Dembski’s Theodicy

I have written before that I regard the problem of evil as essentially a decisive refutation of Christianity. It’s not quite logically impossible to reconcile an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God with the sheer quantity of evil and suffering in the world, but it’s pretty close. So when William Dembski posted a 48-page essay entitled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science,” I was intrigued. The word “theodicy,” pronounced to sound like a certain epic poem by Homer, generally refers to the problem of reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil.

The problem of evil is easily stated:

  1. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would not permit evil and suffering to exist unless that evil and suffering were logically necessary to bring about some greater good.
  2. Evil and suffering exist.
  3. At least some of that evil and suffering is not logically necessary for bringing about some greater good.
  4. Therefore, there is no omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

Now, this argument is logically valid. If you accept the three premises you must, as a matter of logic, acept the conclusion as well. So the task of theodicy can be viewed in part as the task of showing that at least one of these premises is false.

There are theodicies that proceed by rejecting premise two. Humans falsely perceive certain events as evil beause of their limited perspective on God’s purposes. I suspect, however, that most people wouild not choose to go down this road. It certainly is not a very satisfying rseponse to the problem of evil, and really amounts to little more than an unwillingness to grapple with the facts of the world as we know them.


Some theodicies proceed by accepting my argument as sound, and concluding that God is not omnipotent after all. God would like to curtail evil and suffering, but for whatever reason is unable to do so. This certainly solves the problem of evil, but only at the cost of seriously compromising Christian orthodoxy. A God limited by something other than an inability to do that which is logically impossible is not the God of traditional Christianity.

If you’re inclined to reject premise one outright, then you will have to explain to me what the words “omnipotent” and “omnibenevolent” mean. Premise one, it seems to me, can be viewed as a definition of those terms.

The Christians with whom I have discussed this issue generally take refuge in premise three. They do not deny that genuine evil and suffering exist, but they do deny that any of that evil is ultimately gratuitous. I find that hard to accept, and to make things concrete I like to focus on birth defects. The day a Christian theologian can explain to me the greater good that can only be obtained by afflicting babies with torturous diseases and horrible deformities is the day I will consider Christianity a live possibility.

Dembski spends much of the first half of his essay finding fault with previous theodicies. Unsurprisingly, I liked this part quite a bit. So what is Dembski’s own solution?

All this is sound Christian theodicy as far as it goes. But a Christian theodicy needs to go further. It needs aditionally to make peace with three claims:

  1. God by wisdom created the world.
  2. God exercises particular providence in the world (e.g. miracles, answers to prayer, and prophecies.)
  3. All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin

Mainstream theology regards the first of these as plausible, the second as problematic, and the third as, frankly, preposterous. I’m going to argue that all three claims are true and can be situated within a coherent Christian theodicy.

Right off the bat we see two problems Dembski’s theodicy must overcome. The first is that paleontology and geology have revealed to us that natural evil and suffering long predate the arrival of humans on the planet. How can human sin be the cause of this suffering if it was going on for hundreds of millions of years prior to humanity’s existence? The second is that it is unclear that the sheer quanitity of evil and suffering in the world is really a morally appropriate response to the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Most of Dembski’s essay is given over to explaining away the first problem (unsuccessfully, as I shall argue). He barely addresses the second one at all. He does assert that only by attributing evil to human sin can we avoid the conclusion that God is a monster. But he does not explain how to avoid that conclusion even if evil is a consequence of human sin.

Of course, the young-Earth solution to the problem is simply to deny what paleontology and other branches of science tell us about the history of the Earth. But Dembski accepts that the Earth is very old and that life has a long history of suffering and death upon it.

So how does he get around the problem? Well, he begins by taking it for granted that God has absolute knowledge of all future contingent propositions. In particular, he knows well before the fact that the Fall is coming. So how should God deal with this fact? Allow me to present a few quotes that I believe capture Dembski’s reasoning here:

In answer, then, to the question why a benevolent God would permit evil, tolerate its continuation, and even invent a form of it (i.e. natural evil), it is to manifest the full consequences of human sin so that when Christ redeems us, we may clearly understand what we have been redeemed from. Without this clarity about the evil we have set in motion, we will always be in danger of reverting back to it because we will not see its gravity. Instead, we will treat it lightly, rationalize it, shift the blame for it – in short, we will fail to recognize the enormity of Christ’s suffering on the Cross to redeem us. In consequence, we will not be moved to repent of our sin and return to God in trust and humility (Page 27).

And:

Christian theism has traditionally regarded God as omnisicient in the sense of possessing perfect knowledge of future contingent propositions and as omnipotent in the sense of being able to act effectively in the world to bring about any result that is not logically possible. Combined with Newcomb’s paradox, divine omniscience and omnipotence now yields an ineresting insight into divine actions, thereby guiding creation along paths that God deems best. In fact, it would display a lack of love and care for the world if such an omniscient and omnipotent creator God did not act preemptively in the world. (Page 31-32)

And:

God’s immediate response to the Fal is therefore not to create anew but to control the damage. In the Fall, humans rebelled against God and thereby invited evil into the world. The challenge God faces in controlling the damage resulting from this original sin is how to make humans realize the full extent of their sin so that, in the fullness of time, they can fully embrace the redemption in Christ and thus experience full release from sin. For this reason, God does not merely allow personal evils (the disordering of our souls and the sins we commit as consequence) to run their course subsequent to the Fall. In addition, God also brings about natural evils (e.g. death, predation, parasitism, disease, draught, famines, earthquakes and hurricanes), letting them run their course prior to the Fall. Thus, God himself disorders the creation, making it defective on purpose God disorders the world not merely as a matter ofjustice (to bring judgment againsthuman sin as required by God’s holiness) but even more significantly as a mater of redemption (to bring humanity to its senses by making us realize the gravity of sin). (Page 39)

I think the reference to Newcomb’s paradox is meant to explain the idea that if there is an agent who has perfect knowledge of all future contingent propositions, then we can meaningfully say that events in the future are the cause of the events in the past. Thus, since God knows humanity will Fall, we can meaningfully say that human sin caused all the suffering and death that preceeded it in time. Dembski spends a great deal of time on Newcomb’s paradox, but as far as I can tell it contributes absolutely nothing to his argument.

So let’s see. God knows humanity will Fall and takes measures to prepare the world for humanity’s ultimate redemption in Christ. As part of this preparation he has to make sure that the consequences of sin are sufficiently terrible that we will be sure to appreciate what we are being redeemed from. But how does it follow, from that starting point, that it is reasonable for God to create six hundred million years of natural evil and suffering in anticipation of the Fall?

If God wanted to impress upon us the awfulness of sin, surely he had a more reasonable course open to him. He could have behaved in the manner clearly implied by Scripture. Specifically, he could have created a perfect world free of suffering and death. Then, when and only when humanity sinned, he could have allowed that primordial perfection to be rent assunder, thereby showing us clearly the effect of sin.

Imagine what that would look like to paleontologists and geologists as they dug deeper into Earth’s past. They would find a long history utterly free of the natural horrors so familiar today. There would be no evidence of major catastrophes or mass extinctions. No evidence of predation or carnivory or one species hunting another to extinction. If we take literally the Biblical injunction against pre-Fall death, then there would be no fossils. Otherwise, we might see just enough fossils to allow for new lives to come into being without having the planet overrun by geometric population growth.

Then, very late in this sequence humanity appears. And almost contemporaneous with this appearance we see paleontological and geological evidence of natural suffering and evil. That would be powerful testimony to the awful consequences of human sin. That would be clear evidence that something of genuine cosmic significance happened when humanity arrived on the scene.

But God didn’t do that, according to Dembski. He talks a lot in his essay about how God is not bound by our normal ideas about cause and effect, and that his perefect knowledge of the future allows him to act preemptively in the past. The fact remains, however, that what He actually did creates so strong an illusion that human sin is not the ultimate cause of natural evil, that a whole lot of smart, sincere Christians, desperate to understand God’s will, have felt the need to abandon significant portions of Christian orthodoxy in order to account for it. Countless others (myself included) have been driven to atheism as a result of this manifest evidence that the world is not superintended by omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

Indeed, the situation has become so confused that Dembski felt compelled to write 48 pages explaining the issue, in the course of which he had to make use of Newcomb’s paradox, subtle distinctions between chronos and kairos (Greek words for different notions of time), an inversion of the usual logic of cause and effect, and numerous other bits of esoterica, just to make his point.

According to Dembski, God had clear motives and intentions in creating natural evil prior to the Fall. The actions He took, again according to Dembski, were completely illogical with respect to those motives. They’re effect has been nearly the opposite of what God intended. He also passed up a perfectly sensible way to behave, one that would have achieved the goal Dembski laid out.

This post is already a bit long, so let me just briefly mention what I described earlier as the second problem with Dembski’s theodicy. He takes it as self-evident that human sin is so terrible that it justifies the sheer quantity of evil and suffering in the world. He is a little unclear about how to interpret the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. For much of the essay he seems to treat Adam and Eve as real people who performed a specific act that initiated the Fall of man. Elsewhere he seems to reject that interpretation.

But if the Adam and Eve story is true then it looks to me like God’s reaction is out of all proportion to what actually happened. God placed a fruit in the garden and forbade Adam and Eve, without explanation, from consuming it. He didn’t make it something ugly and undesirable, something they wouldn’t have wanted anyway. Instead he made it, as far as can be determined from the Bible, no different from all the other fruits which they were allowed to eat. Still, for some time Adam and Eve resisted. But then the serpent came along and promised them great things if they ate the fruit. And that was when they experienced a moment of weakness. Genesis 3:6 (KJV) describes the situation well:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Come on! That’s the reason God allows baby torture? That’s why God countenances tsunamis killing a quarter million people at a pop? It was the anticipation of that that led God to create hundreds of millions of years of relentless natural awfulness? For heaven’s sake, the legal term for what happened in Eden is “Entrapment” and it’s considered a legitimate defense in criminal trials.

I don’t understand how a morally healthy person could seriously claim that the punishment fits the crime in this case.

There is much more that I find objectionable in Dembski’s essay. He suggests a reading of the early chapters of Genesis that strikes me as completely unjustified Biblically. And some of his remarks about free will strike me as overly simplistic, to say the least. Perhaps I will address those points in a subsequent post.

For now let me just say that Dembski’s theodicy is a nonstarter. It requires you to believe that God behaved in ways that make no sense given His motives as Dembski describes them, it gives insufficient attention to the question of whether human sin is even in principle a sufficient explanation for the evil and suffering in the world, and it rests on a tortured exegesis of Scripture.

Even the most cogent theodicy in the world must compete with the alternative hypothesis that the evil and suffering in the universe reflects nothing more significant than the universe’s indifference to evil and suffering. Who can believe that Christian theodicy provides a more satisfying explanation for the facts of the world than simple atheism?

Comments

  1. #1 steve s
    May 31, 2006

    “I don’t understand how a morally healthy person could seriously claim that the punishment fits the crime in this case.”

    It doesn’t. God behaves reprehensibly throughout the bible, which is exactly what you’d expect if the bible was written by primitives without modern ethics.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    May 31, 2006

    As an atheist who isn’t particularly qualified to judge the details of
    Christian theology I’ll accept that you’ve dealt with Demski’s
    thodicy. However I want to comment on

    Countless others (myself included) have been driven to atheism as a
    result of this manifest evidence that the world is not superintended
    by omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

    Refuting Christianity does not drive one to atheism. There are other
    religions and nothing precludes one from inventing a god (or gods)
    whose properties are consistent with the existence of evil.

    For the record, I am an atheist because I am what Eugenie Scott calls
    a philosophical materialist. I don’t believe in the existence of the
    “supernatural”. Indeed the very concept of “supernatural” seems
    incoherent to me. If a god (or other supernatural entity) exists that
    interacts with the material world then it would be just as natural as
    gravity or electromagnetism.

    (The previous paragraph is far from a complete discussion of the
    issues surrounding my atheism, but it suffices for the purposes of
    this comment.)

  3. #3 tavella
    May 31, 2006

    What *is* the modern Christian interpretation of God ordering with lipsmacking specificity genocide and rape and all that jazz? I suppose the fundie take on it is that they all deserved it.

  4. #4 Mike M
    May 31, 2006

    Were I to argue a theist position, I would take exception to your first logical statement. Argument would go as follows:
    (1) The omni-po/be deity permits evil to exist, and permitting evil & suffering brings about some greater good. I could then accept statements #2 & #3 without being led to conclude #4.

    The notion of free will drives this argument when I’ve come across it – for instance:
    1) In order to bring “goodness” to the world, humans must have free will [predetermination cannot be good or bad, only neutral].
    2) If free will exists, we are free to do evil things causing others to suffer.
    3) Therefore, in order to create “good,” god had to allow evil & suffering.

    While not a slam-dunk argument, it has a better logical flow than talk of sin, paradox, and god’s future/past knowledge.

    [But if you need theology laid out logically, you might as well be a non-theist, I think.]

  5. #5 FhnuZoag
    May 31, 2006

    Hmm, I note that for whatever reason, this post is written in the Future.

  6. #6 coturnix
    May 31, 2006

    It is because Jason is omniscient, though not neccessarily benevolent or omnipotent…

  7. #7 a maine yankee
    May 31, 2006

    It’s all on the god gene, which is next to the republican gene, and we all dream of gene-y.

  8. #8 Anonymous
    May 31, 2006

    Anonymous, I don’t know about anyone else, but I was driven away from God-belief (despite being raised in an atheist household I developed and then lost mild Christianity in my pre-teen years) by the palpable absurdity of the Bible and the narcissistic sociopathy of the Old Testament God. Once the religion which informs your culture has been shown to be absurd, it soon follows that other religions are also false, since none of them have any better claim to be true. It’s not a logical inevitability, but it’s certainly an easy thought process.

    Mike M: While I agree that’s how a non-nutty theist would put it, logically it falls flat on the grounds that God creates a tendency to sin in Man, either pre- or post-fall, depending on your take. There’s no need to do it to give people free will – virture and vice could be equally attractive – yet he thereby causes more suffering than necessary, and more importantly, inflicts it on people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the original sinners. The whole concept of original sin is so abhorrent to modern Western ethics (I don’t know of any Western justice system that explicitly punishes the children of criminals) that I’m amazed it still survives.

    Jason: it’s entirely possible to reconcile omnibenevolence and human suffering if you grasp that benevolence in the Bible encompasses allowing people to go to heaven, even though people don’t have any choice as to whether they want to play the heaven/hell game. We’re supposed to be grateful, you see. Once you view theology through narcissistic glasses, a lot of the paradoxes disappear.

  9. #9 Mark Paris
    May 31, 2006

    But you neglected the most important issue: how many angels can stand on the head of a pin?

  10. #10 Paul S
    May 31, 2006

    I’m in a bit of a quandry, here. On the one hand, I’m a scientist, and I’m thoroughly disgusted with Mr. Dembski and the whole ID schtick. On the other hand, while I’m not Christian myself I am religious, and I have enough experience with people misunderstanding the faith I practice that I try very hard to avoid the same mistake. So in that spirit I feel as though I have to put in a word or two here, even though I sympathize with the basic thrust of the argument.

    First and foremost, in order for the Problem of Evil to be disposative with respect to Christianity, we have to establish that the concept of God as omnipotent and omnibenevolent is intrinsic to Christianity – that is, that it is not possible to be true to Christian doctrine without embracing this concept. In fact, though, this is not the case: there is no requirement in Christian theology that God is to be conceived in this way. There’s no doubt that many Christian thinkers HAVE embraced this view, including many big names. But it is not a requirement of any creed, or the dogma of any Christian denomination. And in fact a number of Christian theologians do NOT view God in this way. Examples include Alfred North Whitehead, John Cobb, and other process theologians; as well as Clark Pinnock and other proponents of open theism.

    So whatever theodicy might be, it is NOT a disposative refutation of Christianity. At best, it is a demonstration that a certain way of looking at God is inconsistent with the world as we know it – and many modern Christian theologians embrace the same view.

    Theodicy may not even be that, since the premises of the argument are extraordinarily hard to nail down. For example, the very idea that evil and suffering may or may not be “logically necessary to bring about some greater good.” How are we to judge this?

    The idea that “evil and suffering exist” is equally thorny. Suffering is easy: I have suffered, therefore suffering exists. Evil is not so easy. Can evil, as an absolute quality of a thing, be shown to exist? How? I haven’t thought of a way myself. But if evil can’t be shown to exist, then the second premise disappears and the Problem of Evil goes with it.

    Taken all in all, I’ve always found theodicy to be an interesting mental exercise, but not much more. It’s like a stationary bicycle: it can strengthen the muscles you use in riding it, but it can never actually get you anywhere.

  11. #11 J-Dog
    May 31, 2006

    I think your post should be entitled “Dembski’s Idiocy”. That said, IMHO, Dembski’s existance is proof itself that there is no benevolent god or gods. Would a benevolent creator or god, inflict the world with Dembski? No, I don’t think so. Thank you for the accurate fisking of the “Jimmy Neutron of Idiotic Design”.

  12. #12 Mark Paris
    May 31, 2006

    OK, a more serious comment. Dembski appears to have problems reconciling his religious belief with what he sees in the world. This exercise, I suspect, is intended more to convince himself than to convince anyone else. The problem with such exercises is that they require a huge blind spot to work. You have to hide all the contrary evidence and logical inconsistencies behind that blind spot. Either that, or retreat to platitudes: “God knows best.”

  13. #13 Dave S.
    May 31, 2006

    The problem of evil is easily stated:

    1. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would not permit evil and suffering to exist unless that evil and suffering were logically necessary to bring about some greater good.

    2. Evil and suffering exist.

    3. At least some of that evil and suffering is not logically necessary for bringing about some greater good.
    Therefore, there is no omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

    But on the plus side ….

    The problem of goodness is easily stated:

    1. An omnipotent, omnimalevolent God would not permit good and joy to exist unless that good and joy were logically necessary to bring about some greater evil.

    2. Goodness and joy exist.

    3. At least some of that goodness and joy is not logically necessary for bringing about some greater evil.

    Therefore, there is no omnipotent, omnimalevolent God.

    I’m only slightly kidding.

  14. #14 Ginger Yellow
    May 31, 2006

    Sorry, I’ve done it again. The anonymous post of 08:03 was me.

  15. #15 Alejandro
    May 31, 2006

    I have posted a criticism of this same article on my blog a few weeks ago, making some points complementary to yours. You might find it interesting.

  16. #16 Donald
    May 31, 2006

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it was Hesiod who wrote The Theogony.

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2006

    Sorry about the confusion about the time stamp for this post. I am away from home at the moment, and am not writing this on my usual computer, which seems to be causing certain bizarre difficulties. For example, the computer wouldn’t let me make a new category for this post, and it doesn’t seem to be putting my name as the author of the post. I’m not sure why it is doing such things. Anyway, on to more substantive topics:

    Anonymous I-

    You’re right that refuting Christianity does not logically imply atheism. But that’s why I said the problem of evil has driven people to atheism as opposed to logically proves atheism. In my own case I would not say that I am an atheist because I am a philosophical materialist, and I don’t think it’s incoherent to talk about supernatural entities. Indeed, I can even imagine things that would persuade me of the reality of the supernatural. Instead I am an atheist simply because I see no evidence that any sort of God exists, and I believe the orthodox Christian conception of God has a great deal of evidence against it.

    Mike M-

    Your point is well-taken, but the fact remains that there is a great deal of evil and suffering that does not trace back to human choices. The fact also remains that God could mitigate much of this evil and suffering but chooses not to do so. I don’t see your argument as a rejection of my premise one, but rather as a rejection of premise three. God permits evil and suffering because he must to achieve the greater good of human free will.

    Anonymous II-

    I would agree that the manifest absurdity of much of what is in the Bible is another sound reason to reject Christianity.

    Paul S-

    I acknowledged in my essay that you can circumvent the problem of evil by assuming that God is either not omnipotent or not omnibenevolent. I don’t think I’m wrong, however, to describe God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence as the orthodox view within Christianity. Dembski discusses this point in his essay, and, though I can’t believe I’m saying this, I think he does a good job. He points out that it used to be mainstream Christian theology to attribute evil and suffering to the Fall, but that view went out of style once the Earth’s great history became known. Dembski’s argument is then based around the idea that human sin could still be the cause of pre-Fall evil.

    You’re also right that the premises in my argument might be difficult to establish to a certainty. I can only say that all three premises seem reasonable to me.

    Mark Paris-

    While I’m always ready to attribute unsavory motives to Dembski’s work, in this case I don’t agree with your assessment. I think Dembski intends this as a serious contribution to theology. It’s certainly no crazier than other things I have read that were intended that way!

    Alejandro-

    Thanks for the link. I liked your essay quite a bit.

  18. #18 Cecil
    May 31, 2006

    Am I dyslexic or just cynical if on first pass I read the title as “Dembski’s Theidiocy”?

  19. #19 MattXIV
    May 31, 2006

    Paul S – You’re close to embracing what I like to call the “God of the moving goalposts” argument:

    1. If God exists, then his existence should be consistent with our observations.
    2. Thus, we should abandon any theology that posits a God which isn’t consistent with observation.
    3. Because the existince of God in the theologies that remain is consistent with observation, we should not reject his existence.

    Needless to say, there are an infinite number of possible theologies that do not have any more or less merit than each other based on observation. For example, if my theology says that God’s essential attribute is being made of aluminum and containing approximately 355 mL of carbonated liquid, I can prove the existence of God with ease – he’s sitting on my desk right now. Hence, if you accept that consistency with observation is a requirement for accepting theism, a) you cannot simulataneously entertain controversy about what are the essential traits of God and whether or not God exists and professions of theism or atheism are obligately linked to particular sets of essential traits assigned to God. Hence, discussion of the validity of the Christian conception of god can not be conducted unless you adopt a specific set of intrinsic traits for that God in the premise.

  20. #20 Mark Paris
    May 31, 2006

    Jason, I didn’t mean Dembski in particular when I attributed the motive of convincing oneself to exercises such as this. I meant it in a general way. I think all such exercises are motivated in large part by a need to convince the writer as much as to convince anyone else. More sophisticated believers see the problem of reconciling their beliefs with the world as it really is. They find themselves standing on a precipice, over which you and I and other nonbelievers have jumped headlong: the obvious conclusion that there is no benevolent, omnipotent god. They are trying to keep themselves from falling. This exercise, while it might have some omphaloskeptical satisfaction, is ultimately like all others, a logical house of cards.

  21. #21 Mike
    May 31, 2006

    Jason, I find your argument unconvincing, because it depends on too many assumptions that even a secular Christian would reject out of hand.

    First, you never define evil, but it seems obvious that you include all pain and suffering, an idea most modern Christians would reject. Evil requires both understanding and intent. That’s the whole point of the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once they did that they understood the consequences of their actions and lost their innocence. Hurricanes aren’t evil, plagues aren’t evil, even a 2 year old with a loaded gun isn’t evil. There is no such thing as “natural evil”. Evil is a choice.

    Second, you assume an omnibenevolent God. Where do you find that in Christianity? I suggest you google “God smote” if you need some background on the issue.

    Third, you suggest that God would not permit evil and suffering to exist without purpose. Most Christians believe the purpose is to grant people free will (presumably a greater good). You can’t choose good unless you can also choose evil. You may think that’s a copout, but try to design a world with free will without such a choice.

    That’s eliminated points 1 and 3 of your argument, rendering point 4 false. All you agree with the Christians on is that evil (and suffering) exist.

    The day a Christian theologian can explain to me the greater good that can only be obtained by afflicting babies with torturous diseases and horrible deformities is the day I will consider Christianity a live possibility.

    I’m not in the conversion business, but again, your assumption is that God is deliberately inflicting babies with horrible suffering, apparently just for fun. This is the difference between believing that God is omniscient and that he’s responsible for everything that happens. Many couples know that a pregnancy has a high risk of producing a child with genetic deformities. We don’t consider them evil if they attempt to have children anyway. And we don’t expect their doctors to intervene to “prevent suffering”

  22. #22 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2006

    Mike-

    I used the term “natural evil” simply because Dembski uses that term, and it was his essay I was responding to. You can define evil however you want, but the fact remains that God could act to prevent tsunamis, for example, but for some reason chooses not to. That needs to be explained.

    I assumed an omnibenevolent God because (a) Dembski assumes it and (b) That has been the dominant view of Christian theologians for most of the hisory of the church. I state forthrightly in my essay that you can circumvent the problem of evil by assuming either that God is not omnipotent or that God is not omnibenevolent. If you believe that those assumptions are not essential to Christian faith that is fine. But I think you’re in a small minority of practicing Christians in believing that.

    Much of the evil and suffering in the world is not the result of an act of human free will. Think of tsunamis wiping out hundreds of thousands of people. So waving free will around does not solve the problem. Even where evil is the result of free will, it’s still not clear that you have solved the problem. Saying that I should have the right to choose evil does not imply that other people should be forced to endure the consequences of my choice. Referring to free will is not a copout, it simply doesn’t solve the problem.

    I am assuming nothing about what God is inflicting on whom. I am pointing out the obvious fact that helpless, innocent babies are being made to suffer and die because something goes wrong in the course of embryological development. And their parents in many cases ae forced to suffer the loss of a child. God could stop that, but he does not. Again, that needs an explanation. When humans are in a position to stop great evil and suffering from happening, especially when doing so entails no risk to themselves, they are considered morally deparaved if they don’t act. Why should God get a pass?

    It is not the parents that are evil for engaging in the risky process of having a baby. It is the infliction of pain on the baby, and the infliction of emotional distress on the parents, for no reason that I can fathom, that is evil.

    You will have to explain to me what a secular Christian is.

    It is not I who am making unwarranted assumptions about God and Christianity. It is you who refuse to grapple seriously with the full extent of the problem of evil.

  23. #23 kfnyc
    May 31, 2006

    If you posit that God is a petty, vengefull and generally pissed-off God that likes to make people suffer because it can….well then that fits with the christian god.

    why is there suffering in the world? Because God wants to make you suffer.

    why do the innocent suffer? Because God wants to make them suffer.

    God’s motives cannot be questioned and if you fail to continue to believe in him and worship him with an acceptable sacrifice…well then you go to hell.

    and remember, God decides what’s acceptable or not so don’t go asking for a guarantee…

  24. #24 Joseph Smigelski
    June 1, 2006

    Jason:
    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.

  25. #25 Mike
    June 1, 2006

    Jason –

    I disagreed with your argument that the problem of evil is a decisive refutation of Christianity, because it would not be convincing to the overwhelming majority of Christians. That’s not because they’re irrational, it’s because you misunderstand their basic beliefs.

    You say you’re assuming nothing about what God is inflicting on whom, but you lump tsunami’s and genocides together as if they’re morally equivalent. Few modern Christians believe that storms and plagues are punishments from above. Certainly the Pope doesn’t. Most clerics, rabbi’s and ministers don’t either. Only the nutjobs like Robertson, Falwell and bin Laden use that language.

    Throughout your response you describe people being made to suffer, the infliction of pain, the infliction of emotional distress. There’s a big difference between suffering and being made to suffer. Pain, fear and distress are survival characteristics, whether you believe in God or not.

    God could stop that, but he does not.

    If God intervened in every crisis, humans would never strive to solve their own problems. Medicine, agriculture, law, ethics, who would bother to think about these subjects if you always had a divine hand to catch you? Would you even feel empathy for others or remorse for your actions if God always intervened?

    Your argument is similar to that of the fundamentalist who believes in the death penalty. He doesn’t worry about executing an innocent person occasionally, because he believes God will rescue the dead man’s soul. No harm, no foul.

    You will have to explain to me what a secular Christian is.

    Most Americans are secular Christians. They were raised as Baptists or Catholics etc. and will still identify themselves as such if you asked, but they may never go to church and don’t constantly wonder what Jesus would do.

  26. #26 Ginger Yellow
    June 1, 2006

    It’s not a question of whether God is intervening. He created the world (so the theory goes), so he is responsible for the suffering that results from the natural processes of that world. He’s omnipotent – he could easily have created a world in which tsunamis didn’t happen.

  27. #27 Mark Paris
    June 1, 2006

    The entire exercise is a copout. It’s possible to thread the needle if all you’re concerned with is justifying your current beliefs. The simple fact is that the universe, from the inanimate to the animate, is hostile to life. The universe is out to make every living thing suffer or die. If it’s not a virus, it’s a bacterium. If it’s not a bacterium, it’s a predator. If it’s not something alive, it’s something that’s not alive. If there is any evidence as to the nature of the hypothetical creator, it’s that the creator is indifferent at best and more probably malevolent. True believers chase their strained logic down the crooked path and ultimately have to say that it may look evil to us, but it’s god’s will and we just don’t understand; god is omnipotent and loves us, so all this pain and suffering must mean something.

  28. #28 Runolfr
    June 1, 2006

    The main whole in common Christian theodicy, as I see it, is the first premise: that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

    For starters, God admits to being capable of evil in the Old Testament (Exodus 32 is an example), so omnibenevolence is right out.

    Further, if omniscience includes knowing the future, then omnipotence and omniscience are mutually exclusive conditions. Omnipotence requires the ability to make things happen and therefore affect future events, which you simply can’t do if you already know the future (if you can change the future, you don’t really know it, do you?).

    And finally, there’s the obvious check on God’s power: God. It’s a sort of irresistable force versus immovable object problem. If an omnipotent God decrees that something should be so, then can he casually reverse his decree? If God, in a fit of anger, curses humanity to an eternity of torment, can he rescind that curse with just a word?

    If you accept that God is actually capable of doing evil, made mistakes, wanted to correct them, and had to take extraordinary measures to get around rules He made that even He can’t break, then the story of Christ’s sacrifice to create a path to redemption can actually make a modicum of sense.

  29. #29 DarwinCatholic
    June 1, 2006

    I certainly can’t speak for all ‘orthodox Christians’ as we’re a rather diverse lot, but speaking as one of them…

    From what I’ve read of his work, Dembski is as much an idiot about theology as he is about science — so I’d hesitate to take him as too indicative of much of anything other than his own particular stripe of American Protestantism. One of his unfortunately intellectual habits (typical of his kind) is to assume that all problems need to be solved over again, without reference to what other, smarter people have thought and written over the last 2000 years of Christian history.

    I think Jason lays out the syllogism in re the problem of evil pretty well. However, there are some things that should be cooked into the mix which you won’t get from Dembski’s article.

    1) Dembski’s article (as his thinking in general) is relentlessly anthropocentric. So he ignores a fairly obvious hint in the Genesis story that all was not well prior to the fall. The serpent shows up to tempt Eve, and the serpent is generally taken to be the devil. According to traditional Christian thinking, the devil is the head of a group of fallen angels. One explanation for ‘natural evil’ has traditionally been that the fallen angels sought to mar the work of creation — something which you see reflected in Tolkien’s creation account at the beginning of the Silmarillian. (Tolkien was a fairly conservative Catholic, and mentioned in letters his intent to provide a Christian-compatible mythology in his writing.) Looking at “natural evil” as the result of this first fall rather than the fall of man is both compatible with traditional Christianity and skips the temporal paradox silliness on which Dembski spends so much time.

    2) I think that Dembski’s conception of “natural evil” is also rather anthropocentric. To say that it is evil for a lion to eat a gazelle (or even maim it and then leave it to suffer) is to assign human attributes and sensibilities to both animals. By moving natural situations into a human moral context, we make a whole bunch of assumptions that would take a lot of time to justify, if they’re justifiable at all.

    3) One of the traditional Christian responses to the question of human suffering has been that much of human suffering in respect to death, disease, deformity, etc. in this world is the result of our inability to see things within God’s context. Thus, death is a tragedy because in a fallen world the loved one’s can at best hope that their loved one is still alive in heaven with God, but cannot know it — and often doubt it. By this theory, death itself (as in the soul leaving the body) might have existed without the fall, but the human experience of it would have been totally different since humans would know the existence of God with certainty and wouldn’t experience the pain of loss, fear, and abandonment associated with death.

  30. #30 Mark Paris
    June 1, 2006

    If one does not assume that god exists and instead tries to infer qualities of god or even the existence of god from observations, then the religious arguments can be seen for what they are: begging the question. The argument proceeds on the assumption that god exists.

    DarwinCatholic, attributing human qualities to nonhumans is actually anthropomorphic. Denying that anything nonhuman can have any qualities like humans have is anthropocentric. It is anthropocentric to say that a lion’s killing a human is worse than a lion’s killing a gazelle. It anthropomorphic to say that a gazelle would not enjoy the experience any more than a human would.

  31. #31 DarwinCatholic
    June 1, 2006

    I realize that imputing human qualities to another animal is anthropomorphic — my use of anthropocentric (which to be honest I wasn’t 100% sure was a word…) was mean to convey an insistance of thinking of things in human terms (i.e. Killing and eating someone else is bad.) rather than simply accepting that that is what lions do.

    As for begging the question in arguments for God, I think that several of the classic proofs (such as Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God) still hold a great deal of power. But as with any other proof, one must first accept the premises.

    Though I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, I believe Stephen Barr (who did some good work debunking ID in the conservative/Christian mag First Things) wrote a book discussing them in relation to a more modern understanding of the structure and history of the universe.

  32. #32 Paul S
    June 2, 2006

    Hiya, MattXIV!

    I posted a fairly long reply to Jason yesterday that he hasn’t put up yet, so I don’t know if you’ll see this one or not. But I’ll take a chance (I almost wrote “leap of faith,” then thought better of it).

    Paul S – You’re close to embracing what I like to call the “God of the moving goalposts” argument:

    1. If God exists, then his existence should be consistent with our observations.
    2. Thus, we should abandon any theology that posits a God which isn’t consistent with observation.
    3. Because the existince of God in the theologies that remain is consistent with observation, we should not reject his existence.

    I think that Premise 1 is interesting but completely speculative. Premise 2 seems to follow if we accept the first one, but see above. Premise 3 looks like it might be related somewhere to a misunderstanding of my point, so since that’s at least something I can talk about coherently, let me start there.

    I got into this because I felt that Jason was making an unsupportable assertion: the claim that theodicy “refuted Christianity.” The problem there is that it is, at best, a dramatic overstatement. And at worst it’s just factually wrong. This is so because there is great diversity in Christian belief about God, and only a relative handful believe anything like what Jason is describing as normative to the religion.

    This isn’t moving a goalpost. If I were to use a sports metaphor, I’d say that Jason is claiming that since soccer players don’t wear pads they can’t call their sport “football.”

    [Note to Jason: I don't mean to write about you as though you aren't part of this discussion. I just couldn't think of any better way to put all of that.]

    There is another, subtler flaw in this that I pointed to in my original comment, but perhaps should have made clearer: Syllogistic reasoning is valid, if and only if the premises are completely unambiguous. This is a basic principle of logic – ambiguous premises are one of the chief grounds for the fallacy of equivocation.

    The Problem of Evil, as formulated here, has at least three extremely ambiguous terms in its premises: evil, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. Once again, this is not “moving goalposts,” it is pointing to a simple fact: people define those terms in many different ways, and not all of them lead to a valid argument in this syllogism.

    This is why syllogistic reasoning is almost always better suited to mathematics than to theology. And this also points more clearly to what I’m trying to do here: I am not saying that Christianity is correct. I’m saying that the arguments presented here cannot prove that it is wrong.

    Hence, if you accept that consistency with observation is a requirement for accepting theism, a) you cannot simulataneously entertain controversy about what are the essential traits of God and whether or not God exists and professions of theism or atheism are obligately linked to particular sets of essential traits assigned to God.

    I’m guessing that there’s supposed to be a (b) in there somewhere – most likely between “and” & “professions.” If I’m reading you right, this is both factually untrue and logically flawed. It seems obvious that one could “accept that consistency with observation is a requirement for accepting theism” while still arguing vigorously about which traits we should expect to observe and what we should look for to observe them. Not so? Certainly, we scientists get to have fun with this game all the time, in our own particular fields.

    Hence, discussion of the validity of the Christian conception of god can not be conducted unless you adopt a specific set of intrinsic traits for that God in the premise.

    And that sentence illustrates exactly the problem I’ve been talking about, Matt. You write “THE Christian conception of god,” as though there were only one conception of God in Christianity. That is simply not true.

  33. #33 Collin
    June 2, 2006

    It seems that its hard to talk about good and evil from a theological standpoint. To do so means that good and evil became two distinct points in space, two bases, with one “good” group and one “evil” group.
    I think that to directly refute the theological basis for good and evil you just need to show that good and evil and everyting in between and all the combinations of the two lie on a spectrum of human experience. An evil person has probably done something good in their lives and a good person has probably done something evil (even the religiously inclined can agree that the road to hell is paved with good intentions!).
    And, not to get too carried away with the sayings but, the devil is in the details. The top level arguments about god and good and evil and omniscience and benevolence, fall apart with you look at the innermost workings of human societies and human minds. There is a constant conflict between good, better, best, worse for me, worse for you. Thats the great thing about being human, we have to sort out these things, and all of the small things that we do lead to who we are as a person, a community and as humanity as a whole. To bring a god into the mix reduces that humanity, it takes away the idea that we, and our decisions, matter and reduces us to mere playthings for some all powerful game player.

  34. #34 Paul S
    June 2, 2006

    Collin, good points, all. One of the main weaknesses of the Problem of Evil is that it requires both good and evil to be modeled as absolute qualities that are inherent in a person or action, rather than subjective judgements imposed from outside. That, in turn, requires that they be defined as narrowly and exactly as any other objective quality such as mass or color. And that means that no such definition can encompass any more than a small fraction of the ways in which Christians view God – so the thrust of the argument touches only that conception of Deity.

    The idea of an “all powerful game player” is also the reason behind the most common Christian solutions to the Problem of Evil: human free will. The omnipotence of Deity is inevitably, logically constrained by the conception of humans as fundamentally free – the range of God’s power is self-limited by the power He has given us, this argument runs.

  35. #35 DarwinCatholic
    June 2, 2006

    Collin,

    Your point about there not being human experiences of unmitigated good or evil is well taken. This is something different thinkers have taken in different ways. I would tend to prefer a Platonic approach to the matter, which would be to say that good exists as an ideal quantity separate from any particular instantiation of it in a particular person, thing or action. Thus, we experience good to the extent that something we experience resembles that which is entirely good, but there is no thing or action in the world of human experience which is wholly good.

    Evil, I would argue, is not so much a thing in and of itself as the polar opposite of good — in somewhat similar fashion to how cold is not in itself a quality, but rather a lack of heat (with absolute zero being a complete cessation of molecular motion). However, even at absolute zero, an object would not possess cold as an attribute, it would simply be completely lacking in heat.

  36. #36 Darwin's Beagle
    June 2, 2006

    I have adapted the problem of evil argument to insulate it from some of the more frivilous and distracting counter-arguments that theists come up with. I call it the argument from unnecessary suffering. Unnecessary suffering is defined as suffering that does not lead to a higher good. The premises are:

    (1) If God is omniscient he knows unnecessary suffering exists.
    (2) If God is omnipotent he can prevent it.
    (3) If God is omnibenevolent he wants to prevent it.
    (4) Unnecessary suffering still exists.

    Therefore God cannot be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

    The argument hinges upon whether or not unnecessary suffering actually does exist. I have two arguments that it does.

    THE ARGUMENT FROM A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE

    Google Harlequin Fetus Syndrome (HFS) and you will some of the most grotesque pictures on the internet. HFS is a genetic disease that happens about once in every 350,000 live births. The baby is born with thickened skin that slowly constricts. As it does the baby’s mucus membranes are exposed leading to dehydration. His mouth is distorted so that he cannot achieve proper suction to obtain nutrition. Every baby dies within a couple of months of either electrolyte imbalance or constriction of the chest cavity such that breathing is prevented.

    This has occurred throughout history. All that God would have had to do to prevent it is to prevent that particular single sperm cell from fertilizing that particular egg, a feat that most theists would grant is within his ability to do so.

    What greater purpose could all of this suffering produce. If not all of it, could God have not saved at least one baby this fate?

    THE ARGUMENT FROM THE SHEER AMOUNT OF SUFFERING

    At least some of it must be unnecessary. The holocaust led to the death of 6,000,000 Jews. Could not whatever point God had in mind have been accomplished with only 5,999,999 Jews dying. How about a million? How about none? How about God having us born with whatever lesson he wanted us to know about being inate knowledge.

    If that is not good enough, what about all the suffering that no one ever knows about? How about the ant on a sidewalk that gets stepped on? Its guts are extruded and it dies a pitiful death while we pass by without noticing? What is the higher purpose of that? How would preventing this impinge upon anyone’s free-will?

    The answer that God acts in ways we cannot understand is a cop-out. There are plenty of examples that one can come up with. The phenomenon is so robust that if God is truly omnimax he is screaming out something to us by allowing this to happen. What is it? We shouldn’t be so dense that we cannot even come up with a guess.

    I believe that there is simply no way around the conclusion that God cannot be omnimax. God, if he exists at all, is at least either a little stupid (he doesn’t know where unnecessary suffering exists), a little weak (he can’t prevent it even if he knows it exists), or a little mean (he knows it and can prevent it but doesn’t care to). Take your pick.

    Regards,

    Steve

  37. #37 386sx
    June 3, 2006

    The omnipotence of Deity is inevitably, logically constrained by the conception of humans as fundamentally free – the range of God’s power is self-limited by the power He has given us, this argument runs.

    Is there anything else that constrains God’s omnipotence besides our own powers of free will – or is our free will the only thing that would logically limit God’s powers? The reason I’m asking is because there are verses like “ask and ye shall receive” that (I guess) are constrained by our powers of free will to the point where they are more like “ask and ye shall receive… eventually sometime, maybe”, or “ask and ye shall receive, but ye may receive the answer no.”

    So I was wondering if there are other things that constrain God’s powers – something, for example, that would make “God is everywhere” into something more like “God is everywhere, pretty much except for the places where he isn’t.” (Maybe our free will could constrain Him on that one too.)

  38. #38 z.king
    June 3, 2006

    Why is it that all things have to be reconciled to accept anything?

    If many credible witnesses claim that a person was raised from the dead, then their claim can be considered independent of any problematic theology.

    And if we decide that it’s true that a person was raised from the dead, then it’s reasonable to accept what that person has said in spite of what we may not like about what that person has said.

    Who is the person who has complete understanding of the science which they accept?

    And who is the person who has rejected all science because they cannot reconcile their understanding of all science?

    Some things are hard to figure out, and some things aren’t.

  39. #39 Christopher
    June 6, 2006

    Many questions are raised by defenders of evolution when presented with the evidence for creation. Of a particular interest is evidence for the worldwide flood which is documented in the Bible and by numerous other historical, anthropological, and cultural sources. This article addresses some of the common questions.

    This article is one of many found within Mr. Malone’s excellent book, Search for the Truth. How did marsupials get to Australia?

    Noah was charged with building the vessel to safeguard certain animals during this massive and complex worldwide disaster; not with distributing them afterwards. Once Noah released the animals on Mount Ararat, natural instincts and climatic conditions determined how the redistribution of the animal population took place. As subsequent generations of animals spread across the globe, territorial prowess or chance movements would send certain groups in certain directions. Those animals least suited for of least able to defend a territory would either be forced further from the landing site or exterminated. An immediate consequence of the worldwide flood was a brief but severe ice age which locked ocean water into vast ice fields. This lowered ocean levels and created a land bridge to Australia. A similar land bridge connected Asia to Alaska during this period of Earth history allowing free movement of man and animals between these continents. Land movements during the ice age or subsequent melting of the ice cut off the connection between Australia and Asia effectively isolating the unique animal life to Australia.

    How could massive worldwide coal deposits form rapidly?

    The first effect of the worldwide flood would have been the ripping up of vegetation worldwide and erosion on an unimaginable scale.

    As the water receded from one area, vegetation would have been deposited only to be subsequently buried as the area sank and water brought in more sediment. This, layer upon layer of coal would be formed. Furthermore, it has been shown in the laboratory that vegetation can be turned into coal in as little as 1 hour with sufficient heat and pressure. A recent model of coal in as little as 1 hour with sufficient heat and pressure. A recent model of coal formation is provided by a study of the catastrophic explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980. This explosion knocked down millions of trees which ended up floating on Spirit Lake. Underneath this layer of peat consisting of tree bark and organic matter. If that organic matter were buried by a subsequent eruption, the result would be a coal seam covered by sedimentary rock. Repeated cycles would be rapidly produce a series of coal seams with sediment on top of each seam. This small scale model shows that it is reasonable to believe that an enormous flood would rapidly create the worldwide coal seams which we find today.

    Is “Survival of the Fittest” part of the evolution?

    Modern evolutionists have tried to distance themselves from this concept due to the obvious negative consequences of the social realm. Denying that survival of the fittest is part of the evolutionary process is akin to denying that one type of animal will drive another to extinction given the right conditions. Contrary to the rosy picture of animal co-operation which evolutionists like to portray, one type of animal has no qualms wiping out another in its quest to propagate itself. Survival of the fittest has always been an integral part of the evolutionary theory. Wild dogs introduced to Australia are endangering native species because they are more aggressive and have no natural enemies. Sounds like “survival of the fittest” doesn’t it? If we are also animals who have evolved according to this basic principle of evolution, why shouldn’t we extend this principle into the social realm? Why shouldn’t we eliminate weaker classes of humans which are competing for what we feel we need? Evolution taken to its logical conclusion leads to a savage world akin to Hitler’s Nazi Germany when the strong determine what is right. It was no coincidence that Hitler was strongly influenced by the writings of Darwin.

    Does it make any logical sense that this method of death and destruction would be a loving God’s method for making us???

  40. #40 Christopher
    June 6, 2006

    What A Wonderful World – Creatures That Defy Evolution
    Author: Jordan Niednagel
    If there’s one thing we can all agree upon, it’s that the world around us is a wonderful place; wonderful in terms of diversity, complexity, and sheer wonder, confounding our presuppositions, and often negating our preconceived ideas. We have so much to learn, even after millennias of habitation on this planet we call earth. Truly, we have scarcely seen the tip of the iceberg.

    And the question still remains; how did we get here? How did life as we now know it come to be? Were we wisely fashioned by an all mighty creator, or are we the result of natural processes? Design, or chance? In this unique article, we simply will touch upon a few creatures of our world; creatures that, if nothing more, put modern technology to shame.

    The Gecko

    They walk across walls and ceiling as though gravity didn’t exist. But how? For a long while, geckos defied all attempts to explain how they could cling to any surface with no visible sign of glue or suction cups. Then, when a group of biologists and engineers studied the microscopic hairs on the toes of geckos, the answer was found. The ends of the hairs directly attach to molecules in the surface by what is called van der Waals force, a type of attraction between atoms. According to a report in Nature, scientists concluded that engineering a structure like the foot of a gecko is “beyond the limits of human technology.” However, they hope that the “natural technology of gecko foot-hairs can provide biological inspiration for future design of a remarkable effective adhesive.”

    The Bombardier Beetle

    It’s just a little bug, but it has an amazing talent. No more than three-quarters of an inch long, the bombardier beetle possesses, in a sense, its own bomb. Inside the body of this beetle are two special chambers that manufacture two chemicals, hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone. They are mixed together and sent to a storage chamber that is attached to a second chamber, appropriately called the explosion chamber, through a muscle that acts as a control valve. Inside this explosion chamber are a number of tiny extodermal glands that feed into it, adding an enzyme catalyst. Once this all takes place, a violent explosion ensues, being sent out a perfectly positioned tube at the rear of the beetle’s body. Where does it then go? Quite frankly, into the enemies’ face! The would-be predator is left choking in a hot, noxious smoke, while the beetle is left with enough time to quickly make a run for it. This amazing insect can even fire with tremendous accuracy in almost any direction necessary.

    The HummingBird

    Those who have taken the time to set a liquid feeder outside should be familiar with the incredible acrobatics of the hummingbird. They are the smallest birds in nature, weighing less than a tenth of an ounce, with some 300 different varieties worldwide. Hummingbirds can fly backwards, forwards and sideways, or can hover in midair like a helicopter. If there’s one that distinguishes hummingbirds from the rest of their feathered cousins, its their wing-flap speed. They can beat them at an incredible 80 strokes per second; so fast that the human can only view their wings as a frenzied blur. Equally incredible is their heart rate. Beating 1,000 times a minute, they inhale some 250 times in the same period of time. Because of this high metabolic rate, they must feed almost constantly. However, at night, all this changes. Hummingbirds don’t sleep at night. Instead, they hibernate at night (except when the female is nesting). During this hibernation, the entire body slows down and the temperature drops to conserve energy. An amazing feat, one without which the hummingbird could not survive.

    The Giraffe

    What can compare to the unique design of the giraffe? Reaching 18 feet or more in height, the giraffe has one of the largest hearts in the animal kingdom, with nearly double the blood pressure of any creature. Indeed, when you observe the uphill climb that the blood must make to reach the top, you can see why so much pressure is needed. But what about when the giraffe lowers its head? Doesn’t the blood rush to the brain with such tremendous force that it would kill the giraffe? Surely, you know how it is when you have been leaning over for awhile, and then suddenly stand up straight to feel sickeningly dizzy. How does the giraffe avoid this problem? Amazingly, the jugular blood vessels in its neck have a series of one-way check valves that hold back the blood from flowing to the brain when it lowers its head. Then, when the giraffe lifts its head again, it prevents the blood from flowing away from the brain too quickly. Also, at the base of the brain is a network of spongy tissue that soaks up any excess blood. Truly, an astounding example of plumbing technology.

    The Seahorse

    They’re a fish, but they don’t look like a fish. As their name indicates, they look like a horse. Swimming vertically, they even “ride” like a horse. Strangest of all, the male seahorse gives “birth” to the babies! Course, the eggs originally come from the female, but she actually deposits the several thousand eggs at a time into the abdominal pouch of the male where they are later fertilized. After that, she leaves and from that time on has nothing to do with either her eggs or her mate. The faithful male, however, protects the eggs in his pouch, and when they finally hatch, he secretes a nourishing fluid that the babies feed on. About two weeks later, he “gives birth” to the thousands of miniature seahorses, who are then, for better or for worse, left completely on their own.

    The Platypus

    Inhabiting Tasmania and southern and eastern Australia, the peculiar platypus sports a duck-like bill roughly 2.5 inches long and 2 inches wide. Inside this leathery snout are sophisticated electronic sensors that it uses to detect prey, such as shrimp, worms, and shellfish. This incredible “detector” actually senses the faint electric waves produced by these smaller creatures, where it then becomes only a matter of seconds until the platypus finds itself a meal. Stranger still is that, although the platypus is classified as a mammal, it lays eggs! As if that weren’t enough, it is also venomous. Males possess a poison gland in the hind leg that opens through a bony spur on the ankle. The spur is used to defend against predators and possibly to defend its territory.

    Questions:

    Such amazing animals. Such complexity that we have yet to even begin to understand. For every answer, there is a question, and the more we know, the more we don’t know.

    How did the gecko develop its outstanding ability to climb? Were the hairs on its toes useless up until the time they were just right? Why haven’t a host of other lizards developed such a beneficial ability?

    How did the bombardier beetle slowly evolve such a dangerous mechanism without obliterating itself into extinction? If the chemicals were not just the right strength or right ingredients, or if the control valve did not close when the explosion took place, think of the consequences. If the mechanism didn’t work until fully formed, think of the extra baggage it would have been.

    How did the hummingbird develop into such a high-metabolic bird? Why are there not many other birds similar to it? What fossils do we have that show its gradual development into what we know them as today?

    How did the giraffe slowly develop such a brain structure that would allow it to raise and lower its head without any problems? If they are the result of millions of years of evolution, wherein they grew longer and longer necks overtime in order to eat from the trees, why aren’t there hundreds of other animals with such necks?

    How did male seahorses ever evolve from non-pouch to pouch? Why would they ever develop a pouch in the first place? How did the eggs survive before the male ever developed a pouch, and who convinced the male to watch over the eggs once the pouch was developed?

    If the platypus developed from some type of rat millions of years ago, how did its fleshy snout develop into a leather bill? How did the electric sensors evolve where none existed before? And why do they lay eggs? Why don’t many other mammals lay eggs?

    Conclusion

    These are questions that some can imagine answers to, but such answers remain just that . . . imagination. An Englishman by the name of William Paley wrote nearly two centuries ago in his book, titled Natural Theology, that design requires a Master Designer. If someone found a pocket watch, he said, lying on the ground, he would reach the conclusion that it had been designed by a watchmaker. The order and design of the natural world, Paley reasoned, also points to the existence of an omnipotent Creator Designer.

    As always, we don’t make the conclusion, but leave the conclusion up to you.

  41. #41 Paul S
    June 6, 2006

    Steve, I’m afraid that your argument runs afoul of its own language, as theodicy nearly always does. Your key premise is, “unnecessary suffering exists.” So the question is, how do you know what is and is not necessary on a universal scale? You point to the sheer magnitude of some cases, and say “surely some of it must be unnecessary,” but that is just a guess, or perhaps a hope. Syllogistic reasoning can’t function on guesswork: a syllogism is no more certain than the least certain of its premises. Therefore this one fails to conclusively prove that God does not exist.

    Your argument fails on some theological grounds as well. As I’ve pointed out several times in this discussion, many Christian theologians observe that God’s omnipotence is constrained by God’s own actions. In particular, by giving humans free will God has restricted His own ability to interfere with that will – if He can step in any time and countermand us, then we are not free. This is the bane of any argument based on evil or suffering as a result of anything that humans do. As for “natural” suffering such as floods and earthquakes, again in a universe where one thing happens, another must logically follow: the properties of water and earth that give rain and geysers are also bound to give floods and volcanos. The theistic argument runs that even God is constrained by the logical requirements of His own decrees.

    386, on the issue of “ask and you shall receive,” again I’m going to give you the standard Christian position, not my own. If you have a child, and that child asks to have ice cream for breakfast, or to get a tattoo when she’s nine years old, are you going to give her what she asks for as a matter of course? You won’t be acting as a responsible or loving parent if you do.

    You understand, from your greater knowledge and experience, that sometimes children think something is good for them when in fact it isn’t. You also understand that sometimes it’s better for a child to get something through his own efforts than it would be if you simply gave it to him. So it is with God, goes the basic Christian response.

  42. #42 Darwin's Beagle
    June 6, 2006

    Paul S
    (1) My argument most definitely does hinge upon whether or not unnecessary suffering (suffering that leads to no greater good) exists. I had two arguments that it does. One from the specific example of Harlequin Fetus Syndrome (HFS), and the other from the sheer amount of suffering.

    I am saying it is self-evident that at least some of this suffering is unnecessary. You are, of course free to say that it isn’t. But if you do, I would think you have an obligation to come up with a hypothesis as to necessity of the suffering. I don’t believe you can provide one or even many that will come even close to covering it. If the Holocaust was meant to teach us a lesson, couldn’t that lesson have been taught equally as effectively with at least one fewer deaths? If it couldn’t be then why not?

    (2) Your free-will argument is nonsense on several counts. If God were to prevent HFS NOBODY’S FREE-WILL WILL HAVE BEEN CONSTRAINED. If God would have prevented the tsunami in Indonesia, no one’s free will would have been constrained. By God NOT preventing the Holocaust, the victim’s free-will was severely constrained.

    Your statement concerning natural disasters is equally flawed. God would not have to prevent rains to prevent tsunamis and floods. You are grossly incorrect to think that natural disasters are a necessary consequence of benign and beneficial natural phenomena. They are the result of these phenomena gone awry. It is the gone-awry part that God could stop in order to prevent unnecessary suffering. If God is unable to do this then he is not omnipotent and not so because of any logical consequence of his activity.

    Paul S says==
    386, on the issue of “ask and you shall receive,” again I’m going to give you the standard Christian position, not my own. If you have a child, and that child asks to have ice cream for breakfast, or to get a tattoo when she’s nine years old, are you going to give her what she asks for as a matter of course? You won’t be acting as a responsible or loving parent if you do.

    Steve=
    You can’t have it both ways. If God doesn’t want to constrain our free-will then he should let us have it. If he is looking out for our better interests then he should act accordingly in those cases you say he can’t because he doesn’t want to constrain our free-will.

    Your defence of theodicy, fails on all counts. NOTE that the argument is NOT that God doesn’t exist. It is that given the way the world is, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God doesn’t exist. God, if he exists is at least a little weak, a little stupid, and or a little mean. Logically those still remain your options.

    Regards,

    Steve

  43. #43 Donald
    June 6, 2006

    I should read more carefully.I thought it was A poem,on theodicy, that was being cited, not THE poem, The Odyssey, by Homer.Oh, well, one learns by ones errors (hopefully).

  44. #44 Paul S
    June 6, 2006

    I am saying it is self-evident that at least some of this suffering is unnecessary. You are, of course free to say that it isn’t. But if you do, I would think you have an obligation to come up with a hypothesis as to necessity of the suffering.

    No, actually I don’t. You see, you’re attempting to use a syllogism to prove that a particular sort of God does not exist. I’m pointing out that your syllogism is flawed. I am not trying to prove that any form of God does exist.

    Thus, when you assert “this suffering is unnecessary,” I reply, “I’m sorry, but you have no way to know what is and is not necessary.” Your premise fails, and so your syllogism fails. But unlike you, I don’t claim to know what is and isn’t necessary. I recognize that I don’t know either. So I have no need to hypothesize about that.

    If God were to prevent HFS NOBODY’S FREE-WILL WILL HAVE BEEN CONSTRAINED.

    See below under natural disasters. All “evil” resulting from purely natural causes comes under the same heading.

    And really, there’s no need to shout. If I need larger letters my browser can handle that for me.

    By God NOT preventing the Holocaust, the victim’s free-will was severely constrained.

    It was, but by the Nazis, not by God. As I wrote before, if we are not free to choose evil, then we are not free at all. By stepping in to stop the Holocaust directly God would have been impinging on the free will of those who committed it. We cannot be both free and not-free, so God’s power is constrained by logic.

    God would not have to prevent rains to prevent tsunamis and floods. You are grossly incorrect to think that natural disasters are a necessary consequence of benign and beneficial natural phenomena. They are the result of these phenomena gone awry.

    I assume that by “gone awry” you mean “not functioning correctly.” So, by which standard should we judge “correct function?” Certainly, the humans whose homes are swept away will have one opinion. But the plants that grow in the fields fertilized by the floodwaters will surely have a different one. And the laws of hydraulics will protest that they’re only doing what they’re supposed to do.

    Theodicy is inevitably humanocentric. That’s one of its main flaws.

    You can’t have it both ways. If God doesn’t want to constrain our free-will then he should let us have it.

    Steve, you ought to know better than that. Your free will determines how you act. It doesn’t determine what you get – the consequences of your actions. There is a difference between letting you grasp whatever is within your reach and actively giving you something that you couldn’t get on your own. God does the first, and allows you to take (and hopefully learn from) the consequences, whether good or bad. He does not necessarily do the second.

    NOTE that the argument is NOT that God doesn’t exist. It is that given the way the world is, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God doesn’t exist. God, if he exists is at least a little weak, a little stupid, and or a little mean. Logically those still remain your options.

    Well, on the one hand I’m glad to see that you understand at least some of the limitations of theodicy – that it cannot prove that God does not exist. At best, it can prove only that a certain type of God does not exist. However you’re still casting even that too broadly. You are assuming that terms like omnipotent and omnibenevolent can have only one meaning, and that isn’t true. Each can be understood in several different ways. Several of those variant meanings actually make the problem of evil go away – as for example the understanding of “omnipotence” as “having all power that is logically possible.”

    But for that matter a good many modern Christians don’t embrace the model of an omnipotent God at all. A process theologian tends to look at the problem of evil and wonder what the fuss is all about.

  45. #45 argystokes
    June 6, 2006

    Thus, when you assert “this suffering is unnecessary,” I reply, “I’m sorry, but you have no way to know what is and is not necessary.” Your premise fails, and so your syllogism fails. But unlike you, I don’t claim to know what is and isn’t necessary. I recognize that I don’t know either. So I have no need to hypothesize about that.

    But if we have no way of knowing what suffering is necessary or unnecessary, then neither can we say that God wishes to prevent unnecessary suffering. It becomes meaningless to speak of God as good, and is simply a retreat to “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

  46. #46 Lord Runolfr
    June 6, 2006

    Hey Christopher,

    I’ve got answers to your “found them in a book” questions, but its more text than I want to throw into Jason’s comments section, so I made them a post on my own blog.

    Enjoy!

  47. #47 Anonymous
    June 7, 2006

    But if we have no way of knowing what suffering is necessary or unnecessary, then neither can we say that God wishes to prevent unnecessary suffering. It becomes meaningless to speak of God as good, and is simply a retreat to “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

    Well, tell me: Do we in fact have any way to know what is or is not necessary at the scale on which God is proposed to exist? If so then I would very much like to see it.

    As I wrote earlier, the appeal to mystery is not very satisfying, but it does follow from just about any model of God that looks in the least way divine. Ultimately it comes down to a statement of faith: the belief in a certain model of God while recognizing the inability to prove it.

    The thing is, those pushing the problem of evil are doing the same thing without owning up to it. There is no “proof” in any rigorous sense on either side of this debate.

    That said, there are still answers to theodicy that do not entail an appeal to mystery. I’ve given several of them here, such as pointing out that “omnipotent” does not mean that God can violate the logic inherent in God’s own action, and recognizing that “omnibenevolent” also means that God does not play favorites: predators are weighed equally with prey on the divine scale. Actually affirming any of those models is still an act of faith, however.

  48. #48 Paul S
    June 7, 2006

    *sigh* Forgot to sign that bad boy again.

  49. #49 argystokes
    June 7, 2006

    Well, tell me: Do we in fact have any way to know what is or is not necessary at the scale on which God is proposed to exist? If so then I would very much like to see it.

    I can imagine a world with less suffering. I can’t imagine a definition of omnipotence which would make an omnipotent God incapable of making this world so.

  50. #50 Mathmattx
    June 7, 2006

    The problem of evil is not as easy as you paint it. If you are a non-theistic evolutionist, by what standard are you judging good and evil? Is not everything that happens just within the non-guided framework of the universe, e.g, if I kill and steal aren’t I just increasing my survivability? Animals in nature engage in this behavior, but we only are to term it “evil” when it is perpetrated by human beings. You want Humans to be the integral cornerstone of the natural evolutionary world, yet you believe we are exempt from its natural laws? I would revise your simple logical statement to ask:

    1.) If there is such a thing as evil, you must posit there is such a thing as good
    2.) If there is such a thing as good, you must affirm an absolute moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.
    3.) When you admit to a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver…. For if there is no moral lawgiver, there is no moral law.
    4.) If there is no moral law (i.e. we are products of non-theistic biological, socio-biological, etc evolution), there is no such thing as good or evil, its all a matter of personal perspective
    5.) So by you claiming there is “too much evil and suffering”, you are actually positing the Very God you are seeking to disprove! How else can you claim there is good or evil or know when there is too much of it….That would be illogical
    6.) What your original argument is LOGICALLY saying is that you want a world with Good and Evil, otherwise your life is eternally pointless, so if the non-existent God would just make the world as you see fit (for a ratio of good and evil” then you’d still dis-believe in him, you’d just feel better doing it.

  51. #51 Darwin's Beagle
    June 9, 2006

    Steve=== I am saying it is self-evident that at least some of this suffering is unnecessary. You are, of course free to say that it isn’t. But if you do, I would think you have an obligation to come up with a hypothesis as to necessity of the suffering.

    Paul S== No, actually I don’t. You see, you’re attempting to use a syllogism to prove that a particular sort of God does not exist. I’m pointing out that your syllogism is flawed. I am not trying to prove that any form of God does exist.

    Steve=
    My syllogism is flawed ONLY if the premise is false. You are saying it is. I’m saying it isn’t AND I have given evidence that it isn’t. Your obligation is to show that my evidence is wrong if you are going to stick by your assertion. Otherwise, your assertion is just an unsubstantiated assertion.

    Paul S==
    Thus, when you assert “this suffering is unnecessary,” I reply, “I’m sorry, but you have no way to know what is and is not necessary.” Your premise fails, and so your syllogism fails. But unlike you, I don’t claim to know what is and isn’t necessary. I recognize that I don’t know either. So I have no need to hypothesize about that.

    Steve=
    I defined what unnecessary suffering is. It is suffering that does not lead to a higher good. If suffering DOES lead to a higher good then it is necessary. So your job is to substantiate a claim that suffering DOES lead to a higher good.

    Steve===If God were to prevent HFS NOBODY’S FREE-WILL WILL HAVE BEEN CONSTRAINED.

    Paul S==See below under natural disasters. All “evil” resulting from purely natural causes comes under the same heading.

    Steve= OK, wait until we come to it.

    Paul S==And really, there’s no need to shout. If I need larger letters my browser can handle that for me.

    Steve= But you so far have shown a lack of understanding the point of the argument. Perhaps a little emphasis might help you with the important points.

    Steve===
    By God NOT preventing the Holocaust, the victim’s free-will was severely constrained.

    Paul s==
    It was, but by the Nazis, not by God. As I wrote before, if we are not free to choose evil, then we are not free at all. By stepping in to stop the Holocaust directly God would have been impinging on the free will of those who committed it. We cannot be both free and not-free, so God’s power is constrained by logic.

    Steve=
    Since by not constraining the free-will of the Nazis God by the “sin of ommission” constrained the free-will of the victims. He could have prevented it but didn’t. Therefore, you are saying that God valued the free-will of the German Nazis over the free-will of the victims.

    If one were to believe the bible to be the literal truth of God’s actions then one has the added problem of explaining why it was that God DID apparently intervene in the past to prevent people from exercising their free-will.

    Steve===
    God would not have to prevent rains to prevent tsunamis and floods. You are grossly incorrect to think that natural disasters are a necessary consequence of benign and beneficial natural phenomena. They are the result of these phenomena gone awry.

    Paul S.==
    I assume that by “gone awry” you mean “not functioning correctly.” So, by which standard should we judge “correct function?” Certainly, the humans whose homes are swept away will have one opinion. But the plants that grow in the fields fertilized by the floodwaters will surely have a different one. And the laws of hydraulics will protest that they’re only doing what they’re supposed to do.

    Steve=
    See what I mean by an inability to understand the points of the argument. By “gone awry” I mean that have led to otherwise preventable suffering. The plants in the fields could have been watered without floods. The laws of hydraulics will not protest anything, since they are not conscious entities. You are still grossly incorrect to assume that rains require flooding that cause suffering for an ecosystem to be healthy.

    Paul S==
    Theodicy is inevitably humanocentric. That’s one of its main flaws.

    Steve=
    See again about what I mean by an inability to understand. I even used as an example of unnecessary suffering an ant injured and dying on a hot sidewalk unseen by anyone. What higher purpose would be involved in that?

    Steve===
    You can’t have it both ways. If God doesn’t want to constrain our free-will then he should let us have it.

    Paul S==
    Steve, you ought to know better than that. Your free will determines how you act.

    Steve=
    It also determines what you want. If God thinks free-will is so all important that he would allow the grossest of evils to not interfere with it, then what is the problem of allowing the person to exercise his free-will to fullest by granting his freely chosen wish?

    Paul S==
    It doesn’t determine what you get – the consequences of your actions. There is a difference between letting you grasp whatever is within your reach and actively giving you something that you couldn’t get on your own. God does the first, and allows you to take (and hopefully learn from) the consequences, whether good or bad. He does not necessarily do the second.

    Steve=
    Why the inconsistency on God’s part then? Is God looking out for our better welfare? Then what is the deal with allowing evil in the name of free-will? Why wouldn’t God want us to learn a lesson from our excessive wants just as you suggests he wants us to learn from our excessive actions? There seems little distinction here.

    Steve===
    NOTE that the argument is NOT that God doesn’t exist. It is that given the way the world is, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God doesn’t exist. God, if he exists is at least a little weak, a little stupid, and or a little mean. Logically those still remain your options.

    Paul S==
    Well, on the one hand I’m glad to see that you understand at least some of the limitations of theodicy – that it cannot prove that God does not exist. At best, it can prove only that a certain type of God does not exist. However you’re still casting even that too broadly.

    Steve=
    No, I am not. You are hemming and hawing and making excuses for obvious logical applications.

    Paul S==
    You are assuming that terms like omnipotent and omnibenevolent can have only one meaning, and that isn’t true.

    Steve=
    So then what is it about omnipotence that can be meant to mean that God cannot prevent HFS? What is it about omnibenevolent that allows a being who doesn’t care if child is born with HFS still rates the title of omnibenevolence? How can one have omniscience and not know that unnecessary suffering exists.

    Paul S==
    Each can be understood in several different ways. Several of those variant meanings actually make the problem of evil go away – as for example the understanding of “omnipotence” as “having all power that is logically possible.”

    Steve=
    See what I mean about your apparent inability to grasp the points of the argument. I’m not asking God to make a rock so big even he cannot move it. I’m not asking God to make a square circle. Your argument doesn’t apply to any example I have given.

    Paul S==
    But for that matter a good many modern Christians don’t embrace the model of an omnipotent God at all. A process theologian tends to look at the problem of evil and wonder what the fuss is all about.

    Steve=
    OK then so for a process theologian, his God is a little weak. How weak? God can’t prevent HFS? To do so would only require nudging a particular sperm out of the way. That would seemingly be much easier than curing cancer, alter a person’s thoughts such that a job is offered, or change the outcome of an atheletic contest. Is it a waste of time to pray to him to cure cancer, give you help getting a much needed job, or that your son’s football team win their playoff game? So is it a waste of time to pray to God for anything?

    When a process theologian gets off his lazy ass and begins to consider the implications of his dismissal of an omnipotent God then he just might begin to grasp what the big deal is all about.

    Regards,

    Steve

  52. #52 Lenoxus
    December 6, 2007

    In case anyone’s been wondering for the last year about the answers to the above questions regarding evolution, here they are:

    Gecko: God did it. Bombardier beetle: God. Hummingbird: That would be the Creator. Giraffe: Hmm… maybe God? Seahorse: God! Platypus: A complex and unimaginably long sequence of successive genetic sequences, stretching back in time to a split from the mammal class’s reptilian ancestors, one which also resulted in the platypus’s close relative, the echidna… just kidding! It was God!

    The classic pocket watch analogy holds up pretty well, considering that, just like pocket watches, organisms have no apparent way to replicate themselves with slight variation in each of the copies. If they did, that just might graduate the status of natural selection to “foundation of biological science”…

    For next week’s essay, describe in detail the origin of a species with whose traits seem counter-intuitive to most of us. You will have five seconds, so brevity is acceptable.

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  58. #58 Kenya
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    I can imagine a world with less suffering. I can’t imagine a definition of omnipotence which would make an omnipotent God incapable of making this world so.

  59. #59 Collin
    August 28, 2011

    One big problem with your argument is that nobody actually believes that God is omnipotent. If they did, there’d be nothing to buy or sell. Every act, good or bad, done in the name of God is an admission that God couldn’t have done it Himself.

    Also consider the following:
    (Rowan Atkinson “Will this wind…”)

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