Tamagotchi, J. K. Rowling and God: A Short Essay on the Problem of Evil

Catholic philosopher (and former atheist) Edward Feser might be many things, but he certainly isn’t dull. Nor is he afraid of grappling with the big questions. In the latest issue of First Things, he discusses the problem of evil in a wide-ranging interview with Connor Grubaugh, where he talks about his three favorite books in the field of contemporary analytic philosophy. Feser (who is Associate Professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College) is a Thomist, for whom the claim that the existence of evil and suffering constitutes evidence against God’s existence reflects a faulty conception of the relationship between creature and Creator. God is not just a Being who interacts with us on a personal level; rather, He is the very Author of our existence. And just as an author (such as J. K. Rowling) has no obligations to the characters in her stories, so too, God has no obligations towards us. Consequently there can be no question of Him ever doing us an injustice.

In today’s essay, I’d like to explain why I think Professor Feser’s solution is unsatisfactory, and why I think the problem of evil is much more serious than Feser supposes. I won’t be proposing my own solution, however. All I can do is briefly outline how I believe the problem can be defused, and why I don’t think it’s fatal for theism.

Back to Feser’s interview. Feser begins by nominating Brian Davies’s The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil as one of his favorite books on analytical philosophy, from a Thomistic perspective. He explains why:

This is the best book in print on the problem of evil. It develops two key Thomistic insights: First, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil without understanding the nature of God’s causal relationship to the world. Second, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil if you conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms—as something like a human agent, only bigger and stronger. If the world is like a story, God is not a character in the story alongside other characters; he is like the author of the story. And just as it makes no sense to think of an author as being unjust to his characters, neither does it make sense to think of God as being unjust to his creatures. While God is perfectly good, it is a deep mistake to think that this entails that he is a kind of cosmic Boy Scout, and that the problem of evil is a question about whether he deserves all his merit badges. Davies also shows how, from a Thomistic point of view, the approach to the problem of evil taken by contemporary philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne is misguided and presupposes too anthropomorphic a conception of God…

…[T]oo many people think of God’s goodness as if it were a kind of super-virtuousness. As Davies likes to put it, they think of it as if it were a matter of God’s being unusually “well-behaved.” It’s as if they look at God as a heroic character in the novel, whereas the atheist who is troubled by the suffering in the world looks at God as a villainous character who behaves badly. But God is not a character in the novel in the first place.

There are several problems with this statement. First of all, for a Christian, Professor Feser’s assertion that God is not a character in the novel is contradicted by the fact of the Incarnation, when God became man and lived among us. Feser would surely acknowledge this, and I imagine his response would be that in mounting the above defense of God’s goodness in a world marred by evil, he is merely defending classical theism (belief in a simple, transcendent, timeless, infinite Creator), rather than the more specific claims of Christianity. Feser might add that evil – both natural and moral – predates the Incarnation, and that even after the Fall, God did not have to choose to live among us. Classical theists maintain that even in a world without Christ, belief in God would still be rational. We therefore need to look for a more general solution to the problem of evil than the Incarnation.

The second problem with Feser’s “author-character” analogy is that he himself has exposed its fatal flaw. Several years ago, he wrote a post in response to a tentative suggestion of mine that maybe we are all characters in a story written by God – not an ordinary story, but an interactive one, which allows us to interact with our Author, rather like the Tamagotchi electronic pets of the 1990s, which asked their owner to feed them and “died” if their owner neglected them. Thus although we exist within God’s storybook, we possess genuine (God-given) libertarian agency: we actually write some of the story ourselves.

In response, Feser argued that while God’s causality is basically like that of the author of the story who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way (rather than that of a mere character in the story), nevertheless “the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters.” For one thing, argued Feser, “there is an obvious difference between us and fictional characters: we exist and they don’t.” What’s more, “the characters in a story do not literally ‘interact’ with the author … for the simple reason that they do not exist and thus cannot interact with anything.” Finally, “because the characters do not exist but are purely fictional, they are not true causes the way real things are. Everything they seem to do is really done by their author.” What this means is that if the storybook analogy were literally true, none of us really act at all: rather, it is God Who really performs our actions. The storybook analogy is bad theology, too: “If we and everything else in the universe are, in effect, mere ideas in the mind of a divine Author, then the distinction between God and the world collapses.”

For Feser, as a Thomist, the reason why fictional characters cannot be said to exist is that God has not bestowed their essences with the fire of existence, which would endow them with objective reality, making them participants in God’s Unlimited Being. Phoenixes have fully-fledged essences; what they lack is existence, since God has not bothered to create them. (For my own part, I find the Scholastic essence-existence distinction philosophically muddled, and I explain the non-existence of phoenixes by virtue of the fact that no matter in our universe currently happens to realize the form of a living phoenix – a form which, incidentally, is inadequately defined, as the bird’s anatomy and biological processes are nowhere specified in its definition. But I digress.)

The key point, however, is that despite Feser’s insistence that “we are not literally fictional characters,” Feser’s storybook analogy is fundamental to his account of why God is not culpable for allowing evil to exist: as he puts it in his interview with First Things, “just as it makes no sense to think of an author as being unjust to his characters, neither does it make sense to think of God as being unjust to his creatures.” Unfortunately, Feser never tells us why it doesn’t make sense to speak of an author as being unjust to his characters. One obvious answer to this question is: “because the characters are fictional, not real.” But if that’s the answer, then an atheist could retort that since human beings, unlike Voldemort and Draco Malfoy, are real, it is possible after all for God to act unjustly towards His human creatures. Only human authors have no obligations towards their characters, because they are not real.

Another possible answer to the question of why an author can never act unjustly towards his characters is simply that they depend entirely on the author for their being (with a small “b.”) But the premise, “B depends entirely on A” in no way implies the conclusion, “A has no obligations towards B.” All that follows is that A has no enforceable obligations towards B – at least, none that B can enforce. But an unenforceable obligation is still an obligation. Additionally, there seems to be nothing preventing A from voluntarily assuming obligations towards B, in the very act of creating B. (For instance, A might promise to protect B from other characters that might harm him.) In that case, if A fails to meet those responsibilities then he could be said to have failed in His duty towards B, and to have committed an injustice towards B, by breaking his promise to B.

I can think of no other reason why Feser would maintain that an author can never act unjustly towards his characters. That being the case, it is by no means evident that God’s being the Creator of the universe geets Him off the hook, morally speaking, as far as culpability for natural and moral evil is concerned.

I might also add that if it makes no sense to speak of an author being unjust to his characters, as Professor Feser contends, then by the same token, it makes no sense to speak of his being just in His dealings with them. Yet Feser, as a devout Catholic, believes that God is perfectly just, that He rewards the virtuous in the hereafter and that He punishes evildoers in Hell. This doesn’t fit the storybook analogy: J. K. Rowling, for instance, may have written her book with a happy ending for Harry Potter and a not-so-happy ending for the characters who attempted to harm him, but it would be absurd to speak of her as “punishing” Voldemort, or for that matter, Draco Malfoy. Authors don’t punish their characters; nor do they reward them.

Another obvious flaw in the storybook analogy for God’s relationship to us is that when an author writes a book, the interaction is all one-way: from author to book. The characters have no say as to how they will end up in the story. Humans, on the other hand, can interact with their Creator, in prayer. (That was why I preferred the Tamagotchi analogy to the storybook analogy, as the characters can ask their owner to feed them.) What’s more, the choices humans make in this life will (according to many theists) affect their fate in the hereafter. Unlike the characters in a novel, we do have a say in our future destiny.

However, the biggest flaw in Professor Feser’s storybook analogy is that it fails to account for the fact that humans can defy the will of their Maker, by sinning. Now, Aquinas writes that God “in no way wills the evil of sin, which is the privation of right order towards the divine good” (Summa Theologica I, q. 19, a. 9) – a statement to which Feser would surely assent. However, this vitiates the analogy between God and the author of a storybook, as an individual named Thomas points out in a comment on Feser’s latest article in First Things:

The author metaphor is a poor one for the relation between God, and particularly ill-suited for the problem of evil…

God can cause the free choices of a human being without determining that choice to this or that; authors cannot. Authors are equally the cause of a character’s good deeds and misdeeds, and a novel’s characters cannot be said to defy the will of the novelist. Human beings, on the other hand, can defy the will of God…

If the author metaphor is useful at all in the context of the context of the problem of evil, it is only by contrasting God with a novelist.

Feser apparently overlooks the significance of this point. He writes that God’s being the ultimate source of all causality “is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.” But all that this line of argument (if it is successful) demonstrates is that the doctrine of predestination is compatible with a kind of freedom. It does not address the question of how the characters in a story can legitimately be said to defy the will of their author – and in particular, how humans can be said to defy the Will of their Maker.

I conclude that only if the human story is not pre-determined by God, but genuinely open, can humans be said to defy the will of their Maker.

So far, I have been concerned merely to argue that Professor Feser’s contention that God, as the Author of the cosmos, is not morally culpable for allowing evil, rests on a faulty analogy. However, the fact that the analogy is defective does not imply that God is morally culpable for not preventing evil. The onus is still on the atheist to explain exactly why a Transcendent Being would have such an obligation towards His sentient and/or sapient creatures.

Atheists commonly argue that if God were anything like a human parent, He would protect us from irreparable harm, regardless of whether it resulted from death, permanent injury or trauma. God would also protect us from evils (including horrific experiences) which are in no way good for us. And since God is supposed to be all-loving, all-wise and all-powerful, there is no reason why He could not accomplish all of these things right now.

In reply, a theist could point out that while God is indeed said to be more loving than any human parent, His obligations towards us are not those of a human parent. “Why not?” you may ask. The answer is that parental obligations are purely natural, arising from the fact that parents are human animals who have procreated a child, and that procreation is a basic human good which fulfills our human potential, and which may be legitimately pursued as an end in itself. While God may indeed have obligations towards His creatures, they are not natural obligations, because God’s voluntary decision to create does not spring from His nature; nor is it necessary, in order to complete or fulfill His nature. God would still be God, even if He had never chosen to make this world. He requires nothing outside Him, in order to realize His full potential.

It follows from the above reasoning that the atheistic argument that God must (if He is all-wise and all-powerful) be less loving than a human parent, because He fails to protect His creatures in ways that a human parent would normally be obliged to do, is invalid. God does not have natural parental obligations.

I argued above that God could still assume voluntary obligations towards us, in His decision to create us. Nevertheless, the precise content of those obligations, and the circumstances under which they would come into effect, remain unclear, as God has not publicly revealed them to us, so far. We are therefore not entitled to conclude from God’s silence that He is indifferent to our suffering. All we can say is that apparently, He doesn’t want to end it now.

However, there is nothing to prevent God, if He so wishes, from assuming voluntary parental obligations towards His creatures at some future date (via some Grand Restoration of the cosmos), or on an individual basis, preserving each sentient and/or sapient creature from annihilation, in some hereafter of which we have as yet no conception. If God chose either (or both) of these options, then He could fittingly be called all-loving. However, if God chose neither of these options, then such an ascription would seem pointless, as it would have no factual basis. The most we could say then would be that God is self-loving, like Aristotle’s God.

Loving or not, it cannot be denied that God is providential, in His dealings with the human race as a whole. Even in subsistence societies, life is precarious but generally not hellish: for instance, the Piraha people of the Amazon live very simply, but manage to stay extraordinarily happy: they live in the present, and do not dwell on the past or future. And the fact that we now live in a world in which the average human being will live to the age of 70, get a decent education, earn a living, fall in love, marry, procreate, and enjoy decades of good health before dying, should make us reflect. Science and free-market economics have improved our lot, but the amazing thing is that we live in a world in which so many scientific discoveries are possible, and in which knowledge can be shared rapidly. We have Providence to thank for that. Even our ability to make and use fire rests on a dazzling array of features built into the human body and the planet. Bad as things are at times, they could be much, much worse. The mere fact that any of us are able to enjoy anything at all should be a cause of wonder.

I’d like to conclude with two short quotes – one from Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, and the other from the Discourses of Epictetus:

I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the Power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter, than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.

Any one thing in the creation is sufficient to demonstrate a Providence, to a humble and grateful mind. Not to instance great things, the mere possibility of producing milk from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from skins – who formed and planned this? No one, say you. O surprising irreverence and dullness! (Book I, 16)

I’d like to wish my American readers a happy Independence Day.

190 thoughts on “Tamagotchi, J. K. Rowling and God: A Short Essay on the Problem of Evil”

  1. keithskeiths

    walto,

    Brighter folks understand that
    There is evil
    is a premise in the argument from evil. If there’s no evil, there’s no argument. phoodoo has been trying to explain this to you for years now.

    You are multiply confused here.

    First, while I don’t think that natural evil exists — there is no God responsible for tapeworms, for instance — that doesn’t mean that I doubt the existence of evil. I don’t.

    Second, as I already explained to you, the argument from evil doesn’t depend on what I believe. It’s an argument against the theist’s beliefs, based on the theist’s own assumptions.

    Third, the problem of evil remains even if we neglect natural evil. Natural evil isn’t the only kind of evil, after all.

    Fourth, phoodoo does not assert — or at least hasn’t, so far — that evil is nonexistent. And unless he is considerably more depraved than we’ve heretofore surmised, he thinks that certain actions — like ISIS burning the Jordanian pilot to death — are in fact evil.

    Taking your mistakes into account, why not lay out phoodoo’s argument, as you understand it, in some detail? I’ve encouraged him to do this, but he’s reluctant, for obvious reasons.

    You seem to buy it, so it would be nice to see exactly what you are endorsing.

  2. MungMung

    walto: Brighter folks understand that
    There is evil
    is a premise in the argument from evil. If there’s no evil, there’s no argument. phoodoo has been trying to explain this to you for years now.

    keiths is unable to see the error of his ways because he steadfastly refuses to actually formulate an argument. He doesn’t need any premises because he haz questionz!

    Why would an all-powerful God allow people to question him, eh? Answer that one theists!

  3. keithskeiths

    Mung,

    The fact that I don’t repeat my argument endlessly for the dim-witted does not mean that I don’t have an argument.

  4. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    I mean that antitheists seem to think that this logical argument (in Keith’s case embellished with horrific scenarios) should pose difficulties for theists. I suspect the vast majority of believers believe as they do from cultural background. The appeal is emotional. Norenzayan’s suggestion that religion is a societal bastion against the vagaries of life and has been replaced by sound secular institutions that can be trusted to be fair and equitable – he gives the prime example of Denmark – which results in the gentle fading of religion to a cultural tradition is, I find, very persuasive.

    What an odd thing to say.

    The question is whether the argument is valid and sound, not whether it persuades any particular person or group. Can you imagine if we judged Cantor’s math by the fact that Joe Gallien thinks it’s bogus, or if we judged ideas concerning genetic drift by the fact that Alan Fox is skeptical of them?

  5. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    keiths: What an odd thing to say.

    What’s odd about it?

    The question is whether the argument is valid and sound, not whether it persuades any particular person or group.

    For a mathematical proof, yes. I don’t agree that proof in a logical sense settles matters of reality.

    Can you imagine if we judged Cantor’s math by the fact that Joe Gallien thinks it’s bogus

    As I said mathematical proofs prove mathematical statement.

    …or if we judged ideas concerning genetic drift by the fact that Alan Fox is skeptical of them?

    I’m skeptical that genetic drift adds bias to adaptive evolution, not that drift happens. I’d like the contribution of genetic drift to adaptive evolution to be demonstrated in some way, experiment, observation and so on. But we can await further developments. Science is never settled. All scientific theories are provisional and subject to revision.

    But I digress. What is odd about Norenzayan’s idea that organised religion loses its grip when a society becomes more genuinely secular?

  6. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    newton: I think the major flaw in the argument is that most theists have logic as the basis for their anthropomorphic view of the divine.

    Exactly my point! 🙂

  7. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    keiths: …he thinks that certain actions — like ISIS burning the Jordanian pilot to death — are in fact evil.

    We can agree on that that abhorrent acts may be called evil but that in no way establishes “evil” (noun) as anything more than an imaginary concept borne of dualism (in the Gnostic/Manichaean/Cathar/Bogomil sense) as “good” vs “evil”.

  8. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    What is odd about Norenzayan’s idea that organised religion loses its grip when a society becomes more genuinely secular?

    Nothing. The error is yours, not Norenzayan’s. I explained it here.

    For a mathematical proof, yes. I don’t agree that proof in a logical sense settles matters of reality.

    Why are you bringing proof into this? The evidential argument from evil is not a proof. (The logical argument from evil would be such a proof, if it succeeded.)

    The evidential argument from evil simply shows that it’s unreasonable to believe in standard theistic conceptions of a loving and powerful God, given what we observe in our world.

  9. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    I’m skeptical that genetic drift adds bias to adaptive evolution, not that drift happens. I’d like the contribution of genetic drift to adaptive evolution to be demonstrated in some way, experiment, observation and so on.

    You are deeply confused about drift, thereby proving my point. But drift is a topic for another thread.

  10. graham2

    I wonder who here endorses objective morality. I presume the god botherers all do, and the heathens do not. I do not. That seems to be what these endless, dreary, arguments about morality reduce to. The xtians believe that there is another (supernatural) universe, parallel to the real one, where all the gods, souls, natural evil, etc etc reside.

    If you take the view that the supernatural is just bogus, then evil/morality etc, like beauty, is subjective, ie: entirely a creation of our physical brain. The results that follow from this seem to bear an uncanny similarity to what we actually see around us.

  11. phoodoo

    keiths: Fourth, phoodoo does not assert — or at least hasn’t, so far — that evil is nonexistent

    I assert that evil is just a convenient word for things you don’t like.

  12. waltowalto

    phoodoo: I assert that evil is just a convenient word for things you don’t like.

    It’s pointless. Keiths doesn’t get that you need actual, real evil–not stuff he or a lot of other people don’t like to make the existence of evil into an argument against theism. Omni gods must be perfectly good, but there’s no rule about them having to eliminate earthquakes because Keiths and people who agree with him that earthquakes can be extremely unpleasant think that their elimination would make for a much nicer world.

    And, of course, the claim that the problem of evil might be a good argument for those who DO believe in evil even if it isn’t for the likes of keiths, ignores that because it seems to common slobs like us that there’s no good reason for this or that doesn’t mean there ISN’T a good reason. And that’s true even if there is actual, real evil in the world. As Alan says, we’re ants.

    All this has been explained to him countless times, but….no avail.

    Anyhow, it’s all angels on a pin stuff anyhow. What’s much more important from my perspective is that there’s no good reason to believe in God (other than maybe psychological reasons) and those who don’t do so are not in desperate need of any arguments against theism. Rather the argument from evil gives too much to the theist in the first place. The burden is not on atheists.

  13. newton

    phoodoo: I assert that evil is just a convenient word for things you don’t like.

    Not all theists agree

    “5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,

    6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

    7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

    8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

    9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

    10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

    11 Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

  14. keithskeiths

    phoodoo,

    I assert that evil is just a convenient word for things you don’t like.

    The question is whether you — phoodoo — think that evil exists.

    Do you think it was evil for ISIS to burn that pilot alive? Or do you think it was loving, and do you admire ISIS for doing it? Stop dodging and answer the questions.

    Or will you make an idiotic, phoodooish pseudo-argument by asking “Was the widdle pilot angwy because ISIS didn’t give him anti-dandwuff shampoo? Was it too stuffy in that widdle cage as he was being burned to death? Poor widdle baby.”

  15. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    We can agree on that that abhorrent acts may be called evil but that in no way establishes “evil” (noun) as anything more than an imaginary concept borne of dualism (in the Gnostic/Manichaean/Cathar/Bogomil sense) as “good” vs “evil”.

    For at least the seventh time:

    I picked the bayonetting of babies at Nanking as an example that we could presumably all agree was evil. If it’s evil, then we have an instance of evil; and if we have an instance of evil, then evil exists (although this appears to baffle Alan).

    Likewise, people often favor their relatives when making hiring decisions. These are nepotic acts. If an act is nepotic, then we have an instance of nepotism; and if we have an instance of nepotism, then nepotism exists.

    “Evil” (the noun) is just a collective term designating actions that are “evil” (the adjective), just as “nepotism” (the noun) is a collective term designating acts that are “nepotic” (the adjective).

    It’s mind-boggling that you can’t see this.

  16. keithskeiths

    Would you argue that there might be scientists, scientific facts, scientific conferences, etc., but that science doesn’t exist?

    If so, let’s part ways so I can converse with the brighter folks like Vincent.

  17. keithskeiths

    walto,

    It’s pointless. Keiths doesn’t get that you need actual, real evil–not stuff he or a lot of other people don’t like to make the existence of evil into an argument against theism.

    All you need are things that qualify as evil by the standards of the theist against whom you are arguing. Remember Frank and the seahorses?

    I needn’t believe that seahorses are evil to argue against Frank’s existence, nor must seahorses be objectively evil. The theist’s subjective assessment is enough.

    Omni gods must be perfectly good, but there’s no rule about them having to eliminate earthquakes because Keiths and people who agree with him that earthquakes can be extremely unpleasant think that their elimination would make for a much nicer world.

    Again, it depends on the theist’s standard of good and evil. Suppose our theist, like most folks, thinks it would be wrong to deliberately drown a bunch of innocent people. A powerful God would be capable of preventing mass drownings. If our theist also thinks that God is loving, then events like the 2004 tsunami present a problem: Why would a powerful, loving God allow the mass drowning of almost a quarter of a million people? Why accept that as the act of a loving God, when a human who did the equivalent would be regarded as monstrous?

    And, of course, the claim that the problem of evil might be a good argument for those who DO believe in evil even if it isn’t for the likes of keiths…

    You’re still confused. I do believe that evil exists (it’s subjective, of course).

    …ignores that because it seems to common slobs like us that there’s no good reason for this or that doesn’t mean there ISN’T a good reason. And that’s true even if there is actual, real evil in the world. As Alan says, we’re ants.

    Like Alan, you’re confusing the evidential problem of evil with the logical problem of evil. The possibility that there’s a reason is enough to throw the logical problem into doubt, but it doesn’t even touch the evidential problem.

    Hitler might have had a noble and loving reason for killing millions of Jews. It’s logically possible. On that basis, would you defend Hitler against accusations of evil behavior? I hope not. Why defend God on an equivalent basis?

    All this has been explained to him countless times, but….no avail.

    No matter how many times you repeat your mistake, it’s still a mistake. Why would I choose to emulate it?

    Rather the argument from evil gives too much to the theist in the first place.

    Not at all. To grant assumptions for the sake of argument is not to grant them in reality. This is pretty basic stuff, walto.

    The argument from evil is an effective argument against theism, which is why believing philosophers and theologians have tried so hard, and so ineffectively, to refute it. You can see that it bothers Vincent, and for good reason.

    The fact that you personally have trouble understanding the argument is no reason for capable folks to refrain from using it.

  18. keithskeiths

    Someone (I think it was Woodbine) once pointed out the similarities between Christianity and battered woman syndrome. It’s an apt analogy and well worth pondering.

    Particularly striking is the victims’ irrational inability to assign blame to their abusers.

  19. keithskeiths

    keiths:

    That argument fails, as I explained earlier in the thread, because even if God truly has no obligation to intervene, that doesn’t prevent him from voluntarily doing so. Which, after all, would be the loving thing to do.

    Imagine God saying this to the Jordanian pilot:

    I love you more than you can imagine, more than anyone else in your life ever has. But I have no obligations toward you, so I’m going to let you burn. Enjoy your agony.

    What sane person would describe such a God as loving?

    That you would even make this argument shows what religion has done to your mind. Come on, Vincent — you’re smarter than this.

    vjtorley:

    First, although I argued in my OP that God is provident, I didn’t put forward any positive arguments that God is all-loving.

    No, but you’ve made the following claim:

    God loves each and every one of us with a steadfast, unshakable love which is greater than any of us can possibly imagine.

    Ponder the unshakable love that God showed toward the Jordanian pilot. Nothing says “I love you” like letting someone burn to death in a cage.

  20. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    keiths: Would you argue that there might be scientists, scientific facts, scientific conferences, etc., but that science doesn’t exist?

    No.
    You seem to think you have a general logical argument. I suggest each claim that “X” exists needs to examined on its merits. I can ask what is “science” and “where is science” and there are satisfactory answers, though probably disagreement. Nepotism passes the test, perhaps. “Intelligence” doesn’t. “Design” (noun) doesn’t. Neither does “evil” (noun). I’m reminded of aiguy and the argument he regularly made regerding the reification of “intelligence” and his analogy with athleticism.

    If so, let’s part ways so I can converse with the brighter folks like Vincent.

    By all means. Let the more intelligent converse with you. I’ll get the popcorn! 🙂 It would be nice to see a conversation in which you are involved develop in a positive way.

  21. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    I suggest each claim that “X” exists needs to examined on its merits.

    Of course. That’s how we can say that black swans exist and that unicorns don’t. Why do we say that? Because we’ve found instances of black swans: swans that are black. We haven’t found instances of unicorns.

    If one or more instances of X exist, then X exists.

    Why do I say that evil exists? Because I’ve seen instances of evil: acts that are evil (by my subjective standards). There are instances of evil, and so I conclude that evil exists.

    It’s simple and obvious.

    You’ve written:

    To clarify, here is where you go wrong. You could say “If this is an evil act then we have an instance of an evil act”. Fine. You are defining “evil” as an adjective. But you leap to the noun “Evil exists”. It’s a semantic trick.

    It isn’t a “semantic trick”. It’s frikkin’ obvious.

    As I commented above:

    “Evil” (the noun) is just a collective term designating actions that are “evil” (the adjective), just as “nepotism” (the noun) is a collective term designating acts that are “nepotic” (the adjective).

    It’s mind-boggling that you can’t see this.

  22. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    keiths,

    Repetition doesn’t make your point any stronger. I’ll wait for the lofty conversation you are about to have with the more intelligent of our interlocutors.

  23. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    Repetition doesn’t make your point any stronger.

    Nor weaker. It’s clear that you can’t rebut it.

  24. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    keiths: You are deeply confused about drift, thereby proving my point. But drift is a topic for another thread.

    You brought it up. Actually, I’d like to see a thread explaining how genetic drift makes a contribution to adaptive evolution. Any takers?

  25. keithskeiths

    Alan,

    You brought it up.

    Only as an example of why we don’t judge the validity of ideas based on the opinions of incompetents:

    The question is whether the argument is valid and sound, not whether it persuades any particular person or group. Can you imagine if we judged Cantor’s math by the fact that Joe Gallien thinks it’s bogus, or if we judged ideas concerning genetic drift by the fact that Alan Fox is skeptical of them?

  26. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    keiths:
    Vincent,

    No, Alan’s position is far more bizarre than that.

    He actually thinks there’s something illegitimate about abstract nouns

    There! That is the misrepresenation. Where have I ever argued that the idea of abstract nouns is illegitimate! It’s a reasonable grammatical categorization.

    …and that to use them is to commit the fallacy of reification. I’m not kidding.

    I’m sure you’re not. You are wrong, nonetheless. Whether a noun falls into a grammatical category has no bearing on whether the concept has value or is a reification. As I said, there is no general rule. Each concept can be examined on its merits.

    For example, he accepts the use of ‘evil’ as an adjective, but objects to its use as a noun.

    I object to the claim that “evil exists” on the grounds there is no coherent concept of “evil”. Just as there is no coherent concept of “intelligence” or “design”. I emphasize the point regarding noun/adjective: because ID proponents have used the same sleight-of-hand you are using to reify “intelligence”.

    Never mind that Alan, like the rest of us, routinely uses abstract nouns. of his favorites is ‘rancour’.No explanation from him on why ‘rancour’ is a legitimate abstract noun if ‘evil’ is not.

    See above.

    And of course, the issue is a red herring anyway.Even if it were actuallyillegitimate to use abstract nouns — and it clearly isn’t — that wouldn’t make the problem of evil vanish.It would simply get relabeled as ‘the problem of evil events’ or something similar.

    Ha ha! What would? That’s the essence of your misrepresentation. What are you labelling?

    Alan’s position is nonsensical.

    It’s your misrepresentation that is nonsensical.

  27. MungMung

    walto: …and those who don’t do so are not in desperate need of any arguments against theism.

    Hear hear.

    It’s as if some people have to continually revisit a decision they made when barely in their teens and continually try to justify it by trying to find ways to prove that other people are wrong.

  28. MungMung

    Alan Fox: Actually, I’d like to see a thread explaining how genetic drift makes a contribution to adaptive evolution.

    Stuff drifts around until, by chance, it becomes beneficial. Like a price of driftwood that saves a drowning man’s life. And don’t blame him if he calls it a miracle.

  29. keithskeiths

    graham2:

    I wonder who here endorses objective morality. I presume the god botherers all do, and the heathens do not.

    Not so, actually. Both walto and KN endorse objective morality, though neither can defend it effectively.

  30. Flint

    keiths:
    graham2:

    Not so, actually.Both walto and KN endorse objective morality, though neither can defend it effectively.

    I’m willing to rush in where intelligent people don’t tread. I agree that there is an objective morality, more or less, but only within the context of the nature of the specific organism or species.

    Humans are a social, gregarious species given to the exchange of ideas, competition and cooperation, attempts to find compromises acceptable if perceived as suboptimal for all concerned, etc. Our lifestyle is highly social, our transactions interpersonal. We value love and respect, and show these values through such things as politeness, decorum, and rituals of friendship.

    So within this context, “evil” covers ideas and acts which rend the social fabric, and are seen as often flagrant violations of the golden rule. Note that the golden rule ONLY works for us because of our gregarious nature – it would make no sense to a species like cats. We as humans might even extend this to a rule that we should all behave toward one another as we would have everyone behave toward everyone else.

    So is it objectively evil to set fire to the neighbor’s dog? To the dog, no, it’s only painful and perhaps fatal. To the neighbor, though, it’s evil. Our intention isn’t to harm the dog, but the neighbor. Evil is intentional harm done to others for the sake of doing harm, though often with some pretext.

  31. MungMung

    Alan Fox: I’ll wait for the lofty conversation you are about to have with the more intelligent of our interlocutors.

    LoL. The last time keiths decided he’d only talk to VJT it didn’t work out so well for him.

  32. RoyLT

    Flint: So within this context, “evil” covers ideas and acts which rend the social fabric, and are seen as often flagrant violations of the golden rule. Note that the golden rule ONLY works for us because of our gregarious nature – it would make no sense to a species like cats. We as humans might even extend this to a rule that we should all behave toward one another as we would have everyone behave toward everyone else.

    I would agree that Kant’s Categorical Imperative is as close as we can come to an objective morality. It speaks to the sustainability of actions in a population. But it is still dependent upon a subjective consensus among that population. As history has shown, that consensus will drift over time (e.g. Slavery, Polygamy).

  33. RoyLT

    Alan Fox: I object to the claim that “evil exists” on the grounds there is no coherent concept of “evil”. Just as there is no coherent concept of “intelligence” or “design”. I emphasize the point regarding noun/adjective: because ID proponents have used the same sleight-of-hand you are using to reify “intelligence”.

    I’m confused on your view in this regard, Alan. You agree that the reification of ‘design’ is a problem for ID proponents willing to plug it into any gaps real or perceived, but you do not see ‘evil’ (be it natural, moral, or logical) as a problem for theists who claim an objective morality with their tri-omni God as the gold standard.

    I assure you that I’m not being argumentative, but I am having trouble understanding your position. Can you clarify?

  34. petrushka

    Flint: Our intention isn’t to harm the dog, but the neighbor. Evil is intentional harm done to others for the sake of doing harm, though often with some pretext.

    One might say that humans, in social context, abhor the motive (the enjoyment) of causing pain.

    We tend to be creeped out by kids who torture animals, even bugs. We lock up criminals and call it correction. We execute criminals and call it deterrence. We drop bombs on civilians and have laws and rules for doing so.

    The underlying common feature of many moral rules is the prohibition of enjoying inflicting pain. We have countless fictional representations of vengeance, but few involving extended scenes of torture inflicted on the villain.

  35. RoyLT

    petrushka: The underlying common feature of many moral rules is the prohibition of enjoying inflicting pain. We have countless fictional representations of vengeance, but few involving extended scenes of torture inflicted on the villain.

    While, as mentioned earlier in this thread, some examples of empathy can be seen in other mammals, they are limited. An article in ‘Psychology Today’ correlates the development of human empathy with the advent of group child-rearing in human ancestors.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-me-in-we/201612/the-evolutionary-origins-empathy

  36. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    RoyLT: I’m confused on your view in this regard, Alan.You agree that the reification of ‘design’ is a problem for ID proponents willing to plug it into any gaps real or perceived…

    I think the reason I object to “Design”, (the noun) in the context of ID is that it isn’t defined and remains unexplained. It’s a semantic sleight-of-hand.

    …but you do not see ‘evil’ (be it natural, moral, or logical) as a problem for theists who claim an objective morality with their tri-omni God as the gold standard.

    That’ not really an issue for me. I’m utterly unpersuaded by theism but I don’t feel obliged to argue other people out of their own cherished beliefs. True secularism should guarantee freedom of thought to everyone, theists, atheists and everyone else.

    I assure you that I’m not being argumentative, but I am having trouble understanding your position. Can you clarify?

    Regarding “evil” (the noun), my thoughts are exactly the same as for “Design” (in an ID context). “Evil” is so vague as to be meaningless. I can make sense of the adjective, as in evil intent, an evil person (though I wouldn’t use the word) but I have no time for a discussion on the problem of “evil”.

    And I love a good argument. I won’t even charge for the full half-hour!

  37. RoyLT

    Alan Fox: That’ not really an issue for me. I’m utterly unpersuaded by theism but I don’t feel obliged to argue other people out of their own cherished beliefs. True secularism should guarantee freedom of thought to everyone, theists, atheists and everyone else.

    Fair enough. I don’t have any issue with freedom of thought. In fact, some of my most enjoyable discussions have been with people of quite different cultural/religious/political backgrounds. But freedom of dissent is implicit in freedom of thought.

    I don’t flatter myself that I could argue anyone out of their beliefs. Nor would I want to. However, I do enjoy taking a more critical look at beliefs in an anonymous setting like this to gain a better understanding of what motivates me and others in our conclusions. I find the arguments such as the problem of evil to be extremely interesting and I like seeing how minds other than my own formulate logic and reconcile differences..

  38. RoyLT

    Alan Fox: Regarding “evil” (the noun), my thoughts are exactly the same as for “Design” (in an ID context). “Evil” is so vague as to be meaningless.

    From a theological standpoint, ‘evil’ is typically stated as an absence of good (similarly to dark being the absence of light). And since, in that context, God is the ultimate measure of good, evil is a direct result of something’s distance from God or his commands. In its presentation in Genesis, evil seems quite straightforward to me. Disobedience to God. However, it gets more vague in the context of modern culture wars. However, because I have friends and family directly or indirectly affected by the outcome of those cultural conflicts, I find it useful to examine the arguments being put forth by those on the other side of the street.

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