Still More On the Problem of Evil

After posting this essay about skeptical theism last week, Michael Egnor showed up in the comments to heckle me. Egnor, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a blogger for the Discovery Institute, which does not bode well for the merits of his comment. He opened his remarks sensibly enough by conceding both that evil poses a great problem for Christians and also that he had no solution to offer. But then he went off the rails by claiming that atheists have no right to assert the problem of evil since, having rejected the existence of God, we lack an objective standard of morality from which to judge what is evil and what is not.

It’s a silly argument. There are things that happen in the world that seem inconsistent with God’s love and omnipotence. Since Egnor concedes this–and how could he not?–then I fail to see why an atheist no less than a theist can make the point. You don’t need an objective, transcendent standard of morality to think that the holocaust, say, is not the sort of thing a just and loving God would permit. If Egnor wants to retort that my atheism has left me morally confused, and that the holocaust was actually a splendid thing that God was delighted to allow, then I invite him to make his case.

Of course, I certainly do not concede that atheists lack a firm basis for morality, nor do I concede that theists possess one. But that’s a different post.

At any rate, I contented myself with a brief reply comment in which I noted that his point, even if it were true, would be utterly irrelevant to my argument. I thought that was the end of it, but then I noticed that Barry Arrington, over at Uncommon Descent, had weighed in. In a post modestly titled, “Most Forms of the Argument From Evil Are Incoherent,” he tries to put some meat on the bones of Egnor’s argument. Alas, while he contributes a fair amount of arrogance and pseudointellectualism, he does nothing to support the grandiose claim in his title.

He writes:

In a comment to another post StephenB noted that atheists often argue as follows: “evil exists; therefore God does not exist.” That is true. Yet, the incoherence of the argument should be immediately obvious. Let’s see why.

The argument to which Stephen alluded is an abbreviation of a more formal argument that goes like this:

Major Premise: If an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being (i.e., God) existed, he would not allow evil to exist.

Minor Premise: Evil exists

Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.

The problem with the argument is in the word “evil.” What does it mean? If metaphysical naturalism is true – if particles in motion are the only things that exist – then the word “evil” must necessarily have no “objective” meaning. In other words, if there is no transcendent moral lawgiver, there is no transcendent moral law. It follows that all moral choices are inherently subjective, choices that we choose because evolution has conditioned us to do so. Therefore, for the atheist, the word “evil” means “that which I personally do not prefer because evolution has conditioned me not to prefer it.”

Now, let’s reexamine the argument, but instead of using the word “evil” let us amplify it by using the definition.

Major Premise: If an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being (i.e., God) existed, he would not allow that which I personally do not prefer because evolution has conditioned me not to prefer it to exist.

Minor Premise: That which I personally do not prefer because evolution has conditioned me not to prefer it exists.

Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.

The argument in this form is plainly blithering nonsense.

That’s a charming little soliloquy, but it’s hard to see how it has any relevance at all to the problem of evil. You see, when we note that great evil and suffering pose a challenge to theism, we are not usually arguing in the abstract. We do not begin with some armchair definition of evil. Instead we point to specific events and occurrences which, for those of us possessing some empathy and consideration for our fellow creatures, are hard to reconcile with the existence of a just and loving God. We wonder why God would allow the holocaust, or violent natural disasters, or the massive cruelty and suffering in nature, or other things of that nature.

Anyone hearing our argument is free to retort that we are being capricious and arbitrary. They can disregard the argument on the grounds that, when we claim that mass murder motivated by race hatred is a great evil, we are merely expressing a personal opinion. Of course, no one actually does answer the argument in that way. In actual discourse no one ever asks us to explain our conviction that the mass suffering caused by typhoons and tsunamis is of a sort to challenge our notions of God’s love. That’s because everyone, regardless of the source we choose for our moral beliefs, shares those convictions. And if anyone ever did seriously challenge us on such grounds, no one would come away thinking it was the atheist who was morally depraved.

It is hard to imagine how Egnor and Arrington expect the dialogue to go:

ATHEIST: The holocaust was a great evil. It’s hard to understand why a just and loving God would allow it.

PREENING RELIGIOUS APOLOGIST (PRA): It’s just your personal opinion that the holocaust was evil!

ATHEIST: Perhaps it is. Do you think I’m wrong to hold that opinion?

PRA: Of course not!

ATHEIST: So can we get on with the discussion now?

The coherence of the argument from evil in no way depends on morality being objective. In principle its force could be diminished by noting the subjectivity of moral assertions, but since the moral intuitions on which the argument is based are all but universally shared the argument’s critics will need to do better.

There are serious counters to the argument from evil. I do not find them effective, but they offer some food for thought. Egnor and Arrington, alas, are not serious people. And that is why they have opted for silliness over substance.

Comments

  1. #1 Steven Carr
    December 11, 2013

    Egnor and Arrington’s arguments are like claiming that somebody who thinks that Euclidean geometry is the only possible geometry is simply not entitled to point out any mistakes or contradictions in non-Euclidean geometries.

  2. #2 MNb
    December 11, 2013

    “The coherence of the argument from evil in no way depends on morality being objective.”
    You’re completely right of course. From IDiots we can expect this kind of illogic though. Great comparison by Steven Carr; I’m totally going to steal it.
    But even if we for the sake of argument grant Egnor and Arrington this point they are not out of the woods. They still have to address two additional problems:
    1. except for pastafarianism all ethical systems based on revelation (ie supposedly from divine origin) are internally contradictory. In the case of the Bible the only escape route is WLC’s Divine Command Theory: “you shall not kill, unless god whispers in your ear that you should”. I hardly can think of anything more subjective.
    2. the question rises if morality is dependent on god. If yes, if god gave us morality it is still subjective, the subject being god. If no god is not omnipotent but bound by morality – and theists have to explain where this morality comes from.

  3. #3 David
    December 11, 2013

    Just replace “evil” (which frames the conversation in theistic terms) with “senseless pain and suffering by those afflicted with calamities or violence.”

  4. #4 Tulse
    December 11, 2013

    The Problem of Evil is an argument that theists are incoherent on their own terms — there is no requirement that atheists buy into any of the definitions they provide. The argument is purely a matter of formal logic:

    1) If X, then not Y
    2) Y
    3) Therefore, not X

    There is absolutely no requirement for those who put forward this formal argument to believe in the existence of Xs and Ys. If Frobnigans argued that the nature of the Great Frobnig was to allow no squared circles, but Frobnigans also claimed that squared circles existed, one could point out the logical inconsistency in their beliefs without needing to argue that squared circles actually exist.

    The only way that the Problem of Evil is not a problem for standard Christian theists is if they deny that evil actually exists. (And the approaches of “God works in mysterious ways” and Divine Command Theory are pretty much that kind of denial.)

  5. #5 eric
    December 11, 2013

    when we note that great evil and suffering pose a challenge to theism, we are not usually arguing in the abstract. We do not begin with some armchair definition of evil. Instead we point to specific events and occurrences which, for those of us possessing some empathy and consideration for our fellow creatures, are hard to reconcile with the existence of a just and loving God. We wonder why God would allow the holocaust, or violent natural disasters, or the massive cruelty and suffering in nature, or other things of that nature.

    Well that just brings in two new subjective terms, “just” and “loving.” IMO you’ve just added more mud to the pool.

    You’re absolutely right that we don’t need an objective morality to make a coherent argument from evil, but I tihnk the reason is a bit different from what you’ve written here. I think the problem of evil is a self-consistency problem with Christianity and can be dealt with purely by asking whether the world around us is consistent with the god Christians hypothesize and the definitions of evil Christians use.

    Put another way, the problem of evil is our test of their hypotheses. It’s their definitions of evil and God we’re analyzing. We don’t have to hold those same definitions to test them. We don’t have to think they’re objectively true. We don’t have to think any definition is objectively true to carry out the test. You bring your car in, we’ll tell you what’s wrong with your car. It doesn’t have to be our car for us to work on it. Heck, we don’t even have to own a car in order to observe that yours has no wheels on it.

    Here’s a rephrasing of Arrington’s form of the problem, using this “we’re just testing YOUR hypotheses for consistency with the world” approach:

    Major Premise: God the way you’ve defined him has all the resources and desire to prevent evil the way you’ve defined evil.

    Minor Premise: Evil the way you’ve defined it exists.

    Conclusion: Therefore, God the way you’ve defined him does not exist.

  6. #6 eric
    December 11, 2013

    Ah, I see Tulse beat me to the punch. Great minds…

  7. #7 sean samis
    December 11, 2013

    Non-believers (atheists and others) can simply take the moral standards humans use for each other and apply them to any God.

    If the Christian God is Perfectly Good, then evil is a serious problem for their beliefs.

    If Christians exempt their God from the moral standards, then their claim that their God is Perfectly Good is disproved.

    The Problem of Evil does not disprove the existence of gods, but it does weigh heavily on the character of any gods.

    sean s.

  8. #8 Ça alors!
    December 11, 2013

    The “oriental approach”, and most of the mystic branches of the 3 monotheist religions, solved the problem of evil a long time ago…

    In a space/time continuum, you have no choice to have good and evil, just like you have no choice to have high and low, dry and wet or ugly and beautiful. You can’t have one without its counterpart. So when “God” was just a thought, not separated by anything, no oppositions could exist. And in a way, this is still the case. The problem is that we hardly can see that we are not separated from “God” because of our intellect and the physical reality. That is why eastern practices put so much emphasis on meditation. It is a way to perceive directly the world so you see for yourself that the physical world isn’t an absolute reality and that our dualistic perspective on it is driven by some conditions that can be overcome. Once this is achieved, your egoless perception makes you see that the relative spectrum that exists between good and evil is imaginary, is caused by a specific, non-absolute dualistic perspective that doesn’t exist from “God’s” (or egoless) perspective because nothing separates you from the world… I know, this doesn’t make sense at first sight, but in order to understand the oriental way, we have to first realize that we do grasp the world in a certain way and that this way is a based on a dual mode that we take for granted because it is the only one we mostly experience…

    In other words, evil and good have no choice to come in pair. You can’t have one without the other. But that is because our intellect is shaped to think like this. In a non-dual reality, this opposition doesn’t exist because everything is just one, eternal i.e.: outside time, with no label and no form…

  9. #9 Ça alors!
    December 11, 2013

    The hassidic perspective that you can find with the link below is very similar to a lot of oriental school of thoughts…

    http://www.newkabbalah.com/coinc.pdf

  10. #10 bobh
    December 11, 2013

    #5

    Right. If they were to define a God who didn’t give a sh*t then there would be no contradiction.

  11. #11 Gary Slabaugh
    December 11, 2013

    Richard Carrier at freethought blogs has a very interesting article with lots of comments about the existence of objective moral truths. Perhaps there are moral laws that does not necessitate nor presuppose a law giver. That “necessity” might be anthropomorphizing the law. Do only human beings have a moral sense? Is there other intelligent consciousness in the universe? Those questions go hand in glove.

  12. #12 Wesley Dodson
    December 11, 2013

    I don’t really share your convictions. In my mind there is no disconnect between divinity and evil because there is no such thing as evil. There is ignorance, violence, suffering, and death: sure. But these are not the ends of anyone’s story. They are the experiences of an immortal, transmigratory spirit. The evildoer and the victim are cut from the same cloth, and whether one exults or suffers, he is equally deluded by his material form. God is properly understood as the union of all things…the totality of oneself…God as an arbiter of mortal woes is a philosophic fantasy.

  13. #13 eric
    December 11, 2013

    In a space/time continuum, you have no choice to have good and evil, just like you have no choice to have high and low, dry and wet or ugly and beautiful. You can’t have one without its counterpart.

    Interesting that you would use subjective adjectives to compare to good/evil.

    In any event, I personally don’t think a world with some minimal amount of evil is inconsistent with the concept of a powerful and loving God. What gets me is the extremes; the amount of evil, and the claim of godly perfection. Those seem inconsistent. I’ll give you two trivial examples:
    1. We know of planets with less volcanic activity. We can see them in our telescopes. There is no necessity behind the Earth being as volcanically active as it is (and even if some vulcanism is needed, a several hundred thousand year hiatus would not impact the Earth). All those volcanoes killing people? Unnecessary suffering. Unnecessary “natural” evil.
    2. Clearly it is not necessary that humans be predisposed to act like Ghengis Kahn or Charles Manson, since several billion of us don’t have those predispositions. We could all be born Ghandi-like or MLK-like and there’s pretty much no ‘free will’ argument you can make against that unless you want to claim that Ghandi and MLK didn’t have free will.. So, there is a lot of unnecessary human evil too.

  14. #14 eric
    December 11, 2013

    Wesley,
    One, it sounds like you aren’t discussing the Christian God for which the problem of evil is a problem. It sounds more like you’re doing what Bobh mentions in @10.
    Second, your solution reminds me a bit of Star Trek plot; got a problem? Invent technobabble to solve it! Claiming evil isn’t a problem because of the nature of our immaterial spirits is kinda like saying I can fix my car by recalibrating the dilithium in it’s warp nacelles. Before I agree that’s a solution, you’re going to have to point me to this car’s dilithium and warp nacelles, please.
    Lastly, telling me I’m immortal and transmigratory doesn’t explain why *I* must suffer lots of pains that my neighbor immortal and transmigratory spirit doesn’t. You still run into the problem of human variation in suffering. If suffering was at some metaphysical minimum, there shouldn’t be any (variation); we should all be suffering what the least-suffering person suffers, and no more.

  15. #15 Tulse
    December 11, 2013

    God is properly understood as the union of all things…the totality of oneself…God as an arbiter of mortal woes is a philosophic fantasy.

    Wesley, that solves the Problem of Evil only by defining away the traditional Christian god. That’s a solution that few believers would find acceptable.

    I personally don’t think a world with some minimal amount of evil is inconsistent with the concept of a powerful and loving God.

    eric, if heaven is “real”, that is an existence proof that it is unnecessary for humans to endure “evil”.

  16. #16 colnago80
    December 11, 2013

    Although Prof. Rosenhouse didn’t mention it, Engor is a neurosurgeon who practices on Long Island, NY. Like his surgical fellow traveler, Ben Carson, he is someone who I would not allow within a 100 feet of me with a scalpel.

  17. #17 Wesley Dodson
    December 11, 2013

    Tulse, the Christian God has certainly evolved in unsavory ways. When/if Christ said he was the son of God, and the kingdom of God is within, I think these sentiments are spot-on. It is the perversion of the church that elevated Christ as the only son of God. Every human is equally the child of God, and the kingdom of God is within each of us. Including the evildoer. I think the contemporary Christian conception of a mighty man in the sky and his goat-horned foil in the ground really should be defined away, perhaps by returning the first principles of Christ himself.

    Eric, I certainly think “evil” inflicted by individuals and their organizations is unworthy, but I resent the implication that evil is a malevolent force inherent to existence. As I said before, I think evil is much better understood as ignorance (of divinity) and as such should not be fought, but rather loved and educated. And the idea that human suffering as a result of natural disaster is evil strikes me as especially stupid. Suffering, at least for now, is a part of embodied existence. And so is death. They are intrinsic to evolution on Earth. You and your neighbor are really the same soul in different positions; if one body experiences glory, and the other disease, still both will die and their spirits will reunite.

  18. #18 eric
    December 11, 2013

    Thinking further on this, I think there’s a way to modify Egnor’s counter to give it some intellectual resonableness. This then led me to contemplate two counter-counters to the more reasonable version. First, the more intellectually credible version of Egnor’s complaint:

    P1. Atheists analyze our argument and find it lacking in self-consistency or rigor.
    P2. But deciding that self-consistency or rigor are important things in arguments is a value judgement (specifically, about what makes a high quality argument for a conclusion).
    C: Atheists must concede that, to someone holding a different set of subjective values about what makes for a high quality argument, our arguments may be perfectly fine. [A RL example might be: to someone who values consistency with scripture very hightly, an arguement that quotes scripture for support rates higher on the quality scale than one which doesn't - even if mainstream logicians would see such quotes as extraneous.]

    While I see that as a stronger version of Egnor’s original complaint, here’s the two responses that immediately spring to mind:

    1) YOU (the theist) seem to value self-consistency and rigor. Since we are the two people having the discussion, it seems perfectly reasonable to judge the quality of your argument by criteria that the two of us both accept.

    2) Okay, fine. Let us agree that your argument lacks self-consistency and rigor without making any judgement on whether that makes it a great argument or a craptastic one. We’ll just report these characteristics of your argument and let the readers make whatever value judgements they choose to make. (…Beause, frankly, we think there’s a lot more public consensus on these criteria than you are willing to admit.)

  19. #19 Tulse
    December 11, 2013

    P1. Atheists analyze our argument and find it lacking in self-consistency or rigor.
    P2. But deciding that self-consistency or rigor are important things in arguments is a value judgement (specifically, about what makes a high quality argument for a conclusion).
    C: Atheists must concede that, to someone holding a different set of subjective values about what makes for a high quality argument, our arguments may be perfectly fine.

    But on that principle one also could say:

    P1. Atheists analyze our argument and find it lacking in self-consistency or rigor.
    P2. But deciding that self-consistency or rigor are important things in arguments is a value judgement (specifically, about what makes a high quality argument for a conclusion).
    C: Fish bicycle hobgoblin benzene.

    In other words, if you are going to undercut the very notion of logical argumentation, then you might as well just give up the game, since then any conclusion is equally valid/invalid. At the very least, one can’t use logical argumentation to undermine the very notion of logical argumentation.

  20. #20 Reginald Selkirk
    December 11, 2013

    then the word “evil” must necessarily have no “objective” meaning.

    Presumption that when someone says “evil” they must mean “objective” evil. Apparently does not understand why adjectives were invented. Classical strawman.

    In other words, if there is no transcendent moral lawgiver, there is no transcendent moral law. It follows that all moral choices are inherently subjective…

    In the ensuing discussion, it is clear that by subjective he really means arbitrary, so again this turns into a strawman.
    Arrington has nothing to offer but word games.

  21. #21 Ça alors!
    December 11, 2013

    @Eric
    “Interesting that you would use subjective adjectives to compare to good/evil.”

    High and low aren’t subjective, neither would be left and right or objective and subjective. You have highly objective matters like chemistry or geography and more subjective matters like economy or history. The less human behavior is involved and the more objectivity you’ll have, but both objectivity and subjectivity are co-dependent. and require a subject… They both lie at the each extreme of the spectrum. But that spectrum in itself isn’t absolute from a non-dual perspective, when there is no separation between the observer, the act of observing and what is observed, oneness in other words. Only a dual mind will separate these and label them in order to make some (often useful) distinctions.

    As for your 2 examples, we may know of planets that don’t have volcanic activity but as far as we know now, there is no life there. So maybe volcanoes are necessary for life.

    Evil is unnecessary but not… necessary. Killing a sniper could be the “good” thing to do. On the contrary, having the opportunity to do it and run away wouldn’t be the “good” thing to do, certainly not if the sniper kills a dozen of persons at the end of the day.

    But i believe that evolution has no choice but to be driven by common wealth. On an historic perspective, it is certainly what is happening when you compare how humans all over the planet now lives with how we were living just a century ago. Of course, nothing is perfect. Perfection can’t happen here. Not on a space time continuum where dualism rules. The perfect good would be a good without opposition, a concept that language itself cannot describe. And in order to “see” that kind of good, we have to first change our mind and reach a non-dual state of mind.

    I don’t use the same words that Wesley does but what he writes makes plenty of sense to me…

  22. #22 eric
    December 12, 2013

    Wesley:

    I certainly think “evil” inflicted by individuals and their organizations is unworthy, but I resent the implication that evil is a malevolent force inherent to existence.

    I don’t think I ever called it a malevolent force. I’m perfectly happy talking about suffering instead of evil. But you still haven’t shown me this immaterial spirit which seems to be necessary for your solution to the problem of suffering, and us merely having these spirits doesn’t explain how the amount of suffering we experience is consistent with the notion of a god that wants non-suffering for us and is capable of making that happen.

    Ca alors:

    High and low aren’t subjective,

    Really? So a grass blade that’s high for an ant is high for you too?

    So maybe volcanoes are necessary for life.

    You can’t seriously be suggesting that every eruption is necessary. And if you aren’t, then what about the unnecessary ones?

    Your paragraph on evolution makes no sense to me. I think you’re confusing it with the human idea of progress.

  23. #23 Ça alors!
    December 12, 2013

    I don’t think you can separate evolution from progress, not from a human perspective. Humanity has the power to act on nature and on itself in a way that no species is able to do. And that is the result of an evolutionary process. If you stick to a “genetic” definition of evolution, nothing has really changed for humanity since the last 100 000 years. But I would call this voluntary blindness…

    As for volcanoes, it’s not that every irruption is necessary. That is not the point. The point is that earth was built like it was built and volcanoes were part of the process. And they still are because this is how it works. That is how simple it is.

    Again, from God’s perspective, that is not a problem since suffering is caused by the ignorance caused by our limited dualistic perspective that makes us believe we are separated entities who, because we experience on a daily basis discontinuity (with the help of our senses and our intellect), also think that consciousness is a product of this discontinuity. If you know what “I” means….

  24. #24 Ça alors!
    December 12, 2013

    What To Tell Children About God And The Universe
    by Alan Watts

    “…You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that He isn’t really doing this to anyone but Himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad. It’s the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.”

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/alan-watts-wisdom/what-to-tell-children-about-god-and-the-universe/239561399422139

  25. #25 G
    California USA
    December 12, 2013

    Eeek, Jason, you’ve just gone and rewarded a troll by making him the topic of a blog post!

    IMHO the whole “arguement from evil” thing is really really weak. It’s weak because theologians have grappled with it for centuries and developed oodles of counter-arguements. It’s weak because the moment you “go there,” you’re just begging to get stuck in that quagmire until the proverbial cows come home. It doesn’t matter if the counter-arguements are themselves strong or weak, the very fact that they can be made is sufficient to give religious extremists a platform to clog up the bandwidth.

    The strongest arguement for atheism is simply that our naturalistic explanations of reality are so strong, so all-inclusive, and so conclusive, that no deity is needed as an explanatory mechanism, full stop. This bypasses all of the loop-the-loops, emotional dramas and melodramas, and counter-arguements from creationists and suchlike trolls. It can be used in various forms depending on audience, including as a “stealth arguement.” And it forces the opposition to “fish or get off the pot” about science itself.

    Once you get an opponent to admit that they oppose or fundamentally distrust science, all you have to do is raise a rhetorical question along the lines of “So, if your kid has a high fever and is vomiting all over the place, are you going to take them to a hospital or to an exorcist?” Game, set, match.

  26. #26 MNb
    December 12, 2013

    “Remember, first, that He isn’t really doing this to anyone but Himself.”
    That’s about the lamest remark about the Problem of Evil I ever, ever read. Yeah, all those 24 years Elisabeth Fritzl was raped by her father Big Daddy High up the Sky was the One who was really Suffering.

    “for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad.”
    But this one must be second. It was to give us spectators the sensation of a thrill that Elisabeth had to suffer for 24 years iso a week.
    The more apologetics I read the more I wonder if that kind of thinking affects the moral judgments of theists. And Alan Watts intends his s**t for children nonetheless! Sick guy.

  27. #27 G
    California USA
    December 12, 2013

    Re. subjectivity:

    Every organism, at least down to the level of the planarian (flatworm) seeks to have pleasure and avoid pain. Planarians rapidly learn to navigate a simple T-maze where there is sugar water at one end and an electric shock at the other end, and they remember how to get to the sugar water and avoid the electric shock. These experiments have been replicated countless times.

    Pleasure and pain, regardless of any overt benefit or harm to the organism, are inherently subjective states. Waterboarding isn’t evil because it drowns people: it doesn’t, it “merely” causes acute subjective sensations of bodily distress that resemble the sensation of drowning. Waterboarding is evil precisely because it involves one person deliberately inflicting that subjective sensation upon another.

    From this we can derive a basic moral premise, that deliberately causing gratuitous pain or distress to others is evil.

    Since volcanos, storms, etc., are not self-aware entities, they do not meet the test of “deliberate” actors or agents, thus are incapable of “evil.” Natural disasters may have outcomes that are indistinguishable from evil outcomes (e.g. mass death and destruction), but nature has not consciously chosen to inflict those outcomes, therefore nature is innocent of evil.

    But see what happens here: If one believes that natural forces are deities, then any such deities would meet the test for the definition of evil. One would either be worshiping evil gods, or one would have to modify the definition of evil to exclude “what gods do.” And in either case, the definition of evil would be weakened in such a manner as to reduce the barrier against humans performing similar acts. Thus it is no surprise to observe, in this context, atrocities ranging from human sacrifice to inquisitions.

    For further evidence of the point, compare the child abuse statistics between atheists and fundamentalists.

  28. #28 eric
    December 12, 2013

    Ca alors:

    If you stick to a “genetic” definition of evolution, nothing has really changed for humanity since the last 100 000 years. But I would call this voluntary blindness…

    I’d call it proper definition. You’re getting very humpty dumpty on us, Ca. You can’t just arbitrarily decide that “evolution” means something none of the biologists who developed it and work on it think it means.

    The point is that earth was built like it was built and volcanoes were part of the process. And they still are because this is how it works. That is how simple it is.

    This provides no answer as to why it was built this way when other ways that produce fewer natural disasters are obviously possible. You even admit this, when you admit that every eruption isn’t necessary.

    suffering is caused by the ignorance caused by our limited dualistic perspective that makes us believe we are separated entities who, because we experience on a daily basis discontinuity (with the help of our senses and our intellect), also think that consciousness is a product of this discontinuity.

    So, you’re telling us that people who are no longer ignorant about the fact that we are not separate entities, don’t experiece suffering?
    Are you claiming some gnostic magic, whereby learning some bit of information renders us immune from certain nerve impulses?

  29. #29 Ça alors!
    December 12, 2013

    Ok then, humanity didn’t evolve since the last 100 000 years. It’s all in the genes you know…

    As for volcanoes, I didn’t think I would argue about that but the main point is that nature is not a magical process, it does what it does. Humanity is also a result of a natural process and sometimes, well, shit happens between different process…

    And 3rd, I,m not saying that an egoless person can’t feel pain. I’m saying that is perspective on it is different than the one we experience.

  30. #30 Ça alors!
    December 12, 2013

    Mnb, tries to say to you that from God’s perspective, evil doesn’t exist because God is beyond the opposites by which we can grasp the world. That is why from our perspective, opposites are everywhere. We are subjected to time, matter and space and we experience joy and suffering, and some people more than others. But while that discontinuity is experienced, nothing changes from God’s perspective because God is the ground itself that makes possible the experience. But there is no distance between God and himself -God being everything that is- except the one we imagine. This is why our pain is imaginary, not because it is not real, because it is caused by certain dispositions that aren’t absolute, that are transitory and that don’t concern God, just like a violent storm at the surface of the ocean doesn’t affect the water under who remain perfectly calm, even if it is the same water that moves at the surface…

  31. #31 Ça alors!
    December 12, 2013

    Above, first words:
    Mnb, Alan Watts tries to say…

  32. #32 Pierce R. Butler
    December 12, 2013

    The syntax of the opening line above implies that Michael Egnor posted the linked essay.

    Say it ain’t so, Jason!

  33. #33 G
    California USA
    December 13, 2013

    I’ll happily claim some gnostic magic, and an anthropic principle too!

    All other factors equal, of all possible physical universes that can develop within known and speculated laws of physics, the universe we inhabit is probably more-than-averagely favorable to the existence of life.

    If that’s the case, then volcanos etc., are merely side-effects of inhabiting a more-than-averagely-favorable universe. It would be increasingly improbable for us to have obtained an even-more-increasingly-favorable universe than this one, for example a universe in which we were on a life-bearing planet without volcanos.

  34. #34 John
    NC
    December 13, 2013

    Saint Augustine suggested (I think) God for Christians could be all knowing, all powerful, or all merciful. Many comments seem to work under different definitions of God. Saint Augustine suggested an individual could choose any two of these but not all three. So, if you choose to think God is all powerful and all merciful, then God is ignorant. Evil exists because God doesn’t know about it. If you choose to think God is all knowing and all merciful, then God is powerless (doesn’t interfere ). Or, would you rather think of God as being merciless. Different commenters have chosen different sets of two to define their God.
    Societies have risen and collapsed. The US rose by expansion. The manifest destiny of Europeans was to kill and steal the land from the Indians. What is the moral in this? We have changed our view from the 1800s (or have we as we send troops to Iraq). Will our new, more “humane” view cause the collapse of the US?

  35. #35 MNb
    December 13, 2013

    “Alan Watts tries to say to you that from God’s perspective, evil doesn’t exist”
    1. How does Alan Watts know? Has he asked him/her/it?
    2. Quite a consolation for Elisabeth Fritzl to learn that Watts’ god is amoral.
    3. Throw all Holy Books in the dustbin as they all claim that some god(s) or another teaches us about right or wrong.

    It’s less sick, but doesn’t make any more sense. Of course a god that at one hand suffers and at the other hand doesn’t know what evil is is a contradictory one. Plus it isn’t an answer to my last comment; classical case of shifting the goalposts. I know a few footballteams who can use such a guy.

  36. #36 John
    December 14, 2013

    Here we are in a science blog on evolution examining good and evil. The one thing that strikes me is that each person has a different definition of the words.

    I consider science as knowledge that allows us to predict future observations. This allows our models to create our survival. Therefore, the test of the validity of a set of morals is the survival of the adherents. Theist or atheist must pass this test. It would seem good to murder your neighbor and take his resources. Many societies have grown and thrived with this moral. OH! Wait. They were taking God to their neighbor, they said. They also said their neighbor was a savage and, therefore, was more like an animal. Amazing what these theists will do to justify their actions without changing their morals.

    All the God and creationist models are not oriented to making one predictable observation beyond the competition of moral systems.

  37. #37 GrayGaffer
    December 14, 2013

    Seems to me the crux is in this statement:

    “atheists have no right to assert the problem of evil since, having rejected the existence of God, we lack an objective standard of morality from which to judge what is evil and what is not.”

    Since all religious teachings spring from, and are interpreted and re-interpreted by, Humans, and Atheists are Humans, we have just as much basis as any other Human for debating issues of ethics and morality.

    Also I do not think the word “Objective” means what this guy thinks it means. For us it means “reality independent of self or opinion”. He uses it for “regurgitated indoctrination”, perhaps thinking if subjective is what his own mind comes up with, then anything put there by someone else is the opposite, and that must be therefore be “objective”.

    So since his primary foundation of logic here – Atheists lack of an objective standard of morality – is false from the get-go, and that the rest of his arguments spring from that, they are therefore by derivation also false. No need to bother refuting anything else he said.

    Unless he said something not relying on this?

  38. #38 MNb
    December 15, 2013

    “Seems to me the crux is in this statement”
    Seems to me that you’re right and that this statement is a false dichotomy.

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  43. #43 John
    December 21, 2013

    Does evil result in bad outcomes in the long run? Life and mankind have advanced. Certainly good must result in survival.
    For example, was Detroit and its current state a result of evil? If so, the good left town and the remaining people are evil. The politicians they elected over the last decades instituted evil policies. The assumptions behind the evil policies are guiding the US now.

  44. #44 Science Avenger
    Fort worth, Texas
    December 26, 2013

    “…we lack an objective standard of morality from which to judge what is evil and what is not…”

    It should be pointed out to people who make this argument that they are assuming, based on nothing, that we need an objective standard of morality. We don’t. People make persuasive non-objective moral arguments all the time, and with results. To hear the Egnor’s of the world one would think that human beings are hypothetical constructs, whose behavior must be reasoned out, rather than actual real entities that can be observed.

  45. #45 John
    December 26, 2013

    Our world is far more complex than we can reason anything. Today, people we have never met will influence each of us. We cannot know the results a year from now of our actions today. We cannot know what is moral. We can merely do something and learn from trial and error. How can there be evil in such complexity?

  46. #46 MNb
    December 27, 2013

    @John: that question is only relevant if you assume an objective standard for morals and define knowledge as absolute eternal certainty (aka the truth). I don’t, not even in science.
    You present two false dichotomies related to each other: either we know truth or we know nothing. Either we have an objective standard or we can’t label anything as evil.
    It shows how limited theistic thinking is.

  47. #47 John
    December 27, 2013

    MNb

    The idea that “only …” are the two choices is false. I don’t assume an objective standard of morals and I don’t define knowledge as absolute or eternal. The same applies to the second sentence. It shows how limited are the confines of the “only…” assumptions from which your theistic thinking is.

    Knowledge is the ability to predict observations. Wisdom is the ability to cause observations. Science helps us do this and is therefore useful. Useful to the end of our and our progeny’s survival. Morals are those codes of behavior a society uses to assure our progeny’s survival. They change with the changing environment. Evil is acting to injure my progeny’s survival. The voters in Detroit are evil and have been for decades. Hold on a minute – By voting for more welfare and pensions, the voters were voting for their benefit at the time. Later, (now) we see the results of their actions on themselves. Some foresaw and left. Those that stayed either did not foresee or calculated that the politicians would steal (baleout) from others (me and my progeny). 20 years ago their actions (votes) were to increase their survival in the term they could forecast (good and moral). Now we see their votes may (baleout still possible at someone else’s expense) still moral for them. I think their actions and the actions of the federal government we have had for at least 40 years is going to prove evil. When the time comes, I’m going to recommend at least one of my grandchildren move to Australia.

    I find myself talking of my conclusions. Let me refer you to
    http://intellectualarchive.com/?link=item&id=694 . My reason for following this blog is to find alternatives and to test.
    As you see, a statement using “only” is limited and probability incorrect.

  48. #48 Science Avenger
    Fort worth, Texas
    December 27, 2013

    John,

    You do understand that by your standards, Australia is far more “evil” than the US right?

    As for your depiction of Detroit, it sounds entirely fictional. Do you have anything on which to base it besides your say so?

  49. #49 John
    December 27, 2013

    Detroit is in bankruptcy. That is not fictional. There are many abandoned houses – not fictional. Police response is so slow (over 50 minutes) – not fictional. Would you live in a city neighborhood like that? The city is in deep debt – not fictional. Where have you been?
    I merely state these outcomes are a result of evil. What are the morals that result in this outcome? I label them evil because people cannot long live with them as Detroit is proving. Perhaps many other cities and states will soon emphasis the point.

    My definition is Evil is acting to injure my progeny’s survival. What in Australia do you think is more evil than in the US. Yes, its relative.

    Contrary to popular belief, high credit quality and attractive yields do not have to be mutually exclusive—at least, not in Australia and New Zealand. Historically, not only have these two countries led the world in producing many commodities, but they also have very robust economies, strong currencies and significant growth potential. The trend in the US is down.
    Australia $17 000/person vs US $54000/person
    Australia 27% debt/GDP vs US 35%/GDP
    But this isn’t really my point. As societies fail, the people to get gone are usually the more skilled seeking BETTER (but with some problems) opportunity elsewhere and they have some inkling of the coming collapse. People who stick their heads in the sand get kicked in the butt. Same with Greece and Germany. – and Detroit. The skilled and revolutionary moved from Persia to Greece to Rome to Northern Europe to the US. Where will the center and new civilization organization move to next?

  50. #50 MNb
    December 28, 2013

    @John: “Same with Greece and Germany”
    I largely agree with you – but what’s wrong with Germany? It has recovered better from the recent crisis than any other big western country in the northern hemisphere.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25254542

    Not impressive you say? Then take this into account:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_Germany

    “the share of the bottom 10% being somewhat higher than in Britain and Sweden, and roughly twice the levels in France and the United States.”
    Better be poor in Germany than in the USA.

  51. #51 John
    December 28, 2013

    MNb
    I expressed myself poorly.
    The thought was that skilled people from Greece are fleeing from Greece to Germany to find jobs in the better economy in Germany. This is devastating the Greek economy even more. The Greeks were/are disturbed that Germany is starting to withdraw their bailout of the Greek economy without a major restructuring. The Germans are getting upset at having to bailout the failed economies in the EU (the so called PIGS Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) when they (the voters) seem disinclined to change. This is why the recent election in Germany was so important.
    Why Germany? The Germany in the last 50 years was the last to embrace the social democracy of the rest of the EU. This has left them with a stronger economy now. The other exceptions to the blight of social democracy are the Scandinavian countries. These countries have a strong socialists structure but are not carrying their military burden the rest of the EU is.
    Are we going to follow the EU? I’m sure Detroit thinks like the Greeks that the other states should carry the burden of their evil social support programs. As a councilwoman (I think) said Detroit helped elect Obama, now where is the bacon (bailout). There are many other cities close to where Detroit is now. There are states like California there too. However, there are many other states that are much better structured (less evil, even good). The analogy of the Greece—Germany situation is, perhaps, the California—Texas situation.
    Are the Europeans going to allow the PIGS to drag the rest of the EU down? Is Germany going to continue bailout without a withdrawal from social democracy? Are we going to follow Europe?

  52. #52 MNb
    December 28, 2013

    “Are the Europeans going to allow the PIGS to drag the rest of the EU down?”
    Depends a little on what you mean with the question. Financial support comes with harsh conditions. The first goal of these conditions is to avoid PIGS dragging the rest of the EU down.
    Perhaps you don’t know I am Dutch. So some of your explanation is superfluous; some other is highly questionable.

    “The Germany in the last 50 years was the last to embrace the social democracy of the rest of the EU.”
    This doesn’t make sense. Spain, Greece and Italy have been (semi-)fascist during this period and thus haven’t suffered from the “blight of social democracy”. Most of the best performing Dutch governments (Drees, Den Uyl, Kok) were lead by social-democrats. Italy at the other hand mostly has been governed by conservative social-democrats. Finally in Germany there is largely consensus about economic policy. That’s why the Grand Coalition – social-democrats and christian-democrats – is possibly.
    The main rift in the EU is between Germanic and Romanic countries. Germany is the leader of the first; France of the second. That’s why the Germany-France axis is and always has been so important.

    “but are not carrying their military burden the rest of the EU is.”
    Which military burden? Germany hardly has an army compared to France and GB.

    As for what you Americans are going to do: the same as always I guess – any form of governmental intervention equates communism. For Europeans like me there is hardly a difference between Democrats and Republicans – they all are conservatives in our eyes.

  53. #53 MNb
    December 28, 2013

    S**t. “Italy at the other hand mostly has been governed by conservative social-democrats”
    must be conservative christen-democrats.

  54. #54 John
    December 28, 2013

    MNb
    Thanks for your input. I am very interested in what’s happening in Europe. I view it a precursor of where the US is headed.

    Yes. There were tough conditions that in general were not met. Isn’t that part of the problem, the Greek politicians agreed and reneged?

    Germany in the 1990’s was different than now. BTW I’d add the US stations troops more in Germany that adds to the economy of Germany.

    The thing I see as the evil (subject to further information) is the idea of the welfare state and the idea of the supremacy of the state as nearly the same. The state in the end taxes and redistributes wealth and overregulates. Perhaps a bit oversimplified. I think because the US elects the chief executive we have a 2 party system. The parlementary system seems to produce many parties. I wonder if the ranking was more along the lines of degree of overregulation or degree of welfare state (say per capita governments payments to people – food stamps, retirement, medical, etc.) is more correlated to long term decline.

    I agree there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats. Both are elected by a majority of voters that are becoming increasingly government dependent – like Detroit.

  55. #55 Science Avenger
    December 30, 2013

    John, the fiction is not that Detroit is in bankruptcy, but that it was all caused by pensions and welfare. Can you back that up with any actual figures? Because it sounds like standard free-market-worshipping claptrap, and your definition of “evil” is so bizarre that you really ought to use a different term so that people aren’t confused by what you mean.

  56. #56 John
    December 30, 2013

    Science avenger @55
    I watch the news (both CNN and Fox). The thing that causes bankruptcy is when the debt of an entity (individual or organization) is when the outflow of cash in much more than the income. The debt in Detroit that triggered the bankruptcy is the pension and other commitments of the city are much greater than in income. This condition has lasted long enough that the ability to incur debt has ended. Income is taxpaying/working people. Many have left the city.

    Ah, yes! The definition of evil. Mine is those actions that injure, educe the resources, or reduce the survival potential of an individual, group, or society. For example, contributing money to a charity may be evil for the family. However, it may be not evil for the society provided the money is spent for improving the resources and survival potential for the group. This helps the family (the progeny). If the money is spent on helping enemies—it’s evil. If the money is spent helping those that will not contribute to the progeny—its evil.

    I am very interested in your definition of evil. Most of the comments on this blog seem to ignore the need of a definition. Further, some seem to use different definitions in different sentences.

    Therefore, those city government actions that resulted in the flight of the taxpayers and the increase in cash outflow for the future without return are evil.

    Please do provide your definition of evil.

  57. #57 Science Avenger
    December 30, 2013

    “I watch the news (both CNN and Fox). The thing that causes bankruptcy is when the debt of an entity (individual or organization) is when the outflow of cash in much more than the income. ”

    No shit Sherlock. I didn’t ask you what “bankruptcy” meant. I asked you for evidence that those greedy workers wanting pensions were the cause of Detroit’s bankruptcy. I’ll conclude since you didn’t offer any, but simply reiterated your assertion, that you don’t have any, which is what I suspected.

    I find your definition of “evil” ridiculously question-begging and completely unworkable, as well as appearing in no dictionary. Again, you should use a different word or make up your own so people don’t think you mean what the rest of the world means when they use the word. Redefining a word like that is just a way to try to win arguments on the cheap.

    I don’t need a definition of evil because a) the dictionary definitions are fine by me, and 2) I think its an anachronistic concept leftover from times where magical thinking ran amok and which has little use in a modern society.

  58. #58 John
    December 30, 2013

    Science avenger
    I thought you needed a tutorial on what caused bankruptcy. I see you still don’t know.

    Dictinary define of evil= morally wrong. This say little . What is a performance definition of morally wrong. Is killing morally wrong? In short hyou have no definitin of evl, morally wrong. How do you tell if something is morally wrong?

    “No shit Sherlock.” “ridiculously question-begging and completely unworkable”
    When people start to engage in this type of insult means they have little to say and have lost the discussion. Your loose. You certainly have nothing from which to learn.

  59. #59 Science Avenger
    December 30, 2013

    Fuck you. I work in a financial field, I most certainly don’t need a tutorial on bankruptcy, That’s just a dodge on your part to hide the fact that you can’t support your claims with anything besides what you’ve yanked from your posterior. And you can imagine how much value we should place on that. You are Dunning=Krueger incarnate. Look it up.

  60. #60 MNb
    December 31, 2013

    @John: “I’d add the US stations troops more in Germany that adds to the economy of Germany.”
    Science Avenger is right – you don’t give shit for facts. First of all the amount of US troops in Germany has been more than halved since 1991: more than 80 000 back then, less than 40 000 now. In 1982 West-Germany had more than 60 million inhabitants. The impact of those soldiers on total German economy was negligible, unless they were all millionaires.
    The Marshall Plan is another story of course. It had a significant impact on West-European economy. What’s more: it was based on Keynesian principles, generally accepted by all social democrat parties in Europe. Back then Keyenesian economics wasn’t foul language yet in the USA.
    You’re about as anti-factual as Ken Ham on the age of the Earth.

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