Another very Sophisticated Theologian explains why animals have to suffer

Perhaps some of you are groaning under the weight of Sophisticated Theology™ that I’ve pile upon you. But I do it for a good reason: we unbelievers are constantly accused of ignorance about the “best thought of modern theology”, and on those grounds the religious dismiss our arguments.  This was, for example, the gambit used by Terry Eagleton to dismiss Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and by my ex-student Allen Orr to dismiss the same book. This tactic of dismissing atheists because they haven’t read the likes of Duns Scotus has been debunked by P. Z. Myers in a famous post called “The Courtier’s Reply.

To counter this accusation, I’ve been making a thorough study of Sophisticated Theology™ and conveying the results to you. Think of it as a Reader’s Digest of theology.

So far, all of it has been pretty dire and unconvincing. One could say, I suppose, that I am biased, and am looking to dismiss what are actually quite subtle and “nuanced” (run when you hear that word!) theological arguments. To counter that, I’ve tried to present the Sophisticated Theologians™ fairly, using their own videos (e.g., John Haught, Alvin Plantinga) and quoting their own words.  See Plantinga’s video from yesterday if you want to see this genre at its “best.”

My conclusion to date has been that Sophisticated Theology™ is merely a thin veneer of fancy academic words brushed onto the usual cheap plywood of fairy tales. In the end, it still comes down to theologians making stuff up to buttress a shaky faith against the onslaught of science and rationality:  the post facto rationalization of religion euphemistically called “apologetics.”

A few days ago I wrote a post about Alvin Plantinga’s explanation of why animals suffer.  This kind of “natural evil”, which also includes the death of innocent people from natural disasters like earthquakes or from diseases like childhood leukemia, has always been the Achilles Heel of theology.  I have seen no explanation that isn’t either hilarious, mush-brained, or downright idiotic.

So let another Sophisticated Theologian™ have a try at the problem. I was directed to Peter van Inwagen by a footnote in Plantinga’s latest book, and so spent several tedious hours plowing through van Inwagen’s own justification for evil, presented as the Gifford Lectures in 2003 and published as The Problem of Evil (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2006; it’s online for free here). van Inwagen is a highly respected philosopher of religion and metaphysics who works, like Plantinga, at Notre Dame.  And, like Plantinga, he’s festooned with honors. His theology is clearly Sophisticated.

In The Problem of Evil he makes no bones: evil is permitted by God for the Greater Good.  However, human-caused evil and “natural evils”, especially the suffering of animals, have two different causes.  I’ll try to be as brief as possible, concentrating on animal suffering.

  • van Inwagen explains human-caused evil by what he calls “the expanded free-will defense”, which runs as follows (p. 71 of The Problem of Evil):

“God made the world and it was very good. An indispensable part of the goodness he chose was the existence of rational beings: self-aware beings capable of abstract thought and love and having the power of free choice between contemplated alternative courses of action. This last feature of rational beings, free choice or free will, is a good. But even an omnipotent being is unable to control the exercise of the power of free choice, for a choice that was controlled would ipso facto not be free. In other words, if I have a free choice between x and y, even God cannot ensure that I choose x. To ask God to give me a free choice between x and y and to see to it that I choose x instead of y is to ask God to bring about the intrinsically impossible; it is like asking him to create a round square, a material body that has no shape, or an invisible object that casts a shadow. Having this power of free choice, some or all human beings misused it and produced a certain amount of evil. But free will is a sufficiently great good that its existence outweighs the evils that have resulted and will result from its abuse; and God foresaw this.”

That’s a pretty standard defense. I’ve put at bottom van Inwagen’s unintentionally humorous scenario of how humans were raised to rationality instantly, given that (as van Inwagen believes) we evolved from earlier, nonrational apes. Do read it if you think that theistic evolution is okay because its proponents are really on the side of science in the evolution/creation debates.

Now to the animals, whose pains van Inwagen explains in Lecture 7: “The sufferings of beasts.”

  • First, the existence of higher-level sentient creatures related to humans is an intrinsic good in the world, because it was the ancestors of such creatures that evolved into humans, which are the only creatures made in the image of God (see the footnote for van Inwagen’s explanation for how humans became rational and hence partly reflective of God’s image).
  • Van Inwagen offers only two possibilities for how God would have constructed a world that contains such sentient creatures:
  1. He could have designed a world using evolution and natural law, which would perforce have contained patterns of suffering morally equivalent to that of the actual world.  Natural selection, an ineluctable part of evolution, necessarily entails suffering.
  2. Or, God could have constructed a world that he calls “massively irregular.” To alleviate animal suffering, God would have had to construct a “hedonic utopia” in which there was no natural selection. Animals could, for example, all be vegetarians, feel no pain, and die peacefully. To do that, God would have to have had to constantly sustain the world by suspending natural law, for otherwise natural law would produce evolution, natural selection, and animal suffering.
  • Which of these two kinds of world would God have made? The first, of course! Why? Because a world that is “massively irregular” is a world more defective than the first alternative above. God wants a world with as few defects as possible. And why is that? Well, van Inwagen waffles a bit, but offers a tentative solution. Here’s the good part (p. 123):

“Who can say what things of intrinsic value might be impossible in a massively irregular world? We cannot say.  Here is one example of a consideration that may, for all I know, be relevant to this question.” [JAC: notice how Sophisticated Theologians™ make stuff up and then pretend that they've arrived at a rational solution.] “Christians have generally held that at a certain point God plans to hand over the government of the world to humanity. Would a massively irregular world be the sort of world that could be ‘handed over’? Perhaps a massively irregular world would immediately dissolve into chaos if an infinite being were not constantly making adjustments to it. Again, we cannot say.  If anyone maintains that he has good reasons to believe that nothing of any great value depends on the world being regular, we must ask him why he thinks he is in a a position to know things of that sort.”

Of course, to accept this convoluted argument, you have to first believe in God—otherwise, you could accept alternative #1 but claim that there is no God and all suffering is an inevitable result of the physical nature of the world and its creatures. But you must also believe that God wants to hand the world over to humans at some point and become a Deus absconditus. Now I don’t know where van Inwagen gets that; it may be in Revelations or somewhere, but I haven’t gotten to that part of the Bible yet. It seems pretty made up to me, for it converts a theistic Christianity into a deistic Christianity, and I haven’t seen other evolution-friendly theologians make such a claim.

  • Okay, so animals have to suffer because otherwise God would have had to create a defective, massively irregular world. But why so much suffering? To answer this, van Inwagen discusses the famous case of “Rowe’s Fawn,” suggested by philosopher William Rowe as an example of pointless animal suffering that counts against the existence of a loving God (read more about this example at the link). From Rowe:

“Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.

“So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse,” (What If, 44)

van Inwagen’s response here is abysmal, even wicked (pp. 125-126):

God, everyone will agree, could have miraculously prevented the fire, or miraculously saved the fawn, or miraculously caused its agony to be cut short by death. And—I will concede this for the sake of argument—if he had done so, this would have thwarted no significant good and permitted no significant evil. But what of the hundreds of millions (at least) of similar incidents that have, no doubt, occurred during the long history of life? Well, I concede, he could have prevented any one of them, or any two of them, or any three of them… without thwarting any significant good or permitting any significant evil. But could he have prevented them all? No, or not necessarily. For if God has some good reason for allowing beasts to suffer, this good reason would not be served if he prevented all cases of such suffering. There may well be no minimum number of cases of intense suffering that God could allow without forfeiting whatever good depends on the suffering of beasts—just as there is no shortest sentence that a legislature can establish as the penalty for armed assault without forfeiting the good of effective deterrence. It may well be, therefore, that the fawn suffered simply because its sufferings fell on the “actuality” side of the particular line through the set of possible instances of suffering that God chose.

In other words, as van Inwagen says, God had to draw an arbitrary line somewhere through the amount of natural evils in the world, allowing many of them. For simply eliminating all animal suffering would create a defective and massively irregular world. Therefore, the fawn happens to be on the wrong side of the line.

It seems strange to me that God, being omniscient, doesn’t know how much evil he can actually prevent without the world becoming massively irregular. If at some point God’s going to retire and hand over the world to humans, surely he’d know whether humans could still sustain a world with even more suffering than exists now: the suffering that God normally prevents—the suffering on the good side of the line.

But this is all nonsense. van Inwagen simply makes stuff up to justify animal suffering.  What is devilishly clever about theologians like him is how convoluted but seemingly rational these fairy tales really are. If you accept this, and if you accept that, then the fawn must fry. The problem is that van Inwagen gives us no reason to accept the ifs: the existence of God, the premise that God made a certain type of world because some day he will hand it over to humans, and the existence of an omniscient God making an arbitrary decision of how much suffering to allow. Nor do we see any evidence of God interceding on the far side of the line and actually eliminating some suffering of beasts.

The more parsimonious argument is, of course, that suffering is a purely natural phenomenon, the result of the physical structure of the world, evolved diseases and parasites, and a necessary sense of pain that’s evolved to warn us of dangers.  And one doesn’t have to keep writing books to justify the atheist alternative, for our Good Book was written in 1859 by Darwin.  There is no need for a science of Evolution Apologetics, because the structure of the world is perfectly in accord with science.  Scientists don’t have to make up fairy tales to buttress their falsified hypotheses.

I’m looking forward to van Inwagen’s last chapter: “The hiddeness of God,” where, I presume, he’ll show us why it is necessary for God to remain concealed from humans.

____________

Footnote: Just for fun, here is van Inwagen’s scenario for how humans became rational (p. 85 of The Problem of Evil):

“The following story is consistent with what we know of human pre-history.  Our current knowledge of human evolution, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false:

For millions of years, perhaps for thousands of millions of years, God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates, the immediate predecessors of Homo sapiens.  At some time in the last few thousand years, the whole population of our pre-human ancestors formed as a small breeding community—a few thousand or a few hundred or even a few score. That is to say, there was a time when every ancestor of modern human beings who was then alive was a member of this tiny, geographically tightly knit group of primates. In the fullness of time, God took the members of this breeding group and miraculously raised them to rationality.  That is, he gave them the gifts of language, abstract thought, and disinterested love—and, of course, the gift of free will. Perhaps we cannot understand all his reasons for giving humans beings free will, but here is one very important one we can understand: He gave them the gift of free will because free will is necessary for Love. Love, and not only erotic love, implies free will.”

116 Comments

  1. bric
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    That last passage makes the ‘Prometheus’ film seem quite reasonable . . .

  2. Kevin
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Love, and not only erotic love, implies free will.

    Has he never seen an elephant mother grieve for her dead baby? Seen a herd of wildebeest form a protective circle around the young to protect them from predators?

    When you can debunk sophisticated theology by watching “Animal Planet”, I don’t think you can say too much of the theologian.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    … In the fullness of time, God took the members of this breeding group and miraculously raised them to rationality. That is, he gave them the gifts of language, abstract thought, and disinterested love—and, of course, the gift of free will.

    It must be that van Inwagen was there to watch this happen. How else could he know? He wouldn’t make this stuff up, would he?

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      As a theologian, isn’t it his job to make this stuff up? Shocking to think about it, but he does get paid for this.

  4. Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I don’t grow weary of the sophisticated theology. I agree in general with your objections, although here are a couple of quibbles:

    (A) Here’s why it sounds as if van Inwagen is making up stories.

    What he’s trying to do here is to describe a consistent scenario in which the suffering Rowe’s fawn undergoes is something a morally perfect God could permit. He’s not trying to argue that we positively are all-things-considered justified in believing that this is why the fawn suffers. So all he needs for his purposes is a story that is for all we know possibly true.

    This is pretty unsatisfying, I admit, but theodicists tend to start by trying to “make room” for a defense, because they have other arguments that we are not justified in assigning epistemic probabilities to the hypothesis that some particular instance of suffering is justified.

    So a fuller defense might look like this:
    (1) God might permissibly allow some gratuitous evil.
    (2) Therefore, for any particular case of evil (even Rowe’s fawn), we are unjustified in believing that that is not an evil God could permissibly allow, even if it is gratuitous.
    (3) Therefore, the existence of evil does not provide evidence against God’s existence.

    This is still too quick, of course, but it should help illuminate what theodicists try to do when they offer defenses such as van Inwagen’s. (For the record, I think the main problem is the inference, if it is an inference, from (2) to (3). See more on van Inwagen’s defense here.) Again, van Inwagen wants to attack the Rowe’s fawn example in particular with an explanation of how God might permissibly permit even a gratuitous evil.

    (B) The idea isn’t that God doesn’t know how much evil to permit. Instead, van Inwagen thinks there is no determinate fact of the matter about which evils to eliminate. He could have prevented the fawn’s death, but then he would have had to allow some other evil to prevent a massively irregular world. Again, this seems a very unlikely hypothesis, but theodicists want to start by arguing that it’s at least possibly true.

    • JT
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      Very well, Tom, but now that van Inwagen has his hypothesis, he needs to find some way to test it. I’ll look forward to reading about his results in a future paper.

      • Achrachno
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        JT, I hope you’re the youngest person here because you’re certainly facing a long wait for that paper.

        • Nicolas Perrault
          Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          Dear Achrachno, do not forget this one thing. With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 2 Peter 3:8.

          • Bruce S. Springsteen
            Posted August 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

            ..by the transitive property of equality.

            • Bruce S. Springsteen
              Posted August 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, I mean symmetric property. His Blackberry must be very easy to keep current, if this is the case.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      “Again, this seems a very unlikely hypothesis, but theodicists want to start by arguing that it’s at least possibly true.”

      The gigantically enormous problem with that method of argument is that, particularly starting with the premise that the supernatural is real, which all theologians do, anything anyone cares to make up is possibly true. That goes quadruple for when you can also make up any other premises you want without the burden of providing any evidence that they are likely true or even possible.

    • Vaal
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      B) The idea isn’t that God doesn’t know how much evil to permit. Instead, van Inwagen thinks there is no determinate fact of the matter about which evils to eliminate. He could have prevented the fawn’s death, but then he would have had to allow some other evil to prevent a massively irregular world. Again, this seems a very unlikely hypothesis, but theodicists want to start by arguing that it’s at least possibly true.

      Exactly, and this mere appeal to “possibility” is what makes their efforts so impotent, in terms of rational acceptance of their arguments. That something is “possible” is no justification for believing it.

      My peanut butter sandwich is missing from my table again. I have a dog that likes peanut butter sandwiches, and has shown the proclivity of stealing them when I’m not looking, and he has peanut butter and bread crumbs around his mouth. So I have good reason to think my dog is the likely culprit.

      But..hey…it’s at least “possible,” in logical terms, that Barack Obama was hungry for a peanut butter sandwich today and dispensed secret agents to steal my sandwich and frame my dog. Or it’s possible Aliens from an unknown dimension did the same.

      It’s just that it’s not reasonable to BELIEVE these alternate scenarios.

      Likewise with suffering and evil. Van Inwagen’s approach fails all over the place. But even IF he got to a safe logical possibility as he describes it, it’s utter special pleading to go believing it over an inference more consistent with what we know.

      He is adducing the infamous “slippery slope” argument: “Hey, if God started mitigating suffering, where does He stop? I don’t know the line so oh well…it’s ok He let’s every bit possible happen.”

      But we would not accept such a line of reasoning in any other moral sphere: If a doctor had a cure for cancer would it be acceptable for him to say “Look, we can start curing cancer today but…I might not get to everyone and where do I stop? I better just not cure anyone.”

      Of course not. We don’t NEED to even have some known hard line to draw: we consider it “good,” a virtue, to do whatever one can to mitigate suffering. In fact this is exactly how “good people” operate in the world. It’s what is expected of benevolence.

      In fact, moral responsibility is held to INCREASE with knowledge and power to do something about suffering. Theodicies just turn normal reasoning on it’s head and expects us to accept that the Being most able to mitigate suffering ought to sit on His hands and do nothing, and that THIS is most moral imaginable. Pure special pleading.

      Truly Krazy.

      Vaal

      • Darth Dog
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        I don’t believe the dog did it.

  5. Ludo
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6b2CPXwDDCs

  6. Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Too many words!
    As an Atheist, I stop at the first word of “God made the world …”. What god? There are no gods. To argue with theology, you must accept some theological premisses, or at least temporarily assume that they are true. Why would an Atheist do that? For entertainment? There are more productive ways to spend one’s time. We will not talk a theologian out of his delusions, and the nominally religious neither read, nor care about, nor rely upon theological arguments; they just believe some basic nonsense.
    Our time is better spent telling the nominally religious how we understand the world and relate to it.

    • Eddie Janssen
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      We may produce our own über-sophisticated theology:
      Suppose you have a terrarium with 10 different species of animals with about 10 individuals per species. Now one of your species starts misbehaving – rather badly – in your opinion. What to do?
      A. remove the bad species from your terrarium and see what happens.
      B. remove 8 individuals of each species from your terrarium and see what happens.
      C. Acknowledge that the whole idea of a terrarium with animals is a bad idea and remove the terrarium with all the animals. Start thinking about a new challenge.
      D. Don’t do anything and see what happens.

      Write a theological treatise why God would pick each of these possibilities.

  7. Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    happily, there’s no evidence I was made in the Christian god’s image. I’m not a hateful jerk who wants people who don’t worship me murdered in toto. van Inwagen’s argument is based on his god being “good” and if the bible is any indication about this god, it’s anything but good as humans and animals know it e.g. not being hurtful for no reason other than bratty need for attention.

    People like van Inwagen keep themselves willfully ignorant so they can feel like special snowflakes.

    • EvolutionSWAT
      Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Ouch!

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    It’s all based on suppositional hypotheticals, and is much closer to the crude “suppositional hypothetics” of fundamentalists than he realizes.

  9. Harbo
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    would not a truly loving creator, just make smart plants?

    • andreschuiteman
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      But could smart plants sing his praise and worship him?

      • Achrachno
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        Sure, we can imagine anything, right?

        Besides, have you never seen a prayer plant? Very smart plants, apparently.

  10. eric
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    a world that is “massively irregular” is a world more defective than the first alternative above.

    Fails the “what about Heaven” counter-argument.

    For if God has some good reason for allowing beasts to suffer, this good reason would not be served if he prevented all cases of such suffering.

    Circular reasoning. The question is, is there a justifiable reason for allowing beasts to suffer. You get 0 points for positing that a ‘good reason’ exists as part of your argument’s premise.

    (Moving backwards…)

    But even an omnipotent being is unable to control the exercise of the power of free choice, for a choice that was controlled would ipso facto not be free.

    Fails the variability counter-argument. Basically: humans demonstrate a wide variability in their innate goodness. Some people are very kind, empathetic, law-abiding, etc. Others are not. Presumably, the very nice people still have free will. So “free will” cannot explain why we are not all as naturally good as the most naturally good 1% of humanity. God could certainly have done that without violating our free will.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      Ah, but God could not have made all people with naturally good dispositions and still had enough people to throw into Hell. It’s very important that there be a lot of people in Hell. It helps the Saved feel grateful for being saved. Gratitude is a virtue; God must make room for its development.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        “Gratitude is a virtue; God must make room for its development.”

        Hah! Thanks for the laugh! No good without evil, and no gratitude without suffering. Or should that be “and no feeling superior without being able to gloat over other beings sufferings?”

    • Iain Walker
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      “So “free will” cannot explain why we are not all as naturally good as the most naturally good 1% of humanity. God could certainly have done that without violating our free will.”

      Precisely. Even if one accepts the bizarre notion of libertarian free will, one can hardly deny that our choices are nevertheless influenced or biased by our cognitive abilities and character traits. Which means that God could have created us with cognitive abilities that made us more likely to empathise with others and to reason clearly when making moral decisions, and to be more inclined to sympathy and altruism, none of which would compromise our free will.

      So when van Inwagen says “if I have a free choice between x and y, even God cannot ensure that I choose x” he’s fallaciously assuming that it’s an either/or situation. God doesn’t have to ensure that I choose x (where x is the morally right thing to). All he has to do is create me as an entity that is statistically more likely to do x. So while the free-will defense might justify the existence of some human-caused evil, it does not come anywhere near to justifying all of it.

      • Vaal
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        ^^^^

        Yup.

        I keep making this point to theists over and over…

        They conveniently forget God as the author of human nature. “Free will” only posits someone can choose between A (evil) and B (good). It does not EXPLAIN why anyone chooses A over B. For an actual explanation we have to appeal to the nature of the person that led them to make their choice.

        Christians conveniently forget, at this point, that God is the purported author of our nature. And that if people have the inclination to sin as part of their nature, God would be culpable for that fact and we can ask why God logically couldn’t have made us with a nature wherein more people would be inclined toward choosing the Good. The world is full of real world examples of free-willed people who tend to choose good over evil, so it’s clearly a logical possibility for God to create such creatures.

        Some Christians have tried to answer for God’s culpability by appealing to Lucifer as the influence on why we choose evil. But given God created Lucifer, that only moves the problem to Lucifer: why did God create Lucifer with a nature that would impel him to “fall” and choose the path of evil?

        Not to mention the obvious: That Christians already hold that a being can be moral while having a nature of only choosing The Good: – they already believe that of Jesus and God!

        Vaal.

        • Darth Dog
          Posted August 15, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          The appeal to Lucifer doesn’t solve the problem. According to my religious friends, he is fallen and has no chance of redemption. So there is no good served by allowing him to be loose in the world causing evil.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      There’s another approach to the free will problem that’s occurred to me. Maybe not a great approach, but it seems interesting, at least:

      Even if we accept free will over determinism (I’m not sure there’s any compelling reason to do so, but that’s beside the point), it is evident that our choices are in fact limited. One cannot simply decide freely among all imaginable possibilities. I can’t choose to walk to Hawaii. I can’t choose to grow wings and fly. I can’t choose my parents, or my number of legs, or to visualize 7-dimensional space. I can’t choose to understand quantum mechanics (at least, I’m thoroughly convinced that no one really does), nor, apparently, theology.

      So, given that there are innumerable limits on free will… why not add one more? Why is it OK to disallow sentient beings from photosynthesizing, but not OK to disallow sentient beings from murdering?

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Late to the party, but here goes anyway:

      Great points, and moving even further backwards, he needs to show that free will is, in fact, a necessary component in the “best of all possible worlds.” He’s simply assumed it. What’s wrong with not having free will? There’s a good chance we don’t have it anyway.

  11. Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    I love how ’sophisticated theologians’ contradict themselves constantly yet try to hide it behind subtle language changes.

    For instance:

    ”Perhaps a massively irregular world would immediately dissolve into chaos if an infinite being were not constantly making adjustments to it.”

    So ”constantly making adjustments” is a bad thing. OK, got it.

    Now compare with:

    ”God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates”

    Now, ”Guiding the course” is a good thing!

    Same thing used to shoot down one argument is used in defence of another, simply by using a different spin.

    • Darth Dog
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      Exactly!

      For all their talk of morality, theologians obviously do not consider consistency a virtue.

    • Ryan S
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point!

  12. Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    I feel sorry for you, Jerry. I had to read this kind of garbage in graduate school but have kept away from it ever since. The whole field of philosophy of religion is intellectually moribund, with very, very few exceptions. In my next article I am planning to mention Plantinga, however. The line I am toying with is “If Plantinga insists on writing about religion, he should read those who know something about it – the scientists involved in the project of identifying and understanding the cognitive and cultural mechanisms underlying religious beliefs and practices.” That ought to be just about tu quoque for my tastes!

  13. gbjames
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    “Our current knowledge of human evolution, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false.”

    Why doesn’t he just hang a sign on himself saying “I’m an idiot.”?

  14. Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    The following story is consistent with what we know of human pre-history. Our current knowledge of human evolution, in fact, presents with no particular reason to believe that this story is false

    Did he just retell 2001: A Space Odyssey but with god playing the part of the monolith?

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      And, one hopes, without the psychedelic freakout ending…

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I think he did. Maybe in the future we’ll see 2001 introduced into the Christian canon. The book of St. Clarke.

  15. suwise3
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    “But even *an omnipotent being* is unable to control the exercise of the power..” Not the “one true God,” but AN omnipotent being? So, are there lots of them? For me to believe in an omnipotent being, he’s gotta be, well,… omnipotent.

  16. Glenn Butler
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    We see all of God’s benevolence
    His design displays intelligence
    But a zebra will surmise
    As she suffers and dies
    That lions are due to his negligence.

  17. andreschuiteman
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I hadn’t read Orr’s review of The God Delusion before. I find it surprisingly poorly argued. Take this specimen:

    None of Dawkins’s loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It’s just Dawkins talking.

    Pray, tell us whose pronouncements on God do follow from experiment or data? Which experiments or data on God could Augustine, William James or Wittgenstein (all mentioned favourably in the review) boast of?

  18. Darth Dog
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I never fail to be impressed at the lack of imagination shown in these “best of all possible worlds” arguments. His only two possibilities for the universe were evolution by natural selection or chaos. Come on. God is omnipotent. God is making the rules. If the laws of physics are taken as a given, then you don’t need a deity at all. God didn’t need to have atoms or gravity or electricity or any of the things that are characteristic of how the universe operates. God could have made any rules at all.

    #9@Harbo is an excellent example. Why not just smart plants? I guess God just didn’t think of that one. Maybe he was in a rush. Sounds a lot like Mr. Deity to me.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      Do plants enjoy being chewed, cropped, parasitised by fungi, fermented in bovine stomachs (and elsewhere), reaped, threshed, etc?

      There was three men come out o’ the west their fortunes for to try,
      And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die,

      Why do our sophisticated theologians assume that vegetarianism is a GOOD THING?

  19. DTaylor
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    …Which of these two kinds of world would God have made? The second, of course! Why? Because a world that is “massively irregular” is a world more defective than the first alternative above. God wants a world with as few defects as possible. And why is that?…

    I’m confused. It seems that God would necessarily have chosen the first kind of world if He “wants a world with as few defects as possible.” The second choice doesn’t seem consistent with the argument that follows as to why he chose what he did.

    • DTaylor
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      Sorry for the formatting lapse. The first paragraph is a quote.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I meant the first, and have corrected it. Thanks.

      jac

  20. Desnes Diev
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    “God made the world and it was very good. An indispensable part of the goodness he chose was the existence of rational beings: self-aware beings capable of abstract thought and love and having the power of free choice between contemplated alternative courses of action”

    I really don’t see how van Inwagen can conciliate that with the numerous biblical examples that show God’s disdain for “free will” and rational thoughts. Even from the beginning since when Adam & Eve acquired some kind of free will, God “rewarded” them with pain and suffering. Another example is the way how God manipulated the will of Pharaoh so he could “reward” the Egyptians with plagues. There is also the whole story of Job. Even in the New Testament, free will and rationality are not really stimulated.

    Denes Diev

    • Sastra
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Apparently God wants rational, free-willed beings who will choose to give themselves over to an authority whom they will no longer question. Submission and humility before the Lord.

      The world is as it is in order to break the will of the defiant. No wonder apologists have no problem coming up with theodicies.

      • Tulse
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        “I have given you free will — use it as I want you to or I’ll torture you forever.”

        • Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          isn’t that part of the fun being a sadist, someone willing allowing you to harm them?

      • Desnes Diev
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        You remind me that the Flood is another case of God’s “leniency” in face of free will: if Humans choose wrong, kill them (all).

        The victims certainly learned submission. For humility, it’s less clear (or more muddy?).

        Denes Diev

  21. Chris
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Jerry: “Which of these two kinds of world would God have made? The second, of course!”

    You mean the first world, I believe.

    ~~

    What I don’t understand, and perhaps this is a facile or even idiotic objection, is why World #2 would be ‘massively irregular’. His argument really seems to be based on the idea that the natural order we find in the world now is the only •possible• natural order, but if World #2 was the only world (or simply an additional one) that existed, then that would be the natural order of things. It’s absurd for him to suggest that God could only create this world and ‘Crazy World’. This seems like an obvious false dichotomy. God, being omnipotent, could surely create quite a large variety of conceivable natural orders – surely he could create a natural order in which the natural order is just as we see it now, but Rowe’s fawn dies a quick death. That world would have one less gratuitous evil, and so be a better world than this one, without any loss of free will, etc.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Yes, as I said above, I erred and have fixed it. Thanks.

  22. Greg G
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    For if God has some good reason for allowing beasts to suffer, this good reason would not be served if he prevented all cases of such suffering.

    If an omnipotent god had some reason for allowing beasts to suffer, it wouldn’t be a good one because it could achieve the same results without the suffering, or else the word omnipotent has no meaning. If the god could achieve the same result without the suffering, then the suffering is unnecessary. Therefore, the god chooses to allow unnecessary suffering, cannot be benevolent, and must be considered sadistic.

  23. Darth Dog
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Even the free will defense strikes me as strange for a Christian apologist. After all, what is the most famous sin of all time? Was it murder? Torture? Mayhem? No, it was…wait for it…taking a bite out of an apple.

    So somehow The Original Sin, the act that caused the Fall of humanity from grace, caused the whole of creation to turn bad, required Christ to become human and be tortured and killed to redeem humanity, was an act that did not require any suffering at all. God was able to construct a scenario where Adam and Eve had free will and were sufficiently tested without any bad consequences (in terms of their direct act) for anyone else.

    And it’s hard for a Christian to argue that the world of Adam and Eve was inferior to ours. After all, the Garden of Eden is a synonym for paradise.

    Or take another famous example, the fall of Lucifer. His great sin was a sin of pride. He didn’t get into the murder and torture stuff until after he got kicked out of heaven (I always wonder why God didn’t lock Satan up or something after he proved to be a bad egg instead of turning him loose on the world). So here is another example where free will existed and a free choice was made without anyone having to suffer as a direct consequence of the action.

    Don’t Christian apologists even read their own holy book?

  24. RWO
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    van Inwagen concedes god could prevent any or all instances of needless animal suffering and death, presumably because god is omnipotent, yet posits that god is temperate when making choices about when to apply his omnibenevolent power because he … has his reasons. Good reasons. Choosing not to end unnecessary suffering/death is a choice necessary to god’s plan.

    Human children who choose to inflict suffering or death upon animals are swiftly socialized by parents and the community at large to understand that this is unacceptable behavior. Those children who persist in this behavior are known to sometimes mature into adults with ASPD disorders who can be lethally dangerous.

    There are laws against behavior that is deemed cruel to animals, and those laws are the result of socialized norms in civilized societies. So far god has not seen fit to provide a tablet of good reasons when those animal cruelty laws are not applicable.

  25. PJLandis
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    See ‘God’s Problem’ by Bart Ehrman.

    He covers all of the sophisticated explanations for the problem of suffering.

  26. Sastra
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    The Christian narrative is based on a single theme: all value is ultimately derived from God. God is what counts, it is what matters. This premise allows other things — people, animals, the ‘creatures’ — to be used as living props, literary devices which are not ends in themselves, but a means to an ends. Their only value lies in their relationship to God.

    I once saw “evil” defined that way.

    • kennyrb
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Yes. Put another way, if God was before everything then why was it necessary to create any beings at all other than to satisfy some self-centered desire?

      Also, as has already been stated up-thread, heaven = massively irregular world.

      • Tulse
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        If the Christian god is perfect why would he desire to create anything, or feel a lack that needed to be filled?

    • Kevin
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Isn’t that the textbook definition of a sociopath?

  27. saguhh00
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    So the best possible world is a world full of suffering because a world full of evil is a good world. I never want t o find out what Plantinga believes is a horrible world.

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      we already know what that is. A world where everything agrees with him and benefits him. Where even the suffering of others is right and good since it “teaches” dear Platty.

      • Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        ack, hacked that up right well. we know twhat a good world is (see above) and a horrible world is where suffering doesnt’ benefit him and his lies.

  28. Rob
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    “In other words, as van Inwagen says, God had to draw an arbitrary line somewhere through the amount of natural evils in the world, allowing many of them.”

    An omnipotent(*) god was forced to do something? Why? Change the rules.

    (*) Well, except for that pesky iron chariot.

  29. Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    For a really wonderful example of Sophisticated Theology, I recommend the following article (in that marvelous warehouse of philosophical knowledge, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) about the conundrum of bodily resurrection, in which all three of the Abrahamic traditions believe: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/afterlife/#PosSurMat. Peter van Inwagan makes an appearance.

    Also, has anyone ever come across Swinburne’s a priori argument for why God must be truine in nature? If you’re feeling down an need a chuck, it’s worth a read. In sum, the argument goes like this:

    First, God is perfectly loving. Second, God didn’t have to create anything that he created – he was free to have not brought the universe into existence. Third, love that’s perfect requires there to be a beloved; i.e., one cannot be perfectly loving without someone to receive one’s love. It follows, Swinburne thinks, that since God might not have created the universe and since perfect love requires a beloved, there must necessarily be a second divine person. This yields a duality of divine persons, but not the desired truinity. Thus, Swinburne adds that that it’s “obvious that truly perfect love requires not only one beloved, but also a third object of love – an additional person whom lover and beloved can cooperate together in loving” – i.e., a child (apparently male rather than female). Now we have a trinity. In sum, Swinburne maintains that if God is perfectly loving, then he must consist of three distinct persons – “but there is no reason to suppose that there must be more than three.” (Quoted from my book A Crisis of Faith.)

    Raise your had if you’re now convinced that God is three-persons-in-one!

    • Iain Walker
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      “Third, love that’s perfect requires there to be a beloved; i.e., one cannot be perfectly loving without someone to receive one’s love.”

      Being loving is a dispositional trait, and so can be ascribed counterfactually – i.e., if there were an object of love available, then one would be loving (even perfectly loving) towards it.

      Of course, some theists of the classical variety like to claim that God cannot have any unactualised potentials, which would entail that God cannot be loving unless he actually loves, but I’m not sure if Swinburne has that excuse available to him, since the God he defends usually falls more into the tradition of personal theism.

    • Sines
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      It makes a sort of sense for there two be a two-part deity (if, of course, you assume all of the rather big assumptions regarding the monotheistic god), but once you get to the justification for the third part of the trinity, he really just pulls that one out of his ass with even less justification than is usual for an apologist.

      It is possible that you misrepresented that third part, but I have a feeling that it’s a reasonably accurate representation. The logic to get to a two-part god stops there.

      *sigh* I wouldn’t mind theologians so much if their unjustified assertions were at least ones that did not contradict sense and evidence. If you really believe there is a god, and are honestly searching for it, you should reject monotheism as incoherent, or at the very least, wildly more unlikely than competing theistic conceptions with FAR fewer internal and external contradicts.

    • lkr
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      …but the ‘child’ of the triune has all the only-child issues. So more ‘children’…. no, oh, I see, jesus gets a pet, Ceiling Cat!

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Also, notice that there’s no mention of the female gender here. Based on Swinburne’s discussion, it sounds to me like God is a gay couple with a son. That is to say, you would think there’d be something not only about how perfect love involves a lover and a beloved, but about how it also involves the gender poles: one male and one female. Swinburne says nothing about this. And I find that a bit funny.

    • mandreliian
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Well, that gels perfectly with The Book of Armaments, Chapter 2, detailing the usage of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

      “Three shall be the number of the counting; and the number of the counting shall be three … five is RIGHT OUT!”

  30. Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Ahem, if you’re feeling down AND need a CHUCKLE. Sheesh, fingers.

  31. Sines
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    “To do that, God would have to have had to constantly sustain the world by suspending natural law…”

    You really don’t understand what ‘all-powerful’ means, do you, Inwagen? You do realize Yahweh could have simply created DIFFERENT natural laws, don’t you?

    For people all too willing to insist that god is all-powerful, they certainly never seem to understand what that means. It’s especially interesting given how the Bible doesn’t depict an all-powerful god. While it may say he’s all-powerful in a few cases, his actions (even in the New Testament) suggest that he most certainly is not. Given the chance to utilize the Big Book of Multiple Choice to their own ends, you’d think they’d make ‘metaphorical’ the passages about Yahwehs supposed omnipotence, using his actions as evidence.

    Indeed, my mom is an unspecific theist, and when presented with the problem of evil, will simply say that he’s not perfect, and simply doing the best he can. This simple concession stops most of my arguments in their tracks. She may still have no evidence for her claims, but at least she isn’t claiming anything blatantly contradicted by the evidence.

    If Sophisticated Theologians wanted to make any real progress, then perhaps they could make the concession my mother is willing to make. That’s what I would expect of someone seriously examining the God Hypothesis. Someone who is willing to use the real world evidence to shape a conclusion.

    Instead, these people start with a conclusion, which includes an all-powerful deity. They tie themselves in knots trying to justify it, when there is an obvious, still theistic, answer staring them in the face.

    It’s this commitment to a few very specific end-results that are massively contradicted by the evidence that reveals these Sophisticated Theologians as anything but serious scholars.

    If you aren’t willing to concede to the non-interventionist god of the deists, the battling deities of dualism, or the weak deity of my mother, then you aren’t even trying, as each of these provides a simple and obvious solution to theodicy. That these people do not even entertain these options reveals their bias. They are not interested in God. They are interested in Yahweh. Anything else isn’t even worth considering.

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      “Indeed, my mom is an unspecific theist, and when presented with the problem of evil, will simply say that he’s not perfect, and simply doing the best he can.”

      That’s better than most, but I would still be wondering, “doing the best he can?” – doing what, exactly?

      • Sines
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

        Presumably, when people point out it’s a miracle that 1 person survived when 29 other people died, and they’re asked why the others had to die to, my mom would say something along the lines that god was unable to stop the event or save everyone, and he was just able to save that one person.

        Basically, unlikely good events get ascribed to him, but bad events are just unfortunate problems that are too much for him to handle compeletely. I’m just guessing here though, as I’ve never asked her that precisely.

        It does mean that when people survive intensive hospital care that she gives at least partial credit to the doctors. After all, god is limited, so he needs all the help he can get.

        Exactly how he’s supposed to manifest his aid, I have no idea, nor do I think she does. But still, I much prefer my moms unjustified theistic beliefs to the counter-factual beliefs of most.

  32. Iain Walker
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    “Animals could, for example, all be vegetarians, feel no pain, and die peacefully. To do that, God would have to have had to constantly sustain the world by suspending natural law, for otherwise natural law would produce evolution, natural selection, and animal suffering.” – van Inwagen

    There seems to be a blind spot shared by theodicists, such that they keep coming up with theodicies arguing that God has to go about things in a particular way, because of some prior constraint – a constraint which when you stop and think about it, is an arbitrary constraint that is under God’s control. The only reason why “natural law” might produce evolution, natural selection, and animal suffering is if God set up “natural law” that way to begin with. So there is in fact no reason why van Inwagen’s hedonic utopia should be “massively irregular”, requiring constant intervention. His distinctly heterodox argument that God wants to hand the world over to humanity is hence irrelevant since the premise on which it depends (a hedonic utopia would dissolve into chaos without tinkering) is unfounded.

    “For millions of years, perhaps for thousands of millions of years, God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates, the immediate predecessors of Homo sapiens.”

    I know that Sean Slater made this point at #13, but it bears repeating: God can intervene to manipulate evolution, but he can’t intervene to save a fawn from a fiery death? It would be more consistent to take the Ken Miller approach, in which God just waits for evolution to throw up an intelligent species – any intelligent species – and then sticks a soul in it.

    “At some time in the last few thousand years, the whole population of our pre-human ancestors formed as a small breeding community [...] In the fullness of time, God took the members of this breeding group and miraculously raised them to rationality.” – van Inwagen

    A few thousand years ago? IIRC, the archaeological evidence for the kind of material culture associated with higher-level cognition goes back many tens of thousands of years.

    “He gave them the gift of free will because free will is necessary for Love. Love, and not only erotic love, implies free will” – van Inwagen

    Oh dear. Trust a philosopher to suppose that human behaviour is far more rational and deliberative than it actually is (and I say that as a philosophy graduate).

  33. Charles Jones
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It drives me nuts to hear theologians say that because God gave humans free will, ergo he filled some with the desire to molest children and steal stuff.

    God couldn’t possibly have made humans lacking the *desire* to do evil, could He?

  34. deadweasel
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I can’t wait for van Inwagen’s explanation of how God’s “hiddeness,” his ability to conceal his nature, motives, and actions, is compatible with van Inwagen’s knowledge of God’s nature, motives and actions.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      First thing that came to my mind as well. Not to mention the whole “humans are so pathetically stupid they are incapable of understanding god’s plans, thoughts, whatever.”

      What makes van Inwagen so special? Why do theologians even try?

  35. Thanny
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    “…we must ask him why he thinks he is in a a position to know things of that sort.”

    At least he contributed this useful tidbit, which is applicable to pretty much everything written by any theologian, ever.

  36. MNb
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    “So far, all of it has been pretty dire and unconvincing.”
    Obviously you – and I – are suppósed to think it unconvincing. But even if we remain unconvinced, we still could appreciate some positive features. If theology were

    1) using crystal clear definitions and meanings, instead of ambiguity;
    2) making clear which assumptions it uses;
    3) using consistent and rigorous methods;
    4) would avoid basic mistakes like mixing up causality and teleology;
    5) would not try to bend empiric data to make them fit;
    6) would not misrepresent scientific theories to make them fit;
    7) would not cherry pick those scientific theories and empiric data which fit best;
    8) in short would try to clarify instead of obscure,

    then I would have respect for theology, just like I have respect for Plato, who cannot convince me either.
    I don’t even mind the post facto rationalizations. Just be honest and admit it.

    A few years ago I confronted a Dutch theologian with the problem of evil. His answer was very honest: “So what? I still have faith. What matters is how we put our ideas in practice.”
    A few weeks the answer of a Dutch moslim was very similar: “I don’t have all the answers.”
    Now thát is something I respect, not the sophistication.

    • Sines
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I did once see Hitchens and Harris debate two jewish theologians who appeared to be approaching god as a scientific hypothesis. It was the only time I’ve ever seen theists approaching the ‘god hypothesis’ with intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the details of it to make it easier to look up. It might be the only Harris and Hitchens (with no other atheists) team ups though, which might help.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      A few years ago I confronted a Dutch theologian with the problem of evil. His answer was very honest: “So what? I still have faith. What matters is how we put our ideas in practice.”

      That’s not honest; that’s a cop-out, and an attempt to change the subject. Imagine that same response given in another area. “My statement seems wrong? So what? I refuse to change my mind anyway. Let’s talk about how it’s more important to be nice than right — while I continue to think I’m right.”

  37. gillt
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I was lucky enough to take a very influential course on the philosophy of religion taught by William Rowe at Purdue University as an undergrad. He’s a very amiable atheist and very approachable. I give great credit to him and the course he designed for helping me think my way to atheism.

  38. Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Great article. My only quibble is that instead of “plywood” I think you meant “particle board.” Plywood is not cheap and is not flimsy — it’s almost certainly helping to hold up your house right now. :-) haters gotta hate baby

  39. David Leech
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    “For millions of years, perhaps for thousands of millions of years, God guided the course of evolution so as eventually to produce certain very clever primates, the immediate predecessors of Homo sapiens.”

    So no Adam and Eve. Why did Jebus have to die on the cross again?

  40. MNb
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    ” an omnipotent being is unable”
    Not omnipotent.
    And what about heaven, Peter van Ingwagen?

    “free will is a sufficiently great good that its existence outweighs the evils that have resulted.”
    Do you have the courage to tell Elisabeth Fritzl, Peter van Ingwagen? How do you thinks she will react if you tell her that the free will of her father is “a sufficiently great good that its existence outweighs her getting raped two, three times a week for more than 24 years?” Do you even have the courage to think about this? Abstract wordings are nice – I want to know how this works in daily life. And know what? Dostojevsky already has pointed this out in The Brothers Karamazov.
    The “irregularity” argument doesn’t work either, as soon as we get concrete. An omnipotent god could have given daddy Joseph Fritzl a heart attack after say one or two weeks. He could have used the laws of science to straighten things out.

    “van Inwagen’s response here is abysmal, even wicked”
    That’s always where they end and I realized it when I was 13 or 14. That was the moment I rejected christianity.

    ” But could he have prevented them all? No, or not necessarily.”
    Oh yes, he could. What’s more, sooner or later scientists, especially statisticians, would have found it. It would have been the most impressive revelation ever. Period. God helps us by means of statistics, what more do we want?

  41. Mary - Canada
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, the illusion of free will promotes this hucksterism.

  42. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    So, in other words, it’s For God so loves the world that he doesn’t do jack shit.

  43. Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    God wants a world with as few defects as possible.

    This makes no sense. Isn’t Natural Selection a mechanism that operates on the endless production of mutations (defects?)

    • Kevin
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, where’s the evidence that god wants as few defects as possible?

      It’s presuppositional thinking all the way down, I’m afraid.

      • Posted August 15, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        Yeah. If defect minimization is the goal, surely there would be better options at His disposal.

        And no, I won’t stop calling you Shirley. :)

  44. darrelle
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    So, in short Inwagen’s answer to the problem of evil is that, contrary to traditional christian beliefs, god is actually not omniscient, not omnipotent, he is lazy, he is not very smart, and he just doesn’t really give a shit.

    Reminds me of that Star Trek episode where the Enterprise is trapped and abused by a god like being that turns out to be a child misbehaving while its parents are away.

  45. Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Perhaps, if Atheists must read every ounce of sophistimacated theology (especially CS Lewis, you just CAN’T be an Atheist after reading why the guy who invented a fairy tale about a talking Lion thinks that Jesus was the Son of God!) before espousing our unbelief, perhaps all believers must also suffer this condition before they can claim that they truly believe in God. I have a feeling that this would possibly generate more atheists than theists, since, a lot of sophisticated theology seems to offer very little theism, and instead provides narrative for an all powerful and all knowing being who can neither do anything other than fart out the universe, nor know anything other than that he wanted some peeps to love him. As the oft quoted Epicurus stated, “Then why call him God?” It seems less a matter of why one should believe in God, and more a matter of how one possibly could if one really, really wanted to without descending into a worldview of utter fantasy.

  46. Scott de B.
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    “This last feature of rational beings, free choice or free will, is a good. ”

    You see this all the time — free will is good, humans have free will, therefore humans will commit evil acts.

    To which I respond: Are there evil acts in heaven? If not, is that because those who are in heaven do not have free will? Or do they have the freedom to act evilly, but choose not to do so?

    Either way, you have a paradox. Either free will is not really necessary for the good of humans, or you can have a world where free will exists but humans do not act evilly, or thirdly, Heaven is wracked by periodic rebellions.

    Usually at this point theologians will go on about Original Sin and the fallen world, but why doesn’t that correspond to Heaven? If Adam and Eve could turn Eden into our current fallen world by an act of free will, why can’t their souls do the same thing to Heaven?

  47. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I will become keenly interested in sophisticated theology the day theologians come up with a proof of the existence of God. What kind of proof? A solid scientific one founded on reason and evidence. This will never materialize because theology takes God’s existence for granted. After all theology is the study of God, not a balanced and rigorous enquiry pertaining to his existence.

  48. Sastra
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I sometimes suspect that theologians secretly believe that God allows a world with just the amount of evil it has because otherwise their attempts to defend their faith despite this wouldn’t be as impressive to Him.

  49. Tulse
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    To alleviate animal suffering, God would have had to construct a “hedonic utopia” in which there was no natural selection. Animals could, for example, all be vegetarians, feel no pain, and die peacefully.

    “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be food for you. And to the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it–I give every green plant for food. And it was so” (Genesis 1:29-30)

  50. squinky101
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Too bad all Europeans have Neanderthal DNA in their cells because God chose not to “raise them to rationality”. Even though Neanderthals could build tools and evidently create art, God made sure they went extinct (or lacking sufficient rationality, used their free will to make choices that made them extinct…wait, they didn’t have free will). Yep, one Neanderthal snuck into the 1000-member rationality compound and mated with a hapless rational homo (or maybe they fell in love, or one of them did anyway. Oh, and by the way, what WAS she/he thinking letting a moronic primitive near their nether bits?). Anyway, God must have been pissed when he learned (already knew?) that an unrational primate had diluted the genes of the chosen, miraculously improved homo squad which no doubt would result in: half-bloods. Could they experience love, think abstractly, or create art? Who can say? But if the big man upstairs had blessed the Neanderthals with rationality after all then why would he proceed to exterminate them from the world in a clean stroke of ethnic cleansing? Maybe it’s just more animal cruelty.

  51. ojwatson
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Hey – I agree with Rich. Plywood is a noble material combining the best qualities of natural and manufactured qualities. How about fibreboard, particleboard, cardboard or papier-mâché? But even these are fine for what they set out to do. How about “vaneered fibreboard passing itself off as mahogany”?

  52. ojwatson
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    veneered, even. Sorry.

  53. ojwatson
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Or as I meant to spell: veneered, even. Sorry.

  54. MadScientist
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Ugh; Sophisticated Theology ™ is just too full of stupid for me to read. Now and then I might get to the fifth sentence before I head off to do useful things.

  55. Jim Jones
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Clearly cats are far more clever than Sophisticated Theologians™. By van Inwagen’s scenario does this mean that ‘god’ must be Ceiling Cat?

  56. PJLandis
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    In most of these other comment sections there is usually one or two people who pop up to defend the faith but it seems like they avoid these Theology posts.

  57. PJLandis
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    …and I’d like to see guest posting on this topic by philosophers. Theologians claim to be working in a serious academic field, I would be interested to see what a serious philosopher would make of this stuff.

  58. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    This tactic of dismissing atheists because they haven’t read the likes of Duns Scotus has been debunked by P. Z. Myers in a famous post called “The Courtier’s Reply.“

    To counter this accusation, I’ve been making a thorough study of Sophisticated Theology™ and conveying the results to you. Think of it as a Reader’s Digest of theology.

    So far, all of it has been pretty dire and unconvincing. One could say, I suppose, that I am biased, and am looking to dismiss what are actually quite subtle and “nuanced” (run when you hear that word!) theological arguments. To counter that, I’ve tried to present the Sophisticated Theologians™ fairly,

    Of course I am grateful, because it teaches a lot. But will it suffice for the purpose?

    Reading Orr or really any religious fundamentalist, it is clear that no degree of pushing back the border to Bizzaro World by surveying and dismissing will suffice. Dawkins tried that by surveying the area and tackling the claims head on. But Orr isn’t satisfied with dismissal, he wants people to visit Bizzaro World and wrestle with Bizzaro Number 1 and his superpowers of stupidity:

    “Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer,3 both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein—both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan.”

    So Dawkins, Adams and Sagan is “middlebrow” and, the Zombie help us, Wittgenstein is a “thinker”. Wittgenstein, of course, never contributed to science or litterature (except for, apparently, “one book review, one article,” and “a children’s dictionary” [Wp]). And he was an agnostic – so much for able thinking.

    More to the point, between the all the dismissals, I don’t see how these people will be satisfied without anyone writing tomes on “biblical history” and “christian theology” and pretend that it isn’t factually and intellectually vacuous. It would take a lunatic like Wittgenstein to do that.

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      These statements about Augustine burn my onions! In many ways he took the bible literally, including the existence of the Garden of Eden. And see here for Augustine’s literal interpretation of Psalm 47, in which forty-odd children were, by God’s order, ripped to pieces by she-bears because they made fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head.

      And what about the other Church fathers, and millions of readers through history, persisting until today, who do take the Bible literally?

      Frankly, I’m tired of accommodationists holding up Augustine as THE correct interpreter of the Bible when a) he was often a literalist and b) he’s not in accord with the many, many people to took, and take, the Bible literally.

  59. Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    “Would a massively irregular world be the sort of world that could be ‘handed over’? Perhaps a massively irregular world would immediately dissolve into chaos if an infinite being were not constantly making adjustments to it.”

    Why should it? Can’t an omnipotent god make a massively irregular (a dysphemism for “good”) world that would not dissolve into chaos if S/He were not constantly tweaking it? If not, S/He’s not omnipotent. Just make it self-tweaking, for heaven’s sake!

  60. ah58
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    My question is, why should we care about what god thinks is a good world if it sucks for us?

  61. Schenck
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I have to wonder what happens to this sort of thinking when/if we end up realizing that there’s lots of sentient beings on other planets throughout the universe. Do we say all of them were created by god, none other than us were, only some were, etc. Surely something very human like could evolve naturally, even if you reject that human beings did, how do will we distinguish between the natural-sentients and the god-directed sentients? How will sophicateded theology demonstrate that we aren’t, after all that, a naturally sentient species?
    Obviously a bit of a far fetched problem, but surely this problem will arise some day. These types of arguments are going to look even more stupid than they do now if/when that day comes.

  62. Warlock
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Since when do we have free will? I missed that memo.


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