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.

25 comments:

David B. Ellis said...


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.


How many times do I have to point out that there are versions of the POE that do not require objective moral truths before you stop making this claim?

You may prefer to pretend they do not exist but that won't make them go away.

But I'm more than willing to get into meta-ethics, as to your comment:


The problem is that objective moral values point to a transcendent source of moral values, not to atheism.


That is your opinion. But you have yet to present your particular meta-ethical theory on which you base that conclusion. There are many meta-ethical theories and not all of them require a transcendent source of values.

Personally, I consider Ideal Observer Theory to be the best meta-ethical theory. Name yours, then we can state what each means specifically and discuss which is the stronger position.

Of course, since the version of the POE I favor makes no reference to objective morality and is entirely consistent with moral subjectivism the whole issue has no relevence to whether that version of the POE is a good reason to think theism implausible.

Still, I think its actually a far more interesting topic anyway, so I'm more than willing to discuss the issue.

As to your various arguments for the existence of a creator, they are also irrelevent to the POE since, even if it were established that there were an intelligent designer, we would not know from this that this being is either omnipotent, omniscient nor benevolent and the POE only addresses an intelligent designer with those three characteristics (which is precisely why the POE plays little part in my own religious skepticism---it only addresses a very narrow range of supernatural beliefs).

Of course, if you want to discuss these various arguments for theism I'll be glad to do so as well.

David Wood said...

How many times do I have to point out that there are versions of the POE that do not require objective moral truths before you stop making this claim?

I stopped reading your reply here. Before I finish, please give me ONE version of POE that doesn't either explicitly or implicitly appeal to objective moral values.

David Wood said...

Notice also that my post wasn't really about the problem of objective moral values.

John W. Loftus said...

Notice also that my post wasn't really about the problem of objective moral values.

Yes, but here you have done what you have done before. When I argue for the problem of evil, you turn around and argue for intelligent design as if these two problems cancell each other out, or something. But I have maintained that these are separate problems that must each be dealt with on their owns terms. It does no good to say, yes, the POE is a problem, but here's YOUR problem. I've admitted that intelligent design is a problem, but we're not talking about that here. If your blog were called Inteligent Design, then we would be dealing with it.

Now you're doing the same thing. Instead of dealing with YOUR particular POE, you are now saying that I have a problem with evil too. Now I deny that my particular problem is anyway as serious as yours is, but just like with Intelligent Design, it too is a separate problem. If offers nothing by way of answering YOUR particular problem.

Besides, as I've written elsewhere today, you continually seem to be responding to what "atheists say," as if they are the only ones asking these questions. That is NOT true. Christians ask the same type of questions, and you know it. The difference is that when atheists ask these questions we don't think Christians can answer them satisfactorily, whereas when Christians ask these questions they are seeking to learn the answers. That's the only difference. So please, don't continue with this fortress mentality as if atheists are trying to breach the walls while Christians are all safely tucked inside.

John W. Loftus said...

Of course, in your defense, your intent here probably wasn't meant to answer your particular problem, just point out ours.

Rich said...

"Of course, in your defense, your intent here probably wasn't meant to answer your particular problem, just point out ours."

But isn't this suppose to be about the thiest Problem? I too miss why it is part of the POE here to point out "the other side's" problem. It seems that this is like playing volleyball or tennis. Ball's in you court John!

Psst this is where you say "what about hell."

David Wood said...

Loftus said:

Yes, but here you have done what you have done before. When I argue for the problem of evil, you turn around and argue for intelligent design as if these two problems cancell each other out, or something. But I have maintained that these are separate problems that must each be dealt with on their owns terms. It does no good to say, yes, the POE is a problem, but here's YOUR problem.

John, since we've been over this before, I'm wondering whether you're intentionally distorting the issue.

When you make an Argument from Evil, you're obviously employing some method in the course of your argument. Like it or not, your method of argument is relevant to any discussion of the argument. It's also relevant to ask whether you employ your method consistently, or whether you only apply your method when you argue against theism. For, if you're not consistent, I can only assume that you don't really believe in the validity of the method.

Atheists use a certain method in the Argument from Evil. It goes something like this: "If theism doesn't account for X, then theism has a problem." My point is that you don't apply this method to your own belief. If you did, you would see all the things that atheism doesn't account for, and you would have to reject atheism. But you don't reject atheism, which means that you don't employ your method consistently.

All of this shows that atheists apply two different standards in their investigation. They apply one standard to Christianity, and another to atheism. This is consistent with the Christian view that atheists are biased against God. It also calls into question your ability to fairly examine theodicies and other theistic responses to evil. Moreover, all of the problems I pointed out in this post are conditions of the Argument from Evil (i.e. things you need to even have such an argument). Hence, they are internal to your argument, and it is therefore relevant to point out that the conditions of your argument point to theism, not to atheism.

Your constant resistance here can only be interpreted as an acknowledgement that you just don't have any answers, that you really are inconsistent, and that the Argument from Evil is indeed filled with internal problems. But of course, this won't bother you at all. After all, you don't care if your own position is filled with problems, so long as you can continue to complain about theism.

John W. Loftus said...

David, if you want to talk "method" and you don't mind a long comment from my revised book, then here it is:

There are six major areas of thinking that explain why I start with my skeptical control beliefs:

One) Sociological/Cultural Reasons. I believe that the control beliefs a person adopts are the ones he or she picks up based on when and where he or she was born. Since that is overwhelmingly the case, I am right to be skeptical whenever I examine any religious set of beliefs, including Christianity.

Two) Scientific Reasons. Science has taught us to assume a natural explanation for every event based upon methodological naturalism. We who live in the modern world operate on this assumption ourselves everyday. This assumption is the foundation of modernity. We have scientific explanations for things, and we all benefit from those who assumed there was a natural (not supernatural) cause to everything we experience.

Three) Biblical Reasons. When I look at the Bible itself, I see things in it that are completely barbaric and superstitious to me living in today's world. These things are obvious to me. So it's more likely to me that Biblical people were superstitious than that the stupendous miracles took place as recorded in the Bible.

Four) Historical Reasons. Christianity is an historical religion which says there are certain things that actually happened in history. I’m supposed to believe that these things happened in history in order to be acceptable to God. But if God chose to reveal himself in history, he chose a poor medium to do so. There are many historians who don't think we can be sure about much in the historical past. History is always subject to revision upon further evidence and findings. This is especially true when that history is a history of miracles.

Five) Philosophical Reasons. The existence of the Christian God is never the conclusion of any of the arguments for the existence of God, in my opinion. At best they may only lead to Deism, and that’s a far cry away from a full-blown Christianity. In many ways I don’t see the arguments for God’s existence proving anything conclusively, anyway.

Another philosophical reason for my control beliefs concerns miracles. Miracles are by definition very improbable based upon natural law. A believer in the Christian miracles has a double burden of proof. For he must show that miracles are very unlikely, and at the very same time show that they are likely. What confirms that they are unlikely, disconfirms that they are likely, and vice versa.

Six) Empirical Reasons. If there was ever an empirical refutation of the Christian belief in an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenelovent God, the problem of evil is it.

I just don't see how Christians can refute any of these reasons for starting with a skeptical attitude, since they are all practically undeniable (and even obvious) to modern educated scientifically literate people, even if I know Christians will argue against them. So it is no surprise that I look at Christianity with the presumption of skepticism. And it is no surprise that I reject it.

John W. Loftus said...

David, since control beliefs control how we view the evidence, what are YOUR control beliefs and how do YOU defend them? Granted we're only discussing the problem of evil here, but this problem is being argued based on other things we believe. Which items in the list I just provided do you dispute and why? What controls your beliefs? How do you defend those control beliefs?

David Wood said...

Quit trying to dodge the issue. And we're not talking about a skeptical attitude. And you only seem to apply your skeptical attitude to Christianity.I'm saying that your argument is based on this claim: "If theism doesn't account for X, then theism has a problem." Hence, you're criticizing Christianity because of a supposed lack of explanatory power. But if you were to turn this principle on your own belief, you would have to reject atheism. Since you don't reject atheism, you're obviously examining the evidence with a tremendous bias. Why should anyone take such biased claims seriously?

John W. Loftus said...

David, I was not dodging anything. I am explaining why I have adopted my particular "bias." Everyone has a bias. Everyone has control beliefs. You cannot get away with saying that I have a bias against Christianity without recognizing that you, as a believer, also have a bias against atheism. We have bias', okay?

So real real issue in such a debate is hoe do we each defend our particular bias'. And I have done that in my book extensively, and here very very briefly.

What bias' do you have and how do you defend them? That's a fair question.

David Wood said...

Let's be clear here, because we're using "bias" in two different ways. If you mean that I believe that atheism is false, and that this affects my discussions with atheists, then yes, I am biased against atheism. But I'm using "biased" in these comments to mean that you're not applying the same standards to your belief that you apply to theism. In this sense, I'm not biased at all. I apply the same standards to all systems that I investigate. But you don't. So let's not pretend that we're similar here.

John W. Loftus said...

David, do you approach your beliefs in the Biblical miracles the same way you approach any other claims of miracles, or are you more skeptical (like me) when it comes to these non-Biblical miracles (both in the present and the past?).

I approach all miracle claims the same, with a heathly measure of skepticism. I use the same standards for them all. You are the one who has a double standard here, not me.

David Wood said...

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

I do approach biblical miracles the same way I approach non-biblical miracles. The case for the resurrection of Jesus is stronger than the case for any other miracle in history (and many atheists grant this). I've never seen a reasonable explanation for the first century evidence apart from a miracle. Given the evidence, I conclude that a miracle happened. Then this gives me a reason to trust other miracle claims, such as those performed in the Gospels.

Now in what way would this make me inconsistent in my methodology? Only one of us is inconsistent, John. And it's not me.

John W. Loftus said...

David, when all else fails.....I ask, what about hell? ;-)

See ya next time around.

Someday I'll actually respond to this initial post of yours. But I don't see it as a problem.

Rich said...

Heaven is hotter than hell

mrieder said...

David Wood,

My skull is thick sometimes, so I am trying to make sure I follow you here. Are you saying that the whole refutation of God's existence using the POE is based on the assumption that we should reject any system which cannot account for all of the observable evidence?

Thanks,

Matt

David Wood said...

mrieder,

Not at all. I'm simply pointing out an inconsistency in the atheist's argument. The idea behind the atheist's argument is that theism doesn't account for suffering. The principle presupposed in this line of thinking is that, if position X doesn't account for certain observations, X is false (or X has a problem it needs to deal with).

So here's the issue. Theism accounts for our finely-tuned universe, the origin of life, the moral law, etc. But, the atheist argues, it doesn't account for suffering. Well, if explanatory power is the criterion, how does atheism fare using the same principle? Since atheism doesn't account for anything, it has less explanatory power than theism. Hence, even if atheists are correct to say that theism doesn't account for suffering (and I think they're wrong here) we have the following:

(1) Theism acounts for A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, but it doesn't account for K.

(2) Atheism doesn't account for anything at all.

Hence, if we're rejecting positions based on what they don't account for, which position should we reject first?

mrieder said...

David Wood,

Got it. That makes sense to me. Thanks. I appreciate what you are doing here. It has helped me think of the POE in new ways.

Matt

Jim Lazarus said...

http://consolatione.blogspot.com/2007/03/evidential-arguments-from-evil-and-g-e.html

- Jim

larryniven said...

Once again, I didn't read the comments, so these may be repeats.

The problem of evil is emphatically not "an argument for atheism," but rather an argument that atheists often use - as a PhD student, I'm not sure how you can possibly not know that. So, when you say that it includes evidence that leads to the various Ways, all you're doing is arguing a generic deist position, which is not contrary to the problem of evil at all. So most of the post is a total waste on your part, from a philosophical standpoint.

As to the objective-evil thing, the atheist (or generic deist, even) can appropriate that premise from the Christian. It is a Christian premise that objective evil exists, just as it's a Christian premise that God is omniscient etc. The obvious Christian response is to say that the evil is necessary in some sense, but nobody's succeeded in making that argument plausibly yet (mostly because they try to do it with hand-waving).

Clay Cosmic said...

Hi, David. I hope your pursuit of your doctorate in philosophy (at Fordham U., I intuit, given your residential location and apparent affiliation with Catholicism) is going well. I'm a 7-yr johnny-come-lately to this discussion, so I hope you'll forgive me (and I hope I can provide you with some benefit by my contribution to the discussion. It seems to me you misperceive/misconceive what the Argument from Evil (Gratuitous Suffering) is really all about, and what it aims to demonstrate. At this point, if I may, I should like to refer you to a few books that should help you in this regard, and thus help you produce a better, more cogent dissertation on the subject. See Anthony Kenny, _The God of the Philosophers_ (Oxford U. Pr., 1979) and Ed. Madden & Peter Hare, _Evil and the Concept of God_ (Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 1968). Wallace I. Matson's _The Existence of God_ (Cornell U. Pr., 1967) is also a pertinent book in this context. Finally, Nick Trakakis, _The God Beyond Belief: In Defence of William Rowe's Evidential Argument from Evil_ (Springer, 2007) provides and excellent contemporary discussion, as does John Loftus in the latest edition of his _Why I Became an Atheist_. What the Argument from Evil demonstrates is that the joint possession/exercise of the 3 typical/paradigmatic divine attributes of the Christian 'God' of 'Natural Theology' is metaphysically _incoherent_, and thus metaphysically _impossible_. This is problem completely _internal_ to Christian theism, and has simply nothing to do with whether or not atheism (and/or, at least, any given (or all) atheist positions and/or arguments are themselves somehow internally inconsistent or incoherent. So, from your post here, it seems to me that, again, you've misperceived/misconceived the problem, and thus barking up the wrong (or, as we might say, _not-even-wrong_) tree, in your particular approach to the problem. Let me now, if I may, provide a valid (and, it seems to me, _sound_) argument from evil.

God exists.
God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and perfectly good.
An omnibenevolent and perfectly good being would want to prevent all gratuitous evils (intense sufferings) which could be prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse, and without compromising any human being's freewill.
An omniscient being knows every way in which such utterly gratuitous evils can come into existence, and knows every way in which those evils could be prevented (again with the same proviso(s)).
An omnipotent being has the power to prevent any (and all) such utterly gratuitous evil(s) from coming into existence.
A being who knows every way in which such utterly gratuitous evil(s) can come into existence, who is able to prevent it/them from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of such evil(s).
If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God, then no utterly gratuitous, and preventable, evil(s) should exist.
But such utterly gratuitous, preventable/avoidable Evil DOES exist (logical contradiction).

This argument seems to me to be sound, and the conclusion is that such a being a the 'God' posited therein is metaphysically incoherent, and thus metaphysically impossible.

Clay Cosmic said...

David:

As for naturalistic axiological/moral objectivity, see, e.g., Risieri Frondizi, _What is Value?_ (Open Court, 1963/1968), Richard M. Hare, _Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Methods and Point_ (Oxford U. Pr., 1982), Stephen Darwall, _Impartial Reason_ (Cornell U. Pr., 1983), Tim M. Scanlon, _What We Owe to Each Other_ (Harvard U. Pr., 2000), Michael Martin, _Atheism, Morality, and Meaning_ (Prometheus Books, 2002), and James Otteson, _Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life_ (Cambridge U. Pr., 2002). There are a few (indeed, perhaps several) others, but these are a good, round sampling. Taken together, it seems to me they provide a naturalistic grounding/explanation for value(s) and moral(s). For the most part, ontology is epistemology and epistemology is ontology, in this context/area.

Hope this is helpful. Let me know what you think. Best wishes for your doing a bang-up dissertation.

Timothy R Campbell said...

David Wood states:
"So here's the issue. Theism accounts for our finely-tuned universe, the origin of life, the moral law, etc. But, the atheist argues, it doesn't account for suffering. Well, if explanatory power is the criterion, how does atheism fare using the same principle? Since atheism doesn't account for anything, it has less explanatory power than theism. Hence, even if atheists are correct to say that theism doesn't account for suffering (and I think they're wrong here) we have the following:

(1) Theism acounts for A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, but it doesn't account for K.

(2) Atheism doesn't account for anything at all."

Interesting, but David, you either misunderstand atheism, or you deliberately attempt to misrepresent atheism. To be blunt, atheism IS NOT NOR ATTEMPTS TO BE an explanatory system. Atheism is simply a rejection of theism, a rejection of theistic explanations for anything.

Theism, on the contrary, IS an explanatory system. "God did it, wills it, permits it, causes it, underpins it" is the theistic attempt to explain historicall earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, disease, crop success/failures, droughts, storms, suffering, evil, and Justin Bieber.

The atheist simply rejects the theistic explanations, on a number of grounds. You see David, atheists can come in a variety of flavors. Some can and do espouse explanatory systems as silly as theists. Alien invasions, leprechauns, elves, etc. And some atheists like myself see science as a far superior methodology for seeking answers and weeding out the BS. Theism offers no such mechanism Theism does not differentiate objectively among the claims of Jesus, St. Paul, Joseph Smith, L.Ron. Hubbard, or Harold Camping. Theism accepts the claimns of schizophrenics and con men with only cultural difference being the arbiting force.

POE and POS is a problem if one is evaluating the unsupported and intestable claims of divine characteristics invented by specific theists. The logical holes in theistic claims, the inability to support with actual evidence, all point to theism as a horrible explanatory system.

Atheism, simply rejects this horrible explanatory system as being neither explanatory nor a logical system.

You assert that the Jesus resurrection myth is well attested. Nonsense. Not supported by actual evidence. Outside of the gospels, there is not a single contemporary reference that shows even the existence of Jesus let alone his magical powers. Even the gospels themselves are horrible as reference. Written decades after the events, they contradict each other in important ways, and make claims about history that are simply not true. There was never a census as described. No census sending non-Romans scurrying to their ancestral homes in order to "register". This was obviously a fictional device invented in order to get the Jesus family to Bethehem, but still enable him to be "from Nazareth". No independent record for the alleged massacre of the innocents, another separate fictional device invented independently for the same purpose!

end of part 1

Timothy R Campbell said...

part 2
Objective morality? No such thing. ALL of morality is subjective and relative. Even the alleged commandments allegedly given personally to Moses directly from God, apparently came with exceptions. THOU SHALT NOT KILL, except if some of the folks are worshipping a golden calf instead of the desert god Yahweh. THOU SHALT NOT STEAL unless the inhabitants of Canaan are living on land the Hebrews want and are somehow now "promised" to the Hebrews. And if the current inhabitant don't want to leave peacefully from the land that THEY have been living on for centuries, kill them! Kill them all, and rape their women!

And of course, the entire Jesus myth depends on an acceptance of the historicity of the OT books of Genesis and Exodus. Jesus is somehow the magic son of the invented desert god that also happened to wipe out almost the entire human race in a mythical flood and sends the son/or is the son come here to be tortured to death to make up for a sin committed by a couple who certainly never existed! Preceding a flood/global extinction event that never happened!

Sorry, David, theism fails miserably as an explanatory system. No disease was ever cured by the premise "God's Will". Atheism does not need to offer any explanations--nor does it--in order to be the only rational response to the con men and lunatics of theism. Where one goes once one has rejected the absurdities of theism is up to the individual. As one who sees science as the better explainer (not perfect, but much much better), I can accept evil as a subjective issue (Harold Camping, Adolph Hitler, Ted Bundy probably never saw themselves as evil, but many if not most of us would see them as evil). Suffering is the simple result of the physics and chemistry of the universe. In order to have a diversity of life, one must have some form of evolution from simple forms to more complex. This means that cells must be made of something that holds together well, but not too well. Cells need to be able to divide and mingle and move! Simply compare a loaf of bread to a block of steel. The bread holds together, but can be fairly easily cut and sliced and mixed with other ingredients to form cakes and stuffings! Steel is extremely hard and while it can be cut, you need some serious tools in order to do so.

So, we have carbon-based complex molecules that can form cells and eventually divide and mingle and move. Unfortunately, just as the loaf of bread is vulnerable to more things than steel would be, living cells are also vulnerable. And with vulnerability comes all of the ailments of life: disease, injury, death! And pain/suffering. Throw in a thinking brain and we have our awareness of our vulnerability and pain!

No need for God or Jesus or Satan or really any theistic explanation. In fact, theistic explanations are basically useless. A lazy man's way of avoiding the hard work of looking for real explanations--and cures or remedies for those things that cause our suffering!