Sunday, June 30, 2013

William Lane Craig versus Rosenberg (part 10)

My series on the February 2013 debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg:
  1. The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
  2. The Kalam Cosmological Argument
  3. The Applicability of Mathematics to the Physical World
  4. The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life
  5. Intentional States of Consciousness in the World
  6. Objective Moral Values and Duties in the World
  7. The Historical Facts about Jesus of Nazareth
  8. God can be Personally Known and Experienced
  9. The Argument from Evil


In February 2013 atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg debated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig over whether faith in God is reasonable (debate begins at around 17:14). I’ve mentioned before the reason why William Lane Craig wins debates, and since this debate is a good example of how not to debate William Lane Craig, I have been going through some of what Rosenberg did wrong and how he could have done a lot better. In this entry I’ll address Craig’s various arguments against naturalism. In this entry I’ll address Rosenberg’s argument from evil and Craig’s responses.

The Argument from Evil

What Rosenberg did

At some points in the debate Rosenberg seems to be making a logical problem of evil (where there is alleged to be a logical contradiction between God and evil). At 56:29 or so before he points out the obvious existence of suffering, he says that

if the theist[’s] God exists, he is omnipotent and benevolent. A benevolent creature eliminates suffering to the extent that the benevolent creature can. Therefore if there’s a God and he's omnipotent and benevolent, he eliminates all suffering.

This argument is a bit clumsy as it stands. For one thing, the conclusion, “Therefore if there’s a God and he's omnipotent and benevolent, he eliminates all suffering,” doesn’t quite follow from the previous statements, and needs to be cleaned up a bit. We can phrase Rosenberg’s argument more charitably and rigorously though like this:

  1. If God exists, he is omnipotent and benevolent.
  2. Any omnipotent being would have the power to eliminate all suffering.
  3. Any benevolent being would eliminate all suffering to the extent it is able to.
  4. Therefore, if God exists he would eliminate all suffering (from 1-3) and there would be no suffering.
  5. There is suffering.
  6. Therefore, God does not exist.(from 4 and 5).

The argument is deductively valid, i.e. the conclusion logically and necessarily from the premises. But it has long been realized in philosophy of religion that line 3 is false. Suppose for example a friend is stranded on the road and suffering of thirst. I am benevolent and have the ability to eliminate his suffering but, being ignorant of my friend’s condition, do not help him. We could change line 3 to “Any benevolent being would eliminate all suffering it knows about to the extent it is able to,” but that isn’t quite true either. Suppose two of my friends are stranded and I’m the only one capable of helping them. Alice will die if I don’t immediately take her to the hospital, and Bob will suffer some mild aches if I don’t give him aspirin. I take the first friend to the hospital, thereby not eliminating the suffering of Bob, even though eliminating the suffering of Bob is within my ability, albeit at the risk of preventing the greater good of helping Alice.

All this may seem trivial, but rigorous thinking matters not only in science but also in philosophy. Theists have long maintained that God is not omnipotent in the sense that he can do literally anything; God cannot do the logically impossible. (If the atheist insists that God can do even the logically impossible, then the logical problem of evil poses little problem for theism, since such a God is capable of creating the logical contradiction.) Many theists have argued that, as in the case of Alice and Bob, God cannot eliminate the suffering without also eliminating a greater good. This may well be implausible, but the bare logical possibility of this is enough to defeat the logical problem of evil, and as such Rosenberg should have given a better argument from evil.

To illustrate why the logical possibility of a greater good defeats the logical problem of evil, consider a scenario I’ll call Bill the Idiot Theist. Let’s label the sum total of suffering that does exist, has ever existed in this world, and will exist Φ. Bill the Idiot Theist thinks Φ suffering makes the angels in heaven smile, and that “Φ suffering making angels smile” is a great good, a much better good than eliminating any of the suffering in the world. So on this view, God cannot eliminate any of the suffering that exists without also eliminating the greater good of “Φ suffering making angels smile.” This is the theodicy that Bill the Idiot Theist believes. Bill’s idiotic theodicy is terrible, but it’s not self-contradictory, and so a perfectly good God allowing evil isn’t a logical contradiction even if it is highly implausible. As such, the logical problem of evil doesn’t work.

What Rosenberg should have done

It should first be remembered that a belief doesn’t have to be logically impossible to be ridiculous and highly implausible. What Rosenberg should have done is say that while it is not logically impossible that a perfectly good God would allow the evil we see, it is highly implausible that he would.

So one would be better off pointing to the obviously low probability that a perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent God would do nothing as he watched child cancer victims succumb to horrible deaths, even if God behaving that way isn’t strictly self-contradictory. If the theist puts forth a terrible theodicy (as in the case of Bill the Idiot Theist), the atheist can point out how terrible it is without saying it is self-contradictory. Rosenberg should have used the evidential argument from evil (the idea that the existence of evil and suffering is evidence against theism), as I did in my own argument from evil. It’s quick, simple, and pretty devastating.

In fairness to Rosenberg, I should point out that it isn’t entirely clear in the debate whether Rosenberg was presenting an evidential argument from evil, a logical problem of evil, or both. At certain times he seems to be presenting an evidential argument from evil, and at other times he seems to argue for the logical problem of evil. At around 58:43 he characterizes his argument from evil as a

logical deduction which shows the incompatibility of an omnipotent and benevolent creature with suffering on this planet.

This kind of suggests he’s talking about the logical problem of evil, but within a minute after this he says that it’s not enough to fob it off on “the mere logical compatibility” of God and suffering, thereby also suggesting he’s talking about an evidential argument from evil. Craig seems to interpret Rosenberg as presenting the logical problem of evil (0:59:59 to 1:00:47) and Rosenberg doesn’t clearly gainsay Craig on that point anywhere in the debate. Indeed, Rosenberg seems to suggest fairly explicitly that his argument is about the logical incompatibility of God and evil at around 1:20:03-1:21:43, where he also insists that the problem of evil is a logical one, seemingly contradicting what he said earlier about it not being enough to demonstrate the “mere logical compatibility” of God and suffering.

And the confusion gets worse. When Craig responds on how even atheist philosophers have abandoned the logical problem of evil, in Rosenberg’s next round he acts as if he and Craig were talking about a more generic problem of evil all along (1:34:47) rather than the logical problem of evil specifically; e.g. he portrays Craig as asserting that “invoking my best friend, Peter van Inwagen, asserting that nobody anymore believes” that the argument from evil is a problem for theism, even though Craig’s quotes from philosophers that Rosenberg alludes to in this response were clearly about the logical problem of evil specifically, not the argument from evil in general. While near the end he seems to be talking about a more generic problem of evil and rightfully points out that God (if he existed) could have given us free will without giving us the bubonic plague (1:36:46-1:36:52), the fact remains Rosenberg seems to have made a confused mess of things, and so if nothing else Rosenberg should have been clearer about presenting his own position and been more careful to remember what was said in the previous rounds. He also shouldn’t have given an initial version of the argument from evil that was so flawed.

Craig also argues (at around 1:25:14 onward) that it’s possible that only in a world “suffused with natural and moral evil that the optimal number of people would come to know God freely, find salvation and eternal life.” I’ve addressed William Lane Craig’s “suffused with suffering” claim before, and I think Rosenberg should have given a response something along what I wrote there.

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