Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Knowing God

In a relatively recent William Lane Craig debate, this time with Alexander Rosenberg, Craig repeated his claim that the “Problem of Evil” is resolved, in part, because God could not make a better world.  (Note that in Hidden Premises, I addressed another aspect of Craig’s defence against the Problem of Evil, a defence that is revolves around Craig’s denial of omnipotence on the part of his god.)

This second argument is based on the claim that the levels of evil that are manifest in this world, presumably both man-made and natural evil, are necessary to produce the maximum number of people who may come to know him.

This argument, while relatively simple to put into words, is so convoluted on closer inspection that it is difficult to know where to start dismantling it.  Given that this is a theist argument, it might be most appropriate to work backwards.

I’m not going to assume a sub-optimal god since there are already arguments to dismiss such a notion, including one from Craig.  So, we start with an optimal god, who has the features that we are all familiar with: being omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

Craig argues that while we humans might struggle with such questions, his god is able to identify the optimal mix of good and evil required to maximise the number of people who would come to know him (Craig’s allocation of gender appears to be based on tradition rather than evidence).  In other words, Craig’s god has crunched the numbers and determined that the Holocaust was a necessary event which resulted in more knowers of god than could have been achieved by allowing a relatively small number of men to be eliminated (for example those who planned the Final Solution).  He would presumably have performed similar calculations for:

·         The Black Death
·         Spanish Flu
·         Malaria
·         Tuberculosis
·         World War 2 in general
·         The American Civil War
·         The English Civil War
·         Stalin (or Marx)
·         Mao (or Marx)
·         Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
·         The Rape of Nanking
·         The Boxing Day Tsunami
·      The Catholic Church (covering a multitude of sins)

Any horrible event that you can think of, according to Craig, has happened because god has determined that by allowing those evil things to happen optimises the number of people who will come to know him.  (Note that I use the word “evil” in this article to represent suffering as well as the more vaguely defined theological evil.  If the reader is an atheist, just read the word as “suffering”.)

This brings me to my first question, why does god want the optimal number of people to come to know him?  I don’t know whether Craig has ever made his explanation of this explicit.  One could assume that it’s because god is loving, as Craig indicated in his closing statements in the second debate with Quentin Smith:

A loving God would not leave it up to us to figure out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not he exists. Rather a loving God would seek to reveal himself to us and draw us to himself. And this is exactly what Christian theism teaches. Jesus of Nazareth said, "If any man's will is to do God's will, then he will know whether my teaching is from God, or whether I am speaking on my own accord" (John 7.17). And Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit of God would be given by him to convict and draw persons into loving relationships with himself.


So what we have so far is that god is this all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, loving being that is seeking to obtain relationships with an optimal number of humans.

Cynically, we could say that the “optimal” number of humans who will enter into relationships with god is an arbitrary number, perhaps 144,000 (to be honest though, that number is not arbitrary, it’s a number from the Bible).  It might not be optimal for god to have a higher number, so the evil could arguably be there to prevent too many humans from qualifying for the relationship with god.  This wouldn’t work as an argument, of course, because of the collateral damage involved.  God surely does not need more than 7 billion people to suffer evil so that he can select 144,000 from them.  In his debate with A.C. Grayling, Craig indicated that this is not his argument anyway.  By “optimal” he apparently means “maximal”:

… God might have good reasons for permitting a lot of this natural evil in a world with free creatures. And I think, as a Christian, that it’s related to the Kingdom of God, if God wants to bring the maximum number of people freely into his Kingdom. And I don’t find it at all implausible to think that natural evil and, and moral evil could be a part of the circumstances in which he uses to do this.

Here, Craig introduces another element, namely that god wants an optimum, i.e. maximum, number of humans to enter freely into a loving relationship with him.  This links back to another of his arguments, namely that the evil that exists in the world is a direct consequence of giving humans free will.  This is a moderately good argument but only for the evil in the world that is directly related to the action of humans.  It says absolutely nothing about natural evil.
I can understand, given that god wants a maximal number of us to enter into a loving relationship with him, that he would want the decision to enter into such a relationship to be made freely.  Anything else would be some form of divine rape.  So, we can take the “freely” as a given.

However, when we think about the idea that god wants the maximum number of us to enter into this relationship with him, it becomes a little less clear as to why he is so hell-bent on killing us.  If he’d prevented the Black Death, and Spanish Flu and the wars (excepting of course the wars that he specifically commissioned), then there would be a lot more of us today.  If he’d prevented the Dark Ages, or just made them significantly shorter, then by now we could have been exploring the galaxy, colonising other planets and humans could number in the trillions, rather than just the billions.  It begins to look like “optimum” is a more reasonable claim with regard to god’s intentions than is “maximum”.

By far the greatest problem that I have with Craig’s argument is that it tries to wriggle out of answering what his kind tell us is the biggest question of all – why are we here?

An atheist, if asked that question, is likely to either say that there is no inherent meaning in our being here or answer the question in terms of how the universe and more specifically humans developed.  If in a somewhat less serious mood, the atheist might answer with “because I was born here”, “because I have not died yet”, “because it’s better than the alternative” or something similarly droll.

A theist like Craig, on the other hand, seems to answer with “so that we might enter into a loving relationship with god”.  But hold on a second, that’s begging some rather large questions.  Firstly, a question raised earlier, why would god want to enter into a loving relationship with us? And secondly, why did god make us in the first place?  And thirdly, why did god make us the way he did rather than making us another way?


The second question is an enormous problem for theists, even if they don’t recognise it themselves:

·         Did god make us specifically in order to allow a maximum number of us to freely enter into a loving relationship with him?
·         Or did he make us for some other, poorly defined reason and only subsequently decided to enter into this relationship with us?
·         Or is there another option?

Neither of the first two options is particularly satisfying.

If god made all of us with the intention of forming this relationship with as many of us as possible, but not all, then the rest of us – the ones who are not destined to enter into this relationship – are chaff and due to his omniscience, god would have known, and would still know that this is the case.  Does Craig actually think that some proportion of humanity, the extent of which is currently unclear, is deliberately and knowingly made dispensable in his god’s great plan - and that the rest of us are just here to make up the numbers?

As an alternative, it could be argued that we were just the bi-product of another plan and the divine relationship that we have all been offered was tacked on as an afterthought.  This, to be frank, seems rather more feasible.  The numerous imperfections of creation would make a lot more sense if god initially only thought of humanity as a disposable element of a grander plan, and that we either demonstrated sufficient worth to justify a qualified opportunity for salvation or god introduced some sort of recycling measure.

The problem here, of course, is that such an idea diverges widely from standard theology in which the human is very much a central component in god’s plan.

Is there a third option?  Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, came up with what might sound like another option – a graduated relationship.  It’s conceivable that, if there is a god, that god would have different levels of relationship with humans much as we have different levels of relationship with other humans.  At one extreme there would be the atheists and false believers who have a one way relationship with god knowing them and at the other extreme, the true believers who are in line for a deep and intimate relationship with god.

In this option, none of us are chaff, we are just destined for a different sort of relationship.  It’s even possible that, for some reason, god wanted this variation across relationships.  It would at least explain why some people are inordinately blessed with success and happiness while others are trapped in an endless cycle of failure and disappointment.

However, even in this option, there is still no satisfying explanation as to how it came about that god created humanity in the first place.  (And again, it’s not standard Christian theology.)

I suspect that, if pushed and prodded enough, Craig will fall back on a variation of the anthropic principle – there must have been a good reason for god to have made us, since we are here.

For Craig, however, this argument fails because he repeatedly rejects the anthropic principle in order to make space for his god.  It’s intellectually dishonest to later resurrect the anthropic principle as an explanation for bizarre behaviour on the part of that god.  For atheists, it also fails because it is the standard anthropic principle with the unnecessary addition of a god, and a universe created by a god requires a lot more explanation than a universe that arises without one.


Finally, why did god make us the way he did and not another way?

This question is predicated on god’s supposed omnipotence and omniscience, it is not sufficient to say “I don’t know how god could achieve his ends without causing as much evil as he does”, with the option of saying “God could not achieve his ends without causing as much evil as he does”.  It might be the case that in a universe like ours, the evils that plague us might drive us closer to god, but an omnipotent and omniscient god is not obliged to make a universe like ours.

Surely for an omnipotent god, the maximum number of beings that can enter into a relationship with that god is every single being he creates.

In Craig’s conception of god, the maximally great being sits outside of space and time, so there’s no clear reason why he could not have created a mini-universe for each human that he wanted to enter into a relationship with and run that mini-universe for as long as it took to get that relationship to manifest.  If I, as a puny human, can imagine such a regime, then there’s no excuse for god not thinking of it.

A slightly less wasteful version would be to populate a universe with real humans who are destined to enter into a relationship with god and a vast number of simulacrums whose only function is to assist the saved to achieve their destiny.  The real humans would be trapped in a cycle of reincarnation, able only to escape once they achieve an acceptable standard of performance.

This brings us to another option, perhaps Craig’s god has done precisely that – created a universe specifically for the saved, in which they can thrive find their way to a perfect relationship with their god.  (Note that Craig in this scenario would be a Buddha-like character, soon to leave the cycle of reincarnation but calling out to other saved to embrace their “Craig” nature.)

If this is god had created a universe like this, then the unsaved would not be real in the same way as, say, Craig would be real. 

We’d not have souls, we’d not have Free Will and we’d not perceive god.

And this would make us … well, atheists.