? (As in choosing to create a plan to do evil, but not have the ability to carry out the plan?) If so, then is not having the ability to fly, no matter how hard we flap our arms, a limitation on free choice? In other words, is ‘true freedom’ the same as absolute freedom? If so, then we do not have that now.”

Here I can’t help but think that Dr. Weisberger must have traveled a long way from her field of expertise. There is an obvious distinction between freedom of will and freedom of action. To have free will is to have the ability to choose what we want to do. To have freedom of action is to have the ability to carry out what we decide to do.

Weisberger implies that God could have made us so that we have the freedom to choose evil, but not the ability to carry out our evil plans. To some extent, that is what God has done. Suppose, just for fun, that John Loftus gets carried away with one of his “I-don’t-understand-why-God-would-create-anything” arguments. Obsessed with the idea that the world is an awful place that should not exist, John decides to melt the entire universe. Can he do it? Of course not.

But here Dr. Weisberger would respond, “Well, why take away our ability to do anything wrong?” Now let’s try to figure out what this could mean. People kick and stab one another. If God were to take away our ability to do these things, it would mean either (1) that God takes away our legs and our ability to form weapons, or (2) that God performs a miracle whenever we decide to do one of these things. If Dr. Weisberger says that God should do (1), I would reply that this is absurd. We could also head-butt each other, so God would have to remove our heads as well. So she is left with (2), and I would have a couple of objections to raise. First, a world where we are free to will whatever horrible things we choose, but where we can never carry out our evil intentions, is a world without moral development. Think about it. The reason we want people to develop morally is so that they won’t do certain things. But if we take away their ability to do anything immoral, we have thereby taken away the need for moral development. People could be evil to the core, and there would be no reason to encourage any change. Hence, if morality is important (and I would say that it is), Dr. Weisberger’s point fails. (But we’ll have more to say about morality when we discuss soul-building theodicies.)

Second, a world of constant miracles would have a significant effect not only on freedom of action, but on freedom of will as well. We would know, beyond all doubt, that God exists. Most atheists seem to think that if God exists, he should immediately appear to us. But more careful thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, have noted that undeniable proof of God’s existence would destroy morality. I have explained this elsewhere, but I will repeat the argument here.

Suppose you’re walking down the street, and you find a purse filled with money. Some people would return the purse to its owner, while some would keep it. Those who return it would be doing the right thing for the right reason. Those who keep it would be doing the wrong thing, and they would be acting from a wrong motive. Now let’s change the situation. Suppose you’re walking down the street, and you find a purse full of money, but there’s a police officer standing there watching you. At this point, all of us would do the right thing. We would all return the purse. But we would be returning it because there was a police officer standing there, not because it was the moral thing to do. Moreover, even people who would have returned it anyway would now be returning it, at least in part, because there was a police officer standing there. That is, they would never be faced with the decision of whether to keep it or return it, and so they would never even have the opportunity to perform an action of genuine moral worth.

Now what would happen if God started going around intervening whenever we did something wrong? Well, everyone would be convinced that God exists. That would be good, wouldn’t it? But at what cost? Everyone would know that we’re all being watched at all times. We would all know that there is a cosmic policeman everywhere we go—an all-knowing, all-seeing policeman, ready to zap us whenever we mess up. Yes, our behavior would be much better than it is now. But our actions would have no moral worth at all. We wouldn’t be acting for the right reasons. We’d be acting out of fear—fear of getting zapped. Thus, once again we find that the atheist’s suggestion, if carried out by God, would destroy something that many people find extremely important.

And now we may simply turn Dr. Weisberger’s mode of questioning back upon her. How does one quantify the value of morality, or of freedom of will, or of freedom of action? Who are you to say that the world would be better off if we were stripped of the very things that make life most valuable? How can you expect people to think that a world of programmed wives and programmed husbands would be better than the world we have now?

The point of these questions is simple. As we saw in a previous post, the burden of proof in the Argument from Evil is on the atheist. It is not the theist who must show that freedom is valuable, since we already know that it is. It is rather the atheist who must show that the very things we hold most dear are, when compared to pain and pleasure, not valuable at all. But many people simply won’t be persuaded by such hedonistic thinking.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the importance of freedom justifies all suffering. I’m not arguing that, nor do I even believe it. We must always take the Problem of Evil quite seriously, because human suffering is a terrible thing. But at the same time, atheists should take the value of freedom seriously. That is, when theists point to the value of free will as a good of our world, atheists shouldn’t casually dismiss the claim with a series of flawed questions. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Dr. Weisberger does.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger: Supplement on Burden of Proof

Before we move on to theodicies, a last word on burden of proof might be helpful. While it seems quite obvious to nearly everyone that the burden of proof rests on the person making an argument, some atheists are still resisting the idea that they bear the burden of proof when they claim that the Argument from Evil proves the non-existence of God. As a final point, I would add the following to my previous arguments.

Consider a dialogue between a hypothetical atheist and his theist opponent.

ATHEIST: I can prove that God doesn’t exist! I’ve got the “Argument from Babies”!

THEIST: I’m not quite familiar with that one.

ATHEIST: It’s simple. Babies are gross and annoying. They throw up all the time. They fill up their diapers with all sorts of disgusting substances. They scream and cry while people are trying to sleep. They can’t take care of themselves or anyone else, so they’re completely useless. It’s obvious that God would never have created babies or a world that has babies in it. Hence, God doesn’t exist.

THEIST: I have to confess that I like babies. But even if I didn’t, I still wouldn’t think that you can defend this argument. If you want me to agree with you, you’ll have to show me that your argument actually proves what you say it proves. Let’s see your case.

ATHEIST: No problem! Here’s my argument:

1. If God exists, babies would not exist.

2. Babies exist.

3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

That’s straightforward Modus Tollens. What could be simpler?

THEIST: Well, now you’ll have to show that your first premise is true. And you’ll need to defend your claims against my criticisms.

ATHEIST: Not at all! Andrea Weisberger and John Loftus say that the theist always bears the burden of proof. Since you’re the one saying that God exists, which is like saying that there are invisible green gremlins in microchips, you have to show that my argument doesn’t work!

The difficulty here should be obvious. According to Weisberger, arguments for atheism get a free pass. That is, we should simply assume that they prove their conclusion until the theist proves otherwise. But this is just silly. Would we say that the onus of proof lies with the theist when an atheist presents his Argument from Babies? Would the theist also bear the burden of proof if the atheist makes an "Argument from Twinkies"? This would be absurd, yet it follows from Weisberger's claim.

The point here is a simple one. Unless the atheist shows that a certain argument has true premises and valid logic, that it is free from ambiguous terms and unproven assumptions, and that it successfully resists criticism, why should anyone assume that the argument proves anything?

The only reasonable position to take on the matter seems to be the one I’ve advocated all along, but which atheists so adamantly resist. The person making the argument bears the burden of proof. If the proponent of an argument happens to be an atheist, the world can hardly be expected to grant him special epistemological privileges on that account. (Note: The significance of this fact will become apparent as we discuss theodicies.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger, Part Four: Theistic Personalism, Classical Theism, and Compulsive Correctomania

[This is the fourth part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]

As I have pointed out in previous posts, a person’s arguments often reveal something about his or her mode of thinking. In “Sophie’s Choice and Andrea’s Scorn,” for instance, we saw that Dr. Weisberger seems to criticize my claims even when there are no mistakes whatsoever. Another error on her part will serve as a brief introduction to two different camps of theists, who respond to the Argument from Evil quite differently.

In my opening statement, I was careful to point out that the arguments I would be using were by no means the only arguments theists could offer in response to suffering. Indeed, there were entire categories of responses that I would not be using. As an example, I pointed to a distinction between two views known as classical theism and theistic personalism. Theistic personalists believe that God is a person—that is, God is like us, only much more powerful and intelligent. Classical theists are quite different. They reject the view that God is a person. Thus, God is not the sort of being who might come to our rescue if we fall into a pit. To think of God in this way is, according to classical theists, shear anthropomorphism.

Most theists writing on apologetics today are theistic personalists, and this is the view I lean towards (although I sympathize with classical theists). This is quite relevant for discussions of the Argument from Evil, for if classical theists are correct, most of the atheist’s complaints make no sense at all. If God is not the sort of being who might come to our rescue, because God is not like us, then it makes no sense to say, “Why didn’t God protect me when I fell into a pit?”

Classical theists and theistic personalists agree that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good. The notion of personhood, however, means that these attributes are interpreted differently. As I said in the debate, when someone like Thomas Aquinas (a paradigm classical theist) said that God is good, he didn’t mean that God is an extremely well-behaved person. Classical theists don’t view God as a moral agent. When a theistic personalist, on the other hand, says that God is good, he means, among other things, that God’s behavior is exceptionally good.

The point of these opening remarks was to show that atheists shouldn’t presume that, if they defeat one theist’s collection of responses to the Argument from Evil, they have thereby refuted all theists. I don’t agree with classical theists when they respond to the Argument from Evil, but I recognize that their position is immune to certain challenges which I, as a personalist, must face.

Dr. Weisberger responded to these comments with some extraordinarily odd remarks:

Wood argues that the concept of god’s goodness is not a claim about personal behavior, but about essential features. Despite a misplaced reference to Thomas Aquinas’ pronouncement that ‘god is good’ (since Aquinas was loathe to apply moral predicates in any meaningful sense to god) this concept is abandoned.

That was her assessment of my comments, but there are a few problems in her dismissal. First, she says that I argue that God’s goodness is not a claim about behavior. This is, of course, false. I merely stated that this is the position of classical theists, and I specifically said that I lean towards personalism.

Second, Dr. Weisberger says that I was wrong to claim that Thomas Aquinas referred to God as “good,” since he was “loathe to apply moral predicates in any meaningful sense to god.” Here Dr. Weisberger has, quite surprisingly, confused Aquinas with certain other medieval theologians. Consider the following quotation from Aquinas, and judge whether I made a mistake in saying that he held that God is good:

We should especially associate goodness with God. For something is good in so far as it is desirable. But everything desires its perfection, and an effect’s perfection and form consists in resembling its efficient cause (since every efficient cause produces an effect like itself). So an efficient cause is desirable and may be called good because what is desired from it is that the effect share its goodness by resembling it. Clearly then, since God is the first efficient cause of everything, goodness and desirability belong to him. (Summa Theologiae, Ia13.2, Brian Davies, tr.)

It is true that some medieval thinkers held that we can only describe God negatively, e.g. by saying what God is not (for instance, “God is not corporeal,” etc.). But Aquinas is not in this camp. He believed that when we say that God is good, or holy, or glorious, or powerful, we speak sensibly and meaningfully. But he also held that when we say that God is good, we don’t mean the same thing as when we say that Bob is good. We apply terms to God analogically, but this doesn’t mean that our words are meaningless. This is, however, exactly what I claimed in my opening statement when I said that goodness, for Aquinas, didn’t mean good behavior.

Finally, Dr. Weisberger says that, after my “misplaced” (yet completely accurate) reference to Aquinas, I “abandoned” the point. But the whole purpose of my comments was to call attention to a position that I wouldn’t be defending, so that the audience would understand that theists differ on this issue!

I think these details are quite significant. In my last post, I showed that Dr. Weisberger criticizes my comments on the movie Sophie’s Choice, when I had made no mistake at all. Indeed, in her response, Dr. Weisberger appealed to rule utilitarianism and deontological ethics without realizing that these frameworks were completely consistent with what I had said. And we find the same mistake today, where she attempts to correct my reference to Thomas Aquinas, and bases her correction on her own mistaken view!

The purpose of my response isn’t merely to point out a blunder on Dr. Weisberger’s part. Since she hasn’t taught philosophy in a while, it’s understandable that she might make a few errors here and there (and we all make them). The point I’d like to draw attention to is that she approaches the writings of theists with a hypercritical mindset, which compels her to find faults even where there aren’t any. If I were to name this mindset, I might call it “Compulsive Correctomania.”

I also think this is related to her stance on the Argument from Evil. As I noted in the first part of my response, Dr. Weisberger believes that the Argument from Evil shows that theists are simply irrational. Yet many prominent proponents of the argument reject such a strong view. The difference, I would suggest, is that Dr. Weisberger approaches the argument with a stronger bias against theism. I can’t see any other explanation for why a PhD philosopher would respond to my arguments with errors regarding ethical issues and medieval philosophy that any good first year philosophy major would be able to spot.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger, Part Three: Sophie’s Choice and Andrea’s Scorn

[This is the third part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]

When theists respond to the Argument from Evil, certain objections are to be expected. For instance, if the theist points to the value of free will, it makes sense for the atheist to question whether this really solves the problem. Nevertheless, some atheist objections are entirely unexpected. As odd as such objections seem, however, they often tell us something quite valuable about the atheist’s mode of thinking.

In my opening statement during my first debate with John Loftus, I noted that there is a difference between an intellectually satisfying response and an emotionally satisfying response. To illustrate, I described a powerful scene in the movie Sophie’s Choice. Sophie is standing in line, waiting to enter a concentration camp during World War II. She has her two small children with her, and she pleads with one of the guards to release her. The guard, however, puts Sophie in one of the most difficult moral dilemmas we could imagine. He tells her that one of her children has to die, and that Sophie must choose the child who dies. If she doesn’t choose, both of her children will be killed.

Sophie says that she can’t possibly make such a choice, and she begs the man to reconsider. But he orders his men to take both children. When the soldiers come to take the children to the death chamber, Sophie cries out, “Take my daughter!” So the Nazis take Sophie’s screaming daughter to the furnace. Sophie’s son is later taken to the children’s camp. At the end of the movie (I apologize for the plot spoiler), Sophie commits suicide. She could never forgive herself for sending her own daughter to be burned in a furnace.

In the debate, after explaining Sophie’s dilemma, I added the following:

Now here’s where we can see the difference between an intellectual struggle and an emotional struggle. On an intellectual level, there was nothing wrong with what Sophie did. She was forced to make that decision. But emotionally, she could never forgive herself. I think that responses to the Problem of Evil are analogous to that. Even if we find answers that are sufficient on an intellectual level, this may do nothing to overcome the pain we feel when we experience tragedy and loss.

The point, then, is that there are different versions of the Problem of Evil. There is what we might call the Intellectual Problem of Evil, where we try to reconcile certain propositions with other propositions. But there is also the Emotional Problem of Evil, which concerns how to comfort people who are suffering. In a debate, we are dealing with the intellectual aspect of the problem. My point was that we should be careful to note the difference between (1) rejecting an argument because it doesn’t make sense, and (2) rejecting an argument because it doesn’t comfort us in our pain. Debates are designed to deal with intellectual issues; relationships and counseling are better areas for dealing with emotional issues.

Whether a person agrees with me or disagrees with me that debates should deal with intellectual problems, however, is beside the point here. Andrea Weisberger took issue not with my contention that debates aren’t the place for the Emotional Problem of Evil, but with my claim that Sophie was morally blameless. Consider Dr. Weisberger’s reasoning here:

Wood argues that on intellectual grounds, but perhaps not emotional, there is a reason for suffering. He uses the example of the plot in the film Sophie’s choice. Sophie, while standing in line to the gas chambers with her two small children, must select one child over another to save -- under duress from a Nazi. If she fails to select one, all three will die. If she plays the Nazi’s cruel game, two of them live. She chooses her son and sends off her daughter to die. Wood claims that this was an acceptable intellectual choice, though emotionally devastating. In the film, Sophie eventually commits suicide.

However, is such a choice justified on intellectual moral grounds? Is it the case that we have some definitive framework for determining a morally correct choice here? And if so, is there obvious evidence for adopting an act utilitarianism over a rule utilitarian or even deontological approach -- which might claim that since all human lives are infinitely (or even equally valuable) one cannot then choose between them? To make this claim, and in light of the background of Nazi insanity, implies that there was a logically coherent and correct response to the Nazi proposition of choosing to save one of your children and condemn the other to death. This is not a rational proposition, and there is no rationally based correct response to such horror. There is not even a moral framework, let alone a meaningful language external to the incoherence of the Holocaust, to judge the actions of the film’s protagonist.

I was, quite frankly, flabbergasted at this response. Atheists who present the Argument from Evil typically portray themselves as the sympathetic participants in the debate, while theists are cast as cold-hearted monsters who can’t fathom what people go through. But here we have Weisberger arguing that, in sympathizing with Sophie’s decision, I’ve made a tremendous blunder. The error, however, belongs entirely to Dr. Weisberger.

While I find it difficult to believe that anyone would be required to make a case for Sophie’s moral justification, so be it. What alternatives was Sophie left with? One, she could do nothing, in which case both of her children would be killed. Two, she could choose one of her children to die, in which case one of her children would live. (We could posit another alternative, where Sophie tries to grab a Nazi’s gun and dies along with her children, but we’ll limit the options to two.)

Dr. Weisberger seems to agree that Sophie would be justified if we adopt an act utilitarianism framework. According to act utilitarians, an act is justified if it results in a better state of affairs than alternative acts. But Weisberger apparently thinks that Sophie’s decision wouldn’t be justified on a rule utilitarian or deontological framework. This simply isn’t the case, however. According to rule utilitarianism, an act is right if it accords with certain rules that are known to result in better states of affairs. Now here’s a rule: Protect your children as much as possible. Appealing to such a rule, one might argue as follows: “If Sophie doesn’t choose which of her children will die, both children will die. Hence, the only way to save a child (i.e. the only way to act in accordance with the rule we have laid out) is to choose one of her children to die.” Sophie, then, was morally justified. (An atheist might respond that choosing to send one of her children to die would violate our rule; but this isn’t the case. Both children stand condemned already. Unless Sophie acts, both children will be sent to their deaths. Hence, the only power Sophie has in such a situation is to save a child who is about to die, and she does.)

But what about deontological ethics? Deontological systems emphasize duties over outcomes. That is, what matters most is not the result of your act, but whether you acted from the appropriate motive. So let’s lay down a duty: People ought to protect their children as much as possible. By appealing to duty, Sophie’s defender could reason thus: “Sophie has a duty to protect her children. But in this situation, she can either protect one child, or neither child. Duty demands that she protects her children as much as possible, which means that she must save one of her children. Hence, in making her choice, Sophie does her duty, and is therefore morally justified.”

Dr. Weisberger could raise two objections here. First, she could argue that if Sophie refrains from making a decision, the Nazis will kill both of her children, yet she wouldn’t have sent them to die, whereas, if she chooses which of her children will die, she plays an active role in that child’s death. But this would be a poor understanding of the situation. In this situation, not making a choice is a choice. That is, in not choosing which child will die, Sophie is choosing to allow both children to die, when she has the opportunity to save one of them. Thus, either way, Sophie make a choice, and the best choice is the one that saves a life.

Second, Dr. Weisberger might claim that, although Sophie was justified in choosing to save one of her children, she was not justified in choosing to save her son rather than her daughter. But what sense would it make to say, “Yes, you’re justified in choosing one of your children to live, but you’re not justified in choosing a particular child to live.” I would argue that, in such a forced, momentous decision, with no opportunity for careful deliberation, Sophie would be morally justified in choosing either child. But if Dr. Weisberger wants to grasp at straws, we could argue that Sophie was justified in choosing her son over her daughter. Her son, for instance, was older and more likely to survive in a concentration camp than her daughter.

Hence, given the situation Sophie was in and the alternatives available to her, I simply cannot fathom how Dr. Weisberger could object to my claim that Sophie was morally justified in the choice she made. But I think this tells us something about Dr. Weisberger’s approach to the Argument from Evil and to my response. It seems that Dr. Weisberger isn’t examining theistic replies and merely drawing attention to genuine weaknesses. Rather, she is attacking every claim indiscriminately, even if the theist is completely correct. (We’ll see more of this in the next post.) Further, Dr. Weisberger’s response to my claim about Sophie should cause us to question her ability to examine theodicies objectively. Theodicies are attempts to show that God is morally justified in allowing suffering in our world. But if Dr. Weisberger rejects the idea that Sophie was morally justified even though she took the best alternative available to her, what are we to think when Dr. Weisberger rejects the idea that God is morally justified in choosing one alternative over another? Apparently, no matter what Sophie chose to do, Dr. Weisberger would find fault, just as she would find fault no matter what God chose to do. Ironically, the point of the Sophie's Choice illustration was that we shouldn't let our feelings cloud our judgment.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger, Part Two: Burden of Proof and the Argument from Evil

[This is the second part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]

Theists maintain that God exists. As such, it’s quite reasonable to hold that theists bear the burden of proof when they argue that the proposition “God exists” is true. The issue becomes less clear, however, when we consider propositions such as “God does not exist” or “Atheism is true.” Who bears the burden of proof here? The theist would be inclined to say that, since the atheist is making a truth-claim (i.e. that God is not a part of reality), the atheist bears the burden of proof in making such a claim. Atheists have done quite a bit of work rejecting this view. For instance, they define “atheism” not as a belief in the non-existence of God, but as the absence of belief in God. Thus, former atheist Antony Flew comments:

Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ‘someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter. (“The Presumption of Atheism”)

Difficulties with this tactic arise for the following reason: Many atheists are positive atheists—that is, they assert that God doesn’t exist. But when debates arise, they suddenly become negative atheists, i.e. people who merely aren’t theists. It is therefore interesting to discuss burden of proof with atheists such as Andrea Weisberger, who is a positive atheist. For although she is what we might call an “evangelical” atheist, she nevertheless claims that, even when arguments for atheism are being investigated, the burden of proof is on the theist.

Thus, when the Argument from Evil is being assessed, some atheists are in the awkward position of saying, in effect, “I have an argument that proves the non-existence of God, though I don’t bear the burden of proof in showing that my argument succeeds.” Yet nearly everyone would agree that, as Flew states, “The onus of proof lies on the proposition, not on the opposition.” And what is the proposition? That God does not exist, and that we can know that God does not exist because of a certain argument.

In order to see the problem with Dr. Weisberger’s view, an illustration may be helpful. Consider the following three claims.

(1) Substance Dualism is true.

(2) Substance Dualism is false.

(3) The Problem of Other Minds shows that Substance Dualism is false.

Substance Dualism is the view associated most commonly with Descartes. It holds (i) that physical properties and mental properties are distinct, and (ii) that physical properties and mental properties inhere in different substances. Now suppose a substance dualist tells her physicalist associate that Substance Dualism is true. Who bears the burden of proof? The substance dualist, of course. But what if the physicalist replies that substance dualism is false? I would think that the physicalist bears the burden of proof, but I agree that this would be debatable. Now let us suppose further that the physicalist makes claim (3), that the “Problem of Other Minds” proves that Substance Dualism is false. (The Problem of Other Minds is this: If Substance Dualism is true, then we have little or no knowledge of other minds, since we only interact with bodies. But we clearly know lots of things about other minds. Hence, Substance Dualism must be false.) I can’t see how it can be denied that the physicalist would bear the burden of proof in such a situation. For what is at issue is not merely the truth or falsity of Substance Dualism, but whether a particular argument has a particular effect upon this view of reality. It should be noted here that this debate could easily take place between two people who reject Substance Dualism. That is, one physicalist could argue that the Problem of Other Minds shows that Substance Dualism is false, while another physicalist responds, “Of course Substance Dualism is false. But the Problem of Other Minds proves nothing. Rather, the Problem of Interaction is what shows that Substance Dualism is false.” (The “Problem of Interaction” concerns how a mental substance can interact with a physical substance.)

The topic of my debate with John Loftus was “Does the extent of suffering in our world make the existence of God implausible?” As I noted in my opening statement, I would have denied this proposition even when I was an atheist. While I was convinced that theism is false, I simply didn’t believe that suffering is what makes the existence of God implausible. Hence, we could imagine a debate between two atheists who disagree about the significance of suffering as it relates to theism. The first atheist argues that suffering proves the non-existence of God. The second atheist argues that suffering does not prove the non-existence of God. Who bears the burden of proof? Weisberger can’t point to the theist, since no theist is involved. Here we would have to agree that the person making the claim must bear the burden of proof, and the claim being made is that suffering proves something about reality.

Now how does the situation change when the person objecting to this claim is a theist? As far as I can tell, there is no difference at all. The atheist is still arguing that a certain piece of evidence, when presented in an argument, proves something. The theist is merely denying this claim. What is at issue, then, is not simply whether or not God exists, but whether suffering tells us something about whether or not God exists.

In my opening statement, I said that Loftus bears the burden of proof in our debate, since he was the one defending a claim. That is, my purpose in the debate was not merely to defend theism, but to show that Loftus hasn’t proven that his proposition is true. Given our analysis of burden of proof here, I can’t see how this can reasonably be denied.

Nevertheless, Dr. Weisberger has rejected my claim, leaving us with an odd position: The atheist is free to announce that he has an argument that proves something and that he is submitting his argument for critical evaluation, yet the atheist bears no burden of proof. Consider Weisberger’s comments:

Another issue to be addressed is the burden of proof which, Wood claims, lies with the skeptic. But his position here appears to rely on a misunderstanding. The entire terms of the debate rests on a response to the god hypothesis, initially offered by the theistic view. The problem of evil, which is the focus of the debate, could not even arise unless a particular theistic worldview were presented beforehand.

This worldview, as Dr. Hatab noted in his introductory comments to the debate, is peculiarly western: god is assumed to be all powerful, (inclusive of all knowing), as well as wholly good. If we round out what these terms mean in their most profound sense, we should conclude that we are referencing a deity which is as powerful as logical possibility would permit, and so perfectly good that this being would be opposed to evil in every respect. So this god, no matter what other attributes might be claimed of it, would be powerful enough to eradicate evil (provided it was not logically impossible to do so) and motivated to do so by absolute goodness, which we can suppose is the opposite of evil.

If we posit the existence of an omnipotent (and omniscient), and omnibenevolent deity, then one might wonder why there is such an abundance of suffering or evil in the world. It is only if we posit the existence of such a god that evil becomes a "problem." So we see that the questioning of the existence of god, or the plausibility of the god hypothesis, only occurs in response to the god hypothesis. As a result, the burden is on the proponent of the hypothesis or the presenter of the initial claim.

Notice what Dr. Weisberger has done here. She presents the Argument from Evil, then says that the burden of proof is on the theist, since the theist’s worldview is the ultimate issue. But what could she mean here? Quite obviously, she means that the theist must respond to the Argument from Evil. But I’ve never denied that. Of course the theist must respond to the Argument from Evil! The point is what the theist must accomplish in such a response. The theist, in addressing the Argument from Evil, must show that the argument doesn’t withstand scrutiny. If the theist shows that there is a problem with the argument, then it can’t be said that the argument refutes theism. The atheist, then, must defend his argument against the theist’s criticisms. If he can’t defend the argument, then the conclusion hasn’t been proven. If the conclusion hasn’t been proven, then it can’t be said that the Argument from Evil refutes theism.

Thus, the burden of proof in this particular debate rests on the atheist, not the theist. The atheist must show that his argument is logically valid and that it contains true premises. If the atheist can’t do this, it simply makes no sense to say that the burden of proof lies on the theist, for the theist’s only job in such a debate is to show that the argument doesn’t work. If, at the end of the debate, several problems with the Argument from Evil have been pointed out, and the atheist hasn’t answered these problems, then the atheist has lost the debate. He hasn’t shown that the extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God implausible.

Interestingly, Dr. Weisberger tried to support her assertion with a strained analogy:

An analogy would be if someone were to claim that invisible, green gremlins power all microchips. Confronted with this hypothesis, one might ask how this is so, how it is known that these gremlins are green if they are invisible, and many similar questions. It is simply not convincing for the proponent of the invisible, green gremlin hypothesis to then claim, 'Well, since you question the gremlins' greenness, it is up to you to prove that they are not green!' This does little to persuade anyone of the viability or plausibility of the gremlin hypothesis. Similarly, anyone making claims about the existence of extraordinary phenomena, such as invisible, green gremlins, the burden of proof lies with the claimant. And the claim about the existence of a wholly good, all powerful being, in the face of such abundant and excruciating suffering in the world, appears to be an extraordinary claim! It is the proposer of the god hypothesis, no matter what the flavor (classical or personalist), who must bear the burden of making sense of the claim that an all good, all powerful being -- one who is powerful enough to eradicate at least some of the tremendous suffering that exists, and one who is opposed to such suffering by its very essence -- exists.

Let’s take a closer look at this analogy. Suppose I claim that invisible, green gremlins power microchips. You complain that something is not green if it’s invisible. Here you are pointing out an internal contradiction in my hypothesis. You aren’t claiming that some piece of evidence falsifies my view, but that my view is logically incoherent. But is that what the atheist claims in the Argument from Evil? Is the atheist claiming that there is an internal contradiction among the attributes ascribed to God? No. The atheist is saying that evidence gathered from the world proves that God can’t have certain attributes, and there is a tremendous difference here (since no explicit contradiction is involved). To see this, consider the following statements.

(1) An all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being exists.

(2) Intense suffering exists.

There is no explicit contradiction here, so the atheist must show that there is an implicit contradiction. That is, the atheist must analyze terms so that a clear problem emerges. For instance, the atheist might argue that “wholly good” means, among other things, “eliminates suffering as far as possible.” But notice that the atheist would have to make this case, and that if his case fails, his argument does not stand. The point here is that (1) the atheist would have to make an argument, (2) that the argument must be defended, and (3) that the atheist bears the burden of proof in showing that his argument does what he says it does.

Hence, to correct Weisberger’s strained analogy (while retaining her condescending view of theism), let’s say I make the following claim: “Microchips are powered by invisible gremlins.” Weisberger responds, “My invisible-gremlin detector proves that these gremlins do not exist.” Like it or not, if she wants me to believe that her evidence refutes my claim, she has to show that her argument succeeds. Otherwise, whether my belief in gremlins is true or false, it has nothing to do with her gremlin detector.

Appendix: Plausibility vs. Probability

Since we have concluded that an atheist who makes a claim must show that his claim is true, what did John Loftus have to show in our first debate? Again, the topic was “Does the extent of suffering in our world make the existence of God implausible?” In my review of the debate, I argued that to answer this question in the affirmative is to make an extraordinary claim. It is to say, not merely that the existence of God is implausible, but that the Argument from Evil makes the existence of God is implausible.

An issue arose, however, when I said that the claim “X is probable” is stronger than the claim “X is plausible,” while the reverse would be true of improbability and implausibility. Some atheists have objected, including Dr. Weisberger, who argues that the claim “the existence of God is improbable” is stronger than “the existence of God is implausible.”

I must confess that I have never understood this objection, which has been made by several people. My reasoning is as follows. Let’s say that there is a certain piece of evidence, and that there are four possible explanations for that evidence. Hypothesis A has a probability of .4; Hypothesis B has a probability of .3, Hypothesis C has a probability of . 2999, and Hypothesis D has a probability of .0001. Which of these hypotheses is probable? Since each has a probability lower than .5, none of the hypotheses is probable. But could we say that one or more of the hypotheses are plausible? I would argue that Hypothesis A is certainly plausible, since it is most likely to be true, and therefore the most worthy of belief. But I would also argue that Hypotheses B and C are also plausible, since they aren’t far behind A, while Hypothesis D, though possible, is clearly implausible. What does this mean? It means that we have at least one plausible hypothesis, but no probable hypotheses. This would mean that “X is probable” is a stronger claim than “X is plausible.”

Now we simply have to reverse the reasoning. To say that X is improbable is to say that it has a probability lower than .5. But to say that X is implausible is to make a much stronger claim—for instance, that X has a probability lower than .2. This means that the claim that suffering makes the existence of God implausible is an extraordinarily strong claim, and this is what Loftus was required to prove in our debate.

This issue only arose because some atheists, in addition to denying that they have the burden of proof in defending their argument, also want to maintain that Loftus really didn’t have to prove much. But as we have seen, he had to prove a great deal, and he never accomplished his goal. Indeed, I don’t think John proved anything in our debate. While he gave some excellent examples of suffering in our world, the arguments just weren’t there. And contrary to Dr. Weisberger’s evaluation, the arguments are absolutely necessary if the atheist is going to prove that the Argument from Evil is successful against theism.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger, Part One: Prefatory Remarks

Dr. Andrea Weisberger recently commented on my first debate with John Loftus. Her article isn’t a review, however. After discussing some introductory points, she outlines Loftus’s case, then spends the rest of the article critiquing the arguments I presented in my opening statement. She doesn’t comment on the rebuttals or the crossfire, so we may think of her analysis as what she would have said in response to my opening remarks had she been my opponent that evening.

Since Dr. Weisberger has written a book on the Problem of Evil (Suffering Belief: Evil and the Anglo-American Defense of Theism), in addition to contributing the “Argument from Evil” chapter to the Cambridge Companion to Atheism, I was excited to see what insights she would bring to the discussion. I was a little apprehensive, however, for I assumed that her arguments would be far more rigorous than those I have been dealing with. If we imagine a hierarchy of atheist apologists writing on the Problem of Evil, we might put people like Richard Carrier and members of the “Rational” Response Squad at the bottom, someone like Loftus or Jeff Lowder in the middle, and skeptics such as Weisberger and Michael Martin at the top. We might also think that the arguments get better as one moves up the ladder. Nevertheless, after reading Dr. Weisberger’s comments, I have concluded that the Argument from Evil doesn’t really get stronger as we move on to more prominent proponents of the argument. Instead, the argument gets less and less childish. That is, Carrier argues that God should put force fields around churches, create glow-in-the-dark Bibles, and turn all guns into flowers. Those are pretty childish suggestions. Loftus, of course, says that God should have created us with wings and gills, in case we need to fly or swim underwater, and this seems just as childish as Carrier’s demands. However, in between the odd suggestions, one can discern in Loftus’s complaints a more compelling critique than that found in Carrier’s writings. Finally, when we read Weisberger or Martin, the childishness has disappeared, and all that remains are claims and arguments.

Reading Dr. Weisberger’s comments, however, far from undermining my allegiance to God, has instead filled me with confidence that atheists really don’t have a strong case here. I had planned on sparring with people like Loftus until I had spent a fair amount of time carefully studying the arguments, in order to prepare myself to confront the claims of more scholarly critics. I now realize that the scholarly critics are saying the same thing as Loftus. They’re just saying it in a more sophisticated manner. Indeed, nearly every point made by Dr. Weisberger has already been made by Loftus and his comrades; hence, I’ve already responded to just about everything she said. Nevertheless, in order to show that her points don’t really stand, I will carefully analyze Dr. Weisberger’s points, one or two at a time, on this blog.

I therefore invite adherents of both theistic and atheistic faiths to read and comment as I go through Dr. Weisberger’s response, point by point, noting several blatant errors in her remarks, as well as inconsistencies, assumptions, and so on. I’ll be doing a post every day or two, so stay tuned.

Here I will make three remarks. First, Dr. Weisberger believes that, given the abundance of suffering in our world, theists are simply irrational. I say this to distinguish her from skeptics like William Rowe, who believe that theists are wrong, but not necessarily irrational.

Second, Dr. Weisberger sets the bar quite high:

Contrary to what Wood believes—that the burden is on the atheist to show how the suffering outweighs the happiness, the burden is on the theist to show why this particular worldly configuration, one in which gratuitous suffering seems to exist, is the best of all possible worlds.

Notice what she demands here. The theist must show that our world is the best of all possible worlds. This is quite interesting, since most philosophers believe that the idea of a best possible world is incoherent. The reason is that, once we determine which features make a world good, we could increase these features indefinitely. Hence, Dr. Weisberger asks, quite literally, for the impossible. And if the theist can’t do the impossible, according to Dr. Weisberger, theism must false.

Finally, I’d like to point out something that seems quite insignificant, but which may help us better understand Dr. Weisberger’s arguments. After saying at the beginning of her article that she will call God “it” but not “he,” she goes on to say that she will not honor God with a capital letter:

[T]he term ‘god’ is frequently capitalized as if it is a proper name. Being a non-theist (and here I lay my cards on the table), I lack faith in the existence of such a being, let alone such a being with a proper name. As a result, I find that the capitalization of ‘God’ begs the question for the theistic hypothesis, and prefer the more neutral reference to deity: god.

Notice what she says here. Since she doesn’t believe God exists, she will not use a capital letter. Now compare these claims:

I do not believe in the existence of huckleberry finn, so I will not write his name with capital letters.

I do not believe in zeus or poseidon, so I will not write their names with capital letters.

I wonder whether Dr. Weisberger applies her standard consistently, and refuses to honor any fictional character with a proper name, or whether the God of traditional theism (as is the case with many atheists) is for some reason the only “fictional” being worthy of such a dishonor. If she does not apply this rule consistently, it appears that God is not merely a fictional character, but a fictional character who, for some reason, deserves special contempt.

Of course, this could just be a tactic to annoy theists. But whatever the case, we should already be noticing a certain degree of bias and hostility. Theists are irrational. They must do what is widely held to be metaphysically impossible. God, who doesn’t exist, nevertheless deserves special reproach. We would do well to keep these things in mind, for, when we consider them along with certain obvious flaws in Dr. Weisberger’s arguments, we have to wonder why a PhD philosopher is making such claims. In the end, we will see that she is hardly objective in her analysis. (But I’m happy that she responded all the same, and I’ll be sure to read her book carefully as soon as I get the chance.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Conversation with Lazarus

I've been having a dialogue with Jim Lazarus (one of the more reasonable atheists writing online) on his blog. We're discussing some of the claims I've made regarding the Argument from Evil.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Problem of Evil and the Argument from Evil: A Distinction

Although the phrases “Problem of Evil” and “Argument from Evil” are often used interchangeably, an important distinction needs to be made. The Problem of Evil is, at bottom, a question. “If God exists,” ask atheists and theists alike, “why is there so much suffering in the world?” Or, “If an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being exists, how can evil be a part of any created order?” Or, “Why did God allow Grandma to get cancer?”

Notice that no positive claim is being made here. That is, the person asking the question is not really affirming or denying anything about God. This is significant, because when dealing with the Problem of Evil, skeptics frequently ask a series of questions without any argument whatsoever. “Why did God do X? Why did God do Y? Why does God allow Z?” The implication, of course, is that if theists cannot answer such questions, their position is somehow flawed.

But surely no atheist could consistently employ such a principle against theism. For, if we say that the ability to answer questions is a criterion for truth, the atheist will hardly get very far when we apply this method to atheism (e.g. when we ask where the universe came from, why it is finely tuned for life, how life formed, why there is so much evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, why moral values seem objective, etc.). In other words, questions aren’t enough. What we need are arguments.

This is where the Argument from Evil comes in. Here the atheist isn’t merely asking a question, but making a truth-claim and defending it with evidence. The difference is that, with an argument on the table, we are now in a position to judge whether the evidence really bears on theism. We can make sure that there are true premises and valid logic, and, therefore, that the conclusion actually follows. We can assign definitions to terms, and ask how the skeptic arrived at these definitions. We can test principles, and ensure that the atheist is applying these principles consistently.

A series of questions, however (which, again, is what we typically find atheists posing), is far more difficult to evaluate properly. It’s simply impossible to assess the evidential value of X in the question “Why did God allow X?”

Hence, we should be careful to ascertain when a question is being asked, and when a truth-claim is being made. The beginning of a dialogue, then, might go something like this:

ATHEIST: “Why did God allow the Holocaust?”

THEIST: “Are you trying to make an argument, or are you simply asking a question? If it is the latter, I might exercise a little restraint and say that I don’t know.”

ATHEIST: “No, I’m saying that the Holocaust is evidence against God’s existence.”

THEIST: “Well then, I’ll need to see an argument to that effect.”

ATHEIST: “Fine. If God is all-powerful, he would be able to prevent the Holocaust. If God is all-knowing, he would know how to prevent the Holocaust. If he is all-good, he would want to prevent the Holocaust. But the Holocaust happened. Hence, God does not exist.”

THEIST: “All right. Now we’ve got some premises to examine. . . .”

This would, of course, apply in the other direction as well. A different conversation might begin thus:

THEIST: “If God doesn’t exist, where did life come from?”

ATHEIST: “Well, if you’re only asking a question, I might reply that I don’t know. Or, were you trying to make an argument?”

THEIST: “I’m trying to make an argument. It goes like this. The complexity of even the most primitive life-form imaginable is mind-boggling. Chance is not a reasonable option, since the odds are so overwhelmingly against it. Hence, the best explanation would be some kind of intelligence.”

ATHEIST: “Now we’ve got something to work with. . . .”

The point of all this is that we must be careful to note the difference between (1) evidence against theism, and (2) interesting issues and puzzles for theists. The Argument from Evil, if successful, gives us evidence against theism. The Problem of Evil gives us only mysteries to think about.

Interestingly, from my experience, most of the people who leave Christianity don’t understand this distinction. I’ve heard several former Christians say something like, “Well, I just couldn’t figure out X, and my pastor couldn’t explain it to me. So I left Christianity and became an atheist.” Notice that the atheist here is saying that he left Christianity because of an unanswered question. But if unanswered questions are a problem, atheists have far more to be uncomfortable about than theists.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Argument from Evil: An Internal Problem for Atheism

One of the biggest problems with the Argument from Evil is that the conclusion of the argument doesn’t sit well with all of the various things that are presupposed in the argument itself. For instance, theists often argue that atheists can only make the argument by appealing to objective moral values. If atheists claim that God has to prevent suffering, then they’re saying that there are certain moral values that even God must obey. And if atheists claim that suffering is evil, they are presupposing some sort of standard that we use to distinguish between good and evil. They can’t say that it’s really all subjective. They can’t say that these moral values developed through evolution to preserve us as a species, because then these moral values would only apply to us, not to God. So the atheist has to appeal to objective moral values. The problem is that objective moral values point to a transcendent source of moral values, not to atheism.

This is a problem that theists usually point out, but as far as the Argument from Evil goes, atheists actually need a lot more than objective moral values to get the argument off the ground. For instance, they need suffering, but for suffering there has to be humans and animals (or something similar), and humans and animals are incredibly complex organisms. This complexity points to design, not to atheism. Atheists also need some sort of world where all this suffering is taking place, and any world will serve as the foundation for the Cosmological Argument. But there can’t be just any old world; the suffering we see around us requires a finely-tuned world. Otherwise humans and animals couldn’t survive. This, of course, is the idea behind the Argument from Fine-Tuning. Beyond this, atheists need minds to recognize the evil and formulate the argument, and this is part of the Argument from Consciousness. They also need a concept of God, because they’re claiming that this concept doesn’t apply to anything that actually exists. And our concept of God is used in various forms of the Ontological Argument.

The point here is that the Argument from Evil is an argument for atheism, and yet atheism doesn’t account for anything that’s presupposed in the argument. The argument requires objective moral values, extremely complex suffering beings, a world (a finely-tuned world, mind you), conscious minds, and a concept of God, and all of these are important elements in proofs for God’s existence.

If we consider this carefully, it turns out to be a tremendous problem for atheism. The thrust of the Argument from Evil is that theism doesn’t account for suffering, and that theism is therefore implausible. But let’s turn that reasoning around. Atheism, as far as I can tell, doesn’t account for anything that goes into its own argument. Atheism doesn’t account for the existence of the universe, or for life, or for objective moral values, or for anything else. Atheism accounts for absolutely nothing. So if we’re rejecting arguments based on their lack of explanatory power, we’d have to reject atheism long before we reject theism. In other words, it makes no sense at all to say, “Well, theism doesn’t account for evil very well, so let’s reject theism and believe in atheism, which doesn’t account for anything very well.” But atheists still make the claim.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Animal Suffering and the Fall of Man (Part Two)

Progressive creationists maintain that God created the world in six days, but that there were millions of years between each of the days of creation. Hence, God created some things on one day, then millions of years went by, and God created some more things on a new day, and millions of years went by, and so on. Theistic evolutionists accept the general account offered in biology classrooms, adding only that God was somehow involved in the process, either by programming the system so that evolution occurred, or by helping the process along the way.

These views entail that the Fall of man was preceded by millions of years of death, disease, and bloodshed. It would therefore seem that animal suffering has little to do with the Fall, since suffering came first. Nevertheless, I think there are some plausible models that would relate animal suffering to the Fall.

Most obviously, one could argue that God had foreknowledge of man’s rebellion, and that God therefore created our world apart from his full sustaining presence from the beginning. In other words, God knew that we would rebel, so he never fully engaged the world, until the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the resurrection, God completely upheld and sustained a physical being, which foreshadows the resurrection of all things at the end of the present age. Thus, this world, from it’s creation, because it was a place where man would rebel, was a place that needed to be redeemed.

Alternatively, we might focus on the Genesis claim that man was given dominion over the world. Theistic evolutionists have a difficult time reconciling their view of origins with certain details in the Bible, but they can nevertheless agree with the broad picture presented in Genesis. Here’s the broad picture. God first created a shapeless, formless, chaotic mass. Then he proceeded to organize that mass into an ordered whole by a process of separation (light from darkness, land from sea, etc.). The natural state of the created world was chaos and disorder. Order comes only by an ordering principle which God imposes on the world. (Note: the Greek term for “ordering principle” is logos.)

Because of this ordering principle, matter was organized into life, and evolution occurred. Eventually, man came on the scene, and here’s the key: God gave authority to man to take part in the process of completing the creation. This point can be made clearer by considering free will vs. determinism. Let’s say that nature functions according to mechanical laws, and that nature will carry on according to these natural laws unless something interferes. What could interfere? Only one thing—the decisions of free beings. And these free beings could be God, angels, or men.

Hence, man has the power to alter the course of the world. He does this by his will, just as God could order the universe according to his will. So God gave us dominion over the earth, to play a creative role in shaping it for the good. But our first order of business as rulers over the world was to declare that we didn’t need God’s help. We rebelled, and God withdrew. The world as it now stands is an unfinished product, groaning until God completes the work that he started.

The obvious question here would be this: Why did God create through evolution, a process that relies on death, disease, and bloodshed? One might respond, along with John Polkinghorne, that a world that “creates itself” to some extent is better than a world whose construction is the product of a divine Monarch. I’m not convinced by this, however. I think it would be more important to argue that a world in which man is able to participate in shaping the world is better than a world in which man plays no such role. And if man is to play a role in shaping the world, the world can’t come from the hand of God as a finished product.

On the whole, I think that the “Suffering before Sin” views need to be combined with various theodicies, such as the free will theodicy, soul-building theodicies, the informed consent theodicy, Kant’s argument for divine hiddenness, and so on. For the question of why God wouldn’t skip the process of evolution will always come to the surface, and theists who want to give explanations will have to bring in certain aspects of our world that could only exist in the sort of world we live in.

But where does animal suffering come in? The Bible devotes little space to God’s motives in creating the world, so we may have to engage in a little speculation whenever we think on this topic. Keeping the doctrine of the Trinity in mind, we could postulate a reason for the creation: God made man because he wanted to create a new type of love. In the Trinity love is, so to speak, obligatory, because it is God’s nature to love and because each person of the Trinity is infinitely lovable. In forming man, God created a being who doesn’t love of necessity, but by choice; and, because man would fall into sin, creation also allowed God to love someone who would be inherently flawed. Hence, creation produced the possibility of freely given love from both man and God.

But man, as a free being, requires a certain type of world. To have free choice, God cannot be fully present, because God’s presence would overwhelm our free will and lead to utter coercion. Free beings develop morally only in the presence of hardships, so hardships are a significant part of our world. We must learn that we are dependent on God, so we must have some knowledge of what it’s like to live apart from God. In short, we must learn the difference between good and evil.

All of this happens in our world. As I have argued in previous posts, a world with animals is better than a world without animals. But if animals are going to be a part of our world, this means that they are going to be a part of a world with suffering, hardships, etc. How is this related to the Fall? God knew that man would rebel. And this world was designed to give us an opportunity to develop morally and return to God. Hence, the world is the way it is because of our nature as free, fallen creatures.

For more on “Suffering before Sin” views, see:

“Evil and Suffering in Light of God’s Power and Love” (Hugh Ross)

Why Would a Good God Create Parasites? (Hugh Ross)

Video: John Polkinghorne on the Problem of Evil

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Animal Suffering and the Fall of Man (Part One)

[I decided to break this into two posts. The first deals with animal suffering from a “No Suffering before the Fall” perspective. The second (which I will post tomorrow morning) deals with animal suffering from perspectives that allow suffering before the Fall.]

Christians typically believe in a “Fall of Man”—an event in which human beings turned against God, resulting in the “Curse.” The Curse would include, among other things, suffering. Thus, the Fall is used by Christians to account for suffering in the world.

Atheists find this unconvincing, but apart from declaring that the Fall is a myth, there’s not much of a way to argue against it. Hence, atheists try to explore the limits of what the Fall can reasonably account for. This is where animal suffering comes in.

“Granting that God is punishing humans for rebellion,” argues the atheist, “why do animals have to participate in this punishment? What did animals do to deserve this?”

The theist, then, is left with the task of showing how animal suffering is related to the Fall of man, and this is the purpose of this post (and the next). I will divide theistic views into (1) those claiming that there was no suffering before man sinned, and (2) those claiming that there was suffering in the world even before man sinned. Since I’m only discussing possible relationships between animal suffering and the Fall, I will have to dedicate a separate post to theodicies that account for animal suffering. Hence, the following should be regarded as a partial theistic response.

Young-Earth creationists typically hold the following:

(1) God created the world between six and ten thousand years ago.

(2) God created various “kinds” of animals, which through selection developed into the species we see today. (Note: Natural selection is a part of Young-Earth theories. These theories simply reject the idea that evolution can produce an increase in genetic information. Hence, in the beginning, God created a great deal of information among the various “kinds”; these “kinds” later produced offspring; selection favored certain offspring in different environments.)

(3) Animals were originally vegetarians.

(4) There was no death before sin (except plant death, and perhaps fish and insects).

Some Old-Earth creationists agree with everything except (1). They hold that the world was created billions of years ago, while God created life according to the biblical account (i.e. God created life between six and ten thousand years ago, though the earth is much older). Hence, certain Old-Earth creationists agree that there was no death or suffering before sin.

So how would the Fall be related to animal suffering on these views? The account would go something like this. God created a world, and it was perfect. There was no death, disease, or bloodshed, because God was upholding and sustaining everything perfectly. Everything went according to God’s will. Suffering was not an option, because there was the perpetual miracle of God’s sustaining presence.

But God gave man the freedom to choose what kind of world he would prefer to live in. Would man rather live in a world according to God’s rules, or a world where he can do as he pleases? Man chose to live in a world where he could do as he pleases. That is, he rebelled against God. Atheists tend to think that such rebellion (eating a forbidden fruit, for instance) is an incredibly small matter. But we should recognize what was going on. The problem wasn’t a matter of fruit. The problem was that man adopted a new system of morality, according to which he would do whatever he feels like doing, even if it goes against what God commands.

At that point, God partially withdrew from the world. He withdrew some of his sustaining power. God said, in effect, “If you’d like to live apart from me, welcome to a world where I am not fully present to keep everything just the way you like it.” On this view, the “Curse” would not be something positive. It wouldn’t be something that God added to the world. Instead, the Curse would be the result of subtraction. God withdrew (to some extent), and things started going wrong.

Animals, of course, were part of the world that God withdrew from. If man had not sinned, God would have continued to fully sustain us, and there would have been no animal suffering. But since man chose to live in a world apart from God, and since God honored that choice, the entire cosmos was affected.

That would be a rough sketch of the “No Suffering before Sin” view. An atheist might make the following objections:

(1) God shouldn’t have created animals if he knew that they were going to experience pain. I addressed this claim in my Introduction a few days ago. Given the choice between suffering animals and no animals, a world with animals is better than a world without animals.

(2) God should have created animals so that they don’t experience pain. But if God knows that he is going to leave the world to its own devices, this would be disastrous for animals. Animals would go extinct if they didn’t experience pain.

(3) God should have created animals so that they experience less pain. Before I take this objection seriously, I’d have to see some evidence that species would perform better with lower levels of pain.

(4) God should have created animals so that they don’t need a sustainer. That is, God should have made the world so that it performs perfectly without him. In the mind of the atheist, this would probably be the strongest objection. To me, it is the weakest. The atheist here would be arguing that God should make a world that functions perfectly even if creatures rebel. But why? Why shouldn’t God create worlds that depend on him not only for their existence, but also for their well-being? I can’t think of any good reason for siding with the atheist on this point.

Hence, I think that the “No Suffering before Sin” views plausibly account for animal suffering. (The question is whether these views account for other things.)

As a final note, I would like to reiterate a comment I made earlier about pessimism. Is nature really as bad as atheists make it out to be? When discussing the existence of God, many atheists act as if we live in the worst world imaginable. Thus Bambi dying in the woods becomes the picture of all nature. The tiger playing with her cub is left out, as are the eagles soaring on the wind, the beavers building their dams, and the dolphins dancing in the water.

Nature is not horrible. Nature is wonderful and beautiful. There is, of course, the problem of pain. But what would we expect in a world where a great rebellion has occurred? I would expect a world with problems, but a world which still bears the mark of its creator. And that’s exactly what we find.

For more on “No Suffering before Sin” views, see:

Why Us? (Ken Ham)

The Problem of Evil (Peter Kreeft)