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.


The Nerd said...

"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."
But that is a creation without a Klondike Bar, and as you yourself said: "What wouldn’t Jesus do for that Klondike bar?"
Checkmate, atheist!

Ben Schuldt said...

Seems to me that Jesus is more into Butterfingers.

ofgrace said...

I am a Christian, but I have found the explanations of many modern would-be Christian apologists for the problem of evil and suffering, the nature of the Atonement, explanations of the nature of Final Judgment, etc., to be seriously wanting and not conforming to the vision of God revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. This dissatisfaction led me not to apatheism, but to Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, however.

Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian, David Bentley Hart, has written on the problem of evil from an Orthodox perspective in his book,Doors of the Sea. If you haven't read it, you might find it a refreshing departure from the unsatisfying rhetoric on this subject from many modern Christians. It is one of my all-time favorite apologies for a genuinely Christian response to this issue.

I don't see much exploration or critique of Eastern Orthodox Christian perspectives at your site, but admittedly haven't had time to look at much and could have missed it. You seem mainly to be reacting to western Christian theologies (e.g., Reformed "Penal Substitution" theory, which I agree is a morally repugnant explanation for why Jesus had to die on the Cross). I have found the Orthodox teaching to be much more morally coherent. That is not to say it will satisfy all human logic, but at least I don't believe that, properly understood in its own context, it will fly in the face of everyone's intuitive moral sense of right and wrong!