Over at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley serves up a long post about the problem of evil. He was responding to this post by John Loftus, but Torley’s post can mostly be read independently of what Loftus wrote.
I devote a chapter of Among the Creationists to the problem of evil. I open the chapter like this:
Pride of place among theological problems must surely go to the problem of evil. That there is something incongruous in the picture of a just and loving God presiding over a world of extravagant cruelty and suffering is obvious to even the most unreflective person.
Indeed. I’ve always liked C. S. Lewis’s observation, from the opening of his book The Problem of Pain, that the reality of massive cruelty and suffering is so obvious that it is a wonder that anyone ever dreamed up the idea of a just and loving God in the first place. Alas, that was the high point of the book. Lewis’s subsequent book-length attempt to defuse the problem was not successful, in my view.
Torley offers up a few points of his own. Loftus argued that there is no moral justification for God doing nothing in the face of various sufferings and depredations suffered routinely by human beings. Just as a human is expected to intervene to prevent great evil when he can do so with no risk to himself, so too should God be held to the same standard. Torley replies:
The unstated premise in this argument is that (i) lack of power (or ability) and (ii) lack of knowledge are the only things which could possibly excuse someone from failing to help another individual in distress. But I can think of an exception right away: where assisting a victim in distress would conflict with a person’s pre-existing obligations. In my post in reply to Dr. Sean Carroll on the problem of evil, I pointed out two ways that I could think of, right off the top of my head, in which these pre-existing obligations might arise. The first way would be if God ever made a promise not to continually intervene and assist people in distress, in response to an explicit request made by the human race as a whole at some point in the past, to leave them alone and let them make their own mistakes. As I wrote in my last post:
Perhaps at some point very early on in our prehistory, our rebellious ancestors grew tired of God always watching over us like the attentive parent of a young child, and said, “Enough! We don’t need a cosmic nanny protecting us from evil night and day! Leave us alone to figure it out for ourselves! Even if we have to suffer and die, we’d still prefer that to You hovering over us all the time!” And perhaps God reluctantly complied with their wishes, and promised to refrain from continually saving us. If God made such a promise, then His hands would be tied, to some degree.
Consult the original for relevant links.
That’s a mighty strange reply, considering that “the human race” has plainly never made any such request. We should note that all manner of sufferings are visited upon religious people, and it is difficult to argue that they have asked God never to intervene. Nor have atheists ever made such a request. There is a large difference between doubting the existence of God and asking God never to intervene.
It is hard to fathom what Torley is suggesting here. To make it concrete, let us inquire into God’s attitudes toward the thousands of people who were killed in Typhoon Haiyan, and the thousands more who had their lives destroyed. Are we to believe that God reluctantly allowed the typhoon to happen, on account of a request from the Filipinos that he do nothing to stop it? Doesn’t seem likely.
As it happens, though, Torley’s argument would be unsuccessful even if humanity ever had made such an explicit request. It would be comparable to a child requesting that he be allowed to find out for himself what happens when he runs with scissors or declines to wash his hands before dinner. Why is God under any obligation to honor our requests, especially when He knows that we are requesting things that are not good for us? After all, God routinely ignores prayers and requests from His most devout subjects. Why is he suddenly required to honor this one?
Perhaps Loftus will respond that even if such a “non-intervention request” were made by our ancestors and honored by God – a highly speculative proposal for which we have no evidence – previous generations of human beings would still have no right to make decisions that bind the human race today. But I would ask him to ponder this. Having gone down that fateful path, isn’t it too late for humanity to go “back to Eden” now? We have lost our innocence. Our world is already tainted by sin, and it can only be “untainted” by a radical, earth-shattering event which brings history itself to a close.
There are some mighty big assertions there that have no foundation that I can see. Why is too late to go back now? The way we got into this mess, according to Torley, is that God reluctantly honored our earlier request that He not intervene. We wanted to figure it out for ourselves, remember. Well now we have, and as a result we have now made a different request. Why does God not have to honor this request no less than the first? And why should we assume that it is only some history-ending event that can untaint the world? I think Torley is making up these rules as he goes along.
Let us move on to his next argument:
The other way in which I could imagine a pre-existing obligation not to intervene might arise is in a situation where God had delegated the immediate responsibility for overseeing certain categories of events on Earth (and other planets) to some intelligent beings who are far more advanced than we are. Assuming that there are other intelligent life-forms in the cosmos, they’re likely to be superior to us, since we’re such a young species. (Whether we conceive of these intelligent beings as aliens or angels is immaterial here, and in any case, it’s doubtful whether we could tell the difference between angels and advanced aliens, were we ever to encounter them.) By delegating responsibilities for the day-to-day control of certain categories of events on Earth to these intelligent beings, God would be voluntarily abdicating the role of having the primary responsibility for coming to the assistance of someone in distress. It would be up to the intelligent beings to do so, as God’s deputies. As I put it in my last post:
And now suppose that some of these intelligences turned out to be either too lazy to continually keep the world’s evils in check, or too inept to do the job properly. Or suppose that some of them turned out to be positively evil characters, intent on wreaking harm. The natural world would soon become “unweeded garden” filled with “things rank and gross in nature”, as Hamlet put it. It might look utterly unlike the world God originally planned. So what’s God to do, when He sees the damage that these higher intelligences have wrought, and the suffering His lower creatures (animals and humans) have inherited as a result? Having delegated some responsibilities for overseeing creation to these higher beings, should God intervene at once and fix up the mess they’ve caused? Or should He wait a while?
This is even more bizarre. We are to imagine that God delegated certain day-to-day operations to a cabal of highly-intelligent beings who turned out to be utterly unable to do the job. Worse, they are so inept, or so evil, that they routinely visit horrible suffering and cruelty on their charges, in defiance of God’s wishes. How could God possibly not be held responsible for His error in judgement? Why would He not rectify his error with all speed?
And that’s before we consider the obvious points that God, in his omniscience, should have known from the start what his agents would do. Not to mention the fact that there is not the slightest shred of evidence for this scenario.
Loftus’s point was that God establishes certain moral precepts for us to follow, but then does not adhere to them Himself. Torley’s attempts to absolve God from this lacuna are entirely unsuccessful.
Torley’s post now meanders into other territory that I shall not discuss, save to note that he presumes to lecture Loftus at length on the nature of “certainty.” I feel compelled to mention that, in light of how Torley concludes:
I wrote above that Loftus’s argument from evil fails to examine the totality of evidence, and I mentioned the pervasive beauty of Nature as an example of a very large fact that Loftus completely overlooks. It is the sort of striking fact which only the existence of a Transcendent Creator of the cosmos can satisfactorily account for.
In order to convey this point, I’d like to propose a test which I’ll call Torley’s Window Test. It’s very simple. Wherever you are on planet Earth, I invite you to have a look out your window and tell me: what do you see? No matter where you live, you will probably see a scene of great beauty…
Talk about misplaced certainty! I can’t even imagine why Torley believes that only a Transcendent Creator can account for such beauty as there is in the world. I would say that our tendency to find certain things beautiful and attractive, while other things are disgusting and unattractive, is rather easily explained by evolution, both biological and cultural. Very often our standards of beauty and disgust correspond well to things that are good or not good for us.
But for real amusement I suggest going to Torley’s post and looking at his examples of beauty. He provides photographs of things that he regards as very beautiful. Truly beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I have to say that some of Torley’s examples are, shall we say, a bit idiosyncratic. He shows a picture of Tokyo that he thinks is very beautiful, but to me it just looks like a scene of horrifying overcrowding. He describes as “undeniably beautiful” a picture of two lions feasting on the recently dead carcass of a dead cape buffalo. Personally, I find the beauty in that rather easy to deny, and I’m sure the buffalo agrees with me.
And the point of all this?
In neither case, if you look out your window, are you likely to see any evil. You almost certainly will not see animals (or people) suffering excruciating pain, or dying a slow and agonizing death. And you probably won’t see human beings performing depraved acts of wickedness, either. Which prompts me to ask: where is all the evil? Why is it almost nowhere to be seen? And why is beauty to be found everywhere?
I think Torley needs to look harder! I’m sure the world’s philosophers and theologians who have addressed the problem of evil at length are slapping their foreheads, now that it’s been pointed out to them just how easily the problem is solved. All you have to is look at things in a highly superficial manner, declare even horrifying things to be beautiful, and then the problem practically solves itself!
Time to wrap this up. The problem of evil, along with the problem of divine hiddeneness, both point to facts about the world that are difficult to square with the idea of a just and loving God who seeks communion with His creatures. In my view, no philosopher or theologian has been successful in defusing the force of these arguments. When you add in the utter lack of any good reason for believing in God in the first place, the result is a pretty strong cumulative case against His existence.