Monday, January 22, 2007

Sherlock Holmes and the Problem of Evil

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Cardboard Box,” Sherlock Holmes makes a brief reference to the Problem of Evil:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes, solemnly, as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

I like the way Holmes sets up the problem. Either there’s a reason for suffering, or there isn’t. (There are no other possibilities.) So let’s consider the possibility that there is no reason for suffering. If that’s the case, then the universe is ruled by chance, and according to Holmes, this is unthinkable. If we keep in mind Holmes’s maxim “that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”), the only remaining possibility is that there’s a reason for suffering. Hence, even if the human intellect never finds an answer for suffering, we can be confident that there is an answer.

Proponents of the Argument from Evil will, of course, object. “I have no difficulty believing that the universe is governed by chance,” one will say. But I have to side with Holmes on this one. The fundamental constants of our universe were finely tuned for life, and even with a life-permitting universe, we still need a designer to create living organisms. Moreover, it can hardly be a coincidence that protons, neutrons, and electrons, when placed in a certain order, form living organisms. These properties can’t be for naught. Consciousness, our moral sensibility, our hunger and thirst for something beyond ourselves—all of this points not to chance, but to something divine.

But perhaps a skeptic will argue, “Well, even if there’s a reason for suffering, this doesn’t point to an all-powerful, wholly good God.” This is absolutely correct, and Holmes’s argument only serves to rule out the absurd, not to settle our minds on some positive conception of God. Nevertheless, Holmes also holds that we can know that Providence is benevolent. In “The Naval Treaty,” he notices a rose outside a window, and he deduces the following:

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

While I do not share Holmes’s optimism that natural theology can be built up “as an exact science,” he is correct to note that the world is filled with “extras.” We may add a million more examples of life’s embellishments—the beauty of the cosmos, the joy of friendships, a child’s smile. None of this was necessary for our existence, so it is all extra. This doesn’t prove that God is all-powerful or wholly good, but it is definitely consistent with such a view.

14 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Welcome to the world of Blogging, my friend. I'll alert the masses. There's a new foe on the block ;-)

Rich said...

Hi David,
I had a thought on suffering to throw out. If Christ submitted to unimaginable pain and suffering to meets the demands of justice for our sins, who are we to demand of him a life void of any amount of pain and suffering? The irony of this being that the Pain and suffering we endure due to our sin is needless if we will only allow God to have mercy on us by repenting of those sins. By not repenting that would make that part of his suffering for us in vain.

I like the idea of your blog and I will be very interested to follow the discussions here.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi David,
I think we may have exchanged a brief email in the past. I believe that Walton told me a while back that the group with whom you hosted your website was working on a reply to my "Uniqueness of the Christian Experience" paper. I have since also learned of your debate with John Loftus on the problem of evil. Vic Reppert and I have been going round on the "evil" question at his blog and my own, "Edward T. Babinski" as well as mirrors of my posts appearing at "Debunking Christianity" You could google

Babinski "problem of evil"

also try

Babinski "question of evil"

I am not an atheist. I lament the extreme flexibility of both philosophies and theologies regarding assumptions, analogies, metaphors, and circular reasoning, all of which come into play when a philosopher or theologian is defending their system. Indeed, even diametrically opposed systems of a coherent nature remain plentiful, and have remained so since the days of the pre-Socratics, not to mention all of the "inbetween" systems. In short, philosophy appears far better at asking big questions than answering big questions in a definitive fashion that all other philosophers and theologians can't help but agree with.

Regarding "evil," you (David Woods) wrote:

"Either there’s a reason for suffering, or there isn’t. (There are no other possibilities.) So let’s consider the possibility that there is no reason for suffering. If that’s the case, then the universe is ruled by chance."

The options are perhaps greater than you outline above. There might be a reason for some types of suffering, but not others. Some parts or aspects of the cosmos might be "ruled by chance," and some parts might not be. There could be a spectrum of views.

There are also views today ranging from Calvinism (in which God is utterly in control of everything) to Open Theism (in which God takes "chances").

Lastly, it strikes me as odd but true that some theists are willing to defend every imaginable kind of suffering from the suffering of animals throughout geological time (including major extinction events), extremely painful suffering of human infants and their deaths from natural causes (diseases and disasters haing killed far more human beings than human beings have killed each other), commands by God to kill infants (i.e. Deut. & Numb.), as well as extremely painful suffering of the "unsaved" or "non-elect" for all eternity (i.e., God per Revelation having people "cast into a lake of fire whose smoke rises forever").

In other words, all suffering is "defensible." So, if one has the inkling, one can indeed defend all manner of suffering both in this cosmos and in the world to come. The defense in some instances of course might remain a "mystery," but depending on what one believes, that's enough of an argument for some.

A few examples come to mind, Mother Teresa didn't believe in pain killers, and even told a man who was suffering excruciating pains from cancer, "Jesus is kissing you." Some Protestant and Catholic ministers railed against inoculations and vaccinations as "an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah whose right it is to wound and smite." Pope Leo XII (1823-1829) decreed that vaccination against smallpox was "against God's will."

On the other hand, C. S. Lewis didn't feel quite right defending the Bible's depiction of God having commanded the murder of infants in the O.T., or God having people "cast into a lake of fire whose smoke rises forever" in the sight of heaven's inhabitants. So his view is a bit different from that of some other Christian theologians of the past and present. Other Evangelicals like John Stott and Clark Pinnock don't feel quite right concerning the eternity of punishment, and so have agued for a finite death in hell. Other Evangelicals don't feel quite right about that view either, and have argued for hell being a sort of purgatory, with universalism being God's ultimate goal.

Theologians and Philosophers both appear to justify as much as they have an inkling to, and argue against the rest.

One thing's for sure, if a person is not suffering, they know of others who are, and that makes people think of suffering, pain and/or "evil," as well as questions related to unanswered prayers for healing, or unanswered prayers for other people's "salvation" so that they may avoid "eternal suffering."

(C. S. Lewis thought it best to discuss such questions in terms of "pain" rather than "evil." I agree, since "evil" is a far more slippery term with a host of not just "painful" but also interpersonal and metaphysical as well as theological overtones, for instance, some theists might label my own questioning position in this email as "evil.")

By the way, have you read the Mark Twain pieces below? They are thought provoking in a witty way.
http://www.edwardtbabinski.us/creationism/twain_creationism.html

Lastly, do you think anyone ever truly reaches a point at which suffering is never a question any longer, not even a mystery? I am reminded of C. S. Lewis's words spoken late in life after his wife had passed away and he himself was a year or so from death by cancer. Lewis wrote about something at that time that he still happened to "dread":

"The real danger is of corning to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So, there's no God after all,' but, 'So, this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'" [C S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1963--Lewis died in 1963), pp. 9-10.]

Note, I am not bringing up the Lewis quotation to justify atheism, simply to demonstrate that we all have questions. Also, there are many people with differing theological views, honest truth-seeking people, and they die everyday, without all becoming Evangelical Christians. Many Near Death Experiences are non-Evangelical Christian, and such people do not normally suddenly convert to Christianity either, yet they often remain unafraid of death afterwards. (Still the majority of people revived from death do not have any memory of such experiences. And only a portion of those who do have NDEs claim to have met a religious figure.) So, there are honest truth-seeking people dying everyday, and the tragedy to me is not that they didn't live long enough to convert to Evangelical Christianity, the tragedy is that religion can train some people to believe that only those among their faith are honest truth-seekers.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Interesting new article that discusses the question of how pain affects other people empathically:

http://exchristian.net/exchristian/2007/01/problem-of-pain.html

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Looks like you've got the makings of a good blog here. FYI - I just wanted to let you know that I've been having a bit of a discussion with John Loftus on suffering, specifically including some of your comments to him, on the Ten Minas Ministries blog (http://tenminasministries.blogspot.com). The blog itself is more of a general ministry blog, not limited to the issue of suffering. But as to this one particular post & comments I thought you may want to pop a gander (especially considering it refers specifically to you).

Ken Coughlan
President, Ten Minas Minsitries, Inc.

Weapon of Mass Instruction said...

I added you to my blog under "Likeminded Bloggers." Keep up the good job.

Daniel said...

David,

I'm not sure how well you do with the Venus de Milo. It seems to me a clear combination of two fallacies:

i) begging the question
ii) red herring

(i) because you are taking an object defined as a product of human activity and intent, and pointing out the absurdity of rejecting it as such, simply because of imperfections. This is a terrible analogy to the universe, which we cannot deductively define as a product of divine activity and intent. In evaluating the criteria for such a definition, we would find no a priori reasons to accept the definition. Therefore, your analogy is a poor one as it begs the question of intent/design.

(ii) the red herring here is that you are immediately shifting the conversation from the question of evil and how it squares with God's (supposed) attributes. You are shifting this discussion to an argument from design in an effort to squash one (negative) evidence with your own orthogonal (positive) evidence. By moving to the Venus de Milo, you are creating a new thread of argument -- the Argument from Design -- and thus hijacking the Argument from Evil.

Just my thoughts.

Best,
D

David Wood said...

Daniel,

The pieces of Venus were found underground on the island of Milos. Yet the man who found it immediately recognized that it was created. Could Venus be a natural rock formation? Of course! Rocks form all the time, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The problem is that the evidence of design is too strong to ignore, even though there are all kinds of problems with the sculpture.

The world is similar. The evidence for design is overwhelming, even though there are all sorts of problems. Now suppose that, at some time in the future, all people everywhere hate sculptors and artists. Could these people convince themselves that the Venus de Milo was a natural rock formation? Well, if they focus exclusively on the defects, I'm sure they could.

Never underestimate the power of the human will, my friend.

Daniel said...

David,

I still don't see how you aren't begging the question by assuming what you need to prove -- that the world/universe is the product of God's design; and how you aren't changing the subject of evil into the subject of design?

Let's say we brought aliens to earth, and didn't explain a thing to them about sculpture, or about volcanoes. Let's then take them to ancient statues, all over the world, of all types and shapes, which represent human beings.

Next, let's take them to the ancient ruins of Pompeii. We'll take them to the people who were crouched down trying to escape the toxic gases and ash, and were frozen in that moment. We'll ask them, "Is that a sculpture?"

I think they'd answer "yes". They'd argue just like you -- "How could such a thing exist that is so complicated and beautiful, if it wasn't the product of intentionality...of a mind?"

It doesn't mean they are correct. It also doesn't mean you are.

The features of the world you view and see as "wow, that has to be God," may have just as convincing a history and explanation as the volcano that "sculpted" those people. How do we separate "apparent design" in the physical world from "true design"?

When it comes to god(s), I think we hit a wall in a hurry.

Human beings know the design of other human beings because we know:
i) that humans sculpt similar things
ii) what materials they use
iii) what methods they use
iv) that the pieces are found where we expect them to be...rather than underneath miles of solid rock, for instance, or buried deep in the middle of the ocean...&c

Contrariwise, a priori, the question is -- what do we expect if the universe is the product of an all-good and all-powerful being? What sorts of products would such a being create? Would we see "hallmarks of design" in the physical constitution of the product, or the spiritual/rational nature of it...or...

on and on and on.

And where should we begin? It seems obvious that we have to begin with what purposes an all-good and all-powerful being would have in the first place. Sculptors sculpt because they want to express themselves, display their talent, share beauty with others...

Why do gods create?

I think that you ought to clearly address why the world is analogous to the Venus de Milo, and how this ties to good and evil. What features of the world are so clearly the product of an all-good all-powerful being? What features of the world are like the flaws of the Venus de Milo? What features of the world are more like the people frozen in horror and pain at Pompeii?

One more point, re value distinction:

So let’s consider the possibility that there is no reason for suffering. If that’s the case, then the universe is ruled by chance, and according to Holmes, this is unthinkable.

False dichotomy.

It depends on what we mean by "no reason". We can describe the forces that cause suffering -- and thus give it a proximal reason for its existence. However, in trying to extrapolate the proximate cause to a cosmic, or overarching purpose, which somehow justifies or gives value to the suffering, we may have to look at both the person and metaphysics, and not just one or the other.

That is -- say I'm an atheist who subscribes to a little mishmash of virtue theory and classical foundationalism as a justification for ethical axioms. I see someone suffering -- let's say they are fighting off a disease. If I ask the question, "Why are they suffering?" I have only one scientific answer: their body is being ravaged by a virus.

If I then say, "But what meaning/value is there to this?" I may have to consider two things:

i) what value the person ascribes to the experience -- perhaps they are glad for the experience because it brought them and their caretaker together (let's say the person met their future wife during this period, and it may have elsewise not happened). Or, say, the person was inspired by the illness to become a medical doctor to fight such diseases, and they regard that sickness as a good thing for that reason.
ii) what good is conferred to the person objectively (without their participation or subjective evaluation) -- a) improved immune response, b) the virus attacked cancer cells that were forming in that person's body (that they didn't even know were there) -- the person would've been dead in months, but the virus killed all of the cancer cells...&c

Now, riddle me this: whether God sent the disease, or whether the virus and the person met by a combination of chance and physical causation, how does it affect (i)? (ii)? It doesn't.

The only effect you can claim is that God's own values are superior to the person's, that whether or not the person knows about them, participates in them as such (rather than as, say, a happy accident), etc., still this is "the only reason for suffering". That these other reasons are not real or not valuable. What you are doing here is drawing a false dichotomy between "cosmic, ultimate, metaphysical value" and "no value at all".

There are multiple problems with this, as I hope you see.

Different aspects of value theory shed light on how values are internal (you may value the idea of cosmic reasons for suffering, while I find assignment of personal meaning more valuable, and neither of us can objectively argue the other out of finding more meaning in one than the other), and how our own experiences always supersede what someone else tells you that you ought to have experienced, or that they wanted you to experience.

A good example of this is when you have a religious experience. Let's say you're praying, and you feel peace come over you. Perhaps I try to give you the scientific explanation of how the endorphins are released from the brain during meditative practices. And I tell you, "Therefore, you ought to recognize this as a natural event only." At this point, if you admit the possibility that what you experienced was natural, or if you cling to the belief that it was supernatural, does it affect the value of peace? The experience of peace? No. The experience you had is independent of your assignment of causation of that experience. The goodness of peace is independent of how it is brought about (whether by natural means or supernatural). This is the idea of transcendental value and purpose -- that something doesn't have value just because God gives it to people; instead, you can only reasonably argue that God gives people things because they're already valuable (I'm sure you're familiar with the Euthyprho Dilemma).

And so my point is that you are confusing the cause of suffering -- whether God-sent or solely natural and resulting from stochastic processes -- with the value of suffering, which carries with it an intrinsically subjective and objective component that is irrespective of causation.

Simply put, dismissing "reasons for suffering" without God is foolish. Whether God exists or not, people create reasons for suffering. Whether God exists or not, suffering can bring about good things (like virtue) and bad things (like pain and death). Even if a person's belief is that the "reason" is God, so long as this reason gives them virtue, even if God is non-existent, then it is a good thing, a valuable thing, to them.
_____
Sorry that took so long to articulate.
_____

One last quick point:

In watching your debate (I own the DVD), I noticed you made a slip re the Euthyphro Dilemma. You said, "They're saying that there is a moral law that even God must obey, if he exists... transcendent...if God does not exist...there is no good or evil in any absolute sense..."

So you are saying that, for instance, that the proposition:
"Torturing people for fun is evil."

Is only true if God exists; that this proposition's truth-value is contingent upon the existence of God?

Would you say that 2+2=4 is only true if God exists? That the identity axiom: "A is A" is only true if God exists?

I think you see the problem here. Whether God exists or not, moral propositions are either true or false. They cannot be true relatively -- only true if God exists. Otherwise, we have logical absurdity.

The only rational views are:
i) moral objectivism (me)
ii) moral nihilism (lots of other people)

And both refute God's existence:
d1) God is all-good and all-powerful
i) Moral propositions either correspond to truth, or they don't; either are moral facts, or there aren't. (law of excluded middle)
ii) If they do not, then there is no logical possibility for good or evil. (follows from i)
iii) If there is no such thing as good or evil, there is no God (from d1)
Conclusion iv) If there are no moral facts, and if moral propositions are not true, God does not exist

-or-

v) If there are moral truths and moral facts, then there is the logical possibility of good and evil
Premise vi) Moral propositions are true, and moral facts exist.
vii) If Pvi, then God is morally obligated to instantiate all-goodness whenever possible and use all of His power to prevent evil whenever possible (d1)
viii) If God is all-powerful, then God can prevent all possible evil and can bring about all-goodness (d1) [even if this requires, as John has pointed out, not creating anything at all]
ix) Evil exists
x) Therefore, God does not exist

Whether there are moral facts, or there aren't, God does not exist.

The existence of moral facts cannot be contingent upon God, unless you subscribe to Divine Command Theory, which is impaled upon the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma.

David Wood said...

Daniel,

I think you're entirely missing the point. As I've said elsewhere, I'm not saying that the Venus de Milo analogy proves some tremendous fact. The point is this. When something really looks designed, we don't dismiss design just because there are some problems. We don't look at the armlessness of the Venus de Milo and conclude that it must be a natural rock formation. Instead, we try to find explanations for the problems that are consistent with its being designed.

As for the universe and the biological complexity within it, lots of this really looks designed. But there are also problems. All that I'm saying is that our gut instinct shouldn't be to automatically reject design. Instead, we should seek explanations for the problems that are consistent with design. My analogy is meant primarily to prevent hasty induction. The atheist can't simply say, "Well, there are problems, so God doesn't exist." Instead, he must show that the explanations for these problems don't work. What's so unreasonable about this?

As for changing the subject to design, let's face it. The argument from evil amounts to the claim that God should have designed a better world--one free from suffering. Design is already involved.

I will add again, however, as I've added elsewhere, that I'm shocked that atheists are focusing on certain issues rather than others. I've pointed out a number of problems with the argument from evil, and I've also pointed out a number of inconsistencies in the atheist line of reasoning. But when atheists respond, they focus on comparatively minor points, which makes me wonder why they're ignoring the major points.

Like it or not, life looks designed and functions as if it's designed. Could it be the product of natural causes? Perhaps. But the burden of proof is on you to prove this. My point is that you don't prove naturalism by complaining about some defect in what appears to be designed. This is all the Venus de Milo analogy was meant to show, and I think it's obviously correct.

Weapon of Mass Instruction said...

This is a terrible analogy to the universe, which we cannot deductively define as a product of divine activity and intent.

Well, it depends who you talk to. If you talk to the majority of Americans, I think they have no problem deducting a designer from a design. Its quite simple for those who have a sincere desire for truth.

Weapon of Mass Instruction said...

In evaluating the criteria for such a definition, we would find no a priori reasons to accept the definition. Therefore, your analogy is a poor one as it begs the question of intent/design.

Well, I guess you are going to accept the a posteriori definition. I mean is this is not the calling of empirical evidence?

After all it is not long before you forget a priori reasons and appeal to experience:

Human beings know the design of other human beings because we know:
i) that humans sculpt similar things
ii) what materials they use
iii) what methods they use
iv) that the pieces are found where we expect them to be...rather than underneath miles of solid rock, for instance, or buried deep in the middle of the ocean.


Outside of the current debate (biology), we have yet to see complexity that has not been a direct result of design. It is reasonable to deduct that if in every other field, complexity can easily be traced to design; and if all of our life’s encounters with complexity is a product of design, then we should expect no different in biology, especially if there is not a worldview that indicates otherwise using the same standard. By a posteriori standards, there is no begging the question. Maybe you should save your a priori reasons for something that would require it.

I would have to conclude along with David Wood:
Like it or not, life looks designed and functions as if it's designed. Could it be the product of natural causes? Perhaps. But the burden of proof is on you to prove this. My point is that you don't prove naturalism by complaining about some defect in what appears to be designed. This is all the Venus de Milo analogy was meant to show, and I think it's obviously correct.

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

H.S.Pal said...

We know that there is evil. We also know that there will be evil in future, because we know very well that we have not been able to do anything so far that will make this world evil-free in future. All these things are true. But it is also true that we love evil because we love life. That is why we want evil to continue, because we want life on this planet earth to continue. Otherwise we could have destroyed life on earth, because it is now in man’s power to completely destroy the earth. But we do not want to do this, because we love life. And therefore evil will also continue to exist on earth. For all future evils on the planet earth we are also responsible.