Thought of the day

The Problem of Evil goes something like this: There is evil in the world, God is responsible for creating the conditions for that evil and he knew it would occur, and so that conflicts with a commonly argued-for property of his – that he is all-good. There’s more to it, but that’s it in an eggshell. And I find it pretty convincing. There is a clear logical contradiction between the characteristics theists claim God has and what we actually see in real life. However, I often find people using this as an argument against the existence of any god. To me, they are in clear error. There is nothing which says a god must be maximally good or all-knowing or all-powerful. It could simply be that some powerful douchebag created everything and that’s all there is to it. This probably wouldn’t be a satisfying god for most believers because he doesn’t fit their all-too-common comfort-seeking, but there isn’t necessarily a good philosophical or scientific argument against such a being.

So, use the Problem of Evil against the Christian God and any other God with similar characteristics – there is no good rebuttal to it. But let’s stop pretending like this justifies a robust reason for calling one’s self an atheist.

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Holy shit, I can’t believe people don’t get this

Awhile ago I found myself in the most inane debate I’ve ever experienced. Two theists were arguing to me than an atheist cannot use the unresolvable Problem of Evil in order to make any sort of point because it assumes the existence of objective evil, something many atheists (including myself) reject. I hope most of my readers can see how baffling such a statement is. One, if the argument assumes anything, it first assumes the existence of God, something atheists reject – not only is this baffling argument wrong, but the most logical starting point hasn’t even been chosen for it, thus making it is wrong in its wrongness. Two, the point of the argument is to say someone has belief A and belief B and those two beliefs are in conflict. To put it another way, say Joe Blow believes in the Muslim god and the Christian god. Mr. Blow believes they are separate entities that both constitute the only way to salvation. Clearly there is a conflict. But according to Theist Logic, no one is allowed to question this conflict without first accepting Joe Blow’s beliefs. “What?! You think I’m wrong? But you don’t even believe in the Muslim god! You can’t use something you don’t personally think is true in your arguments!”

As stupid as this is, I have had to explain it in the past. And to top things off, the argument once again has appeared on my Facebook page:

[Other FB user], without evil, the “problem of evil” doesn’t exist, therefore, it is asinine for someone who doesn’t believe evil exists to use “the problem of evil” as an argument against the existence of God. I understand that it is hypothetical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not ridiculous. You can’t use an argument that assumes God to make an argument against the existence of God.

The most bizarre thing about this is that it is somehow even more twisted. It first begins with the “You must believe what I believe in order to tell me what I believe is wrong” argument. In this case, what this person believes is that objective evil exists. Next he cedes that the argument is hypothetical. This is where he has lost the point. I mean, come on. How can someone effectively say, “Yes, I understand that your entire point is correct” and yet somehow continue? Theist Logic, I guess. And finally, he moves to arguing that the unresolvable Problem of Evil first assumes God. So he started with evil, which is wrong in its wrongness, then moved to God, which is right in its wrongness, but he only did this after being wrong. So I guess his wrong wrongness is rightly wrong?

Theist Logic gets out of hand pretty quickly.

2010: FTSOS in review, July to September

This is the third installment of the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the first two here and here.

July:
Some of the smaller posts I’ve made that I think deserve a little more attention are the ones where I emphasize that biology is all about shape. The article I wrote about the fight against HIV is one of those posts. Research earlier this year found at least one location on HIV molecules that remains a consistent shape between individual viruses. This is important because HIV’s ability to be differently shaped in different parts of a single body makes it difficult to combat.

I also wrote about the difference between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. One of the public relation problems for atheism is that it is viewed as a dirty word. People assume it means absolute certainty, and that is seen as arrogant. It’s ironic because belief in God usually comes with certainty and that isn’t seen as being so arrogant, but I digress. Atheism is not certainty. Furthermore, where it is involved in new atheism and anti-theism, atheism acts as a descriptive base; new atheism and anti-theism are normative positions.

One of my all-time favorite posts is the one about photolyase and cancer. Photolyase is a protein that captures light and uses two of its constituents (a single proton and single electron) to force contorted nucleotides back into place. It is not present in humans, but is common in plants and other animals, helping to keep their genes functioning properly. This may be one reason we’re more susceptible to cancer than many of our fellow organisms.

August:
This was a skimpy month for FTSOS. I was away on a couple vacations for the bulk of the month, so the majority of the posts were either from my “Thought of the day” series or they were pictures/YouTube videos. But for what was there, I couldn’t resist pointing out and expanding on a fantastic quote from the judge who said Prop 8 in California is unconstitutional. In his quote he said a ban on gays getting married fails to advance any rational cause. I compared that sentiment to the idea that the majority cannot be allowed to discriminate simply because it is the majority.

I also made a post about a website devoted to philosophical thought experiments. The thought experiment I chose to highlight was Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Trolley Problem. My big motivator was a recent discussion with another blogger who laughably claimed that the trolley experiment was merely a logistical exercise, not an exercise about morality. To date he is still the only person in the world to believe that.

I also went through a few theistic arguments that are obviously failures. The most notable in my mind is the argument that says everything has a cause, therefore the Universe had a cause. There are two major problems with this. First, then why not just say a sort of ‘exo-nature’ caused the Universe? There is no need for consciousness – in fact, that only makes the theistic argument less probable. Second, the whole basis for this argument rests in the idea that forces result in reactions. For instance, if I push a chair, that chair moves; I applied a force. This is basic physics. But the whole shebang of forces and equal and opposite reactions? We’re talking about the science of what we know that happens within the Universe. And all we know necessarily breaks down prior to the Big Bang. The First Cause argument cannot be used because it rests about an unwarranted extension of science. Religion abusing science? Crazy, I know.

September:
The beginning of September was just as skimpy as the end of August because I was still on vacation. But while I never gave a huge post on the subject, the defining moment of the month (and year and decade and…) for me was my hike of Kilimanjaro. I have started writing about it at this point – just not for FTSOS. But in lieu of that you can read the account of the journey from my fellow group member and current Facebook buddy Jim Hodgson.

I also gave a very lengthy post on why prostitution ought to be legal. No one seemed to care, but I put a lot of effort into, so I thought I would mention it here. Basically, we make the practice illegal because of our own discomfort with sex as a society. We also draw false correlations between it and other illegal activities: of course one illegal thing will bring with it other illegal things if it’s something people want. Finally, for the safety and health of all involved, it would be better to legalize and regulate prostitution than keep the old system we have now.

One of the most popular posts on FTSOS that people found via search engines was the one where I lamented low science and math scores in the United States. A lack of funding relative to other areas, hostility towards science, and a general anti-intellectual trend in the U.S. all contribute to the decline of America on the world stage in education.

Another lament was my post about the anti-vax crowd causing deaths. The fact is, people who advocate against vaccines or for made-up alternatives to vaccines are making the world a more dangerous place, making people sick and even causing deaths. Get vaccinated – and, if you have them, especially get your children vaccinated.

Once again I really want to highlight a fourth post here. In this case, it is the one I made about the Problem of Evil. This has forever been an issue that no Christian (or other relevant believer) has been able to resolve. If God is good and evil exists, then we need to answer why. Appealing to free will fails because while God is necessarily good, free will does not need to necessarily exist. In other words, God is required to be good; he is not required to create free will.

Expect October to December tomorrow.

Thought of the day

A revisit: The Problem of Evil that theists face is absolutely not answered by free will. First, saying God isn’t responsible for evil as a result of free will is like saying the Roman’s weren’t responsible for lions killing Christians. “It was the lion’s choice!” Second, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Since he is not required to create jack-squat in order to exist, he can circumvent all evil and suffering by just placing all people, souls, or whatever term we want to use in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory or whatever other place we want to say exists; he already knows where every person/soul/whathaveyou is going to end up. The Problem of Evil remains.

On Adam and Eve

Some Christians believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. In fact, over 40% of Americans believe the Universe is less than 10,000 years old. (We can presume the majority of those people derive their erroneous belief from the Bible.) This means a huge swath of people in the U.S. have beliefs that are inconsistent with science – and the reason is religion. However, we can at least give these people some credit. Their belief that the Bible is inerrant practically demands that they believe in a young Universe; they’re consistent. But there’s a more important reason for their beliefs: Adam and Eve.

Christianity is based upon Jesus dying for our sins as brought about by Adam and Eve (especially that dirty, filthy, sub-human woman Eve, amirite?). Without Adam and Eve, Christianity falls apart at the seams. Couple that with extreme ignorance, and you’ve got creationists. But what about the Christians who ‘accept’ evolution? We know they don’t really accept it, but they at least superficially claim they do. So what about them? They are necessarily rejecting the idea that Adam and Eve literally existed. Without these two, The Fall didn’t happen and Jesus was not necessary. In this view of Christianity, God created people as disobedient to him. Not only does this make God all the more twisted and weird, but it further compounds the Problem of Evil that Christianity is unable to answer.

Thought experiments

It has come to my attention as of late that a surprising number of people have little grasp on how thought experiments work. They’ve all been theists, but I’m rather unwilling to extrapolate my anecdotal experience to that entire group. I suspect there are a number of underlying personal factors at work here, so I will forego the speculation as to the motive/reason behind the poor grasping and instead focusing on simply explaining a few key points about thought experiments. (I will focus on the areas where these people have had trouble.)

A thought experiment is not meant to be inherently realistic. It very well may reflect a real scenario, but often it’s a contrived situation that could never happen. Take for example Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist. She created a scenario where we might be tempted to agree that abortion is permissible.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Using libertarian principles, she argues that we have no responsibility to that violinist and are therefore justified in disconnecting ourselves from his circulatory system. Her argument isn’t without its problems, but it is powerful. And why? Because a lot of people are going to agree that we lack responsibility in this situation and people are going to see the situation as analogous to the abortion debate.

Rather than focus on the merits of Thompson’s argument, I want to focus on the form of her argument. That situation is unlikely to ever happen; it presumes there are no alternatives when there probably are, it assumes the violinist wouldn’t simply detach himself or die beforehand anyway, absolving us of the responsibility of carrying on with the full nine months, etc, etc. But that isn’t the point. Thought experiments are often very restricted. When we enter in variables we offer people too much wiggle room. The whole point is to find a principle and see if we hold it consistently. To do that, it is necessary to limit the conditions.

The other point on which I’ve found people have confusion is – and this one is, frankly, bizarre – when someone uses a point in which that person does not actually believe. In the above explanation, I used a different example than the one that caused someone confusion. For this explanation, I will be using the experiment that is being confused.

First, let us go over another way thought experiments are used. Rather than being a contrived analogy created with purposeful restrictions, thought experiments can take the form of an if/then scenario. Generally this isn’t referred to as a thought experiment, but the relation is close enough where I feel comfortable including it in this post. Take for example an example provided by Peter Singer. (I’m at a loss for the book where this is included, so I will be paraphrasing.) In making an argument for the rights of animals, he begins by pointing out that we’ve long held assumptions that are easily abused when used in arguments. Specifically, he references an argument made in the 1800’s where a politically strong man argues that giving women the vote would be like giving gorillas the vote. He assumes that everyone else has the assumption that giving gorillas any sort of human rights is ridiculous; he doesn’t offer an argument as to why it would be ridiculous to give them the vote (or any other right). With this assumption he is able to allow his reader to follow the consequences: if it’s ridiculous to give gorillas the right to vote, then it is ridiculous to give women the right to vote for the same (unmentioned) reason(s).

Now on to my specific example. The Problem of Evil is something theists have been unable to resolve without violating certain principles. To refresh everyone’s memory, here is the Problem:

1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
Evil exists.
5. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
6. Therefore, God does not exist [as we know him]

The primary answer given to this is that evil is necessary for the existence of free will, but this fails because creating free will (a) creates evil and (b) is not necessary to God’s existence. The “if” portions of the argument which detail God’s properties (1-4), clearly show that God desires the elimination of evil. Everyone agrees that without that property he is a very different God (and therefore not the God in which so many people believe). No one, however, agrees that he needs to create free will in order to exist. The Problem remains.

Now here is the bizarre part I mentioned. I have heard it argued that it is dishonest (on some level – there was squirming around this issue) for an atheist to use the Problem of Evil as an argument against God. The reason is that an atheist does not believe in objective evil as derived from God. (An atheist may argue for an objective evil, but the one in question – not myself – did and does not believe in that argument – nor, incidentally, do I.) This, of course, is bunk. It is entirely unnecessary for anyone presenting the Problem of Evil to believe in any part of it. It is enough that the person to whom the Problem is being presented accepts the “if” portions. (Or that person can draw an issue with one of the premises and resolve the Problem that way, i.e., the person could say God doesn’t desire the elimination of evil. That would take care of any internal contradictions for that person, but the point that the God in which most people believe does not exist remains.)

I want to use my own thought experiment to help draw out and do away with the confusion. And remember – it need not be realistic.

Let’s say we have an individual named Sam. He believes in both the Christian god and the Muslim god. He says he fully accepts them both as entirely real and they both hold all of the characteristics listed in the above quote (omnipotence, moral perfection, etc). Immediately, Tom, a Christian theist, says to Sam, “But these two Gods say things which are in conflict with each other. If the Christian god says one thing, but the Muslim god says another, then how do you resolve the issue?” Rather than answer the question, Sam looks at Tom and says, “Ah, but Tom, you only believe in the Christian god. Since you reject the existence of the Muslim god, it is dishonest of you to use him as a part of your argument.”

I hope we all see how ridiculous Sam is in this scenario. Of course Tom can ask Sam how he resolves the obvious conflict. It isn’t necessary that Tom believes in both gods (or either). The conflict is independent of Tom and his beliefs. Anyone can ask Sam about the obvious problems that arise from holding contradictory beliefs.

Now I want to break it down. In the first scenario we have two important beliefs: (a) God exists and (b) evil exists. If someone believes (a), then a belief in (b) poses a Problem. That’s the Problem of Evil at its most basic level. But take a look at the discussion between Sam and Tom; there are two important beliefs there, too: (a) the Christian god exists and (b) the Muslim god exists. If Sam believes in (a), then a belief in (b) poses a problem.

This isn’t that hard.

I find it difficult to imagine someone calling a Christian or Jew or Muslim or atheist or Buddhist or agnostic or Scientologist dishonest for pointing out to Sam that he has a contradiction in his beliefs. I really hope it’s obvious to everyone that it is unnecessary for anyone to accept any premise of Sam’s beliefs in order to tell him that there is a conflict in believing that, say, it is necessary to accept Jesus Christ while at the same time it is unnecessary to accept Jesus Christ. We can all see that contradiction and we can all point it out. And we can do it with complete and utter integrity and honesty.

Finally, here are a few links which explain thought experiments in more detail than I have.

Standford

Answers.com

Wikipedia

Ugly apologetics

It’s a beaten up issue, I know, but I’m going to delve into the Problem of Evil. For purposes here, “evil” is synonymous with the objective evil theists believe exists.

This first set of premises comes from a friend, but I’m just going to copy them since they reflect what we all recognize as the form of this argument. (And, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were just taken from somewhere else for the sake of ease.)

1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
Evil exists.
5. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
6. Therefore, God does not exist [as we know him]

This is an obvious problem for the Christian God (and other gods, but we’ll focus here). If God has all the listed properties and desires, then evil needs a special explanation. Of course, the most common response is that God has given us free will and that necessarily entails evil. But obvious problems arise from such a weak answer.

1. We’ve already agreed that God is all-knowing and all-powerful. This means he knows that the creation of free will is going to lead to evil. This is in conflict with the premise that God desires to eliminate all evil. That is, he has knowingly either created evil or created the potential for evil with the foresight that evil will actually happen. For the free will argument to work here, God cannot desire the elimination of evil.

1b. This argument assumes that free will is better than no free will. If, however, we agree that God chiefly desires the elimination of evil (and for him to be morally perfect, I think he must), then free will is not better than no free will.

2. Not all evil comes from human action. If we consider suffering to be evil, then Huntington’s Disease is evil, but we have no humans to blame. Whether we want to blame God or chance, God has allowed that evil to exist. That is, evil exists and free will cannot explain it.

3. Another argument, though less common, is that in order for good to exist, there must be evil. If this is true, then we must first look towards God. He is eternal and he is good. In order for this to be true, evil must also be eternal. If it isn’t eternal, but it is required for goodness, then God cannot be eternal. But God is the only thing that can be considered to be eternal. That doesn’t mean evil cannot exist; it must. It, however, can only exist as a property of God. If it isn’t a property of God, and good requires evil, then God has not been eternally good. That is, evil is a property of God by necessity of also making him good. But God is morally perfect; he can have no evil. If evil is necessary for good and God therefore has evil, God is not good. We’ve violated premise 1.

The fact is, there is no good answer to the problem of evil. This, however, unfortunately leads to the conclusion that if there is evil, God must not exist. But that isn’t the case. All this argument is saying is that God does not exist with the given properties. If, in order to exist in any form, one believes God must have those properties, then this argument does say he doesn’t exist. But if someone wanted to claim that God need not have all these properties, the Problem can be avoided. Or, if they say he need not obey human logic, then he can exist with or without evil all he wants. Of course, we can’t go any further in discussion since we’ve thrown logic out the window, and we have to admit that such a claim can be just as wrong as it can be right, but the Problem of Evil has been circumvented. (Naturally, it isn’t surprising that the best way the Christian God can work is with a lack of logic.)