Friday, 26 July 2013

Hidden Premises

In some of his debates, but more clearly articulated at Reasonable Faith (not because he uses different words, per se, but because it’s not completely buried in a Gish Gallop), William Lane Craig argues that the “Problem of Evil” is a non-problem because:

“(T)here’s no reason to think that God and evil are logically incompatible.  There’s no explicit contradiction between them.  But if the atheist means there’s some implicit contradiction between God and evil, then he must be assuming some hidden premises which bring out this implicit contradiction.  But the problem is that no philosopher has even been able to identify such premises.  Therefore, the logical problem of evil fails to the prove any inconsistency between God and evil.”

If you read his article, you see that he goes on in the next paragraph to claim that “it is widely agreed among contemporary philosophers that the logical problem of evil has been dissolved.  The co-existence of God and evil is logically possible.”  This is a bold claim, with no indication of support given.  I suspect that it’s similar to the method of his madness, in that Craig is counting Christian theologians as philosophers, then claiming that among that subset of “philosophers”, there is wide agreement.  If so, then this is a deceptive claim.  We’ll just have to take a look to see whether the claim is defensible.

First though, let’s look at the Problem of Evil itself.  Variations of this argument existed well before stories of Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene.  It can be argued, and is in fact argued by Craig himself, that the Book of Job is all about the Problem of Evil.  The Problem of Evil was also mulled over by the ancient Mesopotamians.

But what is it?

Well, in its most simple form, the problem revolves around the question of the nature of God (that is specifically the Judeo-Christian god) and the existence of evil.  If God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, then evil should not exist.

We’ll work through these in reverse order.

Stephen Law argues that there is no real reason to assume that any god, if it exists, is going to be omnibenevolent.  The existence of natural evil, such as the starving of animals in droughts, can in fact be better explained by an evil god who wants there to be suffering.  If God is omnibenevolent, then His acts (and His omissions) will always be good.  Therefore, logically, if there is evil in the universe, then it is not due to any intentional act of commission or omission on the part of God.

One might want to argue that perhaps, despite his best intentions, God is not cognizant of natural evil.  However, if He is omniscient then there is literally nothing that God does not know.

Alternatively, one might wish to argue that natural evil is a necessary consequence of some higher plan that God has in place.  In other words, God could not achieve His objectives without the widespread suffering that we observe on our planet.  However, this is a limitation on God’s power, in which case he is not omnipotent.

No matter how much you twist and turn, God must be impotent or ignorant or He has knowingly chosen to create the universe to be the way it is, despite being able to create it differently.

The “great defence” that Craig refers to is Plantinga’s Free Will Defence which is a variation on the defence raised by Irenaeus (130-202 C.E.)  Note that Irenaean Theodicy was an early Christian attempt to address the Problem of Evil, which was a problem for the church, rather than for atheists.

The argument runs a little like this: God has created the best of all possible worlds which includes some evil but the great gifts (to humans) of Free Will and salvation via the sacrifice of God’s Son/Self.

However, this argument itself places limits on God, implying that He’s boxed into the current arrangement by the consideration of ratios between evil and Free Will.

Remember that God isn’t just tremendously powerful, he’s considered to be omnipotent.  Additionally, he isn’t just working with the universe that pre-existed, he made it from scratch.  The assertion that God could not make a better universe in which evil and suffering were non-existent represents a failure of imagination on the part of some theists.

Remember that Plantinga is also responsible for the Ontological Argument spruiked by Craig:

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

There are problems with this argument, as I’ve explained elsewhere, and also with Craig’s defence of it (because he conflates Plantinga’s ontological argument with that of Anselm).  However, note carefully that Plantinga uses “maximally great”, rather than “infinitely great” or “omnipotent”.

This is little more than a sleight of hand, we all know what he means by the term “maximally great”.  He doesn’t mean that, say, Marilyn Vos Savant is in the running for being “maximally great”, or any human being, no matter how strong, smart, artistic, generous, politically correct etc etc etc.  He specifically means a god-like being, or even more specifically, God.  By avoiding the term god-like, Plantinga gives himself a little void of plausible deniability which he can use to wriggle about in.

However, despite the brilliance of Plantinga’s gymnastics, it is not difficult to us puny humans to come up with a conception of the universe in which evil is not necessary.  The very fact that we can come up with this idea, and the fact that this better universe does not exist, is sufficient evidence, in and of itself, that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god does not exist.

Now, as soon as you suggest a sub-maximally great god (anything that is less than infinitely great in all categories), you run into troubles because Plantinga’s ontological argument shows that it, unlike the proposed maximally great being, doesn’t have to exist:

It is possible that a sub-maximally great being exists.

If it is possible that a sub-maximally great being exists, then (by virtue of being sub-maximally great) the sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist in every possible world.

If a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist in every possible world, then it doesn’t have to exist in the actual world.

If a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist in the actual world, then a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist.

Therefore, a sub-maximally great being doesn’t have to exist.

In conclusion then, there really aren’t any premises hidden by atheists in this matter.  The fundamental premise involved is Christian, namely that God is perfect – perfectly powerful, perfectly knowing and perfectly good.

If Christians have given up that premise, they should do a better job of letting the rest of us know.


So, is Craig’s claim that “it is widely agreed among contemporary philosophers that the logical problem of evil has been dissolved” a valid claim?

Well, no.  The claim appears to be based on the idea that Plantinga has resolved the issue once and for all.  This might be agreed among certain theologians and apologists, but not among philosophers.

There may be ways for Plantinga to resolve the difficulties sketched above, so that the Free Will Defense can be shown to be compatible with theistic doctrines about heaven and divine freedom. As it stands, however, some important challenges to the Free Will Defense remain unanswered. It is also important to note that, simply because Plantinga’s particular use of free will in fashioning a response to the problem of evil runs into certain difficulties, that does not mean that other theistic uses of free will in distinct kinds of defenses or theodicies would face the same difficulties.

The problem, then, is that Plantinga not only started out by focusing on very abstract versions of the argument from evil, but also maintained this focus throughout. The explanation of this may lie in the fact that Plantinga seems to have believed that if it can be shown that the existence of God is neither incompatible with, nor rendered improbable by, either (1) the mere existence of evil, or (2) the existence of a specified amount of evil, then no philosophical problem remains. People may find, of course, that they are still troubled by the existence of specific evils, but this, Plantinga seems to (..) believe, is a religious problem, and what is called for, he suggests, is not philosophical argument, but “pastoral care”.

Plantinga's view here, however, is very implausible. For not only can the argument from evil be formulated in terms of specific evils, but that is the natural way to do so, given that it is only certain types of evils that are generally viewed as raising a serious problem with respect to the rationality of belief in God. To concentrate exclusively on abstract versions of the argument from evil is therefore to ignore the most plausible and challenging versions of the argument.


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