The REAL “Problem of Evil”

[moderator’s note: Nonlin.org produced this at about the same time as his “Miracles” post. I delayed this, so that they could be discussed one at a time. I’m now publishing this one.]

[a note to nonlin – if all of your post is one block, it is hard to add a “more” break. Maybe a short introductory sentence as a first block would make that easier]

  1. “Problem of evil” is supposed to disprove God because,
    • a) A God that is all powerful would be able to prevent evil.
    • b) A God that is all knowing would know that evil happens.
    • c) A God that is all loving wouldn’t want evil to happen and would take needed action to stop it.
    • d) Evil happens.
    • e) Since evil happens, these statements are contradictory.
    • f) An all powerful, all knowing and all loving god cannot exist while evil continues.
    Although short, this argument fails repeatedly:
    • c) A God that is all loving wouldn’t want evil to happen, but would not necessarily take needed action to stop it due to other, higher reasons.
    • d) Evil happens only in a theist universe. The true materialist would not believe in evil, hence this whole argument proposed by him/her would be meaningless and self defeating.
    • e) There is no contradiction given the c. and d. counterarguments.
    • f) Because there is no contradiction per e. counterargument, f. does not follow.
    • g) And f. would not follow even if a. to e. were true, because the conclusion may miss some unspecified additional evidence, such as the fact that the human brain is not good enough to judge God, rendering this and many other such arguments false throughout.
  2. How would we know ‘the good’ without ‘the evil’? We wouldn’t! Therefore Evil is inescapable as experiences are continuously normalized to include good and bad. There’s always a ‘too cold/too hot’, ‘too loud/too quiet’, ‘too much/too little death (who wished historical tyrants lived longer?)’, and so on. Whatever the range, there’s always an extreme good/bad. Cut the range in half and, what was moderate before, becomes extreme. Therefore, God tolerates the [necessary] evil to a certain extent and for a good reason, also as part of the free will deal He offered mankind. For those that say “there’s no need for this much evil”, the question is: “ok, then how much evil should there be?” In addition, the Book of Job clearly explains that it is not up to the lowly humans to second guess God. Those that did not understand this (Nazis, Communists, Eugenists, and many more) have tried to do better than God. But their dreams of evil-free societies invariably turn into nightmares full of evil.
  3. Evil should mean nothing to the materialist because of the determinism belief (despite the clearest experimental evidence that determinism is dead). And this is the REAL Problem of Evil. A problem only materialists should face since, according to any coherent materialist, not only were Stalin, Mao, Hitler not evil, but they also had no choice due to determinism. Yet mankind insists on calling those individuals evil and with good reasons. Seeing this dilemma, some argue for word substitution – suffering to evil – not noticing that the argument would thus go from bad to ridiculous. After all, God let Adam and Eve know ‘suffering’ will happen after the Original Sin transgression, and most people accept “no pain no gain”, hence suffering for a good reward. Others claim evil makes sense in “humanist morality”, clearly forgetting that, as determinists, they shouldn’t have the free will to do anything morally or immorally, just as stones and animals do not abide by any moral standards. Hume got this one thing right: you can’t derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’, therefore good and evil are incompatible with materialism.
  4. Is the concept of Evil just a human “evolutionary” adaptation? That doesn’t work because ‘ought’ was derived from ‘is’. The “original ought-is sin” is when materialists imagine the first RNA randomly happening and then, hocus-pocus, “evolution” with its ‘oughts’ takes over. The second is when we see no evil in the lion eating the gazelle alive, or the wasp turning the cockroach into a zombie food supply, the weasel killing all the chickens, peer violence, or even cannibalism, and infanticide. Yet we see evil in the human behaving like these (although infanticide against the unborn is OK – go figure). We do not need the concept of evil to avoid harm. But, aside from the mentally impaired, psychopaths, and a few hypothetical primitive cultures that supposedly do not know evil, all modern humans including the materialists know and oppose evil. Even communists are for “social justice” and fascists for the improvement of society, eugenists for the betterment of mankind and abortionists for “choice”. Not one of these stands for evil despite killing and persecution of the innocent. All these go to great length to hide, and minimize their evil deeds and often argue that – in fact – their opponents are the evil ones. “Sure, you have to break a few eggs to make omelet, right”? “But that’s not evil” is their argument.
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480 thoughts on “The REAL “Problem of Evil”

  1. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think it’s a mere “convenient social convention” that mass rape as a military strategy is evil.

    Is rape not against social convention in most civilised societies?

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  2. Alan Fox: Is rape not against social convention in most civilised societies?

    Well, laws against marital rape are actually a pretty recent historical development in the United States, though arguably the United States is not a civilized society.

    More generally, we must be able to distinguish between just laws and unjust laws. We need to be able to articulate the thought that the Holocaust, though perfectly legal under the laws of Nazi Germany, was nevertheless a crime against humanity. If we collapse morality into legality then we have no standard from which to distinguish between just laws and unjust laws.

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  3. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think it’s a mere “convenient social convention” that mass rape as a military strategy is evil.

    I’m reminded of Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, with his portrayal of the Red Army in the immediate aftermath of the occupation of Berlin.

    ETA clarity

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  4. Alan,

    As you use the term, perhaps.

    It’s standard English.

    But theists seem to reify “EVIL” and so does non-lin, as far as I can tell.

    To refer to something using a collective noun is not automatically to reify it.

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  5. Kantian Naturalist: But treating these as equivalent seems to really trivialize horror and trauma.

    This doesn’t make sense to me. I abhor all instances of suffering. Calling it evil is a linguistic choice that has nothing to do with the suffering. People inflict suffering on others. How to prevent it is paramount. If words help, it is usually the sincerity and emotion of the expression that matters.

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  6. keiths: To refer to something using a collective noun is not automatically to reify it.

    Reality is not binary, no. But it is nonlin that I’m hoping to get a substantive response from.

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  7. Kantian Naturalist: Well, laws against marital rape are actually a pretty recent historical development in the United States, though arguably the United States is not a civilized society.

    Never having visited, I couldn’t possibly comment.

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  8. keiths:

    To refer to something using a collective noun is not automatically to reify it.

    Alan:

    Reality is not binary, no.

    That’s a non-sequitur.

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  9. Kantian Naturalist: More generally, we must be able to distinguish between just laws and unjust laws. We need to be able to articulate the thought that the Holocaust, though perfectly legal under the laws of Nazi Germany, was nevertheless a crime against humanity. If we collapse morality into legality then we have no standard from which to distinguish between just laws and unjust laws.

    Don’t disagree except for the use of the word “morality” where I would suggest ethics, human empathy, fellow feeling and fairness convey more what should guide social mores.

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  10. Alan,

    Calling it evil is a linguistic choice that has nothing to do with the suffering.

    Again, it’s standard English. Why object to it? Why question the existence of evil, as you do?

    I rather question that evil as a real concept actually exists.

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  11. keiths: Why question the existence of evil?

    Because it doesn’t exist. It’s a cop-out that avoids us having to examine the roots of antisocial behaviour and deviance.

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  12. That makes no sense.

    The existence of evil is a reason to grapple with it, not an excuse for neglecting it.

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  13. keiths: The existence of evil is a reason to grapple with it, not an excuse for neglecting it.

    Now that is a non-sequitur.

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  14. I do not think that “evil” is a collective noun, any more than “luck” is.
    A ‘sneak’ of weasels, THAT’s a collective noun.
    Evil, luck, and god strike me as abstracts.

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  15. DNA_Jock,

    It makes no difference to the argument. (Elsewhere I’ve used ‘abstract’ in place of ‘collective’ in discussions of this point.)

    Alan’s error is to see the noun ‘evil’ as an instance of fallacious reification.

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  16. Keith, your ‘argument’ for the existence of evil (the abstract) appears to rest on the fact that people describe certain acts as ‘evil’ (adjective).
    I must be missing something — please explain.
    Thanks.

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  17. KN,

    It seems quite foolish for an atheist to deny that if one thinks that God exists and takes the problem of evil seriously as an intellectual puzzle, then Augustinian theodicy resolves the problem of evil.

    In my opinion, Augustinian theodicy has some fatal flaws. One of them is illustrated by the following argument:

    1. God is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good.

    2. God’s omniscience means that he knows what individual persons will do before he creates them.

    3. God can choose to create, or not to create, every potential person.

    4. If a potential person is going to commit an evil act, God can prevent it by refraining from creating that particular person.

    5. If God did so in all cases, then no created person would ever commit an evil act. Human evil would be eliminated.

    6. God is able to eliminate all human evil, but fails to do so. Therefore he is not perfectly good, contrary to the claim in #1.

    7. Therefore the God described in #1 does not exist.

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  18. Jock:

    Keith, your ‘argument’ for the existence of evil (the abstract) appears to rest on the fact that people describe certain acts as ‘evil’ (adjective).

    I would put it this way: If evil acts occur, then they are instances of evil. If we have instances of evil, then evil exists.

    Standards of good and evil are subjective, of course.

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  19. If god knows the future, is it possible for god to do something that changes that future?

    If god knows everything, does god know all possible futures?

    If god knows something, is that the same as it existing? If not, how?

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  20. petrushka,

    If god knows the future, is it possible for god to do something that changes that future?

    No, because a possible future doesn’t become the actual future until the dust has settled and God has made his final (timeless) decision.

    If god knows everything, does god know all possible futures?

    I would say ‘yes’. Otherwise he wouldn’t be omniscient.

    If god knows something, is that the same as it existing? If not, how?

    Sounds like a category error to me. God presumably knows that 4 + 3 = 7, but what does it mean to say that “4 + 3 = 7” exists?

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  21. keiths: …what does it mean to say that “4 + 3 = 7” exists?

    About the same as that evil exists. Or my favourite “error exists”.

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  22. petrushka:
    If god knows the future, is it possible for god to do something that changes that future?

    If god knows everything, does god know all possible futures?

    If god knows something, is that the same as it existing? If not, how?

    Define “exist”! 😉

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  23. People are special among living organisms as they are uniquely capable of evil acts. How does that sound?

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  24. keiths: Augustinian theodicy has some fatal flaws.

    Well indeed! The main one being he assumed “EVIL” was a real thing. Mind you he had the excuse of converting from Manichaeism.

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  25. keiths: If we have instances of evil, then evil exists.

    Isn’t that a metaphysical claim about the reality of universals (ie properties in this case). That is, are you saying that individual instances of evil require the existence of universals (eg via platonism?).

    BTW, I don’t think the metaphysical issues are relevant to the OP; individual acts of evil are enough.

    Standards of good and evil are subjective, of course.

    Does that not imply that the argument from evil only works for people who share your standards (or attitudes) for characterizing acts as evil?

    ETA: If you can convince a religious person that you both would characterize particular acts as evil, then I guess the argument from the problem of evil might still work for those acts. The religious will deny morality is relative; I’m not sure if that will help in this case.

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  26. Alan Fox: Well indeed! The main one being he assumed “EVIL” was a real thing. Mind you he had the excuse of converting from Manichaeism.

    This isn’t quite right, or at least it’s phrased in a highly misleading way.

    Augustine’s theory of evil is what’s called a “priviative” theory: evil does not exist, in the sense that evil is not something that participates in being. Evil is pure negation or absence — evil is non-being. But this doesn’t mean that the concept evil is meaningless or lacks a referent — it refers to the absence of being.

    Or that’s the claim, anyway.

    This is why free will is so crucial for Augustine: because (so the story goes creation is completely and purely good, since it was created by a supremely good Being. The act of sinning involved deliberately and freely rejecting the Good. (From what little I know of Augustine’s theology, there isn’t very much for Satan to do here!)

    When I said that the problem of evil isn’t a serious intellectual challenge to theism, what I had in mind was this: I would think that Augustine’s solution — evil consists of our free rejection of divine presence and grace — is sufficient.

    Now, it is the case that Augustine also has to believe that this initial act of sinning by Adam and Eve resulted in both a corruption of human nature ever since and a corruption of the entirety of Creation. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, there would be no greed, anger, lust, envy, etc. and there would be no disease, predation (all the animals in the Garden of Eden were created as vegetarians), death, etc.

    Everything in the universe that is bad is a result of original sin, since God can’t be on the hook for any of it.

    I’m not defending this extraordinary intensification of guilt that is at the heart of Christianity, obviously. (On the contrary, I think that Nietzsche is pretty much right about Christianity.) I’m just saying that it is intellectually coherent.

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  27. Kantian Naturalist: I’m not defending this extraordinary intensification of guilt that is at the heart of Christianity, obviously. (On the contrary, I think that Nietzsche is pretty much right about Christianity.) I’m just saying that it is intellectually coherent.

    Thanks for explaining. Interesting that you are much better at laying out the logic of the theodicy than our esteemed OP author.

    The only part I do not follow is the point brought up by keiths: Since God must have foreseen Adam & Eve’s disobedience, it seems unreasonable to claim He bears no responsibility. The best one can do to salvage God’s omnibenevolence is argue that it was somehow justified to carry through with the whole show regardless.

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  28. Kantian Naturalist: I’m not defending this extraordinary intensification of guilt that is at the heart of Christianity, obviously. (On the contrary, I think that Nietzsche is pretty much right about Christianity.) I’m just saying that it is intellectually coherent.

    No. It isn’t. God is supposedly omniscient and omnipotent. Those two make this god guilty of creating Adam and Eve so that they’d commit the original sin.

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  29. BruceS: Does that not imply that the argument from evil only works for people who share your standards (or attitudes) for characterizing acts as evil?

    There’s many approaches to this “problem.” For example, the problem of evil is an internal inconsistency to the theistic worldview (at least most of the Christian ones), whether the theist wants to acknowledge it or not doesn’t matter. Nothing self-defeating about a “materialist,” or someone who doesn’t think there’s such thing as evil to point that out, and thus conclude that the religious’ worldview and/or god is false.

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  30. Evil should mean nothing to the materialist because of the determinism belief (despite the clearest experimental evidence that determinism is dead).

    Materialism, in its current incantation, physicalism, only holds that all there is is physical. That’s it. It doesn’t have to hold to determinism. The two are not necessarily together. A physicalist can be a determinist or a non determinist. So, if determinism is dead, then the physicalist will happily accept such result.

    And this is the REAL Problem of Evil.

    Then consider it solved. Materialists do not have to be determinists.

    A problem only materialists should face

    Nope. As I told you, materialism doesn’t have to be tied to determinism. So, maybe you should have referred to “determinists.” But you’re targeting “materialists” because you think that’s what all non-Christians are. Save even more time: no, non-Christians can have other religions, and atheists can be non-materialists. Sorry to break these news to you.

    After all, God let Adam and Eve know ‘suffering’ will happen after the Original Sin transgression,

    Why should any materialist care about your Christian fables?

    Hume got this one thing right: you can’t derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’, therefore good and evil are incompatible with materialism.

    You haven’t read Home carefully enough. The is/ought distinction problem applies to Christianity as well. Your imaginary friend’s “standards,” as incoherent as they are, are “is’s” not “oughts.”

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  31. petrushka:

    If god knows something, is that the same as it existing? If not, how?

    keiths:

    Sounds like a category error to me. God presumably knows that 4 + 3 = 7, but what does it mean to say that “4 + 3 = 7” exists?

    Alan:

    About the same as that evil exists. Or my favourite “error exists”.

    It’s not the same. Instances of evil exist, and so do instances of error. What would it mean to say that instances of “4 + 3 = 7” exist?

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  32. What is heaven supposed to be like? Isn’t it supposed to be free of evil? If God can make heaven free of evil, why not Earth?

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  33. Bruce,

    …are you saying that individual instances of evil require the existence of universals (eg via platonism?).

    No. I take “evil” to refer to the totality of evil acts, intentions, etc, and not to something metaphysically distinct. (I called it a collective noun earlier, but as DNA_Jock points out, “collective noun” is actually a term of art in grammar, where it has a different meaning from what I’m intending.)

    BTW, I don’t think the metaphysical issues are relevant to the OP; individual acts of evil are enough.

    I agree.

    keiths:

    Standards of good and evil are subjective, of course.

    Bruce:

    Does that not imply that the argument from evil only works for people who share your standards (or attitudes) for characterizing acts as evil?

    No, because the only relevant standard of evil is the one held by the theist(s) in question. To take an extreme example, consider a theist who thinks that everything is morally permitted except for tooth brushing, which is evil. The preponderance of tooth brushing in the world creates a problem of evil for that theist, regardless of whether I share their conviction regarding tooth brushing.

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  34. T_aquaticus:

    What is heaven supposed to be like? Isn’t it supposed to be free of evil? If God can make heaven free of evil, why not Earth?

    A common Christian answer to that question is that the process of getting to heaven sanctifies us, so that no one in heaven ever desires to sin. Free will is still there, but the residents always freely choose good over evil.

    The obvious followup question, echoing yours, is “Why not create us in a sanctified state to begin with?”

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  35. keiths:

    No.I take “evil” to refer to the totality of evil acts,

    I’m fine with sticking with reference as per KN’s point upthread; for me, it’s only claims that evil exists that raise issues about metaphysics.

    I don’t ‘evil’ think it is a collective noun; it is a property.

    No, because the only relevant standard of evil is the one held by the theist(s)

    They can reply that God’s standard is the relevant one; a standard which they aim to follow to the best the human understanding allows.

    Then they have Job’s reply to problem of evil, as per g in OP, to counteract claims that God cannot be 3O. For example, we may not understand why God created beings with free will and thereby made them morally responsible or why just people suffer in this life. But that is a simply a problem with our limited understanding of God’s goodness.

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  36. Entropy: You haven’t read Home carefully enough. The is/ought distinction problem applies to Christianity as well. Your imaginary friend’s “standards,” as incoherent as they are, are “is’s” not “oughts.”

    I don’t think this is/ought problem arises for either theists or atheists — not without a lot more specification than anyone here has given to it. Hume is very careful on this point, but it’s necessary to (gasp!) actually read what he says.

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  37. Kantian Naturalist: I’m not a materialist, so I don’t really care about your points (3) and (4).

    Then what’s your goal? Just blowing off steam?

    keiths: Alan and I have discussed this before. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote an exchange we had:

    Thanks for that. I didn’t know what he wants to say. But now it makes sense… and it doesn’t make any sense as expected.

    Alan Fox: As you use the term, perhaps. But theists seem to reify “EVIL” and so does non-lin, as far as I can tell.

    What do you mean?

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  38. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think this is/ought problem arises for either theists or atheists …

    If this imbecile (yes, imbecile, yes, Nonlin), is quoting the is/ought problem then the poor idiot (yes, idiot, yes, Nonlin) might be better off learning that it applies to Christianity exactly in the same way it would apply to “materialists.”

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  39. Alan Fox: This doesn’t make sense to me. I abhor all instances of suffering. Calling it evil is a linguistic choice that has nothing to do with the suffering. People inflict suffering on others. How to prevent it is paramount.

    Then the doctor that performs surgery on you is on par with Stalin? What are you, a cat at the vet?

    keiths:
    6. God is able to eliminate all human evil, but fails to do so. Therefore he is not perfectly good, contrary to the claim in #1.

    7. Therefore the God described in #1 does not exist.

    These two don’t make any sense. This has been discussed in the essay already.

    Alan Fox: Define “exist”! 😉

    Define “define” 🙂

    Kantian Naturalist: When I said that the problem of evil isn’t a serious intellectual challenge to theism, what I had in mind was this: I would think that Augustine’s solution — evil consists of our free rejection of divine presence and grace — is sufficient.

    Then atheists are all evil?

    Kantian Naturalist: Everything in the universe that is bad is a result of original sin, since God can’t be on the hook for any of it.

    Ok, fine. But we’re way off from the REAL problem of evil. Let’s go back to the topic here.

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  40. Corneel: Thanks for explaining. Interesting that you are much better at laying out the logic of the theodicy than our esteemed OP author.

    What exactly don’t you understand? Put your finger on that sentence.
    And what about the REAL problem of evil? Do you get it at least?

    Entropy: Materialism, in its current incantation, physicalism, only holds that all there is is physical. That’s it. It doesn’t have to hold to determinism.

    That’s why I mentioned “coherent materialist”.
    If determinism is dead and free will is theistic, then only randomness remains. And whatever happens is certainly not 100% random. So, what gives?

    And what the heck does “physical” even mean? Good call on ditching materialism – modern physics is clear that matter is actually immaterial.

    Entropy: But you’re targeting “materialists” because you think that’s what all non-Christians are.

    No other way to put it: this is stupid.

    Entropy: The is/ought distinction problem applies to Christianity as well.

    How so?

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  41. T_aquaticus: What is heaven supposed to be like? Isn’t it supposed to be free of evil? If God can make heaven free of evil, why not Earth?

    Good question. See 2.
    Whoever gets into Heaven encountered evil on Earth.

    keiths: The obvious followup question, echoing yours, is “Why not create us in a sanctified state to begin with?”

    See 2.

    Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think this is/ought problem arises for either theists or atheists — not without a lot more specification than anyone here has given to it. Hume is very careful on this point, but it’s necessary to (gasp!) actually read what he says.

    Can you enlighten us? If you have a point that is. At least can you cite the small passage that supports your claim? Sorry, no time to read what doesn’t matter.

    Specifically, how does this apply to theists? Here’s an example:

    “1. Sam is stealing money from work.
    2. Losing money by theft causes harm to Sam’s employers.
    3. (One ought to not cause harm to his employers.)
    4. Therefore, Sam ought to stop stealing money from work.”

    It’s obvious that theists do NOT derive 3 from 1 & 2. They get this from the Ten Commandments. But atheist have only the “is”. Hence ONLY atheists have a problem with is-ought.

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  42. Nonlin.org:
    That’s why I mentioned “coherent materialist”.

    I already told you. There’s nothing incoherent about a materialist who doesn’t hold to determinism.

    Nonlin.org:
    If determinism is dead and free will is theistic, then only randomness remains.

    You’re utterly confused. Stop reading shallowly and start thinking. If determinism is dead, that doesn’t mean that free-will is theistic. If determinism is dead, that doesn’t mean that all that remains is randomness. There can be both, deterministic and non-deterministic phenomena, and combinations therein.

    Nonlin.org:
    And whatever happens is certainly not 100% random. So, what gives?

    It simply means that you’re too shallow-minded to understand that not everything has to be black-and-white.

    Nonlin.org:
    And what the heck does “physical” even mean? Good call on ditching materialism – modern physics is clear that matter is actually immaterial.

    The name was updated because of the potential, and all too frequent, confusion between materialism and matter (as you exemplify). Many creationists, for example, were stupid enough to think that not even space and positions in space were considered by materialism.

    Nonlin.org:
    No other way to put it: this is stupid.

    I agree. Stop thinking in black and white and you’ll fare better.

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  43. Nonlin.org: 3. (One ought to not cause harm to his employers.)

    Right. As a true materialist, why should one NOT cause harm to others?

    Should a shark not bully a seal? Why?

    So that’s the thing, all these people who claim they believe in materialism, they don’t really. They don’t live their lives as if they believe that.

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  44. phoodoo: Right. As a true materialist, why should one NOT cause harm to others?

    Whereas as a theist you need the fear of punishment to follow the golden rule.

    Sad really.

    phoodoo: Should a shark not bully a seal? Why?

    Nature is red in tooth and claw. You believe in a designed reality, therefore that bullying is part of that design.

    phoodoo: So that’s the thing, all these people who claim they believe in materialism, they don’t really.

    Yes, it’s been demonstrated that your insight into what other people think is without fail.

    phoodoo: They don’t live their lives as if they believe that.

    How should true materialists live their lives? Presumably you think they’d live your life in the same way you would if you believe in such a way, and you probably shrink away from what you do in that circumstance.

    And that’s the problem with you lot. You don’t do the right thing because it’s the right thing, you do it out of fear. Fear of punishment. Fear of eternal hell.

    Whereas a “materialist” does the right thing because it’s the right thing, not out of fear.

    *Right thing = treat others how you would want to be treated yourself, not according to some fake “objective” morality that phoodoo cannot elucidate.

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  45. phoodoo: Right. As a true materialist, why should one NOT cause harm to others?

    As a theist you needed a man to go up to a mountain and get some rules carved in stone to tell you how to behave. Again, sad really.

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  46. OMagain,

    Yet you still can’t give any logical reason for why, from a materialist-atheist perspective, one shouldn’t cause harm to others. What does the “right thing” mean. You have no clue.

    Just bluster.

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