Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Problem of Evil vs The Problem of Good

In response to Pre-Creation (How Good Can God Be), a reader drew my attention to the work of Brian Davies, specifically “The Reality of God and The Problem of Evil”.  A survey of the reviews of this work gives me the impression that Davies’ argument is that the Problem of Evil misses the point and that we should instead be pondering about just how much good there is in the world.  If so, then the reader appears to have rather missed the point of what I wrote in Pre-Creation.

It’s entirely possible that Davies has a different argument to the one that I’ve surmised.  If so, the publisher Bloomsbury has got it wrong too:

Finally, though many theologians argue that evil is a mystery, Davies argues that this too is wrong and a cop out. We should rather be concerned with the problem (or mystery) of good. The real issue is `Why is there not more good than there is`. From the discussion Aquinas emerges as a hero (as filtered through analytical philosophy) but many modern thinkers do not emerge so well. Davies effectively picks holes in the arguments of Peter Geach, Paul Helm, Richard Swinburne and even Mary Baker Eddy

Admittedly, my first interpretation was that Davies was arguing that good itself is a mystery as in “why is there any good at all?”  This is sometimes argued as the obverse of the anapologetic argument “why is there evil in a universe supposedly created by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibeneficient god?”  At the very least it seems to be a basic assumption for many theists – if there were no god, then there would be no good.  It’s terrifying how often you hear theists argue that, without god, they would be rapists and murderers.  Our old friend WLC provides us with an example:

Today I want to argue that if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God.

This is the same person who argues that without his god, and “objective” morality, the torture of babies for fun would not be wrong.  Personally, I like to comfort myself with the notion that the theists making these sorts of comments are doing so for rhetorical purposes and that, if they were convinced that their god does not actually exist, they would not immediately commence a campaign of rape, torture and murder.

There’s a major difference between the anapologetic argument from evil for the non-existence of a god and the apologetic argument from good for the existence of one’s god.  The argument from evil is a type of reductio ad absurdum in which one starts from the assumption of the existence of a specific type of god and end up with an impossibility – the god of that type would not permit the sorts of evils that we find in the universe, therefore it does not exist.

The argument from good, on the other hand, does not truly start from the assumption of the non-existence of any god whatsoever.  Instead, there is an inherent assumption that the universe could only have good in it if there were a god, as per WLC’s argument above.

There’s a reluctance on the part of the theist to honestly consider whether the “good” observed in the universe could arise without their god.  Note that by “good” here, I refer to the actual act, intent or situation that is considered to be good, not the attribution “good” that is assigned to that act, intent or situation.  Perhaps I should explain …

An act can be good in itself – say it reduces or prevents harm, involves some real self-sacrifice (even if minor) or adds to the well-being of others.  Alternatively, an act can be labelled as “good” – going to church, abstaining from pre-marital sex or obeying some rule (don’t mix linen and wool in one garment).  Labels can be assigned pretty much arbitrarily, but once you have a method of deciding what is and isn’t good (increased harm bad, improved wellbeing good), then you have an objective measure by which you can judge whether an act is good.  But even aside from that, we do have measures for judging whether acts are good or not, we can basically list which acts are good and we can consider those acts.

Could the acts that we consider to be good arise in a universe without a god?

The theist, at least the christian theist, tends to think not but the reason for this is tied up in theology, in the theist’s assumptions about the basic (and base) nature of humanity.  Man is born of and in sin, humanity is depraved, atheists (according to many a theist) are atheists because they don’t want to believe there is a god so they can continue to sin.  If you take this view of the universe and only do one thing, remove god, then of course, it’s going to be dark.

To be more fair, the theist needs to place his argument in a universe which has no god and never had a god, in which the nature of humanity is not presumed to be sinful and depraved.

So, the Problem of Good … could the godless universe produce the acts that we call “good”?  I certainly think this is possible.  There’s no Problem of Evil for an atheist, but equally there’s no real Problem of Good either.  In the Morality as Playing Games series, I explain how the (western, judeo-christian) morality that we currently espouse can arise from pretty solid self-interest.  To the best of my knowledge here’s no “good” act which cannot be explained in terms of the ethical structure that I arrive at.

Some might complain that this is a “just so” story, but that’s not the point.  Perhaps our morality, our sense of what is good and what is wrong did not arise the way that I have laid it out, but even so, I do demonstrate that it could arise without a god.

This is all that is required to refute the argument that, for there to be any good, there must be a god.  There’s a way without god, therefore god is not necessary in moral terms.