• darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    I have a physical copy of the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. You can read a free pdf version here. I just finished reading chapter 8, The Problem of Evil by van Inwagen. And I'm confused on a few things, though I think I might understand the general idea.

    What I wish is for those interested to read the chapter and we can discuss it (it's not too long). Additionally I would like to open this up to a general discussion of the Problem of Evil.

    van Inwagen suggests that an explanation for why human-oriented horrors exist is because there is no "cut-off" line to be drawn that isn't arbitrary. The atheist may reply that there is a minimum level of horrors that God could have chosen to exist for his plan to work. I'm not entirely sure why van Inwagen thinks such a minimum line does not exist. He equates it to asking how many raindrops needed to fall on England in 1941 for it to be fertile, or a prisoner asking to get released a day early, which at least for me is confusing, because obviously you can't fertilize England with one rain drop.

    I might be wrong here but is his point that the Problem of Evil is essentially a necessary component of God's plan? The point being that there has to be an arbitrary line drawn in order for us to think about the Problem of Evil which in turn is necessary for God's plan to work?

    Discuss. (Please remember this is a defense, not a theodicy)
  • apokrisis
    4.3k
    I'm not entirely sure why van Inwagen thinks such a minimum line does not exist.darthbarracuda

    I would say van Inwagen could be justified like this.

    Our initial intuition is that a line could be drawn accurately because there is some average degree of horror that would be consistent with God's grand plan of eventual reconciliation. Like a school room, you can tolerate a certain average degree of naughtiness, but then a clear line can be drawn that will have only the usual bell curve, or Gaussian, statistical error. There will be a line with a bit of noise, a bit of fuzz, yet it is constrained narrowly enough so there is as little variation as possible.

    That is how we normally think about the statistics of systems ruled by some global constraint - ie: God as an expression of the central limit theorem in regard to the horrors of existence.

    But also there is a separate and more fundamental pattern of nature - the powerlaw distribution. In a system that is characterised by free growth in contrasting directions, you get instead an outcome that has no actual mean. When accidents or errors happen, they happen evenly over all possible scales.

    This is familiar from anything fractal or scalefree. There is no biggest or smallest fluctuation any more. Instead the only thing constant is the amount of power being expressed at every possible scale of being. So with a wave, instead of some comfortable average height, you get a ton more very small waves than you might expect, and also there seems no limit to how giant the occasional freak wave becomes. Or in human economic terms, there are billions of people living on $2 a day, yet also a few billionaires like Bill Gates whose income beats small nations. It is just a different statistical pattern for reasons that are easy enough to understand.

    So applied to van Inwagen, if we look at humanity as this kind of self-organising growth story - two rival tendencies in interaction - then we can still get some kind of system minimum average in the weight of horror being created at every scale. But the scale itself has no top or bottom. It must be the case that you get a whole lot of surprisingly trivial stuff - all those paper cuts and net flames - and then no upper limit on the completely off the chart rape-mutilations. The upper bound horrors still are constrained - there is only enough system energy for the occasional horror to be delivered at that top end scale. Yet still, such horrors are to be expected - without that being a problem to the general claim that God's will is in effect.

    So if humanity is imagined as a static situation - no growth - then it ought to conform to a Gaussian minimum of horror. But to the degree that humanity is an open system, freely growing, then it ought to conform to a powerlaw statistics on all things.

    And of course, saintliness should show the same scalefree behaviour too. It would have its Bill Gates equivalents simply by the vagaries of chance.
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    An unexpected first reply. But I don't understand how it's relevant. The question is: if God could have prevented a terrible horror from occurring, why did he not? van Inwagen's answer, I think, is that God already prevents a whole lot more terrible horrors from occurring but has to decide on an arbitrary line on how much horror exists, because (I think??) horror is somehow necessary for God's plan to work. I don't see why you needed to include Guassian statistical errors or powerlaw distribution or whatever, especially since if we're theists all of these things exist because God created the world. In fact I'm not entirely sure what the point was that you were trying to convey.
  • apokrisis
    4.3k
    But Ingwagen is already accepting that God wants there to be freewill at that point. That must be some ultimate good. And so the price you pay for that is having humans making bad or mad choices.

    Ingwagen says:

    If God simply “canceled” all the horrors of this world by an endless series of miracles, he would thereby frustrate his own plan of reconciliation.

    So once you accept this general plan of reconciliation, then the question of statistical means and expectable degrees of variation come into play.

    The issue is what buttons does God leave himself to fiddle with to put some upper bound on horrors. Well, either he defeats himself and does away with freewill and its unbound growth, or he has to live with the fact that such a system will deliver horrors over all scales of human possibility.
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    But Ingwagen is already accepting that God wants there to be freewill at that point. That must be some ultimate good. And so the price you pay for that is having humans making bad or mad choices.apokrisis

    Right, that's what I thought he meant, as I said in the beginning. That human free will is good, and God's reconciliation plan requires that this free will be maintained.

    But you should have also read the part about horrors not caused by humans. Natural disasters, freak accidents, and finally animal suffering (which he accepts as outside the bounds of the argument).
  • apokrisis
    4.3k
    As you say, Inwagen put those outside the bounds of his argument. So I'm not sure why you want to change the goal-posts.

    However the same argument does apply to nature as a whole if it is meant to be a free system. If you regard meteorites as a horror, you should expect them to come raining down over all scales. Planet-crushers may be rare, but - barring particular Godly intervention - their size lacks an upper bound.
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    As you say, Inwagen put those outside the bounds of his argument. So I'm not sure why you want to change the goal-posts.apokrisis

    No, he puts animal suffering outside, not natural disasters and freak accidents.
  • Chany
    351
    I have not read the essay, but I will tomorrow. However, I have a feeling Van Inwagen is responding to the Problem of Evil as an argument against the existence of God. If so, then all he is saying is that the line of permissible evil is arbitrarily decided by those making the argument. Let's say that the line does exist and that at X level of evil, God is not justified to create the world. Therefore, if we know X level of evil exists, God does not exist.

    So, how do we know what X level of evil is? How does the person proposing the Problem of Evil as an argument against God know we have reached X level of evil without arbitrarily deciding it to be so? In other words, how does the atheist know that the X level of evil is reached and actually exists? How would we identify the X level of evil and differentiate it from levels of evil below X? How much evil is too much and how do we know that it is too much? Is a single death justifiable? How about five? Ten? Thousands? What is the support for this conclusion? Anyway we support our conclusion appears arbitrary. Thus, the Problem of Evil is not a charge against the existence of God.

    Apologies if this is not what he meant.
  • apokrisis
    4.3k
    For crying out loud, I was addressing a specific point - "van Inwagen suggests that an explanation for why human-oriented horrors exist is because there is no "cut-off" line to be drawn that isn't arbitrary."

    My reply was your intuitions might make more sense if they applied the right statistical model.

    We are used to thinking of statistical systems that are in fact bounded to create cut-off lines. We can adjust the parameters - control the degrees of freedom - so the system arrives at some mean equilibrium state. Fluctuations exist, but they are confined in Gaussian fashion to an actual averageness.

    However this would conflict with a God that has a reconciliation plan. God basically wants to set the system up with a bunch of humans who enjoy complete and unbounded freewill. Good luck with that. But anyway, it then becomes inconsistent to start poking your fingers into this creation to cancel out the extreme horrors that will occur ... just by ordinary statistical variation.

    If God wanted only a Gaussian level of nastiness, he should have added a governor device to the boundless freedom of the human imagination. But that would be a different story. Far more contrived, far less grand and universal.
  • Michael Ossipoff
    1.4k


    Of course depends on your beliefs. Our birth in the Land of the Lost is something with which badly messed up previous lives are consistent.

    Just a suggestion, to answer your question.

    Feel free to disagree.

    We discussed reincarnation at its thread.

    Michael Ossipoff
  • Brian
    88
    van Inwagen suggests that an explanation for why human-oriented horrors exist is because there is no "cut-off" line to be drawn that isn't arbitrary. The atheist may reply that there is a minimum level of horrors that God could have chosen to exist for his plan to work. I'm not entirely sure why van Inwagen thinks such a minimum line does not exist. He equates it to asking how many raindrops needed to fall on England in 1941 for it to be fertile, or a prisoner asking to get released a day early, which at least for me is confusing, because obviously you can't fertilize England with one rain drop.darthbarracuda

    Wouldn't that also be like saying that because the amount of raindrops needed to fertilize England is vague then there are no such things as raindrops or fertile lands? Me am confused, Mr. van Inwagen.

    The problem from my perspective has always been that whatever we designate as good or evil is not that way objectively but is a subjective valuation of an entity or event. This would be true for anyone, including God. However, if God doesn't find the kinds of things abhorrent that most people do - like war, rape, starvation, etc., this would be a very questionable God to approve of.

    But to van Inwagen's point, either God (assuming he existed) doesn't think that these things are evil, or he does and he's powerless to stop himself from creating them - OR God does think they are evil and creates them anyway. If the last is true, God is not all good. If the middle option is true, God is not omnipotent. If the first is true, God is pretty hard to relate to. Regardless, to me and without a doubt if one accepts any of these three alternatives then God is very different than how we imagined him throughout the history of monotheism.
  • Wayfarer
    6.6k
    Discussdarthbarracuda

    What I think he looses sight of, is the infinite goodness which 'salvation' comprises. One point about 'salvation' - so I'm told - is that, in its light, everything makes sense. Now, that doesn't mean the poor little armless and legless baby is then laughed off. Indeed, many Christians devoted to 'salvation', have been at the forefront of efforts to help those in dreadful situations - I suppose a poster example would be Mother Teresa.

    But, imagine if the whole cosmic spectacle of the 'big bang' and the gradual cooling of the planet, and then its seeding with life, and then its agonising evolution over billions of years was in the pursuit of a 'fresh set of eyes' - but then, after all that, we were those eyes, and we didn't even realise it? Then the suffering might be, when and if it is realised: 'dammit, I had the chance, and I didn't take it'.
  • schopenhauer1
    2.2k
    Right, that's what I thought he meant, as I said in the beginning. That human free will is good, and God's reconciliation plan requires that this free will be maintained.darthbarracuda

    Why does reconciliation need to be maintained though? So God wants humans to exist so that they make right decisions in order to reconcile back to God. Why go through all this in the first place? Sounds like a game of sorts. No matter how you look at it, if you value "you" as an individual with your own feelings, pains, wants, etc. then you mean nothing to this deity as far as "you" as an individual person is concerned. You are only good insofar as your plans comport with "the good", which is all that matters to this vision, as this leads to reconciliation. If this is the case, humans are instrumental to this end for God. He is in the end, uncaring about you, the individual, as much as your value in the vision of how you are to be used for his plan.

    The situation sucks no matter what. What does it matter whether you suffer for a grand plan, or for no reason at all? As far as the measily human is concerned, is the grand plan supposed to be comforting? As a matter of practical import, there is not much difference between the two. We can imagine things which don't exist. Our guilt knows no bounds. Combine those together and you have a God that created free-willed humans who are constantly transgressing and need to reconcile. Evil occurs due to our fallen state, a punishment. Boy can we reify some guilt.
  • Thorongil
    3.2k
    I'm not entirely sure why van Inwagen thinks such a minimum line does not exist.darthbarracuda

    I'm not either. He seems to think that any argument that accounts for horrors in general accounts necessarily for any specific horrors, no matter how grave. I suppose this is true, but as you say, I don't see that he's explained why the baseline of horrors is what it is.

    I might be wrong here but is his point that the Problem of Evil is essentially a necessary component of God's plan? The point being that there has to be an arbitrary line drawn in order for us to think about the Problem of Evil which in turn is necessary for God's plan to work?darthbarracuda

    I only tried reading what I took to be the problem of evil sections, so perhaps he addresses this elsewhere, but it seems to me that he assumes that God possesses freedom in the same way as we do such that, given that the world exists as it does, he must have had good reasons for choosing to create such a world, constituted in the way that it is, for he could just as easily have created a different one. But this doesn't seem to conform to more classical conceptions of God. Here is a passage from Henry Adams that I have always liked:

    Strange as it sounds, although Man thought himself hardly treated in respect to freedom, yet, if freedom meant superiority, Man was in action much the superior of God, whose freedom suffered, from Saint Thomas, under restraints that Man never would have tolerated. Saint Thomas did not allow God even an undetermined will; he was pure Act, and as such he could not change. Man alone was, in act, allowed to change direction. What was more curious still, Man might absolutely prove his freedom by refusing to move at all; if he did not like his life, he could stop it, and habitually did so, or acquiesced in its being done for him; while God could not commit suicide or even cease for a single instant his continuous action. If Man had the singular fancy of making himself absurd,— a taste confined to himself but attested by evidence exceedingly strong, — he could be as absurd as he liked; but God could not be absurd. Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict himself, which is one of Man's chief pleasures. While Man enjoyed what was, for his purposes, an unlimited freedom to be wicked,— a privilege which, as both Church and State bitterly complained and still complain, he has outrageously abused,— God was Goodness and could be nothing else. [...] In one respect, at least, Man's freedom seemed to be not relative but absolute, for his thought was an energy paying no regard to space or time or order or object or sense; but God's thought was his act and will at once; speaking correctly, God could not think, he is. Saint Thomas would not, or could not, admit that God was Necessity, as Abélard seems to have held, but he refused to tolerate the idea of a divine maniac, free from moral obligation to himself

    I would suggest that God may possess freedom, but that it is of a completely different kind from our own and that it would not entail God having created a world he might otherwise not create, much less a world wherein he tinkers with its processes like evolution. That brings me to another criticism of Inwagen. He claims, in his story of the Fall, that God guided evolution to bring about human beings. Once human beings existed, they obtained preternatural powers that enabled them to Edenize the world. They failed, however, by exercising their freedom to do evil, which accounts both for postlapsarian human and natural evil. Several chapters later, anticipating the immediate objection I had formed, he says that his story says nothing about prelapsarian evil and that he has no real response to it. Well, in that case, his whole defense is deficient! What defense of the problem of evil only defends evil from a certain date? It isn't one. Evolution lumbered along for hundreds of millions of years, not in spite of, but because of predation, disease, suffering, natural disasters, and death. And God is said to have "guided" this process? Please.

    Discuss.darthbarracuda

    Don't tell me what to do! I have free will!
  • schopenhauer1
    2.2k
    It isn't one. Evolution lumbered along for hundreds of millions of years, not in spite of, but because of predation, disease, suffering, natural disasters, and death. And God is said to have "guided" this process? Please.Thorongil

    Remember, it's all part of the Grand Plan! That slow-moving sloth being eaten by the leopard by having its head pierced by sharp fangs is just part of the vision, man. C'mon!
  • darthbarracuda
    2.9k
    So, how do we know what X level of evil is? How does the person proposing the Problem of Evil as an argument against God know we have reached X level of evil without arbitrarily deciding it to be so? In other words, how does the atheist know that the X level of evil is reached and actually exists? How would we identify the X level of evil and differentiate it from levels of evil below X? How much evil is too much and how do we know that it is too much? Is a single death justifiable? How about five? Ten? Thousands? What is the support for this conclusion? Anyway we support our conclusion appears arbitrary. Thus, the Problem of Evil is not a charge against the existence of God.Chany

    I think this is probably what van Inwagen was arguing for. The idea, I think, is that if God had prevented Evil Happening x from happening, then people would be asking why God didn't prevent Evil Happening y from happening...and so on and so forth.

    I'm not sure about this argument, it rubs me the wrong way, but maybe that's just because I'm not comfortable with the idea of a God actually existing. However I think a bigger problems looms that van Inwagen failed to adequately address, which is that of God's ability to prevent suffering from the start by altering our choices.

    Early on he talks about one of the common atheist arguments in regards to compatibilist free will - that God had the power to "force our hand" to do good by making us in such-and-such way and the environment in such-and-such way. van Inwagen uses Orwell's 1984 (a horribly over-used example IMHO) to show that forcing people to do good is not really "free will".

    But I think this fails because it's obvious that we don't have the ability to do things much worse. We don't have the ability to snap our fingers and fire nukes from our eyeballs. We can't fly and spy on people from above. We can't read each others' minds. So we have limitations already, but van Inwagen still wants to believe we are free. Now, God would seem to have had an arbitrary line to draw here as well - or did he? I think it's reasonable to believe that God could have made things a little better than they are right now without impinging on our free will in any noticeable way. The fact that we are so tempted to do bad things and have the ability to do so many terrible actions means that, even though we may have "free will", we have the odds stacked against us in doing good actions. I find it hard to accept that free will is intrinsically good if it is made in such a way that it leads to disproportionately large amounts of evil.
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