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Sunday, September 19, 2021


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Question: Do you regard atheistic arguments, both logical and evidential, that empirically assume the existence of “gratuitous evil” as equally misleading, or do the latter has somewhat more worth in that they arise out of an intuitive reaction to certain horrendous evils? I raise this question not because I seek to dispute the conclusions of this post but because I am puzzled as to what weight to give to the universal recoil before certain forms of, say, natural evil that lead even the most devote believers to question if not the existence than the nature of God. How do we treat the human response to such evils? To what extent does it enter into the question of God’s existence?

>> I am puzzled as to what weight to give to the universal recoil before certain forms of, say, natural evil that lead even the most devote [devout] believers to question if not the existence than [then] the nature of God. How do we treat the human response to such evils? To what extent does it enter into the question of God’s existence?<<

You and I will agree that there are times when it is very difficult to believe that this abattoir of a world is the creation of a loving, providential God with the standard attributes, omnipotence, etc. As my late atheist friend Quentin Smith once said to me, "If you were God, would you have created a world like this?" I myself have often been struck by the disgusting profusion of animal life. What purpose does all this biological garbage serve, insects, for example, that lay their eggs inside the bodes of other insects, and when the eggs hatch the the new-born insects eat the host insect. Nature can appear as an insane charnel house.

You and I will probably also agree that a theist who has no sympathy for this recoil as you call it is a thoughtless fellow whose 'faith' is no real faith at all but mere habit and complacency.

>>How do we treat the human response to such evils?<< Your question is not pastoral, but philosophical. The distinction is obvious. Your question is the extent to which the "recoil" from natural and moral evil constitutes a compelling reason to be an atheist.

My answer is that it does not constitute a rationally compelling reason. For there are plenty of competing considerations. There are dozens of arguments for the existence Of God. And there are plenty of experiences and intuitions that offset the "recoil" you speak of. For me, the experience of conscience is one among many. I could elaborate on that if you would like.

Here is the clincher for me: In the end, after all the considerations and counter considerations, you must DECIDE what you will believe and how you will live (the two being intimately related). There is no proof either way.

But I don't think this answer satisfies you. If it doesn't, I would like to hear why.

Note that I am using 'God' and 'gratuitous evil' in such a way that both of these are true: If God exists, then there are no gratuitous evils. If there are gratuitous evils, then God does not exist.

If you didn't gather that, then you didn't understand my post.

I understand that you are “using ‘God” and ‘gratuitous evil’ in a way that both of these are true and that “If God exists there are no gratuitous evil” and that if the latter exists He does not exist. And I also understand that that an affirmation of the existence of God and living in a way that reflects this affirmation necessitates a personal choice, one that is made in assessing the various arguments and evidence for and against His existence, along with certain spiritual or experiential factors. The arguments favoring His existence are numerous, rational, and powerful, but none rises to the level of a logical proof. There is no alternative but to DECIDE, for there is no certainty in this life. On all of this, I believe that we agree. My dissatisfaction, if you can call it that, arises from the intense spiritual and emotional suffering that I experience from many forms of natural evil. I cannot offer any rational explanation of it; it has been with me all my life, particularly when confronted with evil perpetuated on the innocent, children and animals. It is so potent that I wonder at its source and in its wake, I tend to doubt the arguments that my reason affirms.

Note: I've read this book and for me, this is the new standard for apologetics. I had to get out pencil and paper a couple of times to work out the examples - a good thing - but by the end of the book I was convinced that his proofs are valid and sound. Highly recommended.
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0045Y23UW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i3Dave Bagwill


I too am sensitive to the misery of sentient beings, human and non-human, but my impression is that you are much more sensitive. I think of Buddha as probably the most sensitive to suffering as anybody who ever lived. Hence his Sarvam Dukkham and the rest of his extreme views.

It is useful to distinguish the pastoral from the strictly philosophical. The calm ratiocinations of a Swinburne when he offers his theodicy are bound to strike the one who suffers from the problem of evil as so much cold intellectualizing. Such a one is more in need of pastoral care. But a man as intellectually sophisticated as you are is unlikely to find a priest whose conversation would be worthwhile.

The main obstacle that theodicies face are offering a reason recognizable for us to permit evil.

The problem is twofold. First, there isn't a single theodicy out there that really achieves achieves to free God of guilt. I don't mean that in the subjective way merely, just the weaker claim that I believe that a rational being can be justified at judgment day in rejecting God, who is supposed to be the perfect good. No matter the theodicy you conceive of, is there a single one that absolutely absolves a good God while permitting the child dying from bone cancer? Or the fawn being burnt to a crisp in the wildfire? I'm inclined to agree with Rowe that there is no greater good to be found. And I'd be inclined to agree with the upset parent that the event justifies an ultimate rejection of God. How good is this good really?

I also believe however that this whole discussion is set up the wrong way. The problem of evil arises if God seemingly fails to fulfill an obligation he has towards creatures. So why accept this in the first place? In fact I see very little reason to affirm this. It may be popular to affirm God's moral perfection nowadays, but not only is this an idea that I expect a Maimonides to answer with dumbfounded silence, the idea of omnibenevolence only appears in the literature in the enlightenment. I don't see it entailed in the affirmation of God as perfectly good, not if it is understood axiologically, nor does it follow from his pure actuality, or limitlessness. The assumption of univocity, or that God underlies similar moral constraints appears to me to follow only from assumptions that aren't really motivated by contemplating his nature, but rather through attempts to make "perfect goodness" a concept better understandable for men. Davies rightfully calls this whole enterprise on which the debate is founded "a performance review".

The advantage of rejecting theodicy is that the scenarios above aren't intelligible. It makes no sense to decry the non-actions of a being who wasn't obligated to act in the first place. And the fact that he is obligated must be argued for. A moral philosophy akin to virtue ethics I think is best capable to broadly express what I mean here. But why shouldn't it work on deontic conceptions as well?

I recognize my own shortcomings in expressing this position however, and thus want to refer to better work. Feser for example had a very recent article on this "Thomistic Dissolution of the Problem of Evil" (free to read) :


Towards the end of the article "Divine Creative Freedom" Alexander Pruss expressed an idea according to which God isn't constrained to the moral rules that we are. This is interesting since Pruss holds to deontology in ethics.


And finally I once again leave reference to the work of Brian Davies on whom Feser heavily relies. The same ideas can be found in David Bentley Hart though.


I haven't given the topic as much time as you Gentlemen here, but I think you need a new perspective. I can't help but feel that all this attempts to muse about God's justifications are anthropomorphisms that aren't applicable but merely serve to absolve a god that really just is an omnipotent human.

It seems to me that a universe with sentient free willed people is a better universe than one without and thus contributes to the greater good. Yet with sentient free willed people, you will always have some who choose evil and thus there is some evil. None of this is gratuitous though as you can't truly have sentient free willed people without some occurrence of evil.

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