Intro to book (part 2) for comments

Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Second half of the intro to my new book on intellectual black holes. Much of this material will already be familiar to many of you. For comments...

Two threats to the rationality of theism

Our discussion will include several examples of how our eight strategies are used to deal with intellectual challenges to theism – to belief in God. I will focus on two intellectual challenges in particular: (i) the evidential problem of evil, and (ii) the problem of non-temporal agency. Because it is easy to underestimate the power of these objections, it’s well worth clarifying them at the outset. Readers already familiar with these objections can of course skip ahead to the next chapter.

The logical and evidential problems of evil

Perhaps the best-known challenge to theism is the so-called problem of evil. In fact there are at least two versions of the problem – the logical problem and the evidential problem.

The logical problem is essentially simple. It is a challenge to belief in the traditional God of monotheism – a god that is (i) all-powerful, (ii) all-knowing, and (iii) all-good, or supremely benevolent. To indicate when it’s this particular god that is being discussed, I’ll use a capital “G”.

The challenge is: if there is a such a God, why does evil exist? “Evil” in this context means either moral evil - agents doing things that are morally wrong, such as killing, stealing, torture and so on – and/or natural evil, such as the natural diseases and disasters that cause very great suffering. Surely, the argument runs, an all-powerful God would have the ability to create a world without such depravity and suffering. Being all-knowing, he would know whether a world he created would contain evil, and being all-good, he would not desire the existence a world containing evil. But the world does contain evil. Therefore there is no such God.

Notice that this particular argument against the existence of God requires only that some evil exist. It matters not how little there is. The claim is that the existence of any evil at all logically entails that there is no God.

One standard theistic response to the logical problem is to say that God might create a world containing some evil, if that evil allowed greater goods. For example, war is a result of our exercising our free will. God could have made us mere puppet beings. He could have had full control of our actions and prevented us from starting wars. But puppet beings are not morally responsible for what they do. They cannot be morally virtuous. So a world of puppet beings would lack a particularly important variety of goodness – moral goodness, which requires free agents doing good of their own volition. In order for the world to contain that kind of good, God had to cut our strings. As a result, some evil exists – that caused by our freely choosing to do wrong. But this evil is more than outweighed by the good that free will allows.

Interesting though the logical problem of evil is, it is not the problem I’m going to focus on here. My concern is with a different problem - the evidential problem of evil. The evidential problem starts, not by noting that the world contains some evil, but with the observation that it contains an enormous amount of both moral evil and pain and suffering. Even if God had to allow some evil for the sake of certain greater goods, surely he could have no reason to allow quite so much. We can sharpen this problem by noting that God will presumably not allow any gratuitous evil to exist. God, if he exists, must have good reason for allowing every last ounce of it.

Yes, for an affluent Westerner, life can be pretty good. However, for much of humanity, life is lived out in grinding poverty, frustration, misery, sickness and horror. Parents watch their children starve, or die in appalling suffering caused by diseases such as cancer and natural disasters such as the 2005 Pakistan earthquake which buried thousands of them alive. Enormous numbers of humans are struck down and killed in an appalling slow and cruel way, leaving many so physically and psychologically that they bow out in despair. Such human suffering has being going on for a several million years, long before we very recently developed civilizations and technologies such as medicine and anaesthetics capable reducing it a little. In ancient times and during the Middle Ages, almost one in three children died before they reached the age of five. Even before we humans made an appearance, other sentient inhabitants of this planet – including our own forerunners – had to endure literally unimaginable quantities of pain and suffering doled out over hundreds of millions of years. And of course such animal suffering continues today. A recent episode of a BBC wildlife documentary concluded with an interview with one of the cameramen new to the team. He had been filming komodo dragons poisoning, then slowly tracking their water buffalo victim over a period of weeks, until it become so weak they could eat it alive. It was an episode of such cruelty and horror that the cameraman confessed he was now considering giving up wildlife photography as it was too much to stomach. We inhabit a beautiful but staggeringly cruel world.

Surely, if there was a God, he would not unleash such vast quantities of appalling suffering. Some suffering perhaps. But nothing like this much. We can sharpen the problem by noting that God will presumably not allow any pointless or gratuitous suffering – not even an ounce. He may allow some for the sake of greater goods. But isn’t the existence of so much seemingly pointless suffering that has and continues to be endured by living things excellent evidence that, even if there is some sort of creator or intelligence behind the universe – perhaps even a god – it isn’t the Judeo-Christian God? While the existence of such a being might remain a possibility, it is surely a very unlikely one.


Theists have developed a range of responses to the evidential problem of evil. One type of response is to construct a theodicy – an explanation for why God would, after all, create or allow such quantities of suffering. Here are three popular examples:

Free will theodicy. Free will may be invoked to deal with not just the logical problem, but also the evidential problem, of evil. Here’s an example. God could have made us puppet beings that always did the right thing. But then the world would have lacked the most important form of goodness - moral goodness. So God cut our strings and set us free. Unfortunately, as a result, we sometimes choose to do wrong – we start wars, steal, kill, and so on. But all these evils are still outweighed by the good free will allows. That is why God allows them.

Character-building theodicy. This is, in the words of theologian John Hick, a “vale of soul making”. Someone who has suffered will often say they don’t regret it. They may learn from the experience. The suffering we experience is not pointless. It is there to give us opportunities. For example, a parent watching their child learn to ride a bike will inevitably have to watch their child fall and hurt themselves a few times. But of course, when the child finally masters their bike and shouts “Look at me! I can do it!”, the pain they experienced in the process becomes worthwhile – their sense of achievement at having persevered through the pain and learnt to ride would not be possible otherwise. Yes we suffer, but there’s a good reason for it.

Laws of nature theodicy. In order for us to have the opportunity to act on our environment, and interact with each other in it, the universe must be law governed. There must be a predictability to what will happen if, say, I strike this match. I need to know a flame will result. If, when a match is struck, it sometimes results in a flame, but sometimes a cherry, sometimes disappears, sometimes causes my eyebrows to grow very fast, etc. etc – if, in short, the behaviour of the physical world were random and chaotic – there would be no point in my trying to do anything. So laws are required for the very great good of our being able to perform actions, such as the action of helping our fellow humans. However, there is a downside to such laws. The laws that allow us to walk about and interact with each other on this planet have other consequences – such as tidal waves and earthquakes. These, in turn, cause pain and suffering. However, that pain and suffering is outweighed by the goods such laws allow, such as good done of our free will. And there are other benefits too, as the Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, the physicist and theologian, points out. About earthquakes, Polkinghorne says:

Earthquakes occur, and if they are under the sea they generate tsunamis, because there are tectnoic plates that sometimes slip. Would it not have been better, therefore, for God to arrange the earth to have a solid crust all over? The answer is, No, it wouldn’t. The gaps between the plates enable mineral resources to well up from deeper down and replenish the face of the earth. Without this happening, life would not be able to keep going very long. (p17 of Questions of Truth, John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).

So the very great good of life on earth actually requires that there be earthquakes.

These three theodicies are merely examples. Many more have been devised. Of course, all three of my examples have obvious limitations. The free will theodicy, for example, explains, at best, only the evils caused by our own free actions. It fails to explain natural evils, such as the pain and suffering caused by diseases and natural disasters. However, despite their individual limitations, many theists believe that such theodicies can collectively, if not entirely solve the evidential problem of evil, then at least bring it down to manageable proportions, so that it can no longer be supposed to deal a fatal blow to traditional theism.

But is this true? Consider a rather different God hypothesis. Suppose there is a maximally powerful, all-knowing creator. Only this creator is not maximally good, but maximally evil. His cruelty and malice know no bounds. Call this the evil God hypothesis.

How plausible is the evil God hypothesis? Almost everyone dismisses it out of hand, of course. It’s a patently ridiculous suggestion. But why? Notice that many of the standard arguments for the existence of God, such as that the universe must have a designer, or that that it must have a first cause, or be the product of a necessary being, actually have nothing to say about the moral properties of this cosmic designer/creator/necessary being. They support the evil god hypothesis just as much as they support the good God hypothesis. So why dismiss the evil god hypothesis out of hand?

There is a very obvious reason, of course: the evidential problem of good. Yes, the world contains much evil. But it also contains a great deal of good. Far too much good, in fact, for this world to be the creation of and maximally powerful and supremely evil being. Why, for
example, would an evil god:

• Bestow upon some individuals immense health, wealth and happiness (surely he’d rather, say, torture them for all eternity with a red hot poker?)
• Put natural beauty into the world, which gives us pleasure?
• Allow us to perform selfless deeds, which are both a moral good and reduce the amount of suffering that exists?
• Give us children to love who love us unconditionally love (for an evil god despises love)?
• Give us beautiful healthy fit young bodies (rather than say, ugly, painful, arthritic bodies)?

Notice how the evidential problem of good mirrors the evidential problem of evil. If you believe in a good god, you face the challenge of explaining why there is so much evil in the world; if you believe in an evil god you face the challenge of explaining why there is so much good. Why, then, do those who believe in a good god typically consider one problem to be much more significant than the other?

For notice that, just as theodicies can be constructed to try to explain away the problem of evil, mirror theodicies can be constructed to try to explain away the problem of good. Here are three examples:

Reverse Free will theodicy. Evil god could have made us puppet beings that always did the wrong thing, so that we always acted to maximize pain and suffering But then the world would have lacked one of the most profound and important forms of evil - moral evil: evil freely done of our own volition for which we can be held morally responsible. For an evil God, a world lacking moral evil is seriously deficient. So evil god cut our strings and set us free. As a result, we sometimes choose to do good – we sometimes selflessly help each other, for example. But such goods are outweighed by the moral evils free will allows. Which is why evil god allows them.

Character-destroying theodicy. This is a vale, not of soul making, but of soul destruction. Evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair. Why does evil god create natural beauty? To provide some contrast. To make what is ugly seem even more so. If everything were uniformly ugly, we wouldn’t be tormented by it half as much as if it contained some beauty. Contrast also explains why some a few enjoy lavish lifestyles and success. Their happiness is designed to make the rest of us suffer even more: from jealousy, resentment and frustration. No one can rest content (and remember, too, that deep down, even the few on which these gifts are bestowed not really happy). Why does evil God allow us to have children to love and that love us unconditionally in return? Because it’s only if we really care about someone that we can really made to agonize about them. Parent knows the depths of anguish and suffering that children brings. Why does an evil god give us healthy young bodies? Because we know that out health and vitality will be short-lived, that we will either die young or else slowly wither. By giving us something wonderful for a moment, and then gradually pulling it away, an evil god can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it in the first place.

Reverse laws of nature theodicy. In order for us to have the opportunity to act on our environment, and interact with each other in it, the universe must be regular and law governed. It must be predictable what will happen if, say, I strike this match. I need to know a flame will result. If, when a match is struck, it sometimes results in a flame, but sometimes a cherry, sometimes disappears, sometimes causes my eyebrows to grow very fast, etc. – if, in short, the behaviour of the physical world was random and chaotic – then there would be no point in my trying to do anything. Laws are required for the very great evil of my being able to perform morally evil actions, such as the action of my deliberately lighting a match and burning down a family’s house while they are sleeping inside it. True, these same laws have some good consequences – they allow us to do good deeds, for example. Moreover, as Polkinghorne reminds us, the tectonic plates that produce the evil of earthquakes also produce certain goods, such as minerals that help replenish life. However, the pain, suffering and, most importantly, the moral evil the laws of nature allow more than outweighs such goods.

How effective are these reverse theodicies? Most of us recognize that they are not very effective at all. The fact is, the amount of good that exists clearly is sufficient to place beyond the reasonable doubt the conclusion that there is no evil god, nothwithstanding such ingenious and convoluted attempts to try to explain it away. But if it remains fairly obvious that there is no evil God, given the available evidence, why isn’t it equally obvious that there is no good god either? If belief in an evil deity remains patently ridiculous given the amount of good there is in the world, why should we consider the good god hypothesis to be significantly more reasonable – at the very least not unreasonable – given the staggering amounts of evil the world contains? I consider this to be one of the most serious challenges facing belief in God.

I don’t claim the challenge cannot be met. However, I cannot see how. While there are some interesting asymmetries between the good and evil god hypotheses , they are not sufficient to render one hypothesis significantly more reasonable than the other. Perhaps there is some sort of intelligence behind the universe, - a first cause, fine-tuner-or necessary being of some sort. But surely there’s overwhelming evidence that, even if there is, it is not an evil god. Ditto a good god.

It’s worth dealing with two very common misconception about the problem of evil from the outset.

First, some theists dismiss the evidential problem of evil on the grounds that it is far to “impressionistic”. Precisely this response was made to my presentation of the problem along much the same lines as above) in a contribution to a recent book. The reviewer, David Hart, said that such objections to theism were “incorrigibly impressionistic” . Similarly, in a radio conversation with myself, the scientist Denis Alexander also responded to the above version of the problem of evil by saying, regarding the huge amounts of seemingly pointless suffering, that:

we simply are not in a position to measure those kind of things, we can measure certain things in science and so forth but... Radio interview of myself and Denis Alexander on “Unbelievable” programme, broadcast by Premier Christian Radio on 1st May 2010. Available here:

Alexander’s suggestion seemed to be that if we cannot scientifically measure suffering, it cannot constitute good evidence against a hypothesis.

Now it is true that pain and suffering are hard to measure and quantify. There is no calibrated weighing scale on which we can place pain to measure precisely how we much there is, for example. It is undeniably true that estimations of the amount of suffering there is must, to some extent, be “impressionistic”. But does it follow that there isn’t clearly enough of it to rule out the hypothesis that there exists a good God? Surely not. After all, notice that good cannot be weighed on a calibrated scale either. Our assessment of how much good there is must be equally “impressionistic”. Yet, despite that, we know there is more than enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that there’s no evil god. So why can’t we know that there’s more than enough evil to rule out the good god hypothesis as well?

In fact, if it were true that pain and suffering inflicted cannot be used as evidence in this way because it cannot be “scientifically” measured, then we would not be able to convict someone of, say, inflicting great pain and suffering on a defenceless animal. Suppose that in response to compelling evidence of appalling pain and suffering the accused inflicted over a long period of time, the judge said: “Ah, but we can’t scientifically measure this pain and suffering, can we? In which case, the prosecutions evidence is hopelessly impressionistic and thus inadmissible! Case dismissed!” Clearly, that would be a perverse verdict. The same is true of the verdict that hundreds of millions of years of appalling evidence can’t count as good evidence against the existence of God just because it, too, can’t be “scientifically” measured.

A second common misconception about the evidential problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God is that it somehow presupposes that there is a God. Why? Because talk of things being “good” and “evil” requires that God exist. Such talk only makes sense if there is some objective standard against which good and evil might be gauged – and the only possible standard is God.

This objection is easily dealt with. First of all, note that the problem can be rephrased without talking about “evil”. We can just ask those who believe in God, “If there is a God of the sort you believe in, why does he unleash so much pain and suffering? Surely such a God would not unleash gratuitous pain and suffering, correct?” Secondly, the objection, as its stands, simply assumes that moral talk about “good” and “evil” only makes sense if there’s a God. This would need to be shown, and I very much doubt it can. Thirdly, and most importantly, in any case, as an argument against the existence of God, the problem of evil does not presuppose the existence of God. The argument can be run as follows: Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are moral properties if and only if there is a God. Also assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a God, and thus moral properties. But then we observe far too much moral evil for there to be such a God. So, from the assumption that there’s a God, it follows there’s no God (and no moral properties either). On the other hand, if there is no God, then there’s no God (and no moral properties either). So, either way, if there are moral properties if and only if there’s a God, then there’s no God (and, of course, no moral properties either).

2. The problem of non-temporal agency

Here’s a second, rather different objection to belief in any sort of creator god, let alone a good one.

Human beings are naturally drawn to explanations in terms of agency. This is particularly true when they are faced with features of the universe that they cannot otherwise explain. When we could explain the movement of certain heavenly bodies across the sky, such as the planets, we supposed they must be, or be guided by, agents of some sort. Only not mere humans (we are incapable of such feats) but supernatural agents of some sort. When we could not explain what made plants and flowers grow, we supposed they must be forced up by supernatural agents – fairies or sprites or whatever. When we could not explain why diseases and natural disasters occurred, we supposed they must be the actions of more supernatural agents - witches and demons. When we could not explain the odd movements of the planets across the sky, we supposed they must be, or be moved by, agents – gods of some sort. When explanations in terms of natural causes and laws are not available, our default setting, as it were, is to switch over to explanation in terms of agency, and if the situation demands it supernatural agency.

Of course, as science has progressed, many of the phenomena such supernatural agents were invoked to explain have received plausible naturalistic explanations. But there will always be questions science cannot answer (as we’ll see in chapter 2), including: Why is there anything at all? And so, with respect to such questions, it’s always tempting to invoke some sort of supernatural agent to do the explaining. God is of course the ultimate supernatural agent.

However, when we invoke a supernatural agent to explain why the universe as a whole exists, we run into a problem that does not plague the suggestions that there are fairies, witches, ghosts, and so on at work in the universe. The problem is that God, as creator of the spatio-temporal universe – as the instigator of the Big Bang (which, remember, marks the beginning of time itself – there is no “before” the Big Bang, only an “after”) - is not himself a temporal being. Prior to the universe existing, God did not exist in time, as there was no time for him to exist in (indeed, notice there was no time when the universe did not exist; it’s not that there was no universe, and then, later, a universe).

But does the suggestion that there might be a non-temporal agent really make sense? Suppose I claim there exists a non-spatial mountain. I might think I know what I am talking about. But a little reflection reveals that I don’t. The concept of a mountain is the concept of a physical object that has parts that stand in certain spatial relations to each other. A mountain must have a summit which is higher than the rest of it, and valleys that are lower. It must have sides, etc. The concept of a mountain has its home with a spatial framework. Strip that framework away and we end up talking nonsense.

But don’t we run into a similar problem with talk of a “non-temporal agent” that is the creator of space and time? For the concept of an agent is the concept of a being that can perform more or less rational actions on the basis of their beliefs and desires. But beliefs and desires are psychological states, and states require temporal duration. And actions also require a temporal setting. Surely God can only perform the act of creation if there already exists time for him to perform the action in. On closer examination, the idea of a non-temporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a non-spatial mountain.

Notice that, unlike the evidential problem of evil, the problem of non-temporal agency is not dependent on our observations of what the world is like. It is not based on empirical evidence. Rather, it is a conceptual objection generated purely by a little armchair reflection and unpacking of the concept of agency. The conclusion is not that the claim such a God exists is false, but that it is nonsensical. But if the concept of a non-temporal agent doesn’t make sense, then we cannot explain the existence of the universe by appealing to such an agent.

These two intellectual threats to belief in God – the evidential problem of evil and the problem of non-temporal agency - are set out here as examples of the kind of threats classical theism faces, the kind of seemingly very powerful objections that can and have been raised against it. I don’t claim they cannot be properly dealt. But they certainly cannot be properly dealt by means of the strategies examined in this book. Rather than address such the problems in an honest and straightforward way, they involve attempting to immunize belief in God against such threats by means of obfuscation, evasion and