Sullivan on Theodicy

There is bloggery afoot on ye olde problem of evil. Russell Blackford got the ball rolling with this post, an admirably succinct essay on why evil and suffering pose serious problems to tradtional notions of Christian theism. Andrew Sullivan demurred here, and then elaborated here. Jerry Coyne was unimpressed with both posts. Coyne weighed in further, as did Sullivan here.

Okay, I think that is all of them. Regular readers of this blog are aware that I regard the problem of evil and suffering as a slam dunk against traditional notions of Christian theism. Theologians have squirmed and struggled for centuries to answer it, but they have nothing of value to show for their efforts. Their best arguments are merely weak, their worst are callous and cold-hearted.

But maybe I am wrong. So let us have a look at what Sullivan has to offer:

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies – how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.

Have I mentioned recently that religious people baffle me?

What does it mean to say suffering is a means of letting go to God? What does it mean in practical terms to allow Him to take over? My own limits and mortality seem perfectly clear to me without invoking God. What insight will I gain into such things by writing God into my view of the world?

Human suffering makes perfect sense in the context of a material world that evolves without any regard for human needs or wants. It does not become puzzling until you insert an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God into the mix. If I am understanding Sullivan correctly, and given the vagueness of his writing I may not be, he is saying that suffering and death are an inevitable aspect of a fallen world, but that suffering can, at least, provide a means for drawing closer to God.

But then we have issues with the notion of a “fallen world.” Traditionally the fall has referred to a specific sin committed by actual people, Adam and Eve. Even if you prefer a more allegorical reading of the notion, we still have that the fall is a distinctively human notion. Animals do not sin and fall short of the glory of God, people do. It is here that evolution ratchets things up a bit, since it tells us that awesome quantites of death and suffering predate the arrival of humans on the scene.

As it happens, one of Sullivan’s readers made the same point. Here is Sullivan’s reply:

My notion of a fallen world is related to the fact of mortality, which embraces almost everything on our planet, and causes terrible suffering to animals as well as humans. The difference is that, so far as we know, only humans experience this suffering as a form of alienation; we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else.

This, in my view, is our intimation of God, nascent in the long march of human existence only in the last couple thousand years, and unleashed most amazingly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Ni ange, ni bete. And from that disjuncture between what we sense of as our actual home and this vale of tears we perforce inhabit, comes our search for God. No reason can end that sense of dislocation because it is some kind of deep sense that is prior to reason.

That’s why I do not experience faith as some kind of rational choice or as some kind of irrational leap. I experience it merely as a condition of being human.

I’m afraid this is even more confusing than the first explanation.

His notion of a fallen world is “related” to the idea of mortality? I want to know what it means to live in a fallen world, not what the notion is related to. Obviously Sullivan does not believe the fall refers to something specific to human beings. To what, then, does it refer? There is a common argument in this area that what we perceive as the nastiness of nature is simply a consequence of living in a world governed by natural laws. If that is what Sullivan has in mind, then I wonder how a fallen world differs from an unfallen world. If mortality is just an inevitable aspect of nature, then what insight do we gain by describing this as a fallen world?

To me it looks like Sullivan is retaining a lot of religious terminology without retaining much of its content. We have seen this sort of thing before. In this post I described a conversation I had with Howard University paleontologist Daryl Domning on the subject of original sin. Domning had written a book called Original Selfishness that argued that the traditional understanding of original sin needed to be revised in light of evolution. Instead of thinking of original sin as referring to a specific sin committed by actual people, we should view it as a reflection of the selfish natures bequeathed to us by the evolutionary process.

It seems to me that science is doing all the work in that scenario. Domning is simply attaching the label “Original Sin” to what science tells us about our origins and natures. And Sullivan is simply attaching the term “fallen” to the world as we find it to be. In neither case do I see how the religious imagery adds anything to our understanding.

In his final post Sullivan responds to Coyne as follows:

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil of tears a little. No one is saying this is easy or should not provoke bouts of Job-like anger or despair or isn’t at some level incomprehensible. The Gospels, in one of their many internal literal contradictions, have Jesus’ last words on the cross as both a despairing, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and a letting go: “It is accomplished.” If you see this as less a literal error than a metaphorical truth (i.e. if you are not a fundamentalist), you realize that God’s only son experienced despair of this kind as well. And resolution.

My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.

That last line about what Sullivan knows as deeply and as irrevocably as he knows anything would have made a nice addendum to the big Ways of Knowing post. Obviously I would dispute that Sullivan “knows” anything like what he describes here.

Now, I am sorry to sound repetitive here but this is Sullivan’s third attempt to explain his views and I am still not sure what he is trying to convey. When he says that humans uniquely have the capacity to rise above suffering, I assume he means that humans uniquely have the capacity to seek out some higher reason for the suffering. A dog might know he is starving or in pain, but presumably does not have the ability to ruminate on the greater purpose served by his suffering. If by “rising above suffering” Sullivan just means that we are able to get on with our lives after a devastating event, then I would point out that most animals have that ability in spades.

But now we are simply going in circles. Explaining the higher purpose served by such relentless and seemingly gratuitious pain and suffering in the world is precisely what the problem of evil is all about. Sullivan thinks we can see some higher purpose to the relentless awfulness of nature and the world generally? Perhaps he will explain it to me someday because I can not fathom what it is. As an atheist I explain pain and suffering by the time-worn adage that excrement happens. I find this a fully satisfying explanation, and one that is consistent with the facts as I understand them to be. Sullivan obviously thinks I have missed something, but I would like a clear statement of what that could be. I still would like to know how I will understand the situation better by making God a part of my considerations.

As one of Sullivan’s readers has pointed out, the argument from evil is based on reason, while Sullivan’s answer seems based on faith. He can respond however he likes, of course, but I see nothing in these posts that suggests a well thought-out answer to the question of why an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God allows such ceaseless suffering and pain.

Sadly, this sort of thing is typical in responses to the problem of evil from religiously inclined people. It is why I frankly think the wisest thing ever said on this subject was said by Richard Dawkins:

This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

Exactly right.

Comments

  1. #1 JimR
    September 22, 2009

    Sullivan’s, “For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us),…” is this wonderful vague, metaphysical reasoning about the human condition. Bloody hell, we clawed our way above the human condition to the top of the heap. Mewling about how hard it is to to survive this is a copout. We strive every day against the indifference of the world and society, and the weak drop out. Show me where in the human contract it says anything has to be fair.

    It is so tiring to see the unending parade of theist arguments about the necessity to see beyond the suffering as a gateway to some salvation or another. I do not expect the world to be rational, that is a human definition. I just expect it to be reproducible as in repeated science experiments. NO MAGIC ALLOWED!

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    September 22, 2009

    “What does it mean to say suffering is a means of letting go to God? What does it mean in practical terms to allow Him to take over?”

    It sounds like TPE.

  3. #3 Emily
    September 22, 2009

    A dog might know he is starving or in pain, but presumably does not have the ability to ruminate on the greater purpose served by his suffering. If by “rising above suffering” Sullivan just means that we are able to get on with our lives after a devastating event, then I would point out that most animals have that ability in spades.

    Thinking along those lines, one could argue(as some have in the animal rights debate) that humans have a greater capacity for suffering than animals because we can think about it. How could theodicy try to explain that? Is it the price we pay for our intelligence, or indeed for our “capacity to rise above suffering”? But of course, that wouldn’t explain why we must pay that price in the first place, or why there’s suffering to “rise above”.

  4. #4 G.D.
    September 22, 2009

    Hi. Was just going through my handout on the problem of evil before I saw this post. So I felt compelled to insert it here (kinda happy with it). A little off-topic with regards to Sullivan, perhaps, but at least I think it sums up the case pretty well for an intro-student. Since the problem of evil is the first topic I teach (when doing Phil101), the handout is pretty comprehensive and doesn’t really leave much room for discussion. Text used is John Mackie’s “Evil and Omnipotence”. Comments are very welcome.

    The Problem of Evil arises from the fact that the following triad seems inconsistent:

    1. God is omnipotent
    2. God is perfectly good
    3. Evil exists

    (Strictly speaking, to make it formally inconsistent, you would need at least an ancillary assumption along the lines of “a perfectly good being would do everything in its power to prevent evil”, but I guess that is taken to follow from perfect goodness).

    “Adequate solutions”:

    What Mackie calls an “adequate solution” would be to reject one or more of the claims (apparently one would be best off rejecting 1). Of course, the problem only arises if you believe in God in the first place, and Mackie – who doesn’t – takes the existence of the dilemma (or ‘trilemma’) to constitute a good reason for dismissing the whole notion of a God.

    Four common attempts (not discussed by Mackie) that won’t do:

    1. “Evil originates from human nature and free will, not from God”. Irrelevant. The problem concerns not how or why evil arises, but why it isn’t prevented.
    2. “We cannot know ultimately what the good is”. This is cheating, and in the end tantamount to rejecting that God is perfectly good. We do not ask for some mysterious divine standards of goodness. We know (more or less) what the human ordinary term ‘good’ means and the question concerns whether God is good in that sense. If anyone made the claim that God was perfectly good, but was talking about some “other kind of goodness” different from what we usually mean by the term, then they aren’t addressing the worry at all, just trying to change the meaning of the term. That is dishonest at best. Same thing goes for non-solutions like saying that “evil is the absence of good” (Augustine) or merely a “disruption in the harmony”. Call it what you like; the point is that a perfectly good being wouldn’t allow people to die from horrible diseases and earthquakes.
    3. Appeal to mystery: “We do not even begin to understand the ways of God, and subjecting Him to our human standards of goodness is wrong. Mysterious are the ways of God and we cannot know what the good is from a divine point of view”. Another, similar claim to the one in 2. We understand what “good” is, and we understand what “all-powerful” is in the relevant sense and to the relevant degree (if we didn’t, what would be the point of calling God all-powerful in the first place?). And we know what evil is (at least we know that bad things exist, and that is enough to establish the problem). But then, which part of it is supposed to be mysterious? How could an appeal to mysticism even begin to allay our worries? There’s no junction in the trilemma where “mysterious” can enter in to solve it.
    4. “Evil is a punishment for sins”. This is no solution. First, it is the existence of sins that (in part) creates the problem. Second, why would an omnipotent, perfectly good being need to punish? The suggestion ends up merely restating the problem.

    Purported solutions discussed by Mackie (and found wanting):

    In general, according to Mackie, attempted theodicies are deceptive – if they appear to solve the problem, it is because they covertly involve rejecting (or entailing the rejection of) one of three claims.

    1. “Good cannot exist without evil”

    What is wrong with this purported solution depends on how it is interpreted:
    a. “Good and evil are related analogously to left and right, greater and smaller’. If this is so, it makes no sense to combat evil. It also seems to remove all sense from the claim that God is good. It is also obviously false.
    b. “Good and evil are related analogously to red and not red, they are necessary counterparts”. This requires an argument, and it is not clear how that would go (it seems false). But even if it could be given, it wouldn’t help. First, it is not at all clear why the world couldn’t be completely good – existence of evil might be required for us recognize goodness, but why should that matter? And even if it mattered, it doesn’t explain why there is so much evil – or any at all: why couldn’t we learn about evil and recognize the necessary contrast from just reading fiction, say, without anyone being actually harmed?

    Mackie’s responses to the remaining theodicies are interrelated:
    2. “Evil is necessary as a means to good”
    3. “The universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil”
    (3. is essentially Leibniz’ attempt which we will discuss further)

    Distinguish:

    1st order evils: Pain, misery (the existence of disease, pain, natural disasters etc)
    1st order good: Pleasure, happiness
    2nd order good: Sympathy, benevolence, bravery etc. (good character traits)

    The claim is that the world is better for including 2nd order goods, and that the existence of 1st order evils are necessary for the existence of 2nd order good (sometimes called “the character building theodicy” – for people to be benevolent, there has to be some pain that can be relieved; for people to be brave, there has to be some challenge they need to face, etc.).

    Problems:

    I. It could be claimed that benevolence and bravery etc aren’t higher sorts of good, but merely means to the good (i.e. 1st order goods). That would undermine the response; the character building theodicy requires that the 2nd order goods are the goal, not merely the means.
    II. The existence of 1st order evils is disproportionate (e.g. how could epidemics wiping out whole communities be explained by character building? When a child dies from a horrible disease, can this justified by the character building of the parents? But first: Note that people who suffer do not, in fact, usually become better people for it, and second: Can a God who tests his subjects by subject them to immense pain and sorrow legitimately be called ‘good’?
    III. A benevolent person is one who tries to minimize the amount of 1st order evil in the world (notice that the character building theodicy requires this definition of “benevolence”). Since God allows 1st order evils, God himself cannot rightfully be called benevolent or sympathetic, which seems surprising, to say the least.
    IV. The existence of 2nd order evil: Malevolence, cruelty etc.

    The idea behind the character building theodicy is that it should solve the problem of the existence of 1st order evil. It cannot, by itself, solve the problem of the existence of 2nd order evil. One response to IV, the most common one, involves the existence of a 3rd order good:

    4. “Evil is due to human free will”

    This is supposed to solve IV. So, we are supposed to have a combined strategy – the character building theodicy for 1st order evils, free will for 2nd order evils. Assume that the character building theodicy works (it does not; it is obviously a non-starter, as shown by I-III). Even if the character building theodicy worked, using free will to solve the existence of 2nd order evils is a non-starter as well:

    V. Why would a wholly good God grant humans free will if it resulted in all the evil? In order to sustain this theodicy, one would have to claim that free will is a much more important good than 1st or 2nd order goods, which would be very hard by itself.
    VI. Another problem is that the existence of free will is itself controversial (Mackie doesn’t believe the notion is even coherent).
    VII. A fundamental problem is that this theodicy must also assume that the existence of 2nd order evils is necessary for the existence of free will. Why couldn’t God ensure that we always chose to do good, even though we could have chosen otherwise (i.e. why is choosing wrongly sometimes necessary for having a free will? That seems wrong. No one would seriously claim that saintly people who always do good lack free will (if anyone got it)).
    VIII. Furthermore, how can it be that free will is so important that God doesn’t stop the worst excesses: e.g. Hitler – why is the free will of Hitler more important than the continued existence of the free wills of 6 million Jews? One who uses the free will theodicy must be prepared to grant this.
    IX. Worst of all: Why doesn’t God just intervene to prevent the effects of bad uses of free will? If God miraculously helped all Jews escape the clutches of the Nazi regime, that wouldn’t be an infringement on the free will of Hitler at all.

    One response to VIII (but not to V, VI, VII or IX) is that God, by a law he has laid onto himself, cannot control the wills of humans. But first: Why would he make such a law, and second: Could he? The claim that he could results in what Mackie calls the Paradox of Omnipotence: Can an omnipotent being make things he cannot subsequently control?

  5. #5 Pseudonym
    September 23, 2009

    The problem of evil, the paradox of omnipotence, Russell’s paradox and all such logical conundrums are basically the same thing in different guises. The “problem” is essentially what you get when you don’t understand the technical issues involved in universal quantification.

    The argument essentially goes like this, in convenient syllogism form:

    We define “God” as something that is logically contradictory.
    Logical contradictions can’t exist.
    Therefore God doesn’t exist.

    Defining “God” as being a naive pre-Frege collection of “omnis” seems just as daft to me as defining “God” as “the uncaused cause” or “the unmoved mover”.

  6. #6 Richard Wein
    September 23, 2009

    “…suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God…”

    What about those people who suffer but don’t let go to God (whatever that means) or get any of the other supposed benefits of suffering, or who would choose to forgo both the suffering and the benefits if they had the choice? Are they just collateral damage? Do they have to suffer so Sullivan can get his benefits? But God, if he’s omnipotent, could avoid collateral damage.

    Sullivan seems to realise his solution doesn’t make sense, and comes close to admitting it.
    I wish he would just say he hasn’t got a solution, and save us all some time.

  7. #7 GuLi
    September 23, 2009

    Pseudonym@5

    Defining “God” as being a naive pre-Frege collection of “omnis” seems just as daft to me as defining “God” as “the uncaused cause” or “the unmoved mover”.

    Well then, will you grace us with some not logically contradictory
    defined god/God/gods? Or are those thingamabobs necessarily
    undefinable?
    I’d really like to complete my collection of the Superleague
    of the Gaps trading cards – the Entities of the Cosmological,
    Biological and Ethical Gaps are pretty and all (I guess !
    The cards are blank when you look at them – but only then
    I’m sure), but the Logical one is damn elusive.

  8. #8 Jim W
    September 23, 2009

    I am also an atheist, but I don’t understand why suffering (or any feeling, for that matter) needs to exist. Evolution does not operate on the capacity of organisms to feel as a response to conditions, but rather just their capacity to change behavior.

    I believe this is the ultimate mystery of the universe: why or how “matter” can give rise to feelings (sensations, emotions, etc).

  9. #9 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    September 23, 2009

    My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

    Dude: sorry about the HIV and all your friends dying. But it was Teh Science which created the effective treatments which now keep the HIV at bay. God didn’t do any of that lifting.

    Jim W: I believe this is the ultimate mystery of the universe: why or how “matter” can give rise to feelings (sensations, emotions, etc).

    I believe that you are not a biologist, or at any rate, not a very good one.

  10. #10 Jim W
    September 23, 2009

    What does my job have to do with it? Anyways, I don’t know of any biologist who has explained why nerve impulses cause senstations or feelings. We all know that they do, but not why.

    The problem is that many shallow people take this fact to be mundane and not what it really is: completely mysterious. I mean, there is a reason that Crick refered to his hypothesis relating consciousness to neural activity as the “astonishing” hypothesis.

  11. #11 windy
    September 23, 2009

    I am also an atheist, but I don’t understand why suffering (or any feeling, for that matter) needs to exist. Evolution does not operate on the capacity of organisms to feel as a response to conditions, but rather just their capacity to change behavior.

    There’s no “but”- feeling is only one way of accomplishing that goal.

  12. #12 Jim W
    September 23, 2009

    windy, my point is that feeling doesn’t accomplish any goal. Only changes in behavior do. As many others have pointed out before me, there is no apparent reason that we couldn’t all be exactly the same as we now are, with the same complex brains and behavior, except without any of the associated subjective experiences. That is, why can’t we behave the same way without being mindless zombies?

  13. #13 windy
    September 23, 2009

    windy, my point is that feeling doesn’t accomplish any goal. Only changes in behavior do.

    But feeling is what produces the change in behavior, in many cases. You are making a false dichotomy.

  14. #14 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    September 23, 2009

    What does my job have to do with it? Anyways, I don’t know of any biologist who has explained why nerve impulses cause senstations or feelings. We all know that they do, but not why.

    @#$% why. Focus on how. Is it deeply mysterious that a bacteria can sense food/magnetism/light and move towards or away from it? How about an insect? Fish? At what threshhold of mental capacity do you think the process becomes mysterious?

  15. #15 george.w
    September 23, 2009

    Earlier this year I got to experience some suffering – a perforated intestine and emergency surgery – from which I am still recovering. I find the idea that such pain had purpose, horrible beyond words. It would make god an omnipotent torturer, which is a point of view more in line with reality than that he was both omnipotent and loving.

    Luckily, it was just some stuff that happened, nature being indifferent. That at least made sense to me, and I didn’t have fear of an omnipotent torturer added to my suffering.

  16. #16 bobh
    September 23, 2009

    Jim W:
    “As many others have pointed out before me, there is no apparent reason that we couldn’t all be exactly the same as we now are, with the same complex brains and behavior, except without any of the associated subjective experience”

    Indeed we could be different, all organisms could be “different” in many ways. We (they) are the way we are because that’s where evolution led us. I once was involved in a study to see if the sonar of dolphins could inform better design for underwater sonar for the Navy. The evolutionary solution for sonar for dolphins works pretty well but it is not optimum in terms of either performance or economy.

  17. #17 CybrgnX
    September 23, 2009

    All this ‘fallen’, ‘original sin’, ‘evil’ is pure BS.
    The ‘fall’ was nothing more then evolving a brain capable of ‘seeing outside the ‘immediate environs of the self’ and making judgments in relation between the events and the self. Carried forward to the ability to make relational and rational decisions. Pain is the bodies automatic response to damage, fear is the realization that pain can be experiences, and misery is our response to the combination of these to the self.
    Evil does not exist as a thing. There are actions, consequences, and our response to them, which together WE make the judgment of ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘evil’. A simple example is abortion. you have the action, the consequence, and the reaction of people. Some judge this as evil, some as bad, and others as ‘who cares?’. the action and consequences have not changed only the reaction and judgment of PEOPLE. There is no mythic fantasy creature involved, except where PEOPLE use it as the excuse for the ‘reaction-judgment’.

  18. #18 Jim W
    September 23, 2009

    windy,

    If you are a materialist, then you don’t believe that feelings can cause behavior. You do believe that material processes (eg, nerve impulses) can cause behavior. The conventional materialist view on the mind/body problem is that feelings are an epiphenomenon, and have nothing to do with causality. The neural circuits of simple organisms such as aplysia have been worked out so that we can explain many of their reflexes. But, we still have no clue how much pain an aplysia experiences when you poke it.

    Bayesian Bouffant,

    You are using the word “sense” to refer to a chain of causality between nerve impules, not subjective experience. So, you are not addressing the issue that I am talking about.

  19. #19 llewelly
    September 23, 2009

    In the essay that started it all, Barney Zwartz wrote:

    One of the main problems with the debate as formulated these days is that the God it discusses is not a God anyone actually believes in. It is a philosopher’s model, it is an abstract set of attributes: perfect power, perfect knowledge, perfect goodness – but no personality, no historical context, no interaction with humans. It’s purely theoretical. It’s not the God of the Torah, of the Bible, of the Koran, the God people actually believe in and turn to in trouble. It’s divorced from God’s character, which involves love and grace.

    This is interesting because most (1) arguments against God assume God has one or more infinite attributes. The problem of evil, the issue now at hand, assumes two infinite attributes. Yet in the paragraph above, Zwartz is clearly trying to reject the God of infinite attributes. But later in the same essay, he writes:

    My second point is that humans can have no ultimate explanation for suffering because unlike God we are finite.

    He can’t quite away from the infinite God. In this respect, he seems like the many devout Christians I have met, who, when asked, point blank whether God could have prevented the Holocaust, hem and haw for a bit, but ultimately find themselves unable to say no.

    (1) Some objections, like the problem of waste, are more serious for a finite God, but objections of this sort are the exception.

  20. #20 NewEnglandBob
    September 23, 2009

    Sullivan misses his mommy and especially his daddy so he creates a new one to make his life meaningful. He NEEDS to suffer and have guilt. Let him wallow in it. His words are nonsense.

  21. #21 Stew
    September 23, 2009

    The fall can be conceived quite differently from the standard, framed by our supposed disobedient and sinful nature. Rather than the proverbial falling from paradise, down into sin model, we instead withdrew from the undifferentiated, eternal garden of the forest, in favor of the differentiated, temporal world of the open savannah plains, of East Africa. In other words, the fall is a fall into the grips of time.

    Once our ancestors began wandering about, out in this unremitting, open landscape of stark contrasts, the immediate temporal experience of life, birth and death would be laid bare before their eyes; an experience, that in many ways, is unavailable to those still living in the closed habitat of their former forest home.

    The onus of this experience on their lives, would concern the ever present circumstance of loss; most particularly, the loss of those around us. Realization that all things come and go, would need to wait however, until the time humans evolved the capacity to express the sorrows they experience and with the coming of language, as we know it, the meaningful concepts, such as sin and morality, that would allow us the means by which to mitigate the worse effects that the suffering of this world produces.

  22. #22 windy
    September 23, 2009

    If you are a materialist, then you don’t believe that feelings can cause behavior.

    Eh, sure they can, watch:

    I am experiencing mild frustration right now

    I believe that the feeling contributed causally to me typing that, but I don’t think that’s a reason to abandon materialism. Do you disagree with the former or the latter?

    The conventional materialist view on the mind/body problem is that feelings are an epiphenomenon, and have nothing to do with causality.

    Who decided it’s the “conventional materialist view”? I for one wasn’t invited to that convention. Don’t you think that feelings evolved? How is it that we can research such things as the role of the amygdala in emotional learning, if feelings don’t have any effects?

  23. #23 Glazius
    September 23, 2009

    Evil is the oldest problem in the Book.

    Job, specifically.

    And the answer goes roughly “You’re never going to fully understand why evil exists and why people suffer. It’s more important to help the suffering. Don’t let wondering why get in the way of helping people. Especially don’t turn it into a search for excuses not to help people.”

    Y’see, Job’s “friends” spend all their time grilling him about what he’s done wrong because they don’t want to help Job. They want to find out how he’s offended God and, by extension, what not to do so they don’t end up like Job.

  24. #24 BaldApe
    September 23, 2009

    Jim W:

    On philosophical zombies, see this, for instance.

    On the “problem” of evil, I find the whole argument completely unconvincing. How do we really know that an event is evil, if we can’t know what all of the alternative possibilities are? Maybe the painful medical condition that sent you to the hospital kept you from driving to work and being killed in a car crash.

    I am certainly not a theist, but I just think this argument rests on a superficial concept of good and evil. The idea that we can judge the world as somehow suboptimal suggests that we know all of the trade-offs necessary if one were to design a universe from scratch.

    It has been suggested that God could make the universe whatever way he wanted to, but there are things that are simply contradictory. He can’t make a stone he can’t lift.

    Consider the opposite question: can a completely “good” world exist? One person might think that such a world would have country so-called music playing 24/7. I would consider that Hell. So he might reply that in a “good” world, I would like country “music.” But I would reply that if I were mentally deficient, that would not be a perfect world.

    The solution to the “problem” of good and evil is Shakespeare’s: There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

  25. #25 Tulse
    September 23, 2009

    I believe that the feeling contributed causally to me typing that

    Are you saying that you could not account for that behaviour purely on the basis of the firings of neurons? Is there somewhere in the causal chain that “feelings” are needed to make things work?

  26. #26 Jim W
    September 23, 2009

    BaldApe,

    Thanks for the reference; it looks interesting.

    Windy,

    I do believe that internal representations, or mental states, evolved that signal to us an evaluation of our circumstances. These representations help us generate adaptive behavior. My point is that I don’t know why these representations feel like anything. This is the whole question of qualia, etc. I believe that the conventional materialist view is as I stated it.

    So, to summarize, I believe that evolution can explain the fact that misfortune is widespread. I don’t think it can explain why suffering is widespread, because I don’t know of an explanation as to why misfortune produces the feeling of suffering (or conversely why fortune produces joy).

  27. #27 Michelle B
    September 23, 2009

    Excellent post, Jason. It was very easy to follow your chain of thought. Thank you.

    Sullivan’s explanation is well known, well, certainly well known to people who had the misfortune of being indoctrinated into Catholicism/Christianity during their childhood (like me). And yet, it appears that this ordinary and humdrum ‘paradox of the cross’ sends shivers of joy and fulfillment down his silly spine (or where his spine should be).

    We get it, Sullivan. We just don’t buy it, hook, line, and sinker like you have. As Jason emphasized, how is clinging to this idea of a paradox of the cross gives you any real solution to being a meat machine living in an indifferent world? None, no edge whatsoever. I would go further, and say that it actually leaves you at a disadvantage.

    Sullivan wrestled with the concept of god being evil because how his close ones suffered terribly from AIDS, and yet he walked away from his little doubt session, convinced that god is good. That’s a true, die-hard faith head for you. Evidence staring him in his face that if god does exist, it is evil, and instead, he chooses to dig his faith head deeper into the sand and insist that not only god exists, but it is good.

  28. #28 Ophelia Benson
    September 23, 2009

    “The solution to the “problem” of good and evil is Shakespeare’s: There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

    Tell that to an animal with its leg caught in a trap.

  29. #29 Ophelia Benson
    September 23, 2009

    (And by the way, it’s always a mistake to attribute something one of Shakespeare’s characters says to Shakespeare himself as if it were one of his homilies. It’s Hamlet who says that, paraphrasing Montaigne, and he’s being massively ironic in saying it. [He's talking to Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, and nothing he says to them can be taken at face value.] Shakespeare wrote plays, with lots of characters who said wicked or stupid or deluded or cynical things. Shakespeare is not to be confused with Polonius.)

  30. #30 H.H.
    September 23, 2009

    Sullivan’s arguments are truly bizarre:

    My notion of a fallen world is related to the fact of mortality, which embraces almost everything on our planet, and causes terrible suffering to animals as well as humans. The difference is that, so far as we know, only humans experience this suffering as a form of alienation; we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else.

    Yes, practically any animal with a nervous system is capable of suffering, but only people get depressed about it. So according to Sullivan, the evidence that god exists is the fact that we are so unhappy. If god didn’t exist, then we would be happy with (or at least indifferent to) our own suffering. Does this make sense to anyone?

    He also claims to have found an overwhelming peace of mind after

    …letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits.

    Now, I agree that one way to minimize our suffering–or at least keep from adding to it–is to resign ourselves to its inevitability. This is an old psychological strategy. The ancient Greek stoics believed that happiness could only be attained by aligning one’s will with nature, that is, by accepting reality on its own terms rather than by trying to impose our wills onto it. We are like dogs tied to a moving cart–we can either submit and follow the cart or struggle and be dragged behind it. Our attitudes don’t change our circumstances, they merely mitigate the suffering imposed on us by circumstance. Buddhism, too, teaches how to minimize suffering by accepting things as they are. The relief of submission can be summarized by the overused pledge: “My I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    So Sullivan isn’t really offering anything new here. One of the great flaws in his apologetics is that he fails to make a distinction between simply letting go vs. letting go to god. How is the latter different than the former? Is the existence of god necessary to explain his peace of mind, or is the simple act of “letting go” sufficient in and of itself? Some people find that they can’t “let go” unless they believe someone else will take up the reins. Their angst can only be alleviated by believing that their suffering has some purpose–one they don’t need to actually understand–just one they have to believe is there. Thus, “letting go to god” just means deciding to ignore the problem of suffering entirely. Sullivan doesn’t pretend know how suffering fits into god’s plan or what purpose suffering serves, but it doesn’t matter because he has made the conscious decision not to think about it anymore. Here surrendering to the “paradox of the cross” means believing that suffering serves some unknown purpose because it is more comforting to do so. So this is not an argument that suffering serves some purpose, it’s an argument that believing it does makes Sullivan feel better.

    The burden is on Sullivan to demonstrate that his beliefs are justified, and the fact that he finds his beliefs comforting is not sufficient justification. If Sullivan were intellectually honest, he would admit as much instead of whining about how rigorous minds can’t accept religious testimony in place of valid arguments.

  31. #31 Richard Eis
    September 24, 2009

    The more I hear about these “modern” interpretations of the bible the more God looks like a pointless, extravagant cherry that you have to pay extra for…on top of a perfectly good chocolate cake.

  32. #32 steve from brisbane
    September 24, 2009

    Jason wrote: “It [the problem of suffering]does not become puzzling until you insert an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God into the mix.”

    I’m religious by inclination, yet (like Sullivan)can understand how personal experience of pain and suffering can be so strong as to lead to loss of faith. But just because something is puzzling doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some will no doubt get irritated by my raising it, but quantum physics presents an incredible, non-intuitive, quasi-philosophical puzzle as to the very nature of reality, but I don’t hear scientists saying it can’t be right just because of that. I always find it strange that atheist scientists seem to have no trouble with accepting the weird behaviour of the quantum world and non locality, despite no one understanding what it really all means yet, but still get all finger-pointing at theists who say they can’t explain everything about their idea of God.

    I am no expert in theodicy, but I do find Russell Blackford’s dismissal of the role of free will hard to follow and far from convincing.

    The fundamental problem may be that scientists increasingly can’t even bring themselves to believe in free will. But, allowing that it exists, I thought it was a core idea for most Christians that God made a universe incorporating free will for humans, and the only logical way to do that is to incidentally allow for both suffering in nature, and for people to do morally bad things. True, this does not really leave any scope for the Fall of Man as an explanation for the origin of natural evil. But nonetheless, if I believe in free will, I am not sure why I am not meant to find it at least a plausible explanation for believing in a benevolent God despite the type of universe we find ourselves in.

    Fundamentally it also comes down to the question of whether creating a universe is ‘worth’ all the suffering.

    Well, you can either say that it is the optimistic Christian view that the afterlife does make it worthwhile, or alternatively, maybe God in a sense has no choice about creating the universe. I am pretty fond of Tipler’s Omega Point idea, which (I think) at its heart has God both arising out of the universe and being both its end and beginning. Sure, some parts of his theory are (to my mind) very dubious, but at the end of the day, I find it pretty appealing on many levels.

    One final point: I note that Jason complains that some theodicies are “callous and cold hearted”. Yet, as I noted before, a scientific lack of belief in free will is pretty much par for the course now, yet it I find it hard to see how such a concept is not ultimately bleak and dehumanising. I would suggest that scientists not get too precious in thinking that religious world views are the only ones that involve unappealing beliefs.

  33. #33 Tulse
    September 24, 2009

    I thought it was a core idea for most Christians that God made a universe incorporating free will for humans, and the only logical way to do that is to incidentally allow for both suffering in nature, and for people to do morally bad things.

    I see very few loving parents who allow their kids to play in the street and touch hot stoves in the name of “free will”, and who don’t do everything they can to help them avoid suffering and illness, and provide them analgesics when they hurt and medicine when they are sick. You are willing to hold an omnibenevolent deity to a much lower standard?

  34. #34 Kevin (NYC)
    September 24, 2009

    err Steve..

    “I always find it strange that atheist scientists seem to have no trouble with accepting the weird behaviour of the quantum world and non locality, despite no one understanding what it really all means yet, but still get all finger-pointing at theists who say they can’t explain everything about their idea of God.”

    you must live in a different universe that the one this post is in, and you are sending a comment about something that does not exist.

    a) QM is measurable and predictive and repeatable.

    b) lots of scientists of all beliefs find it odd, esp entanglement, which I don’t think anyone has yet claimed to explain, but lots of people have performed repeatable experiments that prove it exists

    c) “get all finger-pointing” er what?

    d) at theists who say they can’t explain everything about their idea of God

    I think the word you are looking for is ANYTHING. vague phrases, mumbled atributes and a general “boy aint he great” falls far short of a poor explaination, not to even claim a good or correct one.

  35. #35 steve from brisbane
    September 24, 2009

    Err, Kevin (NYC), of course I accept that God is non-testable in a way that quantum physics isn’t. Maybe free will, or the inherent nature of this universe, has got something to do with that too.

    But I’m glad you brought up testability. I forgot to mention the fact that a significant group of physicists have been spending the last 20 years or so working on string theory, an idea whose testability (and true status as “science”) is hotly contested. Maybe all the anti-theists are rabidly denouncing string theory too, but I doubt it. My point again is basically one against finger pointing, or to put it another way, encouragement towards a little bit of humility.

  36. #36 qbsmd
    September 24, 2009

    The fundamental problem may be that scientists increasingly can’t even bring themselves to believe in free will. But, allowing that it exists, I thought it was a core idea for most Christians that God made a universe incorporating free will for humans, and the only logical way to do that is to incidentally allow for both suffering in nature, and for people to do morally bad things.

    I have a hard time believing the phrase “free will” refers to a consistent and non-trivial idea. Perhaps you can explain what it means.

    Yet, as I noted before, a scientific lack of belief in free will is pretty much par for the course now, yet it I find it hard to see how such a concept is not ultimately bleak and dehumanising.

    It’s purely a philosophical disagreement; the existence or absence of free will doesn’t change anything because we already are whatever we are. If you find the conclusion bleak, don’t read about the future of the universe.

  37. #37 qbsmd
    September 24, 2009

    Some will no doubt get irritated by my raising it, but quantum physics presents an incredible, non-intuitive, quasi-philosophical puzzle as to the very nature of reality, but I don’t hear scientists saying it can’t be right just because of that. I always find it strange that atheist scientists seem to have no trouble with accepting the weird behaviour of the quantum world and non locality, despite no one understanding what it really all means yet, but still get all finger-pointing at theists who say they can’t explain everything about their idea of God.

    Err, Kevin (NYC), of course I accept that God is non-testable in a way that quantum physics isn’t. Maybe free will, or the inherent nature of this universe, has got something to do with that too.

    So you’ve heard atheists challenging theists to provide evidence for their gods, and you know there is evidence for QM. And there have been more experiments verifying QM than most other theories precisely because it is counter-intuitive, and that was what it took to be accepted. I fail to see how you “find it strange” that there is a difference, given that you’ve admitted that you understand that difference.

    But I’m glad you brought up testability. I forgot to mention the fact that a significant group of physicists have been spending the last 20 years or so working on string theory, an idea whose testability (and true status as “science”) is hotly contested. Maybe all the anti-theists are rabidly denouncing string theory too, but I doubt it. My point again is basically one against finger pointing, or to put it another way, encouragement towards a little bit of humility.

    There are people who don’t consider string theory scientific. Your “hotly contested” comes from them, so I don’t know why you would doubt they exist.

  38. #38 steven from brisbane
    September 24, 2009

    One final matter: the language of science is mathematics, yet didn’t Godel show that there are inherent limitations in maths itself? At the time, the likes of Bertrand Russell found this devastating, yet now anti-theists just seem to shrug their shoulders over this mathematical proof that it will never be able to prove everything, and continue with their criticism of theists who acknowledge that they can’t prove everything either.

    I don’t mind criticism of the ethics and effects of certain religious beliefs – I would not say that the world should tolerate human sacrifice if a sincere group of believers think that is necessary to make it rain next summer. But anti-theists seem to keep trying to push reaction to belief into an all or nothing proposition, as if allowing for any incomplete human understanding of any type of God at all must be attacked as illogical and (more than likely) harmful. At the same time, as my posts have tried to show, they will live with a really fundamental mystery as to how the universe could be the way it is (quantum weirdness, and the unresolved issue of the role of observation in reality) and gloss over incompleteness in the very language of their explanation of the universe (Godel.)

    As I suggested, a bit of humility is all that I am suggesting.

  39. #39 Kevin (NYC)
    September 24, 2009

    “Maybe all the anti-theists are rabidly denouncing string theory too, but I doubt it. ”

    haha THe String theorists, membrane people, and quite a few cosmologists are praying! that we can measure gravity leaking from our dimensions into some others so that the string mathematicians can sit down at the physical table of science instead of hanging out with the “pure” theory longhairs.

  40. #40 Kevin (NYC)
    September 24, 2009

    Steve, dude, you are sounding like an idiot that can use a keyboard here…

    “as if allowing for any incomplete human understanding of any type of God at all”

    we’ve asked for any minimal understanding. a scrap, a shred.. so far its just us and the crickets.

    “quantum physics presents an incredible, non-intuitive, quasi-philosophical” completely logical, repeatable, calculable description of “the very nature of reality, but I don’t hear scientists saying it can’t be right just because of that.”

    errr what?

    you don’t hear people saying it can’t be right because it works? as Martha says, “That’s a good thing”

    “As I suggested, a bit of humility is all that I am suggesting. ”

    oh yes the theists have cornered the market on that, haahahh

  41. #41 steven from brisbane
    September 24, 2009

    Kevin: stop being obtuse. The minimal understanding has been suggested. You think it’s illogical, ridiculous etc etc. That’s your right, but don’t flatter yourself by thinking that everyone who disagrees with you is an idiot.

    I agree that QM works; but again I say that its philosophical meaning and implications are still a very big issue (dare I say, mystery). I do not think anyone can seriously deny that. You may argue that it is a mystery that may be resolved in future; but then again, so may the question of the existence of God (either at the end of your life, or that of the universe.) I am not exactly invoking a God of the gaps; I am just arguing by analogy. That’s not irrefutable logic, I know. But I also know that logic has its limits: an issue on which I reckon its pretty clear that Bertrand Russell lost out to Wittgenstein, but you don’t seem to have caught up with that idea yet.

    Of course, religion can have its humility problems too. No doubt about that point. My position is not meant to be encouragement to creationism or fundamentalism.

  42. #42 Modusoperandi
    September 25, 2009

    Glazius Job, specifically. And the answer goes roughly ‘You’re never going to fully understand why evil exists and why people suffer. It’s more important to help the suffering. Don’t let wondering why get in the way of helping people. Especially don’t turn it into a search for excuses not to help people.’
    Really? If memory serves, the answer to the PoE in Job is God berating Job until he knuckles under (“Sure, you’ve suffered, but..(lengthy pause)…look at all these other things I did! Look at how great I am! How dare you question me!”).
    Job’s God is “omni” only in the characteristic of douchery.

    steve from brisbane “I would suggest that scientists not get too precious in thinking that religious world views are the only ones that involve unappealing beliefs.”
    Is the Theory of Gravity an “unappealing belief”, or is does it just describe an “is”? Whether or not free will exists, it’s an “is”. “Is” isn’t cold or unappealing. Is simply is.

    “…yet now anti-theists just seem to shrug their shoulders over this mathematical proof that it will never be able to prove everything, and continue with their criticism of theists who acknowledge that they can’t prove everything either.”
    “Can’t prove everything either”? When has a theistic explanation not given way to a naturalistic one? (“We’re sorry. We thought that tourette’s was an inherited neuropsychiatric disease…but it turns out that it’s demons”)
    Theology is the science of pretending that the answer you want is the answer, then sticking with it when better explanations come around (it’s also the art of pretending that only your theology is right. Everybody else’s is just silly, you see. Here are some Biblical passages that buttress my True Theology. God told that He agrees with me, too. True story).
    Admitting that you can’t know everything is far different than pretending to have answers you don’t have.

    “As I suggested, a bit of humility is all that I am suggesting.”
    Science’s “This is the best explanation we have, based on the data so far (and subject to change with further advances)” is hardly on the same level as Revelation’s “God wants you to do this…” (contradicted, of course, by someone else’s Revelation of “No. God wants you to do that…”)
    “Close enough, for now” is humility.

    “Of course, religion can have its humility problems too.”
    Odd how confusing the voice inside for God’s voice will do that, eh? A scientist who is an overconfident absolutist is called a jerk. A Catholic who is the same is called “Pope”, while a Protestant of similar cut is called “a leading light of the Christian Right”. Heck, there was a time when every new jerk got to start his very own schism.


    And if I sound kind of cranky it’s because there’s a bitchin’ big bugbite itch in the middle of my back that I…(scratch scratch)…just…(scratch scratch)…can’t…(scratch scratch)…reach.
    The Problem of Evil reaches a new low! Woe!

  43. #43 qbsmd
    September 25, 2009

    I agree that QM works; but again I say that its philosophical meaning and implications are still a very big issue (dare I say, mystery). I do not think anyone can seriously deny that. You may argue that it is a mystery that may be resolved in future; but then again, so may the question of the existence of God (either at the end of your life, or that of the universe.) I am not exactly invoking a God of the gaps; I am just arguing by analogy. That’s not irrefutable logic, I know.

    The interpretation of QM is separate from the fact that QM is good at describing particle interactions. The questions theologians ponder about the nature of god, however, are dependent on ignoring the fact that hypothesizing a god adds nothing to our understanding of anything.

    So the analogy is:
    QM : evidence as God : absence of evidence
    Your statement isn’t irrefutable logic because it isn’t logic. I don’t think I’ve seen you write anything that isn’t self refuting: you should know better than to say the things you’re saying.

  44. #44 Kevin (NYC)
    September 25, 2009

    indeed..

    “Kevin: stop being obtuse. The minimal understanding has been suggested”

    what minimal understanding? and what kind of word is “suggested”? a weasel word? “explainations” such as “God is Great” or “That which nothing greater can be conceived” or the “Holiest of Holies” do nothing to provide ANY understanding of what you are arguing for here.

    “You may argue that it is a mystery that may be resolved in future; but then again, so may the question of the existence of God (either at the end of your life, or that of the universe.)”

    No. I argue that we have reproduceable evidence that the theory of QM is correct. You seem to argue that the theory of God is correct, and that the mysteries of one are analogous to the mysteries of the other.

    Yet you have not one shred of evidence. No effects or predictions that are confirmed. nothing. You sound like the guy that said “I stake my life that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born.” as if it was some testable thesis that he was sure about.

    I agree with qbsmd that you may be just arguing stupidly for the fun of it. I used to do that when I was a child.

  45. #45 windy
    September 25, 2009
    I believe that the feeling contributed causally to me typing that

    Are you saying that you could not account for that behaviour purely on the basis of the firings of neurons?

    It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!

    Is there somewhere in the causal chain that “feelings” are needed to make things work?

    If feelings aren’t “in the causal chain”, isn’t it curious how what I wrote happened to match what I felt at the time? How did that happen? How is it possible that we are apparently *discussing* our subjective experiences here in the material world?

  46. #46 Tulse
    September 25, 2009

    How did that happen? How is it possible that we are apparently *discussing* our subjective experiences here in the material world?

    Well, one answer to that question has traditionally been “epiphenomenalism”. Others have been “dual-aspect monism”. There are various other approaches that don’t demand that the feeling qua feeling have any causal role in the physical world.

  47. #47 steve from brisbane
    September 26, 2009

    Kevin & qbsmd: you are unworthy of engaging in debate, because clearly I am an idiot. I bow to your great knowledge of science, logic, philosophy, and how to tell someone else they are an idiot.

  48. #48 Collin Brendemuehl
    September 27, 2009
  49. #49 windy
    September 27, 2009

    But Tulse, epiphenomenalism doesn’t answer my question at all. It avoids it.

    As an example, george.w was telling us of one subjective experience he had: the suffering he experienced as a result of a perforated intestine. I see no reason to doubt that. But under epiphenomenalism, he might have experienced such suffering but it can have no effect on what memories are physically stored in his brain or what his body does as a result of them. So what caused george.w to type those words?

  50. #50 Tulse
    September 27, 2009

    what caused george.w to type those words?

    Under one description, one that doesn’t rely on unexplained, immaterial causation, what caused that statement were biochemical reactions in george w.’s brain. We don’t need to postulate subjective experience to explain it any more than we need to postulate some sort of “vital force” beyond biological processes to explain why he is alive.

    I honestly do understand that the issue is a conundrum, and that common sense says that subjective experiences have causal efficacy. All I am saying is that there is no place for such a notion in the causal chain. Notice that this isn’t the same as saying that subjective experiences aren’t “real” in some sense, or even that they aren’t the result of physical processes — the claim is narrower, simply that we have no need for such concepts in order to explain behaviour.

    I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that simply asserting there must be one that preserves common sense isn’t terribly convincing.

  51. #51 windy
    September 28, 2009

    Could you please not cut out the context and just answer one fragment of a sentence? You’re still not addressing the problem as I see it.

    Under one description, one that doesn’t rely on unexplained, immaterial causation, what caused that statement were biochemical reactions in george w.’s brain.

    Well of course they did. But the issue is whether these biochemical reactions are also something else.

    I honestly do understand that the issue is a conundrum, and that common sense says that subjective experiences have causal efficacy. All I am saying is that there is no place for such a notion in the causal chain.

    How do you know? It seems to be that people insist this because they can’t imagine that feelings could possibly be realized in matter. It’s hard to imagine but I wouldn’t assert a priori that there is “no place for such a notion”.

    the claim is narrower, simply that we have no need for such concepts in order to explain behaviour.

    The need arises because our bodies apparently “know” what we are feeling, although epiphenomenalism doesn’t allow for that. Why did biochemical reactions in george.w’s brain produce a representation of his subjective experience, if the subjective experience is only a result of what happens in the brain, but this one-way relationship never feeds back into what the body “outputs”? Fucking amazing coincidence isn’t it?

    It’s possible that there are some sort of “psychophysical laws” like Chalmers suggests that magically always produce the right correlation between our brains and our feelings, but I think positing such laws raises more questions than it solves. It’s like Last Thursdayism – it’s a possibility that can’t be disproved but it doesn’t really explain anything.

    I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that simply asserting there must be one that preserves common sense isn’t terribly convincing.

    That’s not what I’m asserting. Don’t be such a patronizing ass! :P

    (Not to sound too negative – I’ve appreciated your recent comments on other blogs, Buffy-as-anti-immigrant-screed was pretty funny. And anyways this comment is just some complicated response to a stimulus, since it can’t in any way be causally influenced by my annoyance, right?!)

  52. #52 Tulse
    September 28, 2009

    I’m sorry that you found my response frustrating, windy — I honestly am not trying to play any rhetorical games, but just trying to focus on what I see as the problem.

    The need arises because our bodies apparently “know” what we are feeling, although epiphenomenalism doesn’t allow for that. Why did biochemical reactions in george.w’s brain produce a representation of his subjective experience, if the subjective experience is only a result of what happens in the brain, but this one-way relationship never feeds back into what the body “outputs”?

    I absolutely agree that the issue as you outline it makes it seem that subjective experience must have causal efficacy (as I noted in my earlier post). But the problem is that there is no gap in the causal chain that would allow such effects. That’s the conundrum, at least as I see it. I don’t see how, if we are materialists, that we can say materialism is an incomplete description of the causal features of the world, which is what your position (the “common sense” view, in my words) seems to entail.

  53. #53 Collin Brendemuehl
    September 28, 2009

    Malformed arguments come in several varieties.

    GD says Can an omnipotent being make things he cannot subsequently control?
    ** But what if the sovereignty concern (control) is not the predominant characteristic? What if providence (care and management) is of equal expression by the deity?
    ** The assumption of “cannot … control” makes a deterministic assumption — that control is God’s first priority. Sorry, but that makes the challenge equally as weak as “Can God make a rock so big he cannot move it.” The assumption is much the same as it assumes contradictory characteristics.

  54. #54 Anton Mates
    September 29, 2009

    Tulse,

    All I am saying is that there is no place for such a notion in the causal chain. Notice that this isn’t the same as saying that subjective experiences aren’t “real” in some sense, or even that they aren’t the result of physical processes — the claim is narrower, simply that we have no need for such concepts in order to explain behaviour.

    As I think I’ve said before, I don’t see why we should be wedded to the notion of “the” causal chain. Why must there be only one such chain? Nothing in the notion of causation, so far as I can see, requires that an event have only one cause or set of causes. It’s entirely possible for A to be a necessary and sufficient (empirically speaking) cause of B, and for C to also be a necessary and sufficient cause of B. (That’s one reason why scientists sometimes look at webs of causation rather than chains.)

    E.g., an object produces a field of force, which accelerates a particle and causes it to move in a particular way. Or, an object produces a field of potential, which determines a particle’s path of minimum action and causes it to move in a particular way. Both causal chains are complete–we can use either to fully explain the particle’s motion and have no need of the other. Which chain is the “real” one? Why not both?

    Or take the example we discussed a while ago: hurricanes. The concept of a hurricane is unnecessary to explain why (say) a given house was blown over by Katrina; we could theoretically explain it perfectly well just by talking about the collisions and trajectories of individual air molecules. But that doesn’t mean hurricanes aren’t causally efficacious!

    And incidentally, I say “theoretically” above because we certainly do need the concept of a hurricane to explain the macroscopic effects of Katrina, just as we do need the concept of subjective experience to explain human behavior. We believe, quite justifiably, that a sufficiently clever and knowledgeable being could explain behavior using only descriptions at the cell-level or below…but we ourselves can’t do that, and won’t be able to do so for the foreseeable future.

    So if there are multiple causal chains explaining my macroscopic behavior, and only the chains involving subjective experience are ones we humans can actually use, why shouldn’t we say that subjective experience is a causal factor in my behavior?

  55. #55 Anton Mates
    September 29, 2009

    I don’t see how, if we are materialists, that we can say materialism is an incomplete description of the causal features of the world, which is what your position (the “common sense” view, in my words) seems to entail.

    It seems to me that materialism, in the sense most of us here use it, is simply the belief that there exist causally complete descriptions of the world which don’t refer to mental phenomena. That doesn’t preclude the existence of other causally complete descriptions of the world which do refer to mental phenomena.

  56. #56 acne information
    October 2, 2009

    Both causal chains are complete–we can use either to fully explain the particle’s motion and have no need of the other. Which chain is the “real” one? Why not both?

  57. #57 Anton Mates
    October 23, 2009

    A spambot has now joined a conversation about the problem of consciousness. Irony is achieved.