A quick question for Dr. Liddle and other skeptics

[Vincent Torley has posted this at Uncommon Descent. As many people who might like to respond, not the least among them Dr. Liddle herslf, are unable to do so directly, I reproduce it here. The rest of this post is written by Vincent Torley]

Over at The Skeptical Zone, Dr. Elizabeth Liddle has written a thought-provoking post, which poses an interesting ethical conundrum about the morality of creating sentient beings.

Dr. Liddle’s post was titled, Getting some stuff off my chest…., and its tone was remarkably conciliatory, as the following extracts reveal:

I don’t think that science has disproven, nor even suggests, that it is unlikely that an Intelligent Designer was responsible for the world, and intended it to come into existence.

I don’t think that science has, nor even can, prove that divine and/or miraculous intervention is impossible.

I think the world has properties that make it perfectly possible for an Intelligent Deity to “reach in” and tweak things to her liking – and that even if it didn’t, it would still be perfectly possible, given Omnipotence, just as a computer programmer can reach in and tweak the Matrix.

I don’t think that science falsifies the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient deity – at all.

Apparently, Dr. Liddle’s main reason for disbelieving in an “external disembodied intelligent and volitional deity” is a philosophical rather than a scientific one: she is “no longer persuaded that either intelligence or volition are possible in the absence of a material substrate.” Fair enough; but Dr. Liddle should tell us what she means by the word “material.” Does she mean: (a) composed of visible and/or tangible “stuff”; (b) having some (non-zero) quantity of mass-energy; (c) spatially extended, and inside our universe; (d) spatially extended, and inside some universe; (e) composed of parts; (f) behaving in accordance with the laws of Nature; or (g) behaving in accordance with some invariant set of mathematical laws? What is Dr. Liddle’s definition of “matter,” and why does Dr. Liddle believe that an intelligent being has to conform to that definition?

But the most interesting part of her post came in two paragraphs where she made it clear that while she regarded the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient deity as quite compatible with science, it was ludicrous to suggest that this deity might also be omnibenevolent:

I do think that the world is such that IF there is an omnipotent, omniscient deity, EITHER that deity does not have human welfare as a high priority OR she has very different ideas about what constitutes human welfare from the ones that most people hold (and as are exemplified, for example, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), OR she has deliberately chosen to let the laws of her created world play out according to her ordained rules, regardless of the effects of those laws on the welfare of human beings, perhaps trusting that we would value a comprehensible world more than one with major causal glitches. In my case, her trust was well-placed…

I don’t think that it follows that, were we to find incontrovertible evidence of a Intelligent Creator (for instance, an unambiguous message in English configured in a nebula in some remote region of space, or on the DNA of an ant encased in amber millions of years ago) that that would mandate us in any way to worship that designer. On the basis of her human rights record I’d be more inclined to summon her to The Hague.

This is a little inconsistent. On the one hand, Dr. Liddle declares that she values “a comprehensible world” with no “causal glitches”; but at the same time, Dr. Liddle wishes that the Intelligent Creator, if she exists, would do more to promote human rights and alleviate suffering.

At any rate, here is the question I would like to ask Dr. Liddle. Suppose you were the Intelligent Creator of a world containing life. Suppose also that you have decided that your world should contain no “causal glitches” whatsoever: miraculous interventions are out of the question. Suppose, finally, that the laws of your world happen to dictate that any sentient beings in it will suffer and die, and suppose, also, that death in your world is absolutely final, with no hereafter. That goes for sapient beings as well: in your world, you only get one innings.

The life-forms that currently exist in your world include not only micro-organisms, but also complex animals, rather like our insects, which are capable of a rich variety of behavioral feats, but lack any kind of phenomenal consciousness: they react to environmental stimuli in a very sophisticated manner, but for them, there is no subjective feeling of “what it is like” to experience those stimuli. So far, everything is unfolding in accordance with your pre-ordained program.

Here’s my question for Dr. Liddle, and for skeptical readers. Given the above constraints, would you regard it as immoral to be the author of a program that eventually resulted in the appearance of:

(a) sentient beings capable of feeling pain, but with no self-awareness whatsoever;
(b) sentient beings with some rudimentary self-awareness;
(c) sapient beings capable of reasoning and language, as well as a rich sense of self-awareness?

Putting it another way, would it be better for an Intelligent Creator not to create a world of sentient (and/or self-aware and/or sapient) beings, than to create a world in which sentient / self-aware / sapient beings existed, but where all of these beings would undergo suffering (and where some of them would undergo a considerable degree of suffering), caused by the inexorable operation of the laws of Nature in that world? Or putting it as baldly as possible: if you were the Creator, would you deny us all the gift of existence, on the grounds that it would be immoral to create beings like us?

If your answer is that it would be immoral to create beings like us, then I would ask you to set out, as clearly as possible, the ethical principle which would be violated by the creation of beings like us.

And if it’s not the existence of suffering per se that you object to, but the degree of suffering, where do you draw the line, and why?

Over to you, Dr. Liddle…

[ETA correction to blockquotes – AF]

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360 thoughts on “A quick question for Dr. Liddle and other skeptics

  1. keiths:
    Hi Lizzie,

    I left a comment for you earlier that I’m still curious about:

    Could you elaborate?

    Evolution is a terribly destructive and cruel process. Why would an omnibenevolent God choose this method for creating sentient life?

    Possibly because God cannot make square triangles and sentient life without destruction and pain is a square triangle.

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  2. Lizzie,

    Once God has committed to using evolution as her creative mechanism, destruction and pain may be inevitable.

    But why would an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God choose evolution in the first place? Direct creation would achieve the same end without the gratuitous suffering.

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  3. The capacity for pain is useful for avoiding environmental threats. Just a shame it has to hurt so much! And old dogs have to die to make room for li’l puppies. Just a shame we feel sad about it.

    Once you go for a spherical, finite planet, you’ve pretty much fixed quite a number of other parameters. Perhaps God just didn’t realise how much these things would bother us.

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  4. petrushka,

    Not sure where Gregory is, but if in a nation where religion was recently actively suppressed, by Communism for example, I guess I could see some rationale for his jaundiced view.

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  5. keiths:
    Lizzie,

    Once God has committed to using evolution as her creative mechanism, destruction and pain may be inevitable.

    But why would an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God choose evolution in the first place?Direct creation would achieve the same end without the gratuitous suffering.

    Perhaps because it isn’t “gratuitous”? I meant what I said about square circles. Even people who claim an omnipotent God don’t claim s/he can do stuff that doesn’t make logical sense.

    And I suggest that sentient beings are not possible without pain and suffering. Vegetable life is, maybe. But not things-with-brains. Nor things-that-can-love, which was arguably his/her intention, as in my story.

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  6. Lizzy, the square circle argument doesn’t address the problem of heaven. By doctrine, there is a way to have sentient beings who do not die or suffer.

    ‘I consider,’ said Paul, ‘that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18).

    So is there an amnesia comparable to childhood amnesia? Over Christmas I spent some time with my grandson, just a week or so before he started walking. He is obviously human, and obviously lesrning, but he’ll rember none of this. Even though it is all necessary.

    Given biology, it is necessary. But a huge number of humans die without experiencing any of this, so why would it be necessary as an antecedent to heaven?

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  7. No, it doesn’t address the problem of heaven at all.

    Or, if it does, it implies a heaven that has no temporal or spatial extension.

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  8. Allan,

    The capacity for pain is useful for avoiding environmental threats.

    Why create environmental threats in the first place? Or if you insist, then why not instantly heal any damage they cause?

    And old dogs have to die to make room for li’l puppies. Just a shame we feel sad about it.

    So make dogs immortal, without the capacity to reproduce. Or make room, literally, for the puppies.

    Remember, we’re talking about an omniGod here.

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  9. Lizzie,

    Perhaps because it isn’t “gratuitous”? I meant what I said about square circles. Even people who claim an omnipotent God don’t claim s/he can do stuff that doesn’t make logical sense.

    And I suggest that sentient beings are not possible without pain and suffering. Vegetable life is, maybe. But not things-with-brains. Nor things-that-can-love, which was arguably his/her intention, as in my story.

    What is logically incoherent about a sentient being that does not suffer?

    What is necessary about the gratuitous suffering that accompanies the process of evolution? Why couldn’t an omniGod create “things-that-can-love” directly?

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  10. Suffering is not exactly the same thing as pain, and vice-versa. One can have a world where pain is a signal not to do that, without having suffering. Bodies heal, memories of pain fade. One could have a perfectly stable world in which injuries heal and pain is not permanent and not unrelated to behavior.

    ETA:

    I can think of no reason grounded in physics or chemistry why mammalian limbs could not regenerate.

    I cannot think of any reason why all people should not be immune to cancer and immune to all diseases.

    What we see are bodies having various degrees of health. What is the theological lesson in this?

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