Thanks to alejandro for directing me to his own take on Dembski’s theodicy, discussed in the previous post. You can find his thoughts here. I liked his summary of the problem of evil:

This article discusses that old chestnut, the problem of evil. My own opinion on the problem of evil is simple: For someone with no previous commitment to religion that examines impartially the evidence for and against it, it is pretty damning evidence against the existence of God. For someone who is already firmly religious, it is not a contradiction to his religion; he claim can always be made that there is a secret and unknowable divine purpose for all the evil and suffering in the world. I think there is nothing more the theist can say. Any concrete, explicit rationailization offered for evil will be more or less easily refuted as implausible, and usually as callous also.

Well said. Now go read the whole post!

Comments

  1. #1 Alejandro
    May 31, 2006

    Thanks for the link! I am a long-time reader and enjoyer of your blog.

    Brandon of the blog Siris wrote a follow-up post to mine with a more lengthy theological criticism of Dembski (from a Christian point of view), which may also be of interest.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    May 31, 2006

    Alejandro,

    If you don’t believe in God, then why do you believe in evil?

  3. #3 Alejandro
    June 1, 2006

    I do not use often the word “evil” precisely because of its religious connotations, but it is the standard terminology for this objection to the existence of God and so I have used it in this post. Whether we are religious or not, it is an obvious datum that there are many things in the world that are, prima facie, not perfectly good from a human point of view. (Viruses, earthquakes, and so on). Whether we call them “evils” or not does not diminish the question for the believer of how is this possible if the universe is created by a deity that shares some of our ethical standards.

    In my comments to Brandonīs post I used the word “evil” for human actions as well. This is something I dislike as well (better to talk of actions that are harmful or wrong) but I was going along with his terminology and posing an internal question to his theological views, not an external one.

  4. #4 mr.ed
    June 1, 2006

    Many causes need a boogeyman to save their adherents from. It sure works for religions and politics.

  5. #5 Joseph Smigelski
    June 1, 2006

    As I commented on another of these blogs, I think the problem people are having with the word “evil” is a semantic one. Tsunamis, for example, aren’t really evil; they are natural occurrences, just as the sun “rising” every day. The death, destruction, and heartache caused by tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. are not really “evil” either, even though it is understandable why we might think so. As one of the commenters above pointed out, belief in the concept of evil, in some minds, implies the existence of a Devil, which goes hand in hand with a corresponding belief in God. I suggest using the term “human suffering” instead of “evil.” I don’t believe in a personal God who is looking after us; neither do I believe in the Devil. However, human suffering is obvious to all, and does not require supernatural aid.

  6. #6 mk
    June 1, 2006

    I saw the word Theodicy in the title and began to laugh because, well I mis-read it. I thought you had coined a new term…Theidiocy! Oh well. Hey, wait, that means I just did! Cool.

  7. #7 mk
    June 1, 2006

    Actually, now that I’ve given it a little more thought, that word (Theidiocy) is really just too easy. Someone has most certainly coined that term before today. I’ll stop pattimg myself on the back now. Darn.

  8. #8 Anonymous
    June 2, 2006

    Jason, Alejandro, I’m sorry, but I have to disagree again.

    For someone with no previous commitment to religion that examines impartially the evidence for and against it, it is pretty damning evidence against the existence of God.

    I would say this is true only if this someone also has some very specific ideas about what terms like evil, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence mean. And in that case it would be an argument only for the non-existence of a deity that had those specific characteristics.

    This, I think, is the crux of the problem here. Alejandro, you wrote,

    I do not use often the word “evil” precisely because of its religious connotations, but it is the standard terminology for this objection to the existence of God and so I have used it in this post. Whether we are religious or not, it is an obvious datum that there are many things in the world that are, prima facie, not perfectly good from a human point of view. (Viruses, earthquakes, and so on). Whether we call them “evils” or not does not diminish the question for the believer of how is this possible if the universe is created by a deity that shares some of our ethical standards.

    You start off well, noting that “evil” has all sorts of fuzzy meanings that make it hard to pin down, and so difficult to use with any sort of precision. Unfortunately you forgot that precisely the same thing can be said of “good.” You describe disease and natural disaster as “not perfectly good from a human point of view.” I can’t argue with that assessment, but I have to point out that “not good” in that context means “undesirable or tragic.” It does not mean “immoral and wrong.” An earthquake has no moral content. Thus, to then relate such things to human ethical standards is fallacious. It’s not comparing the same sorts of things.

    This is a classic problem of logical equivocation. I don’t think you did it on purpose, more that you didn’t notice you were doing it.

    For someone who is already firmly religious, it is not a contradiction to his religion; he claim can always be made that there is a secret and unknowable divine purpose for all the evil and suffering in the world.

    Such an argument can always be made, but very few thoughtful theists make it. A case can be made that, if God does exist, his perspective on the world must be very different from the mortal human perspective. And so expecting something designed by God to follow human design standards is arguably not very realistic.

    This, BTW, is one of Mr. Dembski’s primary flaws: he expects that humans would recognize a project designed by a cosmic being. That’s probably silly, and most scholarly Christian thinkers don’t go there. Still, scholarly answers to the Problem of Evil seldom resort to the appeal to mystery either. Instead they tend to revolve around two different themes:

    A) The concept of omnipotence. This is the most common approach. We see it in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, C.S. Lewis, John Cobb, and many others. The exact form varies. Lewis, for example, argues that “omnipotent” is not the same as “illogical.” In particular, since God gave humans free will He can not then restrict their freedom, even when they freely choose evil. It is logically impossible to be both free and not-free. As Lewis wrote, “It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

    Process theology is a more modern strain in Christianity, and it says that God is not omnipotent at all. Process thinkers view God as acting in the world more through “persuasion” than through fiat. They aren’t deists – their God is very much involved in the affairs of the world. But they view him as a pull, not as a push. So the Problem of Evil is no problem at all for these Christians.

    B) The concept of omnibenevolence. This approach is less common than the first, but still has adherents – mostly among conservative Christians, though not exclusively. I’ve seen it put most concisely as “omnibenevolent does not mean unibenevolent.” This argument begins with the word itself: omnibenevolent means, literally, “benevolent to all,” or “entirely benevolent,” depending on how you unpack it. “Benevolent,” in turn, means literally “well-wishing,” but is more commonly understood to mean something like “loving,” “compassionate,” or “caring.”

    All right, so if we agree that God is “all-loving,” then does that mean that He has to love everyone and everything in exactly the same way? Even we humans can love our children and our siblings in different ways. Surely God has the same ability. This argument is less used than the one from omnipotence partly because it can so easily be distorted into some sort of spiritual elitism (“Mommy always loved me best!”) and partly because it is inherently nebulous, hence not very satisfying to those who crave certainty. Still, it does have its fans.

    In any case, that’s a very long way of pointing out simply that the appeal to mystery, which you seem ready to foist on all theists, is actually fairly rare outside the laity.

  9. #9 Paul S
    June 2, 2006

    Drat. Forgot to sign that last one. You probably figured it out, but that long screed is from me.

  10. #10 Alejandro
    June 2, 2006

    Paul, thanks for your criticism. Unfortunately I don’t have time now to engage your interesting arguments in a substantive way. If you check my blog 5 or 6 days from now I may have written a response by then.

  11. #11 Jim Anderson
    June 4, 2006

    I’ve also addressed some different questions Dembski’s theodicy raises. A sample:

    Dembski is fond of (mis)using the “NFL theorems” to whack at evolution. But “transcendence,” like “emergence,” is its own form of ontological free lunch, raising far more questions than answers. How does a being “transcend?” If God so neatly avoids the pitfalls of causal-temporal logic by transcending the physical world, how can we refer to this sort of God as “good?” Why limit God’s transcendence to only one domain–the causal? Why does not God “transcend” morality as well, eradicating the need for theodicy?

  12. #12 Jim Anderson
    June 4, 2006

    PaulS wrote:

    An earthquake has no moral content. Thus, to then relate such things to human ethical standards is fallacious.

    Ah, but that’s the very question under consideration. If The Fall imbues everything with moral significance, as per Dembski’s reasoning (after Paul, Romans 8), then an earthquake might indeed be “evil.”

    PaulS also wrote:

    In any case, that’s a very long way of pointing out simply that the appeal to mystery, which you seem ready to foist on all theists, is actually fairly rare outside the laity.

    Then Christian theists are more thoughtful than the authors of their founding document. The key Biblical texts on the problem of evil–the Book of Job and Paul’s Roman ramblings–both appeal to the inscrutability of God’s will. “Who are you to judge God?” is the basic sentiment offered in both.

  13. #13 Paul S
    June 4, 2006

    Hi, Jim.

    Ah, but that’s the very question under consideration. If The Fall imbues everything with moral significance, as per Dembski’s reasoning (after Paul, Romans 8), then an earthquake might indeed be “evil.”

    I think the fact that Dembski’s a nutbar isn’t really worth debating. What I’m talking about is Alejandro’s quoted remarks about the problem of evil and how Christians as a group deal with it. I’m not willing to let Dembski be the defining voice for Christianity.

    Then Christian theists are more thoughtful than the authors of their founding document. The key Biblical texts on the problem of evil–the Book of Job and Paul’s Roman ramblings–both appeal to the inscrutability of God’s will. “Who are you to judge God?” is the basic sentiment offered in both.

    Yes, well, they’ve had 2000 years to mull it over. A lot of things have improved in that time.

  14. #14 386sx
    June 4, 2006

    Paul S: You start off well, noting that “evil” has all sorts of fuzzy meanings that make it hard to pin down, and so difficult to use with any sort of precision. Unfortunately you forgot that precisely the same thing can be said of “good.” You describe disease and natural disaster as “not perfectly good from a human point of view.” I can’t argue with that assessment, but I have to point out that “not good” in that context means “undesirable or tragic.” It does not mean “immoral and wrong.” An earthquake has no moral content. Thus, to then relate such things to human ethical standards is fallacious. It’s not comparing the same sorts of things.

    I think you might have the “context” wrong. Let’s say a human created disease and natural disaster. In that case, we’ve just successfully related such things to human ethical standards.

    Paul S: This is a classic problem of logical equivocation. I don’t think you did it on purpose, more that you didn’t notice you were doing it.

    Alejandro: For someone who is already firmly religious, it is not a contradiction to his religion; he claim can always be made that there is a secret and unknowable divine purpose for all the evil and suffering in the world.

    Paul S: Such an argument can always be made, but very few thoughtful theists make it. A case can be made that, if God does exist, his perspective on the world must be very different from the mortal human perspective. And so expecting something designed by God to follow human design standards is arguably not very realistic.

    As you said yourself: “I would say this is true only if this someone also has some very specific ideas about what terms like evil, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence mean.” So big whoopy-do. A case can be made for lots of invisible “iffy”stuff.

  15. #15 Matthew
    June 4, 2006

    You are right, theodicy is absolutely the core issue people have with “God” or whatever word you want to use. And the usual answers are totally unsatisfying. When you figure out the answer to the question posed by theodicy, you’ve figured out life itself.

  16. #16 Paul S
    June 6, 2006

    Let’s say a human created disease and natural disaster. In that case, we’ve just successfully related such things to human ethical standards.

    Yes, and then you’ve framed the problem of evil in completely human terms and left God completely in the clear. Is that what you want to do?

    Now about this human who created disease and natural disaster: did you happen to get his name?

    As you said yourself: “I would say this is true only if this someone also has some very specific ideas about what terms like evil, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence mean.” So big whoopy-do. A case can be made for lots of invisible “iffy”stuff.

    Yes, of course. What’s your point?

    My point was, first, that the appeal to mystery is not completely without a logical foundation. If we are talking about an infinite cosmic being then it would be pretty silly to suppose that we’re going to have a good grasp of such a being’s plans. The conclusion follows naturally from the premise. The appeal to mystery is not often used by modern theists, but that’s mainly because it’s unsatisfying, not because it’s illogical.

    Second, where you quote me specifically I’m pointing out that ANY conception of God for the purposes of theodicy must be specific and narrow – and that therefore it can’t claim to apply to any more than a small fraction of the diverse conceptions current in modern Christianity.

    So yes, I’ll stand by those words, and wonder what difficulty you have with them.

  17. #17 386sx
    June 6, 2006

    Now about this human who created disease and natural disaster: did you happen to get his name?

    Gee, I dunno sir. I didn’t realize you were just playing games because you sounded so intelligent and all. Have a good day!

  18. #18 Paul S
    June 7, 2006

    386, really. You talk about a human creating disease and natural disaster, and then you accuse me of playing games when I call you on it, and storm off in a huff?

    If you feel you can address the points I’m actually making, I’ll look forward to reading it.

  19. #19 386sx
    June 7, 2006

    Paul S, I’m not storming off in a huff. And, I don’t feel I can address the points you’re actually making. (Frankly I think you’re just goofing off a little.) Cheers!

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