Philosopher uses a lot of words to say nothing new about theodicy

What’s going on with philosophy at Notre Dame? First they give us Alvin Plantinga, the emperor with no clothes, and now Gary Gutting, an expert in French philosophy and the philosophy at religion at Notre Dame. In a piece published at the “Opnionator” in yesterday’s New York Times, “Does it matter whether God exists?“, gutting uses up a lot of dead trees to say essentially nothing.

His first point, which is bloody obvious, is that it matters to a lot of people whether the claims of religion are true. Responding to a BBC piece by John Gray that claims otherwise, Gutting argues:

The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need. But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death.

If our hope is for salvation in this sense — and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs’ being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, it depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

So what’s new? Nothing above, but then Gutting makes the equally obvious claim that even an all-powerful and all-loving God might not be able to prevent evil. That’s also bloody obvious, because there is evil.  Gutting then offers up the same tired old theodicy: we’re not sure about why there’s evil, but maybe it has something to do with free will.

An all-good being, even with maximal power, may have to allow considerable local evils for the sake of the overall good of the universe; some evils may be necessary for the sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of this necessity.

Of course, an all-good God would do everything possible to minimize the evil we suffer, but for all we know that minimum might have to include our annihilation or eternal suffering. We might hope that any evil we endure will at least be offset by an equal or greater amount of good for us, but there can be no guarantee. As defenders of theism often point out, the freedom of moral agents may be an immense good, worth God’s tolerating horrendous wrongdoing. Perhaps God in his omniscience knows that the good of allowing some higher type of beings to destroy our eternal happiness outweighs the good of that happiness. Perhaps, for example, their destroying our happiness is an unavoidable step in the moral drama leading to their salvation and eternal happiness.

There are five responses here. The obvious one is that the most parsimonious hypothesis is not a God who allows horrible suffering for some purpose completely incomprehensible to humans, but simply that there is no God, and evils are the byproduct of a physical universe containing evolved beings.  Second, if there is a God who allows things like the Holocaust for the greater good, who would want to worship Him?  Third, if God is really omnipotent, why is it not in his power to allow free will, but ensure that people only make good choices?  If not, why not? Fourth, what about natural evils, like earthquakes and tsunamis?  Couldn’t God prevent those?  After all, they have nothing to do with free will. (Plantinga’s ridiculous answer is that there is such a thing as “natural” free will: we have to allow Earth to do its thing so that evolution can proceed smoothly.) Fifth, do animals need to suffer, too, even if they don’t have free will? Why couldn’t an omnipotent God prevent that, too?

Gutting then argues that if an omnipotent God allows suffering for reasons beyond our ken, then perhaps he might not give us an afterlife for equally obscure reasons.

I’m not sure why Gutting feels compelled to cover this well-trod ground, showing us for the elebenty gazillionth time that there’s no successful response to the problem of evil save appeal to a mysterious God. He concludes:

We can, of course, simply will to believe that we are not being deceived. But that amounts to blind faith, not assured hope. If that doesn’t satisfy us, we need to find a better response to the problem of evil than an appeal to our ignorance. Failing that, we may need to reconsider John Gray’s idea of religion with little or no belief.

Well, that’s a decent conclusion, but surely everyone knows by now that the problem of evil is the Achilles Heel of religion, but that plenty of people are satisfied with the answer that “it’s all mysterious.” Gray could have used tangible examples, though, to make this point clearer and more damaging to faith.  And he neglects another alternative to consider: not “religion with little or no belief”, but no religion at all.  Why doesn’t he say that? Has he been talking to Alain de Botton?  In my view “religion with no belief” is like “a steak with no meat”: an oxymoron.

148 Comments

  1. Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    For some reason whenever I try to write the word “theodicy” I have to be very careful or I accidentally write “theidiocy”.

    • Pete Moulton
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      That happens to me whenever I read the word, too.

      • Steve
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

        It happens to me every time I think about the concept.

  2. Steve
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Well of course you are right, “In my view “religion with no belief” is like “a steak with no meat”: an oxymoron.”

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      “Sympathy without relief is like mustard without beef.” And praying for people is very much sympathy without relief.

  3. gbjames
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    What is mysterious to me is how slow these guys are to tumble to the obvious.

    • Frank
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      Yes. The information in Jerry’s “five responses” paragraph provides more simple logic and convincing argument than the mountains of words that folks have and continue to spew to solve the problem of theodicy. After so many centuries of futility, one might think that philosophers like Gutting would want to give up the ghost (smirk) by now, but such are the necessities of being a philosopher at a major religious institution.

      • Steve
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

        Frank,

        You make it seem like Gutting molds his thoughts because of his post, isn’t is more likely that he was able to land his current post because of his thinking?

        • Frank
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

          Good point. And there may be a positive feedback loop there – with “loopy” conclusions.

  4. Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    There’s an even more basic problem with the “greater good” excuse. If God is constrained such that he must allow some bad in order to achieve a greater good then, ipso facto, he is not omnipotent. Having to put up with harmful side effects is a consequence of limitations in ones ability.

    And if, as the theists sometimes argue, the harmful side-effects are logical necessities, then that just shows that God is subject to a supra-God logic, rather than God being the author of all things including logic. Thus, again, he is not omnipotent.

    Thus the problem of evil refutes an omnipotent and benevolent god (Plantinga’s squirming notwithstanding). And didn’t the Greeks get that far long ago?

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      It’d be one thing if we were talking about the occasional scraped knee or dropped ice cream cone.

      But do you really expect me to believe that Jesus couldn’t have taken out a few full-page ads a few weeks before the Fukasma Tsunami to give people a chance to evacuate and prepare? Or that he couldn’t have reanimated Moses long enough to do a bit of carefully-planned sea parting to direct the waves so as to minimize damage?

      For people with imaginations rich enough to believe in personalized superfriends, these religious people sure do display an astonishing lack of imagination….

      b&

      • Gluon
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        It’s lack of will. They know, they just don’t want to face it.

      • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

        Actually, it is far worse than that. Michael Scriven pointed out long ago (1960something – in his *textbook* _Primary Philosophy_) that this view has the consequence that god must have less power than a typical ten year old child (and hence there is no god, since an infant-powered god is oxymoronic). Why? It seems overwhelmingly likely at any given moment on Earth there’s a tiny mishap that increases suffering in the world that if present a 10 year old would and could stop. The fact that this does not happen when no people are around (one could make the case as a believer presumably that when others are around god leaves it up to them) *ever* then entails the conclusion. Alternatively, if the believer then thinks that these events are somehow necessary is simply to say that god is not *good* at all – and hence nonexistent (in the way that theists want – a parallel argument would show that an evil god is also nonexistent for the same reason: no pumping up of the cruelty or destructiveness of parallel situations, etc.)

        • Gluon
          Posted March 25, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

          I like this.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      coelsblog,

      I guess it depends on what you mean by omnipotence. If omnipotence is the maximum conceptually possible degree of power, then it doesn’t seem as if it would require changing logical necessities, since that would be inconceivable, right?

      More generally, Anselm regarded God as the conceptually maximally great being. If so, once again, it would be inconceivable for God to alter the laws of logic.

      Now, I agree that there is a puzzle about where the laws of logic “came from,” although I don’t know that the theist has any more difficult time here than the atheist.

      • andreschuiteman
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        Why would there be a maximum to greatness or power? Is there a maximally great circle?

        • Posted March 24, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

          andreshuiteman,

          I agree that we have little reason to think a priori that power or greatness will have a maximum. But many philosophers have suggested various analyses of omnipotence, which might at least have a claim to being analyses of maximal power.

          For example:

          (O) S is omnipotent at time t in world-history-up-to-t w if and only if: if it is possible at t in w to actualize state of affairs x, then S can at t in w actualize x.

          (This analysis owes a lot to the work of Flint, Freddoso, Hoffman, and Rosenkrantz.)

          I don’t know about you, but (O) looks to me as if it might be an analysis of maximal power.

          • RWO
            Posted March 24, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

            ‘(O)S is omnipotent at time t in world-history-up-to-t w if and only if: if it is possible at t in w to actualize state of affairs x, then S can at t in w actualize x. (This analysis owes a lot to the work of Flint, Freddoso, Hoffman, and Rosenkrantz.) I don’t know about you, but (O) looks to me as if it might be an analysis of maximal power.’

            My read of the Flint, Fredosso, et. al. statement is a formula for a set of optimum conditions in which an actor at a particular point may exert maximal power that is omnipotent insofar as no countervailing power at that point is capable of existence, but nothing beyond that. Unless the actor is capable of implementing (his/her/its) will without impediment, ever, maximal power potential is transitory at best, and certainly fails to demonstrate supernatural capacity.

            • Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

              RWO,

              I guess you might still think that to be really really omnipotent, God must not be bound by the laws of logic. A few theists will join you there, but most don’t like that analysis, and will insist that a God that is omnipotent according to (O) is still powerful enough to be a deity. It would take us pretty far afield to get deeper into this debate, though, so I’ll say that I understand if your intuitive view of omnipotence is not captured by (O).

              • RWO
                Posted March 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                Tom, I try to use awareness of cognitive bias to recognized ‘intuitive’ views, and investigate to see if there is any evidence not to jettison same. Sans that evidence, I recognize intuition as baseless hunch, give it the credence it deserves, and at best set it aside in case corroboration wanders up and introduces itself.

                I do not expect that omnipotence is possible, or any of the other theistic supernatural qualities, although it is impossible to state with certainty they are impossible, or even that deities are impossible. If someday evidence establishes this existence, I will happily accept it. Until then, I remain maximally skeptical.

                My observation of the logical construct I commented on earlier must be confusing. It is this: it is not useful in any way that I can see for proving the existence of a deity or any supernatural qualities.

                However, in a particular situation, at a precise moment, any human actor may be in a position, unique to those circumstances and that moment only, when there is one action only (from the entire palette of instantly possible actions available, to that specific actor, at that specific time) that is capable of delivering on its intent, despite any countervailing action taken by another, or any number of others.

                Therefore, this formula realized provides a unique moment where an omnipotent event window exists.

                Maximum utilization by an actor of this sort of omnipotent event window is not, obviously, tantamount to evidence that establishes the existence of any sort of supernatural capacity. It is merely an example of a rare right circumstances/right actions homo sapiens event.

                That is the totality of what I think the logical formula in question may hope to establish. It is no more useful for establishing proof of the existence of supernatural beings/capacities than any other proffer of proof I am familiar with, which places it precisely at zero.

          • Posted March 24, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

            Congratulations!

            According to your definition, my intestinal bacteria are omnipotent.

            Lucky for you, they don’t like to be fondled.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

              Ben,

              I don’t see how.

              It is possible right now in the actual world to actualize the state of affairs in which someone thinks about cats. But it is not possible for a bacterium to actualize the state of affairs in which someone thinks about cats. (At best, they could only “weakly” actualize it, by causing someone else to think about cats. But weak or unintentional actualization intuitively isn’t enough for omnipotence.)

          • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

            What notion of “possible” is used?

            • Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

              Keith,

              That’s a good question. I think both (“narrow”) logical and metaphysical (“broad logical”) modality will give us pretty much the same results here, since we’re talking about world-histories-up-to-t, not just t across all possible worlds.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

        “I agree that there is a puzzle about where the laws of logic “came from,” …

        Either they were authored by God, in which case God is responsible for any evil consequences of them, or they are pre-existing rules to which God is subject, in which case he is not the omnipotent author of all things.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        “If omnipotence is the maximum conceptually possible degree of power, then it doesn’t seem as if it would require changing logical necessities, since that would be inconceivable, right?”

        I can conceive of changing logic (as can you since you just considered the possibility!), and thus it is not inconceivable.

        • Posted March 23, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          coelsblog,

          I’m suggesting that it won’t bother the theist very much to say that God is subject to the laws of logic.

          I can’t conceive of a world in which the laws of logic do not hold, and most theists will probably report the same. But even if they didn’t, most theist philosophers actually view omnipotence as (very roughly) the ability to actualize any logically actualizable state of affairs. If you tell them that’s not omnipotence, again, that wouldn’t trouble them too much. They’ll be happy with a being that’s “almost” omnipotent.

          • Posted March 24, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

            If theists/philosophers are going to accept a God subject to logic then doesn’t that destroy the first/ultimate cause argument, in that you’d need a supra-God logical framework before God got going?

            • Posted March 24, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              There you go again. Now, what did I tell you about your attention span as it applies to curtained men?

              b&

            • Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              coelsblog,

              That’s an interesting point. I think the theist will claim that God exists “eternally,” either infinitely into the past or (more commonly) “outside” of time somehow, and that the laws of logic are either brute facts (which atheists probably believe anyway) or else God set them in place in an un-further-changeable way.

              Classic and contemporary cosmological arguments tend to focus only on contingent truths, such as that the universe exists, and so they generally don’t say anything about where the laws of logic, themselves, came from.

        • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          Changing logical necessities is trivial, after a fashion. Given a consequence relation |-, a logical necessity is just a proposition provable from the empty set of premisses: |- A for any A. This notion can be formalized in S5, the only system of modal logic that I know that has any direct philosophical use contentious, I know, but …]. But note that *propositions* are logically necessary (or contingent, etc.) Nobody has ever to my knowledge explained how anything else is. Moreover, it is worse than that – because there are many systems of logic (how many? I don’t know if that’s even a well posed question), one for “each” consequence relation, set of axioms and rules. So if one wants to change logical necessities, work in another logic (change one of the three of the triple.)

          • Posted March 25, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

            Keith,

            I think when people talk about changing logical necessities in this context, they actually mean something like changing which language of logic (defined, e.g., by its operators and deduction rules) is sound. For example, we think that a language of logic that allows one to conclude p from ‘p and q‘ mirrors reality, since in real life, if a conjunction of the propositions is true, then each individual proposition is true. Could God change reality, so that a language of logic that allows one to conclude p from ‘p or q‘ would be sound, instead? I and most theists say ‘no.’

            • Posted March 26, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

              Maybe so, but that’s still done. There are, to use your example to start out, non-adjunctive logics where A,B does not entail A&B. Sounds weird, I know, but they do exist.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

        Oh, what bullshit.

        Look, any random schmuck can off himself in any number of ways, And far too many non-schmucks do exactly that all the time.

        But Jesus can’t.

        Either he succeeds, in which case he’s not only no longer omnipotent but perfectly powerless…or he fails to do that which, again, any random schmuck can far-too-easily do.

        Thanks to Cantor, Godel, Turing, and the like, we now know that it’s trivial to come up with these kinds of examples. Jesus can’t convincingly make Satan falsely think that Satan is all-powerful. He can’t microwave a burrito so hot he can’t eat it. All but God can prove this sentence true. And so on and so on.

        This is old news. Suggesting that “omnipotence” is a coherent concept is as laughable as claiming that you think you’ve found “the largest prime number” — and for much the same reason.

        Grow up. There are inescapable limits — the universe is chock full of them, everywhere you turn. And, no, even Superman can’t break those limits, not even if he first steals both a Green Lantern ring and Batman’s utility belt.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted March 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Ben,

          I’m sorry you thought my comment was childish.

          I agree that the divine attributes suggest many paradoxes. The theist is likely to say in response that God is as powerful as a maximally great being can be.

          If that includes being bound by the laws of logic, then it’s open for the theist to say that for all we know, there are evils that are logically necessary for equal or greater goods, which is the original question we’re dealing with, and which you and I are dealing with in another thread.

      • Gluon
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        All I know is that God can not beat me at tic-tac-toe.

        • Rob
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          Lightning bolt beats three in a row ;)

          • Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

            So you’re telling us that he’s a Thor loser?

            b&

            • Rob
              Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

              I’m afreyaid that’s not a very good pun

              • Steve
                Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

                Loki here, no more of these blasphemous puns.

              • Rob
                Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                @Steve

                Baludurdash!

              • Steve
                Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

                Odinarily, I’d be righteous with indignation that you punned in defiance of my edict.

          • Gluon
            Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            That’s tic-tac-zap. Different game. So is tic-tac-timetravel, tic-tac-mind control, and other variations. ;-)

            • Steve
              Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

              tic-tac-eternal damnation.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

                That cracked me up! :D

              • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

                Even I would not want to punish the inventor of those silly candies forever.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that you think in a dual mode where evil and good are both considered the ends of a spectrum to which God would also be subjected.

      God’s greater good is a good without opposition that escapes our reason because our reason, our perception, our intellect are precisely shaped by the opposites by which we can grasp the world.

      That is why the oriental traditions insist so much on escaping our default dual mode of reasoning. The myth of the fruit of knowledge of what is good and evil is all about that too.
      If you adopt a non-dual mode of reasoning, God’s omnipotence, benevolence and the problem of evil is easily solved.

      But the problem is that because the Ego is fueled precisely by our dual mode of reasoning, no one is really interested to access to a non-dual perspective…

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        Ah, word salad — my favorite! Anybody care to suggest a dressing to go with today’s offering? It’s obviously a fruity salad, so it might need to be on the sweet and creamy end of the spectrum.

        b&

        P.S. JF, you don’t really expect anybody to take seriously somebody who writes with authority on behalf of a being whom you explicitly describe as superior and incomprehensible, do you? b&

        • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          Of course not since nobody realizes that they are reasoning under a dual mode.

          • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

            But Ben, aren’t good and evil the opposite absolutes end of a spectrum? Can we agree on that? Otherwise there would no problem of evil no?

            • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

              You obviously don’t understand the problem of evil.

              Those like you, who claim to speak for an incomprehensible superior intelligence that surrounds us and is unimaginably powerful yet perfectly unable to speak for itself, generally claim that this imaginary superfriend can do anything it wants, that it doesn’t want evil to exist, and that yet evil still exists.

              Those three claims are blindingly obviously mutually incompatible. Either the superfriend really can’t do everything it wants to after all, or it wants evil to exist, or there isn’t any evil in the first place. Or some combination thereof.

              (Amongst those who have matured intellectually past puberty, of course, it’s obvious that imaginary superfriends don’t actually exist; this provides the obvious and true solution to the dilemma.)

              You’ll notice that the nature of evil is entirely irrelevant to the logic. So long as evil (whatever it is) exists, presupposing falsely for the sake of argument that your imaginary superfriend also exists, either your imaginary superfriend can’t do anything to eliminate evil or he likes having exactly as much evil as we have.

              Which, of course, demonstrates that the real “problem of evil” is that the critical thinking abilities of the religious are as infantile as their connections with reality.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

                You are lending ideas that I don’t have and refuting arguments I didn’t come with.
                I mainly spoke about oriental tradition where the concept of God isn’t the same as in the west and where the way we grasped “reality” is highly questioned and investigated with techniques so you can look at the world with another perspective.

                So nowhere I am not advocating for an imaginary superfriend. I’m only saying that in a space/time plane, dualism rules. So for the same reason you have a male/female, high/low, left/right, black/white constant duality, it is normal to expect a evil/good duality.

                We take for granted that this is how life works because we don’t realize that we are trapped within a dualistic perspective that makes us see the world on a dual mode. The only way to catch that this mode isn’t absolute is to realized that we are grasping the world through a CERTAIN mode which isn’t absolute…
                And the only way to do that is to experience another mode. Only then you can compare and start to qualify how works the default mode.
                And only then you are able to understand how it is possible for a good-without-opposition to exist.

                And we’ll talk about it when you’ll experience it because language being a dual mode of communication, no words can talk about what is non-dual. Oriental traditions are aware of that since a longlong time and they offer different techniques so you can get rid of the limited dual default mode, or what christianity called the original sin.

                Call it word salad if you want, but it is not because you have an absolute faith in the way you are able to reason that your reason isn’t subjected to some dualistic boundaries…

              • Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

                This dualism of yours might make for some nice poetry, but it fails miserably when it comes to observations of the real world.

                Um, hello? Temperature? Velocity? Wavelength / frequency? These are properties which are most emphatically not binary and, indeed, are continuous except to the extent that they’re quantized at small enough scales.

                And, as I wrote, it’s entirely irrelevant. If there’s even a hint of evil and your imaginary superfriends have the power to eliminate it and they don’t, that makes them evil. And if they don’t have the power to eliminate it, of what good are they?

                This is hardly rocket science. Epicurus figured out centuries before the invention of Christianity.

                Cheers,

                b&

        • gbjames
          Posted March 24, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          JF is trying, again, to lead us all down his rabbit hole. Hmm… I just realized.. rabbits do like salad, don’t they!

          • Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

            Curiously enough, Baihu’s favorite food is (ground frozen commercially packaged) rabbit. Coincidence? I think not! <poof />&lt/Descarte>

            b&

            • Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

              Temperature is a physical manifestation of a dual action, like all the other things you are enumerating.

              But just like a 3d space/time doesn’t make a 2d space/time unreal, irrelevant or untrue,
              a non- dual perspective would reveal other qualities about your self and the world that our default dual state prevent us to see. It frees us from the perpetual egotic on/off dynamic we are subjected too.

              Unless you believe your views on the world and your intellect can grasp the whole picture as it is objectively (whatever that would mean…), it would be arrogant to think that our senses aren’t limited…

              • Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

                Eh, no. Sorry.

                Temperature is a measurement of the average molecular kinetic energy of matter.

                And, while two dimensions makes for some quite useful math, you won’t ever find any actual two-dimensional objects in the universe, anywhere. In that sense, Euclidean space is perfectly imaginary.

                Considering that your reasoning is based entirely on woo that has no bearing whatsoever on observed reality, is it any surprise that your conclusions also have no bearing on reality?

                Again, all this can make for some interesting poetry, but that’s pretty much it.

                b&

          • gbjames
            Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            Enter, stage right: the Mad Hatter.

            • Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

              Oh, futterwhacky.

              b&

            • Posted March 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

              Ben, the 2d vs 3d was an analogy…
              Any measurement is in essence dualistic.
              I didn’t invent non-dualism and there is an abundant literature about it, mainly in the hindu, buddhist and taoist traditions if you want to learn about it.

  5. Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    I don’t get it.

    Why is it that, the very next words out of a theist’s mouth after declaring how amazing his all-powerful god with unlimited power who can, Shirley, do anything…is a lengthly list of all the things that his god can’t do?

    Really, who do they think they’re kidding?

    “Look at these pecs! I could so totally bench a half a ton!”

    “Really? That’s impressive! Here — show off a little. How about you lift the corner of this ‘fridge so I can slip a rubber mat under the feet?”

    “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly do that. It’s against my religion.”

    “Huh? My aunt Sally just helped me do this for uncle Carl last week, and she only weighs like 135 when she’s wet….”

    I mean, really. Even a lowly Greek Muse could have easily inspired Hitler to become a great painter rather than a politician, so what’s Jesus’s excuse? Was he getting his intatines trimmed that decade?

    b&

    • Gluon
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      The contortions of faith are odd. A number of years ago I read an “inspiring” story of a soldier in WW II whose life was saved when a bullet took a freak ricochet off of a brass button (or something, the precise details of this I’ve forgotten). Of course, this near miss with death was attributed to God. It was astonishing 1.) that God was unable to deflect the bullet enough to miss the guy entirely and 2) that God took the time to save this guy and not the, oh, millions of others out there, and 3) that God didn’t spend his morning more productively and, say, give Hitler an aneurism.

      I think these things must trouble believers in their hearts. I know it did mine when I was a believer. They just find it easier to tie themselves into ridiculous pretzels than to face a world without God. It’s fear, really. There is no other way to understand the faithful other than to understand their fear. For many it’s just the fear of a life without “meaning”, or of death. For the most fundamentalist of the lot, it’s fear of eternal torture. I know that fear made me “try” to believe things I didn’t long after I knew in my gut I didn’t believe them. We were raised to pity the poor people who were “deceived by Satan” and lost their souls by coming to believe the wrong thing. It’s a bizarre outlook, really, that there is something you *should* believe, rather than something that you merely *do* believe. I don’t think a lot of non-religious people get this.

      • Steve
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        It’s a bizarre outlook, really, that there is something you *should* believe, rather than something that you merely *do* believe. I don’t think a lot of non-religious people get this.

        I am curious as to why you think this.

        • Gluon
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          It probably would have been better frame it as a question and ask if people who have never been believers do get this?

          I am extrapolating from my own experience. I used to *be* that believing person, but from where I am now, it seems all but incomprehensible. It is only by remembering being that person that I feel I have some kind of idea of the psychological dynamic at work. So I think, “If it is this strange to me, and I used to be that person, how strange must it be to someone who has never been religious?”. On the other hand, being strange isn’t the same as being hard to understand. The behavior itself is so obvious, that maybe it’s actually easier to understand from the outside. But for me, the further I get away from my fundamentalist youth, the more and more bizarre to me it is that the key thing for them really is “what do you believe?”, and they talk about belief like it’s a choice of tie. “Good” people will believe the “right” things. In some strange way, it’s not about evidence or argument. But who has any control over what they believe? You can control what you read, what ideas you expose yourself to, but you can’t really control your beliefs. You can pretend, of course, but that’s just pretend.

          This makes perfect sense from the meme/chain-letter perspective. An idea that makes it paramount that you accept the idea has a good hook. But from any kind of point of view outside of the chain-letter itself, it is bizarre. So I find myself wondering how well the never-believers out there really understand that when their arguments against various points of belief fail to impress the believers, it is because of a meta-belief shield about what you *should* believe.

          While I think I didn’t really believe it in my gut for many years, I can clearly remember the very day that I finally lost religion. It was not when I learned about evolution, it was not when I grocked the problem of evil, it was when I felt, in my gut, the absurdity of -trying- to believe something. One day it occurred to me that, as a simple observation, I didn’t believe anything was going to happen when someone prayed for a sick person. I felt I *should* believe that, I even wanted to believe that, but I noticed, like one might notice the color of a passing car, that I did not. And I realized that there was nothing I could do to change my belief on that point. That belief was the sum of my experiences, which I could not change. I realized that, if belief is essential, I was screwed. On that day, I lost religion. It just fell off of me like a shell. I could have kept going forever if this crack in the meta-belief hadn’t appeared.

          Again, maybe it’s all obvious from the outside. So it’s more of a question really. How clear is this aspect to the never-been-believers?

          • Steve
            Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

            I am not of those “never was a believer” types… so I can’t help you explore that aspect. The model of believers that rattles around in my thoughts is that of a person that never gives up or out grows their belief in Santa Claus.

            However, as I think about this, there are many beliefs that I have never had… I am guessing you too know of some beliefs that people ascribe to that you yourself never have had, and that you reject as unbelievable. No reason to think that this is what the never-been-believers think about people that retain belief in said belief.

          • Steve
            Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

            Ops, make that “No reason NOT to think that this is what the never-been-believers think about people that retain belief in said belief.”

          • Sastra
            Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            I think it’s pretty clear to most atheists, regardless of background, because atheism is obviously seen by our critics not just as a mistaken conclusion, but as a moral choice — one that reflects our character.

            Even when you deal with something as non-fundamentalist as the “I’m spiritual, not religious” crowd, the faith mindset seems to be the same. Belief is identity. People arrive at their beliefs not through following an objective chain of reasoning — so that we could in theory all study the issue and arrive at the same place — but through subjectively embracing or accepting or recognizing the Truth. We believe, or not, because of the kind of person we are. More and better evidence for religious claims would do no good, because the attitude is wrong. The heart is wrong. The essence is wrong.

            This makes for intractable In and Out Groups. And it explains the fear you talk about. Changing your mind means changing who you are. And religion and spirituality make sure you think that the kind of person who isn’t religious or spiritual is NOT the kind of person you want to become.

            • Gluon
              Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              Well said.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:06 am | Permalink

                Gluon, you’ve expressed yourself well as, well, well…

                Srsly, what you write reflects what I’ve heard from other raised-religious strugglers, esp. the fear part.

            • Steve
              Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

              Good point. I want to be sure to remember this.

            • Gluon
              Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

              Identity. So true. A friend of mine recently had an affair and then got a divorce. In the Christian sect he was a member of, this is pretty much as bad a thing as one can do. Nevertheless, even while this was going on, he found it easier to go to Church and be a probably-bound-for-hell now “Christian”, than to admit, “I guess I don’t really believe or take it seriously”. Once it was found out, he was unwelcome at that church, but he has wasted no time finding another.

              Given the strength of this psychological dynamic, it’s a wonder that people escape at all. Sometimes it feels like trying to extract someone from the Matrix.

              Most people try to use reason to achieve this extraction, and it definitely works sometimes. I wonder, idly, if there are other tricks to it. Strategies that work better than others? Since it’s not really about evidence, it’s about some psychological thing, perhaps there is a more psychological de-programming approach ?

              For example, I actually consider the tic-tac-toe analogy for the limits of omnipotence to be more unsettling to some of my friends than talking about evil or logic. Evil is a big amorphous thing, and logic or math, well, they are complicated. Bringing up these things barely even seems to create a whiff of cognitive dissonance. It is too easy to invoke fuzziness, too easy to react negatively to the implied suggestion that God is not good. I sort of think, however, that some of my friends are more disturbed when I ask them if God can beat me in tic-tac-toe. It’s a simple scenario, easy to understand, and I’m not calling their god a bad person, but it penetrates the fog. Maybe it’s just a matter of coming up with an example that they haven’t heard, so that it engages their brain before the shields go up.

              It’s a pressing question to me in many ways, because my entire family is very religious.

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    but then Gutting makes the equally obvious claim that even an all-powerful and all-loving God might not be able to prevent evil. That’s also bloody obvious, because there is evil.

    An all-good being, even with maximal power, may have to allow considerable local evils for the sake of the overall good of the universe; some evils may be necessary for the sake of avoiding even worse evils.

    .
    I cannot agree. As you certainly realize, there is another option; that an all-powerful God does not exist; so I cannot agree with your framing. I also cannot accept Gutting’s excuse for God because: who makes these rules that God msut follow? Omnipotence is not what it used to be.

    • Steve
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Reginald,

      I had the exact same response as you did, but I assumed that in this framing, Jerry must have been implying “Let us assume god exists as you assert..”.

    • Gluon
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Omnipotence has always been overrated. To see that, challenge God to tic-tac-toe.

      Many of my lifelong friends came from the same fundamentalist background as I did. Occasionally, either they or me, will bring up the whole problem of evil and all. I always encourage them to jettison omnipotence. That seems the easiest way out. You can still have your whole religion, just lose this one ridiculous concept. I haven’t had any takers yet, though.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        The problem is that gods are like hard drugs. Once you’ve tried heroin, you can’t go back to mere booze (or so I’ve been told).

        If your god is, by definition, the n’est plus ultra, are you really going to leave it and start worshipping a loser like Thor instead? Or, if you’re currently a Thor head, are you more likely to leave him behind for a wimp like Jesus, who let himself get nailed on a tree, or YHWH, who not only can toss off thunderbolts but drown the whole frickin’ planet — and who created the whole shootin’ match in the first place, to boot?

        No, I’m afraid that the only real escape is to grow up and embrace reality. Once you realize that gods — all gods, including the “sophisticated” theological ones — are merely ancient comic-book superhero friends, you realize what sort of foolish nonsense this all is and you can get on with enjoying a productive life.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted May 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          This is by far the funniest and most true statement of fact I have read all year. Thank you for this. XD

        • Posted May 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          This is by far the funniest and most true statement of fact I have read all year.

          Thank you for this! XD

  7. Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I agree that Gutting’s defense here is pretty underwhelming. I guess in his defense, he was aiming for a general audience, in an amount of space that wouldn’t permit him to say too much about the Problem of Evil. I don’t know whether what he said is representative of what he would have said, given, say, a full-length article.

    In any case, I think your criticisms of his points are mostly right. But I think Gutting would insist on the skeptical theism point here, that for all we know, all the evils we observe are necessary for equal or greater goods. I think that’s unlikely, as you seem to as well, although I wouldn’t put the point in terms of parsimony exactly. Yes, positing unknown outweighing goods inflates our ontology, but I don’t think inflating our ontology is itself a bad thing. For example, solipsism is far more parsimonious than believing in an external world and other minds, but should we really be tempted by solipsism?

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      [F]or all we know, all the evils we observe are necessary for equal or greater goods.

      If true, then your gods, were they real, would be either profoundly incompetent or horrifically evil.

      What “greater goods” could possibly come from babies being raped with hot curling irons that could even theoretically justify a nonintervention policy?

      Any moral human being with a conscience would have absolutely no trouble whatsoever knowing that even a single instance of such an act utterly invalidates your hateful claims. Especially considering that these gods you worship are allegedly more powerful than humanly imaginable.

      You know how many science fiction stories have been written about slightly-more-powerful space aliens that would have no trouble at all eliminating the world’s ills?

      Damn. I should shut up now before I go all BAAWA on you….

      b&

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Ben,

        Skeptical theism was originally intended as a response to the logical or incompatibility problem of evil, as a way of arguing that strictly speaking, the evils in the world are logically compatible with the existence of the Anselmian God.

        I agree that it’s extremely implausible to think that all the evils in the world are justified by equal or greater goods, but skeptical theism is widely taken to succeed in showing that it’s not epistemically impossible that they are.

        Why bother with this, as a theist? Well, if you can refute all deductive arguments with ‘God does not exist’ as the conclusion, then maybe a merely probabilistic or evidential argument with ‘God exists’ as the conclusion (or a deductive argument with ‘probably, God exists’ as the conclusion) can produce epistemic justification for theism. This would be a sort of ‘G. E. Moore Shift’ or what William Rowe calls the ‘indirect’ approach to responding to the Problem of Evil.

        (I’ll try to get to other people’s responses tomorrow.)

        • Posted March 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          As I’ve written before, imagine that the most brilliant ER surgeon who ever lived is driving home from work. He’s on a back-country road, no traffic, and he spots a truly horrific motorcycle wreck. The hot-pink bike is wrapped around a tree and the rider lies twitching and bleeding several feet away, her long blonde hair stuck in the blood on the pavement. The surgeon’s daughter is a blonde who rides a hot-pink motorcycle.

          Rather than stop to render aid or even dial 911 from his hands-free voice-activated cellphone, the surgeon silently continues on his way home.

          Now, do you still want to pretend that the “problem of evil” can be illogicked away under the rug with a quick sweep from the theoidiocy broom?

          b&

        • Gary W
          Posted March 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          skeptical theism is widely taken to succeed in showing that it’s not epistemically impossible that they are.

          Big whoop. Invisible dancing unicorns and a 6,000-year-old earth aren’t epistemically impossible either. There mere fact that a proposition does not involve a logical contradiction is hardly a serious argument in its favor.

    • eric
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Tom – different humans experience different amounts of evil and suffering. Whatever suffering is “necessary” must be less than or equal to the suffering experienced by the least-suffering human.

      Take wealth as an example. Is one’s poverty necessary? Not for Paris Hilton. Presumably, theology allows such a person to experience spiritual growth sufficient for salvation. God’s greater good (whatever it may be) can be accomplished even when people are Paris-Hilton rich. So, it’s hard to see how any lesser wealth could be considered “necessary,” because we have real, concrete humans who don’t experience any greater poverty than that.

      • Posted March 24, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        eric,

        This is an interesting point.

        The skeptical theist will say in response that for all we know, it’s not merely the current total of evil in the world that’s necessary for an equal or greater good; it’s also the distribution of that evil. Perhaps it’s overall better that some people experience more evil than others.

        I agree that this position is implausible, but the skeptical theist wants, at least as a first step, to argue that we are not certain that it’s false. Then she can try for two loftier goals:

        (1) To argue that in fact, we don’t even have any really trustworthy evidence that it’s false. Perhaps we are just in no position to know, if God exists, how God’s reasons actually work. We’re puny humans, after all.

        (2) To argue that since the evidence from evil is not conclusive, some argument for the existence of God epistemically outweighs the evidence from evil.

        • Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          Waiter, that strawberry tart Tom is having looks good. Might I get a slice, but without quite so much rat in it?

          Cheers,

          b&

    • Sastra
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Tom #7 wrote:

      I think that’s unlikely, as you seem to as well, although I wouldn’t put the point in terms of parsimony exactly. Yes, positing unknown outweighing goods inflates our ontology, but I don’t think inflating our ontology is itself a bad thing. For example, solipsism is far more parsimonious than believing in an external world and other minds, but should we really be tempted by solipsism?

      I think parsimony comes in when people invent or imagine highly unusual scenarios which not only prevent their hypothesis from being falsified, but make their hypothesis specifically unfalsifiable. And if your hypothesis is unfalsifiable, then you are infallible.

      Putting yourself in a position where you can be wrong but can’t find out that you’re wrong is the problem which parsimony — Occam’s razor — is meant to solve. Human beings are not infallible.

      For example, we’re looking at the evidence in the world and pointing out that it’s inconsistent with the hypothesis that an all-loving God concerned with our welfare is in charge. The theist says yes, you’re right — but not IF we allow that maybe ALL the evils we observe are necessary for equal or greater goods. Is there a limit on this tactic?

      How much MORE ‘seemingly unnecessary suffering’ would it take for this theist to agree that okay — they were wrong? I once had a Christian tell me that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road scenario would not make him lose his faith that God is good. Answer, then: nothing. Nothing would change their minds.

      The Unknown Purpose theodicy means never having to say you’re sorry.

      Solipsism then isn’t an example of parsimony. The principle isn’t about how simple reality is — it’s about how simple we are. Once you assume solipsism there is no way to check to see if you might be wrong about solipsism.

      • Vaal
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

        Excellent post, Sastra!

        Vaal

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:13 am | Permalink

        The principle isn’t about how simple reality is — it’s about how simple we are.

        Sastra, I don’t know how you can keep topping yourself, post after post, year after year…

    • Gary W
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      For example, solipsism is far more parsimonious than believing in an external world and other minds

      Is it? It seems to me that the more parsimonious explanation is that things are as they appear (a real world, other minds) than that it’s all a gigantic illusion.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, solipsism means that you somehow managed to create the entire universe — namely yourself — ex nihlo. Because, by definition, if solipsism is true, then there’s nothing else but you.

        In such a situation, all of the Creationist arguments actually do apply — something from nothing, improbability, and the like. They pretty much become a slam dunk, in fact.

        The brain-in-a-vat option is logically impossible to disprove for the same reason the Halting Problem is insolvable, but it’s also irrelevant. Think of it as the practical identity principle…if you can’t tell the difference, then there isn’t any difference.

        Now, if you wake up naked day in a slime-filled glass cocoon on the side of a giant tower with a robotic alien tentacle down your throat, you might want to reconsider…until then, there’s no point worrying about it.

        b&

      • Posted March 24, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Gary W, Ben Goren, and Sastra (some of your post),

        Let’s say that of two explanations, E1 and E2, E1 is ontologically more parsimonious than E2 iff E1 requires the existence of fewer entities or types of entities. And E1 is more propositionally parsimonious than E2 iff E1 requires fewer propositions or conjuncts of propositions to be true.

        (There may be a third property that’s sometimes referred to with the word ‘parsimony,’ something like “probabilistic” parsimony: E1 is more probabilistically parsimonious than E2 iff E1 has a higher objective likelihood.)

        Solipsism is very ontologically parismonious, since it only requires the existence of you and your mental states. It’s also just as propositionally parsimonious as “realism” about the world, since at every turn, solipsism and realism commit to some conjunct: that some entity is mind-independent, or that it’s mind-dependent. ‘X is real’ is just as parsimonious (no more) than ‘x is an illusion,’ right?

        What about probabilistic parsimony? Well, this is very complicated, probably beyond our scope here. But I would at least point out that solipsism doesn’t require you to generate an entire illusory universe; it only requires you to come up with about a several-mile-radius sphere of it, in most cases.

        Finally, how did we get here in the first place? I was denying the evidential value of ontological parsimony. In particular, at least, I don’t see an argument for it.

        (Again, I’ll try to get to any other responses some other day.)

        • Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          But I would at least point out that solipsism doesn’t require you to generate an entire illusory universe; it only requires you to come up with about a several-mile-radius sphere of it, in most cases.

          Well, okay then! Why didn’t you say so!?

          Because, like, it’s so totally much more believable that a non-existent entity could poof a seven-mile-radius universe into existence than a hundred-billion-lightyear-radius one. Like, duh!

          Jesus Christ, man. Where on Earth did you learn logic? I sure hope they give refunds, because either they’re totally incompetent or you are.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Gary W
          Posted March 24, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

          Tom,
          Solipsism is very ontologically parismonious, since it only requires the existence of you and your mental states.

          Then materialism is equally ontologically parsimonious, since it only requires the existence of material. Again, I don’t know why you think the idea that the real world is an illusion is any more parsimonious than the idea that there simply is a real world.

        • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

          In a continuous universe (which ours might be – even though I personally doubt it), a ball 5 miles in diameter contains as much stuff as one n billion light years in diameter, because things like gravitational fields are everywhere. There’s good sense in such a case to say that the universe contains continuum many parts or entities. Hence the ontological simplicity idea is not very well formed.

  8. Schenck
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Forget about ‘jesus could’ve stopped hitler’, if evil is allowable because it results in some greater good, then you can justify, say, purging Indo-european society of the influence of semitic culture by wiping out the semitic people, sure, it’d be ‘evil’, but it’d be for a ‘higher moral good’. And of course that’s /exactly/ what the nazi supporters were talking about, they realized it was horrific to get rid of the jews, but they felt that it was necessary, so they just had to grit their teeth and get through it. With something like theodicy, it becomes a repugnant necessity.

    • Steve
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Schenck,

      Exactly… means-to-justify-ends thinking can support just about anything. 9-11 comes to mind right off the bat.

  9. Steve
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    If our hope is for salvation in this sense — and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs’ being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, it depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

    I think some crucial elements were left out.

    1) Without being told by a specific religion, nobody would even have the slightest notion that they were in need of salvation. What a horrible lie to foist onto another person. “Hate to tell you this, bub, but um, you are in eternal moral peril.”

    2) It is the deity in the center of this ultimate peril that created the peril in the first place. (Want to keep people out of hell, then don’t create hell in the first place. Duh!) Is it any wonder that abusers very often blame their victims for the necessity of heaping abuse on them? This really ought to highlight to anyone with two brain cells to rub together just how man made the theistic fiction is.

    God who is good enough to desire our salvation…

    What a farce.

    • Gluon
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Re: 1. Boy, I’ll say. In retrospect, I consider it as child abuse. Not similar to child abuse, but literal child abuse. By 7 I was already fully terrified of burning forever and ever in a lake of fire. A LAKE… of.. FIRE. Fire created by an all loving God. WTF?

      So here is another, and I think very productive, way to think about religious people you talk to (or argue with): They are abuse victims. It’s a wonder they can think or function at all.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        And, as some have pointed out before, many seem to be abuse victims with Stockholm syndrome.

    • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      A story I’ve heard, I forget first from where.

      Inuit elder: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
      Priest: “No, not if you did not know.”
      Inuit elder: “Then why did you tell me?”

      • Gluon
        Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        In the Protestant sect I grew up in, we believed that babies and small children were innocent and would go to Heaven if they died. At some point you were old enough to sin, and then you needed to seek Jesus redemptive power. I always wondered, “Well, why aren’t we killing all of the children, then? You know, to save them from Hell?” (Sure, we might go to Hell for the killings, but if we’re being selfless as taught, that’s what we’d do). I don’t know if most Protestant sects have this belief, but this is a glaring problem with that doctrine. And shouldn’t that make such Protestants pro-abortion?

        My understanding is that Catholic doctrine is that babies and small children go to Limbo. Still that is preferable to Hell and might give one reason enough to start killing them for their own sake.

        The “logic” of this scenario is pretty gripping.

  10. eric
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Here’s a sixth (if you needed it):

    If you accept that the a human being who suffers least, still suffers enough to satisfy this ‘free will’ requirement, then there is absolutely no reason the rest of us need to suffer more than that person.

    So, look around and find the richest, happiest, healthiest person you can find. Ask a theologian – they have free will, right? They aren’t going to hell because they lackd sufficient suffering, right? So then why do the rest of us get more?

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      And a seventh is to ask them whether they will have free will in heaven and whether they will suffer in heaven.

      • Curt Cameron
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        Yeah, the “free will in heaven” is always my first-line response to that. If “the freedom of moral agents” requires a heapin’ helping of suffering, then is there no no freedom of moral agents in heaven? Or is there suffering in heaven? According to his own views, you can’t have both freedom and the absence of suffering.

        And this statement is just bizarre:

        Of course, an all-good God would do everything possible to minimize the evil we suffer, but for all we know that minimum might have to include our annihilation or eternal suffering.

        So minimizing evil requires our eternal suffering? What the hell kind of twisted definitions must he be using?

        • horrabin
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          That was my favorite bit, too: “At least I got off with eternal suffering…could have been worse…”

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 24, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

            :D

        • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

          “Heaven” or “Nirvana” is beyond our dualistic perspective where things are grasped through opposites. That is why a greater good or I would say a “good without opposition” (something our mind isn’t able to conceptualize) is eternal, i.e.: outside time.

          Eternity isn’t a very long succession of time that never stops. Eternity is a no time/space “zone” that never starts so it they can never end. That is what you an contemplate when you escape our default dual mode of reasoning.

          But on a space/time plane where dualism rules, just like you have high and low, male and female, left and right, soft and hard, old and hot, ugly and beautiful, you have no choice to have good and evil.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Nicely done!

      /@

    • DV
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Ah, but Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        Jesus also said that all men who’ve ever looked at a pretty woman and experienced the typical reaction and have failed to immediately thereafter gouge out their eyes are doomed to hell.

        Yes, really. It’s right there, up towards the front of the Sermon on the Mount.

        So Heaven is going to be largely devoid of men, and the few there will either be castrati or blind, in addition to being dirt poor. Sure doesn’t sound like paradise to me….

        b&

        • DV
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          To you it doesn’t. But you’re not a lesbian, I presume.

          • Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

            What makes you think Jesus will let any of those icky girls into his tree fort?

            b&

            • truthspeaker
              Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

              Well, the Bible says next to nothing about sexual relations between women, so I can only conclude that Jesus is a-OK with lesbians, as long as they don’t speak in church.

      • eric
        Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        So, basically, some people will go to hell for not suffering enough?

        That creates a paradox. Eternal hell is far more suffering than a few measly years on earth. So if being wealthy and suffering-free on earth leads to eternal torment, God in his benevolent nature should be doing what he can to minimize our overall suffering, and so there should be no rich people.

        • Gluon
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Sounds like a Borges short story (c.f. Three Versions of Judas).

  11. Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Gray is right: What matters is how we live.

    Unfortunately, you can’t then say that what we believe in the end doesn’t matter very much, when how we live depends so much on that…

    /@

  12. RWO
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Gutting: ‘We can, of course, simply will to believe that we are not being deceived. But that amounts to blind faith, not assured hope.’

    Classic redundancy. The epitome of blind faith is belief in such a thing as assured hope.

    Which of the following terms does not fit: 1) There is absolutely no hope 2) It is not impossible, so we can hope 3) I kinda hope 4) I really hope 5) hope is assured

    Is there a single argument that exists for supernatural existence that does not, once the last semantic layer is peeled away and the brake is finally applied to perpetual circular reasoning, devolve simply to appeal to authority supported solely by hearsay evidence?

    Once upon a prehistoric time somebody said that he was told by god … and here we are.

  13. Kevin
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Well, at least he translated the code words correctly.

    “Ultimate salvation” = “the location and status of my post-death apartment”

    Choose the right religion and you get the penthouse with the kitchen upgrade. Choose the wrong belief, and you live in an overheated basement with the crackheads.

    It’s all all ALL about the fear of the after-death. Without the fear of the after-death, religion would have precisely zero hold on the populace.

    Frankly, I fear death much less than I used to. Nobody gets out alive, and that’s just the way it is. Nobody looks forward to dying — because life is a lot of fun and the process of dying pretty much sucks for everyone who isn’t executed by lethal injection.

    But after that’s over with? I fully expect what the Hindi call “blessed nothingness”. No pain, no sorrow, no nothing. I’m just not there anymore. That doesn’t invoke fear. Why should it?

    Of course, it’s not life nor pleasure — but wishing really, really hard for a pony won’t get me one, either.

    • Gluon
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      As I like to say, “I’ve been dead before. It wasn’t so bad.”

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        Let me guess. After pinin’ for the fjords for a while, you got better? Or were you simply not dead yet?

        b&

        • Steve
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          Fjords designed by Slartibartfast.

        • Gluon
          Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Monty Python is a great antidote for religion.

          On the slim chance that my actual meaning wasn’t clear, and that you are actually asking in addition to referencing a joke, I mean that for the unimaginable stretches of time before my birth I was in exactly the same state as I’ll be in the stretches of time after my birth. We’ve all been dead before. And I think we can agree, while it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t bad either.

          • Gluon
            Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            After my death, I meant to say.

  14. Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I’m not quite sure that I understand the criticism of Gutting that you are making, Jerry. While Gutting may be traversing common ground, he does so to some purpose: namely, to show that, because of complications having to do with the purposes of any supposed god, belief is somehow fundamental to religion — contrary to what John Gray seems to think — and that that belief can never really assure the believer of the things that count. Gray thinks that the only thing that matters is how we live; belief is irrelevant to religion. But Gutting shows that the religious can scarcely do without belief, and that, needing belief, they are forced into a corner where they cannot be sure that the god they believe in will give them what they want to get from religion, namely assurance of some kind of metaphysical safety. As I read it, Gutting is not supporting religious belief: he is claiming that religion requires belief, and that belief does not guarantee what religious believers want.

    • KP
      Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      I think Jerry’s criticism was more that Gutting meanders around theodicy without having any answers. I think you’re right about the belief part and I don’t think Jerry missed that.

  15. KP
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I just skimmed the Gray piece at BBC and it is HORRIBLE.

  16. Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I must follow Eric MacDonald : I’m not quite sure understand the criticism of Gutting that you are making.

    Gutting is making a very good point. One of the very common against the existence of an all-benevolent omnipotent God is the fact that evil exists. A common defense of theism is basically saying that “the Lord works in mysterious ways” or a variation of it.

    He says that even if we could prove that an all-benevolent and omnipotent God existed, that would not be sufficient to say that whatever religion tell people to do is the right thing to do for their salvation. The appeal to a “mysterious God”, far from saving religion, destroys it. It may save the “a good and all-poweful God exist” part, but it actually undermines the “do that to save your soul” part. In my opinion, it is no small rebuttal. It gives the full measure of his article’s title : “Does it matter wheter God exists?”

    Maybe that is a well-trodden way. For you (and me and most people interested in this debate), it may not be anything new; but almost nothing, from either side of the debate, is going to be. Let’s give credit where it is due. Gutting merits at least some.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      I disagree here, because religious people can obviously appeal to enigmatic aspects of God when it comes to evil, but they can appeal to the Bible (either God’s word or inspired by God) as evidence that there is a defined route to salvation. It’s very common for the faith to say that some aspects of God are mysterious while others aren’t, so I don’t think Gutting’s argument coheres for religious people, though it may cohere philosophically.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Well, I agree with you on that : choosing arbitrarily what is true and what is not and what cannot be known is not above some (most?) apologists. Of course, they would be pretty adamant that God did not write the bible so that a lot of people would come to their senses and reject the authority of anything else than valid opinions based on facts and good logic. Of course, that is not what God wanted to do in his all-emcompassing-wisdom-we-cannot-understand. But that discussion could go on and on between a atheist and a theist. That is one of the problem you have when you adopt some ad hoc opinions : someone can chosse another one with the same justification. :)

        I still believe that Gutting’s point is a very valid one. A lot of very valid points are brushed aside by a lot of people. :)

  17. Darth Dog
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I agree. I don’t hear him in favor of theodicy. He is pointing out a problem with it for believers. Once you hide behind “God’s ways are mysterious, you give up the right to say anything about what God would do. It’s a variation of JAC’s response to Karen Armstrong types that God is ineffable. If God is ineffable then shut up about him.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      That would be why I’m all in favor of effing the ineffable.

      b&

  18. Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    “An all-good being, even with maximal power, may have to allow considerable local evils for the sake of the overall good of the universe; some evils may be necessary for the sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of this necessity.”

    No. The point of omnipotence is that you can do anything. Any. Thing. We humans, who are rather impotent, all things considered, have to worry about allowing lesser evils in order to avoid greater evils.

    An omnipotent being would not.

  19. Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Random off-topic… spotted a review for ISBN 978-0802863836, “New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy” by one Robert Spitzer. Looks like it might be worth adding to the “Why so-called Serious Theology is Crap” reading pile.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I had a convo with a believer on Twitter (quite a bright one; she argued for pantheism without ever having come across the concept before; as long as she keeps heading in that direction… ) who cited this as evidence for God, so I took a look… 

      Frankly, I don’t think there’s much to commend it. IIRC, he makes mistakes about what atheism is and doesn’t understand the current state of the art is cosmology. (This just from the “Look inside!” on amazon.)

      /@

  20. Sastra
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    And he neglects another alternative to consider: not “religion with little or no belief”, but no religion at all.

    Gutting neglects another popular alternative: “belief with little or no belief.” With this approach, you both believe that God exists and will save you from damnation AND you don’t literally believe it at all.

    It’s called “doublethink” (or ‘holism’) and is one of the friendliest, handiest strategies of faith. Don’t think of it as a logical contradiction — think of it as being like putting two different kinds of food on your plate when you can’t decide between them.

    Belief without belief. Or “belief” without belief. Or belief without “belief.” Which one you explicitly adopt at any specific time depends on who is watching you, or on how critical and rational you feel at the moment. Don’t think about it too hard — and be sure to commend yourself for not thinking too hard. It’s a sign of proper “humility.”

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      I do enjoy your comments, Sastra. You always do such a good jod elucidating the “mysterious ways” in which the religious mind works.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        WTF is a “jod”?

        Sigh.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        Hear, hear!

        And, while we’re on the subject, I’d just like to take this opportunity to remind y’all that, when the lard starts moving in mysterious ways, it’s because the maggots have gotten into it and it’s time to toss it out. Regardless of what Pastor Bob might have to say on the subject.

        Cheers,

        b&

  21. Andrew
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Wow. I just learned something about God.

    I always assumed She was a deontologist, what with all those rules and punishments and whatnot. Turns out She’s a consequentialist, as per the “need to allow evil to produce a gerater good” argument.

    Hope Moses didn’t strain his back carrying those superfluous stone tables down the mountain.

    • Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      It has been my impression for a long long time that people are only deontologists because they think in terms of duty still. Yes, there are problems with many consequentialisms (utilitarianism is wrong) but people seem to always become consequentialists in spite of themselves if pressed in the right way. I have to wonder why …

      Incidentally, a “consequentialist god” is presented in the funny dialogue “Is God a Taoist”, by the logician Raymond Smullyan.

  22. Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m always a wee bit puzzled as to why articles like Guttings never give any attention at all to polytheism; it provides a much more sensible way to account for evil. There are good gods and bad gods, and they are fighting it out, they have their favorites, and so on. It’s fairly plausible that that’s the way the Old Testament writers viewed things. Jahweh (rather like Zeus) was the big guy who usually got his way, but not always.

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      For one, it’s not polytheism that’s being sold, it’s Jesus. And, for another, polytheism still doesn’t answer the “ultimate questions” that “sophisticate” theology is supposed to answer — namely, Life, the Universe, and Everything. Because, if one of the many gods was the one that created it all, then that one almost by definition is the omnipotent creator of monotheism, and the rest of the gods are just minor bit players.

      Incidentally, Christians are every bit as polytheistic as any pagan. If the Olympians are gods, then so too are the Heavenly Host. And if Hades is a god, then Satan is as well. If Hercules then Samson; if Prometheus and Pandora then Adam and Eve. Roman ancestor worship? The dearly departed in Heaven. And so on.

      Cheers,

      b&

  23. Vaal
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Theist is walking past a sadist who is banging a small child’s head in with a hammer.

    Theist: That is horrifying! You have no justification for causing that child such suffering!

    Sadist: I may not be able to offer you a good reason for why this child needs to suffer this fate at my hands, but that doesn’t mean there is no good reason. How can we be so arrogant as to presume there are no good reasons for such things, beyond our human ken?

    Theist: True, true, that was impertinent of me. My apologies. Hammer away. After all…who knows?

    (Except, of course, most theists would never approve of such non-excuses, unless you put the word “God” in front of it).

    Vaal

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Except, of course, that that’s exactly how theists justify all their sociopathic actions, from the war on women to the defense of child rapists to the very Nazis themselves.

      Torquemada is the perfect example. Better a few weeks of earthly torture, after all, than an eternity in Hell. If that’s what it takes.

      “I’m only doing this for your own good” may perhaos be the most evil sentence in the English language.

      b&

  24. William Stewart
    Posted March 26, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    A rough paraphrase of a remark by Steven Weinberg(I believe the exact quote is in his article “A Designer Universe?”):Apparently, some of my relatives had to be killed in order that some Germans could exercise their free will. And what about the tsunami? Was that free will for tsunamis?

  25. James
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    WHAT YOU DONT SEEM TO GET IS THIS ALLOWS **YOU TO EXIST.

    You are freely a denier of the God who created you. You dont accept God’s nature–so you deny he exists at all.

    So in allowing evil…he has allowed YOU. Since you are in Time, with the possibility of learning lessons, you may come to see that you are evil for denying the goodness of God and turn to him to heal you.

    Lets just face something right now and stop pretending you dont want to be your own god. If God set up a Castle right now next to your house would you go over and worship him as the one who gave you existence, that Christ humbled himself and was tortured for your sins?

    You know damm well the answer is NO. Its icky to you. It would make you sick to sing a song to the Lord. To praise Him.

    So what we have here is bunch of liars and pretenders who seek to justify why God is detestable to them. This has nothing to do with proof or Gods nature it has to do with your heart which is desperately wicked and in rebellion against your maker.

    Evil exists so YOU can. Its your choice if you want to stay that way. It God lived next store and was always a fact to you –you would still be wicked and just pretend to accept him. This world is set up to overcome your own nature, turn to God in faith, so he can change you without coercion of your will. If he lived next store with no doubt–you would be coerced. You are free to say its all BS–which is what YOU desire. The people who seek God are also free to seek him and confirm their desire.

    • gbjames
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Rather than just laugh at your comment I’ll ask you a direct question.

      How do you know you have picked the right god and that you shouldn’t be worshiping Xipe Totec instead of Jesus?


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