Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: SLU Grad Conference on Problem of Evil


I attended St. Louis University's grad conference on the "Problem of Evil" featuring prominent philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Paul Draper in addition to a number of graduate student presentations afterward.  Draper was the only non-believer in conference and all the presentations had a prepared counter presentation and a response from the original presenter.  That made things interesting.

I found Plantinga's presentation morally sickening at numerous points and noted to myself just how calloused he must be to be able to be the top guy in that field, bite every bullet, and put a smile on his face saying, "Well I'm convinced and that means it's intellectually respectable for you to be convinced, too!"

Draper's presentation on "source physicalism" was adequate to sabotage Plantinga's naturalistic incredulity and assert an evidential argument from too much evil in the world with a hypothetical view that's much more probable than Plantinga's.  It is true that if you don't have to know how the abstract realm can generate a physical one then why do you have to know how a physical realm can generate an abstract one?  Source physicalism and source idealism at face value are both equally ridiculous magical views to me since I believe the category of "immaterial things" is incoherent to begin with.  Setting that aside, Draper's hypothetical view had a home field advantage since it represents what we apparently see in a very straightforward way (a material world with minds that are based on it).  Any additional considerations from theism make it a much less probable view on balance and of course pretty much all Christian theisms are jam packed with "difficult" to justify ad hoc assumptions.

Surprisingly, in conversation, I was able to successfully execute my version of the logical argument from evil to at least one of the grad student presenters.  Or perhaps I should call it the "perfectly strong evidential argument from evil."  The conversation began over lunch with a number of students, but continued later on with the person who asserted the most incredulity.

The triple O version of god (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent) is said to be morally perfect.  Perfection entails at the very least in a negative sense that there are absolutely no blemishes.  What's a blemish in terms of morality?  It would have to be accommodation of even a drop of evil in any way for any reason for any amount of time at all on your moral balance sheet.  Obviously Christian dogma would say that evil exists in the world and so we have a very straight forward logical impossibility for any Christian worldviews of this kind.

Everyone objected that there was no valid moral concept that could establish the Christian philosopher's god's moral culpability if he created beings with libertarian free will (note, I also reject libertarian free will, but we're setting that aside as well).  Being causally connected does not make you morally connected, they'd say and they claimed I was inventing my own moral concept no one had ever heard of before.

They also asked if I thought having children was evil.  They were barely even letting me answer at this point as they were so full of their collective incredulity on the matter.  Fortunately I was allowed to explain that yes, I do actually think that having children is a morally blemished action since I know full well I am bringing a measure of new evil into the world (in addition to more good).  People have strong emotional intuitions against this idea since they want to think of having children as the best thing EVuR.  Also, people seem to think they are entitled to morally perfect actions in this life even though any number of obvious reality checks on that equation would show that humans are morally flawed in their every conception and execution of morality.

Every Christian I talked to throughout the day was overly prone to conflating standards here.  Humans are not morally perfect beings.  Surprise!  Christian worldviews even teach the same thing and apparently it's too inconvenient to notice that.  A morally perfect god has to be held to the correct ideological standard.  Humans make on balance judgments, weighing the good and evil of a situation and can be satisfied with having done their best.  A morally perfect god does not do that.  The "on balance" concept is not a valid concept of perfection by definition and every exploration of theodicy is a philosophical fool's errand as a result.  One does not barter with curviness when drawing a perfectly straight line.  A morally perfect "triple O" god does not barter with evil when conceiving of the full implications of a morally perfect creation whether libertarian free will could be included in the deal or not.  If no morally perfect creations are possible to make, that means the very ability of creation itself is an attribute a morally perfect god would not even have.    

So I had to make sure this registered on their moral radar to hop over their free will fence and apparently that wasn't happening over lunch.  However, I shortly came up with an example that would make things clear and presented it to my primary debate adversary.  What if you had a family history of genetically inherited psychopathy and you knew full well there was a very strong chance that most of the children you could have would be prone to some rather egregious evils in their lives?  Would you be morally blameless for having children despite them supposedly having "free will"?  I used this as an example of one end of the spectrum and said that presumably you can dwindle this down across a spectrum to normal levels where people would be still minimally morally responsible for having average morally imperfect babies by default.  "Congratulations, you've had a sinner!"

Remember, for my argument from evil to work here, I only have to establish one drop of moral responsibility in the Christian equation.  This is not significant for morally flawed beings such as ourselves who live in a world where we tolerate each other's failings on a regular basis.  It is significant for a being that we are supposed to believe is morally perfect.  If you can keep those two categories separate in your mind without taking it personally, I'll be minimally impressed.  Although, technically I'm giving out cookies here for just being mature.

Apparently my example stopped the young man in his tracks and he actually had to concede the issue.  I didn't quite expect that.  Apparently if you are used to debating competing theistic worldviews (unlike an average Christian) you are much more willing to give up a position.  At that point he said that he wasn't interested in the kind of morally perfect god I was refuting and that he was willing to settle for a god that merely makes worlds that are better than not (and he'd call that perfection).  Ultimately you can just make up any kind of god you want and apply any definition you want, so I didn't press the issue further.  I figured enough damage had been done for one day.  However, I didn't invent the basic definition of perfection and these theologians do want to actually mean that their god is 100% pure in a metaphysical moral sense.  One drop of evil on its conscience would not be acceptable.  If you really want to step up to that, a Christian has to say that their god is "perfect" in the metaphorical sense of having done its best.  To pretend otherwise is intellectually disingenuous.  Then of course we can talk about how improbable it is any triple O god (who apparently is short an O) actually did its best with this world.    

This leads me back to the question I didn't get to ask Plantinga.  The above argument focuses on the easy negative side of moral perfection.  The general evidential argument focuses on the somewhat more vague elements of good morality.

Here's the question I wanted to ask (which didn't get asked, since it would have amounted to a whole other presentation):
I listened to you talk for over an hour yesterday and I’ve been familiar with some of your work in the past so I’ve had some time to think of my question.  And I recognize that you’ve stepped beyond defending your view on this topic from mere philosophical possibility and are actually asserting a perspective that you believe is most probably true.  While I applaud you for that in that you are presenting an actual positive perspective and taking responsibility for your belief system (something I think everyone should try to do), I find that in doing so some very obvious improbabilities show themselves.
It seems to me that we don’t have to speculate about other worlds since we know more than enough about morality and the proper tending of human beings just from our mutual experience in this world.  So much so in fact I think most Christians in the audience yesterday, who weren’t asking themselves whether or not they should seek out suffering in some kind of spiritual masochistic way, knew full well they could not and would never apply anything you’ve said about their heavenly father’s moral strategies to the raising of their own children.
From our human perspective, at least, based on the kind of moral background knowledge that any parent has to trust, one would expect in a positive sense that proper divine management of moral and spiritual agents would entail that all humans would have a fair, fighting chance in this life for a mature salvation before Judgement Day.  And so it would require, at the very least, that everyone had a sufficiently long life, that we all had properly functioning brains (bred predisposed to maximal positive, healthy behaviors), that we were all encultured with the correct moral values and spiritual teachings from a very young age, that no one else’s free will would ever be allowed to infringe or significantly violate our autonomy, and that we’d be given all the support we would ever need throughout our lives so that in all likelihood (with an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent shepherding god at the helm) no one would be lost to damnation.
You could still allow for plenty of evil in the equation (since we do similar kinds of things as parents to the extent we are able and we don’t expect everything to always work out perfectly).  Maybe someone can break your heart and you can learn how to do relationships better the next time around.  Maybe you can get in a fight that isn’t necessarily broken up immediately.  Maybe you can fail a time or two to instigate your deepest desires in the world before you succeed.  It’s probably okay to stub your toe.  Etc.  But if we had the power we’d never allow lifelong psychological abuse, we’d never allow wars (much less holy wars), we’d never allow anyone to get to the point of suicidal depression, and we’d never allow torture, rape, murder, and child abuse since those are mostly just damaging things rather than opportunities to mature and grow.  Good human parents try to do their very best to stack the deck in favor of the spiritual and moral success of their children without getting into the minutiae of a free will debate.  They just try to figure out ways of being supportive without being oppressive and if that’s not possible, maybe they just shouldn’t have been parents in the first place.  Seems like we should tell a god, “if you don’t have anything nice to speak into existence, don’t say anything at all.”
It seems quite impossible to relate to the current state of affairs from a Christian perspective such as yours without stretching moral concepts well beyond their credible use.  If the suffering in this life is supposedly justified because it can improve our character (or get us closer to Jesus), that ignores or conveniently erases the vast majority of the human condition where it seems to me that most of the time suffering in this world is significantly wasted on unguided human ignorance of the Christian god’s plan in OT or NT forms, often creates varying degrees of emotional dysfunction, and can cause intractable lifelong mental illness and sometimes even drive people all the way to suicide.  I’d wager building character isn’t suffering’s strong suit for most people most of the time and that in reality it's a much less effective teaching tool than reward based programs like psychological studies always seem to demonstrate.  To think that tons of human potential isn’t being lost or perverted every day as a result of divine negligence seems more a matter of convenient Christian obliviousness and/or a just-world fallacy than a credible moral perspective.
Proverbs 22:6 even says, "Raise a child up in the way he should go and he will not depart from it."  Sounds like good advice to me!   Instead of practicing what he preaches, our supposed heavenly father lets his enemies and natural chaos reign on earth in your view, doesn't he?  
And so, my question is: Why would we expect a perfect moral god to value human liberty so much and yet apparently devalue the seemingly equally important competing values of the knowledge, guidance, ability, and opportunity to use that very freedom properly
I also had some follow up responses planned.

If Plantinga ignored everything I said and went for what I would call "Jesus triumphalism":
From the outside of your belief system, it looks a lot like you are creating implausible justifications for an arbitrary psychologically privileged position that could mostly only appeal to uncritical Christians who arbitrarily happen to be conditioned to the moral punchline of “the unthinkable infinite good of the incarnation and atonement” as though that could ever possibly excuse being a deadbeat deity the rest of human history.
An infinite god humbling itself by entering into the human world is impressive in and of itself (not to mention impressively incoherent in many ways), I suppose.  But I'm sorry, I just don’t need anyone to die, sleepwalk, or jump rope for my sins.  I need things like great moral advice about the particulars of my actual situation in human history and guidance that only a moral super-being could intimately know about and provide.  I don't need impractical free association with some random event in what is just as good as mythological history.
It seems like we’re letting Christian philosophy merely define any convoluted moral concept (i.e. that supernatural justice magically requires physical bloodshed and that substitutionary atonement is morally tolerable at the level of the death penalty) as having infinite value and then pretending like a morally perfect god actually barters with evil (aka, moral imperfection) in order to get it.  It's like there's an infinitely valuable Klondike bar.  What wouldn’t Jesus do for that Klondike bar?  I mean, we all love Klondike bars here, right?  It’s just not realistic broad based goodness for humanity.
I don’t think your ultimate appeal to arbitrary righteous Christian intuitions or your supposed theistic mental Wi-Fi can possibly outweigh the atheological evidential argument from evil in a world full of conflicting religious confidence and unfalsifiable, completely plastic superstitions that needn’t be backed up by any supernatural world at all.
If we’ve bizarrely set aside the standard of actual moral perfection where not even a single blemish of evil is tolerated on this god’s moral balance sheet (and I don’t know why we’d ever do that), how else is the atheological evidential argument from evil supposed to properly win this particular debate other than by showing how all of our moral background knowledge contradicts your Christian theory pretty harshly? It should not be a responsible or morally satisfying comeback to settle for mere logical possibility again or to merely overvalue something at the gratuitous expense of the whole picture like you've never seen a criticism of the evils of utilitarianism before.

I don't get to talk about these things at this level with most people.  It was an interesting event.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013



I don’t feel comfortable at this time condemning drone strikes given the real possibility that it is actually the best of bad options.  I don’t want to heap scorn on our elected leaders for having to make the necessary morally ugly decisions from the comfort of not having been put in that situation myself.  I may very well have made the same decisions even if those decisions turned out to be inept.  

I also don’t feel comfortable blanketly condoning the drone strikes and going about my merry way as though perhaps our government is not exercising the best judgment and needs to be held more accountable.  Perhaps that uncomfortable middle is where one should be at.  

Everyone in these debates, when it comes down to it, seems to agree we lack information and that putting pressure on the executive branch of government for as much transparency and oversight as possible is what we should at least be doing.  Hopefully, the release of more information just recently is a step in that direction.  We want everything that should be on the table to be above table and we want only the things that should be secrets kept secret.  Nothing more.  

I have not meticulously followed the debate and have not rigorously Googled all these questions.  I’m just airing where I currently happen to be with these 5 basic questions.

First question: What is a realistic appraisal of the effectiveness of drone strikes in terms of actually killing terrorists versus innocent civilians?

Is it the implausible 100 percent as though anyone vaguely associated with a known terrorist is guilty by association as the Obama administration seems to want to defend? 

Or is it the equally implausible mere 4 percent as though our government (Obama specifically) is that incompetent or wildly negligent that they would kill 96 percent innocent civilians just to get a mere 4 percent of terrorists?

Question 2, (and this is related to question 1): I believe Barack Obama is a morally competent, intelligent person that generally is going to side with the most liberal side of these debates if he can. But he's obviously a pragmatist who will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good even if that means making the most of evil options. That will not satisfy many liberals who have no problem with the perfect being the enemy of the good and who will not tolerate any deviation from their ideal.  I’m not going to address that particular attitude here.

But for the rest of us, the question still remains is there any evidence to suggest that Barack Obama has gone off the deep end on this particular issue and fallen prey to an unfortunate continuation of the same fear based train of self justifications that the Bush administration left us with? That is aside from the obvious that there is a moral and legal conclusion that we don't like. Evidence of this nature might entail Obama using flagrantly irrational arguments when addressing the issue of drone strikes.  Although we might run into the issue that he may have other justifications that are not popularly well received and so he may be guarding his actual rationale which may actually technically be a legitimate moral case.

Which leads to my next question (#3). Is it actually the case that sending in SEAL Team 6 or some other task force to take out the same terrorist targets would entail many of the same casualties and moral difficulties that we'd be faced with in terms of targeted drone strikes? Might drone strikes actually be a better option, all things considered? I could imagine this being the case however I don't think I have enough information to properly judge at this time. It does seem though that there is an irrational aversion to the “robot death from the sky” motif even if it just so happens to be that more evil is actually caused by putting boots on the ground.  A painful, cold metal needle stuck in your arm may actually produce better results than surrounding yourself with the warm fuzzies of your family praying for your health.  

Which leads to my next question about blow back (#4).  I happened to be a conservative Christian during the first half of the Bush years but eventually I came to the conclusion along with many liberals that we were creating more terrorists than we were killing by invading nations.  That’s what all our government agencies who’d actually studied the matter seemed to be consistently reporting and it seemed like a great argument to do something else that’s much more efficient.  Is that option targeted drone strikes?

There's still an issue with blow back when it comes to drone strikes, however one wonders if it is as bad. Is it actually an analogous situation or are there important differences?  The Obama administration seems to think that they're stuck in a position where they don't have a choice.  That this blow back is just part of the negative column on the moral and national security balance sheet that we have to accept.  Are we really in a situation where short term necessities force us to keep kicking an ever growing can down the road until future administrations inherit a tidal wave so big something really horrible happens later?

It may well be the case that full scale war is a necessary evil and that targeted drone strikes are also a necessary evil.  It's just the drones are a much lesser necessary evil. However it's worth noting that war set a really low bar to begin with. At the end of the day it’s still an evil in the world that our government is perpetrating on our behalf and of course the people directly affected are not necessarily going to sympathize.  How could they?

And last question (#5):  Are critics of drone strikes really suggesting that perhaps we just shouldn't be doing anything at all? Or is there some other tried and true method that we're just simply not implementing and if that's the case why is that? Why would someone like Obama opt out of a better option? 

Closing thoughts:  

I’m not going to be hysterical over this.  Would it be technically legal for Obama to label Donald Trump’s hair a threat to national security and send a drone after it (with Trump as an “unfortunate” casualty of merely being associated with his hair)?  Maybe the legal language at this point is vague enough to include that possibility.  But I’m also not afraid Obama’s going on random killing rampages for personal vendettas (otherwise Fox News would be a hole in the ground in more than just ideological terms) and that in all likelihood, it just means the language needs to be codified properly, even if that is technically difficult to do.  Sometimes we can play the game much more skillfully than we can articulate the rules.  The job probably needs to be done in some way and it’s just a matter of balancing the leeway to actually get the job done with a fair measure of responsibility according to our other values.
If it really was illegal and immoral our government would probably just be doing it anyway under our noses and no one would have the power to stop them.  We would know even less and there’d be even more abuses to the system.  At least, on these terms, we have the opportunity to possibly make adjustments through the sloth of our democracy.  We should make the most of it for our sake and for the sake of the lives of foreign people we are drastically affecting.