Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of Death and Power and One Old Lady

This comes from a chapter of Thomas Schmidt’s book A Scandalous Beauty:

I was a college student when I met Mabel. It was Mothers Day, and I was taking some flowers to the county convalescent home to brighten the day for some lonely mothers and grandmothers.

This state-run convalescent hospital is not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile and helpless people who are waiting to die. On the brightest of days it seems dark inside, and it smells of sickness and stale urine. I went there once or twice a week for four years, but I never wanted to go there, and I always left with a sense of relief. It is not the kind of place one gets used to.

On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few people who appeared sufficiently alert to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.

As I neared the end of the hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was a horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I was told later that when new aids arrived, the supervisors would send them to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything in the building. I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bed-ridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.

I don’t know why I spoke to her--she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” She held the perfect flower up to her distorted face and tried to smell it. Then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously the product of a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.”

I said, “Of course,” and I pushed her in the chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Before I could speak, Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here. This is from Jesus.”

That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. We distributed the rest of my little supply of flowers in the same manner, and I wheeled her back to her room. There I began to learn more. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died, and then she managed the farm alone. Her social life was limited to the country church near her home, where she had played the piano from the time she was a girl. Finally blindness and sickness and poverty sent her to the county convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and weaker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomach aches. Then the cancer came. There was little medical care for people like Mabel, people with no money merely waiting to die. For company she had three roommates, human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never spoke intelligibly. They often soiled their bedclothes; and because the hospital was understaffed, especially on Sundays when I usually visited, the stench was overpowering.

Mabel and I became friends, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box she kept near her bed. Some days I would read to her from her beloved Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory, word for word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns. Once, for example, while singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” following the line, “Is there trouble anywhere?” she murmured softly, “Oh, yes, there is.”


It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder, and I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down things she would say. I have a few of those notes now (I wish I had had the foresight to collect a book full of them), and what follows is the story behind one scrap of paper.

During a hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once by all of the things I had to think about. The question occurred to me, “What does Mabel have to think about--hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it is day or night?” So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?”

And she said, “I think about my Jesus.”

I sat there and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote; so slowly that I was able to write it all down. This is what she said:

“I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . .

I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied. . . Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.”

And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:

Jesus is all the world to me,

My life, my joy, my all.

He is my strength from day to day,

Without him I would fall.

When I am sad, to him I go,

No other one can cheer me so.

When I am sad, he makes me glad.

He’s my friend.

This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. I watched her for three years. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening--and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it?

The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.

89 comments:

eas239 said...

From this story we see that human beings are resilient in all kinds of horrendous circumstances. Does this prove something about the problem of evil?

Or are we atheists supposed to be inspired by the fact that this woman's imaginary friend helped her get through her awful life and feel bad about trying to take Jesus away from people like this?

What am I missing here?

John W. Loftus said...

The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.

Ahhhh, the existential power in believing that God in Jesus loves us. The story of Jesus provides hope, strength, and joy to people who would have a hard time without it. There are some people like Mabel, who are better off believing it, even if it's false.

Nice story.

David Wood said...

Only atheists could read a story like that and turn it into an insult.

David B. Ellis said...

Since none of the theists here have proposed a theodicy which seems to address the POE adequately, I think, simply as a thought experiment, that I'll give my best attempt at one:

Imagine, at the beginning of time, God creates all the souls that will ever be. He gives each a choice. Stay in heaven with him or go to the physical realm where one will experience great suffering.

Those who stay in heaven become angels. Those who go to be born in the physical world become humans.

Presumably the reason for going to the physical world is that the hardships experienced will somehow enrich and deepen their experience of being.

This seems to go further toward solving the POE than anything I've ever heard from a theist. Though there are still a couple of problems with it:

1. The more extreme forms of suffering possible in our world still seem too extreme. Such that they descend into masochism and seem to have little merit as far as developing spiritual depth is involved. But, since the possibility of such suffering was freely chosen, it seems to lift at least some of the responsibility from God. Though not all of it.

2. There is still the problem of animals. Most christians would not accept the idea that animals had souls and freely chose to come to earth as the humans did (though it's not impossible for a christian to take this position). If they don't, then the POE remains as strong as ever in regard to animal suffering.

Anyone else want to make an attempt.

David Wood said...

We haven't even gotten to theodicies yet. Be patient. Evil can't be solved in a day (or in a single blog entry). Slowest way is fastest.

David B. Ellis said...

It seems strange indeed to have six blog entries and to still have barely addressed how to solve the POE.

Here's hoping you'll get to the point eventually.

David Wood said...

Ellis,

I think you've misunderstood the point of this blog. My goal isn't simply to "solve" the problem of evil. This isn't merely an apologetics blog. It's a philosophy blog, dealing with the problem of evil. And there's much, much more to the problem of evil than "solving" it.

Indeed, N.T. Wright just published a book on the Problem of Evil, and he argues that Christians shouldn't even attempt to "solve" the problem of evil. I disagree, but the point is that a Christian wrote an entire book on the Problem of Evil and never tried to "solve" it. Why? Because there's more to thinking about the issue than solutions.

Think about the post here. There's nothing in this post about solving anything. It's just a story that makes us think about the issue.

True, in future weeks, months, and years, I'll be offering a number of theodicies. But don't expect too much after six posts. Indeed, I think I've rushed too far into the issue already. An ideal setup would go something like this:

(1) Show what the problem is. This would include several posts on various types of suffering, in order to put the problem before our eyes. I'm talking Holocaust pictures, descriptions of Nanking, newspaper articles, etc.

(2) Much discussion.

(3) Present several versions of the argument from evil (logical, evidential, and emotional), discussing the differences.

(4) Much discussion.

(5) See if there are any problems in the arguments. That is, see how much the argument can, in theory, accomplish.

(6) Much discussion.

(7) Present theological responses to the Problem of Evil.

(8) Much discussion.

(9) Present philosophical responses to the Problem of Evil.

(10) Much discussion.

(11) Sum up the results of all the discussions.

(12) Start over again, with more insight.

That's my view of how things should go. But it seems you've got something else in mind. You're looking for:

(1) Solve the problem of evil.

(2) Debate it with atheists.

If you can find a theist who's interested in a blog like that, it won't be difficult to start one. But this just isn't what I want to do with my blog.

But the way things are now, I don't see how I can even proceed like I want to. As soon as I post something presenting the problem of evil, atheists are going to say, "All right, what's the solution?" Then, if I present some versions of the argument from evil, atheists are going to say, "All right, respond to all of these arguments." And when I try to see if there are any problems in the arguments, atheists are going to say, "Quit talking about problems in the argument and get to your answers."

So, I'm not sure what I should do.

John W. Loftus said...

I like this approach David, and I'll try to be patient with you. Maybe if you can put what you just wrote on your sidebar and then announce to us where a particular post falls in the progresion of your thought, it would prove useful. Then we can know your intentions on any particular post.

Anyway, best of luck to you. As "iron sharpens iron...."

Still you baffle me when you adopt Triablogue's framework for viewing the problem. Stay off their blog. They are not doing you any favors. You are plainly wrong about my needing a standard of evil to assess your beliefs (since Christians themselves debate the merits of this problem), and you are plainly wrong that my arguments are not internal to what you believe (again, if for no other reason, because Christians themselves are debating this problem). Drop these two things from your discussion. They are both ignorant to the core. Move on to more intelligent things.

Not once in the philosophical literature will you see any of these things said by knowledgable Christian philosophers because they knoe better. I hope you will know better too, eventually. It gains you no ground, but brings upon you derision, and I want better than this for you.

Marvels of the Mind said...

As a person who has read all of your posts and is a future philosophy major, I appreciate your piecemal approach to the issue. Every argument and debate has its context, and I believe the better defined the context is the more productive the discussion will be. It is more informative method, as well, for people who have not launched into the issue already and are ready for a theodicy.

Thanks for the amaglam of posts you have amassed so far.

David Wood said...

John,

I brought up several inconsistencies in your position in our debate in October. I didn't get this from Triablogue. The fellows at Triablogue simply noticed the same problem. So has Victor Reppert. So have many other people. There are a ton of glaring inconsistencies in the atheist argument, and they need to be addressed.

You say that your argument is internal. How many times do theists have to prove you wrong? The idea that free will isn't important--is this internal to theism? Or are you bringing this from your own worldview? The idea that rebellion against God isn't very significant--is this internal to theism? Or is this internal to John Loftus? The idea that "good" primarily relates to pain/pleasure--is this internal to theism? Or is this your view? Over and over again you smuggle your own views into the argument, yet you continue to claim that you're just pointing out a problem internal to theism.

As for the problem of the moral values you bring to the argument, this is quite common. Craig talks about it, as do Dallas Willard and Peter Kreeft. They're all philosophers, and they all notice the same problem, because there really is a problem. So let's drop this "Oh, David uses this argument, but real academics don't," because that's simply false.

John W. Loftus said...

David, read what Francis Schaeffer attempts to do in his books. *sigh*

Let's say a Christian is doubting and asks the same questions I do. Then what? You cannot say that they are offering anything external to what you believe. My questions are legitimate and grow out of what you believe. Christians who struggle with their faith ask the very same questions, and these people believe what you believe. So please, don't bore me anymore with this drivel. Just answer the questions.

eas239 said...

David Wood said...
Only atheists could read a story like that and turn it into an insult.

It is an insult. It's an insult to the intelligence of your audience. It is just this kind of base appeal to emotionalism that makes me want to give up on Xians altogether. When they can't answer questions on a rational basis, they resort to an appeal to emotion. Maybe this crap works on the uneducated masses who don't analyze the content, but it doesn't work on me.

I'm not asking for answers (well, actually I am, ultimately), but in the meantime, how about at least sticking with a rational debate format?

David Wood said...

John,

So now we add "drivel" to your constant barrage of insults.

I'm not saying that a theist can't share your values. A certain theist might, for instance, agree that pleasure is the highest good, or that free will is insignificant. As such, some of your arguments would appeal to him.

My point is that most theists have radically different values from the ones you are PRESUPPOSING in your arguments. So, unless you prove that these values are true, your arguments won't work. Call it "drivel," or "nonsense," or ignorant," or whatever else you want to call it. But it's a simple fact that you've got a problem with your argument.

David Wood said...

eas239,

Why do you assume that I had the motive you ascribe to me? (Ellis, now's the time to cry "Strawman.")

The point of the essay isn't to appeal to emotion. (Though, if we want to start criticizing people for appealing to emotion, we should note that several atheists on this site constantly ask, "What about little babies?" "What about nice people in hell?" They tend to do this whenever they can't defend a point logically. That's appeal to emotion.)

The point of the post is quite simple for anyone who doesn't automatically assume the worst in his opponents. You look at suffering and say, "Ha! This proves God doesn't exist." Yet a woman who suffered a million times more than you ever will faced her suffering with gratitude.

What does this mean? Well, it would be quite odd of you to say, "She's just stupid." I'm sure she thought about suffering far more than you have. Yet it didn't shake her faith in God. Why? Because she had a different way of looking at things. For her, "God is good" doesn't mean "God wants to give us tons of pleasure." She didn't view goodness in this way.

She had different views and values. But how can you say that your views and values are the correct ones to use when evaluating the problem of evil?

To put things differently, if we adopt a certain way of looking at the world, we don't come away from suffering complaining about God. But if we adopt a different way of looking at the world (i.e. hedonistically), we conclude that God doesn't exist. But why should anyone prefer your view to Mabel's? Why should someone listen to what you think about suffering instead of someone who suffered far, far more than you?

In the face of someone like Mabel, your comments seem childish and selfish.

David B. Ellis said...


The point of the essay isn't to appeal to emotion. (Though, if we want to start criticizing people for appealing to emotion, we should note that several atheists on this site constantly ask, "What about little babies?" "What about nice people in hell?" They tend to do this whenever they can't defend a point logically. That's appeal to emotion.)


I, for one, have no problem with bringing emotion into this discussion. This subject relates to values and to basic empathy---emotion is fundamental to the topic. Its like two parents trying to discuss choices about how to raise their child while ignoring its emotional needs. Emotion is too fundamental to this issue to be ignored. Making the topic concrete is well worth doing. All too often I have found christian apologists keeping the topic as abstract as possible. I suppose its easier to explain away suffering in the abstract than to see it with ones own eyes and still explain it away.

I, for one, have no problem with you telling emotionally compelling anecdotes. I have done the same and intend to continue to do so.

David B. Ellis said...

And now, David, as is my habit, I'd like to propose another thought experiment for consideration. Imagine that God granted you the ability to make whatever you imagine come true (essentially, near omnipotence).

How would you use it? How would you expect any decent person to use it?

I can think of many things I'd do:

magically curing and transporting to safety torture victims.

curing the sick.

causing trees able to bear nutritious food under any conditions to spring up in famine-stricken regions.

And a host of other things to ease suffering in the world. I imagine, and surely you agree, that practically any decent person would do this.

Any decent person except God, that is.

So we are left, theists and atheists alike, with this puzzle. Why is the behavior of God so different from what one would naturally expect of any other person with even the least decency and compassion?

steve said...

john w. loftus said...
"You are plainly wrong about my needing a standard of evil to assess your beliefs (since Christians themselves debate the merits of this problem), and you are plainly wrong that my arguments are not internal to what you believe (again, if for no other reason, because Christians themselves are debating this problem)."

A lovely non-sequitur.

Is his point that if fellow Christians disagree over some aspect or another of the argument from evil, then his version of the argument from evil is internal to Christianity? Or that he doesn't need a standard of evil?

How does that follow? How does that even *begin* to follow? How does that even *appear* to follow?

At most, it would mean that there is no one version of the argument from evil that he can deploy against every Christian tradition. That he must have several versions which target different truth-conditions for the argument from evil according to different Christian traditions.

In addition, he seems to be assuming that all theodicies are mutually exclusive. Why assume that some theodicies can't be complementary?

eas239 said...

David,

I asked you right upfront what your motivation was. And you should have been more clear in your original post.

The main problem I have with your anecdote is that it does not address the problem of evil. In fact, you are sidestepping the issue with your story.

All you have done is share a story about one woman whose faith in the face of her suffering helped her get through life. This says nothing about the problem of evil.

On the other hand, the stories that atheists have used in support of their contention that the suffering of this world precludes the existence of an omnipotent omnibenevolent god actually are evidence against that god.

From where I stand, one is about UNFOUNDED BELIEF and the other is about EVIDENCE.

If Mabel were similarly convinced of the truth of Islam, or her belief in Zeus helped her get through the bad times, would you be swayed by this argument?

Get real.

David Wood said...

eas239 said:

"If Mabel were similarly convinced of the truth of Islam, or her belief in Zeus helped her get through the bad times, would you be swayed by this argument?"

Do you bother to think about what you're saying? Have I claimed that Mabel's suffering proves Christianity is true??? Of course not. So why are you asking if I would be persuaded if she believed in Zeus?

And, yes, I would be persuaded of my conclusion even if she believed in Islam. My point is that people can endure horrible things, think about those things carefully, and not reject theism. This means that these people just don't see any contradiction between God and suffering. Why don't they see it? I reject the idea that they just haven't thought about it, or that they're stupid. The answer, I think, lies in certain values they possess. But if this is correct, then our reaction to evil is related to our values. If that's true, then the argument involves more than reason. As such, the conclusion doesn't follow from premises, but from a combination of premises and an atheist value system. This would be the same even if Mabel believed in Allah.

David Wood said...

Ellis,

It seems you're looking for a supernatural world. According to Christianity, God offered us a supernatural world, and we rejected it. Then Jesus came and offered us a kingdom of miracles, and we killed him. God now offers us a supernatural world, if we accept his free gift, but you reject him.

How bad do you really want the supernatural world? It sounds as if you're saying, "I want a supernatural world whether or not we reject God, and I want him to give us this world on my terms." There's a lot presupposed in this view. Fortunately, theists reject this way of thinking.

Tim said...

David,

Thanks -- that's very moving. Is the rest of Schmidt's book this good?

If you have a spare moment, look me up and drop me a note.

David B. Ellis said...


It seems you're looking for a supernatural world. According to Christianity, God offered us a supernatural world, and we rejected it. Then Jesus came and offered us a kingdom of miracles, and we killed him. God now offers us a supernatural world, if we accept his free gift, but you reject him.

How bad do you really want the supernatural world? It sounds as if you're saying, "I want a supernatural world whether or not we reject God, and I want him to give us this world on my terms." There's a lot presupposed in this view. Fortunately, theists reject this way of thinking.


Again, you are attributing to me views which I did not express and do not hold. Beat that strawman, my friend, all you wish. I'll be over here waiting to have a conversation concerning my ACTUAL views when you get done.

My primary focus in this discussion has been over the suffering of beings that CANNOT reject God because they lack the mental capacity to do so. Namely, very young children and animals.

You continually miss the point. I have no "wants" as far as God's treatment of his creations. I have a high degree of incredulity concerning the claim that a loving being would act in the manner you believe God acts. Those are two very different things.

David Wood said...

Ellis,

I really don't understand you're method of argumentation.

You posted a "thought experiment," in which you asked how I would use magical powers if I had them, and whether I would use them to rescue people. Then you said that God doesn't use his powers to do the same.

Your point was that God, if he exists, should be constantly intervening in our world, using his powers to rescue us.

I responded by saying that you're looking for a supernatural world, i.e. a world with constant supernatural intervention, and then I addressed your desire for this world.

You replied, as usual, that I'm attacking a straw man.

Am I missing something? Did you take different logic courses from the ones I took? If you're asking why God doesn't constantly intervene, and I talk about why God doesn't constantly intervene, this isn't a "strawman" in any of my logic books.

I've said it before. Quit misusing logical terms to dismiss arguments.

David B. Ellis said...


Your point was that God, if he exists, should be constantly intervening in our world, using his powers to rescue us.


Again, you arent getting it. MY DESIRES are irrelevent. I am pointing out what the expected behavior is of any caring being in the natural world and wondering why the behavior of supernatural caring beings is so different.

If you have a plausible explanation for the difference I would like to hear it. I can't think of one.



I responded by saying that you're looking for a supernatural world, i.e. a world with constant supernatural intervention,



If you wish to argue that my position logically entails constant supernatural intervention (which it doesn't, as I've already discussed buth you've apparently forgotten) then ACTUALLY PRESENT AN ARGUMENT TO THAT EFFECT. Do not simply attribute that opinion to me when I haven't expressed it.

Its both annoying and rude.

David B. Ellis said...

As to why constant supernatural intervention isn't the only option open to a deity, its very simple. A God could have set up the laws governing the natural world differently.

Children suffering congenital defects?

No supernatural intervention required if the creator simply eliminates such defects as possible within the natural laws governing the cosmos.

I could go on with other example but you get the idea.

I suspect you will say the Fall is the explanation for why a caring God's universe is set up for so much suffering. If this suspicion is correct please explain in detail your thinking on that matter.

mrieder said...

David Wood,

I like your blog. It is a-very-niiice. I suppose that setting up a blog devoted to the problem of evil will have people nipping at your heels with every post that does not solve the problem. It is a good way to generate interest, for sure.

I think you have hit on a very interesting part of the POE in this post, one which I have thought about often. It seems that those who are in dire straits do indeed find ways to cope with it. In fact, it is not uncommon for the sufferer to find consolation in God! This, considering the POE, is immensely ironic. Or maybe not. Maybe the intuitive logic of the brain is realizing something the lingual part of the logical brain is unable to articulate. This would be sort of like when one hears an argument which is logically flawed. At first one gets a "gut feeling" or a "check" in their "sense" which tells them that something is amiss. Then, after thinking it out lingually in ones mind, the problem becomes apparent. Perhaps this is what happens to suffering people, except on a far more immense level.

Regardless, I find your story encouraging. I furthermore will be quite sorry if you should ever solve the POE, what would Christians and Atheists ever argue about then? :)

Cheers

Matt R.

David Wood said...

Ellis,

You just gave me a new insight into the Problem of Evil. Check this out.

WOOD: Here's my new site on the Problem of Evil. I'd like to proceed slowly, though, since this is a complex issue.

ELLIS: Give me your theodicy. Explain all the suffering in our world.

WOOD: As I said, I'd like to proceed carefully, and that doesn't mean jumping straight into theodicies. The problem must be set up, arguments examined, etc.

ALL: That's a pretty good way to proceed, David.

ELLIS: So are you going to give me your theodicy or not?

WOOD: As I said, I'd like to go through some other things before I attempt to explain evil.

ELLIS: Either give me your theodicy or explain, in detail, your view on the Fall. Now!

WOOD: Since when am I here to do what you want to do and not what I set out to do?

ELLIS: I said NOW!!! In detail!

You want answers, answers, answers, and you will not take "no" for an answer. You have no patience for other people's method of proceeding.

Now I must say that this relates to the problem of evil. Here's why.

ELLIS: God, I want an answer. Now!

GOD: Be patient, Ellis.

ELLIS: I said now! Or I won't believe in you!

GOD: Then don't believe in me. That's your choice.

ELLIS: Fine! If you're not going to give me exactly what I want, when I want, then I'll just go complain to someone else!

That's how I see things anyway.

And, like it or not, your thought experiment was about supernatural intervention. Read what you wrote. Words have meanings, as do sentences. Now if your words have different meanings from the way everyone else uses them, then you should clarify that. Otherwise, if you start demanding miraculous intervention, I'm going to assume you're demanding miraculous intervention, not that you're talking about something else.

David Wood said...

Matt,

Interesting comments, especially the part about the hidden logic of the brain.

It's good to have a comment by someone who isn't nipping at my heels.

mrieder said...

David,

Thank you for your kind words. Regarding the heel-nipping, I gave that up years ago after I contracted a bad case of athlete's tongue...

All bad jokes aside, I have another thought for you, do you think that the POE is to theists what Aboigenesis (life from non-life) is to Atheists? I see some similarities. Sort of the "Achillies heel" of each worldview.

Cheers,

Matt R.

David Wood said...

Matt,

Absolutely! I noted this in my first debate on the Problem of Evil, and I've mentioned it once or twice on this site.

The theist says, "Well, I might not see any good reason to allow certain instances of suffering, but I'm going to believe that there is a reason."

The atheist says, "I might not be able to figure out how life could form from non-life, but I'm going to believe it happened anyway."

The difference, I think, is that theists can account for quite a bit of evil, even if we can't give thorough reasons for each instance. That is, we can deal with the big picture, but have trouble with specific instances.

Atheism, on the other hand, has trouble from the very beginning. In other words, it's not as if atheism accounts for a lot but falls short on a few things. It simply falls short on everything.

Tim said...

David,

Schmidt's vignette reminds me of this passage from Augustine's City of God, Book I, chapter 8:

"Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor."

David B. Ellis said...


And, like it or not, your thought experiment was about supernatural intervention.


It was about the actions of supernatural beings. This applies equally well to how that supernatural creator sets up the laws governing the world he creates as it does to what he does once its created.

We had discussed the issue of how the laws governing our world are set up to make enormous amounts of suffering inevitable so this shouldn't have been so difficult for you to comprehend.

David B. Ellis said...


The theist says, "Well, I might not see any good reason to allow certain instances of suffering, but I'm going to believe that there is a reason."

The atheist says, "I might not be able to figure out how life could form from non-life, but I'm going to believe it happened anyway."

The difference, I think, is that theists can account for quite a bit of evil, even if we can't give thorough reasons for each instance. That is, we can deal with the big picture, but have trouble with specific instances.


Thats pretty much a reversal of the truth. We understand in general concept how abiogenesis works. We simply don't know (yet) the details. Its in the nature of atoms to form molecules and molecules to combine and recombine in various configurations. Among the set of all possible molecules there are some that will be self-replicating. If any of these molecules result from the chance combinations and recombinations of molecules then we have abiogenesis.

We have a clear general concept of what is involved in abiogenesis.

As to the POE, we DON'T have a general concept of what the solution will look like. Most christians are honest enough to admit its basically a mystery.....they just have faith that there is some solution of some sort.

You say you can give a plausible "big picture" account of evil.

I patiently await that account. :)

David Wood said...

Ellis,

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! I was a biology major before I began studying philosophy. The tendency of the necessary biomolecules is to break down, not to build up. You need two major components for life as we know it--DNA and proteins (a lot more, actually). Show me how you're going to get either.

And supposing you do, DNA isn't life. Proteins aren't life. They're individual macromolecules. Supposing you did form a number of important proteins (you wouldn't; I'm simply humoring you), you would also need to put these molecules together in the right relationships, so that you have functioning, reproducing life.

I must confess, I find it difficult to trust atheists who think this is a small issue. "Well, we've got some atoms! That's all we need really. It'll all come together somehow." Your faith amazes me. Why not say, "The pyramids? All you need are some big rocks. And we find big rock all over the place. What's the problem?"

David Wood said...

Tim,

Awesome quotation! I've wanted to study Augustine for several years, but never got around to it. I might use that quotation as a post.

David B. Ellis said...


Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! I was a biology major before I began studying philosophy. The tendency of the necessary biomolecules is to break down, not to build up. You need two major components for life as we know it--DNA and proteins (a lot more, actually). Show me how you're going to get either.


I too was a biology major before switching.

Who said anything about DNA or proteins. It is highly unlikely the first self-replicating molecules had much similarity to life as it exists today---after billions of years of evolution and natural selection and radical changes in environment and atmosphere.


But in general concept what happens in abiogenesis, Big Picture, as you put it, it is easily understood:

A self-replicating molecule must result from natural chemical processes.

The same cannot be said for theist answers to the POE. Most theists admit it is a mystery. They just have faith that there is a reason (though they are at a loss to even give a general concept of what this reason is). And, by the way, I have no problem with theists who take this view. Their position is an article of faith and there is, therefore, little to discuss or debate. Its the theists who hold that they have a solution to the POE who I dispute. Simply because their solutions are so plainly implusible and inadequate.

David Wood said...

Ha! I didn't switch. I added an additional major and finished biology as well. Hence, I'm the expert here.

A self-replicating molecule? Like what? I'm familiar with an experiment by David Lee’s team, in which it was found that a peptide taken from yeast had the ability to catalyze its own synthesis. I also know of a molecule called “amino adenosine triacid ester,” which acts as a template to reproduce itself. But such experiments are usually forced and rarely reflect anything that would happen naturally. However, even if we assume that a number of self-replicating proteins formed in the primal seas, this still doesn’t give you anything remotely resembling life. In addition to several hundred functionally correct proteins, you still need many other macromolecules to perform numerous coordinated functions in the cell. (BTW, no scientists consider a yeast enzyme life.)

So what do you need for even a bare chance at abiogenesis? First, when molecules join to form amino acids in nature (usually in extraordinary circumstances), they form equal proportions of left-handed and right-handed amino acids. Yet the proteins in living cells are made up of left-handed amino acids only. Hence, give me some thoughts on how a pool of exclusively left-handed amino acids formed by chance.

Second, amino acids react with a number of other molecules more readily than they react with one another, so you’d have to explain how his pool of left-handed amino acids arose free from contamination by other molecules.

Third, even if there were such a pool of uncontaminated, left-handed amino acids, the rate of amino acid polymerization (amino acids joining together to form chains) in water is extremely low. Peptides (chains of amino acids) tend to break down in water, and each increase in the desired number of amino acids decreases the probability of formation dramatically. Additionally, life requires specific polymers, not the random byproducts of chance.

Fourth, even if a number of proteins formed, against incredible odds, this isn’t life. The most basic functional living cell imaginable would require far more than just a couple of random proteins. And you still have to account for molecules like DNA, which is composed of nucleotides, not amino acids. Further, you would have to explain how all the necessary biomolecules, arising by chance, ended up in the same place and then joined together, in just the right order, to form life.

This is just the beginning. And yet you're willing to say, "Oh, all you need is a self-replicating protein, and nature will take its course"? That, by definition, is blind faith.

David B. Ellis said...


A self-replicating molecule? Like what?


Again, the claim is only that we know, in basic concept, what constitutes the origin of life by nonsupernatural means---a simple self-replicating molecule forming by natural chemical processes.

The POE, however, is fundamentally a mystery (if one assumes God actually exists). One cannot give, even in general concept, a description of something that would constitute a solution to the POE.

Of course, you may disagree. In which case I invite you to provide such a general concept of what would constitute a solution to the POE. I'm not asking for any details. Just the general, basic concept. As I did in regard to the origin of life with a single sentence.

I cannot give any specifics as to the origin of life by nonsupernatural means but I am able to describe the basic idea involved:

a self-replicating molecule is formed by natural chemical processes.

Can you do the same with regard to the POE? Can you give a single sentence that describes the basic nature, not the specifics....just the basic nature, of its solution?

Or do you regard it as of a fundamentally mysterious nature unable to be described even in general concept?

Which is it?

steve said...

I've noticed how Darwinians keep moving back the goal post on exobiology. The search for life on Mars.

The first goal was to discover actual life on Mars. Microbes.

When that failed, the goal post moved back to evidence of extinct lifeforms on Mars. Fossilized microbes.

When that failed, the goal post moved back to evidence for water on Mars. As if water is all you need. Water>life!

When that failed, the goal post moved back to evidence for fossil evidence of water on Mars.

David B. Ellis said...

Steve, I'll be blunt. Your comment is ludicrous. "Darwinism" (a term only used by creationists) or evolution (the term we would use) does not in any way require, need, or even made any predictions or assumptions concerning whether there is, or ever was, life on Mars. Or water, or anything else, for that matter.


Darwinism isn't moving any goalposts. The explorers of Mars are simply closing in more and more on the probable fact that Mars is lifeless and always was. That has no relevence to whether evolution is true and anyone with the most modest scientific literacy would know that.

David Wood said...

Ellis,

How long were you a biology major? A self-replicating molecule is not life! We're talking about the origin of life, not the origin of a hypothetical self-replicating molecule. Somehow, you have to get to a living cell. That's life.

And you don't even have any idea of what this molecule could be. So you have no self-replicating molecule, and even if you did have such a molecule, you'd still be a million miles away from anything even remotely resembling life.

I think it would be best if you said, "Okay, I was wrong. The origin of life is a huge mystery, and the more we learn about science, the more we learn that the odds are overwhelmingly against abiogenesis. Nevertheless, I'm going to believe it anyway, by faith. So let's get back to the Problem of Evil."

Tim said...

David (Ellis),

You ask:

Can you give a single sentence that describes the basic nature, not the specifics....just the basic nature, of its solution?

Well, sure, that's childishly easy: (G) "God has morally sufficient reasons to permit the extensive suffering and evil that exist in our world."

There's about as much detail there as there is in your description of the molecule in question.

And in fact this does more than yours does. If it's true, it completely disolves the problem of evil. That's more than can be said for your self-replicating molecule, which needs to do a lot more than replicate in order to solve the really interesting problem of abiogenesis. It needs to fend off or out-reproduce environmental hazards like oxidation, for example, and it needs to construct a mechanism for taking information from the environment and packing it into what passes for its genome so that it can play the blind-variation-and-selective-retention game with increasing effectiveness as generations pass.

You might object that this is a description of something more than mere abiogenesis. It is. But I take it that you want your molecule to be the beginning of a story that winds up with life as we now know it. To play that role, it's going to have to be something more than an evanescent accident ruthlessly oxidized within a few seconds of its coming into being. It is going to need to survive and produce offspring that can evolve upward. So there will have to be more details filled in for this to amount to an answer to the interesting problem of abiogenesis.

This doesn't mean that your molecule didn't exist, and it doesn't mean that those morally sufficient reasons do. But trying to pose the challenge to theists in that fashion is a mistake. It's just too easy to answer a question that blunt, and the answer in both cases merely frames the argument without advancing it significantly. All of the really interesting problems, in both cases, can be seen only at a higher level of conceptual resolution.

David B. Ellis said...


Well, sure, that's childishly easy: (G) "God has morally sufficient reasons to permit the extensive suffering and evil that exist in our world."


Actually, that's simply a restatement of the problem in the affirmative. Its equivalent in terms of the origin of life is, in regard to the question "did life arise naturalistically":


There is a naturalistic origin of life.

Which would also simply be a restatement of the problem in the affirmative and NOT what I gave you, a very broad description of the sort of naturalistic origin of life:

Life came about by the generation of a very simple self-replicating molecule through natural, unguided chemical processes.

This is a very broad statement of the sort of naturalistic origin of life that occurred.

Can you also give a very broad statement of the sort of "morally sufficient reasons" for permitting extensive evil that would solve the POE?

Another thing, we can describe the sorts of research necessary to further our knowledge of abiogenesis. Can you describe the sorts of research necessary to further our knowledge of the solution to the POE?

Of course, all this is yet another digression from the problem of evil---supposedly the topic of discussion.

David B. Ellis said...

The funny thing, so far as I can remember, no one has so much as mentioned the Book of Job yet---the only book of the bible that actually addresses the problem of evil.

But, then again, maybe that isn't so surprising. It never actually gives a solution to the POE either.

David Wood said...

Ellis,

You're really stretching things. Tim was exactly right.

The problem for theists is that there is an apparent gulf between (1) God's goodness and (2) suffering. So the theist posits hypothetical reasons to bridge this gulf. And, in broadest terms, we simply say that there are reasons, without specifying.

The problem for atheists is that there is an apparent gulf between (1) life and (2) non-life. So the atheist posits a hypothetical molecule to bridge this gulf. And, in broadest terms, you simply say that there is such a molecule, without specifying.

Tim noted that if the theist's claim is correct (i.e. that there are reasons), the problem of evil is solved, even if we don't know what these reasons are.

But if your molecule actually exists, this hardly bridges the gap. I'll give you any self-replicating molecule you can imagine. How are you going to get from there to life? Does your hypothetical molecule have not only the power to self-replicate, but also the power to actively create other necessary biomolecules, and to incorporate them into its own structure? If you're going to say that, heck, why not say that it's also intelligent (since we're being completely unrealistic here).

The other difference between the theist's broad claim and the atheist's broad claim is that theists can and do propose a number of the reasons in our hypothesis. All kinds of theodicies have been proposed. We can put them forward, discuss them, and evaluate whether they are successful or not.

Now how many of your hypothetical self-replicating molecules are being discussed in the literature? Any clue?

David Wood said...

Ellis,

Do you think that Job is the only book that addresses the Problem of Evil? What about Genesis? What about Revelation? What about Paul's letters, or the Gospels?

eas239 said...

David,
Are you suggesting that god created the first building blocks of life and then let evolution take over? In which case, why bother with evolution over billions of years? Or are you a creationist? How much involvement does your god have?

I was an English major, but I see no reason to doubt the current scientific research on how life began on Earth. For anyone who is interested in a factual discussion of abiogenesis, check out Talk origins

Of course, this is tangential to getting any closer to the solution to the POE.

Rich said...

OK Dave E,
how about the morally sufficient reason being that experiencing suffering is a necessary step in our eternal progression towards becoming free acting beings who always choose right because we understand the consequences of wrong choices.

I realize how simplistic this example is, but I still feel its a good one. The child touching hot pan for first time. You can tell a child countless times don't touch that it's hot but it never sinks in until the touch. There is no comrehension of the effects of hot until the physical connection is made to the warning. once that connection is made then reason can take over in our learning process. Don't put that in the outlet you'll get shocked I told my son. Until he put the tweezers in the outlet he didn't comprehend the warning. He now understands well and I get a new outlet.

We are curious creatures, we have to explore, touch, see, feel, and discover. Welearn things this way and this is how God meant it to be.

steve said...

David B. Ellis said...
"Steve, I'll be blunt. Your comment is ludicrous."

David, I'll be blunt. Your comment is ludicrous.

The search for life on Mars or outside our solar system (e.g. SETI) is predicated on evolutionary assumptions. For example:

http://nai.arc.nasa.gov/

Try doing a little research before you pop off the next time.

As to your claim that Darwinism is a term used only by creationists, this must mean that when Ernest Mayr defines "Darwinism" as "Darwin's concepts and theories on which his followers based the explanation of evolution," What Evolution Is (Basic Books 2001), 285 (Glossary), and devotes several pages to the explication of "Darwinism" in relation to "macroevolution" and "molecular biology" (307, index), that he is writing as a crypto-creationist.

Once again, try doing a little research before you pop off the next time.

David B. Ellis said...


Ellis,

Do you think that Job is the only book that addresses the Problem of Evil? What about Genesis? What about Revelation? What about Paul's letters, or the Gospels?



I recall no examples. But my memory is not infallible. Feel free to present some and I'll gladly admit I was mistaken.


Rich said,
OK Dave E,
how about the morally sufficient reason being that experiencing suffering is a necessary step in our eternal progression towards becoming free acting beings who always choose right because we understand the consequences of wrong choices.


Oh, don't get me wrong. I am not saying some suffering and hardship are not character-building and worthwhile. The POE, at least in any form I would endorse, does not mean ALL suffering should be prevented.

The theodicy I presented earlier, my own best effort to think of a way to reconcile the suffering of our world with a caring god, should tell you that.

What is problematic is the most extreme forms of suffering--especially to infants and animals---who are incapable of being moral agents.

The theodicy you present allows for some suffering---but then that isn't in dispute. It, however, does nothing to explain why a loving God would allow extreme, prolonged suffering. Its clear from anyones observation that this isnt necessary to build character. There are plenty of people of the highest character who have never experienced tortuous suffering. Therefore such suffering is clearly not necessary to the development of human character.

Nor would your theodicy address the MOST problematic example of suffering. The one I have focused on throughout this discussion: the suffering of a dying infant who takes agonizing days or weeks to finally die.


There is no comrehension of the effects of hot until the physical connection is made to the warning. once that connection is made then reason can take over in our learning process. Don't put that in the outlet you'll get shocked I told my son. Until he put the tweezers in the outlet he didn't comprehend the warning. He now understands well and I get a new outlet.


This is a good example of the insufficiency of your theodicy. It is very good and useful to have a pain response. However, our pain response is such that it allows an extremity of prolonged and agonizing suffering which is blatantly NOT useful.....as we all admit when we consider it a good thing that people, for example, dying of cancer are given sufficient pain medication to minimize their suffering.

Thank you, though, for actually stepping up and doing your best to imagine what reason a caring God would have for setting up the world in this way. Too many other posters have been unwilling to stay focused on the supposed topic of this blog.

Tim said...

Ellis,

I think you're just moving the goal post here. You originally made a very sweeping claim:

One cannot give, even in general concept, a description of something that would constitute a solution to the POE.

You went on to emphasize just how little you were asking:

I'm not asking for any details. Just the general, basic concept.

So I gave you one in (G). Now you're complaining that there's not enough detail in (G):

Can you also give a very broad statement of the sort of "morally sufficient reasons" for permitting extensive evil that would solve the POE?

The sort? Sounds to me like you're asking for some details. That's okay, and Christians are willing and able to talk about the sorts of reasons too, as you know if you've read any of the relevant literature. I'm sure we'll get to lots of that on this blog in the very near future. But you should be honest enough to admit that your original question was too much of a blunt instrument and that your real concerns are about the details.

As for your charge that (G) is simply a rewording of the affirmative answer to the POE, this isn't true for at least the standard sort of formulation of the logical POE:

1. If God exists, He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.

2. If God is omniscient, then He is aware of evil.

3. If God is omnipotent, then He is able to prevent evil.

4. If God is omnibenevolent, then He wishes to prevent evil.

5. If God is aware of evil, is able to prevent evil, and wishes to prevent evil, then there is no evil.

6. There is evil.

Therefore,

7. God does not exist.


There are lots of ways, formally, to deny 7. One could, like Mary Baker Eddy, deny 6. One could, like John Stuart Mill, deny 1, opting for a god (small 'g') of limited power. One could take the route of Open Theism and deny 1 on the grounds that God's foreknowledge, though as complete as is possible in the nature of the case, is nevertheless merely probabilistic regarding the choices of free agents.

A long disjunction of these and other responses to the argument would be a trivial response, tantamount to saying, "Your argument doesn't work, for some reason or other." If I had merely said that, I would be open to the charge of rewording an affirmative response to the POE. But that isn't what (G) does: it locates the problem in the combination of 4 and 5, in the notion that the omnibenevolence mentioned in 1 and 4 entails a desire to prevent evil that overrides all other considerations and renders 5 true.

You may not like (G). And merely stating (G) doesn't make it so or amount to any argument for it. But that isn't what you asked for. And you're wrong to suggest that this is a trivial response.

David B. Ellis said...

Fine, if you want to view it that way. It would be trivial to dispute.

So I will simply ask. Do you consider the issue of what would constitute "morally sufficient reasons" for the POE a mystery which you believe must have some solution even though you have no idea what it is or do you have some concept of what you consider the solution to the POE---of what the morally sufficient reasons are?

Understand, this isn't "moving the goalpost". The question concerning even a very simple broad concept of what the solution to the POE would be is because the theists here, Wood in particular, have been so hesitant to even address the issue. It was simply an attempt to get SOME concept of what their views are on the solution to the POE so that we might actually have something to discuss.

David Wood said...

eas239,

You just have to look back through the comments to see how we got here. Someone made the comment that the Problem of Evil and abiogenesis are similar in that theism has some difficulty accounting for the former, while atheism has trouble accounting for the latter.

I agreed that there is a similarity. But I said that theism is better off, because we can offer some plausible explanations for suffering, while atheists have no plausible accounts (or any accounts, for that matter), of how life could arise from non-life.

Then Ellis jumped in and, radically parting company with the scientific community, said that all you need for life is a molecule (if it can replicate itself).

Then everyone pointed out the many problems with this view, and Ellis stomped his foot and proclaimed that an imaginary molecule solves the problem of abiogenesis, but that reasons can't account for evil.

I agree that this has nothing to do with solving the Problem of Evil. However, it does relate to a very important issue. Atheists point to some explanatory gap in theism and say, "There! You see! Your position doesn't account for this! Theism is therefore absurd!" But they never apply this to their own worldview. And when theists point to some explanatory gap in atheism and say, "There! You see! Your position doesn't account for this! If you're going to be consistent in the method you just applied to theism, you'll have to reject atheism as well!" To which the atheist replies, "I have faith that all my gaps aren't really a problem." And, of course, the theist responds, "Well, why do you object when a theist says that there are reasons for suffering?"

Atheism is one inconsistency after another, piled on a mound of blind faith, heavily seasoned with bias, served on a plate made of straw.

David B. Ellis said...

You are, yet again, misrepresenting my views (no surprise there). I did not say the idea of a self-replicating molecule solves the question of abiogenesis---only that it constitutes the general nature of the solution and that the same cant be said of the POE---that we have no concept of what would constitute the general nature of, to use Tims word, "morally sufficient reasons" for the POE. Also that we have a clear idea of the lines of research necessary to answer the question of abiogenesis but we have no such line of research for solving the POE.


I agree that this has nothing to do with solving the Problem of Evil.


I agree. And since I've allowed you to divert the topic yet again far afield I think its better to get back on topic than to discuss abiogenesis ad nauseum (though if you want to do that in a discussion board of your choice I'd be glad to do that too).


However, it does relate to a very important issue. Atheists point to some explanatory gap in theism and say, "There! You see! Your position doesn't account for this! Theism is therefore absurd!"


This is not, however, a position I hold. I do not consider the POE a disproof of theism. I simply am at a loss to imagine a morally sufficient reason for a caring being to allow such suffering as we see in our world or, for that matter, even more puzzling, for that being to deliberately set up the world so that extreme suffering is extremely common.

I invite anyone to propose reasons which might resolve this puzzlement. So far, I have heard only one: that God is fictional.

None of the others I've ever heard (and I've heard many) have even come close to fitting the facts involved in the question of the POE so completely.

David Wood said...

I simply am at a loss to imagine a morally sufficient reason for a caring being to allow such suffering as we see in our world. . .

Well, I'm not. But I am at a loss to imagine a molecule that could in any way help bridge the gap between life and non-life.

we have a clear idea of the lines of research necessary to answer the question of abiogenesis but we have no such line of research for solving the POE.

It's just the opposite. The answer to the problem of abiogenesis has nothing to do with your imaginary molecule. You made a claim. Now please defend it and then we can move on. What would this "clear" research look like? Give me an outline. Do you propose to invent some self-replicating molecule? Fine. Then what do you have? You'll have a molecule. You need a lot more than that for life, unless your magic molecule can construct proteins, build DNA, and assemble all the parts in the right order.

And we do have a clear idea of how to test reasons for allowing suffering. The philosophical literature is filled with examples of this. Someone proposes a reason, and it gets discussed by atheists and theists.

How is your magic molecule solution any better? As far as I can tell, atheists say, "Well, there was a molecule, but we have no clue what it could be. We have no way of finding out. We have no way of testing it. But we propose that this molecule somehow turned into life, though the odds are utterly against us. We can't test this either. But as long as atheists at the popular level think that we've got things under control, all is well."

Maybe you should plant your molecule in the ground. It could become a beanstalk that leads to a magical kingdom in the clouds.

Faith is powerful, isn't it?

Tim said...

Ellis,

You ask:

Do you consider the issue of what would constitute "morally sufficient reasons" for the POE a mystery which you believe must have some solution even though you have no idea what it is or do you have some concept of what you consider the solution to the POE---of what the morally sufficient reasons are?

My own position is that it's some of both. We know enough to be able to understand why at least some of the horrific evils in the world would be permitted by a good God. Existing theodicies go some distance here. But if Christianity is true, we should expect our knowledge to be incomplete; we should expect there to be some evils for which we don't see and perhaps cannot even imagine the reason. And that is, in fact, what we find in experience.

This is, of course, unsatisfying for someone who wants a universe with no mysteries at all. But if that is your objection to Christianity, then evil is merely an illustration of the more general gripe: Christianity requires us to accept that there are things we don't know and aren't going to find out through diligent inquiry, scientific or conceptual. Even if there were no evil, there would be other places where this problem remains.

Rich said...

While I agree with you Ells that my post doesn't solve the POE I do think it is as good a start as the molecule you talked about. It doesn't account for every instance of suffering but it is the start that you asked for.

To go further I think we have to rule out any man made suffering as part of the equationbecause of our free will. like it or not free will is a big part of our exsistance here. Because we can choose freely what we do it affects many innocent people alot of the time. Even your beloved science has caused alot of suffering. So rather thatn start a pissing match as to who has caused more I think it should end in it doesn't really matter because it happens. So now we should be down to accounting for things you have brought up, such as infant disease deaths, which I think is a fair question by the way. In this instance I don't believe we are born with sin, but born innocent. Infants that die are sent back to God to dwell with him free of pain and suffering. this palce where we go when we die is the world you are seeking. No pain, suffering, and everyone is free acting beings that choose right. I admit that only to belive such things will resolve the POE in this instance and for you it will still be left unresolved. I am offering my belief and letting you inon how I resolve this problem.

Yes Wood, faith is powerful :)

mrieder said...

David B. Ellis,

Scientist pursue Abiogenesis in the exact manner that theists pursue an answer to the POE. We have both started with an assumption. In the case of the scientists, it is "life arose from natural means", in the case of the theists it is "God is good, therefore there must be a way to harmonize suffering with a good God".

Both groups have evidence and both groups have sound reasons for their search.

EAS239 makes a very good point. If the creation of life requires intervention from God, at what point did it come?

I think a very good answer to that question is that it came when God laid down the physical laws of the universe which made the development of life from non-life possible.

I also think it is possible to say that perhaps God "kicked-off" everything at some point. This answer is "messier" than the first one, so I like the first one better.

My only problem with the first answer is that I find it impossibly unlikely that life came together through a series of natural events.

The current state of research regarding abiogenesis does not help very much, based on my reading. Sure some proteins have spontaneously formed and there are certainly RNA molecules that can catalyze reactions and replicate, but it is dizzying to imagine how these simple molecules actually arranged themselves into DNA and cell membranes with protein channels and cytoskeletons and mechanisms for converting substrates to enzymes and energy and organelles and what not.

For life to develop is a miracle whether it happend "naturally" or by divine fiat. Of course, one must remember that if God created the universe, then everything is "supernatural" in a sense.

mrieder said...

Tim,

You provided a very good defense of your premise. I respect that.

mrieder said...

David Wood,

I think it is interesting that very few people talk about a "problem of justice" when Christians discuss salvation.

It is very unjust for God to forgive a murderer on death row and allow him to enter heaven. Immensely unjust, yet I believe he does it! I think the POJ should be railed upon equally as much as the POE.

I think perhaps all humans know at some fundamental level that if justice were done, then everyone would be found guilty, so no one really wants to talk about it.

On another note, I think that Jesus is a large clue in solving the POE. Certainly there must have been another way to deal with sin rather than have God himself come down as a man and suffer! Maybe not!

Maybe God foresaw all the good and all the evil that would result as a consequence of the creation of mankind and knew before he did it all that the only way to make it more good than evil was to enter into the reality that he was creating and suffer himself. This gives us a God who considered the options and found that the good from creating humans was greater than the evil, perhaps infinitely so (particularly if heaven is infinitely blissful and there is no Hell full of infinite torture to counterbalance it). Furthermore this gives us a God who experienced suffering alongside his creations. If justice is designed to punish the guilty, then even those who hold God guilty for creating suffering must be satisfied since God himself suffered for the suffering he (supposedly) created. Perhaps the POE is not an argument against God so much as a clue that God has left for us to unravel, sort of like the clue that Ellie Arroway finds in the number "pie" in Carl Sagan's "Contact".

Just a thought.

Rich said...

Mrieder,
You started in on the topic I was headed for. Christ did suffer for the sins of every human ever and it was so immense that it caused a God to bleed from every pour. It also does as you say and show us that suffering is part of our eternal progression, even God had to suffer. A big part of that suffering was for justice to be fulfilled in that every sin was "paid for" and thus we are able to recieve the mercy of God by his forgiving our sins.
This is the best possible solution to serve both justice and mercy. Which also shows the care that God has for us in preparing a way to avoid the consequences that justice demands for our wrong choices and allowing his mercy to be given to us by accepting Christ's suffering for us as "payment" for our sin as long as we are willing to repent and follow Christ's example.

David B. Ellis said...


While I agree with you Ells that my post doesn't solve the POE I do think it is as good a start as the molecule you talked about. It doesn't account for every instance of suffering but it is the start that you asked for.


No, I'm afraid it isnt "as good a start". If a single self-replicating molecule can form by natural processes then abiogenesis is possible without supernatural intervention. There are no parts left unaccounted for---we simply don't know any details about the process (what molecule, how large, under what conditions etc).

But your theodicy lefts ALL the problematic forms of suffering unaddressed---those that are extreme and those afflicting beings who arent moral agents.


On another note, I think that Jesus is a large clue in solving the POE. Certainly there must have been another way to deal with sin rather than have God himself come down as a man and suffer! Maybe not!....

Furthermore this gives us a God who experienced suffering alongside his creations.


This makes no sense to me. Aiding masochism to the equation doesnt make it any less of a puzzle.

If a doctor has a pain medication that can ease a person dying of cancer's final agonies and withholds it, its does not make it any less horrendous if he repeatedly pressed a red hot poker to his own body while the patient was suffering.

David B. Ellis said...


A big part of that suffering was for justice to be fulfilled in that every sin was "paid for" and thus we are able to recieve the mercy of God by his forgiving our sins.
This is the best possible solution to serve both justice and mercy.


I will return to my primary example of suffering---an infant that slowly dies from a congenital defect suffering agonies for weeks.

How does this fit into your theodicy? An infant cannot sin. It cannot have anything to need forgiving for.

The same problem applies to the suffering of animals.

mrieder said...

David Ellis,

Thank you for taking the time to read my comment and reply to it. I will clarify what I wrote and I think that all will become clear to you.

This makes no sense to me. Aiding masochism to the equation doesnt make it any less of a puzzle.

If a doctor has a pain medication that can ease a person dying of cancer's final agonies and withholds it, its does not make it any less horrendous if he repeatedly pressed a red hot poker to his own body while the patient was suffering.


You are quite right. Just because God suffers, it does not explain how God is
"good" to allow suffering. This does not make sense. That does not bother me, however, because that is not my point or my theodicy. You have greatly misconstrued my meaning. I do not intend to suggest that one can solve the POE simply by saying, "Jesus died on the cross." I think that it is a clue to the solution. Here is one way to look at it:

The POE assumes that God is omnipotent and could easily wipe out all evil with a wave of his hand with no effect save to eliminate evil and suffering once and for all. This would not only solve the POE but also the problem of sin. God did solve the problem of sin, but not by a wave of his hand. He did it by becoming a man and dying. Apparently the problem of sin was sufficiently complex that it required the very creator of the universe to deal with it in this manner. If we assume that the POE is on par with the POS then perhaps the solution to suffering and evil and the like is also very complicated.

The POE looks at suffering in a very narrow way, suffering can only be evil and can only have evil effects. We know this is not true and this assumption can be disproved easily with a myriad of examples. If one were to assume that this life is everything there is, then perhaps the POE does become asymptotically unsolvable, but it is important to note that virtually every theistic system of beliefs involves an afterlife of some sort or a progression.

Basically, the assumptions of the POE set up the POE so that there cannot be a correct answer. It is similar to Euthyphro's Dilemma. It is designed in such a way that there is no good answer. The argument itself does allow for very creative views of God, reality, or the afterlife.

Any solution to the POE, in my opinion, will most likely not exist in the stringent assumptions of the "classic POE" for the reasons outlined above.

On another note, you might find it interesting that the theodicy you proposed earlier in this posting is very similar to the Mormon view of progression. In fact, it was so similar that I thought you belonged to the Mormon Church until I read more of your posts.

Check out this website and check out the parallels:
http://ldspatriot.wordpress.com/mormonism/mormon-beliefs-the-plan-of-salvation/

So...do you think that the POE is a "clincher" that God does not exist. Is that the fact that you bring to mind every time a theist tries to witness to you, or is there more?

Cheers,

Matt R.

info said...

The POE assumes that God is omnipotent and could easily wipe out all evil with a wave of his hand with no effect save to eliminate evil and suffering once and for all. This would not only solve the POE but also the problem of sin. God did solve the problem of sin, but not by a wave of his hand. He did it by becoming a man and dying. Apparently the problem of sin was sufficiently complex that it required the very creator of the universe to deal with it in this manner.

ROFLMAO

Do you guys ever LISTEN to yourselves?

The POE does not assume all suffering is bad. Please don't mis-state the issue, it makes you look dishonest or stupid, and I do not think you are either.

David B. Ellis said...


The POE assumes that God is omnipotent and could easily wipe out all evil with a wave of his hand with no effect save to eliminate evil and suffering once and for all.


Info is right. We don't think all suffering is necessarily problematic. I do not consider much of a puzzle if God allows me to have a headache or to stub my toe or to get my heart broken by a callous girl I had feelings for.

What is problematic, to me at least, is extreme tortuous suffering.


God did solve the problem of sin, but not by a wave of his hand. He did it by becoming a man and dying. Apparently the problem of sin was sufficiently complex that it required the very creator of the universe to deal with it in this manner. If we assume that the POE is on par with the POS then perhaps the solution to suffering and evil and the like is also very complicated.


There is no plausible basis for this claim. Can you give us any reason for thinking that solving 'the problem of sin' (whatever that means) requires God to have himself tortured to death as a human? And what does it mean to solve the problem of sin? That is a rather vague idea open to multiple interpretations.

You claim that the problems of both sin and suffering are so complex that they require God doing things such as they are.

But is it really plausible to claim that God MUST set up the world so that extreme and horrible suffering has to occur and has to occur with such great frequency?

Both your claims, that God MUST deal with sin by killing his son, and that God MUST set up the world such that horrible suffering occurs in great amounts, sound like nothing but special pleading to me.


The POE looks at suffering in a very narrow way, suffering can only be evil and can only have evil effects.


No, it simply involves the idea that it is not a good thing for extreme tortuous suffering to occur.



So...do you think that the POE is a "clincher" that God does not exist. Is that the fact that you bring to mind every time a theist tries to witness to you, or is there more?


The POE, in fact, had nothing whatsoever to do with my skepticism and atheism. So far as I am concerned the POE is simply an apparent contradiction in need of explaining if one is to believe in an omnipotent benevolent God. One can always imagine that there might be a morally sufficient reason which resolves the apparent contradiction---however, I have yet to hear any plausible candidate proposed. And I rather doubt anyone ever will. In this life or any other. I could be wrong.....but I'm not holding my breath.

What makes me a skeptic in regard to religious claims is the simple lack of plausible evidence for them. The world seems to behave exactly as would be expected if supernatural beings and realms did not exist. Until plausible evidence is provided for such things I will remain unconvinced. The POE is simply a problem for a very narrow, very specific supernatural claim. It presents no problem at all for the vast majority of supernatural claims and is, really, of only mild interest to me.

Rich said...

Mr. Ellis,
an earlier post gave a possible solution to infant suffering. I also did mention that infants are innocent or free of sin and not capable of commiting sin so in this we are in agreement. Keep in mind that I don't believe that infant suffering and animal suffering are good but necessary for their own eternal progression. I also stated before that to not believe there is an afterlife makes the POE unsolvable. I belive the the abolishment of evil will happen then not here. This earth was created for the purpose of our eternal progression, its a small step of the big picture. Jesus also didn't sin but suffered immensly that would indicate to me that suffering is suppose to be a part of our exsistance here, sin not necessarily connected completly with suffering.

Somewhere before it was mentioned that natural disasters are a result of sin. I don't buy it. If Christ suffered for my sins and the God punishes me, and countless others by way of a natural disaster, what good was Christ's attoning sacrifice? That would, in my mind, nulify repentance. Its not like he can take away the tsunami because I repent. So I would say that natural disasters are not punishment for sin.

I wanted to point something else out real quick though. Because you believe in abiogenisis you easily believe that any holes will be filled and you have no worries about it not completely explaining the beginnings of life. Its the same for the thiest with regaurds to the POE. We don't completely understand all the solutions, or have them for that matter, but we believe there are solutions. maybe I shouldn't blanket everyone here, I see the holes and the problems with the small understanding we have with regaurds to suffering, but I believe it will be resolved and that there are solutions, even if I don't have them.

mrieder said...

Info,

My apologies, I have not made myself very clear.

I did not intend to address the concept that all suffering is evil. I meant to address the concept that the POE assumes that God is omnipotent and could easily do away with suffering (or really bad suffering, as you see fit). The point revolves around omnipotence, not suffering.

I can tailor my comment to your specifications if you would like. Perhaps it is not simple for God to eliminate all horrible suffering, and perhaps he cannot do so with a wave of his hand.

My intent with bringing up the sacrifice of Jesus was to show that in my worldview, sin was a big enough problem that it required a remarkably complex solution. In my mind, this demonstrates that God does not or cannot solve all problems with a wave of his hand, within my belief system. Please remember that I am speaking from my belief system and trying to show how it relates to itsself and to the POE.

By the way, what is ROFLMAO? It sounds like an acrostic I would use to memorize the muscles of the forearm or something. :)

I hope this clears things up,

Respectfully,

Matt R.

mrieder said...

David Ellis,

Hello,

Please see my response to Info for the first part of your post.


There is no plausible basis for this claim. Can you give us any reason for thinking that solving 'the problem of sin' (whatever that means) requires God to have himself tortured to death as a human? And what does it mean to solve the problem of sin? That is a rather vague idea open to multiple interpretations.

Apologies here, I sometimes assume that everyone is familiar with Christian doctrine and the view of Christ. Let me try again:

In the Christian worldview, it seems that God has to take drastic measures to deal with certain issues. Sin is one of them. In the Christian worldview, God had to send his son to remedy the problem of sin. This shows that he possibly was not able to simply do away with sin with a wave of his hand. My point was to address the "omnipotence" assumption of the POE. The POE does not apply to the Christian God if the Christian God is not truly Omnipotent in the way supposed by the POE. That was my only point. I am not trying to convert you or anything. But, if you are interested....

just a little joke there for you :)

No, it simply involves the idea that it is not a good thing for extreme tortuous suffering to occur.


Suffering is suffering. If it is bad, that is it. It is incompatible with a good God. If it can be good, then why is it incompatible with a good God? The reason that the severity does not matter is because if a little suffering can be good then it is possible that a lot of suffering can also be good, unless you are tying to say that a little suffering can be good but a lot of suffering is alway bad, which, in my opinion, is inconsistent.


The only reason you differentiate is because you have a frame of reference. But what happens when we change the frame of reference? Let us consider that the worst thing imaginable was a stubbed toe. If the worst thing imaginable was a stubbed toe, then a stubbed toe would be the worst thing imaginable and it would become "horrible suffering" because it is the most extreme form of pain anyone could experience. If this was reality, then in the POE, I would have to explain how God was so unkind as to allow for stubbed toes to happen.

No, I think that all suffering must be accounted for. If there is any suffering, the goodness of God is called into question, especially if God is indeed omnipotent. If God can accomplish his purposes without suffering, then even a little suffering is still unkind.

For example it is cruel to pull a whisker out of a cat's nose for no reason. It is also cruel to cut it in half. Both of these call into question the goodness of the person who is doing the action. One generates a more intense emotional response because it is more extreme, but if we view the situation logically, both actions are unkind and not good.

If you still are not convinced then let me appeal to the Wikipedia. It has a very good formalized statement of the POE, which excludes entirely your qualification of "extreme suffering". It simply reads "suffering".

Below is the formalized POE from Wikipedia.

1. God exists. (premise)
2. God is omnipotent. (premise - or true by definition of the word 'God')
3. God is all-benevolent. (premise - or true by definition)
4. All-benevolent beings are opposed to all evil. (premise - or true by definition)
5. All-benevolent beings who can eliminate evil will do so immediately when they become aware of it. (premise)
6. God is opposed to all evil. (conclusion from 3 and 4)
7. God can eliminate evil completely and immediately. (conclusion from 2)
1. Whatever the end result of suffering is, God can bring it about by ways which do not include suffering. (conclusion from 2)
2. God has no reason not to eliminate evil. (conclusion from 7.1)
3. God has no reason not to act immediately. (conclusion from 5)
8. God will eliminate evil completely and immediately. (conclusion from 6, 7.2 and 7.3)
9. Evil exists, has existed, and probably will always exist. (premise)
10. Items 8 and 9 are contradictory; therefore, one or more of the premises is false: either God does not exist, or he is not both omnipotent and all-benevolent or there is a reason why He does not act immediately.

You can see in 7.1 that suffering is used, not "Extreme tortuous suffering", just "suffering".

What makes me a skeptic in regard to religious claims is the simple lack of plausible evidence for them. The world seems to behave exactly as would be expected if supernatural beings and realms did not exist. Until plausible evidence is provided for such things I will remain unconvinced. The POE is simply a problem for a very narrow, very specific supernatural claim. It presents no problem at all for the vast majority of supernatural claims and is, really, of only mild interest to me.

I see. A very rational response. It has been good having this discussion with you. You have challenged me and taught me to be more careful in the way I express myself. Thank you for your time.

Respectfully,

Matt R

David B. Ellis said...


Apologies here, I sometimes assume that everyone is familiar with Christian doctrine and the view of Christ. Let me try again:


I am an ex-christian and very familiar with christian theology. I simply find the concept of being "saved from sin" incoherent and muddled.


In the Christian worldview, God had to send his son to remedy the problem of sin. This shows that he possibly was not able to simply do away with sin with a wave of his hand.


So christians claim. I have yet to hear a plausible explanation for why this was the only way for God to deal with sin.


Perhaps it is not simple for God to eliminate all horrible suffering, and perhaps he cannot do so with a wave of his hand.


If that is the case it would solve the POE. But it seems implausible to claim an omnipotent being MUST set up the world so infants are born with horrifyingly painful congenital defects that require them to suffer for weeks before dying. So, what are you claiming concerning omnipotence?

If you are claiming God is not omnipotent then the POE doesn't apply to your concept of God.

If you are claiming God is omnipotent in the sense of having the power to do it but is constrained because there are morally sufficient reasons for not doing something about suffering that involves being unable to bring about important ends.....well, I can only say it seems quite implausible that infants suffering agonies in INEVITABLE in order to acheive something important.


The reason that the severity does not matter is because if a little suffering can be good then it is possible that a lot of suffering can also be good, unless you are tying to say that a little suffering can be good but a lot of suffering is alway bad, which, in my opinion, is inconsistent.


Agony cannot be INTRINSICALLY good. It could only be good if it is necessary to achieve an end that warrants the suffering involved.

The POE hangs on the inherent implausibilty that an omnipotent being has some important end that requires he set up the world as, essentially, a torture chamber for many of the beings born into it.


You can see in 7.1 that suffering is used, not "Extreme tortuous suffering", just "suffering".



There are countless versions of the POE. We aren't, of course, limited to the one posted on wikipedia so I don't see that this point is particularly relevent.


No, I think that all suffering must be accounted for. If there is any suffering, the goodness of God is called into question, especially if God is indeed omnipotent. If God can accomplish his purposes without suffering, then even a little suffering is still unkind.

For example it is cruel to pull a whisker out of a cat's nose for no reason. It is also cruel to cut it in half. Both of these call into question the goodness of the person who is doing the action. One generates a more intense emotional response because it is more extreme, but if we view the situation logically, both actions are unkind and not good.


The relevence of extreme suffering is not just emotional---it has a direct bearing on the argument.

For example, if it is agreed that it is not in the nature of a caring person to stand by allowing others to suffer when they can help then it doesn't follow that the contradiction between character and behavior is equal in the two following cases:

1. if a caring person sees someone with a minor headache and doesnt rush out to buy them some aspirin

2. if a caring person sees someone step on a bear trap deep in the woods and doesnt rush to help but goes on with his camping trip letting him die.

I think its clear that the contradiction in 2 is far more perplexing.

John W. Loftus said...

David Wood:
Well, I'm not. But I am at a loss to imagine a molecule that could in any way help bridge the gap between life and non-life.

James Sennett has said that he is "both impressed and unimpressed with this universe." He is impressed with the complexity, but he is unimpressed with the amount of suffering in it.

Now how do you propose we solve this choice?

According to Richard Carrier in Sense And Goodness Without God (2005, p. 86-87), “Who rolled the dice that gave us our god, rather than some other god, or no god at all? Basically theism posits an extremely orderly being that just ‘exists’ for no reason at all.” He goes on to explain how order comes from chaos, because when we roll the dice enough times, “the odds become very good that you will roll the exact orderly sequence of 1,2,3,4,5,6. The odds against such a sequence are something like one in fifty-thousand.” So, he argues, “it follows that from chaos we can predict order, even incredibly complex order. But we have no comparable explanation for where an orderly god would come from, or why such an innate order would exist at all in a god, rather than a different order, or a chaos instead.”

mrieder said...

David Ellis,

Agony cannot be INTRINSICALLY good.

Yes, this is exactly why even a small amount of suffering needs explaining.

1. if a caring person sees someone with a minor headache and doesnt rush out to buy them some aspirin

2. if a caring person sees someone step on a bear trap deep in the woods and doesnt rush to help but goes on with his camping trip letting him die.

I think its clear that the contradiction in 2 is far more perplexing.


Of course it is more perplexing. Nevertheless, in both instances, the person failing to render aid must give a reason if he or she is still to be considered good. You have just illustrated my point quite articulately. Better than I have!

This is all I have to say on this topic. I have enjoyed the exchange and anticipate more discussions with you and others on this site in the future.

Thank you,

Matt R.

Tim said...

John,

Good grief. If you went from being a student of Craig to being a disciple of Carrier, I think you got sold short. The quotation you give from Carrier shows either massive ignorance of Christian theology or else a deliberate attempt to mislead his readers.

As for the dice, what's the point of that supposed to be? You can be as near to certainty as you like that you'll win the lottery ... in the long run, if you play enough times. But it takes a special ability to keep a straight face to parlay that into a prediction that you'll win.

To say that "from chaos we can predict order, even incredibly complex order" is slippery in exactly the same way. There's one way to interpret it that makes it true, but in that sense it isn't interesting; and there's a way to interpret it that makes it interesting, but in that sense it isn't true.

John W. Loftus said...

Tim, why should I care who I'm quoting from if what he says makes sense? Your comment does not. I think it misses the whole point. Like David you also need to try and understand what I'm saying before you attempt to critique what I say.

Anyway, try what I wrote here on for size and answer me there. If I display such "massive ignorance," then my ignorance should be obvious there. Show me how ignorant I am. Go on. Try. I'll be waiting. Maybe you're just smarter than I am. I couldn't answer these types of questions myself, so I became an atheist. Maybe you can. Try.

Tim said...

John,

So ... you don't even try to argue that Carrier isn't playing a verbal shell game; you simply declare that "what he says makes sense" and what I say doesn't. Then you go on to tout your own superiority because you talk on another blog about how a certain method of training your dog worked out well (with only a little yelling added in). Then you gracelessly offer me a chance to get entangled in the tar-baby of a discussion with you.

But since I have nothing better to do this evening, I'll tell you briefly why what you say there doesn't move me. The analogy between a dog and a human is too weak to do any serious work. Humans can reflect on their conduct, motives, and affections. They frequently have second-order desires. They're simply different sorts of beings than Franky.

If you think this method of raising kids is so great, you're going to have to show us more than a few selected reviews of a book -- which is the only external evidence you offer us. (Ever see glowing reviews of a piece of nonsense?) The kids I've known who have been raised like this have been a mixed bag.

I don't think much of the theology you present, though I suppose the poverty of understanding reflected there does shed some light on why you gave up on Christianity. You assume that God stands in loco parentis to all sinners; you offer no discussion of the freedom of the will; you seem to think that the Bible portrays God as plucking out people's eyes to teach them to obey; you seem to think that suffering is all about "training" us; and you leave out anything that might even remotely be analogous to the cross and the atonement.

And having done all of this, you conclude, "It seems we're smarter than God!"

It's depressing, John, to see someone who thinks that because he can produce a piece of reasoning like this he's smarter than God. It's also pretty obvious, both from the Franky piece and from the way you worded your challenge to me in this discussion, that your ego is getting in the way of your reason.

There are plenty of atheists who display more intelligence and who are less over the top. I'm frankly astonished that David takes the time to debate with you given that you can't, or won't, conduct the argument on a higher level than this.

John W. Loftus said...

David isn't the only one. My book is going to be reviewed by three different scholars within a few months in two scholarly journals and on a blog. Sure, they'll disagree with it, but if I am all you say I am then what you said about David applies to them, including Norman Geisler. Go tell him he shouldn't be communicating with me. Go ahead and tell him I an not worth debating. Critically acclaimed atheist scholar A.N. Weisberger has taken notice of my debate with David on evil and is taking the time to write us a review of it. There are others too many to list here.

But you were the condescending one first. Two can play that game. At least David is respectful of me. You weren't. I tend to throw shit back where it came from.

And in case you missed it, I did offer a detailed discussion of free will here. Deal with that, okay? Then tell me how ignorant I am. Go on. Do it. This time with feeling.

And you once again purposely missed the point about P.E.T. and my dog (do you have a habit of doing this, or are you just that dumb?). The point was that we don't expect beings (children or dogs) to obey or to understand on our level. This is directly relevant to whether God is smart in expecting more from us than we're capable of doing. Sure you will disagree that he does this, but make your case.

John W. Loftus said...

Oh, Tim, I have a chapter in my book on conservative atonement theories where I claim they do not make any sense of why Jesus died on the cross. Since I figure you won't read such a slipshod book as mine must be, then let me just ask you to present a cogent understanding of how Jesus' death on the cross does anything for the sinner. You have read the relevant literature, haven't you? It's one of the reasons I reject Christianity. No atonment theory makes sense, and yet you claim I failed to mention it as if such a theory saves your God from the problem of evil. LOL Atonement theories don't answer anything, so they cannot be used to save your God from allowing so much suffering in this world.

John W. Loftus said...

Oh, by the way, the editor himself of what one scholar called "one of the top circulating philosophy of religion journals in the world" will review my book in a few months. Trust me, you'll be very impressed with which one it is. If you stay tuned I'll announce it when it appears in print. If an online link is available I'll also share that.

That's why I bristle when someone like you is condescending toward me, and why I fire back with intensity.

If you'd like to start over again, that's fine with me, because I prefer a civil discussion. If you assume I'm ignorant, then I will show you I'm not. Like I said, I couldn't answer the questions I was encountering and that's why I rejected Christianity. If you're smarter than me, then answer my questions. But don't assume I'm ignorant of the full range of the issues because of one lone post that didn't have the space in it to address them all.

So, with that in mind, let's begin with the nature and value of free will. Then we can take on atonement theories. But if at the start you assume I'm ignorant, you will be shown wrong time and time again. Treat me as if I understand the same things you do but just disagree with how you see things, and we'll just be fine.

Tim said...

John,

Congratulations on getting your book reviewed. I've never heard of A.N. Weisberger, but that's probably because I don't spend my days trying to keep up with the literature of "critically acclaimed atheist scholars." Where does Weisberger teach?

As for your "shooting back," my original criticism was in the first instance a criticism of the Carrier quotation, which is puerile; the only criticism of you was that you were apparently taken in by it. Your reaction here, too, is over the top. If you are out to prove that your ego is getting in the way of your reason, you're doing a spectacular job. The line "... do you have a habit of doing this, or are you just that dumb?" is just one example; the pugnacious "...go on, do it" is another.

Relax, John. Inhale.

I'm not sure what you mean by "... someone like you." Is your point that because you've written a book and you have a Master's degree from Trinity, you're likely to be better informed about philosophical issues than hoi polloi who merely comment on other people's blogs? Or is it that because you've been involved in some debates, you know more about logic than the rest of us?

As far as your defense of the Franky piece, no dice. I did not miss your point or misunderstand you; you simply didn't argue well. God doesn't expect us to be on his level. He doesn't expect more from us than we're capable of doing. Nothing you wrote there constitutes a reason for thinking that He does.

I read your discussion of free will. It's a typical statement of the standard atheist complaint. But it certainly does not advance the state of the discussion of the POE, for at least seven reasons:

1. You offer no argument for the contention that we should expect to know all of God's reasons.

2. You tacitly equate suffering with evil without addressing arguments that drive a wedge between these in some notable cases.

3. You assert without argument that the "sheer massive weight of suffering" isn't outweighed by the value of freedom.

4. You don't consider the distinction between a theodicy and a defense; then you argue against the free will defense as if it were intended to be a complete, stand-alone theodicy.

5. You don't distinguish between the logical and the evidential problems of evil, and this blurs the structure of your argument.

6. You do not engage in any substantive way with the orthodox Christian idea that there are things that can be learned only by suffering.

7. You do not engage in any substantive way with the orthodox Christian idea that the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come.

John, a blog post that offers nothing original and ignores so many critical issues and distinctions is not a substantive contribution to the discussion. I cannot tell, from that post, whether you're actually ignorant of these things, whether you think they're not worth mentioning, or whether you just don't care. But I know that the work of people like Michael Tooley, Philip Quinn, William Rowe, Jordan Howard Sobel, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne on the POE is vastly deeper and more powerful than your little piece, and they are all much more careful about these matters. Yet you don't mention any of them. If you want to persuade your readers that you are not just an angry amateur, it might be a good idea to dig deeper.

John W. Loftus said...

Tim, you're simply not worth my time. Once again you mention authors I have read and understand, and yet you criticize me for not including everything I know in one "little piece." I might as well fault you for not knowing who Weisberger is and call you ignorant for not knowing of her work. And I do know the difference between a Theodicy and a Defense, and the logical and evidential arguments. You assume I don't because I didn't mention them. You might as well claim I don't know we landed on the moon because I didn't mention it (an exaggeration, by the way, for the dense or of a blind mind).

Anyone like you who thinks I'm ignorant because I don't mention everything I know is himself ignorant, or blind. It would take too much time to discuss this with you since you assume I don't know the relevant disctinctions, nor the relevant authors, nor am I writing on my Blog a scholarly piece to convince scholars (remember to interpret something based upon it's context and the genre it was written for, and it wasn't written as a scholarly piece). You would have to read the chapter in my book, and I'm unwilling to give anyone like you that chapter for free.

John W. Loftus said...

Tim, on second thought, I'll give you a response.

God doesn't expect us to be on his level. He doesn't expect more from us than we're capable of doing. Nothing you wrote there constitutes a reason for thinking that He does.

This is merely an assertion, a standard one that's typical of Christian theists. Care to make it into an argument that "advances the discussion"? I'm arguing that if we can judge dogs and children by what we should expect from them, then God should be able to do this as well. But I find no evidence from the Bible or from the horrible amount of suffering that he does. The supposed punishments from the mythical Fall in the Garden don't explain why God punished us so much, either. Care to address that? I find that disciplining a dog or a child to be a much better way to teach them than in the punishments God brought upon the human race. You'll claim we did this to ourselves. But I do not expect Franky to behave like a responsible adult, so I don't punish him so much as to teach him, and if our level of understanding when compared to God's supposed omniscience is somewhat analogous to a child and a parent (or a dog to an owner), then why does God do differently than a good parent or a good dog owner? In fact, a good case can be made that a good parent should act in these appropriate ways from a Christian understanding on how to raise a child (even with some spanking), so why doesn't God follow this same Christian ethic when it comes to raising us? The kingship model of God is antequated, especially when Jesus himself called God "abba" father, and taught us to pray the Lord's prayer starting with the words, "Our Father...."

1. You offer no argument for the contention that we should expect to know all of God's reasons.

Never claimed I did. But can you suggest some reasons for why God allowed the horrible free will deeds I mentioned based merely upon the goodness of my wife Gwen's goodness, much less on a perfectly good God? I'm very interested. And if you claim we cannot know God's reasons, when none of us can see them (noseeum), then I have every reason to think none exist, since we're dealing with probabilities, not possibilities, and that's all we have to base what we believe on.

2. You tacitly equate suffering with evil without addressing arguments that drive a wedge between these in some notable cases.

Suffering is painful. It surely appears as if it is gratuitous suffering. I'm asking a theist to tell me why it isn't to be understood as evil based upon what he himself believes. Why isn't it?

3. You assert without argument that the "sheer massive weight of suffering" isn't outweighed by the value of freedom.

Well, granted, this does seem obvious to me. The reason it isn't obvious to you is because you are blinded by a faith that must defend the existence of your God for fear of the social and afterlife consequences, in my opinion. I do have arguments for this, if you read the other blog entry at that blog. It just seems obvious that a little girl who is gang raped by men in Africa to cure them of AIDS who subsequently dies and suffers for eternity in hell because she was raised as an animist, seems too great of a cost. How can I argue for this anymore than providing you cases where you must explain why free will in this case, and that case, and that case, is better, all things considered? And if you claim further that I am raising emotional issues for an emotional problem of evil, then think again. We must come to grips with what the problem is, and it cannot be done without specific examples. If I cannot bring up examples without a Christian claiming I am clouding the issue emotionally, then we wouldn't have anything to discuss. There wouldn't be a problem of suffering if we couldn't talk about real cases of suffering, much like anti-abortionists couldn't talk about abortion without pointing to pictures of aborted fetus'.

4. You don't consider the distinction between a theodicy and a defense; then you argue against the free will defense as if it were intended to be a complete, stand-alone theodicy.

So? I never claimed I was debunking any particular global theodicy. I was only looking at free will and suffering, and several theodicies use the free will defense inside their theodices.

5. You don't distinguish between the logical and the evidential problems of evil, and this blurs the structure of your argument.

If you didn't know I was dealing exclusively with the evidential or inductive problem of evil when you read what I wrote about free will, something is wrong with you. I cannot write about everything I know in one Blog entry, and the distinction isn't necessary for what I wrote anyway.

6. You do not engage in any substantive way with the orthodox Christian idea that there are things that can be learned only by suffering.

Sure I did. There is more to say in this regard, I know, but I did deal with it. In the first place, what value is there in learning certain virtues from suffering in a heavenly bliss where there is no suffering?, I questioned. I mentioned that such things could be learned through participating in a team athletic contest or in building a house. Sometimes intense suffering simply devestates a person to the point where they no longer want to live, too. What about that?

7. You do not engage in any substantive way with the orthodox Christian idea that the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come.

I did in the other Blog entry. But you are thinking so narrowly here. What about those who end up in hell...your friends, me, your family? Still, just because God compensates the believers when they die for their sufferings can never justify why they suffered in the first place, or any torturer could merely compensate a victim for their sufferings too. It never makes the suffering right, even if compensated. The suffering must be justified all by itself.

I hope in your response to me you can offer a comment that does not do what you claim I did, based upon your own standards here they are, paraphrasing your own words: I hope your comment "offers something original," that it doesn't "ignore so many critical issues and distinctions," and that it is a "substantive contribution to the discussion."

But I know that the work of people like Michael Tooley, Philip Quinn, William Rowe, Jordan Howard Sobel, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne on the POE is vastly deeper and more powerful than your little piece, and they are all much more careful about these matters.

So what? I'll admit this. Big deal.

Yet you don't mention any of them.

Yes I do, here: Michael Tooley, Philip Quinn, William Rowe, Jordan Howard Sobel, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne. Plus I'll mention A.N.Weisberger, Quentin Smith, Daniel Howard-Snyder, Michael Bergman, Graham Oppy, Richard Gale, Bruce Russell, Peter van Ingwagen, Stephen Wykstra, enough...

If you want to persuade your readers that you are not just an angry amateur, it might be a good idea to dig deeper.

David Wood knows me enough to say that I am not an angry atheist. I do get angry at someone like you though.

David B. Ellis said...


Of course it is more perplexing. Nevertheless, in both instances, the person failing to render aid must give a reason if he or she is still to be considered good. You have just illustrated my point quite articulately. Better than I have!


Let me put the point in more formal terms as to why the intensity of suffering is, I think, highly relevent.

1. A person of a caring nature is, by definition, someone who reacts emotionally to the suffering of others.

2. This emotional reaction varies in intensity depending on the degree of the suffering observed.

3. It is this emotional reaction which is the primary motivator to come to the aid of someone suffering.

4. On 2 and 3 the intensity of motivation to act is variable.

5. There are many forms of suffering of such low intensity that it would not concern us if we experienced it ourselves (ex. I get a paper cut at work).

7. On 2 and 5, there are many forms of suffering of such low intensity that observing them in another would not concern us (ex. I observe my coworker get a paper cut).

Therefore, even for a caring person not all suffering is of such intensity that we would expect the caring person to come to the sufferers aid.

There are other reasons as well why I think the intensity of suffering is relevent but this post is already quite long and seems sufficient to make my point so I wont go into them now.

mrieder said...

David Ellis,

The carrot was too big, I couldn't resist. I suppose I have found more to say on the matter.

I understand your perspective more wholly now and I see why you think that intensity is relevant. From the perspective that God is refusing to alleviate suffering, your argument may hold.

I am addressing the issue from the perspective that God created everything, to include the ability of humans to suffer and the causes of human suffering. He is not just withholding help, he is the cause of suffering. If everything was caused by God, then God is the ultimate cause of suffering.

This is my perspective. From my perspective I do not address the question, "Why does God withhold help?" I address the question, "Why did God cause this in the first place?"

From your perspective, God is portrayed as a passerby who had no involvement in the origin of the suffering. Someone who witnesses a paper cut at work is not a good metaphor for God's position. A better metaphor would be someone coming in the office and causing the paper cut. This is the perspective I come from. To formalize this:

1. God is the initial cause of everything.

2. Suffering exists.

3. Human suffering is bad.

4. In order to hold that God is good, one must show that either (3) or (1) are false assumptions.

Therefore God's emotional response to suffering is not relevant because he created suffering. Emotional response does not enter into the question. The question is not "Why doesn't he help?" It is "Why did he create a world in which there is suffering?". It is a completely different way of looking at the POE. This way of looking at the POE is much more poignant and difficult.

Cheers,

Matt R.

Tim said...
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Tim said...
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Tim said...

John,

This is getting tiresome. You challenged me with these words:

And in case you missed it, I did offer a detailed discussion of free will here. Deal with that, okay? Then tell me how ignorant I am. Go on. Do it.

Taking your challenge at face value, I went to the link you gave and read what you had written. Then I gave you an honest assessment: it is a typical summary of the atheist complaint but does not advance the state of the discussion. And I gave you seven reasons for that.

Your first reaction was to complain that I'm making heavy weather over something that's just a blog piece, not intended to convince scholars. This would be a fair complaint if I had shown up uninvited on your blog and complained that your post did not rise to the level of a serious discussion of the problem. But I didn't: I was invited, by you, to come and read your "detailed discussion" and give you feedback. At this point, you have no legitimate ground for complaining that I did just that.

Regarding the distinctions between the logical and evidential problems of evil and between a defense and a theodicy, you write:

You assume I don't because I didn't mention them. You might as well claim I don't know we landed on the moon because I didn't mention it (an exaggeration, by the way, for the dense or of a blind mind).

Actually, I don't assume that you don't know them. Here's what I wrote:

I cannot tell, from that post, whether you're actually ignorant of these things, whether you think they're not worth mentioning, or whether you just don't care.

It might help to alleviate your sense of personal injury if you would read what I say a bit more carefully before assuming that I'm being gratuitously insulting.

You quote me:

God doesn't expect us to be on his level. He doesn't expect more from us than we're capable of doing. Nothing you wrote there constitutes a reason for thinking that He does.

Then you respond:

This is merely an assertion, a standard one that's typical of Christian theists. Care to make it into an argument that "advances the discussion"?

I do not claim to have anything original to offer here, but it is certainly not difficult to argue that Scripture reveals to us a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, whose ways are sometimes mysterious. Job 38, Psalm 50, and Isaiah 55 make this quite plain. You may find the idea that God knows something you don't (and that you aren't going to figure out) distasteful. But if your objective is to critcize Christianity on its own terms, then you cannot expect Christians to sit by while you caricature their position by leaving out facts that are relevant to a discussion of the POE. Even non-Christians like Martin Gardner acknowledge the legitimacy and relevance of this response.

As for your responses to my seven points:

1. You write:

And if you claim we cannot know God's reasons, when none of us can see them (noseeum), then I have every reason to think none exist, since we're dealing with probabilities, not possibilities, and that's all we have to base what we believe on.

This does not follow. You need an argument for the claim that we would be able to figure out all of God's reasons if He had them. Such an argument is going to depend on the concept of "God" one uses. I've indicated above why I think your assumption fails with respect to God as conceived in Judaism and Christianity.

2. You quote me:

You tacitly equate suffering with evil without addressing arguments that drive a wedge between these in some notable cases.

Then you respond:

Suffering is painful. It surely appears as if it is gratuitous suffering. I'm asking a theist to tell me why it isn't to be understood as evil based upon what he himself believes. Why isn't it?

One answer is contained in the passage from Schmidt's book that set off this discussion thread. There can be no reasonable doubt that Mabel suffered intensely for nearly three decades. Yet what she became through that suffering is something awe inspiring.

You might respond that this sort of response will not cover all cases of suffering. I agree. But my claim, you'll recall, was not about all cases, just about some notable cases.

3. You quote me:

You assert without argument that the "sheer massive weight of suffering" isn't outweighed by the value of freedom.

Then you respond:

Well, granted, this does seem obvious to me. The reason it isn't obvious to you is because you are blinded by a faith that must defend the existence of your God for fear of the social and afterlife consequences, in my opinion.

Since neither of us has ever met the other and this discussion is our only point of contact, I think it would be better if we refrained, as far as we are able, from imputing disreputable motives to one another.

You continue:

I do have arguments for this, if you read the other blog entry at that blog. It just seems obvious that a little girl who is gang raped by men in Africa to cure them of AIDS who subsequently dies and suffers for eternity in hell because she was raised as an animist, seems too great of a cost.

I'm getting a little weary of being told that my objections will be answered if only I'll go read another blog entry of yours. I don't mean to be unkind, but in honesty I have to say that what I've seen so far hasn't advanced my understanding of the POE.

Regarding the little girl who was gang-raped and then died: her soul is in the hands of a God who is both loving and just. I leave that to Him. You seem to think, however, that hell (traditionally conceived) is too bad a place for the men who raped her, since you think it's too bad a place for anyone. I'll admit that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around your position there. I'll return to this under point 7, below.

4. Regarding the distinction between a defense and a theodicy, you write:

I never claimed I was debunking any particular global theodicy. I was only looking at free will and suffering, and several theodicies use the free will defense inside their theodices.

But the distinction is relevant in terms of the fairness of your representation of the theist's position.

5. Regarding the distinction between the logical and evidential problems of evil, you write:

If you didn't know I was dealing exclusively with the evidential or inductive problem of evil when you read what I wrote about free will, something is wrong with you. I cannot write about everything I know in one Blog entry, and the distinction isn't necessary for what I wrote anyway.

In the piece on free will, you seem to shift back and forth between these. Some of your more strongly-worded claims suggest that you have a deductive structure in mind. Here's one:

The question that needs to be asked is whether or not we would expect a good God to avert the Holocaust, and the answer is that morality requires it.

Here's another:

We could give an adult a razor blade. We cannot give a 2 year old one, for if we did we would be blamed if that child hurts himself. Just like a younger child should not be given a license to drive, or just like a younger child should not be left unattended at the mall, so also if God gives us responsibilities before we can handle them then he is to be blamed for giving them to us, as in the case of free will.

I accept your word that you intend the entire discussion to be evidential; I just think the structure of the argument could be clearer. That's all.

6. Again you quote me:

You do not engage in any substantive way with the orthodox Christian idea that there are things that can be learned only by suffering.

Then you respond:

Sure I did. There is more to say in this regard, I know, but I did deal with it. In the first place, what value is there in learning certain virtues from suffering in a heavenly bliss where there is no suffering?, I questioned. I mentioned that such things could be learned through participating in a team athletic contest or in building a house. Sometimes intense suffering simply devestates a person to the point where they no longer want to live, too. What about that?

There are multiple problems here. First, you flatten out "soul-making" claims into the suggestion that we need to develop virtues for their exercise in heaven. This leaves out the possibility that the virtues are intrinsically valuable. Second, you claim that there is no suffering in heaven. But the virtues developed through suffering are useful for more than merely enduring further suffering; they change who we are and how we respond to others. You seem pretty sure that if Christianity is true there will never, in all of eternity future, be further suffering for anyone with whom the blessed will interact. That is certainly more than I know.

Third, I find your suggestion that the moral virtues created by intense suffering could equally well be generated through team sports or house building to be wholly unconvincing. Again, Mabel is a stunning example. The suggestion that what she became through her suffering could have been duplicated if only she had engaged in a vigorous regimen of shuffleboard with other octogenarians is absurd.

This is why I said that you do not engage with this orthodox Christian idea in a substantive way.

7. I wrote:

You do not engage in any substantive way with the orthodox Christian idea that the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come.

You respond:

I did in the other Blog entry. But you are thinking so narrowly here. What about those who end up in hell...your friends, me, your family?

This is a red herring: the point I am trying to make is about the suffering of believers, not about the suffering of non-believers. Still, if unrepentant gang-rapists end up in hell, traditionally conceived, I have to admit that I just don't see the problem with that.

But then you go on with something more germane:

Still, just because God compensates the believers when they die for their sufferings can never justify why they suffered in the first place, or any torturer could merely compensate a victim for their sufferings too. It never makes the suffering right, even if compensated. The suffering must be justified all by itself.

The analogy is poor. One of the points that suffering can have in our lives – and I phrase the claim this way deliberately lest you think that I am trying to float a comprehensive theodicy here, which I am not – is that it is intended for good. This does not hold for a torturer.

I wrote:

But I know that the work of people like Michael Tooley, Philip Quinn, William Rowe, Jordan Howard Sobel, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne on the POE is vastly deeper and more powerful than your little piece, and they are all much more careful about these matters. Yet you don't mention any of them.

You respond:

Yes I do, here: Michael Tooley, Philip Quinn, William Rowe, Jordan Howard Sobel, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne. Plus I'll mention A.N.Weisberger, Quentin Smith, Daniel Howard-Snyder, Michael Bergman, Graham Oppy, Richard Gale, Bruce Russell, Peter van Ingwagen, Stephen Wykstra, enough...

Internet discussions are always difficult because it's hard to detect someone's tone in a written medium without nonverbal cues. But I have to assume that this is intended as a joke. Surely you understood that what I meant is that you don't mention them in your "detailed discussion" of free will.

Finally, I must once again take note of your adversarial tone, which crops up in several throw-away lines:

Tim, you're simply not worth my time.

Anyone like you who thinks I'm ignorant because I don't mention everything I know is himself ignorant, or blind.

You would have to read the chapter in my book, and I'm unwilling to give anyone like you that chapter for free.

... you are blinded by a faith that must defend the existence of your God for fear of the social and afterlife consequences, ...

Perhaps David has seen another side of your personality that is not so caustic and condescending. That would help to explain his continued willingness to interact with you. But that side doesn't seem to be much in evidence in this discussion.

John W. Loftus said...

Tim, I too tire of this. I already answered you. Now it looks to me like you're trying to save some face. I'll let others judge for themselves about it all. I figure at this point I don't have to say anything more. People will come to their own conclusions, since, if we continued it would be childish. But your demeaning tone says it all, at least to me, even while complaining about my tone.

Tim said...

John,

I'm content to leave it there and let others judge for themselves.

David B. Ellis said...


This is my perspective. From my perspective I do not address the question, "Why does God withhold help?" I address the question, "Why did God cause this in the first place?"



Actually, I consider both relevent and brought up both previously in the forms of the questions:

Why would god stand by and do nothing as an infant suffers slow agonies?

And:

Why would god set up the laws governing our universe such that it serves as, essentially, a torture chamber for many of the beings born into it (both human and animal)?


If you wish to address yourself to the second question I'd be glad to hear any explanation for it you consider plausible.

I have yet to hear one which seems remotely reasonable.....and strongly doubt one is even possible.

But I'm always open to being proven wrong.