Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Problem of Evil

I'm a big fan of the Problem of Evil.  I suspect that may sound like a funny statement to the uninitiated, but anyone having found this blog should understand my meaning.

Basically stated, the problem of evil says that if a god possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence (the Christian God) exists, evil should not exist. Evil exists, therefore such a god does not. The reason I'm such a fan is that the argument is simple and obvious. Some other disproofs of god take a certain amount of investigation and understanding, but the problem of evil readily presents itself. Suffering is too prevalent, and it is all too common to hear a Christian ask why god would allow this or that to happen.

Because I enjoy the PoE so much, I am also very interested in theodicy, the defense against it. I'll review several defenses here in my next few posts, along with some common analogies and explanations as to why I don't think they work.

Quite a few of the defenses against the PoE, when dissected boil down to the notion of free will. God wanted us to have free will, it is said, and this could not be accomplished without evil. Before I explain why this doesn't work, it is important to understand what is meant by free will.  When I ask people about this, I rarely get the same answer. From what I've gathered, though, it seems that Christians take it to mean the possibility of making any of the available choices in a given situation. They do not mean that the choice has not been limited, coerced, or otherwise influenced.

Now, immediately a problem presents itself. Omniscience appears to preclude free will. If a being is all-knowing, then certainly it knows the outcome of all choices, does it not?  Christians assert that it means just that. How then, is there any real choice if the outcome is already known?

Perhaps the worst response to this question I have ever heard took the form of an analogy:

   "Suppose my child is reaching for a hot stove. I know that she will get burned, but she still has a choice to touch the stove or not. " ( I'm paraphrasing here; the original analogy was filled with much emotional pleading and unnecessary exposition.)

Firstly, I am not a bad parent. I'm not going to sit idly by and let my child, or any child I have the ability to stop, injure themselves. Secondly, I am not omniscient, and that is where the analogy falls apart. The uncaring parent in the analogy does not know their child will get burned, they know that if the child touches the stove, she will likely get a burn.  Omniscience doesn't allow for if or likely; the little girl will touch the stove and will get a burn.  The poor child has no choice once omniscience gets involved.

Let's imagine for a minute that free will and omniscience are somehow compatible. Does it then solve the PoE? To know that, we need to ask more questions.

The concept of free will as a cause for the existence of evil implies that there are good choices and bad (evil) choices.  Without delving into what is meant by 'good' or 'bad' we can say that a good choice is one that produces a good result and likewise for a bad choice.  Generally, we can say that the character of a choice is determined by its result. Bearing that in mind, the question we need to ask our Christian friend is this:

Can there be a good result of free will that does not also accord with God's will?

Omnibenevolence seems to indicate that there cannot. If God is to be all-good, then his actions and choices are also all good. For any choice, the good result is the one that God would choose. (It does not matter that God might have choices unavailable to the person actually making the decision because we are hypothetically limiting God's choices to those available to the person. In other words, no matter the size of the group of choices, God will always choose the one that is most good)

This answer presents something of a conundrum. Free will becomes a net evil; no new good is introduced by it, but new evil (evil itself according to the defense) is. Really, then, free will is nothing more than another name for evil and is of no use in resolving the PoE.

Though the whole muddle of free will and Christian theology brings up dozens of questions, I'm going to stop there and finish this post by presenting a version of the Free will Argument for the Nonexistence of God (FANG). To my knowledge, it is an original formulation.

1)God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good)
2)God has free will
3)God always chooses the most good choice available(from omnibenevolence)
4)From 1-3 God is a free-willed always good being (FWAGB)
5) A FWAGB is not logically impossible (from 4)
6)God can do anything that is not logically impossible (from omnipotence)
7)God did not create humans as FWAGB, but as FWnAGB
8)By 3,5-7 FWnAGB is more good than FWAGB
9)By 4 & 8, God is less good than he could be.
10) By 9, God is not omnibenevolent
11)1&10 are contradictory.
12)Therefore, God does not exist

There are, I think, two basic objections to this. The first would to be to challenge my usage of omnibenevolence. One could either deny that God is maximally good or that his choices are always the most good, but either of these options wreak havoc on Christian theology.

The other objection might be that there is some restriction on humans that disallows them being FWAGB. This is, however, a weak objection. The objection implicitly claims that humans, which must be FWnAGB, were the best choice for a creation, better than any FWAGB. This is simply a restatement of premise 8 and as such does not affect the argument.

I believe this is a sound argument based on premises that Christians themselves recommend. Free will, it seems, doesn't help God out of the PoE. To the contrary, it shoots him in the metaphorical foot.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Last Gasp

When I was just starting high school, I got on something of a philosophical kick. This wasn't the product of nor impetus for any great amount of study, it was simply some quirky conclusion I had drawn from observations that had the effect of irritating my fellow students. At any rate, there was one day where an older student was brow-beating one of my classmates about some finer point of the workings of the world.  To defuse the situation, I issued the silly  challenge "Prove that God exists."

What I got was the ontological argument.

Now, at the time I was a christian, and so was just about everyone I knew.  If they weren't , they were at the least religious. I didn't know anyone who did not seriously believe in god. At the same time, though, I was pondering questions of solipsism, skepticism, and epistemology (without even knowing what they were). The ontological argument seemed to me like a godsend, banishing the need for troublesome demonstration.

Now, though, I positively loathe ontological arguments.  Some of that probably is due to my being fooled for a time by them.  More important though, is the way in which they conjure success.  Ontological arguments, and especially the modal version we'll be discussing, remind me of something my father used to say (and probably stole from someone else): If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

William Lane Craig uses Plantinga's modal ontological argument as his final entry in Five Arguments for God. Aside from a much needed but far too short introduction to modal logic and the concept of necessary/possible, Craig spends little time explaining or defending the argument. I get the impression that he believes it speaks for itself. But modal logic can be confusing for anyone not well versed in the subject and a bit more effort was probably warranted (One claim against the MOA that I have seen repeated several times is that even the people who formulated it don't know what they're talking about).

I will try to keep things as simple as possible here, both because I know less about modal logic than I'd like and because I hope to leave you less baffled than before.  Essentially the MOA says this:

1. It is not possible that god does not exist
2. Therefore god exists

Everything else, all the tricky wording about necessary and possible, is in the argument to obscure the basic idea I just stated.  Proponents of the MOA will foam at the mouth over this, vehemently denying the truth of it, but after having spent several days going over the rejections and counter-arguments, I haven't seen one solid refutation of my assertion that doesn't leave the MOA toothless.

Modal logic deals with things in terms of necessary and possible.  You may notice that this bears some resemblance to necessity/contingency mentioned in The Cosmological Argument from Contingency.  While the concepts can be related, they are not exactly the same.

Modal logic hinges on what is best described as alternative world concepts.  Alternative world concepts are basically a collection of statements that describe a world different from the actual. Note that these are not actual alternate worlds, they are merely descriptions of conceptually possible worlds. The actual world is seen as the alternative world concept that has been actualized.

Using the idea of alternative world concepts (AWCs), we can now explain what necessary and possible mean here.  To say something is possible is to say that it is true in one of these alternative world concepts. To say that it is necessary says that it is true in all of them.

Already, an issue presents itself.  The old spectre of equivocation has once again raised its head, this time around the term "possible."

Generally, when we speak of something being possible, we are speaking of uncertainty.  If I say, for example, that it is possible that non-terrestrial intelligent life exists, I am saying that I am uncertain as to whether it is true. This uncertainty also logically entails the opposite possibility statement, it is possible that non-terrestrial life does not exist. Replacing the first statement with the second does not change the meaning. This type of possibility is usually referred to as empirical or epistemic possibility because it is based on (a lack of) knowledge and data.

Modal possibility, on the other hand, is more akin to conceivability. Craig's example of  George McGovern being President is a good example. Empirically, this is not possible, but there is nothing in the statement that appears to make it inconceivable. Thus, in some alternative world concept, George McGovern is president and the statement is modally possible.

Obviously, the MOA uses the second type of possibility, but it attempts a bit of trickery here that its proponents don't seem eager to correct. Because we generally use possibility in the first sense, when we hear a statement such as, possibly X exists, unless  we know that it is not the case, we tend to accept the statement.  Really, though, what we have agreed to is that in some alternative world concept, X exists. This difference may seem trivial and innocuous, but the entire MOA rests on it. I'll explain why once we begin looking at the actual argument.

Craig doesn't even bother to mention or explain the term necessary, though it is crucial to the MOA.  The problem with necessity is that we have no good way of determining if a statement or entity is necessary.  One suggestion is that a something is necessary if it is impossible for it not to be true. The laws of logic are usually put forth as an example. I'm not so sure this works. Consider this modal statement: Possibly, different laws of logic exist. Similar arguments have been put forth to propose that logical inconsistencies may exist between AWCs.  The other option for modal necessity is that the definition of the entity requires it to be necessary.  But this doesn't really work either, as we could make everything necessary simply by adding that clause to its definition.

As if things weren't complicated enough already, there are different modal logic systems, and the MOA doesn't work in all of them. Neither Plantinga nor Craig offer any reason for selecting this system (S5) over the others.

For the sake of relative brevity, we'll turn now to the argument itself. The first premise seems uncontroversial  until one unpacks it. Firstly, Craig gives no explanation of what maximally great means. Plantinga offers up a definition including the three omni-attributes usually associated with the christian god, not forgetting to throw in that it is necessary.  Putting aside the internal problems with this definition, the description of a maximally great being bears a curious resemblance to the perfect being from Anselm's ontological argument and is, as such, vulnerable to many of the same criticisms. To their credit, Plantinga and others have presented decent defenses of their position. (I am not alone in thinking these defenses don't hold, but that is a discussion in itself.) It also appears that the property of being necessary was simply tacked on to the definition, which leaves it open to the criticism of arbitrary assignment.

The second , more damning issue with the first premise is the trickery I mentioned earlier. The statement "It is possible that a maximally great being exists" also entails the opposite "It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist." With empirical possibility, the statements are essentially interchangeable. With modal possibility they are not; substituting the second statement as the premise produces a contradictory conclusion.
Breaking it down by Craig/Plantinga's numbers:

1.It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist.
2. If 1., then a maximally great being does not exist in some possible world
3. If 2., then a maximally great being does not exist in any possible world (because it is necessary, if it exists, it must exist in all AWC. Since there is one AWC where it does not exist, it does not exist)
4. If 3., then a maximally great being does not exist in the actual world
5. If 4., then a maximally great being does not exist.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist

Using the same formulation of the argument, we have reached the conclusion that a maximally great being (god) does not exist. Given that this contradicts with the conclusion reached in the MOA, Craig/Plantinga have something of a problem.  The only real way they have of rescuing the argument is by arguing that our first premise above to be untrue. Or to put things another way:

1. It is not possible that god does not exist.

Really, though, if they could do that, why bother with the MOA?

That is the last gasp of Craig's five arguments, and I'm afraid that they haven't fared particularly well. We have plenty of reason to reject these arguments as invalid and useless. Craig wishes to criticize the New Atheists for not addressing them, but we can see that it wasn't necessary. Though dressed up in semi-modern terms (George McGovern, really?) they hinge on the same fallacies they always have.

Next time I'll begin examinations of some of the arguments against the existence of god.

(Those of you interested in learning more about refutations of the MOA should start with Paul Almond, Debunking Christianity, and R. Kane. They are more thorough than I have been in raising additional objections.)