Sunday, March 11, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Substance Dualism is true.

(2) Substance Dualism is false.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) Intense suffering exists.

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

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

Appendix: Plausibility vs. Probability

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

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

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

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

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

20 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Here's another example of what I said earlier. You continue to say the argument from evil is an atheist argument. It is used by the atheist, to be sure, but it is not an atheist argument.

Again, the problem of evil would exist for the theist regardless of who presses it. It is internal to what you believe about God. Apologist would have to supply some theodicies, if for no other reason than they need to help Christians understand why there is so much suffering in the world if the omni-God exists.

I never read Christian apologists or philosophers in the 2nd hierarchy or above saying it is.

David Wood said...

John,

You don't seem to understand the difference between the Problem of Evil and the Argument from Evil. This is odd, since I've explained it several times, and even wrote a post on it.

The Argument from Evil is a non-theist argument. As such, the burden of proof is on the person making the argument to show that it works. The fact that you try to deny this only shows that you don't really have much faith in your argument. That is, if you really think the argument works, why are you complaining that I say you have the burden of proof to show that the argument is sound?

The Problem of Evil is a different matter. It's a question, really, and the question is "Why would God allow X?" Both theists and non-theists can ask this question. But this is quite different from an argument.

But since you've claimed that some major Christian apologists disagree with me on this, how about naming a few and giving me some quotations. Note: Your claim is that important Christian apologists and philosophers agree that, when it comes to the Argument from Evil, the burden of proof is on the theist and not the atheist. So let's see your evidence, John.

And besides all this, you're not making sense. You say that Christians should supply theodicies. When have I denied this? But we must keep in mind what theodicies are. They're attempts to respond to the Argument from Evil (and the Problem of Evil as well). That is, the atheist makes the claim that suffering is gratuitous. This is part of his argument. The theist responds by offering theodicies. In the context of the argument, theodicies are meant to show that the Argument from Evil is unsound. If you can't show that the argument works in spite of theodicies, then you have failed to prove your case. Your argument fails.

So here's what I've been claiming. Tell me what part you disagree with.

(1) Since the atheist is making the argument, the atheist has the burden of proof to show that the argument works.

(2) The Christian's role is to show that the argument doesn't work.

(3) If the atheist can't defend the argument against the theist's criticisms, the argument fails.

I don't know how you could deny any of this, but I guess I'm learning more and more about your position.

Stunney said...

In a previous comment I noted that David Hart's approach to the problem of evil, and the argument from evil, involves rejecting the theodicy enterprise as such. That is, he holds that the proper Christian response to evil shuns theodicy. Another way of putting this is that he believes Christians should accept that some evil is gratuitous.

As I wrote:

Hart's very intriguing view is that the Christian God, like Ivan Karamazov, also refuses to be reconciled to suffering, and is not at all the God of the various theodicies. The Christian God passionately opposes human misery, and is set on defeating, overcoming, and destroying it.

See his writing on this theme here

http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110006097

and here:

http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=166

David Wood said...

N.T. Wright also shuns theodicy in his book Evil and the Justice of God. The problem I have with such rejections is that I think there are some interesting theodicies in the Bible.

John W. Loftus said...

David, I deny statement one above. Dr. Weisberger has made a pretty convincing argument to me that you have the burden of proof here, although previously I had said we both equally share our own burdens of proof.

And I can't prove a negative. I said I know of no Christian philosopher or apologist of any note who says it's an atheist argument. It's clearly not, since process theologians can argue in much the same way I do, as well as pantheists. Just show me that I'm wrong by producing a few quotes, that's all. I might be wrong. I just don't know of any who do.

David Wood said...

John,

(1) I've responded to Weisberger's argument, so please tell me where I've made a mistake.

(2) You originally claimed that no Christian scholar you know of says that the burden of proof in the Argument from Evil is on the atheist. The implication was that everyone disagrees with me. So I asked you to name some people who disagree with me, and you say that you don't know of any. So you simply don't know what Christians say either way regarding burden of proof. And yet you used this to imply that people disagree with my view!!! That's seems a bit dishonest, John.

(3) If a process theologian or a pantheist makes an argument from evil, then the burden of proof is on the process theologian or pantheist to show that the argument proves its conclusion. My claim is not simply that atheists have the burden of proof. My claim is that whoever is making an argument bears the burden of proof. But you reject this, and I can't figure out why (unless you don't think your argument really works).

So here's how the Argument from Evil should go according to you and Weisberger:

THEIST: I believe in God.

ATHEIST: Well, I've got an argument that proves that your God doesn't exist.

THEIST: Okay. We'll examine your argument to make sure (1) that the logic is valid, and (2) that the premises are true and unambiguous. If your argument withstands scrutiny, then theists have something to worry about. But if your argument doesn't withstand scrutiny, you should stop saying you've got an argument that proves that God doesn't exist.

ATHEIST: What?!! Who says that I'm the one who has to show that my argument works? Everyone should just assume it works. I think the burden of proof is on you.

THEIST: I just can't figure out what you mean here. You've got an argument, and you say your argument proves something. But you're also saying you don't have to show that your argument works?

ATHEIST: Exactly! Now you understand how the atheist mind works! And I'm going to keep saying it over, and over, and over again. And I don't care how illogical I sound. I'm just going to keep saying that the burden of proof is on you whenever I make an argument against your view. And some people will believe me. Ha!

John W. Loftus said...

David, here is another case of your lack of understanding, and this is why people have told me I am wasting my time with you. Dr. Weisberger has read your comments here and said the same thing as they have (but here I am).

I did not say that no Christain apologist thinks the burden of proof is on the atheist. Many do. I said that no respected apologist (2nd tierd or above) thinks it's an atheist argument.

David Wood said...

Talk about lack of understanding!

I said that the argument could be offered by all sorts of people. But when it's being offered by an atheist, what is it?

The reason I keep refering to atheists is that I'm addressing the argument being put forth by you and Weisberger. When an atheist is putting forth an argument, the burden of proof is on the atheist. When a theist is putting forth an argument, the burden is on the theist. That's just how arguments work, John. Again, the fact that you're trying to avoid the burden of proof at all costs makes no sense if you really think your argument works.

I said that no respected apologist (2nd tierd or above) thinks it's an atheist argument.

Right. But then you admitted that you don't know what any of them believe about burden of proof. So you're saying (1) that no respected apologist holds this view (i.e. you're making a claim about what they believe), and (2) that you have no clue what they believe. What part of the problem here do you not understand? Again, it sounds like you're being dishonest.

David Wood said...

John,

Let me put the matter differently. After our second debate, Finley said that he doesn't think that the Argument from Evil makes the existence of God implausible.

You disagreed and called him ignorant. Now suppose you two decided to have a debate. You argue that the Argument from Evil proves the non-existence of God. Finley responds by showing that the argument isn't as strong as you think. Where would the burden of proof lie? On the theist? There is no theist! So it would be down to two atheists. Since you would be the one making the argument, I say that the burden of proof would rest on you.

You, however, would put it on Finley, not because it makes sense to put the burden of proof on him, but because atheists can't stand having to support their view with evidence. Atheists run around all day long saying that there's tons of evidence against theism. But as soon as it comes time for a debate, atheists say that they're the only people in the world who are exempt from bearing the burden of proof in proving their own position. I hate to say it, but it almost seems like evidential cowardice.

John W. Loftus said...

I could make Finley squirm. There are a lot of ignorant atheists about the force of the argument from evil. He's probably one of them. Given the fact that when we were on his program you dominated it, and he didn't effectively moderate it to give me equal time, no wonder he didn't think I made a good case.

But this whole scenerio goes against your claim that it's an atheist argument, since two atheists would be debating the merits of the problem and disagreeing. Two theists could do the same thing, you know.

David Wood said...

But this whole scenerio goes against your claim that it's an atheist argument, since two atheists would be debating the merits of the problem and disagreeing. Two theists could do the same thing, you know.

John,

Your ability to hear the same thing fifty times and said ten different ways without every understanding what's being said amazes even me.

Yes, two theists could debate the Argument from Evil for fun. The question, once again, is who would bear the burden of proof. Now I have a method that I can consistently apply: The person making the argument bears the burden of proof. But you don't have a method you can consistently apply: Your method is that the theist always bears the burden of proof. So when it comes to two atheists, my method holds, while yours makes no sense. When it comes to two theists, my method holds, while yours once again makes no sense. Thus, your method doesn't work, and mine does.

So the question arises, "Why would John cling to such an absurd method?" The answer: "Because he can't handle having to support his arguments with evidence." I see no other explanation.

Stunney said...

N.T. Wright also shuns theodicy in his book Evil and the Justice of God. The problem I have with such rejections is that I think there are some interesting theodicies in the Bible.

I like Wright, but must confess to not having read the book you cite, though like you I think there are some worthwhile theodicies. I'm less sure that there are good theodicies for all categories of evil, whether in the Bible or otherwise.

As regards the burden of proof, I think it's practically self-evident that anyone claiming that theism is false by virtue of the kind and degree of apparent evil in the world is the one having the burden of proof.

Suppose there are a billion planets inhabited by boatloads of sentient creatures, all of which are blissfully happy, except for humans inhabiting Earth (due to human sin). Would this have any tendency to weaken the argument from evil in John Loftus's opinion?

Suppose a poll were taken of every human being capable of responding to it asking whether the creation of the world, with significant scope for autonomous moral agency and with natural laws aimed at a rich diversity of physical life-forms would be on balance something they'd prefer over there being no such world, and a large majority polled in the affirmative, would this have any tendency to weaken the argument from evil in John Loftus' opinion?

Amy Sayers said...

"David Hart's approach to the problem of evil, and the argument from evil, involves rejecting the theodicy enterprise as such. That is, he holds that the proper Christian response to evil shuns theodicy. Another way of putting this is that he believes Christians should accept that some evil is gratuitous."

Thanks, Stunney, for these links.

As I've mentioned before, I think the search for theodicy to explain or justify all suffering is a fool's errand. And now that I read it, I think Hart's position is pretty much what I take up for whatever gaps a patchwork of theodicies leave open.

This is where I see David's discussion of burden of proof rising in importance. The less the theist burden, the more satisfying a "combo" answer of theodicy and good theology becomes.

As a big part of the challenge before David is to contribute new material to the discussion, I think this line of inquiry (e.g. where does the burden of proof lie and what results from settling the matter?) might be pretty rich mining territory. Of course, he might have already seen it for such.

David Wood said...

John claims that the argument from evil is not an atheist argument, since even a theist could make the argument. But what is the conclusion of the argument? That God doesn't exist. So, according to John, an argument whose conclusion is the non-existence of God is not an atheist argument.

Let's apply this reasoning elsewhere. The conclusion of the moral argument for theism is that God exists. But an atheist could make the argument for fun. Hence, according to John, the moral argument isn't a theist argument. Interesting way of thinking.

David Wood said...

Stunney said:

As regards the burden of proof, I think it's practically self-evident that anyone claiming that theism is false by virtue of the kind and degree of apparent evil in the world is the one having the burden of proof.

Well said.

Amy said:

This is where I see David's discussion of burden of proof rising in importance. The less the theist burden, the more satisfying a "combo" answer of theodicy and good theology becomes.

Exactly right. And that's my approach. Once we understand that the burden is ultimately on the atheist to show that he has a sound argument, we find that our job is not to justify all suffering, but to show that there are good reasons to doubt that the argument works.

We look for problems with the argument itself, and here we find inconsistencies, ambiguous terms, and hidden moral principles that most theists would never agree to. Hence, the argument has all sorts of problems. But then we can even try to account for evil by appealing to Christian doctrines such as the Fall, and to various theodicies. Using these, we can account for quite a bit of suffering.

The only thing the atheist can say is: "But you haven't explained all suffering." And this is John's and Weisberger's approach. But is it reasonable? Is it reasonable to say that the theist must explain everything about suffering? Of course not. But this is their only course. For as soon as they admit that we don't have to account for everything, the argument falls to pieces.

Hence, they must continue to proclaim (1) that the burden of proof rests on theists, and (2) that theists must account for everything. And Weisberger adds (3) that the theist must prove that our world is the best of all possible worlds, which most philosophers think is impossible. But atheists have to make these demands. Otherwise, everyone will see that they don't have any solid arguments for atheism, which would be quite embarrassing to admit.

John W. Loftus said...

David one more comment and I'm done here.

I said that theists can debate the force of the argument from evil just like atheists can. One theist might argue it has a lot of force, while another theist might argue it doesn't.

Mr. Wood said:

So the question arises, "Why would John cling to such an absurd method?" The answer: "Because he can't handle having to support his arguments with evidence." I see no other explanation.

Yeah, that's exactly right. Exactly.

Sheesh.

David Wood said...

David one more comment and I'm done here.

I said that theists can debate the force of the argument from evil just like atheists can. One theist might argue it has a lot of force, while another theist might argue it doesn't.


Yes, that was clear the first nine times you said it. And I've answered it repeatedly. If two theists debate the force of the Argument from Evil, and one says that it proves something, while the other questions this view, then the burden of proof rests on the person who makes the argument. Everyone here understands that, John. And only someone who doesn't think he can defend his argument would object.

I mean, can you imagine a theist saying, "I've got five arguments for theism. But the atheist bears the burden of proof when I make my arguments. So I don't actually have to prove anything! Instead, it's the atheist who has to prove something." Wouldn't you think that's just plain silly? That's exactly what everyone thinks when you say that the burden of proof is on the theist when you use your argument.

Amy Sayers said...

Stunney asks, "Suppose a poll were taken of every human being capable of responding to it asking whether the creation of the world, with significant scope for autonomous moral agency and with natural laws aimed at a rich diversity of physical life-forms would be on balance something they'd prefer over there being no such world, and a large majority polled in the affirmative, would this have any tendency to weaken the argument from evil in John Loftus' opinion?"

I don't know about John specifically (though we could all make a pretty good guess), but the general skeptic might respond in 2 ways:

1. The preference poll in no way answers the "An omnipotent God could have made it better" objection. (Though I think what Stunney has posted on this blog in answer to this objection has been solid stuff yet to be well-countered by a skeptic.)

So, even if only 1% of those polled would prefer non-existence over the world you posit, the skeptic could still say, "Why didn't an all-powerful God make the world good enough to make even that 1% prefer existence?"

2. The poll results could only weaken John's argument if those 99% were also willing to argue, "Our preference is worth the horrendous pain you've suffered--so horrendous you would prefer non-existence." This smacks of some sort of unpleasant egoist-utlitarian-suck-it-up-if-you-happen-to-be-the-one-suffering approach.

We could probably dress up the position to make it seem nicer, but I see it always coming back to the 99% preferring a world that includes the extreme suffering of the 1%. I don't think the skeptic would let the theist (or at least the Christian) hold this position as it contradicts other tenants of the faith.

(Then again, Christians among the 99% would also calculate the nature of eternity before casting their vote, but I get the impression it's against the un-spoken rules to cite Heaven in one's arguments.)

If the 99% do not hold this position, then we would question the creation of a world with 1% suffering. (But of course, internal to Christianity, this is a question already answered.)

Stunney said...

The preference poll in no way answers the "An omnipotent God could have made it better" objection.

An omnipotent God may not have been able to make it better if what determined it being better was contingent upon better moral choices being made by morally free creatures, and if creaturely moral freedom is incompatible with the outcomes of its exercize being determined by God. So sure, if Pol Pot had been a saint, the world could have been better. But Pol Pot being a saint may not be something that God could have possibly brought about assuming anyone's sainthood depends on their own libertarianly conceived choices.

More importantly, I'm not sure that God was obligated to make the world better than God actually made it. God may have been justified in making a world that was adequately good. That would be one in which we need not have sinned, and one in which we could have interacted with nature much more healthily, safely, and wisely than we actually have. I see no reason to believe that the world God actually made failed to meet those criteria and hence that standard of goodness. Which is all that God may need to have done.

Sending his incarnate Son to atone for our sins, and to teach us wisdom about how to live strikes me as God going above and beyond what justice required of him.

At what point do we decide that God has discharged his moral responsibilities towards us? I don't think the atheist has an open-ended right to keep raising the bar while still insisting that humans not be toy-robots.

Amy Sayers said...

"At what point do we decide that God has discharged his moral responsibilities towards us? I don't think the atheist has an open-ended right to keep raising the bar while still insisting that humans not be toy-robots."

This is a question I'd like to see the answer to. But I don't see how the atheist can go about determining such things as "God's moral responsibilities" without also positing a god specific to a religion (e.g. Christianity). That is, certain moral responsibilities and their beginnings and ends belong to a certain kind of god. The atheist could always just make up a certain god to suit his argument, but the Christian response is going to be, "That reasoning doesn't apply to our God."

But as soon as the Christian God is posited, all that goes along with Him (the Atonement, salvation, natural revelation, God's sovereignity. . .) answers completely the POE and the argument made from it.

Should the atheist be allowed to cherry-pick the attributes of God and His various work and disregard the rest as "statements of faith over which we can have no philosophical discussion"?

All of this said another way: What if it's the case that Christianity comes in a package? Pull a few pieces out and the make limited sense. Keep the whole kaboodle together and the whole thing makes fine sense.

PS: I agree that the "God could've done better" is not a given, and as I mentioned in my post, I think Stunney has been utterly persuasive in showing the fault in the objection. And, again, no skeptic here has answered him well at all.

But this objection isn't addressed by the world-wide poll. So if we're asking how such a poll would affect an argument like that of John Loftus, I'm just pointing out that John Loftus would probably shrug and say, "God could've done better." (And we don't know what he'd say to Stunney's question of HOW, exactly, God could've done better.)