Wednesday, February 2, 2011

RE: The Evidential Problem of Evil

Cristofer Urlaub, he of the awesome glasses, runs a blog.

After he commented on a post of mine, I left a comment on a post of his, in a sense of reciprocation. My comment questioned the justifications he had presented for the "Problem of Evil". Apparently, thought, my arguments consisted of something known as the "Evidential Problem of Evil". I'd never heard of this distinction before, but it makes sense. The LPoE attempts to use formal logical deduction to show that a wholly good, all powerful, all knowing god cannot exist, given that there is evil. The EPoE, in comparison, only shows that it is unlikely that a perfect god exists, given the state of the world around us.

The response Urlaub gave to the problem of evil was the standard one of "free will". There's a number of objections that could be raised to the existence of free will in a universe with an omniscient, omnipotent creator. The God of Christianity is traditionally depicted as not only being completely aware of everything, not just what is happening now, but what will happen in the future, which kind of throws a monkey wrench in the idea of free will. The God of the bible, though, is also said to have a "plan". This plan is vague and ill defined, but it's there. One of the easiest ways to understand this problem is simply to think of Judas. Yes, he's reviled for betraying Jesus, but according to Christian doctrine, Jesus' suffering on the cross  is part of god's plan. He even knew, before hand, that he would be betrayed. Judas was nothing but a pawn in god's game. What does that say about his free will, and the free will of all humans?

But I'm getting off track. Urlaub promised a response to the Evidential Problem of Evil, and he delivered.

His response is divided up into several sections. Part of his claim is that there are different reasons for different examples of human suffering, so it's unfair for atheists to criticize one response for not explaining something it was never intended to, but I don't think any of these responses hold water. I intend to show the holes in every one of them.

Consequences of Sin:

Urlaub says that he doesn't believe in original sin, something that suprised me. I've always taken that as a central doctrine of Christian faith. But apparently he's a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, an subset of Christianity that I'm not entirely familiar with. I was raised Protestant (Methodist, actually.), so that's the denomination I have the most understanding of. Maybe it's true that the Mormons don't subscribe to original sin. If they don't, I have to say I'm glad. It's always struck me as a disgusting doctrine, the idea that we're punished for the sins of our ancestors, something we had no part in.

But (and there's always a but) he says that he believes humans are innately, to some degree, sinful, and therefor subject to suffering, sickness, and death. I'll be honest. I don't get it. Are we created ill and commanded to be well? If so, why? Why not just make us without the tendency to sin in the first place?

Besides, his response doesn't resolve the problem. He uses the example of stepping of the side of a building to show that suffering is the natural result of sin, but this falls flat (pun fully intended). Falling off of a building is a logical progression. You step over the side, the roof no longer supports you, gravity takes over, your potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. You encounter a resisting force, the sidewalk, and all of that kinetic energy is released in rapid succession, reducing you to a fine paste. There's no such explanation for how sin generates natural disasters, or genetic diseases.

Now I could write this off as a simple misunderstanding. He meant something else, and I've interpreted him wrong. It happens often enough. But in the very next section, he seriously argues that the earth itself is influenced by sin. That human behavior causes earthquakes.

At this point, I almost stopped reading. Instead, I settled for hitting my keyboard with my face a few times. I can't really express how incredible wrong that notion is. See, we know how earthquakes work. They're not caused by sin. But that's not the only problem, or even the biggest. Think back to 2004. Remember the massive Indonesian tsunami? The one that killed 230,000 people across a dozen countries? Caused by an undersea earthquake. Were all of those 230,000 people sinners? Even the children? Even the Christian missionaries? Or were they just "collateral damage"?

*sigh* Next section.

Works of God, Manifest:

He lists John 9 as an example for the existence of diseases. In this passage, there's a man who has been blind since birth. Jesus' disciples, justifiably, ask what he, or his parents, did to bring him such suffering. Jesus claims that the reason he was born blind is because his purpose is for the works of God to be made manifest. That is, the whole reason he was born blind, and suffered through a life of begging in the streets, is so that Jesus could heal him.


So. God causes (or allows, really the same thing when you're the lord of the universe) huge amounts of human suffering, just so he (or his son, I've never been quite clear on how that trinity thing works) can show off? Urlaub then goes on to suggest that this is all okay, because we agreed to this sort of treatment before we were born.


Okay, leaving aside that I've never heard any Christian doctrine suggesting that we existed before we were born on the planet, that our souls are somehow crammed into fetuses, or something, (Is this LDS doctrine?) I've still got to wonder: on what grounds can it be said that we agreed to this? What was the alternative? Could we disagree? Can you even disagree with a deity? "Sorry Jeff, but I'm sending you to earth to be born with Harlequin type Ichthyosis. You'll suffer horrible as a baby for a few weeks, then die of a massive systemic infection. But it's okay, because this will show my infinite grace and mercy. Somehow."

What do you say to that? "Forgive me, O Lord. Not to question your infinite wisdom, but that's fucking insane." Or do you just nod along, because hey, who's gonna argue with the guy that can cast you into the pit for all eternity?

Also, keep this section in mind for later, when he talks about "Soul Making".

Compensation in the Afterlife:

Urlaub suggests that, not only will we be compensated for any suffering in the afterlife, but that if you die before you are "morally self-aware", you get an automatic ticket to heaven. First off, I think you might want to run that idea by, say, a survivor of the aforementioned 2004 tsunami. But second of all, doesn't this completely undermine the whole point of having earth in the first place? I mean, if you're going to take in innocent children (innocent, despite the fact that all people are apparently created inherently sinful), then why even bother letting people grow up? Why even send people to earth in the first place? Just put everyone in heaven right as they're created. Bam, problem solved.

Keep this section in mind as well.

Soul-making/Irenaean Theodicy:

This is the idea that the whole purpose of our time on earth, for suffering and joy and the whole lot, is to allow us to grown spiritually. Whatever that means. But, look back on the last two sections. In the "Works of God" bit, Urlaub suggests that we were capable of making decisions and agreeing to god's "plan" even before we were sent to earth. To have any measure of informed consent in this process, we would have to be intelligent, adult beings. So why bother sending us to earth? And in the "Compensation in the Afterlife" section, Urlaub states that people who die before moral self-awareness is achieved are automatically accepted into heaven. So why do they not need the spiritual growth? And what was the suffering meant to teach them?

The whole idea behind Urlaub's response was that there are numerous reasons for human suffering, but his explanations for the reasons don't fit together. Instead of forming a cohesive whole, they all cause problems with each other.

Now, this is not to say that I've just, somehow, conclusively proved god (or God, or any kind of deity) doesn't exist. But you've got to admit that the attempted explanations for human suffering all fall flat, leaving God looking like a bit of a sociopath at worst, and incredibly inconsistent and capricious at best.

So why are we supposed to be worshiping this being again?

1 comment:

  1. QT, my most honored adversary, let me first thank you for responding to my post. While I do think you've misunderstood my meaning on a few points, I do see a pattern of open-mindedness and I'm grateful for that. I'll respond just briefly to each point.

    Consequence of Sin - Just to confirm. The LDS church does officially reject the idea of the Original Sin. Mostly for the reasons you describe. Regarding natural disasters, I understand why that would give you pause. I understand and acknowledge the natural processes of plate tectonics, etc, which cause earthquakes, but those natural processes, according to Christian doctrine, exist because our world is fallen and corrupt. The prelapsarian world (the world before the fall of Adam and Eve) was a celestial paradise. It was the arrival of Sin which changed the way the world works. Whether or not this is true is actually irrelevant. The point is that it reconciles the idea of God with the presence of evil in the world. Does this mean everyone who died in the 2004 tsunami were sinners? No. Statistically, I suppose some of them were. However, others were probably done learning here, or were taken for another reason. That was my ending point. You can't take one idea and try to apply it across the board or you get silly ideas like, “All people who died in the 2004 tsunami were sinners.” That's not the case.

    Works of God – To be honest, this idea seems odd to me, too. I'm guessing this argument actually only applies to an extremely small amount of cases since Jesus healed so few people compared to how many have been born disabled throughout history, even if we count healings done by other church officials like Peter, Paul, etc. The only way I can think that this argument would work as it is intended is if the purpose of letting God show off is so that many more people throughout history could be inspired by that story, including the blind man himself. If it serves to develop “faith unto repentance”, than the temporary suffering of one would bring the eternal joy and satisfaction of many, including that one. That makes a little more sense, I think. Also, to the best of my knowledge, the pre-mortal life is a strictly LDS doctrine, though it is biblically supported (KJV). You bring up many interesting questions about its implications, but that a topic that deserves its own post.

    Compensation in the afterlife – I don't think the doctrine of a free ticket for people incapable of moral decisions undermines the purpose of being on Earth, because making moral decisions is not our only purpose here. Again, that deserves its own post, but I wanted to mention that. Also, I don't think we could have been created knowing all things because some facts require first hand experience (Experiential Knowledge).

    Soul-making – I agree that we were intelligent in the pre-mortal life, but let's not confuse “intelligent” with “mature”. I've met many “intelligent” people who are petty and childish and still have a lot to learn about simply being a decent person. I think, in the end, that's what's more important to God. Not how smart you are, but how kind, generous, forgiving, loving, etc, you are.

    In closing, keep in mind that these reasons and explanations were not intended to fit together. They are separate and have nothing to do with each other. For example, if you and I both die today, then the fact that I die because I'm a terrible, unrepentant sinner has nothing to do with the fact that you die because you've learned all you could from this world and it's time for you to “graduate”, so to speak, and move on to something else. As in your example of the 2004 tsunami, I think you are still trying to apply them in a much too broad, general sense, so of course they will cause issues with each other.

    Wow, that got much longer than I thought it would. Sorry about that. Let me say that I have a lot of respect for you and I enjoy hearing your insights.