The Evidential Problem of Evil (Part 1)

Posted on 06/18/14 88 Comments

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Bambi burntWilliam Rowe tells the story of a fawn (think Bambi) severely burnt in a forest fire and left to die slowly over several days amidst the burning embers of the ravaged forest floor. It’s just one fawn, right? Who cares? But if God really is all-good and all-powerful then presumably he would not allow gratuitous evils, i.e. those that fail to serve any greater purpose. And that one fawn, smoking, blistered, and bleating for its mother, certainly appears to be a gratuitous evil.

In this episode of The Tentative Apologist Podcast we take on this vexing problem of gratuitous evil. Our way into the discussion will be a 2013 interview with philosopher Erik Wielenberg from the Reasonable Doubts Podcast on skeptical theism and the problem of evil. In this podcast and the next I will be interacting with several excerpts from this fine interview of Wielenberg by doubtcasters Jeremy Beahan and Justin Schieber.

Does the presence of evil that appears gratuitous present a problem for theistic belief? We shall see…

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  • Luke Breuer

    What’s the difference between:

         (1) gratuitous evil, and
         (2) irreducible complexity

    ? If seems like the reasoning which supports one also supports the other, and the reasoning which rejects one also rejects the other.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Too cryptic. Say more.

      • Luke Breuer

        Gratuitous evil is the idea that God’s goodness couldn’t possibly account for evil X.
        Irreducible complexity is the idea that evolution couldn’t possibly account for feature X.

        We have faith that in the final equation, there will be no irreducibly complex features. Why is that faith allowed, but not the faith that in the final equation, neither will there be any gratuitous evils?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Okay that helps.

          I think your definition of “gratuitous evil” is confusing.

          Gratuitous evil is evil that God need not have allowed to attain the kind of goods he attains. In other words, counterfactually, he could have had these goods without that evil.

          As the atheist looks at the widespread and seemingly indiscriminate distribution of evil in the world, it seems plausible that at least one instance is gratuitous.

          If you want a fitting analogy, I’d think it would look like this: the theist looks at the widespread distribution of prima facie irreducibly complex structures in the world and concludes that it seems plausible that at least one instance is in fact irreducibly complex.

          • Luke Breuer

            Actually, I find that your formulation of ‘gratuitous evil’ doesn’t fully match discussions I’ve had. Now, I’m not saying that they were using a ‘natural kind’-type definition, but here’s an example:

            Maybe that good could only come from that evil, but it wasn’t worth it!

            This is not a GE on your account, but it is on mine. On mine, God would not will goods if their required evils are too great. But perhaps this is unnecessarily quibbling; you seem to have arrived at my point, which is that lack of knowledge allows one to assert both the plausibility of irreducible complexity as well as gratuitous evil. Or neither. But not only one.

  • Kerk

    Faithful to myself, without first listening to the podcast, I’ll post a comment .

    I want to say that Raw was pushing forward the Evidential Problem of Evil, where such instances as a baby dear suffering in a trap “SEEM” to be the instances of gratuitous evil, from a reasonable person point of view. That is why it is more reasonable than not for us to disbelieve in God.

    I must admit, his formulation of the EPE was the strongest one I’ve ever encountered and it gave made me pause for a long time.

    Of course, I found at least two answers subsequently. One is that of theologian David Basinger, that it is impossible to tell what is gratuitous evil, and whether there is such a thing at all. How can we tell when it would be ok for God to intervene, and when not? Since we have no background data to analyze the current state of affairs against, we can’t really tell what is the reasonable conclusion.

    This one’s ok, but a little bit of a copout for my taste. I prefer my good old “There is no such thing as natural evil — all suffering is from Satan’s interference.” And then invoke the free will defense.

  • Geoff

    Great podcast.

    Regarding the second clip – This argument might make sense for someone who has had a life to live but how would someone who had their life cut drastically short like a baby who has died in the womb reap any benefit whatsoever from pain and suffering since there would be virtually no moral history for this individual? He would not have had a chance to experience life let alone grow in any virtues.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      First, that infant’s life could contribute to the moral formation of other people.

      Second, that infant would then develop a sort of moral history, i.e. that of having positively impacted the lives of other moral agents. Think, for example, of a fetus that dies in utero. We ask: what was the point of that? But if this fetus was dearly loved by its parents that is already a life of moral significance, even if it is a life in which the person did not have the opportunity to develop moral agency.

      I think those who promote the problem of evil often do so based on a very dubious individualism that views the problem wholly in the terms of suffering experienced by and benefits accrued to each distinct individual. I would challenge that assumption with a little John Donne:

      No man is an island entire of itself; every man
      is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
      if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
      is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
      well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
      own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
      because I am involved in mankind.
      And therefore never send to know for whom
      the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

      • Daniel Wilcox

        ?
        How would an infant born missing its brain contribute to the good?!
        Or for that matter the Holocaust or the tornadoes which have killed hundreds in the last several years?
        Or the Black Death?

        Randal, I’m getting lost. Generally, you’ve seemed to support a non-deterministic view of existence, but recently some of your statements sound more like the dark side;-)

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          You have presented a statement of personal incredulity. If you want to present a defeater to the existence of God based on the evil in the world, you need to do more than that. You need to present an argument for why others should share your incredulity. And that requires you to take note of the argument presented in skeptical theism whilst pointing out alleged flaws in it.

          • Daniel Wilcox

            ? Why do you think I “want to present a defeater to the existence of God”?
            I’m a convinced theist. If there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to existence, I don’t think evil can exist as I have tried to explain to atheists. Then things just happen.

            My questions and confusion are about the seeming treatment of the miscarriage (and other tragedies such as I mentioned)
            as “good” sounds too much like the arguments I’ve gotten from Calvinists who claim (insert evils) are for the ultimate good.

            But obviously I wasn’t clear. I’ll go back and do my homework before jumping in again.

      • john (adj)

        RR: that infant’s life could contribute to the moral formation of other people.

        So, a use to an end? Could that “moral formation of other people” have been brought about by any other means? Seemingly, if yes, gratuitous evil. If no, non-omnipotence.

        • Kerk

          Most likely no, it couldn’t. And it also most likely falls withing logical impossibility.

  • Jeff

    Nice discussion Randal! Your response at the end to Rowe’s reductio was a nice response, I thought. And I agree with you that open theism doesn’t help much–I was surprised that Wielenberg didn’t mention that or hasn’t picked up on that.

    I’m looking forward to part 2, because I think that’s where the meat of the discussion lies, and I haven’t yet heard you carefully address the issue of skeptical theism bleeding in to a wider and debilitating skepticism. The Wielenberg interview was excellent for the most part, although two quibbles with it (I’m getting a little ahead here–maybe just some food for thought for you as you prepare part 2):

    1) It seems to me that the skepticism borne of skeptical theism is all-devouring. That it potentially devours all claims to knowledge about God, and even claims to knowledge at all, on theism. I understand why in a relatively short interview, Wielenberg chose to focus on one or two (one, mostly) specific implication of skeptical theism, but I think he could have at least mentioned (assuming he would agree with me here) the all-encompassing nature of the problem skeptical theism poses for theism.

    2) I wasn’t sure what to make of his long discussion about revelatory history, ie, examining specific biblical data in order to find instances of alleged divine deception in the Bible. He seems to think this is a really important project, but it seems to me that it’s not relevant, that claims to divine revelation can’t even get off the ground in the first place. Would he disagree with me on that point, or is he simply saying that such a discussion might contribute to the persuasive force of the argument for those who are committed to biblical inspiration?

    One other thought for now: Wielenberg briefly discussed the implication of alleged moral paralysis on thesim, and I know you’ve written about that in response to Stephen Maitzen. One point Wielenberg didn’t mention, which I’m sure you will, is the potential good to be gained in the very act of helping someone in distress. Which is a good point, although as Maitzen has mentioned–and I don’t recall you addressing–the more severe the case of suffering for Smith and the easier the alleviation of that suffering by Jones, it becomes very difficult to see how Jones’ simple intervention could possibly function as a great enough good to outweigh the severe suffering of Smith. Meaning that Jones, on theism, has a very strong reason to think that Smith’s suffering ought not be alleviated, because it must somehow serve to bring about a very great good which makes the comparatively very small good of Jones’ potential intervention utterly pale in comparison. An example that one of your readers gave a few months back was of a toddler whose parents had overdosed and died, leaving him to die slowly and agonizingly of starvation/dehydration over the next several days. Surely if someone had discovered that poor boy before it was too late, their relatively simple act of intervention could hardly have served as a great enough good to outweigh the severe evil of the physical and emotional suffering of the boy. So paradoxically, someone discovering that boy would have had every reason to refrain from intervening, on a theistic view. And, suffice it to say, I think all of us would be horrified by such a (lack of) response.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Good comments. We’ll be covering much of this ground in part 2, so I’ll defer further commentary for now.

  • D Rizdek

    Why do theists (Christian mostly, I take it) discuss amongst themselves the problem of evil/suffering? I mean, practically speaking you’re only able to guess at the solution, right? Unless you believe you are getting the specific correct answers from, say, the Bible, or via direct inspiration from God. Is it that you are uncomfortable and hope to satisfy yourselves that your beliefs are still viable? Or is it that while YOU personally are not seriously challenged, you believe others might be and you want to proffer you guesses at why such suffering is compatible so THEY won’t be led astray into atheism? Or do you think there are atheists out there who, if only someone could explain it a bit better, would return to a form of God belief?

    • Walter

      The problem of evil/suffering has been called “the rock of atheism.” It is likely the single largest stumbling block against belief in a personal, loving and all-powerful god. So you can certainly see why religious apologists would be highly motivated to posit some kind of answer as to why the universe you live in appears utterly indifferent to your physical and emotional pain, yet at the same time an omnipotent deity still cares for you deeply as an individual. Many have fallen away from religious faith due to the POE.

      • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

        And many more have been drawn to or sustained in religious faith due to the POE.

        • D Rizdek

          See, I agree with this. I never thought the problem of suffering was a key to my atheism. So perhaps it’s important to you that you find the theodicies that are robust to “draw or sustain” religious faith?

          • Geoff

            God is the only hope we have in resolving the POE. There are no other options that provide compensation and justice for all the suffering.

            • D Rizdek

              Ok, I’ll bite. I see no problem of evil if there’s no God.

              • Geoff

                If there is no God, how will those who have suffered be compensated and restored? Or do you simply not have a problem if a child gets raped and killed without any hope for compensation, restoration or justice for that child?

                • Walter

                  A twelve year old girl gets tortured, raped, and brutally murdered by a sexual predator, how can resurrection alone compensate for having to experience such an extreme act of evil? And what if the girl’s murderer repents, dies, and is resurrected right alongside his victim — has justice been served?

                  • Geoff

                    “how can resurrection alone compensate for having to experience such an extreme act of evil?”

                    Who says she’ll be only resurrected with no other compensation? Also, remember what you’re contrasting this to – no resurrection, no compensation, no justice of any kind under an atheistic view.

                    “And what if the girl’s murderer repents, dies, and is resurrected right alongside his victim — has justice been served?”

                    That’s a very good question and I absolutely share your concern. Personally I believe the killer/rapist will have to go through God’s fire and face the ramifications of his sin, experience great remorse, sincerely seek forgiveness if he hasn’t already done so on earth, and truly repent before entering heaven. In fact I believe everyone will have to go through God’s refining fire after death. Who knows what that looks like or how long it lasts but I leave it to God to sort out the details and know that as a perfect being, He will set things right, otherwise He’s not God.

                    Let me ask you this, is it better for the victim that her killer simply be destroyed and never truly feel great remorse, regret, and earnestly seek forgiveness for what he did?

                • D Rizdek

                  Come on, I do have a problem with the horror you described. And no, I don’t have answers about how it can be reconciled with my worldview

                  I don’t think there’s a God, but even if I did, I’m not sure how I’d reconcile a God looking on as it happened. Do you picture a healthy powerful guy standing there watching it and doing nothing? Somehow I can’t…especially if it was her father…whether earthly or heavenly.

                  Whether one takes them literally or figuratively, there are examples in the Bible of how God involved himself in things to thwart wrongdoers and influence outcomes without actually influencing freewill.

                  But OTOH, I can see how, if someone is convinced there IS a God, and if somehow you can reconcile such tragedies with this God’s nature, then perhaps you find some solace that the girl will eventually be made to feel better, be compensated and restored. And I’m not being facetious.

                  Like I’ve said, the problems associated with suffering aren’t why I’m an atheist. There are other stronger reasons. But I do like to hear folks explanations of how they merge a good God’s nature with the suffering in the world and how it improves the world for them. Thanks.

                  • Geoff

                    Come on, I do have a problem with the horror you described. And no, I don’t have answers about how it can be reconciled with my worldview.

                    Thanks for your honesty. So do you retract your statement “I see no problem of evil if there’s no God.” As you can see there certainly is a problem of evil whether God exists or not and your worldview does nothing to resolve it.

                    I don’t think there’s a God, but even if I did, I’m not sure how I’d reconcile a God looking on as it happened. Do you picture a healthy powerful guy standing there watching it and doing nothing? Somehow I can’t…especially if it was her father…whether earthly or heavenly.

                    I completely empathize with this, thus this whole discussion on the POE. I also can’t understand why God allows these atrocities to happen. I think free-will is largely involved here but is it really worth the price of such suffering? I can’t answer that. And yet I hope for restitution for this child, restitution that only God can provide.

                    Like I’ve said, the problems associated with suffering aren’t why I’m an atheist. There are other stronger reasons.

                    Please do share some of these other reasons. BTW, I truly appreciate your openness and honest sincere responses.

                    • D Rizdek

                      I’m working on a reply{:

                    • D Rizdek

                      Let me start out with the last point…it’s the least painful{:

                      The reason I’m an atheist is that I’ve not proven to myself there is a God. It’s not an argument against the existence of God, but it is the reason I remain an atheist.

                      Now to the other issue. I guess I have to retract my statement that I don’t have a problem with evil. I could equivocate and claim my “problem” is with suffering and is different than what is connotated by the moral problem of evil, but why bother? You got me! I’d rather maintain my sensitivity to my fellow man and other creatures who suffer than pretend it doesn’t bother me or rationalize it away.

                      So here’s how I see it. I can’t assure myself, or folks who suffer, that they’ll be adequately compensated (for want of a better word) for their troubles. I don’t think the universe is just, it just doesn’t seem to be. So, and I think someone actually suggested this, this might mean I, an atheist who cares, is more troubled by the suffering in the world than the theist who also cares but has resolved the conflict in their mind by believing a just God wouldn’t allow injustice to reign long-term. Have I got that right? And have I chosen the greater problem with suffering by assigning myself the burden of proof for believing in a God?

                      OTOH, I don’t need to justify in my mind the perplexing behavior of a God I believe in, serve and love, and who is supposed to be, among other things, completely just and completely compassionate. I don’t have to wonder how in the world a God who was smart enough to create a universe that worked, couldn’t make it work without this level of suffering. I don’t pray and ask for favors from a God who is simultaneously looking on as others, whose needs are far greater, are screaming for his help. As a theist of a personal God, I could expect some sort of answer to my and everyone else’s prayer. Of course that answer could be yes, no or wait a while. (That’s Biblical..because it’s true, right{:?) So me getting that promotion that I pray for might not be in my best interest right now and a “no, wait a while” would be better. Or that flat tire I have on the way to work will teach me patience. But I also have to imagine his answer to the girl being held down and raped repeatedly, screaming her prayers for help, would be…what?

                      -No (I”m gentleman and cannot intervene because his freewill to have his way with you seems more important to me than your freewill to not be had his way. I won’t even give him a limp willy on your behalf.)

                      -Wait a while, (I know you’re suffering now, I am too, but I’ll make you and me feel better later)?

                      Is THAT is the peace of mind I’m missing out on? I can tell you, from this perspective, it’s not a great incentive.

                      But academically I’m interested in how this remediation of justice might work. I realize you can just say that God will figure it out and then rest assured he will, but for the sake of discussion, would you mind thinking with me how it would play out, at least in principle?

                      Those of you who win a reward in an afterlife because of your dedication to/belief in Jesus will have have great peace of mind, right? He will “wash away all tears.” The abused girl will have great peace of mind. She won’t be crying anymore. But SHE will have suffered horrible abuse that you didn’t (HOPEFULLY…there are some here who haven’t suffered the equivalent of 20+ years of torture and rape.)

                      It seems “in principle,” if justice is to reign in the end, there would have to be enough compensation (whatever that entails) that this girl (let’s take the case where the daughter was kept in the basement for 20+ years and repeatedly raped by the father and even bore him children while he lived with his wife upstairs) will FEEL, (let’s don’t quibble over the exact sensation/feeling/state of mind) in the peacefulness of her spiritual mind, as if it never happened…NOT that she won’t remember, but somehow the balance of her peace of mind would have to be on a par with those of you who will also be rewarded/compensated by God but who DID NOT suffer the years of torture and abuse and for those who weren’t even aware of it. Are you with me so far?

                      Could that mean somehow the amount of compensation (again, for want of a better word) by God will be greater than the compensation to the average nonsuffering Christian who is rewarded in the regular way, you know, “coach class instead of first class?” I mean it wouldn’t be sufficient for God to miraculouslly and arbitrarily remove the mental pain, anger and humiliation such an experience caused, would it? To me, that would leave the injustice untouched…it still happened, she just doesn’t remember it as being painful. At the least, God still remembers it as painful, so justice to him has not been served…unless causing equal suffering by the perpetrator makes God feel justice has been served. And if it’s just making the pain go away, I can promise her that with my worldview.

                      Perhaps it would involve HER, God and everyone else incensed by it, seeing him and every other tormentor likewise tormented? You know, like the relief that the victim of assault might feel when the attacker is caught, brought to justice and found guilty. Even if that gave her peace of mind, the injustice still occurred and has not been resolved. IOW, punishing the wrong-doer is called justice by society, but it doesn’t serve as justice for the victim, does it?

                      If I was to resolve it in my mind…you know if I met the burden of proof and decided to believe in a God again and won eternal reward for it, I’d have to imagine that MY mental state during my eternity in “heaven” will make it feel to me as if I’d been abused and tortured as much as the victim whose suffered the most. In principle, MY reward should be that much less than hers. I mean for justice to be served, the balance sheets of suffering vs well-being would have to match, wouldn’t they?

                      Sorry for the delay, but it’s hard to find words to admit being wrong{:

        • Walter

          No doubt. Our suffering might seem a little more tolerable if we are convinced that it serves a greater purpose, rather than just being a consequence of random happenstance.

          • Geoff

            Or that there will be real compensation and justice for all the suffering and injustice.

          • D Rizdek

            You bring up an odd perspective. Maybe YOUR suffering has been immense, chronic and multifaceted. I dunno. But I’ve not suffered much at all. If it was JUST my life as the standard, the problem of evil would be no problem at all. I could easily reconcile any discomforts I’ve experienced with a good God. But it’s not about me. Let me emphasize, IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.

            • Walter

              Bart Ehrman once quipped that the hardest job he faced as a teacher was convincing his young students that suffering really does exist in the world.

              “You bring up an odd perspective.”

              Hypothetical situation: You lose a child to disease or accident. The emotional suffering from your loss is staggering. Some will take comfort in the fact that the event was not caused by a personal agent; it was simply an unlucky roll of the dice in a chaotic and uncaring reality. Bad luck, nothing more.

              Others will find solace in the belief that while a personal agent *was* responsible for the death of their child, the agent responsible is supremely benevolent and had a good reason for doing what “he” did. Group B will also often have a robust belief in an afterlife where they are likely to be reunited with the child, which also can serve to mitigate their suffering a little.

              • D Rizdek

                Yes, some live in a protected bubble. Perhaps they should have read some Michener books before taking that course.

      • RonH

        Christians have a Problem of Evil, true. But atheists have the Problem of the Problem of Evil. Namely, if there is no god, then “evil” isn’t a “problem” at all — just an empty human projection on an entirely natural process. Cats torturing rodents… hyenas eating a zebra alive… humans massacring other humans. Competing for resources is what animals do. It’s what they’re born to do. They cannot help but act according to their nature. It isn’t evil, it simply is.

        A Christian has to wrestle with why God allows a little girl to die horribly of cancer. An atheist has to wrestle with why he hates admitting that little girls dying of cancer is neither unfair nor tragic nor evil, but just evolution happening in an indifferent universe.

        • Luke Breuer

          I really want to see this claim of yours tackled by a serious atheist/skeptic. Right now, I feel like I agree too strongly with you, without seeing a sufficiently strong attempt to argue against your point. So far, I see the argument as this:

          Atheist: I have no explanation for what is often called ‘evil’ other than evolution.
          Christian: Let me try and give a model which explains more and pushes us toward specific action (e.g. 2 Cor 5:11-6:13).
          Atheist: No, that model doesn’t work, it has too many problems, like gratuitous evil.
          Christian: Why are you allowed gratuitous evil, but I am not allowed irreducible complexity? (details)
          Atheist: ???

          I don’t know what comes next in the argument; maybe nothing, but maybe something? I do think it is vitally important to claim that the Christian model really does provide a more powerful model, and fire back one of the most powerful pro-evolution arguments I encountered when I was a creationist and when I was an ID advocate: “Until you give us a better model, we’ll stick with the current one despite its problems.”

          • Walter

            Ron offered a well written and sober assessment of the problem facing both sides that typically engage in these discussions. But what if there are other options on the table that don’t fit neatly into atheistic or abrahamic
            monotheistic assumptions about reality? I can think of several scenarios (or models as you would say) that might account for the observable data, but they would be considered heretical by western religious adherents and as woo by naturalists. Saying that our only options are western-style Perfect Being theology or naturalism IMHO is a false dichotomy.

            • Luke Breuer

              Oh, I didn’t mean to say that there are only two options. This Hermeneutics.SE comment on Isaiah 45:7 shows how one can read God “creating evil” as a refutation of Zoroastrian theology, which is dualistic.

            • D Rizdek

              Oh, I often think about a God that isn’t all that interested in our well being. Why not? He/it wouldn’t have to be evil, just so far advanced that to him we are as bacteria are to us. How many of you have nonchalantly used antiseptic (not anti sceptic) and happily destroyed whole civilizations of bacteria to make your bathroom smell better. You don’t consider yourself evil for doing so…do you?

              It seems far more likely whatever God there is is far more interested in empty space, black holes and supernovae than the few barely sentient bipeds who toddle and stagger across the earth in their “short, pointless lives.” (I think that’s the quote from MIB) To him these celestial phenomena might be far more interesting. Perhaps it’s all about testing the various ways his fine tuning constants will materialize into matter/energy and which ones allow life to form naturally…you know kind of like a wager with himself. How many times does he have to create a universe, randomly generating the cosmological constants, to get life. He keeps score. It’s not a deist God, that doesn’t care at all…it just doesn’t happen to care about us. And perhaps any effort on my part to communicate with it make it uncomfortable and I’d be better of keeping my mind off it…just kidding.

              • RonH

                To him these celestial phenomena might be far more interesting.

                Why? I have difficulty imagining a conscious being that would prefer inanimate matter to other consciousness. Even a scientist who probes the most bizarre astronomical phenomena all day long wants someone to go to the pub with afterwards to talk about it.

                Consciousness is by far the most interesting thing in the universe, because consciousness is the only thing that is ever interested. No black hole ever showed the slightest bit of curiosity in anything.

                Sure, God may have made an awful lot of stuff. But any five-year-old knows that the best part of making something is showing it to someone else.

                • Walter

                  The problem that I have with this view is the belief that an infinite being created us because “he” wanted some buddies. Think of the cognitive differences between yourself as a human being and let’s say a frog. Now imagine how much more of a difference there would be between an infinite or near-infinite mind and your own. If you had the power to create something like a frog, would you seek a relationship with it? As a pet maybe, but not as a peer. If a monotheistic deity truly exists, I seriously doubt he/she/it wants to chum around with you after you die.

                  This is one of the big problems I have with the Christian religion in particular: the tendency to anthropomorphize God into some kind of uber-human who just wants to chill with us in the Great Beyond.

                  • RonH

                    The problem that I have with this view is the belief that an infinite being created us because “he” wanted some buddies.

                    Hey, Walter, that isn’t what I said. You’ve got to learn to start having conversations with other people instead of the puppets you make of them in your head. For example, if I were doing this to you, it would go something like: “The trouble I have with your deistic view, Walter, is that its god is an irresponsible deadbeat dickhead with ADD who farts universes full of suffering but can’t be bothered to clean up after himself.”

                    (If you want a discussion, try to have enough respect for opposing views to get through an exchange without caricaturing. Otherwise, I’m happy to stick you in the kill file with Derek and his other incarnations.)

                    My point is that as conscious beings, we are more like God (if he exists) than anything else in the universe. If you think a God couldn’t possibly be interested in humans, then there’s even less reason to think he would be interested in black holes, dark matter, or neutron stars. Even we know this — the Holy Grail for any astronomer would be conclusive evidence of conscious life somewhere else.

                    Cognitively, I’m way, way ahead of my five-year-old. But that doesn’t mean he’s not interesting, that I don’t care about him, or that I don’t desire to help him develop into something bigger.

                    • Walter

                      Hey, Walter, that isn’t what I said. You’ve got to learn to start having conversations with other people instead of the puppets you make of them in your head.

                      Here is what you said:

                      Even a scientist who probes the most bizarre astronomical phenomena all day long wants someone to go to the pub with afterwards to talk about it.

                      A scientist wants to talk with *peers* about his accomplishments. Your analogy suggests that God is interested in creating conscious life so as to have a relationship with created beings as a peers.

                      Sure, God may have made an awful lot of stuff. But any five-year-old knows that the best part of making something is showing it to someone else.

                      This would be like me wanting to show off a supercomputer I built to a an artificial frog that I also created. The frog can never truly understand or appreciate what I am and what I have done.

                      You see. Ron, I am not pulling this stuff out of thin air, I am responding to the gist of your comments. And you are reacting in your typical overly abrasive fashion. I upvote you when I agree with you, and I respond with commentary when I don’t. Put me in your “ignore” file if you want, it won’t stop me from responding to comments that I don’t agree with.

                    • RonH

                      A scientist wants to talk with *peers* about his accomplishments.

                      Not necessarily. But he wants to talk with someone. Talking about my day with my kids is much more pleasant than talking to nobody, even though my kids can’t hope to understand the type of work I do. They are conscious, and can interact in a way that nothing else in the universe can.

                      The frog can never truly understand or appreciate what I am and what I have done.

                      Of course not. Because frogs aren’t conscious enough to appreciate what you’ve done. But that’d be your own fault for making a stupid frog. Now, if you created an AI system that was fully conscious, showing off your supercomputer would make sense. And it might even be interesting to see what the AI thought about it…

                      You keep emphasizing that unless we’re intellectual peers of God, it makes no sense for God to interact with us; and, in fact, God would naturally find the inanimate parts of the universe more interesting. But it doesn’t follow at all that just because there’s a gap between us and God, there can be no meaningful relationship. There’s a gap between me and my kids. There’s a gap between a scientist and his early iterations of an AI. So? What makes those things interesting is the potential for that gap to diminish over time.

                      My point was that even we find other consciousness more interesting than the rest of the inanimate universe. Why you find it likely that another, bigger consciousness would be totally enthralled by mechanistic stellar phenomena (which he of course already understands completely) over other conscious beings seems to me to be quite ad hoc. And, of course, entirely unsupported by any evidence. (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

                    • Walter


                      “A scientist wants to talk with *peers* about his accomplishments.”

                      Not necessarily. But he wants to talk with someone. Talking about my day with my kids is much more pleasant than talking to nobody…

                      A fellow human being who is not a scientist may not be on an exact intellectual par, but he or she is still something of a peer — the same to a lesser extent with children. The difference in cognitive abilities between a human child and an adult pale to insignificance in comparison to the difference between my or your mind and the mind of an infinite being.

                      Why you find it likely that another, bigger consciousness would be totally enthralled by mechanistic stellar phenomena (which he of course already understands completely) over other conscious beings seems to me to be quite ad hoc.

                      That was Rizdek’s hypothetical, not mine.

                    • RonH

                      That was Rizdek’s hypothetical, not mine.

                      But your perspective isn’t substantially different. As I understand your view, God exists but either 1) doesn’t want to communicate with us; or 2) we are incapable of understanding him when he does due to the unfathomable differences between our minds. Of course, if God is so infinitely beyond us, then how can you be so sure he has no desire to communicate, or that he couldn’t find a way to do it that we would understand? You may not be able to imagine an answer to that question, but… well… God is infinitely beyond you and so probably has a better imagination.

                      If a conscious being is responsible for the universe, I don’t find it at all unreasonable to think that: 1) other consciousness in the universe would be the most interesting thing about our universe to that being; 2) consciousness naturally engages other consciousness (even if the cognitive gap is large — we try to talk to chimps, dolphins, orcas, etc.); 3) a mind capable of creating a consciousness-producing universe is probably smart enough to figure out a way to interact with the other consciousness in it.

                    • Walter

                      But your perspective isn’t substantially different

                      Although I label myself as deist, I have an agnostic streak a mile wide. Be careful not to pigeonhole me into a certain category of believer based upon possible misconceptions about what deists have historically espoused. The modern conception of deism as belief in a God who went on an eternal smoke break after the act of creation is likely not the view that dominated deistic thought for centuries. Thomas Paine accepted belief in a personal God who was a moral law-giver and one who judged man not by what creeds he affirmed but by what deeds he performed.

                      Most religionists believe that this universe is all about us — we are the supposed pinnacle of creation. But what if we are nothing more than supporting cast, transitional evolutionary forms progressing to something far greater than ourselves? We might be nothing more than smart animals with delusions of importance in the Grand Scheme. So, no, I don’t contend that God has a fascination with black holes.

                • D Rizdek

                  Yes, I see where you’re coming from.

                • D Rizdek

                  you post many nonsequitors.

                  YOU have difficulty imagining. That’s ok.

                  A scientist wants to share what he finds interesting. He finds astronomical phenomena interesting. Are you suggesting they wouldn’t do it if they couldn’t discuss it with anyone? Maybe some wouldn’t but there’s no reason to think that would always be the case. Besides, human’s aren’t God. Who knows what motivates a being who had to live alone in spacelessness and timelessness before creating us humans with our mediocre abilities?

                  Consciousness might be by far the most interesting to you and maybe even me, but why does that mean it would be the most interesting to a God to whom consciousness is something he was “born with?” Do you have any basis that it is the MOST important thing to God?

                  What does, “No black hole ever showed the slightest bit of curiosity in anything,” have to do with it?

                  Are you comparing God to a 5-yr old? That might explain his many temper tantrums{:

                  • RonH

                    Look, if you think it is more likely that a conscious being would be more interested in inanimate matter than other consciousness…. well… okay then. That really doesn’t make any sense to me, given that we as conscious beings certainly don’t work that way, and that’s all I have to generalize from.

                    But you don’t believe God exists anyway. So, frankly, your observations about what he would be like if he did are largely pointless, eh? And no more informed than mine are…

                    • D Rizdek

                      Perhaps not pointless. Perhaps I’ll find God by looking at the perspective differently. How did you find God?

        • D Rizdek

          Not sure if I qualify as a serious atheist/skeptic Luke ({:), but I’ll chime in here.

          I think it’s important to state the complete problem. It’s not just a problem of evil…it’s problem of evil as an outcome of a purposeful creation. On the surface it makes the designer seem uncaring or incompetent. And THAT problem of evil does go away once the idea of a God that actually cares about humans/animals etc. is not a part of my worldview.

          But I’m not sure what you mean by “wrestle with why he hates admitting that little girls dying of cancer is neither unfair nor tragic nor evil, just evolution happening in a different universe.”

          Why would I have to admit that a child dying of cancer, a helpless fawn burning in a forest fire or even a child being neglected by his parents is not tragic? I do so on the basis that I have feelings and a basic desire (whether built in or learned) to not have other creatures capable of suffering suffer. Even IF my feelings are completely subjective and if someone else coldly sees it as the inevitable outcome of hard evolution, I see these events and many more like them as tragic. Do you think that just because I’m an atheist, I have no more feelings?
          As far as unfair, it is a less precise feeling. Certainly if the “cancer” in this case was due to environmental conditions due to ignorance or poverty, I might see it as unfair that this girl couldn’t be provided (by society, her folks, the govt, whatever) with a safe environment with good health care. But I don’t see the cancer itself in terms of fairness. The uncomfortable feeling I have as I watch a nature show about a pack of wolves bringing down a small bleating fawn as it runs and stumbles while its mother looks on is not a puzzle to me. Why shouldn’t I feel some sort of tenderness toward it. OTOH, I am astute and practical enough to also realize that those wolves have hungry babies in a den somewhere and they have to kill everyday just to raise them. Those are personal subjective observations that are not influenced one way or another by my worldview. Perhaps you don’t fully understand what it might mean to be totally and absolutely without a god belief? I’m exactly like you except I really don’t think there is a god.
          As far as evil, some equate evil with suffering. I generally don’t. I don’t see the need. So, in my world there really isn’t evil except as kind of a code for some peoples wrong, hateful, or hurtful behavior. Another topic. But cancer isn’t evil.

          I freely admit that are other quandaries I have trouble dealing with with an atheist worldview, but the problem with the problem of evil simply isn’t one of them as far as I can tell. Perhaps with further discussion, I’ll see the problem.

          • RonH

            Hi, D. Thanks for the reply.

            The problem of evil does not necessitate that God is uncaring or incompetent. I admit that the problem of evil is a problem. But it’s not an insoluable one.

            But, anyways. On to the problem of the problem of evil. Or, rather, let’s call it the problem of suffering, since “evil” is a loaded and possibly even ambiguous term. I think “suffering” is a little more concrete. For the problem of suffering to have fangs, it requires a few assumptions: a) God is good; b) God is all powerful; c) suffering is bad. Suffering (which is bad) exists, therefore God must be one or more of “not good” or “not all-powerful”. The theist’s problem is reconciling c with a and b — and he has his work cut out for him. But the atheist’s problem is justifying c. In order for suffering to be a problem for the theist, suffering must be bad. And the atheist has no rational basis for claiming so. Evolution is itself a story of suffering. Living beings compete for resources — they must compete for resources. For some to live, others — even most — must suffer. Tectonic activity, though responsible for great disasters like tunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes, is on some theories necessary for life on earth. Genetic mutation, that which gives natural selection something interesting on which to operate, is also responsible for cancer, birth defects, and all kinds of horrors. You are here because of an unending line of suffering. You continue to survive because other creatures — including other humans — are deprived of resources they need for their own survival. To say that suffering shouldn’t occur is to say that you shouldn’t have occurred. To say that suffering should be stopped is to say that you should be stopped, since suffering is necessary for your continued existence. (Of course, you suffer for the existence of others, so there is a certain perverse balancing of the scales…)

            Suffering is bad? Posh. The honest truth is that suffering simply is. The universe is indifferent to it, and we are after all just part of the universe. It is most rational for us to be indifferent to it as well. Oh, sure, a community is more adapted to survival if a certain degree of altruism is present. That you have an instinct to help (at least some of) the creatures you see around you has clear benefits, and evolution has selected for such feelings. But that’s all they are: feelings, instincts. They’re not rational. They evolved in a world where the only suffering creatures you could see or help were the ones right around you, and thus the ones that directly affected your survival. They didn’t evolve in a world where you could see the suffering of children in Rwanda or lepers in Calcutta or polar bears in the Arctic Circle, all of which can suffer and die without impinging on you in any way. In fact, you reduce the likelihood of your own survival if you start channelling resources to help them, since there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. Money is far better spent on a space program to open up other planets for our habitation, or transhumanism to adapt us to more efficient use of existing resources. Either way, fewer humans or polar bears or whatever isn’t a problem on the long view.

            Both reason and science tell you that suffering isn’t “bad” at all. It’s totally neutral, like gravity or lightning. The problem the atheist has is his inability to accept this… to live rationally consistent with his own commitment to reason and science as the final arbiters of truth. Deep down, we know that suffering is bad. We know that people shouldn’t exploit others. We know that the weak aren’t simply fodder for the strong. We know that it is wrong for some to have more until all have had some. But the honest, consistent atheist also knows that all that “knowing” is just illusion, and has no basis in any truth derived from reason or science.

            For the problem of suffering to have teeth, the atheist must grant that suffering is bad in the first place. In doing so, he abandons the all-sufficient explanatory power of science and naturalism, and saws off the branch on which he stands. But to give up the premise that suffering is bad is to neutralize the problem of suffering by admitting it isn’t actually a problem after all.

            I know suffering is bad. But if there is a bad, then there also is a good. My senses of goodness, purpose, meaning, gratitude… All these intuitions point me inevitably towards a transcendance. To give up the transcendance is to give up all the intuitions that form the very core of who I am — that make me human — and that make life meaningful. That is too high a price to pay. So I’ll happily keep the transcendance and wrestle with the problem of evil. If nothing else, evolution made me (and the rest of the species) this way. Might as well go with it, eh? Survival advantage, and all that stuff…

            (Incidentally, for atheists to say that God could have created a world of independent creatures without suffering, and therefore must not exist since he didn’t, is really so much handwaving. I’ve yet to have an atheist explain how such a world would actually work. How do you create conscious beings without time, space, and evolution? But how could you have time, space, and evolution where fire can’t burn and radiation can’t mutate DNA and resources are infinite? It’s an interesting thought experiment.)

            Cheers…

            • D Rizdek

              Good post! So many points on which to comment. I am surely not addressing everything you’ve said that I would like to comment on.

              -Some intital things.

              -I am certainly not here to talk anyone out of their God belief. If that is the way you can remain sensitive, then that’s good.

              -The problem of evil is not why I’m an atheist. I don’t think it proves that there isn’t a God. There are theodicies galore that I could pick and choose from.

              -And finally, I don’t have all the answers in my atheist worldview.

              Now…

              What is your RATIONALE for thinking unnecessary suffering is, in general, bad? Or are you saying that even you don’t have a rationale per se but that you just “feel” it is bad and since you have this feeling that you have decided could NOT have come from natural causes, it must be from a transcendant cause? I’m just trying to clarify.

              Let me ask another personal question. You sound like you might’ve dabbled in some sort of atheism. If so, what thought process led you to that conclusion? And what thought process led you back to theism? And was the form of theism you came back to different than what you had before you became an atheist? IF so, how was it different? If you’ve never been an atheist I apoligize for the presumptive questions.

              “For the problem of suffering to have teeth, the atheist must grant that suffering is bad in the first place. In doing so, he abandons the all-sufficient explanatory power of science and naturalism, and saws off the branch on which he stands. But to give up the premise that suffering is bad is to neutralize the problem of suffering by admitting it isn’t actually a problem after all.”

              ?

              There’s so much in your paragraph.

              ?

              What do you mean, for the problem of suffering to have teeth? In another post, I retracted the statement that I don’t have a “problem” with suffering in that it bothers me, I wish it didn’t happen and I do things to reduce suffering of my fellow man and other creatures. Do I actually have to have a rationale for that feeling to be real? Do I have to have a rationale to love, to hate, to be in awe/wonder at natural phenomena? I think your answer is no, those feelings can only come from a transcendant cause. So by definition, if those feelings exist, you contend that automatically points to a transcendent cause whether one believes in one or not. So how is actually believing in the transcendant cause important if those feelings are going to be there anyways? I mean, I don’t understand it all that much, but there are probably some pretty important things the Higgs field does for us everyday, every minute. Perhaps it might’ve been impossible for the universe to expand the way it has without it. I dunno. But does my belief in it matter? I’d never heard about it 10 years ago…but I still enjoyed a universe in which it’s influcence was essential. If I enjoy the benefits of what a transcendent cause (that I can’t sense) implanted in my mind, why need I form some belief in it if I imagine that those benefits accrued naturally? I mean you imagine that a just God will make up for innocent suffering on earth, but that’s an assumption based on your faith in the kind of God he is, not on any substantial evidence (that I can see.) I mean I don’t think you’ve seen it happen, have you? I mean there probably are some cases where someone’s suffered and it has somehow benefitted them later in life…but I think that’s not what we’ve been talking about, is it? IF so, I can promise those kinds of compensations with my worldview.

              But on to how a person who thinks the natural world is all that is can also feel bad about suffering and believe science and reason can explain why some actions are either moving folks toward a state of maximum well-being for the most or toward a state of maximum misery for the most. I agree, science and reason can’t tell me WHY it is important to me personally, but it can help me think about what might tend to move me or a group one way or another. And I can easily think of why brutal rape and mass murder don’t move individuals or societies TOWARD a state of maximum well-being for the most people and can judge it wrong on that basis, can’t you? Do I need a rationale to say I care? Or are you saying you just can’t think of a way for a purely material universe to EVER produce such feeling in creatures…even non-human but conscious and intelligent creatures?

              I think evolution has helped us develop into social creatures with sense of fairness and a desire for well-being. In fact, I doubt intelligent sentient creatures could even evolve without it. So, at least for me, I’m comfortable with a) a physical universe, b) no transcendent causes/influences c) a belief that there is real good and bad in the world and that d) I can make sensible statments about them.

              I think I can feel bad about someone whose economic basis is crap. And based on that feeling, why can’t I say someone is making bad (undesireable if they want the positive outcome of a solid economic basis) decisions about how they use their money? (Economic) science can’t tell me why someone should want a solid economic basis, but it can tell me that some decisions move away from/toward such a basis. And that feeling is MORE than just a casual reference to cause and effect and a desired outcome. I truly feel bad for folks I see who are making bad decisions with their money. My wife and I have an acquaintance who is doing that right now. We SEE that she is unhappy and a lot of it is due to her lack of money. But we also see that she is making some pretty bad decisions with her money. She is taking expensive courses in an area we both think she can never make a career. She trusts and associates with folks we think she shouldn’t trust in money matters. She bought a car when we both thought she simply didn’t have the need and certainly didn’t have the money. Now, the cost of having that car is such that she has to find a second job to pay for the car that was supposed to give her more free time! Why can’t I see those as bad decisions and feel deeply that her life is more miserable because of them without a transcendant cause? Are you saying a purely physical universe can’t even produce a person who feels bad about things, with or without a reason?

              I think I can have feelings about health and well-being. Can’t I say I’m probably not doing everything I can to maintain my own health and fitness and define those things that aren’t helping as “bad,” if my goal is good health and fitness, without a transcendent cause? Can’t I even feel bad about some folks who seem to obviously making some really bad decisions (with drugs, alcohol and even poor eating habits) without a transcendent cause? Do your attitudes toward well-being stem from a transcendental cause? Medical and fitness science can’t tell me that I SHOULD want to be healthy, but if I want to be, science can help me move in that direction. And if these things can be addressed by science and reason, why couldn’t I reason out that causing unnecessary suffering is bad based on a desire for the maximum well-being of the most people?

              And NO I don’t have to define “well-being” completely and specifically to have a general feeling that some actions seem to move folks in one direction vs the other. Just as I don’t have to have a specific definition of what constitutes excellent health or a solid economic base that applies to everyone everywhere. Do you think you have a specific definition of what well-rounded good living is? And I don’t mean just that someone loves Jesus and does his will, but that they are making good decisions in every area of their lives (recreation, fitness, health, financial, domestic, etc) to maximize their well-being and the well-being of others.

              Your thought experiment? Why isn’t heaven the answer? Or why wouldn’t it be the Garden of Eden before disobedience caused it to somehow collapse or without a God designing it so that sin WOULD cause some sort of collapse? Even if it is fictional, it represents a state that is imagineable and, it seems to me, possible for an omnipotent God. He could have made it resistant to sin such that each person had the choice Adam and Eve had…to “bite the apple” figuratively speaking and either move away from or toward a closer walk with him of their own freewill. Certainly there could be degress of “following God” that don’t amount to a rabidly promiscuous and extremely hurtful life style vs a life style completely in line with everyone of his commandments. I think I’m evidence that there is.

              Why is a God limited to creating conscious beings only in a physical world? Certainly angels are thought to be conscious, sentient and have free will and they don’t depend on a physical world. And even if you don’t believe in angels or think they somehow need to be grounded in a physical world, certainly they represent an example of a God making such things without a physical world…don’t they? Doesn’t the human soul represent a sentient life form that transcends the physical world…at least it will after the bond between it and the physical body separates at death. Even God himself represents a conscious being with freewill living outside of time and space and without a physical body. Are you saying he couldn’t create sentient beings in that same realm and just “not make them gods?” And even if he wanted a physical world, why make it such that the only way for life to occur is that it be volatile? You say plate tectonics is necessary for life. Why? If a God can initiate the conditions/create life, he could make life able to be initiated without a volatile atmosphere or an unstable planet…couldn’t he? What is the logical or practical reason he couldn’t. It seems to me to have been a choice…perhaps a reasoned choice, but it was a choice not forced on him.

              And why was he limited to creating life through natural means instead of the way young earth creationists think he did it…zapping each life form into existence a few thousands of years ago on a planet he had prepared for them with all the appearance of age… NOT to be dishonest but simply to provide us natural looking surroundings so we’d be comfortable and find interesting things to explore and think about. It would be kind of like someone who prepares a good habitat for gorillas in a zoo instead of just a cement cage with iron bars. They don’t do it to be dishonest, do they? A world prepared as is by a God would completely eliminate the need for a volatile and unstable world. There’s no need for randomly hurtling celestial bodies that ocassionally plunge into earth’s atmosphere just to have life here…is there? There’s no need to create life such that some of the creatures have to prey on others. A God COULD, if he desired, create matter/energy and life itself such that it got ALL it’s energy from the sun, or from some other form of natural radiation that bombards the planet both night and day. Or he could have created some form of endless energy that WAS sufficient to support life without predation and without keeping animals in pens until we need to kill them or take their offspring. It is only the natural world that has to fit life into the laws of physics…God doesn’t.

              ?

              “But the honest, consistent atheist also knows that all that “knowing” is just illusion, and has no basis in any truth derived from reason or science.”

              So maybe that is the answer. See, I think an atheist can know things as well as any theist can, have real feelings and figure out good courses of action. But you must be suggesting I’m dishonest or inconsistent. If you think this way, there might be little else we can discuss. Thanks for the civil discourse.

              • RonH

                Hi, D. That was a lot to process.

                Of course, most of us feel that (at least most) suffering is bad. So if you see suffering, have compassion, and act to stop it, you’re not necessarily irrational for doing so. Nor do you necessarily need to know where that feeling comes from to justify action. If you don’t really go any further than that, fine. However, since evolution is pretty much mostly suffering most of the time, rationally we know that suffering isn’t really objectively “bad” (and was in fact necessary for own existence) — it’s just something to which we evolved an instinctive reaction.

                But how do we account for the instinct in the first place? Cooperation and reciprocal altruism within our immediate community is beneficial for survival, and many species have evolved those traits. But they are beneficial in that they enable communities to compete with other communities (and other species) — because ultimately evolution is always about competition. Given that I know this, while I may instinctively feel compassion for another creature, I know acting on such instinct isn’t rational if it reduces my ability to compete for resources. The cold fact is that most of the suffering in the rest of the world is beneficial to me, because it is my competition which is suffering and not me.

                Of course, this doesn’t feel comfortable. And so you’ve got guys like Sam Harris trying to rationalize that by postulating some kind of objective morality rooted in science. But that’s totally bogus. We should seek the well-being of conscious creatures? The problem here is that evolution is about seeking the well-being of me, mine, and the conscious creatures that significantly affect the survival of me and mine. Lepers in Calcutta? Not so much. Then there’s the problem of who defines “well-being”, and what it actually means. In the game of competing for resources, my well-being involves getting more than you — and clearly you don’t see that as increasing your well-being. Genghis Khan is reported to have said, “The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.” Gene studies have suggested that that 10% of the males in the region covered by the Khan’s empire — a big effin’ region — are direct descendents of him. Evolutionarily speaking, that’s as good as it gets. Look, even many prominent atheists recognize that Harris has no legs to stand on here. It’s an emotional argument at root, not a scientific one. You can feel the power of this emotional argument, and if you do I’m actually quite relieved. However, your position then isn’t based on scientific evidence any more than my Christian one is. If you’re okay with that, so am I. Lots of atheists however pride themselves on only taking to be true things with sufficient objective evidence. That we should work towards the maximum well-being for the most number of people simply doesn’t fall into that category. These are the people I was referring to as being inconsistent.

                Do you have to believe in god to enjoy benefits of moral intuition? No! However, what you think about the intuition affects how you respond to it. If you believe it is a moral absolute to not harm others, that will carry more weight I think than if you think the urge to not harm others is just an evolutionary instinct. Because science and reason could (and have been) used to justify the hurting of others, as easily as they are used to explain the instinct in the first place. We know our intuitions can mislead, and so we don’t follow them in the presence of compelling reason to do otherwise. The obvious pushback is that religious claims have been used to justify overriding moral “absolutes” to not hurt others; and this is true. Humanity instinctively takes advantage of others (natural selection!), and will use either religion or science to do that. The difference is that there is a presupposed conscious will on the other end of religion, so it’s in principle possible to: 1) use religion against the will of that consciousness — i.e. commit objective evil; 2) communicate with that consciousness to better understand its will; 3) be “judged” for one’s actions by that consciousness. “Science” isn’t conscious, and naturalists assert there is no mind “out there”. So there’s no authoritative way to claim that using science to harm others is any more “wrong” than it is wrong for one male lion to kill another male lion to take his pride and hunting territory.

                As for why God creates conscious beings in a physical world… Do you know any other way to get conscious beings? Consciousness as we experience it requires time and space. A consciousness that does not require time or space would just be god, right? how could there be “another” of that? As for my question about how God could make a universe without any suffering… your answer seems to be — well, he just could! I don’t see how he could though. Can you describe how life would emerge on a world where genetic mutation (and thus cancer) is impossible? Just because you can say, “Well, God could just make a world where evolution is possible but cancer isn’t” doesn’t make it a logical possibility. You say that God could make a world where all life obtains energy without predation. Sure… a world with all plant life. But can you describe how a photosynthetic organism could support an organ like a brain complex enough to support consciousness? We’ve never found one of those. How are you so sure it’s possible? There’s a reason why trees don’t walk. You say God could make a world with an unlimited supply of energy accessible for all organisms. Really? Can you describe the math of that world’s physics? Because until you can, you don’t know if that world is even logically possible. I don’t see how it could be. I can say “Well, God could just make a triangle where the sum of all the angles is 185 degrees”, but that doesn’t mean he could. In fact, he can’t.

                You may think you have reason to believe that God can do all these things, but you haven’t explained it to me in a way I understand. So I don’t think the fact that God didn’t do impossible things is an argument for anything at all. I’m a software developer. People who aren’t software developers often get frustrated with technology, and will say things to me like “Well, I just don’t see why you guys don’t make it do X.” Which might look like an obvious and simple thing, to someone who knows absolutely nothing about software development. In reality, it might be quite impossible. And impossible in a way that I couldn’t even explain to you without many hours of background education first. And that’s just software… cosmology is orders of magnitude more complicated.

                As for your personal questions. I was raised Christian, but as an adult, I started questioning a lot of what I’d been taught. I concluded much of it wasn’t consistent with my experience, and I had a crisis of faith. I flirted with atheism for a brief period, but found that it was an even less satisfactory explanation for my experience. Eventually, I came to learn that Christianity was much, much larger and richer than I’d known before. It started to make more sense to me; although my understanding of it now is quite a bit different than it was. That’s a very small nutshell, but this has already run way too long.

                • D Rizdek

                  “However, since evolution is pretty much mostly suffering most of the time, rationally we know that suffering isn’t really objectively “bad” (and was in fact necessary for own existence) — it’s just something to which we evolved an instinctive reaction.”

                  Do you believe in some from of biological evolution and therefore you believe it supports the idea that much of the suffering we see does’nt fit into the problem of evil/problem of suffering debate? Or are you saying it is answers why this suffering is necessary for the process that God designed to work?

                  ?

                  “But how do we account for the instinct in the first place? Cooperation and reciprocal altruism within our immediate community is beneficial for survival, and many species have evolved those traits. But they are beneficial in that they enable communities to compete with other communities (and other species) — because ultimately evolution is always about competition. Given that I know this, while I may instinctively feel compassion for another creature, I know acting on such instinct isn’t rational if it reduces my ability to compete for resources. The cold fact is that most of the suffering in the rest of the world is beneficial to me, because it is my competition which is suffering and not me.”

                  ?

                  Is evolution always about competition? I think there’s a lot more to it than simple individual, family or tribal competition. I don’t think it has been survival of the fittest for a long time now. I think it has become “survival of those who could deal with their environment and reproduce.” Even insects have developed an instinct to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the hive/colony…why wouldn’t this tendency appear in higher life forms? A deer, when it sees a predator, runs with its tail up as a signal to ANY other deer that there is danger. In a way, he is actually endangering HIMSELF by doing so because his “tail” is also more visible to the predators, including any he might not be aware of lurking nearby in the grass. IOW, he endangeres himself by warning others. BUT that helps the species survive even if it might limit his survival. OTOH, parallel with that is that perhaps two different tendencies/traits might work together. The more alert he is, the less likely he’ll be surprised and taken so HE is the one to run first while signaling, so both his alertness and his tendency to signal are carried forward in the gene pool simultaneously.

                  ?

                  I kind of think that when I feel sympathy toward some child suffering in Africa, it is an extension of the sympathy and desire to not have my own children/grand children suffer. Perhaps those who have MORE sympathy toward all children will treat their own children with the greatest sympthy and caring and even WITH his caring for other unknown children in other tribes still have a better chance of passing on his genes. What would be so odd about that? Besides, since populations and species are what evolve, not just individuals, a tendency to want to protect ANY other individual in the species could be perfectly within the set of adaptations that would arise naturally and help humans (or any other species) survive. Perhaps a bad upbringing, some forms of flawed civilization and mental illness/throught process abnormalities all work against that basic feeling of caring with which we evolved. Those certainly seem to hvae corrupted the good things about Christianity haven’t they?

                  ?

                  “Of course, this doesn’t feel comfortable. And so you’ve got guys like Sam Harris trying to rationalize that by postulating some kind of objective morality rooted in science. But that’s totally bogus. We should seek the well-being of conscious creatures? The problem here is that evolution is about seeking the well-being of me, mine, and the conscious creatures that significantly affect the survival of me and mine. Lepers in Calcutta? Not so much. Then there’s the problem of who defines “well-being”, and what it actually means. In the game of competing for resources, my well-being involves getting more than you — and clearly you don’t see that as increasing your well-being. Genghis Khan is reported to have said, “The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.” Gene studies have suggested that that 10% of the males in the region covered by the Khan’s empire — a big effin’ region — are direct descendents of him. Evolutionarily speaking, that’s as good as it gets. Look, even many prominent atheists recognize that Harris has no legs to stand on here. It’s an emotional argument at root, not a scientific one. You can feel the power of this emotional argument, and if you do I’m actually quite relieved. However, your position then isn’t based on scientific evidence any more than my Christian one is. If you’re okay with that, so am I. Lots of atheists however pride themselves on only taking to be true things with sufficient objective evidence. That we should work towards the maximum well-being for the most number of people simply doesn’t fall into that category. These are the people I was referring to as being inconsistent.”

                  ?

                  Have you read The Moral Landscape? I am reading it now. I think many are misrepresenting what he’s saying. He’s writing TO atheists who he feels have lost/suppressed their sense of morality BECAUSE they think there’s no way to rationalize it. That is why he’d getting resistance from atheists. He’s not saying, become atheists and this is the easy answer. Even if you don’t agree with him, in the general interest of humanity…since atheism seems to be on the rise in many areas, I’d think you’d want folks to find ways to justify and maintain their built-in feelings of right and wrong rather than just promote the idea that once you’re an atheist, in order to be honest and consistent, must override their feelings and be asympathetic and resist juding what obviously seems wrong. That is one of the reasons I’m not particularly evangelical about my atheism. I’d rather have folks thinking they have good reasons for being good than have folks reject something (God) I think doesn’t exist on principle. Many apparently find their greatest solace and peace of mind imagining they are communing with God. And unless they are psychopaths, they probably aren’t going to hurt anyone. Why would I want to mess that up?

                  ?

                  “It’s an emotional argument at root, not a scientific one.”

                  ?

                  I agree. And I don’t think Harris disagrees but I’m not through the book yet.

                  ?

                  “Genghis Khan is reported to have said,”

                  ?

                  Do you think Ghengis Kahn might have been a psychopath? Where is the Mongol empire now? His offspring are not Mongols, but are in many cases, now part of better, more humane systems of government. Do you think they bear much of what were probably psychopathic tendencies that caused him to run roughshod over much of Asia?

                  ?

                  “Then there’s the problem of who defines “well-being”, and what it actually means.”

                  ?

                  Why is defining well-being an impediment to finding reasonable ways to acheive “better-being?” Do YOU know how to define well-being to the degree you expect from Harris? Do you know how to define excellent health, good fitness, economic security, wholesome pleasure, adequate safety, a good political system, or a exemplary criminal justice system or any number of value goals humanity works towards? That doesn’t keep us from using science…observation, measurement, testing/experimentation and good reasoning to move us in the direction of these goals and away from the alternatives, does it?

                  ?

                  “Do you have to believe in god to enjoy benefits of moral intuition? No! ”

                  ?

                  Then I needn’t have given up those intuitions if I’m an atheist.

                  ?

                  “However, what you think about the intuition affects how you respond to it. If you believe it is a moral absolute to not harm others, that will carry more weight I think than if you think the urge to not harm others is just an evolutionary instinct.”

                  ?

                  Why do you think that? I could well see an adaptation that is so engrained into us that it would FEEL very much like an absolute and be a very strong driving force. I don’t know how strong this intuition that God was supposed to have endowed us with, but it apparently isn’t strong enough, even coupled with the threat of eternal punishment, to keep folks from doing horribly immoral things to each other. So why does an evolutionary based intuition need to be any stronger?

                  Do you think it is a moral absolute to not harm others? Ever? For any reason? Even for a God? Or is the “absolute” just an absolute desire to not harm other’s and the end justifies the means?

                  ?

                  “Humanity instinctively takes advantage of others (natural selection).”

                  ?

                  Again, I think evolution is much more complicated than individuals just taking advantage of others for their own personal survival or the survival of their kith and kin. As I said, populations and species survive, not individuals. There’s probably a very great deal we don’t know about how natural selection works or even if there are other natural forces at work in evolution besides just natural selection. I am not expert in evolution, but I have taken courses and read books. What books have you read on evolution? What is your expertise in that area? That’s not a challenge so much as an invitation to consider learning more about it{ :

                  ?

                  “The difference is that there is a presupposed conscious will on the other end of religion, so it’s in principle possible to: 1) use religion against the will of that consciousness — i.e. commit objective evil; 2) communicate with that consciousness to better understand its will; 3) be “judged” for one’s actions by that consciousness.”

                  ?

                  Why do I have to care about what this consciousness thinks is right or wrong? If outside this consciousness there is no basis for judging things right and wrong, isn’t it just its opinion that brutal rape is wrong? Or does this consciousness have reasons…good ones for what it thinks is right or wrong? And if there’s good reasons, why can’t I figure them out just as clearly and decisively as it does? What’s makes this consciousness the arbiter of morality or its decisions any better than mine unless there is a higher standard of morality we both must abide by? I have thought about it alot and I think I know pretty much what is right and wrong for me and others, based on how I feel about others and my beliefs in that area seem to match the majority of right-thinkers (IMHO) in the world. Why isn’t that sufficient and just as valid as his reasons? IF I have the right feelings and do what I can to follow those correct feelings, why does it matter to that consciusness that I believe in it or not? Is it just because this consciousness is powerful enough to make me suffer if I don’t believe in it and attribute these intuitions to it? Would you be so motivated to follow the guidance of this consciousness if you firmly believed there were no consequences? What if this coinsciousness hadn’t emplaced this built-in sense of morality but still chose to punish folks for their immorality anyways? What if along with this built in sense of what is right and wrong, this consciousness also allowed us to be born with a tendency to do wrong inspite of our desire to do right, as Paul complained about?

                  ?

                  “Science” isn’t conscious, and naturalists assert there is no mind “out there”. So there’s no authoritative way to claim that using science to harm others is any more “wrong” than it is wrong for one male lion to kill another male lion to take his pride and hunting territory.”

                  ?

                  Why can’t I feel it is wrong for one male lion to kill another male lion to take his pride and hunting territory? In fact that is one of the problems of suffering I would have to deal with if I was to believe in a moral God again. THAT is the material point of this whole thread, isn’t it? Natural suffering seems to be an outcome of God’s decisions on how to create this world and how the life he created will behave. It seems to me at least some of those decisions were unnecessary. IT SEEMS that way. My reasction to a male lion killing all the baby lions so he can implant his own seed is similar to the one that makes me cringe at the behavior of a psychopath. Even if the psychopath is not in control of his moral decisions due to serious brain defects, I’d still feel it is wrong. Do you? AND if there is a God, I’d feel it was morally wrong for him to permit wrong-doing by someone who wasn’t morally culpable…ie not sane. What would be the point if in the end, he’d not punish someone like that? Or do you think God is going to hold mentally insane folks accountable for their immoral behavior? And if he doesn’t shouldn’t he be held responsible for the wrong they do?

                  ?

                  “As for why God creates conscious beings in a physical world… Do you know any other way to get conscious beings?”

                  Did my examples not work for you?

                  “Consciousness as we experience it requires time and space.”

                  Why?

                  “A consciousness that does not require time or space would just be god, right?”

                  Why? It seem simple enough to imagine such a being in that realm, but without the powers of a God. Are you saying an omnipotent God would be unable to create such beings?

                  ?

                  “As for my question about how God could make a universe without any suffering… your answer seems to be — well, he just could! I don’t see how he could though.”

                  ?

                  You’re right, I THINK he just could. That IS the power I grant my vision of a God. Why should I settle for anything less?

                  ?

                  “Can you describe how life would emerge on a world where genetic mutation (and thus cancer) is impossible? Just because you can say, “Well, God could just make a world where evolution is possible but cancer isn’t” doesn’t make it a logical possibility. You say that God could make a world where all life obtains energy without predation. Sure… a world with all plant life. But can you describe how a photosynthetic organism could support an organ like a brain complex enough to support consciousness? We’ve never found one of those. How are you so sure it’s possible? There’s a reason why trees don’t walk. You say God could make a world with an unlimited supply of energy accessible for all organisms. Really? Can you describe the math of that world’s physics? Because until you can, you don’t know if that world is even logically possible. I don’t see how it could be. I can say “Well, God could just make a triangle where the sum of all the angles is 185 degrees”, but that doesn’t mean he could. In fact, he can’t.”

                  ?

                  But there ARE such things as triangles the sum of angles of which equal 185 degrees aren’t there? But of course I’m talking about geometry in curved space{: I get your drift. I don’t think creating matter and energy to behave differently is the same as a doing something that is logically impossible like create a married bachelor. Why do you imagine God could not have created matter and energy with different properties? Why do you imgaine natural emergence of life and evolution are the only ways for a God to have life exist? Do you imagine angels emerged naturally and have evolved?

                  ?

                  Yes, in the workings of the natural world, all you say is true. Brains require a lot of energy, so much so that photosynthesis alone could not support it. But, and maybe you are different than all other Christians I’ve met, I thought an underlying assumption of Christiainity is that the soul is a thinking, reasoning moral thing seperable from the human body. Apparently many who believe these NDEs believe the soul temporarily escapes the body and either looks down on the body lying there unconscious, or visits heaven, Jesus and long dead relatives. What powers this soul when it is apart from the unconscious almost dead body? What will power it after a person dies?

                  ?

                  “You may think you have reason to believe that God can do all these things, but you haven’t explained it to me in a way I understand. So I don’t think the fact that God didn’t do impossible things is an argument for anything at all.”

                  ?

                  Again, I don’t think I’m arguing that a God has to do impossible things in principle, just impossible things within this universe with it’s fixed laws and constants. Isn’t that essentially what a God would be doing if he performed a miracle?

                  ?

                  “I’m a software developer. People who aren’t software developers often get frustrated with technology, and will say things to me like “Well, I just don’t see why you guys don’t make it do X.” Which might look like an obvious and simple thing, to someone who knows absolutely nothing about software development. In reality, it might be quite impossible. And impossible in a way that I couldn’t even explain to you without many hours of background education first. And that’s just software… cosmology is orders of magnitude more complicated.”

                  ?

                  I understand computers somewhat so I have some ideas of what’s possible with them. I have programmed in Fortran and various versions of basic and know there AND MY limitations. But is God limited thus?

                  ?

                  “Eventually, I came to learn that Christianity was much, much larger and richer than I’d known before.”

                  In what ways had you limited Christianity before your crisis? Do you think you’ll ever come to realize a God should be much much larger and richer than you do now? NOT that you’d become an atheist, but maybe you’d become a Christian theist who actually grants his God omnipotence instead of a couple of PhDs in physics and physical engineering{:

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “Why do theists (Christian mostly, I take it) discuss amongst themselves the problem of evil/suffering?”

      I’m not sure what you’re talking about. In this podcast I interact with three atheists. And the discussion thread includes a diversity of perspectives.

      “I mean, practically speaking you’re only able to guess at the solution, right?”

      Um, no.

      “Unless you believe you are getting the specific correct answers from, say, the Bible, or via direct inspiration from God.”

      I have never met a Christian theologian or philosopher who held this epistemology you propose.

      “Is it that you are uncomfortable and hope to satisfy yourselves that your beliefs are still viable?”

      So now we’re into the armchair psychoanalysis?

      Projecting strawman positions on others and eschewing rational analysis of their position in favor of unrestrained psychological speculation as to their motivations is never helpful.

      • D Rizdek

        Rizdek: “Is it that you are uncomfortable and hope to satisfy yourselves that your beliefs are still viable?”

        “So now we’re into the armchair psychoanalysis?”

        Sorry, it was a genuine question I wasn’t trying to psychoanalyze. A simple “no that isn’t it,” would have sufficed{: But are you saying you aren’t finding solace in coming up with explanations for the problem of suffering?

        “Um, no…” we’re not guessing (I guess).

        OK, let me paraphrase…you never met a theologian or philosopher (Christian) who held that they “believe [they] are getting the specific correct answers from God or the Bible” but contend their explanations aren’t guesses? What else is there? It seems anyone trying to explain why a God who cares about humanity created the situation where suffering occurred and doesn’t really know what God it thinking or why he does these things is guessing at why these things occur. But I’ll drop that if it’s too contentious, because it is only ancillary.
        Ok, the podcast was with atheists, but it seems it was posed here to encourage discussions among mostly Christian theists who delve into various aspects of theodicies? And even if it isn’t the case, do Christian theists discuss the problem of suffering amongst themselves for reasons other than to figure ways to reconvert atheists or to keep theists who are doubting from slipping into atheism?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “are you saying you aren’t finding solace in coming up with explanations for the problem of suffering?”

          I don’t discuss this issue out of existential need. I discuss it out of interest in having true beliefs.

          As for your comments “What else is there?”, I’m a Reidean moderate foundationalist. I discuss my epistemological views at length in my Oxford University Press monograph.

          This means that I accept several doxastic processes and faculties as sources of properly basic belief, including rational intuition, sense perception, memory, testimony, proprioception, etc. I provide an overview of this epistemology for the general reader — a view which is very much the mainstream among philosophers today — in my book “The Swedish Atheist…”

          “Ok, the podcast was with atheists, but it seems it was posed here to encourage discussions among mostly Christian theists….”

          I don’t know why it “seems” that way to you. My readership is very diverse, and the diversity of the comments in this thread reflect that.

          • D Rizdek

            Ok, I understand.

            • Fox

              Dude, you’re awesome! Inquisitive, sincere, humble, patient, respectful. I love it. So many Christians and atheists are complete jerks to one another and maintain a know-it-all facade. Sometimes I ask sincere questions of Christians on a human level regarding the poor treatment/depictions of atheists and they get all foamy-mouthed about it. I’m into understanding Christians and treating them respectfully. To listen and further the conversation (more on a heart than philosophical level). I mostly want to convince them that not all atheists are jerks and even if they are, they still bleed when you prick ‘em. Cheers!

          • Jeff

            I don’t discuss this issue out of existential need. I discuss it out of interest in having true beliefs.

            Because it’s fresh on my mind, I wonder how to square this with your suggestion in “You’re not as Crazy as I Think” that feeling rationally compelled to reject the truth of orthodox Christianity would present an orthodox Christian with a sort of Sophie’s Choice dilemma. That sounds like a deep existential crisis to me.

            Am I misunderstanding one or the other statement?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              D. was inquiring into my motivations for discussing the problem of evil. I responded that I have no existential crisis motivating me to discuss it. In point of fact, That’s merely a relatively uninteresting comment on my own psychological state, and says nothing about other Christians facing real existential crises of faith.

    • Luke Breuer

      Why do theists (Christian mostly, I take it) discuss amongst themselves the problem of evil/suffering?

      Although not all discussion is “amongst themselves” (outsider perspectives are often helpful in a plethora of situations), even the discussion that is, can be useful. You see, we Christians believe that there is a solution to the problem. The pillar of that solution is Jesus Christ crucified and raised. That being said, Christians believe they have a role in the redemption of creation, as well:

      The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:16-17)

      Contrast this to e.g. the Epicurians, who thought that the greatest pleasure is aponia: the absence of pain. That is, Epicurians would do anything they could to reduce the pain and suffering they experienced. Jesus’ “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” is pretty much the opposite. The highest good is Jesus, and an incredible amount of suffering is worth it:

      For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25)

      Now, willy-nilly suffering (e.g. the Flagellants) is ridiculous; Peter made the point twice. Paul lambastes asceticism, using the ultimate Pauline insult: “self-made religion” (“let him be accursed”). Jesus was a regular Houdini, magically disappearing when people were about to kill him. He did accept suffering at the end and learned obedience through what he suffered, but he wasn’t a masochist—he was closer to a glutton and a drunkard.

      So you see that some discussion—actually, ‘wrestling’ would be a better word—can very much lead to action, and strategic action at that. Jesus describes the cost of discipleship because there most definitely is a cost, which aponia would say is “Too much!”

      The Christian wrestles with evil to overcome it through the power of Jesus Christ.
      The Atheist wrestles with the Christian to tell him/her it’s meaningless.

      I’m gonna go with the Christian!

      • D Rizdek

        That makes sense. Thanks.
        What do you mean, “The atheist wrestles with the Christian to tell him/her it’s meaningless?”

        • Luke Breuer

          It’s like the Christian is attempting to build a fantastic structure out of wood blocks but cannot quite do it, and the atheist/skeptic, [sometimes] in anger, takes swipes at the building-in-progress and utterly destroys it, claiming at the end that nothing meaningful was ever constructed. The attempt to construct a meaningful difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ was a failure, he/she says, and thus these concepts are merely subjective phenomena, referring to nothing objective in the world.

          • D Rizdek

            Well, hopefully I’m not taking swipes at your house of blocks. But I see what you are saying. Sometimes we do come across that way.

            But I don’t seem to be aware of the big problem of seeing the difference between good and bad. It seems fairly easy to sort out in my minds. Whether there is objective good or not, I can certainly draw conclusions based on whether actions and decisions tend to move us toward well-being vs away from it.

            But maybe what folks’re saying is that my ability to see wrong for what it is obviously reflects the image of a Creator imprinted on my mind whether I believe in it or not. This ability and tendency to judge good and bad behavior therefore tends to support the existence of a God?

            • Luke Breuer

              Honestly, given the status of most discourse you’ll see in the world unless you’re a scholar, I wouldn’t want to accuse you of much of anything. I went to a conference at Biola University a few years ago and walked Alvin Plantinga to where he was going; I asked whether he thought that the quality of discourse was a bit wanting: he answered with a pretty firm “No.” I was surprised, because most of the discourse I see on the internet is pretty terrible. That was part of what got me to stop reading popular books, preferring stuff like Randal Rauser’s Theology in Search of Foundations over Geisler & Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Currently, I’m reading David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which is eye-opening on one level, but boring on another (the Four Horsemen’s books are just terrible).

              But I don’t seem to be aware of the big problem of seeing the difference between good and bad.

              It’s one thing for a citizen of a pretty decent country to be able to see some solid difference. It’s another for that to be enough to sustain and continue research on that difference, over time. For one, do people cling to this difference when they get more power, or do they start thinking of themselves as exceptions to the rule? And is there enough “substrate” to this difference in order to grow it, in order to do the following?:

              religion: a research program into ‘the good [life/society/polis]‘

              Now, I find the following very fascinating:

              This ability and tendency to judge good and bad behavior therefore tends to support the existence of a God?

              I’m going to suggest to you that whatever it is that produces the judgment between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be reasonably called a ‘god’. After all, ‘god’ is just a term. Traditionally, gods have had the power to judge people worthy or not worthy. Some have had the gods or a god define good vs. evil, while others’ gods aren’t strong enough to do that (and so you’ve gotta ensure you appease enough of them). If the State ultimately decides what is good vs. evil, then that is your god. If you let your own pain/pleasure determine good vs. evil, then the statement “their god is their belly” starts applying.

              The use of ‘god’ might seem pretty silly if it’s just each person doing what is right in his/her own eyes. But if you read Hobbes’ Leviathan, you might be able to start giving the term some force, as the social contract Hobbes suggests is an “absolute sovereign”—very god-like.

              This being said, this talk of ‘god’ still might seem a bit obscure. Why do we need that term? Charles Taylor might help with his Sources of the Self:

                  For those with a strong commitment to such a good, what it means is that this above all others provides the landmarks for what they judge to be the direction of their lives. While they recognize a whole range of qualitative distinctions, while all of these involve strong evaluation, so that they judge themselves and others by the degree they attain the goods concerned and admire or look down on people in function of this, nevertheless the one highest good as a special place. It is orientation to this which comes closest to defining my identity, and therefore my direction to this good is of unique importance to me. Whereas I naturally want to be well placed in relation to all and any of the goods I recognize and to be moving towards rather than away from them, my direction in relation to this good has a crucial importance. Just because my orientation to it is essential to my identity, so the recognition that my life is turned away from it, or can never approach it, would be devastating and insufferable. It threatens to plunge me into a despair at my unworthiness which strikes at the very roots of my being as a person. Symmetrically, the assurance that I am turned towards this good gives me a sense of wholeness, of fulness of being as a person or self, that nothing else can. […] For people who understand their lives this way, there is a qualitative discontinuity between this one good and the others; it is incomparably above them, in an even more striking fashion than they are seen as incomparably more valuable than a life which lacks them. (62-63)

              Does this help you understand what “worship God” might mean, and how that can be sort of “continuously mapped”? See: “value some conception of ‘the good'” ? “worship some conception of ‘the good'” ? “worship a god”.

              The one thing that remains is whether you are worshiping something impersonal, or someone personal. Is your concept of ‘the good’ simply a set of principles, or is it actually, somehow, an ideal person with an ideal character which you would want to emulate ever-more? We can talk about moving from the Greek logos ? Christian Logos, or from Spinoza’s God (which was Einstein’s ‘God’) ? “the infinite-personal God”, as Francis Schaeffer liked to say. Finally, we can talk about whether you get ‘absorbed into’ the deity (as I interpret some Hinduism and Buddhism teaching), or whether you always stay an individual even though you gain increasing commonality with the deity (see the “white stone” in Rev 2:17).

              • D Rizdek

                I don’t read atheist books at all. I’m already one, why bother{: But by the same token, I don’t read theological books much anymore. I read some websites and listen to stuff on youtube etc. Not all that deep. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like I’ve seen and heard it all and don’t see much hope based on why I am what I am.

                I am reading Harris’ The Moral Landscape now and I kind of know what you think of that, but I’m finding it interesting. I just finished Galileo’s dialogue on a two world system and was fascinated by his reasoning against the mindset of the day. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

                • Luke Breuer

                  There is so much crap theology out there, and so much that might be right but is also 100% banal. If you want fun, insightful, and hilarious, I highly suggest French sociologist Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity. For something insightful but a bit more dry, I suggest sociologist Peter L. Berger’s A Far Glory. For a really succinct tear-down of a lot of stupidity in Christianity, Dorothy Sayers’ The Whimsical Christian is pretty good. For ideas on how we got here, Os Guinness’ The Gravedigger File is good—it’s like The Screwtape Letters + The Abolition of Man: how to destroy Christianity and reshape society. Finally, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is hard going, but required reading if you want to understand how to think rigorously about ‘morality’.

                  The latest book on that list, A Far Glory, was published in 1993. C.S. Lewis really was right: old books > new books, if for no other reason than that history winnows away the chaff pretty well.

                  Harris’ TML is on my reading list, but I’m suspicious that ultimately, he wants to replace people’s self-reports about what is nice and what hurts with machines that will ‘decide’ for them. There’s something very dangerous with all this talk about people being filled with cognitive biases, plus the incredible trust put in very fallible machines. Those who believed most people were irreparably sinful chose to dominate them with power and rule by man; those who believe that most people are irreparably biased will choose to dominate them with power and rule by man, aided by machine. I suggest Noam Chomsky’s The Case Against B.F. Skinner.

                  • D Rizdek

                    “I’m suspicious that ultimately, he wants to replace people’s self-reports about what is nice and what hurts with machines that will ‘decide’ for them.”

                    I’m not too far into it, but that doesn’tseem to be the direction he’s going.

                    You mentioned in your earlier post, “It’s another for that to be enough to sustain and continue research on that difference, over time.”

                    What do you mean by research?

                    • Luke Breuer

                      I’m not too far into it, but that doesn’tseem to be the direction he’s going.

                      Let us hope that both (a) Harris never intended that; (b) nobody ever does intend it if Harris’ idea takes off. I’m in favor of being more scientific in what hurts people and what helps them. I took a two-day intensive suicide training course and that was a kind of “acid test” for what’s just never right to say to another human being. We could do with understanding e.g. the many straws which break the backs of school shooters. Surely if enough people stab Caesar, nobody is sufficiently guilty?

                      What do you mean by research?

                      I got turned onto this by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

                      To move towards the good is to move in time and that movement may itself involve new understandings of what it is to move towards the good. (176)

                      James Hillman describes some related Adlerian psychology in Healing Fiction:

                          This is a subtle and important point. Adler says: “The striving for perfection is innate. This is not meant in a concrete way, as if there were a drive . . . capable of bringing everything to completion and which needed only to develop itself”. I believe he is distinguishing between an inherent spiritual finalism that characterizes all psychic endeavor and the fictional goals by means of which the soul images these ideal aims. He warns not to take ‘innate’ as a literal drive (in a Freudian sense), or as an empirical fact for which we gather evidence (in a Jungian sense). We strive for perfection, but perfection has no concrete empirical goal. Adler might first answer our question—about the wanting soul—by saying the soul wants because its final cause, its telos, must remain unfulfilled. Its every movement is innately purposeful and yet it can never enunciate its purposefulness into any literal goal. (104)

                      Many great thinkers have recognized that the human will seems boundless. Some, like Schopenhauer, think that the solution is to deny the will. Some, like Nietzsche, think that the will should be allowed to run free and not be thwarted by some “slave morality”. I, on the other hand, think the will must be trained, to seek things which enhance all humanity, respecting both collective and individual. I love the 7+1 instances of “one who conquers” in Revelation; it is not a dull will that the NT values, but a strong one which has been trained not to beat the air.

                      Compare merely making more money to buy more things and give some of the money to charity, to finding ever more fantastic ways to bless humanity. The latter is much harder, but I claim it is even more rewarding. I love the childbirth metaphor in Rom 8:16-25; the physical process is extremely painful I am told. But worth it? Oh boy, yes, I believe it is. This, I think sheds light on the meaning of the otherwise enigmatic (or at least easy to make say whatever you want) Heb 11:6.

                    • D Rizdek

                      “I, on the other hand, think the will must be trained, to seek things which enhance all humanity, respecting both collective and individual.”
                      I think you might find something in common with some of what Harris is saying in his book.

                    • Luke Breuer

                      Oh, I’m sure I’ll agree with part of it. My quibble is that science is and forever will remain, value-free. And so, you will always have personal agents with personal conceptions of ‘the good’, interacting with other personal agents who will sometimes have very different conceptions of ‘the good’. It’s just not clear that Harris has provided a sound way to reconcile disparate conceptions of ‘the good’. And without that, his whole project will fall flat. That being said, I really should curtail my comments until I read TML instead of just read about it.

              • D Rizdek

                More response after thinking about it:

                edit:

                “Does this help you understand what ‘worship God’ might mean, and how that can be sort of ‘continuously mapped’? ”

                I understand self-talk, introspection and re-evaluating my life and my approaches to interacting with other people…yes even in internet discussions…I understand seeking what I think is good and eschewing that which I think is bad. But no, I don’t pretend to understand the quote by Taylor.

                “It’s one thing for a citizen of a pretty decent country to be able to see some solid difference. It’s another for that to be enough to sustain and continue research on that difference, over time. For one, do people cling to this difference when they get more power, or do they start thinking of themselves as exceptions to the rule? ”

                We do have to be trained to be good, don’t we? That’s even Biblical…bring up a child yadda yadda yadda.
                And as for power corrupting isn’t that always the problem? With Christians and atheist alike it’s easy to lose sight of important goals as life heats up. Folks either retain this self awareness that keeps them grounded or they lose it. Folks either want to do what’s right or they don’t. I somehow get the feeling that unless the person gets the right kind of religion it won’t do them much good at being nice. And thinking one is “in good with” God can give folks an untidy sense of power. That also seems dangerous if they always think God agrees with them on what’s right and wrong.

                • Luke Breuer

                  I understand seeking what I think is good and eschewing that which I think is bad. But no, I don’t pretend to understand the quote by Taylor.

                  Surely you know about people who appear to live for principles instead of themselves? They give at least part of themselves over to the principles, instead of just deciding what is good and bad themselves. They let something else, and I think ultimately someone else, guide their conception of ‘the good’. The people consider their contributions to the principle to be so important that it constitutes part of their identity. Taylor is arguing that it can constitute most of their identity.

                  We do have to be trained to be good, don’t we?

                  Aristotle and Plato certainly thought so. :-p

                  And as for power corrupting isn’t that always the problem?

                  Oh, absolutely. Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity is just fantastic on this:

                  X is subversive in every respect, and Christianitty has become conservative and antisubversive. X is subversive relative to every kind of power. (13)

                  (“X” is Ellul’s term for what he considers true Christianity.)

                  A Christianity that has become totally conservative in every domain—political, economic, social, etc.—which nothing can budge or change. Political power, that is good. Whatever challenges or criticizes it, that is evil. (17)

                  And what about another concept that seems to be essential in the life of Jesus Christ, that of weakness, which is linked with anti politics? What can be more the opposite of what we are? Is not the spirit of power at the heart of all our actions? I concede that it may not exist among some so-called primitive people in tribes that know no violence and seek no domination. But these are such an exception that we certainly cannot take them as a natural example of what humanity is in general—if there is such a thing as “humanity in general.” (164-5)

                  Here’s the trick, though. Christianity has the resources to criticize abuses of power. (e.g. Mt 20:20-28, Jn 13:1-20) Not all systems do; Communism certainly didn’t. There are even arguments that history shows that violence truly begets violence, such that a “violent revolution” is generally unable to result in something much better; the other option would be pacifism (Ellul’s view on pacifism reviewed). But I digress—I don’t know much about pacifism.

                  And thinking one is “in good with” God can give folks an untidy sense of power. That also seems dangerous if they always think God agrees with them on what’s right and wrong.

                  Most definitely! Read Isaiah 55:6-9, and note that “the wicked” and “the unrighteous man” likely think they’re in good with God. We tend to forget that the OT is chock-full if criticisms of the abuse of power; Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture helps illustrate that. Or I could turn back to Peter Berger’s A Far Glory:

                  There turned out to be enormous ethical implications to this proto-individuation. It is very clearly expressed in the dramatic confrontation between King David and the prophet Nathan recounted in the twelfth chapter of the Second Book of Samuel. David had caused the murder of Bathsheba’s husband in order to incorporate her in his harem—a perfectly acceptable expression of royal prerogative in terms of oriental conceptions of kingship. After Nathan cleverly leads David to condemn a man who shows no pity in destroying what another man loves, the prophet tells David that he is just such a man—”You are the man.” This sentence sovereignly ignores all the communal legitimations of kingship in the ancient Near East. Indeed, it ignores all the social constructions of the self as understood at that time. It passes normative judgment on David the man—a naked man, a man divested of all the trappings of a community, a man alone. I believe that this view of the relation between God and man, and therefore among men, continues to be normative for a Christian understanding of the human condition. (99-100)

                  Remember that King David was “a man after God’s own heart”. The NT is unabashed in noting that Jesus descends through Bathsheba: “by the wife of Uriah“. Note the wording; far from being misogynist or anything like that, I think it explicitly picked out the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.

              • D Rizdek

                ” I went to a conference at Biola University a few years ago and walked Alvin Plantinga to where he was going; I asked whether he thought that the quality of discourse was a bit wanting: he answered with a pretty firm “No.” I was surprised, because most of the discourse I see on the internet is pretty terrible. ”
                I can see his point. I’m not sure what your background is…obviously well educated, well read and erudite. But what is your experience with the “common man?” I mean beyond your discussions with me? The multitudes who believe things without all the book learnin’? EVERYONE believes things. But not everyone uses the best tools to arrive at his beliefs.
                Perhaps that’s what he was saying…regardless of his skill at presenting convincing arguments, his philosophical thought, his probably almost encyclopedic knowledge of so many things, he knows that 1) if God belief rests with only the educated, it’ll die quickly…you guys simply aren’t rich enough (I am being light here). And 2) if folks like him start disregarding the common folks, those who don’t read so broadly or deeply, the mass of common folks’ll start disregarding him (and his ilk). NOT that they’ll all turn atheist..far from it. They’ll start resorting back to the three basic…God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me. And we know where that leads folks if they happen to believe God said things God didn’t actually say.

                • Luke Breuer

                  Heh, I’m not as erudite as you think. In fact, I’ve read at least parts of ~50 books in the last 12 months, thanks to the ability to work only part-time. Before that, my reading was probably around your average college graduate. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are gaping lacunae (a favorite word of scholars, apparently) in what I’ve read; posting on the internet, both in theist-friendly places and theist-unfriendly places, seems like one of the better ways to find any and all gaps! But thanks for the compliment; it’s nice to know that not every atheist/skeptic thinks I’m an idiot or evil or something.

                  You were correct to zero in on “common man”. Most of my experience is actually with nerds who post on the internet, and generally a cut above r/atheism. I do work pretty hard to talk a lot with people who hold very different ideas than my own, but I probably shouldn’t call those people “common man”; I doubt very many of “common man” get involved in long discussions about science, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology. Then again, most of these people aren’t scholars, so I do avoid some of the “ivory tower” effect.

                  If I were to guess, I’d guess that the “common man” isn’t nearly as thoroughly convinced of his/her beliefs as what you find online. I’d be willing to bet that he/she tends to find someone to trust on issues, and then goes on with life. This seems entirely reasonable to me, and is not my “looking down” on them at all. I have been incredibly blessed with both some extra IQ points and the time to use them in ways other than making money to put a roof over heads and food on the table. If I were to promote one book over all the rest, it’d probably be Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. We are a world of “total work”, which prevents people from being able to do what I did over the last year. It is a world designed (by man or by ‘Nature’) to keep “common man” from becoming too learned, too informed. No, don’t read seriously about politics, go watch the ball game.

                  As to Plantinga, I think he’s just happy with the scholarly climate he inhabits, and that said scholarly climate isn’t all that bad; for a naturalist’s commentary on it from 2001, see Quentin Smith’s The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism: “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s [beginning with Plantinga's influential book God and Other Minds in 1967] and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.” I think you’re right that Plantinga’s not a pillar for said “mass of common folks”; they were getting along alright without him, and even his presence didn’t avert the writing of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll in 1995 (2004 commentary, 2012 commentary).

                  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help the “common man” more easily dig into issues like those RR likes to bring up on his blog. At least two things have to happen: people have to have more high quality time available to devote to this, and they need to see it as valuable. I’m afraid that many don’t see it as particularly valuable; see Roger Olson’s What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1 (and maybe the other two parts).

  • RonH

    Is the whole idea of gratuitous suffering sort of begging the question in the first place? So, we say that the fawn’s suffering is gratuitous because there is nothing accomplished by its death. But if God intervenes to prevent it, then consistency obligates him to intervene in every other instance of gratuitous suffering. If every animal who ever suffered and died “gratuitously” no longer did so, evolution (and by extension, our present) would likely be significantly different. While it may not be possible to see any good in the one fawn’s death (because indeed it may not be there) the aggregate of all such deaths is a different story.

    • D Rizdek

      This proves my point. Here is yet another theodicy that would allow me to be a theist…if I thought there was a God{:

      But the fawn’s death wasn’t the problem as I saw it. It was the fact that she lived for quite a while suffering the intense pain of the burns before she died. Of course, all pain animals experience can be excluded from the problem of suffering if one just decides that animals don’t suffer.

      Wasn’t it a choice for God to use evolution as the mechanism to get life on earth? He could’ve created each kind of animal as is and then programmed each life form to live an exact number of years (depending on the kind), then painlessly blink out of existence…you know like a “target” in a computer game. In order to keep an untidy number of alien space ships from appearing on the game screen and actually slowing down the game, the programmer has to give each one a time limit and then that ship, if not destroyed by the game player, simply does not generate in the next loop.

      • RonH

        Again, you’re just making assumptions about how God could have done things better. But you don’t know how to build a universe, so how do you know that what you seem to think is possible is actually possible? Do the physical laws necessary for a life-bearing universe permit matter to simply blink out of existence? Not in ours.

        As for evolution… As far as we know, evolution is the only way to produce consciousness in a physical universe. And I rejected young earth creationism at first more because of its logical problems than its contradiction of scientific discovery.

        These incarnations of the problem of evil boil down to:
        1. If God existed, I think he would have made the universe like X.
        2. The universe isn’t like X.
        3. Therefore, God must not exist.

        Meanwhile, how do we know 1 is true….

  • Walter

    If having a moral history is intrinsically better than just being created as a perfectly good being in the first place, does this not commit the Christian theist to the proposition that God actually engineered the “Fall” of man to facilitate his moral development? I know a lot of Calvinists already believe such, and I have to say that it makes more sense to believe that if we were designed by an omnigod then our “sinful” behavior is part of that design.

    • RonH

      does this not commit the Christian theist to the proposition that God actually engineered the “Fall” of man to facilitate his moral development?

      No. An alternative scenario is that there wasn’t a “Fall” event at all. Evolution on its own produces morally flawed/incomplete beings. Christ is necessary to bridge the gap to God.

      On this view, instead of God making humanity perfect and then letting/making them screw it up, naturally evolved humanity is incomplete, with Christ being the necessary intervention by God to finish his creation.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I’m not sure what you mean by “engineered”, but it is manifestly the case that in classic Christian theology (not just “Calvinism”) the history of sin and evil constitutes part of God’s providential plan.

      • Walter

        I guess the denomination that I once belonged to did not subscribe to classical Christian theology. We were always taught to believe that God created two primordial human beings who possessed moral perfection, yet somehow these two still managed to screw up and derail Plan A causing God to go to Plan B with Jesus. Made sense when i was twelve, but less so when I was thirty.

        Yes, we were YECs.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    R suggests that angels may have watched the fawn burn to death, but why assume that seeing such a thing would have a “positive” rather than a negative moral impact?

    Why should angels, already infused with goodness, need a billion year history of watching animals suffer, die and go extinct?

    And after watching fawns burn to death, asteroids strike the planet, and children having their brains eaten by amoeba, one might question how much evidence there is of a moral order that designed and maintains such things, let alone mammals that eat their young or eat each other in the womb, or soon after being born