Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Hell

A good while back I had an exchange with a conservative Christian critic of my book, who essentially accused me of being inconsistent in my treatment of the problem of evil and what Marilyn McCord Adams has dubbed the problem of hell (I reprinted the substance of my reply on this blog back in January of 2009). I was reminded of that exchange recently, because my philosophy of religion class has been considering the problem of evil and the problem of hell back-to-back.


While the two problems are very similar, they are also fundamentally different. In this post I’d like to consider the problems side-by-side, highlight both their similarities and their differences.

Epicurus offered a classic formulation of the problem of evil in the following terms:

Is (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Not long ago, Randy Olds articulated the problem of hell simply by retooling this epicurean argument :
Is God willing to put an end to the torments of Hell, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then how can Hell possibly last for all eternity?
In both cases, there is an argument to the effect that belief in an omnipotent and perfectly good God is incompatible with something else—either the existence of evil, or the existence of an eternal hell.

Now, an enormous difference between the two problems rests in the following fact: The existence of evil is a matter of experience, whereas the existence of hell is a matter of doctrine. That is, all of us have encountered in our lives, either directly or indirectly, cases of cruelty, suffering, pointless death, and the like. There is no denying that children starve by the hundreds of thousands. There is no denying that bifurcating ideologies lead to gruesome atrocities. There is no denying that diseases cut promising lives short, that natural disasters bring untold suffering.

And so, to deny the existence of evil requires that we say of all of these horrors that they really aren’t evil after all. Some theists, confronted with the problem of reconciling evil with their faith in an almighty and benevolent God, do seem drawn to just such a move. When Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on a supposed pact with the devil that Haitian rebels had made generations ago, we see the ugliest fruits of this kind of theodicy. Horrors are baptized. Victims are blamed. God is vindicated at the expense of doing violence to human dignity.

Denying the existence of hell requires nothing of the kind. And while some Christians argue that it requires denying the clear teaching of Scripture, even this is a dubious claim—as, I think, Robin Parry (writing as Gregory McDonald) has argued quite powerfully in The Evangelical Universalist.

Another enormous difference between the problem of evil and the problem of hell is that the problem of evil is posed in terms of finite, terrestrial evils—evils that, if God exists, do not have the final word in the lives of those who suffer them. If God exists and is infinite in power and benevolence, then there is reason to hope that even the worst terrestrial evils will being redeemed.

As Marilyn McCord Adams has so powerfully argued, there are really two problems of evil: One is explaining why God would permit evils in the first place; the second is explaining how God can be good to the victims of the worst of those evils, the ones Adams calls “horrors.” Adams offers a compelling account of how God might “defeat” even the worst finite evils, so as to make the lives of those who suffer them well worth living. Her account doesn’t solve the first problem of accounting for evil in the first place, but the point I want to make here is that eternal hell is by definition suffering and sin that endures eternally and so is never redeemed.

As such, it seems that the second problem of evil becomes, in relation to hell, seemingly insurmountable. In effect, the doctrine of hell holds that there are some evils that endure eternally, evils that God either cannot or will not redeem, and so remain forever as a blight on the divine creation.

Seen in this light, belief in the doctrine of hell seems to be a far more serious threat to belief in an almighty God of love than does the reality of any finite evil.

Nevertheless, there are those who seek to cling to the doctrine of hell and integrate it with their theistic faith. The main aim of That Damned Book (my forthcoming book co-authored with John Kronen) is to show that these efforts just don’t work.

30 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I'm hoping to ready Marilyn McCord Adams someday, as soon as I get through the giant pile of books I have to read already. Any idea when That Damned Book will be published?

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  2. Evan,

    The manuscript for That Damned Book (whose actual working title is "God's Final Victory"), is due at the publisher in February. The turnaround after that depends on a number of factors--including the time it takes to generate an index once the page proofs are ready. There are also marketing factors that impact release date.

    I would think that it would be less than a year between manuscript delivery and release, but I can't say for sure. I believe, however, that the hardcover will be released first--and priced for library and academic sales. And so it may be a fair bit more than a year before a more affordable trade paperback is available.

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  3. Well, I am a student at Yale, so I imagine I might be able to get the book through our library system.

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  4. I think your right about the differences between the two problems, and about the defensibility of theism from the standard arguments from evil.

    However, I think there is another line of argument that might be a bit more perilous to the theistic position. Following Ms. Adams, I tend to think that the most interesting evils are what she terms 'horrendous evils' (sorry if that sounded macabre). They are interesting because there effect is to render the mortal life of the participant utterly miserable and worthless. Adams' primary example is a mother's murdering of her child in the midst of a psychotic break. Such an act might render life for the mother unbearably painful. Of course, Adams believes that a doctrine of universal redemption can answer these evils, but I'm less convinced than she that her arguments are successful.

    My reason for doubting it is based on John Rawls' view of justice as fairness. If we take the creation of a political state on Rawls' view as a model for the creation of a universe, then it might be reasonable to assume that just as principles for a just society must be defensible from behind the veil of ignorance. If that is right, then some analogue of Rawls' difference principle would seem to hold for the moral universe as well. If so, then it seems hard to imagine why anyone would agree to live in a universe where they might be the victim of horrendous evil.

    I recognize that your busy at the end of the semester like the rest of us in academe, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on this argument if you ever have time to think about it.

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  5. Hi Eric,

    I think it’s pretty clear that the atheistic argument from the evil of hell succeeds. If hell exists then God does not exist. If hell exists then a not so perfect demiurge exists, or rather, not to mince words, a quite evil demiurge exists, but not God. God and hell cannot both exist. Hell does not fit within a theistic reality.

    On the other hand I would here to offer an argument for the existence of hell in a theistic reality, but in a special sense of “existence”. This special sense works as follows: If X exists, then instead of thinking of the absence of X, it is sometimes more practical to think of the “existence” of something that is really this absence (let’s call ab-of-X), while fully well knowing that what is really there is not an ab-of-X but only the absence of X.

    Let me first introduce a couple examples of this special sense of “existence”, before tackling hell. The first example comes from physics and the second from my own spiritual experience.

    In semiconductor physics we learn that a semiconductor is a lattice of atoms in which sometimes a free electron temporarily visits some atom, and in which, conversely, sometimes an electron is missing from some atom. When an electron is missing we have a “hole”, which, given the existence of N positively charged protons in the atom’s nucleus but only N-1 negatively charged electrons in its shell, appears as a local positive charge. If an external electric field is applied then an electron from some neighboring atom easily moves in to fill the initial hole, thus producing a hole in the neighboring atom and giving the impression that the original hole has moved in the opposite direction a free electron would move. To make a long story short, it turns out that the hole (which is really the absence of an electron) behaves exactly as if it were an electron with positive charge. Thus scientists routinely think and make calculations about semiconductors as if not only free electrons but also free holes actually existed.

    [continued next]

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  6. [continued from above]

    Now here is a case out of my own spiritual experience of life. It turns out that in the religious discourse in Greece people speak with the same familiarity of Satan as they speak of God or the Saints. Now for a long time I thought that this is rather unsophisticated and populist, because, for me, it is clear that there is no such thing as a person in whom God is utterly missing and who therefore instantiates absolute and fundamentally lost/unrepentant evil. But religion is a practical business, and lately I have found that it is sometimes useful to assume the existence of Satan, even while knowing there is no such thing. Actually I have found that one can experience the visits of Satan in one’s life, and can even enumerate the various personalities he assumes. So there is the Deceiver who tries to convince one that one’s will is different than what it really is, the Fear-monger who inserts fear into one’s heart when one is about to choose what one really wills, and perhaps most pernicious than all the Pride-peddler who inserts into one’s liver self-righteous anger as well as dreams of future personal glory. Well, since I started personifying these negative forces in my spiritual life as being visits of Satan I have found it much easier to brush them aside. I feel that by actually illuminating and staring at Satan, thus realizing that he is just a repulsive parasite who likes to grandstand, it’s much easier to ignore him. I actually kind of enjoy to see him squirm when I don’t do his bidding – a bit of schadenfreude which I suppose is justified considering that the little guy doesn’t actually exist. In conclusion, here is a case where actually believing and even focusing one’s experience on a non-existence can be quite useful.

    Finally, I’d suggest, the dogma of hell, as absurd and incoherent within theism it may be, may have its uses when properly understood. The wrong way to understand it is as something to inspire feelings of horror and fear, which supposedly will motivate one into doing all the right things to avoid falling in that place. The right way, perhaps, is this: To realize that as there is such a glorious state as the eternal/timeless/definitive union with God, there is also, at its antipode, the eternal/timeless/definitive separation from God. And as the former is the greatest and most joyful state possible, thus the latter is the most horrific and painful state possible. That state of absolute separation may actually not exist (for God is the ground of all being, and thus there can’t be any being-separated from God) but it may serve a purpose to imagine it does exist. Similarly, for example, there is no such physical state as being in 0 K temperature, but physicists routinely think as if 0 K existed.

    Now, to be clear, the dogma of hell is for me so horrendously ugly, so darkly misguiding, and the spiritual damage it causes so momentous, that I wish it completely disappeared from the religious discourse. On the other hand, arguably, there is some small positive justification for why or how it came to be associated with theism. The same way we say that a hole “exists” namely as the absence of an electron; or we speak of the “presence” of Satan as the absence of the presence of God, we may speak of the “state” of hell as the absence of the state of being with God.

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  7. Hi cheek,

    Let me first argue that many atheists (e.g. William Rowe) commit an error when they single out one particular evil and then argue that there is no justification for it. Perhaps they are right and there is no individual justification for that particular evil. On the other hand the best possible creation may be one where such evils must sometimes obtain. My argument in other words is this: If God is justified in creating a world in which particular evils (including horrendous evils) E1, E2, E3, etc can and will probably obtain, the question about God’s justification for a particular evil Ei that has in fact obtained is meaningless. The atheist philosopher must show why our world as a whole is not justified, and nobody, to my knowledge, has come close to showing this. Indeed the fact that lately atheistic philosophers are using the emotional or intuitive force that comes with describing a single unjustifiable evil (such as a fawn burning in a forest fire), or a single horrendous evil (such as a deranged mother killing her child, or the human toll of the Lisbon earthquake), I think evidences the historical failure of the argument from evil.

    As for using Rawl’s theory of justice, I’d like to point out some potential problems. That theory assumes that all actors in a society are intrinsically the same and have the same needs, value the same things, etc, but this does not hold with creation. God is nothing like intrinsically the same as humans. Nor are humans intrinsically the same as animals. Yet we all share and are stakeholders in creation.

    But let’s overlook these problems. If you, from behind Rawl’s veil of ignorance, were to consider all types of worlds, do you think you would choose a different type of world than the one we exist? If so, which one? I mean I don’t see how Rawl’s theory of justice somehow simplifies or helps focus the argument from evil. Remember that on most theistic theodicies God created the world out of love for us and thus for our own benefit.

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  8. Thanks for the comments, Dianelos. First of all I agree that a Rawlsian theory of justice for world-making would look much different, and require many adjustments to his theory for the establishment of just societies. My interest in using Rawlsian terminology is purely for the sake of ease since his theoretical framework is one the overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers are at least somewhat familiar with.

    Further I agree that the focus on a particular instance of evil in this world shows little promise of advancing the theoretical work in this area. That is not at all what I meant to do. My example was simply meant to clarify the class of evils, horrendous evils, which I (following Adams) meant to engage. I think this class is interesting because its effects are terminal regarding the well-being of its victims in their mortal reality, and that gives their existence in our universe a greater theoretical significance than the existence of more mundane classes of evil.

    My use of the Rawlsian theoretical framework is aimed primarily at the so-called greater good defenses (including the free will defense). Much as Rawls used the framework to dismantle classical utilitarianism on the basis of its failure to afford sufficient weight to the dignity and rights of individual persons, I see promise for the framework in helping to force religious philosophers to take such individual-based concepts seriously in a way that none of the greater good defenses seem to do (with apologies to Adams, who I think does make a good faith effort to move the debate in that direction).

    To answer your question, I'm not sure what universe I would choose to live in, but it is plausible, to my mind anyway, that I would be, at the least, superlatively-hesitant (meaning just short of outright unwilling) to choose a universe in which I might be the victim of horrendous evil, even if that evil would ultimately be redeemed eschatologically. However, I do not think this approach is likely to yield satisfactory forms either of the logical or evidential arguments from evil. I am as doubtful of the eventual success of any such argument as I am for the success of any of the classical proofs of theism. For me, the interesting work to be done in this area (by theists, atheists, and skeptics alike) is that which helps to clear up the concepts under discussion and help us recognize at least some of the relationships between them.

    For the sake of divulging fully my stake in this discussion, I'm an active Christian (Baptist by upbringing but now Congregationalist) with serious doubts about the majority of Christian metaphysical commitments and about the importance of those commitments for realizing the Kingdom of Heaven in our lives and communities. I say all that just because I find such information is often helpful in understanding how (and even why, though that way is treacherous) people are using concepts and what ends they are after in discussion.

    Grace and Peace.

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  9. Dianelos,

    I also appreciate your discussion of the psychological and spiritual utility of metaphorical concepts like hell and satan. I'd add, though, that concepts like heaven or even g-d can be similarly useful regardless of what one concludes about the actual existence of either.

    Further, just as we can realize (however imperfectly) the Kingdom of Heaven in our mortal lives, I think many people do experience something that might be worthy of the name 'Hell' in this plane, and perhaps, for such people, the concept hell could have a positive function in recognizing where they have been and how they were saved (or saved themselves) from that existence.

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  10. Hi cheek,

    I like the problem from evil, because if God exists than any advance with this problem will only help deepen our understanding of God. And given God’s perfection any such deepening of understanding can only be precious.

    Incidentally, I am not familiar with Adams’s thoughts about horrendous evils. Any easy way to get at them?

    You write: “I'm not sure what universe I would choose to live in, but it is plausible, to my mind anyway, that I would be, at the least, superlatively-hesitant (meaning just short of outright unwilling) to choose a universe in which I might be the victim of horrendous evil, even if that evil would ultimately be redeemed eschatologically.

    I don’t understand that. Assume it is the case that the best possible world (in some appropriate sense) is one where horrendous evils must sometimes befall some of us. Indeed if God exists then that must be the case, because in reality horrendous evils do sometimes happen. So, if that’s the case and you knew that that’s the case, why would you be unwilling to choose that best of all possible worlds?

    At this juncture I’d like to press the point. Suppose that the best possible world is one where not only horrendous evils but also eschatologically unredeemable horrendous evils must sometimes befall some of us. Then, rationally, one should choose that world even at the risk of being the victim of such unredeemable horrendous evil. What I am saying is that even if it could be proven that in our world there exist unredeemable horrendous evils it would still not be sufficient to make the argument from evil work. Thus all the arguments to this effect strike me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

    I’d say that the useful path to proceed with the problem of evil (for all concerned, theist, atheist, or agnostic) is to consider the world as a whole, and ponder the following questions: 1) What might “best possible world” mean from God’s point of view? 2) Can a world in which horrendous evils must sometimes happen be the best possible world? Or – if one dislikes the expression “best possible world” – the questions would be: What kind of world would God wish to create? Can that world be such that horrendous evils must sometimes happen?

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  11. Hi again cheek,

    You write: “I also appreciate your discussion of the psychological and spiritual utility of metaphorical concepts like *hell* and *satan*.

    I did not mean that the existence of hell and Satan when understood metaphorically can be quite useful. Rather I meant that there is a kind of existence which is instantiated by the absence of an actual existent. It’s kind of a parasitic existence, but existence nonetheless. One can discover such existents as well as their properties, one can make sense of one’s life by thinking about them, and one can even directly experience them.

    I'd add, though, that concepts like *heaven* or even *g-d* can be similarly useful regardless of what one concludes about the actual existence of either.

    But finding out about the parasitic existence of hell or Satan only serves to strengthen one’s sense of the reality or solidity of the existents they are parasitic upon, and also increase one’s appreciation of them. Like the way the presence of shadows help one appreciate the form of a solid. So, paradoxically, the existence of hell or Satan in our experience of life can be seen as being good.

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  12. The reason I'm not sure I would choose to live in what you call 'the best of all possible worlds' is because, as you go on to suggest, the sense in which that world is "best" is not clear. From the original position (modified in whatever ways necessary to make it applicable to world-making) I would have no way of knowing my place in any possible world, so even if that world were the best in some objective sense (for example, according to g-d's values) or even from the vast majority of subjective perspectives, it seems implausible to say that it's the best possible world from the subjective perspective of someone who becomes the victim of horrendous evil in that world. Since I would not know from behind the veil of ignorance whether or not I was to be such a person in that world, then it does seem rational to hedge my bets and choose a possible world with lower risk and lower reward. This is what I mean when I say that I think this theoretical framework causes problems for greater good defenses. It forces them to show not simply why this world is better tout court, but also why it is better from the subjective experience of each person in that world. If we take the basic dignity of all persons as a given (something like Kant's theory of persons as ends in themselves) then this is a big problem for greater good defenses just as Rawls' theory was a big problem for classical utilitarianism. (I'll leave the definition of person vague. I tend to think that the horrific suffering of non-human animals is relevant to these discussions, but intuitions disagree on that point.)

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  13. Regarding your comments on negative existence, I think I agree with what you're saying. By 'metaphorical' I only meant to capture the sense in which the negative entity Satan is personified in the individual's mind. I did not mean it to suggest any weakening of the "existence" of the absence.

    Also, I did not mean to suggest that the experience of "Hell" was good or bad, just that it was a possibility. In contemporary theology, especially evangelical theology, it seems as though the tendency is to limit the application of concepts like heaven and hell to eternity. I think this tendency marks both an interpretive and conceptual error. Interpretatively, the Kingdom of Heaven referenced in Matthew 5-7 is clearly present on Earth in some sense even if its existence also transcends mortal reality. Conceptually, I think it is a mistake because while the concept of eternal hell is incompatible with the Christian concept of G-d, the compatibility of spatio-temporal hell or hells is probably reducible to, or at least co-extensive with, the problem of evil itself

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  14. Cheek,

    You write: “Since I would not know from behind the veil of ignorance whether or not I was to be such a person in that world, then it does seem rational to hedge my bets and choose a possible world with lower risk and lower reward.

    I agree that it does seem rational. But is it really? Let’s see. Suppose the all-good, all-powerful and all-knowledgeable God chooses to create a world where horrendous evils (even perhaps unredeemable horrendous evils) must sometimes obtain. And suppose some less than perfect god chooses to create a lower risk lower reward world. From behind the veil of ignorance which world is it more rational to choose? I can honestly say that I personally find it far more rational to choose the former world for me, even if only “on faith”. What about you?

    I tend to think that the horrific suffering of non-human animals is relevant to these discussions, but intuitions disagree on that point.

    I have a neat, and I find also beautiful, solution to the problem from animal suffering, which unfortunately nobody seems to find convincing, including Peter Singer to whom I once emailed the idea. You can find it here or here http://tinyurl.com/2c6bc8w

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  15. Dianelos,
    I'll have to think about that one for a bit. It "feels" like there's something slick going on in that scenario (kind of like the Ontological Argument), but I can't immediately put my finger on what I think is wrong with it...

    In the mean time, to answer your earlier question, Adams' Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God is a fantastic work, maybe my all time favorite on this entire subject. Its available in paperback from Amazon for under $20 if you don't have access to a university library.

    As for your argument regarding animal suffering, while I find it rather ingenious, I don't actually buy it. Part of it comes down to how we interpret the available evidence, but I don't see any reason to think that animals aren't conscious, which I think would be necessary to deny their subjecthood. (Contrast that to our relatively better evidence that they lack either self-consciousness or freedom so that they would lack agency.)

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  16. Dianelos,
    Ok, I've given it some further thought, and I think I've landed on why I don't think your scenario will be particularly fruitful. You write:

    Suppose the all-good, all-powerful and all-knowledgeable God chooses to create a world where horrendous evils (even perhaps unredeemable horrendous evils) must sometimes obtain. And suppose some less than perfect god chooses to create a lower risk lower reward world. From behind the veil of ignorance which world is it more rational to choose?

    The problem with this scenario for evaluating intuitions regarding the effectiveness of arguments from evil is that what is at stake in such arguments is the compatibility of a world like our own and a loving, all-powerful g-d. As such, I can choose the first world in the scenario just like you did but still not learn anything about the compatibility of such a g-d and this world since we are simply assuming that this world was created by such a g-d, which entails that the two are compatible. In order to isolate the right intuitions regarding the rational choice, we would need a scenario that did not assume any such compatibility. I can't think of one at the moment, but I'll keep at it.

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  17. (reposted)

    Cheek,

    You write: “As such, I can choose the first world in the scenario just like you did but still not learn anything about the compatibility of such a g-d and this world since we are simply assuming that this world was created by such a g-d, which entails that the two are compatible.

    I think we do learn something. The theistic hypothesis, which the argument from evil studies, is that God (by which we always understand the perfect being, and hence the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowledgeable being) would create a world like ours, namely one with sometimes horrendous and (to assume the worse case from theism’s point of view) perhaps unredeemable evils. My original argument was that the efforts of contemporary philosophers to show that some individual evil is unjustifiable are a waste of time, because even if successful they are not relevant. What’s relevant is whether the world in which such individual evils do happen is justifiable or not. At this stage you suggested the relevance of Rawls’ theory of justice for comparing societies when applied to the case of comparing worlds. We agreed there are several details to be taken care of, but then I went ahead anyway and asked what the rational choice would be if one could choose between the world according to the theistic hypothesis and a less risky less rewarding world created by a less perfect deity. It seems we agree that the rational choice would be for the former world, even though we risk suffering horrendous and perhaps unredeemable evils in it.

    [continued next]

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  18. Cheek,

    On the issue of the problem from animal suffering you write: “As for your argument regarding animal suffering, while I find it rather ingenious, I don't actually buy it.

    Great. One more unconvinced person.

    Part of it comes down to how we interpret the available evidence, but I don't see any reason to think that animals aren't conscious, which I think would be necessary to deny their subjecthood.

    But I am not denying their subjecthood. Rather I accept that animals are conscious (e.g. that when an animal seems to be suffering then there is a subject experiencing that suffering), but I am hypothesizing that the subject of the conscious life of animals is God. This hypothesis, as far as I can see, is entirely compatible with all evidence, certainly with all scientific evidence. Nor do I see any conceptual problem with that hypothesis. For example I experience the sensations of both my hands which are quite far apart from each other. Similarly God may experience the sensations of two animals who are far from each other, and therefore may also experience the sensations of all animals.

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  19. I think it is rational to make the first choice inasmuch as if it is ever rational to accept authority, it seems rational to do so in that situation since the authority is that of a perfect being, who loves me perfectly. However, I find it implausible that anyone who loves me perfectly would ever subject me to horrendous evil, especially unredeemable horrendous evil. So the assumptions that lead me to believe the first choice is rational entail (or at the least strongly indicate) the impossibility that I will be the victim of horrendous evil. That does nothing, however, to demonstrate how g-d's supposedly perfect love is extended to the victim of horrendous evil. I don't see how any greater good defense could do so.

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  20. Regarding animals:

    If there were one subject experiencing the consciousness of all animals, then it seems as though we would expect all animals to have similar personalities. However, a look at just the two animals in my living room shows two very different minds at work, with very different responses to identical stimuli. That fact alone suggests multiple subjects to me.

    In any case, I'm enjoying this discussion, thoroughly (though I ought to be spending at least some of the time I'm spending on it finishing my thesis), and I hope you're enjoying a pleasant Sunday as well.

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  21. Cheek,

    You write: “ I think it is rational to make the first choice inasmuch as if it is ever rational to accept authority, it seems rational to do so in that situation since the authority is that of a perfect being, who loves me perfectly. However, I find it implausible that anyone who loves me perfectly would ever subject me to horrendous evil, especially unredeemable horrendous evil. So the assumptions that lead me to believe the first choice is rational entail (or at the least strongly indicate) the impossibility that I will be the victim of horrendous evil.

    I see. Suppose then I insist (after all we are talking hypotheses, which I can define any way I like) that even though you may find it implausible it is the case that a perfect being who loves you and everybody else perfectly has chosen for some unknown reason to create a world where anyone of us risks suffering unredeemable horrendous evil. Would you now choose instead the world created by a less perfect being who loves us less than perfectly but who has created a world where it is quite safe and where we shall never suffer horrendous evils?

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  22. Cheek,

    You write: “If there were one subject experiencing the consciousness of all animals, then it seems as though we would expect all animals to have similar personalities. However, a look at just the two animals in my living room shows two very different minds at work, with very different responses to identical stimuli. That fact alone suggests multiple subjects to me.

    I did not explain the idea well enough. I consider animals to be purely mechanical beings as far as their interactions with their physical environment goes, which of course includes their behavior. So it’s not like when a lion decides to attack one particular sickly gazelle in the herd there is some thinking mind freely making that decision, nor of course that God makes that decision. What concerns me is the suffering of animals, which I hold to be real. That’s why I wrote above about God experiencing the *sensations* of all conscious animals. And when I wrote that “God is the subject of the conscious life of animals”, I did not mean to say that their conscious life is comparable to the conscious life of persons, and thus includes thought, beliefs, freedom of will, moral knowledge, and the rest.

    In any case, I'm enjoying this discussion, thoroughly (though I ought to be spending at least some of the time I'm spending on it finishing my thesis), and I hope you're enjoying a pleasant Sunday as well.

    I am enjoying this discussion very much too, and I too ought to be working more on some other stuff. So here’s an idea: Why not continue this discussion next Sunday? It’s a good day to dedicate some time thinking about God. And good luck with your thesis.

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  23. A prudent and pleasant plan. Peace and grace until then.

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  24. "The existence of evil is a matter of experience, whereas the existence of hell is a matter of doctrine."

    Brilliantly said. I really enjoyed reading your treatment of this topic, I agree with you on all points. I'm looking forward to reading "That Damned Book." ;)

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  25. Cheek,

    I was thinking about the issue of horrendous evils. Can you please check the logic of the following:

    1. A world is morally justified to us when it is rational to choose to live in it over any other world (in Rawls’ sense).

    2. The world we live in is such that some people will suffer horrendous and possibly irredeemable evils.

    3. If God has created the world we live in then it is rational to choose to live in it over any other world. (By “God” I mean the being who is perfect in all respects; St Anselm's definition.)

    Now let's define "theism" as the claim that “God has created the world we live in”. So we can rewrite (3) thus:

    3*. If theism is true then it is rational to choose to live in the world we live in over any other world.

    4. Therefore, if theism is true then the world we live in is morally justified to us. (from 1 and 3*).

    Let’s consider the premises.

    (1) is very plausible. To attack it one would have to argue that even though a rational person would choose to live in the actual world over any other world, the actual world is not morally justified to us.

    (2) specifies our world and states a fact, namely that horrendous evils may befall anyone. It also raises the bar by allowing the existence of unredeemable horrendous evils in our world. Perhaps this is overkill, but the idea is to remove any possibility of counterarguments of the type “You haven’t taken into account evil X”, or more specifically arguments that try to show that some particular horrendous evil cannot possibly be redeemed by God.

    (3) is the proposition we have been discussing previously. Given one’s limited understanding of what is best for one, it looks eminently rational to choose the world God chose to create (on the implicit assumption that God is perfect in all respects and thus loves one perfectly) than any other world a less perfect and less perfectly loving god would choose to create.

    As we have good grounds for believing the premises, it follows that we have good grounds for believing (4) is true.

    Now consider the argument from evil. It comes in many versions, but I claim all its versions (logical or evidential, from moral evil, from animal suffering, from God’s hiddenness, from horrendous evils, etc) has the following form:

    A. If theism is true then the world we live in should be morally justified to us.
    B. The world we live in is not morally justified to us.
    C. Therefore theism is not true.

    (B) must exist in any version of the argument from evil. But (B) contradicts (4), which we now have good grounds to believe is true. Therefore we have good grounds for believing that (B) is false. Therefore we have good grounds for believing that the argument from evil, in any of its many versions, cannot succeed.

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  26. Dianelos,
    Sorry for my late return. The best laid plans of Mice and Men...

    The problem I have with that argument is that (3) could just as easily be re-stated as:
    (3') If theism is true, then the world is morally justified.
    Of course this premise is true. So long as you define 'g-d' to include the right qualities, then the consequent will be obviously entailed by the the antecedent. This is not particularly instructive, though, since the purpose of evaluating arguments from evil is to discover whether or not the classical concept of god is compatible with the phenomenal world. There is certainly a tension between this concept and the existence of horrendous evils, so the work to be done is to discover whether or not these two are in fact incompatible (and thus that no being instantiating god exists) or if they are in fact compatible despite the apparent tension. Your argument does not progress that problem since it simply says that if they are compatible then arguments from evil can't succeed. I agree with that, but I'm not yet convinced by any argument I've read that they are in fact compatible.

    I'd also quibble slightly with your (1). I think that unlike with societal justice, it might be rational to choose not to exist at all over existing in the best possible world if that world turned out to be too risky.

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  27. Dianelos,

    I've decided that my prose explanation was not as clear as it could be, so here's a formalized version. Your first argument goes something like this:

    1. For all things x, if Rx then Jx.
    2. There exists an x such that Hx.
    3. If all the propositions in T are true, then Ra. (Where T is the set of propositions constituting theism and a=this world.)
    *(Necessary assumed premise). If Ra then Ja. (UI from 1).
    4. So if all of T is true, then Ja.

    (4) clearly follows from the premises. The problem though, is that you wouldn't even need to use the argument to prove the conclusion because surely Ja would follow from some subset of T, and since that is the case, we are not even giving logical space to consider whether or not (2) conflicts with some member or subset of T.

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  28. Hi Cheek,

    You write: “(3') If theism is true, then the world is morally justified.
    Of course this premise is true.


    I don’t think this premise is obviously true. Quite on the contrary it isn’t obviously true, and that’s why many people, including theists, seriously consider the argument from evil. That argument purports to discover an internal contradiction in theism, as defined. So theism defines God as perfect in all respects, who perfectly loves each one of us, and who has created the world we exist in. But that world, given its many and sometimes horrendous evils, appears not to be justified to us. Which is the apparent contradiction the argument from evil tries to flesh out.

    What I find remarkable in your idea is that it opens a path to justify something like (3), and thus give one grounds for believing that the argument from evil cannot possibly succeed. The idea is that if one, given theism’s definitions, would rationally choose the actual world (with its many evils including horrendous ones) over any other world, then there can’t be any contradiction between theism’s definitions about the creator of the actual world and the proposition that the actual world is justified to us.

    So long as you define 'g-d' to include the right qualities, then the consequent will be obviously entailed by the the antecedent.

    I don’t think that works. Definitions can build up hypotheses but cannot create truths. Theism can define God’s attributes and define that God has created the actual world, but cannot define that that world is justified to us.

    3. If all the propositions in T are true, then Ra.

    That’s not what the argument says. Rather it defines T as the proposition “a perfect being created a”, and premise (3) is “If T then Ra”.

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    1. Having seen comments by you on other sites it is clear you need educating, your attempts to try and say idealism is true are completely misguided, quantum mechanics does not prove idealism at all you would know this if you bothered to do some proper research into the subject instead of babbling and making yourself look like an uneducated twat. My next point is that qm has nothing to do with consciousness either (due to the fact idealism is false and always has been, always will be)'observer' does not refer to a living thing, but any macroscopic object (a stone can be an observer), consciousness is NOT required. Finally I suggest you ignore dumbfuck Nick Bostrom and his simulation hypothesis, it is actually very obvious that his argument is wrong once you look into it and how it flies in the face of physics completely. So just to recap:

      1. Materialism or naturalism is true, idealism is false.

      2. Bostrom is wrong, also he is a philosopher not a scientist and therefore has no right to comment on anything regarding the nature of the universe.

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  29. Dianelos,
    Here's why I think that the truth of theism entails the the moral justification of the world. Assuming that we define god to include all of the typical attributes, including omnipotence and moral perfection, then we can assume that all of g-d's actions are morally justified. If the definition of god includes being the creator of this world, then one of any extant g-d's actions was creating this world. It seems fair to say that creating this world would be morally justified only if this world is morally justified. Thus, assuming the truth of Theism, since g-d created this world, and all of g-d's actions are morally justified, then we can conclude that this world is morally justified.

    You say that definitions cannot create truths, but that's not quite right. The truth we're talking about here is a conditional truth, such that its relevancy depends on the actual state of affairs, but it's truth is dependent solely upon a relation of concepts.

    I suspect this may just be semantics, but rather than thinking of arguments from evil as seeking a contradiction internal to the definition of god, I find it more helpful to see it as a contradiction between an entailment of that definition and the actual state of affairs. It's just a big game of modus tollens. Given what god is defined to be, we can conclude that if god exists, then the world will be justified. If it turns out that the world is not justified, then god thus defined cannot exist.

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