In my final post on Dr. Sean Carroll’s video, Is God a Good Theory?, I’d like to respond to his claim that the occurrence of (i) injustice, (ii) senseless suffering and (iii) moral and intellectual confusion in our world, make the existence of God very unlikely.
In his video lecture, after discussing the problem for theists posed by the low but non-zero entropy of the early universe (a problem I addressed in my previous post), Dr. Carroll goes on to point out that there are other arguments suggesting that the probability of God’s existence is low, given the kind of universe we observe. In each case, Carroll presents some data, and argues that the probability of this data given the existence of God is very low.
The first argument relates to the fact that we live in a world where frequently, justice does not prevail. Often evildoers get away with their crimes, while innocent people suffer. On the face of it, this is difficult to reconcile with the hypothesis of a perfectly just Deity.
Second, there is the problem of random suffering (e.g. natural disasters): people and sentient animals are often killed as a result of apparently random events, and for no apparent reason. An oft-cited example in the philosophical literature is the death of a fawn (pictured above, courtesy of Wikipedia) in a forest fire. Once again, this is not what we would expect to see if we lived in a universe governed by a benevolent God.
Finally, there is what Carroll calls the problem of ambiguous instructions: if God really wants to talk to us, as Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus allege, then why doesn’t God explain himself to us in a clear and unambiguous fashion, in some Holy Scripture?
Dr. Carroll then turns the tables on religious believers who might be inclined to rationalize away the three problems listed above. He invites his audience to imagine a world with clear and unambiguous spiritual instructions, no random suffering, and total justice. He then poses a simple question: would would we count such a beautiful world as evidence against God’s existence? Surely not: indeed, it would be very strong evidence for the existence of God. Carroll then argues that by the same token, we should be prepared to count a world exhibiting the opposite features (ambiguous Scriptures, random suffering and rampant injustice) as evidence against the existence of God.
Dr. Carroll examines two ways in which religious believers might attempt to evade the force of his arguments, and salvage the apparently low probability of the data we observe, if there is a God. Carroll argues that both of these attempts actually count against the likelihood of there being a God.
First, one might argue that God is deliberately elusive: He does not like to leave His fingerprints around the cosmos. Instead, He prefers to obey the laws of physics. Carroll grants that this solution is theoretically possible, but then he argues that if one embraces this solution, then one is effectively removing the usefulness of God – and hence the need to posit Him. Also, one can no longer make predictions of what God can do.
The second solution is to resort to vagueness: one might deny we are capable of having any reliable expectations of what God would and wouldn’t do. Fine, says Carroll; but in that case, such a believer cannot consistently appeal to the fine-tuning of the cosmos as an argument for God, since we don’t know what kind of cosmos He’d make.
The Argument from Evil, Random Suffering and Ambiguous Messages from God: What Dr. Carroll gets right
Before I attempt to rebut Dr. Carroll’s arguments from injustice, senseless suffering and the absence of clear messages from God, I’d like to acknowledge that the existence of all these evils does indeed constitute prima facie evidence against the existence of God. If I had nothing but this evidence in front of me, when assessing the question of God’s existence, then I’d be an atheist, too.
I would also agree with Dr. Carroll that the two ways (which he criticizes) of evading the force of his argument, don’t work. A God Who is deliberately elusive might as well not be there, and a God Whose intentions are so vague as to be utterly inscrutable is a God Whose existence can never be rationally demonstrated. It is impossible to construct a valid argument for God’s existence without making some minimal assumptions about what God would and wouldn’t do.
Why I reject the “macho theist solution” to the problem of evil
There are some religious believers, whom I shall refer to as “macho theists,” who attempt to evade the problem of evil by distinguishing God’s goodness from what we commonly call kindness or “niceness.” A nice person doesn’t do mean things to others. Instead, a nice person helps people and animals in distress, because she is easily moved by suffering. God, they say, is good, but He isn’t “nice”: to suppose that God is “nice,” they argue, is anthropomorphic and sentimental.
Macho theists contend that God is good, but they insist that God’s goodness is a very different thing from ours. God doesn’t feel pain at the suffering and death of creatures, because He is perfect; consequently, it would be wrong to ascribe Him sympathy. Additionally, macho theists argue that God has no obligations to creatures – for who could possibly enforce these obligations against an omnipotent Being? Hence the notion that God has any obligation to rescue creatures that are in distress is absurd. God is not obliged to do anything.
I don’t buy the “macho theist” defense. Let’s consider obligations first. God can certainly make promises: that’s one thing on which religious believers of all stripes agree. But what is a promise, if not an obligation? Specifically, a promise is an obligation voluntarily undertaken, in which you solemnly declare that you will do something for some individual. I conclude, then, that if God were to make a promise to any person, He would be obliged to honor that promise.
In addition to promises, there are other obligations which God can be said to have, purely by virtue of His relationship to us. Consider this question: is God obliged not to lie to us? Surely the answer is: yes. It might be objected that God, being perfect, could never lie anyway (Titus 1:2). That’s true, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that God, as our Creator, has an obligation not to deceive us. No Father would do that; and God is our Father and Creator (Malachi 2:10).
Is God morally obliged not to annihilate us? Could God, with perfect justice, create a race of intelligent beings who are capable of knowing their Creator, personally reveal Himself to those creatures, and then just snuff them out? It might be said that a morally perfect God wouldn’t do that anyway, and that is of course true. But it’s also true to say that no Father would destroy His children like that. That sounds like an obligation to me. (How far down the scale of sentient beings this obligation would extend is a big question, which I don’t intend to address here.)
Nor do I buy the “macho theist” argument that because God cannot feel our suffering, we cannot call Him “kind” or “nice.” In the philosophical tradition of classical theism (which most Jews, Christians and Muslims would accept, as well as many theists of no particular religion), God is held to be a Being Who knows and loves perfectly: indeed, God is love. And as St. Paul tells us, “Love is patient, love is kind… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13: 4, 7, New International Version). In short: a loving Creator would certainly wish for His creatures not to suffer needlessly, even if He cannot feel their pain Himself, being perfect.
I conclude that the “macho theist” defense fails to weaken the force of the atheist’s Argument from Evil.
Why the Argument from Evil is neither a certain nor a probable argument against the existence of God
Dr. Carroll asks how a good God could possibly create or even permit the existence of an evil world like ours, in which justice is denied, people’s minds are confused, and so many people and sentient animals suffer so needlessly. The short answer is: I don’t know. I could speculate about some possible answers to Carroll’s question, but it would be a waste of time: atheists are very good at picking apart theodicies (which isn’t surprising, as they’ve been doing it for the past 2,300 years), and I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to rationalize the evil in the world – for unlike certain religious believers who think that everything happens for a reason, I would agree with the atheist that a lot of evils that take place in the world happen for no good reason. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his now-famous essay, Tsunami and Theodicy, argues passionately that a lot of suffering makes no sense, and that religious people’s attempts to make sense of it are “vacuous cant.” Bad things happen in our world, which are utterly contrary to what God intends, “and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.”
So instead of trying to explain why evil happens in this post, what I’d like to do is point out a few flaws in the Argument from Evil.
First, the argument implicitly assumes a static model of evil: there is evil, and there is God, and we are asked how the existence of the two can be reconciled. But the world is a changing place. What we need to ask, then, is whether the changes occurring in the world comport with what we’d expect of a morally good Deity: is the world gradually getting better, over the course of time? Is evil being beaten back, in some cosmic war of attrition? And to answer that question, we’d need to know a lot more about the world than we know now.
Second, the Argument from Evil assumes that God can get the job of removing evil done in no time at all. Maybe He can’t. “Of course He can!” retorts the atheist. “After all, He’s God, isn’t he? Isn’t He supposed to be omnipotent? What would be easier than for Him to command evil to disappear? He could just wave His magic wand, and it would all go away!” The fallacy of this kind of reasoning is that it confuses picturability with possibility. I can mentally picture a winged horse; but that doesn’t make it possible (to see why, ask yourself: how, exactly, would it fly?) Conversely, there are some genuine possibilities in the world which we seem to have trouble picturing (think of quantum mechanics, for instance; or think of a 999-sided figure). Possibility is a concept, and an image is not a concept. Likewise, just because we can mentally picture an omnipotent being instantly abolishing evil by Divine fiat (“Let there be no more suffering!”), that doesn’t mean it’s possible in the real world. Maybe it’s not that simple, even for God. Maybe the task of freeing the world from evil necessarily takes quite some time.
Third, the Argument from Evil assumes that God’s obligation to prevent His creatures from suffering – or at least, from undergoing senseless suffering – is an absolute one, and that nothing takes precedence over it. I have to say I find this assumption doubtful. Is there nothing in all the world more important than the prevention of suffering? A utilitarian might say yes. But I would answer that there’s much more to life than pleasure and pain, even in the life of an animal: for instance, the thriving of that animal, as a result of the free and untrammeled exercise of its faculties (or what Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson refers to as funktionslust in his book, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Life of Animals). A world without suffering might be a world in which animals live emaciated lives – a world where they never get hurt, but never live life to the full, either. Would that be a better world? You tell me.
Having said that, I would readily agree that there is much suffering in the animal world that serves no useful purpose, either directly or indirectly. Behaviors such as infanticide, cannibalism and killing other animals for sport, are found in some species of animals living today. What “higher end” do they serve? None.
Fourth, the Argument from Evil assumes that the only relevant duty that God might have vis-à-vis His creatures is the duty to prevent them from suffering, when there’s no good reason for them to do so. But if God has other kinds of duties towards creatures as well, then we have to at least consider the possibility that God’s obligation to perform these duties might prevent Him from removing pointless evils from the world, all at once. Perhaps it would be bad for us in some other way, if He were to do that – perhaps even worse than it is now. Or perhaps removing all of these pointless evils would, at the same time, prevent the realization of some very important good that God wants to bring about, for our sakes, or even some good which He has some obligation to bring about.
Fifth, the argument assumes that God’s obligations vis-à-vis creatures are determined purely by their nature, as sentient and/or sapient beings. The argument fails to consider the possibility that God might have extra duties towards us that He assumed voluntarily, at some point in the past – perhaps because we asked Him to do so. Making a promise is an example of such a voluntary obligation. Perhaps at some point very early on in our prehistory, our rebellious ancestors grew tired of God always watching over us like the attentive parent of a young child, and said, “Enough! We don’t need a cosmic nanny protecting us from evil night and day! Leave us alone to figure it out for ourselves! Even if we have to suffer and die, we’d still prefer that to You hovering over us all the time!” And perhaps God reluctantly complied with their wishes, and promised to refrain from continually saving us. If God made such a promise, then His hands would be tied, to some degree.
Sixth, the Argument from Evil assumes that the only morally significant beings who exist in the cosmos are God and the sentient human and animal life-forms that we see all around us. But that’s a ridiculously narrow view. If there is a God, then He could have made rank upon rank of beings superior to ourselves, whom we know nothing about, because they’re invisible to us. Call them angels or advanced aliens, if you wish: frankly, I don’t care. The point I wish to make is that if there is a God, then it’s highly unlikely that we are the greatest beings in creation – which means that when deciding what God should and shouldn’t do, we also need to factor in God’s obligations vis-à-vis these higher intelligences.
Why might that ameliorate the problem of evil? Perhaps God delegated certain responsibilities for looking after the lower orders of creation (including ourselves and other sentient animals) to these higher beings. (Think about it. It would be rather odd if, having endowed them with such wisdom, He gave them absolutely nothing in creation to oversee, wouldn’t it?) And now suppose that some of these intelligences turned out to be either too lazy to continually keep the world’s evils in check, or too inept to do the job properly. Or suppose that some of them turned out to be positively evil characters, intent on wreaking harm. The natural world would soon become “unweeded garden” filled with “things rank and gross in nature”, as Hamlet put it. It might look utterly unlike the world God originally planned. So what’s God to do, when He sees the damage that these higher intelligences have wrought, and the suffering His lower creatures (animals and humans) have inherited as a result? Having delegated some responsibilities for overseeing creation to these higher beings, should God intervene at once and fix up the mess they’ve caused? Or should He wait a while?
Seventh, and most importantly, the Argument from Evil assumes that an omniscient God knows what His creatures would and wouldn’t choose to do, before they’ve made their choices, and for that matter, before He’s even decided to make them! Thus one often hears atheists say things like: “Why did God make the Devil in the first place, if He knew the Devil was going to rebel?” or “Why didn’t God kill Adolf Hitler as a child?” But when you come to think about it, the notion that God’s knowledge of our choices is logically (and not just temporally) prior to our act of making those choices, really doesn’t make any sense, if sapient beings possess libertarian free will. In that case, God’s knowledge of His creatures’ choices would be (at least logically, if not temporally) posterior to His act of creating them, and also logically posterior to our act of making those choices. All God would know “prior” to His act of making an intelligent being with free will, would be what that creature might get up to – that is, the choices it could make. But is God morally obliged to refrain from creating a sapient creature, simply because it might abuse its capacity for good and evil, and wreak untold havoc upon the world? I think not, for if He were, then He’d be obliged to create a world without libertarian free will. And how many of us would want that?
I conclude that the problem of evil is a pressing problem only in relatively simple cosmos, in which we human beings are the most important beings in existence. But if there is a God, the cosmos may not be like that at all. The presence of other agents with libertarian free will in the cosmos, who are much greater than ourselves, complicates the picture: we can no longer say with confidence what God should and shouldn’t do in such a cosmos, when it comes to removing evil.
I have put forward seven considerations which weaken the force of the atheist’s Argument from Evil. I submit that in view of these considerations, we can no longer say that it is certain that God would not make a world in which injustice, confusion and senseless suffering occur.
Can the atheist even claim that the existence of evil in the world renders the existence of God improbable? No, because probabilities are by their very nature quantifiable. Above, I put forward seven considerations which, when taken collectively, mitigate the Argument from Evil. The atheist might find these mitigating considerations rather implausible, but she would have to concede that they are nonetheless possible. But unless the atheist can establish some upper bound for the probability of these mitigating factors (e.g. the probability that this factor applies is less than or equal to 0.1), then it becomes impossible to calculate the likelihood that God would not make a world containing evils such as injustice, confusion and senseless suffering. And in that case, we cannot even say that the Argument from Evil renders God’s existence improbable, let alone impossible.
In his video lecture, Dr. Carroll argued that the probability of our finding ourselves in a world filled with injustice, senseless suffering, and moral and intellectual confusion, given the existence of God, is very low. But he didn’t say how low, so his statement amounts to nothing more than an assertion on his part.
What remains, then? I think all of us would concede that the Argument from Evil packs a powerful emotional punch. I think it’s fair to say, too, that none of us would expect God to make a world containing as much evil as it does. What we can say, then, is that the existence of evil in the world, taken as a whole, constitutes a strong prima facie argument against the existence of God. But that’s all we can say. We cannot quantify the strength of this argument; and neither can we call it a certain argument.
Is libertarian free will possible?
Several times, when attempting to rebut the Argument from Evil, I appealed to the concept of libertarian free will. Of course, I realize that there are some people who think that the very notion of libertarian free will makes no sense. Free choices are said to be intentional: that is, they occur for a reason, since the agent performing the act has some goal in mind. At the same time, free choices cannot be determined by their causal antecedents, or they wouldn’t be free: a person performing an action freely must always have the power to do otherwise. To some people, though, the notion of an action’s having a reason without its having a determining cause sounds rather odd. Why might that be?
One very common argument against the existence of libertarian free will is that our choices are events that take place in the world, and if an event is determined by its antecedent causes, then it is not free; but if it is not determined, then its occurrence is merely random, and a random event, being unintentional, is no more “free” than an event whose occurrence is determined. However, I believe that this argument begs the question.
It is true that if we examine events on the microscopic scale, such as the movement of an individual particle, they appear to be the sorts of occurrences that could only be either determined or random, and neither possibility seems compatible with our notion of libertarian freedom. (What would the movement of a particle “acting for a reason” look like?) But all that tells us is that a free choice cannot be identified with a microscopic event. Instead, we should conceive of a free choice as an event occurring on a higher, macroscopic level. What the proponents of free will are claiming is that free choices are macro-level events which influence micro-level events without violating the law of energy conservation or the laws of quantum physics. When I make a choice, I don’t push the neurons in my brain around, so there’s no violation of the law of conservation of energy. Instead, I make a macro-level selection, which hs the effect of excluding (or ruling out) the possibility of certain microscopic quantum states in the brain. This doesn’t violate quantum randomness, because a selection can be non-random at the macro level, but random at the micro level. The following two rows of digits will serve to illustrate my point.
1 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 1
0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 0 1
The above two rows of digits were created by a random number generator. Now suppose I impose the macro requirement: keep the columns whose sum equals 1, and discard the rest. I now have:
1 0 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0
Each row is still random, but I have imposed a non-random macro-level constraint from above. That’s how I believe my will works when I make a choice.
Why the Argument from Evil is Basically an Argument from Incredulity
In my post, Is God a good theory? A response to Sean Carroll (Part One), I distinguished eight different categories of objective arguments one might make for or against the existence of God, and I ranked them in decreasing order of strength. In the eighth (and weakest) category, I included arguments which appeal to powerful prima facie evidence for and against the existence of God. As we saw, the problem with these arguments is that they all suffer from a vital weakness: they are unquantifiable. If one has an argument against the existence of God, but if at the same time, one has no way of quantifying the weight we should attach to that evidence, then it would be very foolish to place much credence in an argument appealing to such evidence.
In short, the argument from evil is properly described as an argument from incredulity, to use a phrase coined by Professor Richard Dawkins. And as Professor Dawkins is fond of pointing out ad nauseam, the mere fact that we cannot imagine an explanation for some occurrence does not render that occurrence impossible, or even improbable. Hence the mere fact that we cannot presently imagine how senseless evil could possibly occur in a world made by God does not suffice to render such an occurrence unlikely.
So, how strong is the argument from evil?
Now, let us suppose that we had a rationally certain argument for the existence of God, and a mere prima facie argument against the existence of God. What would a rational person believe, in such a situation? Surely it would be rational for us to set the latter argument aside, and embrace theism, despite our inability to resolve the problem of evil.
In my earlier post, Does scientific knowledge presuppose God? A reply to Carroll, Coyne, Dawkins and Loftus (November 23, 2013), I presented what I believe is a powerful transcendental argument for the existence of God. As we have seen, transcendental argument is the fourth-strongest kind of argument on the eight-point scale I proposed in my post, Is God a good theory? A response to Sean Carroll (Part One). In my subsequent post, Is God a good theory? A response to Sean Carroll (Part Two), I also defended the fine-tuning argument, which is an abductive argument, which is the fifth-strongest kind of argument on my eight-point scale. Finally, in Part One of my response to Dr. Carroll, I also defended the Kalam Cosmological argument, which is an argument of the sixth-strongest variety, since it is based on a scientific rationality norm. All of these arguments can be regarded as rationally certain, although some of them are more certain than others. However, the argument from evil, against the existence of God, is, as we have seen, a rhetorical argument from incredulity. And arguments from incredulity, as I’ve shown, occupy the eighth and bottom rung on our eight-point scale: they are not even probable, let alone certain. I conclude that for a person to let themselves be swayed by the argument from evil after contemplating the transcendental, fine-tuning and Kalam cosmological arguments for God’s existence which I have defended above, would be the height of folly. God is real, the puzzle of evil notwithstanding.