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Jerry Coyne’s critique of the cosmological argument … and the reply he wouldn’t publish


A few days ago, Professor Jerry Coyne attacked fellow atheist and Darwinist Michael Ruse, for going too easy on the cosmological argument for God’s existence in an interview with philosopher Gary Gutting, titled, Does Evolution Explain Religious Beliefs? (New York Times, July 8, 2014). In the interview, Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of the forthcoming book Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, indicated that although he did not find the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence at all persuasive, he could respect people who did, and he added that he found Richard Dawkins’ attempted refutations of these arguments downright embarrassing, as a philosopher:

If the person of faith wants to say that God created the world, I don’t think you can deny this on scientific grounds. But you can go after the theist on other grounds. I would raise philosophical objections: for example, about the notion of a necessary being. I would also fault Christian theology: I don’t think you can mesh the ancient Greek philosophers’ notion of a god outside time and space with the Jewish notion of a god as a person. But these are not scientific objections…

Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God’s existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. He must be a necessary being. This means that God is not part of the regular causal chain but in some sense orthogonal to it. He is what keeps the whole business going, past, present and future, and is the explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Also God is totally simple, and I don’t see why complexity should not arise out of this, just as it does in mathematics and science from very simple premises.

Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent. As it happens, I am not a mathematical Platonist, and I do have conceptual difficulties with the idea of metaphysical necessity. So in the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”

Professor Ruse added that although he found theodicies attempting to explain the occurrence of moral evil in the world utterly unpersuasive, he was not inclined to fault God for the occurrence of natural evil. His argument, as a Darwinist, was that not even God could have made a world governed by law, without the occurrence of animal death and suffering:

Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don’t think this is so. More than that, I don’t want it to be so. I don’t want an argument that convinces me that the death under the guillotine of Sophie Scholl (one of the leaders of the White Rose group opposed to the Nazis) or of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen ultimately contributes to the greater good. If my eternal salvation depends on the deaths of these two young women, then forget it.

This said, I have never really thought that the pains brought on by the evolutionary process, in particular the struggle for survival and reproduction, much affect the Christian conception of God. For all of Voltaire’s devastating wit in “Candide,” I am a bit of a Leibnizian on these matters. If God is to do everything through unbroken law, and I can think of good theological reasons why this should be so, then pain and suffering are part of it all. Paradoxically and humorously I am with Dawkins here. He argues that the only way naturally you can get the design-like features of organisms — the hand and the eye — is through evolution by natural selection, brought on by the struggle. Other mechanisms just don’t work. So God is off the hook.

This was all too much for Professor Coyne, who opined that Ruse had been far too easy on religious believers:

It seems to me a perfectly valid question to ask where God came from, nor do I think that question is answered definitively by saying, “Well, God, by definition, doesn’t need a cause.” One could just as well say that “The cosmos, which produces multiple universes, was always there, and it by definition didn’t need a cause.”

And I’d need to be convinced that God’s existence is a metaphysical “necessity.” Where does that come from?? It seems to me perfectly reasonable to ask: “If there were a Big Bodiless Mind hanging around eternally before he actually did anything, where that Bodiless Mind came from?”

Finally, where on earth did Ruse get the idea that “God is totally simple”? Yes, some theologians have said that, but I don’t buy it. Making an analogy between god and mathematics doesn’t settle the issue. How is a bodiless mind able to create a universe “simple”? And how can God twiddle every electron, know everyone’s thoughts, see the future, and uphold everything, by being “simple”? The answer must surely involve theological wordplay…

But that aside, Ruse’s argument [on why God would have to allow natural evil if He were creating a world governed by law – VJT] doesn’t hold water. First of all, the Christian God didn’t do everything through unbroken law. I call to your attention Jesus and his miracles, as well as many other violations of “unbroken law” — including God’s intervention in evolution, which is what most evolution-accepting Americans believe. So, for most believers, God clearly didn’t do everything through unbroken law. But even if he did, one can rightly ask, “Why?” What’s the advantage of God not preventing unnecessary suffering if he’s able to do so? Is God’s refusal to interfere because maintaining “unbroken natural law” is a huge but mysterious good that outweighs all the suffering of sentient creatures? If that’s the claim, then philosophers need to explain it. What’s so great about unbroken natural law?

I then submitted a brief comment in reply to Professor Coyne’s article, which I hoped he would publish on his Website. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to himself, he did not see fit to do so. However, I thought I might share it with readers at Uncommon Descent, so here it is. As readers can see, I made every effort to be civil and courteous:

Hi Professor Coyne,

You’ve read a lot of books on the arguments for God’s existence, but you continue to labor under a few misconceptions that I’d like to clear up.

First, the arguments for God’s existence put forward by Aquinas are constructive arguments. They don’t start with a prefabricated notion of God (e.g. a bodiless Mind); all that they assume about the word “God” is that it denotes something which is the ultimate explanation for everything, if it exists.

Second, Aquinas’ arguments make some vital assumptions about what kinds of things require further explanation. In particular, they assume that: (a) any being which has some property P which it sometimes lacks [or which it is capable of lacking at times] requires an explanation for why it has that property now; (b) any being which is composed of separable parts, is capable of non-existence, and therefore requires an explanation for its continued existence; (c) any being which has built-in tendencies to change in a particular direction has the property of being oriented towards the future state it is moving in the direction of, which means it possesses the property of future-directedness, which in turn means that it must either be intelligent or be guided by something intelligent in its behavior.

Third, the Thomistic arguments make some assumptions about the nature of what counts as a good explanation. In particular: (i) an infinite regress of explanations is no explanation at all; (ii) an explanatory circle is impossible, which means that it is impossible for A to be the complete explanation for B and for B to be the complete explanation for A; and (iii) there are no “brute facts,” or states of affairs for which there is no explanation.

Given these assumptions, we can proceed in one of two ways. We can consider the cosmos as a whole (i.e. the multiverse) and treat it as a single object. It is a spatio-temporal entity, and at least some of its properties are properties which it is capable of losing. Also, it is a composite entity: it is made up of parts. Finally, it has future-oriented tendencies, such as a tendency towards increasing entropy. Consequently, by the assumptions listed above, it cannot possibly be a self-explanatory entity. Alternatively, if you don’t like treating the cosmos as a single entity, you can take one item within the cosmos, which has the features listed above (non-essential properties which it is capable of losing; compositeness; and future oriented behavior). Since an infinite regress of explanations and an explanatory circle are ruled out by our assumptions above, and since we cannot stop at any unexplained “brute facts,” we are forced to posit the existence of some self-explanatory Being which has no properties that is capable of losing (i.e. a Being outside time), which is not composed of separable parts (i.e. a bodiless Being), and which guides future-oriented objects in the inanimate world towards their end-states – in other words, a Being who (somehow) explains its own existence, and who is intelligent [because it guides things], bodiless [because it has no parts] and timeless [because it can’t gain or lose properties]. This description of God is not stipulated in advance; it’s a conclusion from the assumptions listed. In this respect, Aquinas’ Five Ways are unlike Anselm’s ontological argument.

Now you may disagree with the assumptions I’ve listed, but each of them is highly plausible, to say the least. The notion of a Being who explains its own existence is not made at the start; it emerges at the conclusion of the argument.

Finally, a couple more points. First, I realize that the notion of an utterly simple Mind may sound odd, but all I’ve argued for is a Being who is not composed of separable parts, which is different. Second, I agree with you that natural evil (e.g. the suffering of animals) is a powerful prima facie argument against an omnibenevolent God, but it’s not a knock-down one, as it naively assumes that God has no prior obligations to other intelligent agents in the cosmos that would prevent Him from destroying natural evil right now, or from allowing it to arise in the first place. We don’t know that.

I’ve said enough, so I shall stop here.

I’d like to say a little more about Professor Coyne’s objection to the doctrine of Divine simplicity:

How is a bodiless mind able to create a universe “simple”? And how can God twiddle every electron, know everyone’s thoughts, see the future, and uphold everything, by being “simple”?

I can see where Coyne is coming from here, and I would agree that his objection has some force: the notion of an utterly simple mind is a highly counter-intuitive one, given that all the minds we know of appear to either be, or be dependent on, complex entities such as brains, which store information. Instead of trying to imagine how a simple Mind might think (which we can’t), I believe it would be better to simply point out that the cosmological argument merely rules out certain kinds of complexity in an Ultimate Explanation for everything. In particular, an Ultimate Explanation cannot be something that can fall apart; hence it cannot be made up of parts which are capable of decomposing – e.g. quantitative, spatio-temporal parts. The argument cannot establish any more than that, and if someone wanted to propose (for argument’s sake) that an Ultimate Explanation might contain parts which are integrated in such a way that they cannot disintegrate, then as far as I can tell, such a position would be perfectly consistent with the cosmological argument. Such a position would neatly side-step the problem of how an utterly simple Mind could process information.

Regarding the problem of evil, I would like to close by quoting some remarks made by Professor William Dembski in his 2010 debate with Christopher Hitchens:

The problem of evil still confronts theists, though not as a logical or philosophical problem, but instead as a psychological and existential one. The problem of evil can therefore be reformulated as the following argument:

Premise 1: Since God is good, he wants to destroy evil.
Premise 2: Since God is all-powerful, he can destroy evil.
Premise 3: Evil is not yet destroyed.
Conclusion: Therefore God will eventually destroy evil.

As time-bound creatures, our problem here is with the word “eventually.” We want to see evil destroyed right now. And because we don’t see it destroyed right now, and thus experience the suffering that evil invariably inflicts, we are tempted to doubt God’s existence and goodness. Our challenge, therefore, is to continue trusting God until evil is destroyed.

An excellent contemporary defense of the cosmological argument can be found in Professor Koons’ 1996 article, A New Look at the Cosmological Argument. I would also commend Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009) by Professor Paul Herrick.

What do readers think of the cosmological argument? And are the counter-arguments marshaled by Coyne persuasive ones? Comments are welcome.

LarTanner: You'd only ever need to play these silly games if you wanted someone to take seriously your assessment of the "root of a whole lot of evil." So long as you do not, you needn't bother. Phinehas
Why would anyone play your silly game? You seem quite certain that whatever some people say they believe, they really don't. LarTanner
LarTanner, Then please, show me I am wrong. Do you believe that all laws should be written to simply accommodate what is the best for survival of any particular group, regardless of the rights of a particular individual? phoodoo
"Of course no atheist really believes what they say they believe" Oh, of course. The humbleness in the face of your obvious superiority is refreshing. LarTanner
DrJDD, I would agree, although I think even the societal need for judgement becomes a precarious one as well, if we really take it to the atheists logical conclusion. Old people can no longer help society and are a burden, they need to be killed to give more food for the young. Rape is not really wrong per se, if the person who does the raping has good genes. Girls who don't like to be raped are simply poor judges of whats good for them. So if we strictly make judgements about actions based on what is best for society as a whole, then all laws would need to be rewritten, and people need to stop being so selfish about their own (irrational) feelings of good. Of course no atheist really believes what they say they believe, so the point is utterly mute. phoodoo
Coyne: It seems to me a perfectly valid question to ask where God came from.... Here I go again with the amusement thing at the expense of materialists and their pretzel logic, but consider: unless nature created itself then something or someone independent of nature did so. And so the Creator, if only postulated, of nature cannot be said to have come "from", get it? You can't utter prepositions like 'from', 'outside', and 'before' in this regard, without looking like a bush league debater and thinker. I'm even less than comfortable on my use of past tense in the above. I may be jumping to conclusions but it seems like Coyne has never pondered eternity, but on the other hand I guarantee that he will, same as the rest of us. groovamos
Hi Phoodoo, Apologies, I quickly scrolled up when composing that message and noted down the wrong person to reply to (was conceptu). With regards to materialist views of good and evil, we see it still here - it is brushed off as a canard, a falsehood, a lie, a commonly made fallacy that materialism and atheism results in no moral standard therefore no justification for defining good and evil. However, if I was a materialist, I would follow that argument through. If I was a materialistic Atheist I would affirm there is no good or evil however theses concepts are inbred into society as government, laws and rules have evolved in order to maximise survival. Obviously if murder is rife, reproduction is harder, survival is less. Even if one is strong and good at murdering, they would always fear someone stronger could come along and murder them. So rules are established - not because of good or evil but out of survival. These are then passed down to generations from a very young age giving the concept of good and evil, right and wrong which is why we are shocked when we hear of/see actions that violate that accepted "norm". You would ask me then what about acts of kindness, good acts, being nice to people when there is not consequence etc (as alluded to above). I would reply that these are all still under the human underlying psyche that seeks affirmation as a way of progressing in life. If you are mean to someone and others find out, they may look down on you, you may be cast out from an acceptance criteria generally set by a group of people and therefore minimise chance of success in life and ultimately passing on your genes. The same could be true of why people do good things and fight for right over wrong in their perception. These are all for self and human race gain to continue to survive and evolve. That to me seems a very sensible materialistic approach, however you would have to question if someone left without human contact growing to adulthood, then intergrated into a society, if they would have any of their own moral codes or not. That might be interesting to test that theory. So part of me struggles to understand why materialists still like to say that you can define good and evil in their worldview. Yet it comes back to the point that they are saving face: if you deny good and evil than noone's actions are evil therefore there is nothing inherently wrong with paedophilia, rape, murder, etc. Our society deems them wrong as we promote order over chaos for survival, but there is nothing actually wrong with those things. I think this is what materialists fear is the natural conclusion of such a logical process and as such do not adopt such a view generally speaking. Which to my mind, proves the point that there is a moral code / conscious written into the hearts and minds of mankind. The point remains though - if one is to use the argument that God does evil things (as constantly is used by Atheists), you have to define how you arise to standards of good and evil to judge an act as good or evil. I am still waiting on a good explanation for that. The onus is not on the theist, but the atheist if they indeed wish to use that argument of God performing acts of evil. Dr JDD
JDD, Just to clarify, it was not me who quoted Isiah. I have never quoted the Bible, ever. I don't think it is necessary for a discussion of science, philosophy or the world. phoodoo
Acartia_bogart- to materialistic atheists the concepts of good and evil are subjective at best and absolutely meaningless. Joe
jdd, I would be genuinely very interested to hear the logic behind materialistic absolute morals and definitions of good and evil. A materialist might answer that there is no such thing as absolute morality but that they might change their mind if you presented a convincing argument of how one might prove it exists. Preferably more convincing than self evident truth. velikovskys
LarTanner- You are confused as I did not ask for the definition of “canard”, I asked how what was said wrt to materialism is a canard. Please answer what was asked.
I think that he is referring to the false claim by christians (I say christians because this claim is not made by all religions) that an atheist society can have no morals or a concept of good and bad (and evil) because that is the purview of god. Acartia_bogart
LarTanner- You are confused as I did not ask for the definition of "canard", I asked how what was said wrt to materialism is a canard. Please answer what was asked. Joe
ca·nard k??när(d)/ noun 1. an unfounded rumor or story. LarTanner
Joe - "How is that a canard, LarTanner?" Yes, this is humorous, especially from an ideologue who has always championed that there are no as absolutes. Oddly enough a couple of years ago when he stood on a soap box and declared to the world in his very last post in his blog: "I'm also not jazzed up about some issues like I used to be. The issues that grab me now have to do with real, meatspace life. I want to focus my mind and energies on home, work, and just living." So he says he wanted to devote more time to just living life and spending it with his family. Okay, not bad, but yet he has since after making that religious affirmation, he has spent more time on all these discussion boards since than at any time previously when he ran his blog. If anything these fiction promoting comments are entertaining - DavidD
Then try reading it again as it is Lucifer who brings suffering to Job. Further, after the ordeal Job had all restored to him. God allows Lucifer to cause the suffering. He is the secondary cause of the suffering/ disaster. velikovskys
Yet if we are materialists, than humans should not be the only ones who this applies to as humans are no different than all other living things
If we are materialists, humans are not significantly different than all non-living things also. "Life" is just a different mode of existence for blind, purposeless matter to take on. Silver Asiatic
What's that Ruse says?
I don’t think you can mesh the ancient Greek philosophers’ notion of a god outside time and space with the Jewish notion of a god as a person.
Oh really? Actually it's duck soup.
Isaiah 57:15 (AV) For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
Nowadays one wouldn't expect the ignorance of the Bible that Ruse displays to bar him from occupying a philosophy chair at a state college. But it is HILARIOUS to see his cluelessness about the ignoramus he makes of himself into when he pipes up as if he were some kind of expert on "Jewish notions." Talk about stupid. jstanley01
It is fine to call something out as a falsehood but only if you give an explanation as to why. I would be genuinely very interested to hear the logic behind materialistic absolute morals and definitions of good and evil. I am happy to change my opinion on that if a convincing argument is presented. Dr JDD
How is that a canard, LarTanner? Joe
The old canard: "how can a materialist define evil? There is no moral standard to compare it with, to say what is good and consequently what is evil." LarTanner
Sorry conceptu, I still do not buy what you are saying. Look at the context of the language used in that verse. It is contrasting opposites. “…creator of peace and creator of ra`” What is the word for peace here, could it be translated good? It is in fact, Shalowm (strongs 7965), and here are some translations of that word to English: completeness, soundness, welfare, peace completeness (in number) safety, soundness (in body) welfare, health, prosperity peace, quiet, tranquillity, contentment peace, friendship of human relationships with God especially in covenant relationship peace (from war) peace (as adjective)   In contrast what about the word translated evil here? This is Ra` (strongs 7451): bad, evil bad, disagreeable, malignant bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery) evil, displeasing bad (of its kind - land, water, etc) bad (of value) worse than, worst (comparison) sad, unhappy evil (hurtful) bad, unkind (vicious in disposition) bad, evil, wicked (ethically) in general, of persons, of thoughts deeds, actions n m evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity evil, distress, adversity evil, injury, wrong evil (ethical) n f evil, misery, distress, injury evil, misery, distress evil, injury, wrong evil (ethical)   So clearly ra` can be used to mean evil (morally and ethically). However, it clearly can mean a whole host of other things, such as injury, misery, distress, sadness, pain; all of which would not be considered by the Bible to be true moral evil. God causes all of these things but that does not mean they are evil. Thus to understand what the writer is saying in this verse, ra` must be taken in context and it is juxtaposed to Shalowm as an opposite end of a spectrum. Clearly Shalowm does not mean “good” as in morally, but as shown earlier, perhaps peace or safety or welfare are the best interpretations. Therefore, Ra` in this context is opposing that peace/safety. God creates peace but He also brings about distress, injury and misery to the sinner. People throughout the ages have wanted to maintain those things are not of God because they want a human perspective to be the truth rather than accepting complete depravity of man and complete goodness and righteousness of God. Therefore, fallen humans cannot comprehend how a God could be responsible for actions that they would traditionally associate with evil – because they themselves are morally imperfect and evil inherently.   That is precisely what A_B does here – uses a human viewpoint (one that cannot even define what evil is) to judge an infinitely superior (in terms of morals and righteousness) Being’s actions as evil. That does not even make sense. For example, let us say that a judge passes judgement in accordance to the law of the land that uses capital punishment for murder. The accused is sentenced appropriately according to the law of the land and so the judge orders their execution. Is the judge evil? No, he is following the law of the land (forget the argument whether capital punishment is right or wrong for now). However, what if that accused, whilst waiting his execution in prison is wronged by another prisoner in some way – let us say he stole a book he owned. The accused then decides to execute that other prisoner. Would that be considered an evil act? Yes it would. One act is evil the other is not yet the result is the same (death of someone). Now times that by infinity for God’s complete and utter perfection in righteousness and inability to allow evil to go unpaid for.   But again, I come back to the problem that there is as demonstrated in this thread – how can a materialist define evil? There is no moral standard to compare it with, to say what is good and consequently what is evil. Some people end up trying to define evil as bringing hurt or pain or suffering to other humans. So, “Do what you like as long as you don’t hurt or judge others” type of attitude. Yet if we are materialists, than humans should not be the only ones who this applies to as humans are no different than all other living things, they are just a bit further down the evolutionary chain. So humans should not bring hurt or pain or suffering to any other life. Therefore if you are a meat-eater you are evil, if you wear anything leather you are evil, if you take any pharmaceutical medicine or use modern medicine you are evil.   So again, the question must be asked to the materialist (and even to the theist), “what is the definition of evil?”   The answer cannot be “lack of goodness [righteousness]” as then you need a standard of that too. Dr JDD
Jerry: “I still maintain that an answer lies in defining the word “evil.”” If I were to counsel a good man to kill his son, would I be considered evil? If I killed a child from every family in town who didn’t share my religion, would I be evil? Any sane person would agree that I am. So, why does god get a pass? We all think that we understand what evil is, but it is far more subjective than we would like to think.
You still have not defined "evil." You have offered up what you think are evil acts or events. I keep coming back to asking for the definition because it is essential to an understanding of the problem or as I say the lack of any real problem. I maintain that what most people call evil is not really evil. All the examples are finite and relative and we do not know the final outcome. You may think you do, but you don't and neither do people like Coyne. So here we are again discussing the concept of evil without a definition of it. It is all pointless till we agree on what is evil. Just like it is pointless to discuss evolution without a definition. By the way why don't you try defining that too when you use the term. jerry
Dr. Torley and Dr. JDD, At the very least I think the onus is on those who are claiming that God does not create evil.
I am inclined to side with VJ and JDD. You are aware that evil is not a thing? Vivid vividbleau
Another translation of Isaiah 45:7
I am the one who forms light and creates darkness; the one who brings about peace and creates calamity. I am the Lord, who accomplishes all these things.
New English Translation Mapou
The root of a whole lotta evil: "I am sorry but I believe that your interpretation of [holy book/story/verse/word] is incorrect." LarTanner
vjtorley, I don't really understand your meaning? Why would one assume that evil is contingent on some other intelligent beings in the cosmos? I leave open all possibilities as to why evil is a fact. I sort of agree with what Joe said, evil exists, we have to learn how to deal with it the best way we believe we can. As I stated here (and at TSZ) , how can people have a desire to produce or create, if there is no motivation to do so. If all satisfaction in life was already guaranteed regardless of what one did, why would anyone do anything? In order to have good, you must have the opposite of good. The geniuses at The Skeptical Zone thought this was astounding and simply couldn't get their little minds around it. "What, what are you talking about, I get out of bed because the phone rings, not because of it being good...." This is the level of thought they have put into it. That type of stupidity is astounding to me. phoodoo
Dr. Torley and Dr. JDD, I am sorry but I believe that your interpretation of Isaiah 45:7 is incorrect or, at the very least, not the simplest understanding. The verse appears in the context of a statement of absolute monotheism addressed to Cyrus the Great. At that time the major religion on Persia was Zoroastrianism which postulated two Dieties, one good and one evil. In contrast Judaism was monotheistic and the message to Cyrus was bringing home that point. Here is the full context (my translation from the Hebrew): I am [Tetragrammaton] and there is no other, other than me there is no gods, I have helped you but you have not known me. In order that they may know that from the eastern path of the sun and from the western path of the sun that there is nothing other than me, I am [Tetragrammaton] and there is no other. Fashioner of light, creator of darkness, maker of peace and creator of evil, I am God I have made all of these. At the very least I think the onus is on those who are claiming that God does not create evil. conceptualinertia
vj, The article goes on to conclude that the meaning of the verse, when taken in context, is that “God brings disaster on those who continue in hard-hearted rebellion against Him.” That is not the conclusion one draws from Job.
Then try reading it again as it is Lucifer who brings suffering to Job. Further, after the ordeal Job had all restored to him. TSErik
I love listening to theophobes and their ignorant juvenile understanding/interpretation of the Bible. It also amuses me to see how they invoke Christian morality to judge the Biblical God, since atheism has none of its own. humbled
vj, The article goes on to conclude that the meaning of the verse, when taken in context, is that “God brings disaster on those who continue in hard-hearted rebellion against Him.” That is not the conclusion one draws from Job. velikovskys
Hi Acartia_bogart, Thank you for your post. Again I repeat my point that your arguments are directed solely at the Biblical God, rather than at the transcendent God of classical theism. You write that from Abraham's perspective, God's command to sacrifice his son was an order. We don't know that. Perhaps Abraham prudently decided to take the necessary steps in carrying out God's strange request, in order to demonstrate his obedience, trusting all along that at the last moment, God would intervene and save his son. That's quite possible. In that case, Abraham need not have been willing to kill his son. The first born of Egypt died from a plague. The Israelites were spared. The plague may have been a natural one, permitted but not sent by God, from which the Israelites were supernaturally spared, as an act of Divine providence. And in any case, the first born of Egypt were not killed on account of their parents' religion. You are right of course in writing that motive is important when assessing the morality of someone's action. There are however some actions which can only be performed from bad motives, and not from good ones. Torture and adultery would be two cases in point. vjtorley
". But nowhere does God order people to kill other individuals simply because they belong to another religion." You are correct. He performed the act himself. Unless someone else killed the first born of Egypt. And your point that god didn't order Abraham to kill his son, that it was only a test, is really equivocating. From Abraham's perspective, it was an order. And Abraham didn't pass the test until he was willing to kill his son. This is why I am saying that evil is subjective. When I put myself in god's position with respect his actions, every sane person would consider me to be evil. And trust me, I only scratched the surface. But because most people can't perceive god to be evil, they ascribe other motives to his actions. OK, I can accept that. But only if you can ascribe non-evil motives for me to perpetrate the same acts. Acartia_bogart
Hi Upright BiPed, Thank you for your post. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. vjtorley
Hi conceptualinertia, Thank you for your post. You question the assumption that God "is completely good and would not create evil," citing Isaiah 45:7, which speaks of God creating evil, as Biblical evidence to the contrary. You might want to have a look at the response given here: http://www.gotquestions.org/Isaiah-45-7.html I'll just quote the first paragraph:
Isaiah 45:7 in the King James Version reads, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things." How does Isaiah 45:7 agree with the view that God did not create evil? There are two key facts that need to be considered. (1) The word translated "evil" is from a Hebrew word that means "adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, misery." Notice how the other major English Bible translations render the word: "disaster" (NIV, HCSB), "calamity" (NKJV, NAS, ESV), and "woe" (NRSV). The Hebrew word can refer to moral evil, and often does have this meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, due to the diversity of possible definitions, it is unwise to assume that "I create evil" in Isaiah 45:7 refers to God bringing moral evil into existence.
The article goes on to conclude that the meaning of the verse, when taken in context, is that "God brings disaster on those who continue in hard-hearted rebellion against Him." vjtorley
A_B: If you want to play that game of "logic" then you have to conced both sides of logic. Atheism offers no room or justification for good or evil. There is no definition and cannot be one as there is no standard nor is there a source of good and evil. For something to be good there has to be an appreciation of good and a set standard. If we are the result of purposeless molecular random collisions and we reduce to mere chemicals than morality is of no consequence and does not exist except in the falsity of one's mind. Therefore, good and evil do not exist and they are no more made up than an unnecessary god. As such, if someone holds onto such naturalism they are in no position to judge someone else on good and evil for by their own admission these standards are non-existant in the universe and that set by local groups of individuals made up at one's own whim and randomness. How then can you possibly provide any adequate assessment of someone else's actions or intents? There is no good nor evil therefore whatever one does is merely a consequence of randomness and out of their true control. This is the ultimate place that naturalism will always lead. Second, when you try to argue against a God that kills or allows to kill or tells people to kill as being evil you come down to consensus which is not really a valid assessment when that consensus is not at the level of the one whose morality you are calling to question. Nor do you attempt to understand motivation or context of such actions but make your own conclusion on a priori humanistic view of good and evil. So the original point is valid - evil must be defined. If you are to argue against the God of the Judeo-Christian belief you must argue based on how that God is characterised by His suggested Word. However like most criticisms of the God of the Bible, they are always taken out of context of the Bible as a whole and understanding what the context of humans and God is once evil entered the world. Therefore, the God you have "falsified" in your mind is one of your own understanding rather than the one who He claims to be in the Bible. Phoodoo: I have to largely disagree with you personally, again given the context of the Bible and what you quote. The Bible is clear that in Him no evil can be found, that He cannot be tempted nor does he tempt, etc, etc. So taking the context of the Bible as a whole it is clear that God is good and only good, therefore the definition of evil is absence of righteousness (or absence of God's will). Evil can then be conquered as judgement is part of righteousness. However because evil currently exists demonstrates an attribute of God called grace and mercy - attributes that would otherwise not be revealed to us if evil did not exist, yet the Bible is clear that evil only exists not by God creating evil or being the author of evil but of God's created beings choosing to bring about evil (through exercising a lack of righteousness/disobedience to God's will). This is certainly not a straightforward concept to grasp. Further, you quote Isaiah however I would have to say that there is an incorrect interpretation of the Hebrew word used for evil there. Like many Hebrew words (where there were far fewer than say Greek), that word can mean several different things, and evil is certainly one of them. However it can also mean other things that are not actual evil as we mean (opposite of good). Further, in this passage you quote (Is45:7) it is classically using the language that much of Hebrew uses where it is contrasting. This is the context of that verse and passage in that things are being contrasted - opposites. So when we see peace talked about (which is not "good", but peace) the better interpretation for what has been given as "evil" here would be the opposite of peace, for example calamity. The point is, God is the author of war and calamity which is separate to evil. Now you may humanistically disagree that calamity is evil and peace is good but God throughout the Bible makes it abundantly clear that killing people is not evil and that makes sense if it is righteous judgement. Again I will be unpopular in saying this but I believe people wrongly imply that people are good therefore bad things happening to these apparent good people means that this is evil. Yet it seems very clear to me that the Bible teaches all humans are evil as all are in Adam - it is in their DNA and there is nothing they can do about it. They are born that way. So any death and judgement is in fact righteous and not evil by definition - in fact one could argue very well that lack of death upon the very first sin (thoughts can be sin) is not judging evil and contrary to what we expect from a perfectly Holy and righteous God completely good and in whom no evil is found. Yet the attribute that God also possesses of mercy and grace are demonstrated - in that judgement is delayed to allow for the opportunity for being saved. This is then the point that makes irrational the argument "its not my fault that I am imperfect/sinful if I inherited it" as there is a way and opportunity to be saved from that inheritance. If there was no way nor opportunity than one can entertain the idea of cruelity perhaps with our limited understanding but equally one could argue God would still be just. If you were told you had cancer however there was a way to be cured through an operation would you not have the operation as you did not feel it was fair that you got cancer despite living a healthy lifestyle, or would you have the operation that will save your life? Further, would you have an operation to save your life if you did not believe you had cancer? Therefore one must accept their human state of evilness in order to accept salvation. There is no one righteous no not one. Therefore, all have sinned, therefore all deserve judgement therefore death and killing of anyone by a perfectly holy God is not "evil". It is only conceived as evil by a mind that lacks righteouness (and so by definition is God's version of evil). In the Bible Jesus himself even answered such questions, for example when a tower fell on "innocent" people or the Roman government slaughtered those coming to the temple to do their duty and give sacrifices. Why were these people killed when they were doing what God commanded? How is that fair? Jesus makes it clear that they did not deserve it more than others and that the question should not be "were they worse than me" but rather "why has this not happened to me." In other words, you could die at any point and it would be just - so repent now and be saved (from eternal death not earthly temperal death). Or in other words, don't fear the one who has the power of death over you here on earth, fear the one who has power over you after death on earth. Naturally someone will bring up children and those not knowing good from evil. Do you not think that God is just enough to ensure justice is accounted for with these? What happened to David's baby boy when he died? David said he would go to him, he would see him again. It seems clear there is grace and mercy and forgiveness to those who cannot yet discern good from evil, and this is not just from the passage on David. Yet people never seem to consider the saving power of death to those who are buried in tradition and culture of evil ways. People like to criticise the God of the OT by saying he killed all of the children and everyone yet fail to consider that this was actually a form of mercy as it did not let them grow up in the ways of their parents in the same wicked and evil traditions thus heaping up more wrath on themselves and dying in judgement, but actually saved them from judgement by allowing saving grace for eternity at the sacrifice of earthly life. This may sound heartless and odd to many but that is because they do not believe in eternal life and judgement after death quite frankly. If that is accepted and believed in, these actions make far more sense and are in complete alignment with justice and righteousness as well as mercy and grace. If there was no evil in the world than we would never know that God was merciful and a God of saving grace and provider of salvation. Yet this does not mean that God created evil and I would strongly contest that interpretation from the Bible. Dr JDD
Hi Acartia_bogart, Thank you for your post. The first paragraph of your response seems to contradict the second. You list various evil actions that "any sane person would agree" are wrong, but then you go on to conclude that evil is "far more subjective than we would like to think"! If I were you, I would conclude that evil is objective - at least in the cases you cited. At most, your argument works only against the Biblical God, not against the notion of a transcendent God Who created the cosmos. And even against the Biblical God, your arguments do not hold water. In Genesis 22, God does not "counsel a good man to kill his son," as if it were a good thing to do so. In the Biblical story, He asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, without calling such a deed good. Genesis 22:1 explicitly says that He did this as a test, and in Genesis 22:12 He orders Abraham, "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him." As for killing people "who didn't share my religion," nowhere in the Bible does God declare such a thing to be lawful. You will find stories of people killed in the Bible for various reasons - such as practicing infanticide and other abominations. But nowhere does God order people to kill other individuals simply because they belong to another religion. vjtorley
phoodoo, Thank you for your posts. If you don't like the idea of "evil as a punishment for some preventable choices in our species past," then how about this one? The natural evil in our world may be (at least partially) due to acts by other intelligent beings in our cosmos. All that this proposal assumes is that we are not the only intelligent beings in the cosmos. vjtorley
vjtorley, You say this near the end: "as it naively assumes that God has no prior obligations to other intelligent agents in the cosmos that would prevent Him from destroying natural evil right now, or from allowing it to arise in the first place. We don’t know that." Would you consider the classic Reformed Protestant idea of God's Covenants to be the binding prior obligation that could explain this? The idea that God, as Father and Son, covenanted together to save whom would be saved, and to keep things going until then ("I swear by myself", etc.)? Ie., the intelligent agent to whom this "prior obligation" is made is God himself? Thanks for all your work! I am an occasional reader. Pip Brandy
Jerry: "I still maintain that an answer lies in defining the word “evil.”" If I were to counsel a good man to kill his son, would I be considered evil? If I killed a child from every family in town who didn't share my religion, would I be evil? Any sane person would agree that I am. So, why does god get a pass? We all think that we understand what evil is, but it is far more subjective than we would like to think. Acartia_bogart
phoodoo- I don't see evil as a punishment- evil is just something that exists that needs to be dealt with. Joe
semi related: Neil Shenvi lectures on the relationship between science and religion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=264MRoncVZA Speaker bio: my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science. https://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/neil-shenvi-lectures-on-the-relationship-between-science-and-religion/ HT: WinteryKnight bornagain77
Joe, I don't disagree with you. I just don't believe in the idea of evil as a punishment for some preventable choices in our species past. phoodoo
Evos can tell their children whatever they want- they do anyway. I tell my kids that evil is something we have to deal with and that many people do so by ignoring it or living out of its reach. I also say that is a way for us to be judged- the existence of evil tests us every day. Joe
Joe, I just feel the notion that we brought the evil of the world upon ourselves to be a twisted kind of logic that I could certainly understand why evolutionists would be very resistant against allowing their children to be taught that. One day those children are going to wake up and say, hey wait a minute, I didn't invite this! It wasn't me, why am I to take the blame. And then what? phoodoo
As a strictly logical matter I don't understand the question from evil. The question contains two presumptions that I don't think are well-founded. 1. The presumption that we humans can properly identify what is good and what is evil. 2. The presumption that the Diety is completely good and would not create evil. I find the latter assumption particularly odd on the part of Jews and Christians. In a prophecy to Isaiah (45:7), God tells Isaiah "fashioner of light, creator of darkness, maker of peace and creator of evil, I am God I have made all of these." conceptualinertia
phoodoo- OK random mutations caused the pain and suffering ;) But anyway who caused the pain and suffering if not us? And in a perfect world how could we be judged? Joe
Joe, I think the idea that we brought pain and suffering upon ourselves needs a better explanation than someone simply claiming this is so. phoodoo
Well God may not be necessary but some intelligent designer is necessary. And only that which had/ has a beginning requires a cause. As for pain and suffering, well A) we brought it upon ourselves and B) that is how we are judged, as in how we handle it. And if Coyne wants to rid the world of design all he has to do is step up and demonstrate that unguided physical processes can account for all we observe. Joe
Coyne is clearly mad at God, because God made him likes cats, more than say..women. And since he can't think of a good evolutionary reason why he would like cats more than women, he is in a quandry. So Coyne has obviously decided to take out his anger by denying that God exists. By attacking anyone who doesn't believe the same as him. By being an academic bully, who insults his colleagues. He is behind all of the acts of censorship against alternative viewpoints of evolution. He uses all his free time to write threatening letters to institutions which teach things he doesn't like. of course he is not going to print any contrary opinions on his website, Coyne doesn't care about getting at the truth, he cares about waging a war against the evil man who made him love cats. These lame arguments about what made the God, and why would a God have to be so evil are hardly worthy of someone who represents a place like the University of Chicago. perhaps the reason God made evil is because if all people had in their lives was cosmic bliss, they would never produce anything. Why would they? Why would people even bother to stand up and get out of bed, if the end result of simply staying in your bed everyday would never lead to anything but bliss? But no no, that concept is way too complex for a simpleton like Coyne. So its bad enough that Coyne is an academic Joesph McCarthy, hellbent on silencing all those who threaten to speak what he doesn't like to hear, what's worse is that he isn't intellectual or even amusing. phoodoo
What do readers think of the cosmological argument?
I will make my facetious argument about the multiverse. We only appear when there is an infinite number of universes because the math prohibits such things as fine tuning, life and evolution. The odds are too small. The odds are essentially infinitely small. In an infinite number of universes there will be an infinite number of vast intelligences. And using the logic of calculus, there will always be an intelligence greater than any intelligence one could point to or there has to be not only an infinite intelligence but an infinite number of them. An absurd but logical conclusion. jerry
And are the counter-arguments marshaled by Coyne persuasive ones? Comments are welcome.
I still maintain that an answer lies in defining the word "evil." One often argues that evil is what is not good but then what is good? If good is God or perfection then this whole world is then a form of evil because it is not perfect. So I think that leads nowhere. Or that evil is gratuitous suffering but then what is meant by gratuitous? Then do we look at suffering as something that is relative because we all will admit that some things are worse than others. And if suffering is relative, is there a maximum suffering? Or is all suffering we can imagine finite and can suffering be offset by what we call positive states? The theodicy argument falls apart for the Christian God because all the so called suffering whether gratuitous or not is finite while the reward is infinite and dwarfs any suffering. Even death is a finite event no matter how much suffering took place as part of it. Now I will admit that many do not believe in the Christian God and may think this nonsense but one can not criticize the notion of the Christian God by pointing to so called evil because one can say the Christian God more than compensates for any finite suffering with an infinite reward of goodness. jerry
They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. See ? problem solved. Graham2
One wonders where Coyne obtains his ideas about the cosmological argument. Any opinions? Cosmological Argument (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Mung
It seems to me a perfectly valid question to ask where God came from, nor do I think that question is answered definitively by saying, “Well, God, by definition, doesn’t need a cause.” One could just as well say that “The cosmos, which produces multiple universes, was always there, and it by definition didn’t need a cause.”
I don't think that Coyne is really presenting a reasonable alternative to God by projecting the “Cosmos” as an uncaused caused. With God, at least, we do have a rational explanation. An eternal, personal being decided to perform a creative act and cause a finite universe to exist. By “Cosmos, (which is left undefined) I assume that Coyne means an impersonal physical law or mysterious set of causal conditions that has/have always been producing universes. However, if a physical law has always been producing universes, then we should have an infinite number of them. But an infinite number of physical effects cannot be instantiated in a physical cosmos. If, on the other hand, the Cosmos has not always been producing universes, then there must be a time when it didn’t, which means that the act of producing universes was a new and novel act. However, a law cannot do anything new or creative. By definition, it can only do what it does. Equally, important, the "time" required to make the change cannot be reconciled with the alleged eternal process. If Coyne means something else by “Cosmos,” he should tell us. As it is, I can’t accept it as a reasonable candidate for an eternal, impersonal, causeless cause. Much less can I accept it as a substitute for an eternal, divine being. StephenB
Biologists shouldn't do philosophy beyond stating the presumptions they require to reach the conclusions they desire. stjones
Godel's Incompleteness Theorem - in a nutshell. http://idvolution.blogspot.com/2012/09/godels-incompleteness-theorem-in.html buffalo
Coyne, Dawkins and the like should get this: Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages - http://taylormarshall.com/2013/05/free-book-is-ready-thomas-aquinas-in-50.html THE 8 ATTRIBUTES OF GOD Since our knowledge of God is impossible, we can only know God by negation and by analogy. So then, what can we say about God through reason? Although the list is not strict, Thomas lists eight general attributes of God that can be known from reason by way of negation: 1) DOES GOD HAVE PARTS? God does not have parts because he is not created. He is not a composite of existence and essence because for God these are one in the same. He is also not a composite of form and matter. He is not built like a physical body or a machine. He is without parts. You cannot speak of “part of God” or even “half of God.” God doesn’t have parts that can be separated for measurement. In Latin, the fancy word for “not having parts” is simplex. The word likely derives from a combination of sine (”without”) and plex (”fold”), meaning “without folds.” The opposite word complex means “with folds.” Thus, God is without parts. He is simple. God is simple (Summa theologiae I, q. 3). 2) DOES GOD HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO IMPROVE? No, God cannot improve. Aristotle noted to be perfect is to be fully actualized. If you could possibly run faster than you are currently running, then you’re not running perfectly. So the question here is whether God is fully actualized or whether he has potential to be even better than he is. According to the Third Way and Fourth Way, God is most fully actualized. There is nothing lacking in him or we would speak of him as being itself. So then, since we deny potentiality in God (He can never improve), we say he is perfect. God is perfect (Summa theologiae I, q. 4). buffalo
On the issue of simplicity, Coyne misunderstands what is meant by the term, and the reason theologians describe the Diety that way. As Dr. Torley explained this idea merely means that God cannot be made up of separate parts, the way we are, but must be one unit. Unlike Dr. Torley, however, I don't understand why this presents any sort of problem. Our idea that processing information requires complexity is not because of some inherent logical necessity of complexity to process information but because all physical systems that we know process information are complex. But God, and, if one posits its existence, the human soul, are not physical at all and therefore need not use comples physical systems to process information. Put differently, if one accepts the cosmological argument that there must exist a being outside of the created physical universe that is not subject to the normal laws of cause and effect and is eternal without a power source but just is, it is not surprising that this being does not require physical complexity, or any complexity, to process information. conceptualinertia
Coyne and Dawkins both seem not to understand the cosmological argument at all. The reason why an uncaused cause is postulated is because it is necessary to avoid an infinite regress. There are two possible categories of uncaused cause: something within the universe or something outside of the universe. Now I don't know what Coyne means by "The cosmos, which produces multiple universes," but if he means something outside the natural universe than he has just renamed the Deist version of God "cosmos" and conceded the cosmological argument. If, on the other hand, he means the sum of the physical universe that was once a viable position (albeit weaker than the God explanation). But now that the science points toward a universe with a beginning the positing of an eternal universe is no longer viable. conceptualinertia
Very interesting article Dr Torley. These are not conversations that I typically follow, but I enjoyed reading this very much. You are supremely balanced with your opponents. It is unfortunate that Coyne did not return the favor. Upright BiPed

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