Thursday, January 10, 2013

God & Evil

I've just read this claim made by Trent Dougherty: 

"The greater one's sense of solidarity with the human community, the greater one will feel the problem of evil. Yet, at the same time, the value of that solidarity provides greater scope for understanding why it is permissible for God to allow humans to suffer."

I must first of all say that, unlike Trent, I'm not an expert in theodicy, so I may be missing something here. This said, I cannot help feeling that theodical explanations are forced. And this happens as soon as one combines in a single being (or Being!) so many attributes, some of which seem to be nonsensical when applied to someone/something: God is all-powerful, omniscient, all-wise, eternal, infinite, and also just, merciful, and the summum bonum (I'm talking in general, since in the quoted text, there's no reference to possible attributes). It appears to me that, once one accepts the existence of such an fantastic being, everything gets messy and one needs to come up with seemingly absurd explanations. I'm not asserting that the claim in question is false, but only that the second conjunct strikes me as highly problematic and that I myself don't understand in the slightest how it is permissible (or possible or obligatory or whatever) for such a being to allow humans (and animals) to suffer so much. It looks like a game with some very abstract concepts: let's assume there's this guy with such and such attributes; what follows? and how can we combine them so as to make them compatible? Mutatis mutandis, this reminds me of those situations in which the nerds from The Big Bang Theory wonder, as though they were real, whether, e.g., The Hulk could kick The Thing's ass or Wolverine Batman's, or whether The Hulk could lift Thor's hammer (they actually discuss much more subtle questions about superheros and their powers). Positions like this one are those which are so mercilessly attacked in Sextus Empiricus's works. In the end, none of this makes much sense to me, but this may be due to my intellectual limitations and my lack of faith.


  1. It's no game.

    I have never seen an argument for the incompatibility of any of those attributes that I have found in the least compelling, so I'm not sure what the problem is supposed to be. Of course, some people accept some of those items and leave others, and there are various definitions of many of the attributes, so there is a considerable range of options. Compare, for example, Swinburne with Wierenga.,

    There is no special puzzle about how one person can allow another person to suffer. There are innumerable instances of permissibly allowing people to suffer. So I think the burden is on the atheist to say just what the problem is supposed to be. Mackie's arguments hit a dead end. Rowe's arguments hit a dead end. Tooley and Draper remain, but Tooley's is full of extremely questionable committments to logical probability shared by almost no one I can think of. Draper's argument is the best, by far. We have a debate in the Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil, forthcoming.

  2. @Trent

    "There is no special puzzle about how one person can allow another person to suffer. There are innumerable instances of permissibly allowing people to suffer. So I think the burden is on the atheist to say just what the problem is supposed to be."

    I take it that it's also uncontroversial to claim that humans have limited cognitive capacities, that they can be bad (or, if you like, 'evil'), that there is a limit to the degree and kind of power they can wield over the world, etc. -- in short, that humans are finite beings. But God, at least according to many traditions, is infinite. This is the source of the puzzle, obviously.

    Like many skeptical arguments or queries, the objection to God's existence from the problem of evil is intuitively, prereflectively compelling simply on the basis of (typical) characterizations of God. If this is right (and, given the 'problem's' long and widespread history, it certainly _seems_ right), then it's frankly odd, it seems to me, for you to claim that it's up to the atheist to 'explain' the problem. The problem, in other words, seems so obvious as not to require any explanation -- at least not to anyone who's given the problem a moment's thought. The problem simply follows, prima facie, from conjoining several theistic claims about the nature of God.

    This isn't to say that there are no possible ways of answering or resolving the problem. But the 'burden-shifting' manuever -- esp. when coupled with what I can only assume is a kind of feigned ignorance regarding the 'intuitive' understanding of the problem -- strikes me as both counterproductive and possibly disingenuous.

    God -- however he is conceived -- is surely not a human being. Thus, his apparent allowance of evil and suffering is not explicable, let alone justifable, by reference to human beings' (possibly permissible) allowance of evil and suffering.

  3. No, there's no special puzzle about that. The puzzle arises when talking about God, provided one says that he's the Summum Bonum or that he's incapable of evil or something of the sort, and that he's all-powerful and omniscient.

    PS: In any case, thanks a lot for your reply and for making me think a litlle more about this topic.

  4. Sorry, Roger, I just saw that your comment was awaiting moderation; this is why I didn't post it before. (My previous comment was in reply to Trent.) I think you make a strong case.